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How Poetry and Math Intersect (smithsonianmag.com)
69 points by Hooke 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments

This reminds me of this quote by William James in a review of a book of essays by the mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford:

But even the distant reader must allow that Clifford's mental personality belonged to the highest possible type to say no more. The union of the mathematician with the poet, fervor with measure, passion with correctness, this surely is the ideal. And if in these modern days we are to look for any prophet or saviour who shall influence our feelings towards the universe as the founders and renewers of past religions have influenced the minds of our fathers, that prophet, if he ever come, must, like Clifford, be no mere sentimental worshipper of science, but an expert in her ways. And he must have what Clifford had in so extraordinary a degree—that lavishly generous confidence in the worthiness of average human nature to be told all truth, the lack of which in Goethe made him an inspiration to the few but a cold riddle to the many.

I write regularly, and I call it poetry. I write 3 to 4 nights a week while I'm out.

I've also participated in slams and open mics. There is some poetry I'm just like meh on. It's like I don't like country it's just not my tune.

I didnt really get into it till I saw a guy perform at a slam. The inflection of his voice, body posture, it was close to rapping in a way. There was just a palpable fire. But I won't read others poetry, ill gladly listen. Poetry is best seeing the missing element the author left off the page.

I feel my writing is very cold. Being an aspie my emotions are very distant. So my writing comes off cold and logical. Instead of math i rely heavily on mythology Greek, Nordic, Roman, and enochian. Then will also drop to Latin at times.

Listening to people perform. It's often in a similar bar, and phrasing. Which makes sense they've crafted a tool set. Then are crafting new ideas with it.

If you don't mind my asking, where did you see this person perform, and what topics of poetry did they speak upon that inspired you to begin writing?


  Thanks, dear my lord.


  O(0), my offence(0) is rank it smells to heaven;
  It hath the primal(1) eldest curse upon't,
  A brother's murder. Pray can I not(0),
  Though inclination be as sharp as will:
  My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
  And, like a man to(2) double(2) business bound,
  I stand in pause where I shall first(1) begin,
  And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
  Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
  Is there not(0) rain enough in the sweet heavens
  To(2) wash it white as snow? Whereto(2) serves mercy
  But to(2) confront the visage of offence(0)?
  And what's in prayer but this two-fold(2) force(4),
  To(2) be forestalled(4) ere we come to(2) fall,
  Or pardon'd being down? Then I'll look up;
  My fault is past. But, O(0), what form of prayer
  Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
  That cannot(0) be; since I am still possess'd
  Of those effects for which I did the murder,
  My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
  May one(1) be pardon'd and retain the offence(0)?
  In the corrupted currents of this world
  Offence's(0) gilded hand may shove by justice,
  And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
  Buys out the law: but 'tis not(0) so above;
  There is no(0) shuffling, there the action lies
  In his true nature; and we ourselves compell'd,
  Even to(2) the teeth and forehead(4) of our faults,
  To(2) give in evidence. What then? what rests?
  Try what repentance can: what can it not(0)?
  Yet what can it when one(1) can not(0) repent?
  O(0) wretched state! O(0) bosom black as death!
  O(0) limed soul, that, struggling to(2) be free,
  Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
  Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
  Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
  All may be well.

Also, "too, too solid flesh," "double, double, toil and trouble," etc. etc.

Disappointed to see no reference to this brilliant paper/book proposal:

http://people.sju.edu/~rhall/proposal.pdf Rachel Wells Hall - The Sound of Numbers: A Tour of Mathematical Music Theory/Math for Poets and Drummers [2008]





Even more:


I have never understood the attraction of poetry, and I spent 4 years getting a degree in Creative Writing.

I've talked to my peers about this, tried to "get it." It's something wrong with me, I'm not trying to come across as if I'm the only one seeing through the emperor's clothing here. But, this first poem in the article for example (by the way, copy-pasting from this website is a fucking nightmare)

>I prove a theorem and the house expands: the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling, the ceiling floats away with a sigh.

