How Numbers Become Poetry
—By Tanairi Hernandez
Mathematical Concepts Lead to Unique Poetry Forms.
April is National Poetry Month, a time when we celebrate the art of poetry and the achievements of poets worldwide. To commemorate this event, Passaic County Community College theater professor, R.G. Rader, facilitated a poetry workshop for students via Zoom on Tuesday, April 6, 2021, at 1:15 pm, during which he taught three distinct styles of poetry written in specific sequences; the Fibonacci, the ghazal, and the cinquain. The workshop culminated with students sharing their poetry.
Rader is an internationally published poet, and founder of Muse-Pie Press, a publication of poems in a variety of styles and genres. His publications include Neon Shapes, Raising the Blade: Collected Haiku and Tanka 1980-2000, and Kicking the Rain. He has studied and taught different forms of poetry, participated as a judge in various poetry contests, and received numerous awards for his work. His poetry book, Neon Shapes, was a Merit Book Award winner.
Rader began the workshop by introducing the Fibonacci style of poetry. The Fibonacci is a sequence poem, where each line contains the number of syllables based on the Fibonacci number of sequences, which is 0,1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8. For each line, you add the number of syllables from the two previous lines. This style of poetry is similar to Haiku, a Japanese form of poetry that contains three lines; five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five in the third line.
Writing a Fibonacci poem appears easy but Rader goes on to explain that this poetry style involves more than just getting the number of syllables in the correct sequence. “The form creates the foundation for the poetry, but it’s still up to the poet to give it meaning,” clarifies Rader. Poetic nuance is essential to composing a Fibonacci poem. “First figure out what you want to say poetically about life and then work on developing the number of syllables, don’t start in reverse,” was his advice to students. Start with an idea and then put that idea into the form.
The second form of poetry style Rader discussed, was the ghazal method (pronounced guzzle). The ghazal was developed in Persia in the 10th Century AD and then brought to India during the 12th century. It is derived as a spiritual way of communicating or speaking to God. This form of poetry is common in Iran, Pakistan, among Urdu groups, and has become popular in contemporary western culture.
The ghazal form consists of five or more couplets. Couplets are two consecutive lines of poetry that rhyme and have a distinct flow. Each couplet must be a poem itself but must connect to the next couplet. The first two lines of the couplet end with the same word or refrain. The same word or refrain is then repeated in the second line of the couplets that follow.
During the workshop, Rader read ghazal poems by well-known poets, among them American poet, Marylin Hacker, and emphasized the poetic nuance of each couplet.
Lastly, Rader discussed the cinquain style of poetry. The cinquain form was created by Adelaide Crapsey in 1909 and is a short poem, consisting of 22 syllables. The first line of the poem has 2 syllables, the second line contains 4 syllables, the third line has 6 syllables, the fourth line 8 syllables, and the fifth line 2 syllables (2, 4, 6, 8, 2), which add up to 22 syllables in total.
Rader went on to say that there are three types of cinquain poems, this way poets are not confined to just one method. Adhering to such forms of poetry can lead the poet to come up with words they never thought possible,” shared Rader. His advice to new poets is that by adhering to a specific form of poetry, one can become more disciplined as a poet.
For those who believe that math and poetry should not mix, English professor, poet, and published author, Dr. Christine Redman-Waldeyer, briefly discussed narrative poetry. Narrative poetry is a style of poetry that tells a story and does not need to rhyme. Like a story, narrative poems have a beginning, a middle, and an end, with characters and a plot.
To inspire other students to engage in the art of writing poetry, former Chief Editor for the Visions Newspaper, Ashley Diaz, read a poem she recently wrote. Diaz told of how her deep fear of one day being homeless, led to her having weekly coffee chats with a homeless man, whom she refers to in her poem as Old Paterson. Her poem humanizes the plight of those without stable housing and also encouraged other students in the workshop to share their writing.
In the last fifteen to twenty minutes of the workshop, students wrote poetry and read their poems to the group. Student, Angela Vazquez, shared that she attended the workshop because it was something new, different, and out of her comfort zone. Vazquez reported that after attending the workshop, she now feels inspired to write poetry.
John Rieg, English major and managing editor for the Visions Newspaper described himself as an avid appreciator of poetry, who also enjoys writing lyrical poetry. “I thought it was useful to hear Professor Rader’s thoughts and tips for writing poetry, as well as some of the different ways to go about it. My favorite part was hearing some of the submissions at the end,” stated Rieg.
The poetry workshop is supported by the Visions Staff as part of their commitment to PCCC’s Visionaries’ Journal of Art, an online publication housed under Visions, to not only commemorate April as poetry month but also as part of a program that ends with a Poetry Banquet, which will be held this year on April 27 @ 1:10 p.m.