The Old Math of Poetry (Part One)

The poetry realm, with its current pressures of multiplicity, market-value, and massification, has devolved to a mathematics of representation. The representation urge stems from 

— By | March 7, 2010

The poetry realm, with its current pressures of multiplicity, market-value, and massification, has devolved to a mathematics of representation. The representation urge stems from the google-culture we’ve helped build, nurture, and augment with voluntary aplomb. We are after all the chief preservationists of a web philosophy that labors to itemize and catalogue the alterity of our global existence, if only to document the sheer numerousness of class and culture types who share democratic access to the Internet. Words, documents, pictures and a googol of characters, files, pages, maps, and sites are stored and maintained in the cloud of our collective (un)knowing. (We know that what we don’t know is out there, on the web, known already.)

And set alongside the linkage of our private existence to the social media that sheds light on our intimate engagements are poems, those intricate webs of gossamer and steel that future poets will end up one day writing on a screen. Hydra’s Anelise Chen already pointed toward the coming age of “literary hypermedia.” Poetry has to a large degree become interactive and web-oriented in a way that’s changed the art of its production. For one thing, the ease with which a poem can be published (especially self-published) and put out on a cheaply made chapbook or in the poet’s personal blog (costing the poet nothing more than his/her own effort in writing it) has greatly enhanced the amount of poetry being written today. What counts in a poem, literally, is its addition to the exorbitant amount of poetry growing daily, on paper or on the web (and much more of it landing on the web). The sheer number of authors and their small and large poems are so vast, and so greatly proliferated, that they are in sum reduced to sums. According to an article by David Alpaugh, at the current rate of web and paper publication, “more than 100,000 poems will be published in 2010.” But Alpaugh claims that’s only the tip of an iceberg: “If journals merely continue to grow at the current rate, there will be more than 35,000 of them by 2100, and approximately 86 million poems will be published in the 21st century.” He calls this massification “the new math of poetry.”

Alpaugh is mainly concerned with the large-scale discrepancy between the all-out democratizing of poetry that the web permits, empowering each and every poet with the facility to publish just about anything the poet scribbles; and the faintly elitist printing press arms of academia and large publishing houses that seem to propagate only a fraction of the smallest percentage of poets out there in misleadingly titled “best of” anthologies. Most of the time the gatekeepers of the major publishing branches tend to put out the work of colleagues, spouses, friends, and retired professors, not because of the age-old practice of nepotism, but because there’s so much poetry being written under the radar that there’s simply no reasonable way of accounting for all of it. The “independent poet” of excellence, like the unknown soldier of war, is consequently left out of the scale because he/she is joined by a million other he/shes of incalculable value. Massification of publishing resources creates mass anonymity of authorship, while reputation and affiliation serve as the better sieve available for the tons of poetry to sift through. The arch problem, according to Alpaugh, lies in his belief that “almost all of the world’s great poetry has been written by independents, and most of the poets writing today [Alpaugh included] remain unaffiliated with any institution.”

While Alpaugh goes on to lament the impossibility of a situation in which poetry works as its own enemy (in that the root problem of poetry today is the glut with which it is produced but not read), the paradoxical malignity of too much poetry — when we should be gladder for it — presents other routes of thought I’m more interested in exploring. If Alpaugh claims that procreative prolixity is the “new math of poetry,” then I ask, what of the old math of poetry? Perhaps he slyly points toward traditional metricks and prosody as the old mathematicks. After it had passed from song rehearsal and the performance of a tribe’s collective memory (literally, a verbal archiving of the history of a village, a tribe, a people), the art of poetry was a way of sculpting language to fit a rarefied, often irretrievable species of thought. Rarefied not for a quality of ‘high’ from ‘low’ thought, but for encompassing, stimulating, an act of thinking in line with natural breath, natural attitude, natural philosophy; a philosophic origin. Thoughts, like pictures and visions, are instantaneous, unmistakable, indelible. Hence the language to drape the fugitive but habitual act had to be pared down, trimmed to its quintessence, shaped to the figure, hardened to resist corruption.

In comparison to today’s word glut, poetry was less because it was vocationally and technologically difficult and it derived from a certain abundance, and so a specific filtration, of education. The education was not so much book-learning as it was a walking tour of one’s native geography and the geologic history compacted by eons underneath fresh soil. The materials of the earth and its weathers were the libations that cleansed one’s tongue. If poetry was ever class-exclusive for a time in the Old World, certainly only those few who sought it in all its impoverishing seriousness, found it. Poetry, in short, was not a source of lucre, but a laborious means of knowing, a science. It had little to no publicity, and it carried no ready rewards: its glories were nearly always the glories of private implosive discovery, a scientist’s share of quiet riot. But poetry isn’t a practice that desires solitude: it must be read because its power derives from universal truths, in allegiance with the culture and peoples that inform it, and as a lexicon, sometimes as the mere receptacle, of an outpouring of collectivity. It is, above all, in search of wisdom in its own fibre and timbre, raw and infinitely transportable to masses and man alone. That poetry could impoverish was the very reason for its exclusivity and the purpose that crafts its wares of nearly indigent earthiness.

