Painting is mute poetry and poetry is speaking painting. – Simonides of Kos, 6th century B.C.
Poetry first (illustrations and collaborations)
In the last section we ended on poetry inspired by art. It can work the other way round, of course, Charles Demuth's 1928 painting, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold is based on the 1920 poem by William Carlos Williams, 'The Great Figure'.
THE GREAT FIGURE
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city
Constable's famous painting, The Hay Wain, is in fact a painting about a poem. I may be one written by Constable himself (now lost) about another painting he completed a few months earlier entitled, 'The Hay Wain'. I've also read that the painting may have been inspired by the poem 'The Task' by W. Cowper:
There from the sun-burnt hay-fields, homeward creeps
The loaded Wain; while, lighten’d of its charge,
The wain that meets it passes swiftly by;
The boorish driver leaning o’er his team,
Vociferous, and impatient of delay. (Lines 295-99)
While Meditations, Frank O'Hara's first collection of poetry, was being prepared for publication, he was approached by a publisher about collaborating with artist Larry Rivers. The resulting project, a series of twelve lithographs titled Stones, was produced between 1957 and 1960. For the work, Rivers and O'Hara worked directly on the stones from which the lithographs were made. O'Hara had to write backward so the text would be readable in the finished lithograph
with two drawings by Larry Rivers. 1951
In 1993, artist Jane Hammond commissioned John Ashbery to create a set of titles that would act as catalysts for her work. The sixty paintings Hammond created in response to Ashbery’s titles are collected in The Ashbery Collaboration, published in 2002 by Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. Judith Stein writes on detail about the project at BNet.
Of course the more common coming together of words and art is the often underappreciated art of book illustration. When I recently reviewed Rachel Fox's poetry collection I compared her to Libby Houston and referenced Houston's second collection, Plain Clothes. What I didn't mention is that Plain Clothes is illustrated by her husband, Mal Dean who did a lot of book illustrations; his cartoons, drawings and paintings have also been published separately.
with illustrations by Mal Dean. 1971
It's certainly not the first poetry collection I've seen with black and white drawings incorporated. To be honest I never gave it much thought in the past. It's like walking into some waiting room and there happens to be a print on the wall; it's just there.
I've never considered asking anyone to illustrate any of my poems but some editors in the past have done. Here's an example from a magazine called Works. I couldn't see a date on it but the poem dates from 1987. (He also removed the dedication – that annoyed me).
I circumcised my heart for her.
It lay bare and bled for days.
But after a while it turned hard.
I still said those familiar things
because I'd always said them and
once they I said them to you
but I don't know if they're true.
The question, and I obviously don't have the answer, is: was the art created to go with the poem or did he just have a few pictures lying around and that one seemed (to him) to be the best fit? I don't think it goes at all.
There are many issues here. Does a poem need illustration? What happens if the wrong illustration is put with the poem? Does it ruin it in some way?
On his website Gene T. adds photographs to a number of Robert Frost poems including 'The Road Not Taken'. This is the picture he uses:
Now Gene comes across as a well meaning guy. And he's gone to a lot of bother to try and get it right. The photo was taken on the Robert Frost Farm, in Derry, New Hampshire where Frost lived from 1900 to 1911. The thing is, the image of the crossroads came to Frost after that and this is confirmed by letter a he wrote to Susan Hayes Ward on February 10, 1912:
Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled.
I don’t think the image is right myself. It's not what I have in my head but has any harm been done? I don't think so but I don't need a photograph to appreciate the imagery of the poem in fact if I'm honest I don't actually visualise any crossroads. The word 'crossroads' and the connotations attached to that word exist without any specific image. Hmm… interesting.
Poetry that looks like art (concrete poetry / typographic poetry)
Concrete poetry is defined as:
…poetry in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of the poem, such as meaning of words, rhythm, rhyme and so on.
At least that's what Wikipedia says and it's not especially helpful. I found a better description of concrete poetry by Dan Waber:
Concrete poets spend so much time looking at the physical substance of language that they find they can't help looking for the physical substance of language in places where most people – and most poets – never think to look.
