A Poetic Take on the Cosmos

Applewhite's latest volume explores the intersections of astrophysics and philosophy

James Applewhite

A conversation between a poet and a scientist discussing the origin of the universe over lunch in Duke's faculty commons dining room is at the heart of a new collection of poems by James Applewhite, a creative writing professor emeritus at the university.

“Cosmos,” Applewhite's 12th volume, contains more than two dozen poems focused on themes of nature, consciousness and the reason for human existence.

The book's central piece is a dialogue between Applewhite and Duke physics professor Berndt Mueller. The two converse over lunch at the university's faculty commons revealing the tension and shared space between the work of physicists, philosophers, theologians and poets.

The poet, a native of Stantonsburg, N.C., who has taught at Duke for 34 years before retiring in 2009, has always had an interest in physics and astronomy and studied physics briefly as an undergraduate at Duke.

Here, Applewhite speaks with Duke Today, about poetry, the cosmos and the value of all living things.


What do you think poetry can do that prose cannot?

Poetry chose me. It's the thing I'm really best at. Poets adjust the relationship between words very exactingly. Poetry is more condensed and more metaphorical than prose.

And metaphors can say things that you can't say rationally. We see likenesses. A physical likeness may bring to mind an aesthetic, philosophical or moral thing. As a poet, I take the freedom to invoke these marvelous symmetries and asymmetries.

Poetry is on the side of the angels. I feel long spans of history in my imagination. Poetry should feel the past in its bones and feel a hopeful vision of the future because there is a lot of possibility given our knowledge base.


How did you think of this central dialogue?

I needed to dramatize both sides of my thinking.  The humanist accepts all the facts and theories of the physicist.  He wishes to interpret them differently.


How so?  Does the humanist believe there was some divine guidance during evolution?

No.  He believes that at the moment of beginning, the cosmos encoded an order.  The atoms and stars and the heavier elements then followed, then the complexity of biological evolution.  All this was implied in the initial conditions.


So the beginning conditions were very fortunate?

Yes.  It's called the Anthropic Cosmological Principle.  It means that, from the point of view of physics, we and the world we know were somehow inscribed in the original fireball of creation.


What do the scientists make of that?

They don't know.  It seems very lucky for us.


What does your humanist-poet add to the discussion?

He wishes to interpret this creation as meaningful.  He does not know what the meaning is.  But he cannot see the beauty of a spiral galaxy, of a whorled sea shell, of the light in a child's eyes, and not feel that there is a meaning in creation far beyond our reasoning.


How does he reconcile the scientific reasoning and his sense of a meaningfulness?

The humanist believes that we are made to feel meaning.  Poetry is emotive, and can begin with the emotive fact, the felt significance.


So these poems are meant to make us feel the meaningfulness of life?

Yes.  I am imagining places and scenes and figures in landscapes on Earth, while thinking of them in the light of their cosmic beginning.  This enormous, incredibly fortunate history of origin is like an italicizing light, shining on, 'ordinary' things.  They glow with their history, their purposive link in the chain of life.  Even in scientific terms, it is not inaccurate to say, that our being here is miraculous.


So you are a believer?

Yes.  But I believe also that the religions and mythologies and scientific theories are like paper cut outs, and we hold them against a blaze of mystery that dazzles our eyes.


So what do you believe in?

In the preciousness of life, or light, of the questing look in a child's eyes, its expectation of an answering light of love.  In the integrity of natural ecosystems.  In the beautiful symmetry of birds in their uncanny navigation, following the lines of magnetic force across continents and seas.


What is science's mistake?

It is perhaps not a mistake, so much as a necessity for the present methodology.  But it leaves out wonder.  It leaves out a sense of the sacred.  It leaves out a meaning for life.


And that is what you search for in poetry?

Yes.  I follow the glint of purely reasonable creatures.  But we tend to disguise our intuitive, emotive, perhaps unruly selves, under various professionalisms.  Beliefs in rules and regulations.  Allegiances to strange inherited dogmas.


But poetry is itself unreasonable, isn't it?

Yes.  But good poetry rationalizes its unreasonableness.  It brings the night time dream into the sun.


You take poetry very seriously. How did it start?

I feel a love and reverence for nature leading all the way back to my childhood in Eastern Carolina. I feel somehow included in all the vast living world.  Though I myself am a tiny fragment.


Did anything happen early on, to foster this nature love?

Having rheumatic fever, halfway through first grade made me think of things I'd already felt. I had become thin, pale, with dark circles under my eyes.  I was taken to a doctor at the Children's Hospital in Greenville.


That's in one of the poems.  You heard many children crying.

Yes. In those days doctors talked in front of children as if they were not there -- talked darkly of Sed rates and abnormal heart beats. They made me fear for my life.  Then back home, I prayed very hard to live -- to be well.  I felt something inside me stronger than their test results.  I felt a power in my mind that would survive -- would prove them wrong.

Recovering, the sight of a hummingbird visiting a holly hock flower meant there were marvels in the world.  The first star at twilight seemed a pure beam of hope and strength.


The star image comes back toward the end of your book.

Yes.  It represents the quest to find a brilliant beginning point, before all the losses and miseries.


Like the beginning of the Cosmos?

Well, metaphorically.  Cosmology says that the orders arising in cosmic and even biological evolution were encoded in the values of that first burst into existence.  Physics has no explanation for these exquisitely adjusted relations among the masses of particles, the strengths of forces.


But this doesn't make scientists feel worshipful, does it?

Perhaps not.  Perhaps I needed that sharp point of hope in my spirit.  There, in bed in the heat of August, WWII going on, my father desperately at work on his Home Front task of keeping all the trucks and tractors of the farms around us running.


That's why there is so much about WWII in the book?

Yes.  WWII and my illness fused into this war I was fighting in my psyche, to win out with hope and understanding over all the chaos.  My mother had hysterical spells, along then.  Hyperventilation.  Sounds harmless, but terribly scary for a kid.


How does whatever faith you found show in Cosmos?

The first star of evening, that I seek in several hikes, means that beginning sacred hope, a kind of spiritual point for all my world to revolve around.


So, are you a Christian?

My uncle S. E. Mercer was a Methodist minister.  My mother's father was also.  I was raised in the Methodist Church where my father was a deacon and elder.  All graduated from Duke.  I have the scriptures I heard and those doctrines engraved in my psyche -- not to mention my strong Duke ties.


But how about the science?

I don't feel a conflict.  But, if I wished to take the time scale of Genesis and the creation story literally, there would be trouble.


But you don't?

No. Science provides a story -- or stories -- of creation much more plausible than those of thousands of years old manuscripts.  Anyone with knowledge of sacred scriptures knows that an evolution among versions preceded the later, received doctrines.  But some feel that the Bible was written in English.  Even so, they would have to choose between the King James version and later versions.  I believe that, in the realm of spiritual and moral truth, as in that of the sciences, humankind is on a long-term knowledge-quest.  For us, now, the faith I'm sure of is the love I feel, for creation and for us humans, among all the other creatures.