Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rhyme, beauty, and usefulness

     For many years poetry was transmitted orally and rhymes were vital because they are easily remembered.  In recent years, however, free verse and concrete/visual poems have become vital parts of what we think of as poetry.  Rhyme lost importance when printed poetry became readily available and memory was no longer needed to keep a poem available.  Now, in the 21st century, electronic devices make visual poetry also readily accessible (see, for example, UbuWeb) and poems may also be animated and interactive.
     My post on January 26 ruminated about the difficulty of including precise mathematics in a poem.  Here is another illustration of a poem that explicates a mathematical idea, this one a limerick (sent to me by Portuguese mathematician, poet, and translator,  F J Craveiro de Carvalho (Departamento de Matemática - Universidade de Coimbra).

       If M's a complete metric space,
       And non-empty, it's always the case,
       If f's a contraction,
       Then under its action,
       Exactly one point stays in place!

Those of us who are poets or mathematicians are sometimes disappointed by views held by those outside our profession concerning what constitutes "poetry" or "mathematics."  It can seem as though even appreciative outsiders focus on "rhyme" and "number" -- missing much of what else lies therein.   This topic draws me back to a poem I wrote more than twenty years ago -- a poem that laments the prevailing views.  

Mathematics and Poetry Are Beautiful     by JoAnne Growney

       Each one I meet I ask, "Do you
       find mathematics beautiful
       or useful?"  All answer, "Useful,
       I use math every day."  My eyes
       reveal that I want proof and each
       goes on to tell that she subtracts
       to keep her checkbook, and sometimes
       multiplies to find the size of carpet
       for the dining room.

       If I, instead, would say, "Do you
       find beauty or utility 
       in poetry?" would each person say,
       "It's useful, I use it every day."
       For proof would she go on to tell
       that rhymes help her remember
       the number of days each month --
       like "Thirty hath September" --
       and spellings of words with "i" and "e."

       Someday utilitarians
       will join with me to see
       beauty in mathematics --
       and in poetry.

"Mathematics and Poetry are Beautiful" is found in Intersections:  Poems by JoAnne Growney (Kadet Press, 1993).


  1. f j craveiro de carvalhoJanuary 31, 2013 at 8:15 AM

    I do not know who is the author of the limerick. I just found it while surfing the net. Thanks JoAnne for having post it.

  2. Francisco -- I am delighted to have your ongoing participation in my blog! All best!