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The Calculus of Poetry

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There are not many of us. Not that I have met anyway, who tie in mathematics with poetry or see any bright connection at all: maybe you do, perhaps a few others ~ one could guess, John Nash, maybe Merwin, certainly Philip Booth, Kate Barnes. I can’t really speak for others whom I do not really know. But math and poetry do seem to exist on the same plane ~ the calculus of it all in that neither is quite “real” in any traditional sense of the word. Both are “perceptual”, and while other mathematics may not be, calculus generally speaks to things that although they may be applied in our every day, exist entirely on a plane that exists in a blank space; read; not here, not necessarily anyway.

But both math and poetry are about perception and each is but an equation and a theorem that helps us arrive from point a to point b. Poems, most poems or the best ones, are about some kind of resolution, much the same way the best short stories are about resolution and while it may not be found, most writers are striving for some kind of resolution, even if or though they may not even know it , even if the story ends up unresolved, the driving force is still resolution.

Or at least I remember C. Michael Curtis at The Atlantic Monthly telling me that when I was his reader so many years ago. But memory is a funny thing and perhaps cannot be trusted, though I am almost certain it was he who put the germ of this in my head.

We write, though not all of us, but perhaps a great many, to find some common theme, to find some answers. So in this way then, a poem is in a sense a kind of theorem or equation that in the best of cases leads us to the correct and ultimate answer, as I said before. We seek the answer and get there much the same way we do through calculus. We create equations, we use the variables and then we try for resolution. That is our goal.

These poems provide for us certain universal truths that can be applied to certain, perhaps, specific situations, much in the way John Nash’s Bargaining Theory can be applied to contemporary economics and even war games and even the outcome of war if applied correctly because it is Game Theory and what is war if not a kind of game. It may sound crass to say it, but there is some veracity in it, hence War Games, etc etc.

To shift, let’s move from Game and Bargaining Theory to Love. The best love poems, for example, those that speak to us of universal Truths in the Platonic sense of the word– the commonalities, the pains we all know, the bruising of the heart, and yet somehow, the writer finds his or her way through this and to the other side through words in the final line, these are the poems that give us hope.

They give us, and this is important, the final and correct answer to the equation. And they do so, by working out the equation. Here is a rather simple answer and try to work with me here to follow along; conversely, remember that poems often start at the end and then work back; so you could work with the answer the variables would become apparent in time.

Take character a. and character b. and put them in situation c. or d. or e. the answer may change depending on the particular characteristics of the variable a. or b. – the personality etc. But what if you come up with a system that accounts for an overview of several “basic” personality types – i.e. the most common; so a1 would be the obsessive. a2 would be the neurotic a3 would be the secure and etc. The same would hold true of b1, b2, b3 and so on. Then, you take person a1 (obsessive) and put them with character b3 (neurotic) then you would have to work out the possible answers: the answer could be several things, but one would be more true than the others.

The trick here then would be to sort out the four or five or ten or whatever you find, basic types of situations and basic personality types that would get involved in said situations. There are limited numbers not infinite possibilities or perhaps there are, but if that is so, why is it that there are recurrent themes in love or hate or vengeance poems in particular. One could develop with relative ease the basic personality types involved and then work out from there the situations and assign numbers or letters etc, thus developing the variables and then the answers and labeling those (x, y, z and etc.).

For example: the answer might be D, which is that this will not work out because together, the couple is just too fraught. Or, it might be D2, each of the two makes a compromise and they meet in the middle somewhere or D3, factoring in environmental factors such as therapy, conversation, willingness to work it out etc. might mean a true resolution which we’ll call conclusion D4. So you see, for each situation, there can be created a variable and a descriptive of that variable. One would develop a sort of content equation.

A1 + D2 = Y1 won’t work out, for example because based on the pre-directed content equations, it wouldn’t make sense after one had defined the variables (depending on what your variables were; this is just an example of my variables as i created them). But that’s the thing about poetry ~ it cannot be so confined or as simpleas mathematics because people are never so simple: we can try to be reductive to some degree, but to reduce all people to a certain type of say, five or six essential types, might be in some ways accurate, but there will always be small anomalies that throw us off.

Still, to proceed, the first step would be defining your variables and their answers and identifying the most common situations addressed in poetry: obviously, love might rank as the number one theme, and from there, take sub themes, anger, jealousy, passion, marriage, and so on. Another theme might be Summer – so sub themes might be heat, Indian summer, western summer versus eastern summer and so on. Your first step would be to create a kind of chart or excel spreadsheet.

But as I write all of this, I realize that the true work of this is done in the coiled labyrinths each time we pen a truly great poem with a great and true resolution. Whether you realize it or not, you are using mathematics. You are using variables and coming up with some kind of conclusion. It is a strange to think of poetry this way, and yet it makes perfect sense at the same time.

Like calculus, as I said, or most abstract things, poetry exists really on a plane unto itself. It is of this world, meaning it is about it, or most of the time anyway, yet the best poetry seeks to transcend the ordinary and the every day. It seeks some economy of language for one, not overly verbose, but every word must count. Second, it reaches the “ideal” conclusion, whatever that may be for the individual writer.

For one writer, the end of a great affair may mean a new beginning; for another poet, it may mean death and suicide or something equally macabre and morose. It all depends on the poet, but in each case, the answer is taken to some extreme. It is rare that we act on that which we write about. We write perhaps to express and get this energy or the stuff and the ama of life out of us. We do as we can; we purify ourselves through what we write and in this way are cleansed.

When we rage, rage as Dylan wrote, against the dying of the light, we are fighting ourselves and life (or death) itself. We are fighting the close of day and we know it comes far sooner than we ever expected.

Never stop trying to sort out the answers. Therein lie the truths that make poetry so universal and mathematics so absolutely necessary if we are to understand this world and our world around us; without the two hand in hand, we have almost nothing to aid us in our understanding. This is something John Nash knew well, and set about finding the poetry and the mathematics thereof in the every day.

sadi ranson-polizzotti

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • Shark

    Excerpt from a poem that includes a reference to math.


  • sade

    you mean find one? god, i have so many myself that just got published. does that count? or do you have one in mind?

    lemme know…

  • sade

    love it

  • sadi

    and a response coming v. soon w/ a URL.

  • sade


  • JR

    Did you mean Spirograph?

    Haven’t seen one of those in a while. That was a great invention.

  • sade

    ah, yes, Spirograph. My dad and i used to do those all the time. Sorry for the typo. I’ll fix that.

    Thanks so much :)