Indigence is a state of grace for the poet. Hunger and urgency and obstinacy at once, but also: lightness. A lightness of being (at times unbearable) that volunteers to shed blood at any given chance. To give more of itself than possible. A poet cannot falter in this quality if the poet’s mission is to write more and more of herself away. In this respect technology will play a part, as Alpaugh tells us, because in the age of technological reproduction, the mathematicians of the new poetics have at their disposal a world-wide-web capable of increasing as the universe does, constantly and infinitely. Each addition to the open web, each new poem, blossoms into three more text documents that are hyperlinked with yet five others, indirectly and abstractly, but willfully; and so forth to limitless ends.

The problem however rests not with the explosion of numberless poems harvested on the web and hidden in the magazine racks of the world, but with the attitude with which poetry is written and idly tossed about. The attitude toward poetry is one of accretion and precondition than one of indigence and visceral impulse. Alpaugh notes that the standards for writing and publishing poetry have been dramatically lowered, so as to make room for a growing creative writing market. It’s a decent industry that profits from anthologies, seminars, workshops, classes and the like, to lure the would-be poet to hone an essentially self-involved skill in public scrutiny, while paying a horde for it. The benefits are the same as they were in Horace’s day — undying fame — except now condensed to a manner not especially different from a reality television show. Only the quality of celebrity is different: the one is fickle, the other slightly less.

Hydra’s Edgar Garcia recently alluded to the new math of poetry (in no anticipation of this post nor in reference to Alpaugh’s article, but purely coincidental) in a three part poem titled, “Indigence” (from which I borrow the term to diagnose the solution). Edgar sees the problems of contemporary poetry and publishing factions in a different manner from Alpaugh; the enemy is a tyrant quite different from the tyranny of publishers:

no, the publishing house is not the enemy…,

you, such as would rather see your name
in the reams of print
than the production of a good poem or two,
are the enemy

you, such as would put success
before Samothrace or other such trace of…,
are the enemy

you, such as would out the greatest fear
in a way stepping away from a single word: failure…,
are the enemy

you, such as would bow to those like you…,
to make a movement of you…,
although you have nothing moving about you…,
but the bows of lesser versions of you…, to you…,
are the enemy

you, such as having forgotten the impulse
was never about you…,
the impulse moving in and through you…,
if ever even moved in you……, oh forgotten impulse!…,
are the enemy

and whosoever this poem does not address
is friend to me,
and of the happy impulse…,
whosoever can stand behind such song, as this!…,

The “impulse” Edgar speaks of is the grace of indigence I referred to above. It is an impulse that does not lend itself to name-coining or writing titles to poems before they’re even written; much less the impulse of self-aggrandizement. The impulse is one that “travels lightly along the latitudes“:

ah! the things you must deal with when an indigent type

but of course you must be paid!
and whattdya mean it doesn’t matter if you’re not in print!

these things as stuff the sack full of air
to have it upright — sack, why won’t you stand?

while an indigent type travels light along the latitudes

To travel light along the latitudes: to engage the world freely, at liberty with its costliness and hazards. Sustained argument with a grandiose mundus that precedes the poet and gives the poet his sustenance, often at his peril, makes more of a man than a sack of trinkets, certainly more than a sack of positive gossip. The world is adamantine hard because it must be: the poet must, in contrast, pack lightly and see through things thoroughly, and remain in contention with the tremors and bustle of nations categorically dissatisfied with progress, because his faith is large enough to sustain its gyres; he must reduce himself, must make the end of poetry his constant acquisition. He does not write for the plain stupid sake of writing, but he writes with the end of poetry in mind, as virtue, as calamity, as credence. The poet seeks to end poetry — even knowing that it does not end, that it does not terminate — and will at the opportune moment cease writing –  if only he could, if only a second coming should happen — once those ends are met. But they are never met: herein the struggle that beatifies the testament. Awaiting cataclysms is enough reason to warrant all the poems of the universe, the world-wide-web, and a googol more after that. Extinction of self, of you or I, of the whole gamut of love’s paradoxes.



8 Responses to The Old Math of Poetry (Part One)

  1. Johannes Climacus on March 8, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    Monumental piece, puts the whole matter into a quite a context.

