Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Chaos and Order -- Stevens

An article by Jeff Gordinier, "For Wallace Stevens, Hartford as Muse," in the Travel Section of last Sunday's NY Times gives a gentle introduction to one of my favorite poets; the article also provoked me to escape for an hour into a rereading of selections from my copy of The Collected Poems (Vintage Books, 1990). Poems by Stevens (1879-1955) celebrate ideas and are, like pieces of mathematics, suggestive of a variety of situations. (Work by Stevens was featured in these earlier blog postings: 15 December 2010 (from "The Snow Man"), 4 May 2011 ("The Anecdote of the Jar"), and  13 May 2011 (from "Six Significant Landscapes"). Here, reconciling opposites, are two of the five sections of Stevens' "Connoisseur of Chaos" -- also from The Collected Poems.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Universal and Particular -- Szymborska

Like Yves Bonnefoy (21 February 2012 posting), Wislawa Szymborska (who died on 1 February 2012) was born in 1923.  Like him she was concerned with the connections of the universal and the particular.  Here, in "A Large Number,"  she reflects, as she did in "A Contribution to Statistics," on the human meaning that lies behind numbers: 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Universal and Particular

Poet Yves Bonnefoy (b 1923) is one of France's greatest living poets. And Bonnefoy's university studies included mathematics. I read recently of Bonnefoy in the Wall Street Journal Bookshelf posting for 11 February 2012 by Micah Mattix entitled "The Pursuit of Presence." This reminder sent me to my bookshelf to review the poet's work with mathematics in mind. I found a bit of attitude toward the subject in a prose poem entitled "Devotion" when he used the phrase "stern mathematics." And Section 1 of "Trial by Ordeal" (offered below) ends with the word "proof."
     Mattix opened his Bonnefoy article with a quote: If I had to sum up in a sentence the impression Shakespeare makes upon me," the poet Yves Bonnefoy wrote in an early essay, "I should say that, in his work, I see no opposition between the universal and the particular." This universal-particular pairing (evident in Bonnefoy, as in Shakespeare) led my thoughts to the mathematical pairing, global-local, which I explore briefly following Bonnefoy's poem.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Langston Hughes could do anything!

In the 1970s when I was a new professor (at Pennsylvania's Bloomsburg University), a particular colleague and I would chat occasionally about our teaching methods and compare them with the ways we'd been taught. We agreed that many of our teachers seemed to dump mathematics on us in any manner whatever -- supposing that, if we were smart enough, we would pick it up. We thought we were better teachers than our predecessors and yet I am haunted by knowing that the privileged -- whether by wealth or education or birthplace or whatever -- seldom see their advantage over those who are different. Still, some of us survive unlikely odds, being lucky enough to have an "I can do anything" attitude like that expressed by poet Langston Hughes (1902 - 1967) in "I, Too":

Thursday, February 16, 2012

2012 Split This Rock Poetry Festival -- March 22-25

Earlybird registration ends February 22 for the 2012 Split this Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, DC, March 22-25.  Honoring poet June Jordan, the four-day festival will feature more than a dozen noted poets whose work speaks out against indifference and injustice.  One of these is is Minnie Bruce Pratt -- and here is her "Someone is Up," one of the poems featured in the Spring 2012 issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal, published in support of the Split this Rock Festival and presenting work of festival poets.  As in many poems of provocation and witness, numbers provide the specifics that pin down the message.  (See also poetry by Festival Director Sarah Browning in the February 5 posting.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Counting (with sadness) in Syria

Burmese poet ko ko thett is an activist-scholar and, at present, a resident of Vienna, Austria. I became acquainted with his work through Kyi May Kaung, a writer, artist, Burma-activist-scholar, and friend who currently lives in the Washington, DC area. Here is a poem by ko ko thett  -- for Syria.

the 5000th    by ko ko thett

                        for syria

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Be My Valentine

Unlike many newspapers, the British Guardian publishes poems -- and, on February 10, 2012, they offered a selection to celebrate the upcoming Valentine's day. Included, among work by more than a dozen notables, are poems by Wislawa Szymborska, John Donne, Derek Walcott (whose poem "Love After Love" is one of my favorites), Sir Walter Raleigh, Lord Byron, and Carol Ann Duffy -- and a poem by John Fuller that is seasoned with some mathematical terminology. You will need to visit the Guardian article online for the whole of Fuller 's poem, "Valentine," but here are several snippets to whet your interest. (Enjoy the fun of rhyming mathematics with attics!) 

Friday, February 10, 2012


A mathematician may face a dilemma over the meaning of an ordinary term -- for words like "group" and "identity" and "random" (to name a few) have precise mathematical definitions that differ from their common meanings. Canadian poet Peter Norman's title, "Recursion," however, uses the term as it is used mathematically.  While a definition of "recursion" is widely available in mathematics texts, it was missing in my several English dictionaries -- and I found it only in the OED (though, even there,  noted as now rare or Obs.) : "a backward movement, return."   The term "return" indicates previous forward motion. In mathematical recursion (illustrated below by the Fibonacci sequence) as in Norman's poem, going backward is possible only because forward motion is known. (Interested readers will find an introduction to mathematical recursion following the poem.)

     Recursion    by Peter Norman

     I fall awake alone. Outside,
     nocturnal rain ascends.  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Is Math for Women?

At a River Poets reading at the public library in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania on December 1, 2011, Carol Ann Heckman surprised me with her poem, "The Calculus Road Not Taken," presented below.  Not only is she a fine poet, but Carol Ann is curious about mathematics.  As a college student she was turned away by negative feedback from a math professor. But now she is reassessing her situation and ready to tackle calculus. Here she has fun with her calculus-deprived situation in lively verse:

The Calculus Road Not Taken   by Carol Ann Heckman  

               for JoAnne Growney

If I had only conquered
this wouldn't have
happened--the flood,
the earthquake, the
two hurricanes
in succession

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Strength from Numbers

During March 22-25, 2012, the third Split This Rock Poetry Festival:  Poems of Provocation and Witness will be held in Washington, DC. This year's festival honors activist poet June Jordan (1936  - 2002) but the festival would not be happening without the vision and untiring efforts of DC poet Sarah Browning, Director of Split This Rock and DC Poets Against the War, and author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden.  Like any good protester, she makes effective use of the specificity of numbers in her poems.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Szymborska (1923-2012) on Statistics

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012)  won the 1996 Nobel Prize for literature; I am saddened by her death -- yesterday, February 1, at her home in Krakow. But one cannot help but rejoice for her poems.  Szymborska did not shy from use of mathematical ideas.  As in this sample:

   A Contribution to Statistics   by Wislawa Szymborska

    Out of every hundred people

    those who always know better:
   -- fifty-two,    

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Counting Groundhogs

     I grew up in a town about 25 miles from Punxsutawney, PA -- and Groundhog Day on February 2 was local-news only. This was the quiet time before television cameras mades stars of groundhogs and, back then, we knew them for their underground piracy as well as for their weather-forecasting.
     My father, a farmer, did not like groundhogs; he tried to keep them away from his fields by blocking their entrances to the networked burrows where they chewed the roots of crops planted overhead.  Fifty years after these farming days, I arrived at the following "what is this world coming to?" poem that features my mother and me watching groundhogs play in a field outside her sickroom. (The poem is, approximately, a sonnet -- in which the poet is not only counting groundhogs but also counting syllables . . ..)