Essay

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, Fun...

What's a Fib? Math plus poetry.

by Deborah Haar Clark
One
Small,
Precise,
Poetic,
Spiraling mixture:
Math plus poetry yields the Fib.

Gregory K. Pincus wasn’t expecting to start a movement when he posted this Fib—his very first—to his blog last year. The Los Angeles writer, volunteer librarian, and dad was simply commemorating the opening of National Poetry Month by sharing the six-line, 20-syllable poem.

“I put it on the Web as a writing exercise,” says Pincus, who dubbed the poems Fibs for their basis in the Fibonacci sequence. The number of syllables in each line of the poem is the sum of the previous two lines: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8. “The constrained form makes you very conscious of word choice.”

Pincus came up with Fibs while pondering a haiku writing exercise. A confessed math geek, he sought a form that offered added precision and was intrigued by Fibonacci numbers. In nature, the sequence is evident in the spirals of nautilus shells, waves, pinecones, and sunflower seeds, to name a few. The numbers have also popped up in all kinds of creative works since even before the birth of the mathematician for which the progression was named.

Pincus played with the number sequence for his own amusement, creating one of his favorite Fibs:
Fib Time
Tell
Fibs.
What time?
Every day
Two seconds before
Clocks hit 11:24.

“I don’t know that there was any other attraction other than I thought that it was a neat sequence,” says Pincus. “It was different. A seemingly odd combination of mathematical sequence and poetry that really works.”

It is not difficult, he says, to come up with a 20-syllable line that fits the Fibonacci structure. The hard part is to come up with a 20-syllable line that reads well.

To be sure, Fibonacci poetry is not new. It’s been around in one form or another for centuries, with works applying the numerical sequence to syllables, words, or letters. What makes Fibs remarkable is how quickly they spread.

Pincus posted the first Fib on his children’s literature blog, gottabook.blogspot.com, on April 1, 2006. Intrigued readers began submitting their own Fib creations. Six days later, Slashdot.com, a technology-focused site with the tagline “News for Nerds, Stuff that Matters,” linked to Pincus’ Fibs post, and interest in the poetic form ratcheted up considerably.

“That was the day I had 32,000 visitors on my blog,” says Pincus.

Slashdot readers jumped on the new form, turning out pages of their own poetry and producing far more Fibs fans, including poet Alan Reynolds, who posted his take on Fibs in Fib format.
This
form
forces
fine feelings
into abstruse lines
each longer longing to affix
a meaning to creations made live by febrile minds
and for this new spring trick I thank both you and SlashDot. Well done.
Though if continued cumbersome.

“The success of this story was entirely because the poem was based on the Fibonacci sequence,” says Rob Malda, Slashdot founder. “Geeks love interesting number sequences, and that one is way up there. Generally speaking literature by itself isn't our typical subject matter, but interesting use of math definitely is.”

Within days, Fibs could be found on sites around the Internet.

Then the New York Times called. A mere two weeks after Fibs first appeared, the nation’s newspaper of record published an article detailing the poetry phenomenon.

Suddenly, Fibs were everywhere. Sites dedicated to actuaries, gamers, poets, mathematicians, teachers, musicians, librarians, and Italian stockbrokers were reporting on Fibs—with many readers posting their own.

“The response was pretty remarkable and across so many communities,” says Pincus. “It attracted people who used Fibonacci numbers in their work and those who liked the puzzle aspect or the poetry aspect.”

Blogger Marilyn Roberts announced a contest for knitting-related Fibs on her site, The Knitting Curmudgeon (www.knittingcurmudgeon.com), with the following Fib:
Fib to a Knit Dweeb
I
spend
my days
wondering
if Lion Brand Fun Fur
will make a nice pair of undies.

“Most accomplished knitters know the value of mathematics as applied to knitting—certainly geometry and algebra are needed to calculate shaping if you design your own garments,” she says. “My readers are pretty erudite, so I knew they would find it a challenge not only to create the Fibs but to use knitting as the subject. And it was great fun for all of us.”

Fibs also went international, appearing in French, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Greek, and other languages.

The attention only added more fuel to the Fib fire.

The British newspaper The Independent carried an article that stated, “Fibbing, if we can call it that, may be just the thing for a lazy bank holiday weekend. Alternatively, it might just drive you round the bend. And there is the danger, of course, that once you start, devising Fibs will become as addictive as crossword-filling or Sudoku-solving.”

So what is the appeal of Fibs?

These short, straightforward poems are that rare thing capable of crafting a bridge between the often disparate souls of art and science. It helps that the form is exceptionally easy for anyone to understand. Pincus reports that he’s received several e-mail messages from teachers reporting that Fibs are a great way to combine math and English, and to explain the Fibonacci sequence to the non-mathematically inclined.

The simplicity of the form is part of its appeal, says Tony Barnstone, poet and professor of English language and literature at Southern California’s Whittier College (home of the Whittier College Poets, named by USA Today as the least threatening college mascot in America, topping even the Mary Baldwin College Squirrels and the New York University Violets).

“In my experience, people are extremely hungry for poetry, but they don't have access to it; they can’t find the door,” says Barnstone. “The hothouse poetries of the academy are not written for them, and so they turn to forms that are more inviting, to spoken word, to rap, to haiku and to the Fib. Once inside the house of poetry, they can feast.”

