Friday, April 8, 2016

John Bennett Defines Visual Poetry in the Avant Garde

For National Poetry Month, the Ohio Poetry Association is excited to present a workshop led by John and Cathy Bennett, artists and poets whose work explores the role of language through visual poetry. One might ask: “What is visual poetry?” Indeed this medium may be unfamiliar to many poets.

To address the question, John Bennett offers the following brief examination, just in time for the exciting workshop on Saturday, April 9. The following essay is adapted from his Introduction to Visual Poetry in the Avant Writing Collection, originally published through The Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at The Ohio State University Libraries.

The avant garde workshop promises to be eye-opening for all in attendance, as John and Cathy offer a number of writing exercises, word games, and a close look at a fascinating artistic and literary community to which they have contributed so much during their careers. Get details about the workshop at the OPA website:


by 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 as a curator, practitioner, and collaborator. 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 poets in these traditions. 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.

Mitosis, by Allen Bukoff, 1974
Sweeping aside the sweeping generality above, however, it would be of some use to discuss at least some of what it is that distinguishes visual poetry from standard textual poetry. Perhaps it simply has to do with the fact that it includes strongly visual dimensions that one cannot avoid considering 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 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. 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).

Most visual poets have worked in a variety of other modes and genres, as textual poets and writers, media artists, and in other formats. Their work as visual poets, then, does not exist in a completely separate category, a “compartment” in which the artist/writer works in isolation from his or her other work, but functions 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). (Another excellent recent source and anthology is The Last Vispo Anthology: Visual Poetry 1998–2008, ed. by Crag Hill & Nico Vassilakis, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2012.)

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.