Reading Visual Poetry: A Graph Review

Reading Visual Poetry

by Willard Bohn

A Graph Review:  40 to highpoint 50

Farleigh Dickinson University Press  

978 161147615 6        paper ed.  2013                  Some illustrations in text.

vis pMost poets of today will have dipped into the world of visual poetry by writing a poem whose line-shape, word-spacing and overall image of the poem helps to convey the emotion or theme of what they are saying.  As a reader the page format always conveys a message.  Font size and style, amount of white space at the borders and the positioning of any headers can all settle or unsettle an approach to reading at the very least.  Going further the line spacing, differing lengths or condensing of words matters visually and in some way emotionally.

Move on to the poetry in particular and the design of lines on page fit even more closely with what the eye sees and brain reads.  Extend the purely visual line of text into a graphic text-picture using the word or words of the poem and we have visual poetry.  An example would be a poem about a snake which is written in the shape of a wriggling, curving line, maybe coiled.  Imagine an iconic image of a rattlesnake or coiled cobra shaped with words, maybe enigmatic on first sighting along the body of that snake.  First image is a poem about a snake, second thought on habitat or as religious imagery of the Garden of Eden and more thought on image and text conjunction may take you further.   Few words as an image can offer more challenge than an epic.

Visual poetry:  Words in a graphic form that create an actual picture as in the simplistic example above.

On reading the book:

The back cover explains:   “Visual Poetry can be defined basically as poetry that is meant to be seen………. It is pictorial as well as verbal.  Combining painting and poetry, it attempts to synthesise the principles underlying each discipline…….  They are conceived not only as literary works but also as works of art…….(This book) explores the process of interpretation itself, which like the compositions, can be surprisingly complex”.

Apparently visual poetry was well known to the Greeks and Romans, faded away to have a widespread revival during the Renaissance.  Another fading to be re-born at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Willard Bohn explains his plan for the book is to survey the significant developments in the 20th Century and gives brief description of visual poetry.  The developments he chooses start from 1913 in Spain and each chapter moves on in style and proponents via Hispanic-American, French poetry after Apollinaire, Italian Aeropoetry, Brazilian concrete poetry and finally Digital poetry.  A final couple of pages  discusses how the brain co-ordinates these visual and verbal images simultaneously.

Each Chapter covers several key people of the period or group and gives illustrations of their work.  Their skill in formulating and producing the works can be seen as quite formidable.  Here we hit a bit of a stumbling block, for me at least, in that they are all produced in their original form and language.  Translations are given but in simple block form.  The author handles this well by using place description as well as word translation to outline the analysis each time and so what might have been lost on initial visuals is regained by clear description.   Explanation of form and analysis using this method works well throughout the book.

It was interesting to see the changes in styles from poster-printing to enable the text in graphic form which I had to assume was block-printing, to presses and typewriters coming to the fore.  A major transformation came with computers and digital production, animation and leading up to video installations.  The latter using high tech ( relatively) equipment to produce artisitic formulations around minimalist words, letters and sounds.   The simple world of a word-picture where you turn the pages to interpret the script has moved on to current day video installations of light, movement, semiotics and aural linguistics.

None of the poets here have featured in my reading but I suspect I am not one who pushes to the edge of boundaries’.  However, it has been fascinating to cross the world with those who have.  These poets pressed at the visual as artists have always sought new mediums and style and now borders are well and truly blurred.  The verbal and visual have merged and Bohn shows us examples of how some poets have approached those boundaries.

The analysis of each example was explored fully, making use of the producing poet’s explanations where useful.  The final examples of work by Eduardo Kac moved into the video installations that almost exclude words and use light, colour, symbols and repetition for visual and elements of sound for aural stimulation.  Analysis for this section had to include the authors interpretation as otherwise it seemed too obscure for understanding at any level.  However it would be interesting to see.

Willard Bohn explains many areas and provokes thought.  I can appreciate and agree with most elements of his analysis as they are clearly put.  Somewhat drily, perhaps.  Aeropoetry examples were quite striking though interpretation of the poets meaning was somewhat overlaid by the moment in history in which they were written.  The definition of concrete poetry has a solid base for me.  I do like the works in the chapter (Brazilian Concrete Poetry) with Augusto De Campos and brother Haroldo.

On finishing the book I decided I had quite enjoyed the read around the subject of Visual Poetry, had learned of Willard Bohn’s principles for it.  It was a little hard going but that was no bad thing.  The question of “What is art?” is a shoe-in to “What is poetry?”  It carries the same thoughts as to where you draw the line.   But then we don’t all have the same lines.

There are numerous notes and quite short index.  The bibliography is four and a half pages long so offers a good selection of further reading but many are not in English so for me are sadly out of reach.

The author wrote this in 2008 and said he got 77,000 suggestions on visual poetry/poets around the world when he enquired on the internet.  Some years later this number must have grown enormously.  Why do we have this wave of interest now?  It seems we live in a more visual society.

Look at Claire Trevien’s poem: Journey of Evaporation from her recent collection;

The Shipwrecked House, for a nice example of visual poetry.

Tennyson’s poem  The Brook   recently put on this site could be a minor example of visual poetry if you look at layout in some texts.

And having read this book, to find some current English creatives in concrete poetry just go to the web and  type in any of the following names to find a wide selection of images by them:  Bob Cobbing, Alan Halsey, Dom Sylvester Houedard, Geraldine Monk and Tom Phillips.  A writer and anthologist on the subject of concrete poetry: Stephen Bann.

‘Reading Visual Poetry’ can set you off on a really interesting and thought provoking journey.