Visual poetry tends to be an obscure form, whenever I mention it to others, I receive blank stares. Not only is this a shame for the obvious reasons - I twitch with embarrassment and grit my teeth as I have to explain to someone, often with a five minute attention span, what this beautiful form is - but also because it is possibly one of the oldest and easily accessible forms of poetry, especially for children. This hardy and communicative community of visual poets has been around for many years, however the definition between 'concrete poetry' and 'visual poetry' - often perceived to be one and the same - has shifted with the creation of the Internet and the intermedia tools now available to poets (see right, "Intermedia" by Dick Higgins). 'Visual poetry' still uses the non-representational language predominant in concrete forms, but with a particular focus on intermedia, such as graphics and animation. The subtle difference is often overlooked.
While I do not want to go into the history of visual/concrete poetry. However, I do feel a brief explanation may be due to anyone who
is interested in the form. Visual poetry is the love child of poetry and the visual arts, with a dual set of interests it can be very myriad in form. Depending on the poet, it can represent a critical component of a whole or it can focus entirely on a specific visual format, for example lettershapes. The early visual poetry in the 1500s was easier to define as the poetry mainly consisted of taking a poem and ramping up its visual structure, for example Herbert's "Easter Wings" where the poem has been shaped like an angel's wings. It is almost certainly a poem as we traditionally know it in its rhyme and metrical structure, but it is JUST a poem. The visual elements give it depth and a set layer of critical focus. A wonderful description of visual poetry can be found on the Poetry Foundation website by Geof Huth:
Few visual poems these days function as poems do. Instead, they encompass a wide range of verbo-visual creations that focus on the textual materiality of language. The form includes poems written as mathematical equations, collage poems, xerographic pieces that include no words but concentrate on the meaning that has built up within the shapes of letters, and even asemic writings in invented scripts created to mean through shape rather than word. Visual poetry is written for the eye, but its methods and intentions, even in those works most limited in their verbal content, are always poetic, always compelling the reader forward into the transformative power of language, always entranced by—and entrancing through—the text that is before us.
- "Visual Poetry Today" by Geof Huth. The Poetry Foundation: 2008.
When describing visual poetry to someone, I tell them you cannot read a visual poem like a poem, you have to read it like you would a painting. One of the more well-known visual poems is Dom Sylvester Houédard, who in his writings states "the area "between" Poetry and Painting is where they overlap they do this (a) since all writing originates in painting (writing is painting words) and (b) since it is possible to think in images alone...mind is the first place where Poetry and Painting meet" (Notes from a Cosmic Typewriter, 143). The poet-monk was most famous for his typewriter art or 'typestracts' (see right). You need to learn to separate the meanings we naturally apply to language through our own set of interpretative frameworks, and look at the language itself: its shape, its structure, the sound (though sound drifts us into Sound Poetry territory). I highly recommend visiting Ubu Web if you are interested in exploring visual poetry more but perhaps don't know where to start.
Derek Beaulieu is the author of nine books of poetry, five volumes of conceptual fiction, two collections of critical writing and over 175 chapbooks. He was the Calgary Poet Laureate in 2014-2015 and an award-winning instructor of Creative Writing, Theory and Contemporary Canadian Literature. He is also the Visual/Concrete Poetry Editor on UbuWeb and publisher of the acclaimed smallpresses Housepress (1997-2004) and No Press (2005-present). It is No Press that brings me to the poetry we'll be discussing today.
I contacted Beaulieu after he advertised 20 limited copies of thirty lines by Colin Sackett being sold via No Press. I had wanted to buy poetry from No Press for some time, but for some bizarre reason never had. As I had a freshly shiny new wage in my bank account, I jumped at the opportunity. In the post some days later I not only received thirty lines but also seven other little pieces of art. I would like to explore each one here in the hope that it might encourage and tempt others to buy and/or create visual poetry themselves.