  2. David Alpaugh on March 8, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    I’ve been waiting on the shore like the fellow in Robert Frost’s “The Most of It,” waiting for an “original response” to my article “The New Math of Poetry.” It’s not just that you are one of the few who understand my argument; it’s how you use it as a springboard to widen, deepen, extend, and explore the implications of what I’m saying that leads me to believe I haven’t wasted my time. To quote Frost again, “It’s knowing what to do with things that counts.” Thanks.

  3. Jose-Luis Moctezuma on March 9, 2010 at 8:19 am

    Mr. Alpaugh: your words are warmly received. My deepest gratitude. I dwelled on your article for a few days until the object at hand stood clear in front of me; in Wallace Stevens’ words: “We must endure our thoughts all night, until the bright obvious stands motionless in cold.” I have you to thank for the fire that surged afterward. I can only hope that my article will draw more attention to your own!

  4. Bob on March 11, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    Poetry’s about stuff. This is a trend, because people also like stuff, and the Internet. The Internet knows things.

    Poems link people to people and stuff, and will one day be on a screen. This guy I know wrote something about it. More poetry is being written today because of the Internet and stuff. This guy Aplaugh calls this “the new math of poetry.”

    Alpaugh thinks a lot about all this poetry being published and those “fancy” best of books, since they obviously only publish their friends and cousins. This sucks because there are some people out there who are totally great writers surrounded by other not so great writers and so they don’t get published by their “friends” and their “cousins.” And, we all know, in the history of writing the best writers didn’t have friends or cousins.

    This upsets Aplaugh. But I ask, what about the “old math” of poetry, when “metrics” was spelled with a “k?” Back when it was about people and stuff but there wasn’t a link to Jenna Jameson’s “best of” catalogue, you know, the one her cousin did?

    People still like stuff. Poetry is now written by the educated. Education can be walking around and eating dirt. Back in the day, people didn’t get paid to write no poems. So they ate dirt, and were educated.

    Clearly, this wasn’t a great living or education, so poets got a little pissy, which was good. Starving was inspiring. If a poet is starving and still wants to write, he clearly has a good education. Aplaugh says the problem with poetry on the Internet is Jenna Jameson’s cousin’s catalogue. This is causing people to write bad, distracted poems not even about stuff.

    My friend wrote a poem that I will now publish but I do not have any pornorgraphy:

    (friends poem blah blah blah you’re the enemy not the publishing house)

    The “impulse” my friend the editor of this website speaks of is the feeling after the eating of the dirt. The impulse is one that

    (more poem down here)

    “travels lightly along the latitudes“:

    (and some more poem. What kind of friend interrupts someone’s freely published poem on the Internet not about stuff?)

    To travel light along the latitudes: to eat a lot of dirt from a lot of places! Sorry I have to stop writing, there’s some Fay Regan porn calling my name.

    End parody.

  5. Jose-Luis Moctezuma on March 14, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    Dear “Bob”: thanks for your gracious, lovingly crafted parody! I see that you read my post quite carefully and managed to filter out all the rubbish from the gold. I admit that the cleverest reduction is: “Education can be walking around and eating dirt. Back in the day, people didn’t get paid to write no poems. So they ate dirt, and were educated.” Next time I should use a dictionary, thanks. Some of the finer points of your penetrating analysis might baffle our readers, so allow me to expand on your dissection. Basically, everything on the web divides into two things: “stuff” and “pornorgraphy.” Stuff may stand for text, or it could stand for the things indicated by text, or better yet, it is the opposite (abstract) extremity of “pornorgraphy”. Pornorgraphy (a key term in the epistemology of Dr. Bob) is the state of grace, or the grace that the laborious use of the hand will cast on the [noumenon], which confers “meaning”. There is on the one hand (the empty hand) just plain meaningless stuff — or drivel, or poppycock, or balderdash — and in the other hand… something much smaller. But the small and often shriveled [noumenon] is made large — made actual phenomenon or “experience” — by… pornorgraphy: herein lieth meaning, or better, meaningfulness. Pornorgraphy may be shortlived but it can be endlessly replayed for those of superior intelligence who seek to maintain an enlightened posture apart from the virtual and grotesque limitlessness of the web.

