Poetry in Water: Member Embraces the Creative Side of Science

April 25, 2019

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Art Stewart, a water professional and member of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.), has published numerous books of poetry. Photo courtesy of Stewart.

Art Stewart, a water professional and member of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.), has published numerous books of poetry. Photo courtesy of Stewart.

Blending science with poetry may seem like an odd combination, but it is one of Art Stewart’s favorite activities.

The professional limnologist, who studies inland waters, performed ecology and ecotoxicology research at Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory for 17 years. In 2018, he joined the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) after taking a job at Pellissippi State Community College (Tenn.) where he will develop an educational program for future water sector operators.

Stewart has enjoyed poetry since he was an undergraduate at Northern Arizona University (Flagstaff). This interest has continued growing, even as he began studying science.

“That odd mix of enjoying poetry and thriving on science persisted through my graduate-student days,” Stewart said. He remembers reviewing his professor’s work when preparing a textbook on limnology. This gave Stewart the “opportunity to see science being ‘made,’” he said. “Clearly communicating science results was as important as ‘doing’ science.”

In April 1999, Stewart published an essay in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America about the need for poetry by scientists. He received numerous favorable comments by his readers, he said.

While at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Stewart began submitting poems to various journals, but quickly realized the exercise was futile. He recognized his poems at the time were not good enough and began taking poetry classes. To build his skills, Stewart set a regimented schedule to write for 90 minutes every day for a year.

Since then, Stewart has built a name for himself. He spends about 3 to 4 hours each week writing four to six poems. Out of these, one or two may make it for publication, he said. Stewart has authored the following six books containing poems and essays that reflect on science:

  • Rough Ascension and Other Poems of Science, which focuses on the importance of good scientific communication;
  • Bushido: The Virtues of Rei and Makoto, which pays tribute to the importance of mentoring and education;
  • The Ghost in the Word, which explores the power of ambiguity and different tools for handling this between scientists and non-scientists;
  • From Where We Came, which examines anthropological evolution through time; and
  • Elements of Chance, which considers the role of science in our daily lives.
Stewart believes that poetry, such as that published in his Elements of Chance poetry book, offers a chance for the scientific community a unique platform to educate the public about water. Photo courtesy of Stewart.

Stewart believes that poetry, such as that published in his Elements of Chance poetry book, offers a chance for the scientific community a unique platform to educate the public about water. Photo courtesy of Stewart.

Many of Stewart’s other poems have been published in magazines. In 2013, he was inducted into the East Tennessee Literary Hall of Fame. Stewart also is working on a book about science education for high school teachers and college professors.

Stewart believes that the science community should be better at communicating with the public, especially because it is “exciting and has a unique language,” he said. “Poetry is an underrepresented pathway for tapping these powers.”

“I like to explore the implications of interesting new science to our daily lives,” Stewart said. The creative outlet offers a unique perspective on how new research will affect individuals, change society, and influence interactions in the world.

Stewart’s goal is to “encourage excellence in the development of our nation’s next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians,” he said. This will require “encouraging creativity, conceptual thinking skills, and problem-solving abilities.”

“Science provides powerful tools for understanding why things are the way they are,” Stewart said. But the metaphors, similes, and rhythm of poetry can help those without technical backgrounds build a greater understanding of science. “Perhaps some of my poems will encourage others to think about how these two grand human constructs — science and poetry — actually complement one another.”  

Jennifer Fulcher, WEF Highlights

Seen and Unseen

It is six o’clock in the morning and I’m crossing
the beautiful Clinch River by bridge
in my truck, driving to work

but I can’t see

the river’s slow beauty beneath me: it is too dark –
the moon is a thin sliver only, so the best I can do
is remember. And I note to myself,

remember this: there’s beauty

in the world, seen and unseen. It can be seen
in the way a satin black horse bends its muscular neck
to the grass; it can be seen

in the way the black water works

by gravity in a river, along the banks on each side
where snags and rocks touch it,
pull it into motion.

Art Stewart, Elements of Chance

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