02: A Few Ways to Skin a Poem

If you live in a contemporary literate culture, it is quite possible you will spend an equivalent amount of time consuming language as a visual written/printed medium as you will listening to it as a spoken medium. The case is not hard to make: billboards and banners litter the roadsides proclaiming the value of this product or that. The internet remains (for the time being) very much the realm of textual content; search engines trawl through web domains across the globe based on written-word search terms entered by users. Indeed, written code underpins the very software required for the World Wide Web’s existence. In terms of intra-personal communication, text messaging and email are as common as phone calls. On television, credit texts roll after the show and advertisements are punctuated by written language. In printed media, still literature’s principal vessel, the written word remains overwhelmingly the foremost means of communication.

But (written) words rely upon both their visual and verbal structures to communicate. Leeuwen and Kress outline such a position thus: ” What is expressed in language through the choice between different word classes and semantic structures is, in visual communication, expressed through the choice between, for instance, different uses of colour or different compositional structures.” [1] The process is more complex (as Leeuwen and Kress go on to demonstrate) since other factors must be considered too: quality of paper, layout and printing in the case of a book; positioning and artistic direction in the case of a billboard; place of publication; and so on. The problem becomes one of material expression and, therefore, of material basis (the basis by which we form an aesthetic response to a work) and materialism (the particular socio-cultural contexts in which a work is produced and consumed).

But rarely does literature’s critical and creative practice factor in this tension between the verbal and the material. From a creative point of view, such decisions are left to publishers or designers who decide whether a book should use this font and that cover design. At best, a writer may be a stakeholder in the design of their book cover. At worst they are shut out altogether. Decisions concerning the material expression of literature become institutional not personal; they rely upon literary convention and not individual material expression for their material form.[2]

It must be said that this is a system that, on the whole, works well: the paperback is perfectly suited to most fiction while beautifully presented coffee-table books can inspire the appropriate sense of prestige and awe in those who consume them; as language-objects, their material basis is matched with their material expression. One instance where this correlation does not seem to take place is poetry – and poetry is the principal subject of this second chapter.

Determining poetry’s material basis

In order to support such a statement I want to first explore what the material basis for poetry might be and how it differs from prose’s. Michel Riffaterre’s Semiotics of Poetry and Marjorie Perloff’s The Poetics of Indeterminacy will be key texts in this study. I want to establish some of the formal qualities that constitute “poetry”, both visually and linguistically. These will inform the third chapter of this thesis, in which I develop a model to inform the production of material poetry.

This task is fraught with a number of definitional balancing acts. The difficulty resides in the fragmentary nature of the poetic field itself, which Charles Bernstein somewhat dryly refers to as ‘balkanization’.[3] What Bernstein means, and he is correct I think, is any statement delineating one poetry from another is ultimately the product of a particular interpretive community, to use Stanley Fish’s term, with its own idea of what poetry is and is not. Indeed, an e.e. cummings poem and a Shakespearian sonnet bare little formal resemblance: the fomer is comprised of sentence fragments scattered across the page, all in lower-case type; the latter is a strict 14-line unit, comprised of four stanzas, with a strict rhyming pattern. But few would hesitate to recognise both as poetry. Here Australian academic Rosemary Huisman, whose book The Written Poem: semiotic conventions from old to modern English becomes directly relevant. In introducing The Written Poem Huisman recognises the conundrums raised by discussions of poetry in the abstract: a reader’s conception of genre will vary according to the particular socio-cultural contexts, in which they find themselves – their habitus, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology, as Huisman does. Instead, she prefers the term “discourse” to “genre” when discussing poetry, recognising how the concept of poetry has changed over time through the various discursive practices that engage with it. Tellingly, she notes how such practices are also related to material context, in an historical sense. The lineation of poetry is a case in point.

Huisman shows that prior to the development and proliferation of printing technology, poetry in the Anglo-Saxon tradition had been a predominantly oral or phonetic practice, with linguistic characteristics such as the repetition of formal structures like rhyme and rhythm. Such characteristics persisted when poetry began to be more systematically inscribed (though not widely distributed in this manner) from the 13th century onwards, with the introduction of alternatives to expensive parchments like vellum. It is only after the introduction of cheaper writing materials that the introduction of lineation occurs, especially from the time of Chaucer (1400 AD) onwards.


