Report and Reflections on
“Poetry of Love and Mathematics: A Reading”

held January 7, 2009, at
the Joint Mathematics Meetings
in Washington, DC.

[Also see the briefer, more-to-the-point report in JMA:

“Poetry and Mathematics: A Reading,
Joint Mathematics Meetings,
Washington, DC, 7 January 2009,”
Journal of Mathematics and the Arts
,
Volume 3, Number 2 (June 2009), pp. 111
112

and links to some of the poems available online:

http://www18.homepage.villanova.edu/douglas.norton/OnlinePoemsFromStrangeAttractors.htm. ]

 

            If poetry is the love of carefully chosen words and crafted phrases to convey image and idea, and if the mathematician channels a love of pattern, quantity, and structure into carefully chosen words and crafted phrases, then the intersection of their realms should be non-trivial. This was no more evident than at the session “Poetry of Love and Mathematics: A Reading,” held on the evening of January 7, 2009, at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Washington, DC. Close to 100 attendees – practitioners or lovers of poetry, mathematics, both, or neither – gathered to share and enjoy that intersection at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel on a rainy Wednesday evening.

            While there is a striking aesthetic to the black and white geometry of a poem on a page, nothing recalls the deep roots of poetry in the oral tradition more than an aural encounter, the extra dimension found in “a reading.”  Mathematician and poet Sarah Glaz, co-host of the evening, immediately set the tone as personal and self-revelatory, first with the quiet admission that “I have never before read one of my poems in public,” then with her “Love Story” to her father. (There is surely a lesson to be found in the father-daughter thread that wound from this beginning through “Sine Qua Non” by A. E. Stallings, “Math” by Wendy Mnookin, and “Flashcards” by Rita Dove.) Glaz then read “Mathematics” by the late German poet and diarist Hanns Cibulka, establishing the pattern for the majority of the evening: in Part 1, each presenter read a poem of his or her own composition and one from another poet, all taken from Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics (A K Peters, 2008). Glaz and co-host JoAnne Growney are editors of this just-released anthology, a collection true to its subtitle and varied in both style and vintage.

            Around fifteen readers later (of which more will follow), Part 1 concluded with John Vieira reading his “The Lake Swan, the Tom” and two others from the anthology: the oldest poem of the reading, “Let’s Live and Love: To Lesbia” by Gaius Valerius Catullus (84-54 BCE) – like Vieira’s, more love than mathematics – and from roughly halfway between the two chronologically, a selection from Lilavati by Bhaskaracharya (1114-1185), a delight of gentle love reference and poetical flow in what is essentially a mathematical word problem.

            Part 2 of the reading was comprised primarily of poems contributed in response to a call for submissions, with some reprises by Part 1 readers. The other bookend for the evening was the organizer of the event: co-host Growney. Between those co-host bookends, readers spoke volumes about mathematics, love, and life. We consider here a few threads and themes running through the evening, followed by some favorite phrases and some observations.

            One recurring mathematical topic was Fibonacci:

Judith Baumel, in “Fibonacci”:

                        Learn the particular strength

                        of the Fibonacci series, …

                        A formula to build your house on…

Rad Dimitric, in “If They Try”:

                        … pine cones of Fibonacci numbers …

Kathryn DeZur, in “Fibonacci Numbers”:

                        … I long for the fertility

                        of Fibonacci’s numbers…

and Karren LaLonde Alenier, in “Dialectic of the Census Takers”:

                        … I dreamed

                        my sheep had gone astray

                        reproducing Fibonacci sums of lambs…

 

            The physical side of love appeared occasionally, sometimes sensuous, sometimes eliciting laughter:

Roald Hoffman, in “Why Does Disorder Increase in the Same Direction of Time as That in Which the Universe Expands?”:

                        It has something to do

                        with looking down the blouse

                        of the girl painting the boat, tracing

                        in a second the curve, wanting

                        to slip a hand between cotton

                        and her warm skin.

J. V. Cunningham, in “Statistics”:

                        They had coitus two-and-six-tenths times

                        A week. The six-tenth time was not so good.

Tony Hoagland, in “Self-Improvement”:

                        Imagine him at practice every evening,

                        more inspired than he ever was at algebra,

                        beads of sweat sprouting on his brow,

                        thinking, thirty-seven, thirty-eight …

Marion Deutsche Cohen, in “Scared and the Intermediate Value Theorem”:

                        How come the waistline is throbbing with infinity?

                        And my hand and heart throbbing

                        with zero?

 

            That eternal couple, infinity and zero, appeared throughout the evening. First, infinity:

Hanns Cibulka, in “Mathematics”:

                        … the angel with the integral

                        enters the room …

                        his tunic

                        is covered

                        with the snow of infinity.

