A Postmodern Reading of Visual Poetry

Thesis (M.A.), 2016

46 Pages, Grade: 100


Table of Contents


Defining Visual poetry

A Postmodern Reading of Visual Poetry

Intertextuality (pastiche)

Hyper reality and Techno-culture





Postmodernism decadence and the appearance of post-post modernism


Key Words:

Works Cited


It is not surprising that nowadays have witnessed a great deal of change in all fields of literature, especially poetry. Poetry has been developed from the traditional stanzas of romanticism to modernism and postmodernism. Nowadays, the printed texts lose their importance and flexibility due to recent technological development through digital media. Hence, the reader needs a new, easy, simple, and flexible form of poetry.

Visual poetry is a kind of poetry in which the visual arrangement of text, image, and symbols is important in conveying the intended meaning of the work; it is sometimes referred to as concrete poetry. Visual poetry is heavily influenced by Fluxus, Futurism, Minimalism, and other avant - garde movements. Visual poetry is usually described as being intermedia as it represents a mixture between poetry and other human activities especially painting. Visual poetry destroys the borders between art and text. Hence, the major concern of the visual poet is not the text, but the complete literary work which is made by both pictures and text. In other words, visual poetry makes a painter as poet and makes a poet as a painter. Futurism, minimalism, Fluxus, and other avant-garde movements have a great effect on visual poetry as all these movements depend on the power of visual element and the iconoclasm of art.

Visual poetry can be defined as poetry which is meant to be seen, not read. In other words, any visual poem is designed to be seen; both of eye and mind are responsible for dealing with the poem. The meaning of the poem is conveyed according to the way the words of the poem are written. The term is sometimes coined with visual poetry is "concrete poetry," which, according to Johanna Drucker, "is used to designate a ll manner of shaped, typographically complex, and visually self-conscious poetic works" (110) .

Visual Poetry was presented during the Renaissance by poets such as George Herbert, who used this unique rearrangement of the text in his poems, such as "Eastern Wings" and "The altar." It soon appeared in all European languages.

During the fifties and the sixties of the twentieth century, concrete poetry, a form of visual poetry, in which the poet manipulates the text to create an image using words, started to take precedence and dominated the scene. However, in the twenty first century, visual poetry returns back and begins to take the form of the "photo poetry." The poet takes a photo and comments on it in a poetic language.

Moreover, visual poetry is considered one of the modern trends which try to mix art with literature. The modern modes of culture and consciousness try to find new freedoms, new possibilities and new ideas. The structure of colors and lines deals with both art and literature. In addition, visual poetry represents a strong trend towards postmodernism as it highlights many features of the chaotic, fragmented, and digital postmodern society.

This study aims at clarifying and defining the development of visual poetry movement through the term, postmodernism. Moreover, it tries to focus on the major features of postmodernism applied in some modern visual poems written or designed by contemporary and modern visual poets. These features are iconoclasm, groundlessness, formlessness, populism, intertextuality (pastiche), hyper reality, and techno-culture. Then, it moves to give a detailed account of the features of post-postmodernism in the genre, especially in Fluxes visual poems which are also known as performance poems.

Thus, the study is an attempt to highlight and discuss visual poetry as a multi-cultural renewed movement, illustrating how poetry could survive for ages due to its ability to adapt to most recent trends and movements, such as postmodernism

Defining Visual poetry

Visual poetry is a kind of poetry in which the poet's major concern is to rearrange text, images, and symbols in order to convey the intended meaning of his literary work. Visual poetry can be defined also as poetry which is meant to be consciously seen. It consists of both visual and verbal elements, so it needs a viewer as well as a reader. The poem is designed to be seen, not read, so the eye perceives the poem before the mind perceives it. Although visual poetry represents a special trend with unique forms, structures, and techniques, every traditional poem, even a sonnet or an ode, has a visual feature. This visual feature is created through the effect of spaces or what is Willard Bohn calls spatial relations. He mentions:

Although poetry is a linguistic construct, the way in which it communicate is influenced by spatial relations as well. In the final analysis, ever poem, even Shakespearean sonnet or an ode by Ronsard possesses a visual dimension. (Modern Visual Poetry 15)

Words no longer satisfy the reader's need for literature in the ages of modern technology through which the reader seeks a new innovative version of everything. Thus, the poet tried to create a new form of literature which copes with the modern reader's taste.

