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M@h*(pOet)?ica – PlayDay, Part Two


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

Mathematics is not a science. Is counting mathematics? I'd call it “pre-mathematics.” No, make that, “prerithmetic.”

As should be obvious by now, I am still in my “You-Can't-Criticize-Me-'Cause-I'm-Just-Playin'” operating mode. To get myself started, I just made a grab for the nearest thought happening to be in my brain about this blog's subjects, poetry and mathematics--and came up with two!

The one about math's not being science hit me while I was thinking about the list-in-progress of all the major human activities I've been fumbling with for many years as part of my lifetime quest to totally define human existence.1 Science was on it for a long time, but eventually I demoted it to a mere sub-category of what I call “verosophy.” That I define as “the search for consequential truths”--i.e., as “true wisdom,” going by the mismarriage2 of the Latin and Greek in my coinage. I felt I needed the term to include searches for truth such as history and philosophy which were not generally considered sciences. My recent promotion of Mathematics to an equal of Science came about due to my suddenly recognizing its field of operation itself, not material reality, science's field of operation. Mathematics is an essential tool of most (all?) sciences but cannot by itself reveal anything about the material universe.

In fact, I propose, as I've mentioned before in this blog, that mathematics has its own office in the brain. I believe science does, too--elsewhere. It's where cause&effect forms the basis of all understandings . . . I think. The math area borrows the cause&effect mechanism for its work, of course, just as the science area borrows various mathematical mechanisms for its. Fortunately, PlayDay allows me to drop the subject at this point without the nuisance of trying to bring up anything else to show that what I'm saying is not completely goofy.

As for “prerithmetic,” it's likely that it complicates my taxonomy for no good reason. But I like the way it reminds us of mathematics's evolution from counting on to arithmetic. Counting and operations like addition are carried out in the brain's math area, I'm sure--but in a single big room or two adjoining rooms? Does it matter? Who knows?

What does matter is what comes after arithmetic: would it have its own separate area? Geometry and trigonometry would, I should think. And . . . hmmm, I think I've now gotten to where even its still being PlayDay would not excuse straying from what this blog is supposed to be about much longer. So let me turn now to a poem, one by JoAnne Growney3 from her chapbook, Angles of Light, which was published by Finishing Line Press in 2009:

Can a Mathematician See Red?

Can a Mathematician See Red?

From my point of view as a critic of poetry, this poem's main (very large) virtue is its emphasis through maximal contrast of the beauty of red (and paint's liquidity) with the beauty of sphericity, to provide a hint of the vastness of our sensually-rich, conceptually-fundamented cosmos--in a tiny locus where someone is thinking wryly entertaining thoughts about how strange that cosmos is.

Hmm, I seemed to have gotten so deep in my PlayDay as to hit Serious Thinking.4 Poetry can do that to you.

Now to be maximally lazy and turn to something I wrote some twenty years ago in a broadside published by Jake Berry's 9th St. Laboratories called The Experioddicist:

A Passage from The Experioddicist

A Passage from The Experioddicist

The poem by JoAnne can be said to be about geometry, but it's also about what I consider mathematical thinking. Robert Fitterman's poem above is about . . . number theory! The epitome of mathematical thinking. Okay, actually, what it is most about is perhaps the most sensual subject one can write about: love. True, it may just be about a date, but sentimentality is good for you (in small doses) and I'm part Irish, and it's still PlayDay, so I'm calling it a romantic love poem. But, like “Can a Mathematician See Red?” it can also be experienced in the mathematical area of the brain as an investigation of a number--one, I must point out, named into the math area as 2 and in the verbal area as two. This seems to me an important illustration of what may seem excessive regarding two different ways of spelling a number, but is central to the contrast between the asensual and sensual. That, in turn, I consider greatly responsible for the effectiveness of the poem, which begins in the pure abstract of 2, then slowly sensualizes up to the biscotti the poem's two are going to split.

The following Wikipedia definition of biscotti is here partly because even at the time I wrote the passage in the broadside I didn't know what they were so had to look up their definition for this and partly because of its simple interestingness but mainly to document how mouth-wateringly unmathematical they are:

Biscotti: cookies (or biscuits) originating in the Italian city of Prato. The biscuits are oblong-shaped almond biscuits, made dry and crunchy through cutting the loaf of dough while still hot and fresh from baking in the oven.

"Biscotti" is the plural form of biscotto. The word originates from the medieval Latin word biscoctus, meaning "twice-cooked/baked." It defined oven baked goods that were baked twice, so they were very dry and could be stored for long periods of time. Pliny the Elder boasted that such goods would be edible for centuries. Such nonperishable food was particularly useful during journeys and wars, and twice baked breads were a staple food of the Roman Legions.

