• Grant Caldwell

This paper is an investigation into the apparent fluctuating interest in and practice of visual poetry in Western culture through its history and form. The article will address in particular visual poetry (VP) in the 20th and early 21st centuries and the notion that the fluctuation coincides with the ‘crisis of sign’, reflecting a crisis of culture. While the crisis of sign may have been, and may continue to be, a fundamental driver of the 20th-century manifestation of VP, this article will argue that there are other possible factors contributing to its surges of interest, especially in the 20th century.


Keywords: visual poetry – crisis of sign – expressive medium

It is apparent that the interest in the practice of visual poetry (VP) in Western culture has experienced periods of significant rise and decline over the centuries. In his book Modern visual poetry (2001), Willard Bohn points to these surges of interest and activity and this notion will be closely examined and questioned, with the aim of suggesting other possible influences on the haphazard interest in the mode of VP.

In order to proceed, it is important to understand what is meant here by the term VP, and to locate it under the umbrella term of concrete poetry (CP). Mary-Ellen Solt helps clarify this distinction in her book: Concrete poetry: a world view (1970) when she cites the English critic, Mike Weaver, who ‘distinguishes three types of concrete poetry: visual (or optic), phonetic (or sound) and kinetic (moving in a visual succession)’ (1970: 7). This article will focus on VP for simplicity and depth, and because it is VP that has, it seems, maintained a more constant, if irregular presence in Europe and the Americas and Australia.             

The Impermanence of Concrete
To contextualise and clarify just what is VP (and CP), it may be helpful to provide a brief, general historical background. According to The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics (2012) the term was created in the mid-1950s by the Swiss-Bolivian poet Eugen Gomringer and the Brazilian poets Decio Pignatari and Haroldo and Augusto de Campos:

Their 1958 ‘Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry’ outlines a distinct approach in which form and meaning (material expression and reference field) would be as close to each other as possible. Thus, concrete suggests a unification of the word with its presentation (2012: 294).

Visual poetry has had a ‘long and fascinating history’ (Bohn 2001: 16) going back many centuries. Bohn refers to the fact of it ‘declining during the twelfth century’, being ‘revived during the Renaissance’, whereupon it ‘fell into disrepute during the neoclassical age and was essentially neglected until the beginning of the twentieth century’ (2001: 16). This would suggest that the mode of VP has experienced surges of interest over the years. The question that arises is: if we can assume VP as a separate mode of poetry to verse (poetry written in conventional lines), why is it that it declines and revives so, and are there implications for culture and art in this fluctuation? Solt’s comments on the unconventionality of VP provide some insight into these questions, when she identifies the essence of CP as one of perception while using words or letters.

the concrete poet is concerned with making an object to be perceived rather than read. The visual poem is intended to be seen like a painting; the sound poem is composed to be listened to like music (1970: 7).

Here Solt is acknowledging the conventionally ungraspable nature of concrete poetry. She is also identifying the importance of the reader or perceiver in the art. Generally speaking, the receiver of poetry or art is prepared to read a piece of work according to convention, and this is confounded when their faculties are confronted with something that looks like it should be read (or listened to), when it has been made to be perceived. It is neither just literature nor painting (or music) but something in-between. Essentially, VP is neither and both a visual and a literary art.

The Problem of Meaning
Contemporary VP, indeed all concrete poetry in the 20th and 21st centuries, seems to have evolved from influential, early 20th-century contexts such as Cubism, Futurism, Dada, and later Concrete and Lettrist poetry.1 Some significant literary figures from this period borrowed from the developments in modern visual arts and reacted to cultural/societal changes to produce poems that revolutionised the notion of a poem and the traditional use of language: Apollinaire, (who was influenced by Cubism’s collage and spatial arrangements), Ezra Pound (influenced by the Chinese written character or ideogram), Filippo Marinetti (a Futurist who employed radical syntax and space, with newspaper/advertising typographical codes) and Kurt Schwitters (who borrowed Dadaist elements of ‘no-sense’, primitivism, abstraction). But because of its diverse, haphazard and surging nature, it has been difficult to define exactly. In this sense, it could be said that its haphazard and surging nature may have contributed to its haphazard and surging nature. As late as 1970 Mary Ellen Solt observed:

The term ‘concrete poetry’ is now being used to refer to a variety of innovations and experiments following World War II which are revolutionizing the art of the poem on a global scale and enlarging its possibilities for expression and communication. There are now so many kinds of experimental poetry being labeled “concrete” that it is difficult to say what the word means (1970: 7).

