Editor's note (11/7/13): Find the entry point and new posts of Bob Grumman's M@h*(pOet)?ica at http://poeticks.com/
I've been suffering from writer's block lately. Can't seem to get nuttin' done. So I'm going to do something different for this entry--at least I think it's different. Others may not be able to tell it from my usual practice. What I'm going to do is bounce through a fairly large and varied assortment of works and, as I go, babble--that is, not try desperately to say something meaningful, but just maybe say something about each work. I'm going with the theory that fear of failure to say anything intelligent about these works is what is causing my block. My remedy is to establish in advance that I isn't trying to say anything intelligent, jus' playin' around, so don't criticize!
Okay, here we go with a . . . punctuational mathexpressive haiku by Canadian haiku master, LeRoy Gorman, perhaps the only poem in the world consisting of nothing but punctuation marks and an exponent! (Gee, I really thought I was just playin' around but that was incredibly intelligent! The human mind is so unpredictable.)
Unable to recall the title of LeRoy's1 piece, I went through old essays of mine looking for one I'd said something about his poem in, in the process finding the next poem, which is by Marshall Hryciuk, also by chance a Canadian haiku master:
With the Hryciuk piece was a paragraph of mine about it (from something like twenty years ago) which I am now going to quote, which is a much better way around a block than babble! Here's the paragraph:
Marshall Hryciuk has with his “fortyfirst verse” composed a highly philosophical poem that I don't fully follow, but its E t reminds me of bp Nichol's “AND” (“et” being Latin for “and”), and it is clearly about the eternal “and” that existence is, and about the how-ness2 of that eternal existence, with details about its variety showing in its sundry versions of E. As a 3, twice shown under a short horizontal line, it suggests the equation, eternity as some kind of arithmetic problem.
Not that giving me a way around my block isn't a good excuse for quoting the preceding, but my real reason for that it is simply to get a fine poem by a fine too-little-known poet out where people who might otherwise never run into his work can see it. I think my mentioning the hint of arithmetic in Marshall's poem makes what I wrote it worthy of quotation here, though. That hint wideningly ands (spelling intentional) the poem's “et” in an unexpected way to carry out a prime aim of the best poetry, which is jarring the reader into fuller focus (unless it loses him, which is the risk all the deepest poems take). And it gives the poem a bit of clear-brainedness to counter its lean into pure gush.
I can't say my grip on the poem is much better now than it was so many years ago, but I have identified its central concern with how how evers. As a poem, it provides no answers, just a contra-scientific doorway into the awe-provoking sheer size of the univ3rs3--just as science at its best does in its very different way.
Oh, the title of LeRoy's poem is “The Birth of Tragedy.” I defy anyone to more concentratedly express a central truth about human existence.
The next work up for analys1s3 is an easier one to babble about (if that's what I'm doing: I may have faked myself into Saying Intelligent Things, after all!) It represents Kathy Ernst's pleasantly optimistic view of the future:
Is she right? A pessimist myself, I tend to think the future will equal the square root of now. Which only goes to illustrate one of the central virtues of mathexpressive poetry: its ability to generate interesting questions.
Having discovered the block-breaking virtues of quotation, I'm now going to quote something that Mark Weiss said a few weeks ago on a thread discussing conceptual poetry at the Internet poetry-discussion group, New-Poetry, about something he remembered reading in an essay by Oliver Sacks. Sacks, he recalled, “describes two brothers who lack language but are whizzes at square roots. One will pronounce a square root, and the other will smile and reply. It seems to Sacks that there's a form of communication going on that he has no access to. At some level my sense of poetry is similar--the poet offers his poem, another poet smiles and answers. He or she may even be answering a dead poet. Or like solving an equation proposed by a 16th century mathematician--interlocutor and bones.”
In the thread we were engaged in, we were trying to determine what was going on in conceptual poetry--I, for one, being confused about it. I'm not sure now exactly how Mark's observation fit into that, but it got me thinking about the different sub-languages mathematics and words are. I say, “sub-languages,” because I'm sure both math symbols and words are linguistic elements of language. But my theory is that there is one brain-area devoted to the verbal, and one to the mathematical. With, probably, sub-areas that I'll ignore. (I think this idea is close to established neurophysiology, by the way.)
Conceptual poetry has been getting a lot of attention on the Internet from poetry people lately. I've been hopping around vainly trying to find some kind of useful definition of it. Kenny Goldsmith, who seems to be its main champion as both critic and poet, may have provided one, but I haven't studied the matter enough to follow it.
