Thursday, June 29, 2017

The NUMBERS that help us REMEMBER . . .

     Born in Lithuania, poet Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) became fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English and French.  He emigrated to the United States (to California) in 1960 and was the 1980 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature.  He was not fluent in the language of mathematics but his poem "The Titanic" -- written in Berkeley in 1985 and excerpted below -- illustrates the power of numbers in poetic description AND the circumstances of which numbers are remembered.

from    The Titanic    by  Czesław Miłosz

Events--catastrophes of which they learned and those others of which they did not want to know. In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a flood in 1889 took 2,300 lives; 700 persons perished in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  Yet they did not notice the earthquake at Messina in Sicily (1908),
around 84,000 victims, or the Russian-Japanese War.  There is no reason to wonder, as even passengers on the Trans-Siberian Railway a few years after 1905 did not think of thousands and thousands of the killed rolling in the muddy currents of the river Amur, or of the ships that were sinking at Tsushima amid the loud cries of sailors swarming in the backwash of a wave.  What remained was only the waltz "On the Hills of Manchuria" played by throaty gramophones with a big horn.

     Bigger and bigger, more and more rapid, more and more perfect.  
     Till they built the biggest ship since the beginning of the world.  
     Her power, 50,000 horse 
     (Imagination suggests a gigantic team:
     50,000 horses pull a chariot-pyramid).
     And she went on her first voyage,
     Announced with fat print on the front pages of newspapers,
     Unsinkable, a floating palace.
     Hundreds of servants ready at your beck and call,
     Kitchens, elevators, barbershops,
     Halls lit by electricity of daylight brightness,
     For gentlemen and ladies in evening dresses
     A band playing ragtime.

     The ship carries 1,320 passengers, together with servants and the 
          crew, 2,235 people. 
        . . .

      My recent return to my copy of Miłosz's The Collected Poems (Ecco Press, 1988) was provoked by a recent Washington Post review by Troy Jollimore of Andrzej Franaszek’s Milosz: A Biography — published in Poland in 2011 and now available in English, translated by Aleksandra and Michael Parker.  Here is a link to an earlier posting in this blog of a poem inspired by lines from Miłosz.

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