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Visual Poetics
by Nirmaldasan

Return to Poetry & Greeting Cards · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Poetry, in the oral tradition, is marked by the musicality of its verse. Lyric charm, sprung rhythm, quantitative metre and syllabic verse are some terms that draw attention to the phonic dimension of poetry. Essentially, all great poetry is song meant for the ear. Therefore we are invited to 'listen to the bard' or 'sing a song of six pence'.

Now what happens when a poem is printed? Or posted on the Internet? For example, look at F.W. Bourdillon's song:

The Night has a thousand eyes
    And the day but one;
Yet the light of the whole world dies
    With the setting sun.

The Mind has a thousand eyes
    And the heart but one;
Yet the light of the whole life dies
    When love is done.

Though you had been asked to look at the song, most probably you would have read it. Just look at it again and the graphic dimension of verse cannot escape your eyes. Here are some conventions of printed verse:

  • The song is arranged in lines
  • The initial letter of each line is capitalised
  • A blank line separates the stanzas
  • The even lines are indented as they rhyme with each other
  • The letters are composed of a certain type

The conventions are part of an interesting subject called typography. The visuality of the poem is made possible by type. The six constituents of type are 1. shape, 2. size, 3. weight, 4. width, 5. posture and 6. colour. Let us discuss each of them as briefly as possible.

1. Shape. The shape of the letters of a certain type family (say, Times New Roman) will be very different from that of any other (say, Helvetica). Type may be monotonal or skeletal, serif or sans-serif.

2. Size. Typographers refer to size as font. A hierarchy of font may be seen in broadsheets. The banner headline is larger than the normal headline, which is larger than the sub-head, which is larger than the body text. Size is a vertical measure.

3. Weight. Type may be bold, light, extra light or extra bold or any shade of grey. Normally, headlines are set in bold type and body text in light type.

4. Width. This is a horizontal measure. The lowercase alphabet length of a type family determines the width of a headline. So one can have a headline that is normal, extended or condensed.

5. Posture. A word or phrase can be set in a type that is roman (upright) or italics (slanted). Italics are normally used for emphasis.

6. Colour. Text is normally set in grey. But in multi-media advertising and interactive web sites, colour is what catches the eye.

Now back to Bourdillon's song. Does the choice of type in all its aspects add to the aesthetics of 'the night has a thousand eyes'? It would indeed be difficult to say yes. Type, in this case, is purely functional and not expressive. George Herbert's song 'The Altar', on the other hand, is at once musical and visual:

   A   broken  ALTAR,  Lord,   thy  servant    rears,
    Made  of  a  heart,  and  cemented with    tears:
	Whose  parts  are  as thy hand did frame;
	No workman's tool hath touched the  same.
		    A     HEART   alone
		    Is   such   a stone,
		    As    nothing   but 
		    Thy  pow'r doth cut.
		    Wherefore each part
		    Of  my  hard  heart
		    Meets in this frame,
		    To praise thy  name:
	That  if  I  chance  to   hold  my   peace,
      These stones to praise thee will not cease.
   O    let   thy   blessed   SACRIFICE    be    mine,
   And   sanctify   this  ALTAR   to   be       thine.

This is an exmple of pattern poetry. George Herbert's Easter-Wings is another good example. By representing visually the subject of a song, pattern poetry lays the foundation for a visual tradition of verse. Like pattern poetry, acrostic verse also adds something more to a song. In an acrostic, the initial letters of the lines form a name or phrase. Here is my own example titled 'To Time' from An Eaglet In The Skies.

Trek on slowly, as one would on pilgrimage,
If thou be a pilgrim to eternity.
Mercilessly roll on with tempestuous rage --
Endlessly, if thou must from the Present flee.

A development from acrostic verse is George Herbert's 'Colossians 3:3'. He sets the sentence 'My Life Is Hid In Him, that Is My Treasure' in bold type across the poem. I give below a shorter example (my own).

I do see
You LOVE not me.
God bless YOU!

Palindromes and anagrams are visual curiosities. So is the rebus which, according to The Universal Standard Encyclopedia, is an enigmatical representation of a name or thing by using pictorial devices for letters, syllables, or parts of words.

A visual difference between verse and prose is that verse is written in lines and prose in sentences. Found-poem is a poem found in a prose passage. In William Hazlitt's essay 'On Going A Journey', there is this sentence: "I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy." Just rearrange it in lines and you have a good found-poem:

I laugh,
I run,
I leap,
I sing for joy.

John Milton dispensed with rhyme in Paradise Lost. Walt Whitman dispensed with metre in Leaves Of Grass. Both, however, laid emphasis on the musicality of the verse and, therefore, are part of the oral tradition.

But why should poetry, in the visual tradition, be musical? Exponents of free verse have not completely divorced rhythm. However, their lines and stanzas are arbitrary. Lawrence Schimel's 'Clotho's Spindle' has two drafts. Though both the drafts have identical words, the second draft has been arranged as couplets. "I still haven't decided which version of the poem I prefer more," he writes in 'Poetic License: Some Thoughts On Free Verse'. "I may wind up trying something entirely new, or perhaps make an arbitrary decision based on my gut feeling about which tone I think a given market might prefer or based on how I'm feeling that day, and send one or another version of them out on submission, and let whatever version gets bought become the final version."

Free verse seems to be in a limbo. In the visual tradition, free verse can be considered the equivalent of the found-poem. More on this later. But now we move on to the second part of our discussion on visual poetics.

