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Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

M@h*(pOet)?ica

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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 http://poeticks.com/

#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.

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Welcome to the first installment of my M@h*(pOet)?ica Blog. I chose its title to give fair warning of the kind of . . . unusual material it will be concerned with, to wit: poetry whose mathematical elements are as important as its verbal elements, as in the following:

HelmesRelationships
Relationships

It’s from a series of ten equations its author, Scott Helmes, calls “Non-additive Postulations,” which first appeared in Ernest Robson and Jet Wimp’s anthology, Against Infinity (Primary Press, 1979). Later I will attempt to show that it makes sense. Sort of. For now I leave it for those courageous enough to stick with me as something to reflect upon. Suggested topics of reflection: how is it poetry? How is it mathematics? Why should anyone bother with it, regardless of what it is?

Now for something of mine--since I’m too self-infatuated to let any chance for self-promotion to get past me without my taking full advantage of it. It’s “The Best Investigations,” an offshoot of my on-going series of long divisions of “poetry.” I would defend its presence on the grounds that, as an example of the level of my immersion in mathematical poetry as a poet, it should provide a good idea of my qualifications to write about such poetry (or lack thereof). It also should reveal the range of matter such poetry can contain, such as symbols from music, and stolen images from canonical painters like Paul Klee and photographs from the Hubble--to the despair of some in the academy, I fear. (Note how I get back at them in this poem, though!)

TheBestInvestigations
The Best Investigations

My next specimen of the kind of poems my blog will mostly be about is another long division of mine, “Mathemaku No. 4A, Original Version”:

MathemakuNo4A

Mathemaku No.4A

I generally use this, my very first long division poem, in lectures on mathematical poetry as what I hope is an easy-to-follow introduction to it. My friend Betsy Franco was inspired by it to make a bunch of most excellent poems like it for children, with illustrations by Steven Salerno, such as the following:

Ooooorange
Pumpkin Patch

WindLeaves
Leaves and Wind

These are from Betsy’s Mathematickles (Simon & Schuster, 2003).

Then there’s this, by Karl Kempton, the arithmetic of which could not be more simple (look for the arrow near the bottom), but the full poetic complexity of could not be greater:

3here&there
3 here & there

To finish off my little survey, here are three more I hope will indicate the variety of the poetry this blog will treat. The first is by Charlotte Baldridge, the second by Robert Stodola (both from Against Infinity), and the third by Kaz Maslanka:

Baldridge4A
Margin for Error

EyeOfHistory

Eye Of History

GoldenFear

Golden Fear

Okay, now for a little more about me—about me and mathematical poetry, that is. In elementary school I was early tabbed “gifted,” meaning I was academically one in a hundred. At the time, the population of the United States was only around 150,000,000, so that meant only a million-and-a-half others were as smart (according to the tests) as I. But I did seem quicker to pick up arithmetic than my classmates, and even got enough interested in algebra in junior high to read ahead in my textbook—until other interests intervened. When I got to high school, Sputnik had the country’s leaders worried about our technological lead, so those considered gifted, like I, were bombarded with propaganda about the value of a career in science. Hence, I, and most of my friends, immediately opted for careers in the arts or humanities.

Alarmingly non-conformist, I went further, turning my back on college with the intention of becoming a self-taught Famous Writer, like Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. I never made it. Eventually, paid to go to college by the GI Bill and able to go free in California, where I’d been living long enough to qualify as a Californian, I broke my vow never to go to college. I went full-time to Valley Junior College in the San Fernando Valley for five years, even after I’d used up my GI Bill aid.

I’d always enjoyed math, and had read a few books about it for layman, one of which got me trying to overturn Georg Cantor’s different-sized infinities; it took me several years to finally concede that I couldn’t. (At one point I even wrote Isaac Asimov about it; he wrote a postcard back saying it wasn’t an area of expertise for him, so he could not deal with whatever “refutation” of Cantor I sent him.) I tried to disprove the non-Euclidean geometries, too, taking a long time to allow that I could not. I won’t say anything about my adventures with modern physics—except that I came to be a passionate advocate of the value of all the sciences in spite of what the Sputnik hysteria did to me.

Meanwhile, I remained active as a creative writer, getting just about nowhere in all genres. My work was quite conventional except for the haiku I wrote influenced by the typographic techniques of E. E. Cummings. I got nothing published but some conventional haiku that I also wrote. The haiku and Cummings. Those two things were the key to my involvement with mathematical poetry. The haiku because it is the kind of poetry that comes closest to mathematics. I say that because it is supposed to be maximally objective, with a minimum of words, the best of them tending to be almost as condensed and elegant as an effective equation.

As for the poetry of Cummings, its visual elements, as in the famous one from his Tulip and Chimneys (1923), portraying Buffalo Bill,

BuffaloBill-Excerpt

Buffalo Bill

were the first important step in the evolution of poetry of words only to concrete poetry, which was the first variety of what I call “plurexpressive poetry” for poetry that is significantly aesthetically expressive in more than one expressive modality (or “plurally expressive”), in this case the expressive language of words and the expressive language of graphics. A half century or so later we had many such mixed kinds of poetry, including mathematical poetry . . . and visiomathematical poetry, which employs three expressive modalities, some examples of which I’ve shown here.

Next up, if enough are interested, my examinations of various mathematical poems, including the ones on display here, and my attempts to answer the questions I earlier suggested as topics of reflection. Stay tuned.

 

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

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