Skip to main content

Poems Structured by Mathematics


Poets have long used mathematical ideas in the structure of their poetry. Sometimes the mathematical structure of a poem is simple and obvious, while the mathematics guiding other forms of poetry is more opaque. Pre-twentieth-century examples often included combinatorial techniques and sometimes offered the reader choices which rendered thousands of poetic possibilities out of a single short text. Since the mid-twentieth century, the use of explicit mathematical poetic form has become more intentional. Founded in the 1960s, the Oulipo remains a group of writers interested in the overlap of mathematics and poetry. One of the founders of the group, Raymond Queneau, explored the generalization of the sestina, and the work produced around this question remains a highlight in the mathematics of poetry. Other well-known poetic forms, such as the haiku and pantoum, can be described in mathematical terms. Many less famous mathematical poetic forms also exist. Poets have structured their work according to numerous mathematical ideas, including the Fibonacci sequence, pi, Latin squares, Platonic solids, the fundamental theorem of arithmetic, graphs, and finite projective planes. This chapter presents these ideas and also includes the occasional example of a poet intentionally violating the strict mathematical form in which they write.


  • Mathematical poetry
  • Constrained writing
  • Poetic structure
  • Oulipo
  • Sestina
  • Pantoum

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


Download references


The author thanks the following people and publishers for their permission to use the material found in this chapter.

While many of Emily Dickinson’s poems remain fully or partially covered by copyright, “We Shall Find the Cube of the Rainbow” is now in the public domain, in all versions, and may be used freely, with proper citation to source. It is available in The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, Harvard University Press, 1999.

Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux: “Sestina” from POEMS by Elizabeth Bishop. Copyright Ⓒ 2011 by The Alice H. Methfessel Trust. Publisher’s Note and compilation copyright Ⓒ 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“Haiku” was published in Collected Poems, copyright Ⓒ 2013, by Ron Padgett. Reprinted by permission of Coffee House Press.

Amy Uyematsu, excerpt from “The Invention of Mathematics” from Stone Bow Prayer. Copyright Ⓒ 2005 by Amy Uyematsu. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC, on behalf of Copper Canyon Press,

“A proof that \(\sqrt {2}\) is irrational” originally appeared on Daniel Mathews’s website in 2000 and is reprinted here by kind permission of the poet.

“Momentary Time Travel” by Jennifer R. Shloming was originally published in 2019 in The Fib Review Issue # 33 and is reprinted here by kind permission of the poet.

“Little Women” by JoAnne Growney appeared in a 2019 issue of Math Horizons and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the poet.

“Things stay green” is excerpted from “A Thing or Two: Cadae,” by Tony Leuzzi, from The Burning Door, Copyright Ⓒ 2014, used by kind permission of Tiger Bark Press and the poet.

The pi-ku and accompanying image were originally published in Pi(e)-ku Poetry, Issue No. 3, 2020. Poem reprinted with the kind permission of the poet BLW McGrory, Delaware Beat Poet Laureate (2019–2021), and Editor in Chief of the Pi(e)-ku Poetry Zine – bite-sized poems to help fight hunger.

“Poe, E. Near a Raven” originally appeared on Mike Keith’s website in 1995 and is reprinted here by kind permission of the poet.

“PI MNEMONIC SONG” by Andrew Huang originally appeared on his website in 2004 under the name “I Am The First Fifty Digits of Pi.” A recording of Huang performing the song is available on YouTube. Lyrics reprinted here by kind permission of the songwriter.

“A Pantoum for the Power of Theorems” by Sarah Glaz appears in Ode to Numbers, published in 2017 by Antrim House, and is reprinted here by the kind permission of the poet.

The images of the tetrahedral pantoum originally appeared in a 2018 post on the Math with Bad Drawings blog, where the work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. The images here are reproduced by the explicit and kind permission of Ben Orlin, creator of the blog.

“The Goddess Works Her Loom” by Enriqueta Carrington originally appeared in a 2010 post on JoAnne Growney’s Intersections blog and appears here by kind permission of the poet.

Shelly Wood’s Rubik’s cube poems, including a description of her process and photos, originally appeared on her website in 2015. The poems and photo appear here by kind permission of the poet and photographer.

“We Are the Final Ones” by JoAnne Growney appeared in the Bridges Conference Art Exhibition Catalog, Baltimore, 2015, along with artwork by Allen Hirsh. Reprinted here with the kind permission of the poet.

“This Is Where You’ll Find Her” by Courtney Huse Wika originally appeared in “The Poetics of a Cyclic Directed Graph” by Courtney Huse Wika and Dan May in the Bridges Conference Proceedings, Waterloo, Canada, 2017. Excerpt reprinted here with the kind permission of the poet.

“As It Is” by Michelle Stampe originally appeared in “Galaxies Containing Infinite Worlds: Poetry from Finite Projective Planes” by Dan May and Courtney Huse Wika in the Bridges Conference Proceedings, Baltimore, 2015. Excerpt reprinted here by the kind permission of the poet.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel May .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Section Editor information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2020 Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this entry

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this entry

May, D. (2020). Poems Structured by Mathematics. In: Sriraman, B. (eds) Handbook of the Mathematics of the Arts and Sciences. Springer, Cham.

Download citation

  • DOI:

  • Published:

  • Publisher Name: Springer, Cham

  • Print ISBN: 978-3-319-70658-0

  • Online ISBN: 978-3-319-70658-0

  • eBook Packages: Springer Reference MathematicsReference Module Computer Science and Engineering

Chapter History

  1. Latest

    Poems Structured by Mathematics
    11 June 2020


  2. Original

    Poems Structured by Mathematics
    17 April 2020