Pi poetry

“One. A Poem. A Raven. Midnights so dreary, tired and weary, silently pondering volumes extolling all by-now obsolete lore.” The beginning of a short story that also encodes the first 3835 digits of pi.

Those of you who have been reading this daily blog for a while may remember the incredible French book A Void, which runs for three hundred pages without using the letter “e” even once. It’s a great example of constrained writing, writing that follows a set of internal rules.

(Side note: the French school of constrained writing known as Oulipo is an obsession of mine – in my experience the imposition of artificial constraints is a great way to drive creativity. See also your letter delighted me greatly and ambigram comic.)

Well, today I’m writing about a form of constrained writing that uses a style known as Pilish. Very simply, a text written in standard Pilish imposes very strict rules on the character length of words. It must begin with a word of 3 letters, then a word of just 1 letter, then a word of 4 letters. Then 1, 5, 9, 2, 6, 5… and so on. The example at the top of this post follows that pattern exactly. Why those numbers? Well, those are the first digits of pi, the famous constant that represents the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter.

It’s a mnemonic, a memory device. Humans generally find it easier to remember words, phrases, verse, and lyrics than we do long strings of numbers, so if you encode pi into a text you can recall the constant much more easily – just count the letters.

The example above is from a short story called “Cadaeic Cadenza” by American mathematician Michael Keith. It’s 3835 words long, and encodes the first 3835 digits of pi. It also serves as a retelling of various famous poems (the opening repeats Poe’s “The Raven” and a later section reworks Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky”).

There are dozens of examples of Pilish in more than a dozen different languages. I found this Persian one to be quite elegant, for example:

خرد | و | دانش | و | آگاهی | دانشمندان
.ره | سرمنزل | مقصود | بما | آموزد

Wisdom, science, and the knowledge of scholars,
will show us the way to the destination.

When I was a bratty teenager I memorised pi to 21 digits just to annoy my teacher, but I think I could have gotten further if I had used mnemonics like this.