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Graphic Poetics

Continuum Literary Studies

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Graphic Poetics
Poetry as Visual Art

Richard Bradford
Continuum Literary Studies
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© Richard Bradford 2011

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Acknowledgements viii

Introduction 1
1. The Double Pattern 3
2. Silent Poetics 16
3. Critical Antipathy 35
4. The Poet in the Poem 51
5. Modernism: Two Versions of Free Verse 73
6. Poems as Pictures 97
7. The Sliding Scale 117
8. The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 141
9. Conclusion 194

Notes 203
Select Bibliography 205
Index 211

I wish to thank the University of Ulster for appointing me as Research Professor,

an arrangement that has enabled me to complete this book. Also, I am indebted
to Dr Frank Lyons, Director of the Arts and Humanities Research Institute, for
his assistance, and to Elaine Kane, whose help has been invaluable.
Principal thanks are due to Dr Amy Burns, without whom this book would
not have been written; she almost merits the rank of co-author.
Several parts of this book involve revisions and extensions of research
conducted in the early 1990s, assisted at the time by a Leverhulme Grant
which enabled me to study Formalist Theory.
Permission has been sought from a number of copyright holders to use
quotations from several poems, all of which fall within the conventions
of fair dealing. If copyright holders have been inadvertently overlooked,
the publishers will make the necessary arrangements at the earliest

My title, Graphic Poetics, is potentially misleading in that it brings to mind

an already well-documented subgenre known variously as Pattern, Shaped,
Concrete or Visual Poetry, and there is an abundance of studies of this rad-
ical element of visual poetics. Willard Bohn (1986–2001), Johanna Drucker
(1994) and Marjorie Perloff (1998) provide challenging and informative
accounts of nineteenth-century and modernist poetry that effectively aspire
to become a branch of the visual arts. Margaret Church’s (1946) essay on
Pattern Poetry offers an exhaustive survey of its English Renaissance ante-
cedents. What I have to offer, to disclose, in this book is something far
more elusive while at the same time much closer to the canonical centre of
poetic writing. It is too fascinating and complex to be labelled as a device,
and it has gone largely unnoticed by critics for the best part of four centur-
ies. It undermines our ability to determine its character and how it works
and by implication questions our understanding of the essential features
and nature of poetic writing.
The music of poetry has long been held to be its single and definitive
departure from the referential function of language; we can enjoy its sound
alongside its meaning. In what follows I shall show that the appearance
of the words on the page can constitute an equally powerful dimension
of the aesthetic and signifying function of the poem. Concrete and pat-
tern poems are most readily associated with such effects – the shape of
the text will often bear a direct iconic resemblance to some prelinguistic
object – but it will be my intention to show that poems that look only like
poems can create a far more challenging and innovative interface between
language and the visual arts. Lessing has provided us with the archetypal
distinction between these two media: we experience poetry through the
temporal, consecutive movement of its units, whereas the units, the parts,
of a painting are juxtaposed spatially, and the entire structure can be appre-
hended in an instant of time. The first serious challenge to this aesthetic
model predates Lessing by a century. The earliest critics of Milton’s blank
verse found that what they saw on the page did not always correspond with
what they heard. Patterns of signification would be left embedded within
2 Graphic Poetics

the silent configurations of the text; the spoken performance could not
always accommodate a counter-pattern of unspoken juxtapositions. The
unrhymed pentameter did not turn words into things, but it allowed the
poet to create relations between the words on the page that depend as much
upon their spatial position as upon their placing within the temporal chain.
With the arrival of free verse, accentual pattern and syllabism, the remain-
ing concessions to regularity, were discarded. The line became something
that evaded abstract definition; it was neither a syntactic unit nor a measure
of metrical regularity. Its use as an axis between what we hear and what
we see is in my opinion the most fruitful and innovative consequence of
the free-verse revolution – but it would be a decade after the birth of the
new form before William Carlos Williams and e. e. cummings shook them-
selves free of the restrictive, phonocentric conventions of the first gener-
ation. Since then the use of the line as a phenomenon that shifts the reader
between the temporality of sound and the silent juxtapositions of shape
has occurred in the poetry of T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Charles Tomlinson,
Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin . . . none of whom we would easily associate with
concretism. Their use of visual form is something to which the reader has
been denied access, because although we can experience it we have no crit-
ical or interpretive code to account for our experience. In Chapters 7 and 8
of this book I shall attempt to provide such a framework through the use of
what I call the sliding scale. This is not an explanation of how visual form
works – our own appreciative faculties should become attuned to this from
the examples used – but rather a means of distinguishing between three
types of poem: the purely graphic text such as the concrete poem from
which speech and the univocal pattern are largely excluded; regular verse
in which no essential tension exists between what we see on the page and
what we hear; and the type of poetic effect which is the principal subject of
this book, in which spoken pattern and spatial juxtaposition engage separ-
ately with the cognitive faculties of ear and eye and create two levels of sig-
nification within the same text. The effects of such a form are complex and
varied but, as will be seen, the innovative keynote is its success in blending
the ‘it’ that stands outside the poem, the ideational mental image created
by the words, with the ‘it’ of the poem itself where patterns of signification
are, like the components of a painting, inscribed within the materiality of
the text.
Chapter 1

The Double Pattern

Some Preliminaries
Consider the following task. Choose a poem and then describe the form
in which it is written. Most people with an interest in literature will be able
to identify The Rape of the Lock as a sequence of heroic couplets, Paradise
Lost as blank verse and Shakespeare’s sonnets as, indeed, sonnets. Even at
the irregular end of the formal scale, the Romantic ode, Hopkins’s sprung
rhythm or the ac-centualist experiment of ‘Christabel’ will make conces-
sions to some kind of identifiable pattern of syntax, rhythm, alliteration
or rhyme scheme, which, in the clinical world of analysis, will stand out-
side what the words actually mean. Such poems invoke an abstract formal
code. Before and after reading a sonnet or a couplet poem we have in
mind an abstract formula of metre, syntax and rhyme into which the poet
fits his words, and it is this condition of secondary awareness that allows
us to chart degrees of variation, and which in the end plays an important
role in our judgement of how good or bad a poem is. But with Williams’s
‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ or Eliot’s ‘Ash
Wednesday’ we can agree to designate all three as free-verse poems only
because they persistently evade the abstract patterns of regular verse. We
know what they are because of what they are not. It might be possible to
draw up a diagram of stress patterns and line lengths, but this would not
represent a formula for free verse, only a plan of the particular free-verse
poem that we happen to be reading.
The closest we can come to identifying an abstract structure for free
verse is to state that it is written in lines, and here we come upon the source
of a controversy which has lasted for the best part of a century. How can a
poetic line be a poetic line if it does not satisfy some abstract formal crite-
rion? The lyrics of the early Imagist collections simultaneously provoked
and disrupted the expectations of the reader. They looked like poems and,
to the extent that the units into which they were divided were determined
4 Graphic Poetics

neither by syntax nor by the conventions of the typesetter, they were clearly
not intended to be read as prose. But these units could vary between one
and fi fteen syllables, and the extent of the variation could not be fitted into
an abstract conception of rhythm or sound pattern which contained any
kind of progressive order. The lines were there but the reader had no way
of stating how these mysterious phenomena differed from one another or
from any other method of linguistic composition.
This case of free verse offering itself as poetry yet deliberately failing
to satisfy the traditional expectation of pattern and event, is what per-
plexed and irritated the more sceptical commentators on the early col-
lections. The complaint that emerges consistently in the writing of the
anti-free verse campaigners focuses upon what I shall call the double
pattern. A brief definition is required: in all forms of linguistic compo-
sition some kind of pattern emerges. At its most basic it is the pattern of
comprehensibility, a function of grammar, syntax, the interlocking of the
syntagmatic and paradigmatic chains. We understand and create linguis-
tic statements because we know that some words should and some words
should not follow one another in order to create intelligible meaning. In
modern linguistic terms, the basic pattern of language is a consequence
of its deep structure, the abstract framework of conventions through
which we are able to create specific and complex meanings from individ-
ual integers, words. Occasionally, and often by accident, this referential,
syntactic pattern of discourse will create surface patterns of rhythm and
sound which draw upon the materiality of language and which do not
relate directly to its signifying function. The double pattern, which the
early anti-free verse critics cited as the definitive characteristic of poetry,
occurs when this secondary, surface pattern is regular and persistent.
These critics did not dispute the fact that rhythmic sequences are dis-
cernible in non-poetic language – all linguistic constructions contain a
successive variation in stress and accent. But they argued that for the
poetic line to become a verifiable phenomenon it must be possible to dis-
cern a pattern which is anterior to what can be regarded as the accidents
of speech or prose rhythm. This pattern is not necessarily a natural result
of the referential function of language, nor should it impose too much
constraint upon what the poet wishes to say, but it must be separate. Thus
the identification of a double pattern enables us to describe the abstract
formula of traditional verse.
The apologists for free verse, who also tended to be its practitioners, were
united in the belief that what the new form was trying to free itself from
was the incessant, repetitive presence of this double pattern. The abstract
The Double Pattern 5

template, which the traditionalists believed should be invoked by verse, was

exactly what free verse was attempting to avoid. The double pattern of tra-
ditional poetry, they argued, should be fused into a single pattern in which
the natural rhythmic imperatives of composition and expression actually
become the form of the poem.
This debate raised a question which I shall return to as the principal
theme of this study: can there be a difference between the effect and con-
sequently the meaning of what we see on the page and what we hear? The
anti-free verse faction based its arguments upon the premise that the two
perceptual spheres of seeing and hearing verse are parallel and comple-
mentary; that the appearance of a line on the page indicated the acous-
tic presence of a single unit of the double pattern, a pattern which in its
visual and aural form would establish metrical form as something which
stands outside the indeterminate progress of syntax. Verse which rejected
all concessions to the double pattern clearly left itself open to the charge
that it was no more than ‘shaped prose’. As will be shown, the early free-
verse theorists either ignored this charge or argued that the shape of the
poem was transcription of the essentially poetic movement of vocalization.
Despite their differences, both parties agreed that the printed text was a
method of recording acoustic phenomena. The possibility that there might
be a productive tension, rather than a parallel, between the visual format
of verse and its spoken pattern surfaced not in the critical debate but in the
poetic writing of two men, William Carlos Williams and e. e. cummings.
They demonstrated that by freeing itself from the conventional double
pattern as something intrinsic to the structure of the text, free verse had
initially, more by accident than by design, created the opportunity for the
exploration of a new conception of the essentially poetic deployment of
linguistic structures: perhaps the modernist counterpart of the double pat-
tern registered not as a distinction between metrical form and the basic
cognitive dimension of intelligibility, but as a distinction between what we
hear and what we see.
The debates that attended the emergence of free verse had been con-
ducted before, in response to Milton’s equally revolutionary threat to
formal stability in Paradise Lost. The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century
critics of this poem and their early twentieth-century successors considered
the same questions of what the double pattern is and how it works, but the
earlier critics came to rather different conclusions on the relation between
reading silently and reading aloud. In the following section I shall intro-
duce some points of contact between the eighteenth- and twentieth-century
debates and return to these correspondences as the study proceeds.
6 Graphic Poetics

The Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries

The two writers whose postulations on the structure of free verse encour-
aged the most vociferous early debates were Amy Lowell and Harriet
Monroe. Monroe founded the Chicago journal Poetry: A Magazine of
Verse that from 1912 provided a US outlet for the London-based Imagist
groupings whose most prominent members were Ezra Pound, Richard
Aldington, F. S. Flint and T. E. Hulme. Lowell moved to London from
Boston in 1914 and went on to edit and write prefaces to three annual
anthologies of Some Imagist Poets (1915–17). These early writers were far
too divided by conflicting personal and aesthetic affi liations to be prop-
erly regarded as a movement, but it is possible to identify recurrent ques-
tions and issues which unite Lowell and Monroe in the common objective
of establishing free verse as the crystallization of a number of unrealized
possibilities in the formal patterning of regular poetry. In this they were
assisted by the work of two more academically inclined writers whose
theories of prosody and interpretation conveniently coincided with the
birth of the new form, Sydney Lanier and Dr William Patterson. Lanier,
in his Science of English Verse (1880), propounded a theory of isochrony –
in basic terms a belief that English poetry could be ‘measured’ in terms
of some form of merger between accentual and quantitative values, and
thus ‘scanned’ by means of the musical bar rather than the foot. His
method was absurdly inaccurate and was only tenable if each reader per-
formed a piece of verse according to what were, in effect, Lanier’s rules
rather than his own impressions.
Patterson too evolved a form of linguistic measure based upon a quasi-
musical analogy, and Amy Lowell was attracted to his ‘new’ science of
prosody as a means of establishing a critical and interpretative model for
what in traditional terms was the undocumented, and some would argue
undocumentable, metre of tree verse. But the free-versifiers faced a seri-
ous problem with these new techniques of notation. Lanier and Patterson
had based their experiments upon the effect of regular verse forms. In
terms of the double pattern of verse they gave emphasis to the surface
rhythm which might pull against but not entirely conflict with the abstract
metrical structure of such forms as the iambic pentameter. Patterson pre-
empted a number of findings which emerged from the alliance of tradi-
tional prosody and modern linguistics in the 1950s and 1960s. He was
aware that the abstract polarity of stress and unstress might well repre-
sent the deep structure of a pentameter, but that when read aloud, the
complex relationship between syllabic length, pause and the intonational
The Double Pattern 7

imperatives of rhetorical and syntactic emphasis would produce a form of

stress relativity – the iambic pattern might be retained but the fi xed values
of stress and unstress would be replaced by degrees of stress. Patterson
measured each syllabic unit by tenths of a second, so although an iam-
bic sequence might, when spoken, register a series such as 5, 7, 4, 6, 3,
5 . . . , in which two syllables occupying unstressed and stressed positions
would appear to be of equal values, the relativity of the iambic pattern was
The problem arose when Lowell attempted to adapt this system to a
form which persistently avoided the double pattern of surface and depth.
She argued that if the spoken, surface pattern of an iambic pentameter
could lift itself above the abstract template of unstress/stress and, at least
in her view, be intrinsically poetic, then why should poetry tie itself to these
restrictive rules? If a four- or five-syllable sequence from the pentameter
could be recorded as a stress hierarchy dominated by one major syllable,
then why shouldn’t this hierarchical and variable structure replace the tra-
ditional keystone of the foot as the fundamental metrical unit? This new
unit was to be called the ‘cadence’ and it was generally agreed that the
cadence consisted of one ‘chief accent’ and a variable number of subsidiary
stresses. The following is Amy Lowell’s scansion of H. D.’s ‘Oread’ which
appeared in her essays on ‘The Rhythms of Free Verse’ (1918) and ‘Some
Musical Analogies in Modern Poetry’ (1920):

Whiŕ l up / séa – /
Whiŕ l / your pointed pińes /
Splásh / your great pińes / on our roćks /
Huŕ l / your greén over us /
CÓver us / with your poÓls / of fiŕ /

Patterson and Lowell noted that the chief accent of 13/10 of a second
occurs five times, but both agreed – the latter with some reluctance – that
this could hardly constitute a pattern. The problem raised by the Patterson-
Lowell experiment is of how to match a new aesthetic phenomenon with
codes of interpretation that are designed to deal with its predecessor. They
tried to make ‘Oread’ fit into a liberally refashioned model of the double
pattern, but as Patterson was to observe, this placed the ‘poem’ in the cat-
egory of ‘ “spaced prose” in which the balancing of broader groupings in
prose rhythm is accentuated by printing the phrases on separate lines’.
Both insist that the look of the poem is only significant as an indication
of how it should sound – and we should note the persistent use of the
8 Graphic Poetics

music-poetry analogy in attempts to redefine the relation between verse

and interpretation. Consequently, what both ignore is the possibility
that the shape of the words, their visual format, is capable of produc-
ing effects, perhaps of creating patterns of meaning, independently of
its role as a score for vocal performance. True, the visual structure of
‘Oread’ is not particularly striking as an extra-syntactic pattern – and I
shall consider the early developments in types and styles of visual form
in Chapter 5 – but it succeeded in raising an interpretative problem. Its
shape, its division into lines, prompted Lowell and Patterson to look for
an intrinsically poetic dimension of form. They were responding to a
signal, a sign, that, by their own criteria, carried no substance. But per-
haps, in their search for a double pattern based on sound, they blinded
themselves to the possibility that the sign, the visual signal, might have
become the substance, the other half of the double pattern. It is time to
consider the eighteenth century.
In the early debates on free verse several attempts were made to find a
precedent for the new form within the established poetic canon. Blake and
Whitman were acknowledged and tolerated as eccentrics, aberrations from
the otherwise calm progress of formal development and innovation from
the sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, but the phe-
nomenon which drew the attention of both factions and, in the process,
foregrounded radical distinctions between their opinions on what poetry
is and how it should be read, was blank verse. For the traditionalists, blank
verse represented the outer limits of formal innovation beyond which the
text, whatever else it might be, was not poetry. For the free-versifiers it
represented an intermediate point of change, a stage beyond the formal
restrictions of regularity, but a technique which, none the less, made con-
cessions to the very conventions and regulations of abstract form which
free verse sought to abandon.
A comprehensive study of the debates on blank verse that took place in
the eighteenth century will be found in my own Augustan Measures, (2002),
but a rough summary of the effect of Milton’s poem will suffice.
We tend to think of blank verse as a regular, traditional poetic structure –
it has after all been used by Thomson, Wordsworth, Keats, Browning,
Tennyson. . . . But in 1668 Milton felt it necessary to include an explanatory
note on his use of the form in anticipation of the interpretative problems
that his poem would raise. In the late seventeenth century the critical con-
sensus held that if poetry did not rhyme then it did not satisfy the abstract
formal criteria that defined poetry. Experiments with English quantitative
measures had been abandoned as failures, and the unrhymed accentual
The Double Pattern 9

pentameter was regarded only as an appropriate vehicle for drama – prose

mesuree, as Dryden called it.
Rhyme provided an aural signal for the existence of the double pattern. If this
signal was missing from the point at which an accentual sequence terminated,
then the poetic line, the definitive component of the poem, might, for the
listener, disappear. A century after the poem’s publication Samuel Johnson
observed that Paradise Lost was ‘verse only to the eye’. The reader might see
the pentameter on the page, but when read aloud this phenomenon would
be swept away by more powerful interlineal rhythms. We should be reminded
here of Patterson’s judgement on H. D.’s ‘spaced prose’: both critics found
themselves dealing with a signal, the shape of a poem, which, by their criteria,
lacked substance. But Johnson’s comment represented only one element of a
debate that had engaged the attention of critics since 1668.
John Rice, in his Introduction to the Art of Reading with Energy and Propriety
(1765), pondered the challenge presented by Paradise Lost to the ideal of
the double pattern, and came to the conclusion that there is an unbridge-
able gap between the abstract structure of the unrhymed pentameter and
the actualities of oral performance:

The lines drawn up in Rank and File, with a capital Initial at the Head of
each, look formidable, and seem to demand a peculiar Degree of Sound
and Energy. . . . (But) it is the quick Succession of a few flowing syllables
that constitutes the Harmony of our English blank verse, and not its
perfect Coincidence with the arbitrary Rules laid down as a Standard
for heroic verse. . . . Blank verse, therefore, does not consist in lines of
ten Syllables, as the regular Couplet generally does; unless, indeed, we
suppose the Standard of Verse created in the Printing House, and that
a Compositor can convert Prose into Verse at Pleasure by printing it in
detached Lines often Syllables, (pp. 176–7). . . . His solution was to reprint
Paradise Lost in accordance with its ‘true’ rhythmic structure. The effects
of this strategy will be considered in due course, but it should first be
noted that he pre-empted the free-verse theorists by claiming that the
irregular, spoken pattern of language could dominate and supersede
the abstract pattern of regular form. For Rice’s ‘quick succession of a few
flowing syllables’ read Lowell’s ‘cadence’. But we should also note that
Rice regards any potential tension between variation and regularity as
caused by the visual format, or, as he puts it, ‘the compositor’.

In a series of ‘elocutionist’ writings published in the 1770s and 1780s John

Walker actually used the term ‘cadence’, and as the following scansion of
10 Graphic Poetics

a couplet from Pope will show, he and Lowell perceived this unit in exactly
the same way as a ‘chief accent’ surrounded by a variable number of sub-
sidiary syllables:

S´uchplays / alo`ne / shouldple`ase / a bri´tishear

AsC´ato’s / se`lf / hadn`ot / disda´in’d / tohe`ar
(from ‘The Melody of Speaking . . .’, 1783, pp. 12–13)

Although the pentameter is here preserved by Pope’s rhyme scheme and

rhetorical mechanism, the implications for the unrhymed line are more
serious, and, like Rice, Walker went on to suggest reprintings of Milton’s
blank verse according to its ‘impression on the ear’. Harriet Monroe came
to the same conclusion when she reflected upon the creative potential of
‘Dr Patterson’s Researches’:

If we confine our enquiry to English, and begin, let us say, with the
sharply defined iambics and systematized caesuras of Pope, we glide
unconsciously, through numerous stages into the ‘freer’ larger rhythms
of Shakespearean or Miltonic blank verse. From these it is but a step to
the varied rhythms of the best free verse. (Poets and Their Art, p. 288)

In 1775 Joshua Steele published a revolutionary treatise on poetic form

called (in its 1779 reprint) Prosodia Rationalis, in which he developed a com-
plex system of notational symbols which would accommodate the conflict-
ing patterns of ‘accent, quantity, pause, emphasis and force’ in English.
The symbols were of his own devising and were designed to reflect the
full flexibility of spoken performance. Again the abstract pattern of the
pentameter was disregarded as a performative influence, and, on the page,
the traditional printed format of the poem was replaced by a sequence
of the most prominent rhythmic ‘cadences’. Monroe, in ‘The Rhythms of
English Verse’, considered the implications of Lanier’s similar, though less
precise, system of quasi-musical notation and came to a similar conclusion:
‘Blank verse, both epic and dramatic, often sweeps down line boundaries,
as in the following examples from Shakespeare and Milton’ (Poets and Their
Art, p. 273). One of these examples is the first five lines of Paradise Lost, the
same sequence that Steele chose for his opening experiment with the new
These lines exercised the critical faculties of eighteenth-century writ-
ers in a quite remarkable way. Thomas Sheridan, in Lectures on the Art of
The Double Pattern 11

Reading (1775), argued that

when we know, that one of the greatest perfections in our blank heroic
verse, is, that of continuing the sense from one line to another, I am
afraid in that case, if there be no mark to show where the measure ends,
it will often be carried away by the sense, and confounded with it, be
changed to pure prose, . . . (p. 104)

He gives the example of how, in spoken performance, an iambic and a

trochaic pattern set up a tension which sweeps away the structural identity
of the first line ending at ‘fruit / Of. His solution was the ‘pause of suspen-
sion’ which was by no means the same as a grammatical pause, because it
could only function if the reader could actually see it. John Walker, in his
Elements of Elocution (1781), argued that such typographic effects were not
part of the formal repertoire of poetic writing and came up with the alter-
native solution that the lines should be reprinted to ‘present to the eye the
same union which is actually made by the ear’:

Of man’s first disobedience

And the fruit of that forbidden tree
Whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world . . .

It was not that Walker and Sheridan were hearing different poems – they
agreed on the ability of the spoken pattern to sweep away the deep struc-
ture of the pentameter. But they disagreed on what the cognitive proce-
dures of ‘reading poetry’ should actually involve. As I shall show, Sheridan
went on to elaborate a model of interpretation in which the eye of the
reader plays as much part as the voice of the performer and the ear of the
listener. He argued that the double pattern of blank verse could only be
preserved by our ability to see as well as to speak or hear the poem. Walker
acknowledged that the typographic signal existed, but he insisted that the
consequent double pattern could not be discerned in oral performance.
Let us see how John Livingstone Lowes dealt with the same problem in his
Convention and Revolt in Poetry (1919), arguably the first detailed study of
the relationship between free and regular verse:

The regular beat and the shifting rhythm – neither alone but the two
together – these constitute normal English verse. What free verse would
strike out . . . is the recurrent rhythm of the line. Regular verse is the
12 Graphic Poetics

resultant of two rhythms, interwoven into innumerable harmonies. Free

verse is built on one alone. That, broadly speaking is the fundamental
difference, (p. 151) . . .

Lowes goes on to cite blank verse as an example of ‘interwoven’ counter-

point. How is it that a reader in 1920 could claim that the two patterns of
regularity and rhythm could be registered simultaneously in oral perform-
ance, but Sheridan and Walker, confronting the same problem, could come
to their respective conclusions that (a) this effect can only be felt when
the reader can see as well as hear the poem, and (b) that blank verse, two
centuries before the emergence of its free counterpart, did indeed, ‘strike
out . . . the recurrent rhythm of the line’? The reason is that, although each
critic was confronted with the same words, the perceptual frameworks which
enabled them to process and classify the formal relationships between these
linguistic units differed radically. Consider the following experiment.
Let us accept that Sheridan has a point in his argument that we need to
see blank verse on the page for the tension between the regular pattern and
the interlineal movement to become evident. What would happen if, with
this cognitive procedure in mind, we were confronted with printed lines that
did not satisfy the abstract criterion of the iambic pentameter? We can still
see that the visual format of the line breaks establishes a different pattern
from the sequential, linear movement of syntax and rhythm, but we can-
not, in Lowes’s model, distinguish a ‘regular beat from the shifting rhythm’
because both patterns are irregular and shifting. So if the visual signal has
no regular oral counterpart, should we dismiss the former as meaningless?
The following is a reprinting of Paradise Lost by Rice (V, 283–5):

The third his feet shadow’d from either Heel with feather’d Mail
Sky tinctured grain

Compare this with the opening section from Amy Lowell’s ‘An Aquarium’:

Streaks of green and yellow iridiscence.

Silver shiftings,
Rings veering out of rings,
Silver – gold –

In the first quotation the visual space after ‘Mail’ operates outside the tra-
ditional conventions of prosody and syntax by gathering the diffuse lin-
guistic sequence of the first line into a sharper, more concrete image. This
The Double Pattern 13

use of the line as an instrument of focus, of perceptual concentration, is

just as central to the opening of Lowell’s poem, and the point to be made
about the readerly experience that makes such effects possible is that it
incorporates both the visualist and the oral emphases of Sheridan and
Walker and thus overturns Lowes’s thesis that ‘free verse is built on one
(pattern) alone’. This experience acknowledges two patterns, with a quali-
fication that we can hear one and see the other.
The following is from John Walker’s reprinting of Paradise Lost:

I thence invoke thy aid to my advent’rous song,

That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount
While it pursues
Unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
(A Rhetorical Grammar, p. 344)

Perhaps T. S. Eliot had a similar compositional principle in mind when he

produced the following sequence from ‘Burnt Norton’:

Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis

Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?
Fingers of yew be curled
Down on us?

Milton’s expansive invocation of the Muse, his reference to the song which
soars above the Aonian mount, becomes suddenly immediate in


And in a similar way, Eliot’s lyrical realization of natural images becomes

more strikingly personal with the

Fingers of yew

Again it would seem that both Eliot and, after Milton, Walker have dis-
pensed with the double pattern of regularity and variation and, instead,
14 Graphic Poetics

arranged their lines in accordance with the unidimensional, irregular

sequence of the cadence. But when read with the eye as well as the ear
we find that the visually isolated words, ‘Things’ and ‘Chill’, create a dou-
ble pattern of rhythm and syntax; they operate as axes, points at which
the successive sequence is both concluded and re-engaged: ‘pursues /
Things’ – ‘Things / Unattempted’; ‘Clutch and cling? / Chill’ – ‘Chill /
Fingers of yew’. It is doubtful that both of these syntactic and rhythmic
patterns could be registered in a single oral performance, and I shall con-
sider the proposition that multiple effects can operate outside the unidi-
mensional, spoken medium in more detail in the following chapter. But
for the moment let us consider an intriguing paradox. It would seem that
Rice’s and Walker’s objective was to diffuse the tension between two con-
flicting patterns, the visual structure of the pentameter and the irregular
rhythms of speech. So in attempting to rid themselves of the visual con-
vention did they come by accident upon another, equally fruitful, deploy-
ment of shape? I do not believe so. When they rewrote Milton they found
themselves facing the same compositional problems and imperatives as
Lowell and Eliot. The extra-syntactic pattern was the line, but the line
was no longer definable by rhyme or by a regular metrical sequence. As
they put pen to paper they would find themselves dealing not only with
the phonetic, the syntactic and the referential dimensions of language,
but also with its graphic materiality. The correspondences between their
rewritings and the work of Lowell and Eliot are not accidental: they are
the consequence of the gradual stripping-away of such formal determi-
nants as rhyme scheme, accentual regularity and syllabism. We are left,
finally, with the poetic line. It exists, but it is not a syntactic unit nor can it
be measured in non-syntactic form, and it would not therefore be implau-
sible to suggest that its appearance and the effect of its appearance upon
meaning will play some part in the poet’s, or the rewriter’s, deployment
of it.
Milton’s achievements are many, but the one with which he has not so
far been credited is his role in the founding of visual poetry. The opening
lines of his poem drew so much attention not merely because they flouted
metrical prescriptions. The ‘fruit’ that is appropriately enough suspended
at the line ending, is both the literal object of man’s temptation and the
figurative, thematic, fruit of a chain of events which, as the syntax goes on
to reveal, ‘brought death into the world’. Just as rhyme operates not only
as a marker of the line ending but as a device that thickens and intensifies
meaning, so the visual structure that replaced it would come to represent
The Double Pattern 15

an axis in the interplay between abstract form and signification. The loss
of rhyme was one stage in the institution of visual form as a component
of the double pattern, and as Rice, Walker, Lowell and Eliot demonstrate,
the destruction of the pentameter would bring its function, literally, into
sharper focus.
Chapter 2

Silent Poetics

First of all let us pose a question. Why do we need to identify a double pat-
tern? Surely it is possible for an intelligent, sensitive reader to respond to
and appreciate free or unfree verse without the assistance of complex pro-
grammes and imperatives of interpretation. This might well be the case, but
without such a framework of analysis such a reader would be unable to state
exactly why one literary text is different from another and how exactly each
text creates its own effect; or at a more basic level, it would be difficult to
distinguish literary appreciation from other kinds of linguistic engagement.
Jonathan Culler, one of the most respected spokesmen for the ever-increasing
complexities of critical interpretation, makes the point that to understand lit-
erature at all we need to move to another level of linguistic competence:

Just as sequences of sound have meaning only in relation to the gram-

mar of a language, so literary works may be quite baffling to those with
no knowledge of the special conventions of literary discourse, no knowl-
edge of literature as an institution.1

The early critics of free verse were ‘baffled’ not because of their lack of
knowledge of the special conventions of literature but because the new
form did not seem to incorporate or discharge such conventions. In one
of the earliest reviews of free-verse collections (1915) – including verse by
Lowell and Monroe – John Ficke commented on how

spontaneous expression of emotion is not likely to result in poetry at all;

what turns raw feeling into poetry is precisely the compression of the
material into an artful pattern, an expressive structure, an intelligible
design. Not sobs, but music whose tone has sobs buried in it. (p. 11)

This ‘intelligible design’ was soon to be identified by Lowes as the double

pattern of regularity and variability. And T. S. Omond, in 1920, extended
this interpretive model to the mind of the poet and argued that the
Silent Poetics 17

‘measured cadence’ rather than the ‘amorphous lines dear to poets today’
is the ‘fundamental instinct which men have felt in all ages and will prob-
ably continue to feel’.
This sense of the double pattern as a validation of genuine craftsman-
ship, the command of the aesthetic medium by the artist, can be traced
back to Kant’s Critique of Judgement.

It is not amiss, however, to remind the reader of this: that in all free arts
something of a compulsory character is still required, or, as it is called, a
mechanism, without which the soul, which in art must be free, and which
alone gives life to the work, would be bodyless and evanescent (e.g. in the
poetic art [der Dichtkunst] there must be correctness and wealth of lan-
guage, likewise prosody and metre). For not a few leaders of a newer
school believe that the best way to promote a free art is to sweep away all
restraint, and convert it from labour into mere play. (I, 164)

One might think that since the ‘newer school’ is now fully institutional-
ized such expectations will have changed, but as the following will show
commentators upon poetic form still ground their procedures upon the
identification of a ‘mechanism’.
One of the most influential statements on how our most basic level of lin-
guistic competence must be redefined in terms of our conscious response to
poetry was made by Roman Jakobson. ‘The poetic function projects the prin-
ciple of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination.’2
A rough explanation of this complex formulation would be that the choice
of words at each point in a syntactic progression in poetry is made in a dis-
tinctively different way from those made in prose. Jakobson’s ‘axes’ are
adapted from the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure. In de Saussure’s
terms ‘selection’ is called ‘associative’ and ‘combination’ ‘syntagmatic’. The
combinative or syntagmatic process is what happens when individual words
are connected and produce a communicative meaning from their gram-
matical links. The selective or associative axis refers to the package of words
available for application at each point in the syntagmatic chain. In Jakobson’s
literary application, the combinative mode is generally ‘metonymic’ because
of its manifestation of the contiguity of words, and the associative mode is
‘metaphoric’ since within a package of choices there exists the possibility of
selecting words which will react with and, therefore, complicate other aspects
of the syntagmatic sequence. Jakobson suggests that in prosaic language the
axes can generally be found to be distinctively separate, but in poetry, ‘simi-
larity is superimposed upon continuity, any metonymy is slightly metaphor-
ical and any metaphor has a metonymical link’ (‘Closing Statement’, p. 370).
18 Graphic Poetics

As a way of concentrating attention on the inherent structure or con-

dition of poetry Jakobson’s proposition resembles the largely discredited
New Critical notions of poetry as essentially ‘paradoxical’ or ‘ambiguous’. It
could similarly be submitted to the danger of removal from its object, since
if a prose sequence were ‘disguised’ as poetic it might well be possible for
a competent reader to suggest that it possesses a poetic blend of metaphor
and metonymy. For instance, the use of the terms ‘disguise’ and ‘possession’
in the previous sentence could, potentially, be turned into a version of the
poetic process defined by Jakobson. It would seem that any attempt to specify
the inherent technique of poetic language is insufficient without an accom-
panying and acceptable verification of its target. And this is what Jakobson
provides: ‘The principle of similarity underlies poetry; the metrical parallel-
ism of lines, or the phonic equivalence of rhyming words prompts the ques-
tion of semantic similarity and contrast.’3 Poetry can be identified as poetry
because of its formal or, more precisely, its prosodic identity, a feature it
does not share with any other linguistic medium. Even Culler, one of the
most sceptical analysts of this century’s criticism, accepts the proposition
and therefore does not subject Jakobson to the attacks that he mounted on
the New Critics. ‘As Jakobson has stressed, in poetic discourse equivalence
becomes the constitutive device of the sequence, and phonetic or rhythmic
coherence is one of the major devices which distances poetry from the com-
municative functions of ordinary speech.’4 Both Jakobson and Culler invoke
the double pattern as the signal to the reader to engage with more complex
and intrinsically poetic intensifications of meaning. So far, they are in full
agreement with the early anti-free verse critics who found that they were
unwilling or unable to embark upon a poetic response to something which
refused to validate its existence as poetry. But we have already seen that the
double pattern becomes a rather uncertain phenomenon in forms such as
blank verse. The Rice-Walker-Sheridan debate shows that its existence can
depend as much upon the cognitive framework chosen by the reader as it
does upon an intrinsic formal structure.

An accurate description of how modern linguistic metrists deal with the
double pattern is given by Roger Fowler (1966):

Structural metrics could be said to be concerned with the reconcili-

ation . . . of two extremes of analysis. On the one hand is the old belief in
Silent Poetics 19

two fixed degrees of stress alternating with perfect regularity and uni-
formly disposed in time. At the other extreme is the instrumental reve-
lation that each of the syllables in a line is realized differently by various
complexes of intensity, pitch and length; that there is no identity of
weight among the stresses; that there is no clear binary distinction
between ‘stress’ and ‘unstress’ and that there is no equality of time

Jakobson called the ‘old belief in fi xed degrees of stress’ the ‘verse design’
and the ‘various complexes of intensity’, the ‘verse instance’, and this model
of English poetry as realizing an interplay between abstract formal struc-
tures such as the iambic pentameter and the more flexible surface pat-
terns of performance has remained unchallenged as the methodological
keystone of linguistic metrics. It is held that these two elements of the dou-
ble pattern can be effectively ‘reconciled’ in a single spoken performance.
Derek Attridge:

If you prefer to emphasise the regularity of the metre, the resolute irregu-
larity of the language will be felt pulling against you; if you let the speech
rhythms have their head, the periodicity of the beat will exercise a
counter-claim: both readings however, will register the inherent tension
of the line. (The Rhythms of English Poetry, London, 1982.p. 313)

In most forms of regular poetry this effect of oral counterpoint can indeed
be felt by the reader and registered by the hearer, but a problem arises with
verse in which the alternative pattern of speech rhythms becomes power-
ful enough for critics such as Rice and Walker to claim that it effectively
destroys the ‘inherent tension’ of the pentameter. In a 1920 article on the
effect of free verse on traditional methods of prosodic analysis, Llewellyn
Jones stated that in blank verse ‘the metric scheme . . . is not always appar-
ent but exists as a convention in the mind of the poet and the auditor,’ and
that ‘the throwing of a phrase across from one line to the next [makes]
any attempt to scan mechanically such a line hopeless’ (p. 389). In other
words, if the visual signal to the shared awareness of this convention were
removed, it would no longer be ‘apparent’.
I emphasize the mutual dependency between the ideal of the double
pattern and the methodological belief in oral counterpoint in order to
prepare the ground for my examination of the concept of silent poet-
ics. Counterpoint, to be consistent with its origins in music, denotes the
simultaneous production of two contrasting effects. But there is already
20 Graphic Poetics

evidence that some readers, such as Llewellyn Jones, find that such interac-
tions can depend as much upon the existence of ‘a convention in the mind
of the reader’ as they do upon what Attridge calls ‘the inherent tension of
the line’. The possibility that counterpoint could in certain types of poem
register as a distinction between what we see and what we hear – silent
poetics – becomes evident in an unwitting debate that took place between
the eighteenth-century critic Thomas Sheridan and John Hollander, argu-
ably the most incisive modern commentator on the visual/oral dimensions
of poetry. Often focusing upon the same lines from Paradise Lost, these
critics reached two separate conclusions on how the visual structure of
verse affects the transfer of meaning through the communicative circuit
between text and reader. Hollander’s apparently innovative theories of
visualism remain anchored to the orthodox interpretative prominence of
speech over writing, whereas Sheridan developed a method of reading in
which the contrapuntal relation between verse design and verse instance is
divided, respectively, between the eye and the ear.

Sheridan and Hollander

Hollander, in Vision and Resonance (1975), comments on how the ‘closure
and flow, the opposed features of Milton’s verse form, oppose themselves
in ways parallel to the opposition of the visual and acoustic modes, respec-
tively, of poetic language’ (p. 96), and he chooses the following lines to
illustrate his point. Satan’s ruminative torment

wakes the bitter memory

Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse suffering must ensue
(IV, 25–6)

Hollander remarks on how ‘the static pattern of line 25 . . . frames’ the

prayer book formula of ‘now and ever shall be’, only to have the reader’s
sense of stability jolted by the visually isolated ‘Worse’. Sheridan (Lectures
on the Art of Reading, 1775): ‘What an amazing force does this position give
the word worsel and in what strong colours does it paint to us the desperate
state of reprobation into which Satan had fallen’ (p. 248). The two critics
would seem to agree that the visual detachment of ‘Worse’ from its posi-
tion in the linear, syntactic sequence causes a disruption in the reader’s
sense of linguistic and referential continuity, but it will become clear that
they differ radically on the cognitive procedures which make this effect
Silent Poetics 21

Consider Sheridan’s reliance upon the visual arts analogy – the effect
‘painted in strong colours’. This inter-aesthetic connection is more than a sty-
listic idiosyncrasy, and as the following examples will show, he employs it con-
sistently with reference to effects generated by the visual format of the poem:

. . . and tore
Through pain up by the roots Thessalian pines
(II, 544–5)


the words . . . paint the action . . . in consequence of which the lofty

pines of Thessaly lie prostrate in your view. (p. 200)

. . . and now his heart

Distends with pride, and hardening in his strength
Glories for never since created man
Met such embodied force
(I, 571–4) . . .


The uncommon spacing, which makes the word glories as it were project
from the rest, the insolent vanity, and obstinate pride of Satan, are more
strongly painted, than could have been done by the longest descrip-
tion, . . . (pp. 253–5)

Now at their shady Lodge arriv’d both stood

Both turn’d, and under open sky ador’d
The God who made, etc.


This artful Manner of writing makes the Reader see them Stop and Turn
to worship God before they went into the Bower. If this Manner was
alter’d, much of the Effect of the Painting would be lost.

And now arriving at their shady Lodge

Both stood, both turn’d and under open Sky
Ador’d the God, etc.

This falls very short of the original, (p. 248) . . .

22 Graphic Poetics

Sheridan is not claiming that what the reader actually sees on the page is
anything other than the words themselves in their symbolic, referential
function. But there is also a sense that individual linguistic integers, when
freed from the deterministic imperatives of syntax and linearity, begin to
operate individually, much like the spatial constituents of a painting. This
tentative awareness of the ability of visible language to enact its own ref-
erential function is more clearly stated in Sheridan’s conjectures upon his
method of reading.
In the following he redefines two terms, harmony and melody, which
were widely used in eighteenth-century analyses of poetic form. When read-
ing Milton’s visual format, harmony, for Sheridan, becomes a dimension of
ocular perception whereas melody is limited to the medium of sequential,
oral language:

Harmony therefore, in this sense of the word, can never be applied to

poetic numbers of which there can only be one reciter, and consequently
the sounds can only be in succession. . . . We say the harmony of colours,
the harmony in parts of a building, of the human body etc. And it is only
after examining the different degrees of colouring, and their ordonance,
the different members of a building, or the human body, and observing
their symmetry, that we can pronounce about their harmony. In like
manner, it is not till after we have taken review of the different members
of verse – which had before passed in succession, but . . . are presented to
the eye in one view, as a coexistent whole, that we can observe the rela-
tive proportion which these members bear to each other; or consequently
judge of the harmony of the whole. . . . When I speak of the melody of the
verse, I mean only a pleasing effect produced on the ear, by an apt
arrangement of its constituent parts, feet and pauses, according to the
laws of measure and movement. When I speak of the harmony of verse,
I mean an effect produced by an action of the eye in comparing the dif-
ferent members of the verse, already constituted according to the laws of
melody, with each other, and observing a due and beautiful proportion
between them. (pp. 274–5).

Here the radical divergence of Hollander’s and Sheridan’s theories of read-

ing becomes evident. Hollander acknowledged that when the visual format
cuts into the linear dimension of language two patterns of form and mean-
ing are created, and he terms this effect ‘closure and flow, the warp and
weft of the verse fabric’. Sheridan takes this a stage further by arguing
that such effects cannot be registered within a single oral performance.
Silent Poetics 23

The orthodox critical belief in the oral simultaneity of the double pattern
becomes, in Sheridan’s model, an effect which is split between two separate
cognitive faculties of the eye and the ear.
The revolutionary nature of Sheridan’s thesis becomes even more strik-
ing when we compare it with Hollander’s reflections upon cognition and
methodology in his essay ‘The Poem in the Eye’ (in Vision and Resonance,
1975). Hollander argues that seeing and hearing poems are separate
engagements, analogous to the Saussurean division of language into a sys-
tem of differences and individual speech events.

It is on the second of these axes that I would pose the ear, the individual
talent, the voice, the parole; on the first are ranged the eye, the tradition,
the mask through which the voice sounds, and the langue. The ear
responds to the dimension of natural experience, the eye to that of con-
vention, . . . (p. 248)

Hollander has thus promoted ‘the mask’ of the visual format beyond the
notion of a practical register of the balance between the cognitive and the
conventional dimensions of language to the elevated status of a convention
in its own right. But Sheridan argues that the distinction between speech
as a cognitive dimension and the visual format as its conventional counter-
part should be replaced by a model which establishes them as contrasting.

