### On Scott Helmes and Mathematical Visual Poetry

The following is a blog entry devoted to another comment on June 4, 2010 from Pioh concerning my review of Scott Helmes work originally posted on May 30 2010

Dear Kaz

I'm sorry, but it all sounds like damning praise to me, concerning Scott Helmes. You are both "slighting" and "dismissive" while magically "marginalizing" re his influence, (or if not influence, then his status as a precursor). Too,ooo,ooo schizophrenic for my liking. (I wonder what he truly thinks!) (Or for that matter, others!) (Come on, lets open this thing up!) (I know others are reading/listening/thinking) (If we can't do it now, when?!). I would be loathe to describe Helme's work as "light hearted". You seem to be floundering with all due respect.

John Cage is good, but not really relevant in this discussion. If mathematical poetry is to be what "you like" then the subject is closed from what I can see. If there is something larger at stake then lets examine it, seriously. I don't mind being wrong.

Your emphasis on whether an equation is synchronicity or coincidence is not really helpful either. Once used, we have to deal with it; real or imagined!

Variables in an equation DO NOT have to be defined, anymore that WORDS in an equation. The EQUALITY sign DOES NOT mean EXACTLY THIS or EXACTLY THAT (as it does in masthematics) --- it would be a sorry day when we insist that an EMOTION or a THOUGHT or a ANYTHING is so simply put. I think that in MATHEMATICAL POETRY the equal sign (a) suggests, and/or (b) implies a possible ACTION. There are many ACTIONS of course in mathematical poetry (of the equation variety) that are NONSENSICAL, but…. we know what you mean. Which brings me back to the fact that mathematical poetry is better viewed as a system of linguistics. Dividing the MOON by the OCEAN to equal a PALMTREE is understandable as an "image" but multiplying the OCEAN with a PALMTREE only gives you the MOON approximately one-thirteenth of the time --- cos its not there. From my point of view the "equational" poem is of value cos it ALLOWS various JOURNYINGS and SOLUTIONS. Exactitudes are a myth.

You are right, REALITY is not POETRY (tho it contains it) and it isn't THINKING (tho it contains it), and POETRY isn't REALITY (tho it contains it) (… I hesitate to go on). But if a poetry purports to be THINKING, it’s a sorry state of affairs when it borrows contaminated LANGUAGE and pretends that they are context-less, connotation-less, and irrelevant to REALITY. Why bother!? I suggest we BOTHER cos the matrix of all of it still has a pull on us.

Thanxs for letting me talk

Love + anarchy

TT.O.

Dear Pioh,

I think you are missing the point in all of this. It is true that I am dismissive of a particular kind of aesthetic for which we are talking about yet you make it sound like I am being dismissive to Scott Helmes in a personal matter. I assure you that this is not the case and even Scott feels this way.

As far as marginalizing Scotts influence; there is only one person I know who claims to have been influenced by Scott’s work and that person is Bob Grumman. I would guess that Geof Huth was influenced as well but I have not heard him say so. That is not to say that there are not others; however, I have not heard the claims.

But, ultimately we can all have our delusions of Grandeur but the bottom line is that hardly anyone seems to be interested in doing Equational Poetry or Mathematical Visual Poetry for that matter. The most popular form of mathematical poetry (at least in the number of poems found on the internet) seems to be what I call ‘mathematics poetry’ which is lexical poetry influenced by mathematics. The torch for this genre seems to be carried by JoAnne Growney, Kate Stange and Sarah Glaz.

The reason that these blog posts seem critical is not necessarily to demean the genre of mathematical visual poetry but drive a ‘functional’ wedge between it and ‘equational poetry’ and what I mean by ‘functional’ is how each functions or the mechanics of this type of poem. Equational poetry has rules that must be followed this is quite different than mathematical visual poetry which may or may not possess mathematical rules. If this sound confusing well I would have to agree. No one has written any formal criteria for judging mathematical visual poetry. I on the other hand am trying to define criteria to use in determining the aesthetic foundation for ‘equational poetry’. Furthermore, these criteria can be used to determine the aesthetic value for a mathematical poem.