[Image: Page from the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales (an illuminated manuscript showing both lineation and text blocks with early paragraph markers)]

Such a direct correlation between this discursive shift in poetry and its material context – that is the gradual democratisation of paper and book production (as well as literacy) – is startling, though not unexpected. Huisman recounts how these acts of inscription and, subsequently, lineation, introduce graphology into the study of the poem. The graphic element in poetry most often takes the form of left-aligned text with line-breaks, arranged into stanzas of varying length:

Recognizing the presence (or absence) of lineation has provided the basic classification/differentiation of poetic discourse from that which is not poetic. A text so identified, even at first glance before reading, will then be read, interpreted, as a poem, according to the reading practices for poetry (poetic discourse) then current and internalized by the reader.[4]

What dictates this lineation can be the need to enclose a grammatical clause (a full sentence, for example), a semantic or symbolic phrase (a particular idea or image), and/or sonority (such as iambic pentameter or a rhyme). Specific poetic forms like the sonnet, the haiku or the pantoum – to name but three – apply additional rules to the visual appearance of a poem (and to its aural quality, though I am leaving this aspect of the argument to one side). There are also spatial connotations inherent to the term stanza, which derives from the Italian for room; a stanza literally contains the lines of a poem in a same way a room holds objects and people.

While my observations are neither incisive nor original in isolation, they do establish that poetry, as a written text, is inherently visual and incorporates within its tradition a stylised spatial relationship to the page. This relationship varies from poem to poem (and from poetic discourse to discourse) but nonetheless functions across most of the cultural reference points by which we can confirm a poem to be a poem. One exception to this rule might be the prose poem. Referring to Paul Hoover’s A Norton Anthology of Post-Modern American Poetry, Huisman argues that the ‘attempt to “redefine the unit of attention” from line to sentence is an attempt to shift attention from the graphic realisation of the poetic substance to the grammatical structure, independent of the material realisation as spoken or written.’[5] Instead of the line, its basic units, like prose, are the sentence and the paragraph. I would contend that there is still an element of visual definition to a prose poem; just as a short story is visually (and materially) delineated from a novel in terms of its length and appearance within a book or journal, so a prose poem, concise and self-contained, is presented differently to other forms of prose – with the possible exception of the emerging field of micro fiction .[6]

While much poetry has a certain regularity to its appearance (ie regular stanza and line-length), Marjorie Perloff points out the increasingly wide-spread practice of non-linear poetry in which the deployment of the line (and by extension stanza) is no longer dictated by – and in fact rebels against – the integrity of the semantic or grammatical unit and the referential symbol.[7] Such poetry reflects, in the twentieth century especially, increasingly experimental attitudes with regards to the spatial relationship of poetic text to the page.

Written, visual: poetry on and off the page

The most seminal examples can be found in works such as Mallarme’s Un Coup de Dès, which obliterates the stanzaic structure of the poem, sowing words and text-fragments in free flow across the white space of the page. Meanwhile, against the backdrop of a looming World War I, the Italian Futurist poets expounded an asymmetrical, highly kinetic and visually onomatopoeic[8] typographical approach that embodied their revolutionary ideology and intense anti-lyricism – an example in which material basis is embodied through material expression, not stripped away.[9] Delving further back into Western literary tradition we discern exponents of visual poetic traditions such as William Blake, William Morris or the Renaissance’s emblem poems. William Bohn traces visual poetry back to the technopaigneia and carmina figurata of the Greeks and Romans respectively – early concrete poems composed ‘in the shape of wings, altars, eggs, axes and panpipes.’ [10]

If we move across cultures, we find visual and spatial qualities omnipresent in the haiku and zen traditions of Japan, and the classic Chinese poetry of the Tang and Song dynasties. These were inscribed in highly individualised calligraphy, generally on scrolls and often with accompanying ink-paintings; they were prepared for public display rather than private reading while their highly stylised forms (lines of five characters for example in the case of some classic Tang poetry) were inherently visual. In the Islamic world, where pictorial representation of the Qur’an’s contents has always been considered blasphemous, experiments with various book forms led to ornate calligraphy, decorative typography and some of the most astounding book-art ever seen.[11] It is also worth briefly noting the tradition of prose which experimented with the conventions of literary structure through alternative material expression: James Joyce, e.e. cummings and Laurence Stern, for example.


[Image: Qur’an manuscript in Arabic on polished paper, Kashmir, 18th c., 339 ff., 22x14 cm, single column, (15x9 cm) from The Schøyen Collection]

In other words, experiments with the visual aspect of poetry, and literary texts more generally, are not a new phenomenon. Here we return to text-based art and its associated fields. Johanna Drucker has dedicated herself to such areas of inquiry, as critic, artist and print-maker.[12] In her essay ‘The Art of the Written Image’ we find a succinct history of text-based art, which delves into the 20th century in particular – from the high modernism of the Dadaists, Futurists, Cubists and Constructivists through to the work of the Concrete Poets, Lettrists, Pop Artists and Conceptual Artists of the 1950s and 60s. Drucker also hints at the artistic possibilities enabled by the late 20th century’s technological advances in the field of digital print production, reproduction and distribution.[13] In her analysis, she lists the various means by which a number of works mediate the verbal content of language and comment upon the relationship of words to a broader linguistic system. For example, she demonstrates how material expression can function as a form of individual expression (such as the handwritten word), confronting the institutional nature of a language-system (as embodied by standardised fonts). Similarly, her interest in the gestural mark in visual writing – ‘a trace of the very act of production as dynamic action … a sign which has not yet reached the threshold of meaning’ [14] – suggests the fundamental inability of language to properly capture an idea. The gestural act, as it were, traces the demarcation of the legible from the illegible, the cusp at which meaning occurs, at which a sign enters the symbolic order of language. The glyphic sign, meanwhile, is a written language generated by the internal logic of its creator; it exists outside of known alphabets (though perhaps references them) to generate a system of meaning beyond ‘the fixed economy of language’.[15]


In another essay ‘Experimental/Visual/Concrete’, Drucker pursues this strand of thought courtesy of a more thorough assessment of the Concrete Poetry and Lettrist movements of the 1950s, along with their subsequent influence on the practice of text-based art. From her analysis, we can infer that the common objective of these two movements was to strip the basic units of language from their association with their larger linguistic system, a system that imbues them with meaning, including symbolic and ideological values. While the Concrete Poets viewed these basic units as words and, sometimes, clauses or phrases, for the Lettrists, as the name suggests, the basic unit was the letter.[16] Simon Morely posits that this movement ‘denuded the alphabet itself of its linguistic role, severing the umbilical cord between signifier and signified, and rescuing it as a purely visual form.’[17] A quick survey of a prominent concrete poet such as Ian Hamilton-Finlay reveals how such a statement might easily be adapted to suit concrete poetry as well. Indeed, Finlay’s body of text-based work moves, more often than not, to re-appropriate textual fragments (whether words or utterances), removing them from their habitual linguistic framing and positioning them in new formal contexts.[18]

[Image: Gabriel Pomerand, extrait de ‘saint ghetto des prets’ (1949):
an example of Lettrist composition from UbuWeb]

Text-based art, in the twentieth century at least, appears not wholly engaged with the field of literature, per se. Its concern rests with the fields of linguistics and semiotics: how writing as a visual form can play with the tension between the immateriality of a work’s verbal content (the ideas it wishes to express) and the capacity of language to signify this verbal content in material form. Implicit in such a concern is the socialisation of language. Like Grigely and philosophers such as Derrida, these practices often draw attention to the fundamental instability of language as a semiotic and cultural system, and the ability of text-based art to deconstruct this instability through extra-verbal means. This is by no means a sin; such concerns are also prominent in literature, especially poetry. But it does not follow that text-based art is necessarily a literary medium. Literature depends on linguistic structure and grammatical (dis)ordering as its material basis and not visual punning.

