Ideas

Genetics and Poetics: how a microbe "writes" a poem

Words on a page -- that's usually how we conceive of poetry. But Christian Bök at the University of Calgary has done something no other writer has ever done: as part of his recent project, The Xenotext, he's enciphered a poem into a micro-organism, which then "rewrote" that poem as part of its biological response. His eventual hope is to encode a poem inside a near-indestructible bacterium (deinococcus radiodurans) which may actually outlast human civilization. Poetics meets genetics in his conversation with host Paul Kennedy.

Poet Christian Bök is putting words in E. coli

Exhibitionists

5 years ago
2:53
The Canadian experimental writer has been working for 14 years to make living organisms read his poetry to him, and his dream has finally become a reality. 2:53

Words on a page -- that's usually how we conceive of poetry. But Christian Bök, at the University of Calgary, has done something no other writer has ever done: as part of his recent project, The Xenotext, he's enciphered a poem into a micro-organism, which then "rewrote" that poem as part of its biological response. His eventual hope is to encode a poem inside a near-indestructible bacterium (deinococcus radiodurans) which may actually outlast human civilization. **This episode originally aired April 27, 2016.

Experimental poet Christian Bök on the prospect of achieving poetic immortality 1:06

 

Christian Bök
Poetic immortality isn't just a cliche anymore. It's something Christian Bök may actually achieve. This is completely new territory, one that straddles the border between the arts and science -- a space where poetics meets genetics.  


"I feel like I'm a scientist working at area 51, reverse engineering this alien technology called language in order to adapt it to human purposes. I'm really just inventing anti-gravity machines with words." 


The Xenotext, and in fact everything that Christian Bök writes, embodies a paradox: he thinks that poetry shouldn't really be confined to the personal -- and that's precisely what makes it so enjoyable for him, personally. He believes that poetry isn't chiefly about self-expression, that it should be much more than versified autobiography. For him, poetry is at its best when it confronts the central ideas of our age -- like those about genetics, as the building blocks of life. Or sounds, as the basic building blocks of language.




Related websites:

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?

now