• Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) the use of the numerical values of pi as the basis of written literature

An astonishingly impressive bit of wordplay popped up on HH at the end of last week:

That’s opening and first verse of Near A Raven—a retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1845 poem The Raven—by the American mathematician Mike Keith. This being an expert bit of wordplay by an equally expert mathematician, the length of the all words, in all eighteen verses, of Keith’s version of the poem corresponds to the first 720 digits of pi.

Literature that follows the numerical order of pi like this is known as Pilish. As a style of constrained writing, it’s thought to have developed out of the mnemonic devices or piphilology used by mathematical students to help them to memorize as many digits of pi as possible, like this:

How I want a drink—alcoholic of course—after the tough lectures involving quantum mechanics!

...which takes in the first 14 decimal places pi, 3.14159265358979. And when that one fails, there’s always this example from a 1985 edition of Scientific American that can help you remember the first 20:

How I wish I could enumerate pi easily, since all these bullshit mnemonics prevent recalling any of pi’s sequence more simply.

From these relatively straightforward mnemonics developed an entirely new writing challenge that used the decimal places of pi as its constraint. Mike Keith’s Near A Raven set the Pilish record when it was published in 1995—but he’s since outdone even this extraordinary feat.

The following year, in 1996, Keith published Cadaeic Cadenza, a short-story-cum-poetic-anthology that corresponded to the first 3,834 digits of pi and somehow managed to include Pilish versions of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky and TS Eliot’s Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. And then in 2010, he published Not A Wake—a full 10,000-word novel based on the first 10,000 decimal places of pi.

He’s a king—a whizz, unmatched, of Pilish poems and tales.

#mathematics #wordplay

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