Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review: Naturally selected

Since Ruth Padel received so much press for the controversy over the Professor of Poetry position at the University of Oxford, I figured I’d give her new book of poetry a go, believing that a poet who can cause that much of an uproar must be pretty decent.

When I think of poetry, I generally believe that it’s the most personal of the creative art forms – the closest to the expression of self through abstractions and highly selective diction, an eye on the I. The paired down language is key; and through metaphors and emotive techniques the poet is able to create an entire world, sometimes in just three lines.

So when I approached Darwin: A Life in Poems, I was a bit jarred. Even knowing that the project was to give the reader a biography on Charles Darwin through verse, it still felt somewhat off that this was not going to have the poet’s personal reflections. (I do realise that many poets don’t necessarily use themselves as the narrators of their own poems, but it’s still quite common.) But it didn’t take long to convince me that this is a highly intelligent and original way to create and reveal a biographical story.

Two hundred years ago, Charles Darwin was born. His story starts like most: He was raised in a small country town in Shopshire; he studied at Edinburgh then Cambridge (ok, that’s not like most) and originally trained to go into vestments (clergy or medical), but decided that the biological sciences were more fascinating; his father disapproved yet accepted the change since the Cambridge dons thought his son was one of the brightest students. Darwin travelled to the Galápagos, observes some birds and beetles, returns home to marry a childhood (and cousin) sweetheart, has a couple of children (some that don’t survive past a year), and formulates a theory that changes the world.

In Padel’s hands though, we are transported not just into these standard facts; she takes us closer to the Darwins’ marriage bed, to the inner mind of Darwin – not just as he was formulating his theory on natural selection, but as he thought of being separated from his wife or of being what seemed deathly ill his whole life. One of the cleverer poems, ‘Survival of the Fittest’, one of the major theories that Darwin is famous for, doesn’t deal just with the cold, scientific facts that brought him to such thoughts; no, it’s much more personal than that: ‘Was it because of him that Annie [his daughter] died? / “My dread is hereditary ill-health. / Are marriages between first cousins doomed / to deformity and illness? Effects / of inbreeding – only the fittest survive?”’ Darwin (and Padel) make it seem that he derived his theory through his family life, not his voyage on the Beagle.

Padel is methodical; her lines are timely and well-timed. There is a wonderful cadence to each verse, as if we’re being read some sort of melancholic bedtime story. Words are to be relished, not to be rushed. Padel makes sure that we understand Darwin from all angles – scientifically, as a son and brother and husband and father, religiously. Emotive effects are strong, especially when Darwin thinks not of his science but of his wife and of his children.

Closing this book, I immediately took an interest in Darwin’s writing. I’d be curious to know whether Darwin was truly as poetic as Padel (his own great-granddaughter) makes him out to be. Her introduction says that most of the writing is his own, but words were changed in order to make it ‘poetry’. But I don’t think that takes away anything from either’s talent.


Kari said...

Wow, that is such an interesting concept for a book. I'm generally not a fan of poetry, but this is such a unique idea that I am incredibly intrigued. Personalizing something (and someone) that is strictly viewed as scientific certainly must show another side to it.

Salvatore said...

It's absolutely fascinating and, I think, it succeeds. It's kind of like making an opera out of Darwin's life.

Sometimes we forget that scientists are people too, not representations of their ideas.

Or maybe Padel is just full of it.