Intersections – Poetry, Mathematics and JoAnne Growney

Emmy Noether was one of the great mathematicians of the early 20th century. Born in Bavaria in 1882, she loved dancing and initially trained to be a language teacher before opting, despite numerous obstacles, to study mathematics at university. She went on to make significant contributions in many areas of mathematics and mathematical physics, most notably in the field of abstract algebra.  

I first learned about Emmy Noether from a poem – ‘My Dance is Mathematics’ by JoAnne Growney. The poem is not only a fine tribute to Noether, but also a searing commentary on the misogyny, social pressures and anti-Semitism that she faced throughout her career.

They called you der Noether, as if mathematics
was only for men. In 1964, nearly thirty years
past your death, I saw you in a spotlight
in a World’s Fair mural, “Men of Modern Mathematics.”
Colleagues praised your brilliance – but after
they had called you fat and plain, rough and loud.
Some mentioned kindness and good humor
though none, in your lifetime, admitted it was you 
who led the way in axiomatic algebra.
Direct and courageous, lacking self-concern,
elegant of mind, a poet of logical ideas.

A palpable sense of anger at Noether’s treatment courses through the poem, which you can read in full here. As a sub-text, ‘My Dance is Mathematics’ also reflects the loneliness Growney experienced from the outset of her own career in what she has described as ‘the male-dominated world of mathematics’ in the 1960s:

If a woman’s dance is mathematics.
she dances alone.

JoAnne Growney grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania, reading avidly and composing stories and poems during her childhood. She writes of her formative years: ‘Raised to be a hard worker, I became proficient at mathematics in a time when girls were considered not as smart as boys. Though I tried to find time for literature and creative writing in college, my mathematics scholarship paid my way – so math and the sciences needed my first attention.’

Growney completed a PhD in mathematics at the University of Oklahoma and embarked on an academic career, becoming a professor of mathematics at Bloomsburg University. When time allowed, she pursued her interest in poetry, particularly poetry with mathematical connections which she collected to share with colleagues and students. A source of inspiration was the 1979 anthology Against Infinity: An Anthology of Contemporary Mathematical Poetry, edited by Ernest Robson and Jet Wimp, now unfortunately out of print. 

After retirement Growney continued to write and explore poetry, completing an MFA in Creative Writing, producing several books of her own work and co-editing, with Sarah Glaz, the anthology Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics which was published in 2008 (and which, incidentally, introduced me to the joys of mathematical poetry). 

By the time the anthology appeared, Growney had accumulated an extensive collection of mathematical poetry. Her desire to share this collection with others led her to start a blog, Intersections – Poetry with Mathematics. Fittingly, her first post, in March 2010, included her own poetic tribute to Emmy Noether as well as a reference to a letter by Einstein praising Noether’s accomplishments, in which he wrote: ‘Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.’

For anyone interested in mathematics and poetry, Growney’s blog is a cornucopia of delights. As she has noted, ‘One of the hypotheses that has guided me over the years – and may even be linked to my brain structure – is “Everything connects”. Looking for connections seems to be what I do. And, since I am interested in both mathematics and poetry, these form a pair for which I seek relationships.’ 

The blog is full of interesting – and sometimes surprising – connections between poetry and mathematics. There are poems by writers as diverse as John Donne, Sylvia Plath and Rita Dove; snowball poems and Venn diagram poems; poems about fractals, möbius strips and countability; tributes to Euclid, Caroline Herschel, Florence Nightingale and Alan Turing; and posts honouring Earth Day, Pi Day, Ada Lovelace Day and Black History Month.

There are reflections, too, on Growney’s own creative process together with examples of her poetry. ‘Things to Count On’ is a prose poem, taking as its starting point the numbers that featured so strongly on the farm where she grew up – ‘One hundred forty acres, seven sheds’ – before opening out into a moving tribute to her mother, who was left widowed with a young family to support:

In seven days no minutes to be happy, no hours to be sad — not even when my father died. My mother's a good woman, worth three good women. For sixty years everyone has thought so, and more than a hundred have said. I've stopped counting.

