August 25, 2012 | 8
#StorySaturday is a Guest Blog weekend experiment in which we invite people to write about science in a different, unusual format – fiction, science fiction, lablit, personal story, fable, fairy tale, poetry, or comic strip. We hope you like it.
I call the above “Happy Poem.” I have to admit it embarrasses me. It’s awfully silly. But I refuse to call it stupit, ’cause it really isn’t! I made it to give kids (and adults unfamiliar with this kind of thing) something I thought they’d understand right away. At the same time, I hoped it might give them a good idea of what long division can do in poetry.
The main thing it does is depict a happy child’s day, with a sun multiplying “little” into a smile that only needs a cheerful “Hi!” to turn into “BIG.” All drawn in big happy magic marker colors! It is also intended to reassure those coming upon it that they need not take strange poems like it too seriously! They’re all in fun. (I should add, though, that I don’t think anything in life is more important than fun!) Whee.
I chose it for this space for the same reason those giving Serious Speeches usually start with a joke to warm up their audiences. I hope anyone who’s read this far is warm, because I am now going to start being Very Serious about the nature of mathexpressive poetry, which is the name I’ve given to poetry like the above specimen; why it’s poetry; and–most important–what its value is.
My Seriousness begins with “summerthings”:
A collage, this is the first visually non-representational visual poem I made. It may also have been my first “large work”–that is, the first of my visual poems to fill a whole page. I think I made it in the early nineties. I remember showing it at a poetry reading held in an unfortunately short-lived gallery-in-a-home a painter and his wife had on the Port Charlotte shore of the Peace River–Port Charlotte, Florida, being where I was then living, and still live.
It’s the lead work here although not a mathematical poem because it became the source piece for a number of variations in color I did of it, each of them acting as the “sub-dividend product” of a the long, still in-progess series of long divisions into “poetry.” I will be discussing seven of its “frames,” as I refer to them, for the rest of the way.
As a work by itself (and each frame in the series is that), it is mostly what I hope seems to a viewer an arresting design. It is intended to put a viewer into a summer thunderstorm–like those I remember from my upbringing in Connecticut, but still often experience now that I live in Florida. The torn pieces of paper (construction paper, for the most part) are intended to suggest the idea of a thunderstorm’s tearing up a day as though it were paper–but also the fragmented semi-chaos that any intense memory of something tends to become.
The peculiar “visiophoric” (or visually metaphoric) a I meant as a limb-like image of summer growth . In the bottom right-hand corner of the piece is a full-scale visual poem consisting of the word, “summerthings,” and (appropriate) word-game permutations of it. The other letters, such as the O O D, are present mainly for what they contribute to the graphic design of the piece, but also to flow wherever a viewer wants to take them–such as to “GOOD” or “MOOD.”
Around ten years after I made “summerthings,” and a year or so after first making the first of my full-page mathematical poems, I had the idea of dividing something into poetry, the idea being to use it to indicate something of my poetics, or what I thought “poetry” should be. I came up right away with the following:
What this says explicitly is “words divided into poetry equals the upside-down backwards representation of words.” I claim it poetically asks what poetry is and gives the answer as normal words multiplied by distorted words, or words used to follow Emily Dickinson’s famous dictum that a poem should “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” I extremely believe in telling all the truth slant, but not with her reason for doing so (protecting mortals from the full magnitude of truth); I say a poet should tell the truth slant to make it aesthetically fresh.
I wanted to say more than that with my poem, so assumed that words would not go evenly into poetry. In that case, I needed to show what normal words times words-told-slant would equal. It could only be a graphic–to give the work color, in all senses, and to keep the work a poetic endeavor rather than a scientific investigation by providing an answer both properly complex and properly multi-interpretable.
Since I’m rarely not lazy, I immediately grabbed my “summerthings” as a fit representative of poetry rather than create something new. But I decided on a variation of it, mainly to be able to add color to it, color having become much less expensive to use in graphics since I’d made “summerthings.” The result was the following, with a remainder of “friendship” added because I felt no work not an attempt at friendship with those encountering it was poetry–and I suspected my strange graphic would seem not all that friendly to many who saw it:
Several years later, when I had composed twenty or thirty variations on this, I decided to make a prelude for it that showed the evolution of “summerthings” into the above, with frames like the following:
Note that at this point the words-told-slant have seeped in as have a color, and poetry. If successful, it will seem a pleasant graphic. Its only important job, though, is to show a step from a memory of summer toward the memory’s ending in a full-scale representation of poetry.
In my main series, I divided many different things into poetry, including woods, letters, ideas, madness, love . . . Numbers and science, too:
Two later versions brought in my boyhood reading every Hardy Boy book I could get my hands on, and an attempt to capture the essence of metaphor which I’m not sure I follow, myself:
My most recent addition to the sequence was this, which you should remember from my first entry to this blog:
By now you should be wondering when I’m finally going to get to “the nature of mathexpressive poetry, which is the name I’ve given to poetry like the above specimen; why it’s poetry; and–most important–what its value is. To begin with, I define “mathexpressive poetry” as “poetry in which a mathematical operation (or a series of them) is carried out on non-mathematical terms, in the process adding significantly to the poem’s aesthetic value.” It is one category of “mathematical poetry,” which is simply poetry with a significant component of mathematical elements. Mathexpressive poetry is special in that it is mathematics rather than results from mathematics (like certain kinds of poetry created by a computer program’s use of some mathematical formula to select its words, for example) or is about mathematics.
The poems in my sequence all carry out the operation of long division (except the ones in its prelude). The poems remain poems, I argue, because–in spite of whatever their mathematical (or other) elements do–its words remain the essential basis of each. Take “The Best Investigations.” I consider its quotient, by itself, one of the best things I’ve ever done (not least because of the ships I stole for it from Paul Klee’s “The Ships Depart”), yet it really is little more than an illustration a full poem serves to caption. Even as an illustration, it is improved (I feel) by its text.
