Pi Poems, by Becket – A Review
One of the intriguing things about the emergence of syllabic forms in English language poetry is how often the syllabic shape of these forms is determined by mathematical constructs. Forms that are based on some kind of maths include the Tetractys, Fibonacci, Etheree, and Lucas. The Tetractys is based on Pythagorean number theory; the Fibonacci and Lucas are based on related number series; and the Etheree is based on the standard counting sequence of 1 to 10.
Given that background, it makes sense that someone would use the number Pi as the basis for a syllabic form. The number Pi is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle. It is a mathematical constant. It is also an irrational number; meaning that the resulting ratio continues without ever coming to a conclusion or repeating.
The poet Becket, who does not give us his first name, has published a collection of poems based on this numerical sequence. As far as I know this is the first book of Pi poems. Becket writes in his ‘Introduction’,
Similar to the way each line of a haiku is written according to a set number of syllables, the syllables for each Pi poem line is determined according to the number of Pi – 3.1415926535 . . . and on into infinity. So the first line of a pi poem would be 3 syllables, according to the first number of Pi; the second line would be 1 syllable . . . and so on until the poem is finished.
The challenge in using an irrational series like Pi is that with the constantly fluctuating numerical count there will be a strong tendency for the poem to read like a free verse poem. In the Fibonacci there is an overall shape to the poem, a steady increase in line length which the reader can feel as the poem grows. The same is true of the Etheree. But with an irrational number the series will fluctuate; there will be no perceived repetition of numerical sequences and no overall shape for the reader to use as a basis for comprehending the shape of the poem.
Becket’s solution to this is to base the structure of his poems primarily on grammar. But Becket is not consistent with this approach. Here is an example where grammar defines the lines:
Do not stop.
Keep going on.
because our lives are journeys from peace
between which dwell deserts
and too much worry.
Fearfulness undermines progress.
So sidestep fear, leap over self-doubt,
push away biting
demons crouching interiorly,
and be kind.
With the exception of the transition from line 14 to 15 (biting/demons) the lineation is grammar based. Many of the lines end in periods. Five of the lines are full sentences. This works well and the reader can enter into the numerical sequence that underlies the lineation.
On the other hand, some of the Pi poems seem to have completely arbitrary lineation:
This is a standard sentence and there is no strong feeling as to why the words have been laid out vertically rather than horizontally; nothing is added by their placement and the reader doesn’t really see anything new.
Sometimes Becket will use rhyme to define a line:
Right now will
away like grass.
wither while sorrows
wilt like meadow heather in autumn
Whether I suffer or
jubilate, my life
So I go.
The pass/grass rhyme is effective, although there will be the tendency to sonically move ‘pass’ to the end of line 1. And the use of ‘weather’ and ‘Whether’ as initial words for lines 7 & 8 resonates nicely with ‘wither’ at line 5. Overall this is a good example of lineation which effectively uses a few devices to present to the reader/listener the underlying syllabic shape.
Here is one of Becket’s shortest Pi poems:
the only gift.
Here is another example where this reader feels like the lineation is arbitrary, that nothing is really added to the thought by putting it on three lines. ‘The present is the only gift’ seems to me to be just as effective.
The subject matter of the Pi poems is almost entirely focused on the poet’s inner feelings. I think that is its greatest weakness. Whether the poems are read as free verse or syllabic verse, the subject matter is remarkably self-centered; but oddly, we learn almost nothing about Becket himself and his specific life. That’s a shame because he has led an interesting life. Becket is a former monastic and is currently an assistant to Anne Rice; the author of famous vampire novels. I would like to have read more about his specific biography in his poems.
What I noticed is that there is almost nothing of the world in the poems: no tulips or oaks, no birds or beasts, no mountains or streams. And the world of human beings is mostly absent as well: no trucks or bridges, no houses or offices, no specific men, women, or children. A few times Becket introduces the wider world through metaphor or simile; see the above poem that mentions grass and heather. But that poem is unusual; it is one of the reasons why it is one of my favorites. More typical is a poem like this:
my yearning to
the sickness in me
that spreads from me whenever I fail
The world of Pi Poems is about the author’s own fears and psychological, as opposed to sociological, difficulties and his hope of overcoming these limitations. I believe that his approach to these poems is rooted in the literature of affirmations. I have to confess that I do not find this type of literature attractive. I know my limitations; this kind of writing always strikes me as self-absorbed. On the other hand, I have friends who have benefitted greatly from the use of affirmations; so I recognize that it can have value. If you are one of the many who find affirmations attractive and helpful (e.g. readers of Louise Hay or Wayne Dyer or the Hazeldon books of affirmations) you will probably be more receptive to the subject matter than I am.
My difficulty with Becket’s Pi poems is their abstractness and their psychological orientation. The above poem about the interaction between fear and love is not placed in any specific incident; it remains a floating abstraction. Perhaps it resonates with your own experience, perhaps not; it is not clear what I can do with it or what there is to learn from it. I am intrigued by this collection and its attempt to use a numerical series that never repeats, and wildly fluctuates, as the basis for a poetic form. At times Beckett meets that challenge effectively; at other times my feeling is that it falls short. On the other hand, I am not particularly inspired by the subject matter; it is too self-fascinated for me. So in the end I am ambivalent. I want to give it four stars for trying out a difficult form and, at times, succeeding with it. But I have a two stars feeling for the subject matter. As I said above, other readers might find the subject matter more agreeable.
I wonder if others will follow the lead given by Becket. My feeling is that there is a yearning among 21st century poets for form. But that yearning is not met in MFA programs, Universities, official poetry journals, or in the numerous volumes of free verse that are churned out year after year. But this yearning will find an outlet and one of those outlets is the emergence of various syllabic forms that an individual poet finds attractive. There have been a lot of these offered since the eighties. A few, such as the Fibonacci, have developed a following, along with the older Cinquain and syllabic Haiku. It will be interesting to see if the form that Becket has presented in his Pi Poems generates a following.
Pi Poems – for the one who needs them . . .
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