by Carol Stetser
Part of "Illuminated Script": a SCRIPTjr.nl special section.
To mark the end of the first decade of the 21st century I made a chapbook with inserts called Vista 2010 about the most important influence of that period, the computer. At the same time I read the 1970 book, Concrete Poetry: A World View edited by Mary Ellen Solt which presents the international poetical movement of 40 years ago. Believing that the sonnet no longer provided the structure appropriate for depicting their world, these poets developed visual poems as "constellations in space."
Building on the historical antecedents of shaped poetry, Futurist typograms, calligrams, and picture writing, the poets of the 50s and 60s asserted that the "visual poem is a unique new art form" ... "a material object in space which can achieve spiritual influence." Radically employing the mechanical tools of reproduction of the day, the typewriter and tape recorder, the poets presented a new linguistic world based on the word independent of syntax and grammar.
These artists were powerfully influenced by the design and texts of advertising. However, they were often dependent upon typographers to set their poems. This left the presentation of their words on the page open to interpretation by these professionals. Those poets wishing to avoid this hassle and expense used a typewriter or cut letters out from magazines to maintain control of their designs.
These poets would be astounded to see the experimental forms of poetry created today. If they believed every word is a poem, today they would see every letter is a poem. The "visual" aspect of visual poetry is revolutionary. Lacking duration, outside the oral tradition, without grammatical structure, often asemic, the visual poetry of the 21st century is truly without boundaries or restrictions. It too is global in scope but without any need for language translation. It is experienced all at once, in a flash, intuitively before intellectually.
Artists are no longer dependent on intermediaries to publish their poems. We have become our own typographers, printers and publishers - first with presstype and copy machines through the mail, now with computers in cyberspace. Primarily incomprehensible to the uninitiated, vispo is spectacularly beautiful and enriching to its practitioners. I doubt it will ever become mainstream, although it has appeared in the establishment "Poetry" magazine, so who knows. Where is it going? Online, for sure, which means it will attract younger practitioners who will take it off in directions we can't imagine. In 40 years we wouldn't recognize it.
I have a passion for vispo. I think about letters all the time: visions of letters dance in my head. But I think of them on the page - the printed page. I want to cut them out - with scissors, press or glue them - on paper, sew pages together to make a physical object - a handmade object. It is the receipt of a personal, beautiful handmade object that I miss the most in this computer age.
There is a sameness to computer-generated visual poetry that bothers and bores me. Digital pixel art looks too perfect; you've lost the flaws of the human touch in a digital medium. The artist designs the poem but doesn't make it, the software makes it. Using an interface to direct the software is not the same as creating a handmade image. There is no longer the personal stamp of the visual poet on the poem.
We tend to reward innovation over expertise, especially in America. But I think we should learn from the Japanese and Native Americans who designate artists who have demonstrated exceptional skill over a long period of time as "national treasures." We need art and music and poetry even if our governments fail to recognize their value. As visual poets we should pursue excellence whether we choose collage, woodcuts, letterpress, calligraphy, or photoshop as our medium. It's a new millennium and a new century and visual poetry can help us understand the world we live in.
Pierre Garnier's words in Solt's book still ring true 40 years later:
If the poem has changed
It is that I have changed
It is that we all have changed
It is that the universe has changed.