Picture Poetry

For me, one of the keenest sensuous pleasures in poetry is the active sense that patterns of sound and syntax and rhythm are emerging as I read, solidifying into what Ezra Pound called “a shape cut into time” (in longer poems it may be more like a series of shapes melting into each other). I’ve just realised that this is why most so-called shape poetry or picture poetry or concrete poetry does so little for me.

Sensing a shape cut into time involves a kind of mental shift that I’d guess depends on the coming together of different parts of the brain or different neural processes: ones that register things successively in time and ones that see or feel a pattern in space. I think the keen pleasure such a sensation gives depends on the heightened brain activity it involves, not in an intellectual sense – there’s nothing reflective or analytical about it – but in a quite primitive way, in terms of processes constituting the brain’s basic wiring. For me there’s something synaesthetic about the experience, because kinetic, tactile, visual and auditory sensations all seem to play overlapping parts in it.

Picture poems in which the actual visual display on the page simply replaces the sense of the shape cut into time don’t work for me because they take a synaesthetic, multidimensional experience and flatten it. The picture may be pleasant, ingenious, amusing etc but it doesn’t have the sensuous resonance that a shape cut into time has.

Picture poetry that really works for me brings visual and temporal shapes together and makes them interact. Lewis Carroll’s “Mouse’s Tale” in Alice in Wonderland does this brilliantly.

You can link to a photograph of it here.

Alice has tumbled into wonderland and a mouse tells her a long and sad tale but as she hears it Alice pictures it or hears it or feels it – again the experience is synaesthetic so none of these terms will really do – in terms of a mouse’s tail. Carroll and his printers represent this by setting the poem out in a thin sinuous pattern like the picture of a mouse’s tail in which the letters grow smaller and smaller. The layout cuts across the line divisions suggested by rhyme and metre.

What’s crucial is that although it can’t be seen on the page in this layout, the “shape cut into time” by rhyme and metre are still strongly felt because the metre and rhyme are both of a very obvious, insistent kind. So we have a tension between the two different shapes, the spatial shape on the page and the shape heard or felt in time as the words fall on the inner ear. This is only one of several deliberate mismatches of expressive device in the poem. Another simple but sensuously powerful one is to do with the shrinking of the print size as we go down the mouse’s tail. In the tale there’s a build-up of dramatic tension that climaxes in “condemn you to death”. Reading to children you’d shout out that last word. The obvious thing and the conventionally expected thing would be to print it in bigger letters. So instead of tamely supporting each other, through the whole tale the dramatic sense and the print size move in opposite directions.

Carroll’s play with cognitive processes and expressive expectations is subversively witty and produces the pleasure of a kind of heightened primitive brain activity that I referred to earlier. It’s also mimetic on a deeper level though. It suggests the weird way in which ideas and the mind can seem to both drift apart and collapse into each other when you fall asleep with a buzzing brain, or nod off while reading in a hot bath. The shrinking print size suggests the voice getting fainter and fainter as the dreamer sinks into sleep. So below the level at which different modes of expression are set at odds with each other there’s a deeper level at which this very conflict is part of an artistic convergence of forces.

I just wish more of the picture poems I’ve read had more of this kind of richness of aesthetic layering.

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