Becky Dennison Sakellariou, in “Math Is Beautiful and So Are You”:

                        But if all moments are infinite …

Langston Hughes, in “Addition [1]”:

                        7 × 7 + love =

                        An amount

                        Infinitely above:

                        7 × 7 – love.

Ronald Wallace, in “Chaos Theory”:

                        … infinite longings inscribed

                        by finite space and time,

                        the heart’s intricate branchings.

Kaz Maslanka, in “Sacrifice and Bliss”, shows the couple for the mathematically astute:

                         

 

            Zero recurs, also:

A. E. Stallings, in “Sine Qua Non”:

                        …It is naught –

                        The factor by which nothing will multiply …

                        The fraction of impossible division, …

                        The zero that still holds the sum in place.

Len Roberts, in “We Sat, So Patient”:

                        … dropped off into 0,

                        the blue zone of No Return.

One of my favorite phrases of the evening: Eryk Salvaggio, in “Five Poems about Zero”:

                        Zero is a number

                        of yearning.

 

            Of other phrases I found compelling, some were titles and some lines:

Marion Deutsche Cohen: “What Drove Me Into Math”:

                        … was not the Mystery of the Unknown

                        but the mystery of the known.

Israel Lewis, in “I Find My Faith in the Flatness of Space”:

                        Divergence discomfits me…

Other lines:

Deanna Nikaido, in “July 18, 2005”:

                        … this light bearing equation of love.

Hanns Cibulka, in “Mathematics”:

                        Gone

                        the Euclidean tranquility

                        of the world.

Wilmer Mills, in “An Equation for My Children”:

                        It is to chart the numbers spiraling

                        Between my life and yours until the strange

                        And seamless beauty of equations click

                        Solutions for the heart’s arithmetic.

Carl Sandburg, in “Number Man”:

                        He said good-by as if good-by is a number.

Judith Baumel, in “Thirty-six Poets”:

                        … frail parabolas of love …

Wendy Mnookin, in “Math”:

                        One number shoulders another…

Mary Cornish, in “Numbers”:

                        I like the generosity of numbers.

The selection from The Cyberiad of Stanislaw Lem, read by Jennifer Crow, wins the prize for most mathematical terms – and used to good effect, too. An example:

                        I see the eigenvalue in thine eye.

                        I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh.

The Ronald Wallace triptych “Chaos Theory” gives us a reference to the Butterfly Effect, periodic population models, and the title of the anthology:

                        Everything is connected. Blame it on

                        the butterfly, if you will….

                        The ebb and flow of desire and fulfillment …

                        We are uniquely strange attractors, …

            Finally, The Really Big Stuff of life and death appears, sometimes large, sometimes personal:

Sandra Alcosser, in “My Number”:

                        Five billion people = half a billion empty bellies.

Jennifer Crow, in “Mathematics”:

                        This is the mathematics of power:

                        adding the dead,

                        dividing the living,

                        multiplying the sorrows.

Len Roberts, in “We Sat, So Patient”:           

                        …         counting silent

                        seconds when Sister Ann Zita said 5

                                    of us

                        would not reach 20, showed the chart

                        where children dropped off into 0,

                                    the blue zone of No Return

                        …

                        her rosary beads clicked as she walked

                        down the aisle like the Angel of Death,

                                    black

                        wings spread, brushing our faces, our arms,

                                    wafting blackness

                        into our eyes, our lungs, our hearts,

                        reminding us that God was watching and could tell

                                    who knew 9 times 9, 144 divided by 12,

                        telling us it was God’s will that we die, …

 

            Along with the memorable turns of phrase were notable visuals: the big black glasses, tightly pulled back black hair, and commanding presence of Kaz Maslanka, along with the commanding visual presence of his poems (see his blog at mathematicalpoetry.blogspot.com for his take on the distinctions between Mathematical Poetry and Mathematics Poetry, Visual Mathematical Poetry and Mathematical Visual Poetry); the visual poem of Randall Munroe; poem as a sequence of transparencies by Bob Grumman; the tall figure of Rad Dimitric, with bright green tie around upturned collar, wishing us all a Merry Christmas according to the old Julian calendar; Rosanna Iembo with violinist Irene Iaccarino accompanying her reading; the bright red-rimmed glasses and black hair of Kyoko Mori evoking Le Rouge et Le Noir.

             A combined visual and presentation highlight of the evening was the quiet, sincere look of Israel Lewis, who was trained as an engineer and came to poetry later, with his white hair and purple sweater, avuncular if not grandfatherly, somehow incongruous as he read his poem for two voices “Cantor: Not Eddie” with substitute Deanna Nikaido, her deceptively younger look adding old/young to the contrasts of white/dark hair and Caucasian/Asian features. These contrasts made all the more entertaining the poem described in a report on the reading at withastone.wordpress.com as “a mid-intercourse conversation between two lovers about cardinalities of infinite numbers.” Nikaido’s climactic “in – fin – i – teeeeee!” was a delivery high point of the entire evening.

