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‘The Institute’ by Dan Burt and a new writing prompt from Ben Rogers

Today’s poem describes the experience of encountering a whiteboard covered with incomprehensible calculations while being toured around a mathematics faculty.  The poet was struck by the symbols and the “unthought, deep belief in the potential value of an idea”, the emphatic instruction DO NOT ERASE beneath them suggesting the possibility of their profound importance.

Read our interview with Dan Burt here.

At Poetry in Aldeburgh: Dan Burt will read as part of ‘Making Sense of the Past in the Present‘ alongside Paul Stephenson and Mona Arshi, on Sunday 6th November, 11.30 am – 12.30 pm, in the Jubilee Hall


The Institute

A sign and ten low buildings pass
unnoticed in a field the size of Central
Park: a wallflower by a college town.
Wandering its halls, one-chair offices,
bare eggwhite walls, nothing stands out until
I reach a lounge where mathematical
notations – integers, fractions, powers,
roots, Greek letters, brackets, slashes – weave
arabesques of genesis and infant stars
for paper napkin audience and nibbled
chocolate bars, on slate where palimpsests
and marginalia in coloured chalks suggest
a coffee break authored this text
a plaque below it warns, DO NOT ERASE.

Today’s news is no better than yesterday’s:
three suicide bombings in the ‘cradle
of civilization’; a dowager billionaire
in Voltaire’s homeland gives her daughter’s
patrimony to a decorator; tar balls seed
hot beaches in a spoiled land whose citizenry
always blame others; immortality remains
elusive and, sub specie aeternitatis,
there will be nothing.  The same is forecast
for tomorrow, the one bright patch is a blackboard
crammed with symbols I cannot understand,
guarded by three words, DO NOT ERASE.

from We Look Like This (Carcanet, 2012)


Writing Prompt: Lost in Translation

Words are considered ‘untranslatable’ if there is no equivalent word in the target language, although that doesn’t mean they can’t still be explained.  Today’s task is to write a poem prompted by a word from another language that has no direct match in the English language.  One example is ilunga, a word from the Congo that topped a list (compiled by 1,000 translators) for being the most untranslatable word in the world, describing a person who will forgive a transgression a first time and a second time but never a third time.  There are an extensive number of such words, but you can find a starter selection to pick from via the Free Word Centre.

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