Think math and poetry have nothing in common, aside from parallel lines? Think again. Celebrate Pi Day (March 14 = 3.14) by reading this selection of geometry-themed verse. A pi-encoding short story brings you full circle.
It's quite possibly the sexiest of numbers. Pi, defined as the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, has long captured the public imagination with its infinite and nonrepeating decimal form. In a nod to pi's cultural cachet (and a bid for stronger math and science education), the US House of Representatives passed a resolution designating March 14 (3.14) as Pi Day in 2009. Outside of schools, commemorations of the holiday tend to involve a lot of pie eating. The city of Princeton, New Jersey, as the longtime home of Albert Einstein (born on March 14!), celebrates over an entire weekend; activities include a pi-recitation contest with a $314.15 prize. For you literary types who want in on the nerdiness, here’s a Pi Day reading list: three geometry-themed poems followed by a short story constrained by the digits of that delightful constant.
John Donne, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” (1611)
Donne gave us one of the most innovative metaphors in love poetry, comparing himself and his lover to the two legs of a geometer’s compass. Although his travels may take him on a distant arc, she always brings him home to the center of their circle.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), “The Definition of Love”
In contrast to Donne’s, Marvell’s geometry is a star-crossed one. Here the lovers are compared to the antipoles of a globe, bound to each other along every meridian and yet never able to unite.
For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close:
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannic power depose.
And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have placed,
(Though love’s whole world on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embraced,
Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear,
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramped into a planisphere.
As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours, so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.
Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare” (1922)
Millay pays tribute to the father of geometry and author of the Elements. To be able to derive mathematics as Euclid did, she says, is to look upon Beauty in its purest essence.
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.
Mike Keith, “Cadaeic Cadenza” (1996)
A mathematician and software engineer, Keith wrote a short story wherein the lengths of the successive words spell out the digits of pi, with a ten-letter word representing each zero. Nearly 4 thousand digits of pi show up. The story’s protagonist, discovering that all of the books on his shelves have been translated into this constraint, must figure out what has happened.
We start with the familiar 3.14159:
Midnights so dreary, tired and weary,
Silently pondering volumes extolling all by-now obsolete lore [...]
Hundreds of digits later, we encounter a mutated Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
Let us depart then,
While eventide’s withering skies threaten,
Impersonating the sufferers etherising upon pallets;
Together henceforth go [...]
The playfulness is roundly enchanting. The possibilities for marrying math to poetry are infinite. Enjoy your reading, and here's wishing you a transcendental Pi Day.