            Other presentation highlights were: Alenier and Baumel’s quiet readings, Grumman’s animated explanation of his long division poems, Lewis’s quiet sincerity in his solo piece, Sakellariou’s nicely-read choices deviating from the program, and the dramatic delivery by Vieira. Although the square footprint of the room allowed for a more shared experience than many of the long rectangular rooms of the meeting would have offered, the third dimension of high ceilings provided space for the sound to dissipate. Amplification would have made up for the decreased intimacy with actual audibility. A lesson for next time…

            In a gathering of folks for whom the quest for les mots justes is paramount, it was often the aside, the context-setting, that took the careful words of poetry and delivered them more truly from heart to heart. The careful explanation by Kaz Maslanka to the non-mathematicians of the mathematical terms in “Sacrifice and Bliss” flashed me back to the explication de texte of Les Fleurs du mal as surely as any Proustian madeleine; it also emphasized yet again the concise precision of word and symbol that conveys a depth of meaning in both poetry and mathematics. Other side comment highlights:

            Baumel reading a poem by Hoffman, noting that he was “born in the same shtetl as my father”;

            Glaz: “I selected this one for Klaus” (Peters, of AK Peters, at the table in the back of the room);

            DeZur, on the fertility and reproduction theme of “Fibonacci Numbers,” written “just after I got married, when we were hoping for a child”;

            Mills, reading a Cunningham poem: “If I were a pagan, I would have a statue of J.V. Cunningham as my bathroom god”;

            Sakellariou, explaining that her editing of an advanced mathematics book gave her mathematical terms whose beauty as language trumped her lack of understanding, inspiring a poem in which she made up other meanings for the words;

            Mnookin, on both her “Math” and Rita Dove’s “Flash Cards” as “reflections of the way we viewed math as children: mysterious, the way life was mysterious; adults seemed to understand how this worked”;

            Charlotte Henderson, on a college poetry course where she wrote a poem in which love was proved by induction;

            Patrick Bahls, telling of having students write mathematical poetry;

            Maslanka presenting a poem of Randall Munroe, visual like his, but “the antithesis of my poetry”;

            Ruth Favro reading “Finishing the Math” by Ron Mosier, who learned in August that one of his poems would appear in The Mathematical Monthly in November but died in September at age 70;

            DeZur reading “We Sat, So Patient” by Len Roberts, who died this year.

           

            A string of comments for which I will provide no attribution began with: “My family is laughing out loud that I am reading at a math conference, because I never made more than a D-minus in math, ever, in my life.” Several other readers confessed the exclusiveness of their math D grades, including one report card recollection of “Student is achieving at apparent ability.” That so many with this personal mathematical history can still turn to mathematical language suggests an intrinsic human connection to the ideas and imagery of mathematics that even unfortunate educational experiences cannot wring from the poet’s palette.

            Poetry evokes similar negatives for some. Garrison Keillor, in his recent essay “She Saw Her Pale Reflection in the Window, A.K.A. Torture,” claims that “nobody reads poetry, thanks to T.S. Eliot, whose ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ we were forced to read in high school, that small dark mopefest of a poem about whether or not someone dares to eat a peach or wear his trousers rolled. And we got the idea that Literature is a Downer.” And yet, like the non-mathematicians drawn back to the imagery from mathematics, we are all drawn back to poetry. In this reading, even those poems with serious themes could not be called Downers.

            In Growney’s closing poem, “San Antonio, January, 1993,” she has the line: “Hot peppers are like mathematics.” By the symmetric property, mathematics is like hot peppers: possessing of strong flavor, and, when combined judiciously with other flavorful ingredients such as love, can provide many a delicious morsel. With its piquancy folded into a poetical dish, we can enjoy a conceptual culinary feast. The tradition of “An Evening of Mathematical Poetry,” sponsored by the Humanistic Mathematics Network at the 1992 Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore (which also included Growney!) has been lost in the intervening years. With the success of “Poetry of Love and Mathematics: A Reading,” here’s hoping that this year’s event is the first annual in a new ongoing series.

            This event was sponsored by SIGMAA-ARTS, the Special Interest Group of the Mathematical Association of America on Math and the Arts, whose sponsorship could facilitate the continuity of this new series.

            For more comments on the reading, see the sites mentioned above, as well as alenier.blogspot.com/2009/01/mathematics-love.html, which includes photographs of almost all readers at the event. For more on mathematics and poetry, see Growney’s lovely article “Mathematics Influences Poetry” in the Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, Vol. 2, No. 1, March 2008, pp. 1-7.