The phenomenon of ordinary folks, as opposed to professional poets, experimenting with poetry is widespread and timeless. As examples, Barnstone points to the oral poetry tradition in modern Greece, exemplified by the Cretan mantinades (morning songs), an oral poetry form used in music and courtship, and the popularity of tanka and hokku (haiku) in Japan.

And Fibs are not the first forms of poetry to quickly win acclaim, although the Internet surely accelerated the process.

“Perhaps one could compare the spread of the Fib to the spread of the sonnet in England after its introduction to English by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and by Thomas Wyatt, or to the sonnet sequence fad that Sir Philip Sidney began, or to the spread of renga under the influence of Basho,” says Barnstone. “In cultures such as China and Japan, poetry was central to the life of the people, and so a widespread popularity of particular verse forms was common in many periods.”

Of course, the swift rush of Internet celebrity is accompanied by an equally speedy fall into fustiness. Although they’re not even two years old, Fibs are ancient news online. But they continue popping up on sites here and there.

Pincus is one of those who continue writing them, and in fact is working on a novel that includes Fibs. He hopes that the little poems continue to proliferate.

“Fibs are good clean fun, and playing with form, any form, that inspires people to write is good,” says Pincus.
Dunk!
by Gregory Pincus
Slam!
Dunk!
Soaring . . .
I'm scoring.
Crowd keeps on roaring.
In my dreams I'm unstoppable.
Originally Published: November 20, 2007

COMMENTS (11)

On November 20, 2007 at 4:10pm Peter P wrote:
Judith Baumel had a wonderful book with fibonacci-based poems (and more)THE WEIGHT OF NUMBERS published in 1988 by Wesleyan.

I have played with this form as well. My version is a bit longer:

1st stanza: one line, one word.

2nd stanza: one line, one word.

3rd stanza: two lines, two words each line.

4th stanza: three lines, three words each line.

5th stanza: five lines, five words each line

7th stanza: eight lines, eight words each line.

8th stanza: 13 lines, 13 words each line.

The stanzas grow quickly, and the shape of the poem begins to resemble a seashell's spiral.

On November 21, 2007 at 2:27pm Jules, 7-Imp wrote:
This is a great read on many levels, but let me just say that my day has been made to know there are Poets out there as mascots for some postsecondary students. That is too fabulous.

On November 25, 2007 at 2:01pm Rich Merrill wrote:
fibbing looks like fun !

It also looks as if I'm late to the show.

On November 30, 2007 at 1:56pm poetpiet wrote:
hey nifty neat and ... nerdey?

for someone following one of the large champions and promotors of the golden mean (managing to make it controversial and all - dan winter - goldenmean.info has lots of graphics, same ones over and over in fact) for years and than starting to the also endly repetitive (with slight twists) Drew Hempel and his 'symmetry is a lie is a science is a war racket' type spiel ... it's even extra specially interesting.

On December 7, 2007 at 3:41pm Majid Naficy wrote:
Interesting. You need to add "zero" before "1". Otherwise it is not sequential.

On December 7, 2007 at 4:56pm Gary Lehmann wrote:
The zero is there. You just don't see it.

On December 9, 2007 at 2:38pm Kristal wrote:
This looks like a fun form to play around with. Thanks

On January 4, 2008 at 5:40pm David Musgrave wrote:
I've played with this form as well, but from a slightly different angle:

Death by Water 2: Hippasos

…he who first disclosed the knowledge of surds or irrationals and spread it abroad among the common herd perished by drowning…?

PAPPUS, Commentary on Euclid’s Elements X

Two

needs

drove him

to his end —

the perfect beauty

of a theorem and, hidden

within, the outrage of its inexpressible truth.

Unhinged, the retribution they delivered was swift:

between the needs to understand

and know, he described

overboard

his death’s

surd

arc.

On January 18, 2008 at 10:35am darrin murphy wrote:
great poem i love it

On January 19, 2009 at 4:58am krmmc wrote:
1,

Two

needs

drove him

to his end —

the perfect beauty

of a theorem and, hidden

within, the outrage of its inexpressible truth.

Unhinged, the retribution they delivered was swift:

between the needs to understand

and know, he described

overboard

his death’s

surd

arc.

2,

On November 20, 2007 at 04:11 Peter P wrote:

Judith Baumel had a wonderful book with fibonacci-based poems (and more)THE WEIGHT OF NUMBERS published in 1988 by Wesleyan.

I have played with this form as well. My version is a bit longer:

1st stanza: one line, one word.

2nd stanza: one line, one word.

3rd stanza: two lines, two words each line.

4th stanza: three lines, three words each line.

5th stanza: five lines, five words each line

7th stanza: eight lines, eight words each line.

8th stanza: 13 lines, 13 words each line.

The stanzas grow quickly, and the shape of the poem begins to resemble a seashell's spiral.

On June 29, 2010 at 3:18pm rebecca wrote:
anyone got a bird one to share?

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Biography

Deborah Haar Clark is a freelance writer and occasional children's book reviewer for Book Buds.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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