The Poet Mathematician

  • Robert Gethner, professor of mathematics  

He was 20 years old, riding in the back of a station wagon in Minneapolis. About to enter his senior year of college, the budding mathematician was one of several students preparing for a summer research program funded by the National Science Foundation.

The students drove to different companies in the Minneapolis area, looking for good places to carry out their projects and jump-start their careers in math. Robert Gethner, however, remembers the trip because of another subject—poetry.

"To pass the time in the car, I scribbled a poem in the margin of my solution to a math problem," Gethner says.

More than three decades later, Gethner is still scribbling. A professor of mathematics at Franklin & Marshall, he has carved out a niche as a published poet, with three of his pieces reaching journal audiences in the past year. His work has appeared in The Midwest Quarterly, the Connecticut River Review and the Journal of the American Medical Association, among other publications.

How does a mathematician become a published poet? Gethner's interest in poetry began at the ripe age of 10, when his fifth-grade teacher asked students to present book reviews to the class. One student reviewed J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, The Hobbit, sparking in Gethner a passion for writing that remains today.

"Tolkien's view of the world chimed deeply with my own, and got me interested in writing," Gethner says. "Tolkien made me realize that you could capture the beauty of fall leaves, and of nature generally, in words."

By the age of 12, Gethner was writing his own poetry. He remembers writing about nature, colors and fireworks, themes he includes in his work to this day. "My wife tells me that almost all of my poems have colorful lights and a nighttime sky," he says.

Gethner's first poetic milestone came in 1979, when he received third prize in a poetry contest at the University of Wisconsin. His work was published in the first volume of The Madison Review that year. He soon began to notice similarities between his work in math and in writing.

"Math and poetry are alike because they both have rigid rules, yet creativity in ways you can use the rules," Gethner says. "In math, we search for short, elegant proofs. In poetry, what's fashionable is the short lyric poem. In both cases, readers might say 'I never dreamed you could prove that theorem, or achieve that emotional effect, using so few sentences.'"

The scientific mindset drives Gethner's work in math and poetry. "There's some corner of my mind that asks how this can be possible," he says. "How is it that the universe can have these molecules, which arrange themselves into humans and animals that interact with one other, and the result is love, joy and grief? When I'm writing, I feel a bit like I'm carrying out a scientific exploration."

For Gethner, writing poetry is also a means of connecting with his father, who passed away from a rare blood disorder when Gethner was only 11. He recalled his father in his recent poem, "Story of Me and My Father," published in The Midwest Quarterly. In his current work he is using scientific imagery to ask questions about why his father died.

"In writing," Gethner says, "you have to feel your subject matter deeply, but you also have to draw the reader in by imagining his or her attitude toward your material. It might be a sense of suspense, or a quirky image, that makes the reader want to go on. The ending is a resolution, like the last chord in a symphony."

The following is a recent poem by Gethner, originally published in The Hawai'i Pacific Review, Vol. 23, 2009, p. 59:

Lullaby under Mars

After mothers have called their children home;
And the shops have closed; and in side-streets
Black turret windows have flashed back
At the setting sun; and the distant hills
Have purpled, then grayed, then, dimming, dissolved

Into sky; and Mercury, wavering yellow-white
Dot in a silvery sky, entangled
In thread-fine telephone wires at the park's
Edge, has wriggled free and slipped,
Unobserved, behind darkening maples and roofs

To follow the sun; and sidewalks, dark and empty,
Chalk-marked with hopscotch and secret
Codes, have relinquished their warmth to hedges,
Porch-posts, chimneys, wires,
Cirrus, and empty sky; and older boys,

Their bikes prone in their yards after endless, late-
Night wanderings, have gone up to bed;
And so have their parents; when basswood pollen, sweet
And invisibly green, curls undisturbed
Through vacant streets past dimly green shutters;

Then, gleaming high above the highest
Leaves, and highest clouds, and remotest
Skies, a bright pink point touches
Our town (finials; handlebars;
Pink seeping melodiously down through cracks

Into basements), tints the plants on our kitchen sill,
Scatters faint reds on our dishes,
Our half-folded laundry, reddens our dreams:
Gentle wanderer that gives us red
From sunlight till the sun warms our windows again.

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