The poet can create this unique form of poetry by using many techniques such as rearranging the text to represent a certain shape or symbol through which the poet tries to convey his idea. The visual poet can use another technique by attributing illustrations or symbols to his poem. These illustrations can be designed by the poet, himself, or by another painter. One of the most recent forms of visual poetry is "the poetry of taking a photo" which can be called "photo poetry" in which the poet takes a photo with his camera then he tries to describe this photo in a poetic language (Sanders 3).

Although visual poetry can be defined, generally, as intermedia between poetry and painting, the reader or the researcher of visual poetry has a problem with the term "visual" because he/she sometimes finds the term "visual" is substituted by the term "concrete." So, this introduction tries to give a clear definition for each of these terms (Bernstein, Personal interview). Moreover, it tries to classify all kinds of visual poetry and give clear definitions to its various kinds (Greene 295).

Historical background

On tracking the development of visual poetry through ages, we discover that it has originated in the age of Greeks. Visual poetry was known for the ancient Greeks and Romans. To the Greeks, it was known as technopaigenia and to the Romans as carmina figurate. (Bohn, Modern Visual Poetry 16). During the early middle Ages, visual poetry turned to what Willard Bohn calls "rectilinear compositions outline" (16).

Many religious and philosophical poets such as George Herbert composed poems in the shape of wings, altars, eggs, axes, and pan pipes. In the Renaissance some poets such as George Herbert used this unique rearrangement of the text in his poems, such as "Eastern Wings" and "The altar." During the neoclassical age, visual poetry was completely neglected and "fell into disrepute" (Bohn, Modern Visual Poetry 16). During the fifties and the sixties of the twentieth century, concrete poetry, a form of visual poetry, in which the poet manipulates with the text to create an image using words, started to take precedence and dominate the scene. However, in the twenty first century, visual poetry returns back and begins to take the form of the photo as the poet takes a photo and comments on it in a poetic language. Besides, poetry is not away from modern technologies. Some modern visual poets use 3D effects and multiple animation effects to formulate their visual poems. During the twentieth century everything clearly oriented toward the visual such as cinema, comics, movies, newspapers, advertisement, etc. So poetry had to cope up with this visual revolution (Sider 66).

Visual poetry can be considered as a reinvented movement, as it is always renewed according to the most recent techniques of writing and painting too. Karl Kempton divides the development of the visual poetry chronologically into two phases. The first is the pre-1900 visual poems and the second is the post-1900 visual poems (2).

Novels, plays, short stories, and fine art forms can cope with this visual development through cinema, television series, and published materials. Hence, an important question emerges; can poetry cope up with this development? That is why the poet uses the unique rearrangement of the text, images, and symbols in the visual poem. Visual poetry is an attempt for making poetry more interesting by creating attracting visual material which represents the poet's main idea, and to cope up with the visual revolution.

In the traditional poem, the reader reads the poem to discover the images beyond the text. After reading the poem, he tries to contemplate its meaning and imagine the full picture. The visual poem introduces the complete picture, as the reader can find the images painted on the page by the poet or by someone who converts the poet's ideas into visual effects. On reading any traditional poem, the reader deals with certain patterns of syntax, rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, traditional similes, metaphors, etc. Thus, the reader found himself surrounded by abstract form and meter used by the poet to fit his words. The poet, himself was restrictive to these rules of poetry. The appearance of the "Imagist School of poetry" and the breakthrough made by William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, imparted the reader free verse poems with new innovative forms. The early imagist poets dealt with the poem as an object "no ideas but in things" (Tashijian 59). Thus, Williams' notion of the poem was "Machine made of words" (Halter 33). Here, new dimensions of poetry are opened by freeing poetry from its traditional pattern, Richard Bradford writes:

The early free-verse theorist either ignored this charge, or argued that the shape of the poem was transcription of the essentially poetic movement of vocalization. Despite their differences, both parties agreed that the printed text was a method of recording acoustic phenomena. (5)

It is worthy to notice that there is a major difference between what we see and what we hear. What we see implies both visual and verbal elements of the poem. The shape of the line on the page represents the visual and sound indications which must be seen not read.

