Science poetry, AKA there exists a poem about capybaras and it’s beautiful

Author: Brianna

I wrote some science poems awhile ago for a remarkably intense creative writing course I was taking as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. Remarkably intense for a scientist, anyway; it was difficult to balance organic chemistry, physics, and the beginnings of my thesis research with the expectation of deeply reading stories, giving detailed feedback to classmates, and above all producing quality writing week after week. The mental spaces I had to occupy for each task were quite different and challenging to switch among. I was a little bitter about the workload and frustrated with hunting for things that felt just out of reach, despite loving writing. (I’ve still hardly written any stories since that class, which was a couple years ago. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still love it, or that I don’t really value the time I spent. More on that in some other future blog post.)

Anyway, some of our portfolio assignments included a few poems even though the class was focused on short stories. The poems I wrote reflected my bitterness a little and they were about science, because if I have to write more poems they’re going to be about science dammit. But they weren’t about the parts of science I was really drawn to. I’ve tried occasionally since then, but it turns out it’s actually really hard to articulate the things I love about my branch of science without slipping right into a maudlin, cliche-ridden mess. It’s like writing a love poem, but to science. And fieldwork. And fossils.

I am thinking about this because thanks to Twitter, I found a poem about measuring all things by comparison to capybaras. (h/t to to @evelynjlamb and @DNLee5)

It’s unexpectedly beautiful. It’s called “Unit of Measure,” by Sandra Beasley, and I want you to click on that link.

It begins,
“All can be measured by the standard of the capybara.
Everyone is lesser than or greater than the capybara.
Everything is taller or shorter than the capybara.
Everything is mistaken for a Brazilian dance craze
more or less frequently than the capybara.”

I started reading and I thought I knew where it was going. Funny poem, right? Cheeky poem. Endless comparisons to the capybara.

The soft, fluffy, adorable capybara, Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris.Image by Dori / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Well, sort of. It may be those years I spent immersed in creative writing, but for me the rest of the poem goes deeper until by the last lines it has me, and now I want to print this poem off and tape it to my wall. Reading it makes me want to try writing about science and fieldwork and fossils again. It also makes me just a little sad that I am not, in fact, a capybara.

Go on, go read it.

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