Sunday, January 17, 2016

Poetry from a math teacher's son

     In an earlier post I have noted how effectively mathematicians and their mathematics may be described by poets who are in the same family.  This link, too, leads to portraits of mathematicians.
     Poet and novelist John Updike (1932-2009) was the son of a math teacher and the selection below is a sonnet that begins in the style of a math-class word-problem linking his own age with that of his father.

from  Midpoint     by John Updike

     FATHER, as old as you when I was four,
     I feel the restlessness of nearing death
     But lack your manic passion to endure,
     Your Stoic fortitude and Christian faith.
     Remember, at the blackboard, factoring? 
     My life at midpoint seems a string of terms
     In which an error clamps the hidden spring
     Of resolution canceling confirms.
     Topheavy Dutchmen sundered from the sea,
     Bewitched by money, believing in riddles
     Syrian vagrants propagated, we
     Incline to live by what the world belittles.
         God screws the lukewarm, slays the heart that faints
         And Saves his deepest silence for His saints.

     The lines above are taken from Section IV ("The Play of Memory") of Updike's long poem, "Midpoint" -- on my shelf in an autographed copy of Collected Poems, 1953-1993 (Knopf, 1993).  Throughout the 30+ pages of "Midpoint" are scattered a variety of mathematical symbols, terms and ideas.  
     Here is a link to another mathy poem from Updike, a bit of light verse in the same collection.

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