This sense of vagueness of definition which points to its success in its own terms through its wide and variable manifestation, nevertheless could be a contributor to its lack of critical attention, noted by Bohn in his book The aesthetics of visual poetry 1914–1928 (1983: 1), as well as its variable uptake, even during this volatile age of modernism. While VPs great variance in its manifestation or application also brings about its vagueness, its fundamental basis is not difficult to define, and has remained the same, at least throughout the modern era. Bohn defines VP as, ‘For all intents and purposes … poetry that is meant to be seen—poetry that presupposes a viewer as well as a reader’ (2001: 15). This accords with Solt’s earlier view from 1970 and suggests that its underlying nature has not changed in 30 years and probably much longer.

Bohn points out that all written poetry has visual elements but ‘Where visual poetry differs from ordinary poetry is in the extent of its iconic dimension, which is much more pronounced, and in its degree of self-awareness’ (2001: 15). The ‘extent of iconic dimension’ is referring to the pronounced degree to which visual poets extend the range of possible visual characteristics of the linear conventions of the page. The result is a drawing of attention to the visual aspects of the poem as much as to the literary or word aspects. Again, perhaps it is this variance that contributes to the difficulty that critics and academics have with the mode—its obvious duality—that in turn contributes to its surges of interest. How is an art critic or academic to address a work that is partly concerned with language; or a literary critic address a work that is partly visual? And how are artists or poets to maintain their interest and practice of a mode without critical response to that mode? This raises a further question that will not be addressed here but bears mentioning: is the practice of a mode of poetry or art affected by the lack of critical response to it?

Surges in Interest: the Crises of the Sign          
Bohn points out that visual poetry was practiced as far back as ancient Greece and that it seemed to surge during times of cultural crisis when, as Francois Rigolot (1978) puts it, quoted and translated from the French by Bohn, ‘the formulators of culture … question their expressive medium’ (2001: 16). In other words, the surges occur as a result of a questioning of the sign, or what Bohn (and Claude Leroy) refers to as a crisis of the sign, which reflects a crisis of culture. But instead of seeing this as representing a declining era, as Rigolot and Geoffrey Cook seem to do (indeed, they regard it as having ‘nothing new to contribute’), Bohn identifies it with the era that is destined to replace it (2001: 17). As he goes on to point out, ‘Thus a change in one area automatically produces a change in the other’ (2001: 18). In other words, these crises of the sign reflect a crisis of culture when the established understanding of truth and what represents it is thrown into doubt, and the visual poem, which represents a visual and linguistic representation of something, is a perfect vehicle for questioning, as it escapes the conventional both visually and linguistically, but also, as a combined mode, it challenges the viewer/reader to question or reflect on the nature of these different modes.

Bohn writes that interest in visual poetry declined through the 12th century and revived again in the Renaissance (with poets such as George Herbert), ‘fell into disrepute’ during the neo-classical age, then was ‘essentially neglected until the beginning of the twentieth century’ (2001: 16). This later resurgence coincided with the new technologies which allowed for new forms of print: advertising, newspapers, poster art, etc., which were mass-produced for a wider audience than just the literate bourgeois audience. Additionally, new forms of communication had emerged in the late 19th century—typewriter (1873), phonograph (1877), wireless telegraph (1894), cinema (1895), phototypesetting (1895), magnetic audio recording (1899)—that allowed and inspired further innovation with the conventions of language (Morley 2003: 37). It seems self-evident that these technologies would have occurred with or without a crisis of sign, but they certainly facilitated the experimental art and writing of the early 20th century. Indeed, the technologies continued to develop apace throughout the century (as they continue to do today) and with them the increasing spread of communication, and the ever-growing literate bourgeois.

