Patrick Bahls on math, poetry and metaphor

"While math is ultimately grounded in number, modern mathematics is such a complicated creature that understanding its organic workings requires much more than the ability to count. There is a great and growing body of linguistic and visual metaphors that constitute a healthy understanding of modern math…. mastery of these concepts often involves creativity more readily expected of a poet than of a scientist……

It should not be surprising that students find poetry a useful tool for accessing these mathematical ideas: the language of poetry is precise and exact, as is the language of math. In both idioms words are heavy with meaning, and word choice is crucial. A well-constructed poem will in this manner be like a well-constructed proof…..

Both poetry and mathematics deal in images, ideas, and aha!s: metaphor is the currency with which poetic trade takes place, and math’s economy has the same basis. Spheres, balls, neighborhoods, lattices, chains, nets, sheaves, bundles, sources, sinks, orbits, itineraries, distances, colorings ... these math metaphors are alive and well, for the active images they evoke aid in mathematical understanding."

You can read the full article here - Math and Metaphor: Using Poetry to teach College Mathematics

The same ideas apply to all literary forms of metaphor – reading stories that include metaphor such as The Journey Home or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (or many, many others) helps children to learn how to use metaphor at an early age.

And understanding metaphor is essential in understanding maths. After all, a numeric digit is in itself a metaphor.