poetry and the visual

I would be surprised if you were to tell me that you knew the name Storm de Hirsch (unless you happened to be a film student).  The artist is best known as a 1960’s avant-garde filmmaker, but even in that context, she is not well-known, and her work in poetry is even more obscure than her films.  Nonetheless, before watching any of her films or even reading her biography (which can be found here), I read her poem, “Twilight Massacre.”  The poem is unfortunately nowhere to be found on the internet, and Amazon is selling as a rather expensive collectible only one copy of the book in which it was originally published (I managed to find it because I am lucky enough to have a girlfriend who works at Anthology Film Archives and who there stumbled across Twilight Massacre and Other Poems), so here’s an excerpt:

“…Cry me up to heaven
cat’s eye
and slice me down
the middle of the sky
then tell me
cat’s eye tell me
who tramples on the house of man ?

And the general said
is where I
shall go
at once

Stripped of mercies
by the angels
stripped of all the mirrors
in the universe
a spool of wisdom
rolled into the well
and smeared its walls with light

Damn hot down here
the general said
as he came up for air

Risen from the tumult
of the twilight massacre
a rose cries
on tormented ground
where flesh
once fresh
breathes ash again…”

De Hirsch’s attention to small, immediate details in imagery combined with the abstract ideas also presented are what drew me into this poem.  She includes sensual lines like “warm flesh and hungry flower” and “show them all / your bare white feet” while also giving the reader lines that go beyond mere imagistic description, e.g. “the wind of a thought” and “a flowering ephemera / which links its tendrils / to another’s dream.”  This balance between image and idea is one that I try to maintain in my own poems, and to see it displayed in another poet’s work was wonderful.

But instead of continuing to analyze de Hirsch’s poetics, which would be a rather boring blog post given that presumably none of my readers have access to “Twilight Massacre” in its entirety, I want to explore poetry and the visual, for what struck me in de Hirsch’s bio was this: “She wanted to find a new mode of expression for her thoughts that went beyond words on the page, which is when she turned to filmmaking.”  As a poet, I am hesitant to admit that poetry has its limits as a medium of expression.  As an appreciator of music, films, and the visual arts, though, I am more than ready to accept that different ideas call for different means of expression.  De Hirsch’s films are of course capable of expressing things through means that a poem could never achieve (while to be fair, the printed word is a mode of expression that a film could never capture).  There are many poets, though, who have explored the ways in which poetry can be made visual.  Through the manipulation of spacing, font size, font style, and the many other things one can experiment with in a word document, the genre of “concrete poetry” was been developed.  In these poems, the very form of the words adds meaning to the work as a whole.  “Visual poetry” came later and abstracted from traditional poetry even more than its concrete predecessors, using non-text based images in the poems and often incorporating text for purely visual purposes (imagine constructing a picture with text while disregarding the meaning of the text itself and you have imagined visual poetry).

While concrete and visual poetry are obviously not what de Hirsch had in mind when she expressed a desire to go beyond words on the page, these styles call attention to the limitations of more traditional poetry just as much as de Hirsch’s decision to switch from poetry to filmmaking.  The visual is undeniably powerful in its immediacy and sensuality, something that words alone cannot achieve with the same directness.  Of course, there are always those poets whose work exists as a happy medium, poems that are readable while making ventures in structure and form.  While perhaps not the best example but certainly my favorite, e.e. cummings’ poetry undeniably exhibits this marriage of meaning and structure.  Take for example this poem:

who are you, little i

(five or six years old)
peering from some high

window; at the gold

of november sunset

(and feeling:that if day
has to become night

this is a beautiful way)

This is of course a subtle example, the more obvious manifestations of concrete poetry being things like nature poems shaped like trees.  But with punctuation, parentheses, spacing, and capitalization (or lack thereof), cummings is notably paying attention to the form of his work.  This adds another layer his poems; I find myself reading faster when spacing is left out, slower when the lines are shorter and spread out.  The placement of two words next to each other without a space can give new meaning to both of them, and breaking up a sentence into two stanzas gives it a different rhythm and implication.  These elements of cummings‘ style makes it very hard to read his poetry out loud, but that is part of the point of concrete poetry.  The visual aspects of the poem, which cannot be translated into the verbal, play a role in the work just as much as the words alone.  There is a place for the visual in poetry, then, perhaps even a necessary one, but don’t worry, I’m not about to give up poetry for filmmaking.

For more visual poetry, you can go to ubuweb’s visual poetry page here, where you will find the publication that today’s e.e. cummings poem came from (POTH005 No. 5), and I would also highly suggest scrolling further down the page to see Dom Sylvester Houedard’s work (particularly the poem “like contemplation,” which is an excellent explanation of concrete and visual poetry).  And for more musings on visual culture, you should of course read Anna’s blog.


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