As you may know, this fall I started taking a basic algebra course at Spokane Community College. I last had algebra over fifty years ago in high school. Working math problems for me is something like doing crossword puzzles for others. My grandmother who lived to be 100 and whose formal education ended in the eighth grade worked crossword puzzles most of her life to improve her word skills.
Anyhow, I get small jolts of satisfaction to see my problems simplify correctly and agree with the answers at the back of the book, and I love the way the “rules for exponents” have a consistent logic or that I’ve got an equation which is an identity or to find out that the value of “x” which I’ve arrived at actually works in my proof. I love that n-2 = 1/ n2. I love how that looks on the page when you flip the numbers, how n to the negative two squared equals one over n squared. Though I don’t quite understand why this is so, still it satisfies my mind to invert the numbers and solve or simplify the expressions correctly. So on and so forth.
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve got an MFA in Creative Writing under my belt too. After many years, I learned to think like a poet though it didn’t come quite as naturally to me as it may have come to some others. I should say that I learned to think like the poets of my generation. Ways of thinking poetically come and go. Who writes or reads poetic sagas like the “Iliad” anymore or Dante’s “Divine Comedy”? I can’t say that I ever learned to think like Ezra Pound, and James Joyce was hard, but I definitely understood Frost and huge chunks of the poetry of the western Frost, William Stafford. Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables taught me how a symbol can be said to “come alive”, and on and on.
Now let me show you two things beautiful which follow from math and poetry.
Here’s the proof that a negative number times a negative number results in a positive number.
4 x (-4) = -16
3 x (-4) = -12
2 x (-4) = -8
1 x (-4) = -4
0 x (-4) = 0
-1 x (-4) = 4
-2 x (-4) = 8
-3 x (-4) = 12 and etcetera
Do you see how irrefutable the pattern is? It’s the logic of numbers, the power of logic. That’s the interesting thing about the patterns of math. Trouble is, I can understand the beauty of the progression which I’ve copied down above, but I’ll be damned if I can understand what makes mathematicians think up the proof in just that manner. That’s what I told my math teacher a week or so back. I want to learn to think like a mathematician. I want to understand how one comes up with simple and beautiful proofs like the one above, not just how to resolve an equation. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can quite master the talent or that I have the time. I can resonate to the beauty of the proof but not exactly understand how to think it up myself. And, perhaps after a long winter of it, I’ll grow bored of working over equations and want my time back.
Now here’s the second beauty I promised above:
DETAIL FROM A COMBAT FLIGHT
frontally, from the left and above, he dove
in, out of the sun. i saw his tracers first,
orange, looking for me in slow curves
that seared in and sailed past; i rolled up
and right and over and into a curve
of my own that brought the horizon
into my canopy upside down.
i dove for it through shredded clouds,
looking for safety in low altitudes; the tracers
still curved past, now from behind,
burning out and vanishing toward earth.
when they hit, there was a jolt, the stick
went loose, flame, and a slow loss
of control, tightening into a dead spin.
i gave it up, drifted through the black
smoke trail of my own burning, the hazed earth
dangling below, details sharpening
as i came in: first the vineyard, then the vines,
finally, the grapes crushed in my landing.
jolted, i lay still in the hot sun
out of which he'd come, looking at the dusty grapes
and the green, dark vines; there was only
a light tug of shrouds to remind me where i'd been,
and the soft dirt warm against my back.
i took a hot grape in my hand and ate,
felt the seed grits against my teeth,
its warm juice in my throat.
when i stood, the earth was right side up.
That is one of my best poems. I understand it to reveal a process, it’s a metaphor about life, my own life specially, of recovery, of giving up struggling, of surrendering to a new way of life. I wrote several pretty good poems at a certain time in my life, and I understood how emotional life can be revealed in the lines of poetry. One’s personal and emotional life will never be revealed in a formula, but one can be emotionally satisfied by evaluating formulas, and I imagine that one can get the deepest sort of intellectual grasp of the universe with mathematics.
I’m proudest that a fighter pilot who happened to be in a poetry workshop with me told me that my description of rolling and diving in a combat flight was accurate to the feelings he’d had up there in the wild blue yonder.
PS: I put this post together on Oct. 22 last year. I've got a lot of posts ahead I guess. . . .
"The top TV shows in Russia are "Bowling For Food" and "Wheel of Torture". Yakov Smirnoff [Do you remember this comedian? He was big time in Reagan's America. I had completely forgotten him.]