From the Fibonacci sequence to the Bell numbers, there is more overlap between mathematics and poetry than you might think, says Peter Rowlett, who has found his inner poet.

People like to position maths as cold, hard logic, quite distinct from creative pursuits. Actually, maths often involves a great deal of creativity. As mathematician Sofya Kovalevskaya wrote, “It is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in soul.” Poetry is often constrained by rules, and these add to, rather than detract from, its creativity.

Rhyming poems generally follow a scheme formed by giving each line a letter, so that lines with matching letters rhyme. This verse from a poem by A. A. Milne uses an ABAB scheme:

*What shall I call
My dear little dormouse?
His eyes are small,
But his tail is e-nor-mouse*.

In poetry, as in maths, it is important to understand the rules well enough to know when it is okay to break them. “Enormous” doesn’t rhyme with “dormouse”, but using a nonsense word preserves the rhyme while enhancing the playfulness.

There are lots of rhyme schemes. We can count up all the possibilities for any number of lines using what are known as the Bell numbers. These count the ways of dividing up a set of objects into smaller groupings. Two lines can either rhyme or not, so AA and AB are the only two possibilities. With three lines, we have five: AAA, ABB, ABA, AAB, ABC. With four, there are 15 schemes. And for five lines there are 52 possible rhyme schemes!

Maths is also at play in Sanskrit poetry, in which syllables have different weights. “Laghu” (light) syllables take one unit of metre to pronounce, and “guru” (heavy) syllables take two units. There are two ways to arrange a line of two units: laghu-laghu, or guru. There are three ways for a line of three units: laghu-laghu-laghu; laghu-guru; and guru-laghu. For a line of four units, we can add guru to all the ways to arrange two units or add laghu to all the ways to arrange three units, yielding five possibilities in total. As the number of arrangements for each length is counted by adding those of the previous two, these schemes correspond with Fibonacci numbers.

Not all poetry rhymes, and there are many ways to constrain writing. The haiku is a poem of three lines with five, seven and five syllables, respectively – as seen in an innovative street safety campaign in New York City, above.

Some creative mathematicians have come up with the idea of a π-ku (pi-ku) based on π, which can be approximated as 3.14. This is a three-line poem with three syllables on the first line, one on the second and four on the third. Perhaps you can come up with your own π-ku – here is my attempt, dreamt up in the garden:

*White seeds float,
dance,
spinning around*.

For more such insights, log into www.international-maths-challenge.com.

*Credit for article given to **Peter Rowlett**