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Section 001 / Fall 2004 / Susan Tichy / Tuesday 7:20-10:00 / Place TBA




This week we'll take up where last week's readings leave off: on a page space that is visually composed. It can be argued that almost every variety of modern poetry has a visual component, and that "visual poetry" is more a position on a spectrum than a category of works. The definition we will use is designed to find a point on that spectrum beyond which we can find an irreducible difference between this kind of poem and all others. I've adapted this definition from Johanna Drucker in her essay "Visual Performance of the Poetic Text"  --

  • Visual Poetry is poetry that cannot suffer any translation into alternative visual or typographic form without sacrificing some its meaning and integrity; and

  • In Visual Poetry the 'quality of presence' we get from the work depends on visual means, such as typefaces, format, spatial distribution on the page, or the physical form of the book or book object. As Drucker says: "These visual means perform the work as a poem that can't be translated into any other form.
Often, a first attempt at a visual poem will be a simple pattern poem. Also common are poems that are read pretty much as an ordinary poem is read, but some visual component is also present -- for example, a poem about an argument, in which the text is presented in two columns. In such a poem, the visual component adds something to the work, but the poem's meaning does not disappear if the words are reset in a different typographic form. As you work on your own visual poems, consider the relative importance of the visual. As a way to get started, don't be afraid of imitating, translating, or responding to a poem you see in this week's readings. Try to produce a poem that is truly dependent on its visual form.

Click here to continue reading these notes...

 READING: I'll copy a few more things to supplement what you find below, but most of this week's reading is on line. I will also bring some books by Drucker, Finlay, and others to class.


Please print and bring to class:
  • Gomringer: Silencio
  • de Campos: Example 1
  • Finlay: Waverock
  • Drucker: Example 2 (b/w printing is fine, but make a note of which words are red)
On Ubuweb: Early Visual Poems. http://www.ubu.com/historical/early/early.html
Browse these images, being sure to include
  • Hrabanus Marus, "De adoratione..." 1605
  • Simias Rhodius, "Wings of Eros..." 1516
  • Giovanni Battista Palatino Sonetto, "Figurato Part I..." 1566
  • Henry Lok, "Square Poem in Honor of Elizabeth I..." 1597
  • Plate 3 from Juan Caramuel de Lobkowitz, "Primus calamus..." 1663
  • George Herbert, "Easter Wings / The Temple" 1633

And again from Ubuweb:

Guillaume Apollinaire: selections from Calligrammes, the first modern visual poems.

Eugen Gomringer: a few early poems from the inventor of "concrete poetry." Be sure to look at "Silencio," "Ping-Pong" and "Wind." http://www.ubu.com/historical/gomringer/gomringer.html

Augusto de Campos: a few concrete poems from a leader of the Brazilian Noigandres group. Be sure to look at "Eye for Eye," "Poetamenos," "Poema Bomba," "Hearthead," Example 1, and Example 2. http://www.ubu.com/historical/decampos_a/decampos_a.html

Ian Hamilton Finlay: concrete poems in several media by a Scottish poet and conceptual artist of international importance. Be sure to look at "Waverock" (and be sure to scroll down to see it!), "Wave," Fisherman's Cross," and "Poster Poem." http://www.ubu.com/historical/finlay/finlay.html

Johanna Drucker: a few pages from A History of The/My Wor(l)d. Granary Books 1995. Drucker is a leading book artist and scholar of visual poetry.

Edwin Torres: excerpts from Moholy. Be sure to look at text as well as images. Torres is a bilingual Newyorican poet who makes poems on the page, in performance, and as artifacts.

Cécilia Vicuña & Edwin Morgan: excerpts from "Palabrarmás /Wurdwappinschaw." Concrete poems (in Spanish) by a Chilean poet whose first language is Quechuan, translated into phonetically transcribed vernacular Scots (not English) by a Scottish poet who speaks both. http://mason.gmu/~stichy/CVCVicuna.html

Mary Ellen Solt: Introduction to her Concrete Poetry: A World View, Indiana UP, 1968.

