MV#6 Poetry, Constraints, DNA & The Xenotext — Christian Bök

Poetry is a game that can be played in many ways. Perhaps the most traditional and popular is “emotion recollected in tranquility” as Wordsworth termed it, whereby the poet’s feelings are carefully expressed. Christian Bök is a bestselling poet who plays a very different game. To use his turn of phrase, he fights with icosahedra, not swords. with Christian Bök — the four games of poetry

Above: the four games of poetry that Christian outlines. The two dimensions are self-expression (seeming to say something) and self-consciousness (meaning to say something).

Christian imposes tight sets of constraints on his writing. His bestseller Eunoia, for example, uses univocalic lipograms — each chapter can only make use of a single vowel. This produces such gems as “Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script.” But that’s not all. That would be too easy:

Eunoia abides by many subsidiary rules. All chapters
must allude to the art of writing. All chapters must de-
scribe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pas-
toral tableau and a nautical voyage. All sentences must
accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical
parallelism. The text must exhaust the lexicon for each
vowel, citing at least 98% of the available repertoire
(although a few words do go unused, despite efforts
to include them: parallax, belvedere, gingivitis, mono-
chord and tumulus). The text must minimize repeti-
tion of substantive vocabulary (so that, ideally, no word
appears more than once). The letter Y is suppressed.

— Eunoia, Christian Bök

For the past two decades, Christian has pursued an even more ambitious project, The Xenotext. This project involves enciphering an “alien text” within the DNA of a resilient bacterium, Deinococcus radiodurans. One goal of The Xenotext is to create a text that could outlast human civilization. To add to the genomic challenge Christian has set a remarkable rule: the symbols of the text should be interpretable in two different ways, resulting in two poems that are encoded within the same string.

Christian combines scientific techniques, trial and error, and computer programming to construct his poems, adhering to the rules he has established within his own poetic universe. Furthermore, he transforms art back into science by employing gene-editing to inscribe his poetic creation into the “book of life,” the DNA of a living organism.

Instead of looking back and inwards (the ideal of “emotion recollected in tranquility”, Christian looks outwards and to the future, fusing science and art to produce uncanny and unforgettable (and perhaps ineradicable) verse.


MV#4 — Science & Poetry — Sam Illingworth

Science and poetry are sometimes caricatured as opposing paradigms: the emotional expression of the self versus the objective representation of nature. But science can be poetic, and poetry scientific. Our guest this week, Sam Illingworth, bridges these worlds. He’s researched scientists who were also poets, and organized workshops for scientists and laypeople using the medium of poetry to create an equitable and open dialogue.

In addition to being an Associate Professor at Edinburgh Napier University, Sam is the founder of Consilience, a peer-reviewed journal publishing poetry (which presents such beautifully titled gems as What You Don’t See on David Attenborough is All the Waiting) and hosts the Poetry of Science podcast where, each week, he writes a poem in response to recent scientific research.

Instead of undertaking the perhaps foolhardy (and certainly arduous) task of attempting to summarise this conversation, I will share some of my favourite quotes from this conversation and Sam’s book, A Sonnet To Science:

From Science by Robert Kelly

Science explains nothing

but holds all together as

many things as it can count

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From A Defence of Poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley

… a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters [legislator and prophet]. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time. 

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Miroslav Holub on the demise of his Lepidoptera collection, as quoted in A Sonnet to Science

Unfortunately the world is real.  Unfortunately within ten years all my butterflies in their twenty-five boxes were eaten by museum carpet-beetles and other parasites which nurture a grudge agains human immortality. Unfortunately all that’s left is the pins the boxes and the labels. And so I started writing poems again. Poems aren’t eaten by anything, except stupidity.

From Supposed To Fly, Miroslav Holub