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M@h*(pOet)?ica–The Number Poems of Richard Kostelanetz

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Editor’s note (11/7/13): Find the entry point and new posts of Bob Grumman’s  M@h*(pOet)?ica at

In a preface Richard Kostelanetz wrote to his 1976 collection, NUMBERS: POEMS & STORIES,1 he spoke of his life-long enjoyment of numbers, ordinary numbers out of the everyday.  “In New York State, where I live,” he said, “license plates frequently have a single number followed by a letter and then four more numerals – something like ‘5W4925.’ Even today, I instinctively divide the four right-hand digits by the left-hand integer, in addition to noting . . . the squares of 7 and 5. I hope this art reflects that kind of concern and pleasure.”  For me, the following certainly does:



Among the paragraphs in Richard’s preface (many of them stand-alones deserving an essay-worth of discussion), the following is the one I find most helpful as a doorway into (warning!) my idiosyncratic, possibly cnofusde beginning attempt Permanently To Say What’s What About This Poem—And All Such Artworks:

Though recent visual artists have tried to incorporate into their works a wealth of material and. imagery previously considered sub-artistic, visual art (had) scarcely assimilated the language of numbers; for few of the numerals appearing in contemporary visual art (other than my own) were numerically articulate.

As is my custom, I’ve made up a term to assist me.  It covers nothing new—just “imagery previously considered sub-artistic” that some artist has included in a piece (e.g., traffic sounds in a musical composition)–and there are other terms that mean much the same thing.  It makes me feel comfortable using it, though, so it’s here, like it or lump it!

Marcel Duchamp seems to be the originator of such art (possibly unwittingly, as he thought he was mocking Art rather than extending its possibilities). Almost a century later, Philistines continue to deride it.  Needless to say, there are many examples of it that deserve derision, but Richard’s “Steps” isn’t one of them.

The point of aesthetically re-contextualized mundanity is to provide aesthetic pleasure by taking some image a person would not look at or think about twice when encountering it where the person is accustomed to finding it, and re-contextualizing it somewhere wrong (as when Duchamp’s urinal (which is quite interesting sculpturally if you really examine it) was put in a museum devoted to visual art).

If the re-location works, the person involved will (1) experience a “wuhthuh,” as I think I’ve called it somewhere2—with annoyance. This will bring his accommodance3 into play. That’s what I call the mechanism I claim we all use to lower our cerebral energy.  The lower our cerebral energy, the less focused our thinking will be.  Hence, we will experience a combination of relatively unfocused remembering and increased environmental input.  This is good because a wuhthuh is by definition something not predicted and thus something for which we have no memory of an effective response readily to activate.  In other words, accommodance puts us into an experimental mode.

Here, to put it crudely, is what next happens (again, when the right person meets an aesthetically re-contextualized mundanity he is unprepared for4): the person sinks into whoknozewhut5, or swirl of relatively off-topic data.  (Which is the same place—often called the sub-conscious—that Richard got his work from, according to my theory of creativity.)  Ideas bounce around until a few of them fuse into possible resolutions of the wuhthuh afflicting the person. At that point, accelerance comes into play.  As I hope you can guess, accelerance is the opposite of accommodance: it raises one’s cerebral energy, in the process increasing one’s focus; the latter facilitates rapid critical analysis of the possible resolutions.  If none works, accommodation drops the person back into the creative flow he had been in, and the process repeats until a possible resolution turns out to be effective.

In the case of “Steps,” an unprepared person encountering it—in an anthology of poetry, say, with no other like works to that point–will be taken short by it. The anthology is supposed to contain poems but all he sees are numbers—a wuhthuh contradicting his expectations.

He will quickly find the diagonal starting at its bottom 1 is familiar, which may cause pleasure, but may on the other hand cause indifference because so familiar to most people; but when he next perceives that the upward diagonal beginning with “6” repeats the numerical order of the diagonal to its left, his familiarity with the steps (rather pretty ones) that it’s taking may win a slight smile from him.  Quickly then (because of the piece’s title) he’ll be won over (if he’s anything like me) by his discovery that the steps by 5 taken in the diagonals going the other way (downward, which is important because of the slight change of direction his eyes must take to perceive it), and the horizontal steps by 6—and the magic of everything in the design’s being ordered— to provide a refuge from the disorderliness of reality, which might be considered mathematics’ intrinsic final aesthetic value.

Note, by the way, that while the numbers in “Steps”  are arranged in a pleasant design, it is the patterning of that design that the numerals in it can be said to have numerically articulated, which I take it to mean primarily numbers that tell you about themselves, thus doing more in a painting than causing visioaesthetic pleasure (i.e., looking good) as in the famous piece by Charles Demuth, The Figure 5 in Gold below:

The Figure Five In Gold

The Figure Five In Gold

I love displaying this not only because it has always been a favorite painting of mine, but because it gives me an excuse to include the following poem6 by one of my poet-heroes, William Carlos Williams, in this entry:

The Great Figure

The Great Figure

As for Demuth’s painting, the five is entirely a design element.  Connotatively rich, to be sure, but it doesn’t say, “this is what numbers can do,” the way the numbers in “Steps” do.  Which gets us into taxonomy, another subject of intense interest to me.  I say that Demuth’s painting is entirely visual art, although it can be called a specimen of textual design, and certain colleagues of mine would consider it “asemic writing,” or maybe even visual poetry since the “5” is a word.  When I come to power, however, they will be executed.

