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Visual Poetry
Copyright©2004 by Alvin G. Ens

In the fourteenth century, Chaucer’s poetry was written to be heard; so was Tennyson’s in the nineteenth and Robert Service’s in the early twentieth. Aural effects were a powerful driving force in all traditional poetry with rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, repetition and more. By contrast, modern poetry is often meant to be seen, to be discovered on the page. Visual effects, therefore, become significant.

Experimental poetry, concrete poetry and even doodling are on the fringe of such poetic endeavor. But visual poetry has long gone mainstream. Even a Shakespearean sonnet, punctuated as three quatrains with an indented couplet, is a visual delight of balance, harmony and climax [see Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116].

A rhythmic, rhyming ballad of alternating four beat – three beat lines is auditory; its spacing with indented second and fourth line is a visual effect. Its short lines and regular four line stanzas give it a fast-paced narrative view and, not surprisingly, most use of the ballad form is for narratives. Look for a moment at two versions of Wilfred Campbell’s short poem, “Indian Summer.” While it is neither fast-paced nor narrative, it feels light and seems to flow quite quickly through three short lined stanzas.

          Along the line of smoky hills
                    The crimson forest stands,
          And all the day the blue-jay calls
                    Throughout the autumn lands.

          Now by the brook the maple leans,
                    With all his glory spread;
          And all the sumachs on the hills
                    Have turned their green to red.

         Now, by great marshes wrapt in mist,
                    Or past some river's mouth,
          Throughout the long still autumn day
                    Wild birds are flying south.

Let’s note the visual effect of combining each two lines in what now looks slow, ponderous and, I dare say, a bit dull.

          Along the line of smoky hills the crimson forest stands,
          And all the day the blue-jay calls throughout the autumn lands.
          Now by the brook the maple leans, with all his glory spread;
          And all the sumachs on the hills have turned their green to red.
          Now, by great marshes wrapt in mist, or past some river's mouth,
          Throughout the long still autumn day wild birds are flying south

Modern free verse, by definition, tries to be free of rules. Not surprisingly, it eventually develops its own conventions. Much of modern poetry has developed the unwritten rule that it will justify left. This has resulted in poetry that is more un-aesthetic than the traditional poetry with its symmetry of regular stanzas. Many poets seem blithely unaware or uncaring of the aesthetics of a written page.

Some, however, are very conscious of the visual effect, conscious of technopaegnia (the art of ‘shaped poems’ in which the visual force is supposed to work spiritually or magically, or I would add psychologically) and typography (the arrangement or appearance or style of that which is printed), conscience of the aesthetics of form, spacing, pattern and design. At its worst, form becomes a hindrance to reading; at its best, it enhances and aids content. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly Risking Absurdity” is a prime example of good visual poetry as the tightrope walker totters above his audience.

A first visual effect which aids content is to break the poem into lines. You may want to start breaking it by the units of grammatical construction: break the line by clauses, the natural carriers of thought; next separate prepositional phrases or other modifying elements as appositives or participial phrases. Richly embedded text may want to separate into subject and predicate.

Here are the ingredients of a poem which comes out of a trip on a very hot day to Calgary Zoo: I saw a bear pacing slowly, a wolf looking nonchalantly, a pride of lions asleep. I saw an eagle confined to a small enclosure and reduced to feeding from handouts. Only a young giraffe was cavorting. Let’s try some spacing:

                          Calgary Zoo

          A bear’s slow pace (a single subject on a single line)
          A wolf’s nonchalant look
          A pride’s lethargic mid-day sleep
(three pictures in a separate line for each)
                    Purposeless pathetic indolent (three adjectives indented to show a further thought)
                              Welfare bums (a further summary thought)
(The previous two lines are an appositive, a repeat or synonym of the aforementioned animals)

          An eagle (subject of the sentence)
                    Cabined cribbed crazed (three modifiers of eagle)
                              Confined to an existence (a participial phrase)
                                        The length and height (How big is the cage?)
                                                  Of a stone’s throw (you could throw a stone as far)
                    Surveys his kingdom (the predicate of the sentence)
                              And forages for a handout (a second verb, also the predicate)

If grammar is Greek to you, try to let sound shape the form. Read it aloud until the sound and sight bits seem to coincide. Even if grammar is familiar, do the aural test as a review when editing. Read aloud by line indications; next try reading silently for content only. Then stop and visualize the form alone. Now decide if form and content may be married. Some writers would say that form and content should be equal partners; some that form should always be subservient. A harmonious marriage does not even raise the issue.

