I don’t care how God-damn smart
these guys are: I’m bored.
It’s been raining like hell all day long
and there’s nothing to do.
Richard Brautigan, “At the California Institute of Technology” from The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. Copyright © 1968 by Richard Brautigan.
This short poem was written by Richard Brautigan when he was poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology in 1967, and it is one of my favourite poems because it completely shatters the illusions of what both science and poetry should be.
When I talk to students (especially undergraduates) about poetry and science they have such preconceived notions about what they should and shouldn’t be, that it can be disheartening. Poetry has to rhyme. Science is really difficult. Poets are fops and dandies in tie-dyed T-shirts and berets. Scientists work in laboratories and all have white coats and lab specs.
I am a scientist and I haven’t done any laboratory work for over a decade, since my undergraduate days. Likewise, as a poet I have never owned a tie-dyed T-shirt. Although to be fair I do own a couple of berets…
Berets aside, the preconceptions of what scientists and poets look like and what science and poetry can and cannot do is extremely limiting, especially to those people who are still finding their way in their world. Brautigan’s poem is only four lines long and yet it is so effective; you can really imagine Brautigan sat in the back of a lecture hall or seminar room falling asleep as one of the ‘brilliant’ Caltech scientists holds court on their latest research findings.
To Brautigan science is not the be-all-and-end-all, it is the modern equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and he is not afraid to say so. Not even to the people who are sponsoring his residency. Science can be really exciting, but it can also be utterly tedious. Poetry can rhyme, but it doesn’t have to. These four lines read like a two-fingered salute to the establishment, and remind me why I fell in love with both science and poetry in the first instance, and for that reason I will be forever grateful to Caltech’s 1967 poet-in-resident.
What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Could you identify with it? Do you think that my own appreciation of Brautigan is reminiscent of the Emperor’s New Clothes?