1999

An elegant proof - mathematicians say that. Many of us never saw elegance in a proof, and we might even stereotype poets as a group that overall scored poorly on the SAT math section. And yet, I find a number of poems that concern math. (Here's a small online anthology of mathematical poetry)

"Geometry" by Rita Dove, moves between the rational, real world that we can know - a house and a theorem - and the transformed house which expands like a universe animated in a film for us to see. The geometric lines one can draw to represent something that is really quite different, are not so unlike the lines we draw on paper that make a poem.

Use any aspect of mathematics in writing your poem - terminology (finite, parallels, paradox, pi, lowest common denominator), theory (math theory of sculpture, game theory, chaos theory), your own study of it, or, perhaps, use a mathematical form (poem as equation, theorem & corollary), trying to find poetry in numbers or the numbers in poetry.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.

**MEMORY
**

A man with two watches can never be sure.

I am counting off the beat in hand claps,

looking for meter in my lub-dub heartbeats

and dividing it into nanoseconds.

Maybe at the nano level I will find

a sequence that shows the way,

the God in the machine

that makes the watch tick;

makes cells divide in billionths;

allows this volatile memory

to hold in its bundled neurons

the scent of her perfume

that last time we touched.

**GEOMETRY**

Knowing what I know of things,

having lived until today,

I reject geometry.

Too few things ever go in a straight line

to believe that two straight lines will stay parallel

to infinity - if there is such a thing,

or even straight lines.

Points aren't necessary where they are anymore

and anyone knows who lives in the world

that straight lines are artificial and

nothing manmade is infinite.

It is a thing we say because

we don't know what else to say except

"they go on to infinity."

Parallel lines, after they leave our view,

wink and nudge each other and

burst into stars, laughing so hard

at fooling us.

**GÖDEL'S MEANING**

How can I praise the outrage Gödel brought?

Mathematics torn to baseless shreds;

Scholars tumbled from their tenured beds.

Professors, parsing propositions, sought

To mute conjecture, lest the farce they taught

Should pry them from their sherried Chairs. Threads

Of logic tore apart, and donnish dreads

Of fallacy convulsed the overwrought.

Yet, Gödel's thunder hides a healing theme

Within his proof that reason is inchoate.

He bears a bright reward that Hilbert's dream

Had failed to count-and all the wranglers know it: Soul-devouring though the numbers seem,

Whole -- and holy -- worlds require the poet.

**TANGENTS
**

Trace the star's angle,

elbowing the darkness

out of an obtuse sky.

Reflected half moon

arcs into a perfect lens

across the lake. You see

each other eye to eye

in such moonlight,

words overlap. Venn's

Diagram admits divergence.

The curve of acute argument

an open bowl, where the line

once closed the lid.

Jill Teague

**NUMEROLOGY**

At a party in 1974,

A girl added my birth year, month and day,

so that 83 became 8+3 = 11

which became 1+1 = 2?

And she told me it was my key number.

But I grew up in a house labeled 22

And at 15 I rode the #135 bus

to my afterschool job,

my start on the road to social

security whose number began 150-

not a 2 in the lot.

I had certainly forgotten numerology

by the time we had bought our house.

Big numbers by then – 70,000

which became 350,000 in 20 years

[that’s 2X every 5 years]

+ 2 children (a key number)

and divided by 2 when we split up.

And 2 ÷ 2 was, of course,

one,

the lowest common denominator

of us all and my new key number.

With only one factor, itself,

not prime as with 2.

No matter what was multiplied

against me now,

I remain myself,

unchanged.

**MEASUREMENT
**

Math measures the distance between two points.

On the beautiful, unfamiliar road to a friend’s new house

I must go a half-mile between signposts

And another twenty feet to a curve in the road.

I concentrate.

The going is slow: miles, feet, inches.

I’m sure I’ve missed the turnoff.

Should I go back?

Getting there always takes longer than I plan,

But finally I arrive.

Getting there always takes longer than I plan.

Every year I see Gabe.

The math of time measures the distance between years.

I have seen him for a week.

I see no difference in him from the first to the last day.

But he has grown so much from last year.

Looking back, minutes have been squashed;

Big as he is, I forget he is six and has to hold my hand crossing the street.

On the road back, I see only the details.

I recall moments of my week with Gabe.

Everything seems to move faster.

The trip is shorter.

The distance between miles, between years,

Collapses into an instant of memory, a digital photo on the Internet.

Ellen Kaplan

life is more than just consumption; consummation is more than time Don't you reject consumption trying to be real life? You don't reject real life that is a consummation! In malls, measure value-no price- the time we squander shopping is garbage we throw out. Price-no value measure-in life, the time we consume musing is treasure we grow in.
click here for a note on this poem |

Relationship as equation. Is that what I was saying?

That there were unknowns that needed to be solved,

because if we knew what would be divided

and what we needed to add,

we could arrive at some elegant proof?

I was taught in a time of slide rules,

slower and more visual, where I could see

the numbers moving into place and aligning.

All lost now to liquid crystals of memory and flash.

As if there was a theorem without corollary,

or that balancing the equation would mean a solution.

Should I have said that it's all patterns and relationships?

Had we both learned and then forgotten

the permutations of love, the illusion of probability,

the theory of uncertainty?

four corners square

horizontal and vertical lines

staring into time

and space

planning and plotting

the next move mine

i find it all a little much

these rooks and pawns

knights and kings

queens and dreams

castles and schemes

ain't life a hoot?

it's like

playing chess with a mute

Ray Cutshaw

I agree with the point

though infinitely finite

I am less

philosophical

about it all.

Ignoring equations

whether Romans dreamt or not

I simply find it not there

not missing, mind you

a something that’s nothing.

Consider null less

than something

while nothing occupies space

and time

in its wonderful curve

an empty space

filled with void

unseen, unheard, but solidly nowhere

a point I think

we continue to miss.

They have this theory that

the universe is all tied up,

a colossal, celestial parcel, bound

round with some sort of strings

no one’s ever even seen,

the only proof that they exist,

the strings of formulae

as fragile as chalk dust

laid logically in patterns

on boards in an attempt to prove

that if this be true, then that.

One false step in logic,

one misplaced ergo,

and the strung-together theory

unravels. Its conclusions

fall as flakes into a chalk tray.

Mathematicians always find a way

[Even making tools to do the work

After finding their ideas lurk

Somewhere in the dark or day]

Under stress no scientist can shirk

Relying on instinctive numbers-quirk

Engineering theorem into sway.

Reality will always be their tool,

Hiding Truth within component parts

Yet to be discovered. [Not the darts

Thrown for fun by actions of a fool

Hurling arrows before the battle starts.]

Mathematicians place it all in charts;

Prepare equations like a tasty gruel;

Relying on their appetite for sum

Or dividend or quotient fairly set

Perfectly to see conundrums met

Or to stretch in theories to come

Rejoicing in that mind-at-work can get

To make the earth’s survival a safer bet

Insuring better answers coming from

Overpowering digit analysis

Never doubting it’s as simple as this.

Mrs. Helen La Place

Who looked like no other

Woman he knew in childhood

Said eight and nine

Are always seventeen,

You cannot add another way.

She took his mother aside

To tell her,

"It is your duty to dress your son

proudly.

Your saying he resembles

His disorderly father

With his pupick sticking out

Is no excuse.

I take pupick to be stomach."

"What does this goyish lady

Know about addition?

Eight and nine

Hate and time

Are how I add her up."

"But...but...I have to add her way

If I am to get a hundred

And prove you wrong.

An area where you are wrong

And I am right.