As part of the Tunbridge Wells Poetry Festival, I’ll be running an online workshop on mathematical forms in poetry on Tuesday 24th August, 10.00 – 12.00 BST. We’ll explore the creative possibilities of interweaving mathematical and poetic structures, including the visual impact of mathematical forms and how working with constraints can add depth and focus to your writing.
The emphasis in the workshop will be on readings and discussion, with an opportunity to do some writing as well if time allows.
The Poetry Festival will be taking place from 15th – 27th August, with a mix of in-person and online events. Wherever you are, do check out the full programme: it would be great to have participants from all around the world!
Sometime around 1550 BC an Egyptian scribe named Ahmes noted down a method for obtaining the area of a circle, in what is the earliest recorded attempt to evaluate the number we know as 𝜋. The history of 𝜋 (its symbol is the Greek letter pi) is fascinating, as are the many mathematical formulae for determining its value. It features in what is widely regarded as mathematics’ most beautiful expression, a perfect poem in itself, Euler’s identity
Among vetch and dandelions,
hollow shells, inhabitants gorged
by blackbirds whose songs tremble
in summer’s heat, you emerge -
wrap around my calves, bind
my arms, entwine my throat, caress
my neck, my ears – insidious
as haar that creeps in from the sea
to steal the sun. Overhead, siren
insistence of oystercatchers, while
beneath the hawthorn bush
a magpie tilts its head. Across
years and continents,
we cannot decohere.
This poem was first published in Dust Poetry in May 2021.
In the latter part of the 12th century Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour from Ribérac in what is now the Dordogne, entertained the courts of southern Europe with poems on themes of chivalry and courtly love. Daniel’s poetry, written in his native Occitan, is characterised by technical virtuosity, with complex rhyme and metrical schemes and intricate structures. Although only a few of his poems are still extant, his gifts have impressed successive generations of poets: Dante, Petrarch and Ezra Pound all held him in the highest regard.
Daniel is generally credited with inventing the sestina and his poem ‘Lo ferm voler qu’el cor m’intra’, dating from around 1200, is the earliest known example of this poetic form. A sestina consists of six stanzas of six lines each, with each stanza featuring the same end-words in a set sequence of permutations.
‘Poetry is the mathematics of writing,’ John Steinbeck observed, ‘and closely kin to music.’ If we accept Steinbeck’s analogy, then Anthony Etherin’s The Utu Sonnets is the poetic equivalent of the purest of pure mathematics. In previous publications such as his 2019 collection Stray Arts (and Other Inventions) Etherin has proved himself a master of constrained writing, pushing the boundaries of form in tightly crafted palindromes, exact anagrams and dazzlingly inventive sonnets. The seven sonnets presented here are his most constrained work to date.
Sometime in the 4th century BC, a Chinese astronomer named Shi Shen took it upon himself to map the stars visible in the night sky. The resulting work, containing some 800 stars, is generally considered to be the earliest star catalogue. Shi Shen’s achievements did not stop there; he also observed sunspots and wrote a number of astronomical and astrological treatises. In recognition of his contributions to astronomy, a crater on the far side of the moon has been named after him.
With my Eurocentric education I hadn’t heard of Shi Shen before reading A Celestial Crown of Sonnets, written by Sam Illingworth and Stephen Paul Wren. Each poem in this slim, beautifully produced volume focuses on an astronomer who made significant contributions to the advancement of our understanding of the universe.
Chemistry is one of those subjects that largely passed me by at school. The chemistry labs had their own distinctive, slightly nausea-inducing smell, our lab coats were stained and shapeless, and the teaching was uninspired. While it was with relief that I abandoned the subject at the age of sixteen, I’ve always recognised that my limited knowledge of chemistry is a gaping hole in my scientific education.
I was therefore intrigued when I chanced across Mary Soon Lee’s collection Elemental Haiku, honouring ‘the periodic table/ three lines at a time’. Could I improve my understanding of chemistry through reading poetry? And how does one convey the essential attributes of an element in three lines totalling seventeen syllables? In her foreword, Lee explains her choice of form as well as her objectives: