Sunday Science Poem: The Stark Dignity of Self-Organization

William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All” (1923)

After an unintentionally long hiatus, our Sunday Science Poem is back. April is National Poetry Month, and this month we’ll read the poetry of the American physician-poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963).

“In physics, irreversibility and dissipation were interpreted as degradation, while among natural scientists biological evolution, which is obviously an irreversible* process, was associated with increasing complexity… Today scientists realize that dissipative systems constitute a very large and important class of natural systems.” (Grégoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine, Exploring Complexity (1989), p. 50-51

Nicolis and Prigogine argue that we should no longer take the simple, regular, and stable motions of classical mechanics as the essence of our macroscopic physical world. Rather, we live in “a world of instabilities and fluctuations, which are ultimately responsible for the amazing variety and richness of the forms and structure we see in nature around us.” Nature is characterized by spontaneously organizing structures.

In his poem “Spring and All”, Williams describes the reemergence of biological forms at the end of winter’s barrenness. Winter is characterized by a lack of form with words like “mottled”, “waste”, “fallen”, and “scattering”, while the colors are reddish, brown, or purplish – no green anywhere.

Against the waste and cold wind, living forms slowly appear, naked and uncertain at first, but they soon take on more “defined” shapes: a “stiff curl”, the “outline of leaf”, until these newly self-organized living things make their entrance with “stark dignity” as they “begin to awaken.”

* Irreversible in the physics sense

Spring and All

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines—

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind—

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined—
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance—Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken

“Spring and All,” William Carlos Williams. Selected Poems, ed. Charles Tomlinson (New York: New Directions, 1985), originally published in Spring and All, (Contact Publishing, 1923)

Find more thoughts about Williams’ “Spring and All” at the University of Illinois Modern American Poetry site.

Read more poetry at the Finch and Pea.

Video Credit: Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction by Hiroshi Kori via YouTube

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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