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Formlessness in Modern Visual Poetry

Mahmoud Moawad Sokar
MA. – Banha University
P.hD studies – Port Said University
Teaching Methods Diploma – Tanta University

It is not surprising that nowadays have witnessed a great deal of

change in all kinds of literature, especially poetry. Poetry has been

developed from the traditional stanzas of romanticism to modernism and

postmodernism. Nowadays, the printed texts lose their importance and

flexibility due to recent technological development through digital media.

Hence, the reader needs a new, easy, simple, and flexible form of poetry.

Visual poetry is a kind of poetry in which the visual arrangement

of text, image, and symbols is important in conveying the intended

meaning of the literary work; it is sometimes referred to as concrete

poetry. The present paper aims at highlighting one of the most important

features of postmodernism in visual poetry which is Formlessness.

Any traditional poem has a certain and known form such as

sonnet, epic, Haikai, ode, etc (Riccio 38). Visual poetry does not adopt

any of these forms. The visual poet has the freedom to formulate his

poem without any roles or certain patterns. Consequently, visual poetry is

a "formlessness" kind of poetry. According to Kahler, the word form can

be defined as a structure manifesting itself in shape. He adds:


In as much as shape constitutes the outer appearance of a

structure, which means of an inner organization, an inner

organizational, an inner organizational coherence of a

bounded entity, does it belong to form. (qtd. in L Jackson,


Thus, poetic forms can be defined as sets of rules, shapes, and

structures followed by poems of certain types (Hirsch 241). This is the

definition of the term "form" which is considered the counterpart of the

term "Formlessness." Formlessness is one of the flashy features of

postmodernism in visual poetry.

Marcio Hemrique Pereira's book, Post-war Writing and Aesthetics:

A Reaction against Modernism considers “Formlessness” as a main

feature of postmodernism in modern poetry. He mentions:

Postmodernism in poetry had its beginning in the sixties as a

result of the feeling that poetry had become too outward-

looking and restrained like all other fields of art. Thus, there

arose new creations that were constructed of language that

were a retreat into the writer's consciousness. The essential

features of these postmodern works were iconoclasm,

groundless, formlessness, and populism. (12)

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English


Language, the term "formless" is defined as having no definite form,

shapeless, and lacking order (par. 1). Comparing the genre to other forms

of poetry such as Shakespearean sonnets, Haikai of Williams' The Red

wheelbarrow, epics, odes, free verse, etc, it would be noticeable that it

destroys all the traditional forms of poetry. However, the free verse is

considered as a middle case between the traditional poetry and the visual

poetry because it gives the poet the dare to challenge the traditional verse

and its redundancy of aesthetics.

Formlessness of visual poetry appears in the variety of non-stable

shape of the poem as the rearrangement of the text in visual poem may

change the intended meaning of the poem. Although visual poetry has no

certain form, it mainly depends on visualizing the text either by

rearranging the text to create a seen poem, or by attributing a picture or a

painting to the text.

The visual poet uses many techniques to visualize his poem. These

various and interrelated techniques of visualizing the text are the main

factor which makes visual poetry formlessness poetry. The first technique

of visualizing the text is the simple rearrangement of the text in order to

create a visual poem. This is called concrete poetry. The term concrete

poetry has many synonymous terms such as pattern poetry and shape

poetry. The visual poet tries to create a photo using words, just words,

without the use of any external factor. In other words, the poet uses only


words without entering an image or a photo to his poem. The pioneers of

these techniques are three Brazilian poets: Augusto de Campos, his

brother Haroldo de Campos, and Décio Pignatari; and the American

poetess, Mary Ellen Solt )Smith 219).

The second technique is attributing photography to the poem, or

attributing a poem to photography. First, the poet takes a photo by his

own camera and then he comments on this photo with a poem. This

technique asserts the idea of the effects of modern technology on

literature, especially poetry. This kind of visual poetry can be called

"Photo-poetry." The following poem illustrates the role of modern

technology in visual poetry arena as it depends mainly on a modern

device which is camera:

(Sanders, Visual Poetry 6)


The third technique depends on making a funny meaningless poem.

This technique or kind of visual called "Fluxes poetry." The fluxes poem

must be meaningless and funny one. (Woodfield 71). As the following

poem illustrates:

(Unknown author, Fluxus Vision 13)

The fourth technique is the typical visual poetry which depends on

using visual effects within the poem. In other words, when the poet

somehow becomes a painter and, on the other hand, the painter usually

becomes the poet. However, some poets may lack the efficiency of being

a painter, or he is not able to paint what he imagines. Here, the poet needs


the help of another professional painter. For example, although Charles

Bernstein is a famous visual poet, his ability as a painter could not convey

what he imagined into a blank paper (Bernstien, Personal interview).

