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15 March 2007

we all know that 2+2=4. right?

generally, i don’t disagree with basics of mathematics (except for the whole idea of imaginary numbers; and i don’t disagree with it [i mean, it’s good to have a square root of -1, right?]; i just find it a little bit odd). but i think that sometimes putting two and two together is not just four; sometimes it’s four and something a little bit more than the sum of its parts.

so what am i talking about? the fact that people extrapolate from this little formula, usually learned very early, the aphorism that if you have the components of something, then you have the thing itself. the statement that 2+2=5 has become shorthand for not only a logical error, but also for dangerous forms of mind control. we all know, and must not forget, that 2+2 always equals four.

the problem is that sometimes the parts of something add up to more than their sum. i may have four sunflowers lying on a table in my house, waiting to be trimmed and put in a vase of water. and they are just four sunflowers. but when i see four sunflowers laying on a table in a van gogh painting, they’re more than just four sunflowers. they’re also a work of art.

this is particularly true, in my opinion, of poetry. tonight on my way home, i happened to catch garrison keillor’s writer’s almanac for the day. the five-minute mini-program consists of interesting tidbits of literary history, factoids about authors’ lives, and a poem. tonight keillor read the poem “how to tell if you’re a participant or a staff (a handy guide for day programs)” by david moreau. i listened as the narrator listed all the ways in which to discern whether you are staff or participant, all the while waiting for that something that would turn this rather mundane list of statements into the magic of poetry. because poetry has magic in it. all poetry. even poetry that i dislike. i’m sorry i can’t explain it better than calling it magic, but i can’t. and this poem–it didn’t have it. sure, it calls attention to the difficulties of being in the position of needing assistance in daily living. it nicely illustrates some of the simple things that you and i take for granted every day. and achieving that is worthy of a literary effort. but there is nothing that this work does that demands it be poetry. it would have been as effective written in prose format. the only thing that makes it poetry is the fact that it’s been broken into verse shape and labeled “poem.” and poetry is not like 2+2=4. words written in verse form do not a poem make. poetry is always more than the sum of its parts.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 March 2007 7:15 am

    I didn’t really “get” Van Gogh until I saw an original painting of the sunflowers in the Met. It really hit me like only a masterpiece can.Yup, the sum of the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts separately.

  2. 16 March 2007 8:40 am

    he’s definitely one whose work is different in reality than in reproduction. i had the same experience with pollock and rothko. sometimes we’re a little too committed to our notion that art must represent something, must be mimetic, and forget that the art is more than just the “what” of the text or the painting.

  3. 16 March 2007 1:37 pm

    Let me answer your root question:Yes, it’s pretty darn important to have a representation for the square root of -1.

  4. 16 March 2007 4:16 pm

    i know. i don’t remember lots of my math, but i remember that much. although how it’s possible to have a square root of a negative number, i stil do not understand. i mean, something is a square root when, multiplied by itself it produces the number of which it is a square root. and we all know that it’s impossible to get a negative number when you multiple a number by itself. which is, i suppose why it’s necessary to have an imaginary square root of i said. it’s a bizarre concept.

  5. 16 March 2007 5:16 pm

    2+2=5. it’s important. don’t gloss over the casual reference in this post about it. read more about it here:, it’s a kick ass radiohead song. see it here: to the poetry issue. what makes a poem a poem? what gives it its poemitude? is this a poem?”I think that I shall never see A billboard lovely as a tree; Indeed, unless the billboards fall I’ll never see a tree at all”i think so, yet it sounds like a lot of the trite bollocks that passes for poetry for most people. but this is slightly different.

  6. 16 March 2007 5:23 pm

    here’s the difference between what you just posted and the moreau poem i referenced before–the moreau “poem” doesn’t play with language. not even badly.this verse does. and even its seemingly trite rhyme scheme is more than what meets the eye, given the content of the verse. and then there’s the play in these four lines. play that is totally missing in the moreau piece.and maybe i have a name for my magic now. though this name is by no way total. but one of the components of that poetic magic is multiplicity. or perhaps multi-valenced. poems communicate on many levels. good prose communicates on multiple levels, too. but poetry does it usually by minimizing, while prose often does it through at least some form of magnification.

  7. 16 March 2007 5:27 pm

    and then there’s the fact that this verse is commentary on another poem. which adds all kinds of fun possibilities.

  8. 20 March 2007 6:44 am

    I finished Alice Duer Miller’s “Forsaking all Others” this weekend and happened to glance at the biography on the back sleeve. It mentioned she was a mathematician and talked about the relationship between mathematics and poetry. I thought of this post and laughed.

  9. 23 March 2007 9:53 pm

    I personally like the poem “How to tell…” and I still think of it as poetry. Maybe your drawing attention to it has made it more interesting/appealing to me than if I’d just come across it on my own. I’m going to read it a few more times.But I don’t think you can say that this poem isn’t communicating on multiple levels.

  10. 28 March 2007 7:04 pm

    just found your comment, brooke. and you’re right. i can’t say that this is not poetry. not definitively. i can only say that, for me, it’s not poetry. this is one of the reasons i love studying literature. because there is no definitive answer about what makes something beautiful or art or poetry. it’s the process of considering what makes something art or beautiful or aesthetic where i think we learn and grow, not the ability to definitively answer the you’re right. i can’t say it’s not communicating on multiple levels. not definitively. but i can say it for myself.

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