Sunday, January 25, 2009

There's a lively discussion about visual poetry--more specifically about criticism of visual poetry or lack thereof, perceived or actual--going on over at the Harriet blog.

For my part, I've long wondered what substantive difference, if any, exists between a certain strain of typographical poetry and typographical logos created by graphic designers. What, for instance makes the image above not a poem and the image below a poem?

They're obviously different, but it's a difference of degree more than a difference of kind, isn't it? Aren't they both, fundamentally, typographical collage?

And how about this famous image:

Why is this a painting and not a visual poem?

I have a friend who is a visual artist. A couple of her works in progress are 1) a "shapetionary," or a dictionary that organizes objects not according to alphabetical order but according to their shape (e.g. a pineapple would be found in the same neighbourhood as a hand grenade) and 2) cutting all the periods out of certain books and arranging them as a collage. I've talked to her about both these projects and never once has she used the term visual poetry. Is she practicing it without being aware of it? Or is visual poetry--to be precise, most forms of it--more a visual than a lexical art form? Is the terminology useful?

The strawman figure defensively cut by champions of vispo is that of the reactionary philistine who stamps his feet and insists vehemently that what they do isn't Poetry. I know there are some out there who fit that profile, but then there are others who don't feel the need to defend Poetry from the barbarians--it needs no defending--but who wonder if the use of the terms "poetry" and "poem" don't frame this work in an unproductively imprecise manner. I'd say I'm one of those people. Personally, I can't say I'd classify much of the vispo I've seen as poetry, but as visual art. Which is a different thing altogether from saying it isn't Poetry.

The distinction isn't original, but it's one dealt with particularly eloquently by Robert Bringhurst--who happens to be a world-renowned typographer as well as a poet and probably has invested more time thinking about the "solid form of language" than the vast majority of soi-disant visual poets--in his recent collections of talks and essays. I think the following passage is analogically a propos:

Still, I want to know whether "philosophical poetry" is a useful term ... I suppose the attempt at a "philosophical poem" could fail tactically in either one of two ways, or in both. It could fail to yield poetry, in which case what remained might or might not still be philosophy. Or it could fail to be "philosophical," in which case what remained might or might not prove to be poetry of some other kind.

If the vast majority of visual poems fail to be Poetry, then, truly, they are no different from the vast majority of lineated text-based poems. If they fail to be Art, then they are no different from the vast majority of paintings, drawings and collages. Which is one reason why I don't call myself a poet and my uncle, who is a painter of no small accomplishment, doesn't call himself an artist.


Michael Reynolds said...

Sorry, why don't you call yourself a poet? (you don't?!)

Zachariah Wells said...

For many reasons, some having to do with a dislike of essentialism, but primarily because poetry, in my vernacular (and this isn't idiosyncratic), isn't merely generically descriptive, but implies a value judgment. I write verse. I also write prose. And grocery lists. And grant applications. Other people can call me a poet if they like, but I won't necessarily answer. When people ask me if I'm a poet (oddly, this happens), my standard answer is that I write.