Ah the astronomer’s lot. Now cool again thanks to Brian Cox, but in principle only really fathomable if you have a degree in astrophysics, a finer understanding of stellar mass spectrums, and a very expensive telescope. To an easily confused outsider (which is exactly what I am) it used to be the wonder expressed at things we could see in the night sky with the naked eye. Now it mostly seems to be about dark matter and event horizons.
Things weren’t always this way. Astronomers used to be upstarts, poets, blasphemers, philosophers of our worldly existence, and so highly regarded by society that some lived inside the walls of imperial palaces. The sun, moon and stars are the source of many of our most profound questions, the origin of nearly all myth, metaphor and metaphysics. Wherefore our bottomless wonder now?
Thankfully, it seems poets aren’t running out of ideas, and astronomy continues to inspire. In the last 12 months alone we’ve had Simon Barraclough’s epic Sunspots, Liane Strauss’ All the Ways You Remind Me of the Moon, and Ephemeris by Dorothy Lehane, to name just a few. And – to add to the roster of stellar poets – Claire Trévien, who will be teaching for us again this Autumn on ‘Cosmic Composition: Exploring Astronomy through Poetry’.
We chatted with Claire about mapping the stars in metre and line…
In an age of electric lighting, satellites and GPS, why is it still important to look up at the night sky?
Claire: I think that, especially when you live in a big city, you can forget what a night sky looks like. Whenever I return to Brittany I am awed all over again at its presence. For me, it’s about remembering our mortality once the feather boas of artificial lighting have been shed. That pause, that heaviness, are an important moment of centering that we need to embrace once every while.
I don’t think there has been any subject written about by poets quite so exhaustively as the sun, moon, and stars. Can we find fresh takes on such an old and well-trodden subject?
Claire: Of course, just like there will always be fresh takes to be found on love, mortality, and so on. This last year alone, human technology has landed on a comet and winked at Pluto, these are not things that could be written about ten years ago in the same way, so we’re lucky, as new discoveries are providing new materials. What we are witnessing is making us look at the sky differently than, say, 300 years ago. But being a poet is not just being a reporter of course. I think our relationship to the night sky evolves regardless of these discoveries, along with language.
Do you have any favourite heavenly bodies?
Claire: The Orion constellation for sure, I’ve loved it since I was a kid.
I guess it’s the Mars Bar or Taylor Swift of the universe, in that it’s pretty inescapable wherever you are on this planet. Less bad for your teeth though (and I love them both for what it’s worth).
Is astronomy a big feature of your upcoming collection, Astéronymes?
Claire: In one sense, yes… The title is a combination of ‘stars’ and ‘anonymous’ and refers to a practice that was pretty current in French 18th century literature (and elsewhere, that’s just where I discovered it) of blanking people’s names out with asterisks. So a bit as if I referred to you as Will B******. Astronomy plays a part in it, but overall it’s a collection that’s pretty fascinated with lost history/lost friendships using the language of archives. What bigger living archive than the cosmos?
There’s a lazy assumption that people who are good at art, fail at science, and vice-versa; that one is practical and applied, and the other is free and imaginative. Would you say the two disciplines are each as equally creative?
Claire: Completely, and I wish that that assumption hadn’t put me off science when I was younger – I still found ways to enjoy maths at times by inventing stories around the formulas, and to enjoy chemistry by translating atoms into soap opera characters. My science workbooks were full of such doodles.
The two are just as creative, there is just a different culture and set of expectations assigned to each.
How are you on the denser end of things, astrophysics, string theory, black holes and such?
Claire: I am a fascinated bystander.
Are you good at navigating by the stars and spotting constellations?
Claire: Not as much as I’d like to be. I used to be much better at it as a teenager, from visiting my dad in Guadeloupe. He’s a sailor and we’d spend evenings with his girlfriend (also a sailor), pointing them out. I’ve just spent a month on a boat in Shetland and Orkney so I’m only going getting in that groove.
Do you think life exists on other planets?
Claire: Definitely, though I think it’ll be a while before humanity encounters them, if at all.
Finally – fess up: is this all happening because you wanted to be an astronaut when you were a kid?
Claire: I was actually one of those annoying kids who listed on hands and toes all the jobs they wanted to do, in the end I settled for ‘actress’ because I thought that that way I’d get to try them all out. The impulse is still one of discovery though.
Write a pantoum for Pluto, a prose poem for the Perseids, and read heavenly poems about the heavenly bodies, all on Claire’s new online course Cosmic Compositions: Exploring Astronomy Through Poetry. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.