Friday, August 15, 2014

Bob Grumman, "An Evening in June, 1952"

Robert Frost's "There Are Roughly Zones" is one of those poems (like every poem in which he uses the word "something") in which his fundamental ambivalence takes over, creating (as it must) an ambivalent universe. There are no laws (he implies), just "roughly zones" that determine, for instance, how far north you can reasonably plant a peach tree. And yet the peach tree is planted. "What comes over a man, is it soul or mind / That to no limits and bounds he can stay confined?"
Suppose we say instead, there are roughly forms. Which is to say, there is no overwhelming reason not to make your sonnet fifteen lines long, or to skip a repetition in a pantoum, or to shift from iambic to dactyls in mid-line. Form accommodates variation. We can change from English to French to Tagalog as many times as we want; we can invent our own language. In some sense, the medium is built of flexible forms. Every poet depends on that “roughly,” more, as they say, or less. The reason seems to be that, while we are not victimized by a world of absolute strictures, we are subject to a readerliness that knows when its expectations are being messed with. That extra foot, that off-rhyme, that invocation of Kiswahili don’t violate any “laws,” but they make us aware of the zones we traverse.
So Bob Grumman wrote of his submission that “I'm not sure how mediatory it is, butstill not really grasping the term. . . .” This is fine with me. What I’m looking for (and at) here is the question of how to understand mediation, what we mean by a medium, and how this affects the various relationships artists establish with the world of things and the world of other people. And I see those questions as immensely vexed, partly because “the media” is a meaningful expression—a powerful expressionand yet (because of the expectations it invokes) it tends to overshadow (see Jim Finnegan’s poem) other senses of “medium”: as material, as vehicle, as code. Bob’s “mathemaku” (I hope I have his terminology right) speak to the stringency with which we tend to view evidently opposing codes. He’s written of this poem, or at least part of it, that it not only employs the coding-structure of mathematics, but also of cryptography (I’m loosely paraphrasing, and perhaps making some dubious assumptions here; but Bob can comment to his heart’s delight if he wishes). Elsewhere I’ve written about the dance of frustration and gratification that we play, and Bob, for all his precision where it counts, isn’t averse to this dancing—which can be quite, as we say, abandoned. Sometimes, we know, a little frustration is a good thing. (JM)

     An Evening in June, 1952

Bob Grumman is a retired substitute teacher who also worked as a computer operator but managed for most of his working life to avoid gainful employment. His specialty as a poet for the past twenty years or so has been visiomathematical poetry, but he also composes fairly conventional free verse poems.

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