An Introduction to Concrete & Visual Poetry|
The trouble is we confuse poetry with verse, one of my Introduction to Poetry students said recently. Poetry includes prose and verse. The definition of poetry is not verse. That’s a smart student, making a good case for her beloved prose poem. I would go one further and argue that poetry includes a wide, wide range of poetic forms and approaches from verse to visual, concrete to sound, prose to conceptual. One is not a deviant subgenre of the other, rather they are all found under the umbrella of poetry.
What would the poetry world look and sound like if that were the common idea among practitioners, readers and educators? What if the average poetry lovers’ reading list were actually varied? I ask the latter because having grown up in Canada in the ’70s I had the pleasure, from an early age, of encountering a full range of poetries, thanks largely to editor Gary Geddes’ 20th Century Poetry & Poetics, published by Oxford University Press, Canada. The edition we used in my junior high class (and which I carried around for many years afterward), included poets such as Kenneth Patchen alongside P.K. Page, Emily Dickinson, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. Later anthologies edited by Geddes, included poets such as bill bissett and concrete poetry from bpNichol. In other words, poetry for me, from an early age, has not been a strictly formal affair with left-hugging, rigidly-coiffed margins crafted in strained and often self-important tones. Rather it has been curious, playful, risky, full of colour and sound, irreverence and even passion.
But lest anyone think that poetics is a straight line leading toward a land of abundance and appreciation, bare in mind that the inclusion of such wacky poems as Patchen’s “Only Cherries,” was short lived. Later versions of 20th Century Poetry & Poetics have absented the entire strand of concrete and visual poetry. In fact the last version of Geddes anthology is almost entirely lyric and largely British and/or American influenced—sort of like the bulk of the major poetry prize lists. I am told that concrete and visual poetry has been a phase in Canada and has since died out.
Anyone who knows anything about Canadian poetry knows that is not true. More importantly, how does a strand of a nation’s literature “die out”? And even if we could all agree that yes, it was possible a strand might be considered less important now than it once was, why would that necessarily mean a particular strand be excluded from national dialogues and anthologies?
Of course all of this is even more ridiculous when one realizes the number and variety of concrete and visual poets working not only in Canada, but around the world. One might argue that it is more relevant than ever. In fact my co-editor, derek beaulieu, along with Jason Christie and a.rawlings edited Shift & Switch, an anthology of new Canadian poets and poetry that includes a high number of concrete and visual poets. Recently beaulieu, and a few other Canadian poets, showed up in a folio of concrete poetry in Poetry Magazine, an event that bodes well for a larger sense of what poetry can be.
Though even that folio, edited by Geof Huth, was met with some scepticism. Where is visual poetry’s great prose stylist, one of the Harriet bloggers asked, suggesting several poets of the lyric persuasion as the pinnacle to which all writing about poetry must strive toward. But what if visual poetry isn’t looking for conventional prose stylings? What if writing about concrete and visual poetry sounds and reads a little differently than writing about lyric poetry?
One useful question to ask might be who is writing about concrete and visual poetry in a way that opens up the form for those unfamiliar? Many seem to have trouble reading concrete and visual poetry and many simply feel at a loss in terms of how to approach it. Particularly those who come expecting verse. Perhaps one way to think of it is that like conceptual poetry, concrete and visual poetry seems closer to contemporary art than most lyric, narrative or formal poetry. And like conceptual art concrete and visual poetry is hard to commodify. It may well mirror our material world, but as beaulieu points out in his commentary on concrete poetry, it is non-representational; it offers eruptions, negations, and distortions. It may be language with libidinal desires, but those are typeset, strategized, rubbed away, collaged, sculpted, reconfigured. It makes us aware of space in an entirely different manner. It has more in common with Rachel Whiteread than Seamus Heaney, though it is often no less muscular or musical.
As a.rawlings observes in her excellent reading of Donato Mancini’s “Subjecthood and the Light Verb,” we begin any poem by appreciating its printed quality, the way it is placed on a page, the length of the lines, etc, “the primary emphasis in visual poetry is on a text’s graphic presence.” Or absence, as is the case with a text like derek beaulieu’s Flatland, a book, Gregory Betts notes, “overloaded with paratextual words; words that wrap around the project.” Words are not strangers to images and vice versa. There are always artists that include text—Roni Horn (see Gurgles, Sucks, Echoes,) and Louise Bourgeois in particular. Who is to say what medium best articulates the visual elements of a word? The poets included in this folio may be instructive.