Stars Inspire Poets


Many poets and songwriters have looked to the nighttime sky for material and inspiration. Think of “Evening Star” by Edgar Allan Poe or “Aquarius” from the musical Hair. Students in a graduate-level poetry workshop took a recent field trip to the NMU observatory for the same purpose. The idea struck Beverly Matherne (English) at the fall convocation, when she heard about an interdisciplinary project to build a mount for the NMU telescope. She contacted Mark Jacobs (Physics) about the prospect of combining their disciplines for an evening of stargazing. The event gave her writers a new perspective and allowed physics students to share their knowledge with an audience as assistant tour guides.


The class was able to view such wonders as the bright star cluster NGC869 (pictured above), Smoke Ring M-57 (pictured below), the remnant of a nova, and planet Jupiter and its four visible moons. Poetry student Chanomi Maxwell-Parish said it was a privilege to view the sky under intense magnification through a piece of equipment usually reserved for scientists.


“It was all hugely inspiring—I feel like it put me into my place: a speck of stardust living a speck of a life,” said Maxwell-Parish. “Dr. Jacobs and his students also talked about things that I either didn’t know or hadn’t considered: that everything on earth but helium and hydrogen is created from the explosion of stars; that the sun will eventually explode as well; that the light we are seeing from the stars is many years old, so we are seeing an image from the past when we look at the sky; that the universe has no indication of having limits and we’re probably not alone.”


Matherne said when she initially approached Jacobs with the idea, “he quoted the great Oscar Wilde, who once said, ‘All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ I hoped that this experience would take my students out of their regular grooves and throw them onto paths that would bring them to new realizations, allow them to make new associations, and to build new metaphors that would otherwise never occur to them. Surely they would be wowed by the sheer beauty of what they saw, but more than that, by the discovery, maybe for the first time, that the universe is not only vast but knowable.”


To accommodate the number of people, Jacobs said the class was split in half. While one group was with him and a physics student in the observatory looking through the telescope at objects invisible to the naked eye, the other would peer through high-powered binoculars on tripods at larger objects such as the moon.


“When Dr. Matherne and I met to discuss this, I had unknowingly left a couple of poetry books on my desk,” Jacobs said. “Every now and then when I want a break from everything else, I close my door and read. Physics and poetry really do go quite well together when you consider all of the stories behind the constellations. They have a whole mythology of their own.”

Matherne said a presentation on the interdisciplinary effort will be made at the Celebration of Student Research, Creative Works and Academic Service Learning next semester.


Here are excerpts from poems submitted by two MFA students after the observatory visit:


From “Telescopes,” by Brooke Boulton


The universe will capsize, I say, turn outside in.

Black will be blacker, cold will be colder.

You’ll have the universe inside you with all the stars

still burning, all the worlds still turning,

all the forces pulsing. Even your heart will echo

throughout the universe you hold inside me.


From “Astronomer’s Lament,” by John Minser


Space leads, always,
to unfilled space.
A point of light expands
but not enough;
the stars are spread
too thin, and no fire
burns behind the dark.



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Updated: December 16, 2011

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