Saturday, April 23, 2011

Attitudes of Numbers

     I like Bruce Snider 's "The Certainty of Numbers" (which you may already have found online at The Poetry Foundation website, featured in the April 14  posting) even though I disagree with the initial attitude toward mathematics expressed by its narrator.  Writing a poem can be a voyage of discovery with the narrator's view flexing as the poem progresses.  
     Snider's poem brings to mind a view of mathematics that repeatedly bothers me:  I wonder why some people -- who would not complain about the fixendess of spellings of "cat" or "dog" or "sum" -- dislike mathematics for the so-called rigidity of  arithmetic facts such as "2 + 4 = 6."  ? ? ?
    The Certainty of Numbers     by Bruce Snider

     It’s not the numbers you dislike—
     the 3s or 5s or 7s—but the way
     the answers leave no room for you,
     the way 4 plus 2 is always 6
     never 9 or 10 or Florida,
     the way 3 divided by 1
     is never an essay about spelunking
     or poached salmon, which is why
     you never seemed to get the answer right
     when the Algebra teacher asked,
     If a man floating down a river in a canoe 
     has traveled three miles of a twelve mile canyon
     in five minutes, how long will it take him 
     to complete the race? Which of course depends
     on if the wind resistance is 13 miles an hour
     and he’s traveling upstream
     against a 2 mile an hour current
     and his arms are tired and he’s thinking
     about the first time he ever saw Florida,
     which was in the seventh grade
     right after his parents’ divorce
     and he felt overshadowed
     by the palm trees, neon sun visors,
     and cheap postcards swimming
     with alligators. Nothing is ever simple,
     except for the way the 3 looks like two shells
     washed up on last night’s shore,
     but then sometimes it looks like a bird
     gently crushed on its side.
     And the 1—once so certain
     you could lean up against it
     like a gray fence post—has grown weary,
     fascinated by the perpetual
     itch of its own body.
     Even the Algebra teacher
     waving his formulas like baseball bats,
     pauses occasionally when he tells you
     that a 9 and a 2 are traveling in a canoe
     on a river in a canyon. How long
     will it take them to complete their journey?
     That is if they don’t lose their oars
     and panic and strike the rocks,
     shattering the canoe. Nothing is ever certain.
     We had no plan, the numbers would tell us,
     at the moment of our deaths.

     "The Certainty of Numbers" is in The Year We Studied Women (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003).  Snider was interviewed about writing this poem by Brian Brodeur in Brodeur's Blog, "How a Poem Happens"  -- and, in the interview, Snyder mentions the influence of work by Naomi Shihab Nye, some of which treats elements of language as physical objects, animated in the poem. "I just applied that same strategy to numbers," Snider said, "which, because I’d always had an antagonistic relationship with math, provided me with a natural tension for the poem."
     A poem that offers affection for mathematics is "Numbers," by Mary Cornish, found at Poetry 180 (a one-a-day collection of poems for secondary students) as well as at The Poetry Foundation. Cornish's poem begins with this stanza:

     I like the generosity of numbers.
     The way, for example,
     they are willing to count
     anything or anyone:
     two pickles, one door to the room,
     eight dancers dressed as swans.

Cornish's "Numbers" also may be found, along with 150 other poems having mathematical connections, in Strange Attractors:  Poems of Love and Mathematics (A K Peters, 2008).

April is National Poetry Month and Mathematics Awareness Month. Celebrate!

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