JoAnne has lots more poems at her website and blog. Here are 3 of them...


Axes beget coordinates,
dutifully expressing
functions, graphs,
helpful in justifications,
keeping legendary mathematics
new or peculiarly quite rational
so that understanding’s visual
with x, y, z.

A Mathematician's Nightmare

Suppose a general store --
items with unknown values
and arbitrary prices,
rounded for ease to
whole-dollar amounts.
Each day Madame X,
keeper of the emporium,
raises or lowers each price --
exceptional bargains
and anti-bargains.
Even-numbered prices
divide by two,
while odd ones climb
by half themselves --
then half a dollar more
to keep the numbers whole.
Today I pause before
a handsome beveled mirror
priced at twenty-seven dollars.
Shall I buy or wait
for fifty-nine days
until the price is lower?

The price-changing scheme of this poem is derived from a version of the Collatz Conjecture, an unsolved problem that has stolen hours of sleep from many mathematicians. Start with any positive integer: if it is even, take half of it; if it is odd, increase it by half and round up to the next whole number. Collatz' Conjecture asserts that, regardless of the starting number, iteration of this decrease-by-half-increase-by-half process eventually leads to the number one.

"A Mathematician's Nightmare" and others of JoAnne Growney's "mathematical' poems are available in My Dance is Mathematics, published in 2006 by Paper Kite Press.

My Dance Is Mathematics

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

From "Dirge without music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay*; read by Hermann Weyl in a Memorial Address for Amalie Emmy Noether on April 26, 1935 at Bryn Mawr College. Born in Germany (1882) and educated there, Noether fled the Nazis to the US in 1933.

They called you der Noether, as if mathematics
was only for men. In 1964, nearly thirty years
past your death, I saw you in a spotlight
in a World's Fair mural, "Men of Modern Mathematics."

Colleagues praised your brilliance — but after
they had called you fat and plain, rough and loud.
Some mentioned kindness and good humor
though none, in your lifetime, admitted it was you
who led the way to axiomatic algebra.
Direct and courageous, lacking self-concern,
elegant of mind, a poet of logical ideas.

At a party when you were eight years old,
you spoke up to solve a hard math puzzle.
Fearless, you set yourself apart.

I followed you. I saw you forced to choose
between mathematics and other romance.
For women only, this exclusive standard.

I heard fathers say, dance with Emmy—
just once, early in the evening. Old Max
is my friend; his daughter likes to dance.

If a woman's dance is mathematics,
she dances alone.

Mothers said, “Don't tease. That strange one’s heart
is kind. She helps her mother with the house,
and cannot help her curious mind.”

Teachers said, “She's smart, but stubborn,
contentious and loud, a theory-builder
not persuaded by our ideas.

Students said, “ She's hard to follow, bores me.”
A few stood firm and build new algebras
on her exacting formulations.

In spite of Emmy's talents,
there were always reasons
not to give her rank
or permanent employment.
She's a pacifist, a woman.
She's a woman and a Jew.
Her abstract thinking
Is female and abstruse.

Today, history books proclaim that Noether
is the greatest mathematician
her sex has produced. They say she was good
for a woman.

  • Excerpt from "Dirge without Music." Copyright (c) 1928, 1955 by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norma Millay Ellis. Used by permission of Elizabeth Barnett, Literary Executor, The Millay Society.