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The Poetics of Space?

By Don Share

When asked about why her poems look the way they do (“The Violinist at the Window, 1918,” from the March 2008 question-and-answer issue of Poetry in particular, which we had to print on a fold-out page), Jorie Graham remarked that she is “working with lines that acquire momentum as they move down the page, yet need to carry that momentum across shifting distances of breath and attention.”

Over on his WhimsyLand blog, Jeffrey Bahr’s response is that he doesn’t “understand the value of radically indented lines, but then they never slow me down as they are supposed to.” I like the phrase he uses to describe the poem: “geographically dispersed.”
I figured I’d open up the discussion here… at the magazine, we’re working on a vispo feature, and what poems look like is, well, a real question.
(I was about to include the text of W.S. Merwin’s “To the Blank Spaces,” to kick things off, but… I can’t format the thing correctly in this space (proving the point, perhaps); the poem addresses those “white lakes on the maps…” A link to the poem, which originally appeared in Poetry back in 2002, will have to suffice.)
How do spaces mean in a poem?

Comments (30)

  • On March 17, 2008 at 6:52 pm Jennifer S. Flescher wrote:

    Don —
    Isn’t it another form of form: space and the line — I think. Like the sonnet or the pantoum — the page becomes part of the platform… Hardly a new thought — Celan and Cage working with space and silence and white as part of the composition.
    Of course some take it to far — When Chelsea Minnus called her composition “zirconia” and composed it primarily of dots perhaps she imagined herself what she was offering was a bit inherently valueless — but again, this argument is not without historical backing. When the Dada toilet came up, what Duchamp was saying something very important about how precious art had become… how important it is to remember where we live as human beings.
    I wound up next to Alice Quinn at AWP this year in the bar when it was pouring outside — she said she thought that young people were, perhaps, bored by the issue of form and its validity — yes — but more, maybe — tired of the argument that any form should be argued on its own merits.
    It seems like we keep challenging each other rather than engaging and exploring each others’ landscapes…

  • On March 18, 2008 at 8:36 am Don Share wrote:

    Hi, Jennifer!
    My response will sound pretty oblique, but here goes. In the Western tradition, at least, you can’t take poetic space for granted. Texts from antiquity like the earliest Latin poems or even the Bible were not spaced or paragraphed: in a sense, poetic space is a reasonably modern invention, abetted, I imagine, by such things as the printing press and typewriters. It’s not so much a question of debating the question of space for its own sake, but rather an invitation, and maybe this addresses your last point, for people to visit this thread to talk about and quote from actual poems. Your examples of Celan and Cage…. and Chelsea Minnus, for example, are really interesting – wish you’d quoted ’em a little! Form as an abstract question is something for theorists, I guess, but I hate to think of actual practitioners, young or old, being bored by the subject!

  • On March 18, 2008 at 9:52 am jane wrote:

    Just in cae you’re tracking down the work: it’s Chelsey Minnis. The books are Zirconia and Bad Bad.
    I’m always puzzled by people who think short lines are faster. Line breaks make you pause. Higher ratio of line breaks:words = fewer words per minute.
    Short poems are faster.

  • On March 18, 2008 at 10:32 am Brooks wrote:

    Hi Don & Jen!
    White space, for me, is definitely a matter of form and speed. Don, you mentioned Graham’s comment about “momentum,” and long lines with little white space are built for it. Whitman’s “I sing the body electric” and Ginsberg’s “kaddish” create a kind of momentum with lists and compounding images, and I don’t think a short line can’t hold all that. However, a long line (which, at times, seems entirely about momentum), can also seem too overloaded.
    A short-lined poem with more white space, on the other hand, I think of as more careful – what it lacks in momentum, it seems to make up for in silence (one poem that comes to mind is William’s “poem”). So as a reader, I am more deliberate with a poem that contains white space (and in this sense, I think it does slow me down) because it seems more economical.
    Graham’s poem (and I really appreciate having the lines printed in full length) does (for me) combine these two elements because the longer lines (as she comments) seem to build a momentum that is carried into the shorter lines where it starts to vaporize (especially at the beginning). The white space, for me, is so connected to a slow deliberate movement, that I almost feel like I go into a different mode of reading when I get to those parts.

  • On March 18, 2008 at 10:42 am Bill Knott wrote:

    Perhaps Chelsey Minnis might have taken the idea of the
    long ellipses from Tanikawa Shintaro . . . his poems
    in translation sometimes evince such . . . but maybe she
    invented it ex nihilo . . .
    The Flescher post above seems to say that a poet who fears
    their work is “a bit inherently valueless” will then try
    through extreme bizarre forms to compensate for that lack
    of value, to divert the reader’s focus . . .
    Content vs style . . . Alfred Hitchcock asserted
    that those who criticized the plots of his films were missing
    the point, that such criticism was like speculating whether
    Cezanne’s apples were sweet or sour.
    In any case I value the poems of Chelsey Minnis as valuable . . .
    they seem remarkably brilliant to me.

  • On March 18, 2008 at 12:25 pm Jennifer S. Flescher wrote:

    Just as a small clarification — I didn’t mean to suggest at all that I found Minnis’ work lacking in value — I don’t. I just meant to say I wondered if she was engaging the question of value — and I do often find her work engaged in an ironic self reflection and reflection of value. And So sorry about the typo!!! They abound in everything I do.

