- On
- Language
- Log, they've been talking about fibs and cats, two new
- poetic forms that use famous mathematical sequences to determine the number of syllables per line. The formal essence of poetry is, of course, to break old rules and make up new ones, so it makes sense that poets, having in many cases turned away from more traditional metrical forms as ways of organizing their verse, might look to mathematics for new inspiration. So we find "fibs," based on the Fibonacci sequence, and Bill Poser proposes "cats," based on the Catalan numbers, which, as he points out, also have a linguistic significance. I'm reminded of twelve-tone serialism, whose practitioners managed to be the first composers in history to write music that is vastly more interesting to read than it is to listen to. With poetry, reading is now perhaps the dominant mode of reception, although of course that was not always so; in the days before literacy was widespread, poetry was composed to be recited, and so its original formal organizing principles were ones that were palpable to the auditor—repeated metrical patterns, rhymes, alliteration. These devices also, of course, made the poems easier to learn by heart, so that they could be passed down from one bard to another. These patterns can generally be described in mathematical terms, but they also tie into the properties of natural language in interesting ways, so I think that Geoff Pullum is overstating the case somewhat when he says that "what's different about constraints in formal poetry is that instead of being inherent in the language and unconsciously obeyed, the constraints are completely arbitrary." (For some relevant linguistic research on verse forms, see Formal Approaches to Poetry, edited by Elan Dresher and Nila Friedberg, and recently published by Mouton.) The thing is, though, that these older and more natural mathematical patterns of verse almost always involve repetition of some sort—we find lines that all have the same number of syllables, or that all have the same number of stressed syllables, or that alternate between two different lengths, and so on. The line-lengths do not spiral off into infinity. If you pick a sequence that grows too fast, what you get sounds like prose.

**Nuværende humør:**It was better than cats!

**Nuværende musik:**I'm looking at you, Arnold Schoenberg.

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