The Page Transformed: Part II – The Page as Canvas

Lewis Carroll's "The Mouse's Tale"

In this second installment of our March 2010 theme, “The Page Transformed: Intersections of Poetry & the Visual Arts,” we’ll be thinking about poetry which makes use of the visual elements of its form to create and enhance meaning.  Although the term “concrete poetry” was not coined until the 1950’s, poets were using elements of design and typography long before then. George Herbert’s shaped poems (like “Easter Wings”) and Lewis Carroll’s “A Mouse’s Tail” are two particularly classic examples, while a more contemporary example might be the typographical experiments of e.e. cummings (as in his poem “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r“).  Thinking of the page as a space by which to convey both verbal and visual meaning paved the way for surrealist experiments with exercises like cut-up technique, which employs elements of collage to create new poems by disassembling and rearranging existing words on the page (The Academy of American Poets’ Website has an interesting article on Futurism, Dada, and Concrete Poetry).  Today, visual poetry is now a field unto itself (The Poetry Foundation has a wonderful article about the subject if you’re interested in exploring more).

George Herbert's "Easter Wings"

As we think about The Page as Canvas, we’ll be looking not only at writers who employ strategic visual elements to put forth their poetics,  but also at the importance of elements like book design, cover art, illustration, and print formats like broadsides, which really do turn text into pieces of visual art.  As we move forward into the technical elements of producing the physical page, our explorations will turn us towards the third phase of our series, in which we’ll  examine The Book as Object.

Weekly Prompt: Private Vocabularies

Everyone has a private vocabulary (or vocabularies) to which only they and those that they know are privvy.  Some of these “private” terms are particular to an individual person’s worldview or imagination (I have a friend who refers to internet survey memes as “salsa”), while others develop in the context of relationships with a particular group of people (whenever our 12th grade calculus teacher told us to “put away the Martian,” my classmates and I knew that he meant for us to stop doing other classes’ homework while his back was turned).  A private vocabulary can be deeply personal, and can link us to the awkward idiosyncracies of our families (as Paul Muldoon has reflected in his poem “Quoof”), or it can serve as a fruitful site from which creative production can bloom into entire alternate worlds (as in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Man-Moth,” or Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky”).  Private vocabularies can be nonsense-based, or they can be based in mistranslations, in grammatical inconsistencies, or in innovation born of the need to fill linguistic gaps.  This, I think, can be especially poignant for those of us from immigrant families in which a language other than English, a mixture of English and other language(s), or a non-standard version of English, was commonly spoken in the home.

Write a poem that draws on a word or set of words particular to a private vocabulary of your own.

Here’s an excerpt from my attempt, which draws upon the first time that my younger brother (who grew up calling me Jaibo, his variant of the Chinese word for older sister), addressed me by my “real” (legal) name.

Losing the Nickname

My real name
fell from your mouth
so stiffly I thought
perhaps you’d coughed.
“Ah-ris,” the sound
of it seemed to stick
in your gullet, balled up
behind your gums. 
The word clattered
from your tongue,
scratchy, a stale clump
of bread bumping along
through uncombed carpet . . .

As always – if you attempt this – we’d be flattered if you shared an excerpt of your results in the comments.  Happy writing!