One author considers this mathematical statement by LeRoy Gorman entitled “The Birth of Tragedy” as a form of minimalist poetry:


Is this mathematical statement really a poem?

Creative writing highlights the value of human subjectivity. Mathematics, on the other hand, puts emphasis on rigor, logical validity, and precision. Wouldn't poetry be constricted by the rigid rules of mathematics if they were combined?

  • Sounds like Mr. Pritchard.... youtube.com/watch?v=LjHORRHXtyI – Lauren Ipsum May 21 '15 at 10:33
  • This is off topic. – user5645 May 21 '15 at 14:13
  • I like it as a poem, but is it really mathematics? – S. Mitchell May 21 '15 at 15:57
  • Just my opinion: If you can't understand a work of art without knowing the title, then it's not art. Is the following art? 1+1-->11 How about if I title it "binary sex"? Has it suddenly become an erudite work of skill, just by adding a title? I say no. – dmm May 21 '15 at 17:12
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    Interesting question, but what does it have to do with writing? – Neil Fein May 21 '15 at 22:34

Poetry doesn't have to be as free-flowing and messy as you're implying. Some poetry throws out rules of form and function, but some adheres to them strictly.

Think of the meter and rhyme demands of a sonnet, or the syllable rules of a haiku. If you don't follow those very rigid, precise requirements, you haven't written the poem correctly.

Honestly, I think that's a pretty funny poem that you've quoted. It takes a bit of work on the part of the reader to understand it, but the thoughts expressed reflect the title well. Why couldn't you use mathematics to express subjective thoughts?


A number of philosophers and mathematicians do see a deep connection between poetry and mathematics. Betrand Russell put it thus:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.

Franz Kafka says that "poetry is always a search for truth". Likewise, mathematics can be described as searching for truth, albeit with numbers. The same beauty and elegance one strives for in mathematics is no different to that which a poet seeks with words.

To answer your question about whether poetry would be constricted by the rigid rules of mathematics, it's worth keeping in mind that a lot of poetry is about rules and rigidity: meter, rhyme, form. Poetry strives for the same level of truth in beautiful, elegant, simple and minimal ways, very much like mathematics. It may seem counter-intuitive, but such rigidity in poetry frees oneself to be creative, forcing you to choose your words carefully, to say what you mean in the best, most succinct way possible.

For a deeper look at the connection, I recommend the book "Mathematics, poetry and beauty" by Ron Aharoni, which attempts to connect the two domains. It notes that "poets, like mathematicians, are hunters, engaged in the search for hidden patterns in the world". Despite poetry being "invented", there are underlying truths that exist:

A metaphor that is on target reveals a similarity that is concealed, but that is out there. After all, "on target" implies that the target was already present. When the poet Yehuda Amichai writes:

Careful angels passed fate within fate,
Their hands shook not, nothing dropped or fell.
(Yehuda Amichai, "Twenty New Squares," Poems)

he expresses an existing truth: our fate is no more in our hands than the thread is master of its fate; there are forces that direct it, as the seamstress directs the thread. This is beautiful, not because it is an invention, but, mainly, because it is true.


Possibly not being writer enough to answer this question, I consider myself mathematician enough to try to give an answer from the mathematical viewpoint. (If this is not a great answer by itself, I hope it is a useful addition to the others given.)

What you say about mathematics, of rigor, validity, precision and rigid rules, holds true, to a certain extent. The elementary mathematics is boring to sit through at school and often not even relevant to anything encountered in real life, while the more advanced mathematics scares people with its unusual notations and complexity. But if you learn to read it (like advanced literature and poetry), it can be beautiful. A well-written proof can read like a story, with characters making appearances, a surprising plot and a satisfying conclusion. Some proofs can even be considered poetry for their elegance (there's a book written about the most elegant proofs, "Proofs from THE BOOK", see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proofs_from_THE_BOOK ). Admittedly, some proofs can be like abstract paintings for the uninitiated - unless you've read the title and had someone explain both the painting and the title to you (twice), you've got no idea what it's trying to tell you - but they are merely an annoying anomaly to an otherwise beautiful and terribly underrated science.

Also, the 'rigid rules' thing works only one way; a mathematical expression has just one well-defined value, but there are often dozens and sometimes infinite other ways to express that same value. Most of these ways will not often be used, because they are unnecessarily complex or simply require more writing, but I don't think poetry is about the most straightforward way to tell the reader something. It is about the emotional content as well, and, if applied properly (as in your example), mathematics can do the trick.


It's important to note this isn't actually a well-formed mathematical statement, it's a typographical poem that uses mathematical symbols for effect. It exploits the dual meaning of a symbol like "!" as punctuation indicating excitement, intensity or surprise with the fact that it also has mathematical usages.

An actual well-formed mathematical statement could be beautiful, to a mathematician, but it probably wouldn't be considered poetry. Here, however, the mathematical definitions are just being used as a way to extend the expressiveness of the typography.


I think Lauren Ipsum's final sentence constitutes the most apt answer for this. Poetry is very subjective but, like mathematics, is up for the reader to scan and interpret on their own. There is economy or precision of language (down to letters and symbols) in both poetry and mathematics. This poem is conceptual. The poem's value lies in the scantion experience and the cognitive work done; the audience must scan and dissect the poem, and then parse it for meaning (synonymous with 'truth'). Users of mathematic formulas must also use the same task process to attempt to interpret formulas. The confusion brought on by attempting to posit the validity of the poem may be the "tragedy".

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