*Poetry and mathematics find themselves chatting at a dinner party.*
Poe: Hey, are you Mathematics?
Maryam: Yeah, but you can call me Maryam. You’re Poetry, right?
Poe: Yup, but I go by Poe. Not very creative, I know.
Maryam: I’m sure you’re fine.
Poe: Do you know who’s hosting this party?
Maryam: Probably Business, right?
Poe: Yeah. Probably.
*A waiter comes by with a tray of drinks. Maryam takes the wine. Poe takes the brandy and chugs it.*
Poe (shrugging): You gotta get your alcohol where it’s free.
Maryam: … Is poetry that bad?
Poe: You know that Netflix show, “The Midnight Gospel”?
Maryam: To be honest … no. I don’t really watch TV, or have one. What’s that?
Poe: Okay … weird. Well, in the last episode, they talk about meditation as a way to “step out of yourself.” It’s this really beautiful idea of taking a step back from the smoke and mirrors of daily life, like entering spectator mode in a video game. All of a sudden, you realize that things like grades aren’t really important, but reading, writing, seeing friends — those things are. Poetry is like that.
Maryam: Ah, I see.
*Poe lifts a bottle of brandy from a passing waiter. It’s reasonable to assume he’s going to drink it all.*
Poe: Yeah. It’s supposed to pull people out of the sauce. But nobody ever talks about how fucking hard it is to write something like that.
Maryam: The what?
Poe: The sauce. You know: homework, job applications and the like. They spend most of their lives lost in the sauce, and I have to get them to remove their heads from their asses. But, of course, they keep trying to dive back in. Like … listen to this:
*He taps a square on his chest where the heart would be, and it pops open like a drawer. He takes out a slip of paper and reads it.*
If you cut out a rectangle of a perfectly blue
sky, no clouds, no wind, no birds, frame it
with a blue frame, place it faceup on the
floor of an empty museum with an open
atrium to the sky, that is grief
– Victoria Chang, Obit.
Maryam: … Damn.
Poe: Or this:
Someone has to leave first. This is a very old story.
There is no other version of this story.
— Richard Siken, War of the Foxes
Maryam: Oh, wow. I really felt that.
Poe: You do, right? You see how you’re not thinking about how expensive alcohol has gotten or about your next deadline at work, filling out school and job applications or anything like that.
Maryam: I do see that, yes.
Poe: See, exactly. I try to break them out of their dreadful, banal realities and remind them what being human should mean. It’s universal human experiences that we use to try and take people out of their bubbles. And it’s hard because you can’t just get those at Trader Joe’s.
Poe: Yet we don’t get paid much, hence the taking advantage of free booze.
Poe (burps): Excuse me. I’ve been acting a little drunk. Anyway, it’s nice to see that some STEM subjects appreciate poetry.
*The camera pans to show Chemistry, who’s scribbling some hexagons on a napkin and explaining them to Biology.*
Maryam (laughing): I think it is perhaps just me. Honestly, I relate a lot to what you’ve said, warts and all. A lot of what you’ve said about poetry is also true of math.
Poe: Oh, shit. For real?
Maryam (sipping her wine): Yes! Like what you said about breaking people out of their world, pure math is very much about constructing a world through reason inspired by, but ultimately separate from, the “real” world. What is true in this mathematical world is true universally — across time, space, nationality, religion, race, and whatever else people divide themselves by. Like, even if everything happens to have been a simulation, everything we know about a vector space is still just as true in the universe of the beings running the simulation. So even though everything in pure math is just stuff people made up, it’s arguably more real and more permanent than… all of this.
*She gestures broadly at everything around her.*
Poe: Ah, so the mathematical world is analogous to the pure, inner self that people can access through meditation, and the greater human experience that people can access through poetry.
Maryam: Yes. You are very quick : )
Poe: I’ve never thought about such extreme scenarios like our world being a simulation, but I suppose that universal feelings and experiences are still, in some sense, real. Even if the world is a simulation, surely the concept of grief or of love still exists… Anyhow, do go on.
Maryam: That’s precisely the idea.
