Letter from Poetry Magazine

Geof Huth Responds

by Geof Huth
If you go to dinner with your heart set on steak and someone brings you lobster, you might reasonably be disappointed. Lobster just isn’t steak, but receiving lobster in place of steak doesn’t mean that lobster is a poor meal, or even a poor substitute.

The problem many people have with visual poetry is the same: that it simply isn’t what they imagine it should be. If you expect a visual poem to be a poem, disappointment is inevitable. These contraptions work in different ways, mean in different ways, from poems. Take all the time you want to read a visual poem as a poem and you’ll rarely avoid disappointment. Even those visual poems that use words tend to use them either outside of the bounds of syntax or in brief phrasal bursts—something possible, but rarer, in poetry itself.

Certainly, as Paul Drabkin suggests, the visual poems in my portfolio have little in common with George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” but that is a point without a viable purpose. Hardly any poems created today have much in common with “Easter Wings.” The styles of both visual poetry and poetry have changed dramatically over these intervening centuries, but these transformations haven’t eradicated those forms entirely. Herbert’s way wasn’t the only way.

With regard to Mark Soifer’s letter, the chronology of visual poetry is clear enough, and it precedes the printing press by at least two thousand years. Poems have been written in shapes probably since soon after the creation of writing. As a matter of fact, a primary distinction between poetry and prose is that in poetry shape matters. A poem might be prose, but if it is, then that shape, that form, is important.

It is very rare for a contemporary visual poem to merely take the shape of its subject, because there is little aesthetic value in doing so. A mimetic shape does nothing but mime. The visual poems in my selection employ the visual in all sorts of ways: by making metaphoric connections, by guiding the eye through a kind of visual score, by controlling how the words are read, by confusing the eye into wandering across their surfaces.

Any enjoyment of visual poetry is possible only if a reader opens up to new possibilities and engages with the varying ways that texts make meaning. Don’t look inside a visual poem for rhyming couplets to memorize (though you will sometimes find one there). Don’t look merely for verbal nourishment (although some is often there as well). Instead, look. Use your eyes. Understand what your eyes are telling you, for your ears only occasionally matter with visual poems. And that is fine. That has always been fine.
Originally Published: February 27, 2009

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This prose originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2009


Geof Huth is a poet and visual poet who writes daily on visual poetry and related matters at dbqp.blogspot.com. His recent books are Out of Character (Paper Kite Press, 2008), Longfellow Memoranda (Otoliths, 2008), and texistence (co-written with mIEKAL aND, from Xexox Sutra Editions, 2008.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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