Jeffrey Side (London, UK): The Semantic Limitations of Visual Poetry

In The Reader, the Text, the Poem, Louise Rosenblatt says: ‘The poem, then, must be thought of as an event in time. It is not an object or an ideal entity. It happens during a coming-together, a co-penetration, of a reader and a text’. She later elaborates:

The reading of a text is an event occurring at a particular time in a particular environment at a particular moment in the life history of the reader. The transaction will involve not only the past experience but also the present state and present interests or preoccupations of the reader. This suggests the possibility that printed marks on a page may even become different linguistic symbols by virtue of transactions with different readers. Just as knowing is the process linking a knower and a known, so a poem should not be thought of as an object, an entity, but rather as an active process lived through during the relationship between a reader and a text.

For the poem to be experienced as an event in time, the importance of mental activity, or “internalisation”, in the reader cannot be overestimated. By internalisation I mean that part of the reader’s response that is able, through conscious decision, to minimise the relevance of the text in the hermeneutical process. This is difficult to achieve with poetry in which the artifice (in the form of certain extra-lexical ingredients—such as the visual and acoustic) is fore-grounded at the expense of semantic elements. Such poetry inhibits internalisation and is, as Charles Bernstein has said, ‘concerned only with representing its own mechanisms’.

These elements of artifice are, like painting and music, non-semantic and, as such, they preclude an exegetical response that is distinct from the hermeneutical procedures employed in the reception of non-representational visual art and music. In ‘The Dollar Value of Poetry’ Charles Bernstein advocates a poetics that is grounded in experiences that are released in the reading. In this sense, then, poetry is seen as being untranslatable and un-paraphrasable for ‘what is untranslatable is the sum of all the specific conditions of the experience (place, time, order, light, mood, position, to infinity) made available by reading’. Bernstein sees this untranslatability as being misunderstood by advocates of ‘certain “concretist” tendencies, who see in radical concrete procedures the manifestation of untranslatability at its fullest flowering’. As Bernstein, stresses ‘what is not translatable is the experience released in the reading’. He goes on to say that ‘in so far as some “visual poems” move toward making the understanding independent of the language it is written in, i.e., no longer requiring translation, they are, indeed, no longer so much writing as works of visual art. In ‘Words and Pictures’, he emphasises the linguistic and semantic criteria necessary for any aesthetic of viewer/reception theory to be plausible: ‘visual experience is only validated when accompanied by a logico-verbal explanation’. For Bernstein, then, as he says in ‘Thought’s Measure’, ‘there is meaning only in terms of language’.

Furthermore, he is well aware of the dangers of too much foregrounding of artifice when he writes in ‘Artifice of Absorption’:

In my poems, I
frequently use opaque & nonabsorbable
elements, digressions &
interruptions, as part of a technological
arsenal to create a more powerful
(“souped up”)
absorption than possible with traditional,
& blander, absorptive techniques. This is a
precarious road because insofar
as the poem seems
overtly self conscious, as opposed to internally
incantatory or psychically
actual, it may produce
self consciousness in the reader in such a way as to
destroy his or her absorption by theatricalizing
or conceptualizing the text, removing
it from the realm of an experience engendered
to that of a technique

Bernstein welcomes internalisation. Without it, it is impossible for poetry to be experienced as an event in time. However, he does tend to view the semantic field as incorporating non-lexical features of a poem. While I agree with incorporation in principle, in practice it is psychologically problematical for most readers. This is perhaps why such poetry is deemed “difficult”.

It could be argued that visual poetry is, indeed, semantic. I agree to an extent. For instance, Ernst Gomringer’s ‘WIND’ (which plays with associations such as the words "in" and “win” contained within the word "WIND”) and Augusto de Campos's ‘CODIGO’ (which contains the word "God" as an anagram and alludes to "cogito ergo sum”) do, indeed, operate semantically. Nevertheless, their semantic operations are extremely meagre. With ‘WIND’ the associations come to only two words: “win” and “in” (perhaps also the word “wind”, as in to wind a clock). The same limitations can be seen in de Campos's ‘CODIGO’. Apart from a reader’s fleeting appreciation of the novel aspects of these poems their affects are exhausted no sooner than they are recognised.

