Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Poems starring mathematicians - 4

Each of today's poems is in the voice of a student who looks back.  First, from Carol Dorf, a poem to the author of a book--written as a fan-letter, "Dear Ivar."   And then, for his hero (a special Grammar School teacher) by Czech poet and scientist Miroslav Holub (1923-98), "The Fraction Line."

       Dear Ivar,

       I read your book on the unexpected.
       Like most poets, I opposed mathematics
       when I was young, seeing it as the converse
       to feeling. The previous statement is false.

       When I was very young I loved counting and zero
       and even numbers. At sixteen, I wanted to imagine calculus
       as a novel of limits and motion. In college, I believed
       mathematics could not correspond to poetry
       in a one-to-one intensity. Would your book have mattered
       to me, then? Most likely, I would not have read it.

       Today, I am writing this fan letter. Thank you
       for explaining catastrophe and instability. I spent
       so many years writing my way through them.
       And boundaries, I kept insisting they were psychological
       or geographic, unwilling to see them as breaks
       between states of matter. Your words matter to me,
       a language as precise as poetry to delineate universe and being.


Carol Dorf is teaches mathematics in an urban California high school.  "Dear Ivar" first appeared in The NeoVictorian. In a recent entry in her poetry column, "Music of Fragments," on the Women's Review of Books site (scroll to the bottom), she comments on a prose poem by Emily Galvin from her book entitled Do the Math.

A scientist first and, after that, a remarkable poet, Miroslav Holub is a writer whom I admire hugely.  Here is a link to his NYTimes obituary.  The Poetry Foundation offers a brief biography along with links to several of his poems--of which Brief Reflection on Accuracy may be of special interest to mathematicians.  I have loved the following prose poem, "The Fraction Line," since I first encountered it lots of years ago.

The Fraction Line

The poorly ventilated spaces of the Czechoslovak State Grammar School on the corner of Husova and Škodova street were enlivened chiefly by Theseus, Ovid, the caretaker Nocar, Helen of Troy, Charles Darwin, and the god Ares who, outside the building from the sixth form up, wore a greyish-green uniform, a pot-shaped helmet and smelly shaft-boots.
         My hero was chiefly our Greek master, a one-armed Patrocles called Muller, in whose working-class Prague diction the philosophy of the Hylozoists sounded like a topical problem, and along with him Antonin Špelda, a cunning mathematical-physical Ulysses.  Špelda taught us one vital step which, in my opinion, is the very foundation of cities, townhalls, parliaments, state visits, private visits, poems, discussions, science, interaction with a computer, economic budgets and love letters.  Seeing our painful embarrassment over the third power of 1 minus 3 a² divided by 1 minus a², Špelda, his head buried deep behind his desk -- and the depth of his burial was proportionate to the depth of his exasperation with the stupidity of the world -- would grunt:  make a fraction line.  Don’t dither.  Simply say:  we’ll make a fraction line. After that you’ll manage somehow.
         If I ever had As or Bs it was because I always first made a fraction line, moreover without dithering.
         Whenever nowadays we walk past the dark grey corner building of our first alma mater, walking calmly where before eight in the morning we invariable raced like fleet-footed Achilleses or scared rabbits, we sometimes remember the fraction line.
         Whenever we sit, or even stand, before the task of facing the recurrent stupidity and persistent sadness of the world we always remember.  And make a fraction line.

"The Fraction Line,"  translated by Ewald Osers, appears in Supposed to Fly (Bloodaxe Books, 1996).   My March 30 posting includes two more poems by Miroslav Holub. In the March 23 posting Emmy Noether, also a mathematics teacher, is featured.

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