Rendezvous with a poet and a bee keeper
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
—To make a prairie (1855) —Emily Dickinson
Just to be clear, I’m not a beekeeper,” says Katharine Coles, former Utah Poet Laureate and University of Utah professor who has nevertheless been busy promoting the welfare of bees through the medium of poetry.
Coles will read bee poems as part of the Utah Humanities Book Festival, appropriately at Deseret Hive Supply, a beekeeping shop in Ogden, along with shop co-owner and beekeeper Vic Bachman who will offer up beekeeping facts and an up-close look at a working hive.
For the past three years, Coles has served as poet-in-residence for the Field Work Project, a collaboration among Poets House, Salt Lake City Public Library and Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) with a mission to align poetry and science. The idea behind the grant-funded project was to humanize the language of science and to develop a model for hybrid art/science programming that other organizations could easily copy.
Part of the challenge was finding common space where technical and metaphorical language could co-exist. Utah’s state insect, the honey bee, provided both scientific interest and potent symbolism.
“The risk of something like this is, first a scientist stands up and then a poet stands up,” Coles says, confessing that that’s exactly what she did: “I put together a packet of poems about bees and just read that. It worked because everyone is so in love with bees.” Scientists begged for copies of the bee poems; poets loved learning how to cultivate bees in their gardens and gained new respect for Utah’s native bees as well.
Coles says that scientists understand a poet’s job is not to explain science, but rather to stimulate imagination so that people become more interested in science. She explains, “Bees are such agents of the imagination and they stand in for the imagination with such power,” then asks, “Can I quote a poem at you?”
After reciting Emily Dickinson’s “To Make a Prairie” she says, “That’s maybe my favorite bee poem ever. It’s truly scientifically inaccurate. But Dickinson actually knew a lot about science. She starts the poem with a scientific inaccuracy and moves into that poetic space where she makes it clear that she’s really talking about the poet’s dreaming connection with imagination.”
It reminds Coles of a line from Rilke: “We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”
As part of the project, Coles has created a poetry path along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail with lines of verse engraved in stone. The library liked it so much that she also made a poetry path for the Main Library which includes Dickinson’s bee poem. For Coles the most exciting thing is that Field Work Project is still going even though the grant period is over.
When the project started, “I think they didn’t anticipate the reverberations and the way its life would continue,” she says.
Poetry Path: Natural History Museum of Utah: nhmu.utah.edu/museum/exhibits/poetry-path. Poetry Path: Salt Lake Public Library: services.slcpl.org/poetrypath
What: Katharine Coles When: Sept 28, 4pm. Where: Deseret Hive Supply,
1516 Washington Blvd, Ogden, UT