Part 3: The Medium

3.11 Poetry

  • Learning Objectives
  • To articulate the value of using poetry to communicate science and risk.
  • To practicing distilling risk communication messaging into pieces of poetry.

When you think of poetry, what comes to mind? Is it the iambic pentameter of Shakespearean plays or the sad tale of J. Alfred Prufrock written by T.S. Elliot? But beyond these famous poets, there is also Ronald Ross, the scientist who first discovered that malaria was carried by mosquitoes in 1897. Both a scientist and a poet, Ronald Ross wrote of his frustrations and discoveries both in scientific journals and in poetry. In his poem “Indian Fevers”, Ross describes his work trying to uncover the cause of malaria, termed the ‘million-murdering cause’. In many ways, Ross’ poetry has been noted more often than the writing of his scientific papers.

Indian Fevers
In this, O Nature, yield I pray to me.
I pace and pace, and think and think, and take
The fever’d hands, and note down all I see,
That some dim distant light may haply break.

The painful faces ask, can we not cure?
We answer, No, not yet; we seek the laws.
O God, reveal thro’ all this thing obscure
The unseen small, but million-murdering cause.

In this poem, Ross not only touches on his work to uncover the cause of malaria, but also focuses on the people suffering from it. His poetry evokes emotion in the reader, which helps to make a deeper impression of his key message and to facilitate a ‘call to action’.


Science Poetry

See Dr. Illingworth’s website “The Poetry of Science” which features poems distilling recent research findings with additional information of the research below the poem. We particularly like this poem called “Plastic Paradise”.

Sharing science in poetry can also help to remove barriers between scientists and non-scientists. Remember that the perceived elitism of scientists was listed as a reason for a decrease in science engagement among Canadians in a survey in 2019. Science poet Dr. Sam Illingworth states,“By writing and sharing poetry together, nonscientists are given permission to express their opinions, and scientists are given permission to express their emotions. This creates a sense of shared vulnerability which helps to remind people that scientists are part of society; once you hear a professor stand up and read a forcibly rhymed sonnet about the intricacies of fluvial dynamics, you realise that they are indeed fallible. It is not the aesthetic quality of the poems that are important here but rather the construction of them that enables ideas and experiences to be meaningfully exchanged.”


Graffiti wall with the word poetry
Poetry can offer communicators a way to re-frame and rephrase concepts.

While poetry can be written about science, it can also be written from science. Found poems are written by taking words or phrases from some other source. For the purposes of risk communication, this could mean taking phrases from a brochure, scientific article, or from interviews with a study group (provided you have their consent to do so). For example, let’s take this piece of risk communication from the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health (NCCEH) entitled “Growing at Home: Health and Safety Concerns for Personal Cannabis Cultivation”.

Text from the NCCEH Report:

This document provides a review of the evidence relating to five key environmental health risks anticipated from grow­ing at home: 1) access and accidental poisoning; 2) indoor air quality; 3) inappropriate use of pesticides; 4) electrical and fire hazards; and 5) radiation hazards. These risks may be present during cannabis cultivation, harvesting, and han­dling, and as a result there may be concomitant existence of each of these types of risks. Multiple intervention tactics may then be required within the same category of risk and may differ between the steps. Note that although we draw on learning from illicit cannabis grow-ops, the concerns raised here are those deemed relevant for personal canna­bis cultivation as envisioned in the proposed Cannabis Act (2017).

*Words taken from the text for the found poem are highlighted.

Found Poem:
Growing at home
Cannabis cultivation has risks
Concerns: accidental poisoning
Hazards: fire
Concerns: air quality
Hazards: radiation
Concerns: pesticides
Hazards, Concerns, Hazards
Cultivation, Harvesting, Handling
Concerns, Hazards, Concerns

Alright, we wrote this poem and we admit it gets a 3/5 at best, but it conveys the key message of the abstract: that there are risks to growing cannabis at home that we need to be aware of. Beyond conveying the main message, the poem also taps into emotion (in this case, a sense of danger), and can be more quickly read than the full written abstract. And so, depending on the audience, this might be a more accessible and engaging piece of risk communication. However, remember that distilling a message into another form can come with trade-offs.


Key Takeaways

  • Sharing science through poetry elicits audience emotion to improve message recall and engagement.
  • Using the poetry medium helps remove barriers between scientists and non-scientists.

Media Attributions


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The Mission, the Message, and the Medium Copyright © by Chelsea Himsworth, Kaylee Byers, and Jennifer Gardy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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