The majority of the critics of poetic form dealt with above, both as apolo-
gists for free verse and analysts of its regular counterpart, are united
in their allegiance to poetry as essentially an aural medium, and it is
intriguing that the most contentious and widely debated theoretical
model of poetry’s inter-aesthetic relationships should be based upon a
comparison with the visual arts. In his eighteenth-century work Laokoon
Gotthold Lessing elaborated upon Horace’s phrase ut pictura poesis (as in
painting, so in poetry). Lessing argued that painting (and sculpture) is
equipped to deal with objects which exist in space by representing these
objects and their parts as juxtaposed. Poetry, and for that matter all lan-
guage, is committed to the representation of actions in time, a condition
which is determined by its linear, successive identity as syntax and gram-
mar. Sheridan’s model of reading offers an intriguing revision of this
problem of aesthetic polarity. The silent contemplation of the written
text grants the reader a degree of freedom and a mastery of the aesthetic
24 Graphic Poetics

object that Lessing’s thesis tells us belongs in the realm of the visual
arts. The successive, linear order of poetic and indeed of all linguistic
integers is based upon the reception of language as an aural medium.
Sheridan argues that when these integers are arranged according to the
visual format of the poem, the silent reader is able to savour the simulta-
neous juxtaposition of two contrasting formal and syntactic patterns in
a way that is very similar to our experience of integrating the timeless,
spatial components of a painting – as he puts it, ‘the different members
of verse . . . are presented to the eye as a coexistent whole’. Compare this
with Suzanne Langer’s restatement of Lessing in Philosophy in a New Key

The most radical difference is that visual forms are not discursive. They
do not present their constituents successively, but simultaneously, so
that relations determining a visual structure are grasped in one act of
vision. (p. 93)

In Sheridan’s conception of poetry, the discursive and the spatial, the suc-
cessive and the simultaneous dimensions of representation begin to fold in
upon one another.
To accept this argument will involve an extensive and radical revision of
the orthodox conception of poetry as the aesthetic archetype of spoken
communication. To begin this process we should address two interrelated
assumptions. First, Lessing’s polarity would seem to grant each of the ‘sister
arts’ a more or less equal status as expressive and representational media,
but the divisions become most apparent when we consider the relationship
between the material components of each medium. In basic terms the raw
material of the visual arts is more closely related, both in representational
and in natural terms, with its referent. C. S. Peirce’s concept of the ‘iconic’
sign is most easily substantiated in the form of representational painting
which, although limited by its static and two-dimensional. condition, does
not require a significant amount of decoding for the viewer to make con-
nection between sign and referent. Semi-literate children will ‘recognize’
a picture of a tree. But with language and poetry the system, the mode of
representation, is more arbitrarily related to the continuum of its referents.
There is no natural connection between the phonemic and graphic struc-
tures of language and the substance of the experiences and objects they
seek to represent.
Second, our responses to these different media foreground distinc-
tions between the interpreter’s roles as passive and active within the
Silent Poetics 25

communicative circuit. Language, both as a single discursive pattern and

as a poeticized synthesis of sound patterns, imposes a structure upon the
continuum of experience that it seeks to represent. The rules of syntax
and the conventions of acoustic poetic form do not correspond directly
to the multidimensional prelinguistic experience, and the primary cause
of this distinction is the structured nature of language as a temporal,
successive medium. Our ability to understand a simple sentence such as
‘I am here’ depends both upon our understanding of the meaning of each
integer and upon the way in which their relation to one another creates a
broader pattern of signification. We will encounter the same integers in
the sequence ‘Am I here?’ but we will also be aware that their rearrange-
ment along the temporal, syntactic chain has caused a complete change in
their meaning.
The semioticians and historians of visual art have identified conventions
through which the relationship between iconic images can also constitute
a form of grammar.6 The relation between, say, a human figure, a tree
and a house might well carry a statement about some correspondence
between the natural and the domestic world, but the means by which we
decode such a message are not dependent upon succession and temporal-
ity. The grammar of visual art is less amenable to abstract documentation
partly because the signs, the integers, are more familiar – we will know
the age and sex of the human figure and the type of house without having
to invoke a formal code of visual literacy – and partly because there is no
specific rule governing the juxtaposition of visual integers. There is no
sense that any proper or correct order of relations between them has been
either maintained or violated – as Langer states, ‘the relations determining
a visual structure are grasped in one act of vision’ (p. 93). In an important
sense, the viewer of visual art is required to perform an active role as the
interpreter of uncertain patterns of signification, whereas the receiver of
spoken language must submit to the syntactic temporal conditions of the
Conventionally, the visual format of poetry is a record of, a direction to,
its vocal performance, but, in some poems, the reader can become alert
to an interface between the interpretive code of visual juxtaposition and
the temporal determinants of language. Words and phrases will begin to
resonate through the text not merely because of their position within the
syntactic sequence but also, like the human figure and the house, because
of the spatial relationship.
William Carlos Williams’s ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ must, word for word
and line for line, be the most intensely debated experiment in the history
26 Graphic Poetics

of poetry. Printed below is Williams’s poem (on the left) and a very similar
complex of effects from the seventeenth/eighteenth centuries:

so much depends render thee, divine

upon historian

a red wheel the grey

barrow dawn

glazed with rain the bright

water pavement

beside the white or cold

chickens climate

Hollander comments on Williams’s poem:

. . . the line termini cut the words ‘wheelbarrow’ and ‘rainwater’ into
their constituents, without the use of hyphenation to warn that the first
noun is part of a compound with the implication that they are phenomeno-
logical constituents as well. The wheel plus the barrow equals the wheelbar-
row and in the freshness of the light after the rain (it is the kind of light
which the poem is about, although never mentioned directly), things
seem to lose their compounded properties, . . . (p. 111)

He acknowledges in this reading that the conventional, temporal relation

between linguistic integers has been supplemented by a form of signifi-
cation which more closely resembles the juxtapositions of visual iconic
images – as he puts it, ‘with the implication that they (the words) are phe-
nomenological constituents as well’. But it should be stressed that Williams
achieves this aesthetic and perceptual interface without dispensing with
the traditional structure of language. Indeed it is the phenomenon of the
poetic line which makes these effects possible.
The right-hand ‘text’ is actually a series of line endings from Paradise
Lost, not chosen at random but selected by a number of eighteenth-cen-
tury critics as instances of how the visual isolation and juxtaposition of
integers can both intensify and destabilize the continuities of sequen-
tial language. It could similarly be argued that in this other ‘poem’ the
‘divine historian’ has been granted the power to ‘render’ the phenom-
enological constituents of the ‘grey dawn’, the ‘bright pavement’ and
Silent Poetics 27

the ‘cold climate’. Thomas Sheridan on ‘bright pavement’: ‘this separa-

tion . . . between quality and its subject, gives time for the quality to make
a stronger impression on us . . . the intention of the poet is, to fi x our
thoughts not on the pavement itself, but on the brightness of the pave-
ment’ (pp. 257–8). The similarities between this reading of Milton and
Hollander’s reading of Williams are clear enough. First, the notion of the
written form as something which operates as a record of spoken perform-
ance is challenged by the spatial dimension of the text which allows the
reader to contemplate the juxtaposed relativity of each word rather than
merely submit to the temporal determinism of syntax. This notion of
the reader as an active participant in the communicative circuit becomes
evident in the observations of a contemporary of Sheridan, Henry Home,
Lord Kames, who, while objecting to the spatial disjunctions that made
Sheridan’s readings possible, also acknowledges that such effects demand
that the sequential progress of language is effectively displaced by a cog-
nitive phenomenon which resembles the perceptual experience of juxta-
posed visual images:

(It is) possible to take the action to pieces and to consider it first with
relation to the agent and next with relation to the patient. But after all,
so intimately connected are the parts of the thought that it requires an
effort to make a separation even for a moment: the subtilising to such a
degree is not agreeable, especially in works of the imagination. (Elements
of Criticism, II, p. 130)

Kames’s objection is rooted in his awareness that such effects destabilize

the relation between the reader’s active and passive roles. His use of the
terms ‘first’ and ‘next’ is an acknowledgement that the eye of the reader
will move both forwards and backwards across the static printed integers.
In Paradise Lost this would necessarily set up a tension between the broader,
progressive movement of the verse – the sections which the eighteenth-
century close-readers leave out – and localized intensities of signification
which are generated, literally, by what we see on the page. Williams’s poem
occupies an intertextual space between the sequential and the visual per-
ceptions of Milton’s verse; he has extracted the scriptible, visual dimension
of Miltonic blank verse and inscribed this as the principal structural com-
ponent of his poem.
The double pattern of simultaneous interplay between verse design and
verse instance which the majority of theorists hold to be the definitive
component of regular verse would seem to have a distinct counterpart in
28 Graphic Poetics

certain types of blank and free verse. The stable secondary pattern of sound
and rhythm is replaced by a form of signification which depends upon the
spatial relation between linguistic integers, and the tension or counter-
point between these two patterns is created by a disjunction between the
temporal movement of language and the movement of he eye across its
static configurations on the page. Our acceptance of such a phenomenon
raises a number of serious questions regarding the traditional conception
of the poem as a spoken event. Should we accept that some poems can
only be fully appreciated in silence and, if so, how will this affect a criti-
cal methodology based upon the written text as a record of a speaking
presence? I shall begin to address these in the next chapter, but before
that it would be useful to continue the investigation of the poetry-painting

Falling: From Milton to cummings

John Hollander is not the only modern critic to comment on how ‘closure
and flow’ of Milton’s verse fabric affects interpretation. Christopher Ricks
and Donald Davie have also considered these effects, but, like Hollander,
they have not allowed their readings to disturb the accepted notion that
what we see is also what we hear. Consider Davie’s commentary upon the
following description of God’s casting-down of Satan:

Him the almighty power

Hurled headlong flaming from the etherial sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the omnipotent to arms.
(I, 44–9)

The effect is kinetic. The placing of ‘Him’, ‘down’ and ‘To’ in particular,
gives us the illusion as we read that our muscles are tightening in panic
as we experience in our bodies a movement just as headlong and precipi-
tate as the one described. We occupy in ourselves the gestalt of falling.7

What Davie implies, but does not state, is that the effect of falling can
only be fully appreciated if the reader can both hear and see the verse.
Silent Poetics 29

Read orally, we find that there is a natural pause between ‘combustion’

and ‘down’ as the connection between the verb ‘Hurled’ and its adverb is
made. An oral reader might attempt to prevent the line ending being swept
away by pausing before and after ‘down’, but the effect would be rather
clumsy, and, more significantly, it would superimpose a successive pattern
upon a spatial juxtaposition. Indeed the whole institutionalized concept
of ‘reading’ as something which follows a linear, successive progression
destroys Davie’s suggestion that ‘Him’, ‘down’ and ‘To’ are discretely sig-
nificant: ‘down’ loses some of its resonance to ‘bottomless perdition’ and
‘To’ becomes merely an adjunct of ‘down’. There is no oral equivalent for
the vertical, downward movement of

To dwell

Davie’s reluctance to acknowledge the two-dimensional tension between

the oral movement and the printed stillness of the verse form is even more
exaggerated in the case of Amy Lowell – and the phonocentric bias of the
early Imagists will be considered in Chapter 5. In the middle of her discus-
sion of the successive, musical patternings of free verse she quotes one of
her own poems:

Dolphins in Blue Water

Hey! Crackerjack-jump!
Blue water,
Pink water,
Swirl, flick, flitter;
Snout into a wave-trough,
Plunge, curl.
Bow over,
Razor-cut and tumble.
Roll, turn –
Straight – and shoot at the sky
All rose-flame drippings. Down ring,
30 Graphic Poetics

Nose under
And gone;
With smooth over-swirlings of blue water,
Oil-smooth cobalt,
Slipping, liquid lapis lazuli,
Emerald shadings,
Timings of pink and ochre.
Prismatic slidings
Underneath a windy sky.

The point she makes about these ‘lines’ – some consisting of one syllable –
is that they should work as a kind of ‘score’ for vocal performance, observ-
ing that when ‘read aloud’, the ‘change of rhythm at the line “With smooth
over-swirlings of blue water” signals a change of emphasis from “the leap-
ing curves of the dolphins” to the “long, slow glide of an unbroken sea.” ’
It is true that in oral performance there is a discernible shift from the
clipped, irregular pattern of the first part to the more languid ‘cadences’ of
the second. But these effects are only partially realized without the visual
impression of the written language which creates a diagram of the dol-
phins’ movements. In the same way that our eye follows Satan’s descent,

To dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,

so we seem to watch the dolphin,

Nose under.
And gone;

The linear pattern of spoken performance and the way in which each
verbal reference to the dolphins’ movement traces out a graphic pattern
on the page are complementary but by no means parallel co-ordinates.
Silent Poetics 31

In both poems the process of reading the printed text from left to right,
which in spoken performance becomes a linear unidimensional progres-
sion, is subtly disrupted by the visual shape. The vertical breaks could be
translated into spoken pauses, but as such they would lose their uniquely
graphic dimension.
Clearly the effects generated by both poems fall within a limited cat-
egory of verbal mimesis. The referential, indexical evocation of descent is
matched, conveniently enough, by the literal descent of the graphic inte-
gers, and it would be impossible to create a similar kind of linear/spatial
diagram of the rising of the sun or the ascent of a mountain. But even
within their limitations these effects offer a challenge to Lessing’s visual-
linguistic polarity. Lessing:

I reason thus: if it is true that painting and poetry in their imitations

make use of entirely different means or symbols – the first, namely of
form and colour in space, the second of articulated sounds in time – if
these symbols indisputably require a suitable relation to the thing sym-
bolised, then it is clear that symbols arranged in juxtaposition can only
express subjects of which the wholes or parts exist in juxtaposition (i.e.
bodies); while consecutive symbols can only express subjects of which
the wholes or parts are themselves consecutive (i.e. actions) (p. 91) . . .

The key to Lessing’s distinction between the representational limitations of

language and the visual arts is his insistence that language moves and visual
representations are static. But what he fails to take into account is the effect
of the poem on the page. Our inner ear might be able to trace out the move-
ment of ‘articulated sounds in time’, but at the same time we cannot remain
immune from the counterclaim of static, spatial positioning. This effect is
due to the gradual transformation of the poetic line from its classical ori-
gins as a measure of linguistic time to a phenomenon that can disrupt the
single pattern of temporal integers with traces of alternative meanings; in
some poems the articulated, temporal movement of the language is chal-
lenged by the movement of the eye across the spatial juxtapositions of the
language on the page. The drop of the eye that takes place at each horizon-
tal grouping is unlike the temporal reception of language in the sense that
we often find ourselves going back, picking up traces and counter-claims
that will not register in a vocal performance. The emergence of such effects
in Miltonic blank verse is an instance of accident in productive collusion
with design: Milton received rather than invented the phenomenon of the
printed unrhymed line, but his use of it was genuinely innovative.
32 Graphic Poetics

The poet who has consistently exploited this interface between formal
convention and its revolutionary offspring is e. e. cummings. cummings’s
deployment of graphic language is varied and complex, but the motif of
falling, both as a referential theme and as a physical enactment, occurs
almost as a habit, and this testifies to the origin of his complex visual tech-
niques in the more orthodox institution of the poetic line. A well-known
example of falling occurs in one of his later volumes, 95 Poems:

I (a




It is impossible to describe the order in which the reader is able to dis-

tinguish the formal materiality from the metaphoric resonance of this
poem. We might observe that there is some connection between a falling
leaf and the human condition of loneliness (the end of summer evoking
a sense of sadness and isolation). We might also note the mimetic effect
produced when the opening letter T only becomes the word ‘loneliness’
after, or more accurately during, the experience of watching the leaf
fall – in one sense we feel the word ‘loneliness’ as we watch the leaf fall,
a blending of the material and the referential dimensions of language
which is further intensified by the literal isolation of ‘one’. Our awareness
of how temporal language can describe or signify a relation between an
event and a feeling is fused simultaneously with a visual representation
of that process. We know that we are not actually watching a leaf fall
nor experiencing the unpremeditated effects of the event, but without
actually transforming language into visual iconic images, cummings suc-
ceeds in fusing the conventions of interpretation that, for Lessing, sepa-
rate poetry from the visual arts. Somewhere within the text there is the
conventional temporal syntagm ‘A leaf falls’, but in the process of sim-
ply decoding what Lessing calls these ‘consecutive symbols’ we are also
aware that the linguistic signs have come to operate like the ‘parts . . . in
Silent Poetics 33

juxtaposition’ of a painting. The temporal movement of the language

is matched and challenged by the movement of the eye across its static
The principal difference between Milton’s and cummings’s verse is that,
with the latter the silent visual format effectively displaces the performa-
tive dimensions of speech. But this does not mean that cummings has
completely detached himself from the framework of cognitive procedures
that makes Milton’s effects discernible, because although we can recite
Milton’s poetry, it is clear that in limiting our perception of it in this way,
we effectively neutralize the secondary visual pattern.

The Visual Double Pattern

Although descent or falling is the theme most readily discharged by the

vertical alignment of poetic structures, the phenomenon of silent poet-
ics is capable of creating patterns of meaning far beyond this particular
mimetic effect. Consider again Jakobson’s conception of the causal rela-
tionship between the acoustic double pattern and the interplay between
metaphor and metonymy. Jakobson: ‘The principle of similarity under-
lies poetry; the metrical parallelism of lines, or phonic equivalence of
rhyming words prompts the question of semantic similarity or contrast’
(Fundamentals, pp. 95–6). The question raised here is of how and to what
effect silent poetics replaces, or perhaps overreaches the traditional func-
tion of the acoustic double pattern. We should note his use of the two
terms ‘underlies’ and ‘prompts’. These place the materiality of poetic
form in the category of a contextual framework; it does not in itself
generate meaning but operates as a structure into which the ‘semantic
similarities and contrasts’ are moulded. There can of course be some
interplay between rhyme words, rhythm and the referential function of
language but essentially they remain discrete. But in cummings’s poem
this functional polarity is disrupted. The metaphoric relation between
the falling leaf and the condition of loneliness is not ‘prompted’ by the
silent double pattern; it is literally inscribed within it. As Jakobson’s for-
mulation implies, we could, with practically all poems that rely upon the
acoustic double pattern, disentangle the abstract prosodic formula from
the metaphoric-metonymic function of the language, but with cum-
mings’s, form and meaning interact in a way that forbids such analyses.
But can this synthesis of levels of signification be achieved in more tra-
ditional structures in which the temporal–oral dimension is co-present
34 Graphic Poetics

with the visual–silent dimension? Consider the following lines from

Paradise Lost:

Thus saying, from her Husbands hand her hand

Soft she withdrew . . .
(IX, 385–6)

Christopher Ricks in Milton’s Grand Style (1963) comments on how the word
‘soft’ operates both as an adjective (her soft hand) and an adverb (softly
she withdrew), creating an intriguing tension between her physical pres-
ence and its emotional/tactical effects upon Adam. Ricks goes on to claim
that ‘e. e. cummings might achieve such effects through typography and
punctuation – Milton uses syntax’ (p. 90). This is an inaccurate compari-
son, because there is clearly a similarity between Milton’s use of the visual
break to split the syntactic movement into two conflicting patterns of mean-
ing, and cummings’s extension of this technique into the literal inscription
of syntactic diversity within the visual text. Furthermore, what Ricks calls
the ‘delicate fusion of two points of view’ is not dissimilar to Jakobson’s
formula: ‘In poetry where similarity is superinduced upon contiguity, any
metonymy is slightly metaphorical and any metaphor has a metonymical
tint’ (‘Closing Statement’, p. 370). The literal, metonymic sense of ‘her soft
hand’ does indeed seem to merge into the more metaphoric sense of ‘soft-
ness’ as part of her demeanour and character.
So, whereas the acoustic secondary pattern operates as a prompter to
‘semantic similarity or contrast’, the visual secondary pattern becomes
an active constituent in what Jakobson calls poetry’s ‘symbolic, multiplex,
polysemantic essence’ (‘Closing Statement’, p. 370). In crude terms, such
effects are generated by the ability of visual juxtaposition to destabilize the
temporal relation between linguistic integers. Hollander and Sheridan are
able to discern the simultaneous presence of two syntactic tracks in ‘what
must be’ and ‘what must be worse’, and as such the latter as a metonymic
structure is co-present with the former’s metaphoric evocation of deter-
minism and inevitability, and both are locked into the silent, kinetic struc-
ture of the printed text.
As will become clear, this effect of the visual text as a phenomenon which
incorporates complexities, diversities and polysemantic tensions is some-
thing which the codes and expectations of critical writing are not equipped,
or indeed inclined, to deal with, and the next chapter will address a number
of the most serious critical questions raised by the reading of silent poetics.
Chapter 3

Critical Antipathy

The most obvious objection to the acceptance of the poem as a visual arte-
fact is well rehearsed: it is too easy to create. It is, argue the detractors, a
simple procedure to divide up language into typographic segments and
offer this to the reader as a ‘poem’ which engages both the visual and
the auditory faculties. In Structuralist Poetics (p. 163), Jonathan Culler rear-
ranges the opening sentence from Quine’s philosophic treatise, From a
Logical Point of View, in the manner of such later free versifiers as Charles
From a Logical Point of View
A curious
about the

He observes that ‘the typographical arrangement produces a different kind

of attention and releases some of the potential verbal energy of “thing”, “is”
and “simplicity”. We are dealing less with a property of language (intrin-
sic irony or paradox) than with a strategy of reading.’ Culler regards the
typographic layout not as itself a linguistic component but as a means of
changing the readers’ perception of ‘intrinsic’ properties of language.
Veronica Forrest-Thomson in Poetic Artifice does something similar with a
Times leader article and comments:

If we rearrange prose as poetry in order to bring out rhythmic patterns

we can only bring out elements that were dormant in the prose. Indeed,
36 Graphic Poetics

this is why the convention of free verse was developed in the first place:
to make us aware of the poetry in our prose, of the imaginative alterna-
tives that exist even in ordinary language. But the fact that resulting
poetic rhythms were already there in the prose only makes more evident
the fact that the differences between the prose and verse passage are the
result of a change in conventional expectations, modes of attention, and
interpretive strategies, rather than the result of any alteration of the lin-
guistic material itself. (pp. 21–2)

Stanley Fish maintains Culler’s and Forrest-Thomson’s assumptions: ‘Line

endings exist by virtue of perceptual strategies rather than the other way
around. . . . In short, what is noticed has been made noticeable, not by a clear
and undistorting glass, but by an interpretive strategy’ (p. 166). All three
ally themselves with the same formulative expectations that prompted
the early free-verse detractors to classify the form as shaped prose. John
Livingstone Lowes also ‘found’ poetry in the prose of George Meredith
and arranged it visually to refocus the reader’s ‘conventional expectations,
modes of attention and interpretive strategies’. These critics share a single
assumption about the nature and function of visual form. It is not in itself
a formal device, like rhyme or metre; rather it is an instrument for focus-
ing our attention upon patterns within a pre-existing structure, usually
prose. The phonocentric hierarchy is thus maintained: spacing operates as
a secondary system of punctuation which must defer to the dominance of
a temporal syntactic structure. Their model of composition for the visual
text encodes a specific sequence of creative procedures that is very differ-
ent from those demanded by the writing of regular verse. Anyone who has
attempted to write within a regular metrical structure or rhyme scheme will
recognize the simultaneous presence of two compositional imperatives –
the fundamental framework of intelligible meaning and the abstract tem-
plate of form, the double pattern. But according to these critics, visual form
is something that can be imposed after the primary syntactic and rhetoric
mechanisms of the text are in place. What they do not concede, but what
has already become evident in the opening chapters, is that the placing of
words within a visual structure can demand the same attention to form and
effect as the balancing of metre and rhyme against a syntactic sequence.
To concede the validity of such a method of composition and to consider
its effects will involve a re-examination of certain interpretative tenets
which underly both the reader-centred theories of Culler and Fish and the
more traditional assumptions of Lowes. By restructuring a prose sequence
they show that two or more interpretative possibilities can be disclosed,
Critical Antipathy 37

and crucially that the identification of these divergent patterns depends

upon our ability to vocalize the sequence in two different ways. All that is
required is that the reader must alter the timing and intonational pattern
of delivery. But what if a poet is able to construct a configuration of written
language in which two patterns of meaning become evident only through
the silent contemplation of the text? Then the relationship between author,
text and reader begins to threaten a variety of critical assumptions. For the
traditionalist the notion of the written text as a record of a spoken event is
no longer valid, and for the reception theorist the concept of visual spacing
as a framework for the reader’s interpretative strategies is challenged by the
presence of the poet at work within the spatial configurations of the text.
In what follows I shall examine this challenge in more detail, and I shall go
on to consider the attendant questions of why the poet might wish to create
such disruptions of the protocols of reading.

Phonic Naturalization

The process of naturalization, through which a reader becomes aware of

the way in which the poem’s linguistic organization can absorb and restruc-
ture meaning, has become a major issue in recent examinations of the
theory and practice of interpretation. Naturalization, as a function of our
response to poetic form, is the method of translating our initial impres-
sion of the multidimensional effects of a poem – its rhyme scheme or its
metrical pattern in conflict with its syntactic structure for instance – into a
prose description of how these effects occur and of the variety of meanings
generated from them. As such, a potential divergence between reading
and criticizing becomes evident.
One major distinction between poetic and non-poetic writing exists in
the relation between the textual object and the metalanguage of criticism
and understanding. When we engage with prose in critical language –
spoken or written – we are closer to the stylistic and referential pattern of
the text than we can be with poetic writing. With poetic writing there is
an uneasy relationship between the materiality of the poem, the mental
register of our initial response and the subsequent process of naturaliza-
tion. Criticizing and naturalizing poetry involves a literal demystification
of the text, in the sense that we are obliged to strip its ‘meaning’ from the
interwoven patterns of rhythm and sound. But there are a number of, mostly
tacit, conventions which allow us to effect this procedure without causing
us to feel that any serious injustice has been done to our initial impression
38 Graphic Poetics

of the text, and encoded within this procedure is our unshakeable belief in
the relative effects of succession and simultaneity.
Consider the opening lines of Pope’s ‘Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot’:

Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigued I said

Tye up the knocker, say I’m sick, I’m dead.

Hearing these lines, we can discern a peculiar tension between the pro-
gressive, syntactic movement of the couplet and the extra-syntactic echo
of ‘said’ in ‘dead’. Logically there should be no correspondence between
Pope’s straightforward order to his servant and the potentially disruptive
juxtaposition of life (speech) and death. How do we naturalize this phe-
nomenon? W. K. Wimsatt in his seminal article on rhyme, ‘One Relation
of Rhyme to Reason’ (1944), offers a formula: ‘The words of a rhyme, with
their curious harmony of sound and distinction of sense, are an amalgam
of the sensory and the logical, or an arrest and precipitation of the logical
in sensory form; they are the ikon in which the idea is caught’ (p. 163).
The key term here is the ‘arrest and precipitation of the logical in sensory
form’. Following Wimsatt’s advice, we might comment on how the ‘said–
dead’ amalgam of the sensory and the logical adds an extra dimension
of signification to the statement of the couplet: the fact that Pope is able
to vocalize his own posthumous condition imbues what might otherwise
be an unengaging problem of domestic order with a degree of dark com-
edy. But naturalizing the tension between device and meaning in this way
necessarily involves the imposition of the linear format of prose criticism
upon the simultaneity of the initial impression. This does not invalidate
Wimsatt’s claim that the logical movement of language is ‘arrested’ and
‘precipitated’ in the sensory form of rhyme, but it should remind us of
the considerable gap between intuitive response and its subsequent for-
malization in criticism. In an important sense, naturalization defuses the
potentially chaotic interrelation between material signifiers and projected
signifieds which Wimsatt celebrates as the essentially ‘poetic’ value of
rhyme. And crucially, it enables us to reassemble these elements as the uni-
fied conception of the voice of the poet.
In Gray’s line ‘the curfew tolls the knell of passing day’ the reader is again
drawn into an awareness of an amalgam of a referential statement with its
material constituents, which might be similarly naturalized by claiming
that the stressed syllables seem to ring through the syntax rather like the
incessant tolling of a bell. And again the simultaneous auditory experience
of the material pattern of language and its syntactic, referential structure
Critical Antipathy 39

is transformed by the conventions of critical prose into a successive dia-

gram. We have a plan, a working model, of what Gray has ‘said’.
Visual structures pre-empt and negate the analytic conventions of
criticism by investing the printed text with an inbuilt tension between
succession and simultaneity. As Sheridan observed, our access to the
simultaneous presence of two successive rhythmic and referential pat-
terns is granted by their graphic co-presence. Our initial, ocular con-
templation of the text allows us to ‘see’ the two aural patterns, and this
synthesis of hearing and seeing destabilizes the procedural relation-
ship between intuitive impression and its formalization in criticism. An
extreme case of this occurs in cummings’s fusion of the metaphoric, ref-
erential significance of the falling leaf with its literal, graphic descent.
Our ‘inner ear’ allows us to juxtapose A leaf falls’ with ‘loneliness’, but it
is impossible in a subsequent verbal naturalization to establish an order
of priority between the internalized successive continuum and the visual
diagram of descent.
Of course, not all verse employs such extreme visual devices as cum-
mings’s, but the difficulties presented to criticism even by Milton’s more
subtle unbalancing of perceptual faculties become evident in Roman
Jakobson’s re-examination of the poetry/visual arts polarity. In ‘On the
Relation between Visual and Auditory Signs’, Jakobson concedes that,
since the late eighteenth century, Lessing’s model has, in a variety of ways,
been submitted to revisions and qualifications and that it is now reason-
able to accept that the successive progress of language can sometimes be
transposed by the mind of the hearer into a form of non-linear synthe-
sis, a synchronous structure. But he insists that the poem is essentially an
ephemeral spoken event, immune from the interrelations and referrals of
permanent spatial structures. Jakobson:

When the observer arrives at the simultaneous synthesis of a contem-

plated painting, the painting as a whole remains before his eyes, it is still
present; but when the listener reaches a synthesis of what he has heard,
the phonemes have in fact already vanished. They survive as mere after-
images, somewhat abridged reminiscences, and this creates an essential
difference between the two types of perception and percepts. (Language
in Literature, pp. 470–1)

To accept the aesthetic and perceptual criteria invoked in this model would
mean that, whatever else it might be, cummings’s reflection on the fall-
ing leaf certainly cannot be regarded as a poem, because it has to remain
40 Graphic Poetics

before our eyes to mean anything at all. Jakobson’s exclusion of poetic lan-
guage from the perceptual sphere in which the artefact must be present
as a visual structure is the assumption which underpins Attridge’s, Ricks’s,
Davie’s and Hollander’s reluctance to grant visual form an equivalent sig-
nifying status to that of the aural, successive medium. The poetic medium
of communication is by no means transparent, but to perceive its internal
tensions and formal syntheses as a function of its spoken form at least con-
firms the presence of its creator, and confirms the critic in his belief that
in negotiating the refractory complexities of the form he can, as Hollander
puts it, hear the voice of the poet through the mask. But to acknowledge
that the visual text is a source of signification which must ‘remain before
our eyes’ takes us into an interpretative experience for which there is no
aural counterpart. It is not the equivalent of hearing two meanings in the
same vocal statement but of hearing two different statements delivered
simultaneously by the same person.
Consider the opening sequence of Pound’s ‘The Return’:

See, they return; ah, see the tentative

Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
See, they return, one, and by one
With fear, as half awakened.

It is possible to naturalize the auditory properties of this sequence by

pointing out that the pauses prompted by the line breaks at ‘tentative /
Movements’ and ‘uncertain / Wavering’ trace out a hesitant vocal equiva-
lent of the actual physical movements of ‘they’ who ‘return, one, and by
one / With fear’. But there is also present within the linguistic text a pecu-
liar instability between its visual, material identity and its referential func-
tion. The repetitive use of ‘see’ should, conventionally, refer to the process
of naturalization itself, our ability to imaginatively visualize the scene
described by the words. But we are also able to ‘see’ the visual isolation of
the material constituents of the description at

Critical Antipathy 41

And perhaps the word ‘feet’ refers both to the picture created by the text
and signals a self-referential awareness that in the new poetic the tra-
ditional instrument of poetic composition, the feet, trace out a formal pat-
tern of tentative, uncertain movements as ‘they return, one, and by one’
to the left-hand margin of the text. The auditory naturalization can occur
when, as Jakobson puts it, the ‘phonemes have already vanished’, surviving
merely as ‘afterimages, somewhat abridged reminiscences’. But, in the pro-
cess through which we can, literally, ‘see’ the verbal diagram of the referen-
tial image, ‘the [poem] as a whole must remain before our eyes.’
There are, in effect, two texts, rather than two meanings within the same
text. Auditory naturalization, as posited by Jakobson, enables us to draw
together the formal hesitancies of the speaker and the intended effect of
the referential statement, but visual naturalization can, and indeed must,
take place in the absence of the speaker because it is only the presence
of the graphic, physical medium which guarantees the correspondence
between form and effect. The reader becomes an active participant in the
process of textual signification, but this does not constitute what is gener-
ally referred to as the ‘death of the author’. The author is certainly absent
in the sense that neither he nor his vicarious representative in an oral read-
ing can fully convey the total effect of the poem, but he is also present in
the sense that we are aware that the author has created, if not actually
uttered, this synthesis of meanings.

William Carlos Williams and the Language of Criticism

There are two fundamental reasons why the critical establishment is reluc-
tant to deal with the signifying functions of visual form in poetry. First,
it is clear that to accept that meaning can be inscribed within the silent
materiality of the text will raise disturbing questions regarding the ideal of
speech as the primary medium of human exchange. Chapter 5 will exam-
ine the ways in which this anxiety manifested itself in the creative and
ex-cathedra writings of the early free-versifiers, and Chapter 4 on ‘The Poet
in the Poem’ will contend that visible language can offer a guarantee of
presence which is just as vivid and enduring as that of its spoken counter-
part. The second reason is a consequence of the first: The language of
analysis and appreciation, whatever claims it might have to plurality and
flexibility, will inevitably embody and reflect the dominant prejudices and
allegiances of its users. Consequently, the language we use to describe lit-
erature will have a serious influence upon our perception of what it is and
42 Graphic Poetics

of how it works. Terms such as ‘close reading’ and ‘the words on the page’
are locked into the metaphoric rather than the literal mode of significa-
tion. The ‘close reading’ of a literary text is a procedure which derives from
the New Critical objective of isolating its internal structure and meaning
from such variable considerations as the biographical or social circum-
stances of its composition, and the ‘words on the page’ refer to this same
desire to prevent the words not on the page, such as the poet’s letters, jour-
nals, and ex-cathedra writings, from shifting the interpretative focus away
from the self-contained structure of the text. Their literal connotation of
attending to the visual materiality of the artefact would be regarded as a
misinterpretation – indeed there is no accepted critical term to describe
such an activity. It is true that such uses of spatial imagery as figurative or
metaphoric terms do not actually prevent us from contemplating or appre-
ciating visual form, but they operate as a series of barriers against our abil-
ity to formalize in descriptive language what we might intuitively perceive.
In studies of avant garde poetry one frequently encounters references to
‘space’, to the ‘field’ of the text and to the opposition between ‘temporal’
and ‘spatial’ dimensions of representation. In every instance, however, the
critic stops short of allowing themselves even to contemplate the literal
sense of these concepts, the actuality of the words on the page. Always,
they seek protection in a figurative designation. For example Paul Hoover
(1994) opens with ‘The progress of a line or sentence, or a series of lines
or sentences, has spatial properties as well as temporal properties. The
spatial density is both vertical and horizontal.’ (p. 654), which causes us
to assume that he is referring to the type of effect we have so far encoun-
tered in the verse of Milton. But no: ‘The meaning of a word in its place
derives both from the word’s lateral reach, its contact with its neighbours
in a statement . . . ’ by which he means the relationship between words in a
grammatical unit – a dynamic that we encounter both literally as the words
are strung out diagonally across the page and in a more complex epistemo-
logical sense as the smallest units of meaning combining to create more
substantial concepts. However, in his description of the vertical axis any lin-
gering possibility of a literal frame of reference – that is, words interacting
vertically up and down the page – is extinguished. Here he is concerned
with the ‘reach’ of meaning ‘through and out of the text into the other
world, the matrix of its contemporary and historical reference’. Hoover’s
analogy is founded upon Roman Jakobson’s diagram of the horizontal and
vertical axes of language (see below pp. 46–7), which we are not supposed
to take literally, in that we do not select words by reaching upwards. At the
same time there is within criticism a self-imposed veto on allowing even
Critical Antipathy 43

for the possibility that some poets might, as they assemble their verse, find
themselves fascinated not merely by the sound or the grammatical force of
their words but also by secondary patterns of meaning made available by
the 360˚ visual format of the page. In Ian Davidson’s recent Ideas of Space in
Contemporary Poetry (2007), one chapter only is given over to poetry which
makes use of the visual format, and even then the poets referred to are
those who use the shapes of language ostentatiously in a Concretist man-
ner. It is almost as though some phobic aversion is attached to the idea that
mainstream poets could indulge a fascination for words as visible objects
and project this into their work: something that is perhaps too primitive to
be entertained as an accompaniment to the workings of the intellect.
In ‘Spatial Form in Literature: Toward a General Theory’ W. J. T. Mitchell
considers what he regards to be the most significant developments in the
inter-aesthetic study of literature and the visual arts. He concludes that

The usefulness of exploring spatial form, then, is inseparable from the

usefulness of making intelligible and explicit the underlying patterns of
anything we find ourselves doing willy-nilly. We cannot think about litera-
ture or anything else without using spatial metaphors. . . . Even the most
abstract argument betrays implicit spatial dimensions the moment it tries
to construct a field of relationships among key ideas or terms; the abstract
terms themselves are often hidden metaphors or images, as the word
‘abstract’ itself suggests the act of ‘drawing off’ or ‘removing’ a simplified
skeleton from a complex concrete entity. (The Language of Images, p. 298)

The reliance of the vocabulary of poetic form upon spatial metaphors

involves a quite astounding degree of theoretical asymmetry and contra-
diction. Since, as Mitchell points out, the word ‘abstract’ incorporates con-
flicting theoretical and spatial etymologies, could it not be argued that
Milton’s ‘sense variously drawn out from one verse into another’ similarly
involves a double signification of temporal sense continued and sense
‘drawn off’ from a static structure? And there is certainly a ‘hidden meta-
phor’ behind the activity of determining the ‘measure’ of a poetic line
composed of a ‘rhythmic movement’ which in traditional, quantifiable
terms is a sequence of ‘feet’.
The ‘foot’ derives from the classical origins of metrical language as some-
thing which was allied with the temporality of music and the movement of
dance. But the modern metrical ‘foot’ is something which incorporates the
quite distinct conceptions of physical movement and the measurement of
a static artefact. In basic terms, how do we ‘measure’ something which, in
44 Graphic Poetics

its traditional identity as a work of art, is moving? Are we, in any case, mea-
suring its velocity or its length? What prosodists fail to admit is that to mea-
sure, or, in simple terms, to discern, a linguistic unit which has abandoned
or compromised the regularity of rhyming or alliterative/assonantal sound
patterns we need to be able to see it in its static form as well as hear its
movement. And since, as has become apparent, the disjunction between
what we hear and what we see has become a persistent, though generally
unacknowledged, feature of poetry since Milton’s blank verse, it is difficult,
in Mitchell’s terms to, ‘[make] intelligible and explicit the underlying pat-
terns’. The nature of this difficulty can best be illustrated not through a
continued interrogation of critical protocols and terminology but by look-
ing at the poetic writing of William Carlos Williams.
Consider the following poem by Williams, first published in 1934:

To a Poor Old Woman

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her

They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her.

You can see it by

the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her.

The first point to make is that this, like a number of Williams’s other poems,
operates as a challenge to the conventional protocols of critical theory and
interpretative practice. The nature of this challenge becomes evident when
we note that Williams pre-empts Noam Chomsky’s illustration of how a sin-
gle, syntactic, deep structure can generate a number of distinct patterns of
signification. Chomsky cited the sentence ‘They don’t know how good meat
Critical Antipathy 45

tastes,’ and John Hollander adapted his argument to poetic signification by

demonstrating that by breaking the sentence visually at six different points
and consequently shifting the thematic centre towards different words we can
create six different meanings. Clearly a similar effect is created in stanza 2
of Williams’s poem, but he takes the experiment a stage further than either
Chomsky or Hollander by subtly urging the reader to consider the full range
of assumptions and expectations that are threatened by this effect. In the
third stanza, the phrase ‘You can see it’ is double-edged. ‘It’ refers both to the
ideational scene of the woman eating which is created by and which functions
outside the materiality of the poem, and to the way in which we literally ‘see’ a
single pattern of meaning restructured and re-emphasized in the visual con-
figurations of stanza 2. Through this second dimension of signification the
graphic materiality of language provides a physical, visual counterpart to the
referential, ideational image. The sentence ‘they taste good to her’ operates
as a temporal, unidimensional description, but when we watch the rhetorical
emphasis shift from good/to to taste/good we experience a curious multi-
dimensional impression – a verbal counterpart to the ideational picture is
inscribed within the graphic materiality of the poem. The effect of watching
the poem becomes curiously interfused with the mental image of watching
the woman.
Superficially there might seem to be a correspondence between Williams’s
technique and Culler’s and Forrest-Thomson’s experiments with reshaped
prose: all three involve an adjustment of the reader’s visual and interpretative
perspective upon the same pattern of meaning. The difference becomes
apparent when Williams announces the point of closure between the for-
mal materiality of the poem and its referential, ideational image (‘You can
see it’): the visual diagram of hesitation and movement is locked into the
naturalized picture created by the language. If a similar interplay between
the acoustic materiality of verse, its rhyme or rhythmic pattern, and its ref-
erential function occurred, we would accept that the poet had invoked the
protocols of phonic naturalization and would consequently suspend our
awareness that the sound of a poem has no natural or logical relation to
its prelinguistic message. But, a poem that offers its graphic materiality as
a shifting axis between response and naturalization also offers a challenge
to these protocols of literary interpretation. In an important sense such
poems function not merely as self-referential gestures but as a means by
which the poet makes his work immune from the controlling presence of
naturalization; they make it difficult to transfer response to paraphrase or
metatext because the text inserts itself into the conventions, practices and
terminology that make such transference possible.
46 Graphic Poetics

The most significant point of conflict between text and naturalized

metatext occurs in the poem’s exposure of the way in which the appar-
ently objective and pluralistic discourse of criticism actually encodes a
phonocentric bias. As Mitchell states, spatial terminology is a vital tool
in our ability to describe mental operations and concrete images that are
not immediately available for validation. There is a comfortable binary
opposition between the language that we use to describe the materiality
of poetry (acoustic) and the language that we employ in the transference
from textual effect to naturalization (spatial). Consider, for example,
Jakobson’s contention that the definitively poetic deployment of lan-
guage is recognized when ‘similarity is superinduced upon contiguity,
any metonymy is slightly metaphorical and any metaphor has a slightly
metonymical tint.’ One of the most intriguing effects upon critical writ-
ing of this complex formulation has emerged in the means by which other
commentators have attempted to explain how it works. Usually the com-
binative/syntactic/metonymic dimension of language is represented, or
to be more specific, visualized as a horizontal continuum of connections
and effects. This is logical enough, since at its most basic level sentence
structure operates as a movement from left to right – its most simplis-
tic form being subject-verb-object. The selective/associative/metaphoric
dimension is contrasted with this as a vertical structure consisting of
the ‘bags’ or choices of words available to be fitted into each point in the
syntagmatic chain. Terence Hawkes in Structuralism and Semiotics uses the
following diagram (p. 78):


Critical Antipathy 47

A more elaborate illustration appears in Roger Fowler’s Linguistic Criticism

(p. 75):

P The child sleeps
A a kid dozes
R some youngster nods
A etc. tot naps
D infant wakes
I boy dream
G woman etc.
M etc.

We would accept, without needing to have it explained to us, that these

representations are themselves metaphoric rather than literal. When we
make a choice from the verbs available to denote sleeping we do not liter-
ally reach up or down to sift through a collection stored in vertical align-
ment to the level at which we normally use language. Or do we? Consider
the following poem by Williams:

Sonnet in Search of an Author

Nude bodies like peeled logs

sometimes give off a sweetest
odor, man and woman

under the trees in full excess

matching the cushion of
aromatic pine-drift fallen
threaded with trailing woodbine
a sonnet might be made of it

Might be made of it! odor of excess

odor of pine needles, odor of
peeled logs, odor of no odor
other than trailing woodbine that

has no odor, odor of a nude woman

sometimes, odor of a man.1
48 Graphic Poetics

It cannot be an accident that, as we read the printed text, we come across

relations between line endings that also appear to function as thematic





There is a consistent interplay between these vertical patterns and the more
prominent features of the horizontal, successive pattern:

sweetest odor, man and woman

threaded with trailing woodbine
odor of excess
odor of a nude woman
odor of a man

This is a poem about writing poetry – a convention with plenty of prec-

edents but none that anticipate the technique of Williams’s self-referential
exercise. We know that he invokes the abstract double pattern of the son-
net, partly because he tells us and partly because we find 14 lines divided
visually as if signalling a rhyme scheme. He invokes precedent in the
same way that Milton employs the visual as well as the acoustic structure
of the pentameter and some free-verse poets deploy poetic lines on the
page but make no concession to the acoustic origins of their ‘measure’. In
the rhymed, iambic sonnet we expect to naturalize its meaning by tracing
connections between the arbitrary pattern of rhyme and metre and the
meaning of the words – indeed one of Jakobson’s most celebrated formalist
essays does this with a Shakespeare sonnet. Williams deliberately disrupts
Critical Antipathy 49

such procedures. There is clearly some sort of interplay between the con-
ventional foregrounding of words at each line ending and the sequential,
though very uncertain, movement of the syntax. We might naturalize this
by stating that the poem is ‘about’ the poet’s attempts to confine and ratio-
nalize a sequence of phenomena drawn from images of the natural world
and their correspondence with humanity, male and female. But when we
consider exactly how this impression is generated we must also concede
that our attempts to reconcile the vertical sequence (the convention, the
sonnet) with its horizontal, temporal counterpart must involve awareness
that the arbitrary formal dimension of the text can only be perceived visu-
ally, in silence. In a rhymed sonnet we can hear the criss-crossing of syntax
and sound pattern, but here we find ourselves watching the literal criss-
crossing of shape and sequence.
The term ‘deconstruction’ is probably overemployed in current liter-
ary criticism, but this is clearly what Williams does with the conventional
discourse of criticism and interpretation. Hawkes’s and Fowler’s diagrams
encode and validate the hierarchies of phonic naturalization – we visu-
alize what we have heard in order to make sense of how this pattern of
meanings is constructed and decoded. In Williams’s poem this same pro-
cess of visualization takes place alongside our reception of the acoustic
materiality; we find patterns, interactions between the syntagmatic and the
paradigmatic – bodies, logs, women, fallen, woodbine, excess – but the lit-
eral, visual structure of the poem pre-empts our attempts to turn text into
analysis and metatext.
Williams demonstrates the genuine signifying function of visual pat-
terns. His poem is a silently eloquent counter-argument against the claims
of Culler, Forrest-Thomson and Fish that the visual format is a signal to
reader-centred naturalization. He negotiates an arbitrary formal structure
in the same way that a conventional poet would negotiate an abstract pat-
tern of rhyme and metre, but the effects of this clash between form and
effect must be registered in silence.
Hawkes’s and Fowler’s diagrams are useful in our attempts to deal
with visual form, because they foreground another instance of accident
in collusion with design. Diagrams of metre and syntax have been used
by prosodists and transformational linguists to illustrate the productive
interrelation between the acoustic materiality of language, its systematic
structure and its meaning. They represent, in the simplest sense, a picture
of what happens when we hear and decode language. Similarly, Hawkes
and Fowler urge the reader to imagine, to visualize, what happens in the
construction and reception of temporal language. They also inadvertently
50 Graphic Poetics

draw our attention to the fact that poetic language is offered to us in

vertical–horizontal packages – their diagrams look like poems. And in
some poems, when read with the eye, we will pick up traces, semantic and
syntactic interrelations, that are not part of the dominant model of tem-
porality, that, in effect, allow us to discern an alternative pattern of signi-
fication. Described as such silent poetics sounds like a recipe for chaos:
the signifier as an arbitrary, material device is foregrounded; signification
becomes a slide between text and interpretative technique and a fissure is
opened between textuality and presence; key elements of the poem’s system
of signification are embedded in the spatial configurations of the page and
the conventional premise of the poet as speaker is compromised. But this
is clearly not the case. The poet is there, controlling the graphic material
of the language, orchestrating the interface and conflict between sound
and silence, the temporal and the visual, maintaining the traditional role
as author and initiator of meaning. This presence–absence paradox will be
the subject of the next chapter.
Chapter 4

The Poet in the Poem

In this chapter I shall address two issues. First, what can the poet achieve
by using silent poetics to disrupt the conventional procedures of interpre-
tation? Secondly, I shall consider in more detail the relation between poet,
text and reader, giving greater emphasis to the relation between the visual
poem and visual art.
The poem as an autonomous aesthetic object is a concept fraught with
contradictions, all of which derive from the uncertain relation between
its material existence as language and the idea of its origin in the mind
and the experience of the poet prior to its linguistic realization. Roman
Ingarden distinguishes between aesthetic objects which are iconic, in the
sense that their form incorporates elements of pre-representational experi-
ence (painting and sculpture), and the linguistic text which is ‘a purely
intentional object’ – corresponding with Hollander’s model of ‘the mask
through which the voice sounds’. Ingarden: ‘In comparison with the onti-
cally autonomous object, [the intentional object] is an “illusion” that draws
its illusionary existence and essence from the projecting intention . . . of the
intentional act’ (pp. 122–3). This is the reflex upon which the procedures
of critical naturalization are founded. Before commenting upon what a
poem means we need to construct a fictional situation of utterance, to
bring into being a voice and an addressee, however much this might be
inconsistent with our knowledge of the writer, the poem and its circum-
stances of imposition. In basic terms we achieve this by relying upon the
‘deictics’ or orientational features of language which relate to the situation
of the utterance. From these we work outwards from the text itself to cre-
ate a framework of plausible fictive circumstances in which the utterance
could have occurred. For instance, in one of Donne’s most adventurous
amatory verses, ‘The Flea’, it would strain credibility to imagine that a
man could improvise a series of such wild conceits and interweave them
with a tight stanzaic framework within seconds of the female addressee’s
attempt to swat the vehicle of his metaphor. But we prevent ourselves from
52 Graphic Poetics

dismissing the poem as a meaningless exercise in rhetoric by allowing it to

construct its own dramatic situation which, although we know it could not
have actually occurred, maintains at least the fictive presence of speaker
and addressee.
The part played by auditory form in the balance between the imagined
presence of the speaker and the naturalization of the utterance is crucial
yet paradoxical. The repeated sound patterns of regular verse operate both
as a guarantee of continuity against the threat of fragmentation and as a
diagram of successive foregroundings upon which we can ground our pro-
cess of understanding. Ingarden is clear enough on the paradoxical nature
of this process. ‘The purely intentional object is not a “substance”. . . . Some
of the elements assigned to [it] fool us with the outward appearance of a
“carrier”; they seem to play a role which according to their essence they
are truly not capable of playing.’ We know that Donne neither speaks in
metrical form nor draws upon rhyming patterns as a habit in his discur-
sive utterances, but at the same time these patterns of sound guarantee
each poem as a spoken event and it is speech which is vital in our imagina-
tive recreation of a person making these statements in response to imme-
diate mental or circumstantial occurrences. Auditory form succeeds, as
Ingarden puts it, in ‘fooling us’ because it suspends the potential conflict
between artifice and spontaneity.
When we look at a painting we cannot help but partially suspend our
own conscious perceptual identity and look at both the artefact and the
event/experience represented through the eyes of its creator. We know
that what we experience is not an undisturbed recreation of the original
act of perception but of the creative process which brought the artefact
into existence. Similarly, when we hear a poem we are aware that we are
responding to a recreation of an experience rather than becoming part of
the experience. There is, however, a crucial difference between these two
aesthetic processes. Richard Wollheim, in Art and Its Objects (1980), takes
up E. H. Gombrich’s argument that when perceiving a painting we are
simultaneously aware of the thing/event/experience represented and of
the means of representation. He calls this the ‘twofold thesis’.