While there may be those who’d call Williams’s text a mathematical poem, no taxonomy of poetry would be of any value if so small and minor a detail of its subject matter were used to define a category.

The work by Richard is taxonomically much more difficult to get a fix on. I consider it numerical but not mathematical—as I believe Richard also does.  Counting is pre-arithmetic for me, not arithmetic.  But one, I’m sure, will experience it in the mathematical portion of one’s brain, and read it verbally7.  So, I provisionally deem it a numerical visual poem.  Apologies for the digression but it’s Very Important to me to say what things iz!8

One last thought about Richard’s poem: it nicely illustrates this paragraph from his preface: “My Numbers are primarily about properties peculiar to numbers; rarely do they attempt to refer to anything outside of numbers. Nonetheless, they reflect a world that is full of numbers and thus hopefully enhance our experience of numerable life.”  I would add that the uniquely asensual beauty of “Steps” is a salient feature of all his number poems.

Are they all numerically articulate, as he claims?  Most of them, but not all, are, in my view.  Here’s one that seems purely visual to me, but powerfully visual:

Number Block

Number Block

Perhaps you could say it articulates—emphatically—the directedness of . . . The Count, though.  As for the next one, I’m embarrassed to say I find it intriguing only because it is so completely unintriguing:



Maybe it’s their near-perfect representation (or “articulation”) of identitylessness?  And the thought of the divisibles moving on, inter-relatedly! (I’m close to withdrawing my impression that some of Richard’s number poems are not numerically articulate.)

I have little to say about the next (quite numerically articulate!) one except that the “0” represents “ten” (and, of course, that I like it!):



Now, for a change of pace, here’s a poem Richard calls a fiction:

Short Fiction

Short Fiction

In his preface, Richard says, “Poetry composed of numbers differs from numerical fictions, the crucial distinction being that poetry aims to concentrate both image and effect, while stories create a world of related activity. Thus, most multi-page sequences are fictional, while one-pagers are usually closer to poetry; yet into a single page can be compressed material that is essentially more fictional than poetic.” As in the work just quoted.

What he says makes sense, but the lineation of “Short Fiction” makes it poetry for me.  Very minor disagreement, yes.  Like fiction, though, it does tell a story . . . or, I should say, its title claims it does.  For me, many of Richard’s non-fictional number poems create a world of related activity—“Steps,” for example); his fiction number poems, however, create (or can be imagined to create) activity by characters who seem to have some outcome in mind.

In any event, the whuhthuh9 in “Short Fiction” is the idea that some arrangement of numerals like the above tells a story.  How is that possible?  Well, it shouldn’t be difficult for those capable of healthy accommodance,10 to find a story in it–a biography, in fact, since it ends in zero.  After dwindling. (And a few near-deaths, it would seem, but this one has nothing after it.)

Like many of the newer ways of creative writing, it is relatively reader-directed, the reader doing just about all the narrative work—from inside the text, so to speak, something most fiction blocks one from.  Richard, by the way, has throughout his career, been especially pioneering in the field of minimalistic fiction that in this manner increases a reader’s participation in it.  Here’s a verbal one.



He’s also made fictions (of all sizes, not just minimalistically small) out of geometric shapes and sundry other objects.  While also being prolifically and masterfully active as a sound artist, film-maker, hologrammist and nearly every other kind of otherstream form of art namable, and as a cultural critic.  His accomplishments have probably been recognized by more certified recognizers like the Encyclopedia Britannica than all the rest of his colleagues in the same fields combined!12

And now for the work here that I most like:



To deal with this as a Philosopher of Aesthetics, I am now going to return to my musings on the importance of the familiarity in the appreciation of beauty.  To begin with, let me hypothesize a bright child just learning arithmetic who we will imagine has so far learned only the addition of single digits might find “4 + 3 = 7” not very interesting, but be charmed by “24 + 3 = 27.” My possibly simplistic theory of aesthetics explains this as due to his being too familiar with the first to take much notice of it, but be initially bothered by the second, which is unfamiliar to him—until after a moment he recognizes its “4 + 3 = 7.” This is still incompletely familiar but familiar enough to please him, if we assume my contention that aesthetic pleasure results from encountering the familiar unexpectedly—i.e., in an unfamiliar context.

Would the child experience the same pleasure from “%4 + 3 = )7?” Perhaps, but I suspect the context of “4 + 3 = 7” would be unsettlingly unfamiliar to him.  In other words, the fullest expression of my contention (at this introductory level) ought to be that (advanced13) aesthetic pleasure results from encountering the familiar in a sufficiently, but not too, unfamiliar context.  First of all, the 2 in front of the 4 is thus made familiar, so its re-appearance in front of the 7 will please.  Simple repetition is innately at least slightly pleasurable because a thing repeated has to be to some degree familiar (since recurring)14.  Indeed, it is for that reason that repetition is the basis of all higher aesthetic pleasure.  Think only of music, the purest of the arts.