  • On March 18, 2008 at 12:59 pm Simon DeDeo wrote:

    I am very skeptical about the value of “measured” white space (as is John Tranter, editor of Jacket.) You can do a bit of typography with it, but when you start metering it out, I think it loses meaning. Is an inch of white space different from an inch and a half? I doubt either convey much more than “longish pause” without distinction, but a lot of work these days seems to act as if we could tell the difference.
    I’ve read a huge number of poems that dump in a lot of white space. I’m a pretty smart guy, and I’m happy with all kinds of radical experiments. But I just can’t make sense of the way white space works, of how it’s wanting to be read.
    Again, I understand that people want to “make their own spaces” for poems. There’s a limited utility there. Linebreaks, versebreaks, the meter-continuation indent — all of these make sense. But when you start going like — to take a poem that has a great deal of silence —
    so much          depends
    a red                            wheel             barrow
    glazed with 
    beside the                      white
    I just don’t see how we’re helped, how it helps the poem, how a reader would do anything other than mentally collapse the whitespace (perhaps mentally adding a few pauses here and there, but certainly not distinguishing between the space between red and wheel and wheel and barrow as having cognitive significance.
    In the end, poetry has a root in the oral/aural. And there’s just no way to turn white space into some kind of musical scoring system. As Tranter remarks, when you hear a poet read a poem with loads of whitespace, they pretty much do what I suggest readers do: collapse it down, maybe add a touch of a pause — nothing that we don’t already have technology (linebreak, versebreak, meter-continue indent) for.

  • On March 18, 2008 at 2:44 pm Jennifer S. Flescher wrote:

    Is it to say that our history is our future? Or that a listening experience of a poem can’t be entirely different than a visual one? That reading and visual experience are necessarily mutually exclusive?
    “It was at Harvard not quite forty years ago that I went into an anechoic [totally silent] chamber not expecting in that silent room to hear two sounds: one high, my nervous system in operation, one low, my blood in circulation. The reason I did not expect to hear those two sounds was that they were set into vibration without any intention on my part. That experience gave my life direction, the exploration of nonintention. No one else was doing that. I would do it for us. I did not know immediately what I was doing, nor, after all these years, have I found out much. I compose music. Yes, but how? I gave up making choices. In their place I put the asking of questions.” John Cage
    For me the experience of reading a spacialy altered poem — and of writing one — is different than that of reading or writing a more traditionally shaped one. Perhaps the poem is meant to be collapsed and also to not be. I think that there is room in a poem for all of these realities…

  • On March 18, 2008 at 3:51 pm Simon DeDeo wrote:

    I see a poem as a script for performance. Perhaps the performance is imaginary — those are often the most fun — but it’s still the essence of the work. I certainly won’t argue if you want to have a visual experience as well; to me it’s a bit slim and typography is a craft, not an art, but then again I’m greedy for stimuli.

  • On March 19, 2008 at 11:24 am Don Share wrote:

    I know what you mean, Simon, but… what do you mean typography is not an art?
    The mag, like the London Underground, owes much to Eric Gill – so let me drop his name; but what about (I’m not making them equivalent) Blake? Certain kinds of vispo?? David Jones???
    It makes no difference what a script, in the dramatic sense, looks like; not true, surely, of most poems, at least those composed for print?

  • On March 19, 2008 at 12:05 pm Bill Knott wrote:

    … but the long ellipses of Minnis and Tanikawa
    fill up the spaces in their poems . . . it’s easier to read
    what’s there in them . . .
    see the empty spaces that fill the pages of some
    of our foremost poets, are they simulacra syndrome symbols
    of the void spans we are inflicting upon our planet
    through ecological policies of deforestation
    and desertification and all the other despoliations. . .
    the world will someday look as emptied out and sparse
    as the pages of our greatest poets,
    and isn’t that the purpose of art:
    to displace the imperfections of nature—
    to replace it with our masterworks . . .

  • On March 19, 2008 at 2:17 pm Simon DeDeo wrote:

    We’re really treading into definitional territory now! (And where we’re not, de gustibus non disputandum.) To me, typography is an art only in the sense of the art of getting things done; there are few exceptions in my mind (those little picture poems like Easter wings or the Lewis Carroll’s mouse poem.)
    I have trouble with dualism in poetry; I think there’s One Poem on the page, and that it’s fundamentally spoken — I can’t believe that there are two poems, one spoken and one visual, and that they can do and be different things.
    I certainly love typography, by the way. I did some on an old Vandercook ages ago, and really liked doing all the kerning and justification and so forth. There’s a big overlap between type geeks and computer nerds; the philosopher-king of computer science, Donald Knuth, also wrote the standard typesetting code, LaTeX.
    I just don’t “get” vispo; I don’t know how to read it (look at it?) As for Blake, his visual art is more than just the spacing of words on a page (which is where this discussion began.) David Jones I don’t know. I do love Tom Phillips’ Humument, but again, this is more than white space (to put it mildly!)

  • On March 19, 2008 at 2:53 pm Jennifer S. Flescher wrote:

    “Is it fair to say there is, in the twenty-first century, a greater consensus toward the notion that true coherency is fragmented?”
    I was thinking more about this conversation a bit today — and thinking of an essay I love, and teach, by Claudia Rankine called “The First Person in the Twenty-First Century.”
    “As fictionalized as the space of poetry and prose can be, I still feel the construction of a self must demonstrate a consciousness of its scriptedness. In my own work, fragmentation is the strategy I use to keep in play as many possibles as possible. In time the path of the first person crosses borders, strays, pauses and repeats to cross borders, stray, pause, or repeat. The ruptured syntax and the fragmented text are used to suggest, and perhaps reflect, the process by which existence (being in time) is enacted …”
    Our lives are not linear now — more and more as we are interrupted (just now by my mom on a cell phone) and broken into and existing in more than one plane at a time — the conversation on line and in the car and on the radio…
    for me the space in a text is not, while it may literally be, simply typography — it is language of space and interruption and time and language. Interruption of typography, perhaps. A poetry which engages other parts of the brain…
    Rankine quotes Celan saying, “Reality is not simply there, it must be searched and won.”
    Rankine comes from a visual art background, and much of her work engages cross-genre conversations and visual language. Her poems feel right to me. They perform on the page. And her orations are also beautiful.
    Yes – displace the imperfections of nature — and history and cannon… There are masterworks in this realm.

  • On March 24, 2008 at 11:52 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Here’s one — “Terrible Things Are Happening” — it’s a mystery to me why this has so much white space – to capture the length of a Russian novel on one page? to waste time? Ah yes, it must be to waste time, since the peasant with the watch is “wasted.”