While I was semi-idly considering what conceptual poetry might be, however, one of the questions that occurred to me was if mathexpressive poetry is a kind of conceptual poetry. One might immediately feel that of course it must be--what's more conceptual than mathematics? But would Goldsmith consider it that? Complicating factor: I suspect he requires what he terms conceptual poetry to be nothing but conceptual. In fact, one thing I'm fairly sure of is that he considers a conceptual poem to be the idea of a poem rather than the poem itself.
I just typed “Godsmith,” then corrected it. Then thought about a smith who could forge a god. Sorry, but that kind of thing interests me.
At this point, I would tentatively define a conceptual poem as a poem that makes central use of a concept--an abstract generality--as a metaphor. Example:
This is my “Long Division Machine.” I see that I've already contradicted my simple definition, for what we have here is a machine as a metaphor for a concept--to wit: long division. But the machine is conceptual. Hence, we have a concept as a metaphor for a concept.
In any case, I made to illustrate the use of long division in poetry for a special class for gifted elementary school children taught by Mrs. Donna Lasher.4 “It's an unusual way of imagining long division,” I told the class, “but every time I make a long division poem, I can feel this machine underneath it, operating to make the quotient and the remainder come out to be what they are. And it makes them seem true, because the machine, being mathematical, can't lie! In any case, a main reason I make long division poems is because I love to turn on the long division machine and watch it in operation inside my head!”
Anyway, my point (if I still have one) is that a conceptual poem is a poem in which (I now have it) a concept is centrally important metaphorically--as either a metaphor or a metaphor's referent. To determine if what Goldsmith considers conceptual poetry satisfies this definition (and I don't think it does), I'd have to go too far off this entry's topic even for a PlayDay, at least for now. But I may return to it somewhere in the next two segments of this entry, which I've now decided will be a three-partner.
Next up for analysis are Sarah Glaz's “I am a Number” and “I am a Number II,”5 which drop below mathematics, and even counting, to the visual under-poetry of the digits:
It was at this point in my reading of Sarah's poem that it struck me as a kind of celebration of counting going back to the time when counting apparently was something like one, two, three, many. I was delighted with how much of the history of mathematics Sarah was able to turn into imagery in this stanza--commerce and astronomy, yow! Impeccable emotional logic, but it was a PlayDay for the poet, too!
Here's a bit of what she wrote me about her poem as a whole: ” I find it difficult to explain my own poems. But let me say a few words about the inspiration for these two poems. The inspiration was a wonderful little book: Geometries, which is the translation by Richard Sieburth of Eugene Guillevic's poems in his Euclidiennes (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). Guillevic took basic geometric objects and wrote short poems about each one of them. Each poem functions on two levels: First it says something about the geometric figure inspired by its shape or some other math property of the figure.
“Underneath, there is a commentary on life and emotions that the figure arouses in the poet. For example, one of my favorite of his poems is:
“I tried to do something similar with numbers. Each stanza says something concrete about the number itself (more or less): primeness, factorization, the shape of number, the sound of the number's name, etc.
At the other level, I played with the associations the numbers generated for me. This is true for each stanza. Also each poem has a unifying theme: "I am a Number” is about life from the single digit years to the pinnacle of strength and creativity experienced in the 40ies. "I am a Number II" is about aging (50 to 100).”
And here is the latter:
There, another quotation to get around my writer's block--although I think that's gone away by now. I have just one more comment about Sarah's poem--that its final stanza terrifically appeals to me--anything going back to Ancient Rome or Greece or Egypt will have that effect on me, but I also love the way the truncation of the word, “december,” relates to the year's, and a life's truncation . . .
With that we're to the last of the works on exhibit, Klaus Peter Dencker's “TEN FIVE THREE”:
This I present as a puzzle--because I haven't been able to figure out the bottom rectangle. I do see the horizontal and vertical 18's! How is it a poem--a visiomathematical poem, in fact. Well, and I realize I'm straining a bit, it is being presented here as, for one thing, a work of visimagery6. The hope is that one encountering as that will experience it enough in the visual part of his brain, to which its context has unexpectedly taken it, to make up for its being otherwise just boring numbers. He will note not only the simple square, but the V the yellow characters make, and the green upside-down V that cuts across them. There is the red-cornered box around the black cross, too.
