Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Land without a square

Here is a bit of light verse from the pen of John Updike (1932-2009).

WITHOUT A SQUARE     by John Updike

               A Zulu lives in a round world.  If he does not leave his reserve. 
     he can live his whole life through and never see a straight line.
                                             --headline and text from The New York Times

In Zululand the huts are round,
The windows oval, and the rooves
Thatched parabolically.  The ground
Is tilled in curvilinear grooves.

When Zulus cannot smile, they frown,
To keep an arc before the eye.
Describing distances to town,
They say, "As flies the butterfly."

Anfractuosity is king.
Melodic line itself is banned,
Though all are hip enough to sing --
There are no squares in Zululand.

This poem is found on my shelf in Updike's Collected Poems: 1953-1993 (Knopf, 1993).   Updike's father was a math teacher and it is not unusual to find mathematical terminology used fluently in his verse. In my posting for July 20, 2010 I feature work by several poets with a mathematician in the family.

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