Drucker does acknowledge the diversity of text-based art practices in the 20th century, as well as literary forays into the broader field of material expression (that is, sound poetry, performance poetry, etc), some of which I have previously discussed. For example, she briefly explores the collusion between literature and text-based art in the work of Charles Olson, and the Toronto Concrete Poets bpNichol and Steve McAffery, whose work is informed by poetic discourse ‘as a strategy of representation engaged with issues of culture, ideology, and politics.’[19] There are many others whose work draws upon similar theoretical grounding and creative techniques to extend the material basis of their writing through appropriate material expression. But the comments thus far hopefully illustrate how a dominant approach in the field of text-based art could be seen as an attempt to remove language from its linguistic, ideological and symbolic contexts and position them in new visual formal arrangements, as is the case with Angela Brennan’s text-based painting reviewed in Chapter 1. That is, we might situate text-based art within the discourse of visual art rather than literature per se.

My enterprise here is not to denigrate text-based art but to understand how, having posited the visual nature of poetry, we can formulate a model for its material expression that differs from those underpinning much text-based art. I have hopefully done so for Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dès, showing the relationship between his idealised vision of pure language and its spatial arrangement on the page. I want to now explore such ideas more generally, in a way that might guide the material expression of multiple poetic discourses.

I intend to focus on poetic reading practices – how readers relate to the material basis of a poem. In turn, this understanding will help ascertain the material basis by which we might relate to poetry as a genre. Huisman refers to these practices several times without denoting what they might actually be. For instance, to help define the prose poem she draws upon Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas of institutionalised authority and habitus, respectively: how a renowned poetry editor or publisher’s decision to publish the prose-poem in a collection of poems or a literary journal will grant the poetic discourse the status of poem. But such distinctions are very much discursive, slotting only into the materialist aspect of literary production, rather than responding to its material basis. I want to add to this methodology the work of French theorist Michel Riffaterre and his Semiotics of Poetry.

Ungrammatical: the semiotics of poetry

At its core, Riffaterre’s enterprise is simple: to determine how the ‘structure of meaning’[20] in a poem differs from that of prose – a task that can be approximated to determining a poem’s material basis and the means by which a reader can formulate an aesthetic response to it. Riffaterre argues that poetry, unlike prose, acts principally as a form of indirection which ‘threatens the literary representation of reality or mimesis’ entwined with prose’s structure of meaning. He distinguishes the outcomes of indirection and of mimesis as significance and meaning, respectively.[21] In order to reach the significance of a poem, a term that implies the presence of a distorted or ambiguous signifier-signified relationship, Riffaterre argues two reading phases are required: heuristic and hermeneutic.

In the heuristic phase the reader approaches the text (a poem) as a literary artefact but one in which the standard literary devices are subverted. While prose relies primarily upon mimesis for its structure of meaning, poetry subverts it. Where prose relies upon linear procession (whether narrative or logical, though not necessarily chronological) as a literary device, poetry displays no necessary adherence to it. Riffaterre best captures this concept when he compares ‘the habit of checking language against reality’ in prose with a concern with ‘what language does to reality’ in poetry[22]. Through the first heuristic phase, we grasp the poem as literary artefact but one that cannot, as a general rule, be read literally; by eschewing the standard mimesis of literary representation, the poem substitutes this structure for its own: a localised semiotic order and, in certain poetic discourses, a particular linguistic system.

This semiotic subversion can occur through a variety of formal, symbolic and semantic devices. Take for example the following extract from Peter Minter’s poem ‘Never return to a meadow permit’:

Tonight’s town
drinks up an army of ghosts,

screens tinkle as new ice
explodes gracefully overhead, blue deals transmitted
to fields of occupation.

You are there in a dream
opening on the hour, the light fall of leaves
commodity’s source

in each word, line, leaf
as it passes daily from our lives.

In reading this poem it is important to reiterate that the heuristic phase necessarily involves the identification of a poem as poem – a process that can be guided by poetry’s particular visual qualities and/or the reader’s knowledge of poetics.


