Friday, September 30, 2011

The square root of Everest

Of the poets who frequently use mathematical ideas in their work, Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) is one of my favorites.  Recently, while browsing at The Writer's Almanac, I found this poem.

To David, About His Education       by Howard Nemerov

   The world is full of mostly invisible things,
   And there is no way but putting the mind's eye,
   Or its nose, in a book, to find them out,
   Things like the square root of Everest
   Or how many times Byron goes into Texas,
   Or whether the law of the excluded middle
   Applies west of the Rockies. For these
   And the like reasons, you have to go to school
   And study books and listen to what you are told,
   And sometimes try to remember. Though I don't know
   What you will do with the mean annual rainfall
   On Plato's Republic, or the calorie content
   Of the Diet of Worms, such things are said to be
   Good for you, and you will have to learn them
   In order to become one of the grown-ups
   Who sees invisible things neither steadily nor whole,
   But keeps gravely the grand confusion of the world
   Under his hat, which is where it belongs,
   And teaches small children to do this in their turn.

"To David, About His Education," is found in The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (University of Chicago Press. 1981). Nemerov 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. Others of his math-related poems may be found in these 2010 blog postings: March 24, August 16, and August 26 -- and in 2011 on March 2 and on June 23.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this poem of Nemerov's, with which I wasn't familiar. I love it!