The Power of Not Being Sure: John Ashbery, Jordan Ellenberg and Math


by Andrew Epstein

To my surprise, in the car the other day my math-obsessed 14-year-old son Dylan suddenly exclaimed “John Ashbery!” from the backseat. It turns out he’d reached the last pages of Jordan Ellenberg’s 2014 book How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, which he’s been relishing the past couple of weeks and has now pronounced one of his favorite books. Very aware that Ashbery’s name is hallowed in our house, he was excited to stumble upon a reference to a poet his dad has talked and written about so much, in a book about math of all things.

“Do you know a poem called ‘Soonest Mended’?” he asked. Do I know “Soonest Mended”? Do I ever! “Yes! It’s one of my favorite Ashbery poems and one of his most famous. Why?”

“Ellenberg talks about the poem in this really interesting section about math and uncertainty.”

“Really? How does he do that?” Dylan went on to explain the point of the passage: although we usually think of math as “the realm of certainty and absolute truth,” Ellenberg wants us to recognize math is also “a means by which we can reason about the uncertain, taming if not altogether domesticating it.”

I began to recite some partially garbled lines from the poem about action and not being sure and how we’re always coming back to the mooring of starting out, and Dylan, mildly impressed at my recall, said “that’s the part he quotes!”

Indeed it is. In the book, Ellenberg calls “Soonest Mended” “the greatest summation I know of the way uncertainty and revelation can mingle, without dissolving together, in the human mind.” After quoting the poem’s wonderful final passage, Ellenberg writes “For this is action, this not being sure! It is a sentence I often repeat to myself like a mantra.” Many people view uncertainty and ambivalence as markers of cowardice, moderation, or quietism, but for Ashbery, “not being sure is the move of a strong person, not a weakling,” Ellenberg argues. “It is, elsewhere in the poem, ‘a kind of fence-sitting / Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.’ And math is part of it.”

Math?! Part of an ethos that embraces ambiguity and skepticism? As a decidedly math-averse person — who sometimes views my son’s preternatural prowess with numbers as a bewildering, X-Men-like mutant power — I was very pleased to hear that our worldviews might be more aligned than one might think. “Math,” Ellenberg writes, “gives us a way of being unsure in a principled way; not just throwing up our hands and saying ‘huh,’ but rather making a firm assertion: ‘I’m not sure, this is why I’m not sure, and this is roughly how not-sure I am.’ Or even more: ‘I’m unsure, and you should be too.’”

In my book Beautiful Enemies, I talk about “Soonest Mended” too, reading it as a powerful example of Ashbery’s deep connection to American pragmatist philosophy and its skepticism of fixity and absolute truths. I argue that the poem’s ending is “a potent statement of a particularly Ashberyean negative capability – the willingness to remain in doubt, uncommitted, unaligned with any and all communities.” The “eloquent and complex turn towards action and change” at the end of the poem suggests that, for Ashbery, “continued movement and artistic and personal health” are associated “with uncertainty itself… This is action: not aggressive gestures or declarations, not screaming slogans from the barricades, but remaining unsure, forever loose and careless, which recalls Ashbery’s frequent equation of doubt with motion.”

I would never have associated the outlook I’ve just described with math, but I’m very glad Ellenberg did. The idea also seemed to resonate with my son, this ninth-grader deeply fascinated by math, its applications in real life and its philosophical underpinnings.

What a pleasant surprise to find this great little discussion of poetry — and Ashbery’s masterpiece no less — in a book about mathematical thinking. Among other things, this passage, like Ellenberg’s book as a whole, is a great example of how writers and thinkers might bridge the pernicious STEM / humanities divide.  It certainly appealed to both my math-focused kid and to his poetry professor dad.

So thanks to Jordan Ellenberg, not only for writing such a cool book, but for providing this little moment of math vs. literature détente and unexpected father-son bonding. And, of course, to Ashbery for writing “Soonest Mended,” one of the great hymns to uncertainty and the power to be found in not being sure.

Piece crossposted with Locus Solus: The New York School of Poets

About the Author:

Andrew Epstein is a Professor in the English Department at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. He received his BA from Haverford College in 1992, and his Ph.D. in English from Columbia University in 2000. He is the author of Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford University Press), which focuses on Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and Amiri Baraka.