In my mind the languages of poetry and mathematics have long carried entirely different modes of thought—one abstract and hard-edged, the other idiosyncratic and impressionistic. The work I do with numbers in my day-job feels like an entirely different kind of activity from the work of making a poem. But it’s unavoidably true that poetry and mathematics share many aspects in their concern with counting and proportion, and it makes perfect sense that a poet (or a musician) would also love numbers. If you look, the linkages between poetry and math are everywhere, even on this very site, where we have a couple of articles featuring mathematical kinds of poems:
- Fibonacci Poems - A New Mathematical Form, explained for us by Georgia Luna Faust Smith
- Sparrow’s Mathemetrics Spree, in which the inimitable Sparrow introduces us to “poetry which concerns itself entirely with the actual length of each line.”
Around the Internet, a number of scholars, journalists and poets have mused on the connections between mathematics and poetry:
- In The Guardian’s books blog a few years ago, Shirley Dent offered “Final proof that maths and poetry have a special relationship,” surveying the affinities between them from nursery rhymes to Wislawa Szymborska’s famous poem “Pi.”
- Joel E. Cohen contributed his thoughts on “A Mindful Beauty, What poetry and applied mathematics have in common” to Phi Beta Kappa’s venerable quarterly The American Scholar, offering close analysis of a poem by A.E. Housman and a mathematical formula he calls “Zbaganu’s inequality” in order to demonstrate how “poetry and applied mathematics, with mysterious success, both use symbols for beautiful, economical pointing and patterning.”
- Among the quirky math-etc. videos at Numberphile is “14 and Shakespeare the Numbers Man,” in which University of Nottingham physics professor Roger Bowley recites and explicates Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
- Kaz Mazlanka’s Mathematical Poetry blog
- Joanne Growney’s Intersections — Poetry with Mathematics blog
- Mathematical Poetry — A Small Anthology put together online by Katherine Stange
- Discovering Patterns in Mathematics and Poetry, the collaborative book by Marcia Birken and Anne C. Coon at Rochester Institute of Technology
Christina Rossetti was the baby sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and while she published seven early poems in the Pre-Raphaelites’ journal The Germ, edited by her other brother William Rossetti, and she posed for several of Dante Gabriel’s early Pre-Raphaelite paintings, she was never actually a member of the Brotherhood. But she was recognized in childhood as the poet in the Rossetti family, hailed as the worthy successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and best woman poet of her generation, and her sonnets, roundels, ballads and devotional meditations are beloved by readers today. In our library of Rossetti’s poems, you’ll find these gems:
- “Goblin Market,” her most famous poem, a spooky allegorical tale of temptation, enchantment and a sister’s redemption.
- “A Birthday” and “Echo,” two of the most beautiful love poems in the English language, one heralding the lover’s arrival and the other welcoming a lost lover’s arrival in dreams—both of these are in the archives from which high school students choose poems to recite in the national Poetry Out Loud competition.
- “Remember Me,” “On the Wing” and “Sonnets are full of love,” a sonnet from each of her three major published collections.
Speaking of interchange between the arts, have you heard the story of how Pablo Picasso came to poetry? We came across this knowledge thanks to Anastasios Kozaitis, in whose email Poem of the Day a few years ago we discovered Picasso’s poem “Boisgeloup 18 april XXXV” translated from the Spanish by Jerome Rothenberg. It turns out that Exact Change, the book publisher that specializes in “literary classics of surrealism, dada, fluxus, pataphysics, and other experimental art movements of the 19th and 20th century,” published a sampler of Pablo Picasso’s poetry in English in 2004: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz and Other Poems, edited by our favorite anthologist-duo, Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (of Poems for the Millennium fame). You can read excerpts from the book in PDF form at Ubuweb Historical, and you’ll find there a fascinating amalgam of journal-like but exquisitely surrealist prose poems and imagistic, aphoristic lyrics.