The late 19th century was a period of great change due in some part to these technological breakthroughs. Great change can create great uncertainty, and it is likely that this uncertainty produced the need for another ‘language’ that reduced the arbitrariness of conventional language, the gap between the signifier and the signified: in other words, a cultural crisis of sign.

While literacy was becoming universal, and words and images through the exigencies of commerce were being disseminated throughout the urban environment, these phenomena also had the effect of undermining confidence in language as the cheapening and dehumanizing impact of the mass media was felt. Indeed, a major consequence of these huge changes was that despite the obvious signs of confidence and exuberance, and of progress and change for the better, late nineteenth-century culture was for many shadowed by a growing sense of profound doubt and suspicion. This was a crisis rooted in the recognition that language no longer necessarily bound man to a tangible world (Morley 2003: 23).

Concrete poetry, especially VP, was one such product, as it utilized both the temporal (writing) and the spatial (visual) to bring the sign closer to the referent.

Bohn discusses the late 19th century cultural changes, with the growing experiments in verbal-visual relationships as a product (or reflection) of ‘the crisis of sign’ or ‘a series of crises’:

Like the invention of collage at about the same time, the appearance of visual poetry confirms Foucault’s conclusion that the relation between ‘words and           things’ changed irrevocably. For the first time in several hundred years, they were      free, among other things, to co-exist in the same work of art (2001: 18).

In other words, the growing doubt created an atmosphere that encouraged artists and writers to challenge the conventional forms of expression, sometimes to the extreme, sometimes as if these artists and writers were attempting to outdo each other with their boldness, the extremity of their experimentation.

Bohn writes that the ‘formulators of culture’ questioned their expressive medium ‘during the Alexandrian period, the Carolingian age, the fifteenth century, the so-called “baroque” era, {and our century}’ (2001: 16), reasoning that this ‘undoubtedly explains why these periods have witnessed the greatest enthusiasm for visual poetry’ (2001: 16). The periods cited range from 100 years to three centuries (Alexandrian period), and Bohn then includes the Renaissance, another three hundred year period, which ‘produced some two thousand [VP] works’ (2001: 16).

Incidences of enthusiasm for VP and other experimental or avant-garde movements have been frequent in the 20th and early 21st centuries, arguably another elongated period of cultural crisis or questioning of the expressive medium. Perhaps at this distance, these movements have seemed more frequent than in past eras: Dada, Free Verse, Surrealism, Cubism, Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, Imagism, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, Concrete poetry, etc. But it is also possible that the rapid developments in technology and communication, as well as the increasing threat of apocalypse (recently from climate change as well as from military conflict), have contributed to this plethora of movements that challenge the status quo. The aim of this article is to review other possibilities for the surging nature of the practice of VP, especially in the modern era, and perhaps a closer examination of the verbal sign as object in art will further illuminate this review.

The Verbal Sign as Object in Art
In his introduction to the SA School of Art exhibition at SASA Gallery (University of South Australia) in 2012, Melbourne-based poet, architect and lecturer, Alex Selenitsch, who has been part of the oscillating Melbourne concrete poetry movement since the 1970s, refers to this arbitrariness as the utility that visual poets have been exploiting, on and off, since the early 20th century:

The limbo of arbitrariness is only there if language is atomized … In use, language is a rolling circus of gestures, sounds, formats, and occasions, never a simple isolated unit … This complexity provides the arena for closing the arbitrary divide (2012: n.p.).         

This ‘arena’ may be where and why the visual poet can create a composition that contextualises its signifiers and reduces the arbitrariness, as well as drawing the attention of the viewer to this arbitrariness.

As a symbol of the significance of this early period of modernism, and a forerunner of the link between poetry and the visual arts, in 1897, a year before his death, Stéphane Mallarmé’s influential Un Coup de Dès was published (although it was not published as he had intended until 1914). Simon Morley writes that this work ‘highlights the visual status of the verbal sign, making the reader aware of the concrete, material nature of letters and words’ (2003: 30) by using radical spatial arrangements of text and the ‘typographic irregularities that are typical of the newspaper … [so that] rather than directing us towards a tangibly represented reality we are instead made to ponder the word’s materiality … ’ (2003: 31). In many senses Mallarmé could be said to have been using the ‘arena’ of visual poetry to negate the ‘limbo of arbitrariness’ or at least to highlight it.

