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ENGL 2240: Pt.3 Concrete/Visual Forms


"Concrete" or "visual poetry" are very similar in both artistic expression and poetic creativity.  Unsatisfied with "traditional" poetic forms, these poems represent a departure from the strict confines of form.  These two forms are not, however, exactly alike.  In concrete poetry, the "white page" (or in the poem "Ow the Dow," black) is considered a backdrop, like a canvas in painting.  To the poet, e.e. cummings (yes, all lower-case letters) the page was a "field," and thus, the "field technique" was born.  The primary difference between the two is that "visual poetry" is meant to "visualize" the topic of the poem.  In our case, a bird feeder, a Christmas tree, a swan, etc.  You could make the argument that "rpopahessagr" moves like a grasshopper across the white field of the page, but that's what makes it NOT a visual poem, it doesn't look like a grasshopper.

What's important here, with these poems, are the same things we expect from other poetry:  a reader's reaction and response, either intellectually or viscerally (in the gut).  For example, the poem "I," as simplistic and unassuming as it is, opens a lot of pathways for exploration and interpretation.  What is the first thing you notice about this poem?  Is it that the poem is in the shape of a lower-case letter "i"?  or is it the whorls of a singular fingerprint?

Both tend to push the reader to some sort of interpretation (notice that begins with the letter "i") concerning identity (again, and "i") or individuality (another "i") or even independence (yet another "i").  We can interpret "I" as meaning the self, (I own this, I went to the bank, I control my destiny) or an "I" which depends on how we "define" ourselves.  Of course, the fingerprint (unique, like each of us) is just one of the multiple layers of interpretation this poem offers.  Even, the homonymic "eye" seems to say, "I am watching."

"Ow the Dow" (the Dow Stock Exchange) is another concrete poem that actively forces the reader to participate in the poem.  With each line, the reader must both, read, interpret, create meaning, and then reinterpret as the poem progresses.  Each line makes a statement, most would agree that it's a political one, and the red letters on the black background only serve to add to the level of symbolism here.  What does the "red" stand for?  Blood? Blood money? You could easily make that argument.  What about the black?  What could it represent?  "Black Friday?" Darkness?  Evil?

As I mentioned earlier, "rpopahessagr" means to imitate the motion, movement of a grasshopper.  This poem, on the surface, seems just a scramble of haphazard letters and words strewn across the page.  However, if you look at cummings' directions (SEE cummings' "Proof") for the printer, there is a very sophisticated method to his placement of letters where, in addition to the lines, the rows of letters are of importance.  Does that open any more levels of interpretation?  Certainly, but like most concrete poetry, it depends on the level of the reader's participation in the poem to determine, to tease out, further complexities.

Like concrete poetry, visual poetry asks the reader to participate in the poem.  However, with visual poetry, the reader's participation is more visual than intellectual, and although the reader will need to "interpret," the majority of the reader's participation occurs with the eyes: recognizing the image, reading the poem, watching how the words (and which words) are employed to create shape, form, and meaning.

The first poem in our readings, "The Birdbell Cafe," might be rather simplistic, a little sentimental, even rudimentary.  This poem came from a writing workshop I gave many years ago.  One of the participants, Mary Stealey (who has since passed) took the visual poetry assignment and knocked it out of the park!  She was 82 at the time!  Regretfully, I don't have a copy of the runner-up, a poem called "Fences," which depicted a picket fence, where each picket began with the letter "A" (for the point) and the crossbars, themselves, created lines or sentences across the page.  The poem "Needles" employs the same, rather simplistic depictions, and includes everyone's experience with the post-Christmas evergreen.

"Swan and Shadow" is, perhaps, the most famous of the visual poems. When this poem first appeared in Poetry magazine in 1969 it established a new "branch" of concrete poetry and is credited with the shift and movement away from "concrete" to "visual" poetry. The poem succeeds on many levels.  Visually, it's perfect: a swan and its watery double; the way the poem "reflects" (emphasis) and depicts the "mirroring" quality of water; and how the words themselves accumulate to convey a sense of beauty, tranquility, serenity, and peacefulness.

In the same vein, May Swenson's "How Everything Happens" makes use of the "field technique" established by cummings, but also uses the "space" to create movement, by visualizing an ocean wave, mimicking its back-and-forth repetitiveness, its fluidity if you will.  What strikes me most about this poem is the title "How Everything Happens" (italics mine).  Is this the way everything happens?  It's thought-provoking, to say the least, and the contrast between the lulling lines, and the stirring, sophisticated simplicity of repetition, and yet, that last line, which is in the act of rising, seems to say, "Stand up!"  "Act! " "Witness!"