Making poetry from maths & science

Ladybird by Michael Bosma

Jade Cuttle, a former Foyle winner and one of the 2014 Foyle summer interns, sets the third of our four August challenges – a month of vivid and varied reading and writing tasks from Foyle Young Poets to get you inspired! This challenge is specifically for poets aged 13 and under, and shows you some exciting new ways to write.

Whilst combining these two very different languages might seem as absurd as mixing custard with concrete, poetry and maths do speak in similar tongues. Albert Einstein said “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas” and indeed many famous poets were also mathematicians, like Lewis Carroll, who wrote this poem using mathematical logic.

Poetry, like mathematics, is sewn together with patterns such as repetition, rhyme, meter, symmetry, alliteration, repetition of images or ideas etc. There is also an emphasis on economy as each symbol (mathematical or poetic) is getting across multiple meanings.

As unusual as this idea may seem, it’s far from recent. Lewis Carroll’s poem was written in the 1800s. The Sator Square, found in the ruins of Pompeii and dating back to 79AD, combines the logic of mathematics and language so that five words can be read in any direction.

This kind of poetry is called equational poetry.

The challenge!

The challenge is to write an equational poem! Read on to find out what this might involve…

You don’t need to be good at maths or science to join in with this challenge; in fact, you don’t even have to like them – I never liked maths. The first poem I wrote in a mathematic style was revising for a statistics exam, the maths module I was worst at and disliked the most! The poem, called ‘The Binomial Test’, won third prize in this year’s Poetry Book Society National Student Poetry Competition judged by Daljit Nagra.
It’s not about whether what you write is mathematically right or wrong; this challenge is about learning to use language in creative ways, to escape the bounds of traditional thinking. Have a go! Don’t forget to add in some mathematical symbols (e.g. =, x, +, ÷) to mark the equational style of your poem!

1) To get you started, you could think of two colours. When you mix them together in your mind, what do you think of? Try to write down whatever comes to mind, however silly it may seem, as starting simple means you can get more specific later. You could pick a theme if you’re struggling to come up with ideas; for example, using the theme of animals:

Black + Yellow = Bumblebee

Black + Red = Ladybird

Black x White = Zebra

The greatest difficulty of this challenge (perhaps of writing any poem) is spinning an excellent one-liner into a longer poetic piece. If you find yourself stuck with how to develop an idea, try to consider the equation more as a starting point and simply let your mind wander from there. Here are some of my initial ideas using the theme of skies:

Blue x Yellow = The spill of the sun across a naked sky

Black x Silver = The specking of stars splashed across a night’s sky;
……………………the day flicks a paintbrush across the darkness,
……………………the dawn wipes clean the canvas of the night,
……………………memories fade with the moonlight

This challenge is fantastic for fiddling with the layout of a poem. As you can see from the above, I made poem look like a sum by aligning it neatly, with two clear parts to the equation, which really makes the words stand out.

2) Alternatively, you could take some inspiration from science, since science is full of equations too. Have a rummage through your science or maths books, pluck out an equation and get experimenting! You could make it more abstract using feelings or thoughts.

For example, here are some more of my ideas, transforming Newton’s Second Law Force = mass x acceleration into poetry about the force of desire. Can you think of any other forces you could write about?

Force = mass x acceleration

The force of desire
is equal to mass of heart
multiplied with the rate
at which you fall in love,
which means that the rate
at which you fall in love,
is equal to force of desire
divided by mass of heart,
which means that the fate
of my heart is not influenced
by the way you kiss me
beautiful as it was (…)

Some other examples of equations you could experiment with include:

Speed = distance divided by time
Pressure = force divided by area
Electric power = volts times current
Power = force times distance divided by time
Energy = mass x the speed of light squared

Of course, these are just a handful of suggestions about writing a poem of this style – there are infinite ways to go about it, so don’t be afraid to try something new. I’m very excited to seeing what you come up with, best of luck!


The winners will be published on Young Poets Network and receive one of our exclusive notebooks!

How to enter

The challenge is now closed – but you can read the brilliant winners and be inspired to write your own poem to submit to one of our Poetry Opportunities!

‘Summing Me Up’ by James Nyame-Satterthwaite

‘Speed= distance÷time’ by Sarah Goddard

‘The Colors of Smile’ by Paluk Gupta

‘The math of peace’ by Megan Parker

‘Passing Time’ by Pieta Bayley

‘Equational Proverbs’ by Kiran Bhandal

‘Friendship’ by Adya Manoj

Jade Cuttle

Jade Cuttle is a second year student reading Russian and French at Homerton College, University of Cambridge, and was one of the Foyle summer interns for the Poetry Society. She has won awards in competitions such as The National Student Poetry Competition, The Ledbury Poetry Festival Competition, National Seafaring Limerick Competition and received two Foyle Young Poet commendations in 2010 and 2012. She has worked widely with magazines such as The Adroit Journal, The Student Review, Cambridge Creatives and Varsity. She has performed in venues such as West Yorkshire Playhouse, York Opera House and Portcullis House Houses of Parliament and is looking to publish her first pamphlet. Aside from poetry and performance, she loves wandering the mountains, climbing trees and taking pictures of clouds. Tweets @JadeCuttle.

Published August, 2014

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