Friday, April 29, 2005

April is also...

Turns out April is also Math Awareness Month!

What a wonderful thing... Math and poetry. Two of my four favorite things. (I'll leave you to figure out the other two. Heh.)

In honor of April, I am posting a sonnet I wrote about math. Enjoy. (Or, if you don't, let me know why.)

The Science of Patterns

The order of the colors, prism bent;
The fractions in a chambered snail’s shell;
Statistics buried, called coincidence;
The chemical recall of asphodel.

So water congregates to build a cloud
and droplets marry heavy, forming rain;
With Spanish moss’s chaos-patterned shroud
To respirations measured fill and drain.

Honeycombs, whose architects are bees;
The icy veins in alabaster’s skin;
The march of leaves up eucalyptus trees;
The oscillating song of violin.

An ocean wave will roll in, uninvolved
In differential equations it has solved.

30 October 2003

In honor of the month, go read something mathematical, such as Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos. (Flesch-Kincaid index of 14.1. Yow.) Or anything by Martin Gardner. Or, one of my favorites, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter (Flesch-Kincaid index of 10.8). A wonderful journey through the music of Bach, the art of Escher and the mathematics of Gödel, with meanderings into artificial intelligence, human creativity, number theory, and philosophy. And it's entertaining to read.

Or, if you prefer fiction, try Leaning Towards Infinity: How My Mother's Apron Unfolds into My Life by Sue Woolfe. (Though, to be truthful, I get mixed reviews on it from friends I've recommended it to.) Or an excellent collection of short stories, Mathenauts: Tales of Mathematical Wonder edited by Rudy Rucker (who, by the way, has also written many great books on mathematics).

Ahh... so many books...

Isn't life wonderful?

Saturday, April 23, 2005

A very special day

Currently reading: Hamlet

Okay. It’s something I do every April 23rd: I re-read Hamlet. I am not sure why that play in particular, but it’s become tradition.

Happy Birthday, Will.

Everyone else... celebrate as you usually do.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Fun with Amazon

Currently reading: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

I read this book a few years ago and it horrified me. But it is so well written and well crafted, I had to re-read it. I highly recommend it, but not for the squeamish or faint of heart.

The reason I brought up this book was that it turned me on to a new feature on Amazon. Unfortunately, the feature isn’t there for all books, but I browsed through some old favorites and quickly became addicted.

This feature lists the 100 most used words in the book in question, and the number of occurrences of each one. It lists the number of words and characters in the book and the complexity of the words used (such as percentage of words with three or more syllables, average syllables per word and words per sentence). It also gives you the Flesch-Kincaid index (which shows the grade-level of readability of the book), and a fun stat that tells you the number of Words per Dollar and Words per Ounce. Heh.

Perfume has a Flesch-Kincaid index of 10.6, which means it is written at an approximately 10th grade reading level. The word “perfume” is used 252 times.

The coolest feature, however, is the SIP’s, or, Statistically Improbable Phrases. Amazon scans the contents of a book and finds phrases that are, amongst all books, statistically improbable (though not necessarily within the book), and shows us instances this phrase occurs in other books. It’s fun to see the connections.

For example, Perfume has a listing for the phrase “essence absolue,” which shows instances of the phrase in State of the Fantastic : Studies in the Theory and Practice of Fantastic Literature and Film (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy) by Nicholas Ruddick and in Reap the Wind by IRIS JOHANSEN.

Some more fun stuff I found out:

Ulysses uses the word “said” 1207 times and has a Flesch-Kincaid index of 6.8!! And here I was still struggling to get through the book... And the phrase “met him pike hoses” appears in a book called The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers by Nancy Toff. Hmmm. Makes you wonder.

Hamlet has a readability level of 5.5. Please don’t tell me Shakespeare is hard to read... Heh.

One of my favorite books, Jitterbug Perfume, has a Flesch-Kincaid index of 8.6 and uses the word “beet” 161 times. The lists of SIPs is impressive and funny.

I’ll not bore you with more stats. But go explore. It’s addictive.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A Novel Novel

Currently reading: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

This is a curious book. I found it a delightful, yet oddly disappointing, cautionary tale.

Let me explain. The book is labeled a “progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable.”

epistolary, adj. 1. of or associated with letters or letter writing. 2. of, pertaining to, or consisting of letters: an epistolary novel.

lipogram, n. a written work composed of words selected so as to avoid the use of one or more letters of the alphabet.

The novel is set on the fictional island of Nollop, which is 21 miles off the coast of South Carolina. The island is named after Nevin Nollop, the author of the famous pangram (a phrase, sentence or verse composed of all the letters of the alphabet) sentence The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

The novel consists of letters written primarily between Ella (of the title), and her cousin Tassie, but also letters between various other Nollop inhabitants. The crisis comes when the letter “z” falls off of the famous sentence written in tiles at the base of the memorial statue of Nollop. The island’s Council decrees that the fallen letter is a sign from Nollop beyond the grave, and they forbid the use of the letter in any written or spoken form. The punishments are unusually severe and end with banishment upon the third offense.

As the novel progresses and tiles fall from the statue, so do they disappear from the novel and the letters between the characters.

