Published: February 19, 2019

Finding the Poetry in Natural History

Alert

Keep an eye out for our poet-in-residence (and his typewriter!) around the museum—and start thinking like a poet yourself.

A group gathers at the corner of a diorama case. One man sits a desk with a typerwriter. He looks up to a family of three standing over him. The man in the middle stands with arms around the other two individuals. Both are smiling down at the man seated at the desk. A black box with a glass front holds a rock specimen and is propped up against the leg of the desk.

Our first-ever poet-in-residence, Eric Elshtain, thinks that poetry and science are a natural fit. And we tend to agree. Field Museum artist-in-residence Peggy Macnamara has long shown how the arts can enhance how we interact with nature—her watercolor paintings transport us to ancient forests and the deep sea.

Poetry is another way that we can observe, digest, and express what we see, both out in the world and here in the many snapshots of nature and culture you’ll find inside the museum.

Eric tells us what it’s like being a poet at a natural history museum and shares tips for how you can start writing poetry on your next visit.

Hi, Eric! What have you been doing at the Field so far?

I have been exploring the museum as much as possible, including taking tours of the Field’s research departments. One of my favorites so far was my tour of the Geology Collections where I learned about materials that help us understand the formation of the universe, and was even able to hold a piece of the moon in my own hands!  

I have been working on poems, including ones about the Field’s wonderful dioramas and Máximo the Titanosaur in Stanley Field Hall. I also enjoy interacting with visitors and sharing their excitement and wonder—especially from children—at turning a corner and seeing something remarkable and unexpected.

Some may wonder, why would a natural history museum have a poet-in-residence?

Good question! It is not so strange when you think about how much nature poetry has been written, and that both poetry and science must include careful observations and carefully considered thoughts about those observations. I think poetry is also a great vehicle to help people explore their own thoughts and feelings about the natural and cultural objects on display in a museum such as the Field.

How can someone start thinking like a poet?

When someone pays close attention to details, lets their mind be open to questions and associations, thinks and feels for the sake of thinking and feeling, then they are thinking “poetically.” 

For example, while walking through the dioramas, I might ask myself: “Why are the animals in dioramas often posed as if they are looking at the viewer? I feel like I have startled them and that’s why they are frozen. They look surprised in my presence.” Those are actual notes from my notebook. The difficult part is formalizing those thoughts and feelings into a poem.

A poem is a form of display for those ideas, just like a museum chooses the best and most expressive aspects of an object to exhibit in order to give the most accurate portrayal of that object. A poem need not be fancy or filled with complicated words, or even rhymes. Just the “best words in the best order,” as Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes.

A man writes in a notebook as he stands in front of a large diorama with taxidermied giraffes, rhinos, and zebras in a savannah backdrop. To the right, a little boy interacts with a screen at a digital rail station.

John Weinstein

the drama of an open jaw / a lifted paw / an outstretched neck / always but never reaching / the imagined intent.

Excerpt from “Diorama” by Eric Elshtain

Are you ever without a pen and paper as you walk around the museum?  

I always have a notebook and pen handy! I never know what might strike me, or what ideas will form after staring at an object for some time. I also jot down things I experience, like a mother walking her toddler from head to tail, back and forth, to help her daughter experience exactly how long Máximo is.

I will often decide on an object to write about, but I will also be struck with notions out of the blue while not looking at anything in particular. That is why I have my notebook with me at all times!   

If someone spots you, should they come over and say hi or are you busy writing?

People do approach me to ask what I am doing as I am taking notes or working on a poem—and I welcome that interruption! I meet so many people who do not think that they can write or even read poetry, as poetry is often made to feel inaccessible, and I love to talk with people about poems, and hopefully lead them to feel better about poetry or even try their hand at writing. My weekly Poetry Pop-Up will move around the museum and invite people to take the time to reflect on an object or exhibit with me, and compose a short poem as a record of that reflection.

Four small children gather around a desk where a man sits at a typewriter. The desk is situated in the museum's main hall, with columns in the background, and a sign next to the desk reads, "What do you see?"

John Weinstein

Outside of your time at the Field, what does your work entail?

Beyond trying to keep up with my own writing, I teach poetry part-time through a non-profit arts education organization called Snow City Arts. Snow City Arts places teaching artists into medical and clinical settings to help students keep up with school through the arts while they are seeking inpatient or outpatient treatments. I also provide workshops to teachers to help them incorporate poetry into their teaching practice.

Anything else you'd want museum visitors to know?

Let your experience in the museum be a chance to learn, and explore something you had not planned on exploring. See SUE the T. rex, see the mummies, but also take a peek at the pinned insects in the Small Treasures Room or step inside the Maori Meeting House. Ask yourself where you fit in with the pieces of the world on display, and maybe use poetry to help discover where you find yourself in this place and in the world at large.

Read Eric's poem inspired by his experience holding a moon rock in our Geology Collections:

[the moment you connect]
By Eric Elshtain

the moment you connect
with the moon—
parent body
of your inclusion
into space—
outer turns inward

as the rock
in your hands
pulls awe
from your eyes
widening in their orbits

to take in
the enormity
of the moment
you connect with the moon—