Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Prayer of Numbers

     Whether our language is music or mathematics, computer code or cookery --  as we learn to love the language and treat it with good care, we find poetry.  Because mathematics is a concise language, with emphasis on placing the best words in the best order, it often is described by mathematicians and scientists as poetry.  Alternatively, and more accessible to most readers than poetic mathematics, we find verses by poets who include the objects and terminology of mathematics in their lines.
     One of my favorite poems of numbers is the portrait "Number Man," by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967),  found in The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg (Harcourt, 2003).  This poem also appears in Strange Attractors:  Poems of Love and Mathematics (A K Peters, 2008) -- a varied collection of math-related poems edited by Sarah Glaz and me.

     Number Man     by Carl Sandburg
          (for the ghost of Johann Sebastian Bach)

     He was born to wonder about numbers.
     He balanced fives against tens
     and made them sleep together
     and love each other.

     He took sixes and sevens
     and set them wrangling and fighting
     over raw bones.

     He woke up twos and fours
     out of baby sleep
     and touched them back to sleep.

     He managed eights and nines,
     gave them prophet beards,
     marched them into mists and mountains.

     He added all the numbers he knew,
     multiplied them by new-found numbers
     and called it a prayer of Numbers.

     For each of a million cipher silences
     he dug up a mate number
     for a candle light in the dark.

     He knew love numbers, luck numbers,
     how the sea and the stars
     are made and held by numbers.

     He died from the wonder of numbering.
     He said good-by as if good-by is a number.
The opening stanzas of this poem were posted earlier on April 26, 2010 along with several other "Poems starring mathematicians."  Sandburg's tiny poem "Wind Song" was posted on July 21, 2011.

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