Skip to main content

Physics Envy

American Poetry and Science in the Cold War and After

At the close of the Second World War, modernist poets found themselves in an increasingly scientific world, where natural and social sciences claimed exclusive rights to knowledge of both matter and mind. Following the overthrow of the Newtonian worldview and the recent, shocking displays of the power of the atom, physics led the way, with other disciplines often turning to the methods and discoveries of physics for inspiration.
In Physics Envy, Peter Middleton examines the influence of science, particularly physics, on American poetry since World War II. He focuses on such diverse poets as Charles Olson, Muriel Rukeyser, Amiri Baraka, and Rae Armantrout, among others, revealing how the methods and language of contemporary natural and social sciences—and even the discourse of the leading popular science magazine Scientific American—shaped their work. The relationship, at times, extended in the other direction as well: leading physicists such as Robert Oppenheimer, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger were interested in whether poetry might help them explain the strangeness of the new, quantum world. Physics Envy is a history of science and poetry that shows how ultimately each serves to illuminate the other in its quest for the true nature of things.

272 pages | 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2015

History: American History

History of Science

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


“Focusing mainly on Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, George Oppen, Rae Armantrout, Amiri Baraka, and Jackson Mac Low, Middleton  . . . examines these writers' poetry and prose to ask how their goals and aesthetics responded to the cultural primacy of the sciences, especially physics, after WW II. . . . An especially interesting chapter focuses on the magazine Scientific American, founded in 1948, aimed at both scientists and nonspecialist readers, which informed many poets. In addition to poets, Middleton considers reflections on imagination and language by scientists such as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Werner Heisenberg. . . . Recommended.”


“In light of present institutional and social circumstances, Middleton’s subject is both relevant and appealing. . . . [The] notion of ‘inquiry’ sets Middleton’s book apart from other studies of American poetry’s relationship to atomic age sciences.”

Contemporary Literature

“[A] fascinating book. Middleton’s Physics Envy begs to be extended and applied to other poets and periods.”

American Literary History

"This wonderfully crafted book offers a series of incisive and persuasive readings on a broad range of literary theorists, poets, and scientists, and Middleton’s sophisticated style of analysis rewards rereading. Physics Envy offers new ways in which to understand the interactions between American poets and scientific ideas and will be of real interest to scholars working in the fields of Cold War culture, literature, and science."


"Middleton explores insightfully and sensitively how American poets from Rukeyser to Armantrout respond to poetry’s de-privileging as a source of epistemological knowledge; it is genuinely exciting to see prominent scientists such as Oppenheimer and Feynman, as well as an array of mid-twentieth-century social scientists, treated as thinkers who can help us better understand Cold War–era literature. As always, Middleton is an acute analyst, writing lucidly whether treating abstruse concepts in nuclear physics or presenting the ins and outs of experimental verse. Physics Envy is a delight to read."

Brian M. Reed, author of Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics

"We know a good deal about the cold war era’s investment in science, but we know less about the extent to which poets drew upon the contributions of quantum physics, cybernetics, and relativity theory in forging a new poetics. Peter Middleton makes an excellent case for the generative impact of science on open field poetics, showing how Charles Olson, Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Duncan, and others adapted (and occasionally mis-read) the work of Heisenberg, Weiner, Schrödinger and social scientists like Kurt Lewin. Physics Envy is the definitive treatment of a vital conversation between poetic theory and scientific innovation in the postwar period."

Michael Davidson, author of Bleed Through: New and Selected Poems

"An original and valuable contribution to our understanding of the relations between poetry and the sciences in the United States during the mid-twentieth century. Especially of interest are the close readings of articles, whole issues, and advertisements from Scientific American in relation to specific poems and sequences—a fruitful approach, and, given Scientific American’s success and status as the publication presenting the public face of science in North America, an excellent way to reveal the multiplicity and nuance of poetic practice in its engagement with scientific language, values, and discoveries."

Katy Price, author of Loving Faster Than Light: Romance and Readers in Einstein’s Universe

"Published at the dawn of a sea change in American politics that is currently raising justified fears of the delegitimization of both the sciences and the humanities, Physics Envy stands tall as a reminder of the ways in which scientific and artistic inquiries into the relationship between humans and the world make up the very force that articulates what could be understood as a genuinely American field."

British Society for Literature and Science Reviews

Table of Contents


Part I Poetry and Science
1          The Poetic Universe: Mapping Interrelations between Modern American Poetry and the Sciences
2          What the Physicist Said to the Poet: How Physicists Used the Ideal of Poetry to Talk about Uncertainty

Part II Midcentury
3          Projective Verse: Fields in Science and Poetics at Midcentury
4          Conceptual Schemes: The Midcentury Poetics of Muriel Rukeyser and Charles Olson
5          Stories, Geometries, and Angels: Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Olson, and Robert        Duncan in the 1950s

Part III Scientific Americans
6          Scientific American Poetry: Rae Armantrout, Jackson Mac Low, and Robert Duncan
7          Defying Social Science: George Oppen and Amiri Baraka


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press