DISCOVERING PATTERNS IN MATHEMATICS AND POETRY by Marcia Birken and Anne C. Coon (Amsterdam: Rodolpi Press, July, 2008)
Review by Nancy Yanes-Hoffman, THE WRITING DOCTOR, at www.writingdoctor.typepad.com, email: email@example.com,
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“My aim, above all,” said the novelist Joseph Conrad, “is to make you see.” Conrad’s injunction is the apparent aim of Marcia Birken and Anne C. Coon in DISCOVERING PATTERNS IN MATHEMATICS AND POETRY (Amsterdam: Rodolpi Press, July, 2008).
Birken, the mathematician, and Coon, the poet, want us to see what’s around us, what are the connections between what we think we see and what is actually there. Their book, the product of their 20-year team-taught course, invites us on an ongoing journey aimed at the act of “discovering” –or learning to discover—mutual patterns in both mathematics and poetry.
The book shows us how to count patterns, to see, feel, and hear them if we would only listen. Early on, it moves from traditionally accessible poetic forms like the sonnet to mathematic shapes such as plane figures and spirals. More complexly, it talks about “shaped poetry” while tying symmetry in poetry to symmetry in mathematics. Deeper—and more difficult yet-- it leads us through the briers of fractal patterns in nature, geometry, and images of words.
Making the case for the role of analogy in “creating or understanding those patterns,” Birken and Coon focus on what metaphor can teach us if we would only look—and see. Both the mathematician and the poet require “abstract reasoning and analogous methodologies” to fortify our grasp of their disciplines.
In defining poetry, John Ciardi asked, “How does a poem mean?” (italics mine). The patterns of both poetry and mathematics, as Coon and Birken work them out, help us see how and what they mean by themselves and in relation to each other.
Coon and Birken define the purpose of their journey: “In this book, we do not intend to make every reader into a poet or mathematician, but instead…we hope to ‘translate’ their languages for a general audience. Likewise, as we make these languages more understandable, we hope that the patterns of each field will become open to appreciation by a wider audience.” But in translating these special languages, they often make us struggle with the challenges of a new language.
Finally, the most interesting chapter, “Patterns for the Mind” hones in on “the brain-teasing concepts of proof, paradox, and infinity.” It examines the ways that mathematics understands these concepts and then analyzes poetry’s imaginative depictions leading us down the endless road to infinity.
Supported at every juncture by photographs, diagrams, outlines, and, of course, patterns, this journey across the woods and into the fields of poetry and mathematics lures us into new ways of discovery and recognition.
Not a book to be read a glance, it repays the considerable effort it demands. For DISCOVERING PATTERNS IN MATHEMATICS AND POETRY offers new visions. In its pages are a call to see once-ignored “patterns in the physical world and in the world of ideas, whether those patterns are based on numbers or composed with words, captured in a photograph, or exhibited in the faces in a crowd, the outline of buildings against a skyline.”
A few caveats: First, although right-brain/left-brain explorations are central to the Birken-Coon journey, regrettably they remain undefined. Second, one of my favorite poems about poetic structure, “Patterns” by Marianne Moore, is the face on the cutting room floor.
And most of all, a book is not a living course. Would that the poet and the mathematician were still offering their course again (are you listening, Academia?). For DISCOVERING PATTERNS IN MATHEMATICS AND POETRY is only a tantalizing way station on the road to discovering the patterns around us.
As for me:
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