Pioh says, “Variables in an equation DO NOT have to be defined, anymore that WORDS in an equation. The EQUALITY sign DOES NOT mean EXACTLY THIS or EXACTLY THAT (as it does in mathematics) --- it would be a sorry day when we insist that an EMOTION or a THOUGHT or a ANYTHING is so simply put. I think that in MATHEMATICAL POETRY the equal sign (a) suggests, and/or (b) implies a possible ACTION. There are many ACTIONS of course in mathematical poetry (of the equation variety) that are NONSENSICAL, but…. we know what you mean.”

The equation sign in mathematics has a particular meaning and if you try to loosen its definition then it ceases to be mathematics and falls into some other category. Here again we force this type of viewpoint into the realms of mathematical visual poetry as opposed to equational poetry that follows explicitly the rules of mathematics. As far as the term nonsense goes I use it loosely when discussing metaphor and primarily to mean ‘not rational’ – an example of this would be the statement: Joe is a deer. Well, this seems a bit odd sense we all know Joe is a man. This I would consider nonsensical due to it not seeming to be a rational statement. However, ultimately, ‘nonsense’ is not a good term for this situation because metaphorically speaking Bill could be a deer. The type of nonsense that I am critical of is that in which you have rules for a system, namely mathematics, and then you don’t follow the rules. There it ceased to be mathematics and thus become gibberish, vague or decoration at best.

Pioh says, “Dividing the MOON by the OCEAN to equal a PALMTREE is understandable as an "image" but multiplying the OCEAN with a PALMTREE only gives you the MOON approximately one-thirteenth of the time --- cos its not there."

I say, “While I am not terribly excited about this poem, it does function as an equational poem however, I cringe when you put out this arbitrary number of ‘one-thirteenth’ – on another note; I really see limited use of numbers in equational poems. I see numbers only working as coefficients for emphasizing magnitude within a poem” If you say: 4lovemaking x 2arguments = 12emotions then you better have a very good reason to say 12 instead of 8 – Yes you can do it but I find it very cumbersome from an aesthetic view.

I hope this clears some things up.

K

Oh on another note yet related to Pioh’s understanding of the equation sign – Here is a ‘Mathematical Poem’ that he sent me.

## 6 comments:

Hi, Kaz—

Twenty years ago I used the term “mathematical poetry” with confidence, believing that I knew what the term meant. It included poetry that used vivid metaphors from mathematics. For example, Diane Ackerman’s line “. . .the world is all subtraction in the end.” Or, from Jonathan Holden, “Making love we assume/may be defined by the equation/for the hyperbola y = 1/x . . .”

Later my notion of “mathematical poetry” expanded to include poems presented as geometric shapes such as a square or a triangle. Or visual poems like your poem which describes love as the limit of 1 divided by ego, as ego approaches 0. Or various poetic constructions such as N+7, from the OuLiPo.

As I become acquainted with your creations and those of others that you present in your blog, my view of “mathematical poetry” expanded still more—in fact I no longer use the term because it means so many different things to different readers. In my blog I use the term “poetry with mathematics”—intending to include a variety of mathematical poetry ideas under my umbrella. As a mathematician, I think that pure mathematics is also a type of poetry but this is a hard sell to anyone not fluent in mathematics.

Still, your readers might want to take a look at my blog entry for April 29 (visit http://poetrywithmathematics.blogspot.com/ and scroll down for an example of a mathematical formula that I propose as a poem.

Thanks for all that you do to bridge the gap between mathematics and poetry.

With best wishes,

JoAnne http://joannegrowney.com, http://poetrywithmathematics.blogspot.com

Part One—

Dear Kaz,

I apologise if I somehow implied a personal dismissal of Scott Helmes on your behalf. I would also consider it unprofessional to do so in this discussion, if anything I would have intended a metonymy of sorts. My intent being to highlight the apparent contradictory position with regard to his work i.e. both precursor and non-precursor, which seem equivalent to saying A = minus A, which by my reckoning you could easily conclude 2 = 0! I personally don't know his influence on others, but from my position I accept any precursor whether or not I know or knew about them --- whether or not they are directly or indirectly influencing me. My personal experiments in numbers and mathematics is evident in my first book 1974, but by no means as well developed as Scott Helmes.

