anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did

So goes my very favorite poem, written by e.e. cummings. In my senior year of high school, I wrote a term paper explicating the verse, and I fell in love. At the same time, I was taking two math classes, and somehow the process of solving a system of equations was similar to understanding cummings’ strange syntax and playful turns of traditional poetic forms.

April is not only Math Awareness Month but also National Poetry Month. In a facebook conversation with another writer, I found myself offering to show the connections between math and poetry — a task that is surprisingly simple but (if similar articles and blog posts are any indicator) could be very contentious. I like a challenge and a good intellectural fight, so here goes:


I’ve long asserted here that mathematics is a language that describes the physical world. Without mathematics, we cannot describe physics. And mathematical models allow us to predict the future or see the invisible. Math also depends heavily on symbols — variables, Greek letters and characters that represent operations like addition and division.

Clearly, symbolism is the very basis of poetry. When Robert Frost writes, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And sorry I could not travel both” he doesn’t mean that he is literally sorry that he cannot literally travel two literal roads. Nope. The yellow wood represents the later years of the poet’s life, when he’s considering the choices (roads) he could have made (taken). (For sure, there are many versions of this interpretation.)

The same is true for the symbolism in math. When you graph a curve that represents the steady increase of your take-home pay over several years, the curve is a symbol of your financial (and perhaps professional) success. But you can interpret or apply the curve in a variety of different ways, and the curve doesn’t tell the entire story.


You can’t deny the patterns found in mathematics. All you need to do is list multiplication facts for a certain number, and a structure will jump off the page or computer screen. (Eventually.) Then there are a variety of sequences and series, like Fibonacci’s Sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, …) or a geometric series (like 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + …).

The patterns in poetry are often found in meter and rhyming schemes. So the first line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is in iambic pentameter: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.” We know this because it features five two-syllable feet that are expressed as non-stress, stress. (In other words: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.”) Along with iambic, traditional poetry may follow trochaic, spondaic, anapestic or dactylic meters — but there are endless more styles. Cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town” is generally considered to be a ballad, which, when you know the key that unlocks the poem’s meaning, makes perfect sense.


The idea that two halves are symmetric is not mandatory in mathematics or poetry, but often times it takes center stage. In math, we have symmetric shapes, like circles or isosceles triangles. Symmetry is also critical in solving equations, as you must do the same thing to both sides of the equation.

And in poetry, symmetry is often found in the ways that verses and stanzas are structured. “The Road Not Taken” features four stanzas with five verses each.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Many mathematicians and poets have pointed out even more similarities (some that, in my opinion, suck the life and art out of both math and poetry), but these are some basic ideas. I’ll leave you with what Einstein said on the matter: “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” To which I say: math and poetry are designed to give the illogical some kind of logical shape.

Have you entered the Math for Grownups facebook contest yet? We’re getting some really interesting examples of math in everyday life. Check in and submit yours today! (Here are the complete rules.)

Photo courtesy of iaindc

Last night, my family and I had a real treat. In the midst of an impossibly busy week, we took time out to sit in a darkened theatre and be transported to another land and another time.  As the lights dimmed and the orchestra swelled, we were suddenly in 1905 Russia, with Tevye, his wife Golde and their five daughters.  The man sitting next to me hummed along with every song, and I mouthed the words.  Like much of the rest of the audience, I found myself grinning at Tevys’s dancing–and crying when he declared his daughter, Chava, dead to him.


This morning, the tunes from Fiddler on the Roof are still running through my head.  For me, there’s not much more inspiring and beautiful than a staged musical.

One my family’s resolutions this year is to see more theatre.  And we’ve made good on that promise already.  In January, we saw Arsenic and Old Lace and a community college production of Greater Tuna. I’m not sure what’s next.

Like many folks, I believe art (of all kinds) provides the gorgeous background to a sometimes drab world.  Art makes me think, while invoking emotions that can be otherwise hard to access.  I’ve found myself moved by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Martha Graham, Edgar Degas, Mary OliverAmy Ray and Oscar Wilde. Art has become a centerpiece of my daily life.

But if you grew up thinking that art and mathematics were mutually exclusive entities, I hope you’ve been disabused of that notion.  If not, stay tuned.

Here at Math for Grownups, February is all about art.  I’ll introduce you to some amazing artists — like Elizabeth Perkins, one of my former math students, who is now a highly conceptual glass artist.  These creative souls will help make the connections between art and math.

And we’ll delve into some of the more esoteric aspects of mathematics that form the underpinnings of natural beauty, classic art and modern music–like symmetry, the golden ratioand Fibonacci’s Sequence.

If art provides the beauty of the world, math describes it.  From poetry to glass sculptures to song, math is at the heart of all artistic endeavors.  I hope you’ll join me this month as we uncover the beauty of the world around us–with math.

What is your favorite artistic form?  Music, paintings, theatre, writing? Share your thoughts about math and art in the comments section below. And if you’ve always had a question about the connections between art and math, ask.  I’d love to explore the answer in a post this month.Save