Introduction – Illuminated Script


Part of "Illuminated Script": a special section.

This selection of individuals by Andrew Topel and myself, as well as the large sample of work edited by Andrew Topel, seeks to introduce Visual Poetry and associated expressions, such as Minimalist Poetry, Calligraphy, Book Art, and Mathematical Poetry, to a new audience. Andrew and I want to thank Quimby Melton of SCRIPT for this opportunity.

Months ago, I had a prolonged discussion with a few individuals about a new umbrella term to describe artistic fields that compose or construct with visual language form(s), or, to use a concept of contributor Kaz Maslanka, those who conflate aesthetic expressions. "Sound Illumination" seemed to accommodate the concept and was the most agreeable because of the many definitions associated with the word "sound."

I've written the following for individuals with little to no exposure to these contemporary expressions, most of which can be found under the heading "Visual Poetry" and which one might define as "a multimedia category fusing lexical poetry and all other visual and performing arts."

Here are two definitions -- one concise, the other more descriptive -- for Visual Poetry:

A visual poem may be defined simply as a poem composed or designed to be consciously seen.

The contemporary visual poem is generally composed with assembled and/or disassembled language material. This stuff of language includes word, text, note, code, petroglyph, letter, or other phonic character, type, cipher, symbol, pictograph, sentence, number, hieroglyph, rhythm, iconograph, grammar, cluster, stroke, ideogram, density, pattern, diagram, logogram, accent, line, color, measure, &tc.

The concrete poem is generally composed with fissioned language material to create new and free particles, and/or sonic patterns, clusters, densities, and/or textures. Many visual poets at this moment continue the post-World War II tradition of Concrete Poetry in the form of Neoconcrete Poetry.

Ideally, the visual poet composes with these freed particles and generally weds or fuses them to one or more art forms. By doing so, by crossing art form boundaries, the visual poet composes in a field of multimedia or intermedia with unrestricted horizons.

Lexical writing, such as what is being read at this moment, is the usual, traditional form of illuminating or illustrating the sound of our voices. Each letter signifies a sound. The word is serial letters framed by em spaces or breaks signifying a sound greater than the letters' sum. Generally and without phonetics, lexical writing can not provide its regional nor national accent. Identical letter sequences vary in sound from language to language. They are merely abstract shapes (though each with its own deep history). Fractured letters on a page, if recognizable, are either seen and heard as their assigned sound or perhaps as their actual fractured bits and pieces, like the sound of breaking glass.1

To summarize: concrete poem, fission; visual poem, fusion.

The contemporary visual poem is a form reinvented from various twentieth century avant-garde movements and influenced by a variety of changing visual arts. The initial bloom occurred within the early mixing of European avant-garde movements between 1900 and 1915 -- Fauvism, Cubism, Italian Futurism, Russian Futurism, Imagism, Orphism, Vorticism, and Constructivism along with the developments of collage, photography, film, music and other arts and the print media. Those expressions were a continuation of the pre-1900 visual poem handed down through millennia under a host of forms such as acrostics, anagrams, colored or illuminated text, emblems, labyrinths, pattern and shaped poems which in turn evolved from other forms like charms and amulets back to the earliest surviving ancestor, rock art.2

Visual Poetry, as a formal poetic and visual artistic expression, came into use in the mid 1960's in Europe. Individuals decided upon this umbrella term in order to distance themselves from Concrete Poetry. In their opinion, aesthetic experience and desiring to expand their horizons, Concrete Poetry had fallen into a rut of repetition weighted down by one-look sight gags and cliché. It was doomed to remain underwhelming. What could have been a gathering force bringing together multimedia poets, book artists, calligraphers, correspondence artists, painters, sculptures, and musicians, became a rejected form by the other arts. Almost unanimously, lexical poets rejected it as well.

Concrete Poetry, perhaps the first truly international poetry movement, began as a loosely organized movement with members in Brazil, Western Europe and Japan in the early 1950's. A North Atlantic Fluxist contingent, its US American members mainly from the Northeast, joined in later as an English speaking North Atlantic group. Out of the American cluster came two large anthologies, that with full awareness and intent, ignored the emerging new visual poets, many earlier significant predecessors, from individuals to whole movements. Kenneth Patchen is a good example of an ignored individual. Between 1939 and 1948 Patchen had written and composed many kinds of visual poetry and what came to be called Concrete Poetry. His influence on the Beat Movement remains under discussed in general. He had exerted seminal influence on them such as his concerns and practices of environmentalism and his interaction with other arts such as poetry with jazz.