To get back to the argument / discussion, I think you have developed a strange sense of taxonomy. You say, most people practise "mathematical poetry" which "is" the title of your blog. You then assign that kind of poetry to "others" claiming that what they do is "lexical" (and you are not!?). You then split the project into 2 clearly defined trends "mathematical poetry" and "mathematical visual poetry" --- I must protest! ALL MATHEMATICS IS VISUAL. Placing the denominator above the numeration is a "spatial" relation, ditto the order of a series of brackets in an algebraic equation and the order in which they must be processed. ZERO itself implicitly pre-supposes a POSITIONAL representation. In fact (to get down to the nitty gritty) it appears that one, two, and many are innately connected to our all-too-Human biology --- often translated as "gesture" or body-pointings --- all of which are VISUAL elements (even if we've lost those pointings to some kind of conceptual "formalist" habit). I also note that in your videos you have an (understandably) elaborate system of "gestural" expositioning. It should also be appropriate to point out here that the work of mathematicians in some parts of the world was once divided into 3 part: those who "said", those who "wrote down", and those who did the calculation. We have at present seemed to have folded those elements into each other, as a unity. It reminds me a lot about the complaint of Bakhtin that a "sentence" is meaningless (or if not meaninglesss multivalenced, and therefore un-stable) whereas the same "sentence" turned into an "utterance" has a context, and thereby some sense of "meaning". Separating the body from mathematics does mathematics a disservice, and cloaks many an assumption. Pretending that mathematical poetry "proper" does not have a "visual component" (as the others do?) also reminds me of the early days of "visual/concrete" poetry, when the argument was that ALL page-poetry had a visual component, and that the aaba bbcb ccac patterings are proof positive, ditto their "shapes" and the nature of their jagged "edges" etc. One of Mallarme's achievements was to recognize the vast expanse of white paper on the page. We do mathematics by habit basically because of their positional relationships. I notice that you don't re-title your blog "Equational poetry" inspite of the fact that THAT is where you want to drive you "functional" wedge.

Next Part 2

Part 2

With respect to the "equality sign" is CAN'T mean the same thing as it does in mathematics, cos the units you/we are playing with are NOT numbers, nor do they behave as propositional units in a Godellian calculus. The best that can be said for them is they imply (as you rightly intuit) a functional procedure. I don't mind "contradiction" in mathematical poetry, that's its beauty over mathematics i.e. it can play with logics and contain them in the crucible of form. Those "truths" although inexplicable now, may very well be the basis of whole universes; in much the same way as the square root of 2 freaked out the Pythagoreans. Nothing better than poetry swimming in mathematics, or mathematics swimming in poetry. You say "If you say: 4lovemaking x 2arguments = 12emotions then you better have a very good reason to say 12 instead of 8" ---- please note: I DO NOT NEED A GOOD REASON FOR ANYTHING! Your equation CAN equal 12 or 8, an "mathematics" knows how to do it, as does "poetry" --- that "authorial demand" seems faaaaar too ridged --- but I accept your dislike of the procedure.

I note that JoAnne Growney has weighed in with her journey in mathematical poetry and its changing face over time -- I think her correct that it NOW means so much to so many viva la difference!

And yes, pure poetry is a beautiful pool to swim in.

Love + anarchy

TT.O.

I will address a few of these items:

You say all mathematics is visual – If I whisper in your ear two plus two equals four – what part of that is visual. I can certainly answer that question without visualizing anything.

You imply that the equal sign can only be used with numbers. When I say distance = speed multiplied by time …. Where are the numbers? Obviously there are only concepts not numbers.

You say you do not need a good reason for anything. And I say that you do need a good reason for everything if you want me or people like me to take your serious.

Lexical poetry is not a term that I created. It has been used for a number of years now within the visual poetry circle.

You seem to have a definite idea of what zero is yet I wonder:

Is it a point that has no width length or height that sits on a line between -1 and 1?

Is it a number that when multiplied with anything it gives only itself?

Is it the null set?

Or is it just a concept that exists in our mind that cannot be found anywhere much like infinity?

Can it reveal itself with all these noted aspects by a single question?

K

Dear Kaz

You may be able to answer what 2 + 2 = without using "visuals", but you can't answer what does bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket 6574534567 times 455789007642 bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket 876665456 divided by…. I think you get my drift! In fact like most EVERYBODY bar savants you'd say HANG ON!!!! LET ME WRITE IT DOWN --- the relationship to calculation (by humans) to visual-representation seems to be a biological determinant. I'm happy to stand corrected on this but that is my memory of reading.

I'll leave the rest to irrelevancy.

Love + anarchy

TT.O.

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