This page will show how what happened with concretism (an early version of the visual poetry we know and love today on the internetz) was happening since the Elizabethan era of Shakespeare’s day, and how visual poetry is really just the latest in a series of attempts to prioritize the visual over the aural senses in poetics.
In a sense, all poems are visual when we read them. Handwritten manuscript or typeset page, poems are strokes and squiggles in black offset against a blank white expanse. But in another sense, one that most of us today may find quite foreign, this way of regarding poetry as a primarily visual genre is quite new – perhaps dating only back to the second world war. W. H. Auden has an essay called “The Poet’s Tongue,” from the mid-1930s, in which he speaks of the ability of poetry to create an insistent voice in our minds that possesses us and makes critical skepticism near-impossible – at least until the voice has finished speaking, if not long after once the spell has worn off. The first time I read that essay, which was seven years ago when I was finishing up my dissertation, I did a professional double-take, since that is most definitely not the way I think about poetry (and this is coming from somebody who regards himself as pretty good at reading poems). Auden’s essay turns out to be but the latest in a long line of writing about poetry, what we might call poetic theory, that emphasizes the aural qualities of the genre, almost to the exclusion of its visual properties. Clearly, our paths have diverged since then.
Poetry written for the ear assumes that a reader, upon seeing glyphs on a page, instantly transforms those visual signs into evocative sounds in his or her mind, conveniently ignoring (or at least greatly deemphasizing) the printed medium that transmitted those sounds. Poetry written for the eye, meanwhile, exploits the presence of the visual medium to condition its words, which now seem more like abstract concepts or visual constructs than the spoken resonances of an intimate friend.
As I’ve said, poetry was originally an exclusively verbal genre, whether you insist on thinking of the roots of poetry as the ancient Greek epics (which existed for centuries as memorized texts spoken by traveling epic tale-tellers) or what some Native American literature specialists have called “orature,” the lost literature of the American Indians, whose signs still exist but whose exact contours and details have never been recorded. But at least since the invention of paper and the printing press, it has been possible to imagine what it would be like to ignore that spoken lineage and replace it with what the novelist James Joyce called “the ineluctable modality of the visual.” The earliest poems in the concretist section are by George Herbert, a metaphysical contemporary of John Donne, of the generation just after William Shakespeare’s. And clearly, “Easter Wings” is a poem about the Easter resurrection of Christ in the figure of a bird, and the orthography of the poem makes the text resemble the shape of the bird. I’m not saying it’s a perfect fit, but what do you want? They’re words, not watercolors. Similarly,”The Altar,” also by Herbert, looks like a church altar if you turn it on its side and squint. Herbert was obviously well ahead of his time in such visual experiments, but when we get to the modernist period (which occurred as a result of, and just after, the school of imagism that I talked about two weeks ago), artists began experimenting with most everything about the way literature was created and presented to audiences, including the visual medium that constitutes textuality. Even someone as conservative as Thomas Hardy, who wrote “The Convergence of the Twain” after the sinking of the Titanic in 1911 (and whose stanzas look either like little icebergs or little ocean liners, or both, if you squint) responded to this heady vanguard of visual experimentation. Most modernist visual experimentation consisted of indents – if you look at poems by e. e. cummings or the manifesto of short-lived polemic magazine Blast!, almost entirely written by Ezra Pound whom we have met before in this course, you will see that some part of the effect of reading the text is produced by the oddly stylized presentation of words in unconventional arrangements in white space. Although perhaps not as flashy (or, to some, gimmicky) as Herbert’s totally visual poems, it is interesting to think of modernist poetry normalizing visual experimentation, even as the poets themselves, like Auden, still thought of poetry as a voice speaking out of the darkness.
These are the immediate predecessors of concretism, an international school of poetry that sprung up as a response to modernism after WWII. It is most definitely poetry written for the eye (as is visual poetry) but it existed in its entirety well before the invention of the internet, and well before personal computers as we know them today were even on people’s radar. They are all about the material textuality of poetry: not only do they require the reader to make something of their visual appearances on the page, but they make the reader into a viewer, and the poem becomes not so much a time-lapse spell of finite duration as an infinitely regressing recursion of eye-witness (or, a completely static instant).
The concretist poem is more an experience of a visual phenomenon than a voice speaking to us out of the darkness, and indeed this is why I prefaced this page with the inhuman sublime, because you would really need to ponder what a poem would be like without a persona to reconstruct around the speaker’s voice before you could decide what to do a poem like Eugen Gomringer’s “Silencio.” I would argue that this poem does not reconstruct a personality (or if you prefer, a consciousness), unless that consciousness is of language itself. The removed middle “silencio” within the block of comparable repeated silencios is sort of a mediation on absence and presence, I suppose, since the absence of the word that refers to silence is in effect a deeper silence than the word itself means (or has been allowed to signify).
In that last parenthesis you see me reflexively reaching back to the mind behind the concretist poem, but even so I am constructing not a persona but the figure of the artist behind the visual construction: someone who creates visual puzzles and sets me on a task to unravel them, not a voice whose problems have been seeded into a text to set me on the goal of getting to know her or him better.
The concretist poem is the best example of meaningful interaction between form and function I know of in the history of visual poetry. The sort of internet-based visual poetry being produced in contemporary poetry seems to me a variant of graphic design (I’m not saying it’s not literature!), where the visual relation is taken for granted and made into an aesthetic experience rather than being justified as the proper medium for the ideas presented within the poem. That’s a result of concretism’s unique appearance right at the intersection of modernism and what came right after it – postmodernism, which took many of the radical experiments and ironies of modernism and set them up as norms to be played with, without the earlier generation’s sense of loss brought about by the evacuation of those conventions. The concretists grew up being told that poems spoke to them, and justified their new visual experiments within their poems. Visual poets never had to do that. Nowadays we already accept poems as things to be looked at, as our own cultural default.