If I look at a representation as a representation, then it is not just permit-

ted, but required of me, that I attend simultaneously to object and medium.
So if I look at Holbein’s portrait, the standards of correctness require me
to see Henry VIII there; but additionally I must – not only may but must –
be visually aware of an unrestricted range of features of Holbein’s panel if
my perception of the representation is to be appropriate. (p. 213)
The Poet in the Poem 53

If we were to adapt this model to the auditory dimension of poetry we

could argue that the rhythmic or assonantal/alliterative pattern of the lan-
guage makes us ‘feel’ the original moment of experience, just as Holbein’s
skill as a visual artist makes us ‘feel’ that we are face to face with the real
Henry VIII. The difference is that Wollheim’s ‘unrestricted range of fea-
tures’ is permanently present within the visual work of art, but in verbal art
it vies for prominence with the real or imagined human source of the utter-
ance. Metrical pattern is just as artificial and contrived as the deployment
of paint, but because metre is pre-eminently a spoken effect it can achieve
a degree of self-transcendence. Even if the spoken performance is a record-
ing or an instance of reading aloud to ourselves we still seem able to see,
or more accurately hear, through the artefact to the living presence which
created it. But perhaps something has been lost, because in Wollheim’s
model of perception of the visual arts, the ‘twofold thesis’ involves both an
awareness of the event as perceived by the artist and an awareness of the
artist at work in creating a representation of the event. As became clear in
the above discussion of phonic naturalization, the substance of the linguis-
tic text virtually disappears, to be replaced by the reader’s approximation
of what happened to the poet before he transformed this experience into
language. We have gained access to the poet as a human being, but as a
consequence we have lost contact with the poet as a craftsman moulding
this experience into an artefact of representation.
To examine how poetry might reconcile the immediacy and self-pres-
ence of speech with the tactile permanence of the ontological aesthetic
object, we should return to the Sheridan–Hollander debate on Milton.
In the middle of Book IV of Paradise Lost (lines 440–91) Eve gives an
account to Adam of her first memories of existence. The section is particu-
larly notable for the way in which the lines cut into the sequential move-
ment of syntax and rhythm. John Hollander comments:

From Book IV again, Eve’s account of her displacement of narcissistic

admiration on to a recognition of Adam as an objectified beauty con-
cludes, ‘and from that time I see/How beauty is excell’d by manly grace’
(11. 489–90) where the literal sense of ‘see’ dissolves into a figurative
one (‘see how’ as ‘understand that’), with a lingering hedging of her
commitment. (p. 98)

In Hollander’s communicative model, Milton has created Eve’s ‘voice’,

which sounds through the visual ‘mask’ to be heard by Hollander; and
indeed the entire speech is sewn with similar evidence of indecision,
54 Graphic Poetics

uncertainty and, within the context of the poem, betrayal. For instance,
she describes her memory of looking ‘into the clear’ (line 458) – a substan-
tive form which was widely used in the period to denote an unbroken view
across the sea. But then the eye moves around the line ending to connect
‘clear’ with ‘smooth lake’ and to re-establish its adjectival usage. There is
also the section in which she recounts the voice of God, who tells her to

follow me
And I will bring thee where no shadow stays
Thy coming
(IV, 470–1)

In the brief period it takes the reading eye to adjust to the syntax of the
new line, the isolated word ‘stays’ might for a moment connote ‘restrains’
instead of its intended meaning, ‘awaits’. But if, like Hollander, we assume
that these paratactic slippages allow the listener to contemplate a hesitant,
unreliable dimension of Eve’s character, then we are faced with a problem
since none of this becomes evident to Adam, the person to whom these
promises of commitment were originally, and orally, addressed. The dif-
ference is that Hollander has a copy of the printed text; it is his ability to
trace two separate and often divergent tracks of form and meaning across
the written signifiers that grants him access to Eve’s unspoken betrayals.
We find that Sheridan and his visualist predecessor, Samuel Woodford,
are also aware of the problem presented by these lines, but their solution,
or rather avoidance of a solution, is quite different. Samuel Woodford, in
the Preface to his Paraphrase upon the Canticles (1679), performed an exer-
cise which has become almost a habit in twentieth-century criticism of free
verse. He reprinted a section for Paradise Lost as prose and a section of
Milton’s prose as ‘verse’. The most significant element of Woodford’s experi-
ment was his awareness of how the printed, unrhymed poetic line could
intensify or destabilize the linear continuities of language. For instance, he
chose to place the line break in the reprinted prose at points such as

. . . to express
. . . to cast

So, although Woodford did not engage in readings of the visual format so
elaborate as Sheridan’s or Hollander’s, he proved himself to be aware of
The Poet in the Poem 55

the causes and effects of visualist poetics. It is interesting therefore that he

chose Eve’s speech from Book IV as the section to be reprinted as prose –
in effect, devisualized. We are faced with a critic as attuned to the signify-
ing potential of the visual format as Hollander, yet who chose to neutralize
the same effects that Hollander found intriguing. Why?
The effects created by Eve’s written text are peculiarly disturbing, since
the silent reader of the poem seems to be locked into a private communi-
cative circuit with her consciousness. For Woodford, a seventeenth-century
clergyman, the notion of being complicit in the uncertainties and decep-
tions of the prime instigator of the Fall might well have involved rather
more than a literary experience. Hollander might savour his private aware-
ness of her ‘lingering hedging of . . . commitment’, but perhaps Woodford
felt the need to distance himself from such an experience.
In answer to those who would dismiss this Woodford–Hollander cor-
respondence as a coincidence I would point them again to the work of
Sheridan. Sheridan was willing to celebrate the visual effects of Milton’s
own first-person sophistications and Satan’s betrayals of uncertainty and
despair. But when he came to examine Eve’s book IV speech, he contra-
dicted his own critical procedures. It is impossible to accept that his finely
tuned critical faculties could have recognized the textual intensities of

what must be

and have remained immune from the curious ambivalence of Eve’s

where no shadow stays

Thy coming.

But what he did, without fully explaining why, was to neutralize the visual
format of Eve’s speech by turning it into a safely prosaic paraphrase: ‘Follow
me, and I will bring thee, not to a shadow such as you see in the water, but
to a substance; to him whose image thou art, as that in the watery gleam
is thine. Him as a substance you may enjoy; this as a shadow you cannot’
(pp. 378–9). Perhaps this is the speech that he would like to have ‘heard’,
cleansed as it is of Eve’s poetic betrayals to the silent reader. He goes a stage
further than Woodford’s reprinting of the lines by actually changing the
words themselves, as if he felt the need to expunge even the memory of the
more disturbing elements of silent poetics. What all three commentators
56 Graphic Poetics

experience is the linguistic equivalent of Wollheim’s ‘twofold thesis’ –

although Hollander’s phonocentric allegiance tends to cloud his and our
awareness of this. Read aloud it is possible to neutralize the disturbing hesi-
tancies of Eve’s speech, but when also read with the eye we become aware
of an alternative pattern. The two conditions of sincerity and betrayal, cer-
tainty and instability, are inscribed within the silent printed structure of
the text. It is impossible to resolve this conflict by the use of phonic natur-
alization since we would then have to move beyond the text to the putative
presence of the speaker – but which speaker? In the same way that Holbein’s
portrait of Henry VIII catches the perceiver in the contradictory experience
of seeing both the real king and the representational artefact, so Milton, in
submitting the human immediacy of speech to the fragmentary dispersals
of the written artefact, similarly places the reader in the position of being
unable to distinguish the ‘real’ Eve from two opposing patterns of form and
meaning. But the poetic ‘twofold thesis’ takes the representational com-
plexity of this effect a stage further than is possible in its counterpart in the
visual arts. Wollheim substantiates his thesis by arguing that even if the per-
ceiver changes the distance or angle of perception, the figure within the
artefact, unlike its human original, remains the same – thus confirming the
two-dimensional limitations of representation. If we adapt this change of
perspective to the effects generated by the poetic structure we find that we
can indeed discern a sense of change. Eve’s disturbing condition of being
at once sincere and unreliable is the representational equivalent of our dis-
cerning a change in the king’s expression or demeanour by adjusting our
perspective upon the painting. By seeing and hearing the language of the
poem we are granted access to two signifying presences.
The problem we face with Paradise Lost is that the representational struc-
ture which creates these effects is common to the different presences and
voices of Satan, God, The Son, Adam, Eve, Raphael. . . . If Ricks, Hollander
and Sheridan could discern troubled paratactic patterns in the speeches of
Eve and Satan, why do they not apply the same ‘interpretative strategies’ to
the following lines from God’s statement of intent in Book III (11. 123–6):

for so
I formed them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthral themselves: I else must change
Their nature.

Hollander’s recognition of a ‘lingering hedging’ at Eve’s line ending should

be remembered here because God appears to be doing something similar.
The Poet in the Poem 57

God’s consideration of an alternative, ‘I else must change’, is a reaffir-

mation of his power to do just as he wishes with Adam and Eve. But the
spatial gap might just allow a suspicion of self-doubt (‘I else must change
myself?’). The spoken form might resolve the ambiguity, but the play of
spatial figures and relations leaves us with a sense that we have discerned
an extra, more disturbingly human, dimension of God’s character.
But Milton did not design Paradise Lost to be experienced as a drama
in which each of the different voices of the narrative become fi xed in the
very real and very different presences of separate performers. The only
genuine, first-person presence in the poem is that of its creator, Milton,
and in an important sense he controls the speeches of his characters. His
domination is guaranteed by the visual structure of the poem because all
of the separate speeches including his own are submitted to the same arbi-
trary, structural framework. Milton does not merely report his characters’
speeches, he also, literally, writes them. One might here draw attention to
his alternative experiment in Samson Agonistes, a dramatic text in which
the characters’ broken speech patterns are reflected in their pattern on
the page as a form of free verse not unlike the structures which Rice and
Walker suggested as a ‘truer’ oral/visual score for Paradise Lost. It could be
argued that Milton did not use this form for his Christian epic because he
did not want his readers to experience the transparency of a speech pat-
tern which would guarantee them access to the characters as ‘real’ pres-
ences. Instead he constructed a double framework of speech and writing
which would inscribe two, often conflicting, patterns of meaning within
the printed text. We do not impute an Eve-like hesitancy to God because
to do so would destabilize the entire hierarchical structure of preordi-
nation upon which our understanding of the Fall depends; but are we
then obliged to go back and re-examine our interpretative assumptions
about Eve and Satan? No, because the real ‘message’, literally inscribed,
within God’s slippage is that our understanding of the narrative of the
Fall is severely limited by the conceptual determinism of our postlapsar-
ian communicative condition – language. Julia Kristeva has claimed that
poetic language involves a form of de-subjectivity of the spoken origin,
and that ‘in this other space where the logic of speech is unsettled, the
subject is dissolved and in place of the sign is instituted the collision
of signifiers cancelling one another’ (Semiotike, p. 273). In Milton’s text
the signifiers do not cancel one another but the reader is faced with an
‘unsettling’ tension between presences which are constructs of the writ-
ten text and speech acts which grant us a partial awareness of figures
existing outside it.
58 Graphic Poetics

It could be argued that Milton’s deployment of the conflicting patterns

of written and spoken language is consistent with his intention, to which
Stanley Fish gave emphasis in Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost
(1967); that the difficulties encountered when reading the poem are mani-
festations and consequences of our share of the post-lapsarian legacy, that
the reader should be self-consciously aware of his inability to stabilize the
inconsistencies of the poem and that such an awareness is a reminder that
any form of ‘understanding’ of the cosmic design is partial and limited
within our own ‘fallen’ perceptual and communicative realm. So rather
than seeing or hearing God, Satan, Adam, Eve or even Milton through
their utterances, what we actually experience is a struggle between the
desire to mediate truth and the refractory, arbitrary nature of the medium
that reflects our own existential condition. We can distinguish between
the character and the text but we are never entirely certain of how to dis-
tinguish textual signification from prelinguistic truth. Milton’s figures
inhabit the frame of the artefact, and like their counterparts in a picture it
is difficult to release them from their representational condition. We can
make them speak and project this pattern on to a real or imagined pres-
ence but we are also aware that we have left a significant element of them
within the structure of the text. Milton’s use of silent poetics contributed
to his broader objective of forcing the reader to re-examine his complacent
assumptions regarding the relation between language, signification and
truth. But until the end of the eighteenth century blank-verse, writers cau-
tiously guarded against the use of silent poetics in the Georgic and lyric
forms (see my Silence and Sound for a detailed study of eighteenth-century
blank verse, particularly its use by Blake). This is understandable because
in a poem where the single voice and presence of the poet is the dominant
orientational feature, the effect of fusing the material artefact with the liv-
ing vocalization would be self-contradictory. Such an effect is something
that we would more readily associate with the uncertainties and fragmen-
tations of modernism. But its lyric realization predates modernism and,
moreover, succeeds in bringing us closer to, rather than dispersing, the
presence of the poet.

Wordsworth and Williams

Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
The Poet in the Poem 59

Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
(Wordsworth, ‘Tintern Abbey’, 11. 4–8)

Isobel Armstrong (1978) and Antony Easthope (1983) note that there
are crucial ambiguities at the terminal words ‘impress’ and ‘connect’.
‘Connect’ could refer to an unbroken unity of panorama, ‘the cliffs con-
nect the landscape to the sky’, and it could also refer to the process of
mediation, ‘I connect the landscape with the quiet of the sky.’ Similarly,
with ‘impress’, there is a momentary hesitation between the cliffs literally
imposing upon the landscape (a typical eighteenth-century inversion) and
the revelation that the cliffs impress ‘thoughts of deep seclusion’ upon
Wordsworth himself. Both commentators identify these ambiguities as,
in Ingarden’s terms, part of the ‘illusion’ of the intentional object which
grants us access to a speaking presence behind it; Armstrong proposing
the text as an example of the tendency of Romantic syntax to effect ‘trans-
formations in perception and relationship’ (p. 263) and Easthope as an
example of parataxis, ‘the juxtaposed syntax of speech’ (p. 127). There
are indeed two syntactic patterns and, as Easthope puts it, they are jux-
taposed, but the spoken pattern is juxtaposed within the silent, graphic
fabric of the verse form. Yet, had these critics based their readings upon
their reception of the spoken text, without any reference to its written
form, they would not have been able to discern the complex interweav-
ing of two patterns of meaning. In spoken performance it is inevitable
that the rhetorical centre of the passage moves towards ‘Do I behold’, and
however much the performer might attempt to emphasize the ambiguous
pauses after ‘impress’ and ‘connect’ a cognitive framework dominated by
the presence of the speaker will impose a hierarchy of responses in which
it is the speaker who is responding to the ‘impress(ion)’ and who goes on
to ‘connect’, while the possibilities of the cliffs impressing upon the land-
scape and connecting it with the sky move quietly into the interpretative
background. But when also read with the eye the isolation of ‘impress’
first makes us aware of the potential for closure and completion in line
six, and a residual sense of disorientation transfers itself to the similarly
isolated ‘connect’ even before the reading eye has moved, to the left,
to the beginning of the next line and, to the right, through the quali-
fying phrase ‘thoughts of more deep seclusion’. Thus the printed, static
artefact operates, like the painting, as the point at which the material of
representation is inserted between the reader/viewer and the speaker/
painter. Wordsworth reveals himself both as the instinctive axis between
60 Graphic Poetics

impression and speech and as the contemplative draughtsman inscribing

this moment of spontaneity in the visual artefact of the poem.
In 1971 Christopher Ricks published an essay called ‘Wordsworth:
“A Pure Organic Pleasure from the Lines” ’ in which he acknowledges a
close intertextual relation between Wordsworth’s use of ‘white space’ and
its very similar deployment by Milton. This foregrounding of impersonal
textuality can hardly be regarded as a continuous feature of his blank-verse
technique, but when it does appear it is so striking and conspicuous that we
become aware of silent poetics as a phenomenon which predates, indeed
transcends, its modernist context.
For instance, a vocal performance of the following lines from Home at
Grasmere (11. 574–7) creates a very different order of stylistic and referential
constituents from those which become apparent in a silent, visual reading:

Dreamlike the blending of the whole

Harmonious landscape; all along the shore
The boundary lost, the line invisible
That parts the image from reality.

When we hear these lines we quickly marginalize their concrete materi-

ality as language and visualize a sense of sky, sea and land merging into
a ‘dreamlike whole’, the ‘line’ of the horizon having become ‘invisible’
and creating an ‘image’ of what is ‘real’. But when their visual presence
remains before us we become more acutely aware of how the word ‘whole’,
through its isolation, shifts between substantive and adjectival categories:
it both completes the line and re-engages with a broader interlineal move-
ment. Having registered this interface between text and referent we begin
to suspect that the ‘lost boundary’ and the ‘invisible line’ are, in the most
concrete sense, self-referential because in spoken performance the bound-
ary between ‘whole’ and ‘Harmonious’ is indeed ‘lost’ and the ‘line’ which
parts the ‘Dreamlike . . . whole’ from the ‘whole harmonious landscape’ is,
in its phonic identity, ‘invisible’. To the question of why Wordsworth would
wish to create this effect one might answer that, like Williams, he wanted
the poetic artefact to become part of the experience represented, rather
than an ephemeral spoken event, which is all too easily displaced by the
ability of the hearer to move beyond the words to the imagined experience
that brought them into existence. In doing so the poet is not excluded by
the refractory, transformational nature of the communicative circuit, but
carried through it as a presence which cannot be detached from the per-
manent, static artefact.
The Poet in the Poem 61

There is evidence that Wordsworth actually acknowledges the influence

of Milton in his own visual – auditory disjunctions. Consider the following
lines from the Excursion (VII, 491–8):

What terror doth it strike into the mind

To think of one, blind and alone, advancing
Straight toward some precipice’s airy brink!
But timely warned, he would have stayed his steps,
Protected, say enlightened, by his ear;
And on the very edge of vacancy
Not more endangered than a man whose eye
Beholds the gulf beneath.

Thomas Sheridan considered another ‘one, blind and alone’ who, in the
moving soliloquy of Book III of Paradise Lost (11. 40–2), contemplated the
limits of his condition:

Thus with the year

Seasons return, but not to me returns

Sheridan observed that the line ending ‘stops you unexpectedly, and strikes
the imagination with the immensity of his loss. He can no more see – what? –
Day! – Day and all its glories rush into the mind . . . ’ (II, pp. 246–7). With
this in mind Wordsworth’s evocation of the blind man approaching the
cliff edge with only his ear for guidance is strikingly similar to the notion
of the blind poet advancing towards the precipice of the line ‘Protected,
say enlightened, by his ear’. Sheridan responds to the poignancy of his own
ability to ‘see’ the visual isolation of the signifier ‘Day’, from which, in its
prelinguistic form, Milton is permanently excluded. Sheridan becomes the

whose eye
Beholds the gulf beneath.

It is tempting to dismiss these correspondences as accidental: could the

founder of Romantic lyricism really have anticipated e. e. cummings’s tech-
nique of making the visual materiality of language the theme as well as the
functional condition of the poem? Can we seriously accept that the ‘preci-
pice’, the ‘brink’, the ‘vacancy’ create both the referential image of the cliff
62 Graphic Poetics

and enact a self-referential pattern as our eye follows the visual structure of
the poem? Could it be that the blind walker who ‘timely warned’ . . . ‘would
have stayed his steps’ is united with the poet who counts out his progress
towards the line ending by a form of measurement generally known as
‘feet’? John Walker, who dismissed Milton’s visual format as irrelevant to
spoken pattern, observed: ‘But have we not reason to suspect, that the eye
puts a cheat on the ear, by making us imagine a pause to exist, where there
is only a vacancy to the eye’ (Elements of Elocution, 1781, p. 212). Walker,
without intending to, has come upon the ingenuity of Wordsworth’s lines.
The eye does indeed put a cheat upon the ear to the extent that, like cum-
mings’s falling leaf, the transcendent, ideational image of the spoken form
is challenged by our ocular contemplation of the language, and indeed
of its creator, moving towards the brink, the vacancy of the line ending.
The poet is both the source of the ephemeral spoken medium and, like
the painter, within the static artefact. Walker again on the experience of
reaching the line ending: ‘The . . . reader cannot at first prevail on himself
to follow him [the poet], but finds himself stopped at the end of the line as
if terminated by a precipice’ (A Rhetorical Grammar, p. 333).
Williams in his essay on, e. e. cummings’s ‘Paintings and Poems’ (1954),
observes of cummings’s short and virtually incomprehensible ‘nonsun blob
a’ that, as a fellow poet, he does not need to understand cummings’s words
as an ideational diagram. It is enough to feel the presence of cummings
within something which, whatever it might mean, is certainly a poetic struc-
ture: ‘Therefore it is a poem and not for anything the lines say’ (Dijkstra,
p. 236). His most revealing disclosure comes when he refers to the sense
both of freedom and control which the poet feels when he moves with his
words across the page. ‘It is marvellous to be so intoxicatedly loosed along
the page. We (as all poets feel) are free to cut diagonally across the page as
if it were a field of daisies to lie down among them when the sun is shining
“to loaf at our ease” ’ (Dijkstra, p. 236). Even in Williams’s prose simile we
find a sense of the poem as being simultaneously about something (walking
through a field?) and incorporating that experience within its own phys-
ical, non-referential structure, and we cannot help but recall Wordsworth’s
deployment of the ‘precipice’ of the line ending to evoke movement towards
the precipice of the cliff and his use of the ‘line’ as both a reference to the
material structure of the poem and to the image of the dissolved horizon.
Williams’s most telling acknowledgement of the poetic line as a phenom-
enon which slips between the referential and the material functions of lan-
guage occurs not in his criticism but in a poem from his later collection,
Pictures from Brueghel. The title of ‘Some Simple Measures in the American
The Poet in the Poem 63

Idiom and the Variable Foot’ signals that the poem will engage directly
with the process of its composition. The following is section II, ‘Perpetuum

To all the girls

of all ages
who walk up and down on

the streets of this town

silent or gabbing

their feet down

one before the other
one two

one two they

pause sometimes before
a store window and

reform the line

from here
to China everywhere

back and
forth and back and forth
and back and forth.

If we ‘read through’ this poem to its ideational picture we lose a significant

amount of its multidimensional visual effect. Williams, in describing the
movements of the girls, is himself ‘putting . . . feet down / one before the
other’, and the extent to which he interweaves the self-referential pattern
with the ideational meaning produces a curiously pleasant effect of disori-
entation. In the sequence where

pause sometimes before
a store window and

reform the line

64 Graphic Poetics

the word ‘they’ refers both to the girls and to the fact that the (variable)
feet of the poem literally cause us to ‘pause sometimes before’ the word
‘pause’ appears. The reference to the ‘store window’ shifts the attention
of the reader out again beyond the materiality of the poem, but before we
can establish a hierarchy of responses we find ourselves contemplating the
‘line’ as it is ‘reformed’ both by the hand of the poet and by the movement
of the girls. The reader is literally drawn

back and
forth and back and forth
and back and forth

between an engagement with the physical presence of the poem on the

page and the naturalized images of the girls on the street.

Brisure, Relativity and Strangeness on a Train

The Milton-Wordsworth-Williams correspondence has profound impli-
cations both for our conception of the relationship between spoken and
written poetry, and for the significance of free verse as something more
than an adjustment of the traditional paradigms of poetic form. What all
three concede is that the act of writing involves a poet in the mental and,
to a degree, physical occupation of the medium. The poet is free to allow
his line to break into syntax or to follow the rhetorical flow of the lan-
guage, and the length and rhythmic structure of one line in relation to
another is infinitely variable. What is not variable is the fact that the line
must end and the poet must move back to the left-hand side of the page.
This need not necessarily stop the flow of spoken language, but the written
presence of the line ending is an inescapable fact in the mind of the writer.
Linguistics does not provide us with a term to describe a phenomenon
which is continuously present to the mind of the creator of the poem, yet
which is capable of shifting between presence and absence as the poem
itself shifts between its written and spoken form, but in Of Grammatology
Jacques Derrida borrows the term brisure to account for the uneasy rela-
tionship between space and time as a supplement to the equally uneasy dis-
tinction between writing and speech. Derrida preys upon Roger Laporte:

You have, I suppose, dreamt of finding a single word for designating

difference and articulation. I have perhaps located it by chance in Robert’s
(Dictionary) if I play on the word or rather indicate its double meaning.
This word is brisure (joint, break) ‘– broken, cracked part. CF. breach,
The Poet in the Poem 65

crack, fracture, fault, split, fragment, (brèche, cassure, fracture, faille, fente,
fragment.) – Hinged articulation of two parts of wood – or metal work. The
hinge, the brisure (folding-joint) of a shutter. CF. joint’ . . . (p. 65)

The brisure of the poetic line allows the poet to break into the movement of
the speech pattern without necessarily destroying its continuity, and at the
same time to create an alternative pattern which is permanently inscribed
within the static, printed text. Williams’s best-known and most closely ana-
lysed ex-cathedra reflection on poetic structure occurs in ‘On Measure –
Statement for Cid Corman’.1 This statement is, to say the least, enigmatic.
Williams considers what has happened to free verse in the 40 years since
its emergence as an alternative to formal regularity, and concludes, if the
statement can be said to have a conclusion, that twentieth-century poetics
has failed to produce a ‘measure’ which in any way parallels or corresponds
to the revolutions in society, science, self-image that are the challenging
and recognizable fruits of the ‘modern’. The most striking thing about the
essay is its similarity to the comments of the early anti-free verse critics. He
laments the lack of any new formal code which might sustain the modern-
ist poetic as an alternative to the ‘frozen’ conventions of traditionalism:

It is all over the page at the mere whim of the man who has composed it.
This will not do. Certainly an art which implies a discipline as the poem
does, a rule, a measure, will not tolerate it. There is no measure to guide
us, no recognisable measure. (p. 409)

Williams’s alternative to this state of revolutionary ill discipline is intrigu-

ing more in what it tantalizingly implies than for what it actually says. First
he echoes, or rather anticipates, the observations of W. J. T. Mitchell on
how the language of perception is capable of limiting and effectively deter-
mining what we actually perceive. He claims, approvingly, that modern
verse has lost ‘all measure’ in the purely mathematical sense of being able
to count the syllables of a line, but his complaint is against its failure to have
generated fresh perceptual protocols which might account for how the new
formal conventions, or lack of them, interrelate with what the poem actu-
ally says – in a broader context he is encouraging a search for an alternative
to the conventional double pattern. As a means of guiding this search for a
new perceptual balance between form (as he puts it ‘discipline’) and mean-
ing he borrows a term from twentieth-century physics:

Relativity gives us the cue. So, again, mathematics comes to the rescue
of the arts. Measure, an ancient word in poetry, something we have
66 Graphic Poetics

almost forgotten in its literal significance as something measured,

becomes related again to the poetic. We have today to do with the
poetic, as always, but a relatively stable foot, not a rigid one. That is all
the difference. It is that which must become the object of our search . . .
(p. 409)

The ‘relatively stable foot’ also came to be known as the ‘variable foot’, a
paradoxical phenomenon which neither Williams nor any commentator
on his work has succeeded in resolving. How can something be ‘variable’
when the two points of reference which are supposed to account for its
existence, the fundamental cognitive pattern of language and the formal
structure of poetry, are equally flexible and contingent? I have already
argued that this fugitive ideal of stability can be located in the relation
between the static phenomenon of the printed text and the temporal
movement of language which registers as a form of counterpoint between
what the reader sees and hears, and there is circumstantial evidence that
Williams’s enthusiasm for relativity is indeed fuelled by an awareness of a
fruitful tension between stasis and movement in language. Mike Weaver in
William Carlos Williams (1971) argues that Williams’s concept of the ‘vari-
able foot’ originated in the 1920s from his interest in the interdisciplin-
ary relations between physics, mathematics and phenomenology. In 1926
Williams proposed to his friend John Riordan that they should collaborate
on a study of ‘modern prosody’ – a project which, sadly, never materialized.
Riordan was, by profession, an engineer who later published several books
on mathematics, and it was his interest in the connection between rela-
tivity and the new theories of poetry which prompted Williams to suggest
the collaborative project. According to Weaver the book which had a most
profound influence upon Williams, and which he and Riordan discussed,
was Charles Proteus Steinmetz’s Four Lectures on Relativity and Space (1923).
Steinmetz offers a practical illustration of the relative dimensions of spa-
tial form and temporal duration by asking the reader to imagine himself
outside, and an aquaintance inside, a stationary train. While the train is
stationary, their measurements of its length will be the same, but when the
train moves the measurement of it by the observer will change, whereas the
passengers’ measurement will remain consistent with its stationary length.
Weaver comments:

If the poet was analogous to the person riding the train and the reader
analogous to the observer beside the track, it was clear that according to
the theory of relativity the length of track (the line of verse) and the
The Poet in the Poem 67

elapsement of time (the measure) were relative to their conditions of

observation. There could in fact, be no ‘true’ length of line, nor a ‘true’
duration of time. These depended upon the relative speed of the moving
body, in this case the projected voice of the poet. The length and dur-
ation, therefore, of a line was variable and not constant . . . (p. 49)

In projecting Steinmetz’s theory to Williams’s conception of the ‘variable

foot’ Weaver is guilty of a slight misinterpretation. Steinmetz’s illustration
of relativity depends upon the distinction between stasis and movement,
but Weaver argues that in its adaptation to the verse line the reader’s per-
ception of variability is entirely dependent upon the speed of the reading
voice. I would contend that the true effect of the variable foot is much
closer to Steinmetz’s model, except that for the reader of the printed
poem the relative distinction between sequential movement and spatial
stasis registers simultaneously. When we read, either silently or aloud but
with a copy of the printed poem before our eyes, we experience both the
progressive movement of language and its static visual configurations.
In an important sense we go beyond Weaver’s notion of the ‘projected
voice of the poet’ because, at least in the localized range of two or three
lines, the linguistic sequence is both complete and unfinished. Again
we should return to the inter-aesthetic relation between poet/poem and
painter/painting. The pretext of Jakobson’s insistence upon the poem as
an ephemeral, vocal performance which transcends the concrete pres-
ence of the text is that our ideational picture of the events described
is supplemented by the living presence of their original perceiver, or at
least his recreation in speech. The problem with this model is that both
poet and poem run the risk of being displaced by the reader’s act of
naturalization, but with formal relativity we experience both the act of
creation, or at least its fictive form in the progress of speech, and the
completed artefact whose spatial relations are, as Sheridan put it, ‘pre-
sented to the eye in one view, as a coexistent whole’. The most significant,
though unacknowledged, element of Weaver’s adaptation of the train–
poetic line analogy is that, in being the person on the train, the poet
actually becomes part of the means of representation. As Williams put
it, he ‘moves with his words across the page’, but since his words are ‘on the
page’ he is permanently inscribed within the structure of signification.
The notion of language as something which both incorporates the pres-
ence of the poet and operates independently as an arbitrary medium
involves the uneasy co-presence of traditional ‘intentionalist’ poetics
with more recent emphases upon textuality. And again we encounter a
68 Graphic Poetics

potential conflict between the powerful determinants of critical theory

and the actual experience of reading. One of the effects of the much
debated post-structuralist engagement with the speech-writing interplay
is the emergence of a kind of interpretative formula: writing involves
absence, the ideal of the transparent communicative medium is compro-
mised and the ‘addressee’ becomes isolated in an endless shuffle along
the impersonal and autonomous surface of language; speech guaran-
tees presence, the addressee experiences, or imagines, the origin of the
medium in the tangible humanity of the speaker–signifier and signified
are magically fused. It has been the purpose of this chapter to show that
such a formula can itself be deconstructed, not by alternative theoretical
programmes, but by poetry itself. It was the fear of absence, of the inde-
pendent signifying structures of the written text, which caused Woodford
and Sheridan to turn away from Eve’s graphic patterns of signification.
But Milton, Wordsworth and Williams demonstrate that it is possible to
draw the reader into a productive engagement with the material of lan-
guage while maintaining the presence of its originator within the silent
but by no means impersonal configurations of writing.
Williams’s most challenging engagements with formal relativity occur in
Pictures from Brueghel, but I shall end this chapter with another example of
how his poetry can dispel the enigmas and uncertainties of his ex- cathedra
battles with the formulae of critical perception. The following is from
Book II of Paterson:

Without invention nothing is well spaced

unless the mind change, unless
the stars are new measured, according
to their relative positions, the
line will not change, the necessity
will not matriculate: unless there is
a new mind there cannot be a new
line, the old will go on
repeating itself with recurring
deadliness: without invention
nothing lies under the witch-hazel
bush, the alder does not grow from among
the hummocks margining the all
but spent channel of the old swale,
the small foot prints
of the mice under the overhanging
The Poet in the Poem 69

tufts of the bunch grass will not

appear: without invention the line
will never again take on its ancient divisions
when the word, a supple word,
lived in it, crumbled now to chalk.

The ‘self-referential’ is something which has featured prominently in recent

interpretative theory, but rarely can there have been such an instance of
a poem about poetry which offers such a threat to our preconceptions of
what happens when we read it. Between hearing and seeing this poem
there is no alteration in the words themselves, but there is most certainly
a change in our awareness of what Williams is doing with them. When we
hear ‘Without invention nothing is well spaced / unless the mind change,
unless / the stars are new measured, according / to their relative positions
the / line will not change’, we encounter a bewildering sequence of non
sequiturs. Whose mind is it that must change; the inventor’s or the per-
ceiver’s, the poet who will change the line or the reader who will register
this change, perhaps like Einstein who ‘changed’ modern perceptions of
the cosmology? The answer is both. Later in the poem we come across

without invention
nothing lies under the witch-hazel

This is a repetition of the opening phrase, ‘without invention nothing’. The

words have not changed, but we are aware that Williams is at work upon
them. By changing the visual format we find that ‘nothing’, literally ‘lies
under’ the graphemes of ‘invention’, but our eye moves on to connect this
signification of absence with the ‘witch-hazel / bush’. It is almost as though
we are watching Williams at work. He thinks again about his own maxim
‘without invention nothing’ and perhaps his decision to place the final
word below the first two, to make it as he put it ‘well spaced’, prompts him
to connect this perceptual–aesthetic problem with the images of growth
and regeneration in the natural world. And his next decision, made per-
haps with self-conscious irony, is to place the ‘bush’ literally under its spe-
cific predicate. This is not simply linguistic play. He is inviting us to follow
him through his own sense of interaction between what language means,
its ability to displace itself, and its tactile presence on the page as units,
graphemes, whose presence is not merely a dimension of a transparent
medium but something that must be felt and negotiated. He draws the
70 Graphic Poetics

reader into a double (twofold) encounter with the language itself and with
the world both created and reflected by the language. The two continua
are not parallel or even complementary, but they are indissoluble:

the small foot prints

of the mice

are like the words of the poem. They are not the presence of the mice, nor
even a representation of their presence. They are an imprint of their exis-
tence. And in the same way the placing of


at the line ending and the delicate positioning of


which paradoxically ‘appears’ following the line which tells us that it ‘will
not’, are the imprints of William Carlos Williams. It is impossible to deal
with the graphic structures of this poem in the way that we are accustomed
to naturalize acoustic patterns as contributory elements to an ideational,
referential meaning. They are not mimetic in the conventional sense, but
they succeed in granting us access to the presence of Williams working
within the materiality of language. We know what he means by ‘the line
will never again take on its ancient divisions,’ and we can also see him as
‘inventor’ disposing the actual ‘lines’ and ‘divisions’ of the printed text.
In the same way we know that Milton is referring both to his own pre-
linguistic experience of blindness yet inscribing his presence within the
structure which has the grapheme ‘Day’ return, not to him, but to the
beginning of the next line.
The relation between the ideational and the referential functions of lan-
guage points us towards the real meaning of formal ‘relativity’. In the tra-
ditional model of poet-text-reader the communicative ideal is founded upon
speech as guaranteeing the co-presence of poet-speaker and addressee.
The text is ephemeral, a medium, a method of transference. I would argue
that this model compromises the ideal of experiential sharing in just the
same way that we have been taught, unjustly, to regard writing as the
source of uncertainty, fragmentation and betrayal. The acoustic message
is almost immediately dispersed among the expectations, preconditions
and intertextual residues that exist in the mind of the hearer. But in the
The Poet in the Poem 71

silent contemplation of the text we find ourselves locked into the poet’s
struggle with the medium and the message. The spoken pattern is still
there, but it is no longer something that can be transcended by our specu-
lative notions of what brought it into existence. We see it being brought
into existence as we follow the hand of the poet across the traps, indeci-
sions and perceptual uncertainties that will be frozen into the graphic for-
mat of the text. We will never know precisely what the poet felt or what the
poet means, but, to adapt Weaver’s analogy, we can see the person on the
train. The train, like spoken language, will leave the station and the author
will go with it, but the poetic line is both present and absent. We hear it
and it disappears, but when we both hear it and see it we experience the
relativistic co-presence of an event and a permanently inscribed record of
that event.
Milton, Wordsworth and Williams create in their poetry a series of effects
that criticism finds difficult to accommodate even within the apparently
unbounded regions of post-structuralism. Derrida has turned the speech-
writing relationship into an interpretative minefield. In Of Grammatology he
quotes Hegel: ‘The visible language is related only as a sign to the audible
language; intelligence expresses itself immediately and unconditionally
through speech’ and comments: ‘What writing itself in its non-phonetic
moment, betrays, is life. It menaces at once, the breath, the spirit, and his-
tory as the spirit’s relationship with itself (p. 25). Later, in the third chap-
ter, he postulates a ‘necessary decentring’, a ‘dislocation of the founding
categories of language, through access to another system linking speech
and writing’. This system is not philosophic but poetic. ‘This is the mean-
ing of the work of Fenellosa [sic] whose influence upon Ezra Pound and
his poetics is well known: this irreducibly graphic poetics was, with that of
Mallarmé, the first break in the most entrenched western tradition’ (p. 92).
He is wrong on several points. Writing might well menace the breath, the
spirit, but in the hands of certain poets – two of them writing long before
the modernist ‘break’ – it can also unite us with, rather than betray, the
‘life’ of the poet. As we shall find in the following chapter the early pro-
ponents of free verse shared, and feared, Derrida’s conception of graphic
poetics as ‘irreducible’ and it would require Williams and cummings to
prove otherwise.
Derrida’s inaccuracies have been perpetuated even by those who are
uncomfortable with his theoretical legacy. Denis Donoghue in Ferocious
Alphabets calls post-structuralists graphireaders: ‘From GREEK graphos,
writing. Hence the graphireader deals with writing as such and does not
think of it as transcribing an event properly construed as vocal or audible.’
72 Graphic Poetics

Donoghue opposes graphireaders with what he calls epireaders, who ‘read

or interpret – the same act – in the hope of going through the words to
something that the words both reveal and hide. . . . Epireaders say to poems:
I want to hear you. Graphireaders say: I want to see what I can do, stimu-
lated by your insignia’ (pp. 151–2). It is the poets, rather than the critics,
who prove that an ‘event’ that is neither vocal nor audible can indeed be
savoured, that in order to disclose ‘something that the words both reveal
and hide’ we do not have to ‘go through’ the text, but rather to experi-
ence what happens within its graphic pattern, and there we find ourselves
united with the poet, the stranger on the train.
Chapter 5

Modernism: Two Versions of

Free Verse

Visual form, unlike most other genres and techniques of poetic writing,
lacks a discernible aesthetic or cultural context. The conditions for its
emergence in the verse of Milton and Wordsworth were created by a series
of accidents and largely unplanned mutations of techniques: they found
themselves working at the interface between a familiar formula for poetic
design, the iambic pentameter, and the largely uncharted compositional
territory of a line that can shift between the acoustic and graphic dimen-
sions of signification. This chapter will provide a more detailed examina-
tion of the growth of visual technique within and beyond the objectives
and conventions of the early free-verse poets. It is all too easy to associate
the visual poem with modernism, but as we shall see, the verse of its two
most prolific practitioners, cummings and Williams, involved them in a
rejection of a number of the major ideals and assumptions at the heart of
the Imagist manifesto. We have already seen how visual form can provide
us with an unprecedented counterpart to the regular acoustic double pat-
tern, and, paradoxically, cummings and Williams succeeded in returning
the free-verse revolution to a condition of self-conscious formalism that it
had attempted to shake off. But in their deployment of silent poetics they
also invested free verse with something it had previously lacked – a sense
of the medium and its conventions as embodying a complex formal and
aesthetic design, something that both poet and reader must control and
negotiate in order to achieve a point of contact.

Ernest Fenollosa and the Metaphysics of Absence

Ernest Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry was
edited by Ezra Pound and published in 1919. It has since come to be
regarded as one of the monuments to change in literary history. Pound
74 Graphic Poetics

subtitled it an ‘Ars Poetica’ and Donald Davie has compared it with Sidney’s
Apologie, Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads and Shelley’s Defence of Poetry
(Davie, 1955, p. 33). I shall argue that, although the essay had very little dir-
ect influence upon the early writers of free verse, it foregrounds a paradox
of formal aesthetics and interpretation which remains unresolved.
Fenollosa claimed that the Chinese written sign, the ideogram, was cap-
able of representing images, metaphors and natural processes in a way
which bypasses the systematic, successive protocols of Western language.
If, using Western language, we wish to convey the relationship between
two objects, the movements or even the attitude of one thing or person in
relation to another, our link points are provided by the grammatical struc-
tures in which verbs, adjectives and connectives enact a representation of
reality. Fenollosa regarded this form of expression and representation as
being limited and confined by its temporal, successive structure. The alter-
native offered by the ideogram would allow us to present the relationship
between the objects perceived not successively, but simultaneously, as sin-
gle acts of vision. In fact he offered the possibility of reconciling the func-
tional and representational polarity of Lessing’s model of poetry and the
visual arts. He demonstrates:

Man Sees Horse

人 見 馬

First stands the man on two legs. Second, his eye moves through space: a
bold figure represented by running legs under an eye, a modified pic-
ture of an eye, a modified picture of running legs but unforgettable once
you have seen it. Third stands the horse on his four legs.
The thought picture is not only called up by these signs as well as by
words but far more vividly and concretely. Legs belong to all three char-
acters: they are alive. The group holds something of the quality of a con-
tinuous moving picture . . . (p. 140)

Leaving aside for a moment the question of how spatial juxtaposition could
be adapted to the conventions of grammar, there is clearly a close cor-
respondence between Fenollosa’s aesthetic of representing the complex
interrelationships of the prelinguistic world and the objectives of the early

Williams (1908), ‘To paint the thing as I see it’.

F. S. Flint (1913), ‘Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or
Modernism: Two Versions of Free Verse 75

Pound (1913), ‘An “Image” is that which presents an intellectual and

emotional complex in an instance of time.’

Each of these statements posits the presence of the poet and a phenomenon
which is clearly not the poem as a material artefact, but more its condition
as a transparent medium which grants both poet and reader access to the
prelinguistic ‘thing’ or ‘image’. In one sense, then, it is possible to under-
stand why the ideogram presented such attractive possibilities to Pound
since, as Fenollosa argues, it presents us with a fusion of spatial and tem-
poral events which Western language submits to the deterministic and lim-
iting conventions of succession and linearity; in the ideogram the message
seems almost to transcend the medium. But at the same time the ideogram
is a representational picture. It might bypass the restrictive conventions of
language, but it also displaces the presence and individuality of its creator.
Here we face the paradox: spoken language is the ultimate guarantee of
the presence and sincerity of the poet, yet as Fenollosa implies, the only
means by which the poet can realize the ideal of representing the multidi-
mensional continuum of external reality is by recourse to the silent, visual
medium which can only operate effectively in his absence.
It could be argued that cummings’s falling leaf is the nearest that
Western language can come to a realization of Fenollosa’s notion of the
‘transparency of the moving picture’. Indeed, our experience of actually
seeing the leaf falling could almost be a response to Fenollosa’s example of
how the ideogrammic representation of ‘Man Sees Horse’ allows us to per-
ceive a multidimensional state of presence and movement. But cummings’s
method of dispersing and fragmenting the continuities of successive, spo-
ken language – a technique which first emerged in his volume Tulips and
Chimneys (1923) – is a representational process to which the early apolo-
gists for free verse were obsessively opposed.
One notes the insistent, almost urgent, tightening of Amy Lowell’s prose
style when she comes to consider the relation between the formal techni-
calities of free verse and its aesthetic enactment as speech:

But one thing must be borne in mind; a cadenced poem is written to be

read aloud, in this way only will its rhythm be felt. Poetry is a spoken and
not a written art. . . . It is not a question of rules and forms. Poetry is the
vision in a man’s soul which he translates as best he can with the means
at his disposal.1

The subtext is clear enough. The ‘rules and forms’ of traditionalism are in
alliance with the ‘written art’, and it is only through the opposing alliance
76 Graphic Poetics

of the ‘spoken’ with ‘the vision in a man’s soul’ that verse will realize its
objective of formal transparency.
The notion of the written text as a temporary record of the living voice
is given a somewhat exaggerated priority by T. E. Hulme:

It would be different if poetry, like acting and dancing, were one of the
arts of which no record can be kept, and which must be repeated for
each generation. The actor has not to feel the competition of the dead as
the poet has. Personally I am of course in favour of the complete destruc-
tion of all verse more than twenty years old.2

What Hulme means is that the spoken poem, like the theatrical perform-
ance or the dance, is capable of challenging ‘the competition of the dead’
by creating a fusion of living presence and representational immediacy.
The written poem is complicit in the displacement or ‘death’ of the poet by
the enduring artefact. And we should note the close relationship between
Hulme’s creative impulse and Jakobson’s interpretative premise of the ‘dis-
appearance’ of the phonic integers.
The correspondences between spoken performance, presence and for-
mal transparency underpin Lowell’s and Monroe’s reliance upon the
musical analogy as a formal validation of free verse, and again we find con-
nections between these arguments and the conjectures of Rice, Walker and
Steele in the eighteenth century. Lowell located the origin of the free-verse
cadence in ‘the rhythmic curve . . . corresponding roughly to the neces-
sity of breathing’. She might have been paraphrasing Joshua Steele ‘Our
breathing, the beating of our pulse, and our movements in walking, make
the division of time by pointed and regular cadences familiar and natural to
us’ (p. 20). Lowell continues this natural analogy and relates the organic
structure of the poem to the prelinguistic rhythm of the body by claiming
that the formal conventions of poetry – the foot, the line and the strophe –
are determined not by abstract formulae but by their more instinctive rela-
tion with the movement of walking, and concludes that the ‘poem must be
rounded and recurring as the circular swing of the balanced pendulum’.3
Steele stated that he had based his methodology of analysis ‘neither on
hypothesis nor on antient authorities’, but ‘by actual experiment – by a
pendulum or by my steps’ (p. 20).
Harriet Monroe on ‘Dr. Patterson’s Researches’ similarly locates the
rhythmic movement of the poem as corresponding to the movement of
the body, ‘every object moves rhythmically. . . . All life is governed by heart
beats, and the arts are man’s effort to respond to the universal impulse, his
Modernism: Two Versions of Free Verse 77

effort to create movement in time, or to mark off colour rhythms and space
rhythms in patterns which suggest that movement’ (p. 285).
It would seem that free verse should incorporate the multidimensional
immediacy of the visual image, but at the same time transcend the mater-
ial presence of the artefact in order to guarantee the living presence of the
poet/speaker. In a footnote to his edition of Fenollosa’s essay Pound tells of
how the sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska was able to naturalize ideograms without
the assistance of their linguistic counterparts, but Pound cautiously avoids
any reference to the fact that his friend can only experience this phenom-
enon because the ideogram bears a closer resemblance to representational
art, which operates in the absence of its creator, than it does to spoken per-
formance. The two representational media of Lessing’s formulation would
seem to remain irreconcilable, but T. E. Hulme in his ‘Lecture on Modern
Poetry’ comes closest to offering a theoretical point of closure between the
auditory allegiances of the free-verse theorists and the silent materiality of
visual art.