Thus, he used the artistic contribution of his wife, the painter Suzan Bee

to design this book of poems, The Nude Formalism, which looks like

John Milton's early illustrations of Paradise Lost which were designed by

the British painter William Blake or the illustrations which were designed

by the French painter, Gustave Dore:

(Bernstein, The Nude Formalism 5)


There are also many new techniques of visual poetry which mainly

depends on modern technology such as electronic poetry and 3D poetry,

in which the reader interacts with the given visual poem.

Thus, these changeable overlapped and non-stable techniques of

visual poetry support the idea of its formlessness. Moreover, this

formlessness not only appears in visual poetry, in general, but also it may

appear in the different works of one poet. She used the simplest visual

devices in her poem Water Fall, as she only used the rearrangement of

the text to design her poem. While she used Minimalism's reducing

language in her poem, Forsythia. She also used the clear visual effect in

her poems, Lobelia. Moreover, she introduced the minimalism

meaningless poem, Dogwood. Thus, it is impossible to subclass or

categorize any visual poet under any standard as the movement itself is a

set of overlapped and interrelated human activities and philosophies.

It is worthy to notice that formlessness of visual poetry not only

appears in the odd and confusing the structure of the poem, but also it

also appears in the fragmentation of language and the missing

development of the poem. Fragmentation is one of the important features

of postmodernism which clearly appears in visual poetry (Ballerini 3).

Fragmentation signifies the breaking rather than building up of the given

literary work including form, structure, theme, and language (Gruft 35).

The fragmentation of visual poetry tries to convey a certain message of


the poem. This message is usually is the chaos of the life of

postmodernism. Furthermore, visual poetry’s connection to plastic arts

reduces its formlessness as a groundless poetry.

Dick Higgins Intermedia Chart illustrates the overlapping relation

between different kinds of arts and literary movements:

(D Higgins, qtd. in Hannah Higgins 88)

The untraditional classes of visual poetry resulted in the

appearance of the new term "para-literature," a term which is used to refer

to written artistic productions which do not have the traditional forms and

standards of the known literary works. These para-literary works includes

artistic social works, such as commercial fiction, popular fiction, pulp

fiction, comic books, visual poetry, sound poetry and others (Chris 361).


To conclude, the variety of the techniques, used by visual poets, in

addition to the interrelated philosophies ad movement affects the genre

which makes the visual poem formlessness one as each poem has no

mutual characteristics with another one.

Key Words:

Visual poetry – Formlessness – Groundless - Electronic poetry - 3D

poetry – Concrete poetry – Photo Poetry

Works Cited:

Ballerini, Luigi. Italian Visual Poetry, 1912-1972. New York: Finch

College, 1973. Print.

Bernstein, Charles. VEIL. New York: Xexoxial, 1987.

Bernstein, Charles, and Suzan Bee. The Nude Formalism. Los Angeles:

Sun & Moon press, 1989.

"Charles Bernstein." Poetry foundation. 2014. Web.15 Jul. 2013.

Gruft, Andrew. A Measure of Consensus: Canadian Architecture in

Transition. New York: University of British Columbia, 1986. Print.


Sokar, Mahmoud. "Re: Concrete Poetry." Message to Charles Bernstein.

Jan 2014. E-mail.

Higgins, Dick. "Intermedia." Synesthesia and Intersenses. London, 1965.


-----. Horizons, The Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia. New York:

Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. Print.

-----. Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature. New York: Sunny

Press, 1987. Print.

Higgins, Hannah. Fluxus experience. California: University of California

Press, 2002. Print.

Hirsch, Edward. A Poet's Glossary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

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of Words and Supplementary Essays. ed. William Harmon.

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Soukhanov, Anne H. Ed. The American heritage dictionary of the English

language. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.


Riccio, Ottone, and Ellen Siegel. Unlocking the Poem. New York: I

Universe, 2008. Print.

Sanders, Patricia. Visual Poetry. New York: Lulu com, 2008. Print.

Smith, Verity. Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature. London:

Taylor and Francis, 1997. Print.

Woodfield, Richard. Proceedings: A Selection. New York: Nottingham

Polytechnic Press, 1990. Print.

Revich, Allan. Fluxus Vision.New York: LULU, 2007. Print.