Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The hypotenuse of an isosceles triangle

Detroit poet, Philip Levine, has been selected as the new Poet Laureate of the United States. Selected by the librarian of Congress (James Billington), Levine follows poet W. S. Merwin in the honored position.  A Poet Laureate is responsible merely for giving readings in October and May but some laureates also use the position to proselytize for poetry.   Here, from Levine's early collection, What Work Is (Knopf, 1992), is a poem that looks back on a math-art moment in a middle-school classroom.

   M. Degas Teaches Art & Science
               At Durfee Intermediate School 
                           Detroit, 1942                     by Philip Levine

   He made a line on the blackboard,
   one bold stroke from right to left
   diagonally downward and stood back
   to ask, looking as always at no one
   in particular, "What have I done?"
   From the back of the room Freddie
   shouted, "You've broken a piece
   of chalk." M. Degas did not smile.
   "What have I done?" he repeated.
   The most intellectual students
   looked down to study their desks
   except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
   her hand before she spoke. "M. Degas,
   you have created the hypotenuse
   of an isosceles triangle." Degas mused.
   Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
   be incorrect. "It is possible,"
   Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
   "that you have begun to represent
   the roof of a barn." I remember
   that it was exactly twenty minutes
   past eleven, and I thought at worst
   this would go on another forty
   minutes. It was early April,
   the snow had all but melted on
   the playgrounds, the elms and maples
   bordering the cracked walks shivered
   in the new winds, and I believed
   that before I knew it I'd be
   swaggering to the candy store
   for a Milky Way. M. Degas
   pursed his lips, and the room
   stilled until the long hand
   of the clock moved to twenty one
   as though in complicity with Gertrude,
   who added confidently, "You've begun
   to separate the dark from the dark."
   I looked back for help, but now
   the trees bucked and quaked, and I
   knew this could go on forever.

Click here to hear Philip Levine reading this poem.
For a poem that features seven and seventeen, see Levine's  "After Leviticus."  Overall, though, Levine's work makes little use of mathematical imagery; still, there are many other reasons to enjoy it -- musicality without affectation, complexity without being abstruse.

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