Monday, October 25, 2010

Writing poetry like mathematics

In an article about the Chilean mathematician and poet Nicanor Parra, Paul M Pearson says, :  "Parra almost wrote poetry like he would a mathematical theorem using an extreme 'economy of language' with 'no metaphors, no literary figures.' "  Today I present work by Nicanor Parra and Richard Aston, both of whom write their poetry with the same economy and care that are used when writing mathematics.

Here, from the webpage of Nicanor Parra, is "Thoughts."

     Thoughts     by Nicanor Parra

     Pascal asked himself
     is man:
     A number raised to the zero power.

     compared to the whole
     The whole
     compared to nothing:
     Birth plus death:
     Noise multiplied by silence:
     The arithmetical mean between all and nothing.

This English translation is by Miller Williams; Parra's webpage has a link to the original Spanish version.  "Thoughts" is collected in Antipoems: New and Selected (ed.David Unger, New Directions, 1985). 

Richard Aston--author of "The Sisyphus Machine," which follows--is a poet from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsyvania, whose first career was as a civil engineer, specializing in the biomedical field.  Aston has written an important textbook (on medical imaging equipment theory) and numerous technical articles; his scientific precision and clarity are apparent in his poetry also.  Here is a link to an WVIA interview with Aston concerning an art-poetry project.

     The Sisyphus Machine     by Richard Aston

     Tie two sticks to
     either end of
     a string and drive
     one into a
     stretch of smooth sand.
     Walk with the string
     taut tracing a
     perfect circle.

     Carve a stick make
     a cylinder.
     Roll it over
     grain to yield meal.
     (She wrought the wheel.
     A wedge she used
     to cultivate,
     an inclined plane
     to separate.)
     Now roll the wheel
     up the plane — fail
     like Sisyphus.
     Absorb the ha
     ha ha ha ha
     and try again.
     Though never done,
     others may sense
     your self become.


  1. I think in Bengali literature initially mathematical concepts were very much associated with poetry. Rather it is better to say no one could separate mathematical concepts from bengali poetry. I have written article on this concepts.

    Professor N.C. Ghosh

  2. I think there is a great book out there that everyone who approaches the philosophical ideas in math should read. After reading, "Where Mathematics Comes from" By George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez, I am convinced that all mathematics is based at the axiomatic level in metaphor. So for someone to say they write poetry like math with no metaphor makes no sense to me.