Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Miroslav Holub, poet and scientist

Miroslav Holub (1923-1998), Czech poet and immunologist who excelled in both endeavors, is one of my favorite poets.  He combines scientific exactitude with empathy and absurdity.  Here are samples:

The Corporal Who Killed Archimedes

With one bold stroke
he killed the circle, tangent
and point of intersection
in infinity.

On penalty
of quartering
he banned numbers
from three up.

Now in Syracuse
he leads a school of philosophers
for another thousand years
squats on his halberd
and writes:

one         two
one         two
one         two
one         two

This translation, by Stuart Friebert and Dana Hábová is from Sagittal Section (Field Translation Series 3, Oberlin College Press, 1980).

Here is Holub's poem "Zito the Magician." 

to amuse the king Zito changes water into
wine     frogs into footmen     beetles
into baliffs     he makes a Prime Minister
our of a rat      he bows:      daisies
grow from his fingertips
a talking bird perches on his shoulder

so there

think up something else      demands the king
think up a black star      Zito thinks up a black star
think up dry water      Zito things up dry water
think up a lake in a wicker basket       Zito does

so there

up comes a student:       think up an angle alpha
whose sine is bigger than one
Zito pales:     I'm sorry
the sine of any angle is between minus one
and plus one he stutters
nothing can be done
about it

he leaves the royal chambers      shuffling
through the throng of
courtiers back to his home
in a nutshell

"Zito the Magician" was translated by Jet Wimp (aka Jet Foncannon)  and appeared in Against Infinity: An Anthology of Contemporary Mathematical Poetry (Primary Press, 1979).

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