The Polar Muse

The Polar Muse aims to harness the power of poetry to do what conventional museum interpretation can’t do: to engage with objects imaginatively, going beyond the handful of facts you can fit on a caption. Eight of Cambridge’s most exciting and innovative poets have been commissioned to select an object from the collection as inspiration for a new poem, and given access to the full breadth of the Scott Polar Research Institute’s library and archive resources to conduct research. Their poems will be presented on the glass of the display cases, in front of the object about which they are written, as both an added layer of curation and interpretation, and a new creation in their own right.




The Polar Muse
- Poetry as curation at The Polar Museum

24th September - 28th February 2015

Opening Times:
Tuesday - Saturday, 10am - 4pm
open Bank Holiday Mondays

Admission is free

pdfDownload exhibition flyer

Blog post by Lucy Sheerman

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Managing Ambiguity: Spatial Extrapolation and Poetic Composition — by Lucy Sheerman (25th September 2014)

Gareth Rees analyses the impact of pollution on plants and trees by linking detailed descriptions of small sections of ground with satellite images, through a process he calls spatial extrapolation. He records the distribution and colour of specific types of land cover (snow, lichen, birch, etc) and then links that information to the data captured by satellite images. By studying consecutive satellite images he is able to describe the changes to particular plants and trees over time.

I am drawn to the field notebook he shows me. Its minute process of description captures the detail of the author's experience of a precise moment, place and experience. These notes are couched in a mode of scientific detachment and enquiry which has parallels with a poet's notebook. I am thinking, for example, of the rigour of Bernadette Mayer's attempt to give a precise and painstaking account of her experience of a single day in the book Midwinter Day. I am morbidly fascinated by the myriad mosquitoes trapped between the pages of Gareth's book. The streaks of mud and grass stains and the messy running repairs made with parcel tape all add to the sense of immediacy and authenticity.

This a document of lived experience and it is filled with the distractions shared by my own notebooks. Of course, mine don't include complex negotiations with helicopter pilots to transport me to remote parts of the arctic, records of delicate discussions with Russian officials to gain official sanction for my visit or in-depth conversations with reindeer herders about their migration patterns. As my typical day does not take me further than few hundred metres from Great St Mary's I also don't usually find it necessary to record my gps location or how far I am from Cambridge (Cambridge to London, 50 miles, London to Vienna, 763 miles, Vienna to St Petersburg, 980 miles). However, my notebooks are filled with parallel distractions, logistics and clutter which exist alongside notes and ideas for writing projects, as well as first attempts to capture an idea or thought process.

I am drawn to Gareth's meticulous and forensic style:

photo 20: view of this site

#44 4252017470601

birch tussock lichen tundra, quite trampled

bones here so perhaps herders used this area

As before, lichen is v. heavily trampled

Overall, lichens – 50%. Most of rest is bet nova

16/7 1819 20°c! 56/RH 1015 mts 50 kls

These are snapshots which will later be correlated with satellite images to inform a scientific paper.

I am intrigued by his description of the telescopic processing of these detailed observations. Somehow the minutely detailed information he amasses has to be connected to a satellite image of a vastly different scale. These pieces of ground he describes are only 1m square while each pixel in a satellite image represents 30m square of ground. We talk about how to make choices and how to decide on what pieces of information are important to hold on to. In making a map you are forced to generalise. Just as a poem cannot contain every detail you might first feel it has to. There is a process much like editing a poem which requires you to follow Quiller-Couch's frequently quoted advice to writers to 'murder your darlings'. Every class of interesting thing, Gareth tells me, has a unique colour; nevertheless, not every interesting thing can be taken into account. Sometimes, although we would like to, it is not possible to distinguish between two species of plants for the purposes of interpretation. Physicists are simple-minded, he tells me, they are content to describe an area of dense willow and birch scrub as simply green. Sometimes they have to disappoint the botanists.

This scaling up and down involves a process of managing ambiguity. Gareth and I devise a writing exercise together that we think can give a sense of the scaling up process. First, describe a 1cm patch of ground and then scale up and out tenfold continually until you are describing a 100km square. Each description should have a severe word limit. Gareth suggests only 10 but when I try it I have to give myself 25 and his field books also use about that number.

Apparently, the most difficult step to get to grips with occurs at the shift from 100m to 1km. This is also when the sense of human perspective disappears. Gareth tells me that the discipline of considering things at this enormous scale gives him a unique way of thinking about any question that presents itself. He has arrived at the ability to create the sense of perspective or scale only usually achieved in space flight. I'm curious about the links with poetic composition, which similarly negotiates between the minute description of the actual and abstract generalisations. How might I try to register this very complex sense of scale in a poem?