Poems that fit this general definition may still vary quite a bit from each other. What they share is an emphasis on the materiality of language. In Easthope's terms, they keep us focused on the material enunciation, unable to separate it from "what is said." Indeed, some of these works are at such a distance from the idea of a speaking voice that even Easthope's terms become metaphoric. Some kinds of visual poems include:
  • Pattern Poems. This is probably what most people think of when you say "visual poem" -- a poem whose words form a picture. Herbert's "Easter Wings" is a famous example, and many of Apollinaire's calligrammes are also pictorial. Such poems are often iconic in a rather literal way.

  • Ideograms. In an ideogram, or spatialized poem, layout on the page is iconic but not visually literal.  It resembles the feel or process of thought -- the thought of the poem -- and makes a nonspecific visual figure. In other words, it is not a picture of the thing the poem is about, but an abstract figure for the poem's emotion or idea. Mallarme's "Un Coup de Des" was the prototype and 20th century open-field free verse is one of its familiar descendants. »»»  It is important to distinguish such poetry from open-field verse in which  typographical distribution on the page is meant to serve as a kind of score for a reading voice. That kind of verse can be more fruitfully compared to the ways in which iambic pentameter becomes iconic of the speaking voice.

  • Pictorial. Don't confuse this with 'pattern poems.' A pictorial poem uses words and letters in a way that observes the spatial conventions of representational painting: the foreground is at the bottom of the page, the middle ground above it, and the background at the top. This is quite different from the left-to-right or top-to-bottom conventions of reading. In class we'll look at Marinetti's "At night, in her bed..." which represents a woman reading a letter from her lover, sent from the front lines in World War I. It cannot be reduced to a visually iconic form, though it is iconic of the woman's experience reading the letter.

  • Typographic. These rely on typography (or, less often, on calligraphy) and invoke associations with non-literary printed matter such as handbills, newspapers, posters, crossword puzzles, or (in the case of some Surrealist works) ransom notes. Thus (to quote Drucker again) "the visual information of the typographic medium bears evidence of a social and cultural context which thus interpenetrates the poetic text." It is thus linked visually, as well as verbally, to larger social and linguistic domains. This runs counter to lyric poetry's tendency to occupy a fictional space apart from history and biography. »»» Typographic poems are not iconic: they do not resemble their subjects. »»»  Another key difference is that a typographic poem is not a score for verbal performance. Visual information is presented in its own right. »»» Visual images are sometimes included in a typographic poem. As they proliferate and words diminish we approach a boundary at which the word "poem" loses its meaning. (This boundary is approached from other directions by sound poems and by works in stone, wood, glass, or other materials.)
     »»» Pound's BLAST! is a famous example of typographic poetry, as are some early 20th c. manifestoes. Contemporary works in this mode include Johanna Drucker's History of The/My Wor(l)d and Word Made Flesh.

  • Lettrism. Probably the least known of visual poetry movements, Lettrism reduces words to letters and other detached signs and uses them in visual compositions that sever the sign from meaning. I'll bring some samples to class, but we are interested in it primarily as it helps us define the next term...

  • Concrete Poetry. This term has both general and specific applications. Its general application is as an imprecise synonym for "visual poetry." Its specific application is to designate a highly reductive, condensed, and formalist species of visual poetry that emerged in the mid 20th century almost simultaneously in Austria (Eugen Gomringer) and Brazil (the Noigandres Group). Where Lettrism severs the sign from meaning, Concrete poetry seeks to unite sign with meaning through intense reduction of means. Ideally, the two become isomorphic (one form), materially irreducible. Drucker says: "Concretism took modern form...to a search for reductive certainty in which visual enactment was to be the same a verbal signification.... In Concrete poetry, visual performance is the work." 
    »»» Differences between the two centers of origin were significant. Where Gomringer sought a pure and absolute formalism, the Brazilians were (and still are) more interested in social and political applications of Concrete expression. Deeply aware of the density and novelty of verbal/visual artifacts in modern life, their poems often allude or are constructed from the materials of advertising or political discourse.
  • Visually Expressive. This handy category soaks up most of what can't fit anyplace else. If we don't succumb to the temptation to just dump everything here, we see that many poems described this way are created by painters and artists, including Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Maurice Lemaître, Glenn Ligon, Jim Dine, and Mira Schor. We'll look at a few of those in class. »»» This phrase might also cover some contemporary visual poetry that draws on multiple conventions and traditions, though viewing such work in relation to specific predecessors can also be delightfully illuminating. I will bring a few to class.