STEM Series: Discovering Math in PoetrySTEM and NGSS
What if we made discovering math as exciting as liking a new pop song on the radio? What happens when we combine poetry and math?
Many people fear these two subjects, and for good reason: who hasn’t experienced the frustration of “not getting” a poem or struggling with a math assignment? Those formative moments can discourage students from a lifetime of wonder that happens when we “discover” the math and magic behind poetry, as well as the “math” behind popular songs on the radio.
It’s time to dismantle the fear behind poetry and math by combining the two “scary” subjects.
Math exists throughout poetry. Separating the two would be like removing oxygen from air. Oxygen might be invisible to the human eye, but it is an essential part of our existence—even when we do not see it.
Whether you loathe mathematics and poetry or yearn for them, they can offer a big role in your life—especially when you start to look for them.
In this article, we will focus on how to see math in poetry, as well as how to practice math and poetry appreciation together. If you’re not an educator in search of STEM curriculum, you might still be amazed by the uncanny ways math appears in poetry.
Keep reading for three “invisible” ways that math appears in poetry.
What is STEM?
STEM is a set of curricula that prioritizes lessons around Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The acronym is STEM. You do not have to be familiar with STEM to enjoy this article.
If you would like a “refresh” on STEM, check out our article here. We review the top three benefits of STEM, and why it matters.
We also offer an article on discovering mathematics in nature, which you can find here.
3 Ways Math Exists in Poetry
There are many ways that mathematics infuses its rules and patterns in poetry. Consider the following three. Math and poetry interact with each other, whether we notice it or not.
These mathematical appearances appear via counting, constraint, and patterns.
Traditionally, poetry was an art form of vocalized words. It was meant to be heard—not read.
The songlike quality of poetry is not random. Math is a large reason why certain poems have a rhythmic quality and cadence. For example, stanzas have a certain number of lines, and lines contain a certain number of syllables. This influences how one reads or recites a poem, since the numerical features of a poem change how it sounds.
In this way, the numerical features of math provide skeletal structure to the “flesh and blood” that is the poetry.
To explore this on your own or with students, find one of your favorite poems. “I Am Offering this Poem” by Jimmy Santiago Baca is a beautiful poem for us to start.
Now, with this poem or one of your choosing, count the number of stanzas. Stanzas are groups of lines, and often designated by a line break. In Baca’s poem, we have eight stanzas. Each stanza, besides the repeated one-liner of “I love you,” is a different length—what’s happening?!
Poetry can be interpreted in many ways, and we naturally bring our own bias and experience into each poem. For me, the repetition of “I love you,” provides the one consistent line-length and phrase. It is like Baca is asking the reader to understand that a poem can provide support to a reader, amidst a lifetime of uncertainty and change.
The lack of consistent stanza lengths, combined with the one-line repetition in the stanzas writing, “I love you,” is brilliant.
What if we explored each poem by starting with the mathematical structure within it? It might be less intimidating for learners of all ages to examine poetry with counting.
You can think of “constraint” as the rules that limit what one can and cannot do. For example, have you ever read a sonnet or a haiku? Those forms of poetry are rich in constraint. Poets can spend hours trying to find the right syllable count for a 17-syllable haiku or the lyrical cadence of a traditional sonnet.
The word “sonnet” means “little song” and comes from medieval Italy. Traditional sonnets versus 21st-century contemporary sonnets are very different.
For traditional sonnets, poets are limited by so many rules depending on which type of sonnet structure they follow. Overall, each line must have 10 syllables, a certain rhyming scheme, and 14 lines total. There are so many rules for poets to follow for a traditional sonnet.
These constraints have a mathematical component. For example, the length of a 10-syllable line ensures a certain pace that is a key component of how sonnets sound.
These mathematical constraints govern poetry in ways that poets in the past loved and loathed. An equation is a form in math, and sonnets exist because of that equation.
When we begin to use counting as a way to unwrap a poem, we start to see the layers and constraints beneath each poem too. Suddenly, patterns start to appear. It might appear limiting to have all these expectations and rules that influence poetry; however, the math within poetry is actually the very reason why poetry can move us in powerful and profound ways.
The mathematical structure provides us with audio and visual patterns that can be beautiful and relevant.
For example, iambic pentameter is the governing structure of many sonnets. That word may scare you. But iambic pentameter is the same cadence as the human heartbeat. These patterns help students understand mathematical concepts in a more tangible way.
For more information on how to recognize patterns in math, and also decrease “math anxiety,” check out this TEDx Talk below.
Laden Brooks also references the Fibonacci sequence, which we supplement in our Mathematics in Nature article. Math abounds in nature and the arts!
Get reading! Get writing!
Poetry and math do not have to be scary. Look closely for the mathematical bones that exist in our world—even in the arts.
Are there other patterns in poetry that you are beginning to notice? Let us know in the comments below. We would love to hear from you.
Here are five resources for those of you who crave more tools for infusing math and poetry in your daily and educational life.
- TEDx Talk – Poetry: A simple solution to math anxiety by Laden Brooks.
- Poetry Foundation – The Sonnet as a Silver Marrow Spoon by Adam O’Riordan.
- The Poetry Society – Top Tips for Teaching Poetry from the 2019 Teacher Trailblazer Gagandeep Chaggar.
- TED-Ed – Why Shakespeare loved iambic pentameter by David T. Freeman and Gregory Taylor.
- TEDx Talk – Math and Poetry: A Terrifying and Terrific Combination by Dr. Patrick Bahls.