The Value of Poetry

Late summer and early fall….a good time for taking stock and new beginnings.  August 31 is also the anniversary (yahrzeit, in Yiddish) of my mother’s death in 2009, so a special time for reflection.  Earlier this week, I told a good friend that this was the “anniversary week” for my mother and I was feeling fragile.  Almost immediately, he texted me a link to this website:

which turned out to be an article, with examples, about “mathexpressive poetry” by Bob Grumman.  I won’t try to paraphrase the article here — you need to read it — but, in essence, this is poetry depicting mathematical processes like long division and multiplication to show the relationships between words and images, not numbers.  It is partly a visual poetry, but depends on the evocative and symbolic meanings of words and the resonances between them.   The article was a challenging and fascinating read, but what stood out for me was that, as I finished it, I felt a tremendous sense of joy and release.

Why did this happen? I wondered.  How could reading an article about a new kind of poetry make me feel this way?

At one point, the author remarks that “I felt no work not an attempt at friendship with those encountering it was poetry…”  In other words, a poem is an act of friendship, an encounter. I think there are actually several encounters reverberating in a poem: the writer’s encounter with the experience (inner and outer) that inspired the poem, the writer finding the right language with which to make the poem, and the reader’s encounter with the words on the page — which connect to his or her own experience.    When I looked up “friend” in my trusty etymological dictionary, I found that it is related to the word “free,” which in its Old English, Old Norse, Old High German, and even Sanskrit roots also means “peace” and “love.” Joy Harjo, Native American poet, has said: “Ultimately, a poem has an electrical force field, which is love.” (Note that she uses a scientific concept as a metaphor to express her thought.) Her statement seems akin to Grumman’s remark about friendship.  And it connects, I think, to a poem written by a woman in a Toronto residence for street people, which contains this line:  “It’s not possible to love art without love.”  She adds that “it (love) wouldn’t not know that we want it.”

All of this is “telling a truth, but telling it slant” — in Emily Dickinson’s words, quoted by Grumman.  At this moment, reading an article about a new kind of poetry– which uses the elegant, beautiful processes of math, such as long division, to show how words, ideas, and images connect — touched a place deep within me: that place where making art = making love = making friends = play and delight.   Grumman talked about everything from “a thunderstorm’s tearing up the day” (reminding me of a poem I wrote to my friend Malca Litovitz, in which I mentioned her poem about rain breaking open the day) to ships and friendship.

Knowing that I write poetry, my friend might well have sent me this link any day of the year.  But he sent it on this particular day, to cheer me up, an act of friendship.  I think he knew, intuitively, that it would have that effect — even though I wasn’t sure, at first, why I should read this article called “summerthings.”  After reading it, I was struck, yet again, by how rich the life of the imagination is, and how art and emotion are so intricately and intimately interwoven, in an equation that shows us the value (in every sense of the word) of poetry.    And I think my mother would understand this, too. Thanks/Gracias/Namaste

About Ellen

I am a member of The Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, and CANSCAIP. I have received grants from the Ontario Arts Council for both writing and teaching. I currently work with Learning Through the Arts and Living through the Arts, programmes run by the Royal Conservatory of Music that enable artists to work in schools and community organizations. I have also taught in many other school and community programs, and have been a judge for various writing contests for both young people and adults.
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4 Responses to The Value of Poetry

  1. Bob Grumman says:

    Hi, Ellen!

    One more coincidence for you: when I was little and my sister Louise and I played in our secret world, I used to call her Jayfee, for no reason we could figure out later. Now we know: “Jayfee” was obviously a magic word I used (with knowledge I had then but lost) to force the universe to make you visit my guest blog and write about it the way you have! I’m thrilled when anybody visits my blog, but it’s really nice when someone pays a visit and writes about it. To write about it the way you did (not just positively, but showing you got from it what I most want people to) makes me feel guilty about the many times I’ve thought to myself that composing my kind of poetry and writing about it was dumb because I was the only one who seemed to be getting anything out of it. Whatever happens now, I will always be glad I’ve kept going.

    all best, Bob

    • Ellen says:

      Thanks, Bob — I’m glad you’ve kept going, too! Love the “magic word”!
      And I’m glad I took the time to write my blog in response, and send it out.
      I do some work teaching poetry to kids, and I’m sure they would enjoy the “mathexpressive” poetry. I liked playing with math as a child, too — but writing took over. I still like reading about the new physics.
      Warm wishes,

      • Bob Grumman says:

        Hi, Ellen.

        Thought you might like to know that a new entry to my guest blog has been posted. A couple of fun pieces, then integral calculus, which will be difficult for many, but interesting, anyway, I hope.

        Speaking of the new physics–I’m sort of reading about it at the
        moment. I say that because I’m reading about quarks, and assimilating about 8% of it. Quarks are new physics, but the book was published in 1983. It’ll be a while before I’m close to understanding the simplest things in the physics of 2012! It’s a nice change of pace from poetry, though.

        all best, Bob

  2. googlepo says:

    Thank you very much for that great article

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