From Fibs to Fractals. Exploring mathematical forms in poetry by Marian Christie – a review by Mike Ferguson

From Fibs to Fractals. Exploring mathematical forms in poetry by Marian Christie

In 1969 I gained a Grade 4 CSE in Maths – this, so I was told at the time, the average attainment for a 16-year-old, though in reality it was the average in the lesser tier that wasn’t an ‘O’ level (GCE), the qualification required for college and many jobs. Some years later, in gaining my teaching qualification, I also acquired the compulsory GCE maths ‘equivalent’, this having taken a multiple-choice test where, as an example, solving the quadratic equation question containing letters x and y was a cinch when only one of the 4 possible solutions contained these…

I have considered the above a full disclosure before writing this review.

Thankfully, Marian Christie’s book is a consummate lesson in explanation, clarity, illustration and considerable engagement – and thus wonderfully accessible to me regardless of previous aptitudes. That she has Masters Degrees in both Mathematics and Creative Writing informs the content, but one immediately realises it is her lifelong interests and experiences in both areas that conveys its deep understanding.

I’ll write about the book’s beginnings as a flavour of all it contains, my further reading a pleasing anticipation. The Introduction informs and persuades on the interconnectivity of mathematics and poetic skills – how the poet uses the former in writing, for example, a villanelle, and how the mathematician uses the latter in, for example, seeking ‘elegance of expression and clarity in lay out’. Some historical reference and illustration consolidate the facts and then agenda for the book.

We are quickly convinced of how these linked aspects are realised in ‘Fib poems’ – this the perfectly simple point at which I began to understand a seemingly more complex presentation of Fibonacci Poems in the first chapter. What Christie then moves on to demonstrate are the variations and alternatives there are in using and developing a Fibonacci sequence – how poets/writers are not necessarily constrained by an initial definition (though there is constraint inherently in the formula).

The second chapter Square Poems introduces the SATOR square – new to me – and its origins are both fascinating and meaningful in the ‘elegant ingenuity’ it presents for storytelling and the writer. It is important to stress how the effectiveness of this book is in its explanation and celebration of mathematical forms linked so quickly and engagingly to examples of their use in poetry. I was personally hooked with the first illustration by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – pen name Lewis Carroll – because I have recently been appropriating his writings in Symbolic Logic for some of my found, experimental poetry.

Christie demonstrates how the square form can be seen in the 1597 poem by Henry Lok ‘in honour of Queen Elizabeth I’ – a compelling example of its intricate patterning – 10 lines, each containing 10 single-syllable words – and how it can be read in a variety of ways: the reader able to share in generating the experimentation. And as Christie says, ‘Clearly, experimental poetry was alive and well in Elizabethan times!’

Further examples of this technique/formatting are then shown in concrete and visual poetry with Bob Cobbing’s Square Poem. My use of teaching and writing square poems (or as I thought of them, grid poems) were influenced by work from Edwin Morgan, and it is a genuine learning curve to see its origins and broad uses over time so brilliantly presented here.

Only last week I wrote of how my ignorance continues to amaze me, this in discovering that my lifelong knowing of Emmett William’s poem Sweethearts at five pages (all I had ever seen, and used in my teaching) is actually a whole book of 226 pages! Seeking to rectify this wasn’t my prompt in getting Marian Christie’s book – rather its fascinating focus on maths in/and poetry – but it has so far proved as educational as it is appealing. I am so looking forward to reading the chapter Reflection Symmetry.

Review by Mike Ferguson @omahaglenn

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