The novel is a good cautionary tale about freedom of expression and the dangers of not acting decisively in defense of that freedom. It is also a great exercise in wordplay and creative language. The letter-writers are all educated and obviously love the language and all its intricacies.

My only complaint is that the novel becomes a bit too bogged down in its own cleverness. The author seems so intent upon his wordplay, that the characters remain two-dimensional and the plot scurries along with only short moments of tension.

I do, however, highly recommend it for teens and for those interested in language. It’s a quick read and packed with beautiful vocabulary and maybe even a few lessons.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

April is National Poetry Month

Yes, it is indeed National Poetry Month.

Try to celebrate by reading the good stuff. These are not the Doggerel Days. Though, some folks like to have fun...

Happy April. Read a poem. Better yet... write one!

Poetry as performance

Currently reading: Nine Horses by Billy Collins

I got to go see Billy Collins (U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001-2003) on Monday night at the university. When he was named Poet Laureate, I had already been a fan of his. I was thrilled his work was being recognized.

(Aside: I am not as impressed with the current Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser, but I confess I haven’t read many of his poems. I’ll give him a chance.)

Billy Collins is a marvelous entertainer. His verse is well-suited to being read aloud, and he knows just where to put pauses to make the audience laugh or sigh.

It was a much bigger crowd than I’d expected, but I was delighted to see a lot of teens and kids there. I was exposed to good poetry very early on and I was taught that poetry needn’t be stuffy, lofty, pretentious or incomprehensible. There needs to be more of this.

And maybe it was just me, but I felt a strange undercurrent of ennui in Mr. Collins. Was he tired of reading the same poems again and again? Was Reno just a backwoods hicktown beneath his notice? Or was it just my imagination?

But he did read a poem that I found practically perfect. He introduced it by saying that he’d found a love poem in a magazine and that he’d discovered that the poet had found what it is that women want: “They want to be compared to things.” I love this poem, but when I originally read it, I found it to be sweet, with a slightly wry twist. When he read it, people were doubled over in laughter.

He opens the poem with the first two lines of the love poem:


by Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
- Jacques Crickillon...

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass,
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is no way you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley,
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's teacup.
But don't worry, I am not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow-- the wine.

Billy Collins had this to say about this poem (and his poetry in general):

“I have said this before, but the perfect poem for me would be one in which the reader/listener could never be completely sure at any given point whether the poem was being serious or amusing, grave or droll. The closest word we have to describe that condition is irony. "Litany" and a few other poems of mine flirt with this state of being funny/serious. Most of them fail because they lose their balance and fall to one side or the other. Waiting on one side of this balancing act is sarcasm and on the other side, sentimentality. I am susceptible to both. Because "Litany" is a series of love poem conventions -- these traditionally enhancing comparisons of the woman to whatever -- we seem to recognize the familiar tone of the love lyric, but, of course, the poem is busy deconstructing (did I say that?) these conventions. Okay, making fun of them. Actually, that poem follows the movement of many Shakespeare sonnets -- it starts out being about the beloved and ends up being about the poet. What else is new?”

I highly recommend going to see “famous” poets read their work. I saw Marvin Bell read his poetry back in 1987 and it transformed my writing. If nothing else, it’ll make you want to write.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Ten Very Hip Poems...

I regularly attend open mic poetry readings. I have many thoughts that I'll post later. But this list nearly made me spray tea across my monitor.


Do you read poetry?

Currently reading: Visible Signs: New and Selected Poems by Lawrence Raab.

I wish I could write like this. No one can end a poem like Raab:

A Crow
by Lawrence Raab

Here is the strict, abstract
light of winter. From a bare branch
a crow takes flight, rising
heavily, overcoming
the impossible. Snow
sifts from its branch.
A white shawl.
Thousands of separate flakes.
The bird has moved to another tree,
cawing harshly, though I can
barely hear it, with the windows
locked in place against
the cold. So the mind
remains at a distance
from its concerns,
its uncertain desires—
nothing to think of, or to say,
nothing truly seen until later.

He somehow inserts a wonderful inflection to his poetry. It is almost conversational. But then he’ll lend a magical insight or observation. It’s such a talent.

I know a lot of people who write poetry, but very few people who actually read it. I have always wondered who these writers think they will have as an audience, and how they expect to improve or diversify.

I know, I know... most poets will tell you, “I write for myself.” But as soon as you commit pen to paper, it becomes something else. It is “out there.” (For lack of a better phrase...) It is then owned by whoever reads and interprets it. All we can do, as poets, is attempt to convey.

I read this in an interview with Raab:
“I hope students signing up for a creative writing class in poetry are already interested in poetry. But frequently they're not particularly interested in reading poetry, only in writing it, which leads me to believe that they're not really interested in writing poetry, only in expressing themselves in some vague way. You learn by reading. You want to do what you enjoy experiencing. A good poem, I think, is one that you want, almost immediately, to reread. Not because you have to for a class, but because there's a richness there that draws you back. I try to find ways to get my students to experience that richness, the dazzling presence of it in great poems, the resonant possibility of it in their own work.”


More of Raab's genius.