Maryam: So I also think math does a very good job of bringing people out of their own heads and giving them a different perspective from which to view the world. You’re immersed in this other world which, if you believe to be more real, then that becomes sort of the plane that you’re looking down from. It’s kind of meditative, I think, because you get to detangle yourself from ordinary “reality” and be immersed in the extremely expansive world of math. There’s an intrinsic beauty to some theorems, but also in how frequently and powerfully they can apply to what’s in the “real world”.
Maryam: There’s a book called “Mathematics for Human Flourishing” by Francis Su, which talks about this a lot more. But speaking of “transcendent mathematical beauty”, he writes, “We may feel it when the sensory geometric beauty of a majestic architectural space hits us at a deep level. Or when we see a simple idea appear in many forms across multiple areas of mathematics. Or when we grasp that a certain elegant proof can generalize to many other situations. When you see the same beautiful idea pop up everywhere, you begin to think that it is pointing to some deeper truth you haven’t yet grasped. When you realize that you’ve had exactly the same mathematical thoughts as another person… you begin to believe there might be a universal, enduring reality that you are both somehow accessing.”
Poe: Wow… this is really interesting. Wait, what’s the mathematical equivalent of a poem, then?
Maryam: Oh … if I had to pick one, it’d be this:
*Maryam unpockets a piece of chalk and writes the following on a chalkboard.*
— Euler, Euler’s Formula.
Maryam: This formula achieves both kinds of beauty, which is probably why it’s one of the most celebrated formulas in math. Put shortly, It says that imaginary exponents describe rotation around the complex unit circle. It’s a surprising and elegant connection, but it also appears ubiquitously everywhere in nature. Theorems and formulas are like poems because sometimes you find these beautiful truths that, as Jordan Ellenberg puts it, “make you feel like you’ve reached into the gut of the universe and put your finger on the wire”. Not everything is a poem, of course. Just like how a poem has many words, sometimes an important theorem is built from many other theorems.
Maryam: Anyway, it’s like how you said meditation makes you realize what is important, and how reading poetry pulls you out of the sauce. I think learning and doing abstract math really puts you in touch with permanent, unambiguous truths. It lets you converse with the essential parts of the universe, if you will.
Maryam (excited): Even the lines drawn between different areas of math blur with time and experience. We asked about how integers worked and got number theory. Then, we asked about solutions of polynomial equations and got group theory. We noticed a possible connection between the monster group (an absurdly large group whose existence was proved by a U-M professor in 1982) and a function from number theory, and proved it when someone noticed that they both had a connection to string theory! What are either of these things doing in a fundamental theory of quantum gravity with 11 dimensions!?
Poe: Yeah, that does sound kind of wild.
Maryam: Right?? But it was inevitable that groups and numbers are related in this way, through string theory. The universe deals heavily in symmetries, which we can understand with groups, and groups are heavily related to prime numbers. Euler’s identity, too, feels inevitable in hindsight. This sense of inevitability and elegance accompanies many mathematical theorems, and it … I can’t put words to it, but do you get what I mean?
Poe: I think I do. It’s like a poem so perfect that when you look at it, you can’t pick out a single fault, from design to execution. Every stroke is so natural and, in hindsight, so obvious that it could not possibly have been any other way.
Maryam: Yes … yes, that is it. You understand.
Poe: I see what you’re saying, how math is able to lift you out of the smokes and mirrors of daily life, as poetry and meditation does. And you’ve got these wild connections between different fields as well. I wish we had that in poetry… Well, I guess we do. The poem I showed you of Victoria Chang is such an example.
Maryam: See? Like I said, you and I have a lot in common.
Maryam (quietly): Not to mention that math people also don’t get paid very much.
*The waiter comes by again and smartly leaves the drinks tray with the two friends.*
Poe: You don’t either? But from what you’ve said, math sounds so useful! Even by human standards they should-
Maryam: Applied math is useful, and there’s a lot of it in certain industries, like finance. Pure math, though — people say it’s “impractical.” They ask, “What is the point?” What is the point of truth, you mean? Of knowing something to be true, once and for all. Or did you mean to ask: What is the point of beauty? Of discovery? Of surprise? Of understanding something fundamental about the world?
