What are numbers? What are we counting when we count numbers? The status of numbers is one of the great mysteries of existence; a mystery that philosophers have addressed down through the centuries.
In a number of posts I have talked about how the process of counting syllables unites the poet with the rest of humanity. A poet counting syllables is entering into the same process as the store clerk counting change, as a musician counting beats or measures, as the cook counting the minutes while the bread is baking, as the mathematician solving an equation, as the worker marking his calendar for his vacation, etc. Counting syllables is a profoundly human act.
The book, “Hidden Geometry of Flowers”, suggests that there is a larger context that can inform what we are doing when we are counting syllables. It is the context of nature as such. The suggestion here is that nature as a whole is participating in counting, in numbers, in ways that are mysterious, yet also evident to an attentive observer.
The instantiation of numerical forms in nature is observable in many dimensions. But perhaps the most attractive manifestation of numerical forms is found in flowers. The book “The Hidden Geometry of Flowers: Living Rhythms, Form and Number”, by Keith Critchlow, is a stunning presentation of this view. The geometrical patterning of flowers is used to suggest that the world of numbers, and the world of nature, are intimately related. Critchlow is suggesting that flowers instantiate and participate in numbers and that this is the source of their beauty.
The book is visually stunning; a real feast for the eyes. The author has spent many years photographing flowers, and plants in general, and uses these photographs to illustrate his thesis regarding the intimate connection between numerical structures and flowers. The illustrations are reproduced on heavy stock paper and this does make the book somewhat pricey; at $50.00, and a paperback, it is an expensive book. Yet it is also a keeper; one that you can refer to over and over again. From this perspective it is not overpriced.
One of the things I like about this book is that it presents its view rather than arguing for its view. What I mean by that is that the author allows plants, flowers, and the processes they present to speak for themselves. I mean that the book is not a logical, or deductive, treatise that starts from hypothesis and then deduces conclusions. Rather, the book is a call for us to look at the world around us, and plants in particular, in a different way and see how that can transform us.
Critchlow at times draws a connection between the numerical relationships found in flowers and plants and those found in music. He doesn’t use poetry to illustrate his thesis. But I found the connection easy to make, to draw out from the author’s presentation.
What the book suggested for me is that when poets engage in counting, in shaping words according to a syllabic form, they are engaging in the same kind of activity that a flower engages in as it unfolds in accordance with the formal parameters of its type. In a way I am saying that flowers are also engaged in counting. I don’t mean that flowers are in some manner saying to themselves, “One, two, three, . . .” I don’t really know how flowers go about counting, but I am suggesting that the world of nature is moved to unfold in accordance with numerical realities, and that these realities are present in the human mind as much as they are present in a seed, in a bud, in the petals of a lotus or rose.
Each type of flower instantiates certain geometrical relationships; and, in addition, unfolds in accordance with a certain rhythmic patterning as it grows from seed, to plant, to flower. This happens again and again, as each flower blossoms in each succeeding season.
In the same way, when someone writes a Tanka in accordance with the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure, the ‘blossom’ of the Tanka is seen once again in the world. In the same way, when someone composes a Tetractys with the 1-2-3-4-10 syllabic structure, the ‘blossom’ of the Tetractys is seen once again in the world.
Just as flowers instantiate certain numbers and relationships between numbers, so also a poetic form instantiates such a world of number and numerical relationships.
And it is all based on counting. Clark Strand wrote that when we count 5-7-5 we are united with the mind of Basho and all the Haiku poets of the past. But Critchlow’s books offers the suggestion that we are uniting with the mind of nature herself when we engage in this kind of patterned counting. The same reality that gives rise to roses and lilacs gives rise to Tanka and Tetractys, to Sonnets and Fibonacci.
It is this kind of repeated patterning of form which unites the formal poet with Great Nature. Although counting is the most ordinary of human activities and has the virtue of keeping the poet humble; yet counting also unites us with all of nature and the patterns and processes happening all around us.
At the beginning of these observations I asked “What are numbers?” Many mathematicians believe that numbers are real, that they are not human inventions. This view implies that we discover numbers and their relationships and that numbers are not conjurations of the human mind. I tend to agree with this point of view; it is a kind of Platonism, or, perhaps, more rooted in Pythagoras. From this perspective, counting of syllables is a door to the realm of numbers; a realm that expresses itself in countless natural forms. When the poet shapes words in accordance with a numerical patterning, by counting syllables, the poet takes a step into this world and at the same time serves this world and gives expression to this world: Just as flowers do when they unfold in accordance with the patterning of their type.
The book, “Hidden Geometry” is not directly about prosody or poetry. There is no chapter devoted to the application of numbers in a poetic context. But I think poets in general, and syllabic poets in particular, will find this book of assistance by demonstrating the primal nature of the basic process the formal poet uses when composing a poem. It will help the syllabic poet make the connection between what they are doing when composing a poem and what they perceive in the world around them. It places the shaping of words into this larger context. I found the book applicable to many aspects of poetry composition. Perhaps you will as well.
The Hidden Geometry of Flowers:
Living Rhythms, Form and Number
By Keith Critchlow