Visuality as a Poetic Principle

The prose-poem is written in sentences. It uses many poetic devices. The only thing it lacks is metre. But when you look at a prose-poem, you'll think it is just prosaic prose until you read it. This problem, if it is a problem, can be easily solved by adding the parenthetical note (prose-poem) to the title. But there is a visual alternative. Every prose-poem may be thought of as a found-poem. My prose-poem titled 'Friendly Expletives' in Literary Trivia & Curiosities may thus be rearranged in lines:

A drunkard
And fell.
I lifted him up
But he swore
At me: "@@!!@**!**@".
I forgave him
Because I knew
He wasn't sober.
Later I caught him
In a sober state
And asked for
An explanation.
He still swore
At me: "@@!!@**!**@".

My God!
Those were
The very words
He uttered
When he was drunk.
Now how can I
Forgive him?
I was about to
Smash him in the face
When his friend
Came along.
I stepped
They both went
To the bar.
They laughed
And cursed
Each other: "@@!!@**!**@".

The length of each line is more or less arbitrary. Others may arrange it differently. The point to be noted, however, is that this typographic arrangement tells readers that a poem is staring them in the face. This is an elementary application of visuality as a poetic principle.

A better application of this principle will be to make type expressive. Even as in traditional verse the sound seems an echo to the sense, likewise in visual poetry the type seems a shadow to the sense. Here is my translation of a Tamil visual poem (author unknown):


Robert Graves knew the visual power of words. He arranged his metrical verse titled 'Poem: A Reminder' in expressive typographic lines. Observe how it flows:

				poem: a reminder

	      -ers prompting ev
					-eryline lines printed down the
					-tre of each page clear

					spaces between

					groups of these combine in a con
					of respectable age to mean read
					-fully each word we chose has

								rhythm and
								sound and
								sense this is


The New Oxford Book of Children's Verse (edited by Neil Philip, Oxford University Press, 1996) has some interesting examples of expressive typographic verse. Notable among them are John Whyte's 'Coyotes' and Benjamin Zephaniah's 'According To My Mood'. Douglas Florian's 'First' is also good and, being short, is reproduced here:

First things first,
Last things last.
Years pass fast.

The creative use of space as well as the six constituents of type is what visual poetry is all about. The examples we have seen in this section are by no means representative. Words need not be arranged in lines; they can also be placed in curves. Letters can be tilted at any angle. Punctuation marks can be put to expressive use. In fact, a visual poem can be composed of non-linguistic signs. And this would make the poem completely silent. Pure visuality.

With the advent of the Internet, visual poetry became dynamic -- type in motion. Ana Maria Uribe calls her creations 'anipoems'. Of course, they cannot be reproduced here. Visit her web site at http://vispo.com/uribe/anipoems.html to get a feel of the dynamic application of visuality as a poetic principle.

Our discussion on visual poetics is almost complete. What remains to be seen are some of the implications of visuality. The third and final part deals with them.

Critical Implications of Visuality

Consider this definition: "Visual poetry is the creative use of space and type." Would this mean that even traditional verse, if printed or posted on the Internet, may be considered as visual poetry? No, because the poetic effects of metrical verse do not depend on the choice or arrangement of type.

That remark, however, needs to be qualified. After all, pattern poetry and acrostic verse can at once be metrical and visual. So, in such cases, traditional verse can be classified under visual poetry also.

What about free verse that rebels against the laws of prosody? If it is arranged in sentences, it resembles the prose-poem. If it is arranged in arbitrary lines, it resembles the found-poem. A prose-poem is obviously not a visual poem, but a found-poem certainly is.

The prose-poem is unpretentious and lays emphasis on content. The found-poem has the same content, but its form makes it an inferior kind of visual poetry. So it is better for the exponents of free verse to accept the challenge of visual form and write in expressive typographic lines.

In an introduction to Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968, Indiana University Press), Mary Ellen Solt writes: "The visual poem is intended to be seen like a painting; the sound poem is composed to be listened to like music." And about the new visual poetry, she writes: "The plain fact is that the oral tradition neglected the visual power of words."

Language essentially is human speech. That is why traditional verse goes hand in hand with music. Perhaps this is why the great visual poem, resorting to non-linguistic symbols, aspires to be seen as a painting.

But can we not argue that the painting is in fact a visual poem? That the painter is really a visual poet? To say yes would be to stretch the scope of visual poetics beyond its wildest dreams. Visual poetry, therefore, has to stay content in the realm of signs.

		m  e  a  n  i  n  g
		e  s  c  a  p  e  s
		t  h  r  o  u  g  h
		s  p  a     c  e  s
		b  e  t  w  e  e  n 
		l  e  t  t  e  r  s

Find Out More...

Some Thoughts On Free Verse, Part II: The Shape Of The Poem, by Lawrence Schimel

Helpful Sites:

Ubuweb Papers

Ana Maria Uribe's Typoems And Anipoems

Ken Perlin's Kinetic Poetry

Nirmaldasan's Metre And Free Verse

Copyright © 2004 N. Watson Solomon (Nirmaldasan)
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Nirmaldasan is the pen name of N. Watson Solomon, senior sub-editor with The Hindu, and editor of the Journalism Online newsletter. He is the author of three verse collections and co-author of the tinai series. Visit him at http://www.angelfire.com/nd/nirmaldasan.


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