Saturday, August 31, 2013

A square-root of dead weight . . .

     A poet  I love (Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013, 1995 Nobelist) has died. The NYTimes obituary for Heaney quotes one of my favorites of his poems, "Digging" -- also available at  Part of what I like about this Irishman's poetry is its design.  Not only do his poems offer musicality of language but they feel carefully constructed -- modeling real world phenomena as mathematical models do -- built with careful attention to structure and detail until varied factors have been erected into in integrated whole.  "Digging" ties together the physical activity of Heaney's father shoveling in the peat bogs of Ireland to his own probing with a pen for words. 

     Here are the opening stanzas of "Weighing in" (The Spirit Level, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996); this poem is one of the rare instances in which a smidgen of mathematical terminology appears in Heaney's work.

from   Weighing In     by Seamus Heaney

       The 56 lb. weight.  A solid iron
       Unit of negation.  Stamped and cast
       With an inset, rung-thick, moulded, short crossbar

       For a handle.  Squared-off and harmless-looking
       Until you tried to lift it, then a socket-ripping, 
       Life-belittling force --

       Gravity's black box, the immovable
       Stamp and squat and square-root of dead weight.
       Yet balance it

       Against another one placed on a weighbridge --
       On a well-adjusted, freshly greased weighbridge --
       And everything trembled, flowed with give and take.

                      *  *  *

       And this is all the good tidings amount to:
       This principle of bearing, bearing up
       And bearing out, just having to

       Balance the intolerable in others
       Against our own, having to abide
       Whatever we settled for and settled into

       Against our better judgement.  . . .

No math-person would ever dare to use "square-root" in the way that Heaney does in his third stanza above  And yet I find that I like it; to my ear it sounds good.  For sestina fans, note that Heaney's "Two Lorries" is available here at The Poetry Archive

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