A Third Theory of Counterpoint

First Hulme considers the effect of the double pattern of traditional form:

The older art was originally a religious incantation: it was made to

express oracles and maxims in an impressive manner, and rhyme and
metre were used as aids to the memory. . . .
The effect of rhythm, like that of music, is to produce a kind of hyp-
notic state, during which suggestions of grief or ecstasy are easily and
powerfully effective. . . .4

Here he invokes, respectively, the arguments for the maintenance of an

audible double pattern offered by Dryden and Coleridge. Rhythm, metre
and rhyme are arbitrary structures, but in a variety of ways they provide the
referential function of the poem with the supportive presence of a second-
ary musical pattern. However,

the procedure of the new visual art is just the contrary. It depends for
its effect not on a kind of half sleep produced, but on arresting the
attention, so much that the succession of visual images should exhaust
one. . . . This material, the υλη of Aristotle, is image and not sound. It
builds up a plastic image which it hands over to the reader, whereas the
78 Graphic Poetics

old art endeavoured to influence him physically by the hypnotic effect

of rhythm.5

This statement holds itself open to serious misinterpretation. By shifting the

emphasis from the auditory materiality of the double pattern to the visual
image Hulme is not arguing that the graphic material of language should
replace its sound pattern. His notion of the ‘new visual art’ is the effect
achieved when the reader decodes the language to recreate the prelinguistic
image behind it. In practical, formal terms the poetic line should be con-
structed not in accordance with a secondary sound pattern but as a ‘method
of recording visual images in distinct lines’. His own ‘succession of visual
images’ in the poem ‘Images’ (in Jones, p. 49), testifies to his intention:

Old houses were scaffolding once

and workmen whistling.

Her skirt lifted as a dark mist
From the columns of amethyst.

Sounds fluttered,
like bats in the dusk.

The flounced edge of skirt,
recoiling like waves off a cliff.

This technique could find a precedent in the work of Whitman, where

each line operates as a separate referential complex, and where a sense
of continuity is maintained not by an interlineal pattern of rhythm and
sound, but by the effect that each statement has upon those preceding and
succeeding it.
The technique found its contemporary theoretical counterpart in Amy
Lowell’s discussion of the relation between poetry and music: ‘Poetry has
one handicap; it cannot express simultaneity, and obviously, therefore,
can show nothing to match the poly-harmony and free dissonant coun-
terpoint of modern music’ (‘Some Musical Analogies. . . . ,’ p. 154). It thus
becomes a little easier to understand why the early free-versifiers felt able
to dispense with the same double pattern which their opponents held to
be the defining characteristic of poetry – for them it did not exist. From
Modernism: Two Versions of Free Verse 79

Ficke to Attridge (see Chapter 2), we can identify a belief in the simultan-
eous register of ‘two shades of stressing’ within the poetic line. But Lowell
and Pound (the latter in ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagist’, 1913) argued that
the only type of counterpoint possible was when a word, phrase or cadence
was held in the mind of the reader to be superimposed or contrasted with
a different unit following it in the temporal sequence. Lowell:

Now of course, poetry cannot make use of more than one word at a time.
But it was possible to leave a photograph of another word on the mind
which would be to some extent held while a new word was being accepted.
In that way, the mind would seem to have received two words at once.
From words, go on to sentences. (‘Some Musical Analogies . . .’, p. 154)


The term harmony is misapplied in poetry; it refers to simultaneous

sounds of different pitch. There is, however, in the best verse a sort of
residue of sound which remains in the ear of the hearer and acts more
or less as an organ base.6

In this model of free verse each line would function like a component of
the ideogram, offering the listener discrete units of linguistic structure
which, when superimposed upon each other in the listener’s mind, would
correspond to the effect of simultaneous visual synthesis and fusion. As
Hulme puts it, ‘Thought is prior to language and consists in the simul-
taneous presentation of two different images’ (in Jones, p. 32). What he
implies by this is that the material artefact of the poem is transitory and
that the long sought-after fusion of communication and experience takes
place after it has been read or heard. Jakobson states the case more pre-
cisely: ‘With regard to speech, simultaneous synthesis is a transposition of
a sequential event into a synchronous structure, whereas in the perception
of paintings such a synthesis is the nearest phenomenological approxima-
tion to the picture under contemplation’ (1987, p. 471).
A problem emerges when we compare this communicative model with
the protocols of phonic naturalization considered in Chapter 3. For the
memory-based concept of progressive and retentive reading to be valid we
must accept that the process of understanding free verse, particularly in its
early Imagist manifestations, involves two separate cognitive stages. First,
each line, cadence, phrase, will register as a separate unit; second, our
interpretative faculty will seek out not a pattern of continuity across each
80 Graphic Poetics

unit but a sequential process of isolation, juxtaposition and synthesis. The

absence of a secondary pattern of metre or regular rhyme scheme should
assist us in this process, since, as Hulme argued, these function as a major
contributory element in the suppression of individual images. But is this
how readers read poetry? Harvey Gross in his Sound and Form in Modern
Poetry (1964) demonstrates that, at least in his case, it is not. The following
is his treatment of Pound’s Imagist prototype for the Cantos, ‘In a Station
of the Metro’:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet black bough

Here ‘ideogrammatic method’ means poetry without complete sen-

tences. The absence of verb and preposition enhances both rhythm and
significance; a certain mystery evaporates if we supply the implied cop-
ula and relational word:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd

(Are like) Petals on a wet black bough

No harm comes if we want to see this as vaguely analogous to Chinese

writings; the two images have spatial and emotional relationships.
Grammar, however, is not missing; it is automatically supplied by the
reader . . . (p. 162)

Gross’s technique of phonic naturalization produces precisely the oppos-

ite effect to that which Lowell, Pound and Hulme hold to be the revolu-
tionary essence of free verse. Gross argues, by implication, that the notion
of holding the first line in the memory and superimposing it upon our
impression of the second runs against our most basic cognitive response
to language; and if the grammar is, as he puts it, ‘automatically supplied
by the reader’, then the deterministic presence of the successive pattern
of language, which Fenollosa held to be its greatest expressive restriction,
is reimposed. It would be wrong to dismiss Gross’s interpretation as an
individual case of aesthetic blindness because his use of the word ‘auto-
matic’ is based upon his awareness of our fundamental, and one might
argue intuitive, ability to demystify language through the process of lin-
guistic competence. In basic communicative exchanges our linguistic
competence enables us to restructure and thus to comprehend even the
most loosely arranged, ungrammatical statement through the normative
Modernism: Two Versions of Free Verse 81

invocation of a deep structure, which is exactly what happens when ‘we

supply the implied copula and relational word’. It is the imagined pres-
ence of a single point of origin which enables us to invoke the mechanisms
of linguistic competence, because we assume, in our invocation of the
normative deep structure, that the speaker intends to make a specific,
comprehensible point. If this person utters two sentences or composes two
poetic lines which bear no apparent grammatical or contextual relation
to one another, our impulse is to impose a pattern of sequential com-
prehensibility upon them. The safe transportation of the message over-
rules the irritating, refractory nature of the medium. But in the poems
by Milton, Wordsworth, cummings and Williams considered so far the
written artefact operates as something that cannot be so easily displaced
by our act of naturalization or demystification. If we can hear one mes-
sage and see another we cannot simply move beyond the text to a single
univocal meaning; instead we are obliged to consider the co-presence of
poet, message and text embedded within the silent configurations of the
page. As Gross demonstrates, the protocols of phonic naturalization can
be readily adapted to deal with the fragmentary structures of poems such
as ‘In a Station of the Metro’, and, as the next section will show, most of
the early examples of this new form of poetic writing submit very easily to
the dominance, the interpretative control, of phonic naturalization. The
most challenging innovatory dimension of free verse only became evident
a decade after the birth of the form. In 1923 Williams’s Spring and All and
cummings’s Tulips and Chimneys signalled the emergence of visual form
as a phenomenon that could rescue the post-traditional poem from the
dangers of interpretative displacement.

The Change
If we select free verse poems at random from the anthologies and individ-
ual volumes which appeared during the first two decades of this century
we will become aware of a structural common denominator. Poems such
as Pound’s ‘The Return’ are conspicuous because of their rarity, and in
the vast majority of early free-verse writing the space which divides one
line from another represents an alliance between the conventional rhet-
orical pause and the less easily categorizable notion of the fissure which
allows the reader to discern separate thematic keynotes. These pauses/
line divisions create the effect of listening, not to the poet’s success in
marrying his intended meaning with a predetermined abstract formula,
but to the more instinctive compositional phenomenon of thought and
82 Graphic Poetics

impression actually creating linguistic structures. ‘In a Station of the

Metro’ represents one example of this technique, in the sense that the
absence of grammatical link-words between the two lines is presumably
a structural reflection of how the separate images can exist in the mind
prior to the imposition of the deterministic framework of syntactic rela-
tions. H. D.’s ‘Oread’ creates a similar effect as each line achieves a form
of structural and thematic discreteness with the domination of five of its
six lines by the opening main verb:

Whirl up, sea –

Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines on our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.

Apart from the opening line, which establishes the sea as the subject, it
would be possible to rearrange the lineal order of the poem without doing
much damage to its tenuous framework of continuities. Patterson clas-
sified it as ‘spaced prose’ because he and Lowell were unable to locate
any form of persistent metrical pattern, but there are very few pieces of
prose in which it is possible to dislocate the progressive framework of
sense. Conrad Aiken, who reviewed the collection Some Imagist Poets 1915,
in which ‘Oread’ appeared, observed of the whole group: ‘Of organic
movement there is practically none.’ What Aiken means is that there is no
intrinsic structural mechanism which governs what he refers to as the
‘movement’ of theme and image, and as Gross was later to suggest, it is the
conditioned expectation of such a mechanism which allows or obliges the
reader to impose it.
‘Oread’ and ‘In a Station of the Metro’ are extreme examples of struc-
tural discontinuity, but even with those poems in which the grammatical
framework does create a successive interplay of themes from line to line
the link-words tend to operate within each unit rather than as active deter-
minants of what is to follow. It is virtually impossible to find a free verse
poem written before the 1920s in which a verb, adjective, pronoun, con-
nective, predicate or preposition is left isolated while the eye of the reader
moves on to connect this with the message of the succeeding line. There
are two reasons for this, and both relate to the uneasy relation between
the ideal of ideogrammic immediacy and the spoken form as a guaran-
tee of presence. First, the essentially Miltonic effect of enjambment, where
the movement of sense is literally ‘drawn out’ from the static condition of
Modernism: Two Versions of Free Verse 83

the line, draws the reader’s attention as much to the material status of the
poem as it does to the prelinguistic experience which the words represent,
and such an emphasis upon the structure of the medium rather than the
message was an anathema to the Imagist programme. Secondly, the sense
of discontinuity created by the relative isolation of one line from another
succeeds in giving the impression that we are hearing not a contrived and
structurally self-contained artefact, but a recreation of the original, uncer-
tain process of impression and thought becoming language. The following
is from Richard Aldington’s sequence ‘Epigrams’ (Some Imagist Poets 1915,
reprinted in Jones, 1972):


The beech leaves are silver

For lack of the tree’s blood.

At your kiss my lips

Become like the autumn beech leaves.

Were it not for the sense of thematic linkage granted by ‘For lack of’
and ‘Become like’, the poem would closely resemble ‘In a Station of the
Metro’, and a similar framework of naturalization is invited. The reader
is prompted to substantiate the tenuous metaphoric relations between
autumn, the draining of life from the natural world and the poet’s cryp-
tic musings on the state of his own relationship. Again we are faced
with an uneasy notion of our interpretative instinct prompting us to
intervene, to clarify something that the poet intended as fragmentary
and spontaneous. We might, at least theoretically, appreciate how the
discrete images of leaves, blood and human intimacy become superim-
posed upon one another to create the mental equivalent of the ideo-
gram, but a more powerful interpretative reflex urges us to impose upon
the poem a naturalized paraphrase of something like ‘the silver beech
leaves are a painful reminder that bloodless formality has replaced our
once natural intimacy.’ Aldington’s use of each line not as a concession
to the abstract determinants of form but as a record of a series of very
loosely connected impressions and feelings, places the reader in the
rather paradoxical situation of someone who wants to understand. The
spoken fragments enter the communicative circuit only to be supple-
mented and then effectively displaced by a prosaic formalization of what
they seem to mean.
84 Graphic Poetics

In ‘Autumn’ by T. E. Hulme we find a much more certain degree of syn-

tactic continuity than in ‘Oread’ or ‘In a Station of the Metro’, but even
here each line functions almost as a separate dimension of the speaker’s

A touch of cold in the Autumn night –

I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

In the third line Hulme recreates the experience of tentatively connecting

the moon with a human presence – it seems to ‘lean over a hedge’. The fourth
line substantiates the metaphor and the final three lines maintain a tantal-
izing balance between vehicle and tenor, with the speaker’s urge to commu-
nicate with the farmer/moon extending into the virtual displacement of the
star image by the ‘white faces like town children’. Without abandoning the
successive determinism of language, Hulme constructs something close to
the equivalent of an ideogram. The distant impersonality of the moon and
the stars is juxtaposed, rather than rigorously compared, with the human
presence of the farmer and the children. As Hulme says, the new form of
poetic writing ‘builds up a plastic image which it hands over to the reader’,
and in doing so it displaces its own presence as a physical artefact. Its exist-
ence on the page or in the ear merely effects a brief process of transference
from the mental and visual experience of the poet to that of the reader. If
we borrow Hulme’s other observation on the evanescence of poetic lan-
guage and unite it with a similar image from Yeats, the dance/poem can
only exist as part of the living presence of the dancer/poet.
So to a certain extent the early free-verse poets succeeded in effecting a
formal compromise between the ideogrammic displacement of presence
from the visual image and the sense of the spoken poem as a temporary,
ephemeral process of transference of the pre-representational image. But in
doing so they also, more by implication than by direct prescription, confined
the technical procedures of free verse within a very limited range. They had
dispensed with the auditory double pattern of regular verse, but they had
also effectively forbidden the use of formal effects which would establish the
poem as a self-referential artefact which stands between speaker and hearer.
By removing the physical barriers of poetic form in order to realize the long
Modernism: Two Versions of Free Verse 85

sought-after objective of transparency, they created a degree of textual dis-

continuity which encouraged the reader to impose an ordered framework
of understanding. Each spoken utterance generates a correspondent and
very often more powerful linguistic structure in the mind of the hearer, an
interpretative counterpart which both clarifies and often replaces the frag-
mented uncertainties of the original spoken utterance. Hugh Kenner in The
Poetry of Ezra Pound considers the following lines

Swiftly the years beyond recall

Solemn the stillness of this spring morning

and generously demystifies and dematerializes them:

Two experiences, two concretions of emotion, are juxtaposed to yield

the proportion, ‘My feelings of transcience are held in tension with my
desire to linger amid present pleasures, as the flight of time is in tension
with the loneliness of this spring morning’ . . . (p. 90)

Spring and All and Tulips and Chimneys succeed in reinstalling the material-
ity of the text between poet and listener. Kenner would find it difficult to
perform a similar naturalization of the most striking poems in these collec-
tions because a significant element of their ‘meaning’ is literally inscribed
in their graphic presence as words on the page.
As I have argued, the irregular rhythmic pattern of speech, or its more
formalized counterpart in prose, is regarded by most critics as the flexible
dimension of the traditional double pattern which is, so they argue, dis-
cernible as a counterpoint to the regularity of the metrical deep structure.
Williams and cummings construct a variety of relationships between spo-
ken irregularity and formal structure, but they do so both by taking poetic
writing a stage beyond the audible patterns of regular verse, and, perhaps
more significantly, by displacing the procedures of their modernist con-
temporaries. Both poets maintain the fragmented immediacy of Imagist
writing, but at the same time they cause the reader to be aware of the per-
manence of the medium. To place their achievement within its proper con-
text we must consider an intra-aesthetic maxim which predates Lessing by
almost two millennia and which has attained equal status as a theoretical
debating point. Plutarch attributed to Simonides of Ceos the distinction
between painting as ‘mute poetry’ and poetry as a ‘speaking picture’. The
intrinsic contradiction of this polarity has attracted as much attention as
its somewhat limited value as a theoretical framework, because it attributes
86 Graphic Poetics

to each medium the very qualities whose absence, as Lessing argued, rep-
resents their essential difference – if a picture could speak, it would no
longer be a picture, and if poetic language was soundless, then it could no
longer be language. But for all its irritating circularity, Simonides’ distinc-
tion does succeed in foregrounding a number of sensory priorities which
rest, often unacknowledged, beneath apparently straightforward aesthetic
arguments. Defending the visual arts, Leonardo pointed out that ‘if you
call painting mute poetry, poetry can also be called blind painting’. What
he implies but does not clarify is that the physical, visual image created
by poetry exists only in the mind of the reader, who is able to decode the
referential system and transpose it with the memory of an iconic pres-
ence. Thus the means by which the linear, temporal medium of language
can grant us access to spatial images must be ideational, a function of the
reprocessing faculty of the reader, which operates as the link point between
temporal speech and mental picture. So, in an important sense, the early
free-versifiers, in their insistence upon the ephemeral nature of the spoken
text, were reiterating Leonardo’s claim that poetry must be ‘blind’: our
ability to return to, to contemplate the visual materiality of the medium
would necessarily delay and distort the process of conversion from signifier
to image, symbol to icon. Williams and cummings maintain an uneasy but
extremely productive interplay between the ideational effects generated by
the poem and the static presence of the poem itself, as both an arbitrary
linguistic representation and a concrete picture of its meaning. The follow-
ing is section III of cummings’s ‘Impressions’:

i was considering how

within night’s loose
sack a star’s
nibbling in-

ly devours

darkness the
hungry star
will e
Modernism: Two Versions of Free Verse 87

-ly jiggle
the bait of
dawn and be jerked


eternity, when over my head a

Bur s

into a stale shriek
like an alarm clock)

In Tulips and Chimneys cummings has not yet reached the point at which
the silent, visual dimension of the poem’s signifying mechanism effect-
ively displaces its successive oral pattern, but the framework of conflict is
already in place.
We could read this poem aloud and interpret the printed fragmenta-
tion of ‘infinitesimally’, ‘eventually’ and ‘burst’ as directions to slow and
uncertain vocalization. Heard as such it would closely resemble the impres-
sionistic fragments by Aldington and Hulme. The impersonal objects are
subtly assimilated by the speech pattern into a series of subjective, meta-
phoric relations between light, darkness, eating, fishing, waking, alarm
clocks. . . . The directions to vary the timing of the vocal performance
merely reinforce the impression that we are listening to the poet com-
bining impression with thought. But unlike its Imagist predecessors, this
poem refuses to disappear. We cannot help noticing that the lower case ‘i’
which announces the lyrical presence of e. e. cummings in the first line re-
emerges in the broken structure of ‘infinitesimally’, but we cannot invoke
the protocols of phonic naturalization because, the ‘i’s chosen for isola-
tion are phonemically different from the ‘i’ which begins the poem. We
can see a pattern that we cannot hear. The poet is both within the per-
manent, graphic language which records his experience and absent from
its ephemeral, spoken counterpart. cummings, like the phonocentrists of
the anthologies, is aware that the process of articulating an experience
involves a form of surrender to linguistic patterns which bear no organic or
88 Graphic Poetics

natural resemblance to it, but rather than displace this arbitrary medium,
he chooses to incorporate it as part of the communicative experience. The
words do not overreach the boundaries between life and art to become
things, but they become an element of the perceptual experience rather
than merely a disposable means of communicating it. The ideational image
granted after hearing Aldington’s or Hulme’s poems defuses the tension
between perception and linguistic representation; Kenner’s naturalization
of Pound operates almost as a release from the uncertain fragmentation
of the spoken utterance. But we can neither naturalize nor fully transcend
the linguistic material of cummings’s poem. We can of course hear how
‘a shooting star Burst into a stale shriek like an alarm clock,’ and we can
reflect upon how the image of the star transforms itself metaphorically into
a rather mundane and disappointing experience of surprise. We might
even consider the whole poem as a dream from which the poet is suddenly
jolted into consciousness. But when we also see the poem the word ‘Burst’
registers not only as a successive link-point between two figurative struc-
tures but as a static picture of cummings’s experience. The two opening
graphemic components of s, t, a, r, are literally detached

Bur s

to become reunited in s, t, a, 1, e.
It could not be claimed that all of the verse in Tulips and Chimneys creates
such a complex interplay between the graphic materiality of language and
its referential function, but the effect which stays in the mind after read-
ing through the collection is of having seen and heard the verse, of having
experienced two cognitive dimensions of understanding which do not dis-
place one another, but which at the same time do not maintain the paral-
lelism of the auditory and the ocular that is found in most poetry of the
innovatory decade which preceded it. His most perverse disorientations of
expectation and effect occur in the sonnets, where he forces together the
tightest and most abstract formal pattern of the English poetic canon with
the demotic informalities of American speech. In number IV of ‘Sonnets-
Realities’ we find an account of visiting Dick Mid’s brothel negotiating its
way through the rhyme scheme, if not the metrical pattern, of the sonnet:

when you rang at Dick Mid’s Place

the madam was a bulb stuck in the door,
a fang of wincing gas showed how
Modernism: Two Versions of Free Verse 89

hair, in two fists of shrill colour

clutched the dull volume of her tumbling face
scribbled with a big grin, her sow-
eyes clicking mischief from thick lids,
the chunklike nose on which always the four
tablets of perspiration erectly sitting.
– If they knew you at Dick Mid’s
the three trickling chins began to traipse
into the cheeks ‘eet smeestair steevensun
kum een, dare ease Bet, an Leelee, an dee beeg wun’
her handless wrists did gooey severe shapes.

When we hear this poem our attention is committed to following the stark
visualization of the madam, culminating in a bizarre representation of her
‘accent’. The rhyme words are virtually displaced as accidents by the hesi-
tant yet powerfully evocative flow of the language. The ‘realities’ of spoken
informality almost succeed in marginalizing the diagram of abstract form,
and it is only when we also see the familiar shadow of a rhyme scheme sig-
nalling its presence at the end of the printed lines that the peculiarity of
the exercise becomes most striking. It is only then that we begin to ponder
the nagging inconsistency of the ninth line – ‘tablets of perspiration erectly
sitting’ – which refuses to fit into the rhyming pattern. It fits in well enough
with the speech pattern, because when we hear the poem the rhymes hardly
register at all. It is almost as though cummings has deliberately inserted
the line as a reminder that what we see is not always what we hear. The plan
of the poem’s structure which remains in the mind after hearing it is just as
likely to foreground the internal off-rhyme pattern of ‘tumbling’ ‘clicking’
‘sitting’ ‘trickling’ as it is to register the equally dissonant correspondences
of line endings at ‘how/hair’ and ‘sow-/eyes’, ‘door’ and ‘colour’. It becomes
almost impossible to distinguish the ‘natural’ music of speech from the
abstract formal pattern of the sonnet, except of course when our eye sig-
nals that we should look for something that might not become apparent to
the ear, and it is at the line ending with ‘sitting’ that the contrast between
the two dimensions of reading becomes apparent.
The sonnet as an abstract formula has offered a similar challenge to
Williams, Gavin Ewart, Robert Lowell and Geoffrey Hill (see pp. 172–4)
and, in each case we find that the key to our understanding of the tension
between pattern evoked and pattern submerged lies in our ability to both
see and hear the poems. In the context of cummings’s and Williams’s
1923 collections we should recognize that this tendency to conjure up
90 Graphic Poetics

the ghost of a regular pattern adds an extra significance to the notion of

verse as ‘free’. Just as free verse can never free itself from the existence of
the poetic line, so we find that the reader is invited to consider his own lim-
ited condition of freedom from the codes and expectations of regular verse,
and it is to Williams that we should turn for the most subtle and challenging
disorientations of interpretative expectancy. From ‘Spring and All’:

By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast – a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water

the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish

purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines –
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish,
dazed spring approaches

John Hollander, in his essay on visual form, ‘The Poem in the Eye’, observed
that the title poem of Spring and All is

as visual a poem in every sense as one could find, a soundless picture

of a soundless world, its form shaped rather than incanted, its surface
like that of so much Modern poetry, now reflecting now revealing its
depths. . . . Put together from fragments of assertion, it has virtually no
rhetorical sound. (Vision and Resonance, p. 287)

I feel that he overstates his case because the poem is both ‘shaped’ and
‘incanted’. It resembles cummings’s sonnet in that the silent reader operates
as an axis between the movement of the spoken form and the visual stasis of
its graphic structure. The opening two lines could stand as discrete units:

By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue
Modernism: Two Versions of Free Verse 91

They register as completed images, until the eye of the reader transforms
the static, substantive sense of ‘blue’ into an adjectival dependence upon
the ‘mottled clouds’ of the next line. In one sense this effect could be
regarded as the hesitant, successive pattern mirroring the equally gradual
process of impression being transposed into language – a process more
vividly enacted by two instances ‘the’ detached from ‘northeast’ and ‘waste
of broad, muddy fields’. But the poem is also forcing the reader to dis-
tinguish between the unstructured formulations of expression and the
devices of art. The shape of the poem does not merely reflect the hesitan-
cies of unplanned speech; there is also evidence that in, literally, writing
the poem the poet has in mind a secondary pattern of an art form created
from the static material of the language.
The colloquial, localized reference to the ‘contagious hospital’ signals
a degree of idiomatic informality which at one point enters a state of con-
flict with the poem’s status as a formal artefact. When the persona contem-
plates the

small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines

the moment is a perfect synthesis of Poundian technique and unreflecting

slang. Destroy the visual format and we have

with dead brown leaves under them leafless vines.

‘Them leafless vines’ echoes the earthy and ambiguous title of ‘Spring and
All’. One oral reading of the poem would convey this rough colloquialism,
but when also read with the eye this effect is both preserved and comple-
mented by a poised, precise visual juxtaposition which recalls ‘In a Station
of the Metro’:

with dead brown leaves under them

leafless vines.

A visualist reading allows us to savour the co-presence of two compositional

imperatives. A silent reading registers a reflective, ideo-grammatic struc-
ture with ‘leafless vines’ achieving a degree of stark metaphoric contrast,
rather like Milton’s ‘darkness visible’. But at the same time the successive
oral pattern maintains our awareness of language caught in a moment of
92 Graphic Poetics

disorganized informality, not quite able to impose a logical structure upon

the impression: ‘leaves under them leafless vines’.
‘Spring and All’ is a brilliant synthesis of unstructured patterns of
speech and the almost clinical precision of poetic technique, and it suc-
ceeds in this improbable merger by silencing and uniting the dispar-
ate identities of these expressive elements. To simply ‘hear’ Williams’s
persona moving through unfocused levels of perception and ratiocin-
ation is to experience only part of a very complex process of experience,
becoming thought, becoming language. The ‘movement’ of Williams’s
language is preserved in the same way that a painting can allow us to
experience a sense of vibrancy, agitation within the stillness of the visual
Williams’s most remarkable mergers of linguistic movement with visual
stillness occur in his later collection, Pictures from Brueghel; but in Spring
and All we begin to find an awareness of visual form as more than an
ancillary component of language. I have already considered the similar-
ity between ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and the fragmented intensities of
Milton’s blank verse, and, superficially, its clipped, contextless pattern
would seem to have little in common with the discursive indeterminacies
of ‘Spring and All’, but a common feature exists in their ability to make
the static visual structure of language stand in contrast with its succes-
sive linearity. If we hear ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ read aloud, even if the
speaker gives specific emphasis to the line breaks, the structure veers
towards a hesitant formlessness. But if we can also see it on the page we
can discern a more certain diagrammatic framework of what appear to
be stanzas.
In ‘To Elsie’, another poem from Spring and All, we find a very similar
sense of disorientation produced by what appears on the page to be a
regular stanzaic pattern. Three-line groups appear on the page as a con-
ventional poetic register, with the second line roughly half the length of
lines one and three. I would challenge anyone’s claim to be able to hear
this pattern, but when read with the eye we experience the uncomfort-
able sensation of registering a regular framework. It is uncomfortable
because the sense of completion offered by regular stanzaic structures
is transformed into a kinetic tension between structure and anticipa-
tion. The second line of each group functions both as a continuation of
the first and an introduction of a new theme which is extended into the
third. The shape of the poem preserves this tension, and this technique
of using visible language as an axis between separate syntactic patterns
Modernism: Two Versions of Free Verse 93

anticipates key elements of Pictures from Brueghel. The following is from

‘To Elsie’:

Unless it be marriage
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate

so hemmed around
with disease or murder

that she’ll be rescued by an

reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in

some hard pressed
house in the suburbs.

Williams’s reason for deploying visual shape as a phenomenon which dis-

rupts any stable relationship between form and meaning is indicated in
the sequence of prose fragments which are interspersed, apparently at
random, with the poems of Spring and All. Critics have toiled heroically
with the enigmatic structure of Williams’s ex-cathedra statements, a pro-
cess of decoding which often proves more hazardous than the naturaliza-
tion of his poems, and it is surprising that this sequence of maxims and
declarations has not received more attention since, when read in relation
to the poems, they serve to clarify a fundamental change, both in the
direction of free-verse theory and in his own perceptions of form and
Early, in the sequence (Collected Poems, Vol. I), he echoes the revolution-
ary claims of the early Imagists, declaring ‘an escape from crude symbol-
ism, the annihilation of strained associations, complicated ritualistic forms
designed to separate the work from “reality” – such as rhyme, meter as
meter and not as the essential of its work, one of its words’ (p. 189). This is a
straightforward, and by 1923 conventional, dismissal of the abstract frame-
work of the double pattern, but he goes on to qualify it by stating that the
new medium should not aim for the ideal of transparency but should itself
become part of the perceiver’s experience: ‘The word must be put down
94 Graphic Poetics

for itself, not as a symbol of nature but a part, cognizant of the whole –
aware – civilised’ (p. 189). Later in the sequence he proclaims a poetic alle-
giance not to music – which he claims that poets can write about but not
imitate – but with the visual arts. At one point he alludes, without acknow-
ledgement, to an apocryphal story used to support Simonides’ speaking
picture figure – that Zeuxis had painted grapes so real that birds had tried
to eat them – and relocates this in the pre-Impressionist, premodernist trad-
ition of Holbein. He does not doubt that near-transparency is possible in
the visual arts, but it is the consequent displacement of the artefact to which
he objects: ‘But all the while the picture escaped notice. Or if one noticed
it was for the most part because one could see “the birds pecking at the
grapes” in it’ (p. 199). Williams goes on to question the value of such ‘rep-
resentations’ when outside the window real birds can be seen eating real
grapes. The alternative involves the promotion of the aesthetic medium to
the status of something which not only reflects but literally becomes part of
the perceptual experience:

Thus perspective and clever drawing kept the picture continually under
cover of the ‘beautiful illusion’ until today, when even Anatole France
trips saying: ‘Art – all lies!’ – today when we are beginning to redis-
cover the truth that in great works of the imagination A CREATIVE
his picture lives anew. It lives as only pictures can: by their power TO
ESCAPE ILLUSION and stand between man and nature . . . now works of
art cannot be left in this category of France’s ‘lie’, they must be real, not
‘realism’ but reality itself . . . (p. 204)

We should remind ourselves that Williams, in his reference to ‘great

works of the imagination’, includes linguistic as well as plastic arts, and
he clearly argues that the poem itself, as a physical object, should become
part of the shared experience of poet and reader rather than, as the early
Imagists had argued, a transitory medium which grants access to prelin-
guistic experience and perception. Williams’s theory is in certain ways
related to his shift of allegiance from Imagism to Objectivism, the latter
centring the interpretative experience not within the pre-representational
continuum but in the ‘object’ of representation (see Chapter 7). With this
assumed objective in mind we can begin to understand why in ‘To Elsie’,
and more so in ‘Spring and All’ and ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, our reading
of the verse involves a double awareness of both hearing an ephemeral,
Modernism: Two Versions of Free Verse 95

successive spoken event and contemplating that same event in a different

form, almost a different medium, as a permanent, static phenomenon; and
perhaps this readerly experience is designed to mirror a compositional
process of not merely recording impressions in speech to be revived as an
ideational structure in the mind of the hearer, but of, literally, inscribing
them in physical artefacts which both reflect the poet’s perceptual experi-
ence and encode the uncomfortable paradox that language, in its static
printed form, is all that can remain of it – in the same way that the broken
visual phenomenon of

Bur s

is all that remains of cummings’s multidimensional experience of shooting

star and alarm clock.
Williams, in his published references to cummings’s visualist techniques,
has maintained a balanced ambivalence of approval and distance, but there
are elements of Tulips and Chimneys and Spring and All which unite them in
taking modernist poetics a stage beyond the decade dominated by the pho-
nocentric allegiances of Imagism. In his famous ‘Ten O’ Clock Lecture’
the artist Whistler echoed Williams’s views on aesthetic transparency and
attacked people who ‘looked not at a picture but through it, at some human
fact, that shall, or shall not, from a social point of view, better their men-
tal or mortal state’. cummings, in his 1915 Harvard graduation address
‘The New Art’, cites Whistler’s notion of looking at rather than through
the artefact and combines it with a remarkably informed discussion of
Cubism and Futurism. He praised these new visual and poetic movements
for their ability to foreground and incorporate the tactile medium as a fea-
ture of the message – ‘the triumph of line for line’s sake over realism’ (see
Marks, p. 113). The reader should not ‘look through’ the poem towards
some imagined state that prompted the poet to create it, but ‘at’ the poem
as something which features as part of that original experience. Williams
and cummings do not argue that words can become things and feelings,
more that we should not attempt to draw a line between our experience
of the world and our experience of language. The most obvious objection
to this would be that, in submitting ourselves to the systematic code which
enables the linguistically competent to communicate with one another, we
surrender the moment of individuality to the impersonality of structure,
but, as became apparent in the preceding chapter, it is possible for poems
which enact a conflict between successive movement and visual stasis to
96 Graphic Poetics

create conditions in which the reader, in attempting to naturalize them,

becomes an active participant in the creation of their meaning. And since,
as Williams and cummings hold, experience and its linguistic enactment
are interwoven, we find that the impersonality of visualism is transformed
into a means of experiential sharing.
Chapter 6

Poems as Pictures

The Pattern Poem

The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pattern poem is generally regarded
as the only pre-twentieth-century manifestation of visual structure in
English poetry, but, as I shall show, the form is as closely related to regular
verse as it is to free verse and concrete poetry. It is useful as a point of con-
trast, because it will become clear that Miltonic blank verse represented
both a clearer anticipation of modern visualist form and a more challen-
ging disruption of the cognitive balance between seeing and hearing the
text than did its immediate predecessor.
Margaret Church in ‘The First English Pattern Poems’ (1946) locates
the origin of the Renaissance form in the widely translated and read Greek
Anthology. The first-known adaptation of the form to English occurred in
Stephen Hawes’s The Convercyon of Swerers (1509), but to modern readers its
best-known practitioners are the early seventeenth-century poets Herbert
and Herrick, whose representations of altars, pillars and wings are widely
anthologized, and categorized as extreme symptoms of the metaphysical ten-
dency towards formal experiment and eclecticism. The most intriguing par-
ticipant in this exercise in the vulgarization of classical precedent is George
Puttenham. A good deal of scholarly work has gone into establishing whether
or not Puttenham was the author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589), but since
the volume bears the name of this mysterious individual I shall, as a matter
of convenience, assume that he wrote it. Puttenham devotes a whole chap-
ter to what he calls ‘Of Proportion in Figure’, and the most peculiar thing
about his discussion of poetic shape is that he ignores the Greek Anthology:
‘Your last proportion is that of figure, so called for that it yields an ocular
representation, your meeters being by good symetrie reduced into certaine
Geometricall figures, whereby the maker is restrained to keep him within his
bounds’ (p. 75). Puttenham says that he finds ‘not this proportion used by
any of the Greeke and Latine Poets or in any vulgar writer, saving of that one
98 Graphic Poetics

form which they call Anacreon’s egge’. Puttenham had come across these
‘geometricall figures’ in Italy, from ‘a certaine gent who has travelled in the
Oriental parts of the world’. The principal distinction between Puttenham’s
mysteriously acquired shapes and those of the Greek Anthology is that the
former are abstract representations of ‘lozenges’, ‘squares’, ‘tapers’ and ‘cyl-
inders’, whereas the most popular and widely debated forms of the Anthology
are iconic representations of natural phenomena or manufactured artefacts,
the best known being the wings and the axe. Puttenham’s shift in emphasis
from the iconic to the abstract is due more to his objective of assimilating
the shaped form to the indigenous conventions of English poetry than it is to
his acquaintance with ‘a certaine gent’. The axes, wheels, altars and wings of
the Anthology make appropriate concessions to Greek quantitative measures,
but so extreme are the variations in line length in these iconic ‘pictures’
that their audible form is effectively surrendered to the dominant visual
image. But with rhyme, which Puttenham and the majority of his contem-
poraries conceded was a necessary component of English poetic form, the
sound structure offers itself as a supplement to the graphic visual dimension
of the text. What Puttenham attempted to do was to promote the ‘speak-
ing picture’, and he emphasized the geometrical rather than the directly
iconic, representational shape of these artefacts in order to create an inter-
aesthetic middle ground in which the symbolic function of the language
and the iconic function of visual art are both present, but in which neither
assumes the dominant signifying role. This objective was realized in the
work of Herbert, Herrick, Beaumont and Watson, where we find a consist-
ent degree of interdependence between the graphic shape, the auditory pat-
tern of metre and rhyme and the thematic, representational function of the
language. In Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’, for instance, the prelinguistic shape
of the text differs very little from Puttenham’s abstract category of the ‘loz-
enge’, and the ‘wing’ image depends as much upon the title and the poem’s
thematic concentration upon the literal and spiritual notion of ascent as it
does upon a purely visual impression of the text. The objective of audible,
visual and ideational interdependence becomes clear in Puttenham’s reflec-
tions upon ‘The Pillar, Pillaster or Cillinder’. This is his description of how
the form should operate, both upon the auditory and ocular faculties of the

By this figure is signified, stay, support, rest, state, and magnificence,

your dittie can then be reduced to the form of a piller, his base will
require to beare the breath of a meetre of six or seven or eight sillables:
the shaft of foure: a chapter eqall with the base.
Poems as Pictures 99

We might assume from this that Puttenham uses the term ‘figure’ as a
deliberate evocation of both its visual and linguistic usages. Figurative lan-
guage transposes one image with another to create a metaphoric resem-
blance, and the visual figuration of something in a picture or a diagram
reacts with the mental picture of what is represented. His claim is that we
can both see and hear different but crucially related dimensions of the
same effect. The influence of this inter-aesthetic objective becomes appar-
ent in Robert Herrick’s ‘The Pillar of Fame’:

Fames pillar here, at last we set

Out-during Marble, Brasse, or Jet,
Charmed and enchanted so
As to withstand the blow
Of overthrow:
Nor shall the seas,
Or storms orebear
What we up-rear,
Tho kingdoms fal
This pillar never shall
Decline or waste at all
But stand for ever by his owne
Firme and well fixt foundation.

The effect upon the reader is oddly similar to cummings’s falling leaf,
because the detachment yet mutual dependence of the visual and the aud-
ible dimensions of the poem make it difficult to describe the order in which
we become aware of its two levels of signification. As Puttenham states, the
Pillar ‘signifie[s], stay, support, rest, state, and magnificence’, and it does so
through two separate codes of signification. Herrick spins out the index-
ical, figurative resonance of the word ‘Pillar’ as something ‘Charmed and
enchanted so / As to withstand the blow’ and which ‘never shall / Decline or
waste at all’ while inscribing this linguistic pattern within an iconic prelin-
guistic representation. The most intense evocations of natural and human
impermanence occur in what Puttenham calls the ‘shaft’ of quatro-syllabic
couplets. Just as the compacted economy of syntax and metrical structure
add to a sense of tightening and strain, so we are also aware that, in archi-
tectural terms, the shaft is the point at which the load-bearing function of
the pillar is most concentrated; and the final couplet both closes the figura-
tive play of the linguistic pattern and is, literally, the ‘Firme and well fixt
100 Graphic Poetics

foundation’ of the iconic image. Similarly, Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’ involves

an attempt to synchronize visual representation – a static picture – with a
linear pattern of sounds:

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,

Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he become
Most poor
With thee
Oh let me rise
As larks harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the Fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did begin

And still with sickness and shame
Thou didst so punish sin
That I became
Most thin.
With thee
Let me combine,
And feel this day thy victory:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

In the first half of each stanza, or more adventurously each ‘bird’, the lines
become shorter by two syllables successively, a contraction that we can
apprehend aurally as the gap between each rhyme word closes to a point at
which we eventually encounter two consecutive disyllabic lines. Then the
opposite occurs with the lines gradually expanding from two syllables until
we are returned to a pentameter. It would not be an over-interpretation
to aver that Herbert here attempts to replicate in sound two prelinguistic
visual effects; the shape of birds with their bodies in slight proportion to
the size of their wings; and the very movement of the wings themselves, in
and out from the slim torso. Alongside his multidimensional performance
with his aviary subject and the notion of flight Herbert also uses shape as
a metaphor for the spiritual significance of Easter, a sense of faith first
contracting and then opening itself to the moment of revelation at the
death and resurrection of Christ. Neither Puttenham nor Herrick nor
Herbert would claim that language can transcend its referential condition
Poems as Pictures 101

and actually become a continuum of things and impressions, but they are
aware that the cognitive faculties of seeing and hearing separate represen-
tational codes can become enmeshed. They thus anticipate Williams and
cummings, in the sense that the movement of the linguistic pattern is in
contrast with the static and visual dimension of the artefact. There are, of
course, significant differences.
The first and most obvious distinction between the pattern poem and the
visual structure of free verse is that, in the former, the printed image invokes
a code of iconic signification which is quite different from the visual and
auditory codes of language: we might argue that ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’
plays upon a similar tension between stasis and movement, but we know
that the finished artefact does not look like a wheelbarrow. The closest
point of similarity between the two forms is in the role of the reader who,
in both instances, operates as the point of contact and, to a degree, of
naturalization between the ocular and acoustic dimensions of the text.
The reader of the pattern poem carries the static image of the artefact
with him through a sequential reading, and in the case of Herrick’s pillar
our linguistic reception of the clipped quatro-syllabic couplets is intensi-
fied by our awareness of their physical location within the spatial image.
Obviously the initial impression of the shape of a piece of blank or free verse
does not have a specific signifying function, but there is a similar, if often
unacknowledged, awareness of the way in which the graphic materiality of
language will interact with its referential function. In both forms the unit
which represents the axis, the meeting-point, between auditory and visual
perception, is the poetic line, and it is in the function of this phenomenon
that we can locate the genuine degree of their intertextual correspond-
ence and conflict. In the pattern poem the line is the stable building-block
which, defined by metre and rhyme, represents a discrete component of
sequential auditory structure, and it also operates as a graphic unit of the
visual image. There is no conflict between the visual and auditory materi-
ality of the line which might threaten its stability as the point of harmony
between the two compositional and cognitive dimensions, but with lines
whose structure in relation to the broader movement of rhythm and syntax
is shifting and provisional, the cognitive and representational dimensions
of what is seen and what is heard do indeed enter a state of conflict.

