Poets Have Reason To Be Envious (2015-06-28)

Poets Have Reason To Be Envious (2015-06-28)

Poems may be difficult, but so is mathematics. There is an important difference, however. Most people who don’t understand math will admit it.

My daughter, who is a theoretical mathematician, sent me this apt quotation from the great poet W. H. Auden.

Writers, poets especially, have an odd relation to the public because their medium, language, is not, like the paint of the painter or the notes of the composer, reserved for their use but is the common property of the linguistic group to which they belong. Lots of people are willing to admit that they don't understand painting or music, but very few indeed who have been to school and learned to read advertisements will admit that they don't understand English. As Karl Kraus said: 'The public doesn't understand German, and in journalese I can't tell them so.'

How happy the lot of the mathematician! He is judged solely by his peers, and the standard is so high that no colleague or rival can ever win a reputation he does not deserve. No cashier writes a letter to the press complaining about the incomprehensibility of Modern Mathematics and comparing it unfavourably with the good old days when mathematicians were content to paper irregularly shaped rooms and fill bathtubs without closing the waste pipe.


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