Visual Poetry

We started this course the way we did because the borderline between visual poetry and visual art is frustratingly vague, and the criteria by which we might judge a “good” visual poem from a more prosaic or workmanlike visual poem is likewise vague. In both cases we will founder unless we have a good way of describing to ourselves what poetry is, and what art is. There are two common semantic meanings for art whose dual existence contribute to this frustration. There’s the art that you go to the museum to see, that which is purposefully calling attention to itself as a rare thing that wants to knock us out of our everyday inattentive vapidity. But there is also the “art” of doing something well, as one might say of someone whose skill at a task (say, whittling wooden flutes, or making omelets, or flower gardening, or what-have-you) transcends the normal and above-normal expectations we might have for that task, and even though the “artist” here is perhaps not somebody who regards this task as her or his profession, we have sat up and taken notice of their work enough to label it an art. But where is the distinction between a photograph I take of my daughter holding a praying mantis and an Ansel Adams photograph of a winter treescape? Is that Ansel Adams photograph the first sort of art (plausible, since Adams’s work is stunning and often exhibited in museums) or the latter, since many of us might aspire to take pictures just as awesome as he did, and we look to those prints with a personal appraisal of his craftsmanship — the way aspiring poets might read the poetry of the preceding generations in order to teach themselves how to write their own art.

In the video produced by the Getty museum above, the narrator seems to suggest that you will recognize a visual poem when some combination of visual and textual material make you stop and wonder what the hell is going on. That’s not a bad way of defining what a poem is, but I think it is probably obvious that before you started looking at a curated set of visual poems you might wish for some sort of assurance that your difficulty in knowing what to do with the text is because of provocative but eventually coherent profundity and allusivity, rather than just because there is no sense to be made and the thing is a bad poem. Because it’s possible, and if you have looked at the instructions for the Final Illustration Project, you’ll probably already be wondering how you might make your own visual poem, and perhaps be especially keen to demonstrate that your poem is meaningful rather than incomprehensibly devoid of meaning.

Geof Huth helpfully orients us toward “color, shape, and [spatial] arrangement,” and divides the field of current visual poets between those experimenting primarily with typography and lettershape (effectively making a visual scene out of distorted and rearranged letters), like his own poem “jHegaf”:

and those poets whose work simply doesn’t work without the extra visual material, as for example the visual poem I used for this page’s featured image, “The Disremembered Glossolalist” by Peter Ciccariello. Huth’s article is a great little explanation, and I encourage you to follow the link and look through the list of poems and poets provided (and curated) at the bottom for more illustrations — although I could have wished for more than one woman visual poet (live in the now, Mr. Huth!). Again, trying to find a distinction between a poem that has been gussied up with some visuals and a poem that simply cannot function without its visual component is akin to trying to describe to yourself how a prose poem can still be a poem even though it is not displaying any of the more conventional features of poetry that we’ve become accustomed to. So it’s not that poetry needs to have a set form. But it is true that form, and the interplay between form and content, are great ways to promote poetry’s lively sense of its appearance and its self-reflexive awareness of its own arrangement of text in space. I hope it is not too much of a leap for you to define visual poetry, then, as a poetry which is using the affordances of digital photography or graphic design to come up with new and exciting ways of demonstrating self-reflexive purposiveness (a poem’s awareness of itself that lends it what T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” called the air of “roses [that] looked like flowers that are looked at.”

I don’t meant to ruin visual poetry for you through overanalysis — far from it. There has got to be a way of accessing and discussing these texts beyond talking about how it made you feel or extolling your praise for how awesome it looks. Instead, ask yourself for visual poems a few questions that ought to apply to any poem:

  • How do the words of the poem interact with their spatial arrangement, their poetic environment?
  • How might you describe the visual poem’s demonstration of its existence as a poem?
  • How does the poem provoke a response (affectively and intellectually) within you the reader?

These questions are vital precursors to the hard work of actually figuring out what the visual poems mean. Again, every reader has an opportunity to come up with a difference interpretation of the visual poem, just as with non-visual poems. But if you can’t come up with a way of precisely analyzing a visual poem, you won’t be able to support your conclusions with evidence from the text. The opportunity to interpret a poem uniquely is only useful until you try to bring your ideas into the interpretive marketplace and share them with other readers of the same text. Those other readers will only be impressed with your thoughts to the extent that they’re useful, intelligible, and related to what everyone is reading in common.




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