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for the eyes: Towards a Poetry of Materials

June ‘19


In my last essay, I wrote about the flexibility of poetry. I described it as more than just literature, whose words are abstract objects for the mind to unpick. Instead, the words in a poem reach out to us directly through our senses. They are concrete things, ‘sensual sculptures’ that sing or dance or paint themselves to life. Thinking of and making poetry in this way is a revolutionary act. One that deepens the reach of poetic expression, and further democratises our culture of poetry.

In this essay I will focus these general statements on the particular field of ‘page poetry’ – those poems printed or written for reading. But I can’t pretend objectivity or expertise in this field. For a long time, I was intimidated by the long white page. Its little black marks felt hostile, unwelcoming. Before I had even begun reading, the poem was communicating quite clearly: this was not for me.

I suspect this is quite a common experience. One that continues to deter many readers from the house of poetry. What is the aesthetic choice responsible for this situation? The answer lies not in critique, which only antagonises the current state. If we want something new, we must look elsewhere for inspiration.

***

In Deptford, outside Ahmed Moustafa’s Fe-Noon gallery, there is a piece of Arabic calligraphy in the shape of a horse. Approaching it for the first time, my impression was of a picture, not a paragraph. And that picture told me something, so that I felt its meaning before reading it. The image foreshadowed the text, expressing its intention without referring to its semantic meaning. When I finally did turn to reading, I was taken to a deeper level of understanding. Words were foreshadowed by an image, which was in turn deeper explained by its own words.

 

“The poem is where idea and image find unity in the printed word”

 

Fish

When my beloved offers the cup
Graven idols are crushed,

And those who gaze into that intoxicating eye
Call ecstatically for rescue.

I plunge into that ocean like a fish
Craving the beloved’s hook,

I fall pleading at those feet
In hope of a helping hand

O happy the heart who like Hafez
Is drunk with the wine of creation.

Poem No 144 from the Divan of Hafez
Translation: Jila Peacock

Take this example, a poem by Hafez put onto paper by Jila Peacock. Take a second to look at it, without reading. Without knowing anything of the text, you already understand something of the poem. This fish, bent double, is already there for you. It seems to be falling down the page. Is that a limp tail, resigned to the pull of the current? Or is it poised, ready to push the body towards salvation? Now read the poem (an english translation is availably by hovering over the image). Doing so, we gain a deeper understanding. The fish gazes at the surface of the water, frozen in a moment both mournful and full of hope. The fish has come alive for us, and we understand how it feels.

The calligrapher has communicated with us beyond the usual limits of the written word. There is the usual linguistic communication, through words that speak with semantic content. And there is the image, the shape of the poem that speaks to us photosemantically. By this I mean that it speaks with a layer of meaning that is not linguistic, but photographic. The poem is articulating in two completely unrelated registers – the linguistic, and the imagistic. More impressively, it does so harmoniously. This piece is not made of two distinct parts: the picture and the word, the form and the content. It is one poem, where idea and image find unity in the printed word.

***

This is not a rare example of some obscure artist distorting language beyond its usual uses. We are daily surrounded by words that reach to as rich visual compositions. During rare trips on the tube, I’m often surprised by the Poems on the Underground series and how they contrast the adverts next to them. Where one offers a restful, reflective space, the other rushes with garish colours and loud clothing. Where one demands time and concentration, the other only wants attention for a moment. This comparison illustrates the distance which poetry maintains between itself and other cultures of the written word.

 

“At every opportunity, the advert visually expresses its unique identity”

 
 

The British advertising industry has recently taken a big interest in poetry, with many young poets commissioned for large-scale campaigns. This is not surprising. Poetry is a thriving art, and businesses will always buy their way into the zeitgeist. Adverts acquire the hard earned cultural capital of modern poetry by integrating its aesthetics. And this acquisition is relatively simple. With its short lines and emphasis on the ephemeral/aphoristic, the advert is already very interested in the poetic use of language. Where it currently differs from the poem is in its delivery of this language.

Take a look at your nearest paper printed advert (I’ve included some examples below, if needed). Billboard, poster or magazine, it most likely uses several different fonts. If only 1 font is used, it will be applied dynamically – with varied colours, sizes, boldness etc. The advert is giving you its own handwritten twist on the English alphabet, shaping its words to visually express itself.

