Why Poets Sometimes Think in Numbers

Introduction by Carol Dorf

And Mathematicians Sometimes Think Poetically


Don't miss A Nonmathematician Falls in Love, Elizabeth Langosy's tale of reading Carol Dorf's poetry at a math convention.


Poetry shares with mathematics the ability to compress big ideas—even the entire universe—into very small forms.

In her poem “Pi,” Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska confronts questions of scale by exploring the expansion of Pi:

How feeble the star’s ray, bent by bumping up against space!

Later she says Pi does not “stop at the page’s edge.” In other words, the small symbol Π holds within it a sense of infinite meanings.

Glittering Metropolis; courtesy of NASAThe Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, which sponsored a poetry reading at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Boston on January 6, 2012, defines its mission as showing the "human face of mathematics." For me, mathematical depictions of reality can inform a poet’s perception of the world as well.

Often when I tell people about my life, they ask, "Poetry and mathematics?" For the last 15 years, I've taught mathematics while continuing to write poetry. As with most writers, my daily life is the central influence on my work, and mathematics often finds its way into my poetry both as subject and as metaphor. I also love seeing mathematical connections in the work of other writers.

TW is focusing a special spotlight on math poetry in this issue in order to highlight this form of writing, one that can be both intellectually playful and emotionally moving.

In childhood, we live in a world of binary oppositions: male/female; black/white; young/old. Mathematics and poetry are often presented as being in opposition to each other—epitomized by Teen Talk Barbie, released by Mattel in 1992, whose hard-wired phrases included "Math class is tough!" and "Poetry is sweet!"

But in math poetry, the two disciplines coexist.

When I put out the call for math poems a few months ago, we had a sizable response. The seven poets I've chosen vary in style, but all connect poetic language and the language of math in fascinating ways.

Some of our writers began as mathematicians, some as poets. On the mathematical side, the poems presented in this issue deal with numbers, computer science, group theory, and proofs. On the humanistic side, they address identity, forms of truth, and relationships.

In "For Want of Richard Feynman And Finding What Is True,” Sue Brannan Walker says:

... yet she still had trouble determining what she did want, truly, and how to get it, and how that correlates with getting what she didn’t want and didn’t ask for...

Brannan raises a number of large questions in this poem—as well as the usefulness of both math and religion in thinking about those questions.

Sónya KovaléskyIn a letter to her compatriot Mme. Schabelskoy, the nineteeth-century mathematician and poet Sónya Kovalésky wrote:

Many who have never had an opportunity of knowing any more about mathematics confound it with arithmetic, and consider it an arid science. In reality, however, it is a science which requires a great deal of imagination, and one of the leading mathematicians of our century states the case quite correctly when he says that it is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in soul.

She went on to say:

It seems to me that the poet has only to perceive that which others do not perceive, to look deeper than others look. And the mathematician must do the same thing. As for myself, all my life I have been unable to decide for which I had the greater inclination, mathematics or literature.

Kovalévsky speaks for the poets in this issue—for all of us, really, who are passionately interested in both disciplines and who frequently discover mathematical structures and ideas in our poetry.


Starting Points for Math Poetry


Publishing Information

  • "Pi" by Wislawa Szymborska.
  • Sónya Kovalévsky: Her Recollections of Childhood, translated by Isabel F. Hapgood (The Century Company, 1895).

Art Information

  • “Glittering Metropolis”; courtesy of NASA
  • Sónya Kovalésky, 1880; public domain


 Editor's Note: The Jan/Feb 2012 issue of TW included the following pieces in a spotlight on math poetry:


Carol Dorf is the poetry editor at Talking Writing. In addition to being a widely published poet, she is a high school math teacher.


"Group elements develop more complexity/than the smooth surface of empty Sunday streets/suggest. " — "Lost Information"



Hi Carol,
What a delight to discover this topic as it is very dear to my heart. In my award-winning YA novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number, the 13 year-old girl narrator not only has a gift and affinity for numbers, but she sees them in color with shapes and personalities. In one scene, Talia, an only child, reads her personification poem in English class.
The number one stands alone,
Tall and thin, disappearing against the crowd.
A shapeless entity.
The color white.
The taste of air.
One is the sound of silence.
Its voice barely audible until it stands next to another.
Number One yearns to unite with the others.
One is a lonely number.

This is brilliant — mathematics and poetry are so naturally aligned. Thank you for so much for articulating the intersection. Love all the Math Poetry posts — brilliant.

Hey, what’s wrong with arithmetic?! (Re: Sonya Kovalevsky’s put-down of it.)

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