[Image: Peter Minter, blue grass (Salt Publishing, 2006), cover and ‘Never Return To A Meadow Permit’ (Photographs: James Stuart)]

Applying Huismann’s interpretational model, I can initially identify ‘Never return to a meadow permit’ as poem (even before I have seen it on the page) because it is by Peter Minter, whom I know to be an Australian poet with an experimental approach to the lyric poem. When I actually encounter the piece (contained in a standard codex), I confirm it as poetry due to its uneven-length lines containing phrases and clauses; fragments rather than full sentences; utterances rather than ideas. On my first read, the relationship of these phrases and clauses becomes accordingly ambiguous: is the subject of ‘opening on the hour’, ‘you’ or ‘a dream’? Does ‘blue deals transmitted’ refer to ‘screens’ or to ‘new ice’? But behind this visual and syntactic ambiguity lies a deeper uncertainty: the symbolic order of the poem which acts to destabilise rather than affirm structural orders of meaning. For instance, the poem inverts the habitual association of ghosts “haunting” a town. Instead the town imbibes the army of ghosts, sucking them into its folds. The text’s meaning eludes us because there is no present meaning, only significance, entwined with the particulars of this poem’s symbolic system. To broach this significance requires a second phase of hermeneutic or retroactive reading, a re-reading, as it were. It is in this phase that I begin to grasp the wholeness of the poem as a particular semiotic and semantic order, separate from standard literary representation; I begin to accept and understand the poem’s internal logic (or alternatively I lose interest and walk away). But to grasp this internal logic I must somehow establish an order by which it can be deciphered.[24]

Here we come to Riffaterre’s hypogram – an invariant word or semantic structure that determines the structure of the poem – but one that is not directly presented and which usually exists outside the text[25]. The goal of hermeneutic reading is to determine this hypogram. Doing so allows the reader to overcome a poem’s ungrammaticalities (that is, the challenges to mimesis apprehended during heuristic reading) by integrating them into the hypogram’s matrix:

The [poetic] text is in effect a variation or modulation of one structure – thematic, symbolic or whatever – and this sustained relation to one structure constitutes the significance … This is why, whereas units of meaning may be words or phrases or sentences, the unit of significance is the text. To discover the significance at last, the reader must surmount the mimesis hurdle: in fact this hurdle is essential to the reader’s change of mind.[26]

Citing Gautier’s cliché-ridden In Deserto, Riffaterre demonstrates how the poet’s descriptions of the barren Spanish desert landscapes never refer to the landscape per se but always to a voice crying in the wilderness for love (vox clamans in deserto). The poem represents the poet’s state of being, his own spiritual wasteland. This image forms the poem’s hypogram, expressed through the matrix of poetic language; the point of origin to which the poem inevitably leads back. Thus significance describes the process by which the reader is able to reach this semiotic nucleus: ‘Significance is … the reader’s praxis of the transformation … – the experience of a circuitous sequence, a way of speaking that keeps revolving around a key word or matrix reduced to a marker.’[27]

A similar approach could be applied to Minter’s poem – perhaps the hypogram might be revealed if we were to read Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ from which the poem derives its title. But I will leave this analysis to one side since my purpose is not to “decipher” Minter’s work. Instead, I want to emphasise two aspects of Riffaterre’s thought: first is the notion that poetic and prose reading practices differ because of the two-phased process required by the semiotics of poetry; second is the reader-centred interpretational model and the notion of overcoming a poem that he establishes through the metaphor of surmounting ‘the mimesis hurdle’ or ‘pushing the meaning over to a text not present.’[28] In these two ideas, Riffaterre establishes a material basis for poetry premised upon the disruption of mimesis (ungrammaticality) and the intense involvement of the reader required to push through this, towards significance and interpretation. While it does function as a credible reader-response to the oft-stated claim that contemporary poetry is “too difficult”, such an approach does not, of course, cover the balkanized field of poetry as a whole. Any generalities regarding the “genre” of prose are subject to the same discursive issues.

Similarly, I find Riffaterre’s insistence upon a fixed nucleus that allows a reader to decipher a poem to be somewhat reductive – he himself makes the direct analogy between getting a joke and getting a poem; both have a hypogram that once deciphered might unravel the overall poetic matrix into a state of fixedness (albeit one that can be read and re-read due to the constant challenge of the poem’s ungrammaticalities).

