I don’t understand people who tell me they don’t understand poetry. What’s to understand? Do you understand a breath? the moon? love? algebra? all of these things are poem fodder. I suppose I do say that I don’t understand math (note: write an algebra poem). But, I think that I don’t really understand math because I took an honors class far too early, and I snuggle the illusion that that if I just went back to the very beginning (in the beginning, there was the number 1) and started over that I might finally realize my dreams of becoming a ground-breaking astrophysicist. That is to say, I believe that there is nothing innately unmathy about me.
Just like I believe that there is nothing unpoemy about you (and you know who you are).
There must be some correlation between learning math and learning poetry. Both deal in the unknown. Both have, in the past, followed very strict rules and forms and more recently broken free. Certainly I have seen the same frustration upon the faces of my students when I ask them to read Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird as I had for the entire year in Mr. Whiteman’s algebra class in seventh grade. Does it help to think of all possible definitions and implications and connotations of a word as exponents? Like, hunger=physical need for food^crave, yearn, want, require, pang, fill, emptiness, etc? Sorrow=^sadness, grief, loss, melancholy, blinding white pain? Did I use the pointy ^ symbol correctly? Every word is only meaningful in light of its relationship to its exponents?
Isn’t what you do with an equation, is you start with one side, and even then you start with the first tiniest part of one side, and do that first, and then then you do next closest possible thing? I’m pretty sure poetry is the same way.
This is what a double shift working with at-risk teens does to me. It makes me so tired I think math.
Order of Operations
There’s no secret trick in the equation of symbolic system plus human brain equals understanding. Meaning, on the other hand, is another matter.
Start with the symbols on the left, unless there are parentheses. For example, in the sample,
the arithmetic of : a lover’s hands + placed gently (hands slightly trembling x a quarrel forgotten^capitulation) = relief — pigheadedness x gratitude
first multiply the kind gesture by the desire to kiss and make up, then add the touch of the hands that you long for,
then cross the balance sign and do the petty thing times grace, subtract the whole thing from “thank God that’s done”.
PEMDAS, you see. Pudgy Elves May Demand a Snack.
Let’s do another one, a bit tougher this time to test the skills:
Surviving(a loved one lost + wild grief) + a rock in hand = the world’s ceaseless sorrow that no ciphers can explain.
first multiply that soul-ripping and sorrow inside the brackets (in the UK it’s BODMAS) and the peeled-skin purgatory of remaining on Earth after your brother has gone, add a weapon, and you have war.
One more, and then you can watch television:
All the hope in a child’s fist + (every conceivable way the world could hurt her — mother’s watchful eye) = any pain you can take from her — the impossibility of doing so
first do the P: subtract a mother’s caution from all the irrational terror in the worst 4ams
to get cruel Chance, and then do M (no exponents in this one),
multiply it by the sweet-cheeked belief in good, then hop across the sign and subtract your absolute inadequacy in the face of Fate from all your best intentions.
Well done. Next time, the Tilde ~.
Feedback people! I’m putting a call out for Feedback Friday. If you comment on any one of my poems, I’ll do the same for whatever it is you are making. Art, literature, dance, soup, socks, you name it. The purpose of this challenge is to get better, and I’ll never do that if I only get feedback from my husband and my mom. They like me a lot.