I can appreciate a clever use of vocabulary, the choice of breathing words like "expand, hover, float, sigh" centered around the fulcrum of "jerk." Academically I get why it's a good poem. But I feel nothing towards it, it doesn't seem special to me, to the point that it seems even unnecessary.

Maybe someone else is here that used to be as cynical and boring as me and somehow has since "gotten" this art form that people have been playing around with for a couple thousand years, and is willing to share how they did it?

EDIT: I'm remembering specific incidents now, like of sitting around on a grassy hill on campus, smoking pot, while my peers read their favorite poems to eachother, everyone's nodding their heads, but I'm just not fucking getting it!

>As a professor, she used poetry in her mathematics classes to help students to connect emotionally to mathematics...


Your comment really resonates with me. I feel the same way towards poetry. I have a background in music so I understand rhythm and I can appreciate good word choice and other poetic devices.

But I don't feel anything from poetry.

I've described it as like being tone-deaf but to poetry. The majority of poems make me feel nothing, and the ones where I do feel something is more because of the story than because it's in the form of a poem. I think that for the poems I do feel an emotional response to, I could experience the same emotional response without the form of the poem as long as the same story was there.

One of the few poems I felt an emotional response towards was Shel Silverstein's "Masks" that I read as a kid. It was a short poem and I think I responded to it because of the story it told, and not necessarily because of the form.

I wonder if you feel similarly. Do you feel something towards poems that tell a compelling story or do you never feel any emotional response to anything written in the form of a poem?

Same thing here. Maybe because I read literature more than poetry growing up, but it's all in the story for me. Poetic writing "gets in the way" of the story for me.

I've been punched in the gut by a story but yea, not a thing from a poem. Not ever. Maybe a good monologue in a movie, sure, but not because of the poetry of it, just the acting.

Never bother with a poem that is less than 100 years old.

If you really want to be 'moved', don't bother with any poem less than 200 years old.

The poems that remain after 300 years are even better... Unfortunately, you start running into problems in that more work is put into deciphering the archaic English than enjoying the ideas expressed.

The point is, 99.9% of modern poetry sucks. It's not you.

> 99.9% of modern poetry sucks

I don't believe that that's what's going on here. The majority of all poetry sucks. As does the majority of all music, novels, paintings etc.

But the ones that don't suck persist. That's why it seems that older poetry is better, because we've forgotten/ignored the dross.

This tendency has been exacerbated in some fields by the split between art for marketing purposes and art for commercial purposes. But that hasn't really affected poetry, most of it's poor because most poets aren't very good.

You are exactly right. I left your observation unstated as I felt it obvious.

I was involved in a project to create an anthology of poems. I spent much time reviewing previous anthologies, published in the 1800s, of 'contemporary' poems... that is, the books contained the best poems written during the period the book was published.

And, the verdict? The overwhelming bulk of the poems were terrible.

> But I don't feel anything from poetry. > ones where I do feel something is more because of the story

Just curious. Do you find some combination of words more "beautiful" then other combination of words that says more or less the same thing?

For example "I wandered lonely as a cloud" vs "I wandered alone, like a cloud".

I like this strategy, I'm gonna explore it more.

I feel no difference between your two phrases, but the editor in me is triggered to think "should've wrote 'i wandered like a cloud.'"

I can think of specific writing that really worked for me. Peter Watts for example described the passing of one spaceship "under" a blacked out space station, describing how the only thing the astronauts could see were surfaces lit up by their own ship's thruster fire, behind them, casting long shadows ahead. I liked that.


Thought thunk this before, and here we are again. An identity function, an old familiar friend.

Thought thunk this before, and here we are again. A rhythm repeating, the beginning and the end.

Poetry is a non-standard posture of the poet towards his world that is expressed (shaped) by decoupling the language from his daily communication purposes, that hopefully revealing the inner base of human relations. Maths is about the same for nature relations. I am not that good but attempted that for hacker news by making a short poem of my first year comments here and targeting the inner gist of this community imho http://www.bonkers.it/2017/06/29/poem-h-news/

This is a great description, thanks for sharing

As a kid, I hated poetry because school teachers recited (and forced us to recite) poems in an overly dramatic, inauthentic way. I saw poetry as pretentious and frivolous.

