Sunday, January 22, 2012

`Where Civility Encounters Nature'

As with everything else, I’m a dedicated dilettante when it comes to mathematics. I play with it for amusement, for the sense of limbering up mentally, stretching under-used muscles and setting off the resulting rush of intellectual endorphins. I’ve never recognized the silly left brain/right brain distinction. For years I read Scientific American mostly for Martin Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” column. I still need help calculating percentages but recreational math is a lark, like music.

Clive Wilmer makes the math/music linkage in “A Baroque Concerto,” subtitled “to Edgar Bowers, at 70”—that is, in 1994. Actually, he lets Bowers, his friend and fellow-poet, make the connection. The sonnet is collected in New and Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2012):
“`Pure mathematics!’ That’s what you exclaimed
Across the polite applause to me, enthused
By a forgotten opus hardly famed
In its own time or place. Not being used
To seeing you moved and vulnerable then brought
Another harmony into my head,
The divisions of your verse, its metres taut,
Drawn from the order trusted to the dead.

“A love of the abstract…yet you evoke,
Through poignant scenes of Europe sketched in youth,
An order that’s the sharper for the smoke;

“And, later on, make your locality—
The golden coastline where civility
Encounters nature—witness to the truth.”

In a note to his sonnet, Wilmer rightly calls Bowers, who died in 2000, “one of the great poets of modern times.” The “poignant scenes of Europe,” Wilmer says, refer to poems in Bowers’ first collection, The Form of Loss (1956), “which draw on his experiences as an American soldier in Germany at the end of the Second World War.” “Your locality,” he says, is a reference to a sequence of poems from the nineteen-eighties, “Thirteen Views of Santa Barbara” (1989, included in Collected Poems, 1997), about “civic order and the natural environment in Southern California.”

At its best, poetry, like music, is a species of mathematics. What is prosody but respectful attention paid to the music of numbers? William James, of all people, in an 1879 lecture observed, “The union of the mathematician with the poet, fervor with measure, passion with correctness, this surely is the ideal.” And an acute description of the poetic practice of Edgar Bowers: “witness to the truth.” In “Numbers,” from the sequence titled “Mazes” in Collected Poems, Bowers writes:

“Though the order of real numbers seem enough
For astronauts, as it seemed once for him
Who, from an apple’s sudden fall, inferred
A universe at poise; though business men,
Through all the sums from nine to zero, add
And multiply their hopes and fears; and though
Musicians, when they play duets and trios,
Be satisfied with their Pythagoras,
Each of them, should he contemplate desire,
Its spins and its velocities, its racy
Particles and unlinear lines, will need
Imaginary numbers.”

1 comment:

George said...

And of course "numbers" was an expression carried over from Latin, for verse.