Wednesday, April 21, 2010

April -- Poetry, Math, and Boxing

April continues—both as National Poetry Month and as Mathematics Awareness Month (with theme math and sports).  As in the April 9 posting on baseball, in this post I also blend these interests with a math-and-sports poem--this one celebrates boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

WHY I chose this poem is a bit complicated to explain.  First of all, the title reminds me of an ancient geometry problem--can a circle be squared?  That is, starting with a circle, can we find (using only a straight-edge and compass and a finite number of steps) a square that has the same area? Versions of this problem of “squaring the circle” date back to around 1800 BC. It was proved impossible in 1882 when Ferdinand von Lindenmann showed that π is not an algebraic number—a number that is a solution to some algebraic equation with integer coefficients—but is transcendental.

I found “The Square Ring” online—drawn to it by its “mathematical” title.  Then, as I read, I found that the poem's boxer drew my thoughts to a mathematician in battle against a difficult (possibly impossible) question and  fighting with every strategy she can muster--determined to resolve the conjecture, to prove the theorem, to solve the problem.  Enjoy!

The Square Ring            by Adam David Miller

     to Joan Ryan

          "You get them in trouble,"
          A man told Sugar Ray.
          "It's my business
          to get them in trouble,"
          Sugar Ray told the man.

Hot lights, crowd chanting his name,
adrenalin shoots through his fear.
At the bang of the bell he is alone.
Hands between him, shame and destruction.
Pain he must master, fear he must conceal.

His opponent seeks to thunder
leather on his skull, plunder
him of his senses. Jab, jab, feint,
move, jab, cross, move, move, move.
He cant confuse the fake for the blow.

He must draw his opponent in,
lure him, trap him, upset
his timing, break him, make him weep.

Jab, jab, move, feint, cross, jab, move, move.
He knows the ring is not a safe place
for children or the unafraid.

Under the glare of lights, eyes of the crowd,
he is more exposed than the cornerback,
goalie, pitcher, point man, blues man,
monologist; he is toreador
with a thinking foe.

As the rounds add, the ring subtracts.
Time expands.
What is that opening he sees? It may
not come again. Entree or snare?
Is this the moment for the left hook?

What are you scheming, trickster man?
One swing away from heaven or from hell.

Adam David Miller is a California poet; "The Square Ring" was first published by African American Review; his books are available from Eshu House Publishing,

Many online sources give historical and mathematical details for the problem of squaring the circle.  For its patient, well-illustrated explaining, this one is nice:  "Squaring the Circle: A Case Study in the History of Mathematics."

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