Poet's Pick April 28
Margaret Cavendish: "Of Many Worlds in This World"
Selected by Albert Goldbarth
National Poetry Month 2016

Letter from the Editors

Dear Readers,

Today, a special archive edition of Poets' Picks from our 2008 campaign: our thanks to Albert Goldbarth once again for today's selection!

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Don Selby & Diane Boller

Albert Goldbarth's Poetry Month Pick, April 28, 2016

"Of Many Worlds in This World"
by Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673)

Just like as in a nest of boxes round,
degrees of sizes in each box are found:
So, in this world, may many others be
Thinner and less, and less still by degree:
Although they are not subject to our sense,
A world may be no bigger than two-pence.
Nature is curious, and such works may shape,
Which our dull senses easily escape:
For creatures, small as atoms, may there be,
If every one a creature's figure bear.
At their return, up the high strand,
If atoms four, a world can make, then see
What several worlds might in an ear-ring be:
For, millions of those atoms may be in
The head of one small, little, single pin.
And if thus small, then ladies may well wear
A world of worlds, as pendents in each ear.


* Albert Goldbarth Comments:
The DC Comics superhero The Atom was introduced to the world in issue 19 of All-American Comics in October 1940, and there he made his crime-busting home through issue 72. True to his name by 1940s standards, he was a midget-sized superhero. When he was resurrected and overhauled for a new generation in 1961, he'd gained the power to shrink immeasurably, and could enter the subatomic realm. That was my generation—I was thirteen at this second debut—and it made sense, with a name like his, that I could find him adventuring among those orbiting billiard-ball-like protons and electrons that, through textbook science, I knew to be the "building-blocks" of an atom, and was as familiar with as I was a diagrammed sentence or the capitols of the fifty states. Or maybe more familiar; I'd grown up with Atomic Popcorn on the grocery shelves, and Einstein as a culture hero on teachers' tongues.

To every generation, its atom. (Now we know they aren't down there waiting for a subatomic pool cue; no, they boink in and out of their iffy, simultaneous, ghost-like, jack-in-the-box existences on a plane beyond our metaphors.) The concept goes at least as far back as the dazzling book-length poem De Rerum Natura by Lucretius (circa 100 to circa 55 B.C.). In fact he expounds an entire atomic theory: "I will reveal those atoms from which nature creates all things, 'primary particles,' bodies whose existence you must acknowledge though they cannot be seen ... everything else is composed of them" [arranged from the Ronald Latham translation].

And even so, with the atom's lineage stretching back two thousand years or more, it's still a startling moment when we come upon its casually playful appearance in Margaret Cavendish's poem from—can it be?—1668. Everybody else around her is busy poeticizing gods and wars and trilling brooks in sylvan dells and the highs and lows of amour ... and here she is constructing worlds from atoms. Atoms! 1668!

I've written about this poem before, and I'd like to think I return to it now not out of limitation or out of laziness, but out of an enthusiasm—a wonder, really—I feel ought to be shared. It's in 1678 that Antoni van Leeuwenhoek is amazing the incredulous Royal Academy with his description of microscopic life, "1000 animalcules in a particle of water 1/30th of the bigness of a millet seed." Yes, amazing enough. But a decade before that, Cavendish is merrily juggling units that make the protozoa of Leeuwenhoek look like whales—like planets! If it's fair to call her "prescient," we should remember the literality involved: it's "pre" (our) "science."

And of course not only the subject matter feels so unerringly contemporary, but also the tone: something of the dry cosmopolitan wit of Dorothy Parker and the sophisticatedly cartoonish looniness of Kenneth Koch attend to these sixteen lines. I'm not surprised I've returned to this poem. Maybe my gesture parallels the DC Comics Editors returning after twenty years to their Atom. In any case, Cavendish is a hero of mine; and maybe, with her X-ray vision and microscopic power and wisecrack banter, a superhero.

Albert Goldbarth:
Albert Goldbarth is the author of more than twenty-five books of poetry, including, Selfish; Everyday People; To Be Read in 500 Years; and The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems 1972-2007. He has twice won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, and is a recipient of the Mark Twain Award from the Poetry Foundation. He selflessly lives in Wichita, Kansas.

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