Breaking the science of poetry down to atoms and molecules

Jon Glover was among a new wave of northern British poets who emerged in the '60s. Chris Bond talks to him about his new book.

WHEN we consider what inspires poets, we might think of Wordsworth's daffodils, or the hawk whose "hooked head and hooked feet" so transfixed Ted Hughes. But it's unlikely that science would feature high up the list.

Yet it is modern science, in all its dazzling glory, that powers Jon Glover's latest collection, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, in which the Sheffield-born poet explores the fragility and complexity of the human condition in a series of cleverly-crafted poems.

Two years ago, Jon Glover was told he had multiple sclerosis and it was during the numerous hospital visits leading up to this grim diagnosis that he began exploring these themes.

"One of the interesting things that happens while you're being diagnosed is you have an MRI scan. Half of me wanted to get out of there, but the other half thought it was fascinating having all these magnets and gadgets messing around with the direction of various atoms in my body," he says.

"I started thinking about how doctors climb inside our heads to find out what makes us tick, and felt it was something I could write about."

Glover's new book was also inspired by the $5bn project based at Cern, in Geneva, which last month switched on a huge particle-smashing machine that scientists hope will provide insights into how the universe started.

"My elder daughter lives in Geneva, so I've been there many times. You see all these signposts directing you to Cern and I think it's great that the place where we're trying to find the God particle is on a bus route."

Many might view poetry and science as strange bedfellows but Glover disagrees.

"Scientists often think in different ways from poets, but they also have to make enormous leaps of imagination; the difference

is that they're writing poems in particles and atoms,"

he says.

Glover was among a prominent group of British poets, including Jon Silkin, Geoffrey Hill, Ken Smith and Jeffrey Wainwright, who either studied or taught at Leeds University during the '60s. At this time, the Merseybeat scene was attracting a lot of attention, while Leeds was quietly establishing itself as a radical literary hub. Leeds was also home during this period to the influential poetry and short story magazine, Stand, which reflected the growing sense of cultural and social upheaval and was among the first magazines to translate new poetry coming out of the Communist Bloc.

Glover, who took over the editorship of Stand when it moved back to Leeds in 1999, first became involved with the magazine 45 years ago.

"We used to produce a magazine called Poetry and Audience and this came out once a week because there was so much interest, and you really thought, 'we're involved in something important'."

It published work by such notable figures as Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and Tony Harrison.

"There was a feeling that poetry mattered and that it was a force for change. I used to think it must be happening elsewhere, but I discovered it wasn't."

He believes there was a strong sense of literary identity in Yorkshire at the time.

"When I first came to Leeds there was a sense that the north was very different to the south of England; it had its own particular problems.

"But the writers and artists in Yorkshire also found the landscape fascinating and for many of them, it became an integral part of their work."

He believes this sense of place and identity has altered over time.

"It's linked to the changing generations. Younger poets today are less radical than we thought we were in the '60s, or perhaps they're radical in different ways."

But having said that, Glover, a research professor at Bolton University, believes that poetry is still flourishing.

"There is a lot of very good poetry being written and what's also interesting is the number of creative writing courses.

"Now most universities run them, and they're hugely popular. People are fascinated with writing and I like to think that breeds an interest in reading, and that's something that has to be applauded."

Magnetic Resonance Imaging by Jon Glover, is published by Carcanet.

Cern: frontiers, gravediggers

Like the infinitely splitting particles, circling

to destruction between Switzerland and France.

Why bother with them? It seems I'm digging

them out for the sake of it. Sick. Really sick.

It's as if particles from wartime corpses

might have seeped home in the soil from Verdun,

to either side, pining for an explanation,

or a chance to rest, or to forget what

they once were by becoming quite invisible.

Does anything verbal stack up the voltage

for such bright light? It could be a holding

charge, static, while waiting to see if the

rotting matter can be read out loud

in the form of a script to make a plea,

or warm an electric coil to switch off

the guilt, since you're not immune from that now.

Press. Pass it on. It works as long as you

can't see it. Close your eyes and listen

to the document in your head. There now.

Buy. It trickles through in no time at all.