Part of the problem here emerges when analysing a text through the other models of materiality that I have proposed whereby the text is fluid, embodied in particular editions and a variety of interpretational contexts, all of which may lead to individual hypograms. This approach also fails to allow for the oft-disputed domain of cultural studies when poems are interpreted from within a particular philosophical, theological or cultural framework. A brief foray into contemporary translation theory unearths such a position. Drawing on the structuralist work of Barthes and Kristeva, Susan Bassnett infers that ‘The reader translates or decodes the text according to a different set of systems and the idea of the one ‘correct’ reading is dissolved.’[29] Such interpretational systems are invariably entwined with the various materialities that I have previously outlined.

The other difficulty is when a poem has no discernible hypogram: what does significance lead to then? Such a point of departure might shift the focus of the text away from Riffaterre’s professed interest in texts that ‘the reader rationalizes as a symbol of the writer’s intention.’[30] This takes us neatly to Marjorie Perloff and her text The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage in which the notion of authorial intention in poetry is turned on its head. Instead the focus shifts to reader interpretation.

Meaning is in the mind of the beholder

In The Poetics of Indeterminacy, Perloff traces a lineage from French rebel-poet-cum-arms dealer Arthur Rimbaud to the experimental work of John Cage, passing through Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett and John Ashbery. What these poets share in common is a shift from the objective-correlative world of the symbolists (which draw upon a fixed hypogram) to a concern with creating surface-level and semiotically fragmented language-objects. In this sense, Perloff sees the 20th century diverging into two major poetic traditions.

This shift could be broadly summated as moving from certain, prescribed or at least intended meetings (for example, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as a symbolist narrative for the post-Christian moral vacuum) to poems where meaning is inferred but never fully realised within the text: it is indeterminate, to use Perloff’s title. Another feature of this evolution is the move from metaphor to metonymy, that is from reading poetic texts by associating its images with specific ideas (i.e., through objective correlation) to one in which the images and other literary devices are themselves the ideas – ‘No ideas but in things!’ as Williams famously wrote – even if it is unclear what those ideas might actually be. It is possible, thus, to contrast the flat plane of metonymy to the associative depth of metaphor. It is also a move from structured modes to unstructured and non-referential modes of representation, such as was seen in the visual arts with the Cubists, especially, but also the Dadaists, Russian Constructivists or Suprematists.[31]

While her correlations between these indeterminate poetics and the visual strategies employed by the Cubists and other visual artists are intriguing, Perloff’s most useful dialectic (at least for my purposes) is to establish a tradition through the detailed analysis of each poet’s work and the literary devices they use to achieve indeterminacy. To some degree this is a repetitive task which could be summarised as: “In Work 1, Poet 2 writes A, B, C, D – but what is the relationship between A, B, C and D? There is no apparent link. At face value, it doesn’t make sense. As readers we can never reliably determine the meaning of the text. But the poet seems have taken this approach because of reason X by using literary device Y”. And so on. this perfunctory summary does not do justice to the thoroughness and diversity of Perloff’s analysis; to her credit she also compares these “indeterminate” works with others by the same poets which might be broadly slotted into objective-correlative poetics.

In approaching Ezra Pound’s Cantos she looks first at his earlier works, especially Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, showing how in these he still works within the dominant romantic tradition in which ‘rather facile contrasts between an idealized past and a vulgarized present continue throughout the poem as Pound produces symbol after symbol “with an ascribed or intended meaning.” [or hypogram to use Riffaterre’s model]’ She continues: ‘ One feels that Pound begins with an idea, not with an image, and then sets about to find an objective correlative for that idea … Moreover, despite its allusiveness and ellipses, the poem moves sequentially and logically from a to b; it is not a collage of “super-pository” images or a “VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing.” ’ [32]

The discarding of the objective-correlative mode and the rise of a dynamic Vorticist aesthetic both come to the fore in Pound’s later work, by which point he had distanced himself from the high modernism of his old friend T.S. Eliot. In approaching the Malatesta Cantos, Perloff deconstructs these poems’ strange amalgamation of imagery (drawn from both historical and autobiographical sources), diction (for example business and colloquial English), translation/mistranslation and languages (Italian, Latin, English). Speaking of ‘Canto LXXIV’ with its confluence of references to Pound’s contemporaries (for example a classics lecturer, Snow) and various historical figures (such as Pope Pius II), and its audacious rhythmic and verbal play, Perloff concludes that:

