Thursday, 13 January 2011

Poetry, Mathematics, and Computing


I look upon Mathematics as distinct from "Science", and "Poetry and Mathematics" as a mix that provokes issues distinct from those of the more commonly discussed "Poetry and Science" mix, so it's interesting to see how real poets handle maths. However, as an integration of the 2 disciplines I find poems like Wislawa Szymborska's Pi rather disappointing. It focuses on one feature of pi, namely that its digits go on forever without repeating. But the vast majority of numbers' digits go on forever. The poem's allusions aren't pi-related - e and the golden mean might have been more appropriate choices, or the square root of 2 - though it's not a transcendental number, it's an irrational one. If she'd written a poem called "Hamlet" or "Childbirth" or "football" ("wow, don't they kick the ball a long way") displaying this amount of empathy with the subject I could imagine readers being unhappy, but poets get an easy ride when they use Mathematics. That said, the outsider's viewpoint is one perspective, and at least this name-dropping ensures that the poetry audience isn't alienated.

A photo of a test-tube isn't a fusion of Art and Science in the way that opera combines Music and Drama. I think many poems about maths are like that photo rather than like opera - if they're good (and they may well be) it's not because of their understanding of the subject matter. However, if I'm accusing Szymborska of being in some sense shallow what do I mean by "deep"? Mathematically important, characteristic, fundamental? Can a mathematician's notion of beauty or depth be transferred into poetry? The Greeks were allegedly upset when the square root of 2 was shown to be irrational - the proof's short and elegant too. Godel's results shook the foundations of maths. The Continuum Hypothesis underpins many other results. All of these are perhaps worthy topics. For style, perhaps Tractatus or some of Spinosa's texts offer a model. I've seen some contemporary attempts to bring more balance to the poetry/maths mix

  • In the 2002 Bridport Poetry competition, Dr Frank Tapiador won a supplementary prize. I seem to recall that the poem had formulae in it
  • Michael Bartholomew-Biggs was a reader in Computational Mathematics before recently retiring. Uneasy Relations has notes to accompany the maths-inspired poems.
  • Both Peter Howard and I have written poems about e, and I'm sure we're not the only ones.

Ted Chiang's prize-winning short story Division by Zero is serious about maths too.

Of course, there's more to mathematics than numbers. Perhaps in these other topics (topology, combinatorics, the Mobius Strip, Godel's theorems, etc) there are more fertile possibilities. Fractals excite some - "Fractals may be the most complex and the most subtle examples of patterns found in both mathematics and poetry ... When poets borrowed ideas from fractal geometry and applied them to the reading and writing of poetry, they made a remarkable intellectual leap" (M. Birken and A.C.Coon, "Discovering Patterns in Mathematics and Poetry", Rodopi, 2008, p.167)

Or perhaps I'm looking too hard for deep similarities. Poetry and maths are human activities so they're bound to share features just as Cookery and Woodwork do: both require good ingredients, careful preparation, a balance between function and beauty, between the parts and the whole. With Poetry and Maths

  • there's the attitude, the stance vis a vis the visible world. According to Frye, [both literature and mathematics] "proceed from postulates, not facts; both can be applied to external reality and yet exist also in a 'pure' or self-contained form. Both, furthermore, drive a wedge between the antithesis of being and non-being that is so important for discursive thought", Frye, "Anatomy of Criticism", 1957, p.351
  • there's the compression and elegance of expression.

In Mathematics influences poetry by JoAnne Growney there's a reasonable list of points of contact

  • mathematics and poetry demand similar creativities
  • constraints involving mathematics give poets the opportunity to discover new language
  • mathematics offers precise and vivid imagery for poems.

I think it's over-ambitious to take matters further than that. All the same, I think mathematical allusions deserve to be followed-up as assiduously as literary ones.


Computing though is a rather different issue. There are many computing languages to choose from, and they needn't be used merely to describe and prove. Some poems (particularly kinetic Concrete poems or those involving procedural poetics) are already programs. In addition

  • In "These Days" by Leontia Flynn (New Gen poet) there's a poem with fragments of a computer program - "Perl Poem"
  • "How to write a COBOL program" by David Lukens is in "Under the Radar" issue 13 (2014)
  • Heidi Williamson's "Electric Shadow" collection includes IfThenElse
  • Peter Howard's also published poems about computing - e.g. "68000 Mornings"
  • In "Digital Poetics", by Loss Pequeno Glazier (University of Alabama Press, 2002), the author gets rather excited about the poetic potential of Unix - "[Unix] can also be seen as highly poetic, employing sparse, condensed syntax for powerful effects. ... It offers possibilities for conceptualising space that are compelling ... These and many similar features suggest that UNIX is a system with intensely compelling poetic features"

Many online poems exist, written in Flash, etc. I've only recent found The periodic table as assembled by Dr. Zhivago, oculist which is a collaboration between a writer and a computer programmer showing how chemistry terms can be translated into literary ones by a computer program.

Further Reading

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