  • On March 25, 2008 at 12:41 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    If you folks have not had the chance to see it, I recommend Gary Hustwit’s documentary–on the typeface–Helvetica.

  • On March 25, 2008 at 1:24 pm john wrote:

    I’ve always thought of white-space poetry as gestural, a la dance or abstract expressionist painting. Isn’t Mallarme the founder? “A Throw of the Dice.”
    Does the white space dramatize our “thrown-ness” — our sense of having been thrown into existence? Beckett’s tramps on a mostly empty stage?
    Did Mallarme get the idea from the fashionable Japanoiserie of late 19th Century France? Caligraphy as visual art?
    Vizpo is Viz. It’s a visual art. Writing is already a visual medium; Vizpo highlights its visuality.
    Don, your inability to format poems of High Indentation speaks to how technology influences technique. Poems of High Indentation coincided with the age of the typewriter. The age of the personal computer has hastened the decline of the Highly Indented poem.

  • On March 25, 2008 at 6:03 pm bill knott wrote:

    here’s a thought:
    it is the evolutionary goal of the author
    to increase the items in her resume,—
    the fewer words you have in each poem
    means the more poems you can write,
    the more books you can publish,
    and so the larger your resume grows . . .
    and of course if you double space
    the lines in your poems
    it takes twice as much paper to print your poem
    and that kills twice as many trees,
    which since the purpose of Art
    is to replace Nature (where tree is
    poem shall be), then apoth/applause.

  • On March 29, 2008 at 12:40 am Stephen Sturgeon wrote:

    I hate to make this a journey into, as Simon Dedeo calls it, “definitional territory,” but I very much need to go about defining my terms in a discussion about visual poetry, and hopefully someone here can broaden those terms a bit. The problem as I see it has to do with the number of separate items, and not components of one piece, which I often see, maybe mistakenly, in works of self-described visual poetry. A few historical examples may clarify things a bit: as far as I can tell, the prototype of visual poetry occurred in 1531 with the publication of Andrea Alciato’s “Emblemata,” the first Emblem Book. Obviously before this various types of literature had been accompanied by illustrations, before and after the invention of print (the Book of Kells and the entire genre of illuminated manuscripts, ecclesiastical Books of Hours, Shepherds Calendars and so forth), but before the Emblem Book I can’t think of another type of literature that was tied to its illustration in this particular way — not as mere accompaniment or for explanatory purposes, but as real complement that enriches and even changes how certain words can be read. Weirdly enough, it’s now thought that Alciato in his original “Emblemata” never had any conception of his poems (mostly all translations of epigrams from the “Greek Anthology”) appearing alongside illustrations; his printer/publisher included them without informing him about it (I get this information from Kennth Haynes’s chapter “The Modern Reception of the Greek Epigram” in “Brill’s Companion to Hellenistic Epigram” (Brill, 2007) — unaffordable at the $300 Amazon is charging, but well worth a look or two if your library carries it). Then we have the variously strange “A Theatre for Worldlings,” published in 1569 by a Dutchman for British audiences, which includes a number of translations by Spenser out of Petrarch (via French translations by Marot!) and Du bellay, all accompanied by woodcuts which work, again, not as explanatory or decorative illustration but as real complement to the writing. Spenser’s “Shepherdes Calender” works in much the same way as his translations in “A Theatre for Worldlings.” And so on.
    Then, to the best of my knowledge, everything changes in 1633 with the first printing of George Herbert’s “The Temple” which included the first real visual poems — “The Altar” and “Easter Wings” — and I need to explain what I mean by “real”: a poem is one thing by itself, not depending on anything besides a knowledge of the language in which it’s written to be understood — I’m no advocate of New Criticism, and I reject the idea that knowledge of psychology, history, sociology, astronomy, biography, bio-physics, whatever you want, cannot or should not be of immediate relevance to how a poem works and what it means. What I do think is that a poem is made up of a single location of words, and it is from the arrangement of these words that we get the meaning. “A Theatre for Worldlings” and Emblem Books can all be read without their illustrations — they don’t depend on the visual, and even though the visual can change their meanings, they mean something on their own, without the visual, very finely. A “visual poem” then, in order to be a poem and not a combination of separate works as we see in Emblem Books, cannot depend for its meaning on anything besides its own visual construction, and the visual construction must be absolutely essential for the poem to mean what it does. I don’t think I will be successful in reconstructing “Easter Wings” here, but if you get a book of Herbert before you, you’ll see my very undergraduate observations at work (kindly skip the next few lines if you have ever at any point known ANYTHING about Herbert): the poem’s first line, speaking of “wealth and store” coming from God, is the longest or most “plentiful”; the next line, which refers to how humans “lost” the abundance God sent to people, tapers at both ends, mirroring the loss; the middle of the poem contains the two-word line “Most poore”, reflected in the shortness of the line, its poorness of length &c.; and then the progression of lengths reverses, the lines get longer and longer as the speaker pleads with God to redeem him and “let me rise”; the second “stanza” covers a very similar progression of loss and then gain through redemption or at least attempts at redemption. Herbert’s poem literally would not mean what it does if the words of the poem were not arranged in two facing wings . . .
    This leads me to say something that I can’t be correct in, but from what I’ve seen I can’t come to any other conclusion: George Herbert is the best “visual poet” to ever work in the English language. John Hollander’s work in this mode does not fit my criteria as his poems’ meanings do not depend on their appearances: there are local exceptions, the end of the cat poem ending with the image of the tail, and the last word in the tail being “tale”, but it adds up more to something like casual punning on shape (I can’t see any other placement of words in the cat poem influencing or even referring to the shape of the cat, for instance), rather than the derivation of meanings from the shape. As for more recent visual poems, Jessica Smith’s “Organic Furniture Cellar” is really cool to look at, but I rarely see any relationship between the words and the images they take (see the entry from August 14, 2006 on Silliman’s blog, http://www.ronsilliman.blogspot.com, for images of two visual poems from Smith’s book). And what’s worse, Smith’s poems, in her own words even, were made more as interesting codes to be cracked rather things to be read and seen — in the comments stream discussion of Smith’s poems on Silliman’s blog, Smith adds the following comment after progress had been made in understanding one of the pieces:
    “you’re right about the translation. Ok, so the next puzzles are:
    – what do hegel, ottilie, and another philosopher whose name is in there (fichte) have in common? (hint: it has nothing to do with hegel and fichte’s work, and everything to do with Kirk’s comment about Ottilie)
    – where does this section of the book take place?
    – from where is the material in the mesostic drawn?
    Kirk, you’re getting warm. Thanks for engaging with the text, guys!”
    If ever a complaint could be lodged concerning an author’s willful obstruction of a poem’s meaning by way of obscurity, now we know where to start. This is one of the most bizarre commentaries coming from an author on her own work that I’ve ever seen, and I think it speaks to something broader going on in contemporary visual poetry — Guy Davenport said that postmodernism lost its value long after Duchamp’s invention of Dada, that only when artists started to play the game “what am I thinking?” with their art did really poor things start creeping into postmodernism, and I think this is going on in Smith’s latest work. It is also telling that in her “hints” for deciphering her poem, none of them reference how the thing looks. Again, the “look” intrigues me, but how it cooperates with the shape eludes me. I also can’t get very far with Michael Basinski’s work, a great deal of which can be seen here, for those unfamiliar: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/basinski/ To anyone who could instruct me on how to start reading his stuff or Jessica Smith’s, I would be very grateful, as I want to know what it is their pieces can tell me, as well as HOW they can do it presented the way they are. Lanny Quarles makes stunning images which are sometimes called visual poetry, but with him we really are dealing with the polar end of a spectrum — I can’t see how you could call his stuff “poetry” instead of “digital photography.” The work of Peter Ciccariello leaves me with the same feeling – bowled over but I can’t see how it begins to be poetry.
    I do not want to provoke an argument about “what is poetry.” I hopefully won’t stir any tempers if, for the purposes of this comment, I say “poetry is made up, at least primarily, of words.” This is a condition that a lot of visual poetry I see doesn’t fulfill.
    If we are to include typographical practices in this discussion, I think that Geoffrey Hill’s “Speech! Speech!” takes the practice of typographical intervention in poetry to something like a logical conclusion, and with astonishing results. He’s gotten a lot of negative criticism from people for this (William Logan said in the “New Criterion” something like “Hill is an amateur vandalizing the print-shop”), but I can’t see how one can argue that his diacriticals, verticules and CAPS are not necessary for the meaning of the poem to work: “Speech! Speech!” has probably over a thousand characters, or speakers in it, and the task of differentiating them would be seriously impeded without all of the mark-ups — it avoids intrusive, dramatic, theater-play dialogue markers along the way.
    In the soon-to-be-released next issue of Fulcrum, there are some images of poems by John Kinsella that I’m comfortable calling “visual poems,” but maybe “environmental poems” would be a more accurate name for them — they are poems written for animals, mostly insects, and some are written not on paper but on the natural habitats of these animals, scratched onto boulders, written in dirt, &c. Others do appear on paper, but the paper is placed where insects can occupy it, inside of window screens and the like. Kinsella’s “nature” poetry fits my criteria — they wouldn’t mean what they do if they didn’t look the way they do, or to be more accurate, if they didn’t appear in the locations they do.
    Apologies for making this such a long a comment — not my intention, but I am very eager for someone to show me how to go further with my parameters . . . I don’t have anything resembling a broad idea of what “visual poetry” could mean, as I think that for a poem or any piece of art to work, there must be something like a unification in it, not in reference to its ideas or style or language, but in the basics of its physical presence. Examples to the contrary? And if anybody has a particular good read concerning Emblem Books, please recommend it. I’m fairly sure Alciato’s “Emblemata” is the first Emblem Book, though I could be mistaken . . . and for that matter, does anyone know of any poems written before George Herbert’s that do what his visual poems do?