‘Pound’s individual word units and images are … insistently illusionistic. Unlike, say, Gertrude Stein or, for that matter, Rimbaud, he does not call into relationship the relationship of signifier to signified … But these illusionistic, literal images are consistently “interfering” with one another, so as to remind us that the world of the poem is not, after all, the real world.’[33]

She compares this aesthetic to that of documentary collage in which image after image are spliced together, a series of ‘cinematic dissolves’ that ‘force us to readjust our habits of reading’ and participate in the construction of the poem’s meaning. No longer can readers take for guiding principles the models of authorial intention/emotion (or ethos) that dominate traditions such as the symbolists.

The notion that such poetries challenge our rote reading habits (that is, interpretational habits) is perhaps key among the common features of all the poets analysed. This is perhaps best summarised by Perloff herself in her discussion of Gertrude Stein, whose ‘fluidity of reference creates what John Ashbery … has called “An all-purpose model which each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars.” The poet wants us to be able to fill in the gaps in whatever way suits us.’[34]

Through this emphasis, Perloff’s poetics of indeterminacy move beyond Riffaterre’s semiotics. She emphasises how poetry must be re-read for its meaning to be perceived but underlines that such perception is ultimately fluid. Such fluidity is reinforced when we think of poems as language-objects, produced and consumed within distinct socio-cultural contexts. Her contribution to this argument therefore is that we can discount Riffaterre’s hypogram as part of our interpretational practices for poetry, that is, as part of its material basis. Such thinking remains easily contextualised, nonetheless, as an evolution of the semiotics of poetry, not a rupture; like Riffaterre, she contends that determining the structure of meaning in a poem is a result of our own participation, that is interaction, with the semiotic structure of the text – a structure we might call, more broadly, its grammatical structure. This latter classification stems from poetry’s ungrammaticality, or challenge to the system of mimesis, as proposed by Riffaterre; my emphasis upon this nomenclature will become clearer in the third and final chapter. Here, the core question will be how the material expression of a poem can be matched to its very particular material basis, as established through my study of Huisman, Riffaterre and Perloff.

> Go to Chapter 03

< Return to Chapter 01

[1] Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. Reading images : the grammar of visual design (London: Routledge, 2006), p.2.

[2] Jan-Dirk Müller argues this position in his essay ‘The Body of the Book: The Media Transition from Manuscript to Print’ in Gumbrecht, H. U. and Pfeiffer, K. L. (eds.) Materialities of Communication (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1994). Here he documents the evolution from written to printed English from the time of Gutenberg onwards. He concludes: ‘But longevity is guaranteed no longer by the written “monument” itself but rather by the numerous institutions that select the constantly growing reservoirs of writings and allow them to become effective.’ p. 43-44.

[3] ‘how to evaluate the fact that in the last twenty years a number of self-subsistent poetry communities have emerged that have different readers and different writers and different publishers and different reading series, even, increasingly, separate hierarchies and new canons with their own awards, prizes, heroines.’ His response is as follows: ‘What I take more seriously are pluralist ideas supporting an idealized multiculturalism: the image of poets from different communities reading each other’s works and working to keep aware of developments in every part of the poetic spectrum.’ Bernstein, C. ‘State of the Art’, A Poetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992),

[4] Huisman, R. The Written Poem : semiotic conventions from old to modern English (London: Casell, 1998), p. 17.

[5] ibid. p. 23

[6] Micro fiction is a genre in which pieces are limited to very short lengths, such as 150 characters or 50 words, often to fit particular portable media formats such as the mobile phone.

[7] Perloff, M. ‘After Free Verse: The new non-linear poetries’, published on the author’s homepage http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/free.html

[8] As in the layout of the typography should embody the idea the writer is trying to express.

