More years ago than I care to remember, during the era in which the Sunday newspaper was a regular establishment and chock-full of information, I always enjoyed reading the small magazine that accompanied the paper. For several years one of my favorite features in that magazine was a column written by a woman acclaimed for her high I.Q. Much as I do with this blog, she simply discussed ideas and events that interested her, and, whether I agreed with her observations or not, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.
The topic of one such article was the necessity of teaching and learning mathematics. Since math has been my stumbling block since I got to the point of learning (uh, being unable to learn) my “seven plus” tables—I’ve since discovered that I may suffer from dyscalculia, the mathematical equivalent to dyslexia–I read her column with real curiosity.
The author explained her point of view carefully, and her observations made great sense, until I reached a remark near the conclusion of her essay, in which (to the best of my memory; this was decades ago) she stated that “…mathematics makes a better poet”.
I put the article down and pondered. This being the pre-Internet era, I could not easily check my supposition, but I did not recall that anyone had ever mentioned or published Einstein’s shining examples of verse. (I’ve looked them up since, and the few poems of his I was able to locate on-line were, at best, ordinary; certainly in no way comparable to notable poets such as Byron or Millay.) I thought further on the subject and realized that, whether one believed that William Shakespeare was, in fact, Shakespeare, or any one of another half-dozen candidates for having written his works, I simply didn’t recall his equally-brilliant ventures into the field of mathematics. Hmmm. That is, other than his ability to write in iambic pentameter—a feat which basically relies on tossing all the grammar books and rules out the window and brilliantly twisting language to fit emotion. (In fact, most truly excellent poetry does just that.) Da Vinci—certainly the ultimate Renaissance man and brilliant at mathematics, as proved by his engineering marvels—Da Vinci wrote quite an essay explaining why poetry simply did not measure up to painting. He may have loved numbers, but he certainly had little enthusiasm for verse.
Pondering the article further, I mused that, having written several hundred poems myself–yes, most of them quite ordinary; I am admittedly not a Keats or Dickinson or Millay–and even published a (pathetically) few, I did not ever recall needing any more mathematical a skill than that of counting out the syllables and establishing the rhythm of verses by tapping my fingers on the desk. And this drumming occurred only when I was writing verse with rhyme and meter…a skill that wasn’t even necessary on the occasions when I wrote free verse.
Mathematics makes a better poet?
Nonsense. Despite the fact that my own I.Q. was obviously lower than that of the author, her contention was definitely pushing the point due to her personal bias.
The truth, I thought, lay more in the fact that mathematicians absolutely love math, finding it everywhere and searching for it in everything, while those who adore language do the same with words, from “Let there be light” right on down the freeway.
My personal bias is, of course, language. That may very well be why I toss the “mathematics makes a better poet” argument right out the window of the highrise to watch it shatter on the pavement below. Introduced to poetry at an early age by a mother who loved it and who read it aloud with great skill, I was able to write competent verse by the third grade despite my compromised mathematical skills (and let me tell you right here and now that surviving elementary school while suffering dyscalculia, in an era in which the disorder wasn’t even recognized, was no picnic!) But all I needed to compose poetry was the kindergarten skill of comprehending rhythm, the ability to count to no more than 14 or 15, and fingers that could tap out a tempo—a feat that barely involved mathematics.
So while I respect those who regard numbers with the same worship and understanding that I extend to language, I do not share their perspective. I comprehend their view that the entire universe is mathematical…but I do not, cannot, see emotion as based on that theorem. And poetry is inherently emotional.
In any case, I know that there are just as many of us who, respecting mathematics, nevertheless want nothing more to do with numbers than we absolutely must deal with to get by on a daily basis in modern society. To that point, I’ve always recalled the comment of a brilliant young social worker I knew years ago. He sat with a group of us, laughingly discussing all the courses he’d been forced to take in college that in no way contributed to either his work or the adult life that he actually led. Having mentioned a laundry list of worthless instruction, he shook his head violently, flung his hands upward and rolled his eyes in an expression of utmost disdain, exclaiming with a bitter sarcasm that I completely understood, “Oh, and calculus! I’m so glad I put myself through that!”