Getting back to “%4 + 3 = )7,” not only does the “%” not repeat but it and the “)” are out of place among numbers; 2 had not been.

Later the child will learn the logic of “24 + 3 = 27” and probably, at least for a short while, be enthralled by the repetition of the basic series of numbers, their reappearance according to a continuing pattern making it familiar as the context changes ever so slightly (from 1, 2, 3 to 10, 20, 30 . . .).  But so inexorable is the pattern, that it will gradually become too familiar.  Generally unnoticed.  Null.

I’m tired from all this heavy thinking, so I hope what my description of the child’s experience will be enough to help you understand why I so like “Ambiguity.”  At some juncture in my blog adventures here, I hope to bring it (and many other poems I’ve put on display with only cursory, if any, analysis.

And now, as this session draws to a close, one last Kostelanetz number poem:



This nicely illustrates what I’ve been saying: anyone who has learned arithmetic will quickly see what it charts—and be bored by the over-familiarity of it.  Until he notices the familiar “2857” as part of the second product (as I did).  He will notice it or something very similar to it because of the list’s presentation as a poem, which will make him wonder enough how it is that to notice more about it than he otherwise would.  Making him do that, by the way, is a value of found art, of which this is yet another example: Richard has found a number that will produce itself (albeit a little re-arranged each time) when multiplied successively by the first six numbers.  Then comes his climactic surprise: the “impossible” six nines in a row. Need I say more about the beyond-miraculousness conjurations numbers are capable of, or about Richard Kostelanetz’s deft discovery and presentation of them?

* * *

1 Scheduled to be reprinted in PREAMBLES TO THE NEW (Amazon CreateSpace) later this year).

2 It’s as hard for me to keep up with my terminology as it is for anyone else, which is ridiculous, but—hey—you know us creative types!

3 Now almost forty-five-years-old, but being re-discovered and given new names by current psychology academics (or so it seems to me).

4 I’m assuming a person without enough experience with the kind of art I’m discussing here and in later examples of the effect to catch on to it at once.  For the knowledgeable, things will be more complicated—for instance, a knowledgeable person will catch on relatively quickly, and take it further, if that’s possible (as I believe it is with Duchamp’s urinal because of its sculptural beauty) or not find anywhere further to go from its—to him—unsurprising re-location, and therefore find it boringly predictable.

5 Don’t worry, I won’t use this term when my text is reprinted in Nature.11

6 From Sour Grapes: A Book of Poems, Four Seas Company, Boston, 1921.

7 Which doesn’t necessarily mean “out loud,” which my annoyance with all the people who speak of giving instructions “verbally” or the like when they mean “orally” compels me to insert.

8 And izunt, because so many people fail to understand that a definition must distinguish what it defines from something that it izunt.

9 “Whuthuh” has more than one spelling; why should anyone expect such a word not to?

10 You better not have forgotten already what this is!

11 “Yes, you will, you trivial iconoclast!”—my couch, a sibling of Jonah Goldberg’s couch

12 I refuse to hold this against him, though!

13 I distinguish the “advanced” aesthetic pleasure I’m concerned with in this entry from the  automatic aesthetic pleasure one gets instinctively from many stimuli such as primary colors or certain musical chords (so long as unproblematized by wuhthuhs and other complications).

14 Actually, I believe that repetition is instinctively pleasure-giving, when recognized—but only until arising too predictably whence artistically chosen wuhthuhs must attached to them to overcome the boredom they painfully cause.

Previously in this series:

M@h*(pOet)?ica: Summerthings
M@h*(pOet)?ica–Louis Zukofsky’s Integral
M@h*(pOet)?ica—Scott Helmes
M@h*(pOet)?ica—of Pi and the Circle, Part 1
M@h*(pOet)?ica – Happy Holidays!
M@h*(pOet)?ica—Circles, Part 3
M@h*(pOet)?ica-–Karl Kempton
M@h*(pOet)?ica – Mathematics and Love
M@h*(pOet)?ica–Mathekphrastic Poetry
M@h*(pOet)?ica–Mathekphrastic Poetry, Part 2
M@h*(pOet)?ica – Matheconceptual Poetry

Bob Grumman About the Author: Bob Grumman is a widely-unknown mathematical poet and critic of what he calls “otherstream poetry.” He has been writing a regular column for Small Press Review for nearly twenty years. Born in Norwalk, Connecticut, he lived for fifteen years in North Hollywood, California, before moving to his present home in Port Charlotte, Florida, which he shares with his bicycle and his white cat, Spike. He has a blog at

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. JoAnne.Growney 10:46 pm 07/6/2013

    Bob –
    Thanks for the ongoing array of poems you give us here. I love it!

    Link to this
  2. 2. JoAnne.Growney 10:47 pm 07/6/2013

    Here is a link to my posting of a numerical poem that may interest your readers.

    Link to this
  3. 3. JoAnne.Growney 10:47 pm 07/6/2013

    Oops. Here’s the link:

    Link to this

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