Last year, I started listening to a Spanish rock band called Extremoduro (Spanish is my native language). I was captivated by the lyrics, I loved how the songwriter mixed delicate phrases with shocking and sometimes even impudent language. Robe, the singer & songwriter said:

>Bueno, yo me reivindico más como poeta porque lo que más quiero ser es poeta. Hacer una música, bueno, sí, está bien, pero hacer una letra para mí es mucho más difícil, es donde está una canción".

>(I claim myself as a poet, because being a poet is what I want the most. Making music, well, it's alright, but writing lyrics, for me, is much harder, because the lyrics is what makes the song).

This band alone has triggered an unsuspected interest in poetry for me.

I've only started to develop an aesthetic reaction to, and appreciation for, poetry in the past year. Before that, it was a complete mystery to me.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that most people have very particular taste in poetry. (So particular that some people might never discover their own!) It doesn't help that there is a lot of bad poetry out there, as well as poetry that might be good in some superficial "academic" sense, like you described, but doesn't produce any reaction in the reader.

There's also the fact that reading poetry is so different from reading regular prose, and it can take some getting used to. It took me several re-readings before poems that I now love first started to "click."

For me, it all started with discovering Nabokov's novels last summer -- his writing sparked an appreciation of prose and imagery that I never experienced before, despite being a lifetime reader. I read that he loved Keats, so I picked a few of Keats's best-known poems and read them over and over, until I internalized them and eventually came to love them. As I've explored other poets, I find that the more I read, the more I become sensitive to. But still, I'd say that 80% of the poetry I encounter (especially modern stuff) leaves me feeling stupid and insensitive, at least after the first couple readings. Better than the 99% a year ago, though!

EDIT: I went through something similar with classical music a couple years ago. Despite being a musician and music lover, I could just never get into it. I immersed myself in it for a few months and began to see/feel the beauty in it. I think it's just a very different way of approaching music compared to modern genres and structures, kind of like how poetry is fundamentally different from the novels most of us grow up reading.

Keats was the gateway for me as well. For me, good poetry is simultaneously unconventional in its design and convergent in its meaning. The poem introduces a novel way of understanding or describing its subject. In a political environment of constant repetition, loaded phrases, mottos, memes, etc., this is refreshing.

However, this classification sort of breaks down the walls of poetry, since many poems are ostensibly divergent i.e. arbitrary and pretentious. At the same time, many mediums (visual, aural, kinesthetic) can be "poetic" without having anything to do with literal poetry. Is there a better word to describe this quality? For example, I don't care for poetry as far as it is a category of written works, but I really like those lines that Keats wrote down.

Similar story here. Getting older has helped a lot and suddenly I'm way more open to different genres and they land with me. Being educated about those genres also helps me get into them. Poetry, classical music, jazz, hip hop, absract sounds, art from other cultures, lots of abstract visual art...in earlier times of my life much of that was just not going to land with me.

My philistine crackpot theory is that the printing press turned poetry from a mass-participation living art into a weird modern-art niche, gradually over a few centuries. The process was already advanced by the 19th century (thus you see Coleridge and Wordsworth wanting to get back in touch with living language). Modern poetry seems to me like visiting MOMA in New York: most of it not worth puzzling over, until you reach the 100+-year-old works on the top floor.

I'm surely missing some great stuff, but I support your feeling of not getting it.

In the early classical world, epic poetry was how history was remembered. Epic poets would spend years memorising the stories and the tropes and improvising a performance on cue.

Some performances lasted for hours (there being no Internet to distract anyone.)

The tradition started changing when poetry started to be written and published - by hand, initially - and then, as you say, it changed again when the printing press made it easy to distribute.

But it's worth remembering that it's basically an oral performance art, not just something to be read.

Live, it's a completely different experience, and can be far more powerful.

