It is said that science and poetry do not mix. It is said that science is down to earth and poetry is up in the clouds. I have never found this so. I have found time and time again that poems contain the most precise and piercing insights into human character, into the world’s reality and into the deep meaning of passing events.
And I have found that the mysteries of science are as magical and elusive as any poetry. The investigations of scientists into what was happening before the universe existed and into the origin of time and into the possibility of an infinity of universes besides our own and into the huge mystery of consciousness are the very stuff of poetry. In any case both the poet and the scientist search for and try to tell the truth at the deepest level.
However, people seem unlikely to be persuaded that a poet can be a scientist or vice versa. They should introduce themselves to Miroslav Holub.
Miroslav Holub was born in Czechoslovakia in 1923. After leaving school in 1942 he worked as a labourer in a railway station.
After the war ended in 1945 he studied science and medicine and qualified as a doctor in 1953. Holub specialised in pathology and became chief research immunologist at the Institute of Clinical and Experimental Medicine in Prague.
He worked as an immunologist in the USA in 1965-1967.Science was his profession. He published 150 scientific papers and three full-length scientific monographs including ‘The Immunology of Nude Mice.’ He died in Prague in 1998.
Holub was also one the world’s great poets. His poetry emerged from the dead land of Eastern Europe under Communism.
He wrote poetry from his student days but his work became completely unacceptable to the authorities and, after 1970, he became a literary non-person in his own land, his poems smuggled out to the West to be translated and published there.
Holub memorably said of those days: “There was no programme except to shut up. So we entered literature by shutting up. By complete silence.
By a complete distrust of everybody. It was a perfect lesson in Creative Non-writing. It was a short cut to an almost biological feeling of the absurdity of everything, including one’s inner self. Wittgenstein’s view that ‘in the arts it is difficult to say something which would be as good as to say nothing’ was pushed to its extreme.
Whatever was published as admissible poetry was in the guise of Russian socialist realism, with a minimal number of personal, private, positive deviations. The mainstream of poetry, rather than any new language, was merely a cover-up of reality in which opportunities for humans shrank and opportunities for statues expanded.” Only after the dead hand of the Party relaxed were his poems for human beings not statues published in his own land.
Holub used his scientific knowledge to write poems which vividly blend satire and surrealism. The poem ‘The Fly’ which I like very much is taken from his collection Sagittal Section. The germ life of the fly is pictured within the senseless phantasmagoria of one of the highlights of military history.
She sat on the willow bark
part of the battle of Crecy,
the trampling and tumbling.
During the fourteenth charge
of the French cavalry
with a brown-eyed male fly
She rubbed her legs together
sitting on a disemboweled horse
on the immortality of flies.
Relieved she alighted
on the blue tongue
of the Duke of Clervaux
When silence settled
and the whisper of decay
softly circled the bodies
a few arms and legs
twitched under the trees
she began to lay her eggs
on the singly eye
of Johann Uhr,
the Royal Armourer
And so it came to pass –
she was eaten by a swift
from the fires of Estres.
I enjoy reading Holub. He consistently puts into perspective self-importance and pomposity, especially military and political pomposity. He is clear-sighted among the self-deceived. When you have had your fill of pretentiousness and mean-spiritedness or a bad week among blow-hards Holub is the antidote. His stripped-bare, un-sublime poetry expresses very well the truth-telling responsibilities of both scientist and poet.