Friday, May 30, 2008

Poetry as Math -- Sines, Cosines and Tangents Included

I wanted to elaborate on my post from the other day about math and language. Re-reading it, I realized I didn't talk much about how they are similar, but more about how the two disciplines (math and writing) have different expectations.


"Poetrinometry"


What first reminded me of the similarity were some short poems I wrote last semester. Coaxing my thoughts into tight lines and short words, and wrangling those tight lines and short words into a form, felt like my days of stuggling with trigonometry in my senior year of high school. My soul-wrenching fight against unneeded words was reminiscent of my brain-wrenching fight against all those extra numbers that I could never seem to get to go away. It was one of the most exhausting experiences I've had.

When I looked at my completed poems, the brief, rectangular forms that barely spanned the width of a page margin felt like the little compact squares of "sincostan" sitting on a line, on top of some other combination of "sincostan," running down the page (or pages) as I vainly attempted to simlify the form or to solve for x. The satisfaction of "solving" the poems was as great as my satisfaction with solving those equations. Perhaps greater, because I knew my answers, the finished poems, were "correct." The deep seated fear of simplicity must have held on a bit, however, because it was with bated breath that I picked up my graded poetry portfolio on the last day of the semester.



Defining (and Proving) a Sestina


I want to thank my extremely intelligent friend Henry for finding this sestina about math. Actually it's more like a sestina about the mathematical qualities of sestinas. There is an undocumented (?) theory that the sestina's form came from a spiral graph, but that may be hooey.

Unfortunately this poem doesn't fully satisfy my curiosity about what's been done to explore the math/poetry connection. It was obviously written by a math major; it's on the math department's pages, and the language doesn't do anything poetic except match the form's requirements. Kudos to Caleb for being interested enough to undertake a poem. His use of "Definition," "Proof," etc. in the margin is ingenious. Here it is:


S{e,s,t,i,n,a} by Caleb Emmons


Sets of Words and Numbers

Is Caleb Emmons saying something about set theory with the formatting of the title of his sestina? There's a whole new can of worms for the language/math comparison. Words fit into sets as much as numbers. As a wordsmith I would argue that words are harder to categorize because they can be grouped by meaning, by origin, by sounds, etc. and all these methods would produce very different sets. But a math major may argue that numbers have just as many shades of meaning as words and can be defined in as many ways as language can be defined!


Of course, I will have to come back to this.

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