As Exact Change notes in their introduction to the book, “Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973) is arguably the most famous and influential artist of the 20th century. What few in the English speaking world know is that in 1935, at age 54, an emotional crisis caused Picasso to halt all painting and devote himself entirely to poetry. Even after resuming his visual work, Picasso continued to write, in a characteristic torrent, until 1959, leaving a body of prose poems that André Breton praised as ‘an intimate journal, both of the feelings and the senses, such as has never been kept before.’”
Poems and songs are not exactly the same thing, but one can be made from the other, certainly. Poetry and music, currents in the sea of human artistic endeavor, often flow next to each other, intertwine and empower each other. Here are just a few recent examples from around the world of the interaction of these two sister arts:
from The Hindu (India):
“Poetry’s tryst with music,” by Deepa Ganesh
This month Bangalore hosted the 11th annual conference celebrating Sugama Sangeetha, the popular musical movement originally known as “laghu sangeeth” or “light music,” that makes songs of the poems from the rich literary history of Karnataka state in southwestern India. “In her rather poetic speech, president of the 11th Sugama Sangeeta conference, Rathnamala Prakash, making a strong case for the Sugama Sangeeta form, quoted veteran musician M. Balamurali Krishna: ‘Light music is that which gives light.’”
from The Reflector (Mississippi State University student newspaper):
“Program sets Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings poetry to music,” by Nur-Ul-Huda Mujahid
“Karen Murphy, music department instructor and accompanist, said she founded the poetry-in-song event nearly a decade ago, and she hopes the concert’s marriage of the two mediums will illuminate both word and song for students.... ‘Some of the poets we’ve presented in the past have been Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot and Langston Hughes. This is the first time that we’re going to showcase two poets,’ she said. ‘We wanted to find poets that were similar, yet different, and I believe we have accomplished that with Frost and Cummings.’”
from The Washington Post:
“Evgeny Kissin plays forgotten composers and declaims poetry in stunning performance,” by Anne Midgette
“Kissin recited poetry. In Yiddish.... this threatened to take the proceedings into the realm of the downright eccentric. Poetry readings are a specialized taste and are hard enough for trained actors to pull off. And Kissin has never given the impression of being a particularly expressive verbal communicator.... So when he got up from the piano and began declaiming Haim Nachman Bialik’s ‘High on a Mountain’ with the authority and linguistic assurance and expression of someone who has been reciting to crowds all his life (as supertitles over his head let the audience know what he was saying), there was a palpable sense in the auditorium, for the space of one held breath, of an invisible membrane of preconceptions popping silently, like a soap bubble.”
from LiTTLe MACHiNe (South London):
This 3-man English musical ensemble has taken as its tag-line “famous poems set to music,” and that is exactly what they do. Their recordings are gathered in an album called Madam Life, including songs made from the work of Sappho, Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Philip Larkin and Carol Ann Duffy, and they’ve been traveling around the UK and beyond doing an educational show called Epic!, “a 60-minute dash through the history of poetry from Homer to Carol Ann Duffy with slides, music, drama and comedy.”
More on Poetry and Music:
Robert Burns—Still King of Popular Music (2014)
The Rock Singer’s Poem Set to Someone Else’s Music (2011)
More Old Poems Set To Music (2010)
Old Poems Made into New Songs (2010)
Poems and Popular Songs: Kissin’ Cousins or Closer? (2008)
Poetry and Music, Sister Arts Allied (2007)
Listen to the woodlark’s song: “Lullula” (2006)
Caught in the Act, The Making of a Live Poetry + Music CD, by Whitman McGowan (2004)
Ngoma: Entering the Dreamtime with Music and Poetry (2002)
Philip Larkin touched on the irreducible iconic nature of a handwritten poem in describing a literary manuscript’s “magical value”—“This is the paper he wrote on, these are the words as he wrote them, emerging for the first time in this particular miraculous combination.” The poem as a holy object. But a poem in manuscript can also show us the sinew and bones beneath the polished object, giving us a peek into the creative interplay between poet and poem before the poem has crystallized into into its finished self—and this is also part of its magic.
