Turning in circles – the Tritina

Repetitions are a feature of many established poetic forms – the trioletpantoum, and villanelle all contain patterns of repeated lines, while the ghazal consists of couplets with a repeated refrain. The sestina is determined by six end-words, following a fixed rotational pattern through six six-line stanzas, with a three-line envoi that includes all the end-words. 

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Playing to our own rules: Poetic constraint

Arma virumque cano – ‘I sing of arms and the man’. With these resonant words Virgil opens his great epic the Aeneid, composed over two thousand years ago. The poem, which is nearly ten thousand lines long, is written almost entirely in dactylic hexameter – an astonishing feat of constrained writing, especially when we consider that Virgil lacked the convenience of our modern-day word processing and editing tools.

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Farewell to 2021

As we approach the end of a year dominated by chaos, bleakness, and the ravages of the pandemic, it is difficult not to succumb to despair. We seem to be caught up in the ‘widening gyre’ of Yeats:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

Yeats wrote ‘The Second Coming’ in January 1919, at a time when the First World War had only recently ended, the political situation in his native Ireland was dangerously unstable and the Spanish ‘flu pandemic was raging (his pregnant wife Georgie Hyde-Lees became very ill and almost died from the ‘flu). It’s hardly surprising that a sense of impending doom reverberates through the poem.

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Poetry and Fractals

In his 1982 book ‘The Fractal Geometry of Nature’ the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot explored ‘irregular and fragmented patterns around us’ that ‘tend to be scaling, implying that the degree of their irregularity and/or fragmentation is identical at all scales.’

He called this family of shapes fractals, from the Latin adjective fractus, meaning fragmented or irregular. Such objects, Mandelbrot noted, are present in nature as well as in a wide range of fields.

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Intersections – Poetry, Mathematics and JoAnne Growney

Emmy Noether was one of the great mathematicians of the early 20th century. Born in Bavaria in 1882, she loved dancing and initially trained to be a language teacher before opting, despite numerous obstacles, to study mathematics at university. She went on to make significant contributions in many areas of mathematics and mathematical physics, most notably in the field of abstract algebra.  

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Mathematical forms in poetry 5 – number sequences

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 its many applications in poetry. To 16 digits, the expansion of 𝜋 is

𝜋 = 3.141592653589793.

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Mathematical forms in poetry 4 – Permutations

Permutations are a feature of many poetic forms: rhyme and metrical patterns, the arrangement of lines in a villanelle or pantoum, the rotation of end-words through the stanzas of a sestina. Ruth Holzer’s ‘For Dylan Thomas on His Hundredth Birthday’ is an example of a sestina by a contemporary poet, with end-words wild, skyendhillswavelove.

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Mathematical forms in poetry 3 – Reflection Symmetry

Reflection symmetry, where one half of a shape is a mirror image of the other, is a characteristic of many naturally occurring phenomena: a bird on the wing, the reflection of snow-dusted mountains in the still water of a loch, the hexagonal form of a snowflake. Our own bodies have approximate reflection symmetry.

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