The Black Lines

Puttenham, in his catalogue of shapes available within the genre ‘Of

Proportion in Figure’, emphasizes the degree of harmony between the
102 Graphic Poetics

spoken and written dimensions of the text by printing the lozenges, ovals,
cylinders . . . as groups of black lines whose silhouettes represent geomet-
rical structures. Thus, we recognize that each line is sealed both by its audi-
tory signal and its graphic space, and that the genuine interplay between
these structures will take place within the figurative, referential meaning
of the poem. He adapts this technique to illustrate regular rhymed forms,
with the couplet represented as:

And the quatrain as:

He states his reason for doing so:

And if I set you downe an occular example: because ye may the better con-
ceive it. Likewise it so falleth out most times your occular proportion doeth
declare the nature of the audible: for if it please the ear well, the same
represented by delineation to the view pleaseth the eye well and e converse
and this is by a naturall sympathie, between ear and eye, and between
tunes and colours, even as there is the like betweene the other senses and
their objects of which it apperteineth not here to speake. (p. 70)

If we are to regard Puttenham as a spokesman for the aesthetic conven-

tions of his period, then it is clear that in the early seventeenth century
the pattern poem was not, as we might be encouraged to believe, an aber-
ration from the orthodox conventions of poetic composition and recep-
tion. The visual shape of a poetic artefact was regarded as of equal status
to those elements such as rhyme and metrical form, of which its audi-
tory structure is composed. The reasons for the exclusion of the pattern
poem from the English canon in the Restoration and eighteenth century
are not quite as straightforward as one might assume. Addison’s widely
quoted comment on pattern poems as ‘a species of false wit’ is generally
regarded as the final judgement of the age of poetic clarity and order upon
forms in which the materiality of language was allowed to vie for promin-
ence with its function as a channel for the transmission of prelinguistic
ideas. But Dryden (MacFlecknoe, lines 207–8) is a little more specific in
his view that ‘to wings display and altars raise’ reduces poetic writing to
Poems as Pictures 103

the ‘torture’ of ‘one word ten thousand ways’. By ‘one word’ he refers to
the self-imposed limitations of the form: in making ‘Easter Wings’ look
like wings, Herbert restricted the theme and the metaphoric range of the
poem to the interplay between the literal notions of flight and rising, and
their figurative counterparts in the attainment of spiritual purity and
the transcendence of our mortal condition. Dryden, Addison and the
majority of their contemporaries would, however, agree with Puttenham
that in conventional verse there should be a ‘naturall sympathie between
ear and eye’, and the form which offered a much more serious challenge
than the pattern poem to this ideal of balance was Miltonic blank verse.
Before Paradise Lost non-dramatic blank verse was a phenomenon just as
marginal and experimental as the shaped form. It did, of course, have a
substantial precedent in dramatic writing, but as Dryden and his early
seventeenth-century predecessors made clear, dramatic blank verse occu-
pied a grey area somewhere between poetry and rhythmic prose, and it
was not therefore subjected to the same prescriptive rules of sight and
sound as non-dramatic verse. It is significant that in Puttenham’s cata-
logue of diagrams blank verse is not mentioned; the only unrhymed forms
to be represented as black lines are classical, quantitative measures. The
reason for this is that English accentual metre was regarded as structure
which required rhyme to unite the silent, printed phenomenon with its
spoken form, and, as its eighteenth-century critics demonstrated, Milton’s
blank verse caused a disjunction, rather than a ‘sympathie’ between what
we see and what we hear. So, although the pattern poem represents an
early example of how the printed text can generate meaning separately
from the audible pattern, it imposed its own limitations in not allowing
the two codes of signification to enter a state of conflict: the interplay
between them was coherent and ‘sympathetic’. The ‘relativistic’ structure
of the poetic line as something which might register as very different
formal and signifying phenomena in the two realms of sight and sound
began with Paradise Lost. How then would Puttenham have represented
Miltonic blank verse in diagrammatic form? The question is not entirely
hypothetical, because one eighteenth-century critic, Peter Walkden Fogg,
revived Puttenham’s procedure in his Elementa Anglicana (1792–6) and
the results are intriguing.
Fogg reiterates Sheridan’s division of poetic language into Melody and
Harmony – the former being the sequential progress of sound and the
latter emerging from the more complex spatial interplay of cadences and
units – but he goes on to explore the question of why and how the mind
of the reader can both separate and reassemble the materiality and the
104 Graphic Poetics

referential function of language. In the following, Fogg considers form as

in itself an aesthetic medium:

The traces of these delightful movements frequently remain in the mind,

and serve as a kind of inspiration, allowing them no rest till they have
filled up the craving void of these blanks of harmony with compositions
of their own. The varied and yet regular maze affords numberless objects
of comparison, which to perceive is unspeakably pleasant, though to
point them out might seem tedious. Nay, as was before remarked on the
melody of pauses, pleasure may be derived from a view of straight lines
in the same variety and proportion.(Vol.ii, p. 198)

One wonders if the phrase ‘unspeakably pleasant’ is an ironic reference

to the fact that Fogg has succeeded in detaching the structure of lan-
guage from its meaning, because he proceeds to, literally, illustrate his
point with a poem by William Hayley which he rewrites as ‘unspoken’

Of humbler mien, but not of mortal race,

Ill fated Dryden, with imperial grace
Gives to th’obedient lyre his rapid laws,
Tones yet unheard, with touch divine he draws,
The melting fall, the rising swell sublime
And all the magic of melodious rhyme

——— ——— ——————–

—— —— ————————–
— —— ————— ————
— — ————— —————-
— —— —————— ———
— ——— ———— ————

(Vol. ii, p. 200)

Fogg comments: ‘Then the mind glances over the whole with a rapidity
that enhances the delight; and the more we suppose many other pro-
portions still unperceived’ (II, p. 199). His method is an extravagant
and endearingly bizarre extension of a number of eighteenth-century
critical perceptions. Lord Kames, Johnson and Hugh Blair all praised
the balance of order and diversity which could be achieved by allowing
Poems as Pictures 105

variations of rhythm and syntactic structure within the more stable

framework of the regular couplet line. Fogg’s ‘lines’ provide a perfect
visual representation of this ideal with each unit of rhythmic variation
contained within lineal structures of exactly equal length. But his most
intriguing observation concerns the way in which traces of movement
remain in the mind. Here he reminds us of the way in which the reader
of the pattern poem carries an impression of its shape through a sequen-
tial reading: the ‘trace’ of each visual unit matches the sequential dur-
ation of that same unit, marked as it is by rhyme. It is significant that the
only type of verse to which he fi nds himself unable to apply his diagram-
matic representations of auditory/visual ‘traces’ is that where the static
appearance of the poem is in confl ict with its sequential movement:
‘when the idea of continued motion is conveyed, or the sense is sus-
pended’ (p. 202). The lines he uses as examples of this state of confl ict
are those from Paradise Lost which have drawn the attention of Sheridan,
Ricks and Davie:

not to me returns
Now in loose garlands thick thrown off, the bright

To represent these movements as static shapes Fogg would have had to

devise a visual pattern where the line both closes and continues into the
one beneath it.
The black lines have been revived as a diagrammatic system by a num-
ber of modern critics to deal with visual foregrounding in modern verse.
Henry Sayre in The Visual Text of William Carlos Williams (1983) uses them
to demonstrate that visual form is the primary structural common denom-
inator in Williams’s much debated ‘triadic stanza’ (see below, pp. 175–6),
but it is in Stephen Cushman’s William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of
Measure (1985) that we discover the extent to which the technique can
betray phonocentric prejudices even within the most plural and tolerant
interpretative approaches.
Cushman claims to use the black lines as a ‘skeleton’ to ‘schema-
tise . . . the disjunction between sentence and line boundaries’, but as Fogg
acknowledges, there are certain structures which effectively resist a visual
representation of their temporal-syntactic form. Significantly, Cushman
only employs the techniques in poems where the visual break represents
106 Graphic Poetics

uncertainty or hesitation, poems which are in effect transcriptions of


They strain
forward to grasp ships
or even the sky itself that
bends down to be torn

(from ‘The Seafarer’, p. 40)

The syntax is indeed interrupted by the visual breaks, but the visual for-
mat operates as score for a single univocal enactment of impression hesi-
tantly, uncertainly becoming language. It is the free verse counterpart to
Hayley’s couplets – no real conflict occurs between the picture of the poem
on the page and its temporal performance. Cushman cautiously avoids any
attempt to impose the black line ‘schemata’ upon such poems as ‘Spring
and All’. Had he done so he would have faced the same problem that Fogg
found with Milton – there are two patterns on the page and the diagram
can only reflect one. The black lines are useful in so far as they confirm
that the gaps and configurations on the page might not correspond with
conflicting patterns within the linguistic material; we will know that in
some poems something is going on behind them.

Pictures from Brueghel

In Williams’s Pictures from Brueghel there are a number of poems which, as
the title indicates, operate like pictures. But they do not, like many con-
crete poems, abandon sequential language in favour of enclosed self-refer-
ence, nor do they inscribe a fixed iconic image within the graphic record
of their sound pattern, in the manner of Herrick’s pillar. Instead we move
into a realm of signification where the ideational function and the con-
crete materiality of language are enmeshed to the extent that it becomes
difficult to distinguish between the effects discharged by what we see on
the page and what, through naturalization, we see in our mind’s eye.
Poems as Pictures 107

In much of the collection Williams self-consciously responds to another

level of artistic representation, and in doing so he signals that these poems
are ‘about’ the processes of seeing and recording. The first question to
be addressed in any reading is of whether we need to see Brueghel’s pic-
tures to fully appreciate the level of inter-aesthetic interplay which takes
place, and thus to fully understand what the poems are attempting to do.
Cushman argues that we do:

As we view Brueghel’s picture (‘The Return of the Hunters’) over

Williams’s shoulder, we distinguish details in temporal succession, dif-
ferentiating them one by one from the totality of the painting; yet there
is no reason why the same details could not be apprehended in a com-
pletely different order. Mountains, hunters, inn sign, bonfire, women,
skaters, bush – the sequence represents the poem’s temporal ordering of
the painting’s spatial elements . . . (p. 30)

Cushman, in effect, restates Lessing’s distinction between the successive,

temporal limitations of language and the static juxtapositions of visual
art, and he places Williams’s experiment within the same category of inter-
aesthetic relations as Philip Quarles’s seventeenth-century Emblem Books
and Blake’s illustrated poems. In both cases the degree of co-operation
between each representational medium is restricted within their respect-
ive conventions of signification: the poems do not flout the traditional,
successive protocols of language and the paintings are firmly anchored to
the compositional conventions of their aesthetic genre. I shall argue that
Williams effectively overreaches the conventional limitations of verbal
art to create an interface between juxtaposition (visual) and temporality
(verbal). Within all types of literary illustration the reader is assigned a
particular role in relation to the two representational media. The lin-
guistic form encourages the reader to displace the physical text and to
construct an ideational scene or event, and the visual image demands a
more direct response to the representation of the same phenomena. But
Williams’s poems on Brueghel, without attempting to alter our response
to the paintings themselves, seek to incorporate both interpretative strat-
egies within the same text: the poem as an artefact is partly displaced by
the ideational structure but it also re-establishes itself as a material phe-
nomenon which draws the reader into an engagement with its physical
presence. He is showing us how poetry can overreach, without abandon-
ing, its status as a temporal medium and actually become like a painting.
108 Graphic Poetics

‘The Hunters in the Snow’ has drawn the attention of both Cushman and
Wendy Steiner:

The overall picture is winter

icy mountains
in the background the return

from the hunt it is toward evening

from the left
sturdy hunters lead in

their pack the inn sign

hanging from a
broken hinge is a stag a crucifi x

between his antlers the cold

inn yard is
deserted but for a huge bonfire

that flares wind-driven tended by

women who cluster
about it to the right beyond

the hill is a pattern of skaters

Brueghel the painter
concerned with it all has chosen

a winter struck bush for his

foreground to
complete the picture . . .

Both critics comment on how Williams’s abandonment of traditional punc-

tuation both accentuates and, to a degree, destabilizes the relationship
between the two basic units of poetic composition, the sentence and the
line. But neither recognizes the essential inter-aesthetic significance of his
experiment with linguistic and poetic convention. It is not so much that
these poems are ‘about’ the paintings themselves, more that his invocation
of them serves as a pointer to a technique which exists in a large number
of his poems that are not about paintings.
Poems as Pictures 109

The basic matrix of the sentence, when employed to describe the physical
relation between phenomena, is both prescriptive and limiting. If we were to
describe the position of a house and a tree in relation to the point of percep-
tion we could say, ‘The tree is in front of the house’ or ‘The house is behind
the tree.’ It might be argued that each of these grammatical structures are
consistent with the same ideational picture, but this is not quite the case. Our
placing of the tree or the house within the temporal structure of the sentence
will create a thematic priority which shifts our attention away from the object-
ive pre-representational structure and towards the mood, opinion or inclin-
ation of the perceiver/writer. If we were to draw a picture of the same scene
we could similarly give precedence to one or the other of the two phenom-
ena, but in this medium the hierarchy of perception is not determined by the
temporal order of the representational artefact. The tree and the house exist
in the same representational space, and although one of them might consti-
tute the thematic focus of the picture it can never remove itself from the sim-
ultaneous presence of the other. If we are to regard language as a temporal
medium this sense of perceptual simultaneity would seem to be impossible –
as Cushman observes of Williams’s poems: ‘We distinguish details in tem-
poral succession.’ But what Williams attempts to do is to bring together these
two representational experiences within the same medium. The sequence

icy mountains
in the background the return
from the hunt

consists of two radically divergent syntactic structures: do the ‘icy moun-

tains’ or ‘the hunt’ occupy the background? We can, of course, consult the
painting, which shows that the mountains constitute the background while
the return from the hunt takes place in the foreground. Why then has
Williams imposed a verbal puzzle upon a visual certainty?
Certain priorities and thematic hierarchies become evident in the com-
positional structure of a painting just as they do in the compositional
structure of a sentence, except that in the former each point of percep-
tual distinction is never immune from the images and structures which
surround it and with which it is juxtaposed. The words ‘background’ and
‘foreground’ might well serve as discrete linguistic integers and conse-
quently as points of stability for an analysis of the structure and meaning
of a painting, but when we see the object itself the two phenomena are
co-present in the act of perception. The sense of distinguishing a pattern
from a pattern-less continuum constitutes the point of contact between
110 Graphic Poetics

visual artist and perceiver, but in linguistic form the communicative corres-
pondence is severely limited by more powerful and restrictive conventions
of construction and reception – temporality. When reading the ‘Hunters
in the Snow’ we can maintain an awareness of an ideational ‘mind’s-eye’
view of what it signifies but we are also continually aware of how the mater-
ial of signification causes us to engage directly with the textual artefact.
The passage of our eye across the page creates a double awareness of the
literal stasis and movement of the linguistic material and of the figurative,
descriptive pattern of stillness and agitation. ‘The return’ tells us what the
hunters are doing and also indicates the progress of our eye both to the
bottom left-hand ‘foreground’ of the painting and to the beginning of
the next line of the poem. The hunters are clearly moving ‘from the left’
and it is from this same direction that our eye follows the progress of the
language. Williams respects the arbitrary nature of both communicative
media and the participating role of the perceiver/reader in decoding their
respective patterns of signification. For this reason he refuses to subordin-
ate language to the temporal conventions of syntactic discreteness. Just as
our visual faculty will distinguish the relations between the different elem-
ents of the painting while acknowledging their simultaneous interrelation,
so we are never able to detach a single syntactic unit from those which sur-
round it. The women who tend the bonfire seem to

about it to the right beyond

yet as our eye moves back from ‘the right’ to the left of the poem we find

the hill is a pattern of skaters

We can establish the ‘correct’ syntactic pattern just as we can discern the
thematic hierarchies of the painting, but in both instances our shift in
interpretative focus carries with it a trace of some structural or thematic
element which can be isolated but never fully discarded. Significantly, the
only two lines in which structure and meaning are firmly balanced are
those which begin and end the poem, and which, like the frame of a paint-
ing, enclose and limit the interplay between the constituent elements of
the artefact and the perceptual faculties of the reader.
Williams inserts a number of subtle clues into these poems which attest
to his use of the line as a structural component which brings the successive
continuum of language closest to the juxtaposed elements of visual art. In
Poems as Pictures 111

‘The Parable of the Blind’ he touches upon the grim irony of a painting
whose occupants would never be able to contemplate the representation
of themselves. In regular poetry we might expect the poet to match such a
paradox by giving emphasis to the sound patterns of language. But Williams
foregrounds the silent dimension of poetic form, opening with a reminder
of his own first explicitly visual experiment, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’:

The parable of the blind

without a red

in the composition shows a group and continues by ‘leading’ the eye of the
reader across the printed graphemes in a way that imitates the progress of
the beggars across the canvas:

of beggars leading
each other diagonally downward

across the canvas

from one side
to stumble finally into a bog.

We find ourselves tracing out a parallel movement of the material and ref-
erential functions to find this suddenly split as the ‘stumble’ into the bog
leads us out of the material structure towards an ideational picture.
We know of course that the beggars in the picture do not actually move,
but Williams succeeds in foregrounding the delicate interplay between
representation and interpretation by creating, within the medium which
should move, language, a synthesis of progress and stasis. We literally ‘read’
the printed poem:

diagonally downward

and our eye literally moves

from one side

of the line to the other. The most curious nuance of material-referential

functions occurs at the splitting of

112 Graphic Poetics

This is not an indicator to oral performance, nor does the isolation

of the first syllable cause us to speculate on the splitting of semantic–
phenomenological constituents. It serves no particular structural purpose,
but exists, rather like a signature, as a token reminder that the language
of these poems embodies Wollheim’s ‘twofold thesis’ – ‘to attend simultan-
eously to object and medium’.
To appreciate the substance of Williams’s inter-aesthetic enterprise in
Pictures from Brueghel we should return to Lessing:

The details [of a painting] which the eye takes in at a glance, he [the
poet] enumerates slowly one by one, and it often happens that, by the
time he has brought us to the last, we have forgotten the first. Yet from
these details we are to form a picture. When we look at an object the vari-
ous parts are always present to the eye. It can run over them again and
again. The ear, however, loses the details it has heard, unless memory
retains them. And if they be so retained, what pains and effort it costs to
recall their impressions in the proper order and with even the moderate
degree of rapidity necessary to the obtaining of a tolerable idea of the
whole . . . (pp. 110–1)

The interpretative polarities addressed here should by now be familiar.

Language operates as a successive temporal continuum and its constituent
parts will remain only in the memory of the hearer, but with pictures each
compositional unit is ‘always present to the eye’. The model has been chal-
lenged, successfully, by critics such as Sheridan and poets such as Williams;
but Lessing raises an extra problem. The images retained after the passage
of linguistic integers will be submitted to a selective hierarchy of grammat-
ical types and operations. For instance the statement ‘I am sad’ requires a
specific context for the hearer to construct a concrete visual image of the
situation to which it refers, whereas ‘The man in the churchyard is sad’
brings to mind a whole network of remembered pictures and experiences.
Abstract conditions such as sadness require either a contextual knowledge
of the person speaking or a quantity of concrete nouns within the text for
us to experience what Lessing calls ‘impressions’. In this inter-aesthetic
model language is divided between words that lack any specific visual
counterpart – sad, happy, intense, moves, runs – and those that create a
more certain correspondence in the mind’s eye – the man, the woman,
the horse, the house. To work properly language clearly requires both
the abstract and the concrete, but when we begin to compare the mental
images created by language with the effect of paintings we will inevitably
Poems as Pictures 113

give priority to correspondences between the visual images and the words
that are symbols of things. As Cushman demonstrated, the presence of the
painting had established for him a perceptual hierarchy within the linguis-
tic constituents of the painting: ‘mountains, hunters, inn sign, bonfire’. In
‘The Corn Harvest’ Williams challenges the stability of this inter-aesthetic

the painting is organised
about a young

reaper enjoying his

noonday rest

from his morning labors

in fact sleeping
on his back

the women
have brought him his lunch

a spot of wine
they gather gossiping
under a tree

whose shade
he does not share the

center of
their workaday world

The acknowledged point of inspiration is Brueghel’s ‘The Harvesters’

(1565). In the painting the reaper is sleeping to the left of a tree, and on its
114 Graphic Poetics

right a group of women sit, eating, drinking and talking. One of them, while
still seated in the circle, has turned around and is either lifting something
from or placing something in a basket which occupies a point in front of the
tree exactly halfway between the sleeping man and the group. This series of
juxtapositions prompts a bewildering variety of interpretative possibilities.
Why is the man not seated with the women? Has he been invited to share,
or been excluded from, their food and drink? Is the placing of the basket an
accident which only appears to be a symbolic point of separation?
The series of possibilities, of unresolvable conflicts of circumstance, is
the result of juxtaposed visual images, and Williams recreates this mys-
tery of unfinalized relations by allowing individual linguistic units and
phrases to come adrift from the sequential determinism of syntax. The
single word


operates as an axis between the two partially complete syntactic units of

‘enjoying / his noonday rest’ and ‘relaxed / from his morning labors’.
‘Completely’ has no visual or iconic counterpart, but within the written
poem it functions like a visual image by blending into a broader series of
signifiers. Later, when

the women
have brought his lunch

a spot of wine

we can never be sure if ‘perhaps’ refers to the syntax preceding it and

reflects Williams’s uncertainty as to the man’s relation with the women
(‘his lunch perhaps’), or forward to the possibility that ‘perhaps a spot of
wine’ has resulted in his conspicuously unconscious condition. An oral,
temporal reading could never convey both effects. It is the visual position-
ing of ‘perhaps’ and ‘completely’ that invites the eye of the reader to move
back and forth along separate syntactic tracks, and it is this that enables
the effects generated by these words to challenge Lessing’s model of lin-
guistic/visual polarity. The individual signifiers ‘completely’ and ‘perhaps’
function as components of syntax, but it is impossible to determine their
precise role in any particular deep structure. Impossible, because when
read aloud or even as a silent, successive movement they create not only
Poems as Pictures 115

ambiguity but also a threat to the basic framework of syntagmatic relations

upon which linguistic structures depend: if we ally them with one syntactic
pattern they will make the other incomprehensible and vice versa. Our abil-
ity to perceive both patterns of meaning depends upon our ability to see
them, and thus, without abandoning their role as linguistic elements, they
create the sense of unresolvable questioning and unrealized possibilities
by operating like the juxtaposed visual images of Brueghel’s painting.
Later in the poem we are uncertain whether the similarly abstract signi-
fier ‘carelessly’ refers to the condition of the reaper, who is unconscious of
his position in the least comfortable place – ‘whose shade carelessly he does
not share’ – or whether, with a sense of carefree individuality, he had cho-
sen to exclude himself from ‘the resting centre of their workaday world’.
By now it should be evident that the patterns of uncertainty and ambiguity
of the poem depend upon the positioning of abstract terms – ‘completely’,
‘relaxed’, ‘perhaps’, ‘carelessly’. Williams has made the materiality of lan-
guage operate like the juxtaposed constituents of a painting, but he has
also drawn upon the signifying functions of language that are absent from
visual art. When we look at the picture of the men, the women, the tree, the
wine, we will still inevitably look behind its stillness to the conditions that
created it and in the process we will supply a form of syntactic structure to
otherwise discrete images. Williams succeeds in reversing this interpret-
ative process by making the more abstract grammatical components – the
terms which refer to mood rather than spatial condition – operate in the
poem in the same way that the physical images operate in the painting.
The words ‘completely’ and ‘perhaps’ do not suddenly become things, but
because of their visual position they engage our cognitive and interpret-
ative faculties in a way that is very similar to the positioning in the painting
of the tree, the man, the women, the wine.
Williams’s Pictures from Brueghel is a valuable text because it addresses the
most problematic theoretical and interpretative questions that tax and, to
an important degree, restrict critics of free verse and modern poetics.
Williams demonstrates that it is possible to create conditions in which the
symbolic, referential function of language, a function which depends upon
the temporality of syntax and, by implication, a correspondent realization
in speech, can grant us only a partial awareness of the text’s plenitude of
meanings. This must be supplemented by an awareness of the way in which
the material, graphemic identity of words and syntactic units constitute an
alternative means of apprehending their systematic relationships. Words
do not fully transcend their symbolic function, but they engage a code of
interpretation within which, like the visual constituents of a painting, it is
116 Graphic Poetics

impossible to displace their graphic presence. Seeing them becomes more

than the silent counterpart to spoken temporality because the structural
framework and consequently the full meaning of a text is inscribed within
its graphic form. We are obliged to confront the paradox of texts which can
only generate the full plenitude of their effects in silence and in the absence
of their originator or his representative in performance, yet which also
make us continually aware of William Carlos Williams as the human axis
between an act of perception (we know he is looking at the pictures) and an
act of mediation and expression. The collection testifies to Williams’s state-
ment that the physical graphemic structure of the poem is something that
the poet inhabits – ‘we are free to cut diagonally across the page as if it were
a field of daisies’ (Dijkstra, p. 236). Thus in an important sense the visual,
material structure of the poem can serve to bring us closer to the creative
presence of the poet, because in subverting the overbearing logic of syntac-
tic deep structures it signals the individuality and independence of the poet
and his control of the arbitrary structures of the medium.
Between Spring and All and Pictures from Brueghel, Williams proved him-
self to be the torch-carrier for visual poetics, but how are we to categorize
these achievements through a period in which the divisions and splinter
groupings of postmodernism have caused the term ‘formal experiment
in poetry’ to acquire half a dozen dissonant and conflicting associations?
Concrete poetry, from its origins in France, Germany, Italy and South
America, began to make its presence felt in the new English canon in the
1950s and 1960s. The ‘ideogram tradition’, which would claim Pound as its
founder, continued in the work of Zukofsky, Olson, Duncan and Creeley.
In Britain a strand of anti-experimental caution, originating perhaps in
the writings of Eliot, established a counter-modernist tradition which even-
tually found a kind of coherence in the ‘Movement’ of the 1950s. It would
be difficult to argue that visual poetics could lay any claim to a consistent
presence in this kaleidoscope of poetic theories and broader aesthetic alle-
giances, but in the closing chapters of this book this is what I shall do.
Chapter 7

The Sliding Scale

The use of visual form in twentieth-century English poetry is difficult to

distinguish from other poetic phenomena because of the widely conver-
gent perceptions by poets and critics of exactly what it is and how it func-
tions as a determinant of meaning in the text. The problem which lies at
the heart of this condition of indeterminacy is this: to what extent does
the materiality of the poem distance the reader from an awareness of the
intention and the prelinguistic experience of the poet? The only precon-
dition which attends this question is the fact that mediation, the use of
language both in its referential and material functions, can never be tran-
scended. Beyond this, the question opens itself to a perplexing variety of
interpretations. Before proceeding with analyses of how visual form has
manifested itself in modernist and postmodernist poetry I shall attempt to
construct an interpretative framework against which the varied and often
conflicting perceptions of visualism can be tested and compared.
In his study Iconology W. J. T. Mitchell devotes an entire chapter to
Lessing’s distinction between aesthetic genres in terms of their depend-
ence upon the functional and perceptual dimensions of ‘Space and Time’.
At one point he draws up a table of abstract categories which show, ‘at a
glance’, the oppositions which regulate Lessing’s discourse:

Painting Poetry
Space Time
Natural Signs Arbitrary (man-made) signs
Narrow Sphere Infinite Range
Imitation Expression
Body Mind
External Internal
Silent Eloquent
Beauty Sublimity
Eye Ear
Feminine Masculine
118 Graphic Poetics

Clearly this diagram of polarities operates far beyond Lessing’s dialectic

and can, in effect, be regarded as the formula which governs and regulates
critical language in its attempts to come to terms with the structural and
expressive conditions of visual form in poetry. For instance, there is a con-
ventional code which determines the extent to which any of these terms
can be transposed as descriptive of the opposing genre. If we were to state
how a poem directs the ‘eye’ of the reader to the ‘silent beauty’ of a par-
ticular scene or object we would automatically shift the perceptual focus
outside and beyond the materiality of the text to an ideational vision, yet
a beautiful object can be perceived as a material component of a painting.
The term a ‘beautiful poem’ will refer to the effect that the language of
the poem creates, but in the visual arts the aesthetic artefact can in itself
be regarded as beautiful. The principal challenge offered to this inter-
pretative model by the poetic texts considered so far involves the grafting
of the literal, rather than merely the figurative, denotation of the terms
under ‘Painting’ on to the terms and perceptual conditions of those listed
under ‘Poetry’. Certain poems can only be fully appreciated when the eye
of the reader perceives the text in silence, and, particularly in the work
of Williams, the limitation of linguistic signs as purely ‘arbitrary’ is chal-
lenged by the possibility that ‘manufactured’ language can enter the same
sphere of appreciation as that normally occupied by ‘natural signs’. Most
significantly the absolute distinction between visual arts as silent, spatial
phenomena and linguistic arts as temporal, acoustic phenomena is com-
promised by texts in which the poetic line is deployed as an instrument
of graphic juxtaposition and interrelation rather than as a measure of the
temporal medium. The point at which the distinction between perceptual
and terminological conditions becomes most uncertain is when the poetic
line begins to function as an axis between what is heard and what is seen,
because the processes of naturalization attendant upon these two dimen-
sions of language are clearly very different. The protocols of phonic nat-
uralization are fully encoded within the conventional corpus of ‘poetic
criticism’, but how might one go about charting the limits and conditions
of its graphic counterpart? I propose the use of a critical diagram, to be
called the sliding scale. This will function as a visualist counterpart to the
abstract methodology of the double pattern (the metrical, prosodic ter-
minology of regular poetry) and will be based upon the use of visual form
mostly, though not exclusively, in English poetry of the twentieth century.
What is the Sliding Scale?
The sliding scale is not an instrument of measurement. It is a compara-
tive index against which we can consider the interactive relation between
The Sliding Scale 119

the spatial/silent and the temporal/acoustic dimensions of poetic struc-

tures. Interaction is the key term because to qualify for inclusion the struc-
ture must create a distinction, and consequently an interpretative tension,
between the spatial and the temporal. At one end of the scale we find the
blank verse of Milton and Wordsworth. These structures operate at one
interpretative level as conventional metre: they create a tension between
an abstract prosodic formula, the unrhymed iambic pentameter, and a
broader interlineal pattern of rhythmic variation. But at the same time
they can shift the axis for this double pattern outside the linguistic struc-
ture and towards the interpretative faculties of the reader: the architech-
tonics of the verse form will then depend upon the relation between its
spatial configurations and its temporal movement, and this relation will
at certain points create not only formal tensions between what is seen and
what is heard but also separate, often conflicting, patterns of meaning.
Such verse can be, and indeed has been, categorized as regular acoustic
verse, yet its inclusion on the scale is due to its ability to discharge effects
which can only be fully appreciated in silence.
At the opposite end of the scale we can locate a number of poems by e.
e. cummings, most of which appeared after Tulips and Chimneys. This is ‘57’
from the collection of 73 Poems:


mi (dreamlike) st

makes big each dim


ve turns obv

ious t

til o
s are

will be wor
120 Graphic Poetics



The poem is ‘about’ the effect of mist upon perception and the imagin-
ation. Having made such a statement I must also acknowledge that I have
imposed a linear, temporal sequence of meanings upon a poem in which the
referential function of language (temporal) has been effectively displaced by
its material juxtapositions (spatial). We know that ‘mi (dreamlike) st’ means
something like ‘dreamlike mist’ but there is a fissure between the effects
created within the poem by its spatial non-temporal juxtapositions and the
necessity that such effects will be naturalized within the temporal metalan-
guage of criticism. However, there is also a structural connection between
the doubling of syntactic patterns in Miltonic blank verse, which cannot be
fully appreciated in a single univocal utterance, and cummings’s deployment
of written language as a grid of signifying relations. With cummings’s poem
the visual format, in practical terms, silences the performative dimension of
spoken language, yet maintains a memory of its function in poetic form: to
regard ‘turns/obv/ious/t/os/trange’ as meaningful at all we are placing it
within the same formal context as Milton’s ‘what must be/Worse’. And I shall
argue that in invoking the memory of conventional form cummings also car-
ries a sense of authorial presence into the materiality of the text.
Beyond Milton’s end of the scale we would find the work of the more
traditional eighteenth- and nineteenth-century blank-verse writers, where
the visual format is synchronized with the rhythmic and syntactic move-
ment of the univocal sequence – the visual text becomes the recording
instrument for the single pattern of the spoken medium. To broaden this
category even further we could exclude all forms of verse which create
no essential point of disruption between what is seen and what is heard.
Beyond cummings’s end of the scale there exists a whole genre of writing
which is generally categorized as concrete poetry.

Concrete Poetry
Here we enter territory in which discrimination, inclusion or exclusion,
becomes more problematic. How might shaped or concrete poems differ
sufficiently from cummings’s ‘57’ to merit exclusion from the scale? Edwin
The Sliding Scale 121

Morgan, a poet whose work includes both visual and regular forms, con-
tributed a statement on how concrete poetry should be perceived in rela-
tion to other genres to the catalogue of the 1965 ICA exhibition ‘Between
Poetry and Painting’:

In all poetry which is written down or printed, a part of the effect is bound
to be visual. Line-length, open, or close texture, long or short words, light
or heavy punctuation, use of capitals, exclamation marks, rhyme – all
these produce characteristic variations of effect and induce different reac-
tions in the viewer even before the viewer becomes in the strict sense a
reader. A page of Milton’s blank verse with its bristling and serried para-
graphs looks quite different from a page of Wordsworth’s, clear, open,
light, loose untormented. . . . The delicate cat-paw placing of words in
poems by William Carlos Williams, Zukofsky, Creeley, and Ronald Johnson
is halfway between being a guide to the ear and a pleasure to the eye.
A more committedly visual poetry like concrete is only emphasising and
developing an already existing visual component of aesthetic effect.
Concrete poems are therefore not in opposition to the spirit of poetry
unless we demand that poetry should be able to be read aloud, or unless
they move so far into the purely graphic or the mathematical that they are
no longer making their appeal through language as such. (pp. 69–70)

Morgan claims that concrete poetry exaggerates and makes explicit a form
of poetic appreciation which has existed, but has rarely been acknowl-
edged, in readings of such traditional forms as blank verse. We can iden-
tify the key to this reluctance in his reference to ‘the demand that poetry
should be read aloud’ – in other words our critical blindness to silent
poetics. Morgan would seem to be referring to verse which, like cum-
mings’s, stands at the edge of the sliding scale, ‘halfway between being a
guide to the ear and a pleasure to the eye’, verse which maintains some
allegiance to the double pattern of temporal and spatial effects. But what
of poems which move towards the ‘purely graphic’, which no longer make
their appeal through language as such? Morgan does not give examples,
but I shall propose a definition. Let us assume that ‘language as such’
means the conventions of composition and understanding which operate
in traditional linguistic discourses, including traditional poetry. To aban-
don these would not involve total exclusion of the materials of linguistic
communication – practically all concrete poems incorporate phenomena
which are recognizably linguistic, such as words, letters, typeface styles,
etc. – but it would involve the rejection of the combinative system through
122 Graphic Poetics

which the integers of linguistic communication are strung together to cre-

ate meaning, and which provide the structural backbone for all traditional
discourses, both poetic and non-poetic. The temporal pattern of syntax,
the basic progressive matrix of a sentence such as subject-verb-object,
would be replaced by a parole, an act of communication, for which there
is no officially documented or even intuitively perceived langue. Poems
such as this would move beyond the borders of the sliding scale because
they make no concession to the structural conventions which govern the
temporal/acoustic dimension of language. By ‘concession to’ I include the
types of spatial configuration, such as those used by cummings, which
at least invoke the memory of horizontal/vertical ‘frame’ of traditional
poetic structures. Some examples of alternative structures are called for.
The following are widely anthologized examples of concrete poetry by
Eugen Gomringer:1

silencio silencio silencio

silencio silencio silencio
silencio silencio
silencio silencio silencio
silencio silencio silencio

ping pong
ping pong ping
pong ping pong
ping pong

w w
d i
n n n
i d i d
w w

These poems are relatively easy to naturalize. Their message or meaning

is certainly embedded within their visual medium, but the reader is pre-
sented with very few problems in disentangling the two. The gap at the cen-
tre of ‘silencio,’ corresponds as a visual metaphor to the acoustic – semantic
repetition of the single word. We might claim that the poem-picture is a
meditation upon the paradox that in order to describe silence in language
we need to use a linguistic symbol which transfers easily into sound, whereas
true silence can only be communicated by the absence of the signifier.
The Sliding Scale 123

Similarly we might also argue that ‘ping pong’ extends this theme of the
paradoxical nature of language as an arbitrary representational system.
‘Ping pong’ is no more accurate a mimetic or onomatopoeic copy of the
sound of a bouncing ball than is ‘mioew’ a ‘record’ of the sound made by
a cat. Gomringer foregrounds, and to a degree parodies, this paradox of
mimesis by creating a kind of visual onomatopoeia where the signifiers seem
to be literally bouncing diagonally down the page before coming to a halt.
‘Wind’ also draws us into confrontation with the arbitrary nature of lan-
guage. The word w.i.n.d. can be ‘read’ along separate diagonal planes and
even along planes that are angular or curved. The ‘meaning’ of such effect
is presumably that in order to bring the arbitrary self-determined signifier
closer to our experience of its referent, we might demonstrate how the com-
ponents of this particular linguistic integer can be, literally, blown around.
What all three poems have in common is that they invite the reader to
relocate them within the kind of communicative circuit that they seek
to transcend. We are aware that the temporal-syntactic code of significa-
tion has been abandoned, but, as Gross demonstrated with Pound’s ‘In
a Station of the Metro’, when more than one unit of linguistic material,
even if they are only letters, are placed before us within a single arte-
fact, frame or parole, our instinct will cause us to find some connection
between them. And the system through which such connections will be
found or proposed is inevitably based upon our intuitive awareness of
the temporal–syntactic relation between the individual components of
language. In the ex-cathedra statements of concrete poets we find that
such a conflict rests uneasily with their aesthetic objectives. Between 1954
and 1960 Gomringer developed a theoretical counterpart to his own and
other concrete poems, based upon the notion of the constellation: ‘The
constellation is order by the poet. He determines the play-area, the field
of force and suggests its possibilities. The reader, the new reader, grasps
the idea of play and joins in’ (Solt, p. 67). But to ‘ join in’ with a field of
possibilities consisting of traces between linguistic signs means that we
will inevitably find it difficult to detach ourselves from the fundamental
normative structures that give these signs meaning. If we find connections
between two or three words we will invoke the arbitrary code of significa-
tion that makes language possible. This is unlike the kind of ‘play’ encour-
aged by patterns of similarity or distinction between colours, objects or
geometric designs, because words, no matter how far they seem detached
from systematic formality, will always signal an intention to say something,
to make a statement whose production and reception will involve a shared
awareness of that system.
124 Graphic Poetics

Augusto and Haroldo de Campos and Decio Pignatari, in ‘A Pilot Plan

for Concrete Poetry’ (1958), invoke Fenollosa as a theoretical precursor and
find themselves dealing with a different version of the Imagist paradox:

Ideogram: appeal to nonverbal communication. Concrete poem com-

municates its own structure: structure-content. Concrete poem is an
object in and by itself, not an interpreter of exterior objects and/or more
or less subjective feelings. Its material: word. . . . Its problem: a problem of
functions – relations of this material. (Solt, p. 72)

How do we reconcile the notion of an object that does not interpret exterior
objects with the fact that the material of this object must be drawn from the
very code whose function is arbitrary, referential and designed specifically
to interpret objects and feelings? I would argue that the only way to effect
such a reconciliation is by engaging with but not necessarily submitting to
the temporal-syntactic system that concretism seeks to transcend. Williams
succeeds in ‘appealing to non-verbal communication’ but he does so by
maintaining temporality (speech, syntax) alongside visual structure (silence,
juxtaposition). Superficially, there would seem to be similarities between the
concretist objectives and Williams’s fusions of the material and referential
functions of language, but these are far outweighed by the differences.
De Campos and Pignatari claim that it is possible to ‘create a specific lin-
guistic area – “verbivocovisual” – which shares the advantages of nonverbal
communication’ (Solt, p. 72). But in practice the sharing is unequal. The
system of cognitive and semiotic awareness that allows us to, as Gomringer
puts it, ‘play’ with these texts is essentially external to the poetic object.
With Gomringer’s three poems a tension exists between our expectation of
how language should work and our immediate experience of the artefact,
but this tension does not emerge from within the poems themselves – their
emphasis upon the spatial and the visual is effectively translated through
the syntactic/temporal basis of the reader’s broader contextual experience
of linguistic communication. With Williams, the conflict, while engaging
with, and often disrupting the expectations of the reader, operates within
the poem, whose effects are generated by the simultaneous presence of syn-
tax/temporality and an alternative pattern of visualism and juxtaposition.
In concrete poetry the interpretative focus has shifted from our awareness
of the poet as negotiating and controlling the phenomenon of arbitrary
textuality to the poet as having submitted to the autonomy of the text. The
poet-text-reader equation has reduced itself to reader and text.
This distinction is important because it presents us with interpretative
conditions and limitations which can identify a poem’s relation to the
The Sliding Scale 125

sliding scale. With concrete poems we can establish phonemic, semantic,

iconic or syntactic links between words, letters and phrases, and it is likely
that a large number of alternative structures will become evident. But we
can never identify a single continuous pattern of relations within the text,
because the varied multiplex interfaces of meaning invoke but do not fol-
low the conventional, serial structure of linguistic discourse. In a seminal
critical article on how criticism can adapt its procedures and techniques
to concrete poetry (‘Concrete Poetry’, 1966) Mike Weaver analyses his own
response to a poem by Gomringer:

baum mann hund berg wolke

frau land haus
kind vogel wind

Gomringer’s 5 mal 1 Constellation, as the title suggests, retains the exact

typographical disposition of its schema through five methodical variations
of its pattern:

1. Left to right vertically – baum; mann FRAU kind; etc.

2. Left to right horizontally – baum, MANN hund berg wolke; etc.
3. Lattice (diamonds) + triangle – HUND frau vogel land; wolke, land, HAUS,
wind; land, vogel, wind, see (land common to all); the unused words form
the triangle baum mann berg KIND.
4. Diagonal slant – baum; mann; hund frau; BERG kind; etc.
5. The original schema, placed last.

This then is the structure of the poem; its form is not reducible either to
analysis or explanation. Once the poem is in progress its temporal form
admits us to a world prior to the knowledge of which reason speaks . . .
(p. 106)

As Weaver’s technique shows, we interpret concrete poems in a similar way

to our basic understanding of maps. There are routes, directions, channels,
passages, but none of them dominates or creates a particular textual ten-
sion with the others; they are simply there and we can follow any of them.
His method is followed and elaborated in a number of later articles; par-
ticularly Aaron Marcus’s ‘An Introduction to the Visual Syntax of Concrete
Poetry’ (1974), R. P. Draper’s ‘Concrete Poetry’ (1974) and Janet Larsen
McHughes’s ‘The Poesis of Space: Prosodic Structures in Concrete Poetry’
(1977). Marcus’s is the most technically precise analysis, and he produces
126 Graphic Poetics

diagrams which trace out the eye movement of the reader as patterns of sig-
nification are identified and followed. All of these studies share a reliance
upon deep structure as a pattern that can be invoked to find connections
and sequences within the text, and their method testifies to the distinction
between concrete poetry and verse within the sliding scale. The latter will
create contrasting and sometimes contradictory patterns of meaning but
the axis between these will shift us back and forth between what we see and
what we hear. The reader/critic of concrete poetry can describe the distinct
patterns, but will not be able to move beyond this state of awareness to an
active engagement with a presence within the text on who will control the
perceptual focus between the sound and the space, the ideational pattern
and the graphic materiality of the language. In concrete poems there is
no centre of signification, only diffuse, divergent and juxtaposed patterns.
Poems within the sliding scale exhibit a temporal pattern, a movement
from beginning to end, whose progress will at various points be disrupted,
divided and broadened by its conflict with visualism.
In my view concrete poetry is less capable of achieving a productive and
innovative interface between the communicative medium and the physical
world than are its visualist counterparts within the sliding scale. The latter,
while apparently submitting themselves to the outer-textual conventions of
temporal syntax, are in fact inscribing a struggle between control and free-
dom. By incorporating and engaging with the phonocentric, temporal pat-
tern of meaning they are able to overreach it. Milton and Williams invest
their texts with a univocal spoken pattern and it is through this positioning
of a speaking presence that they are able to foreground the decentring of
visualism. Eve speaks, yet she communicates her multidimensional persona
only in silence. Williams comments upon Brueghel’s pictures, but his utter-
ances are continually challenged by the silent configurations of meaning.
It is possible to identify a subgenre of concrete poetry which acknowl-
edges and incorporates the primary structures of conventional verse, but
which, by various means, excludes itself from the sliding scale. Paul de
Vree’s ‘A rose is everywhere,’ Emmett Williams’s ‘Do You Remember’, Edwin
Morgan’s ‘The Computer’s First Christmas Card’, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s
‘Cathedral’ and Thomas A. Clark’s ‘River’2 all indicate to the reader that
the dominant pattern of signification will follow the conventional route
from top left to bottom right. They enter the ‘frame’ of the conventional
printed poem by arranging words in horizontal units whose termination
is governed neither by the size of the page nor by any other contingency
of typesetting, but they also share a tendency towards semantic/phone-
mic repetition or thematic circularity which effectively disappoints the
The Sliding Scale 127

conventional expectation of sense developing or moving forward through

unpredictable patterns of termination and continuity. Paul de Vree prob-
ably comes closest to the deployment of conventional structure:

a rose is everywhere
a rose
as a rose
For ever is
a rose
for ever everywhere
a rose

This poem could be read aloud, but such an emphasis upon its tem-
poral pattern would grant us only a minimal awareness of the internal
interweavings of surface and meaning. For instance the column consisting
of ‘a rose’ suggests the impenetrable solidity of the signifier which refuses
to become a constituent of discursive syntax. A tension exists between one
linguistic element which attempts to say something about the phenomen-
ology of ‘a rose’ and the graphic signifier whose positioning resists these
attempts, and seems at the ‘end’ of the poem to be falling away from,
escaping, the determinism of syntax. Similarities between this effect and
poems by Williams and cummings become evident, but it is also clear that
de Vree’s concession to discursive temporality is marginal. We know that a
statement about something is almost being made, but any understanding
of what this is or of its contextual origin is virtually forbidden by the self-
conscious openness of the text. We could very easily rearrange the lines of
this poem – ‘for ever everywhere’ could serve just as well as the opening
line and ‘is everywhere’ would be quite suitable as a conclusion. De Vree
has surrendered the purposive individuality of a statement to the multi-
plex patternings of textuality. Poems on the sliding scale will exploit text-
uality and the material of communication, but they leave the fingerprint
of individual intention: by changing the format of a sliding-scale poem we
would be altering a message rather than participating in the play of sig-
nification. Even with the general field of ostentatiously visual poetry it is
evident that the Concretists’ countenance much less attraction to the chal-
lenge, the craft of writing verse, than their Renaissance predecessors, the
pattern Poets. Herrick’s ‘The Pillar of Fame’ and Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’
(see above, pp. 99–100) involve for both poets a considerable test of their
stylistic dexterity. Even if perceived only aurally each poem testifies to an
astute command of figurative language, metre and sound pattern, and
128 Graphic Poetics

would indeed compare favourably with the most celebrated pieces com-
prised of the baroque stanzaia structures so favoured in that period. The
fact that what we hear also describes on the page a pictorial representation
of key themes addressed in the text puts them beyond the standard classi-
fication of Pattern Poems as curiosities; they are complex, superbly crafted
poetic artefacts in their own right. Herbert’s ‘Our Life is Hid with Christ
in God’ is not strictly speaking a Pattern Poem but, self-evidently, it makes
use of the visual format as a counterpoint to linearity, and certainly invites
comparison with de Vree.

