Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Pi and Wislawa

I'm not supposed to be online, these are my sacred night time writing hours, but in the spirit that there are no "shoulds" or "musn'ts", I had to blog now. I've been writing and I took a break, Internet off, and turned to one of my favourite poets, Wislawa Szymborska, to her new and collected poems 1957-1997. For those of you who aren't familiar, ohmigod she's amazing! And yes, she won the Nobel prize for Lit in 1996. She was a breath of fresh, fresh air for me, someone who thought poetry had to be very "worthy". I love her poems, her wit, her language.

And now, oh joy of joys, a Wislawa poem about maths! About Pi, the mathematical constant, no less. What could make me happier? Not much. Here is a joyous excerpt:

The pageant of digits comprising the number pi
doesn't stop at the page's edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over a wall, a leaf, a bird's nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief - a mouse tail, a pigtail - is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star's ray, bent by bumping up against space!
While here we have two three fifteen three hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size the year
nineteen hundred and seventy-three the sixth floor
the number of inhabitants sixty-five cents
hip measurement two fingers a charade, a code,

What I love is her imagination - seeing all those things, a phone number, shirt size, hip measurement, in the endless stream of Pi's digits. You can read the whole poem here, but I recommend you buy this book. She never fails to inspire, amuse, astonish. She's made my day. Again.


Sue Guiney said...

I'm ashamed to say I've never read her work, but I will. I will!

Rachel Fenton said...

I wish I had discovered her when I was struggling with my maths at school/college/uni etc...what a wonderful visual mathematics that poem is. It's the only thing that has inspired me to try anything with numbers! Thanks for posting it!

Tim Love said...

I look upon Maths as distinct from "Science", and Poetry+Maths as distinct from Poetry+Science, so it's interesting to see how a real poet handles maths. But to me it only skims maths - it's written by an outsider. If she wrote about bull-fighting in the same way, people would say that she'd never even seen a bull, let alone seen a fight.
The outsider's viewpoint is one perspective though, and at least ensures that the poetry audience isn't alienated.

It's possible to more intimately fuse the disciplines. Re maths

* In the 2002 Bridport Poetry comp, Dr Frank Tapiador won a supplementary prize. I seem to recall that the poem had formulae in it (I saw it in the Antho of prizewinners)

* Both Peter Howard and I have written poems about e^(i*pi), and I'm sure we're not the only ones. A link to mine is on my movies page

And computing can be given serious treatment too. If you're using Linux/Unix you're in luck!

* In "These Days" by Leontia Flynn (New Gen poet) there's a poem with fragments of a computer program - "Perl Poem"

* Peter Howard's also published poems about computing. Some (e.g. "68000 Mornings") are online

* In "Digital Poetics", by Loss Pequeno Glazier (University of Alabama Press, 2002), the author gets rather excited about the poetic potential of Unix - "[Unix] can also be seen as highly poetic, employing sparse, condensed syntax for powerful effects. ... It offers possibilities for conceptualising space that are compelling ... These and many similar features suggest that UNIX is a system with intensely compelling poetic features"

I've only recent found The periodic table as assembled by Dr. Zhivago, oculist - a collaboration between a writer and a computer programmer. Fun, in a way.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the recommendation, I've just bought it! Hopefully some great poems to enjoy with my Saturday classes - thanks Tania!

Tania Hershman said...

No shame, Sue, it's not too late. She is so great.

Rachel, glad as always to bring something new and inspiring.

Tim, thanks so much for posting these - Unix and poetry? I use Linux, must check this out. it all sounds fun.

Barbara, once again, I wish I was on commission. Hope you enjoy it, I fell in love with her through her poem, Under One Small Star, I found it so powerful. I think she is an astonishing writer.