Sunday, December 13, 2015

Visual poems with numbers

     I have a good friend who does not care for the sorts of poetry that are written today.  When I asked what he likes he cited "When I Was One-and-Twenty" by A E Housman (1859-1936) and the sonnet "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).   My own preferences in poems, on the other hand, are less certain.  I like to explore, to discover what new things may be said within new forms and constraints.  The following selection, "Notes on Numbers" by Richard Kostelanetz, introduces some of the ideas that this artist/writer/critic explores in his visual poetry -- with numbers -- examples of which are available through links offered at the end of this posting.

Notes on Numbers      by Richard Kostelanetz  

Life is full of numbers that are continually speaking to us in their own language -- the language of numerals.  Unless we learn learn how to read them -- how to perceive order and meaning behind numerical relationships -- we are, in certain respects, functionally illiterate.  The arithmetic of whole numbers includes six operations:  addition, multiplication, and involution (also known as "Squaring"), as well as their opposites, which are subtraction, division and devolution (or extracting the "square root"), all of which are procedures available to numerical art.  Every piece of mine has both a visual form and a numerical form.          §Some numerical structures are simple and instantly understood, while others can be quite complex and opaque. My own art tends to favor symmetrical and sequential kinds of order over more obscure forms, as the numerical sets in these works usually articulate an arithmetic pattern.          §Numerical art requires numeracy to be understood, much as poetry depends on "literacy"; this is an art for people who are numerate.           §My Numbers are primarily about properties peculiar to numbers; rarely do they attempt to refer to anything outside of numbers. Nonetheless, they reflect a world that is full of numbers and thus hopefully enhance our experience of numerable life.        §Poetry composed of numbers differs from numerical fictions, the crucial distinction being that poetry aims to concentrate both image and effect, while stories create a world of related activity.  Thus most multi-page sequences are fictional while most one-pagers are usually closer to poetry; yet into a single page can be compressed material that is essentially more fictional than poetic.            §The Pythagoreans assumed that only through number and form could Man grasp the nature of the universe.          §Numbers, unlike verbal language can be read both vertically and horizontally.  They are also internationally understood.          §Algebraic symbols comprise another mathematical language, consisting largely of numerical paraphrases, whose grammar often resembles that of numbers. Though more powerful mathematically, such symbols strike me as less useful artistically, only in part because the vocabulary of algebra is more esoteric than that of numbers.           §It could be said that arithmetic investigates the mysterious properties and mutual relationships of common numbers; and so, in its own ways, does 'numerical' art.        §Much contemporary art reveals a concern with the essences of a medium which is, in this case, the language of numerals.  It was my intention to use nothing but numbers, in all their purity.          §For all of my life I have enjoyed the numbers encountered in everyday life.  In New York State, where I live, license plates frequently have a single number followed by a letter and then four more numerals -- something like "5W4925."  Even today, I instinctively divide the four right-hand digits by the left-hand integer, in addition to noting that the numbers contain the sums of 7 and 5 squared.  I hope that this art reflects that kind of concern and pleasure.           §Though recent artists have tried to incorporate into their works a wealth of material and imagery previously considered sub-artistic, Art has scarcely assimilated the language of numbers; for few of the numerals appearing in contemporary art (other than my own) are numerically articulate.
"Parallel Intervals" by Richard Kostelanetz

Kostelanetz's "Notes on Numbers" also is here (on page 59) along with work by other poets in Rhythm of Structure: Mathematics, Art, and Poetic Reflection,  A John Sims Project. (Selby Gallery, Ringling College of Art and Design, 2011).  The "numerical" poem above may be found, along with other work by Kostelanetz, "Mathematical Poetry" -- a blog by Kazmier Maslanka.  This Scientific American blog post by the late Bob Grumman (1941-2015) contains a variety of Kostelanetz's visual numerical poems and still more are may be found by following this link and then entering (in the blank after "Jump to") the name "Kostelanetz."

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