Monday, November 27, 2017

`I Delight in the Artifice'

While reading the draft of a paper written by a graduate student in applied mathematics, I came across a passing, puzzling reference to something known as “Menger’s sponge.” Science and mathematics are spotted with proper names, usually of discoverers, attached with seeming randomness to nouns. (See Sierpiński’s carpet.) The sponge sounded like a member of the phylum Porifera, formless aquatic animals, which made no sense in context. A little online research turned up Karl Menger’s fractal curve, an elegant exercise in topology. A little more research turned up an unexpected pleasure, “The Menger Sponge” (Where the Trees Were, 1999) by the wonderful Australian poet Stephen Edgar. The second of the poem’s three stanzas is its vital heart, formally, mathematically and otherwise:

“It brings to mind the mathematician’s
Monstrous idea,
The Menger sponge, where infinite excisions
Out of a solid cube delete
Its substance while its form stays clear:
The central ninth is cut from a square;
Eight smaller squares remain; repeat
For each; and so on with this lattice of air:
A formula
For zero volume, infinite surface area.”

Edgar is a formalist reminiscent of Anthony Hecht who is unusually knowledgeable about math and science. His poems often remind me of an observation Nabokov made to an interviewer in 1962: “I think that in a work of art there is a kind of merging between the two things, between the precision of poetry and the excitement of pure science.” Edgar might be writing of his own poetic practice: “delete / Its substance while its form stays clear.” The thought is bolstered by the apt epigraph from Valéry. In his essay “In Form for Forty Years,” Edgar is commonsensical and forthright about his dedication to formal poetry:

“. . . I find that the disciplines of formal verse, far from being a constraint, are a positive stimulus to the imagination — to my imagination. Also, I see poetry as not only the transmission of meaning and experience but as the creation of an object. Art is after all artificial and I delight in the artifice. I like to create these `verbal contraptions’, as Auden called them, these elaborately structured linguistic sculptures and, as it were, hold them up to see their facets catch the light. And the musical element in poetry, which seems to have been sacrificed in much contemporary poetry, is also important to me.”

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