Mathematics in Literature and Poetry

In this project, you will explore relationships between mathematics and literature and poetry. Your personal interests will need to guide this project, so feel free to modify what I have written below. You should probably check with me if you make a large change.

Establishing Connections

Brainstorm a list of terms and concepts that people often use to analyze poetry and literature. You may wish to look through a literature or poetry textbook or collection to jog your thinking.

Brainstorm a list of terms and concepts that relate to mathematics.

Once your lists are quite long, look at each of the terms on the literature and poetry list and think about whether those words would relate to mathematics. Do they relate in the same way? Look at the words on your mathematics list. Would any of them have meaning in the context of studying literature or poetry?

Part of your project should summarize your conclusions about the connections between mathematics and literature and poetry based on your brainstorming and the other reading and activties below.

Mathematics and Poetry

Kate Strange has a webpage celebrating connections between mathematics and poetry at http://www.kate.stange.com/mathweb/mathpoet.html. Read her comments about the relationship between mathematics and poetry.

Read Asparagus X Plus Y [An Arithmetic and Poetic Error] by Ken Stange.

Poetry is meant to be read. How do you as a reader choose to say these poems? For example, how do you choose whether to read the numbers as single digits strung together rather than as composite numbers? (That is, when you see 12 34 56 do you say 'one-two, three-four, five-six' or 'twelve, thirty-four, fifty-six'?) How do you as a reader insert pauses? How might you speed up or slow down your reading to bring out an aspect of the poem? What difference does it make to the poem to read it one way rather than another?

What poetic elements can be contained in a poem that has only numbers and punctutation? For example, can such a poem have a climax? symbolism? rhythm? rhyme? What else?

Try your hand at writing poetry consisting mostly or only of numbers. Try to do this with a poetic sense (not randomly). What are you able to express through this approach? What types of thoughts or feelings are expressable? What types of thoughts or feelings are not expressable in this way?

Some Mathematical Literature

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

These four books are classic short works of mathematical fiction. Although most of these were written for children or young adults, they all play with mathematical ideas in a wonderful way that makes them good reading for any age! (Some are available on the web.) Read a section from one of these books that relates to mathematical concepts. (If you choose one of Lewis Carroll's books, you may wish to consult The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner for some pointers on finding the mathematics behind the scenes!)

Explain the relevant mathematical ideas behind the section or sections you read, and discuss how the authors weave these ideas in with elements of the story, with social and political commentary, and so on. You should make sure that you discuss the mathematics in sufficient depth. You may need to find another source to learn more about these mathematical ideas. You may wish to think further about the mathematics the authors are discussing and draw your own conclusions about the situation. Feel free to be creative with this part. I am expecting some significant mathematical content in your project at this point.

Another Possible Direction

Being restricted to a certain structure sometimes enables greater creativity precisely because it is not permissable to say things just any old way. You may wish to investigate different types of rhythm, syllable, and meter rules that have been used to create poems, plays, and other formal types of literature. How does the use of this imposed mathematical structure affect the way the works are perceived? Playwrights sometimes use different structures to separate the speech of various characters. For example, strong rhyming couplets can make the words of the speaker seem predestined, and so they are sometimes reserved for the speech of divine or wise characters. Can you find an example of this sort of usage?