In contrast, if we compare the following lines from ‘Into the Day’ by J. H. Prynne with ‘WIND’ and ‘CODIGO’ we can see their limitations more clearly:

Who does we reign our royal house
is roofed with fateful slates

These lines begin with the words ‘who does’ which immediately puts us into questioning mode, but the next word, ‘we’, draws our attention to the grammatical inappropriateness of the preceding word, ‘does’, in its location between ‘who’ and ‘we’. We have been led to expect a question but the grammatically incorrect syntax has frustrated this expectation. We are left instead with a language that rather than denoting a position of enquiry relies, instead, on connotation for this effect. This sort of “question” belongs to an "enquiry" that is syntactical rather than referential. In other words it is language pretending to be a question.

Similarly, ‘our royal house is roofed with fateful slates’ although syntactically correct contain the juxtaposition of ‘fateful’ with ‘slates’, two words not usually associated or combined with each other. This cannot be said of ‘roofed’ and ‘slate’ which often share the same juxtaposition. If the word ‘fateful’ had not been included there would be little room for plurality of meaning. The word ‘slates’ would mean solely roofing materials. It is the juxtaposition of ‘fateful’ and ‘slates’ that produces the plurality. A few of the dictionary definitions of the word ‘slate’ are: 1) a fine-grained rock that can be easily split into thin layers and is used as a roofing material. 2) a roofing tile of slate. 3) a writing tablet of slate. 4) a dark grey colour. 5) a list of candidates in an election. ‘Slate’ is, thus, rich in connotation. The addition of ‘fateful’ enables any one of these meanings to become appropriate. For example, it is quite possible to have a fateful dark grey colour—as in the sense of an omen. So, too, is it possible to have a fateful group of electoral candidates.

If we were to choose this latter image for one of the meanings of ‘fateful slates’ we could make it fit into the rest of the sentence (if it can rightly be called one) by opening up the meanings of ‘our royal house is roofed with’. This is fairly simple, as the idea of electoral candidates enables ‘royal house’ to connote a political arena of some sort as suggested by the word ‘house’ (The Houses of Parliament or The White House, for example). The word ‘roofed’ connotes a ‘covering-over’—a protection of some sort, as in the image of a bird’s wing covering and protecting its young. If we take this as our connotation, then one of the many meanings of ‘our royal house is roofed with fateful slates’ could be: ‘Our political system is protected from tyranny by its processes of electing political candidates who are under oath (fated) to guarantee this freedom from tyranny’. This interpretation of Prynne's 12 words is only possible with a richer semantic field of possibilities than both ‘WIND’ and ‘CODIGO’ provide.

The formal qualities of a poem are, of course, important but only indirectly: in that they facilitate the inner ear’s appreciation of the poem’s sonorous qualities. They do not contribute overmuch semantically. The only thing of importance is the mental activity experienced by the reader. The reader’s attention should not be focused on the poem’s structure or its rhetorical devices but, rather, should be concentrated on the resonance produced by the semantic qualities of the lexis. Only in this way, then, can the poem be fully experienced as mental activity. It must be remembered that a poem is primarily “heard” in the mind. All that we are able to glean from a poem is conveyed through the poems semantic operation. To argue that the formal qualities of the text facilitate a more than limited semantic response is to rely too heavily on an aesthetic theory that is more appropriate to the visual arts.

Editor’s Footnote: I was unable to format this piece so that Jeffrey’s footnote numbers would appear in the piece. Their omission is my responsibility, not Jeffrey’s.

L. M. Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), p.12.
Rosenblatt, pp. 20-21.
Rosenblatt’s attitude to the relevance of the text can be seen in the following quotation where she comments on the titles of literary works: ‘But when we try to think of what a title—Hamlet, say, or Moby Dick—might refer to apart from a reader, whether the author himself or another, “the work” disappears. The title then refers simply to a set of black marks on ordered pages or to a set of sounds vibrating in the air, waiting for some reader or listener to interpret them as verbal symbols and, under their guidance, to make a work of art, the poem or novel or play’. See The Reader, the Text, the Poem, pp.12-13.
Charles Bernstein, A Poetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p.10.
Bernstein, Content’s Dream, p.58.
Bernstein, Content’s Dream, p.58.
Bernstein, Content’s Dream, p.58.
Bernstein, Content’s Dream, p.125.
Bernstein, Content’s Dream, p.62.
Bernstein, A Poetics, pp.52-53.
email correspondence with Charles Bernstein dated June 26, 2005.