Poetry and Mathematics4 minutes reading
that divergent guide my life
are like two teams of horses
straining at my heart.
Yet I contain no vacuum –
and am slowly torn apart.
This snippet of a poem, written when I was seventeen, expresses the conflict I felt between my passion for the arts and for the sciences, specifically between poetry and applied mathematics. To my teenage self, the two seemed inherently incompatible. Mathematics, as I understood it at the time, was logical and disciplined, whereas poetry required what Keats described as ‘Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’ (Keats, 1817).
Eventually I opted to study mathematics. It did not occur to me that I could combine this subject with poetry until a few years ago when, in the process of researching chaos theory, I fortuitously came across an anthology entitled Strange Attractors – Poems of Love and Mathematics, edited by Sarah Glaz and JoAnne Growney (2008). Glaz and Growney are both mathematicians and poets, and the anthology, which includes work by writers as diverse as John Donne, Rita Dove and the Oulipian Harry Matthews, introduced me to the concept of mathematical poetry and helped reignite my desire to write poems.
What are the distinguishing features of mathematical poetry? Sarah Glaz answers the question thus: ‘Mathematical poetry is an umbrella term for poetry with a strong link to mathematics in either imagery, content, or structure…. The link of the poem to its mathematical component has to be strong. If the link to mathematics is in the poem’s structure, there has to be something non-standard, or unusual, about the use of mathematics in the poem’s structure to make the poem a mathematical poem’ (Glaz, 2010).
This definition effectively rules out standard metrical patterns (for example the iambic pentameter) or given poetic forms such as the pantoum or sestina that are defined by structural permutations, unless they have an additional mathematical component. A fine example of a pantoum that clearly qualifies as mathematical is Glaz’s ‘Mathematical Modeling’ (Glaz, 2017), where the form elegantly suggests the iterative process used to develop and refine a mathematical model.
There is a joyful satisfaction in solving a seemingly intractable differential equation or proving whether a daunting infinite series converges to a limit. A similar interplay of pleasure and intellectual rigour surely provides the creative stimulus for formally constrained poetry such as Anthony Etherin’s aelindromes (Etherin, 2017), H.L. Hix’s ‘Orders of Magnitude’ (a collection of one hundred ten-line stanzas, with ten syllables per line) (Hix, 2000), or the many variations of Fib poems, that is, poems based on the Fibonacci sequence (see, for example, The Fib Review, or my own poem ‘Pathways’).
In a thought-provoking article, Ron Aharoni observes that ‘both mathematics and poetry are searching for hidden patterns.’ (Aharoni, 2014). And this is the point I would now make to my seventeen-year-old self: that poetry and mathematics are not straining in opposite directions but can intersect, collaboratively, creatively and delightfully.
Aharoni, Ron (2014) ‘Mathematics, poetry and beauty’ in Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, Volume 8, 2011, Issue 1-2 pp.5 – 12.
Etherin, Anthony (2017), Aelindromes. Available online at https://anthonyetherin.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/aelindromes.pdf
Glaz, Sarah (2010) ‘Sarah Glaz’s Definition’ in Mathematical Poetry Blog by Kazmier Maslanka. Available online at http://mathematicalpoetry.blogspot.com/2010/08/sarah-glazs-definition.html (Accessed 10 March 2019).
Glaz, Sarah (2017) ‘Mathematical Modeling’ in Ode to Numbers, Simsbury, Connecticut, Antrim House.
Glaz, Sarah, and Growney, JoAnne (2008) Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics, (eds) Wellesley, Massachusetts, A.K. Peters Ltd.
Grandinetti, Mary-Jane (ed) The Fib Review. Online poetry journal available at http://www.musepiepress.com/fibreview/
Hix, H.L. (2000) ‘Orders of Magnitude’ in Rational Numbers, Kirksville, Truman State University Press.
Keats, John (1817) Letter to his brothers George and Tom Keats, Selection from Keats’s Letters. Available online at The Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69384/selections-from-keatss-letters.
Originally from Zimbabwe, Marian Christie now lives in Southeast England. When not reading or writing poetry, she looks at the stars, puzzles over the laws of physics, listens to birdsong and crochets gifts for her grandchildren.