John M. Bennett
“Como de costumbre, para ser futurista solo había
que ir lo más lejos possible al pasado.” - Augusto Monterroso
All poetry is visual poetry. This idea, along with its corollary that all poetry is also aural, has become clearer and clearer to me as I have worked with the extremely varied materials in The Ohio State University Libraries’ Avant Writing Collection. Visuality in poetry starts with the simple fact that there are blank spaces at the ends of lines, which is perhaps the most consistent factor that distinguishes poetry from prose. (A prose poem is poetry in the fact that the blank spaces are present by implication; present in their absence, you might say.) That blank space then extends to an almost infinite variety of forms and procedures, from typographic variance to three-dimensional constructions, from shaped poems to “classical” concrete poems, from recognizable words and phrases arranged in patterns to asemic scrawls and letter-forms and to purely graphic elements arranged in a “poem-like” manner. With respect to orality, it is safe to say that there is not a poem in existence that could not be performed aloud in some way. Even the most illegible asemic scrawl can be used as a script for the voice, and often is by many of the poets in this collection and in the traditions from which the work in it has sprung. It may well be that poetry began before writing as a mnemonic social context for stories, news, and myths and thus as an oral form, but as soon as it began to be written, it became a visual form as well.
Sweeping aside the sweeping generality above, however, it would be of some use to discuss at least some of what it is that distinguishes the work in this anthology from standard textual poetry. Perhaps it simply has to do with the fact that all the work here includes strongly visual dimensions that one cannot avoid including as an important part of the experience of reading/seeing the work in question. Whereas in the case of textual poetry, the visual
dimension is to a large extent unconsciously perceived, or that it is at least possible to experience the work paying little attention to its visual qualities.
There is also the question of the long and varied history of visual literature, which to a large extent forms its own tradition or subculture, to which the work in this anthology so often refers. That history is distinct in numerous ways from the history or subculture of more strictly textual poetry, and therefore is a distinguishing characteristic from it. Another issue is the relationship of visual poetry to visual art, and the use of linguistic elements in what is generally considered to be visual art. At what point does such art become visual poetry? I think it is more useful and enriching to think of it as either or both, depending on the context of one’s discussion or appreciation. Just as, at the other end of the continuum, it is most useful to think of poetry and visual poetry as either or both.
Underlying these considerations is the fact that inherent in Western Civilization, and probably in the human mind itself (as in large part a creation of that civilization) is the need to categorize phenomena. This is certainly true for visual poetry, which is generally regarded as a phenomenon separate in itself. In fact, however, as suggested above, it is an aspect of all written language, and has been since written language came into existence. Being
inherently visual, written language must be seen to be apprehended (or, as in the case of Braille or other technologies, in some way physically experienced—in the case of a blind person being read to, the reader must see the text) and its very nature is founded on signs and symbols referring to things in the physical or mental world, be they sounds, objects, or actions. In the case of poetry in particular, the usual modern poem, with its blank spaces either at the ends of lines or surrounding the words, requires a visual experience to be fully known.
Visual poetry calls to mind doubts about the stability of meaning in language—that is, the strict relationship between language and reality. Visual poetry, perhaps more than “normal” textual poetry, presenting or suggesting meaning on several levels and through several processes of consciousness simultaneously, mirrors that doubt. Or perhaps it is an attempt to do what language has always tried to do: capture “reality” and make it conscious. The difference is that visual poetry perceives reality—or the world—as multiple, ambiguous, shifting, polyvalent, and
paradoxical. The opposites join into one total perception. The fact that different parts of the mind and/or mental processes address visual experience and linguistic experience (and within linguistic experience itself there are very different and separate processes for each functionality of language: speaking, thinking, writing, translating, etc.) means that visual poetry is especially useful for dealing with and presenting this multivalent/multiconscious experience of the world. I suspect that has something to do with why it is so often a field of endeavor that is ignored in the genre-categorizing institutions of our society: those genres (visual art, literature, music, and so on) are not only socially constructed, but present a much simpler and therefore more comforting vision of what the world is. I suggest that that simple vision is limited and illusory, however. Clemente Padín, the great Uruguayan visual and experimental poet, has discussed at some length how visual and experimental poetry stand in direct opposition to the dominant socioeconomic paradigms of our day (see his essay in Signos corrosivos, Mexico: Ediciones Literarias de Factor, 1987; translated by Harry Polkinhorn as Corrosive Signs, 1990).
Almost all the poets and writers in the Avant Writing Collection have worked in visual media and genres, and this catalog is an attempt to showcase some of the highlights of that vein of creativity in the collection. I wish to emphasize, however, that these works do not exist in a completely separate category, a “compartment” in which the artist/writer works in isolation from his or her other work, but function on a continuum with all that other work. Many of these works, for example, have also been treated as performance texts. As Michael Basinski has stated,
“A function of visuality is performance…a visual poem should be interpreted as a literary score…visual poets should consider their pieces to be literary scores rather than purely literary, visual images” (in CORE: A Symposium on Contemporary Visual Poetry, ed. By John Byrum & Crag Hill, Mentor, OH/Mill Valley, CA: Generator Press, c1993).
It is always difficult to select what pieces to exhibit in a catalog like this, when there are so many excellent possibilities. I have tried to show the immense variety of styles and approaches that exist in the collection and to pay special attention to those individuals’ works whose larger collections of papers and archives are at the heart of what we have here. Visual poetry is a field of endeavor that is expanding exponentially just now, helped immeasurably by the ease of distributing it through the Internet: web sites, blogs, e-mail, social networking sites and so on. I hope this sampling will inspire more such work.
The catalog may be seen at: http://library.osu.edu/sites/rarebooks/avant/VisualPoetry.pdf
Dr. John M. Bennett, 2007
Avant Writing Collection
The Ohio State University Libraries