Haha, I feel the EXACT same way about modern art! My instinctual reaction is just like I said - "am I the only one who is noticing the emperor is naked?" But experience has tempered my arrogance so I want to work a couple more years on "getting" giant white canvases splattered randomly with paint before I just dismiss it all forever.

For my sins, here's a recentish poetry book I liked: https://www.amazon.com/Olives-Poems-Stallings/dp/0810152266

I don't think the lines you refer to would be considered a good poem. It's a poor imitation.

Cann't right now think of anything I know by a proper poet in English, but consider for example Leonard Cohen's

The Maestro says it's Mozart

But it sounds like bubble gum

When you're waiting

For the miracle, for the miracle to come

How much did he tell you in just those 4 lines? More importantly, have ever noticed the particular phenomenon described here? Now you have it in words, and you'll be able to notice it next time. I don't mean you specifically here, but just to convey the point.

That's poetry to me, not so much about "emotion", just noticing and expressing somewhat subtle facets of life. Because at the time this was written this was not a particularly new or subtle insight, that wasn't "true" poetry. Still a good song though.

> I don't think the lines you refer to would be considered a good poem. It's a poor imitation.

You'd be wrong. "Geometry" is a highly respected poem of (Pulitzer Prize winning, Poetry laureate) Dove's. (Only the first stanza is quoted in the article). It has been extensively analysed, incorporated into various poetry syllabi around the world, and reprinted dozens if not hundreds of times.

It's quite one thing to say that you don't understand a poem, or you don't like it, or you prefer songs to poetry. But try not to hold court on what is or isn't 'considered' good poetry by people who enjoy poetry qua poetry.

Just saw your comment, what you're saying is interesting to know, thanks. I thought it was clear that I was expressing my own opinion. Let me tell you just this: I do not think that Rita Dove, Pulitzer notwithstanding, have ever, literally, proved any new theorem. What I think happens here, is a typical journalist, or professional writer, trying to write about science, or just to use science language, whichever the intention was. Also, windows and transparent walls as artistic device in a 21st century poem? C'mon...

Thank you for the response.

> I thought it was clear that I was expressing my own opinion

I didn't get that sorry. When you said "I don't think [it] would be considered a good poem", it sounded like you were using a passive modal verb to suggest universality.

If it was intended as personal, I withdraw the rest of my comment.

> Also, windows and transparent walls as artistic device in a 21st century poem?

Since you've offered me the opportunity of being gloriously pedantic :) I can't resist saying that it was written in 1980. (Of course, that makes no difference to your opinion, I understand.)

When were transparent walls a suitable artistic device?

No problem :) re transparent walls I'd say they might have been suitable in late 17th century or so...

But seriously. To begin, the whole construct of comparing theoretical discovery to "seeing new things" is very old. Take Newton's famous "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." That actually is late 17th, although wikipedia says it could be even from the 12th, [1]. The windows probably have been used metaphorically even before that, but to be on the safe side, google ngrams finds them before 1900, [2]. Don't see much numbers about actual transparent walls, but a "glass ceiling" was used metaphorically as early as 1848, [3]. Thats remarkable on its own, although thats a different metaphor. Literal uses are even earlier.

Anyway, the point is cliche alert went off right at that first stanza.

There's a deeper problem, though. And that is that "proving" a theorem is not the thing that enables one to see. Proving is typically a rather mundane process, once one knows what one wants to prove. Take Pythagorean theorem even. Once one can formulate it, its not really hard to prove. But coming up with the notion that that is a thing that could be right, thats more difficult, thats the moment of "seeing". Its a bit of a simplification, but its mostly the discovery of new formulations that drives mathematics, not proofs. And so, the opening "I proved a theorem and then whooaaa..." is quite ridiculous.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_on_the_shoulders_of_g...

[2] https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=window+on+the+...

[3] https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=glass+ceiling&...

I have a lot of respect for Cohen but I gotta say I don't get what you're slinging here lol. Like... What do those four lines even mean?

