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Dark matter : poems of space by the editors Maurice Riordan and Jocelyn Bell Burnell (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2008)

For our first Poetry Library book club in July 2010 we looked at the anthology Dark matter : poems of space edited by the poet Maurice Riordan, who describes himself as "a poet who happens to be interested in science", and the astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell who started collecting poems with an astronomical theme about 20 years ago after she "found it was speaking to something in me".

Dark matter book cover

Dark matter contains over 100 poems from the 16th century to 2008 (when the anthology was published) so it covers over 400 years.  The anthology is not arranged chronologically but thematically.  It begins with poems looking up at the sky and marvelling, then poems about the moon, followed by poems about studying the night sky (so there are poems about observatories, telescopes and astronomers), poems about the stars, poems about space exploration and visiting other planets (including some science-fiction poems), drawing to a close with poems about darkness and then concluding with poems trying to make sense of our place in the universe.

The anthology was published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation who supported the commissioning of 16 new poems for the anthology, where poets met with a scientist before putting pen to paper, which Bell Burnell hoped would "prod poets into a deeper exploration of the universe".  In the book club we looked closely at one of the commissioned poems "Out There" by Jamie McKendrick page 163, which he wrote after discussions with the scientist Dr Kevin Fong, Co-Director of the Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme Environment (CASE) Medicine.

The other poems from the anthology that we looked closely at during the book club were:
"The Ex-Queen Among the Astronomers" by Fleur Adcock p99 - a contemporary poet writing from a historical perspective.
"Let There Always Be Light (Searching for Dark Matter)" by Rebecca Elson p172 - who as well as being a poet was a professional astronomer.
"With how Sad Steps, o Moone thou Climb'st the Skies" by Sir Philip Sidney p64 - one of the oldest poems in the anthology, originally circulated amongst Sidney's friends at Elizabeth the First's court.
"A Martian Sends a Postcard Home" by Craig Raine p159 - a science-fiction poem after which the "Martian" school of poetry is named.
We also listened to Ted Hughes reading his poem "Full Moon and Little Frieda" p66, taken from the CD Poems and short stories / Ted Hughes (reader) -- London : British Library ; BBC, 2008.

Discussion points:
How did you read the anthology - from beginning to end or did you dip in and out?
Did you like that the anthology was arranged thematically rather than chronologically?
Does the anthology successfully represent its theme?
Did you learn more about space?
Bell Burnell has said that often poets are just using the "cosmic" as a "vehicle for the personal", that it's just "poetic wallpaper".  Did you find that with most of these poems?  If that's the case is that a bad thing?
Do the commissioned poems seem more scientific, as Bell Burnell hoped they would be?
Which poems stood out for you?  What made them stand out?
Why do you think the editors chose to begin the anthology with "The Starlight Night" by Gerard Manley Hopkins p22 and to end it with "Lute Music" by Kenneth Rexroth p217?


Other books in the Poetry Library's collection on the theme of astronomy and space are:

A responsibility to awe / ELSON, REBECCA. -- Manchester : Carcanet, 2001. (Book) Adult collection

Cloudcuckooland / ARMITAGE, SIMON. -- London : Faber and Faber, 1997. (Book) Adult collection

Star gate : science fiction poems / MORGAN, EDWIN. -- Glasgow : Third Eye Centre, 1979. (Book) Adult collection

To the moon : an anthology of lunar poems / Duffy, Carol Ann (introduction). -- London : Picador, 2009. (Book) Adult anthology

The argent round : an anthology of poetry about the moon / Lee, Julia (introduction). -- [S.l.] : Julia Lee, 2007. (Book) Adult anthology

Holding your eight hands : an anthology of science fiction verse / edited by Edward Lucie-Smith -- London : Rapp & Whiting, 1970. (Book) Adult anthology

A collection of essays, including one by Jocelyn Bell Burnell on "Astronomy and poetry":
Contemporary poetry and contemporary science / Crawford, Robert (editor) -- Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2006. (Book) Criticism

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