When writing on subjects in which she is strongly emotionally invested, Growney often chooses to work with constraints. In her article ‘Everything connects’ [2020] she observes: ‘Syllable-counting structures such as snowballs and squares and Fibs limit word choices so that, when I write in support of women’s rights or with grave concern about climate change, I am pushed to think carefully and not simply to rant.’ 

‘The Bear Cave’, set in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, is a fine example of a square poem, with nine lines of nine syllables each. 

Twenty-five years ago at Chiscau, 
marble quarry workers discovered, 
trapped by an earthquake in a wondrous, 
enormous cave, bones of one hundred 
and ninety bears, Ursus spelaeus 
(now extinct). Cold rooms of cathedral 
splendor now render tourists breathless
while the insistent drip of water 
counts the minutes. There is no safe place.

Environmental concerns often feature in Growney’s work. In the following poem, posted on Earth Day 2013, she conveys a sense of urgency, of time running out, in a series of successively shorter stanzas:

OUR earth is finite.  
Its resources are
finite. No clever
transformation can

convert the
finite to
infinite.

We must
learn to

share.  

In an intriguing inter-disciplinary collaboration, three of Growney’s poems with environmental themes have been paired with artwork by Allen Hirsh.

Regular readers of my posts will know that I frequently make reference to Growney’s blog.  As well as being a great site to browse, the layout, with its list of key words and cross-referencing, make it an invaluable and easy-to-use resource for anyone exploring mathematical poetry in all its aspects. However, its impact extends well beyond that of an online anthology and reference tool. Intersections – Poetry with Mathematics has become, as Sarah Glaz observes, ‘a meeting place for people who like poetry and mathematics.’ 

Astonishingly, over the years since she started the blog in 2010 Growney has published more than a thousand posts. Updating and maintaining the site demands a considerable amount of her time and she has, she says, sometimes thought of quitting; “… but I keep finding new poets, new poems, new ideas, new links, and wanting to write about them.  … In general, though, for me, writing is a way of learning.  And so I write my blog in order to learn.’ 

Much has changed since the 1960s, when the young JoAnne Growney was obliged to choose between studying the arts and the sciences. In addition to her own – and other – blogs, journals such as The Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, Journal of Mathematics and the Arts and The Mathematical Intelligencer  explore inter-relations between mathematics and other disciplines. The Bridges Organization (in which Growney is an active participant) oversees an annual conference on mathematical connections in art, music, architecture and culture.

And a woman whose dance is mathematics no longer has to dance alone.

With thanks to JoAnne Growney for answering my questions and giving me permission to quote her work.

References and Further Reading

Coxson, G. E. (2012) “JoAnne Growney’s Poetry-With-Mathematics Blog — An Appreciation,” Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, Volume 2 Issue 2, pages 140-150. Available at: https://scholarship.claremont.edu/jhm/vol2/iss2/12

Sarah Glaz (2019): Artist interview: JoAnne Growney, Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, DOI: 10.1080/17513472.2018.1532869.  Available at: https://joannegr.dot5hosting.com/JMA_ONLINE_Artist%20interview%20JoAnne%20Growney.pdf

Growney, JoAnne, Intersections – Poetry with Mathematics. Available at: https://poetrywithmathematics.blogspot.com

JoAnne Growney (2020) Everything connects, Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, 14:1-2, 66-68. Available online at https://joannegr.dot5hosting.com/Everything%20connects–JMA-Growney-26June2020.pdf

Growney, JoAnne (2017) “They Say She Was Good — for a Woman: Poetry and Musings,” Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, Volume 7 Issue 2, pages 294-302. Available at: https://scholarship.claremont.edu/jhm/vol7/iss2/14

Growney, JoAnne (2010) Red Has No Reason. Plain View Press, Austin

Growney, JoAnne (2006) My Dance is Mathematics. (Poems) Available online at: https://joannegrowney.com/ChapbookMyDance.html

Posted on 30th July 2021.

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