Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Howard Nemerov's mathematical imagery

GETTING IT RIGHT IN LANGUAGE -- Poets and mathematicians alike are concerned with precise statement. Two-time US Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) characterized poetry in a way that many mathematicians would likewise characterize their subject: POETRY is getting something right in language. Nemerov often used mathematical imagery in his poems. Here is a sample.

Grace to Be Said at the Supermarket

This God of ours, the Great Geometer,
Does something for us here, where He hath put
(if you want to put it that way) things in shape,
Compressing the little lambs into orderly cubes,
Making the roast a decent cylinder,
Fairing the tin ellipsoid of a ham,
Getting the luncheon meat anonymous
In squares and oblongs with all the edges bevelled
Or rounded (streamlined, maybe, for greater speed).

Praise Him, He hath conferred aesthetic distance
Upon our appetites, and on the bloody
Mess of our birthright, our unseemly need,
Imposed significant form. Through Him the brutes
Enter the pure Euclidean kingdom of number,
Free of their bulging and blood-swollen lives
They come to us holy, in cellophane
Transparencies, in the mystical body,
That we may look unflinchingly on death
As the greatest good, like a philosopher should.

“Grace to Be Said at the Supermarket” is from Nemerov’s 1967 collection The Blue Swallows. Another Nemerov poem that employs mathematics is "Figures of Thought" -- a poem that conveys the wonder felt upon discovering the logarithmic spiral realized in diverse ways in nature. "Figures of Thought" is one of a great variety of "mathematical" poems found in the anthology Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics (A K Peters, 2008).
HOWARD NEMEROV (1920– 1991) was a US Air Force combat pilot during World War II and had a continuing interest in the stars and navigation. He served twice as US Poet Laureate. The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (1977) won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Novelist as well as poet, Nemerov was a Distinguished Professor of English at Washington University.

1 comment:

  1. Using math to disguise our barbaric nature and to recognize the common beauty in nature.

    When I googled Nemerov’s poem “Grace to be Said at the Supermarket” I noticed that it had found its way onto more than one vegetarian site. All the neat geometrical packaging magic used in the supermarket affords us the luxury of keeping out of mind the slaughter that must take place prior to market. The whole history of mankind has been an effort in eliminating or disguising chaos to replace it with order. Science, mathematics and technology have been our major tools of choice.

    In the Poem “Figures of Thought” Nemerov turns things around and uses a mathematical shape to recognize the common structure of things in nature. Our world contains both order and chaos.

    David Perrings