If raven’s like a writing desk,
The Table’s like a poem:
Each metric organizing scheme;
Each elemental locum.
Atomic number, meter strict,
With properties repeating–
The metaphors will oft conflate:
Their parallels, intriguing.
As with last summer, I hope to post a few more expansive essays during July, and I’ll begin here, in an attempt to maintain focus in another challenging season. Last year, my longer July pieces had been rather random, focusing for a few weeks on biographical stories and for a few others on more general discussions of teaching. This year, my goal is that each of these weekly July essays will begin with a previous line from literature and build to some themes from chemistry.
To that end, this poem hasn’t been posted on Twitter previously. It is one that has taken shape, interestingly, in a few different steps through the past few years. It doesn’t follow either of the two light-verse forms I use most often (the limerick or the double dactyl), perhaps due to this stepwise formation.
The beginning of the poem has been on my mind since Summer 2019, when I was working on entries for a writing contest I’ve referenced before, but the rest didn’t take on a rhymed structure until this year.
If raven’s like a writing desk, /
The Table’s like a poem…
The first line here references The Hatter’s famous query in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”). In the decades since, many have thought of creative and witty answers to the seemingly unanswerable question!
For instance, in Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, Thursday Next is a literary detective in an alternate universe awash in fictional allusions. In stopping at a local bar named The Cheshire Cat, Thursday encounters the Hatter’s riddle as a greeting from the bartender; she responds, “Because Poe wrote on both.”
Her inspired answer and the resulting imaginative link between furniture and poem came to mind when I was considering possible ideas for 2019’s Periodic Poetry celebration, given both the theme of the contest and the pun possible with chemistry’s most famous of tables. I was finally able to add a few more lines this year to finish the long-persistent thought.
Each metric organizing scheme; /
Each elemental locum. /
Atomic number, meter strict, /
With properties repeating—
The metaphors will oft conflate…
Lines 3 through 6 had been conceptually in mind for a while but took a while to find their verse form. Eventually, I borrowed the end of line 4 from Latin, to find a reasonable rhyme for “poem” that could also serve, appropriately, as a placeholder. (“Locum” is the Latin word for “place,” although I’m confident I’m overlooking multiple rules about case and declension from coursework many years ago!)
I’ve written here before of how I’ve seen several interesting parallels between chemistry and poetry. Here, I address one such specific similarity: between a poet’s fitting together the syllables of a poem written in a strict rhyming meter (“each metric organizing scheme”) and Dmitri Mendeleev’s use of patterns among the elements (“each elemental locum”) to organize the first version of the modern Periodic Table of the Elements (PTE).
[My chem-professor-self hastens to acknowledge that Mendeleev used the two dimensions of repeating physical properties (columns) and increasing atomic weight (rows) in developing his original chart, while it is the current PTE that is organized by physical properties and atomic number, after an insight by another scientist, Henry Moseley.]
As noted above with “locum,” in writing these light-verse efforts, I often find myself assigning syllabic blanks until I can find an appropriate word or rhyme, an action that consistently reminds me of Mendeleev’s use of the eka elements in building his original table: leaving spaces for new, fitting elements yet to be discovered.
In both cases, the “properties repeating” ultimately yield the overall structure of interest, whether that structure is the poem or the PTE, and so the comparisons “oft conflate.”
Their parallels, intriguing.
The poem closes here with a simple acknowledgement of the interest I have in this interdisciplinary overlap, which has remained fascinating throughout these past three years, and which I hope to explore more directly over the next few weeks.