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4| Architecture of the Page/Writing as a Visual Form/

Visual Form as Writing


If a picture is worth a thousand words, why is it a saying? asks poet Bob Holman.


There may be truth in Simonide’s dictum that a poem is a speaking picture while a picture is a mute poem, but text itself is always both.  The words you are reading are visual forms.  Like sculpture, fonts bear histories, and connotations as well as immaterial ideas, and can (unlike most sculpture) serve as a score for sounds not (yet) voiced.  Sometimes this tri-nature of form/meaning/score is in harmony with itself, often at odds.  As the “Is” of Magritte’s “This Is Not a Pipe” demonstrates, both word and image can simultaneously "be" in different and conflicting ways; we are perplexed by the paradox of this painting only to the depth that we see this concept at work.


Form and space have always been elements of poetics, of course, but

normally they are thought of in terms of line breaks and stanzas, not the

white emptiness that defines them—unless this form and space is

stretched as in an e e cummings poem. Or the way that Guillaume

Apollinaire thought of the page as space in his poem “Il Pleut”—

a visual form made of (readable) letters—or as Stéphane Mallarmé

constructed “A Throw of the Dice” with visual appearance as the basic

unit for patterns of thought. Or even more so, consider Ezra Pound’s pictogram method, based on his (mistaken) idea that form and meaning in Chinese characters were inseparable. That is, we normally describe form in literature in linguistic terms—the sonnet, the haiku—that ignore the material nature of language. Or, if not ignored, material form—the ink, pixels, paper, shape of the alphabet—is usually pressed into invisibility through the use of fonts and layout that are too familiar to be noticed: fonts and layout as the transparent crystal goblet that holds the wine of meaning.  Writing as architecture, though, calls into play what readers already know:  that a signature, with its social history of penmanship and personal idiosyncrasies—from the labored jerkiness of a child to the free-flowing hand of the calligrapher—is a tiny action painting, the trace of an individual left in marks that assert the presence of the signer; it stands in stark contrast to a virtual self (and the grid of logic) we imply by inserting our name at the bottom of an e-mail. 


Think of print after type escaped the confining lines of cast lead. Now consider a visual landscape where words morph in shape and color. Accompanied by animated figures in the margin, words that dance. Brian Kim Stefan’s The Dreamlife of Letters is an early example of the impact on literature by the marriage of the machine and information design: a response rendered in software and hardware to a poem-essay by Rachael DuPlessis.


Indeed, most electronic literature today is visual, and draws on the

principles of information design: the concerted effort to use type, space,

and image to convey meaning. Usually, information design conjures

images of communicating efficiently (presenting census data), or

organizing massive amounts of information in digestible forms (an

evolutionary tree), or across languages (the pictograms on airport signs).

But the design of information can be used to other purposes, as in Peter

Norvig’s parodic PowerPoint presentation of Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg

Address.” Stripped of its biblical tone and cadence, Lincoln’s words are

reduced to content, data points, his famous “Four score and seven years ago” presented on a bar graph as 87 vs. 0.  The message that emerges is a contrast between the memorial for the fallen that Lincoln crafted of words and a contemporary attitude to information that is as lite as the light in a conference room.  It reveals an attitude to language appropriate to the text of a building’s directory, for example—something to be scanned not contemplated—and how these

ways of speaking reflect Lincoln’s time as well as our own. Or consider

Stephanie Strickland and Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo's Vniverse, designed to

be read on an iPad screen where layout of language constellations evoke

the infinity of the night sky as a background for the poems. Consider

words that have escaped the book completely: Barbara Kruger’s surround-

text installation, with its long title:  “All that seemed beneath you is speaking

to you now. All that seemed deaf hears you. All that seemed dumb knows

what's on your mind. All that seemed blind sees through you. All that seemed

silent is putting the words right into your mouth.”


Writing as information design or information architecture draws on the fact,

and draws attention to the fact, that an engraved invitation expresses

different social systems than a circus banner. Its emotional impact comes

from the conditioning that makes us react differently to the materials of a love letter than a notice from the IRS—as surely we would react differently to a dentist office painted beige than we would to one that had been painted blood red. It reminds us that any form, not just the

alphabet, is a sign. Often these signs cut across national boundaries easier

than language as demonstrated by the portability of concrete poetry from

Brazil, Japan, and France. (Indeed, after debating what kind of message had

the best chance of being understood by any space alien who might intercept

the Voyager Space Craft, NASA put inside this spacecraft, like a message in a

bottle, a cartoon.) 


Foregrounding the body of body-text highlights what a round peg living can be to the square holes offered by the grid of grammar and language.  That is, when material form as well as other aspects from the material nature of writing is made part of what’s said—part of its rhetoric, not just incorporated as decoration or illustration—we are often in the realm of conceptual writing.  Once differences in styles, and materials, or methods, are accounted for, writing as embodied language often reveals an impulse to exploit the philosophical tensions inherent in the dual nature of writing as word and image.  It often says a thing in more than one way and by so doing underscores the  intersection of world (representation) and earth (that which is outside language).  It can bring to awareness, for example, the difference between bodies and their representations, as Art Spiegelman does in his graphic novel Maus.  Writing as architecture can add layers of meaning by recontextualing what’s said as Leslie Dill does in her “Blue Poem Girl.”  By changing the writing surface, by inverting the normally black letters on a white paper and restaging Emily Dickinson’s “Poem 540” as white letters on a Black body, Dill evokes a gendered slate that has been written on by the world: a female writing surface whose direct look turns the male gaze back on itself, and makes of the viewer a Goliath, thus charging the poem with gender and racial overtones—and suggestions of physical violence—it may or may not have originally had.  In Rima and Valerie Gerlovin’s "BE-LIE-VE," a crisscross of word and image opens up alternative readings (I’ve always appreciated the fact that "glove’"

contains ‘love,’ William Gass writes): attention to form can send reading off into

unexpected directions as powerfully as a poem’s parataxis.  See, for example,

A Humument, which Tom Phillips created by painting over the pages of a Victorian potboiler, transforming them into Magritte-like works of art in which some of the original

novel’s words emerge as in a dream that seems meaningful even if readers have

difficulty saying what it means.  Conversely, a crazily diagramed sentence in

Raymond Federman’s novel Double or Nothing is as much a map of language’s

logic as it is a device to invoke within readers, as they turn the book this way and

that to follow its gyrations, some of the frustration of this novel’s French-

speaking protagonist as he struggles to learn English. It also calls attention to the

pedagogical device of diagramming a sentence in order to clarify how it works, turning it into an information design solution that is about its own assumptions: that language can be broken down into its constituent parts and then be put back together like a machine. (When one considers the gyrations Federman must have gone through to type (without typos) this concrete novel, the marks on the page also become the trace of Herculean endurance: a performance that had an audience of one, the author.)  Images can be actors in a paper theater—or paperless theater as they are in John Cayle’s What We Will.  Space/layout can substitute for plot or simultaneously make present past and future narrative moments as in Richard McGuire’s “Here.”


Whether inside or outside the book, architecture is both a statement in materials and system of thought.  It is an intersection of aesthetics and material constraints, a form of writing under constraint, where the constraints that make the work possible can be gravity, the load-bearing ability of a wooden beam, or the legibility of a letter form.  As a genre of conceptual writing, it is a species of work that draws on its visual form not simply as a style or decoration. Rather, like the use of linear perspective in Renaissance painting, it is both organizing principle and symbol, a rhetorical tool that some conceptual authors use to do what authors always do—say something meaningful through the world’s written representation.

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