Joseph Conlon

Swear by what the sages spoke....

Writing and Poetry

Physics comes first but I have always enjoyed the English language both as a reader and a writer. Learning poetry by heart (especially at a young age) places the rhythms of the English language deep into your brain and builds up a treasure chest of known, half-known and forgotten-but-comes-rushing-back-with-the-right-allusion referents that cover much of the range of human emotions and circumstances. Whatever you are feeling, someone probably said it earlier and better.

There is an important notion in physics that there are very many ways to be a great physicist (see the excellent article by Daniel Green 'Guide to Research' ). One of the pleasures of reading widely in English prose written across many centuries is the way one learns that there are very many ways to write brilliantly.

My first prose book was Why String Theory?, published by CRC Press in 2015 (the Amazon page is here), a broad defense of string theory and its intellectual values against its critics. This has continued to find readers and chapter 7 in particular has developed a life of its own on the internet, going viral at various times in various places.

I started writing (as opposed to reading or memorising) poetry around 2016/2017, originally through entering the Spectator's weekly poetry/writing competitions which involve amusing briefs (in my view these are excellent training, as they require verbal dexterity and metrical precision; it is easier to relax these from a high standard than build them up from a low one). But I am a scientist, and so at some point I started writing a poem about physics, which was originally going to be around a hundred lines. It then grew and grew and grew, and as it did I developed an inner conviction that a book-length poem on the early universe really needed to be written and that I was the best person to write it.

This poem is now Origins: The Cosmos in Verse , which appears in the UK in November 2024 and will be published by Oneworld Publications.

As a self-archive, I include below some of the earlier poems from around 2016/17/18 when I started writing, and learning to write, poetry. (Needless to say, I don't (necessarily) identify my own views with the `voice' of the poem.)

The Clerk from Madras

(brief: a double dactyl on a double act)

Hardy and Littlewood,
Trinity mathmos who
All honours won,

Despite their brilliance
Stand in the shadow of

And all for the sake of a Carpet

(brief: a double dactyl on a double act)

Gilbert and Sullivan,
Musical masters of
Upside-down fun,

Quarrelled on matters pure
Making the lawyers' lot
A happy one.

In Memoriam Alan Clark MP

(the brief: start with the last line of a well-known poem and end with its first line, on a different topic; the original is in A Shropshire Lad by AE Housman)

With flint in the bosom and guts in the head,
I sneered at my nemesis groaning in bed.
I chopped off his pecker, I boiled it in fat,
I served it up garnished with cream for the cat.

A quartet of daughters deflow'red by that wretch
Then cuckoldry horns from the priapic lech.
He wrote it; he sold it; he published it all,
Recounting his conquests from Westminster Hall.

The wine that he soured will never be sweet
But vengeance is mine with a punishment meet.
The dance of disgrace was a ballet for two -
The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do.

Don't mention St George

(the brief: a double dactyl on a contemporary personage)

Emily Thornberry,
Feminist lawyer and
Labour MP,

Speaks with a manner quite
Save when men style her as
Lady Nugee.

How do you run a household like Maria?

(the brief: a sonnet on household tips)

You seek a house, Madame, of style and class?
A shaded path from tall iron gates to door,
Entrance to chandelier - Murano glass -
Then stairs of oak towards the ballroom floor.
When hosting friends, let food and wine be chief.
Champagne and caviar to start. Et puis?
Duxelle of truffle paired with Kobe beef
Before Yquem or Taylor's sixty-three.
A library rich with books of every year,
From classic Loeb histories of Greece and Rome
To playful verse of Betjeman and Lear.
One final touch then makes the perfect home:

The smile of love, with sangfroid of a saint,
For babes who scream and scrawl on walls with paint.

Ode to Donald Trump

(the brief: a poem of disgusting flattery to a person of power, written in heroic couplets)

But once before, one blink of history,
Did pow'r and pen attain this harmony.
With grace, with style, a fount of words to please,
Our Tully thou; old Abe Demosthenes.

Try pope and sultan, prince and potentate,
Not one approaching you in craft of state.
Here Talleyrand - he begs on bended knee
A pinch, a crumb of Trump diplomacy.

For Bach the organ, Houdini the trick,
Ramanujan the primes, Hitchcock the flick.
Artists require a clay for genius meet,
Shakespeare the play, my President the tweet.

Above this all, humbly by thou untold,
Thy care towards the poor, thy heart of gold.
By night I pray - beseech - the Trinity,
That morn by morn I learn to love as thee.