  • On March 29, 2008 at 1:02 am Stephen Sturgeon wrote:

    Blake’s poems–I didn’t mention Blake!–are another kettle of angels altogether, and defy my above criteria successfully. They are masterworks that can be read as masterworks independent of their illustration, but they can’t be read as they were made without their illustration — they were written on their illustration, or with their illustration.
    Ach, I’m nonsense. But my call for help with contemporary visual poetry still stands (I don’t think it uses the same method as Blake’s, tho I can’t elaborate currently). Please.

  • On March 30, 2008 at 11:21 am Jennifer S. Flescher wrote:

    That’s quite an amazing history to work through, and thank you — though I’m not sure much of this is in the same category. Blake is my favorite poet, though I have always wished to erase the images from my mind… and illustration does feel different from visual poetics for certain. They don’t move me in the same way — isn’t this what is about? What moves us, each…
    Do we need to define? Can’t we take each work of its own accord?
    I did a long interview with Rankine a few years ago and asked her some questions about her work then — some of these issues.
    She said, of “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely:”
    “The introduction in the latest book of images and the introduction of spaces where images could go even if they don’t go was an attempt to acknowledge a total experience of being –to involve as many of our senses as possible. I try to represent all of the ways that the subject is approached in my own mind. The more I can open up the page to accommodate my own explorations the more integrity the poem has for me.”
    That’s when I learned about her visual art background. That was my path too — as it happened. Through poetry to visual art and back — often looking for some way to combine and speak in tandem in each language.
    As you say “This leads me to say something that I can’t be correct in, but from what I’ve seen I can’t come to any other conclusion” — I had a moment then — I wondered if some of the surge of visual poetics now — particularly in the young and very young contemporary women poets — if it wasn’t a reaction to some alienation on the part of the cannon and the cannon of the teaching of literary history…

  • On March 30, 2008 at 12:51 pm Stephen Sturgeon wrote:

    Hi Jennifer. Thanks very much for your insights and the snippet from your interview with Rankine. What she says reminds me of Pound’s frequent placement of Chinese ideograms in the Cantos, as well as his practice of throwing in Greek written in Greek, and then the same Greek transliterated into the Roman alphabet, and then the same Greek translated into Latin, and on . . . It takes an array of our “senses”, though in this case most of the senses at work reside within our larger sense of language, to see the effects, to engage with things that are in their contents almost identical but in their forms are totally disparate, thanks to many different factors: paucity or strength of cultural memory, historical knowledge, literary knowledge. That’s one of the stranger things about the Cantos — they are, in many people’s words, “challenging” and “difficult”, but Pound has infused the same “information” into the poem in so many different ways (so that they can and should be accessed in a mulitplicity of ways), you’d think there would be a door for everyone to enter eventually in there. But there isn’t, each and every door has its locks.
    The Chinese ideograms in the Cantos, I’m told now, have never been positioned according to Pound’s instructions, nor have they ever appeared in the sizes he wanted them to take. Ron Bush’s forthcoming critical edition of the Pisan Cantos (Oxford) tackles this (so I hear) and sets all right (so I hear).
    Your Rankine quotation also makes me think of the Cantos because of the way Guy Davenport proposed to read them. His book “Cities on Hills” (it can’t be found anywhere but in a university library unfortunately) is a Canto-by-Canto instruction of how to read the poem as a series of ideograms set side by side, ideograms constructed of chunks of english words, different bits here and there forming a radical which interacts with other nearby bit-radicals until an entire Canto can be read by what the words look like as well as by what they “mean” — a way of making images “go even if they don’t go” as Rankine says.
    As to your question, “Do we need to define?” I say “Hell NO!” unless of course you are an editor. I find discussions of genre definition by and far taxing and nearly useless to me when taken up in a theoretical way, but since this thread was motivated by Don’s wondering how one should properly go about producing an issue of visual poetry, the boundaries of visual poetry seem to be relevant. The magazine is called “Poetry” after all, and not “Stuff to See and Read”, and so my comments were provoked by imagining how an editor would go about figuring this out — how to represent properly a kind of poetry that effectively and consistently blurs the line between poetry and the other arts in a magazine that is called simply “Poetry”.
    What do you think of the Smith and Basinski images?

  • On March 30, 2008 at 3:36 pm Don Share wrote:

    Hi, Stephen, and thanks for all this! The Davenport on Pound was actually his Harvard dissertation, as I recall… yes, out of print, sadly.
    You and other folks might be interested to know that we’ve got Geof Huth on board to help us assemble a section of visual poetry for a future issue!

  • On March 31, 2008 at 3:31 pm Geof Huth wrote:

    Let me respond a little, especially to Stephen’s comments about visual poetry, though not necessarily to calm his spirit, maybe only to confirm his fears.
    Stephen is definitely right when he notes that visual poetry does not necessarily conform to the basic requirements of poetry itself. As he’s noted, it is abundantly obvious that visual poetry does not always focus on the word. The focus is on text, which is a visual component of the word, not on the word, which is an oral component translated into a visual component.
    A little history:
    Although we can make arguments for earlier examples of visual poetry, the most usual point at which we mark the advent of visual poetry is during Classical times, with technopaegnia and carmina figurata. See my exceedingly brief timeline of visual poetry here. There earliest visual poems did two things not usually seen in otherwise “normal” poems: they presented the poems in shapes approximating the shapes of the subjects of the poems themselves and they gave hints as to the reading of the poems–so that, unlike with a regular poem, these poems were not necessarily meant to be read line by line.
    Strictly speaking, emblem poetry is not visual poetry, since the visual element is always separable from the textual element. However, it does have its interesting verbo-visual effects. The putative illustration of the emblem poem serves sometimes only vaguely as an illustration, thus requiring some imagination of the reader to tease out the connection, and thus making the conjoining of the verbal with the visual a bit more electric. And often in my readings of emblem poems I read the text as actually also serving as an “illustration” of the illustration itself–a way to help uncover meaning in an otherwise hermetic bit of didactic engraving.
    Happening concurrently with the popularity of emblem poems was the popularity of pattern poems, both thriving during from the 1500s to the 1700s. Pattern poems, like Herbert’s few (which occurred closer to the end of this era), were true visual poems, meaning that the textual and the visual elements were not separable. In general, we can say that pattern poems are poems in shapes, but they took many many forms. Some were shaped as their subjects, some were set up in grid patterns, some integrated non-textual visual elements (a lute, Jesus on the cross, whatever) into the poems.
    Herbert was clearly one of the best writers of pattern poetry, and “Easter Wings” is his masterpiece, where the words, the text, the shape, and the sound all come together to form a remarkably cohesive whole. But there were other successful visual poems before him, my favorite is Eustorg de Beaulieu’s “Gloire à dieu seul” (“Glory to God alone”) from 1537 (about a century earlier than Herbert’s work in the field). Note that de Beaulieu’s visualization of the text is not metaphoric; it doesn’t merely reflect the shape of the subject of the poem. Instead, it suggests a shimmering reading of the words of the poem, a single phrase. It suggests chanting and ecstatic religious experience, but rather than discuss it, as in “Easter Wings,” it presents it.
    So for a few brief comments on contemporary visual poetry:
    Visual poetry is not always poetry. Some visual poetry is clearly poetry with an added visual element, but many visual poems of today do not have sufficient verbal content to count as poems. For instance, plenty of visual poems are created out of nothing more than punctuation marks or letters that do not form words or fragments of letters or invented scripts. The focus of these visual poems is on text and how it means even when it might not mean in the same manner as text classically does. Even if we extend the term “visual poetry” to those pieces that use fragments of words, we still might not have arrived at a place where a visual poem is a poem. Keep this in mind: visual poetry is a hybrid form, using elements of writing and elements of visual art, so it exists within a continuum of practice. At the near end, works of visual poetry include words and even syntax and are clearly also poems; at the far end, we find works that have such a reduced textual element that some readers may not even be able to perceive it.
    That being said, a few comments on the poets Stephen brings to the table. Jessica Smith’s work is actually the most like “normal” poetry, but the least like contemporary visual poetry. Her work most generally harkens back to gridlike pattern poems that went under the name “labyrinths.” Lanny Quarles work is sometimes visual poetry, but much of it is simply quite accomplished digital visual art, often with the feel of collage. Peter Ciccariello’s work, though, is fairly standard visual poetry for our times. He presents remarkably visual pieces that include disrupted textual elements. He actually begins with a poem already written out and drapes fragments of these over the digital landscapes he creates–so we cannot read the original poem anymore. We are left deciphering meaning from those words that remain visible, and that is the particular reading experience intended. These seem reasonably enough like poems to be considered poems, and I think of them like the work of someone trying to emulate not Sappho’s work itself, but the fragmentary nature of those extant pieces of her works.
    Which brings us back to the visual presentation of a poem and how it means. Traditionally, we believe that a poem’s visual characteristics necessarily effect the reading aloud of the poem, and sometimes that is the case. But I’ve heard enough poets read through their own linebreaks as if they did not exist to consider this questionable in at least some cases.
    I think, most importantly, the visual look of a poem is meant to effect the silent reading of the poem. Think of it this way. Poets are apt to extol the virtues of the spoken word and claim that all poetry is aural. Fine, but I’d contend that most of the poetry we experience we experience as text subvocalized in our own head, not as words sounded in the air. Poetry exists, and has for centuries, as a textual, as a visual, medium, and the mere look of a poem on the page tells us it is a poem. For instance, how many times have you looked for a poem in a book of prose merely by flipping the pages, merely by looking for the look of a poem on the page to tell you it was a poem?
    The most basic way we identify a poem (prose poems excepted for the moment) is by their shape, by the fact they are broken into lines. In modern practice, the breaking into lines has nothing to do with conforming to regular meter and marking the space for inserted a rhyming word, it has something to do with how the poem should be read aloud, but it has everything to do with telling us something is a poem. And all the linebreaks, indentations, visual caesurae, and other visualizations within a text often have less to do with how a poem should be sounded and more with how they should be experienced on a page. I’m assuming here, and without empirical evidence, that a long thin poem is more likely to be read off a page as a choppy syncopated text than it would when read aloud by most poets. I’m assuming that a poem that spreads itself in islets of text across the page will be read by the eye, and experienced by the reader, more as a kind of symphonic construction of words than it can ever be experienced by the ear.
    Modern poetry, despite our best efforts to prove the contrary, remains a textual experience. We do not experience all of our poetry via the recitations of scops. Fewer people attend poetry readings than read poems to themselves. Value is conferred upon poets by the printing of their poems. We haven’t abandoned the oral and aural experience of poetry, but the textual experience still reigns, and poets write for that king. They create their poems for the page, even when they are (even though they are) also clearly written for the ear that might never hear them.
    Sorry for being so prolix, but I came into this conversation at the end of it, and with too much to say.

  • On April 1, 2008 at 3:46 am Stephen Sturgeon wrote:

    Dear Geof,
    I won’t admit to fears (nevermind spirits) so much as to questions and hesitations, both of which you have very generously addressed. I don’t mean to presume, but I imagine that, to you, some of my comments might sound steeped in a naivete comparable to the sort I’d find in a voice asking me “What’s with these poems that don’t rhyme? I mean, doesn’t it need to rhyme to be a poem?” So, thank you – not nearly prolix enough, and altogether helpful.
    “Visual poetry is not always poetry.” This statement helps me a great deal. If you’ll bear with me, this is how I’ve been going about considering the task of accessing visual poetry: I have thought that a visual poem might be a hybrid of the ways we read paintings and poems, a complementary interplay between words and images that bounce off of their likes and unlikes inside of the piece as well as outside of it — the words nudge the words but also the shapes, and the shapes nudge the shapes but also the words, each shape and word bringing with it the associations implicit in their designs. This hasn’t taken me far, and maybe this is why, because “visual poetry is not always poetry” and so shouldn’t be approached like it. With art, and especially art of the twentieth century, the referential aspect of language to other language, that of both symbols and words,is especially important. By this I mean that you can’t properly read Eliot’s “Sweet Thames, run softly, til I end my song” without having read Spenser, nor can you properly read a lot of Picasso without having some exposure to Egyptian art, nor Paul Klee without having seen some Aubrey Beardsley, nor Zukofsky without ever having heard Bach, &c. In most of these cases, the non-referential aspects of the pieces in question remain locked until they are tinted with the pitch, the mood, the logic, whatever you want to call it, of the referential aspects, where even a little bit of unpacking tends to help a great deal. With this in mind, I’ve asked myself how does one read Peter Ciccariello? and, when looking at a piece like this: http://photos1.blogger.com/hello/186/968/1024/xerolage_38_proof_Page_12.jpg I’ve not been able to figure it out.
    But now I think of Ronald Johnson’s concrete poetry or Ian Hamilton Finlay’s and realize that I don’t use the same “referential aspect” of language as it plays out in the above examples (a referentiality of source and counterpoint) as I do with the concrete poetry I appreciate (I don’t know what I’d call it — maybe a referentiality of form emulation, but that’s pretty pretentious of me). And indeed the first type of referencing plays little part when I look at Cezanne or Van Gogh. My problem might be that I have been applying irrelevant techniques to reading visual poetry, though in my own defense the type of referentiality that plays a part in my readings of concrete poetry don’t seem to apply to the works of Ciccariello either. So, this leads me to my first question for you, Geof: does this conventional sort of referencing that we see so often in paintings and poems not apply to contemporary visual poetry? If it doesn’t, does some other type of referencing take its place, or has this been a blind alley I’ve been going down?
    Granted, there’s a hell of a lot more to seeing and enjoying how a poem or painting works than keeping up with allusions, and the emphasis I’ve placed on referentiality here is, I’m afraid, boxing me in as pedantic — all I mean to say is that when a work of art seems impenetrable, figuring out what’s gone into its making can unveil very large portions of its fabric that were previously invisible, and I’m having a difficult time finding similar doorways into visual poetry. Geof, for the Ciccariello image that I’ve linked to above, “Imaginal Landscapes, tenth view”, can you propose a place to “start”, so to speak? Or is this notion of “reading” a misguided one in these circumstances.
    In the interest of not making this chronically overlong, I’ll just skip to a couple of more questions for Geof: so far we seem to be discussing instances of visual poetry bleeding out into areas that may no longer be poetry, but I’d like to approach this for a moment from the opposite direction and ask, when does more conventional poetry start to become visual poetry? Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os, for example, can be read successfully even when you don’t know that it is the result of redacting a specific amount of Paradise Lost, yet its shape, how we go about identifying Radi Os as a poem (I agree that we identify poetry basically by its shape) has been constructed by the removal not necessarily of words but of text (a distinction I am glad you made), and this subsequently makes the remainder not so much lines and words but more like the text that remains. Does a construction that can disguise itself as more or less conventional poetry qualify as visual poetry, or do the visual and straight-up textual elements have to be so pronounced that there’s no mistaking it?
    Also, would you call Duchamp’s L. H. O. O. Q. a visual poem? If no, fair enough, no explanation needed, but if yes, I’d very much like for you go into why.
    I hope all of this is coming across to you as an opportunity to educate the unvisualized masses, and not as too much of an annoyance. Thanks many times over for your last post — if you don’t have the time to respond to this, I’ll nevertheless still be grateful for your generous introduction to visual poetry from last time.
    PS Hello, Don. Yes, Davenport’s doctoral dissertation at Harvard turned into Cities on Hills. His MA thesis at Oxford was on Joyce (the first one for that university), tho I’m unsure if any of his essays on Joyce in the collected volumes came out of that — don’t know what it takes to order an MA thesis from Oxford and have never tried to figure it out, lazily.
    Thanks for initiating this thread. I’m grateful for a space where I can air my amateur notions concerning vizpo in a not-too-embarrassed way and expect to pick up some information meanwhile. If Geof replies, I’ll be inclined to send him a tuition check, with you to blame. I hope you’re well.

