Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Troubles with math, expressed poetically

     Should I admit that I sometimes feel a bit of resentment toward people who are insistently articulate about their difficulties with mathematics?  As if that good energy might be turned toward learning the subject they decry.
On the whole, though, it seems better to face the fact that we folks who speak the language of mathematics are the odd ones.  Here are perceptive trouble-with-math poems by John Stone (1936-2008), who wrote as a parent trying to help with homework, and Elizabeth Savage, who compares a pair of differently-able friends. 

Helping with the Math Homework      by John Stone

In the beginning
there were polynomials

differences of squares
trial and error

and the sum of two cubes.
X³ minus Y³

has always had
the same meaning

whatever it is.
But when Pythagoras

looked into
the eye of the triangle

and saw the solution
I wasn't there.

Nor have I ever found
anything more

than safety in numbers.
This is the new math

these are your problems
and I was born

before the back of the book.
What I have been saying is this:

I can lead you
only so far into wisdom.

you must begin to learn

how to be ignorant
on your own.

John Stone was both poet and cardiologist; "Helping with the Math Homework" appears in Music from Apartment 8 (Louisiana State University Press, 2004) . Elizabeth Savage's poem "Jane & Paige or Sister Goose" appeared in 2009 in Court Green.

Jane & Paige or Sister Goose          by Elizabeth Savage

Schoolwork isn’t hard for Jane
while Paige is held indoors
stuck on her fours

          hands and feet count twenty
          but twenty more remain
          from pinky back to thumb

                    again then fail to divide
                    denying her the sun outside

morning recess pauses are plenty
for Paige to see herself as Jane
who thinks of threes as baby toys

                    and coolly eyes the nines
                    Paige soon learns to memorize

releases her joy and races past
the pangs of girlhood, the reign of math


  1. f j craveiro de carvalhoNovember 4, 2010 at 4:41 AM

    JS is, in my opinion, a great poet!

  2. Helping with the Homework by John Stone

    Very wise poem. Starts out rather unsuspecting until one encounters the word "Wisdom"

    what does wisdom have to do with math ?

    and then he follows with:

    you must begin to learn

    how to be ignorant
    on your own."

    Very slippery poet

    I believe he is telling his daughter that while he can help her out all he is going to be able to show her is the right answer.

    But until she stumbles along on her own suffering until she gets to the other side she is not gaining anything as a person.

    Wisdom is obtain by learning from our own mistakes, not by learning how to avoid the mistakes of others.

    David Perrings