Collage, Collaboration & Bookish Beasts


//////// Visual Poetry \\\\\\\\

look at it

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 of book object. As Drucker says: "These visual means perform the work as a poem that can't be translated into any other form." (131)
...These notes continue at the bottom of this page, after the list of poems to read. Click here to continue reading. Click here for endnotes.

From the reading below, please print and bring to class:
  • Apollinaire: La Petite Auto, Il Pleu
  • Gomringer: Silencio, Wind, O
  • de Campos: Example 1
  • Finlay: Waverock, Fisherman's Cross, Flags
  • Drucker: Example 2
  • (b/w printing will do, but make a note of which words are red)

Poems to read on line:

On Ubuweb: Early Visual Poems.
Browse all 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 Lobkowtiz, "Primus calamus..." 1663
  • George Herbert, "Easter Wings / The Temple" 1633

And again from Ubuweb:

Guillame Appollinaire: selections from Calligrammes, the first modern visual poems.

Eugen Gomringer: a few early poems from the inventer of "concrete poetry." Be sure to look at "Silencio," "Wind," "Pingpong", and "o".

Augusto de Campos: a few concrete poems from a leader of the Brazilian Noigandres group, who began this work around the same time as Gomringer. Only later did they meet, and decide they were part of a single movement. Some of these poems began life printed on paper, but have been translated into forms made possible by hypertext. Be sure to look at "Eye for Eye," "Poetamenos," "Poema Bomba," "Hearthead," Example 1, and Example 2.

Ian Hamilton Finlay: concrete poems in several media by a Scottish poet and conceptual artist. Be sure to look at "Waverock" (you have to scroll down to see it!), "Wave," Fisherman's Cross," and "Poster Poem."

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 Newyorican poet who makes poems on the page, in performance, and as artifacts.

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


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 by a Scottish poet who spoke bothScots and English.

F.T. Marinetti: images from and an introduction to  Zang Tumb Tumb. This is part of Maurizio Scudiero's "The Italian Futurist Book" on The Colophon Page.
Scudiero's essay and the other book images are optional.

Poems that fit the general definition of visual poetry may still vary quite a bit from each other. What they share is an emphasis on the materiality of language. In Antony 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. George Herbert's "Easter Wings" is a famous example from the early 17th c., and his models were Roman, from the 4th c. BC. Many of Apollinaire's calligrammes (early 20th c.) are also pictorial. Such poems are 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" (1897) was the prototype and 20th century open-field free verse is one of its familiar descendents. (Ubu archives two translations, which are visually quite different from each other.)

  • 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-write 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 typgraphic poetry, as are some early 20th c. manifestoes.
  • 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 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 Concretism. 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 succomb 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.  »»» 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 be delightfully illuminating. I will bring a few to class--you can do that too.

Drucker, Johanna. "Visual Performance of the Poetic Text." Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 131-161

You are on
Susan Tichy's
web page

George Mason University