Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

National Poetry Month 2021

Happy National Poetry Month! This year, I thought I'd go with an unconventional pick. Michael Collins, one of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, died this week at the age of 90. In a short interview for the Smithsonian in 2016, he was asked about STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math), and put in a plug instead for STEAM, which adds the arts, and praised poetry in particular. Collins was a self-effacing guy with a good sense of humor, and the whole thing is worth watching, but the part I've transcribed starts around 3:16:

Interviewer Marty Kelsey: Tell me about the importance of STEM.

Michael Collins: Well, I am very much in favor of science, technology, engineering, and math, but I think that's a rather incomplete description of what should be STEAM. S-T-E-A-M, with the emphasis on English. Perhaps I've known too many inarticulate engineers in my time, but I think a firm background in English is important no matter what particular career field you're in. And I'd even push it one step beyond just English and just say poetry, for example. I mean, I like so much poetry – John Milton comes to mind. Paradise Lost, you know it? You know the plot?

Kelsey: Barely.

Collins: Okay, well, what the plot was in STEM language, it's: some guy fell off a cliff, and maybe God pushed him. In STEAM, it is – you know what it is in STEAM?

Kelsey: No.

Collins: Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal [Skie]
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th' Omnipotent to Arms.

So. See I like the second version better than the first version. But that's my story; that's my anecdote.

Collins substitutes "heights" for "skie," but I really enjoy his spirited rendition and that he memorized this. Interviews are sometimes rehearsed and somewhat planned, but if this was off the cuff, Collins' clever STEM plot summary of Paradise Lost, contrasting the power of Milton, is all the more impressive. I do like science and math, but favor a broad and deep liberal arts education (let's not forget history and the social sciences), and my strongest love is for the arts. I'm often frustrated that the arts are not only underappreciated in the United States, but often under attack. Americans tend to treat artists very well if they become famous and successful, but are less supportive of general arts funding, and conservatives since at least Ronald Reagan have threatened to defund the arts and sometime have. The miniscule budgets of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities are a disgrace. Certainly during this pandemic many people have devoured films, TV shows, music, books, and other creative works at a greater rate than usual, and those did not magically spring up out of the aether without considerable labor. I appreciate that Collins, who carries gravitas in the STEM world, puts in such a great plug for the arts in this interview. I hope he got through to some people who might not have absorbed this wisdom otherwise.

You can read more of Milton's Paradise Lost here.

My past posts on poetry feature some more extensive pieces.

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