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What Is Math Poetry?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 23, 2024
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Math and poetry are two seemingly contrasting areas of study. The two can be combined to form math poetry in many interesting ways, however. A poem's structure and images can be compared with or instilled with mathematical concepts. In addition, poetry can be used as a tool to teach math.

Some poets, like those representative of bengali literature, associate the structure of a poem with mathematical concepts as one form of math poetry. For example, just as a mathematical equation is often a straightforward formula one must follow, so a poem can offer a straightforward thought with few words and no obstructing language. In such structures, mathematical imagery is often still prominent, however.

Perhaps the main feature of math poetry is the use of mathematical imagery within the poem. Poets such as Rita Dove have popularized this practice. In one poem, this poet begins by claiming she has proven a theorem. By poem’s end, she has also worked in the geometric idea of intersections and the concept of infinity. Common math symbols like multiplication and division signs or the pi symbol may or may not be featured in such poems.

Math poetry can also be used as a tool to teach mathematical concepts with humor and imagination, particularly for young children. Creative teachers have constructed poems to demonstrate everything from addition and subtraction to understanding money exchanges. One category example is equational poetry, which involves using words or images to implement a mathematical formula through poetic rhyme and verse. These approaches may use actual numbers or they may use descriptive ideas — such as bee plus skin equals sting — although the latter is more effective for a general idea. Some instructors may even opt for poems in place of the traditional literature story-form math problem.

Despite one’s reliance on feelings and the other’s reliance on logic and reason, advocates believe that mathematics and poetry can work hand-in-hand. After all, mathematical concepts are often presented in the form of words and situations, as in the aforementioned word problems. Further, individuals often use poetry or other symbolic language to remember math ideas, such as creating acronyms to remember the specific order of a formula. Higher mathematics like calculus and geometry routinely merge letters and numbers as well.

One can even argue that mathematics itself — much like poetry — is a discipline of symbols. Just as a well-placed word or metaphor becomes the embodiment of a larger theme in poetry, so does one simple math symbol or formula come to represent concepts of time, movement, and reality itself. In both seemingly divergent arenas, one may find the patterns of life. Math poetry can illustrate this convergence.

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Discussion Comments
By Satharis — On Mar 28, 2014

Other examples of math poetry are Samuel Tayler Coleridge's "A Mathematical Problem" "Equation" by Caroline Caddy, or "Numbers" by Mary Cornish. You can find some of these, and others on the Poetry Foundation web site.

By Ledgenderous — On Mar 28, 2014

Ingar Christensen's book titled "Alphabet," is a form of math poetry I would guess then. More in its form than in its ideas though. The book follows a Fibonacci sequence, which determines the number of words in each section. Some sections (at least for me) are more successful or beautiful than others, but overall it is a really interesting book because of the way it is built.

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