Maryam (sip): People don’t see me like they see you. At least they treat you like art. Math is only incidentally “useful,” which is not good enough for them. It’s not entirely their fault, though, but a failure of the education system.
Poe (swig): The way they teach poetry is tedious, too. Actually, I think both of us are lumped into the category of things which are “almost useful”: stuff that don’t intrinsically hold utility, but which make their existence as human beings mean something.
Maryam: There is also the “almost useless”: report cards, diamonds, wars. They achieve a very specific purpose, but I’m not sure what else they’re good for besides that.
Poe (sigh): I’ll probably say more about this after a few more shots. Why have they got it all backwards?
Maryam: Yeah, who knows what they’re doing down there.
Maryam: Anyway, do you want to see a cool trick?
Maryam: There’s a theorem called Brouwer’s fixed-point theorem which says that if I do this…
*Maryam picks up her wine glass, covers the top and shakes it vigorously. She then places it back where it was.*
Maryam: … put it back where it was exactly, and if none of the wine spills out, then there is at least one point of the liquid that is in the same place it was before I shook it.
Poe: What. The. Fuck? No way.
Maryam: But it is true! This is a specific application of the fixed-point theorem, which they proved in 1910.
Poe: Oh wow… I don’t think I’d understand this even if I’m sober.
Maryam: It’s very unintuitive, and the proof is quite technical. But would it help if I told you that this is the same theorem which guarantees that when you’re trying to find your way around a large shopping mall and come across a map, that there is a “You are here” label?
*Poe surprised face.*
Maryam: In both cases there is a continuous function from an object to itself (the map is just a shrunken down version), and the theorem states that at least one point is fixed by this function. For the wine, that means at least one of the liquid particles is in the same place it was before. For the map, that means there’s at least one point on the map such that the coordinates it marks are exactly its own coordinates.
Maryam: You could also imagine crumpling up the map and kicking it around, but as long as you don’t take it outside the mall, the same thing will be true.
Poe: That… does kind of make sense, actually. It’s cool that these two very different concepts now have that property in common. I feel like our process is similar, too. The first step to writing a poem is to pay close attention to the world and try to see what’s important, and the second step is to condense everything down to a very small space. And then, if you’re lucky, you can make it sound really beautiful.
Maryam: Yeah, it is similar! Which step do you think is the hardest?
Poe: The fourth one – getting people to read it.
Maryam: Aw, it’s okay. Hardly anyone reads my stuff either.
Poe: Oh ya, forgot who I was complaining to.
Maryam: Haha. Anyway, you actually just hit on one of the greatest strengths of mathematics: making connections between different things. We study something in the abstract so that they can be applied very generally, and that’s what enables us to find unexpected connections like this. Poincaré called math “The art of giving the same name to different things.”
Poe: Connections… yeah. Those are very important.
Maryam: In poetry?
Poe: It’s about the only thing that matters. We connect situations to feelings and feelings to words and words to people. The difference is that we rely on peoples’ associations with the objects that we reference, but the similarity is that associations can build on top of each other. When I see a forest covered in snow, I will always think of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Even when I just read the words “snowy forest”, there is an association to this poem. Poems give meaning and context beyond mere definitions, and there are so many ways to describe the same thing.
Poe: Take grief — you could say that it’s a piece of the sky in a museum; or that “The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,”; or “Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle”. And now when you hear the word “museum”, it sounds a little different, and stars can make you cry.
Maryam (wiping a tear): … Ah, that’s so beautiful.
Poe: Thanks. As an unknown poet quipped to your Poincaré, “Poetry is the art of giving different names to the same thing.”
Maryam: That was very poetic of them.
*Guests start filing out. The servers come around to collect dishes.*
Poe: …It looks like the party is ending… Let’s go sit on the roof? I can carry the alcohol.
Poe: It’s hard sometimes, right? I’ve probably said this before, when I was drunk, but it’s not easy to write poetry, and it’s certainly not easy to do math.
Maryam (sighing): I think you are still drunk, but yeah. It’s always hard.
Poe: How do you overcome it? I mean, how do you keep going when the work gets grueling, and the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care about what you’re doing?