Free verse was the first spark of the visual poetry. Imagist poets realized the relation between what we hear and what we see. Mary Ellen Solt highlighted this point by considering her friend and her most influential poet, William Carlos Williams as adviser because Williams, in his poems, depended on introducing a central image within his poem and on making his poem to be seen through words ( Rourke , par. 2).

Through ages, many poets such as John Milton and George Herbert tried to create the nowadays form of the contemporary visual poem; however, they did not dare to break the traditional patterns of poetry. They were too close to produce a real visual poem, however, they failed. Richard Bradford in his book, Graphic poetics, considers John Milton's long poem, “Paradise Lost,” one of the first conscious attempts to create a visual poem, as he used visual effects to convey his ideas so Bradford considers Milton as one of the founders of visual poetry. He writes: "Milton's achievements are many, but the one with which he has not so far been credit is his role in the foundation of visual poetry" (Bradford 14).

Although visual art began in Greek, Latin, and other Western European areas, there are many gestures to Egyptian hieroglyphics because there was a great impact of the ancient Egyptian culture on the Western European culture in the 19th century (Kempton, par. 5). The pre-1900 visual poems represented an individual attempt to design a visual poem affected by different cultures. Islamic visual art may be a source of inspiration for many visual poets in Europe as there are Islamic calligraphers, which devised countless word shaped images and perhaps as a cultural group composed more word shaped imagery than any other until the present era of modern visual poetry.

There are some gestures that the early founders of visual poetry were Muslims artists, who had a strong desire to write The Qur'an into the most artistic and beautiful form. Muslim and Arab artists such as Ibn Albawab, Yaqut al-Musta'simi and Hafiz Osman created great forms of visual art, depending on blending visualized language with spiritual symbols (Sarḥān 4). There are Islamic calligraphers who represented an early attempt for creating a modern visual poem. Kempton explains that:

While there are a small number of Islamic calligraphy types, Islamic calligraphers devised countless word shaped images and perhaps as a cultural group composed more word shaped imagery than any other until the present era of modern visual poetry. (10)

However, these Islamic paintings can be called visual art, not visual poetry, because they represent the visualization of texts of The Qur'an and Hadith . Moreover, these Islamic calligraphies were made by painters, not poets. However, Muslim artists can be considered the pioneers of visual art as they managed to visualize their sacred scripts into beautiful and attractive paintings (Kempton 3) such as the following scripts:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(qtd. in Moustapha and Krishnamurti 2)

Most of visual poems are composed without meter, stanza breaks, rhyme, and rhythm, or even grammar rules. The visual poet uses text, cipher, note, code, petroglyph, letter, phonic character, pictograph, sentence, number, hieroglyph, iconograph, stroke, ideogram, density, logogram, accent, line, color, symbol, measure, etc. (Byrum 84).

The visual poet uses one or many of these techniques to destroy all the boundaries of traditional poetry, and to create a state of intermedia between different kinds of arts.

Visual poetry aims at destroying the dual perspective in written or traditional poetry. It tries, like surrealism, to reach, what André Breton called "the sublime point," which is mentioned in the book of the Zohar as "the point of origin" (Browder 69). "The sublime point" of poetry refers to the firm traditions of poetry. The visual poet tries to destroy these traditions by introducing a new verbal and visual frame at the same time. In other words, the poet decodes linguistic messages using a visual message. Thus, the reader finds himself dealing with a poem and a picture.

Visual poetry has the ability to express and deal with most themes which discussed by other kinds of poetry, as the visual poet has more devices through which he can convey his ideas. These devices include the visual effects of the poem such as the rearrangement of the text and the direct illustrations. The counterpart human activity for the process of writing in visual poetry is painting, which is closely associated with the theme of nature. So the theme of nature is considered one of the most dominant themes presented by visual poets. Mary Ellen Solt's poems “Lobelia,” “Lilac,” and “Forsythia” emphasize visual poetry's ability to express the theme of nature. Visual poetry is also able to express the theme of death as in Solt's “Waterfall,” religious theme as in Solt's “Marigold,” politics as in Cobbing's “WHAT'S IN A NAME .” Visual poetry also can express the themes of irony, chaos, honor, etc. However, many visual poems do not express a certain theme. In other words, the visual poet writes and designs meaningless poems which express a certain philosophy or a religious trend, so the reader has to search for what is beyond the written text in the poet's life experience and the poet's other works.