At the same time, the viewer will surely notice the arithmetical symmetries, each horizontal and vertical line's three digits adding up to eighteen, because magic squares like these have long been in games magazines and the like--but, I say, if he's like me, he will still experience delight when he checks the square to see if it really is magic--and, by gum, it is magic the way numbers can be formed into patterns like this. Something in this so-often irrational universe can be made to behave in an absolutely purely rational manner.
I'm being long-winded here, and clumsy, but it's PlayDay, so I'm taking carefree advantage of that for a rough flurry of notes in hopes they will later be enough to underpin a much fuller, more coherent account of the value of Klaus's square. And a key to that value is definitely the ability of numbers, pure numbers, to provide an escape from reality as praiseworthy as that provided by any work of art, including a fairy tale. I would claim that Klaus helps show us that by presenting his nine numerals--as words, you should notice, for that helps nudge them from numericality to verbality (or partially out of a brain's mathematical area into its verbal area)--as a work of art. If in tune with it, we will read it, see it and solve it more or less at once--to result in the kind of unnarrowing of mind that is a main goal of pluraesthetic poetry7, and one of the two best things that can happen to a mind, the other being its total narrowing.
A final virtue of Klaus' square is the exploration its many numeric paths encourage--such as the way the digits in green and yellow paths add up to the same thing as those in the crossed paths in the middle of the square. Other paths lead nowhere, at least for me. The point, though, is that what makes a great poem as much as anything else is the number of paths into meaning it can provide--within, I feel (though others disagree), a unifying principle, such as the arithmetical operation of addition in this instance.8
. . . Since I wrote the above two days ago10, Klaus has replied to a query I sent him, and all done be clarified: Klaus has made the sum of letters significant as well as the sum of what the words represent in his magic square, which he calls (I believe) a “thema”).11 For instance, the number of letters in each of the three horizontal lines is 12! Ditto the sum of letters in the middle vertical line. Green and yellow will signal the presence of two more letter-sums equaling 12, or should I say, “TWELVE.” I'll let you hunt up the other paths.
What's important is that Klaus has taken a fun magic square into new magically found order to support my notion that it celebrates the universe's ultimate, if often very secret, orderliness. Bless him, mine children.
* * *
1 Since I personally know just about all the people whose works I'm discussing in this entry, I am first-naming them. Almost nothing else concerned with writing literary criticism gives me the trouble that the question of whether to use first or last names does.
2 Believe it or not, when I was adding this quotation to my entry, I slipped in the “how-ness” for clarification!
3 I know: the cure for writer's block may be worse than writer's block.
4 Mrs. Lasher had come across a long division poem of mine in a book she'd gotten for use in her class, The Secret Life of Words, an anthology edited by Betsy Franco and Maria Damon, and got in touch with me about. Then her class wrote some very good long division poems of their own and e.mailed them to me. Lots of fun!
5 “I am a number” is from The Journal of Humanistic Mathematics 1(2), 113-114, 2011; “I am a number (II),” is from Talking Writing, February 17, 2012.
6 “Visimagery” is my word for “visual art.” Nobody likes it, but I've become such a big shot, I've decided I can get away with using it. At least if none of you complains! (The main rationale for it is that the use of “art” for both “art-in-general” and “visual art” bothers me; but I have several other good reasons having to do with the kinds of abstruse discussions of visual poetry and the like that only I get into.
7 Pluraesthetic Poetry, or poetry that is plurally aesthetic, is poetry which make significant aesthetic use of one or more expressive modalities besides words--such as mathematical symbols.
8 Hey, anyone know of an adventurous experimental neurophysiologist looking for something fascinating to do? As I may have mentioned in another entry, I think much could be learned if the brain of a person given a mixture of mathexpressive poems, including Klaus's, and conventional poems to read were scanned. Quite a few such experiments would be required, I would think, because of all the complications that would be involved--for instance, the difference between one with a strong literary but weak mathematical background and one with a strong mathematical but weak literary background. Choosing the best works to use would be important, too.9
9 I probably shouldn't have included this footnote: if it snares a neurophysiologist willing to do as requested, it will undoubtedly make me too famous to bear. It would also become known as the footnote that was ten times more important than everything else in the work it appeared in which would be mean to the body of my entry.
10 And will leave as I wrote it because I think it a good example of the kind of exploratory muddle-headedness a person needs to be capable of in order to appreciate poetry!
11 So far as I know, Klaus is the inventor of this kind of enhanced magic square.
Previously in this series: