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A Brief, Belated Review of “Twelve Visual Poems” (edited by Geof Huth, from the November issue of Poetry)
Actually, I don’t have too much to say about the poems themselves, which I found pleasant enough. But surely these poems deserve a livelier critical commentary than the polite one Geof Huth supplies.
In phrases like “the textual materiality of language,” “the ultimate artificiality of linguistic signs,” and “reconstitute the meaning,” to name a few, I don’t hear Huth, but I do hear some of the professors I’ve had over the years. Perhaps you hear some of yours. Having taught a bit, myself, I recognize the usefulness of prepackaged phrases, phrases which can be unpacked for the students. But in addition to its mildly academic jargon, Huth’s language surrenders to more obvious formulations:
“Visual poetry provides a reading challenge to most readers…forcing the reader to delve ever more deeply into the text to sift meaning out…”
“The results are stunning and enigmatic textscapes that a reader must sift through…”
“…deconstructing found texts to tease out hidden meanings.”
“This portfolio of twelve works provides only a hint to the richness and variety of today’s visual poetry.”
“These twelve pieces by these thirteen people represent the smallest slice of their work…”
“[mIEKAL aND] uses these [scripts] to allow us to see written language with new eyes…”
This stuff isn’t bad – and the aforementioned jargon is understood easily enough – but it is conspicuously bland, which leads me to wonder: who is contemporary visual poetry’s Clive James, or Michael Hofmann, or Carmine Starnino, or Ange Mlinko, to name but a few regulars in Poetry, regulars who, despite what you may think of their respective opinions, can write sparkling sentences to order? In other words, who is contemporary visual poetry’s critical prose stylist, that person who has equipped it with a clear and original critical language? (And I’m well aware that such a person can exist outside of the pages of Poetry!)
Again, I enjoyed the visual poems – indeed, I thought Huth’s own piece, “jHegaf,” a delightful entanglement of type and maybe the best of the batch he corralled– but I wonder: what else can visual poems do, besides challenge conventional ways of communicating, or call attention to their materiality, or recruit the reader (who always seems to be vulnerable to some avant-garde’s draft board) into making their meaning? Or is the mild poverty of the buzz-words which these poems seem to attract an indication of the poems’ limitations, an indication that they are, finally, anachronistic curios, doomed to be confined to their zines (whether mimeographed or electronic) or the glossy special sections (cordoned off from the other poems) in magazines like Poetry?
Great criticism is powered by great enthusiasm. Obviously Huth has an investment in visual poems. His own skill in sculpting the things is clear. But in his studious sentences about them I don’t hear enthusiasm – or, at least, the level of enthusiasm that’s necessary to press clusters of words into fresh configurations, an enthusiasm that crackles through, say, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, which remains a wonderfully written book on the experiments of another era, no matter what you may feel about some of those experiments.
I apologize if any of this sounds elitist. Good writing is hard and, as I think (and hope) my first post communicates, something I know that I need to work on, too. I certainly don’t mean to play ‘gotcha criticism,’ since I’ve made my share of mistakes. But as it stands, I empathize with poor Amadeo in the novel The Savage Detectives, who, exasperated with a concrete poem, needs a little first-rate guidance.
So: is there a substantial study on visual poetry that is also a pleasure to read, in and of itself? A picture’s worth a thousand words, but in the case of the ‘pictures’ made by visual poets, whose thousand words should I be reading? If contemporary visual poetry isn’t just an anachronistic curio, where is its great – and I can’t italicize this enough – jargon-free criticism?
PS My question marks are real, not rhetorical. Originally, I was going to submit this piece as a letter to Poetry, but here, at least, people can answer the questions!
PPS I urge everyone to go inspect the actual poems (link still above) since they are interesting works.