    I sense that for you, Bob, poetry amounts to either stuff or pornorgraphy, but I’m inclined to debate whether pornorgraphy (assuming that it is the highest level which poetry can reach) can really equate to the types of poetry I know. Admittedly my understanding of poetics is limited — far beneath your own subtle mind — and really, maybe I’m too in love with conjecture and “stuff” to really get it. But it seems to me that pornorgraphy is essentially limited, while being, paradoxically, limitless on the web: this is a problematical situation that, I aver, would not correspond to poetry. While you believe in a division of gradually etiolated powers — stuff and porn — I tend to think that poetry reconciles stuff and porn quite nicely and will even reduce them to fragments of a world infinitely more complex than the sum of these two. While you appear to find pornorgraphy a sacrosanct economy worthy of your precious time apart from parodying other people’s carefully thought out works, I have found it to be about as satisfying as eating a double cheeseburger at McDonald’s: at first with hopeless lust, afterwards with utter soul-destroying dejection. Poetry just doesn’t do this for me: it does more, much more, and it lasts centuries longer, is eons wider. Its orgasm — its eruption — holds forth severe authenticity, and the lustre of its body — its form, its curvature — is no different from that of a living human body: poetry is material, odor, tierra. I suggest you try it, rather that than through a screen; but if you still don’t get what the hell I mean, try reading Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo.

    (Judging by the professionalism of your parody, I wonder if you would be so kind as to forward some links to more of your work, you know, when you’re not stuck flexing the smallest muscle of your body? By the look of your email, it seems that your vocation is scouring the web for misconstrued pompous writings and setting them aright with your judicious editorials. Unfortunately, I could find no trace of your pamphlets elsewhere.)

    I confess finally that the complex abstractions of pornorgraphy mystify me quite a bit and I’m not “read” enough to understand its intricacies. You clearly understand more about it than I do since you were able to infer it in my writing, somehow, probably through mystical techniques unknown to me. But then again, maybe my work doesn’t deserve the grander metaphysical label of being pornorgraphic because it is too much about boring unsensational meaningless stuff? Next time I finish writing a post, instead of kicking back with a glass of whiskey and watching the films of Walerian Borowczyk, I’ll try to humble myself and sit down to that catalogue of pornorgraphy you seem to favor so highly. Morgan le Fay was it?

  6. Steven M. on March 18, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    “At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet” – Plato

    Of course, love comes frequently, fervently, tragically, to a poet. So the real question lies in the ability to find pristine love, and this is the true poet.

    The pernicious glutting of writing poetry out of mere amusement, (that everyone seemingly has as an instrument of being a pure romantic out of the sake of boredom), does not only lack the humble responsibility for reading poetry in itself, but the pains that comes with being a poet: perpetual love. With the comforts of the modern day and anesthetic, zombie-like living of the monotonous routine — having the burdens of the emotions that char the weary soul of a true poet, and according to the article, the indigence that is attached to it — one cannot truly desire to be a poet. It is the pain to love that these “poets” lack when they write.

    Oh! how pristine love is categorized into something untouchable in the today and probably the morrow in society; a poet does find love to burn fast in its intensity through his eyes, and this love burns out physically and emotionally in all it’s violence and vigor, but continues to live solely through the eloquent words of the paper. Society has made love impossible, unachievable, but still vomit poetry, therefor making it dispensable.

    The sharp, heavy cupidity of a poet’s nature that enables him to write is one factual thing: it’s not something we’d like to bear.

    The modern day poet is left, inevitably, to obscurity and in this, we have deprived him of the only thing he has.

  7. Jose-Luis Moctezuma on March 22, 2010 at 4:53 am

    Esteban: thank you for returning the conversation to its essential rubric. A poet’s “sharp, heavy cupidity” may curse or it may save, contingent upon the poet’s willingness to act upon the subtractive values of restraint and puncture. Statistical increase is pernicious when it lampoons love’s fertility — because — “only those in love may speak of it.” Antonioni’s famous thesis: “Eros is sick. Man is uneasy. Something is bothering him.” What bothers him is the tentative absence of having anything definite to say, strangely, at a time when humankind has achieved standards of communication which allow him to say everything and anything at once. “Thus moral man who has no fear of the scientific unknown is today afraid of the moral unknown.” If love had perished, it would have to be reinvented by those who suffered not its pangs but its vacancies and disappearances.

  8. Jose-Luis Moctezuma on April 17, 2010 at 4:19 am

    “Let us conclude with a discussion of the problems of voluntary poverty… The ideal of voluntary poverty, which rejects utilities, can be readily understood. It is easy to see that an indefinite multiplication of utilities, the means of life, may end in an identification of culture with comfort, and the substitution of means for ends; to multiply wants is to multiply man’s servitude to his own machinery. I do not say that this has not already taken place… All possessions not at the same time beautiful and useful are an affront to human dignity. Ours is perhaps the first society to find it natural that some things should be beautiful and others useful. To be voluntarily poor is to have rejected what we cannot both admire and use; this definition can be applied alike to the case of the millionaire and to that of the monk.” — Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, from “The Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art”

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