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2.4 Visual Effects in Poetry

Featuring: Mark Lawson (presenter), Peter Porter, Tom Paulin, Ian Macmillan.

In this item from BBC Radio's 4's arts programme Front Row, broadcast on 28 April 2005, the presenter Mark Lawson talks to three poets and critics about poetry in which the visual effects on the page are as important as the sounds and meanings of the words.

Visual effects in poetry

Timing: 0 hours 15 minutes

Click below to Listen to audio clip ‘Visual Effects in Poetry’ and consider what devices are used by the poets mentioned and what effects they achieve. How does this discussion relate to what you have read in this chapter?

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Visual effects in poetry
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Transcript: Visual effects in poetry

Mark Lawson:
[00:00] It's commonly said that the best way to appreciate poetry is to hear it read aloud. But that certainly isn't true of this:
Reader:
[00:06] Im, cat, mobile, fall, leaps, float, tumblish, drift, whirl, fully
Mark Lawson:
[00:12] A poem by the American writer e e cummings who, breaking one of the first rules that all school children learn, never used capital letters for either his initials or his surname. But big first letters were not the only grammatical convention that cummings regarded as a capital offence. The poem you just heard sounded relatively conventional on radio but this is how you would have to read it if dictating to a typist or printer:
Reader:
[00:35] (im)c-a-t(mo) b,i;l:e FallleA ps!fl OattumblI sh?dr IftwhirlF (Ul)(lY) &&&
Mark Lawson:
[01:08] The cummings poem read to convey look as well as sound. The publication of a new biography of that anti-grammatical poet who lived from 1894 to 1962 encouraged us to look back at the poets who have played games on the page with typography and punctuation.
Peter Porter:
[01:23] I think to be fair to cummings the style, the peculiarities of the presentation of the poems is also I think a proper representation of his personality. Basically what he wanted people to do I think was to be struck by his poems as not looking like the kind of poems you're going to see every time you open the pages of a magazine. So it was an attempt I think not just to get rid of punctuation but to present punctuation as a stylistic device of appearance rather than a stylistic device of sound or meaning.
Reader:
[01:53] swim so now million many worlds in each least less than particle of perfect dark---
Peter Porter:
[02:06] They dispense of capital letters, they dispense often of regular punctuation but there was always some kind of punctuation. After all, Lord Byron, who was supposed to be a regular poet, punctuated all the time with dashes because he was too idle to put in the proper punctuation and I think in fact you could pretty well say that the same thing is true of cummings.
Mark Lawson:
[02:23] The allegation that unconventional punctuation in poetry usually represents laziness rather than inspiration is satirised in Wendy Cope's poem about an American writer who liked to let her verse get out of line:
Reader:
[02:35] Higgledy-piggledy Emily Dickinson Liked to use dashes Instead of full stops. Nowadays, faced with such Idiosyncrasy, Critics and editors Send for the cops.
Mark Lawson:
[02:44] Dickinson's main punctuation device was the dash. But, says the poet and critic Tom Paulin this was not because she was dashing off her thoughts.
Tom Paulin:
[02:53] What you get in Dickinson is the extraordinary puritan vernacular speaking voice, great intensity, and I think for her punctuation was a symbol of a kind of patriarchal culture which she spent her life resisting.
Mark Lawson:
[03:12] For a long, long time, it was common for publishers and editors to punctuate conventionally.
Tom Paulin:
[03:18] That's true. I mean there was the big Johnson edition in 1955, which went back to the manuscripts and stripped away all the punctuation that had been imposed on her poems. The same thing happened to John Clare and then over the last twenty or thirty years all his poems have been published in a huge Oxford edition as they were in manuscript. He hated punctuation. He said it was like tyranny in government.
Mark Lawson:
[03:45] Punctuation is one way of shaping a poem so that it interests the eye as well as the ear. But the so-called "concrete" poets went far beyond free grammar and used the shape of a verse to create what were literally word pictures. The poet Ian Macmillan:
Ian Macmillan:
[04:00] The Dadaists I believe were big on concrete poetry so you could have the word "bird" and the word would fly up the page so it would be the shape of a bird.
Peter Porter:
[04:09] If you go back as far as George Herbert in the seventeenth century, he deliberately wrote poems where there was a witty, metaphorical concept. If he wrote a poem about Easter Wings then his poems would have extensions like wings.
Ian Macmillan:
[04:23] When I was first reading poetry, I picked up this anthology from a press called "Second Aeon Press" and it was called Typewriter Poems and there were poems created on a typewriter and the main man in typewriter poetry, it seemed to me, was a fellow that I thought was called "Dsh" because he always signed himself "D S H" and he was actually a monk from Prinknash Abbey called Dom Sylvester Houédard and his things were amazing because what he mainly made these poems out of was the dashes and the slashes. And so it became a visual event. And you'd sit looking at this thing thinking "I'm astonishingly excited by this but what is it? How do I read it?"
Mark Lawson:
[04:59] From e e cummings to the concrete poets these experiments in presentation reflect the view that people who are writing a book should remember that it is also possible to write a look.
End transcript: Visual effects in poetry
Visual effects in poetry
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Answer

The poetry of e e cummings has to be seen on the page to be fully appreciated. His poetry uses punctuation quite extensively but in a way that is meaningful visually rather than aurally. This links to the earlier discussion of paralanguage in poetry and the analysis of cummings' poem ‘she being Brand’ in the Section 2.2. You may like to look at that poem again to remind yourself of how it achieves its effects.

Emily Dickinson was another poet who used punctuation unconventionally. Tom Paulin points out that her use of dashes was not due to laziness but because she saw punctuation as a manifestation of the dominant male culture that she was determined to resist. We have attached the three examples of Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Dreams’, for you to compare. The first is a facsimile of the original manuscript that Dickinson herself wrote. The second is the version published by Dickinson's niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, in 1935. The final example is the one published by Thomas H. Johnson in 1955, and shows Johnson's attempt to reinstate Dickinson’s original punctuation. In comparing the punctuation and the ‘look’ of these versions of the same poem, we can seeTom Paulin's point more clearly.

Click below to view Emily Dickinsons "Dreams".

Dreams [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

What is called ‘concrete poetry’ goes much fur ther than merely using punctuation for visual effects; it actually creates shapes and pictures from the layout of the verse. You may wish to look again at the example of Lewis Carroll's ‘The Mouse's Tale’ in Section 1. The Dadaists used poetry in this way but you can find examples as far back as the seventeenth century, such as George Herbert’s poem ‘Easter Wings’.

Click below to view George Herbert's poem "Easter Wings".

Easter Wings

E301_1

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