Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A jar in Tennessee

     Several of my early insights concerning the connections between poetry and mathematics grew from ideas presented by poet Jonathan Holden -- of whom interviewer Chris Ellis (in 2000) asked this question:
     Ellis:  You have drawn similarities between poetry and mathematics. Can you explain the association or similarity between poetry and math in a way the mathematically challenged can grasp?
     Holden: The "poetry and mathematics" analogy was simply to demonstrate, for those with some mathematical sophistication, that both languages "measure" things.

     My first acquaintance with Holden came via "Poetry and Mathematics," an article published in The Georgia Review in 1985 and more recently available in The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science" (ed. Kurt Brown, UGA Press, 2001).  Here is one of the poems (by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)) about which Holden speaks in his article:

     Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens

     I placed a jar in Tennessee,  
     And round it was, upon a hill.  
     It made the slovenly wilderness  
     Surround that hill.

     The wilderness rose up to it,
     And sprawled around; no longer wild.  
     The jar was round upon the ground  
     And tall and of a port in air.

     It took dominion everywhere.  
     The jar was gray and bare.
     It did not give of bird or bush,  
     Like nothing else in Tennessee.

     “Anecdote of the Jar” may be found in Stevens' Collected Poems (Random House, 2011).
     Holden's article cites Stevens as the most mathematically sophisticated of recent American poets and suggests that "Anecdote of the Jar" is one of his most obiously mathematical poems -- that "the jar is the origin of a Cartesian coordinate system imposed upon the 'wilderness' of a physcal world."  An idea worth thinking about!
     Additional poems by Jonathan Holden may be found in postings for January 22 and February 18.

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