The higher math, to me, was poetry

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I think that I shall never see

A polynomial lovely as a tree.

On parents' night, I sat in my son's algebra classroom, looked at the blackboard, and felt an old, familiar horror. I was back in my own high school algebra class, confronted by scary polynomial equations.

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As my son's teacher talked about the curriculum, I recalled my freshman math mantra: "Please don't call on me!"

By the time I reached ninth-grade math, I had hoed a hard row from primary arithmetic. I had barely memorized the multiplication tables to the satisfaction of Miss McCormick and squeaked through long division with Mr. Lynch. Fractions gave me a frisson.

But at the portal of higher math, after only a few algebra quizzes, I concluded that I was truly "pushing the envelope" of my numerical skills. Algebra was Greek to me, all its meaning quite lost in translation.

I needed lots of translation: My ear was attuned to words and tone-deaf to numbers. Words entertain multiple possibilities; numbers, I thought, were restricted to one-dimensional answers. I foundered on math syntax. I could not fathom the virtue in absolute answers when ambiguity seemed so much more attractive and interesting.

I yearned for the beautiful words of the problem-solving I heard in poetry, like the poetic equations that Archibald MacLeish wrote: "A poem should be equal to: Not true." Could I not earn alternative algebra credit by "calculating" nontraditional equations such as this?

I decided to let the poets teach me math. A poem is a word problem, after all. And poems not only preserve ambiguity, they draw to within a fraction's fraction's fraction of a common denominator.

I count it a virtue that poems tantalize with this sense of almostness, for instance, when Wallace Stevens perceived "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is" while having the "mind of winter." Emily Dickinson chose to "dwell in possibility" - and in all probability had problems kindred to mine with polynomials.

Yet poets do not shy away from variables, I learned. In fact, I loved the variables, verbal and mathematical, for which e.e. cummings was known. He "rejoice[d] in a purely irresistible truth" that two times two is five, an equation which, I intuit, is not useful in building plumb houses or calculating gas mileage. However, it comforted my algebraic struggles to hear a poet wink at math's tyrannical definiteness.

As I slouched furtively in the back row of algebra class ("Please don't call on me!"), I heard e.e. whisper to me of the universe next door. I went. Since I couldn't avoid math, I could at least experience it from an obtuse angle.

Geometry modified the experience. It had a transmathematical vocabulary: Tangent, apex, acute - words a poet could appreciate. Might not geometry be a poetry of shape, proportion, and beauty simply disguised as math? Imagine - numbers arising from the blackboard as pyramids, Parthenons, or Bauhaus towers!

Poet Rita Dove wrote: "I prove a theorem and the house expands." She heard language translating abstractions directly into sensible things, taking flight with poetry's prime theorem: metaphor:

... the windows have hinged into butterflies,

sunlight glinting where they've intersected.

Now we're talking - a foot in the door of the possibility of doing math with words.

A metaphor is an equation, after all. Robert Frost called poetry "the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another," but it's really just an equation that need not balance, an equation containing the "pleasure of ulteriority."

Frost wrote: "Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting." I liked to think of my answers on algebra tests as just this sort of equation: poetic attempts to be "equal to, not true."

But I earned no credit. Algebra was a hot stove. I was ice. That's my metaphor for failing the course.

Ultimately, I felt successful in math, once I found math problems such as Howard Nemerov had enumerated in "To David, About His Education":

The world is full of mostly invisible things,

And there is no way but putting the mind's eye,

Or its nose, in a book, to find them out,

Things like the square root of Everest

Or how many times Byron goes into Texas....

This is my adopted higher math: word problems with English poets rustling in Texas; all hat and no cattle - my kind of polynomial. Finally, I've decided, it comes down to a question of how to describe these "invisible things." Numbers or words, for instance, if the Parthenon's beauty is to be described?

I much prefer descriptors like the phrase "the golden mean" rather than "Y = 5." "The poet is the priest of the invisible," according to Wallace Stevens.

Hence my second year slouching furtively in algebra while exploring the universe next door.

Hence my son's smug satisfaction on parents' night, as he deftly "solves for Y," while I enjoy my ulterior contentment by solving for "Why?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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