Maybe it means that you know it's supposed to me amazing wondrous art (Mozart), but it feels like nothing (bubble gum) while you are waiting for the amazing experience you are expecting.

I've written poetry that I like but I've _never_ ready any. There are a lot of song lyrics I like, a lot, for their construction over their meaning.

I have a baseless conviction though that it's a combination of 1. unavailability and 2. pop tastes.

On 1: If I spent 10 hours reading random (short) poetry I'm absolutely sure I'd find something that clicked, but there's no place I'm aware of where you can read a selection of poetry like that (unlike youtube and bandcamp, where I can choose from a thousand songs in a thousand genres in seconds). At best there's old php sites where the shallowest dabblers upload. And there's no ambient exposure, like when you walk by a radio or hear something nice in an advertisement.

On 2: No studies, but there's a lot of discussion about the popularity of free verse (what you'll mostly find on the above sites), decline of meter, rhyme patterns, etc. So even when I spend an hour trying to read here and there, that's all I got.

You'll find a decent amount of fantasy verse in books and games, although I'm not sure how well it stands on its own. Maybe there's other fields where poetry can spontaneously occur? Grad school whiteboards?

I like math and I occasionally enjoy poems, but these poems did nothing for me either.

I also find it somewhat difficult to get into poetry. I don't know why I've been so patient with it. Maybe it's because I was never in a position of being expected to "get" it like you were.

As for what makes me like a poem, it's similar to what makes me like a song. I'll find myself repeating some small phrases of the poem to myself because I like them so much. Personally, I think listening to people read poems was what helped to convince me that there's something valuable in poetic language. I know there's a bit of elitism about wanting to hear something read to you instead of reading it yourself, but I'm sure Greek rhapsodes didn't feel the same way about reciting The Odyssey.

Someone I know just today described breaking an electronic device as "letting the smoke out".

Those four simple words are funny and beautiful, simultaneously absurd and reasonable. To me this is poetry. Elegance, in the mathematical sense, only the problem space is describing things, rather than proving them.

Rather than not "getting" poetry, I think you can settle for simply arguing that it isn't poetry, or that you don't like it. Surely though, with a degree in creative writing, you've found something to be poetic.

Poetry, like mathematics, is something you do. You can talk about it all day, but eventually you’ll have to get your hands dirty and develop a taste. You don’t have to but it helps to get your hands dirty. Once you develop a taste, you begin to look for others who have similar taste. It’s possible you haven’t found your taste yet. It’s common for mathematicians to only have taste for particular branches of math. Poets and those who like poetry are the same way.

IMHO you probably have to make poetry in order to get it and to adequately value a poem. Even then, what you allow yourself to see in a poem is very much determined by what you think could have been done with words when the author wrote that poem.

I feel the same about really modern poetry. Sometimes I feel like they're using unconventional grammar/vocabulary or simply incorrect grammar/vocabulary for the purpose of being unconventional.

You mean modern poetry like e e cummings and Jabberwocky?

Is poetry any different form the entirety of the history of art in that aspect? There's no accounting for taste, as they said (until the AI adtech bots figured it out).

I never understood poetry or cared enough to read it until I started memorizing it. Then it started to make sense.

How so?

Maybe it's the repetition during memorization that allowed me to understand what the poets were doing with meter and enjambment.

I'm mostly interested in iambic pentameter and heptameter: Shakespeare, Spenser, Arthur Golding, George Chapman, Milton, Tennyson, etc. I can't say that I understand a lot of modern, unstructured poetry yet.

The use of language is usually more interesting than the meanings of the poems for me (with the exception of a few, like Wilfred Owen). Memorizing a lot of poems creates mental structures of rhythms and sounds that are kind of like templates that your thoughts can fill, and they echo in my head for a long time afterwards.

I have to sometimes force myself not to pick up a poetry book, because it's so interesting that it can distract me from other things. Before that, poetry didn't interest me or make much sense.

I didn't get poetry until I read the textbook Western Wind. It was a positive impact on my life.

wider than the sky

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