This was a time when artists and poets began to bring images and words together in ways that had not been done before.

At the same time that Mallarmé was creating Un Coup de Dès many visual artists (such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Gauguin, Kirchner, Matisse, Picasso, Braque) became highly interested in the co-presence of word and image in their art as a means to escape naturalism (Morley: 27). The effect of incorporating text in the painting allowed for paintings to be ‘understood as a construction …  a matrix of signs or symbols that are not so much to be seen as read as part of an enigmatic evocation’ (Morley: 32). In 1911 Braque and Picasso began to develop collages in which ‘actual pieces of newsprint, real labels, advertisements, calling cards, tickets and various other extraneous elements … were glued to the surface of the canvas or paper … set amid areas of the disfigured and act as welcome signposts back to the real, material world’ (Morley: 39). Apollinaire was inspired by the cubist paintings. As Bohn relates, both Picasso and Apollinaire ‘were in effect painting with words’ (1986: 18). Bohn quotes and translates Michel Butor’s preface to the 1966 issue of Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, writing that ‘Butor views this project as “a poetic response to Cubist painting which has taken over letters and words” ’ (1986: 18). A more obvious example of influence and collaboration between artists and poets was the livre d’artiste or ‘artist’s book’, that aimed to provide dialogue between painting and poetry, where words and visuals were ‘equal partners’ (Morley, 32).

More recently, in regard to the verbal sign as object in art, Jean-Michel Basquiat is an interesting case: an artist who used words and language in his paintings from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s. Are his paintings visual poems? Possibly. But strictly speaking they are painting poems, where the visuals still have predominance. I think it is reasonable to say that in visual poetry the word or letters hold central importance. It seems that Basquiat’s crisis was the ongoing conventionality of the expressive medium that failed to address the key social issues such as power structures, racism and poverty. In other words, although these social issues are the concern of non-artists and indeed of culture and society in general, for many artists it is the ongoing conventionality of the expressive medium that drives their art, or does so frequently in modern times, whether it be in relation to key social issues or not. To put it another way the artist has, with good reason, little faith in any subversion of the contemporary expressive medium having any affect on the status quo, whether their art is taken up and celebrated or not.

The emergence of VP no doubt coincides with the questioning of the expressive medium, and this questioning has been on going throughout the 20th and early 21st century. The remarkable characteristics of VP are its hybrid nature, being both and neither poetry or art, its extreme variation in experimental modes while at the same time having an unchanging fundamental basis, and its critical neglect.

All of these factors could be said to contribute to the lack of consistent practice during the modern era of the 20th and 21st centuries, but they could also be said to contribute to each other. The fact that VP comes and goes in prominence is due to its use as a breakout form of challenge to the expressive media of the day, where it brings attention to the visual aspects of language and the linguistic aspects of images, thereby questioning both. It is then abandoned. Its power of questioning, once prominent, becomes less so. And so it is ignored, it does not become an artistic movement; it is a sleeper movement. Its hybridity makes it difficult to place and no matter how much it achieves prominence, it is soon ignored because critics and media and the public cannot situate it within the conventional sense of artistic structures. Could this suggest that the artistic structures, or indeed artistic institutions are inviolable, that they absorb avant-garde or experiment, until they normalise it? Do they, in fact, act like large organic beings that are so well established that they can do this and still maintain the status quo?

Daniel Barbiero suggests that:

Agonism is the attitude of tension between an emerging experimentalist or group of experimentalists and those tendencies, whether or not they are (or were) avant-garde, that are taken to define the situation in which those emerging experimentalists find themselves. Agonism, in other words, is differentiation that defines itself in struggle … The target of agonistic struggle is rejected not only on technical or methodological grounds but on aesthetic, political, or even religious grounds that are if not morally derived at least morally couched. The tendency that is to be rejected is not simply inappropriate or irrelevant but rather is in fundamental error; it is corrupt or corrupting (2002: 80).

