April 30, 2009
Explorations of connections between mathematics and poetry recently brought two poets to the MAA's Carriage House Conference Center for an evening of readings.
Poets JoAnne Growney and Karren Alenier engagingly recited a wide-ranging selection of poems, including some they had written themselves. Many selections came from the anthology Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics (A K Peters, 2008). Edited by Sarah Glaz and JoAnne Growney, Strange Attractors contains about 150 marvelous pieces, by 100 poets, with links to mathematics in content, form, structure, and imagery.
JoAnne Growney (left) and Karren Alenier (center) read mathematical poetry from the anthology Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics (right).
Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry, including Looking for Divine Transportation, which won of the 2002 Towson University Prize for Literature. Her poetry and fiction have been published in the Mississippi Review, Jewish Currents, and Poet Lore. JoAnne Growney, who taught mathematics at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, has written and collected poetry with mathematical themes and structures. A collection of her own "mathematical" poems, My Dance Is Mathematics, was published in 2006 (Paper Kite Press).
During the one hour of reading, the two poets presented samples that touched on a variety of mathematical topics: algebra and equations; geometry; concrete (illustrated) poems; women and mathematics; counting and math anxiety; math puzzles; and humorous poems. A major theme, whether from literary masters and lesser known poets or from mathematicians and scientists, centered on love.
Beginning with algebra and equations, Growney read her own "San Antonio, January, 1993" (A mathematician left the convention/focused on 9, the digit that sits/in the billionth decimal place of pi...); and Alenier introduced Yehuda Amichai's "Israeli Travel: Otherness is All, Otherness is Love" (I remember a problem in a math book/about a train that leaves from place A. . .).
The geometry selections included James Galvin's "Geometry Is the Mind of God" (A point is that which has no part/A line. . .), Rita Dove's "Geometry" (I prove a theorem and the house expands:/the windows. . .), and Stanley Kunitz's "Geometry of Moods" (Concentrical, the universe and I/Rotated. . .).
Although you had to see the "concrete" poems to appreciate their structure, the poems about women and math were just as pointed, especially Growney's poem "My Dance is Mathematics," about Emmy Noether.
The poem opens with the lines:
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."
And closes with:
Today, history books proclaim that Noether
is the greatest mathematician
her sex has produced.
They say she was good
for a woman.
The category counting and math anxiety highlighted Philip Larkin's "Counting" (Thinking in terms of one/is easily done. . .), Karren Alenier's "Dialectic of the Census Takers"; and Agi Mishol's "Geese" (My math teacher Epstein/liked to call me to the blackboard. . .).
The surprise in poems related to math puzzles was Carl Andre's "On the Sadness," whose phrases follow a pattern for the factorization of prime numbers from 47 (which corresponds to the poem's first line) to 2.
Humorous poems included pieces by Shel Silverstein, John Ward McClellan (the limerick "A Lady of 80"), and Dan Clark ("Practical Application"). One nice example is Michael Stueben's "Valentine":
You are the fairest of your sex,
Let me be your hero,
I love you as one over x,
As x approaches zero.
To end the evening, Growney presented Pablo Neruda's "Ode to Numbers," and Alenier offered her new poem "Numbers in the Red" (Read and speak numbers 1 to 10 in Chinese).
The surprising interweavings of poetry and mathematics made for a delightful evening.—H. Waldman
Listen to the Mathematical Poetry event.