I have three things to add to what I earlier said about the poem: one is that I'm still not sure why “nor” is in it; the second is that “bis” minutely suggests “two”; the third, perhaps the only one really worth mention is the suggestion of eternity as where the couple will share the biscotti by “out (side of) time. . . . “ Oh, and I'm pleased to note that the poem is a genuine language poem, the first one making it into my blog, I believe.5 That pleases me because I want to cover as much of the full contemporary American poetry continuum as I can. It pleases me, too, to be able to slip in something by Robert Fitterman, who was a leading language poet years before I quoted his poem in the broadside, and even now seems not getting the recognition he ought to.

It's becoming apparent that this entry is mainly about meditative poems. The next, Carol Dorf's “On Definitions,” which was first published in Antiphon 3 in a closed form, and later, in a different version, in the Bridges Anthology on the Internet6, surely is:

On Definitions

On Definitions

I took this poem as a sort of meditation on the complexity of the universe where theoretical sub-atomic physicists meet it. It seemed to me very much like my own layman's meditations on the same subject--and not all that different from my bumbling here. Not only that, but the meditation itself seemed close to the activity quarks and the like seem to the physicists to be loopily blithering through--sans anything like a final understanding or resolution, there being “'no one'/ on that infinitesimal/ scale,” just “metaphors/ turn(ing) upon themselves/ before they intersect/ in hyperbolic geometries.”

But portions of the poem gave me trouble--such as the observation of what “her mother could have said." At first I let these by as just appropriately confusing details in the weirdness that reality is down where quarks reign. But when Carol later wrote me of the connection of the poem to the passing of her friend, Randi Engle, a math education researcher, the poem, already a rich one, grew larger. I suddenly was aware of what seemed to me the poet's elegaic attempt to make sense of a friend's death the way physicists try to make sense of the universe . . . and a reader tries to make sense of a difficult poem.

From Carol's poem it's not that great a jump to the following work by Jake Berry (which includes the graphic above its text), although at first glance they seem incalculably unlike each other.

Illustration for “there are letters”

Illustration for “there are letters”

Equation 6

Equation 6

Jake's poem connects to Carol's, for me, as a parallel version of the journey Carol's poem takes us on through the infinitesimality that particle physicists have for the past century been naming their way around in. “Umah” over “ion?” “needle” divided by “sleep” divided by “hardware” as equal to the strange term shown below it? “Tribe bowel to the power of nine?” Okay, Jake's poem takes us into something much more vague and loopy than Carol's does. Both are indeed journeys, but I would have to call them different in kind. What I think most differentiates them is how unified they are. Which brings me to the “Unifying Principle” that's part of my poetics.

A unifying principle is an organizing image and/or idea that makes the whole of a poem (or other artwork) cohere (as Ezra Pound's Cantos famously failed, for him, to do). I've often argued that a poem needs one to achieve the highest levels of effectiveness. However, an effective poem, also needs what I am very tentatively calling “Unification Resistance,” or matter preventing the poem from becoming boringly coherent. Carol's poem definitely has a unifying principle--or two. It combines a meditation on the ultimate intellectual incomprehensibility of the universe at the level of quarks with a meditation on the ultimate emotional incomprehensibility of the illness and death of a friend.

Its unification resistance consists of its variety of images, and their remoteness from the everyday, as well frequent, rapid shifts of thought, and a mix of the personal with the extremely impersonal--and a host of other poetry practices.12

On the other hand, Jake's work seems almost all unification resistance. I would claim that it is not--although it takes careful observation to cohere it, and the coherence is still iffy. If you factor in its being just one of 17 (illustrated) poems like it that are in the book it's from, Equations (which my Runaway Spoon Press published in 1991), its possible coherence becomes more evident. The very name of the book helps one perceive the texts and the mappings the illustrations turn into for one receptive to such things as a mad endeavor beyond both science and art and mythology fully to say . . . What Is.

Grandiose and pretentious. Absurd. But heroic, and . . . well, for a start, consider the letters the text begins with: they're in a darkness recalling the beginning the Word was in according to the Bible. They're in “the guts,” or core of a living being, too. And what's this about “sentient geographies?” Stay in this upheaval long enough and fusions can occur, like the idea of a living geography with The Word in the darkness of its guts. Followed by perhaps a creation/chaos with chemistry's ion in it, and strange fractions, and a number--not to mention a “gorget,” which I had to look up. It's a lot of different things, ranging from a band of linen wrapped around a woman's neck and head in medieval times to a knight's armored neck protector.