The human brain seems hardwired, no matter what, for pattern recognition and for metaphor making. All good poetry is actively engaged in the latter. All good concrete poetry actively engages both. – Minimalist Concrete Poetry
Okay that's a bit better. In Theory of Concrete Poetry (1975) its central argument states (in part):
…concrete poetry begins by taking into account graphic space as a structural agent, qualified space; spatio-temporal space, in place of merely temporal-lineal development; thence the importance of the idea of the ideogram… - The Currents of Concretism
Defining concrete poetry is proving a difficult thing but I found this wee list by Ariadne Unst which I found helpful, if a little repetitive:
- If you remove the form of the poem, you weaken the poem.
- In some (though not all) Concrete Poems, the form contains so much significant meaning of the poem that, if you remove the form of the poem, you destroy the poem.
- The arrangement of letters and words creates an image that offers the meaning visually.
- The white space of the page can be a significant part of the poem.
- Such poems can include a combination of lexical and pictorial elements.
- The physical arrangement in a Concrete Poem can provide a cohesion that the actual words lack. This allows a poem to ignore standard syntax, and logical sequencing.
- While such poetry is predominantly experienced as visual poetry, some concrete poetry is sound poetry. In general, concrete poetry attempts to give its audience the more immediate experience of art that is achieved by viewers of art or hearers of music. – Baymoon.com
Why do they all have to be so damn wordy? Here's my list:
- Concrete poetry is an artistic expression of written language.
- Concrete poets make designs out of letters and words.
- Concrete poetry is a poem in the shape of its subject or something related to the subject of the poem.
- The shape of the poem is far more important than with normal linear poetry.
- Even though the visual pattern may catch our eye, it is the language itself that makes the poem poetic.
Let's look at a few simple examples:
This one is less my kind of poem but I think it's a better example because there's no one way to read the piece. It's as if the wind has blown the words about and, for an instant, they've gathered in this shape and this is a snapshot of that moment.
The concrete poetry movement started in Europe and Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s. In the mid-fifties, Eugene Gomringer in Switzerland and a group of poets working together in Brazil, defined concrete poetry as writing that "begins by being aware of graphic space as a structural agent", so that words or letters can be juxtaposed, not only in relation to each other but also to the page area as a whole. The Brazilians - Décio Pignatari, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos-defined "concrete" with an emphasis on the word as a unit in space.
In his essay, From Concrete to Visual Poetry, with a Glance into the Electronic Future, Klaus Peter Dencker makes this helpful comment:
No customary left-right reading will work, no usual sentences, no given sequencing, not even words that had once been complete-the reader must himself become productive, discover constellations, determine double meanings of words, develop his own history with the language material being offered.
What I have struggled to find is why exactly the term concrete poetry to describe what is the most abstract of literary forms.
In this example by the Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan, the shape of the poem effectively gets his point over, the consequence of time on our understanding of history. It's vaguely reminiscent of some ancient scrap of paper: think Dead Sea Scrolls and you'll see where my head is.
The Swiss poet and artist, Eugen Gomringer, who single-handedly founded the European branch of the concrete poetry movement, gives this rather striking example of how to interact with concrete poetry although I would suggest it could be applied to all poetry to be honest.
The constellation is the simplest possible kind of configuration in poetry which has for its basic unit the word; it encloses a group of words as if it were drawing stars together to form a cluster.
The constellation is an arrangement, and at the same time, a play-area of fixed dimensions.
The constellation is ordered by the poet. He determines the play-area, the field or force and suggests its possibilities. The reader, the new reader, grasps the idea of play, and joins in.
In the constellation something is brought into the world. It is a reality in itself and not a poem about something or other. The constellation is an invitation. – From Line to Constellation
The Internet has, of course, allowed this to move onto the next logical step, animated poetry. Three straightforward examples can be found in Born Magazine #1: 'Five Kinds of Weather Roll Across Texas', 'Among the Gospel Trees the Only Moving Thing' and 'What Afterlife'. Here's another of a poem by Octavio Paz, 'Certainty'.