[9] Herbert Spencer’s Pioneers of Modern Typography (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press 1983, c1982) is an especially concise and lucid account of the profound impact the Futurists and their contemporaries had on contemporary typography and, subsequently, much visual writing practice: ‘The fundamental difference between traditional, centred and modern typography is that one is passive and the other is active, though not necessarily aggressive. Asymmetry and contrast provide the basis of modern typography.’ (p. 59) However, Futurist Poetry manifested itself in equally stylised and dynamic performances, demonstrating a profound influence on the practice of not just visual but material poetry. The same can be said of the Dada poets who experimented with both performance and sound poetry.

[10] Bohn, W. Modern Visual Poetry (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2001), p. 15.

[11] See my review of The Arts of Islam: Treasures from the Nasser D. Khalili Collection at the Art Gallery of NSW, 2007: Stuart, J ‘Remediate? Sure (but don’t forget the book)’ in Jacket 34, October 2007 (http://jacketmagazine.com/34/stuart-mirakove.shtml).

[12] One item worth consulting that I will not refer to in this thesis is her excellent The Alphabetic Labyrinth in which she traces a comprehensive history of the written word, focusing on the evolution of the roman alphabet from its earliest days.

[13] The role of technology in all major artistic movements or endeavours that featured text as their core cannot be emphasised enough. The modernists were the beneficiaries of radical photo-gravure typesetting technique and advances in the field of printing, while film had a definite influence upon the Lettrists. We must also not ignore how experimentation in prints date back to the Renaissance and the invention of the Gutenberg press.

[14] Drucker, J. ‘The Art of the Written Image’, Figuring the word : essays on books, writing and visual poetics (New York, NY: Granary Books, 1998), p.65.

[15] ibid. p. 69

[16] Steve McAffery and Jed Rasula in Imagining Language refer to this basic unit as the clinamen – the point where one word or one meaning can swerve to become another. This is traditionally understood to be the letter but, as Giordano Bruno argued, can also be the typographical marks that compose a letter: ‘Bruno effectively reduces the minimal vector of the clinamen from a swerve in primary articulation (ie a deviation and difference among letters) to a gestural declination of the pre-lettristic mark.’ Rasula, J. & McAffery, S. (eds.) in Imagining Language: an anthology (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, c1998), p. 533.

[17] Morely, S. Writing on the wall : word and image in modern art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003), p. 101.

[18] For example, his major work Little Sparta, a garden in which text-fragments are removed from their original contexts and integrated with sculptures placed in the landscaped environment. See Abrioux, Y. Ian Hamilton-Finlay: a visual primer (London: Reaktion Books, 1992, 2nd ed). However, Finlay’s body of work is extensive and cannot be entirely pigeon-holed in this way.

[19] Drucker, J. ‘Experimental/Visual/Concrete’, Figuring the word: essays on books, writing and visual poetics (New York, NY: Granary Books, 1998), p. 131.

[20] Riffaterre, M. Semiotics of poetry (London: Methuen, 1978), p.4.

[21] ibid. p. 6

[22] ibid. p.7 (my italics)

[23] Minter, P. ‘Never return to a meadow permit’ in blue grass (London: Salt Publishing, 2006) p.9.

[24] I feel it important to note here that the point at which this sense of wholeness occurs can also be the basic units of the poem, the line and the stanza, since I often find myself flipping between individual units to better grasp their relationship or to appreciate a particularly well wrought or destabilising image – a microcosm within the larger ecosystem of the poem, perhaps.

[25] See also Prud’homme, J. and Guilbert, N. ‘Text Derivation’, Signo, Rimouski (Quebec: 2006), http://www.signosemio.com

[26] Riffaterre, M. (1978), p.6.

[27] ibid. p.12

[28] ibid. p.12

[29] Bassnett, S. Translations Studies (New York: Routledge, 1991 [2nd ed]), p.76.

[30] Riffaterre, M. (1978), p.46.

[31] See for example Stankos, N (ed.) Concepts of modern art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981 [revised edn.])

[32] Perloff, M. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Evanston, Ill.: North Western University Press; London: Turnaround, 1999), p. 167 [the internal quotations are from Pound himself].

[33] ibid. p. 199

[34] ibid. p. 107

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