Geek and Form
Yesterday I published a Fibonacci Poem called ‘Geek Poetry’. The background of this poem consists of some conversations I recently had regarding Fibonacci poetry.
I work at a Spiritual Book and Tea Shop. The Book part of the shop is kind of new agey; though we strive to also have depth in each of the religious sections by including central texts of each tradition. Still, New Age sells. We have a section on Numerology. Last week a customer purchased about seven books from the Numerology section, including several books that are specifically about the Fibonacci sequence and numbers. As he was checking out we struck up a conversation; it isn’t often that someone purchases books on Fibonacci from our store and I was curious. I mentioned that I wrote Fibonacci poems. He was aware of Fibonacci poetry, though the customer is not himself a poet. It turns out he is a mathematician with a focus on mathematical sequences; hence the interest in Fibonacci. But he finds the Fibonacci poetry attractive and interesting. Then he said, “Have you ever considered using the Lucas?” And I got to respond, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I have written some Lucas poems.”
The Lucas sequence is another numerical sequence generated using the same additive procedures as the Fibonacci. The difference is that the Lucas sequence begins with the number 2 and 1, whereas the Fibonacci starts with 0 and 1. Hence the Lucas sequence is 2 – 1 – 3 – 4 – 7 – 11 – 18, etc. (The Fibonacci sequence is 1 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – 8 – 13, etc.) There are interesting relationships between the numbers in the Fibonacci and Lucas sequences.
Anyway, as I was saying, back to the customer, he smiled when I said I had written some Lucas poems. Unfortunately, he had an appointment to get to, so our conversation drew to a hasty close. But the last thing he said as he walked out the door was, “Geek poetry, I love it.”
The second conversation about Fibonacci I had was with a friend, I’ll call him George, who loves poetry and even teaches a class in poetry at a Junior College once a year. George teaches a formless approach, or a free verse approach, to poetry because he believes introducing students to formal elements will make them feel bad about themselves. George is a therapist by profession and views poetry as a means to a therapeutic end. For this reason, no rules are to be introduced because it might interfere with ‘self-expression’ and the therapeutic goal.
When I published ‘Safe Harbor’ through Createspace I gave my friend George a copy. The second collection in the book consists of Fibonacci poems. George asked me about them. I told George about the Fibonacci sequence and how the numerical sequence can be applied to the syllable count to generate a formal, syllabic, structure. George was not pleased; in fact he frowned. He then said, “What does that do for you?” Doesn’t that just strike you as the kind of question a therapist would ask?
My answer was general, not form specific. I talked about how surrender to the parameters of a form focuses the mind, how it gives the poet a sense of joining a community of poets who share an interest in the form. But from George’s point of view such a procedure is limiting; it impinges on self-expression and that is a bad thing. As usual when it comes to poetry, George and I disagreed.
For the mathematician customer, who delights in the world of numbers, applying a numerical sequence, such as the Fibonacci or Lucas, to syllabics made immediate sense. This is because for such a mathematician numbers are a felt presence. Because numbers are a felt presence, and in some sense inherently esthetically attractive, it makes intuitive sense to use those numbers, and numerical sequences, for poetic purposes. For the therapist, poetry has become completely subjective and functions as a vehicle for self-expression. From this perspective using a specific numerical sequence, such as the Fibonacci or Lucas, subverts the therapeutic purpose because the adoption of such a sequence is not, from a therapeutic point of view, an example of self-expression; the sequence comes from ‘outside’. This affirms what I have suspected for some years; namely that the therapeutic point of view is subversive of formal poetry in general.
The final conversation regarding Fibonacci happened just a few days ago; also at the store. The store uses window washers who come to the store once a month. They are a couple. They wash most of the store windows on Main Street. Usually the husband is the one who washes our windows. As they have been washing our windows for over ten years I have got to know them over time. At one point, about six years ago, I had to attend traffic school and she was also a member of the class; we got to commiserate with each other about how unfair it all was; but we also whispered funny, snarky, asides to each other during class.
In other words, I have grown fond of both of them over the years. This month I gave him a copy of ‘Safe Harbor’ after he washed the windows. A few days after receiving it he dropped by to tell me how he and his wife were reading the poems to each other and enjoying them. He mentioned specifically liking the Fibonacci group of poems. I, of course, liked getting this kind of feedback. I also liked that they specifically enjoyed the Fibonacci poems; not because they know about numerical sequences, but just because they liked the shape and the subject matter. This was not a geek’s response, just the response of someone enjoying the poems as written. And it was not a therapeutic response either; at least not in the sense that they were concerned about poetry as self-expression.
My own view, as often stated here, is that syllabic poetry is a craft; like pottery or baking or carpentry. Composing a Fibonacci poem resembles a potter deciding to make a cup. A cup has, broadly speaking, a form. If a potter decides to make a cup, that decision functions to determine a large number of decisions for the potter. Similarly, a syllabic poet crafting a poem in accordance with an objective form (a form whose parameters, or shape, are exterior to any specific poet) will yield to the shape of that form. If a syllabic poet decides to compose a Fibonacci certain consequences follow, such as the opening very short lines. Just as the potter accepts the limitations of what it means to shape a cup, the syllabic poet accepts the limitations of the Fibonacci (or other syllabic form).
The potter makes a cup and, hopefully, someone will be attracted to its craftsmanship and then use the cup at home, or the office, to drink from. The syllabic poet makes a poem of a specific shape and, hopefully, others will find it attractive and enjoy reading it. This is, I think, what keeps the syllabic poet engaged with form.