Friday, November 09, 2007

With thanks to Ron

Ron Silliman talks about visual poetry in his blog today, and as a by-blow introduces me to the work of Peter Ciccariello, who combines typography and painting into a visual feast.

Typically, Ron doesn't want me to just gawp at the pretty piccies; he wants me to think about what's happening here. Unfortunately I don't have the knowledge nor even the lexicon to comment on the ideas Ron puts forth in his post. But he has made me think, which is a bugger as I'm supposed to be doing my OU coursework and writing more NaNo stuff.

Okay: visual poetry - what's it good for?

Taking refuge in my (badly out of date) knowledge of biology, I know that visual arts involves a visual input into the brain. Spoken poetry is entirely aural, and the parts of the brain where aural input gets processed are different to the parts where the visual voodoo happens. Language processing is again different; sounds that sound like words get routed to specific areas of the brain which handle language input, interpretation and output. I think it's also worth noting that language is a learned thing, and the aural learning phase usually comes before the visual (except for signed languages of course).

There's no denying that there are connections between these systems. Written language is a visual input into the brain, yet when I read something I hear the words within my skull. Listening to a story, rather than reading it, will often trigger visual images - a mental holograph in which I follow the story visually even though I'm only hearing it aurally. Bliss, for me, is when I'm reading a text and not only do I get the voice, I also get the visuals to go with it - a paperback novel is destined to disappoint me if it can't trigger this magic, and I'm happy to admit to a severe preference for written poems that can manage the same trick.

So, with purely visual art - sans type - I'm using just the visual parts of my brain and reacting emotionally to the art purely on the associations that the images and colours drag up from my memory (for surely visual representation has to be learned, too; I can't believe that my reaction to a photo of a snowy mountain is genetic). Adding typography to the picture - road signage, advertising hoardings, etc - should trigger the voice in my head, and possibly modify my interpretation of the visuals? I think that when I see a photo I tend to see it first and then read it's lexical content ...

A thought experiment. I'm viewing a picture of a pile of decomposing human bodies on a rooftop: my emotions are not strong (these are not bodies of people I know) but there's an edge of disgust? sadness? horror? in my feelings to the photo. Now within the photo is some signage, an embedded caption perhaps. Reading the words, I learn that this is a Parsi tower of silence - the place where the Parsis place the bodies of their loved ones to be eaten by vultures. It's their preferred way of disposing of human remains. Now I have a deeper understanding and my emotions alter - wonderment? I'm certainly thinking about how I would feel if a friend told me that this is what they wanted for their funeral.

Thus for me, the visuals seem to come before the text, and the text can change the emotional impact of the visuals.

Back to visual poetry. Let's assume there is a work of visual poetry where two images are superimposed on each other. One is entirely imagistic, the other is purely words. Through the magic of computing, I can adjust the merging of the two using a sliding scale from text-free:image-full to text-part:image-part to text-full:image-free. At what point on that scale does my brain start processing the words before the image?

Ron also talks about the work of Robert Grenier. Viewing his work, its clear to me that what I'm doing is looking for words in each poem - the colours are incidental, nothing more than an aid to the word-search. (I'm also struggling to see any poetry in the work: shoot me!). With the Ciccariello paintings, the opposite is true: the images are very definitely the main show; spotting symbols within the painting offers me a bonus of recognition - but again I'm seeing this as a painting, not as a poem.

Ack!

One thing I learned at school was that for Chinese and Japanese poets, the typography is as important as the words - poems in these languages were often hand-painted on big strips of paper. A poet was judged as much on their calligraphic skills as they were on their poetic abilities. I think; I could be wrong about that. Chinese writing is a logographic script. It is, I feel, as much painting as writing. I have no idea how a logographic script is processed by the brain, whether it is different to my response to the latin alphabet.

I've got a bonus thought: English, written in the latin alphabet, is an essentially linear thing (does this have anything to do with Ron's discussions about the importance of the line in poetry?). I like to think of it as one-dimensional. Poets have been playing with lines and white space for centuries - the Beowulf poem is often reproduced with the second half-line dropped and indented. Yet the poem's existence within me is essentially non-dimensional, or at least the after-effects of a good poem are. There's the fourth dimension, of course, but even time can dissipate once my brain assimilates the poem as a whole, single unit within my head.

What happens when the typography breaks into two dimensions? I'm not thinking of poems where each line is offered to the reader at different angles and intersections - reading a poem like that is, for me, an exercise in reading discrete, one-dimensional lines and attempting to organise them into something that makes coherent sense to me. No, I'm thinking of a script which is two dimensional within itself. How can I describe this? Um, words branch from each other in various directions; one word can have more than one branch; the result is an entire clause or sentence which sits as a whole on the page - and maybe even branches out its own subsequent clause or sentence - and the direction of the branch is intrinsic to the relationships of the words. It's something that's been discussed a few times on the zbb, but not something I've actively engaged with before. How would such a script be read, processed? Would the eye want to follow the individual paths that the script would make, or could it be read in a single (rather long) glance without too much eye movement? Could such a representation look engaging? Beautiful even?

Would poetry written in such a script still be poetry?

Ack! Ack! Ack! Damn that Ron Silliman for making me think!

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