  • On April 1, 2008 at 1:59 pm Angela G. wrote:

    Once in answer to a question, Gertrude Stein asserted that her art was for the printed page only (followed by the comment that she never expected people to converse or exchange ideas in her style). Obviously, she wrote her poems for the page, and yet she read her poems aloud. And of course, Stein is credited as having brought a new musicality to modern poetry.
    Poetry can be experienced through both sight and sound. Poetry audiences are called “poetry readers” — not “poetry listeners,” although there is nothing like the experience of hearing poetry read aloud. I believe that most people, though, after hearing a poem they like, want to see it in print.
    Poets compose their work on a page; most do not pick up a voice recorder of some kind and compose poems that way (although some sound poets do). Writers want to see the words on the page, see the line breaks, see how it “looks” on the page. But they also read it aloud, or in their heads, as they compose.
    One could also delve into the historical evolution and traditions of poetry — spoken, passed down from generation to generation, etc., followed by handwritten, transcribed, and, after the invention of the printing press, printed. Much of contemporary poetry — both visual and otherwise — is highly influenced by, if not directly the result of, the printing press.
    Some people are more visually oriented, and some are more verbally oriented (especially when it comes to learning).
    I suspect people who are more verbally oriented have a harder time understanding or “getting” visual poetry and “getting” visual art in general.
    Or is it a rebellion against the crossing of strictly defined genres of poetry and art — a stubborn clinging to a definition of what “poetry” is and isn’t, and an aversion to the discomfort and frustration one feels when he or she cannot “properly” “read,” “understand” or “interpret” a work of art? This is an notion steeped in a 20th-century academic approach to literature and art that people must be able to deconstruct a work of art (poem, novel, painting, dance, film) and point to the moral of the story. (“What is this writer/artist/piece trying to tell us?”, hence, Cliff’s Notes, etc.) A reader or audience must be able to define the moral of the story for there to have been a work of art that exists in the first place.This seems to be the basis on which a work of art is deemed “accessible.”
    Is art of an act of self-expression to be experienced by others or an act of creating a “message,” to be “gotten” by others?
    I disagree with the statement that you need a “sufficient” background steeped in study of earlier writers or artists in order to be able to “read” a work by Eliot or Picasso. Certainly, someone with this background will be able to appreciate, enjoy and pick up on those historical references, influences, homages, etc. But isn’t it enough to approach a work of art — whether it be a poem, song, visual work of art, dance performance, etc. — with what one brings to it and simply experience the work as an encounter in and of itself?

  • On April 1, 2008 at 5:01 pm Stephen Sturgeon wrote:

    Hi, Angela. I agree that approaching a work of art is done “with what one brings to it,” but I’m not sure why a memory of other poems, novels, painting, sculptures, &c. doesn’t qualify as something we bring to the encounter. I really do feel that I came off as too pedantic in my last message, but let me justify some of the points I made before I abandon them. There are many artists of the twentieth century that work on a viscerally artistic level and don’t need a large amount of scholarship to be appreciated deeply. In the world of poetry, among these I’d place Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, E. E. Cummings, Wilfred Owen, Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara, Keith Douglas, John Wieners, even Ronald Johnson, and on and on. There are however other poets who, although the entireties of their poems do not totally depend on a larger knowledge of the form and its history, often enough do not “read” in a coherent way, or even in an effectively ambiguous way, without your knowing a little extra. The poets who come to mind in this class are Pound, Eliot and Zukofsky, though there are others too, John Berryman and Geoffrey Hill among them. Some say it is a fault of twentieth century poetry that this development occurred, but it is nonetheless a fact. To tie this in with our discussion of visual poetry, I have drawn a blank on both fronts: I can’t access much of it viscerally, and so I’ve wondered aloud here whether there is a referential aspect to visual poetry which would enable that kind of visceral access.
    As for simplistic “morals” and “deconstruction”, I’m opposed to both. These things are more at home in the world of advertisements and propaganda than they are in art. That said, I have a hard time thinking you are really opposed to finding out what a work of art is talking about when it is obviously talking about something that might be beyond your immediate frame of references. The beauty of a piece of art most of the time stirs us to investigate the parts of it that may be beyond us, and that’s a good thing. What’s wrong with being curious? This investigation never leads to the discovery of a simplified and reductive moral — it always, if it’s a good work of art, makes things more complex, more beautiful, more exciting, more neverending. I don’t think your strawman figure of the academic who is only interested in morals, and gets frustrated when they aren’t to be found, actually exists.
    I have much more to say about this (the prose of Samuel Beckett working so finely on two very different levels at once is something to go into), but I’d like to concentrate less on the theoretical side of things — would anyone want to look at some visual poetry together, and discuss what we get out of it, how we read it? I suggest this piece by Peter Ciccariello that I linked to before: http://photos1.blogger.com/photoInclude/hello/186/968/1024/xerolage_38_proof_Page_12.jpg
    Geof, if you’re still reading, your participation in this would be overwhelmingly welcome (if you could address the idea of referentiality in visual poetry — if it even exists — that would be very good too!). But I know, there are other things to do . . .
    Anyone want to get us started? If another piece of visual poetry would be a better starting point, please suggest it.

