About visual poetry
by Judith Copithorne
To start I should point out that I have approached this talk as a group of comments on visual poetry not necessarily sequentially connected or connected in any way except that they all appeared to me to be interesting ways to look at or think about visual poetry.
It was suggested that I might talk about two things, how I started making visual poetry and what I see as the nature of visual poetry. So firstly I will say that when I started playing with the ideas of a visual poetry, before I knew anything about the forms we now call visual poetry and concrete poetry, what I thought about these ideas seems to be intertwined with how I still view these forms. This makes what I have to say quite personal and for me visual poetry does have room for personal experience and understanding.
As far as has been discovered over the centuries Human’s sounds and visual material have interacted and once there was written language it can be seen in this mix. In a cave in France there have been found Paleolithic drawings and the suggestion has been made that the multiple foot prints in circular tracks on the floor of the cave might be made by multiple and repeated movements. In such a case the places on the walls that seemed to be set to accommodate placement of torches would perhaps would create a sense of movement in the multiple lines in the drawings on the walls due to the flickering of the flames of the torches. In that way it could be imagined that this deep cave was the scene of aesthetic and possibly religious and multidisciplinary rituals.
Once this possibility in the Paleolithic is recognized its likelihood seems worth examining. And when this idea is considered it could be taken as another example of the combining of the various senses in human rituals and artistic activities which is then easier to imagine and visualize. This being the case the possibilities of combinations of words and visual materials at a somewhat later date becomes another more possible event to consider. And throughout human history there have been a variety of examples of such material.
Visual poetry quite often appeared in the literature of various cultures around the world. China was one place as was Japan where such work reach the level of a very high art. However, with the creation, in Germany, of Guttenberg’s moveable type it became less likely to see this a mixture of printed and visual material in European books as it was much more difficult to place such varied material within the strictures of this press. I have the idea that it may be that the practical necessity of the Gutenberg press of limiting visual material in blocks of type eventually became in many people’s minds a necessary aesthetic and social part of printing. Thus description became prescription as is often the case.
The recent developments of photo copying and now computer directed printing have once again made visual poetry and other such material much easier to reproduce including the ability to reproduce visual and typed material interacting. The reactions to the quite relatively spontaneous nature of some of the small press publishing in the sixties points to this. It was possible to use photo lithography prior to this to combine print and visuals but it was an expensive and more time consuming process.
In Vancouver, which was where I lived in the 1950’s, it was easy to see a marvelous selection of the uses of Chinese characters. The 100 block East Pender Street in particular was extremely rich in a variety of uses and forms of Chinese writing from hand written material in shop windows to stunning scripts in brilliant neon.
When I first attended UBC in 1959 I met bill bissett and he and others helped me navigate through the university bureaucracy toward the scholarly and imaginative riches that resided there. Then in 1961 I managed to get to San Francisco and the basement of City Lights Books seemed to contain much of the treasure that I had heard of or read about or hypothesized as existing which I had been trying to find for what seemed like a long time.
There I looked at visual material, and read articles and books by Andre Michaux, Kenneth Patchen and others that have stood by me in many ways since that time. What was there for me were more ways to enter into the slip stream between analysis and inspiration, between speculation and solution, between waking and dreams. And the biggest spaces that needed navigation started to exposes some of their further dimensions that could be explored, circumnavigated and expedited to carry new messages or envision further maps or imaginary possibilities.
During this time bill bissett had been making other sorts of very strong verbal-visual poetry plus many paintings and sculptures. Then in around 1963 bill told me that he had received an exciting letter from bp nichol. bp had asked bill to send him work and asked bill to give me the same message. In the summer of 1963 bill published the 1st issue of blew ointment press. At that time bp and bill started produced voluminous and important amounts of magazines, and small books which gave visual poetry in particular, and much other new forms of poetry and prose a good start in this country
Then a number of years after that I heard from jw curry and became aware of the amazing publishing activity he was involved in. And a few years later Daniel F. Bradley also let me know about the work he was doing.
A book that was published in 1989 and may be of interest here is “Pattern Poetry” which was edited by Dick Higgins. Its sub title is “Guide to an Unknown Literature”. It introduces many of the older and ancient visual poetries of China, India and several countries of Europe. It is a reminder of what Robert Duncan called a “community of meanings.”
So with the idea first of using the whole page as a visual stage as well as the idea of opening the writing and visual material to speculative, imaginative, newly experienced ideas and productions, also comes the idea of a community of meanings. In this way variety may arise since the possibilities are only limited by the size and shape of the page and ideas of composition which are shaped by many different cultures each of which may be viable in this form.
Also, I noticed as I worked on writing this piece, that the more I look at visual poetry as a somewhat discrete field, the more it’s extensive quality becomes apparent. And at this point in writing this the idea occured to me that it might even be reasonable to ask whether the visual bed of human communication was the substrate out of which much written language may have arisen.
As I look at visual poetry now the first thing that occurs to me from a chronological point of view is quite different from the view that was often put forward 50 years ago. This is that if we look at it from the perspective of 500 years ago it looks as if visual poetry in some various forms was quite common throughout history and only fell into some manner of disuse mainly in the Western Hemisphere about 400 hundred years ago with the arrival of Gutenberg’s marvellous press.
This view however is no more provable than the theory of 50 years ago which was, among many people, that poetry was entirely to do with sound and so visual poetry could not actually exist. However, the world being the gigantic size it is, we keep on discovering aspects of it that had not been apparent to us before. Therefore any hypothesis regarding originary events seems to very often be subject to change, which is the great title of the poetry book by my friend Renee Rodin.
The idea of broadening and interrelating the scope of various disciplines and thought processes appears to enrich each part of such exchanges. The visual memory and language memory parts of the brain are in some places quite close together and sometimes not.
The largest and best known area of visual processing is quite separate from the areas of language processing. There are rapid strides occurring in neurophysiology and at this point there have been discoveries of memory functions in several parts of the brain. It seems possible that methods and practices of widening the boundaries and presentation of thought and creation in the areas of art, poetry, visual poetry and in many other fields or disciplines may encourage an ability to think more widely and objectively in many parts of life.
Thus variation and variety may make the activity and therefore possibly the existence of the world larger. And thoughts of language and imagination may become an expression of that imaginary potential.
What a page can give us is the energy of the imaginary as well as the multiplicity of our perceptions. Thus we are given more if we open ourselves to possibility. We may receive the apparent, the possible and the imaginary. So if I start at the beginning of what visual poetry was for me and has been since then I think of a page as a map, as a diagram, as a mind, or as a universe. I started by thinking of thought as including feeling, idea, emotion and sensation and thinking of a page as including probability and imagination.