My words and thoughts do both express this notion,

That Life hath with the sun a double motion
The first Is straight, and our diurnal friend
The other Hid, and doth obliquely bend.
One life is wrapped In flesh, and tends to earth:
The other winds towards Him, whose happy birth
Taught me to live here so, That still one eye
Should aim and shoot at that which Is on high:
Quitting with daily labour all My pleasure
To gain at harvest an eternal Treasure

If, like ‘Easter Wings’, this were perceived aurally – or even from the
page, but without the italicized aids provided by Herbert – it would still
demand attention as a complex reflection upon the Christian notion of
a disjunction between the tactile physical world, available to our senses,
and another, spiritual dimension that might be intuited but is beyond rou-
tine perception. Its metrical and stylistic qualities are close to flawless, as
Herbert wraps in layers of metaphor the conundrum of how the faithful
might read signs of the spiritual world in its natural counterpart, begin-
ning with a figure from astronomy, the ‘double motion’ of the sun, and
opening into a contrast between the mutable ‘flesh’ of humanity and the
eternal spiritual presence of ‘Him’. Its theme, like many other pieces in the
so-called Metaphysical tradition, is the ever present question of the rela-
tion between the transient and the eternal, the search for an immutable
truth beneath the shifting surface of actuality. But unlike most of his peers
Herbert hides within the complex sound pattern of the poem a mysterious
thread of meaning: an unambiguous proclamation of faith sewn diagonally
through the visual text. It is a moment of visual mimesis; the affirmation
of spiritual and contentment is, like a moment of revelation, at once part
of and detached from the conceits and speculations of the text and indeed
The Sliding Scale 129

the world. His simultaneous use of the linear and the visual aspects of lan-
guage is more than a bravura display or an experiment with textuality; it
is at once a testament to his skill as a poetic craftsman and an elegant sub-
mission to the desire to seek immutable truth in the arbitary structure of
language. I would aver that few if any writers could have conceived of and
executed so subtly this fabric of devices, whereas de Vree’s piece is, by com-
parison, of questionable intrinsic merit. Substitute ‘a flower’ ‘a man’ even
‘a spoon’ (monosyllabic alternatives are almost limitless) for ‘a rose’ and
the significance, the weight, of the poem is hardly altered.
John Cage produced a sequence of so-called mesastic poems where, like
Herbert’s piece, a message is inscribed visually within the linear text. His
exercises are intriguing, but one cannot help but reflect that they could eas-
ily be imitated by anyone with a similar inclination to do so. For example:

from his Jumping

The older one is Erik SAtie
he never stops sMiling
and thE younger one
iS Joyce, thirty nine

he Jumps
with his back tO the audience
for all we know he maY be quietly weeping
or silently or both you just Can’t

The fact that, unlike Herbert, Cage’s linear text involves a structure-less,
impressionistic free verse ramble, with each line no more than a gratuitous
concession to convention means that little skill is required in wrapping it
around the vertical mesastic message: JAMES JOYCE. I could do it. I will:

A legend conJoined with

so many landmarks tO Modernism,
suffused witH whimsy,
Enchantingly, and oh so eNchantingly

absent. He took his cue from DuChamp, the

infamous, lAvatory man.
How does he enGage us
in our new millEnnium?
130 Graphic Poetics

This took me little more than ten minutes to write. It involved rather less
intellectual investment than a game of Scrabble – which in shape, at least,
it resembles – and as such it exposes Cage’s work as little more than a ges-
ture, invested with scant significance.
Consider the following by Ian Hamilton Finlay:

it is here
it is little
it was here
it is lost

This could, for those conversant with the mantras and formulae of post-
structuralism, prompt a lengthy discussion of the arbitrary nature of the sign,
the problematical relationship between presence (‘is’ and ‘here’), absence
(‘was’ and ‘lost’) and the marginal (‘little’), and their combined threat to
a secure notion of actuality (‘it’). Hamilton Finlay causes us to chase the
signs around the page, as we search for a secure linear syntagmatic chain,
and forces us adrift along other visual paths of meaning, to nowhere. Such
a straight-faced, charitable interpretation would, however, overlook the
undeniable fact that, like the pieces by de Vree and Cage, the composition
of this ‘poem’ required little effort or skill. Once the poet, even the vis-
ual poet, absents themselves completely from the complex demands of lin-
ear, orthodox language then they are doing little more than playing with
words, like pieces on the aforementioned Scrabble board. Poets within the
sliding scale – notably Milton, Wordsworth, Williams and indeed Herbert –
create a conflict of interests between language deployed in its orthodox,
univocal form and the function of the visual units. The Concretists are
essentially the poetic equivalent of those in the visual arts who, absurdly,
perpetuate the supposedly groundbreaking moment of Duchamp’s
urinal as a ‘work of art’. It was a gesture, an assertion of radicalism, but
even Duchamp treated it as something of a joke, for the simple reason
The Sliding Scale 131

that it required no aesthetic or intellectual investment. Unfortunately,

the intellectual establishment seemed, indeed seems, devoid of a sense of
humour: Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst now ‘sell’ versions of Duchamp’s
moment of absurdity for millions of pounds. Cage, de Vree, even Hamilton
Finlay are perpetuating a hollow gesture. Imagine a painting by Man Ray
or Picasso of Duchamp’s Urinal which incorporates its puzzled scrutineers
at the Paris exhibition: that is the extent to which Williams and, as we will
see many others, improve upon the Concretists.
To return to the analogy of the map, sliding-scale poems will allow us to
discern a presence that inhabits and moves through the landscape of signs,
rather than leave us to contemplate the choice between tracks and patterns.

Cummings and the Shadow of Speech

How then can I justify my claim that the verse of e. e. cummings stands at
the border of the sliding scale while the concrete texts dealt with above
move beyond it? First let us consider the correspondences and distinc-
tions. Clearly cummings’s poems share with the concrete texts an ability to
leave substantial elements of their formal and signifying function embed-
ded within the silent, graphic format. Indeed poems such as ‘57’ contain
structures of signification which can never be realized in temporal per-
formance. The distinction emerges in the identification of a phenomenon
common to all of cummings’s verses but the exclusion of which is a consist-
ent characteristic of the concretist technique. I shall call this phenomenon
‘the shadow of speech’.
Speech is a term which, when applied to poetic texts, carries a dou-
ble signification. It splits the text between our perception of the gen-
esis and circumstances of its composition and our perception of how it
works and what it means. The traditional belief that ‘poetry is a spoken
art’ is based upon a parallel and unitary correspondence between the
two: the printed text is a record of impression and feeling becoming
speech which preserves this phenomenon for later vocal performance.
Of course, this correspondence is subject to qualification, in that we are
not expected to believe that the complex metaphors and prosodic for-
mulae of Shakespeare’s sonnets are spontaneous and improvized. Rhyme
schemes, metrical patterns and ingenious tropes are the acceptable aes-
thetic counterparts to unstructured, intuitive vocalizations of feelings
and perceptions. It has been my objective in this study to institute visual
132 Graphic Poetics

pattern as a productive addition to this repertoire of formal structures.

Just as we accept that the iambic pentameter or the a, b, b, a rhyme
scheme is evidence that the poet has structured and fashioned the lan-
guage of the text rather than merely recorded ‘the spontaneous overflow
of powerful feeling’, so we should accept that visual structures involve
similar restructurings of the univocal utterance. The shadow of speech
is discernible when the balance between formalization and spontaneity
is shifted so far towards the explicit and self-conscious manipulation of
graphic materiality that speech becomes a memory, a shadow of its real-
ization in sound, while maintaining the presence and individuality of
the poet.
cummings’s volume No Thanks is generally recognized to contain his most
challenging visual experiments and can therefore serve as a testing ground
for my thesis that the ‘shadow of speech’ distances cummings’s work from
concretism and places it at the border of the sliding scale. Consider poem
number 9:

o pr
gress verily thou art m
mentous superc
lossal hyperpr
digious etc i kn
w & if you d

n’t why g
to yonder s
called newsreel s
called theatre & with your
wn eyes beh

Id The
(The president The
president of The president
of the The) president of

the (united The president of the

united states The president of the united
states of The President Of The) United States

Of America unde negant redire quemquam supp

sedly thr
The Sliding Scale 133


There can be few poems in English which disrupt yet effectively con-
trol the reader’s codes of interpretation as skilfully as cummings’s ‘9’. Like
Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’ and Herrick’s ‘The Pillar’ it sets an iconic, visual
image against a temporal sequence, but unlike the ‘symmetric’ of the pat-
tern poem the two codes are cunningly interwoven.
When read aloud, and without reference to its graphic identity, we encoun-
ter a mocking satirical presence which slips easily between parodic formality
and the familiar idioms of everyday speech. The opening verse paragraph,
with its combination of biblical grammar and modern hyperbole, is pure
pastiche from which emerges the more direct and personal voice of the imi-
tator: ‘i know and if you don’t’. This is the controlling presence of the poem
who goes on to invite the reader to ‘with your own eyes behold’ a bizarre
audio-collage. In this the ‘The President of the United States’ is gradually
introduced through a kind of drum roll of word-gathering. The tone is still
mocking and parodic, dragging the reader word by word towards the com-
pletion of a title which must be inscribed upon the consciousness of anyone
who has had the President introduced to them via the newsreel or the radio.
The concluding sequence is a splendid parody of 1930s political advertising;
the great leader is also a man of the people, and the grandeur of classical
precedent adapts comfortably to the throwing of a baseball.
Vocalized as such this amusing exercise in cynicism is only a sin-
gle dimension of the poem that cummings has, literally, written. When
reading the poem aloud to someone else we know, but we have no way
of informing them, that a vital component of the temporal sequence,
the letter ‘o’, is actually falling down the left-hand margin of the poem
to be picked up by the President and become the thing that it physically
resembles, the baseball. Nor can we inform the listener of how ‘throwing
a baseball’ curves across the page and thus resembles the throwing of a
baseball. The most astounding piece of synaesthetic craftsmanship occurs
in the ‘fanfare’ to ‘The President of the United States’. The title can be
read down each side of the figure; the whole structure is built upon an
incremental expansion (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 words per line); the brackets exclude
134 Graphic Poetics

yet another instance of the title, ‘The ( . . . ) president of the ( . . . ) United

States’. Indeed the whole structure is alive with textual interfaces and cor-
respondences, but however much we might be tempted to cite this as an
early example of concretism, we should remember that running through
these complex and literally unrecitable patterns of signification is a uni-
vocal presence. When Blake in Songs of Innocence and Experience refers to
‘the Bard’, whose ‘ears have heard the holy word’, the signifying pattern
is caught between a movement beyond the materiality of the poem to
some projected ideational conception of the Bard and an internal for-
mula of alliteration (‘have, heard, holy’) and rhyme (‘heard-word’). The
correspondence between what we ‘hear’ within the poem and the Bard’s
experience of hearing the holy word seems productive, but it is the incorp-
oration of what would otherwise be regarded as arbitrary sound patterns
within the spoken poem that makes such a judgement valid; acoustic form
becomes meaningful because of its context and not because of its intrin-
sic signifying function. It could be argued that when cummings urges
us to ‘behold the President’ there is a similar correspondence between
the ideational picture of the President and the structure of graphic signi-
fiers within which we ‘behold’ fragmentations and completions of ‘the
President of the United States’. Just as Blake ‘speaks to us’ of the Bard
from within an arbitrary pattern of sounds, so cummings is able to achieve
a similar poet-to-reader effect through his use of graphic structures. The
primary difference is that with the former we are conditioned to read
through the materiality of language to the authorial presence, but with
the latter the phonocentric protocols of interpretation do not provide us
with so easy a route.
cummings in No Thanks was operating in uncharted territories of signi-
fication. The early free-versifiers had extended and rewritten the conven-
tional acoustic patterns of meaning – the metrical and syntactic constituents
of the line had moved from the persistent and repetitive to the irregular
and the unpredictable – but in an important sense they had maintained
an allegiance to the familiar balance between the acoustic, non-referential
structures of poetic form and the broader signifying function of language.
Acoustic free verse had an entire tradition of compositional and interpret-
ative protocols which would operate as productive points of comparison
for the new poetic, but, apart from the pattern poem, there was no estab-
lished ‘grammar’ of visual signification upon which cummings could base
his innovations. The difficulties he faced in overcoming this problem can
be judged by the response of Harvey Gross to what must be the best known
visual experiment of the volume, no. ‘13’.
The Sliding Scale 135

a)s w(e loo)k
eringint (o-
S a
rlvInG . gRrEaPsPhOs)
, grasshopper;

We must piece together the shattered words and disarranged punctuation

to discover what the poem says. (It reads, as near as I can make out, ‘The
grasshopper, who as we look up now, gathering into PPEGORHRASS,
leaps! arriving to become, rearrangingly, a grasshopper!’) I am unable to
discover what rationale lies behind the poem’s punctuation. What the
poem is doing is leaping, flying apart in midair, and rearranging itself on
the page. . . . cummings uses an elaborate technique of synaesthesia, a com-
plex visual and aural derangement, to signify emotional meaning. We must
in order to read this poem, ‘see’ sounds and ‘hear’ shapes . . . (pp. 123–4)

As much can be learnt from the uneasy tone of this passage as from its
critical exegesis. Gross finds himself able to understand the poem yet he
is uncomfortable, even uncertain, about the means by which he is able to
reach his conclusion. His ability to disclose a sequential pattern of mean-
ing, a metatext, is clearly due to his awareness of the shadow of speech – the
poem can never be vocalized, but running through it is a presence which
controls and deploys its linguistic constituents. He is also aware that in
identifying this metatext he has moved beyond the conventional interpret-
ative perception of how form relates to meaning (‘I am unable to discover
what rationale lies behind the poem’s punctuation’). It could be argued
that it is equally difficult to ‘discover what rationale’ governs a form of
‘punctuation’ in which coincidences of sound are incorporated as a struc-
tural axis between separate syntactic movements, but our familiarity with
the co-presence of acoustic materiality and sequential grammar allows us
136 Graphic Poetics

to naturalize such conflicts between pattern and meaning. Gross refers at

one point to cummings being in a ‘typographic fit’ and to the interweav-
ing of aural and visual language as a form of ‘derangement’. The reader,
he implies, must consequently adopt a role similar to the psychoanalyst
or the physician and ‘piece together the shattered words and disarranged
punctuation to discover what the poem says’. But do we not face exactly the
same problems of restructuring and reconciling fugitive elements of what
Wimsatt calls the ‘logic and alogic’ of rhyme? cummings throws the reader
off balance not because his poems are incomprehensible, but because the
experience of ‘seeing sounds’ and ‘hearing shapes’ obliges us to continually
re-examine the relation between poet, text and reader. When we natural-
ize a sequence of metre, alliteration, assonance and rhyme the paraphrase
will inevitably strip elements of the text’s meaning from its structure – we
don’t write about rhyme in rhyme – but text and metatext at least adhere
to parallel conditions of temporality and actual-ization in speech. With
cummings’s poems not only are elements of the text left embedded within
its original form, they are unrecitable and unrepeatable in temporal dis-
course. Gross finds himself ‘understanding’ cummings while never being
able to hear him, and consequently he displaces his sense of disorientation
on to an authorial condition of ‘derangement’.
Clearly cummings has succeeded in creating the tension between pat-
tern and meaning, which matches the effect of the conventional double
pattern, but more significantly he has at the same time drawn the sophisti-
cated reader back through years of ‘literary competence’ to an experience
of frisson which most readers and critics of poetry still remember but can
never again fully recreate: I respond to and understand the poem and the
poet but I’m not entirely certain of why and how. The question of whether
curnmings should be given credit as one of the genuinely innovative poets
of modernism or, as is more often the case, be tolerated as merely a whim-
sical master of verbal trickery, takes us back to the problem raised at the
beginning of this section. Language, whatever else it might do, will cre-
ate a barrier between what we are, what we feel, what we experience and
our ability to communicate this to others. Every groundbreaking act of
poetic innovation in literary history has been premised upon the objective
of finding new ways to move around or through this barrier. Visual form is
held to be a phenomenon which thickens and solidifies the barrier, unlike
its formal counterparts in auditory language which enable us to negoti-
ate it. cummings’s success lies in his ambitious programme of reversing the
visual-acoustic prejudices which underlie this objective. Free verse was the
creative manifestation of the perennial ideal of moving poetic language
The Sliding Scale 137

closer to the experience which prompted the poet to ‘speak’, but no matter
how ‘free’ poetry can become of its impersonal conventions it will still be
language; and language, in order to preserve the moment of spontaneity,
the fusion of medium and referent, must be written down, stilled, frozen
in the silent configurations of the page, cummings’s poetry asks us to think
again about language as a barrier: he demonstrates that the inbuilt tension
between word and thing, signifier and signified should be replaced by a
sense of living within language as well as through it. His skill is manifest
in his achievement of a delicate balance between these two experiences:
his texts incorporate linguistic forms which can never be spoken, never
be translated into the temporality of auditory communication, yet, para-
doxically, cummings the speaker is present within them. Thus he exists at
the border of the sliding scale. These are his poems in the sense that they
contain a trace, a shadow of his spoken presence, the moment when feel-
ing and impression become language; but at the same time they inhabit
the realm of visual artefacts, paintings, sculpture, whose material function
remains immune to the interpreter’s urge to perform them. His poems
deconstruct the tension between permanence and transcendence in lan-
guage by interweaving the immediacy and ephemerality of the utterance
with the permanent materiality of the artefact.
cummings is that rare phenomenon, a poet without a specific aesthetic
or technical context. His work appears in anthologies of concrete poetry,
but it is just as likely to be found in collections whose criterion for inclusion
could be ‘American’, ‘modern’, ‘contemporary’ or sometimes ‘comic’. In
studies of free verse he features as the nagging eccentric whose presence
cannot be ignored, but whose experiments continue to disrupt our attempts
to document the methods and characteristics of modernist writing. The
reason for this is that the poems with which he is most readily associated,
his visual texts, are instances of what Mukarovsky and Jakobson have called
‘foregrounding’ (aktualisace). No one, whether they are a formalist or not,
objects to foregrounding; indeed the self-conscious positioning of devices
and techniques that do not serve the practical purpose of communicating
facts or ideas has become a common feature of modern attempts to define
poetry. But as we have seen in Chapter 3, ‘baring the device’ is a practice
that can only be fully documented and understood when the device is seen
to belong to the linear, acoustic dimension of language. cummings fore-
grounds the graphic materiality of language not merely as an iconoclastic
gesture, but to show how silent visual language can signify independently
of its acoustic-counterpart, and crucially he does not allow the device to
obscure the living, though often silent, presence of the poet.
138 Graphic Poetics

As I indicated the ‘black lines’ have been used by critics to reinforce the
notion of the printed text as subsidiary to its spoken form, a mere record of
an idealized vocal performance. However, they have unintentionally served
to prove quite the opposite; that when the lines are applied to pieces by
Milton or Williams they hide as much as they disclose; specifically interre-
lationships between the units of meaning that have nothing to do with lin-
earity. One example I omitted from that discussion was not intended by its
author as a critical device. Rather, Man Ray’s ironically titled ‘Lautgedicht’
(1924) involves an ingenius dismantling of the thesis that what we see on the
page is a model for vocalization or an accurate record of how poems work.
The Sliding Scale 139

Even without Man Ray’s droll provision of a title we would know

instinctively that what we see is a poem, of sorts, for the simple reason
that it triggers our recognition of the way that the typographic layout of
verse foregrounds its stylistic fingerprint, the line. For those of us who
are severely short-sighted our impairment has now found a role for itself
in literary studies. Take off your glasses, open a volume of poems, any
volume, and hold the page at a distance. What you will see is something
like Man Ray’s ‘poem’ but you should remind yourself that this imprint
on the page is extremely misleading. What goes on behind the blocks
of language is just as important as their comforting image as a record
of speech. We assume that each blacked-out unit carries forward some
element of the syntagmatic chain from its predecessor and bequeaths an
expression of sense to its successor. But, since Milton, poems have dis-
proved this expectation. As we follow the linear passage of units our eye
picks up non-successive counter currents of meaning. Imagine Man Ray’s
‘version’ of the opening line of Cummings’s ‘57’.

It would ‘look’ like this

_____ ___________ __

And we would probably assume that it is comprised of something like a

pronoun (appropriately short), a verb phrase and then perhaps connective,
each conforming to the standard conventions of syntax. But no:

mi (dreamlike) st

Man Ray points up the enormous potential for creative interaction

between the two poles of the sliding scale, progress and stasis. cummings
is a fascinating nonconformist and his closest counterpart in contempor-
ary verse is Caroline Bergvall.
likes hang
from the trees with
herl egs up in the air
while herl
egs dow
140 Graphic Poetics

non the ground

Kemy dolly’s knees t
hey full of joins

This brief passage (from ‘Les Jets de la Poupee’) does not do proper just-
ice to the persistent dynamic of her poems. Units of language are gathered
in blocks on the page and provoke our desire, instinct, to reposition them,
break them up and reassemble them according to our expectation that
syntax shall govern individual words and of how the latter should retain
their integrity. We watch the text and we expect to hear, in our mind, the
sound of the poem. What we encounter is what logic deems impossible: two
voices speaking to us, silently, simultaneously, from the page.
The issue to be addressed in the following chapter is the extent to which
techniques and patterns which satisfy the criteria of the sliding scale have
manifested themselves in the work of poets who would seem to share no
aesthetic or technical affiliations. We have already seen that Milton has
much more in common with cummings than conventional criticism would
have us believe, and in what follows I shall use the sliding scale to pro-
pose an alternative to the accepted histories of technique in American and
British postmodernist poetry.
Chapter 8

The Sliding Scale and

Recent Literary History

The purpose of this chapter will be to use the perceptual guideline of the
sliding scale to examine how visual form has manifested itself in postmod-
ernist poetic writing. T. S. Eliot is arguably the first of the postmodernist
poets since, although a contemporary of Pound and the Imagists, we find
that in his later writing he accommodates the techniques and patterns of
formal regularity alongside his allegiances to experiment. But, as Eliot and
the second generation of twentieth-century poets demonstrate, visual poet-
ics is a phenomenon that does not easily correspond with the more familiar
formal and aesthetic distinctions between pro- and anti-modernism.

The American Ideogram

In Chapter 3, ‘Critical Antipathy’, I raised the issue of visual structures and
the intention of the poet. It became clear that critics could discredit visual
poetry by reshaping pre-existing texts, usually prose, and arguing that the
graphic format is not an intrinsic element of signification but a signal, a
determinant of readerly strategies of interpretation. This thesis is effect-
ively challenged by poems in which the graphic materiality of the language
is inscribed within the silent, printed text, but it nevertheless prevails as a
critical maxim, an idea which will cloud our awareness of what visual form
is and what it can do.
The point to be made about this critical habit is that it feeds upon
what might be termed the phonocentric tradition of modernism. The
anti-print beliefs of the Imagists and early free-verse theorists have been
maintained within a chiefly American school of experimental poets
with which Williams is often, and in my view wrongly, associated. This
movement has generated its own sub-lexicon of poetic terms – the ide-
ogrammic form, the open poem, projective verse – and its best-known
142 Graphic Poetics

proponents are Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and more
recently Gary Snyder. It is of course dangerous to generalize, but these
poets/critics share an awareness of the existence of visual form that is
uneasily matched by their belief in poetic writing and interpretation as
founded upon the spoken text. I have already referred to the paradoxical
relationship between the static, visualist theories of Fenollosa and the
phonocentric allegiances of the Imagists. This has not resolved itself –
rather, it has intensified. The text that stands at the thematic and his-
torical centre of these developments is Charles Olson’s essay ‘Projective
Verse’ (1950), an attempt to keep alive the revolutionary impetus of mod-
ernism amidst the more pluralistic and reactionary atmosphere of post-
war writing and criticism. Olson’s crucial distinction is between ‘closed’
and ‘open’ poetry. ‘Closed’ poetry is ‘print bred’, frozen in the abstract
formulae of metre and rhyme – in other words, the greater part of poetry
written before the twentieth century, and by implication the kind of text
which utilizes graphic material as a means of signification. Olson’s atti-
tude to ‘closed’ poetry is an extension of Fenollosa’s perception of the
infelicitous tendencies of Western language; that the conventions of the
medium itself absorb and restructure the relationship between the indi-
vidual and reality. According to Olson the formal protocols of the ‘closed’
poem reify and delimit any genuine attempt at communication between
poet and reader, so that the original subject and object, the poet and
the world, are transformed into grammatical, stylistic categories. Olson’s
escape route leads directly away from an ‘arbitrary’ relationship between
poetic form and the ‘real’ world:

every element in an open poem (the syllable, the line, as well as the
image, the sound, the sense) must be taken up as participants in the kin-
etic of the poem just as solidly as we are accustomed to take what we call
the objects of reality; and these elements are to be seen as creating the
tensions of a poem just as totally as do those whose objects create what
we know as the world . . . (p. 20)

The most tangible constituent of the poem’s identity, the line, is less a pros-
odic category or a link with tradition and more a function of the poet’s
interaction with his environment.

And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of
the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here
that the daily, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 143

declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending – where its
breathing shall come to, termination.

Steele, Blake and Lowell are recalled, and Olson goes on to deal with the
problem of the ‘printer’s measure’. The manuscript and printing press
have, according to Olson, removed verse ‘from its place of origin and its
destination’; he believes that the traditional metrical line was petrified by
print into a barrier between poet and reader. His solution is provided by
more recent technology, the typewriter, which

due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet indicate
exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the jux-
tapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time
the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first time
he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening
he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would
want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his own work. (p. 26)

Olson’s poetry is visual in the sense that the openings, closings and typo-
graphic dispositions of his lines are determined neither by the abstract
conventions of metre and rhyme nor by the exigencies of typesetting. But
it does not satisfy the necessary criteria for inclusion on the sliding scale.
His objective is transparency; the line is a record, an indication of the per-
ceptual, mental and spoken process that brought it into existence, and he
expects the reader to respond to it as a means of ‘voicing’ his work, shar-
ing the prelinguistic experience of which the printed poem is a record.
Consider, for instance, the beginning of one of Olson’s Maximus letters:

I have this sense

that I am one
with my skin
Plus this – plus this:
that forever the geography
which leans in
on me I compell
backwards I compell Gloucester
to yield, to
is this
144 Graphic Poetics

The purpose of the visual structure is not to impose or even to delin-

eate the formal structure of the verse; rather it is a record of how the mind
and the vocal faculty of the poet are responding and processing phenom-
ena without the constraints of form. The line is indeed extra-syntactic,
but unlike its function in the verse of Williams or cummings it does not
establish itself as a supplement, an alternative, or even an intensification of
the linear continuities of syntax. Instead it indicates the uncertain relation
between thought and expression before these are submitted to the imper-
sonal rules of grammar. The line formation

leans in
on me I compell
backwards I compell Gloucester
to yield

is an attempt to take us as far back as possible to the point at which thought

and experience become expression. The ‘pauses’ at the line endings are
not just rhetorical or elocutionary devices; they are the points at which
the mind of the poet is literally changing direction. ‘I compell backwards
I compell’ is ungrammatical, but unlike Williams’s texts, we are unable
to discover a pattern of alternatives locked into the silent printed format.
Here the format records the unstructured movements of the poet’s mind
across the selective and combinative indexes of language. The placing
of ‘backwards’ and ‘Gloucester’ is not designed to set up for the reader
a complex interplay between metaphor and metonymy. Indeed it is not
designed at all; it is, in the most literal sense, a sequential recording of the
unresolved possibilities and indecisions that occur at the interface between
impression and language. The lines are not determinants of form or axes
between structure and signification; they are a means by which we might
share Olson’s experience of ‘listening to his own speech’, a form of speech
which is pre-grammatical and pre-formal. The experience when reading
Williams and cummings is often that of imagining the poet using the
materiality of language in the same way that the visual artist uses the pre-
linguistic material of representation. For Olson the materiality of language
is a regrettable condition of the medium, something that must be used and
transcended as rapidly as possible.
Olson’s poetics represent a twentieth-century realization of a complex
of ideals and objectives that date back to Joshua Steele: the poem should
not submit itself to the rules and arbitrary conventions of linguistic cul-
ture, but should instead allow language to reflect the perceptions, urges,
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 145

habits and rhythms of the body in its interaction with the natural world.
Indeed, Steele’s eighteenth-century anticipation of the open poem was
closely linked with the pre-Romantic taste for aesthetic primitivim – a
school of thought that regarded true poetry as resulting from pre-civilized
man’s first engagements with the imperatives of response and communi-
cation. They believed that culture, form and print had for about a millen-
nium conspired against such objectives. More recently, in Cid Corman’s
Word for Word (1977), we find Olson’s manifesto employed as a means of
reinterpreting the constraints and impositions of poetic tradition: ‘The
voice, as the articulator of expression, is the shaper of poetic style or per-
sonality, but always in conjunction with the ear, i.e. the voice and the ear
(which supposes inevitably the mental faculty) modulate the breath . . . the
breath is the unit of poetic energy’ (pp. 67–8). As such, argues Corman,
we should attempt to read behind the conventions of tradition to disclose
the originary pre-structured moment of composition. To demonstrate how
we might do this he follows Rice, Walker and Steele on Milton and breaks
up four lines of Keats’s Endymion into ‘breath pauses’:

its loveliness’ ‘increases’ ‘it will never

Pass’ ‘into nothingness;’ ‘but still will keep
A bower’ ‘quiet for us’ ‘and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams’ ‘and health’ ‘and quiet breathing’

Reprinted, Keat’s ‘breath pauses’ bear a remarkable resemblance to Olson’s

lines from Maximus:

Its loveliness
It will never pass
Into nothingness;
But still will keep a bower
Quiet for us
And a sleep
Full of sweet dreams
And health
And quiet breathing

The words are still Keats’s but the interpretative context has changed.
Elements such as ‘Increases’ and ‘Into nothingness’ have been released
from what Olson would regard as their ‘closed’ condition within the
146 Graphic Poetics

sequential pattern of syntax and the pentameter. But there are a number
of problems attendant upon such formal flexibility.
Olson’s desire to record the ‘listening he has done to his own speech’
corresponds to an unrealizable ideal that Derrida identifies in the
French verb ‘s’entendre parler – “hearing/understanding oneself speak”
through the phonic substance – which presents itself as a non-exterior,
non-mundane therefore, non-empirical or non-contingent signifier’
(Of Grammatology, pp. 7–8). But it is the evanescence of the signifier in
speech that creates the impression of immediate access to a tangible
signified, a form of truth that is a ‘non-contingent’ part of the immedi-
ate experience, the ‘breath’ of the poet. What Olson and Corman con-
veniently forget is that speech and typing must stop, that the kinetic of
the poem will eventually become stasis, and the text will present itself
as a network of silent graphemes. It will then fall prey to the likes of
Jonathan Culler and Stanley Fish who will, irrespective of what the poet
might claim in his ex-cathedra statements, demonstrate that formless-
ness can, via the signalling mechanism of the visual format, invite the
reader to impose patterns and complex strategies of formalization and
signification upon it.
I believe that the poets of the sliding scale recognize these practical dan-
gers in Olson’s otherwise creditable objectives. It can be no accident that
Williams’s 1953 statement ‘On Measure’ was addressed to Cid Corman:

We have no measure by which to guide ourselves except a purely intui-

tive one which we feel but do not name. . . . It is all over the page at the
mere whim of the man who composed it. This will not do. Certainly
an art which implies a discipline as the poem does, a rule, a measure,
will not tolerate it. There is no measure to guide us, no recognizable

Williams as we have already seen, evolved such a measure by bringing about

an interplay between the static configurations of the printed text and the
sense of movement that, either in the mind or the ear, is demanded by
the progressive structure of the medium. In addressing his statement to
Corman, Williams discloses an aesthetic and technical division within
the American post-Imagist tradition; a division which arises finally from
the poet’s perceptions of the text as either spoken/ephemeral or silent/
Williams’s prose statements in Spring and All represented a change in dir-
ection away from the idealized transparency of the Imagist programme. He
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 147

argued for the interweaving of the material text, its ideational pattern and
the presence of the poet. During the same period he helped to edit a small
magazine called Contact which was to become known as the vehicle for
one of the many modernist splinter groups, the objectivists. Objectivism,
like most other aestheticisms, tends to shift in definition according to the
individual predilections of its practitioners, but it would not be an over-
generalization to claim that its essential premise was the re-establishment
of the text as a self-referential aesthetic object, to invest the poem with the
status of something peculiar to perceptual and technical idiosyncracies
of its creator – the object of mediation was held to be as important as the
object mediated. The correspondences between the Imagist – objectivist
split and the visual – spoken dimensions of poetic form have not been fully
investigated but they are, as I shall show, significant.
The best-known objectivist is probably Louis Zukofsky. His conception
of the ontology of the poetic artefact is clearly and economically stated in
his slight volume, A Test of Poetry (1964): ‘The test of poetry is the range of
pleasure it affords as sight, sound and intellection.’ He goes on to clarify
this and to claim that the activities of seeing, hearing and thinking should
involve an engagement as much with the artefact itself as with its relation
to the extratextual world. The speech–writing distinction is paralleled by
the phonocentrist–objectivist split. Compare Zukofsky’s thesis with the fol-
lowing statement by Olson’s ally and fellow-phonocentrist Robert Creeley:

One wants to write the poem, put it, as ultimately as one would say it; the
page is his means, not his end. If we grant that poetry must be relegated
finally to what the eye can read, then we have no poetry. . . . Otherwise
one works in, to the page, as where he can score, in a literal sense, the
language of his poem; he wants that as his means, the structure of his
words on the page, in the sense that their spatial positions there will
allow a reader to read them, with his own voice, to that end the poet is
after – i.e. the poem in its full impact of speech.2

The poem on the page is a score that will enable the reader not merely to
vocalize the words but to understand, ‘to read them with his own voice’. The
distinction between the objectivist and phonocentrist conceptions of form
and understanding becomes most evident when we test Creeley’s thesis
against the poems in Zukofsky’s volume I’s (pronounced ‘eyes’) (1937–60,
collected in ALL, 1966). The pun within the title emerges as the principal
motif of the volume. Personal pronoun and means of seeing, subject and
noun, become fused within the shifting tissue of the verse forms. Meaning
148 Graphic Poetics

is never finalized; it moves continually between what we hear (the voice of

the poet, the I) and what we see on the page (the impersonal material of
the poet’s craft, registered by our eyes). Consider ‘Wire’:

Wire cage flues

the roofs:
Paper ash – whole
in gusts –
Flawed by winds
like doves

There are two poems here. ‘Wire’ could, like Ts’ and ‘eyes’, easily be pro-
nounced ‘Why’re’. The flat impersonal tone of the first stanza is then
transformed into an enquiry: why are cage flues on the roofs? If we carry
this enquiry through stanzas 2 and 3 the poem becomes a mildly bizarre
disquisition on the unintended artistry of domestic utilities: whatever the
practical benefits of the flues they can, for the beholder, create the image
of doves released from cages. Read simply in its graphemic denotation as
‘wire’ the speaker’s presence becomes less certain: the emphasis is shifted
away from the poet as the conscious initiator of the question and towards
the three separate stanza/images, whose relation to one another is uncer-
tain. In this sense the poem becomes like the juxtaposed sequences of the
early Imagist writing – of which ‘In a Station of the Metro’ is the proto-
type – but in the former case we find ourselves addressed directly by a voice
whose presence maintains a thread of structure and continuity through
the three stanzas. The point is that we can never dislocate one poem from
the other; they are locked together within the text’s continual movement
between silence and sound. The T of the poet is both within and outside
the language of the poem and the ‘eye’ of the reader enables this continu-
ous process of entry and departure to take place.
Objectivists such as Zukofsky belong on the sliding scale; the movement
of the spoken text is in constant interplay with its silent printed form.
I would place Zukofsky along with cummings at the border, but for slightly
different reasons. Williams and cummings use the poetic line as the prin-
cipal axis between the two dimensions of cognition and signification, but
Zukofsky’s method depends more upon the insertion of a single word or
phrase (such as Wire – Why’re) which will resonate through the pattern of
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 149

the entire poem, its semantic shadow continually falling and withdrawing
from the attendant structures of meaning. What Zukofsky certainly shares
with Williams and cummings is the urge to leave the technical equivalent
of his signature within text: he does not merely, in Olson’s terms, listen to
his own speech, he creates patterns within the materiality of the text that
demote speech to a dimension rather than a determinant, of its total signi-
fying function. It is important to be clear about the distinction between the
phonocentrist and the objectivist conceptions of form and signification.
The phonocentrists are the heirs of the early Imagist practice of creat-
ing patterns that will reflect and mediate rather than literally incorporate
the process of perception becoming thought, becoming language. Gary
Snyder, whose work is both associated with the 1960s groupings of beat
poets and the Duncan-Creeley ‘Black Mountain’ school is also, in terms
of his formal techniques, a direct descendant of T. E. Hulme, Richard
Aldington and H. D. His diction might be rooted in his personal experi-
ence as lumberjack and forest ranger but his use of the line encodes the
conventions of Some Imagist Poets:

Cut branches back for a day –

trail a thin line through willow
up buckrush meadows,
creekbed for twenty yards
winding in boulders
zigzags the hill
into timber, white pine.3

The gap between each line is not just a rhetorical, vocal pause; it is a the-
matic and structural isolation of one moment of perception and concep-
tualization from another. Continuities of syntax and form are deliberately
excluded, so that we are urged not to admire the work of the linguistic
craftsman, but to look behind the language of the text towards the experi-
ence that prompted it.
Denise Levertov has produced the most sophisticated ex-cathedra obser-
vations on the phonocentrist school of writing. She has taken issue with the
literal interpretation of Olson’s concept of the poem as a score for vocal
performance: ‘The breath idea is taken by a lot of young poets to mean the
rhythm of the outer voice . . . and they produce poems which are purely doc-
umentary.’ In this she seems to be in agreement with Williams’s complaint
against ill discipline, ‘the words all over the page’, and her discussion of the
relation between rhetorical pauses and line breaks echoes the objectivist
150 Graphic Poetics

notion of the poem as a self-contained symbiosis of technique and feeling.

‘I believe every space and comma is a living part of the poem and has its
function. . . . And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential
to the poem’s life.’4 Her concept of the inner voice goes against the simplis-
tic notion of recital and enunciation; it is something that is as much a part
of ‘the poem’s life’ as it is a transcription of the poet’s voice. The opening
of ‘The Rain’ recalls Williams’s mergers of ideational pattern and graphic
mimesis in ‘To a Poor Old Woman’ and ‘Perpetuum Mobile’:

All night the sound had

come back again,
and again falls
this quiet, persistent rain.

The eye and the material language does indeed ‘come back again’ to the
left-hand margin, ‘and again’ the eye ‘falls’ to register in the bottom line
‘this quiet, persistent rain’. The rhyme and the referential function of the
language do their job, but they are attached by the silent inner voice which
allows us to savour the ‘poem’s life’, a life that will not be extinguished
once the sequence of acoustic integers is concluded.

Post-Projective Verse
One could, chronologically, establish the originators of Projectivism as
Olson (b. 1910), Duncan (b. 1919) and Snyder (b. 1926). There was not so
much a second generation as a group of poets, often only a decade younger,
whose most important work appeared in the 1950s and early 60s, and their
poems are important because they indicate an inclination to dwell some-
times tentatively, even guiltily, upon the material of language. The poets
who often cited Olson as their moving spirit were far more prone than he
to experiment with visualism. It could be argued that they brought into the
foreground a number of fascinating and potentially paradoxical elements
of his notion of Projectivism, features of his thesis that ran against its pre-
dominantly phonocentric bias. In his famous essay Olson describes the
collapse of space and time to a single point from which the process of writ-
ing can begin, and he regards the competing forces of the temporal and
the spatial as, thereafter, part of the dynamic of composition. Routinely,
commentators have taken him to refer here exclusively to time and space
as existential concepts, essentially prelinguistic dimensions of experience
which converge during the process of writing. Equally, however, one can
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 151

trace through his work indications of a far more literal frame of reference,
as if, despite himself he cannot quite exclude from this model of creativity
what actually happens as ink meets paper; specifically the curious relation-
ship between the temporal movement of language across the page and
the static spatially designated format of words and their interrelationships:
the finished text. In a later essay called ‘The Present is the Prologue’ he

My shift as I take it is that the present is prologue, not the past. The
instant therefore. Is its own interpretation . . . and any action – a poem,
for example. (1997, p. 205)

The curious syntactic break between ‘therefore.’ and ‘Is its own’ might
seem a customary almost gratuitous sop to the unorthodox stylistic mood
of Projectivisim, but look closer and one becomes aware that Olson is actu-
ally engaged in a demonstration of how the tension between time and
space, movement and stasis, shapes the very process of composition. He
captures ‘The instant’ in the preliminary sentence, closes it, despatches
it to an immobile past; and yet as he moves forward, with a connective
‘Is’ he suddenly brings it again to life, extends its resonance into the next
sentence. Later he meditates upon what actually happens after the poet
moves beyond that initial moment of composition, when the first letter is
placed on the page, which he calls the ‘instant’. After the ‘instant’ the poet
has access to ‘the large area of the whole poem, into the FIELD if you like,
where all the syllables and all the lines must be managed in relation to
one another’ (1997, p243). From the cracks in Olson’s phonocentrist mask
emerges the poet as painter, negotiating the units and spaces of language
not strictly as a temporal successive medium, but also involving words as
objects on the page whose static, geometric relationships are as significant
as their place in the syntagmatic chain. ‘FIELD’ is generally interpreted as
a figurative usage, signifying the realm of the imagination. I would con-
tend that Olson, at least in part, entertained a far more literal sense of
space; the field of the page.
Consider Letter 10 from The Maximus Letters, the point where he muses
upon the origins and foundations of Gloucester:

on John White/on cod, ling and poor – john

on founding: was it Puritanism

or was it fish?
152 Graphic Poetics

And how now, to found, with the sacred and the

Profane – both of them – wore out.

The beak’s
there. And the pectoral.
The fins,
for forwarding.
But to do it anew, now that even fishing . . .
(Olson, 1960)

Images drawn from the religious nature, mostly Puritan, of the place’s
foundation, largely Puritan, and its economic basis as a fishing commu-
nity compete for attention in his mind. He does not marshal his thoughts
according to the organizing principles of language. Instead he allows this
cascade of impressions and words to mirror on the page their originary
hybridized nature. The ‘beak’ could be the magistrate or it might be the
prow of the fishing boat, a term which endures from seventeenth-century
English. The pectoral is, generally, the lower fin of a fish but it is, also
from seventeenth-century dialect, a term often applied to a cross worn on
the chest, and the fins themselves could belong either to the fish or the
boat. Olson drifts continually between related but opposed frames of ref-
erence, semantic interfaces that are never permitted closure or definition.
Significantly he replicates this impressionistic state in the formal struc-
ture of the poem itself. Just as he never quite allows one image to displace
another, so also the words on the page never move forward without leaving
traces of their unspecified gestation.

The beak’s
The fins,

stand rigidly on the ship (or perhaps they belong to the fish) before launch-
ing the next part of the thought, the sentence

for forwarding . . .

Olson began as a phonocentrist, yet visualism – the allure of space and

the tactile printed text – instilled his project with detectable apostasy.
Many of his fellow radicals followed the same route. They did not in the
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 153

Concretist manner abandon the univocal, linear instrument as the founda-

tion of their verse but they often combined linearity with visualist material-
ism in a tantalizing self-conscious way.
Frank O’Hara’s ‘Why I am not a Painter’ (1956) involves a lengthy
meditation on the creative impulses that drive linguistic and visual

One day I am thinking of

a colour: orange. I write a line

And as he completes the line, we pause, move from the end of it and back
to its subject:

Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page.

Throughout the piece O’Hara balances the contemplation of a paradox,

a dilemma, against an avoidance of any specific reference to it. As his hand,
pen, or typewriter key negotiates the page and we follow with our eye we
become aware that he is both writing about visual art and allowing the
physical process of placing words on paper to sometimes override their
arbitrary role as signs. In particular he is enacting the enticing yet elusive
moment of creative interface; of how words might be transmutable into
things or colours.

There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by.

He is searching continually for a channel between what he sees or imagi-

nes and what is available to him as a poet, exclusively language, and in this
process he pushes the words forward and back across the page, like the
objects or colours they signify, or like marks or shapes on a canvas.
Throughout he muses upon this triangular relationship between the
world, visual signifiers and words, considers how they might coalesce
and uses the poem on the page to show how the hypothesis can never be
154 Graphic Poetics

The title of John Wieners’s ‘A Poem for Painters’ (1958) indicates his
concern with the same issues. He states, daringly,

in the poem
comes an image

which seems an extraordinary claim, given the well-established distinc-

tions between poetry and visual art. What, we consider, is remarkable and
unique in poetry? He answers,

– that we rule
the line by the pen
in the painter’s hand one foot
away from me.
Drawing the face
and its torture.

The ‘line’, at least when first referred to, is what Wieners manipulates as
a hedge against the hegemony of syntax, a dynamic we apprehend as his
poem spreads back and forth across the page. For a moment we suspect
that ‘the painter’s hand’ is his own, a figurative allusion to the represen-
tational, pictorial capacity of words, especially in verse. But we cannot be
certain of this. Perhaps his thesis, his sentiment, has turned against itself:
the poet will never overcome the arbitrary limitations of language to create
‘an image’. We wonder if the ‘foot’ is indeed an estimation of the distance
between the hand of the painter and his eye, or whether it carries a trace of
that other ‘foot’, the keystone of the linear univocal poem, the antithesis of
painterly freedom. As we read on further evidence of a sense of frustration
mutating into resignation emerges.

I light up as
morning glorys and
I am showered by the scent

The ‘scent’ of what, we wonder? Characteristically Weiners ponders the

possibility that language blends with the uniqueness of experience, of
morning, of smell. But no:

. . . the scent
of the finished line.
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 155

Later he creates an effect that might come from a piece by Williams, where
the movement and stillness of language become the subject and the con-
dition of passage.

Pushed on by the incompletion

of what goes before me
I hesitate before this paper
scratching for the right words.

It is a delicate beautifully executed moment, as we sense that the ‘Pushed

on’ refers both to the abstract notion of will, the desire to create and the
literal passage of his hand and the words across the page. Similarly ‘what
goes before me’ could be an unspecified sense of what has gone before
in his life and within the imaginative process, or it could just as easily
refer to what ‘goes before’ and after the succession of words. The per-
formance inscribes the declaration that ‘I hesitate’. He does, literally, as
the lines form and reform. And whether ‘scratching’ for words refers to
a search through his private lexicon or the placing of them physically on
the page (contact between pen and paper being frequently referred to as
‘scratching’), hoping that the best combination will appear, is a question
left unresolved.
O’Hara and Wieners contemplate the precipice that separates the world
of language from that of pure experience. They are aware that the latter
is an abstraction, or if distilled into a momentary sensation, irrecoverable;
denied to us by the very fact that language is part of the human condition.
Nonetheless they rehearse exercises that poetry makes uniquely possible,
pressing language to its limits, shifting it continually between its referen-
tial and material frontiers and using the line as their instrument.
Philip Whalen’s ‘Sourdough Mountain Lookout’ (1955–6) is an unset-
tled almost desperate rumination on the transcendence of lived, visual
experience and the near impossibility of preserving this in language.
Often he abandons syntactic continuity, allowing each line-break not only
to adjust the progress of sense but to effect a complete alteration in subject
and perspective. The penultimate verse paragraph begins:

What we see of the world is the mind’s

invention and the mind
Though stained by it, becoming
Rivers, sun, mule-dung, flies –
Can shift instantly
156 Graphic Poetics

So far, abstraction, imagery, syntactic progression and enjambment cooper-

ate to create a vivid evocation of a quandary: is what lies beyond human
ratiocination different from what we think we might intuit? Implicitly this
also raises the question of the role of language in the process of perception,
and appropriately, once we leave the phrase ‘shift instantly’ we encounter
a line that disrupts our expectation of coherence.

A dirty bird in a square time

Then, Whalen dispenses completely with syntactic linearity. It is as if he sus-

pects that even the most unusual combinations of verbs, nouns, adjectives,
connectives will be too much a concession to rational continuity. So, the
next sequence of ‘lines’ abolishes the conventions of reading left-to-right.

Gone Gate
Gone Gate
Really gone Paragate
Into the cool Parasamagate
Oh Mama! Svaha!