  • On April 1, 2008 at 8:10 pm Philip Nikolayev wrote:

    How meet and sweet would it be to have a visual poetry that is “sometimes” at once neither visual nor poetry — that would clear everything right up, or at any rate alleviate any further concerns…

  • On April 2, 2008 at 2:37 pm Geof Huth wrote:

    I’ll try to answer all your questions, if only for that tuition check.
    And, actually, I was impressed by your knowledge of visual poetry, especially contemporary visual poetry. You showed that you weren’t at all ignorant of the field, just unsure how to manage the esthetic experience of some of it.
    Imagine this: a visual poem can be constructed of almost any set of text and any set of visual elements. The visual element may be one with the text (the text itself arrayed in shapes) or it may be a separate element in the piece. Some of the visual elements, thus, work essentially like painting and are susceptible to the same kinds of interpretation, but others are unlike painting and require other modes of interpretation. Most importantly, though, there is always an interplay between the verbal and the visual, but that can work differently depending on the piece. The two modes can support each other or contradict one another. They can be deeply tied together or only tangentially so. They can both be beautiful, or maybe only one it. Don’t expect, or even wish for, a single method of meaningmaking, either together or apart, for the text of the visual.
    With the Ciccariello poem, what you should do is first understand the visual, since it is preeminent. What does it make you feel? How does that affect the poem as a whole? (Note that I’ll often use “poem” to mean “visual poem.”) Next, look for the legible words. In this piece, many of the words are blurred or overwritten, reducing the percentage of readable text, but there is readable text, even if it consists of nothing but partial words, and those partial words are important, even if most of the text is an illegible ghost text. Coincidentally (or maybe not, maybe you know this), I have written about the book this piece comes from and this particular poem, so you can read what I’ve briefly written about it.
    Your search for references interests me, but I don’t think it as central a concern as you do. Certainly, any work of art has references to other art, life experiences, history, any number of things, and these references unavoidably ground the pieces and provide hints to the understanding of them. But not all pieces depend on allusion, and it would be boring if they did.
    That being said, I see referencing in all kinds of visual poems all the time, though not specifically allusions to other works. The choice of typeface can be a meaningful reference in a visual poem. Or take the rubBEings (frottage poems) of David Baptiste Chirot, which are created by making rubbings from street signs and monumental carvings—these necessarily refer to items in the world and to specific means of communicating. And Ciccariello’s work references nothing less than visual poetry’s progression towards textlessness as text, a progression toward a point where the text becomes totally illegible and yet still meaningful. But he does it without succumbing to textlessness. You might be interested in knowing that Peter Ciccariello has recently applied for National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Creative Writing, meaning that he sees his work as essentially literary.
    It’s hard to say exactly when conventional poetry (which visual poets sometimes call “textual poetry” to distinguish it from visual poetry) becomes visual poetry. The problem is one of what I call brackishness. Think of textual poetry as a broad muscular river pouring itself into the sea, which is visual art. At the mouth of that river, where seawater mixes with fresh water, the water is brackish, and that is where visual poetry resides. But at its edges some of the brackish water is almost all salt water, and other parts of it are almost entirely fresh, and it’s sometimes hard to say if a tiny tendril of salt water makes the fresh water brackish.
    Let’s take Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os. Since Johnson removes the evidence of his redacting, he removes that visual element as a necessary component of the poem. He essentially says it is a textual poem. To my mind, a “visualized” textual poem, since the scattering of text is a bit more extreme than in a conventional poem, but still not a visual poem. However, when I take a book like Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow, where the poet specifically shows us the Wite-Out that serves as the little white shadow of the title, then this becomes a visual poem. I wouldn’t call Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” despite the visual and aural exquisiteness of its title, because all that “L.H.O.O.Q.” does as text is title the piece. All it is is a visual title embedded in a visual piece of art.
    Stephen, there was nothing annoying about your questions. I hope some of these words help.

  • On April 2, 2008 at 2:46 pm Geof Huth wrote:

    The intermedial arts are often difficult for us to accept, since they do not slip into the neat categories we have created for the world. I accept the knowledge of humans and the art they produce to be deeply intertwingled, incapable of being perfectly segregated into categories, so this confusion of terms is of no concern of mine.
    But I’ll note that rare are the complaints that prose poetry isn’t really poetry, looking more like prose and functioning precisely as prose functions. And never have I heard anyone complain that a tone poem is not really a poem at all. Language is essentially illogical, based on accrued history, chock full of idioms, filled with unnecessary words and lacking in necessary ones. It seems to me the poet’s job to work with that mess and make something of it.
    So, yes, not all visual poetry is poetry, but some is. And, yes, no teddy bear is really a bear, but the reference to the bear, no matter how tenuous, is still there.

  • On April 7, 2008 at 9:52 pm Don Share wrote:

    I’m giving this thread a bump because I think John’s mention of Mallarme deserves more comment: the “performed constellation,” and so on…

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, March 17th, 2008 by Don Share.