Visual poetry background : Poetry through the Ages

A page from the "Poetry through the Ages" exhibit...



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Seeing more than words.

Since they first inscribed words onto papyrus and cuneiform tablets in certain structural and rhythmic patterns, poets have experimented with visual presentations of their work.

Like the choice of lyrics for a piece of music, or the choice of colors for a piece of art, the poet has always enjoyed the freedom of taking words and shaping them to create a 3D representation of the entire experience. Sumerian, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Chaldean, and Hebrew poets all painted word-pictures with their song-poems before the Greek and Roman empires emerged, and the Persians famously wrote and illustrated Alexandrine odes and other books with a marvelous display of lettering and color.

Pattern and altar poetry.

The antecedents of today’s visual poetry movement were the Greek pattern poems (likely of Oriental descent), popular with 4th century B.C. Greek bucolic poets like Simian of Rhodes; and the Persian altar poem, developed in the 5th century A.D. Pattern poetry represented the action and motion reflected in the poem, while altar poetry replicated the shape of the poem’s subject. After a millennium of limited expression in Persia and Germany, the altar poem caught on with Renaissance poets such as George Wither, George Herbert, and Robert Herrick, with Herbert’s "The Altar and Easter Wings" perhaps the best known from the period. While pattern poetry wasn’t as widespread as altar poetry, it was used enough to become interchangeable with altar poetry by the late Renaissance. George Puttenham’s 1589 book, The Art of English Poesie, showcased both forms. Among modern poets, Guillaume Apollinaire, e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, and Francois Rabelais worked in the forms, with Thomas’ twelve-part devotional, "Vision and Prayer," the most famous 20th century example.

Concrete poetry.

With the turn of the 20th century came a synthesis of altar and pattern poetry, namely the concrete poetry movement. It was dually influenced by the growing presence of free-verse writers and artistic movements of Dada, Surrealism, and Futurism. Both sought the same goal: to portray words (or images) as accurate, multi-dimensional reflections of everything existing in their inner world. The most notable poet to twist and turn lines to suit the inner movement of his words was e.e. cummings, who breached all established rules of poesy – right down to spelling his name in lower-case type. By 1925, cummings had turned traditional poetry on its head with poems like "O sweet spontaneous earth" and books like Tulips and Chimneys and CIOPW, so named for what he used to write and illustrate his poems – Charcoal, Ink, Oil, Pencil, and Watercolor. More than most committed poets, the ever-eccentric cummings bridged the ford between true poetry and experimental forms.

Incorporating multimedia.

The concrete poem uses multimedia to produce each poem in a different shape and taste. A pure exercise in pictorial typography, concrete poems can be visually depicted on glass, stone, wood, or other materials. Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes (1918) served as a forerunner of the movement, which Max Bill and Eugen Gomringer showcased to the world in a 1956 concrete art exhibition in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Gomringer’s 1953 konstellations celebrated his view of concrete poetry as "a play area of fixed-dimensions." He used poems of very few words in simple structural arrangements to convey powerful messages, such as his famous 1954 poem, "Silencio." His next two publications, From Line to Constellation and Concrete Poetry, and the publication of Brazil’s landmark Noigandres group, Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry, established the art/word form’s wide bounds. This came just in time for the 1960s, when Fleet Street, Haight-Ashbury, Peter Max, and numerous inner-city European experimental schools brought out an explosion of concrete poetry.

Branching out.

Concrete poetry was so diverse in its expression that it branched into other forms, such as emergent poetry (cryptographic tricks with letters, such as the first letters of each line spelling out the title and theme of a poem), semiotic poetry (the exclusive use of symbols and images, such as Maurice Lemaitre’s 1950 masterpiece, "Riff Raff"), and kinetic poetry (showing movement typographically, through stretched-out or narrowed lettering). Out of Germany emerged a school specifically dedicated to concrete poetry, Das Konkretisten. British poets Simon Cutts, Stuart Mills, and especially Ian Hamilton Finlay took concrete poetry into realms beyond syntax and grammar. Poets also created works that mixed visual, sound, and written poetry, most specifically France’s Lettrist movement, from which a 1950 masterpiece emerged – Pierre Albert-Birot’s Poesie de mot inconnus (Poetry of Unknown Words), which featured an engraving from Picasso.

Expansion of poetic sources.

Over the past four decades, visual and experimental poetry have drawn from pop and conceptual art as much as from literary or visual poetics. They have also fed the ever-increasing desire for new expressions while contributing to the use of poetics in mass media and advertising. Participants have combined a broad field of poetic sources with an understanding of the ways in which the use of material in visual and verbal form can extend concretism. Their works have included posters, broadsides, performance art pieces, artists’ books, and chapbooks. Cultural changes, ideological squabbles, and politics fed the genesis of this new movement in the 1970s, while one of its adherents, Johanna Drucker, chronicled visual poetics masterfully in books like Figuring the Word and The Alphabetic Labyrinth. A 21st century expression has come from a synthesis of the computer and mathematics – the Fibonacci poem, with word or syllable counts based on the Fibonacci sequence of prime numbers.

 

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