Let us explore thirty lines first. Thirty lines is a small yellow softback chapbook of thirty-four pages based on Maps and Diagrams: their compilation and construction by Monkouse and Wilkinson. A quick comparison shows us exactly what Sackett has recycled from their work:
These lines that in Monkhouse & Wilkinson were columned to represent lines used for categories of footpath, roads, railways, waterways, political boundaries, electricity grid cables and aqueducts; whereas Sackett has taken each line and placed it separately on a clear white tundra of a page. The choice of 'framing' these lines as separate rather than a collective provides a distinct visual appeal, allowing each line to represent itself not only as an object - which we can daily see in software such as Word - but also these different categories of line (though in Sackett we are left to imagine for ourselves which line belongs to which category). More of Sackett's work can be found on www.colinsackett.com. Based in Axminster, Devon (UK), Colin Sackett has been publishing since 1984 and hosts a design + production press in the form of Uniform Books, an imprint for the visual and literary arts, cultural geography and history, music and bibliographic studies.
Our next item in what I fondly call 'The Beaulieu Bundle' is Dishwashing Event by Sacha Archer, currently living in Tianjin, China, he created this green handbound little book through "a speech recognition program has written the poems by translating/ transforming the noise of my [Archer] washing of dishes into words recorded in to a document in Microsoft Word. Each poem records one day’s bout of washing. Post-event, I returned to the texts and cut them into a verse form to add room for breathing and greater coherence in the reading, but otherwise they are exactly how they were first produced by the speech recognition program" (Beaulieu,1). There are ten poems altogether and bares features often found in Sound Poetry. The repetition of sounds such as 'of' throughout the poems echoes the repetitive act of washing up by hand, creating a juddering language where the broken record of the poet's voice hammers the prepositions into the reader.
In Mary Ellen Solt's Moonshot Sonnet, the poet creates an act of assemblage by utilizing elements of pre-existing text and using it in new creative ways. Assemblage poetry right off the bat challenges pre-imagined thoughts of idyllic shape and augments the courses in which a content can produce meaning, and furthermore it utilizes this formal and phonetic experimentation to show a specific postmodern discomfort in contemporary culture, which shows as undeniable the trouble of significant self-expression in late-capitalist culture. According to Solt, it has not been conceivable since the Renaissance to compose a persuading piece on the moon. Taking a gander at the moon photos in The New York Times, it jumped out at Solt that since the researcher's images for separating territories on the moon's surface were exhibited five to a line and the lines could be signified fourteen, a visual piece could be made of them. The lyric is expected as a satire of an old fashioned type of verse and as an announcement of the issue of the concrete artist's pursuit of legitimate new structures. Sonnets are often perceived as an 'outmoded' form of poetry, but new and exciting sonnet forms are always cropping up, such as in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (2008) or Patience Agbabi's Bloodshot Monochrome (2008). The pseudo-linguistic images Solt appropriates serve to show how the exponential increment of logical learning and technological advance has changed the route in which traditional wonderful subjects can be recycled and re-imagined. I neglect to write about Solt's biographical information here because I hope to visit her work again next month!
Keeping these factors in mind, I also received Door Sonnet by Gary Barwin, which is comprised of fourteen lines depicting blueprint symbols of open, shut, single and double doors. Barwin is a Canadian artist, author, writer, interactive media craftsman, entertainer and instructor who lives in Hamilton, Ontario (Canada). He writes in a scope of classifications including verse, fiction, visual verse, music for live entertainers and PCs, content and sound works, and composing for kids and youthful grown-ups. Like Solt's piece, Barwin's sonnet has been printed in a wide bookmark shape. I enjoyed how each of these works disrupted space in the ways their objects differentiated from traditional formatting. There is also a 'portable poetry' element as both of these pieces could easily be used as indeed bookmarks, there is a trans-portability about them that I find endearing.
This is one of three pieces of Barwin's work sent in the bundle. The second - Acrostic Ocean (2017) - is an elegy to Barwin's Jewish grandparents and the suffering they went through when they emigrated from Eastern Europe. However, there is an amusing trick within this small, rectangular poem the size of a reporter's jotter. 'Acrostic' is a term used for 'a poem, word puzzle, or other composition in which certain letters in each line form a word or words'. So the first letter of each line within this poem spells out the phrase: YOU FUCKING DICKWAD.
