Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Poets who Count

For some poets, counting is part of the language of the poem. For others, counting determines the structure. Here are two poems of the former sort -- "Counting" by British poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) and "Adding It Up" by New England poet Philip Booth (1925-2007) -- followed by opening stanzas of a poem for which counting is part of both content and structure:  "Millennium" by mathematician Peter Cameron .

     Counting    by Philip Larkin

     Thinking in terms of one
     Is easily done—
     One room, one bed, one chair,
     One person there,
     Makes perfect sense; one set
     Of wishes can be met,
     One coffin filled.

     But counting up to two
     Is harder to do;
     For one must be denied
     Before it's tried.

"Counting" appears in Larkin's Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988) and in the anthology Strange Attractors (A K Peters, 2008);  scroll to the end of this posting for a note on translations of "Counting."   Booth's poem, which follows, may be found in Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999 (Penguin, 1999).

     Adding It Up     by Philip Booth
     My mind's eye opens before
     the light gets up. I
     lie awake in the small dark,
     figuring payments, or how
     to scrape paint; I count
     rich women I didn't marry.
     I measure bicycle miles
     I pedaled last Thursday
     to take off weight; I give some
     passing thought to the point
     that if I hadn't turned poet
     I might well be some other
     sort of accountant. Before
     the sun reports its own weather
     my mind is openly at it:
     I chart my annual rainfall.
     or how I'll plant seed if
     I live to be fifty. I look up
     words like "bilateral symmetry"
     in my mind's dictionary; I consider
     the bivalve mollusc, re-pick
     last summer's mussels on Condon Point,
     preview the next red tide, and
     hold my breath: I listen hard
     to how my heart valves are doing.
     I try not to get going
     too early: bladder permitting,
     I mean to stay in bed until six;
     I think in spirals, building
     horizon pyramids, yielding to
     no man's flag but my own.
     I think of Saul Steinberg:
     I play touch football on one leg,
     I seesaw on the old cliff, trying
     to balance things out: job,
     wife, children, myself.
     My mind's eye opens before
     my body is ready for its
     first duty: cleaning up after
     an old-maid Basset in heat.
     That, too, I inventory:
     the Puritan strain will out,
     even at six a.m.; sun or no sun,
     I'm Puritan to the bone, down to
     the marrow and then some:
     if I'm not sorry I worry,
     if I can't worry I count.

At Peter Cameron's blog, Cameron Counts, the July 14 entry contains the complete text to "Millenium," a poem that explores the uses of the ten digits in stanzas whose lengths count them. Here are the opening stanzas; follow the link to read the entire poem.


     An artefact
     of ten fingers;

     an accident
     of dark age monks’
     calendar lore;

     a bonanza
     for marketing
     and preachers on

     Numbers beguile –
     they turn in quite
     another way from
     sun, moon, planets
     and wheeling stars.
        . . .

A regular four-syllable line length adds another level of counting to Cameron's poem.

Larkin's "Counting" also has been included in Bryant McGill's World Poetry Translation Project and  has been "translated" into Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Korean, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese.  Although the site embodies a helpful idea, a mathematician friend who is also a  poet and translator has experienced the site as a commercialized purveyor of rather poor machine translations.  A friend who studies French has recommended Reverso.

1 comment:

  1. Today (July 30) I found a blog entry by New Zealand writer Kerryn Pollock entitled "The Mathematics of Poetry" (at
    mathematics-of-poetry/). Pollock wrote in celebration of National Poetry Day in NZ -- reporting on her statistical analysis of the poems used in Te Ara – The
    Encyclopedia of New Zealand, found at

    One more way that mathematics assists poetry. Thanks, Kerryn.