Maryam: Well, I know it’s important, for one. Even if the other people don’t see that — first of all, I do have important applications, they are just hundreds or thousands of years away! But also, there is so much beauty intrinsic to the subject and so much to know that it’s hard to just walk away. Yes, the math students get tons of homework that they sometimes can’t finish, but that is how you learn. Even the process of doing homework with other people is an enriching experience that builds community.
Poe: I believe the term you are looking for is “trauma-bonding”.
Maryam: Ah yes, a math degree comes with many inside jokes. What was I saying? Oh yes, the second thing is kind of a spiritual commitment to lean into that which is “truly real,” instead of the other things that people made up.
Poe: Yes. Your made-up thing is better than their made-up thing.
Maryam: Exactly. And I guess the third thing is that I really just try to have a lot of fun when I can. Math people don’t get to escape from their societies, so even their world can get “lost in the sauce,” as you say. The remedy is to do some unserious math: Find out how many times you should shuffle a deck of cards, 3D print stuff, turn a piano into a Möbius strip, make string art and so on. You probably won’t get a medal, but you’re having fun, so who cares.
Maryam: I guess, in some sense, my other points boil down to having fun, too. Having fun with the subject, having fun with other people and having fun being better than other made-up things.
Poe: I see. Thanks for sharing.
Maryam: And what about you? What do poets do to … cope? I know you said writing poetry isn’t easy.
Poe: It almost never is. This isn’t just me, but writers tend to drink a lot. It loosens the subconscious from the rigidity that society often asks of us. Other drugs, too. “The Midnight Gospel” spends some time talking about psychedelics and alternate forms of consciousness.
Maryam (laughing): Our biggest commonality: looking at sacred geometry on a Friday night.
Poe: You really kill me.
Poe: Anyhow, it’s awfully hard to come up with something new to say, in a way that hasn’t already been said to death. I can experiment with different forms and constraints to see where the words lead me, but it’s still a heavy task to write about things which you barely understand. You do learn about them more in the grueling process of writing, so I guess that’s a motivation to keep going.
Maryam: You are trauma-bonding with yourself.
Poe: Could you save it for the end? I’m having a moment here. As I was about to say, I guess for me, personally, I think of the people who I’d want these poems to reach. There are so many of them. And their world is so big. I think even if just one person can feel the intimacy and familiarity that I sometimes feel when I read a poem, then all the struggle would have been worth it, you know? It’s like you said, I know it’s important.
Poe: Mark Vonnegut said something which I really liked: “Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.” And I would add, too, that writing is a form of resistance, and what it resists is the pressure to always be doing something that is economically productive.
Poe: And then there’s a third thing, as well, which is like what you said about just playing around and having fun. At a certain point, I realized that poems can be fun, too. It doesn’t always have to be about some great truth of life. It could just be a limerick from Edward Lear:
There was an Old Person of Basing,
Whose presence of mind was amazing;
He purchased a steed,
Which he rode at full speed,
And escaped from the people of Basing.
Poe: Or like a double dactyl. Here’s “Call Me By Your Name”, from The Michigan Daily’s own Madi Hammond:
Gave me chlamydia
Itching and burning for
Boning from Elio –
Glad he withdrew!
Maryam: Oh I love limericks! Wait … who’s … Timothée Chalamet?
Poe: Get a TV … for my sake. Forget I showed you that. The point is that their world is going to shit, and they should at least have fun with it.
Maryam: You write poems, right? Maybe you could do something with that …?
Poe: Oh, hush.
*Poe looks to the sky, eyes searching through the plum-colored dusk. Earth looks melancholic from this angle, even though Maryam would say it looks like a 2-sphere.*
Poe: You really should watch “The Midnight Gospel.” I think you’ll like it.
Maryam: I’ll add it to my list.
Poe: I’m serious. Don’t forget about it.
Maryam: I promise I will watch it. Unlike the people on earth who study math, I have a lot of time on my hands.
Poe: Good. You should have fun sometimes.
Maryam: And you? You’ll read “Mathematics for Human Flourishing”?
Poe: That would only be fair.
P.S: Mathematics’ name is inspired by Maryam Mirzakhani, a late Iranian mathematician and the first woman to receive a Fields Medal
MiC Columnist Kenneth Sun can be reached at email@example.com.