Natural breaks give flow to the piece; sharp or unnatural breaks give it abruptness or tentativeness. All breaks give speed, emphasis or immediacy. The form may look fresh and dynamic or slow and ponderous.

Next place the lines in some visually pleasing form between left and right margins. Note that the convention seems to be to justify left. Our habitual eye expects as much and may need a purpose for anything other. Centering short lines of poetry or varying lengths of lines gives symmetry to the page and I believe that is sometimes a sufficient reason. The occasional justification right can be effective and perhaps shocking. School yearbooks have long utilized it on the left page of a double page spread to give balance to the white spaces on left and right. I use both right and left justifications in the same piece to show a contrast or dialogue. Here’s a piece contrasting my wife and me:


Immune to much of the commerce
within the kitchen,
I dutifully help with clean-up,
standing not five feet from the stove,
as my wife bustles in
from rummaging in the freezer,
straight to the stove.
"Oh dear, I burnt them;
I missed the timer.
I’ll have to throw them out.
Why do I even bother?”
I interpose, “Aw, they’re not burnt;
they’re just darker, crisper.”
"Who will eat them?
I can’t serve them to company.”
Gallantly, an atonement
for male ineptitude,
I volunteer, “I’ll eat them.”
The sample, at first sweet,
turns bitter as I chew the scorched bottom.
The aftertaste of charcoal remains,
just like the feeling
of my own inadequacy.

Beyond justification is the indenting of individual lines and the spacing between words. Try indenting modifiers and subordinate ideas. If you have balanced ideas, a similar indentation pattern can be effective. Indenting also adds another visual effect. It may set off words and thus highlight them. Misalignment may show incongruity or startle us. Additional spacing between words adds its own distance to the thoughts or forces our brain to contemplate the import of an individual word or small group of words. Let’s try the zoo piece again with spacing of words to show slow pacing and lethargy, and the crowded confines of an eagle’s cage and show the eagle descending in a slow glide, a descent both physical and in dignity, to receive a handout. See the giraffe cavorting haphazardly with just a hint in the last line that the space will eventually become as restrictive as the confinement in stanza one. I have chosen to start with a basic centering of the text.

                                                    Calgary Zoo

                                        a       bear’s      slow      pace
                           a wolf’s               nonchalant               look
                                a pride’s lethargic      mid-day sleep
                                           purposeless    pathetic
                                        indolent    welfare    bums

                                                        an eagle
                                         cabined   cribbed   crazed
                                         the   length   and   height
                                         of    a   stone’s   throw
                                         surveys   his   kingdom

                                                                              for a

                                a                                  young
                               in                                subconscious
                                           of                             a
                                           he’ll    never    know

As poetry becomes more individualistic so too is the breaking into arbitrary units on the page. Some seems to be merely random. But then, perhaps I have just not yet found the flow or lack of continuity of thought in the piece. Does it show a careful thought in arrangement, a cheap flaunting of conventional writing, or simply an absence of thought to how form should aid content?

Modern convention has freed us of the rule to capitalize the first word of each line. Some modern writers choose to use no capitalization. By capitalizing only the few words he wishes to emphasize, e.e.cummings has long shown us the visual power of simple capitalization. The occasional poet adds emphasis by writing a word or section in only capitals. Too much capitalization makes the piece look heavy.

While poetry books may add the occasional picture or photo, more may be done with graphics, much as publishers are trying to make textbooks more reader-friendly. Such graphics as dropped capital, borders, shading, side-bar, over-printing or repeating header can add visual effect. The computer allows us to play with font choice, script size, bold print, italics and even color.

Still, it is good to remember that no number of visual effects can compensate for insipid thinking or shallow emotion. And it is more important to choose the effective word than to highlight a weak one artificially. Good visual effects merely add to profound thought and deep emotion.

The only rule to remember in writing modern poetry, and thus in creating visual poetry, is that rules are meant to be broken for effect and not for caprice. I cannot tell you of every visual device that is possible. The thought and emotion in the poem will determine what visual effect is desirable to communicate effectively with form on the printed page.

What do you think? Please write and let us know.