Sunday, March 3, 2013

Maths in the English Classroom

I loved Maths at school and but for the limited choices available in 1st Arts in NUI, Galway I would have studied it on into university.  Surely becoming an English teacher has halted my love of numbers forever?  Not so (thankfully) as English literature, especially poetry, has much to do with numbers as my students are frequently baffled to discover.

Here Prof Roger Bowley argues that poetry and numbers are more closely linked than you might think:

Poetic metre or the rhythmic structure of a line of poetry fascinates me.  Why does the number of beats in the line contribute to the humour in a limerick? Or add to the emotion in a sonnet? Why does a rhyming couplet give us a feeling of completion at the end of a soliloquy or a sonnet? How did poets find a way to put music into words on a page?

Another word for poetic metre is 'prosody' which comes from the Greek for 'a song sung to music or pronunciation of a syllable' which demonstrates the two goals of poetic metre - to echo human speech and to capture music in words. Ultimately the 'rules' are not there to constrain poets but help a poet learn mastery over words, their rhythm and their music.  If you were learning to paint or to play an instrument would you not want to learn the exercises and techniques to help you learn rather than just figuring it all out on your own? It'd take ages!

If you'd like to learn more about poetic metre there are some great books out there:

The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry


Stephen Fry believes that if you can speak and read English you can write poetry. But it is no fun if you don't know where to start or have been led to believe that Anything Goes.
Stephen, who has long written poems, and indeed has written long poems, for his own private pleasure, invites you to discover the incomparable delights of metre, rhyme and verse forms.
Whether you want to write a Petrarchan sonnet for your lover's birthday, an epithalamion for your sister's wedding or a villanelle excoriating the government's housing policy, The Ode Less Travelled will give you the tools and the confidence to do so.
Brimful of enjoyable exercises, witty insights and simple step-by-step advice, The Ode Less Travelled guides the reader towards mastery and confidence in the Mother of the Arts.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver 

Instead of a blurb I'll use this chance to reprint one of my favourite Mary Oliver Poems just because she's a fantastic poet and her brilliance at writing poetry serves to represent how wonderful her slim guide to writing poetry is also!

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes, 
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting  
over and over announcing your place 
in the family of things.

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