Coming out of an oral tradition, poetry leans heavily on sound and syntax to carry its message and to make it memorable. Poetry also paints word pictures through images, and creates sound patterns in your head through meter, rhyme and other sonic devices.
But how poetry is presented on the page plays a part too. Mass access to printed poetry on the page is fairly new in historical terms, but that transition opened up a whole new—or should I say additional— way of engaging with poetry and new visual forms.
Poetry in shapes
Most of us were introduced to concrete poetry in elementary school. We were asked to “make shapes” with the words on the page so that the shape gave a clue to the meaning.
Although the term “concrete poetry” is a modern term from the days of ee cummings and Ezra Pound, the concept of shaping the visual form of the poem to enhance the meaning goes way back. In Alexandria copies survive from the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Simmias of Rhodes wrote a poem in the shape of an egg, and Theocritus shaped his poem like panpipes. In 1633, George Herbert wrote (among others) “Easter Wings” in the shape of angel’s wings.
Here a 1966 poem by John Hollander, “Swan and Shadow” shows how complex and rigid the form can be, and “My Lolipop” written by an elementary student shows how playful and free it can be.
Shape is also important as a statement when poetry and visual art collaborate. Blackout poetry is an example of this—and lots of fun to do.
In this form of “found poetry”, take an existing page of text, a newspaper article, a pamphlet, a performance program, a letter, the page of an old book, or even an existing poem. Identify anchor words within the text and then “blackout” the remaining words with a marker, leaving a new poetic message on the page. If the message can interact with the original text, all the better.
Of course, although the original redaction method popularized by Austin Kleon, involved using a black marker and literally blacking out text, the form has evolved now to a much wider collaboration of visual art and text. Who knows what might come next, especially in our animated digital world.
This form of visual poetry is similar to blackout poetry, except that not just words, but even single letters are retained and left in their original place, but the rest is “erased”.
The result is a visually confusing form that forces the reader to piece the remnants together as they read and allows time to dwell on the message of the new poem. It plays with white space, allowing meaning to bubble up as much from the negative spaces as from the words. Like all found poetry, there are also endless deconstructive possibilities if the texts used are well-known or weighty in terms of issues or political or religious texts.
Another form of poetry/visual art collaboration is the Japanese form “haiga”. In this form, a haiku interacts with a painting. The aim is not to present the same message, but to juxtapose or contradict, or create a synergy where one expands the other. Haiga enriches the already inherent aspect of the haiku tradition where the last line plays one idea or image against another.
Here is an example from the famous poet Matsuo Bashō with an image by Kawanabe Kyōsa :
on a withered branch
a crow is perched
an autumn evening
枯朶に 烏のとまりけり 秋の暮
kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure
The image was painted by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889) but Bashō’s poem was written in 1680, when he was living in Edo (Tokyo) and teaching poetry. How the painting interacts with the haiku is explained beautifully here.
In Western culture, poetry has often been illustrated, especially in children’s anthologies. Graphic poetry goes one step further, using visual images to bring the poem to life visually as an aid to understanding. Dr. Seuss immediately comes to mind.
This form is not limited to poetry for children, however. Several of Richard H. Fay’s poems in Abandoned Towers are good representatives of graphic poetry.
For me, one of the most exciting new ways to present poems, is what is being called a “motion poem” These poetry films came out of a collaboration between filmmaker Angella Kassube and poet Todd Boss in 2008. Their company Motionpoems, pairs video artists with poets to produces films, multimedia installations, pop-up programs, and television documentaries. The process always beings with the poem. Watch a sample at their website.
As someone who loves to dabble with visual art as much as write poetry, I hope the collaboration of poetry and all things visual will continue. I still cherish the experience of sitting quietly with a poem on the page, but opening other avenues for experiencing poetry can only be a good thing. A wider way of sharing the poetic word.
And to this end, I decided to give it a try. Here is my first feeble attempt at reading and illustrating one of my poems, titled Un/natural World.