This is one of the best reasons to visit the great libraries of the world in person: to see the handwritten manuscripts of poems up close.
- Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. is the place to see Walt Whitman’s handwritten notebooks.
- Emily Dickinson’s scribbled poems are at Amherst College.
- This year, to mark the 100th anniversary of their return to Scotland, the Glenriddell manuscripts, poems and letters by Robert Burns, went on public display at the National Library of Scotland, including his handwritten introduction and the first lines of his satire of religious hypocrisy, “Holy Willie’s Prayer.”
- The British Library has a handwritten manuscript copy of William Blake’s “The Tyger” in their online gallery.
Last year Bonham’s auctioned the poetry manuscripts collected by Roy Davids over the last 40 years—that collection including the only known manuscript of W.H. Auden’s “Stop All the Clocks,” Christina Rossetti’s sonnet “Remember Me,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Ballad of the Dark Ladie,” William Butler Yeats’ “Are You Content?,” Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” Thomas Hardy’s “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” and more.
from The Independent (UK):
“Rare unpublished A.E. Housman poem about unrequited love expected to fetch £25,000,” by Mathilda Battersby
“A Shropshire Lad poet A.E. Housman gave strict instructions upon his death that working drafts and unpublished poems should be destroyed. But a rare handwritten poem... was saved from destruction.... The work, titled ‘Oh were he and I together’ was written in pencil in 1917 and never published during Housman’s lifetime. The text is very faint and a deliberate attempt has been made to erase it....”
A palindrome is a word (like “wow” or “mom” or “dad”), or a phrase (like “Madam I’m Adam”), or a line, or sentence, or even an entire poem or story that reads the same backwards and forwards—very difficult to write! English poet Ben Jonson coined the word “palindrome” from the Greek roots palin, meaning “again,” and dromos, meaning “way” or “ direction”—so it is a piece of language that turns in the middle and comes back again in the direction from which it came at the beginning.
The most tightly constrained palindromes are reversible letter by letter, like the famous apocryphal quote attributed to Napoleon, “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” or “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!” Comedian Demetri Martin’s “Dammit, I’m Mad” is an extraordinarily long palindrome poem originally composed in 1993 as a project for his Yale University course in fractal geometry. It is 224 words long, all reversible letter by letter, turning on the “I” in the middle of its central line, “Be still if I fill its ebb.” Martin is certainly devoted to word-play, but his palindrome is not the longest in English—that would likely be William Gillespie and Nick Montfort’s 2002: A Palindrome Story at Spineless Books. Another Spineless book recommended by palindrome-poem devotees is Mike Maguire’s Drawn Inward and other poems.
More spectacularly ingenious even than these letter-by-letter palindromes in English is the famous palindrome poem devised by the Lady Su Hui in 4th century Chinese characters. Su Hui was married to a government official who took a mistress when he was posted away from home, in the far western desert. Her response was to compose a palindrome poem of 841 characters, woven into a tapestry square of 29 by 29 characters, which can be read horizontally, vertically and diagonally, for 2,848 different poems. When she sent the tapestry to her estranged husband, it is said he sent his mistress away and came back to his marriage with Su Hui.
Less linguistic curios and perhaps more interesting as poetic forms are palindrome poems or mirror poems that reverse themselves word by word, like Patience Agbabi’s “Josephine Baker Finds Herself.” The text of the poem reveals its palindromic nature, but the Poet in the City video of her performance takes us beyond the simple mirroring of words into the realm of poetry, shining a different light on the words and exposing evolving meanings as their order is reversed.
Contemporary poets have also expanded the notion of mirror poems to include those whose unit of construction is the entire line (something like the way a pantoum is made with repeated lines). Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway’s “Myth” is a lovely example of a line-by-line palindrome poem, which explores the subtle changes in each line’s meaning as the reversed order changes its context.
