Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mathematics, like poetry, is ART

Doing mathematics is often misunderstood as primarily computation--an error that seems equivalent to seeing poetry writing as primarily a spelling exercise. 

Here is "Mathematics," a lovely poem by Jane Hirshfield that begins with envy of those who do things that have sturdy usefulness.  Despite this limited view of mathematics, Hirshfield gives us a poem that builds to a very right idea:  with the sort of striking coincidence that is part of good art, she comes to see poetry just as a mathematician sees mathematics.  (Does mathematics enlarge our world / or only our idea of the world?)   Enjoy.

Mathematics   by Jane Hirshfield

I have envied those
who make something
useful, sturdy—
a chair, a pair of boots.

Even a soup,
rich with potatoes and cream.

Or those who fix, perhaps,
a leaking window:
strip out the old cracked putty,
lay down cleanly the line of the new.

You could learn,
the mirror tells me, late at night,
but lacks conviction.
One reflected eyebrow quivers a little.

I look at this
borrowed apartment—
everywhere I question it,
the wallpaper’s pattern matches.

Yesterday a woman
showed me
a building shaped
like the overturned hull of a ship,

its roof trusses, under the plaster,
lashed with soaked rawhide,
the columns’ marble
painted to seem like wood.
Though possibly it was the other way around?

I look at my unhandy hand,
shaped as the hands of others are shaped.
Even the pen it holds is a mystery, really.

Rawhide, it writes,
and chair, and marble.

Later the woman asked me—
I recognized her then,
my sister, my own young self—

Does a poem enlarge the world,
or only our idea of the world?

How do you take one from the other,
I lied, or did not lie,
in answer.

Jane Hirshfield, “Mathematics” from Given Sugar, Given Salt.  Copyright © 2001 by Jane Hirshfield. Presented online by the Poetry Foundation along with several other Hirshfield poems.

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