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. **This episode originally aired April 27, 2016.
"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.