we all know that 2+2=4. right?
generally, i don't disagree with basics of mathematics (except for the whole idea of imaginary numbers; and i don't disagree with it [i mean, it's good to have a square root of -1, right?]; i just find it a little bit odd). but i think that sometimes putting two and two together is not just four; sometimes it's four and something a little bit more than the sum of its parts.
so what am i talking about? the fact that people extrapolate from this little formula, usually learned very early, the aphorism that if you have the components of something, then you have the thing itself. the statement that 2+2=5 has become shorthand for not only a logical error, but also for dangerous forms of mind control. we all know, and must not forget, that 2+2 always equals four.
the problem is that sometimes the parts of something add up to more than their sum. i may have four sunflowers lying on a table in my house, waiting to be trimmed and put in a vase of water. and they are just four sunflowers. but when i see four sunflowers laying on a table in a van gogh painting, they're more than just four sunflowers. they're also a work of art.
this is particularly true, in my opinion, of poetry. tonight on my way home, i happened to catch garrison keillor's writer's almanac for the day. the five-minute mini-program consists of interesting tidbits of literary history, factoids about authors' lives, and a poem. tonight keillor read the poem "how to tell if you're a participant or a staff (a handy guide for day programs)" by david moreau. i listened as the narrator listed all the ways in which to discern whether you are staff or participant, all the while waiting for that something that would turn this rather mundane list of statements into the magic of poetry. because poetry has magic in it. all poetry. even poetry that i dislike. i'm sorry i can't explain it better than calling it magic, but i can't. and this poem--it didn't have it. sure, it calls attention to the difficulties of being in the position of needing assistance in daily living. it nicely illustrates some of the simple things that you and i take for granted every day. and achieving that is worthy of a literary effort. but there is nothing that this work does that demands it be poetry. it would have been as effective written in prose format. the only thing that makes it poetry is the fact that it's been broken into verse shape and labeled "poem." and poetry is not like 2+2=4. words written in verse form do not a poem make. poetry is always more than the sum of its parts.