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M@h*(pOet)?ica Mathekphrastic Poetry


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

#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.

Ekphrastic poetry is the subject of my entry this time out. It seems to have become especially fashionable in poetry circles lately, although it’s been around a while. The Ekphrastic poetry site at defines it as poetry about a work in another form of art, giving Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" as an example because it is entirely concerned with “the appearance and meaning of an ancient piece of pottery." As you will see, I extend its definition (slightly, in my opinion) to cover not only art forms but poetry itself. It has mainly been about visual art, however.

W. H. Auden wrote a well-known poem in the genre about Icarus that was published in the late 1930s, and early in the 1960s a poem also about the poor guy by William Carlos Williams. John Ashbery later used Francesco Parmigianino’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” in his 1975 poem of the same name to write a long conversation with the painter about the painting and much else in the breezily intelligent manner that made his reputation among Harvard professors and the academics they rule. I’m not sure what accounts for the popularity in poetry circles of ekphrastic poems now, but there is a magazine being published that’s devoted to it, and articles about it at the Harriet blog Poetry runs and the Academy of American Poets site, as well as Wikipedia.

It’s even become fashionable enough for my local visual art center to propose a contest calling for ekphrastic poems about the works of one of my favorite painters, Claude Monet. This was all part of the center’s celebration of Monet with a large exhibition of copies or variations of his paintings by members of the center. Ten of the poems submitted were to be exhibited along with the paintings. But all the poems submitted would be placed in an album that visitors to the exhibit could peruse. That was enough to get me to compose the following work, and submit it to the judges:

Long Division Poem for Monet, Frame 1

Long Division Poem for Monet, Frame 1

The painting involved is The Regatta at Argenteuil. It’s from the June 2004 page of a calendar I’ve had hanging on my computer room wall since that year. Although I was very pleased with how my poem came out, and still believe as good a poem as I’m capable of, the local English professor and others selecting the contest winners thumbed it down. Okay, I fully understand that it’s possible a bias in favor of my own work prevents me for seeing my poem’s defects but I can’t help but believe the work’s judges failed to understand it. And, what always annoys me, failed to make it one of the ten (!) poems accepted, anyway, on the grounds that it deserved something for being so different.


And how could they not be charmed by the way the little visual-poem-within-a-poem I’ve made my long division’s dividend portrays a poem as music expanding into something new?2 And everything else there is in the poem, but I lack space here to brag about?

I sent it to a contest a magazine called Rattle was running (with multiple winners), as well. It struck out once again. The ekphrastic magazine I mentioned was next to reject it. Finally, a variation on it which I will soon go on to got zapped when I submitted it to an Internet anthology of 30 visual poems, one for each day of April, National Poetry Month. I had good competition for that one, though.

As for the local contest, the visual art center put my poem with the other poems submitted to its contest in an album people could peruse at their month-long exhibition, so maybe five or ten people got a look at it. Despite the center’s flawed response to my poem, I’m grateful to it, because it not only inspired me to make the poem I’ve been discussing, but the following three—with more, I hope, to come (and this blog post I can make sure it gets into!):

Long Division Poem for Monet, Frame 2

Long Division Poem for Monet, Frame 2

Long Division Poem for Monet, Frame 3

Long Division Poem for Monet, Frame 3

Long Division Poem for Monet, Frame 4

Long Division Poem for Monet, Frame 4

The first two lead up to the one I started this entry with, the final one following them. I have chosen not to encumber them with commentary in hopes min most cherished readers will prefer having unaided fun trying to figure them out. But one thing may escape most coming to them that I want to point out: “unsleeping” is intended to be taken as a verb


* * *

Mathemaku for Ronald Johnson

Mathemaku for Ronald Johnson

The above, amusingly, is a double-appropriation poem. An appropriation artwork, I should explain, is an artwork that steals something significant from another artwork—possibly all of the other artwork. Marcel DuChamp’s stealing the Mona Lisa and adding a mustache to it is a famous example. The artwork in this instance is the following visual poem by Ronald Johnson:


Early Version of Johnson’s Moon Poem

Early Version of Johnson’s Moon Poem

John Furnival first appropriated this, turning it (with Johnson’s consent) into the image I use as my quotient. I grabbed Furnival’s improvement, after getting Johnson’s okay. It, of course, makes my poem. But I think I was able to ekphrasticate a few interesting additions to it; for instance, the idea of the moon’s not being Diana, the goddess the Romans identified with it, but becoming her when she was multiplied by something as abstractly unmoonlike as the rate at which the moon is tied to the earth by gravity, which I feel suggests the need of the goddess to be reined in—or more generally the manner in which science interacts with high mythology (being multiplied by it, not just joined by it for a photograph or something) to make major parts of existence like the moon transcendently beyond both science and mythology. The result is the moon by its most primitive name that it takes the addition of June (the month the Romans dedicated to Juno, the queen of their religion) to make into object beyond both science and mythology that Johnson’s moon (and the visual poem representing it) is. (For those of us open to that kind of thing.)

I hope, by the way, that you will note how easy it is to use long division poems to comment on others’ poems. A major reason for this is that such a poem comes with exhibition spaces, particularly what I call the dividend shed where the dividend is. The long division poem is practically a mechanism for analysis, saying, as it does, what two things have to be multiplied to yield something close the thing in the dividend shed, and what must then be added to the product resulting to exactly get the dividend.

