Poetry and Numbers


I was watching a DVD of Bronowski’s Ascent of Man with my son, the section about Pythagoras and Islamic art.    He talks of the thanks Pythagoras gave to the muse for allow him to get his theory, and Bronowski brings out the fascination of making the numbers fit exactly with nature.  And all this goes back to the basic relationship of the vertical orientation of gravity (and man) and the horizontal one of the ground.  


It struck me that this idea of an exact fit between language (maths) and nature has something to do with poetry and other arts.  Getting it absolutely ‘right’.   And this idea of exactness has to do, in poetry, with verbal ‘logistics’ (Chrisopher Okigbo’s word for what poetry comes down to), and the idea of closure, the ‘click’ (Geoffrey Hill) of it sounding right – got it – at the end.  And it struck me further that the old term ‘numbers’ for verse and the idea of a comparable ‘fit’ between words and music, words and metre, are connected to this.  The alternative spelling of ‘rhyme’, ‘rime’  derives from popular association with O.E. rim "number," from PIE base *re(i)- "to reason, count."


It’s often struck me since I first came across it when I was about twelve that a Euclid proof is very like a poem.   We start off with a set of data and somehow we have to bring it all under coherence, a fittingness, which was in a sense always already there but never expressed. 


The fascination is also, not just to do with the shape and perfection of the theorem, the poem, the theory, but with the idea of wonder, that incredibly we have discover a pattern that so many apparently disparate things in nature conform it, not obviously, but in a inner way, a pattern in creation.  


A thing to think about is how does this actual happen with words.  There certainly is something analogous to the equation and the poem as explanations, interpretations, even if we stop short of seeing nature as finally fixed, or even of thinking that the analogy between the theory (the poem) and what it explains is the same as the relationship between a map and a landscape.  We can see it as an explanation/interpretation without having to commit ourselves to thinking it is the explanation/interpretation.






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