I just finished reading Mark Haddon’s novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” It’s also been made into a play, and it won Best Play at this year’s Tony Awards.
The narrator, Christopher Boone, is “15 years and 3 months and 2 days” old, and he is very good at math (or shall we say “maths,” since this book is set in England). He also describes himself as someone who has “Behavioral Problems.” Other people reading the book or watching the play have suspected that he is on the autism spectrum, although the author never says that. The author also never mentions poetry, but it’s there on nearly every page.
We don’t normally think of poetry having anything to do with math, but math is simply a method of using symbols (numbers) to represent a way of understanding the world. One way Christopher understands the world is through prime numbers. “Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away,” he tells us.
That’s essentially what happens in the book. There is a mystery—a dead dog—and in trying to discover the pattern behind that mystery, Christopher discovers a bigger mystery with its own patterns that intersect the first. In the end he is reduced to his own personal prime numbers: He will get As on his A-level further maths and physics exams; he will go to university; he will become a scientist. There are even proofs for these primes, but if I told you those, I’d ruin the very wonderful ending.
Christopher also provides an excellent definition of metaphor, a commonly used poetic device, and frankly, one that trips people up. Christopher tells us that the word “metaphor” comes from two Greek words, which together mean “to carry from one place to another.” Then he adds, rather sagely, “That means that the word metaphor is a metaphor.” Maybe that’s why it can be tricky.
Christopher thinks a metaphor should more accurately be called a lie. Because if you say you have a skeleton in your closet and you don’t, then it’s a lie, he explains.
Do you struggle with metaphors? Perhaps it’s because you’re one of those rare folks who always tell the literal truth. For all you liars out there, you didn’t realize you had something in common with poets, did you?
Oh, so they’re just lying! Well, then. Pour me another cuppa!
The other way that Christopher is a poet is because of this first sentence of chapter 181 (each chapter is a prime number): “I see everything.” Everything.
Christopher goes on to explain, “most people are lazy. They never look at anything, They do what is called glancing, which is the same word for bumping off something and carrying on in almost the same direction, e.g. when a snooker ball glances off another snooker ball.” Yes, we glance. We might stand in a field in the countryside, notice a few vague items, and then move on to other thoughts, like, What’s for dinner?
“But if I am standing in a field in the countryside I notice everything,” Christopher says. “1. There are 19 cows in the field, 15 of which are black and white and 4 of which are brown and white.” He goes on to talk about the slant of the field, from the high northeast side to the low end on the southwest. He adds, “7. The cows are mostly facing uphill.”
We think poetry is writing something flowery about cows in a field in the countryside and spring and love and maybe death. Christopher, mathematician with Behavioral Problems and accidental poet, shows us that poetry is seeing everything, so much so that “if someone asked me afterward what the cows looked like, I could ask which one.”
I wish I saw like that, because that, my friends, is poetry. Not some cows in a field but 19 cows facing uphill, that is, northeast, and which one would you like me to describe?