I’ve made several other “true” mathemaku (“true” because not becoming too complicated to suggest the haiku a mathemaku should partly be) which are ekphrastic about other poems I’ve admired. None is a long division, I just now realize—after bragging about the ekphrastic advantage of such poems!

Perhaps my simplest mathemaku ever is the following one in homage to Basho’s famous pond haiku, which I won’t spoil by revealing its simple meaning:

Mathemaku for Basho

Mathemaku for Basho

The only vector poem I’ve yet done concerns Aram Saroyan’s minimalist poetry as a whole, quoting one in full, reproducing the most important two letters in another, and doing to pi what Saroyan did to an m:

Mathemaku for Aram Saroyan

Mathemaku for Aram Saroyan

Then there’s my variation on a visual haiku of John Martone’s that includes a finger print. What could be more personal, I thought, than an utterance to the power of one’s fingerprint?

Mathemaku for John Martone

Mathemaku for John Martone

Now for a jump into one of the long division poems that my mathemaku evolved into too complexly for “mathemaku” any longer to be an appropriate name for them, my “Long Division for Robert Lax.” Warning, this one will go into stupefying detail about.

Mathemaku for Robert Lax

Mathemaku for Robert Lax

Like my first long division poem for Monet, it contains a complete reproduction of the work it discusses. (But under the division shed, not in it!) One of Lax’s near-perfect examples of minimalism, that work consists of nothing but the word “river,” printed—well, you can see how it’s printed above. Like so many of my pieces, “Long Division for Robert Lax,” is a puzzle (albeit that is certainly not all it is, or what it most is). The object of the puzzle, which is not self-evident, is to figure out what its dividend is. The only clue is the seeming emptiness of what I call the dividend shed. While it is possible that I’m playing with the idea of nothingness, particularly since the piece’s remainder is the word, “nothing,” one should still make sure there really is nothing in the shed. Of course, there is something there—the colors. Can they possibly be more than decorative?3

A possible reason for the hiddenness of whatever’s in the shed, if anything, is that it is something very mysterious and vague. In that case, it will also have to be part of the background. The background is supposed to be danged lovely, by the way. Put that in your notebooks, everyone, so you won’t forget it! But I refuse to help any more toward the puzzle’s solution.

Instead, let’s go back to the Lax poem. River. It’s lack of a name or mention of any attribute it might have strongly suggests it is no particular river, but a—the--universal river. A route somewhere—a route in motion, implacably, unchangingly down the page. In lower case. So ordinary, but so vital, so central to civilization . . . and pre-cvilization. And, behold, pronounce it slowly a few times and it becomes “iverivereverever.” With an after-sound of “revere?” For some, I’m sure. Note: this is a poem that should not be read only once a sitting. One should treat it like a painting—not just read it, but look at it, watch it. Let it take you over.

The main point of its utter simplicity it to focus one away from all that is not river, and the myriad of sounds and weather and colors and commerce and . . . wonder with an oval window in it that any river ultimately is.

And so I hope my work arithmecritically makes plain by representing Lax’s poem as the product of perhaps the most sacred human attribute, wonder, times . . . well, what outside one’s mind or soul, or whatever you want to call it, does the word, “materiality” not cover?

What also--I had to figure out, which wasn’t easy--was there left to add to Lax’s poem to enlarge it to whatever the quotient was? Nothing. But not nothing, the word, “nothing,” which is something that represents something that may be immense—all that is not. The antithesis of that which is, in the final dichotomy. With the same window in it that human wonder has. Or any creature’s wonder has. Including a rock’s? Can we be sure the answer is no?

Sorry, but Brother Bob the Mystic took over. Lax was one o’ them spiritual poets. The kind what makes you go zen-dizzily into strange places (though certainly not necessarily into my strange places). He bonkered my neurons. But I contend a person’s neurons need occasional bonkering, and I hope a few of my own poems are at least half as effective as Lax’s at bonkering neurons.

I have many more ekphrastic poems to show you but will save them till next time I’m here. Would love to show some by others, by the way. Send them to me if you have any!


1One reason I appreciate having this blog is that it gives me lots of opportunities to publicize things worth publicizing, principally excellent work by unrecognized poets, but also websites like this one, which has some fine conventional ekphrastic poems along with the great paintings they are about.

2 The many-legged m, by the way, was inspired by Aram Saroyan’s four-legged m, which I think gives it a nice touch of historical resonance. Not that most people encountering it (or you, mine most cherished reader) should be expected to connect it to Saroyan’s poem, although the latter is famous in visual poetry circles. Moral: the more you know about the entire continuum of poetry, the better able you will be to appreciate small details like my m.

3 Yes! They spell something! Find out what!7

4 Mary had a little lamb.5

7 Ha ha, what they spell isn’t here!a

5 Haven’t you figured out that I am ultimately nothing more than an irresponsible jester?

a Okay, I’ll stop being cruel. If you go a little left of the long division where cream meets green, you should be able to decipher a letter-shape. Keep going and you’ll find a nine-letter word. It is significant that only part of it gets into the dividend shed, for no mathematical operation can deal with more than part of it. I hope that most readers will find that what it has most in common with Lax’s river is ever-ness. Combined with a kind of going-somewhereness, placidly, unstoppably.

P.S. My footnotes suddenly go out of order because I’m such a Funny Fellow.


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

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

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