Vertical, horizontal, even diagonal chains of meaning vie for prominence,

but we should not treat this as a Concrete Poem. It is part of a poem in
which Whalen causes the standard line-syntax relationship first to prevail,
and then provocatively he allows it to disintegrate. He creates in the same
text a self-evident tension between a purely spatial distribution of signs and
a predominantly linear, speech-based structure.
This poem, unremarked and rarely anthologized, is a landmark in lit-
erary history. It would set a precedent for others which are neither purely
visual nor which completely dispense with speech-based linearity. Just as
significantly it preempts a number of allegedly groundbreaking pieces by
Derrida, notably Glas (1974).
‘Sourdough Mountain Lookout’ is a turning point but what inspired it?;
where are its antecedents? Corman’s notion of the ‘breath pause’ origi-
nated in his musings on Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’, and it is compellingly
ambiguous. In one respect he saw it as a legitimate means of recording, in
the poem, the hesitations and uncertainties that accompany our thoughts
in those moments before we commit them to language; thereafter these
are masked by syntactic continuity. Devices such as enjambment, espe-
cially Hollander’s identification of the contra rejet, enable us to create a
counterpoint between progress and stasis, but Corman, like Olson him-
self, was reluctant to treat the line – redolent as it was of a binding legacy
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 157

of conventions – as a foundation for composition. Olson had allowed for

spaces within lines as records of improvised speech: ‘If a poet leaves a space
as long as the phrase before it, he means that space to be held, by the
breath, an equal length of time.’ Yet as Corman noted, Olson’s original
hypothesis of spacing as a quasi-musical score was in the 1950s work of his
near contemporaries beginning to mutate into something else. Spaces were
becoming opportunities to diverge from continuity. Gary Snyder made use
of the mid-line space much as Olson’s ordinance had indicated:

My mind seemed to fill with a

Stifling smoke. This terrible eclipse
Lasted only a moment . . .

Flowering and leafing

Turning to quartz
Streaked rock congestion of Karma
(From ‘Myths and Texts, Part III,’ 1952)

Consistently Snyder’s mid-line spatial breaks coincided with what would

have been a standard syntactic pause: he employs a visual device to accen-
tuate a contemplative juncture.
Others, near contemporaries, were beginning to make use of what had
once been the breath pause in ways that could not be accounted for in
Olson’s radical yet speech-orientated and linear manifesto. Larry Eigner’s
‘Open’ (1953) begins with short passages which defer to syntactic con-
tainment but soon we begin to follow potentially divergent tracks across
the page.

I have been on all sides

my face and my back

Disappears anytime a world can

Reality dissolve

It is difficult to say exactly where the words ‘Reality’ and ‘dissolve’ are
meant to belong in the syntagmatic chain. Semantically and within the
thematic frame of the poem they are closely related but follow the already
unsteady continuity of the ‘line’ that begins with ‘Disappears’ and concludes
with ‘can’; linearity and succession seem to be suborned to a form of textual
geometry. Eigner is exploring the boundaries between the sequential regis-
ter of language and a form that is predominantly but not purely visual.
158 Graphic Poetics

T. S. Eliot
If one is to regard Williams as part of a technical legacy which has main-
tained the essentially experimental, anti-traditional tendencies of early
modernism, then it would not stretch the generalization to locate his con-
temporary T. S. Eliot at the head of an opposing, and mostly British, strat-
egy of compromise between formal precedent and individuality. This ideal
of a balance between the old and the new is central to ‘Tradition and the
Individual Talent’ and it is extended to the more specific field of prosody
in his ‘Reflections on “Vers Libre” ’.

We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple metre

should lurk behind the arras even in the ‘freest’ verse; to advance men-
acingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or freedom is only truly
freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial

For ‘limitation’ and ‘freedom’ one might read ‘mask’ and ‘voice’
(Hollander), ‘underlying tension of the line’ and ‘speech rhythms’
(Attridge) or ‘deep structure’ and ‘surface structure’ (practically any post-
1956 prosodist). But unlike the later theorists Eliot did not substantiate his
model of formal tension by suggesting what exactly constitutes a point of
stability and how the reader is supposed to respond to a degree of instabil-
ity which might threaten it. Clues can, however, be found in one of his
essays on Milton, ‘Milton II’ (1947):

It seems to me also that Milton’s verse is especially refractory to yield-

ing up its secrets to examination of the single line. . . . It is the period,
the sentence and still more the paragraph, that is the unit of Milton’s
verse. . . . It is only in the period that the wave-length of Milton’s verse is
to be found.6

Eliot seems reluctant either to fully endorse Johnson’s judgement of

‘verse only to the eye’ or to grant the individual line a formal status out-
side the movement of a broader pattern. It is presumably the line which
represents ‘Umitation’ and ‘the period, the sentence and still more the
paragraph’ which exude ‘freedom’; but he does not state how the presence
of both can contribute simultaneously to their ‘beauty’. An awareness of
the influence of the visual lingers tantalizingly in the margins of this state-
ment, but in an obscure TLS letter in 1928 he acknowledges that some-
thing would be lost if the shape of the verse were changed: ‘Verse, whatever
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 159

else it may or may not be, is itself a system of punctuation; the usual marks
of punctuation themselves are differently employed.’7 One might ask how
we can differentiate poetic punctuation from the ‘usual marks’, unless of
course we can see patterns that we might not be able to fully appreciate in
the aural medium.
One could continue to speculate on these remarks and still never estab-
lish a degree of certainty as to their precise application, but a more intrigu-
ing chain of connections emerges when we compare them with Eliot’s
poetry. Consider the opening sequence of what must be the presiding
monument to modern poetic writing:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

These lines are significant first because they serve to remind us that our
appreciation of poetic effects can be severely limited by our conventions of
reading. In two of the most substantial recent studies of free verse by Gross
(1964) and Hartman (1980) the two critics enter into a debate on what sys-
tem of prosodic analysis can best establish the dominant metrical structure
of each line. This may well be a creditable exercise, but it effectively clouds
our awareness of a formal effect which is far more central to their structure
and meaning.
When confronted with these lines, even the most unsophisticated reader
will be struck by the way in which each verbal termination operates as an
axis between the words preceding and following it. To argue as Gross and
Hartman do over whether the third line, with only three major stresses,
disrupts the consistency of the more general four-stress movement, is to
draw our attention away from the fact that lines operate as visual ‘punc-
tuation marks’, reordering our awareness of the sequential movement of
language. An eighteenth-century theorist like Rice would argue that they
are not lines at all and that the visual record of their true oral identity
would have them broken before ‘breeding’, ‘mixing’, ‘stirring’, ‘covering’
and ‘feeding’, and Sheridan would no doubt argue that it is the pause after
these words which contributes to the complex effect of progress and hesita-
tion. The point is that the structure of this sequence is dependent not upon
160 Graphic Poetics

the internal prosody of each line but upon the isolation of key syntactic
components of change between a grammatical pause and the white space
of the line ending; their visual placing controls the thematic and rhythmic
density of the passage.
We have moved to the opposite end of the sliding scale of visual effects
from the one occupied by cummings, but there is still a sense of typography
imposing upon sound and sequence. For instance, the visual isolation of
‘mixing’ allows a moment of subjectivity to disturb what would otherwise
be a rather flat catalogue of seasonal changes. The gap between ‘mixing’
and ‘Memory’ adds an almost melancholy note to the series of connectives
and recalls Wordsworth’s emotive isolation of ‘connect’ from the ‘land-
scape with the quiet of the sky’. Both poets achieve the effect of dispersing
the single authoritative voice of the speaker amongst the resistances and
diversions of the visual medium, and Eliot goes on to use the silent text in
a similar way, but with more disorientating results, in Ash Wednesday and
The Four Quartets.
The opening sequence of Section V in Ash Wednesday has raised a good
deal of critical controversy:

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent

If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word

O my people, what have I done to thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word

Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence. . . .

The patterns of assonance and internal rhyme are so closely interwoven

with syntax that any direct causal relationship between effect and meaning
seems almost to be forbidden. Gross regards it to be in ‘marked contrast to
the rest of the poem’, ‘the rhetorical clammer . . . the onomatopoeic bustle
of harmonic punning . . . is finally tedious’ (p. 202).
But there is a key to this complexity. The points at which the sound pat-
terns seem to displace any sense of continuity and order are when they
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 161

intersect with semantic distinctions. Thus, paradoxically, the eye of the

silent reader is granted the only point of stability within this apparently
chaotic tissue of effects: we can distinguish the ‘unstilled world’ from the
‘still whirled’, the ‘Word’ from the ‘word’, because we can see them. The
moment at which this sense of tenuous stability becomes most apparent is
intrinsically and self-consciously poetic: the break between the second and
third lines offers the


Is this ‘Word’ of greater significance than the lower-case ‘unspoken word’

(line 4) because of the convention of capitalizing line openings; or does the
visual space that breaks into the continuity of language remind us that the
final ‘Word’ must remain ‘unspoken’? The question is unanswerable, but its
significance becomes more vivid when we find that it can only be addressed
from within the silent realm of understanding. The ‘centre of the silent
Word’ is, to borrow a metaphor from chaos, literally, the eye of the storm:
the unstilled world still whirls about the centre of the silent Word.
Eliot moves on to ask the question of how any sense of stability or assur-
ance is ever attainable, and we are reminded again of how poetic structures
are capable of vividly encompassing such issues:

Where shall the word be found, where will the word


Why does he disrupt the rhythmic and rhyming symmetry of this

sequence by ending the line with ‘word’? Because only by allowing the vis-
ual text to disrupt the apparent stability of the acoustic pattern can he fully
demonstrate the illusion of purely linguistic meaning – and, appropriately
enough, we can ‘see’ that the unreliable ‘word’ is granted the lower case.
What would almost have been the assured parallelism of the couplet is
broken by its visual material: the acoustic perfection of ‘word be found’
and ‘word resound’ is offered to the silent reader as shattered perfection.
What we see challenges the comfortable patterning of what we hear. There
may well be ‘not enough silence’ to adequately cope with the search for
the lost Word, but there is enough to grant the reader an uncomfortably
stable perspective upon its elusive nature. Milton was the first to disrupt
the balance between the arbitrary categories of writing and speech, silence
and sound; Eliot takes the reader even deeper into the illusion of linguistic
162 Graphic Poetics

In ‘Burnt Norton’ Eliot reminds us that the poetic line can provide a
tangible axis between these two experiences:

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

It is the visual rather than the metrical identity of these lines that con-
trols the movement of the passage: the reader is drawn literally ‘Down’,
‘Towards’ and ‘Into’ the rose-garden. But what of the final half-lines?
The visual/syntactic pattern has not changed, but we are suddenly forced
into a reflexive contemplation of the technique and our participation in
it. The


is a silent echo. The visual resonances echo in the ‘mind’ but not in the ear.
This anxious concern with the interplay of the permanent and the
ephemeral is more vividly realized in Section V of ‘Burnt Norton’:

Words move, music moves

Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.

The first part of the passage evokes the fragile condition of spoken lan-
guage – words might ‘move’ us but, like music, the effect is threatened by
the temporal evanescence of the medium. We find the acoustic sequence
of ‘speech, reach’ placed precipitately at the line ending, which leads ‘Into
the silence’.
But the tone changes and we are offered a ‘form’, a ‘pattern’, in which
‘words or music’ can achieve a state of permanence, can ‘reach / The
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 163

stillness.’ This frozen condition is to be found in the tension between

movement and stillness:

a Chinese jar still

Moves perpetually . . .

The eye of the reader is caught in a faint double movement. Is the

‘Chinese jar still’ or must it ‘still move perpetually in its stillness’? The
syntax, the music, might move on ‘in time’ but the eye of the reader can
trace patterns, tracks of meaning, back and forth ‘perpetually’ in the
silent text.
Eliot’s use of visual pattern is, paradoxically, an extension of Williams’s
objectivist concept of language as less an impersonal medium and more a
tactile, tangible presence that the poet will take with him into the strug-
gle between perception and communication. The paradox exists in the
conventional positioning of each poet at separate poles of postmodernist
poetic writing; Eliot the respecter of traditionalism, Williams the figure-
head of experimentalism. This opposition holds in the sense that Eliot,
unlike Williams, never installs visualism as the keystone, the formal gov-
erning principle of entire texts; instead he, rather like Milton, creates a
graduated pattern in which the reader slowly becomes aware that the bal-
ance between the aural and referential function of language has shifted
towards a tension between what we hear and what we see, and consequently
between a sense both of the poet’s voice and an awareness of the poet’s
hand at work within the materiality of the text. These same concessions to
the graphic presence of the text, its literal shape, have resurfaced in the
writing of poets who in conventional perceptions of, mainly British, post-
modern literary history would seem to have remained immune from the
techniques and objectives of the American experimentalists. But, as I shall
show, there are poems by Philip Larkin, Charles Tomlinson, W. H. Auden
and Geoffrey Hill that invoke the sliding scale just as clearly as do Williams
and cummings.

W. H. Auden
Auden is, arguably, the most explicit and eminent of the eclectic post-
modernists. By eclectic I mean that they consistently bring together
conventional forms and patterns with effects and disruptions of expect-
ation that are fuelled by the revolutionary techniques of the free verse
164 Graphic Poetics

The title poem of Look, Stranger (1936) involves a consistent avoid-

ance of metrical regularity, with traditional rhythmic patterns emerging
briefly and disappearing again into more extended prosaic movements.
Juxtaposed with this is an equally irregular use of rhyme. It will emerge
into the internal pattern of the second line:

The leaping light for your delight discovers

or impose itself not only as foregrounded enjambment but in the middle

of a word:

Oppose the pluck

And knock of the tide
And the shingle scrambles after the suck-
ing surf.

Auden’s most remarkable technical achievement in this poem is that

his challenge to the arbitrary, unpredictable nature of sound pattern
is matched by a similarly explicit engagement with the phenomenon of
silence and shape. Our suspicions are aroused by the conflict between what
we hear and what we see at the lines ending with ‘pluck’ and ‘suck- / ing’,
but even more intriguing are those lines which exclude themselves from
the rhyme–line-ending pattern. In the first two lines,

Look, stranger on this island now

The leaping light for your delight discovers

the visual format, assisted by the absence of conventional punctuation,

leaves the silent reader wondering if he is being urged to ‘Look . . . now’
or ‘Look’ only ‘now the leaping light . . . discovers’. Tentative echoes of
Wordsworth’s perceptual uncertainties achieve greater clarity with

Here at the small field’s ending pause

Where the chalk wall falls to the foam, and its tall ledges
Oppose the pluck . . .

These lines operate, silently, in two ways. The field’s pause is also, as we
see, the line’s pause, but the isolated substantive sense is transformed into
a more active verbal invitation to the reader to ‘pause where the chalk wall
falls’. The uncertainties continue when the eye reaches ‘Oppose’. It would
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 165

seem to be the cliffs that ‘Oppose the pluck and knock of the tide’, but the
dominance of a single sequential pattern of meaning is threatened: the
unstable condition of ‘pause’ seems to infect ‘Oppose’ with the subtle res-
onance of an order to the reader.
The effect is very similar to Wordsworth’s merger of personal identity
and objective fact in the silent texture of ‘Tintern Abbey’s’ opening lines,
and for further confirmation, if not of influence then at least of intertext-
ual agreement, we could consult The Prelude:

when a lengthened pause

Of silence came and baffled his best skill
Then sometimes, in that silence while he hung
Listening . . . (V, 11. 380–3)

Auden’s interconnected uses of rhyme and shape represent a kind of dou-

ble-edged challenge to linguistic assurance and transparency. In poem XV
of the Look, Stranger collection he employs an impressively complex stanza
pattern, but throws this concession to orthodoxy into a state of imbalance
by the use of such pararhymes as ‘town – alone’, ‘forces – faces’.
In ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ the structure of the poem traces, appro-
priately enough, the shape of a gyre, with the recent history of formal
technique reversed. The first section is diffuse, metrically irregular and
unrhymed; the middle section exhibits traces, but only traces, of iambic
movement and employs irregular pararhyme – the most thematically sig-
nificant of which must be ‘decay’ – ‘poetry’; and the final section consists
of precise, regular octosyllabic quatrains. The poem is both an exercise in
technical brilliance and a subtle comment on the changes in poetic tech-
nique that had taken place in the life of Yeats. And we should note that
the two media of sound and shape exert a form of control over the poem’s
structural changes: the visual format of the first section interweaves with
but does not disrupt the linear sequence, but in the second we find the
influence of visual shape being gradually displaced by a more dominant
pattern of sound in metre and rhyme, and this development reaches its
ultimate form in the concluding sequence of quatrains, whose tight met-
rical and rhyming structure seems, implicitly, to celebrate a victory of the
poem as sound.
His most subtle yet at the same time most adventurous engagement with
the conflicting patterns of sound and visual shape occurs in ‘Musee des
Beaux Arts’. Correspondences with Williams are immediately signalled
because the poem invites the reader to compare the apparently coincidental
166 Graphic Poetics

patterns of life with the way in which they are presented in the visual arts
both as accidents and as part of an aesthetic design. (Auden’s subject is
Brueghel’s ‘The Fall of Icarus’.)
Rhythmically, the poem seems to represent the ultimate form of free
verse with unstructured, discursive movements hardly disturbed by any
trace of metrical continuity. Because of a very irregular rhyme scheme we
have to concentrate hard to notice that the lines end when and where they
do. Auden seems to have isolated the rhymes almost as if they occur at
random in a prose sequence – no attention is given to line length or met-
rical structure and the rhyme scheme itself is unpredictable. The result
of this apparent abandonment of a coherent structural principle is, para-
doxically, to draw the reader’s attention to the way in which our use of
language involves us in a very delicate balancing-act between our control
of and our submission to an arbitrary system. Comparisons can be made
between this experiment with language and the methods of visual art,
since Augen seems to be challenging the notion that patterns of form and
structure are either purely contrived and systemic or purely random and
circumstantial – and again the strategies of Brueghel feature as the aes-
thetic correlative.
The most impressive moment in this challenge occurs in the second sec-
tion, when Auden, like Williams, creates a linguistic structure analogous to
the juxtaposed relations of visual art:

the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Auden succeeds in disclosing the peculiarly ironic condition of an art form

which seeks to represent, but effectively freezes, the complex interplay of
sound and movement of the physical world. The passage is dominated by
a curious mixture of equivocation and certainty – ‘the ploughman may /
Have heard’, ‘the sun shone / As it had to’, the ship ‘must have seen’ – and
creates the impression that Brueghel has, by imposing the silence and still-
ness of art upon a series of violent events, made the unpredictable seem
strangely ordained and inevitable. The most intriguing linguistic equiva-
lent of this effect occurs with the line break at ‘green / Water’. Again,
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 167

we are reminded of Milton’s ‘clear / Smooth lake’, Wordsworth’s ‘whole /

Harmonious landscape’ and Williams’s ‘blue / mottled clouds’; in each
case the visual format traces out conflicting adjectival and substantive pat-
terns. But Auden creates an even greater degree of textual depth by allow-
ing the language to resonate with the reader’s image of a painting. The
boy’s ‘white legs’ do literally disappear into ‘the green’ of the painting,
and when our eye connects ‘the green’ with what it represents, the ‘Water’,
we realize that the materiality of language is being used to create an effect
very similar to that achieved with the materials of visual art. When we
reach the end of the next line we find that the conflict between what we
see, both in the printed poem and the painting, and what both media
attempt to represent, is further intensified by the acoustic echo of ‘green’
in ‘seen’. Auden signals his own complex intention. The visual reader has
‘seen’ how structural components of language can be juxtaposed in a way
that defies the logic of conventional grammar, and the rhyming confirm-
ation of this silent effect establishes that Auden invokes, yet controls, the
arbitrary nature of his linguistic material.

Charles Tomlinson
The notion of the poet as someone alive to the impersonality of the lin-
guistic system, as inhabiting and savouring its structures and materials just
as he responds to the prelinguistic world, runs against conventional ideas
of what poets are and do. Charles Tomlinson belongs to the post-Eliot,
post-Auden generation of British modernism, and in ‘Movements’, from
his 1972 collection Written on Water, he provides us with a creative mani-
festo for this curious merger of traditional form with objectivism:

Man in an interior, sits down

Before an audience of none, to improvise.
He is biding his time, for the rhymes
That will arise at the threshold of his mind –
Pass words into the castle keep,
The city of sleepers. Wakened by him
Stanza by stanza (room by room)
They will take him deeper in.
Door Opens on door, rhyme on rhyme,
And the circling stair is always nearer
The further it goes. At last,
He will hear by heart the music that he feared
168 Graphic Poetics

Was lost, the crossing, and the interlacing,

The involutions of its tracery and the answering of part
By part, as the melody recedes, proceeds,
Above the beat, to twine, untwine
In search of a consonance between
The pulse of exploration and the pulse of line.

As a self-conscious exploration of the experience of writing a poem this

is brilliant work. The ‘rhymes’ on ‘the threshold of his mind’ are sewn cun-
ningly into the fabric of the verse – ‘improvise’ – ‘arise’, ‘sleepers’ – ‘deeper’,
‘hear’ – ‘feared’ – and it is almost as though we, like Tomlinson, are coming
upon them by accident, yet finding in them patterns, ‘involutions’, ‘trac-
ery’. Of course, we know that these accidents are in fact the consequence
of the poet’s control of his medium – the gathering sense of certainty, the
movement beyond randomness to form, is actually created for our benefit.
And we should note that this exercise in controlled uncertainty gives some
attention to the graphic as well as the acoustic materiality of language.
Tomlinson reminds us that the word ‘stanza’ once meant literally ‘a room’, a
space within which we can move, but with limitations; and to show us what it
is like to experience the confines of the poem he lets us, literally, watch as

Opens on door . . .

The referential function of ‘the door’ is drawn into the more literal
sense of the poem as in itself an object that must be negotiated as each line
closes – and opens upon another.
At the end we are left with a sense of opposition between ‘the pulse of
exploration’, the prelinguistic notion of perception, inspiration and pres-
ence, and the ‘pulse’ that is detached from the bodily semantics of that
word, the pulse of the ‘line’. Tomlinson concedes – contra Steele, Lowell,
Olson and the phonocentrists – that the line is a structure that draws its
material and its pattern from the arbitrary sphere of language and poetic
convention. The manner in which such an opposition between the materi-
ality and the referential function of language might be blended becomes
apparent in a number of poems in the collection. Consider ‘The Square’:

A consolidation
of voices in the street
below, a wave
that never reaches
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 169

its destination: the higher

voices of children
ride it and the raucous
monomaniac bikes
hunting their shadows
into the sunlight of the square
to a drum-roll
of metal shutters
sliding: and above it all
the reflection
hung on the open
pane (it opens
inwards) of the bell
over Santa Maria delle Nevi,
not even slightly
swung in the hot
evening air.

In simply hearing this poem we would not come across the curious inter-
weaving of the literal ‘words on the page’ with their referential function.
‘Below’ operates as an axis between two otherwise detached clauses – the
literal voices are in the street below, and below they have prompted the fig-
urative image of the wave. Conventional interpretative competence has not
equipped us to notice that ‘below’ literally divides the movement down the
page between the literal to the figurative – as we might perhaps if it rhymed
with, say, ‘flow’. But look again, and we find that the double pattern of graphic
materiality and conventional signification operates just as effectively as the
more familiar, though equally arbitrary, patterns of rhyme or alliteration:

the reflection

And the word literally ‘hangs’ beneath the reflection. The pane

inwards . . .

just as the line swings back towards the left-hand margin. As I argued in
Chapter 3, we have become acclimatized to accepting sound patterns as
contributory elements in the poet’s objective of mediating a feeling, an
impression from within the structure of the poem. Tomlinson shows us
170 Graphic Poetics

that it is possible to achieve this same effect with the printed material of
language. Unlike cummings he does not take us to the edge of the sliding
scale, at which the voice becomes a memory, but like Williams and Eliot we
feel the presence, the signature, of the poet within the silent configurations
of the text. Tomlinson in ‘Movements’ and ‘The Square’ recalls Williams’s
image of the poet moving with his words across the page; balancing his
own thoughts, perceptions and feelings against the need to negotiate the
arbitrary structures of poetic language, of which the line – detached from
syntactic rules but undeniably present – is the most significant element.
But it is in an earlier poem called, appropriately enough, ‘Lines’ that we
find the most accomplished realization of the poet within the text:

You have seen a plough

the way it goes breeds
furrows line on line
until they fill a field?

What I admire in this

is less the page complete
and all the insatiable
activity towards it

than when, one furrow

more lies done with
and the tractor hesitates:
another line to be begun

and then it turns and drags

the blade in tow and that
turns too along the new
and growing groove

and each reversal thus

in mitigating mere aggression
prepares for the concerted
on-rush of the operation

and then the dark the cool

the dew corroding the intent
abandoned mechanism
that contemplates accomplishment.
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 171

There are two texts, the written and the spoken, and the relation between
them can only be appreciated when we see the poem on the page. Read
aloud, the thematic centre is occupied by the image of ploughing, with
only the mysterious reference to the ‘page complete’ to make us suspect a
possible analogy with linguistic creation. But on the page the lines of the
plough are also the lines of the poem:

the new
and growing groove

is literally inscribed within the written text, and we can watch as

each reversal thus

in mitigating mere aggression
prepares for the concerted
on-rush of the operation

The Jakobsonian notion of metaphor and metonymy as brought together

in a definitively poetic clashing of codes is here realized by the metonymic
sequence – ‘plough’, ‘breeds / furrows’, ‘tractor hesitates’, ‘the intent /
abandoned mechanism’ – actually becoming the metaphoric vehicle of the
poet at work within the language of the page. Throughout the poem the
metaphoric doubling of plough and pen, field and page is underpinned
by the more powerful and more intriguing effect of the configurations of
the graphic signs. Consider how your eye follows the verb phrase ‘activity
towards it’ from left to right across the page. Watch as ‘one furrow’, ‘lies
done with’ and how the ‘tractor [pen] hesitates’ at the line ending: ‘another
line to be begun’. In the fourth stanza the ‘it’ of ‘it turns’ seems to refer to
the mental image of the plough, but notice how the graphic image of the
language also turns and drags the eye into the next line, and how that line
‘turns too’ and swings us into the ‘new and growing groove’ of the next.
Williams’s relativistic effect of the poet on the train, moving across the page
yet permanently inscribed within it, is perfectly matched by Tomlinson’s
poet on the tractor.
Tomlinson’s allegiance to Williams is further confirmed in his regu-
lar use of the mysterious triadic stanza, and in the following section I
shall consider this device as effecting an interface between the patterns,
devices and memories of regular form, and the new measure of graphic
172 Graphic Poetics

The Rhymeless Sonnet and the Frame of Convention

Geoffrey Hill, though slightly younger than Tomlinson, belongs to the
same post-war postmodernist generation. In 1981 he gave an account in a
BBC radio interview of how the visual structure of the poem, even the trad-
itional poem, has come to play as important a part as its auditory pattern in
the poet’s awareness of form:

The true realisation of the poet’s voice comes from a blending or a mar-
riage of the silent and the spoken forms. If we put this into the shape
of a figure of speech, if we conceived of the voice as it reads the poem
as being on the horizontal plane, and if we thought of the text on the
page, as it were, going down vertically, then I think that the listener
should follow the spoken poem in the way that a listener follows a string
quartet with a score. I think only by being most keenly sensitive to that
moment when the horizontal of the spoken voice comes into contact
with the formalities, with the restraints, with the restrictions that are
there printed in the text, only by recognising with immediate sensitiv-
ity those moments of contact, of harmony or of hostility, only then can
the reader, the listener, truly appreciate how the poet’s voice is being
realised in the most minute, intimate, and yet profoundly rich, prosodic

Hill’s most intriguing realization of visual – acoustic tensions occurs in

the ‘Funeral Music’ sequence of King Log (1968). This is a sequence of eight
rhyme less sonnets, but I am only able to make this statement because I can
see them on the page; the fact that these poems are fourteen lines long
and that each of their lines traces out the rough equivalent of an iambic
pentameter would be lost to anyone who could neither see nor hear the
verse as well. Hill reminds us of the peculiar sense of convention in con-
flict with variation encountered by the eighteenth-century critics of the
Miltonic pentameter. The codes and conventions of formal regularity exist
in the mind of the reader before the experience of the poem, but in that
experience, tradition, with its attendant expectations, becomes an elusive
and fragile phenomenon. We are able to contemplate this uneasy ‘moment
of contact’ because the silent printed poem both invokes the code, the
recognition of the sonnet, and displaces it as a final determinant of effect
and meaning.
Hill, like Milton, draws the silent reader into the communicative circuit,
and just as we recognize the ghost of the pentameter in the printed for-
mat and then allow our eyes to seek out intensities and resonances, so the
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 173

reader of Hill’s ‘sonnets’ is similarly caught in that moment between recog-

nition and expectation:

For whom do we scrape our tribute of pain –
For none but the ritual King? We meditate
A rueful mystery: we are dying
To satisfy fat Caritas, those
Wiped jaws of stone. (Suppose all reconciled
By silent music; imagine the future
Flashed back at us, like steel against sun,
Ultimate recompense.) Recall the cold
Of Towton on Palm Sunday before dawn,
Wakefield, Tewkesbury; fastidious trumpets
Shrilling into the ruck; some trampled
Acres, parched, sodden or blanched by sleet,
Struck with strange-postured dead. Recall the wind’s
Flurrying, darkness over the human mire.

In a note on these poems Hill states that ‘the sequence avoids shaping
these characters and events into any overt narrative or dramatic struc-
ture.’ This is something of an understatement, because the identity and
temporal presence of a single voice or perspective is ruthlessly disrupted.
Phrases such as ‘our tribute of pain’ are both retrospective and immedi-
ate; and the broader shift from the present tense of ‘We meditate’ and ‘we
are dying’ to ‘Recall the cold’ confirm this sense of disorientation. But,
as with Eliot’s similar evocation of chaos, it is possible to find a form of
order, particularly if we follow Hill’s advice to both listen to and look at
the poem. An oral performance would accentuate Hill’s self-referential
notion of ‘heartless music punctuated by mutter-ings, blasphemies and
cries for help’, but if we also examine the visual format of the poem we
come upon breaks such as

we are dying
To satisfy fat Caritas

which recalls Williams’s

leafless vines.
174 Graphic Poetics

Are they deliberately ‘dying to’, wanting to, satisfy fat Caritas or is this proc-
ess part of a deterministic pattern? The mystery is frozen in the printed
text. Similarly, with

some trampled

we need the printed text to capture the hesitant fluctuation of ‘some [men]
trampled’ and ‘trampled / Acres’.
In oral performance these intensities are lost, but, in Hill’s words,
‘when the horizontal of the spoken comes into contact with the restric-
tions that are there printed in the text’, we experience a productive colli-
sion of two separate appreciative dimensions. The sonnet has exercised a
curious fascination for modern poets. Its silent, rhymeless form has been
used by Gavin Ewart and, almost obsessively, by Robert Lowell, though
neither poet employs such productive visual–acoustic complexes as Hill.
Williams and cummings have toyed provocatively with its tight structural
pattern. Mary Ellen Solt in ‘Moonshot Sonnet’9 has produced a series of
black lines which, according to her, were ‘Made by copying the scientists’
symbols on the first photos of the moon in the New York Times: there were
exactly 14 ‘lines’ with five ‘accents’ (p. 307) – the only known example of
a ‘found’ sonnet. The rhymed sonnet demands the most disciplined and
intense co-ordinations of sound and sense; it could be regarded as the
most inflexible test of the poet’s control of the acoustic double pattern.
As such, its use as a silent, visual structure represents another dimension
of cummings’s deployment of the shadow of speech, in which the poetic
line becomes a memory of its conventional function as a measurement
of sound. In the rhymeless sonnet, as indeed with many of Milton’s pen-
tameters, tradition, expectation, conditioned familiarity are invoked by
the printed format, and the reader carries these through his experience
of the text.
The notion of the printed poem as a ‘frame’ into which the poet must
fit his words just as the visual artist will fit shapes and colours becomes
most evident in Williams’s picture–poem correspondences in Pictures from
Brueghel, but the constant use by poets of the interplay between the mem-
ory of the rhymed sonnet and the configurations of visual pattern suggest
broader significance. The fact that the page of a book contains language
in roughly oblong compartments is an exigency, a contingency of book
production. Prose writers do not have to take account of what their stylis-
tic and formal devices will look like in print, and in traditional verse the
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 175

shape of each stanza, couplet or line is determined primarily by the sound

pattern to which the poet submits himself. But lose the persistent regu-
larity of metre and rhyme and the poet is faced with a paradox. Each line
must end, but where and how it must end is no longer determined by the
abstract conventions of form or syntax. In an important sense the shape of
the poem is the consistent link point between regular and free verse. By
ending the line in the middle of a clause or even in the middle of a word,
by choosing to indent a line further to the right than its predecessor, the
poet invokes the convention, if not the substance, of the regular poem. In
the most imaginative uses of visual form the parallel between the shape
of the regular poem and its sound is replaced by an interplay between
graphic stillness and temporal movement, but even in poems where this
graphic–temporal interplay is not so apparent we will often find an invoca-
tion of the ability of print not merely to record but to intensify and make
us reinterpret the ephemerality of speech.
Williams’s use of the triadic stanza has been discussed by practically
every critic of his work. Hugh Kenner surmises that its shape, its diagonal
shift from upper left to lower right, was in some way symptomatic of the
damage done to his motor functions by the stroke he suffered in 1951.
But as Cushman points out, he had used the form three years before this.
Other critics (Hartman, Ranta, Weaver) have attempted to locate its form
and provenance in number symbolism, isochrony and irregular stanzas.
The true origin of the triadic stanza is to be found, I believe, in that most
traditional of prosodic forms, the iambic pentameter. It bears little resem-
blance to the syllabic and metrical regularity of the pentameter, but com-
pare the following from Williams and Ben Jonson:

We will it so
and so it is
past all accident.

Corvino: The man is mad!
Corbaccio: What’s that?
Corvino: He is possessed.

Williams: There is a hierarchy

which can be attained
I think,
176 Graphic Poetics

Corvino: My life, my fame-
Bonario: Where is’t?
Corvino: Are at the stake.

I do not like it
and wanted to be
in heaven. Hear me out
Do not turn away

Ananias: I hate traditions!
I do not trust them -
Tribulation: Peace!
Ananias: They are Popish all.10

The fact that Jonson divides his pentameters between his characters
(the split into three is the most common) and the fact that their con-
sequent appearance on the page resembles Williams’s triadic stanza
should not be dismissed as an accident – we have already come across
more than accidental resemblances between ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’
and Paradise Lost. When we experience Jonson’s plays in performance
the intonational patterns and the physical existence of the characters
set up a contrast with the unity and continuity of the pentameter, but,
read silently or even vocalized by one person there is a more powerful
feeling of separate voices inhabiting the single presence of Ben Jonson.
Their movement diagonally across the page and back to the right-hand
margin is an instance of the visual frame of verse ratifying this contract.
Williams’s stanzas achieve a similar effect in that we can discern the
push, the continuity, of his presence moving the language across the
page and back again, but the gaps between each diagonal movement are
not simply staged pauses or syntactic breaks; they allow another dimen-
sion of Williams’s thought, his character, to stop, reflect and continue.
Like Jonson we sense a curious balance between fragmentation and con-
tinuity, and in the same way the contract is guaranteed by the page as a
record of Williams’s craft and presence. Williams said that ‘it is marvel-
lous . . . to cut diagonally across the page as if it were a field of daisies’,
but he acknowledged in ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ that the poet, like the girls
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 177

on the street, must

pause sometimes . . .
reform the line . . .
back and
forth and back and forth
and back and forth.

The visual frame of the free-verse poem, the sense of its shape as a compos-
itional factor, can influence even those poets whose stylistic allegiances are
firmly rooted in premodernist patterns of rhyme and metre. Philip Larkin
emerged as the hard-bitten cynic of post-war British anti-modernism, but
I would argue that a number of the effects generated in one of his most
conventional poems ‘An Arundel Tomb’ were inspired by half a century of
experiment with the shape of the poem on the page. The six-line stanzas
maintain a dutiful octosyllabic metre and are interwoven with a complex a,
b, b, c, a, c rhyme scheme. One would think that shape will simply reflect
sound pattern, but after the first stanza in which he introduces us to the
recumbent statues of the earl and countess we find that the enjambments
begin to enact something close to graphic mimesis. Stanza 2:

Such plainness of the pre-baroque

Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp, tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

As with the pre-baroque tomb, we would hardly expect such a conven-

tional use of the sound-sense double pattern to ‘involve the eye’. But when
we experience the sound pattern alongside the frame of the printed text
we begin to suspect that Larkin is playing a subtle game by supplement-
ing the ideational picture with the delicate fabric of linguistic shape. He
guides our eye across the imagined image of the tomb, and the sense of
mild surprise created by the hands and the gauntlet is matched by a similar
shift of ocular perception within the materiality of the poem:

It meets
One sees
178 Graphic Poetics

As with Auden’s experiments with sound and shape, the disjunction is

resolved with the final rhyme of ‘hand’ literally pulling together the dis-
junctions of syntax and rhyme scheme. But we are left with the feeling of
having experienced something that would be lost in a vocalization of the
poem. In the final stanza the opening line creates for the visual reader ‘a
sharp, tender shock’ that is due as much to Larkin’s placing of the words
within the frame as it is to their meaning:

Time has transfigured them into


Am I overreading the poem, imposing an interpretative idea of graphic

effect upon a conventional acoustic pattern? This is Larkin in an interview
with the Paris Review:

Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss

so much – the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far
you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go at your
own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along
at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in. (Required
Writing, p. 61)

Larkin’s comments are significant because they reflect the fact that poets
with as little in common as Williams, Hill, Tomlinson, Eliot, Auden and
Larkin himself are far more able and willing to acknowledge the influence
of visual form than are their counterparts in the critical world. In 1980 the
journal Epoch circulated to 29 British and American poets a questionnaire
on the theory and practice of the line. The resulting symposium (Epoch,
Vol. 29, 1980, pp. 161–224) is intriguing. The poets are divided about 50:50
between those who endorse the conventional model of the line as a score
for vocal performance and those who regard the graphic format of the
poem as a means of signification that will operate independently of acous-
tic structure. The phonocentric School is well supported by the British
and Irish contingent – particularly Seamus Heaney, D. J. Enright, Donald
Davie and Craig Raine – but the feeling that contemporary poetic writ-
ing has evolved a visualist technique for which there is no recognized crit-
ical terminology cuts through broader technical allegiances and national
barriers. The comments on visualism relate closely to my concept of the
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 179

sliding scale: graphic structures are acknowledged as phenomena that will

create a form of perceptual counterpoint with elements that can be more
easily translated to vocal performance. George MacBeth believes ‘the look
of the line to be crucial. . . . Even when poems are written to be read aloud,
I think the page culture is still strong enough to be creating a visual back-
ground inside the listener’s head’ (p. 204). Robert Morgan gives a more
detailed account of the aural/visual disjunction, the relativity of hearing
and seeing: ‘We need horizontal contrast to the poem’s movement down
the page. . . . The best lines please and stimulate through counterpointing
eye and ear. We see the line come to a stop but hear the voice continue.
The visual impact creates a paradox, with the aural. . . . Motion and stillness
at once’ (p. 208–9). Gracia Grindal reinforces Morgan’s argument and
claims that such contrapuntal effects have remained largely unacknow-
ledged in Williams’s poetry because of the inbuilt phonocentric bias of
critical discourse: ‘William Carlos Williams was trying to figure out how to
write poetry for the page, poetry that was seen, though he and his ilk have
muddied the discussion by using the language of oral forms to try to make
their case’ (p. 190). In her own work, the appearance of the poem, even in
such regular forms as the sonnet, will play as important a part as its acous-
tic, temporal structure. ‘It looks wrong and usually I will change it, even if
it sounded okay the first time. The way it looks causes me to change it.’ May
Swenson similarly acknowledges the effect of graphic appearance: ‘The
look of the poem is important to me – what the eye sees before it begins
to read’ (p. 223). She goes on to describe how she uses visual form as an
‘extension of metaphor’, often creating a pattern of semantic similarity or
contrast at line endings as a kind of silent rhyme scheme – and here we find
an echo of Williams’s ‘Sonnet in Search of an Author’.
The most intriguing poet’s-view of the visual structure of the lines comes
in Robert Morgan’s explanation of how, when writing poems, the move-
ment of the language across the page is as significant as the unrestricted
temporality of speech:

The force of the line is sinister, rushing always out of the left, as lan-
guage or speech originates from the left side of the brain, into the virgin
space on the right. . . . The line builds suspense toward the realisation
of turning in mid-speech to the next line. . . . Most lines are a gathering
force, a staging ground for the flight to the next. (pp. 207–8)

The metaphor is intriguingly mixed. The inner ear in which language

begins is supplemented by the spaces on the page which function not merely
180 Graphic Poetics

as a means of recording speech, but as spaces, ‘staying grounds’, that will

play a crucial part in how the poem is composed. Morgan shows us that in
the composition of post-free verse poems, language as a graphic substance
and medium is something that is experienced and negotiated simultan-
eously with the impulsive, exploratory push of the temporal pattern.
For a more light-hearted acknowledgement of this new and largely
undocumented dimension of poetic writing we might turn to a recent
piece by Hugo Williams:

Ten, no, five seconds

after coming all
over the place
too soon,
I was lying there
where to put the
line-breaks in.11

It is difficult to appreciate the form – content joke of this poem without

both seeing and hearing it. It operates on two levels. Williams considers
the absurdity of the poetic vocation: spacing the page can even impose
its presence upon his mental register of the ultimate prelinguistic experi-
ence. This is vaguely amusing but the real joke becomes apparent when
we recognize the way in which he has structured and poeticized such a
casual reflection; the statement about shaping is cunningly and amusingly
shaped. This playful interpolation of form into content recalls Pope’s pen-
chant for mocking mimesis. In the alexandrine, ‘That like a wounded
snake, drags its slow length along’, sound and sense are interwoven; the
simile, the judgement and the acoustic materiality are as one. The fact that
Williams is able to achieve the same effect with visual form is a token of its
admission to the accepted repertoire of literary effects.

Recent Spatialists
As we have seen, the post-Olsonian US poets who flourished during the
1950s were, despite Olson’s allegenies to speech, frequently drawn towards
manipulation of the visual material of language, often setting up within
the same poem contrasts between passages dominated by linearity and
those in which typographic separation – often the two-dimensional geom-
etry of the sign – disrupts the progress of the syntagmatic chain.
In the United States this tendency did not so much fade as atrophy; it
persisted but as a token of established radicalism. It has remerged in a more
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 181

challenging manifestation in poets who are at least a generation younger

than the Olsonians, many of whom originate, perversely, in the rather more
conservative culture of Britain and Ireland.
John Riley (1937–78) is, if not the only then at least, the earliest Black-
Mountain style poet to have been born in Leeds. His verse recalls that of
Eigner. In his long poem Czargrad (1973) extended sequences will pull us
forward through panoramas of natural imagery and mythology, sometimes
employing breath pauses, often the triadic, diagonal stanza to replicate
hesitation and uncertainty, but just as we become accustomed to a pre-
dominately linear temper we suddenly find that the spaces can no longer
be traversed according to logic, that visual breaks between syntactic units
and words suspend successive movement and leave us with a chiaroscuro of
signs distributed across the page. We can, if pressed, locate continuities but
we will, we know, be going against the essential multidimensional charac-
ter of the text and our experience of it if we do so. For example:

birds off across November fields mist

startling confidence tricks a heron slim wrists
the people one meets whats to be alone
with love
spread wider identity you

The visually separated phrases invite us to think inside and outside the
mental frame of the speaker, to switch between things apprehended –
‘birds’, ‘fields’, ‘a heron’ – and an internalized meditation upon selfhood
and relationships – ‘love’, ‘people one meets’, ‘you’. It is possible to make
connections between these levels of signification in a manner licensed by
the techniques of Culler, Fish et al., but Riley has rendered such strategies
self-evidently cumbersome and inappropriate. We would be imposing upon
a text a condition of continuity which suffocates its dynamic nature.
Although his technique is different from the effects of premodernist
enjambment Riley creates something similar to Wollheim’s twofold thesis;
a divergence between the phoncentric movement of the words and their
silent static relationships which resists a single naturalization. As we read
the text in a conventional linear manner, left-to-right, we encounter two
different threads of continuity; in effect separate frames of reference. Were
we to literally recite the text or even conduct a phonic naturalization based
upon the hegemonic rationality of syntax, anything resembling coherence
would be transient. Even someone with the interpretative sophistication
of Fish would find it difficult to maintain that ‘November fields mist start-
ling confidence tricks a heron slim wrists’ can be rescued from a state of
182 Graphic Poetics

impenetrable randomness. But when read with the eye we can, if not fully
dispense with the syntagm, then at least apprehend two versions of the
chain working simultaneously.
Most significantly we come close to experiencing that much sought liter-
ary holy grail, the capturing of perception, impression and ratiocination
at the precipitate point just prior to their surrender to language: internal
contemplation and external apprehension caught, almost, concurrently.
Riley’s technique beers a close resemblance to that of Steve McCaffery.
This is from his ‘Learning Lenin’

Tends the line

as a production itself
full form
speech empty speech
open from closed but
is a philosophical category
in growth matter has not disappeared
but merely atzovistism has reformulated Kant
i.e. in my desire to place thought
beyond thinking
the disappearance of Lenin
of thesis in all discourse where
regard gets negated

McCaffery is important because he incorporates in his verse a multitude of

interpretative inflections, signals and nuances. His lines and his spacings
function as a supergrammar causing us to seek for and often convince our-
selves that we have found patterns of continuity between each ‘block’ of
linguistic units. Any educated reader of post-Olsonian verse will recognize,
or think they recognize, interpretative cues, only to find that their pursuit
of a fascinating thread of linear hesitations and linkages is matched by
an equally tempting sequence of routes that cut vertically and diagonally
across the page. As we will see McCaffery’s poetry is unnervingly similar to
a number of textual enigmas examined by Jacques Derrida, the difference
is that while McCaffery controls his material, Derrida manufactures only
an abundance of perplexities.
Carlyle Reedy, in The Slave Ship, uses two different fonts. One, in italic,
seems to incorporate the voice of a slave, while in the other a more imper-
sonal commentary predominates. But at the same time there are slippages,
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 183

overlaps, with the two voices sharing each other’s visually designated spaces.
These effects are further complicated by the use of breath pauses, gaps
of varying length within lines which create a third level of counterpoint.
All that can be surmised is that such effects indicate the controlling hand
of the poet, herself uncertain of how to deal with the interanimation and
interweaving of the two voices. Like Riley, she invokes phonocentrism while
undermining its primacy as the determinant feature of a single paraphrasi-
ble text. Our eye follows the linear script but at the same time alights upon a
multiplicity of potential registers, states of mind. These are simultaneously
present and undo the alliance between linearity and naturalization:

chain beat me to death 3 am and

clattering against a door tonight I
Not slept I all its rings links, only clank
smoke lost return on the bone of my body
head, temple, all over to neck breast
in pagan blue

Frank Kuppner’s ‘Eclipsing Binaries’ confronts the promise of its title

and goes even further. Every line involves the placing of an alternative
to a key word or phrase beneath the letter in the unbroken linear chain.
The substitute is grammatically interchangeable in that while it will alter
the sense of the piece, it remains consistent with syntactic correctness and

I do not mind these minutes of silence

For, had they been noisy, they would also have ended
And the tree ignoring us outside the window
Would still be ignoring us outside the window
signalling somewhere inside

Ostensibly this might seem a rather cumbersome creative realization of

the diagram that generally accompanies Jakobson’s model of the two axes
of composition: combinative – metonymic – horizontal, and selective –
metaphoric – vertical. As the poem progresses the words and phrases
beneath the lines become gradually more inventive, moving away simply
from slips in idiom and diction and towards tropes. At the same time we
184 Graphic Poetics

are being offered something more than a diagrammatic representative of

two versions of the same poem. Most of us, attuned as we are to the con-
ventions of reading verse – even unconventionally spaced free verse – will
both note the opportunity to substitute the underhung phrase or word
and also become aware that yet another level of meaning has been inter-
spersed with this. We can read, say, ‘silence\moments’, ‘ended\we’, ‘outside
the window\unnoticed’, ‘outside the window\signalling something inside’
as enjambments. Two different, contrasting registers of visual interpret-
ation have been interposed with the phonocentric linear framework. None
of the three predominates, and the eye and the ear are at odds, creating
not merely distinct inflections upon a presiding norm, but three alterna-
tive texts, immune from a single naturalization. It is not Concrete Poetry.
The syntagm is preserved, albeit in a subjugated state, and one cannot help
but recognize that the originator of these explorations of the relationship
between sound and vision is John Milton.
I stated above that Philip Whalen was responsible for a small landmark in
literary history when in ‘Sourdough Mountain Lookout’ he caused a split in
the linear text and created two columns of meaning. Geraldine Monk in ‘La
Quinta Del Sordo’ returns us to this moment. The poem begins with bro-
ken, erratically spaced lines, often triadic stanzas and, like Whalan, Monk
evinces a feeling of frustration with the confines of linearity, a desire to
represent the multidimensional nature of space as it is apprehended and not
as language obliges us to document it, successively. So she bisects sense:

lunar masque
anequine head scars a woman’s face bleeds white
prehensile lips before ruin
bloodsucking and hooked in two black trenches
rapacious horse play crush down on cheekbones

Each syntactic unit involves an image activated by a verb or adjective, but

all are incomplete, inviting the reader to find routes of interaction between
them towards something more substantial, if not entirely comprehensible.
The problem is that it is impossible to read them either vertically or hori-
zontally without carrying into the resulting sequence of impressions some
trace of the unit that sits above, alongside or even in diagonal relation to
the route we have chosen. Again, we can identify the origin of this effect in
Milton, in which two patterns of meaning are frozen, inscribed within the
same text, and the use of columns has, since Whalen, become, like conven-
tional enjambment, a device in its own right.
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 185

Maurice Scully’s ‘Fire’ is an exercise in and meditation upon the process

of perception, in particular the way when describing what we see we are
obliged by the very nature of language to distinguish between angles, col-
ours, alignments, shapes, even movements. It echoes, intentionally or oth-
erwise, the Saussurian notion of signifiers as a falsification of the dynamic,
fluid nature of perception. Words impose an inaccurate system of divisions
upon an interwoven fabric and in response Scully visits upon words them-
selves sculpted angles and cleavages that are at odds with linearity.

blue sky join the

dots. Child-wit
the blue plane
the blue
draws the eye
along then
drawn to
neys & rooftops.