The penetrating emotional power of Sappho’s poems is so great she was known among the ancient Greeks who lived after her as “the Tenth Muse.” But our modern experience of her poetry is limited to only one truly complete poem, her hymn to Aphrodite, and the few poetic fragments that survived on tattered papyrus or were quoted by later writers. Now, classical scholars are all atwitter about the discovery of a new, nearly complete poem and another fragment, both in the Greek lettering on a worn and tattered papyrus owned by an anonymous collector who did not know what he or she had. Fortunately that collector took the papyrus to someone who could recognize what it was—Dr. Dirk Obbink, Oxford University classics scholar specializing in papyrology. We caught news of this great discovery first at The Daily Beast:
“Scholars Discover New Poems from Ancient Greek Poetess Sappho,” by Bard College Classics Professor James Romm
“A chance inquiry by an unidentified collector has led to a spectacular literary discovery: Parts of two previously unknown poems by Sappho, the great Greek poetess of the 7th Century B.C. One of the poems is remarkably well preserved and adds greatly to what is known about Sappho and her poetic technique... The two poems came to light when the owner of an ancient papyrus, dating to the 3rd century A.D., consulted an Oxford classicist, Dirk Obbink, about the Greek writing on the tattered scrap.”
A couple of preliminary English translations of the more complete poem about her brothers have shown up on the Internet:
- from The Telegraph (UK):
“A new Sappho poem is more exciting than a new David Bowie album,” by Tom Payne
Explaining why so little of Sappho’s poetry has survived—“Monks didn’t preserve her poetry, and manuscripts of her work that were held in the Vatican burnt in purifying flames.”—Payne (a translator of Ovid) offers his own verse translation of “The Brothers Poem.”
- from The Huffington Post UK:
“Sappho Sings Again,” by Oxford Professor of Ancient Literatures Tim Whitmarsh
“Papyri are usually torn exactly where you don’t want them to be, and peppered with holes. Often we are left with frustrating scraps. The Sappho piece, by contrast, gives us a single poem pretty much uninterrupted....” At the end of his post, Whitmarsh lets “the new Sappho sing for herself, for (I believe) the first time in a published English translation”—his translation.
Now, a week after news of his great discovery broke, Dr. Obbink himself has commented on the two new poems in The Times Literary Supplement:
“New poems by Sappho,” by Dirk Obbink
“The first concerns her brothers, ‘The Brothers Poem’ for short. The second, ‘The Kypris Poem,’ is about unrequited love and addressed to Aphrodite (by her other name, ‘Kypris’).... key questions: why is the discovery important, what do the poems tell us about Sappho, and how do we know they are genuine?” Dr. Obbink’s article also includes an English translation of “The Brothers Poem” by Christopher Pelling.
Other Recently Rediscovered Old Poems:
Poem Discoveries in the Library, poems by Carl Sandburg, Jupiter Hammon, and Winston Churchill (February 2013)
Found: Dorothy Parker’s “Pollyanna” (October 2009)
A trio of new poems by Langston Hughes (February 2009)
A new poem by William Shakespeare (April 2007)
A Robert Frost poem handwritten & hidden away: “War Thoughts at Home” (September 2006)
An ancient poem carved in stone (September 2006)
Rediscovered: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Poetical Essay against war (July 2006)
A new Sappho poem comes to light (June 2005)
“And Yet”... A new Philip Larkin poem comes to light after a half century lost in the library (August 2004)
Nearly every human being is equipped with the necessary elements for making poetry: words and their associated powers and qualities—their sounds, the visual and sensual images they carry, the colors of meaning they reveal when read or spoken or heard or repeated or combined with other words... So when we speak of poetry “tools,” we’re actually talking of the means for preserving and sharing poetry rather than creating it. In its earliest forms, poetry was an oral/aural art, carried by the human voice and recorded in the memories of its speakers and hearers. Then came written language—chisel and stone, pen and paper, type and ink, photographic negative and chemicals became the tools for recording and distributing poems, and it began to seem as if poetry’s fundamental existence was on the page, in the visual realm. But in the modern age, the publication of poetry has expanded back into the aural/oral realm, and poems live in sound recordings and films as much as in books and journals.