A Postmodern Reading of Visual Poetry

Postmodernism is a controversial term, or set of ideas, that has only entered the area of academic study since the mid-1980s (Ward 5). Postmodernism aims at destroying what is traditional (Russello 58). In this regard, postmodernism is related to visual poetry's trend to create new areas of poetry and to destroy all traditions of poetry. Therefore, it is essential to cast shadows on some features of postmodernism in visual poetry. These features are iconoclasm, groundlessness, formlessness, populism, intertextuality, hyper reality, and techno-culture. All these features manifest the element of innovation in visual poetry. Marcio Hemrique Pereira's book, Post-war Writing and Aesthetics: A Reaction against Modernism illustrates the relation between visual poetry and postmodernism in the light of four features:

Postmodernism in poetry had its beginning in the sixties as a result of the feeling that poetry had become too outward-looking and restrained like all other fields of art. Thus, there arose new creations that were constructed of language that were a retreat into the writer's consciousness. The essential features of these postmodern works were iconoclasm, groundless, formlessness, and populism. (12)

Moreover, both of the visual poet and the reader are ready to deal with media and modern technology as modern and postmodern features. Media became a very important feature of life, so the author had to deal with these new changes through introducing a new flexible form of literature. Here, the poet introduced a new form of poetry through visualizing the written text. Postmodern works are seen as a reaction against Enlightenment thinking and Modernist approaches to literature (Olson 109). Postmodernism not only refused all previous literary movements, but also it refused the term "movement" (Riles 253). Thus, According to postmodernism's definition, it is very difficult to define or categorize visual poetry and all its unique forms, as it represents a set of complicated, controversial, overlapped philosophies and ideas. Postmodernism was affected by avant-garde movements such as Dadaism, Fluxus, Futurism, Minimalism, and Maximalism (Tariq 167). Postmodernism also was affected by the themes of Irony, playfulness, and black humor (Kretzschmar 209). Most of these movements have either a direct or indirect effect on visual poetry as they assert the visual element in both art and literature.

Intertextuality (pastiche)

As postmodernism represents a general notion of the universe in which individual works are not isolated creations (Allen 200), much of the focus in the study of postmodern literature is on intertextuality which is defined as "shaping of the text meaning by another text" (Martin, J and Bednarek 113). Critics point to this as an indication of postmodernism's lacking of originality and its dependence on clichés (Stierstorfer 269). Intertextuality in postmodern literature can be a reference or parallel to another literary work, an extended discussion of a work, or as a special style through which the artist wants to convey a certain message (O'Brien 23).

In visual poetry, we have something which is very close to intertextuality. Intertextuality refers to shaping of the text meaning by another text, whereas in visual poetry, the poet shapes the text meaning by adding images or paintings to his poem (Martin, J and Bednarek 113). These images or paintings are called "pastiche." According to The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, "A pastiche is a work of visual art, literature, or music that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists" (1005). In his book, Pastiche: Cultural Memory in Art, Film, and Literature, Ingeborg Hoestery mentions that the term pastiche divers from the Latin Pasticium (4), which means a mixture of many components. According to The Online Etymology Dictionary, the word pastiche is a French cognate of the Italian noun pasticcio, which is a pâté or pie-filling mixed from diverse ingredients. Pastiche is considered one the techniques of intertextuality, which clearly appears in visual poetry as it represents a mixture between two human activities, one of these humanities must be literary work. And this exactly happens in visual poetry. Thus, intertextuality exists in visual poetry through attributing or creating an image within the poem. This image is called pastiche.