Finally we have a tiny Bashō-brilliant green square by Derek Beaulieu and Gary Barwin called fragments from the frag pool, a throwback to their previous work frogments from the frag pool: haiku after basho (2005). This poem presents a new take on Basho's original frog haiku, creating a microcosm of repeated words - frog, old, splash, pond - that overlap and switch places. It is also an ode to the 'Leon the Frog' story which was written on the stairs of the Social Sciences building at the University of Calgary. This story was tragically painted over and I believe has now been restored.
Lastly, we have a mystery, at least to me. In my hand is a tiny purple square depicting the words of Don Sylvester Houédard in his Haiku (for Kenelm Cox) (2017). While I remain clueless as to the words - perhaps a reminder to look at the materiality of language rather than the connotations - I have been able to uncover who Kenelm Cox was. Ken Cox - as he is more commonly known - was a UK visual poet/artist who was tragically killed by a car on his way to oversee the packing of his Three Graces sculptures. Houédard was an admirer of Cox's work, producing two works in his memory. I am tempted to say the words here are related to this piece of work (see bottom right), which is the front cover to Houédard's Ken Cox Memorial (1968). There are words that match the original front cover illustration, where the words 'Ken Cox' were deliberately left out to illustrate the missing artist. However without asking Beaulieu - who may hold the secrets! - I cannot solve the riddle.
If you have enjoyed this work, please let me know and I will produce similar articles. Make sure to follow Derek Beaulieu on Twitter and considering buying from No Press, which is a wonderfully creative press with limited edition poems printed in a variety of ways. Also we will be having a giveaway soon! Beaulieu was kind enough to included two copies of Mary Ellen Solt's Moonshot Sonnet and I want to give it to another poet/writer who might be inspired by her work. Keep up with our twitter feed for more news on this!
Affinities, R.J. "Dick Higgins: "A book is . . . a phenomenon of space and time and dimensionality". Siglio Press, January 06, 2015. http://sigliopress.com/phenomenon-space-time-dimensionality/. Webpage.
Agbabi, P. Bloodshot Monochrome. London: Canongate, 2008. Print.
Archer, S. Dishwashing Event: Part One: Tianjin, China. Calgary: No Press, 2016. Print.
Barwin, G. Door Sonnet. Calgary: No Press, 2017. Print.
Barwin, G. Acrostic Ocean. Calgary: No Press, 2017. Print.
Barwin, G. and D, Beaulieu. frogments from the frag pool. Toronto: The Mercury Press, 2005. Print.
Barwin, G. and D, Beaulieu. fragments from the frag pool. Calgary: No Press, 2017. Print.
Beaulieu, D. "New from NO PRESS: “Dishwashing Event PART ONE: TIANJIN, CHINA” by Sacha Archer & more...". April 6th 2016. Accessed: 29/05/17. https://derekbeaulieu.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/new-from-no-press-dishwashing-event-part-one-tianjin-china-by-sacha-archer-more/. Webpage.
Hilson, J. (eds). The Reality Street Book of Sonnets. London: Reality Street Editions, 2008. Print.
Houédard, D. S. Ken Cox Memorial. Dorset: A South Street Publication, 1968. Print.
Huth, G. "Visual Poetry Today". The Poetry Foundation, 6 November 2008. Accessed: 29 May 2017. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/detail/69141. Webpage.
Monkhouse, F.J., H.R. Wilkinson. Maps and Diagrams: their compilation and construction. London: Methuen Publishing Ltd, 1972. Print.
Sackett, C. thirty lines. Calgary: No press, 2017. Print.
Simpson, N. (eds) Notes from a Cosmic Typewriter: The Life and Work of Don Sylvester Houédard. London: Occasional Papers, 2012. pp. 60, 143. Print.
Solt, M. E. Moonshot Sonnet. Calgary: No Press, 2017.