Williams and cummings are invoked, especially the former’s ‘Perpetuum

Mobile’ in which our attention is split between the meaning of the words
and the literal movement of our eye across the units on the page.
Scully is particularly intrigued, one suspects irritated, by the autonomy
of words as specific colours, (and here he prompts comparison with Frank
O’Hara, see above, pp. 153–4); the fact that we are obliged to submit to syn-
tactic connections and formulae to account for something that does not,
for our eye, require language:

grey black
ochre stone
grey black
ochre clay

At the conclusion of the poem he loses patience:

/whirring pipsqueak/can’t thinking
why can’s thinking
fitthinking fit
186 Graphic Poetics

this apt
black black
grey red
black red
grey grey

The columns enact his refusal to accept the tyranny of the syntagm, the
rules by which individual words are caused to organize or record what we
see and experience. He cannot abandon language completely, but he can
at least dispense with a predictable relationship between its units.
Catherine Walsh is without doubt one of the most challenging of con-
temporary poets. Her stylistic trademark, if so consistent an element can
be found in such an iconoclastic writer, is the use of each individual line
as, what Veronica Forrest-Thompson, calls the ‘disconnected image com-
plex’. Each of these resembles a paired-down version of a Western haiku
poem, something that appears to have been lifted from a more substantial
text, denied a context or often even a sense of syntactic completion; leav-
ing the reader with a sense of gnomic possibility and nothing more. Yet,
brilliantly, she also tempts us, the readers, towards a search for continuity.
Grammatically, the lines belong together. We are led forward by enjambed
connections between adjective and noun, pronoun and verb, noun and
verb and so on but each subsequent line causes an abrupt shift of context,
to an image or mood previously unsignalled:

inverted capital L maintaining

momentum without pitching
straight on the head
with support of a shopping trolley
walking slacks . . .

Walsh is playing an elaborate game with the conventions of reading

poetry. Most readers with some knowledge of verse, especially modern
verse, treat as customary the expectation of being surprised by an alter-
ation in tone or even an adjustment of context as the eye moves from the
end of one line to the beginning of the next. But Walsh does not merely
play upon continuity; she incites and then savages it. The words linking
each line seem to make sense, at least grammatically, but they create a
chain of images that causes us to question our trust in the inherent logic
of language.
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 187

In the midst of these cascades of uncertainty the verse will often be

slowed by a brief moment when space takes over. She, like Scully, considers
another, third dimension of movement, the double columns:

Where are we out there

on there in side of what

televised the street

Italian cars trucks full
house tired alsleep but
for me still

Tom Raworth is the poet most frequently cited by members of the con-
temporary new wave as if not their inspiration then at least the figure most
admired as instilling post war British and Irish poetry with a mood of Black
Mountain radicalism. In all of Raworth’s work a preoccupation with lan-
guage as material, particularly visual material on the page, is self-evident.
He experiments continually with enjambment, typeface, spatial organiza-
tion and in ‘That More Simple Natural Time Tone Distortion’ (1975) he
too opts for the double column as a hedge against the sentence:

TREMOR my tube
stillness moon
of slow behind
my present silence
moves peace
within or the play

Intriguingly, he also comments on his rationale for the poem. ‘I can see
it as a variant of the reader who sees something in a poem (and it’s hap-
pened to me) that had never been seen nor intended by the author.’ What
he means is the way in which the eye of the reader can stray outside the
linear phonocentric sequence to words and phrases that, by an accident of
typography, variously corrupt and extend the orderly progress of sense. He
decides to create a text where the direction of reading is predominantly lin-
ear – it is not quite a Concrete Poem – but which also involves options, inter-
sections between words and phrases that cut across, sometimes overtake
our chosen track of interpretation. It is an interesting work but Raworth
188 Graphic Poetics

is wrong in his assumption that he is working largely in isolation; that pre-

viously such effects were generally [not] ‘intended’ by the author. He is,
in truth, joining a quiet freemasonry of Graphic Poetics that predates his
discoveries by three centuries. I mention this not to disparage Raworth but
rather as a lead-in to a point that has been overlooked by all recent critics
and literary theorists. Poets are possessed of an intuitive sense of language
as something other than a tool for communication. Irrespective of their
temperamental or stylistic allegiances many are united in a fascination with
the antilogic of language as material, its ability to create nuances, patterns
of meaning that go against the prescribed logic of grammar and linearity:
the words on the page. This same preoccupation lies at the core of the work
of arguably the most powerful presence in modern literary theory, Jacques
Derrida, yet while his radical observations, especially on writing, are treated
as having undone two millenia of philosophical and theological thinking,
the fact that poets, many predating Derrida, have been pursing the same
agenda has not been noticed. The term deconstruction might be recent but
its practice has been a feature of poetic writing for some time.
In Derrida’s Glas (1974) the book, ‘or text’ as most would prefer it to be
known, is made up of two columns of prose on each page. On the left we
encounter an analysis and reflection upon Hegel’s concept of the family,
including notions of paternal authority and religious models of family rela-
tions. On the right we find citations from and discussions of the writings
of Jean Genet, the scandalous littérateur. Characteristically, Derrida does
not provide a rationale for this curious exercise in textual juxtaposition
but a consensus among mostly US advocates of deconstruction presides,
which I will summarize. Geoffrey Hartman in particular has averred that
Glas evokes the anti-logic of deconstruction. Most significantly it exposes as
fallacious the predominant model of texts, discourses and separate genres
of writing as autonomous. Customarily we treat philosophy and, say, diary
entries, or novels as demanding utterly different forms of attention and
when we read them we accord each separate roles and levels of significance.
But when we read Glas we become aware that in attempting to concentrate
upon either the column involving Hegel or the one concerned with Genet
we also become involved in a struggle against the intrusive presence of the
other. Any endeavour to convince ourselves that we are concerned exclu-
sively with Hegel is an act of self-delusion comparable to the one that under-
pins our belief in the independence of discourses and texts. Hartman: ‘Glas
raises the spectre of texts so tangled, contaminated, displaced and deceptive
that the idea of a single or original author fades’ (‘Crossing Over. Literary
Commentary as Literature’) Comparative Literature, Summer, 1976, 28, p268).
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 189

What neither Hartman nor any other commentor on Glas dwells upon is the
intriguing distinction between Derrida’s apparent purpose and his means of
achieving it. The former involves a vast spectrum of literary and philosophic
questions regarding the relationship, intellectually, ideologically and in soci-
ety, between discourses and interpretative perspectives. The latter, it hardly
needs to be pointed out, bears a striking resemblance to the double columns
used in by poets from Eigner onwards.
Equally, there are intriguing parallels between Glas and the poetry of
Riley and McCaffery. In the work of the latter, particularly, the reader finds
that their expectation of how the passive, static printed words and their
linear, successive, active counterparts will contribute to the same trajectory
of meaning is disrupted. Both patterns of significance are simultaneously
copresent, but equally, they begin to act against each other, generate mul-
tiple strands of meaning that reach beyond momentary ambiguities and
towards irresolvable divergences in sense. The fact that Jacques Derrida
is personally responsible for placing the two columns of his ‘book’ along-
side each other in order to create a dynamic between a linear reading of
each and a spatial interaction between both is undeniable. By overlooking
this – deliberately or not – Hartman sidesteps a factor that disproves his the-
sis. Derrida is self-evidently responsible for the text’s ‘ . . . tangled, contami-
nated, displaced’ state. He, its author, certainly does not ‘fade’. Hartman’s
misreading of Derrida is less a flaw in his own deconstructive programme as
an extension of a blindness that Derrida in his work inflicts upon himself.
In ‘Living On’ (1979) Derrida attempts something similar to his exercise
in Glas by placing one discourse above the other, with the former indicat-
ing its role as the main text and the latter, seemingly a commentary. He
describes the lower text as ‘a procession underneath the other one, going
past it in silence, as if it did not see it, as if it had nothing to do with it’
(p. 78). Just as Glas invites comparsions with the work of a number of post-
Eigner poets so ‘Living On’ has obvious parallels with the work of Frank
Kuppner. In fact, Derrida’s comments on his experiment could easily serve
as the rationale for Kuppner’s techniques in ‘Eclipsing Bineries’. Consider
the following lines:

For you are here. You are here aren’t you?

Oh my God, she is here

There is, however, a significant difference. Kuppner is playing upon a

long tradition – in which what we might call the supergrammar of poetry
supplements the standard conventions of language: specifically the spatial
190 Graphic Poetics

relationships between words that run beneath and above each other in
poetic lines juxtaposed against their linear, successive chain. Derrida is
using typography as a means of illustrating more universal issues, specifi-
cally the relationship between intertextuality and epistemology. In doing
so, however, he overlooks his own role as the choreographer of effects spe-
cific to a text for which he is solely responsible. He exploits features of lan-
guage that enable him to mount an assault upon the canon of philosophic
doctrine. Yet poets since Milton have been aware of these same radical
potentialities. I refer here to the tactile constituents of language, units that
are not in themselves things or referents but which nonetheless avoid the
evanescent, temporary nature of speech. Derrida declares that the linear
writer, the individual who upholds that language is essentially phonocen-
tric, is guiltily ‘rooted in a past of non linear writing . . . a writing that spells
its symbols pluri-dimensionally; there the meaning is not subjected to suc-
cessivity, to the order of a logical time, or to the irreversible temporality
of sound’. (Of Grammatology, p.85). He refers here to ‘primitive’ cultures
in which signs were as much representational as arbitrary, which bore an
explicit visual resemblance to the referent and were largely independent
of the rules of the syntagmatic chain. His point is that writers, thinkers
within the ‘civilised’ phonocentric cultures despise and fear their ‘roots’
and therefore hold sacrosanct the notion of phonocentricism and logos
as a guarantee against reverting to elementalism. What he either ignores
or is ignorant of is a linguistic tradition that incorporates both the ‘pluri-
dimensional’ visual symbol and the ‘order of logical time . . . the irreversible
temporality of sound’. Some poets have resurrected the primitive visualism
of signs and blended it with the sophisticated arbitrariness of linearity. If
Derrida had read a little more poetry his deconstructive legacy would have
been altered significantly: he would have been obliged to concede that
poets got there first.
In Of Grammatology, Derrida exposes a hidden contradiction in Levi
Strauss’s studies of the representational systems of the Nambikwara Indians.
Levi Strauss contended that like most primitive tribes the Nambikwara
maintained an exclusively speech-based culture with no recourse to writ-
ten record or exchange. Derrida avers that in this culture ‘writing appears
well before writing’ (p. 128). By this he means that the tribe had evolved a
silent language of signs, indicating routes through the jungle which they
would scratch into the earth. Often these would be double-edged – that
is offering two different routes – or ambiguous but their consistent fea-
ture was the intermeshing of signifier and referent. Objects and signs
were blended and the arbitrary conventions of syntactic linearity which
govern speech and writing in ‘civilised’ culture were subverted by the use
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 191

of non-arbitrary signs. Their interrelationships were determined by a free

spatial interaction rather than the temporal governance of speech and
syntax. In Positions he first introduces the paradigmatic, deconstructive,
notion of a distinction between structure and event.

Différance is the systematic play of differences, of traces of differences, of

the spacing [espacement] by which elements relate to one another. This
spacing is the production simultaneously active and passive (the ‘a’ of dif-
férance indicates this indecision as regards activity and passivity, that which
cannot be governed and organised by that opposition), of intervals without
which ‘full’ terms could not signify, could not function. (Positions, p. 27)

Customarily ‘différance’ in this passage is taken to refer to an episte-

mological alternation between structure and event but there is sufficient
evidence to support a claim that Derrida is concerned, if not exclusively
then equally, with the nature of language itself.
The activity of ‘spacing’ (espacement) coming from the verb ‘to space’
involves the placing of things, objects, even ideas at given, specific points.
This also incorporates the active use of language, where we place individual
words in relation to each other to create broader patterns of meaning. The
noun ‘spacing’ denominates the passive–static relationship between objects,
or words, subsequent to their having been placed at particular points in
relation to each other. With regard to language the verb ‘spacing’ refers to
the active process of composition while the noun relates to reading or inter-
pretation, our response to the ‘spaced’ words on the page. Conventionally,
these two aspects of communication operate in a correspondent coopera-
tive manner: our understanding of the spaced units on the page accords, we
assume, with the manner in which they were deployed. But this assumption
relies upon a linear, speech-based model of language in which the activity
of ‘spacing’ words on the page is a corollary to the function of grammar and
syntax. Here, the roles governing the act of spacing allow only for interac-
tion between words placed in succession along the syntagmatic chain and
when we read a text, prose or poetry, we are accustomed to pay attention
only to the progress of the syntagm. Inevitably, of course, we will see other
words or groups of words on the page but we do not allow ourselves to
be distracted by them: to read the page of a book vertically, diagonally or
according to some perverse geometrical alignment of our own devising
will, we assume, result in a random accumulation of words unrelated to the
intended meaning and with no claim upon coherence. They do not make
sense because we are reading against the intention of the writer and indeed
the printer. The exception is, as I have shown, poetry.
192 Graphic Poetics

What fascinates Derrida in Nambikwara culture is the possibility,

unproven, but enticing, that their use of signs as an element of their lan-
guage involved a prehistory of writing: ‘writing as the possibility of the
road and of difference, the history of writing and the history of the road,
of the rupture, of the via rupta, of the path that is broken . . . it is not diffi-
cult to imagine that access to the possibility of a road map is to at the same
time access to writing’ (Of Grammatology, pp. 107–8). These elemental maps
contain, he surmises, an originary element of the tension between the two
elements of difference. The line or track followed corresponds with the
linearity of speech but what he calls via rupta, in basic terms the junction or
crossroads, involves a choice between mutually exclusive lines of progres-
sion, knowledge and direction. However, the map – even at its most basic,
routes scratched in the earth – is like the written text which offers a passive
but far more comprehensive account of divergent paths and, more signifi-
cantly, relationships between them that would not be evident to a person
following a single, spoken track.
Derrida’s engagements with poetry were negligible – though in Glas he
came close to recreating poetic effects – and for a figure who is celebrated
as alerting us to abundant unsettling zones of intertextual space, this was
in truth his principal shortcoming. His dealings with Levi Strauss’s writ-
ings on the Nambikwara Indians, his preoccupation with espacement, with
différance and the active and passive elements of language are fascinat-
ing and tentative. His problem was that he was denying himself, or was
unaware of, an experience in writing and reading where those curiously
antithetical, mutually divisive elements of language – the phonocentric,
successive aspect versus the silent realm of the page, where the via rupta is
possible – are fascinatingly, uniquely, co-present. Perhaps his disengage-
ment was tactical, even disingenuous. If he had alighted upon the poems
from Milton onwards that we have considered so far he would have been
obliged to concede a fundamental contra-deconstructionist point: that the
author is in ultimate command of the text; that the text, the graphic poem,
testifies to a discourse particular unto itself; that the reader has access to,
can appreciate and enjoy, a unique dynamic between speech and writing.
This is Steve McCaffery:

At the outset let me say that I don’t consider linear and visual antino-
mial. The line is, and always has been both visual and temporal, appear-
ing as radial, vertical, diagonal, as well as horizontal. (Cobbing and
Upton, 1998)
The Sliding Scale and Recent Literary History 193

In this succinct statement McCaffery the poet announces himself as the

choreographer of what Derrida treated as irreconcilable junctures, per-
manently dislocated antitheses. The line, for him, is the instrument which
commands both the spatial and temporal dimensions of language, points
up the distinction between the linear and the spatial yet also enables the
poet to make them cooperate.
Chapter 9


Do we need a grammar, a semiotic, or a visual form? No, because visual

form is probably the final point of resistance to the process by which critical
writing has catalogued and colonized the ‘language of poetry’. In theory a
graphic prosody, or in broader terms a grammar of visual poetry, would pro-
vide us with yet another subsystem of codes to enlarge the already burgeoning
repertoire of literary semiotics. In practice we face a number of pleasurably
insurmountable problems. All systems of codification necessarily share the
same formulaic relation of system to event, langue to parole. In language any
sentence can be shown to incorporate a deep structure of subject, predicate
and object. The langue of linguistic structure always stands ready to demys-
tify any claim to originality that a particular parole might seem to carry with
it. But the phenomenon that makes visual poetics possible is the poetic line.
Since free verse, this can be composed of any number or any pattern of indi-
vidual linguistic integers, words – it can even cut into words and create fis-
sures within that allegedly fundamental and indissoluble unit of language,
the phoneme. It can support or disrupt any syntactic or metrical unit without
being controlled or determined by the system of composition or the per-
ceptual range that validate sentences or metrical patterns. The line belongs
neither to the langue nor the parole; it can neither be strictly identified as the
event nor as the system that makes the event possible. Instead it is the point
of contact, sometimes of conflict, sometimes of harmony, between systems,
practices and often distinct perceptual expectations. And the key to its status
is its ability to hold the reader between any certain distinction between what
we hear and what we see, between temporality and spatial juxtaposition.
The sliding scale provides an interpretative touchstone for the internal
mechanizm of the visual poem. I shall close this study with that familiar
instrument of the semiotician, the chart of binary oppositions. This will
allow us to place visualism within a broader interpretative context. The
oppositions listed below are a rough index to the major themes of the book
and in order to qualify as an instance of visualism, a poem or a section
Conclusion 195

from a poem must succeed in drawing at least two of these terms into a
state of co-presence; not a condition of harmony or balance but a state of
tension in which one pattern or condition will function as a challenge, a
supplement or a counterpoint, but will not displace the other:

Ear Eye
Sound Silence
Speech Writing
Phoneme Grapheme
The Voice The Text
Temporality Spatial Juxtaposition
Presence Sign
Epireader Graphireader
Movement Stasis
Ideational Pattern Materiality
Symbol Icon
Lisible Scriptible
The Poet The Reader
Vocalization Inscription

To demonstrate how this diagram might be used we can test it against what
in my view is the exemplary visual text, Williams’s ‘The Corn Harvest’. We
can hear this poem and consider an artefact that consists of phonemes
strung along a temporal sequence; an epireader might read through the
indexical pattern and construct an ideational picture. The performative
voice guarantees the living presence of the poet and in a broader critical
framework we can judge the text to be lisible – the reader becomes the pas-
sive recipient of a series of undemanding impressions. But this accounts for
only half of what actually happens when we read the poem.
On the page we can discern different syntactic patterns that are locked
into the graphic format. The materiality of the graphemes generates a
polysemantic complex that will stand outside the temporality of sound and
speech. An alternative ideational pattern is inscribed within the juxtaposi-
tions of the text. It is not in itself iconic, but it engages with cognitive and
interpretative strategies that we more readily associate with representational
painting. We become both epireader and graphireader, disrupting but not
displacing the univocal presence. The text is scriptible in the sense that it
demands the interpretative activity of the reader yet it maintains a lisible
dimension of encoded meaning. The poet is both present as the speaking
voice and the creator of the graphic pattern and absent in the sense that,
196 Graphic Poetics

like the painter, he conveys a significant part of his message in silence – the
permanence of the text supplements the ephemerality of the voice.
I offer the sliding scale and this framework of oppositions as a testing
ground for readers who regard the techniques and interpretative challenges
of poems as an essential part of their enjoyment of the text. Criticism, even
in its more arcane manifestations, must attest to its origins as the formal-
ization of our more instinctive, subjective responses to literature. It tells us
something more about the text’s means of signification, how it works, how
it operates in relation to our commonplace experience of life, what relation
it bears to the known life and intentions of the author, and to the social
and aesthetic circumstances of its composition. But good literature, in my
opinion, is that which creates a tantalizing pattern of the almost known
and that which engages with our codes of interpretation, but refuses to
submit easily to their overarching control. Such a criterion is currently very
difficult to satisfy; criticism and interpretative theory are their own mas-
ters, anything can be done to everything and every interpretative problem
has its own selection of possible solutions. Visual poetry is valuable because
it re-establishes the traditional exchange between reader, text and author
as something that stands beyond the monoliths of critical theory. I have
neither the space nor the inclination to document every instance of its
ability to do so – ‘see above’. But I shall conclude with a couple of engaging
instances of what might be termed the victory of visualism.
In the 1970s a debate took place between John Searle and Jacques
Derrida on the meaning and significance of speech acts. Searle, following
J. L. Austin, argued that a promise or an assertion will be stripped of its
validity, its illocutionary force, if such a statement is made in a fictional
context, by an actor, a person in a novel or as part of the locutionary struc-
ture of a poem. Derrida, the deconstructionist, reversed the underlying
hierarchy of Austin’s and Searle’s assumptions and argued that if it were
not possible for a fictional presence to make a promise or commitment,
there could be no promises or commitments in real life: thus the fictional
statement, far from being a supplement or deviation from the ‘real’ state-
ment, could actually be regarded as the basis for ‘serious’, ‘real life’ role
playing. Visual poetry imposes an extra dimension upon this exchange
which none of the participants had considered. What if the essence, the
full validity of a promise, a statement or a claim, can be discerned only
in the absence of the speaker? We should here recall Eve’s ‘speech’ and
‘promise’ to Adam whose flaws and uncertainties can only be disclosed by
the reader who watches the language on the page. To broaden the context
to Williams’s impressions of Brueghel’s painting we find that the truth or
Conclusion 197

sincerity of his appreciative gestures can be felt only in the absence of the
poet or his representative in performance. The notion of context which
underpins the Searle-Austin-Derrida exchange suddenly becomes irrele-
vant. Context, whether fictional or real, requires iteration and presence.
So by embedding the true meaning of the statements within the material-
ity of the text, Milton and Williams cause us to reinterpret the attendant
conditions of context, speech and presence. So if visual form destabilizes
the traditional model of context, what does it put in its place as a commu-
nicative circuit that maintains the co-presence of writer and addressee?
The context of a poetic statement, promise or proposition is a fictional
simulacrum of the real world, the principal difference being that in the
former both the text and the context are constructions – the fictional text
will organize and delineate its own fictional circumstances. In a theatrical
performance the ability of the words to generate their own contextual ori-
gin is supplemented by such elements as the demeanour, the interpretative
skill and the dress of the performer and the design of the set. But in both
genres there is a distinction between the spoken words and the imagined,
or in the theatre supplied, continuum of non-linguistic events, feelings
and circumstances. Visual poetry will maintain this word–context relation
through its univocal pattern, but a more significant series of effects will be
generated by its ability to interpose context with the materiality of the text.
With Wordsworth’s image of the figure on the cliff the univocal text cre-
ates a contextual image, but this is matched by an enactment of a very simi-
lar pattern of movements within the silent configurations of the printed
poem. With Williams’s ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ the girls on the street exist as
both a mental image and as a written diagram, and Tomlinson’s ‘Lines’ cre-
ate a continuous and unresolvable tension between context (lines written
in response to the image of ploughing) and text (ploughing and writing,
furrows and lines, image and pen, blended as part of the multi-discourse
of the printed text).
In visual form the contextual experience that grants speech its trad-
itionally privileged status (presence, gesture, expression, demeanour, sta-
tus . . . everything that we perceive outside and beyond the words) is grafted
on to the textual experience. The text becomes the presence.
The writer has regained what convention would have us believe was lost
to writing. Derrida, following Rousseau, Warburton and Condillac, traces
the origins of writing to our agrarian roots:

The furrow is the line, as the ploughman traces it: the road – via rupta –
broken by the ploughshare. . . . How does the ploughman proceed?
198 Graphic Poetics

Economically. Arrived at the end of the furrow, he does not return to the
point of departure. He turns ox and plough around. And proceeds in
the opposite direction. . . . Writing by the turning of the ox – boustro-
phedon – writing by furrows was a movement in linear and phonographic
script. At the end of the line travelled from left to right, one resumes
from right to left. Why was it abandoned at a given moment by the Greeks
for example? Why did the economy of the writer (scripteur) break with
that of the ploughman? Why is the space of one not the space of the
other? (Of Grammatology, pp. 287–8)

In the deconstructive manner Derrida ponders and fillets these questions,

but there is a solution which he and his eighteenth-century sources fail to
disclose. They address the economy of prose writing, the confinement of
the univocal movement within the oblong of the printed page, yet they
ignore the interplay between confinement and freedom that has devel-
oped in poetry from blank to free verse. As Tomlinson demonstrates, the
ploughman-poet can take advantage of both the confinement of the page
and the unbroken pattern of ‘linear and phonographic script’. Both are
encoded within the texture of ‘Lines’. The eye will perceive the break, the
return to the left ‘along the new / and growing groove’, but at the same
time the ear, inner or outer, will effect a closure of this break – the space
will exist for the eye and disappear for the ear. Even in theatre, in film or
in a variety of electronic media where co-relationships between visual and
auditory signs exist, it is not possible for specific concrete signs to operate
simultaneously as visual and auditory signifiers. A person on film speaks
and the discourse will function as one element of a network of images
and sounds, but the components of this multidimensional effect can each
be traced to different sites of origin, different material signs. In the vis-
ual poem there is a single continuum of concrete signs that will function
simultaneously in two different ways, and I know of no other medium or
art-form which can achieve this effect. It grants the poet mastery of the
medium that is denied both to the user of purely phonocentric form or to
the visual artist. The temporality of speech is there to be preyed upon, to
be opened and closed, not through a tampering with the medium itself
but by an insertion of the written presence between the distinct cognitive
registers of what we see and what we hear – context (seeing) and text (hear-
ing) have become one.
As I stated in the Introduction, the remit of this book is to introduce
the reader to aspects of poetry that transcend the standard distinctions
between period and genre, traditional and avant-garde. Visual, shaped
Conclusion 199

poetry with its various manifestations and correlate critical questions has
been well documented. It exists, respectably, as a subgenre in the broader
commonwealth of verse, but it will never be treated as anything more than
a minority interest, an abberation which, at best, licences critics to specu-
late on matters like the nature of the sign and the contingencies of linguis-
tic representation. But Graphic Poetics as I term it is far more elemental
and endemic to the very process of poetic writing. It is not so much a device
as an intimation of something that makes poetry what it is, the most liter-
ary of literary forms. This leads us into a question that I broached in the
Introduction, that has attended all of my above engagements with poems,
and which I have addressed but not conclusively answered: why is it that
an element of poetic writing countenanced by figures as diverse as Milton,
Wordsworth, Eliot, Auden and Williams has gone virtually unnoticed by
the supposed spokespersons for readers of verse, the critics?
In non-poetic discourse two factors – an attendance upon the gram-
matical rules of language and a desire to despatch a particular message –
govern our journey along the syntagmatic chain. In regular poetry, other
arbitrary features of language occupy the attention of the writer. These
will not necessarily cause the poet to close a sentence, even a clause, at
the end of a line but nonetheless an awareness of factors such as iambs,
trochees, rhyme schemes and so on acts as a supplement to the writer’s
routine compositional prerogatives. Once they have decided what kind of
regular form to adopt this will provide them with a programme for how to
organize the line in relation to the progress of syntax. But what happens
when a poet dispenses with this framework or even, like Milton, the part
of it, rhyme, deemed by consensus to be its keystone? The line exists, but
it exists only as an obligatory hypothesis, something other than syntax,
but which lacks an abstract definition, a phenomenon that accompanies
the poet’s otherwise unencumbered progress through the sentence. But,
how long will it be, what shape will it take, when will it end and how does
it relate to its equally unfashionable neighbours preceding and following
it, or more intriguingly above and below it? It is at this point, I would con-
tend, that Graphics Poetics is born. Words and their relationship to each
other are no longer simply a condition of grammatical rules and nor are
they governed by a reliable framework of metre or sound pattern. At this
fissure the poet encounters something never previously accounted for in
testaments to the workings of language. The words despatched to the page
assume an intermediary state between their standard function as arbitrary
units of signification and shapes which have tactile even innate signifying
qualities. The poet, unlike Derrida’s ploughman, does not simply ‘turn’.
200 Graphic Poetics

He contemplates the shape and nature of the ‘furrow’, the line, its skewed,
perhaps obtuse relation to the progress of syntax and the intricate tap-
estry of nuances that move vertically, horizontally, diagonally across the
text and are not simply governed by the blinding logic of linearity. Recall
McCaffery: ‘The line is, and always has been both visual and temporal,
appearing as radial, vertical, diagonal, as well as horizontal.’ And Larkin:
‘the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from
the end [of the line]. Reading on the page means you can go at your own
pace, taking it in properly.’ Charles Tomlinson: ‘The true realization of
the poet’s voice comes from a blending or a marriage of the silent and the
spoken forms’. Then, of course, Williams allows us literally to watch him
negotiate the horizontal and vertical axes of the page, as he alights upon
the meaning of a word and delights in its actuality, its momentum and pro-
portions: As he and the girls,

pause sometimes . . .

reform the line . . .

back and
forth and back and forth
and back and forth.

The most resonant phrase comes, paradoxically, from the most conserva-
tive of these figures; Larkin’s ‘Knowing how far you are from the end [of
the line] . . . .’ Sound pattern and metre differ from the visual format of the
line in one crucial respect. While the former are in constant attendance
upon the paraphrasable essence of the words, even capable of distract-
ing us from unalloyed attention upon the sense of the poem, they neither
create nor organize patterns of meaning per se. But consider the creative
moment evoked so vividly and succinctly by Larkin. You are constructing
a sentence, and even if you have not eschewed all of the appurtenances of
regular verse – and a considerable number of the poets discussed above
do not – you are aware of a far more invigorating opportunity to create an
effect both unique to poetry and elusive of the powers of critics to docu-
ment it or properly describe its mechanics. You are writing two versions of
the same sentence simultaneously. The standard regulations and conven-
tions that enable us to place one word after another in the construction
of clauses, subclauses and sentences concern us of course, but so does the
Conclusion 201

opportunity to shape words, literally shape them so that a counterpoint

to the syntagm is made available by the placing of words on the page. I
do not refer here to the traditional perception of the enjambed line as
a break in syntax. This implies that cutting up, subdividing the syntax is
something that is secondary to, perhaps with free verse even conducted
after, the assembly of sentence. No; Graphic Poetics results from when a
poet pays attention simultaneously to the physical shape of the words and
to the rules of grammar. The latter suddenly ceases to be immune from the
former, and vice versa, and the result, frequently, is a fascinating interface
between stasis and progress, succession and non-successive spacing.
Here we come close to understanding why Graphic Poetics has for more
than four centuries persisted as the equivalent of the elephant in the sit-
ting room, the single tantalizing aspect of poetic writing which academic
criticism has, either wilfully or through genuine ignorance, ignored. It is
something created in and by language, which defies the resources of lan-
guage to satisfactorily describe.
The following quotation is from Marjorie Perloff, one of the most emi-
nent commentators on modern verse. Perloff is discussing the nature of
the poetic line, post-free verse. ‘What can be said . . . is that the “free verse”
aesthetic . . . is no longer operative. Take a seemingly minor feature of free
verse like enjambment. To run over a line means that the line is a limit,
even as the caesura can only exist within line limits’ (1998, p. 166). The
problematical crux of this piece involves the phrase ‘to run over a line’.
This might seem an adequate account of enjambment, the point at which
the two aspects of the double pattern intersect; and if we consider the line
as an abstraction, even a hypothesis, then it is possible to conceive of it as
a static element ‘over’ which mobile, successive units of syntax do indeed
‘run’. However, let us shift the perspective away from this analytical model
to the mind of the poet. The latter, in mid sentence, does not know where
the approaching juncture will occur. He/she will not shape their syntax
around something that does not exist; rather the relationship between the
line and the sentence is far more flexible and interchangeable. The end of
the line is not pre-existent; it is determined by the progress of language
and at the same time becomes a feature of the visual grammar of the text
on the page.
Graphic Poetics is a volatile concept because it involves two interpretative
perspectives, experienced simultaneously. As we follow the successive pro-
gress of the words, we become aware at the same time of a fabric of mean-
ings generated by non-successive, static placings on the page. The text on
the paper is inert, static, but only insofar as the famous tree that falls in the
202 Graphic Poetics

forest a hundred miles from any human being does, so silently. When our
eye meets the page two patterns of movement – silent and phonocentric,
successive and static, linear and geometric – disrupt our routine habits of
analysis and naturalization. We assume that the printed text is dead matter
revivable only through our vocalization of it or more likely our imaginings
of its vocal dimension. But against this it becomes possessed of a life of its
own, opening up a dynamic between two channels of meaning, inscribed in
the same imprint that our critical and interpretative resources have not so
far equipped us to even acknowledge, let alone deal with. Deconstruction
has been treated, too generously, as a form of truth-telling about criticism,
an exposure of how naturalization in all its forms is a falsification of the far
more complex dialogue between the reader and the text. Graphic Poetics in
this regard pre-empts deconstruction and given that it is a feature of poetry
itself, some of it excellent poetry, is far more agreeable to read.

Chapter 2
From The Reader in the Text, S. R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman (eds), Princeton,
1980, p. 50.
‘Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics’, Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.), Style in
Language, p. 358.
Fundamentals of Language, pp. 95–6.
Structuralist Poetics, p. 163.
‘Structural Metrics’, Essays on the Language of Literature, S. Chatman and S. R. Levin
(eds), Boston, 1967, p. 156.
See, for example, Rudolf Arnheim’s Visual Thinking, 1970.
‘Syntax and Music in Paradise Lost’, The Living Milton, F. Kermode (ed.), 1960,
pp. 70–1.

Chapter 3
Pictures from Brueghel and other poems, p. 60

Chapter 4
Reprinted in The William Carlos Williams Reader, M. Rosenthal (ed.), 1966, pp. 406–9

Chapter 5
Preface to Some Imagist Poets 1916, reprinted in Imagist Poetry, Peter Jones (ed.),
1972, pp. 139–40.
From T. E. Hulme’s Further Speculations, Samuel Hynes (ed.), 1955, p. 69.
Preface to Some Imagist Poets, pp. 138–40.
From ‘A Lecture on Modern Poetry’, reprinted in Michael Roberts, 77 E.
Hulme, 1938, pp. 269–70.
‘A Lecture on Modern Poetry’, p. 270.
Imagist Poetry, p. 133.
204 Notes

Chapter 7
From Concrete Poetry. A World View, Mary Ellen Solt (ed.), 1968, pp. 91–3. The
poems by Morgan, Williams, de Vree and Hamilton Finlay will be found in Solt’s
Concrete Poetry.
Thomas A. Clark’s ‘River’ will be found in Mindplay. An Anthology of British Concrete
Poetry, John J. Sharkey (ed.), 1971.

Chapter 8
The William Carlos Williams Reader, pp. 408–9.
‘A Note on Poetry’, from A Quick Graph: Collected Notes and Essays, Donald Allen
(ed.), San Francisco, 1970, p. 27.
‘Trail Camp at Bear Valley, 9000 Feet. Northern Sierra – White Bone and Threads
of Snowmelt Water’, in Earth House Hold, New York, 1969.
Walter Sutton, ‘A Conversation with Denise Levertov’, Minnesota Review, vol. 5,
1965, pp. 331–32.
Reprinted in To Criticise the Critic, 1965, p. 187.
Reprinted in On Poetry and Poets, 1957, pp. 157–8.
TLS, 27 September 1928, p. 687.
From the BBC Radio 3 programme ‘The Composed Voice’, 14 July 1981, first
quoted in Eric Griffiths’s, The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry, 1989, pp. 66–7.
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Kames, Henry Home, Lord, Elements of Criticism, 3 vols, London, 1762. (Reprinted
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Addison, Joseph 102, 103 ‘13’ (No Thanks) 134–6

Aiken, Conrad 82 ‘57’ 119–21, 139
Aldington, Richard 83, 87, 88 Cushman, Stephen 105–9, 113
‘October’ 83
Armstrong, Isobel 59 Davidson, Ian 43
Attridge, Derek 19, 20, 40, 79 Davie, Donald 28–9, 40, 74, 105
Auden, W. H. 163–7 Derrida, Jacques 64–5, 71–2, 156,
‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ 165 188–93, 196–9
Look, Stranger 164–5 Donne, John
‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ 165–6 ‘The Flea’ 51
Austin, J. L. 196–7 Donoghue, Denis 71–2
Draper, R. P. 125
Bergvall, Caroline 139–40 Drucker, Johanna 1
‘Black Mountain’ school 149 Dryden, John 9, 77, 102
Blair, Hugh 104 Duncan, Robert 116, 142, 149,150
Blake, William 8, 58, 107, 134, 143
Bohn, Willard 1 Easthope, Antony 59
Browning, Robert 8 Eigner, Larry 157
‘Open’ 157
Campos, Augusto and Haroldo de 124 Eliot, T. S. 13–15, 116, 141, 158–63,
Cage, John 129–30 170, 173, 178
Chomsky, Noam 44–5 Ash Wednesday 3, 160–1
Church, Margaret 1, 97 ‘Burnt Norton’ 13–14, 162–3
Clark, Thomas A. 126 The Four Quartets 160
Coleridge, S. T. 77 Enright, D. J. 178
Corman, Cid 65, 145, 146, 156–7 Epoch 178–9
Creeley, Robert 116, 121, 147–9 Ewart, Gavin 89, 174
Culler, Jonathan 16, 18, 35–6, 45, 146
cummings, e. e. 2, 5, 28–34, 61–3, 71, Fenollosa, Ernest 73–7, 80, 124, 142
73, 75, 81, 85, 86–90, 95, 96 , 99, Ficke, John 16, 79
101, 119–22, 131–40 and passim Finlay, Ian Hamilton 126, 130–1
‘Impressions’ 86–9, 95 Fish, Stanley 36–7, 58, 146
‘A leaf falls’ 32–3, 62, 99 Flint, F. S. 6, 74
‘nonsun blob a’ 62 Fogg, Peter Walkden 103–5
‘Sonnets-Realities’ number IV Forrest-Thomson, Veronica
88–90 35–6, 45
‘9’ (No Thanks) 132–5 Fowler, Roger 18–19, 47, 49–50
212 Index

Gaudier-Brzeska, Henri 77 Langer, Suzanne 24, 25

Gombrich, E. H. 52 Lanier, Sydney 6, 10
Gomringer, Eugen 122–6 Science of English Verse (1880) 6
5 mal 1 Constellation 125 Laporte, Roger 65
Gray, Thomas 38–9 Larkin, Philip 177–8, 200
Grindal, Gracia 179 ‘An Arundel Tomb’ 177–8
Gross, Harvey 80–3, 123–4, 134–5, 159–60 Leonardo da Vinci 86
Lessing, Gotthold E. 1, 23–28, 31, 32,
Hartman, Charles O. 159–60 85, 86, 107, 112
Hartman, Geoffrey 188–9 Levertov, Denise 149–50
Hawes, Stephen 97 Lowell, Amy 6–16 passim, 29, 75–6, 85,
Hawkes, Terence 46, 49–50 80, 82, 143
Hayley, William 104–6 ‘An Aquarium’ 12–13
H. D. 7, 9–10, 149 ‘Dolphins in Blue Water’ 29–31
‘Oread’ 7, 82–4 Lowell, Robert 89, 174
Heaney, Séamus 178 Lowes, John Livingstone 11–13, 16, 36–7
Hegel, Friedrich 71
Herbert, George 97–101, 127–8 MacBeth, George 179
‘Easter Wings’ 100–1 Man Ray 138–9
Herrick, Robert 97–100, 127–8 ‘Lautgedicht’ 138–9
Hill, Geoffrey 172–7 McCaffery, Steve 182–3, 192–3, 200
‘Funeral Music’ 172–3 ‘Learning Lenin’ 182
Hirst, Damien 131 McHughes, Janet Larsen 125
Hollander, John 20–7 passim 28, 34, 40, Mallarmé, Stéphane 71
45, 53–6, 90 Marcus, Aaron 125
Home, Henry see Kames, Lord Meredith, George 36
Hopkins, Gerard Manley 3 Milton, John 1, 5, 8, 10, 13–14, 20, 22,
Horace 23 27–33, 34, 39, 42–44, 48, 53–62, 64,
Hoover, Paul 42 68, 70–1, 73, 81–2, 91–2, 120, 126, 138
Hulme, T. E. 6, 76–8, 80, 84, 87, 88, 149 Paradise Lost 3, 5, 9, 10–13 passim,
‘Autumn’ 84–5 20–2, 26–9, 34, 53–8, 61–2, 103–5,
‘Images’ 78–9 120, 126, 167, 176
Mitchell, W. J. T. 43–4, 46, 117–9
Ingarden, Roman 51–2 Monk, Geraldine 184
‘La Quinta Del Sordo’ 184
Jakobson, Roman 17–19, 33–4, 39–41, Monroe, Harriet 6, 10, 16–17, 76–7
46, 67, 76, 79, 137, 171–2 Morgan, Edwin 121–3, 126
Johnson, Samuel 9–10, 104 Morgan, Robert 179–80
Jonson, Ben 175–6
O’Hara, Frank 153–5
Kames, Lord 27, 104–5 ‘Why I am not a Painter’ 153–5
Kant, Immanuel 17 Olson, Charles 35, 116, 142–6, 150–3,
Critique of Judgement 17 156–7
Keats, John 8 Maximus 143–5, 151–2
Kenner, Hugh 85, 88, 175 Omond, T. S. 16
Kristeva, Julia 57
Kuppner, Frank 183–4, 189–90 Patterson, Dr William 6–10, 76, 82
‘Eclipsing Binaries’ 183–4 Peirce, C. S. 24
Index 213

Perloff, Marjorie 1, 201 Tomlinson, Charles 163, 167–72, 178

Pignatari, Decio 124–5 ‘Lines’ 170–1, 197–9
Plutarch 85–6 ‘Movements’ 167–70
Pope, Alexander 10 ‘The Square’ 168–9
‘Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot’ 38
The Rape of the Lock 3 Vree, Paul de 126–7
Pound, Ezra, 6, 71, 73–88 passim ‘A rose is everywhere’ 126–7
‘In a Station of the Metro’ 3, 80–4,
91, 123, 148 Walker, John 9, 10, 11–15 passim, 18,
‘The Return’ 40–1, 81 19, 57, 62, 76, 145
Puttenham, George 97–103 Walsh, Catherine 186
Weaver, Mike 66–7, 125
Quarle, Philip 107 Whalen, Philip 155–6, 184
Quine, W. V. 35 Whitman, Walt 8, 78
From a Logical Point of View 35 Wieners, John 154–5
‘A Poem for Painters’ 154–5
Raine, Craig 178 Williams, Emmett 126
Ranta, Jerrald 175 Williams, Hugo 180–1
Raworth, Tom 187–8 Williams, William Carlos 5, 26–8,
‘That More Simple Natural Time 41–50, 58–179 passim
Tone Distortion’ 187–8 ‘The Corn Harvest’ 113–4, 195–6
Reedy, Carlyle 182–3 ‘The Hunters in the Snow’
Rice, John 9–20 passim 57–8, 76, 145 108–10
Ricks, Christopher 28, 34, 40, 56, 60, 105 ‘The Parable of the Blind’ 111–13
Riley, John 181–2 Paterson 68–71
Czargrad 181–2 ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ 63–4, 176–7
Riordan, John 66 Pictures from Brueghel 106–15
‘The Rain’ 150
Saussure, Ferdinand de 17–8, 23 ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ 3, 25–8,
Sayre, Henry 105 92–94, 101, 111, 176
Searle 196–7 ‘Sonnet in Search of an Author’
Scully, Maurice 185–7 47–9, 179
‘Fire’ 185–7 Spring and All 90–4
Sheridan, Thomas 10–39 passim, 53–6, ‘To Elsie’ 92–4
61–2, 67–8, 103, 105, 112, 159 ‘To a Poor Old Woman’ 44–5, 150
Simonides of Ceos 85, 86, 94 Wimsatt, W. K. 38–9, 136
Snyder, Gary 142, 149–50, 157–8 Wollheim, Richard 52–7, 112
Solt, Mary Ellen 174 Woodford, Samuel 54–55, 68
‘Moonshot Sonnet’ 174 Wordsworth, William 8, 58–72 passim
‘Sourdough Mountain Lookout’ 155–6 Excursion 61
Steele, Joshua 10, 76, 143–5, 168 Home at Grasmere 60
Prosodia Rationales 10 The Prelude 165
Steiner, Wendy 108 ‘Tintern Abbey’ 58–9, 165
Steinmetz, Charles Proteus 66–7
Swenson, May 179 Yeats, W. B. 84

Tennyson, Alfred, Lord 8 Zukofsky, Louis 116, 147–9

Thomson, James 8 ‘Wire’ 148