Also ignored were the French Lettristes. The Lettriste Movements were founded at the end of World War II. Lettrisme was at least as widespread as Concrete, constantly subdivided and formed splinter groups, and exercised influences on everything from poetry to clothing design to urban planning to politics. This group had a profound influence in Europe illustrating and illuminating a way out of the concrete rut. It directly and indirectly aided in the formation of Visual Poetry. It also added new energy to European calligraphy and calligraphers from other traditions who had immigrated to France. Other European arts were also injected with its ideas and energies. Although the core group moved more deeply into modes that could be considered visual poetry, it began with intersecting modes of analysis and reconstruction of all forms of activity.3

Many American visual poets from the early 1970's until the mid 1990's participated in international Correspondence Art or Mail Art. Hundreds of international exhibitions took place in which other visual poets from around the world participated. This was BC, that is, "before computer." Correspondence was slow-moving, hand-made or typed. The participants numbered in the low thousands, its audience in the many thousands. Having slowly evolved from a few sparks in the 1950's, the audience had a learned context for the works. Networks formed, works were exchanged. A great international cross fertilization created a great bloom in visual poetry. And, let us not forget from the 1980's onward, the great international blooming of graffiti art. Its highest and most complicated works readily pass as an international intermedia language art form easily competing with and usually overshadowing most concrete, neoconcrete and much visual poetry.4

The American visual poetry movement came to a cross road of direction and content in the 1990's that has continued to this day. In some cases, these problems parallel those of Concrete Poetry in the 1960's including selective and reductive history and repetition. Much of what has taken place again alienates lexical poets, book artists, painters, sculptors, calligraphers, and some visual poets. A number of these issues, directly and indirectly rooted in the mid 1990's, are associated with intramural squabbling; the demise of printed publications (magazines, books and exhibition catalogs); the demise of Mail Art with its cross fertilizing networks, exhibitions and catalogs; the lack of meaningful and widely distributed anthologies; and, the lack of a significant body of criticism and history. The meaningful criticism and history that exists seems to be consciously ignored, particularly the serious, deep and wide writings of Karl Young.

The limited run publications from the mid 1970's through the early 1990's are difficult to come by and in many cases, though known by some blog promoters of visual poetry, have been and continue to be knowingly kept out of discussions. The lack of any concern or curiosity in its actual history has enabled much rewritten visual poetry history to go unchallenged. This rewriting has diverted attention from the rich and diverse ancestry of traditions and artistic expressions down to focusing on a selective narrowed small cadre from the late 1800's and early 1900's which has generated the false idea Visual Poetry owes its existence to a specific lineage of individuals. In the internet era, this has lead also to a continual reinventing of the proverbial wheel by new uninformed or misinformed generations. Given that a new audience finds its way to these blogs, context should be provided. But it is not in most cases.

Andrew and I hope the "Illuminated Script" special section will provide such a context and begin meaningful dialog and exchange among these various expressions, the creators of which have much in common.

Further Reading & Resources

  1. Bob Grumman
  2. "Kaldron," 1 January 2010. (6 June 2011).
  3. Letterism & Lettristes
  4. Alain Satié
  5. Visual Music Scores
  6. Dan Waber
  7. Michael Winkler
  8. Karl Young
    1. For a deeper look at the ways we read, see Karl Young, "The Roman Alphabet in its Original Contexts" (Open Letter 6:7 [1987). The essay is available online here: (6 June 2011. "The Roman Alphabet in its Original Contexts", n.d.)
    2. For a more detailed examination of this history, see my essay "Visual Poetry: A Brief History of Ancestral Roots and Modern Traditions" ("minimalist concrete poetry", n.d. [6 June 2011]).
    3. For more discourse on French Lettriste, see "Lettriste Pages" ("minimalist concrete poetry", n.d. [6 June 2011]).
    4. For examples and links, see Karl Young and Karl Kempton, "Free Graphz: The Visual Poetry
      of Graffiti Writing" (1 May 1999. [6 June 2011]).

Citation: Kempton, Karl. 7 December 2012. "Introduction – Illuminated Script." (accessed [PDT / -7:00]).

Updated: December 7, 2012 at 10:11 pm (PDT / -7:00)

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