Atomic Poems Blog - By Hannah Cooper-Smithson

This month, I had the pleasure of being involved with the Junction Arts This Girl Codes Atomic Poems Project, for Ada Lovelace Day 2020. As a researcher who specialises in mathematical and scientifically inspired poetry, I was delighted when I was asked to run a writing workshop based on the Atomic Poems of Margaret Cavendish. I have to confess that I didn’t actually know that much about Margaret Cavendish, or her poems, as my research is usually focused on contemporary poetry, so this was an excellent opportunity to learn more about an iconic woman – a philosopher, scientist and writer who defied the gender conventions of her time to make her mark on the world.

When I started to read the Atomic Poems, I was struck by the brilliance of Cavendish’s seemingly limitless imagination – in her theory of atomics, water atoms are ‘hollow’, fire atoms are ‘the sharpest’, and dysfunctional atoms cause thunder, earthquakes and disease through their fighting and disordered motion. A particular poem that stood out to me was ‘A World Made by Foure Atomes’, in which Cavendish describes the distinctive shapes and motions of the atoms of the four elements:

Sharpe Atomes Fire subtle, quicke, and dry,The Long, like Shafts still into Aire fly.The Round to Water moist, (a hollow Forme,)The Figure square to heavy dull Earth turne.The Atomes sharpe hard Mineralls do make,The Atomes round soft Vegetables take.In Animals none singly lye alone,But the foure Atomes meet, and joyne as one.And thus four Atomes the Substance is of all;With their foure Figures make a worldly Ball.

This poem got me thinking about what other types of atoms might be like – the atoms that make up other materials for example, modern materials like plastic, or natural materials like wood or glass. What about the atoms that make up the tissues of the body – would the heart atoms be or move any differently to the atoms of the brain, according to Cavendish’s philosophy? If the shape and motion of atoms varies, what about texture, or sound? The workshop grew from these questions, and I was delighted to find that the participants were just as inspired by Margaret Cavendish’s work – we had ticking atoms, sparkling atoms, speeding atoms as the cause of confusion and anxiety, atoms dancing a ceilidh… If you’re inspired by the Atomic Poems too, and want to try your own, the workshop is available as a downloadable resource on

The other element to this workshop was the introduction of the concept of Fibonacci poetry. This was something I knew more about, as my PhD research involves the poetry collection Alphabet, by Danish poet Inger Christensen, which is structured according to the Fibonacci sequence. In Alphabet, the line lengths of the poems in the collection correspond to the Fibonacci sequence – the final poem in the collection, ‘n’, has 610 lines. I’ve always been fascinated by Fibonacci, and the way the sequence appears in nature – in flowers, in pinecones, in sunflowers, in the ratios of the nautilus shell. Poets often link Fibonacci structures with writing about the natural world (see, for example, Michael L. Johnson’s ‘Fibonacci Time Lines’), but I think it has a much more powerful effect, beyond simply a nod toward nature. The way that the Fibonacci sequence builds, so quickly and so expansively, suggests to me ideas of unrestrained growth, ideas of infinity, and ideas of a world without limits. Christensen said that the Fibonacci sequence reminded her of the Big Bang – of the universe suddenly exploding out of nowhere, expanding, growing, and creating forever… When participants put their Atomic Poems through the Fibonacci generator (which you can find by clicking here, their words are transformed by the generator’s algorithm – the Fibonacci shape creating new meanings, unexpected rhymes and unintended connections.

Naturally, I had to try out the algorithm myself, and put one of my poems through the generator. I chose an extract from a poem I wrote about trinitite, which is a type of glass that formed at the site of Trinity Test, the detonation of the first atomic bomb. I’m delighted with the way it turned out – the way the Fibonacci form created unexpected breaks, and the way it hints, in its shape, perhaps, at a poem without an end…slickbubbleof stonesuspended in atwist of silver wire, palegreen like hellebore flowers, like sage, like sea-glassit holds time within itself sand melting crumbs of stone quartz calcite frothinginto irregularities of green glass like spilled beads like water spasming in a hot pan coming together in a sudden brightness

Hannah Cooper-Smithson is a poet and PhD researcher at Nottingham Trent University, researching form and connection in contemporary environmental poetry. Her work explores Fibonacci poems, fractals, and human relationships with the natural world, and has been published in various journals and anthologies, including The Interpreters House, Finished Creatures, and Anthropocene. To see more about Hannah’s research, you can follow her on Twitter @hcoopersmithson.