Barbiero’s phrase ‘whether or not they are (or were) avant-garde’, infers that there can be tension between a group of experimentalists and ‘tendencies’ that are taken to define the current culture, even if those tendencies are regarded as avant-garde. In other words, the avant-garde could be in tension with the new experimentalists. There seems now to be in fact a continual round of agonism, or indeed an avant-garde challenging an avant-garde, a tension stressed from one new movement to the next. But is VP an instance of agonism or merely a re-emergence of a dormant mode?

There is no room to attempt to investigate these questions here. The question of VP being a mode that is accepted and on going seems contrary to its essential need to be apart from and working against all that is the conventional. This is why it is neglected, critically and artistically. It is an essential part of its nature to be continually adopted and neglected.

A fascinating codicil to this article comes through the conclusion section in Bohn’s Modern visual poetry, where he writes:

The widespread availability of computer and xerographic technology is transforming the genre in several radically different ways … Liberated from previous constraints, visual poets possess an unprecedented freedom in selecting their materials and in devising ways to combine them … Current experiments with visual poetry are so numerous and so varied as to almost defy description. The computer age has made the genre especially attractive, since it is relatively easy to design web pages and to create visual effects on the screen (2012: 284-5).

Bohn goes on to note that there are (in 2001) ‘half a dozen Web sites in the United States alone devoted to visual poetry and related subjects’ (285). He cites UbuWeb as ‘one of the most impressive sites’. Currently, however, this site’s Introduction to some extent reflects the basis of this article, indicating the inevitable short-term self-destructive nature of the mode, its inherent quality to defeat itself for a time before rising again, when it states (in part):

UbuWeb began as an online repository for concrete and visual poetry scanned from aging anthologies and re-imagined as back-lit transmissions from a potential future. As the archive has progressed, the concentration on visual poetry has waned in favour of an [sic] reconnoitering of diverse avant-gardes.

UbuWeb’s Visual Poetry section exposes little-seen exemplars of historical praxis and models of contemporary insight to a wider audience … Due to the elusive and ephemeral nature of concrete and visual poetry publications, there is a perceived lack of innovation in the genre. Without exposure to radical practice, artistic precedent and innovative models, concrete poets too often fall back upon familiar tropes and unchallenging forms. (http://www.ubu.com/vp/)

The key sentence here, generally and in respect to this article, is: ‘Due to the elusive and ephemeral nature of concrete and visual poetry publications, there is a perceived lack of innovation in the genre’, which seems to support the contention that the mode is self-destructive due to its elusive and ephemeral nature, and yet it is the further point of this article that the mode is also indestructible and in a constant state of re-emergence for the same reasons. The above quote also refers to the fact that ‘Without exposure to radical practice, artistic precedent and innovative models, concrete poets too often fall back upon familiar tropes and unchallenging forms’, but is this not the cause of the demise of all innovative modes and movements? It will be interesting to see how VP arises again or continues to manifest in the near future.

Note: It might be worth noting the recent evidence of resurgence of interest in VP in Australia, with the Born to Concrete exhibition at Heide Museum of Modern Art in 2011, and a recent issue (Volume 3, Issue 2) of the Australian Poetry Journal which is entirely devoted to the wide and various types of VP.


End notes

  • 1. In this article reference will sometimes be made to concrete poetry (CP) but it is intended that what is written applies equally to VP
Works cited: 

Barbiero, Daniel 2002 ‘Avant-garde without Agonism?’ in Telling it slant

Barbiero, Daniel 2002 ‘Avant-garde without Agonism’ in Telling it slant avant-garde poetics of the 1990s, edited by Mark Wallace and Steven Marks, Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 79-94

Bohn, Willard 1986 The aesthetics of visual poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press

Bohn, Willard 2001 Modern visual poetry. Newark: University of Delaware Press

Greene, Roland and Stephen Cushman eds 2012 The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics (4th edition), Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Morley, Simon 2003 Writing on the wall: word and image in modern art, London: Thames and Hudson

Selenitsch, Alex 2012 Arbitrary to non-arbitrary in 13 steps SASA Gallery (University of South Australia). Booklet written for the exhibition Lost for words (no pagination)

Solt, Mary-Ellen 1970 Concrete poetry: a world view. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

UbuWeb at: http://www.ubu.com/vp/  (accessed 7 May 2014)