I, like one of my heroes, Ezra Pound, am a village explainer, so maybe too easily prone to finding my way to false understandings, but here I love the idea of all the sciences and mythologies and arts in a crazily mingling lurch towards some Final, very possibly impossible, Meaning. Aside from that, how can anyone dislike a poem with a “radical insolvent crow” in it?! One cubed, to boot!

Okay, I think it about time for a poem that actually does math, the following charmer by Connie Tettenborn:

Mathematical Expressions of Orange

Mathematical Expressions of Orange

Again, a potent contrast of the abstract and the sensual, but what I like most about this set of (wonderfully accessible) equational poems, as Kaz Maslanka would call them, is the story they tell of the ascent of orange, as a mathematical term, from minor arithmetical power as an addend9 through the much greater power of a multiplier or multiplicand11 to exponential strength! Observe that the latter is visiopoetically shown with not just a change of color but a change into color!

Note, too, how addition yields two simple inanimate objects; the multiplication a record of many inanimate--and, probably, animate--objects and a living being; and the use of exponents treats us to two full-scale experiences I'd label “grand,” one of a goodly-sized chunk of the external world (the view from a mountaintop), the other of a chunk of an internal world (the inner world staring at campfire coals ushers one into) possibly as large. Another subtlety I can't go away without noting: how right it is connotatively as well as denotatively that pink plus orange is depicted as equal to a beach ball, black plus orange to a basketball.

Last and least (I'm talkin' size only here, people!), we have three pwoermds (“pwoermd” being Geof Huth's coinage for “one-word poem”).

What can I say about Ed Conti's appropriate misstatement of the following number with scrupulous accuracy?


Well, one thing I can say is that it may be the world's sole visual pwoermd having to do with mathematics--unless you count Mark Lamoureux's


which is from &3, “an/thology of pwoermds” edited by Geof Huth that my Runaway Spoon Press published in 2004. That book, whose uncommerciality was my greatest disappointment as a publisher, also contained this gem by Nicholas A. Virgilio


which I include because it's PlayDay . . . but also because, hey, “fossil,” is a certified scientific word, so quite appropriate for a Scientific American blog. The potency of “fossilence” seems obvious to me; it's hard to imagine a more compact expression of something so long ago silenced that its very silence has fossilized. . . . As for “seventhth,” I'm not sure why it seems as strangely meaningful to me as it does. It's silly without seeming silly, at all. Something going on by sevens? Or one seventh of a seventh? It seems it ought to clarify and almost does, but only for fractions of a second.

With that, I bid you good-bye for now. I hope you will all be back in four weeks for the seventeenthth installment of my blog.


1 One of my lesser endeavors, to be sure, but still important to me.

2 As I call it even though I understand that any two things can get married in this tolerant age because I can't think of any word to use for what “marriage” used to mean.

3 JoAnne, by the way, runs an excellent site devoted to math-related poetry at

4 Serious Thinking need not be sane!

5 After writing the above, I remembered the poem by Marshall Hryciuk in my previous entry; but I don't believe Marshall has ever been regarded as a language poet by those running that school. He certainly is, for me, though. I know, not that it really matters.

6 An excellent anthology edited by Sarah Glaz of work by poets involved with the 2013 Bridges Enschede in the Netherlands this past July which you can read about here:

7 I much wanted to be there but couldn't afford the trip.8

8 Yes, I was invited!

9 Break out the ceegars,/ this life is for squirrels!/ I'm off to the drugstore/ to whistle at girls! Sorry, but remember what day this is. The rhyme just rattled off is by the late Great poet/songwriter/cartoonist Walt Kelly. I slung the first part of it onto the screen in celebration of having used the word, “addend,” for the first time in my life except (and I'm not sure of this) in grade-school where I certainly was exposed to it, but may not ever have written about it. And, hey, I didn't have to look it up, neither! Those of you not as smart as I am should be informed, I guess, that an “addend” is a number to be added to another.10

10 Because I don't suppose I'll ever be able to get over my obsession with trying to convince everyone that mathematical operations can be carried out in mathexpressive poems like Connie's, I am compelled to ask just what her first line is doing if not carrying out the arithmetical operation of addition?

11 I didn't have to look up these, either. Amazing.

12 One important form of unification resistance I want to mention is something I'm tentatively calling “indeterminate connotational overflow.” Nearly all poems have this, for it is simply the connotations each will have that are unique to each of its readers, and will cause thoughts and feelings not necessarily having anything to do with the poem. I'm putting it in a footnote because I haven't thought it through enough even to use it on a PlayDay.

3 Ha, did I catch you?! This is part of a book's title, not a footnote!

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

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

M@h*(pOet)?ica–Music and Autobiography

M@h*(pOet)?ica – PlayDay, Part One

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

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