There’s also the depiction of a G-clef. It’s pretty, I think, but it’s also a symbol so, in effect, a word (which, in my special use, means, “music,” or–more exactly–“music to follow”). In short, the work is a fairly intricate, mostly verbal, discussion of what poetry is. The mathematics ties it together. The graphics add ships going somewhere, an image from the Hubble telescope, and quite a bit more, but fill out the picture the words, finally, control. (And make the poem a visual poem as well as a mathematical one, I might add. A visiomathexpressive poem, it is, by gum! Sorry. I have trouble being Very Serious for long.)
Also, if these works are not poems, what are they? Certainly not prose. A whole new artform? Flattering that, but silly. Why make them a tiny full art between literature and–what, mathematics? Painting? Both? Yes, the dance is a precedent, but dancers are silent so not music; averbal, so not literature; and . . . well, they are visual but too different, it seems to me, to classify as a kind of painting, or animated sculpture.
If I had more space, I’d clang out my best argument, which is a demonstration of how formal English poetry evolved from Shakespeare’s time into free verse, and from there into two kinds of visual poetry: shaped poetry, with predecessors such as George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” which looks like two pairs of outstretched wings; and a different kind of poetry which is conventional but uses visual tricks, like a scatter of letters, or E. E. Cummings’s “justlikethat” (to show how quickly Buffalo Bill hithistargets) so could hardly be called non-poems. One can show how such poetry allowed increasing amounts of visual elements to contaminate it until in some cases the visual matter seems dominant. Question: where would you stop such works from being called poetry? Only, it seems to me, where its words make little or no semantic contribution to the aesthetic effect of a work–in the view of a large consensus of reasonable poetry people.
The same evolution, almost certainly inspired by what visual poets have done, has more quickly occurred in the case of mathematical poetry, with bits of math showing up in a few poems, then more advanced references to mathematics, until we have poems with calculus operations (as I will show in my next installment) contributing essential matter.
Oops. We’re now to the difficult part of this ramble: my explanation of the value of mathexpressive poetry. As I consider this (for the umpteenth time), it occurs to me that almost all of its value is poetic. Its two virtues easiest to point out are its talent for succinctness and freshness. Let’s look again at the first frame of my sequence (after the prelude):
Succinctness? Look what it says in only four words. Okay, I cheated: actually what I call the “division shed,” the thing “poetry” is inside, is really two words, “divided into,” and the line above “friendship” says, “with a remainder of,” four more words. So it’s eleven words and sixteen syllables in length, shorter than a classical haiku. One can understand it at a glance (once familiar with this kind of art). Not fully, but fully enough.
Freshness? At this time mathexpressive poetry is extremely rare. I believe I know every North American composing it to any extent, and there are no more than a dozen. And, as I hope has come through from my comments so far in this and my first blog on the subject, the mathematical elements are not freshness for freshness’s sake, but carry out important aesthetic duties.
In fact, they add what I deem whole new, significant experiences to an encounter with a poem. Long division poems, for instance, bring the magic of multiplication to poetry. Perhaps few will go along with me on this, but I find multiplication thrilling! I believe that everyone minimally mathematical reaches a point when learning to multiply when a three’s multiplying a seven to get twenty-one is beautiful. Certainly, the potential to cause one to relive that experience is part of a long division poem.
And what about the greater miracle: the machine that a long division is–a term goes into a sort of box, and a second term pops out of the top? With the help of the person working the machine, but in the best instances, that person will hardly be aware of his contribution. Elsewhere I have tried to show how much more spectacular a multiplication is than an addition, and few are intimidated by such unrecognized mathematical poems as “child + puppy = love.” Consider the multiplication of the child by the puppy.
So, we have two properties of (effective) poetry: compactness and freshness. How about a primary end of poetry: to produce a richly sensual experience of an image (or emotion or idea)? One way poetry does this is through slowing its reading so a reader has to stick with its words long enough to hear them, and absorb their connotations, and more than a surface of their denotations. Conventional poetry does this mainly by making readers stop at the end of lines instead of gliding back and forth from one prose margin to the other as fast as possible. But mathexpressive poetry not only does that but forces those encountering it to stop to figure out what’s going on with sudden jumps out of verbal expressiveness..
Which brings us to another thing mathexpressive poetry does better than most conventional poems: challenging its readers. Many will reject the idea that poetry should be challenging, but so long as a poem does not seem impervious to reason, it seems to me its being challenging is a definite plus, the way having a strong opponent in tennis or golf or chess is. And, I would add, mathematical poetry is (among other things) a puzzle to be solved, and solving puzzles, at least for many people is fun. Note: I think the best conventional poems are wonderful puzzles to be solved, as well–although much else.
Highly valuable, too, is the abstractness of mathexpressive poetry, for it gives its sensual elements something to react and stand out against. Like counterpoint in music.
Before ending, I have to bring up my book, Of Manywhere-at-Once. There I posit that the most important thing any poem does, is put a person encountering it into Manywhere-at-Once. That you can take as a metaphor for experiencing an artwork for the first time in two profoundly different ways at once or, as I do, for literally experiencing a poem in locations of two major brain areas never before linked (or significantly linked), one having to do with mathematics, the other with words. Whichever you think it, I consider it one of the surest paths to beauty there is.
Postscript for the psychologists using brain scans experimentally: use them to see how the areas lighting up when a person reads a conventional poem compare to those lighting up when he reads a mathexpressive poem. But have him read my blog first or no brain area may light up when he tries to read a mathexpressive poem!
Previously in this series: