The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
ENO's production of La Boheme is a triumph,
How mixing poetry and science helps us better understand the world
PLATO banished poets from his utopian Republic. Wordsworth declared that "Our meddling intellect/Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things/We murder to dissect."
Common sense tells us that science and imagination, reason and poetry represent different - if not antagonistic - ways of looking at the world.
Three books of poetry published to mark the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin Of Species suggest that, on the contrary, both science and poetry require a proper sense of wonder and humility if we are to understand the world.
The Darwin family has included a remarkable number of poets - including Frances Cornford, Erasmus Darwin and the Communist poet John Cornford. Now the award-winning poet Ruth Padel has written the story of her great-great grandfather's life in Darwin: A Life in Poems (Chatto, Â£12.99).
It is without question her best book to date, a fascinating, entertaining and often moving account of the public scientist and the private man. The poems dealing with the conflict between Darwin's religious faith and his scientific convictions are especially good, as we watch him understand the "violence under the bright surface" of the natural world - "Out of famine, death and struggle for existence/comes the most exalted end/we're capable of conceiving: creation/of the higher animals!"
It is also a book about the competing empires of reason and force. Setting her story against the bloody narrative of Victorian England, Padel shows the British Empire reach its limits in Afghanistan at the very moment that its ideological foundations were being undermined by science.
"Man thinks himself, in his arrogance, a great work/and worthy a Deity's glance. More humble/and true, I'd assert - to think him created, not handbox new but slowly. From this. From the animals/Once you have granted one species may change/to another, the whole fabric totters and fails."
In Kelley Swain's Darwin's Microscope (Flambard, Â£7.50) Darwin's story is already like the fossilised narrative in a rock-face.
"What is left of a man/when two hundred years have passed... his face on a banknote/his home a museum where ten children played, where he fell ill/and roused himself to walks and work countless times/where he loved his family but lost his faith/where he hesitated and wondered and was spooked/into writing a book which changed our future/as well as our past."
As a marine biologist, Swain cannot help but see the world through Darwin's eyes - the lens of the scientist's microscope. She uses a plainer, flatter language than Padel but there are some wonderful individual poems here about the violent, concentrated beauty of Nature, notably Thermodynamics of Immortality and Spherical Motion - "four-and-a-half billion years of rock/birthing and swallowing itself/in an unceasing groan/giant leather-backed reptiles/rising from deep ocean trenches/bursting to the surface, wrenching/into air.'
John Agard takes a less lofty view of evolution in Clever Backbone (Bloodaxe, Â£7.95). It is a sequence of 60 clever, comical rhyming sonnets tracking the "bipedal progress" of Homo Erectus from the discovery of fire via meat-eating, tool-making, weapon-making, language, art and science to the ages of empire, war and space-travel.
Or, as Agard puts it, from "a vertical sunrise of buttocks" to the "articulate ape on a two-legged throne/lording it over creeping flesh and bone."
It's a funny, delightful take on human evolution that owes less to Stanley Kubrick than to Monkey Business - "You might have turned your backbone from the trees/but O no, you won't shake off those chimpanzees/still swinging among the branches of your genes/Your vowels have blossomed into pixels/and your hairy fingers evolved to a mouse/But you're still a primate, that's the bottom line/Civilisations still wag their behinds."