Some of the poetic tools here at About Poetry are old-fashioned:
- Book lists like A Poet’s Ideal Library or our selected Books on Poetry, Poetic Traditions, Writing, Performance and Poetics
- Our Glossary of the Traditional Forms of Poetry
We've also gathered lots of resources on new poetry media:
iPads and smart phones carry the most new-fangled tools for poets, replacing books with ereader apps that allow you to carry lots of poems for reading or listening on your mobile device, and substituting apps designed as tools for writing poems for your trusty dog-eared notebook. So what do you think, poets? Do these new tools make you want to move your poetic life into the digital realm? Or would you rather stick to the old-fashioned ways of making poems? Take our poll and tell us how you like to start a new poem.
It’s commonly accepted that reading a poem can give us comfort or spark a new insight in a time of trouble. But what about writing a poem? We’ve often remarked on poetry’s curative qualities, usually speaking of its effects on a reader (see the list of past postings below)—but we’ve also think it’s worth paying attention to the healing that results from the act of writing poetry. Poets, what do you think? Are you curing your own ills when you make a poem?
Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine
Produced by Healing Words Productions, this 2008 documentary follows “the journey of poetry therapist John Fox from room to room as he gently coaxes words from patients, many of whom have never written poetry before.... For some, poetry captures an essential truth about themselves—a memory from childhood or a moment of insight—and deepens their understanding of their lives and their illnesses. This understanding, the film shows, is the key to healing.”
from Psychology Today:
“Will a Poem a Day Keep the Doctor Away?” by Linda Wasmer Andrews
“On one hand, then, we have a long tradition of viewing poetry writing as a healthy mode of self-expression and a useful adjunct to mental health treatment. On the other hand, there’s a prevalent stereotype that poets are mad—and research suggests that this stereotype isn’t totally unfounded... poets—especially female poets—seem to be the most vulnerable to mental illness and suicide, a tendency that has been dubbed the Sylvia Plath Effect.... Over the past 25 years, more than 200 studies have investigated the mental and physical health benefits of expressive writing.”
from poetry therapist Perie Longo:
“Poetry As Therapy”
“The word therapy, after all, comes from the Greek word therapeia meaning to nurse or cure through dance, song, poem and drama, that is the expressive arts.... Though poetry as therapy is a relatively new development in the expressive arts, it is as old as the first chants sung around the tribal fires of primitive peoples. The chant/ song/poem is what heals the heart and soul.”
Robert Burns, is even now, more than two centuries after his brief life, Scotland’s favorite son—“The People’s Poet,” as Andrew O’Hagan explained in his 2008 essay in The Guardian and his 2011 BBC documentary. Burns is also known as the “Ploughman Poet,” “Robden of Solway Firth,” and the “Bard of Ayrshire,” and if you hear a Scot referring simply to “Rabbie” or “The Bard,” you know he is speaking of Burns. His birthday, January 25th, is the occasion for annual Burns Suppers, celebrating his life, his famously convivial spirit, his poems and songs, whisky and haggis and all things Scottish—not only in Scotland itself, but all over the world, from a ritzy black-tie/Highland dress event at Stirling Castle to a céilidh at St. George’s Hall in Liverpool, from Highlands Gastropub, St. Andrews Scotch Club, and Incognito Italian Bistro in New York City to a whole list of places in London, to a traditional Burns Supper including bagpiper at Ali Barbour’s Cave Restaurant in Mombasa, Kenya. So get your kilt on, memorize a few of Burns’ verses, and toast the Bard with a wee dram of whisky this weekend!