The problem with all of these is that I found having the pace of the poem forced upon my a bit annoying. But perhaps I do read too quickly at times and need to be slowed down.
And then we move onto interactive poetry. Interactivity was a big thing a while ago. People got all excited about it about the same time as someone invented the term "virtual reality" and suggested it might be a bit better than real reality for some cockamamie reason.
Robert Kendall's 'Clues', is an interactive poem including pictures. I'm not sure I get it and I may not be doing it right but it's intriguing. It reminds me of those novels that never really caught on where the author gave you several options: if you want A. to happen turn to page x, if you want B. to happen turn to page y and if you want C. to happen just keep on reading. I liked the idea but it needed the Internet for all that to come together.
A slightly better example is 'Insomnia' by David Jewell where you do get to choose the direction the poem takes.
Jim Andrews' Nio is a more playful piece. In an interview he describes it:
The particular content in it now is a two part interactive audio piece for the Web that combines sound poetry, music, and visual poetry of my animations and vocals. I hope people see it suggests a new form of music. Though, since the audio and the visuals are pretty tightly conjoined, it might be described as a multimedia form rather than solely a musical form. The underlying program, which I wrote in Lingo, is a player, like the Real Player is a player, of synchronized, interactive layers and sequences of audio and animations for the Web. You interactively construct these layers and sequences of sound/animation. It synchronizes multiple layers of rhythmic sound and provides uninterrupted audio between sequenced sound files, and synchronizes the animations with the sound. - Turbulence
Here are three more conventionally animated examples of poems by Billy Collins:
There are a few sites that use animation not simply to compliment the poetry but to attract children. A number of examples can be found on the BBC site. Personally I'm not sure how much these would keep a child's attention. I suppose they might do for an hour or so. I'm a bit too far away from being around little kids to make a realistic assessment.
Another type of animated poem leans more towards concrete poetry. Here are a number of delightful little examples by the Argentinean poet Ana María Uribe, which she calls anipoems: Gym 1, Rebound 1, Spring, Winter and Ladder 3 and this is what she has to say about them:
In Anipoems, the main components are typography and motion, in that order. And once motion is added, rhythm becomes all important, since I work with repetition and short sequences of elements.
Typography and words - as in the old Typoems [her name for static poems] - are still the main elements, since the letters themselves are my source of inspiration. They project themselves into the world around me and they act upon it, and not, as much, the other way around, as one might be led to believe.
These were very early examples. She has since moved on and included sound:
These more recent works also begin to have a plot, however simple it may be. There is a timeline with a starting point, a climax and a denouement. 'A Busy Day' depicts one day in the life of Mr. @. In 'Discipline' the "h"'s (a letter which in Spanish is always mute) are tyrannized by a dictator. In 'Deseo - Desejo – Desire' - a trilingual "erotic" Anipoem - the letters "s" and "i" in "desire" join in a tango dance, forming the Spanish word "si" (=yes), in apparent acceptance. However, on a second reading, "si" in Spanish also means "if", so success should not be taken for granted after all.
In interview she expresses her opinion on e-poetry in general:
I translated the titles into English. On the other hand, language is no obstacle to understanding my web work because most of the poems are based on letters and not words. This is natural: any references you find there are universal. It is obvious that differences in appreciation stem from the various cultural backgrounds.
Nevertheless, I would not say this about all electronic poetry. Some e-poems are very universal. Anybody can understand [the Vietnamese writer] Duc Thuan's 'She' although it is based on an English word. Jim Andrews 'Seattle Drift' is visually so expressive that we sense its meaning even if we do not understand the text. We also have sound e-poems that do not require mastering any language. Most e-poetry, however, is language dependent.
I'm actually not sure I get most visual poetry. A lot of them strike me as a puzzle to work out, visual metaphors, and when you've got them that's it.
p.s. if you can get Film 4 then do yourself a favour and set your recorder for Saturday 01:35 BST. The film is Quiet City. I mentioned it a few blogs ago. It is a beautiful film where nothing particularly happens but that isn't especially important.