Coming in April, the library will host the annual Math Poetry Contest. Students are invited to craft an original poem with a mathematics theme and submit it to the library for prizes and awards. The deadline for submissions is March 17.
Math and poetry might seem like an odd pairing. In school, they are often treated as separate entities, requiring different mechanisms in the brain that are either present or not. Math is seen as logical, straightforward, numerically oriented, and clearly defined. Poetry, on the other hand, seems irrational, relies heavily on symbolism to extract meaning, and produces no clear answers. But in this apparent contradiction, math and poetry are actually close allies, inspiring the same levels of frustration, yet a strong desire to be figured out.
According to Joel Cohen’s piece in The American Scholar, which examined the commonality of the two subjects, poetry and math have an apples and oranges type of relationship. True, they are different but they also fundamentally share the fact that they are both pieces of fruit and perform essentially the same function. Says Cohen, “poetry and applied mathematics, with mysterious success, both use symbols for beautiful, economical pointing and patterning. Pointing establishes a relation between symbols and a world beyond the domain of symbols. Patterning establishes a relation between symbols and other symbols in the same domain. Poetry and applied mathematics fall along a continuum between pointing and patterning.”
In other words, whether you are telling a story or solving a calculus problem, you are relying on symbols to express ideas and the patterns between those symbols to assign meaning to your work. The answer might be different (apple v. orange), but how you arrive there is similar.
Math is a timely subject to be championing. President Obama has repeatedly called on students to focus their studies on math and science, in order to have access to steady job opportunities and the ability to contribute to American innovation.
However, this contest is not just a celebration of math, but also a celebration of self-expression in the poetic form. So students, whether of math or literature or somewhere in between, let us have an opportunity to read your beautiful, economic patterns of symbolic glory!
Good luck to all of the entrants! (And take a look at last year’s poems).