Hyper reality and Techno-culture

Modern Visual poetry developed as a direct result of modern technology (Bohn, Modern Visual Poetry 31). Modern technology led to the origination of the term "Hyper reality," which is defined as "the disability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, in technological advanced society in the postmodern age" (Tiffin and Terashima 4). Modern technology has created a state of confusion and fragmentation (Ludes 246). This state of confusion and fragmentation is considered one of the major themes of modern visual poetry (Bohn, Apollinaire, Visual Poetry, and Art Criticism 65). Fredric Jameson, the American literary critic and Marxist political theorist called postmodernism the "cultural logic of late capitalism." Late capitalism implies that society has moved past the industrial age and into the information age (306). Likewise, Jean Baudrillard, the French sociologist, philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator, and photographer claimed that postmodernism was defined by a shift into hyper reality in which imagination dominated instead of reality (Petitfils 11). In postmodernism, people are inundated with information and modern technology has become a central focus in many lives and as a direct result of technology's effect on people lives, it also affected literature. This clearly appears in the works of visual poetry. Many works of visual poetry have dealt with this aspect of postmodernism with characteristics such as irony and pastiche. Visual poetry has a strong relation to the newly used term "Techno-culture" which refers to the interaction between technology and culture (Ross and Penley 250). This interaction was the source of inspiration of most of visual poems, which mainly depends on this interaction between two or more human activities. This interaction is usually called inter-media or the mixture between several human activities as it happens in visual poetry.

John Barth, the postmodernist novelist who talks often about the label "postmodern," wrote an influential essay in 1967 called "The Literature of Exhaustion" and in 1979 wrote "Literature of Replenishment" in order to clarify the earlier essay. "Literature of Exhaustion" was about the need for a new era in literature after modernism had exhausted itself. In "Literature of Replenishment" John Barth says:

My ideal Postmodernist author neither merely repudiates nor merely imitates either his 20th-century Modernist parents or his 19th-century premodernist grandparents. He has the first half of our century under his belt, but not on his back. Without lapsing into moral or artistic simplism, shoddy craftsmanship, Madison Avenue venality, or either false or real naiveté, he nevertheless aspires to a fiction more democratic in its appeal than such late-Modernist marvels as Beckett's Texts for Nothing... The ideal Postmodernist novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and "contentism," pure and committed literature, coterie fiction and junk fiction. (qtd. in Morley, 287)


Iconoclasm, in general, can be defined as the deliberate destruction within a culture of the culture's own religious icons and other symbols or monuments (Betracchini 33). However, iconoclasm has another literary term, which keeps the characteristics of the general term. In literature, iconoclasm is defined as the deliberate destruction of all traditional forms, themes, and structures of the literary works. Dario Gamboni highlighted the French symbolist writer, Alfred Jarry's quotation about iconoclasm in the cover of his book , The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution to give the reader a clue about the main purpose and effect of iconoclasm:

We shall not have demolished everything unless we demolish even the ruins! Now I cannot think of another way than making beautiful, well arranged buildings out of them. (Jarry, qtd. in Gamboni 1)

Then, Gamboni adds:

As has been noticed by those few authors who have dealt at some length with iconoclasm, the destruction of art is a subject that most art historians prefer to ignore: Louis Reau saw it as a kind of taboo; Peter Moritz Pickshaus as a ‘none-theme'. David Freedberg, who considered that ‘in this case lack of interest is the same repression', explained that this was because iconoclasm ‘sears away any lingering notion that we may still have of the possibility of an idealistic or internally formalist basis for the history of art', that is, the belief in an absolute autonomy of art (which, as we shall see, benefited much from iconoclasm). (13)

Iconoclasm depends mainly on intensive attack against religious imagery and sacred traditional images and forms. Iconoclasm suffered from ignorance, as it is considered, for many scholars, as a destruction of what so-called the traditional values of art (Cooper 2). Consequently the term iconoclasm is related to the term "vandalism." According to Oxford Dictionary, vandalism can be defined as the behavior attributed originally to the Vandals, by the Romans, in respect of culture: ruthless destruction or spoiling of anything beautiful or venerable (par.1). The term also includes criminal damage such as graffiti and defacement directed towards any property without permission of the owner. The term vandalism is related to the destruction of any beautiful thing (Maras 8). This is related to accusing visual poetry of destroying both of literature and language.


Excerpt out of 46 pages


A Postmodern Reading of Visual Poetry
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
postmodern, reading, visual, poetry
Quote paper
Mahmoud Sokar (Author), 2016, A Postmodern Reading of Visual Poetry, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/535117


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: A Postmodern Reading of Visual Poetry

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free