It's a riddle that has inspired poets for millennia: where did we come from? Give us your existential reflections in verse
It's an old riddle, and one that science is finally coming to grips with: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Behind this light-hearted puzzle lie deep concerns about our origins that have fuelled a great deal of science and mythology, as well as inspiring a lot of very fine poetry.
Most pre-scientific cultures used poetry to express ideas about the creation of the earth, and many of them are surprisingly similar. From the chants of the Maori Io tradition to Hesiod's Theogony, poets have propounded theories and told stories of the creation of something from nothing, stories that still inform the work of modern poets like Billy Marshall-Stoneking, who draws on Aboriginal Australian legends for his poem Tjukurrpa (Creation Times).
In the 19th century, advances in geology began to make more fact-based scientific explanations of the genesis of the earth more achievable, and a key landmark was the 1830-31 publication of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology: being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth's surface by reference to causes now in operation. Lyell's driving principle was that "the present is the key to the past", and this clearly struck a chord with Kenneth Rexroth, who links geology, the formation of the earth, and present human love in his poem Lyell's Hypothesis Again.
If anything, Hugh MacDiarmid's magisterial On A Raised Beach makes this link even more explicit right from the opening lines 'All is lithogenesis – or lochia,/ Carpolite fruit of the forbidden tree'. The birth of stones and childbirth are balanced one against the other as the source of 'all', and the forbidden tree whose fossil fruit they are recalls one of the most famous genesis tales of all.
Most people will know the story of Eve from the outside, as it were, but in Paradise Lost Milton has her describe her creation from her perspective, starting with her awakening to wonder 'where/ And what I was, whence thither brought, and how.' It's a typically daring conceit, giving a new twist to a familiar narrative.
As a result of the work of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, a new way of understanding the origin and development of species, including the human species, has taken shape. The story of the genome is one of the most fascinating ever told and has inevitably appealed to poets interested in exploring origins.
In his Mapping the Genome, Michael Symmons Roberts treats it as a classic road adventure, the genome becomes a kind of primal American landscape to be explored at speed. In her poem Darwin, Lorine Niedecker ponders the impact of these new discoveries on how we see ourselves in their light, a combination of a thirst for new understanding and regret for old certainties lost.
Of course, while the science of genetics may be relatively new, an interest in heredity is as old as kingship and possibly older, and it shows no particular sign of going away, if the viewing public's appetite for programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? is any indication. This is origin-hunting at its most personal, and despite the fact that we did an ancestors Poster poems already, I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage everyone to read John Montague's Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, The Old People, a poem that combines rock, myth and genes in a powerful statement of how our origins shape us, like it or not.
And so this month's challenge is to ponder that old chicken-and-egg puzzle. Where have we come from? What does the answer to that question tell us about where we are and where we might be going? Myth, religion, science: the choice is yours, get digging into your roots now.