These words arrange themselves across the surface to interact with the pictures, graphics and logos surrounding them. They may even overlap, appearing one moment as a group of disembodied, floating letters, and the next as physically written onto a concrete thing. Different writings merge and sit side by side with visual objects, all coordinating themselves within one image.

You look, and read, and look again, switching between parts that complement each other, without difficulty. They present to you a richly contextualized image, each voice contributing to a nuanced perspective of the object described. At every opportunity, the advert visually expresses its unique identity. The result is both an immediate and an intimate understanding of that identity. As with Peacock’s calligraphy, you knew something of this advert the minute you set eyes on it. It reached out to your body, speaking to your sense of sight in a language tailored for it.

Let’s return to the Poem on the Underground, or any typical example of a printed poem. Look for a second at the text without reading. See its colour, its shape. How strict those little black scribbles are! They stand unyielding and stern, demanding your attention. And how stony the page they sit on! That lonely desert is no support, no nourishment to their story. They fend for themselves, huddling together in squadrons and units to interrogate.

I am used to vibrance. I live in a vivid world and thirst for stimulation. I turn to the poem and find no colour, no life. It is an inhospitable place, unsympathetic to my needs as a reader. As though my eyes were somehow an inconvenience, a necessary thing to communicate through, but not one worth involving in the conversation. If I want the truths that page poetry professes to hold, I will have to learn to look in a new way. I will have to bend myself to its demands.

***

Why does our written poetry live in such a harsh environment? Who does this austerity benefit? We have taken to the stage, and claimed a new poetry for it. In many ways, this is a beautiful alternative to the established ways of the past. But it remains an alternative. The spoken word cannot be a substitute for the written, and we mustn’t mistake an alternative for an alteration.

The fundamental aesthetic form of our poetry remains unchallenged. It treats words not as things for the body to feel, but as abstract shapes to be decoded. Such a poetry dulls the senses. Worse, it imposes rigid conditions of engagement. It treats language only as an intellectual exercise, a game of signs and symbols. And if for some reason you struggle to play this game, then you are excluded without apology.

Reworking this conception of language is the most subversive aesthetic step we can take towards a new poetry. It’s for us to shape our materials in ways that challenge their accepted uses, by innovating on current forms. We have our page and our pen, our screen and our keyboard. But we are only half invested in these if we ignore the vast range of possibilities they present.

 

“The word is never just an abstract thing, it stands solid in the materials that embody it.”

 

These possibilities live in the material nature of language. Freeing ourselves to experiment in this nature takes a holistic approach to our art. It recognises that the word is never just an abstract thing, but stands solid in the materials that embody it. Opening these avenues of expression, we more fully articulate the identity of our poems and ourselves. We speak from the body, to the body, in the multi-sensual language native to it.

Our poetry becomes a living thing, manifesting the world it inhabits. It leaves behind the old attitude of detached abstraction, favouring its own personality over the blank objectivity of the page. It walks comfortably in public, proud to express itself among the clutter. It speaks with many voices so that all might hear, sensitive to its audience, many of whom already excluded. It takes ownership of every part of itself as a valid form of expression, and in so doing opens itself to a whole new relation with the world.

The examples in this article show that such poetry is possible, and in many ways is already present. Our written language is already opening itself to visual expression in the form of gifs, emojis and memes. These sit alongside the written word, complementing it and enriching our conversations. Elsewhere, the often mocked instapoets are encouraging writers to work in ways that exploit the platform’s visual nature. As poets, we ought to take them as motivation in building an art that beautifies the page.

What this looks like, there is no guessing. These examples give us clues but are not blueprints nor solutions to be copied. We have to trust our artistic instincts and take steps into unknown lands. And where this seems impossible, we need the humility to collaborate with and learn from others.

Happy writing. ☺


As in my last article, I would like to leave you with some examples that inspire me to explore the visual possibilities of poetry:

  • Tom Phillips, especially A Humument (available at The Poetry Library)

  • Jila Peacock, Ten Poems From Hafez (available at The Poetry Library)

  • Saul Williams, Said The Shotgun To The Head (available at The Poetry Library)

  • Poppy Frean, Gospel - (@poppyfrean__)

Please get in touch if you have any you would like to share, I am always looking for more! You can find me and my experiments in photopoetry on my website: www.slamthepoet.com