Singular Vispo :: First Encounters Part 1


Was there an experience, a specific interaction with visual poetry that infected your brain, made you see language differently or drew you toward exploring vispo further? Is there a vispoem that captured your imagination. What piece first awakened in you the possibility of a visual alphabet/language alternative? That was the general question posed and here are the results. Though this query is overly reductive, the poets were kind enough to choose, for the most part, a singular vispoem as example of this phenomenon. The over forty posts will be rolled out in groups of five each. Enjoy!


Barrie Tullett /on HN Werkman (below))

My involvement and interest in Vispo grew slowly, rather than being a single moment of inspiration, it took place over several years.

When I was at School (around 17), my Art Teachers, Mr Dishington and Mr. Verrier brought a concrete poet in to run a workshop with us. I remember making work that responded to the things they were talking about, but as a student I was still concerned with going to Art School to become an image maker or illustrator rather than someone who might work with words – however, around the same time, I also recall our English teacher Mr Hughes, introducing us to ee cummings, notably the poem ‘r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r’ — these things stayed with me and when I began to study Graphic Design on my Degree Course, this interest in poetry and language led me back to the Concrete Poets as well to the work of Phil Baines, Alan Kitchen and other contemporary designers and typographers.

With these influences quietly asserting themselves, it was really my induction into the Letterpress studio that brought it all together and became my watershed moment.

When I was in my first year at Chelsea School of Art, we were set a project to typeset a small ad — for the personals column in a fictitious magazine. I enjoyed it so much I set about twenty, and from then on I think I was almost always in the print-room, setting and printing type. Dave Strickland, who was the Course Leader suggested reading Typographica magazine, Pioneers of Modern Typography and The Liberated Page — and my influences suddenly expanded to include Apollinaire’s calligrammes, El Lizzitsky, Rodchenko, Diter Rot, Stefan Themerson, Kurt Schwitters and Typewriter Art…

But the one piece that really changed the direction of my work — that set me on the path I’m still following, is from HN Werkman’s The Next Call Magazine. The exuberance with which he used his letterpress studio, the combination of text as image and letter shapes (or any shapes that could be placed on the press and inked-up) as a method of communicating in their own right, was incredibly inspiring and liberating. There was just this amazing energy, and the realisation, that as a student in the composing room at Chelsea, I had access to the same materials Werkman did, and indeed so many of the other artists and designers that I admired.

It was at that point I decided to embark on my own project, one that’s lasted me over twenty years – The Typographic Dante…


Brian Reed /on Mary Ellen Solt

Solt Forsythia-1

Mary Ellen Solt’s “Forsythia” (right)

Mary Ellen Solt’s “Forsythia” is taken from Flowers in Concrete (1966), a collection of poems that, as she puts it, draw on “the visual properties” of the name of a flower to suggest the “shape of the flower” itself. Other poems in the book include “Dogwood,” “Marigold,” “Lilac,” and “Zinia.” I first encountered “Forsythia,” however, in a different context, in the Solt-edited anthology Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968), where it leapt out at me, convinced me that visually inventive poetry could be every bit as expressive and complex as the more conventional verse that I studied in college.
The word “FORSYTHIA” appears at the base of the poem written horizontally left to right, as well as centered on the page. The font and letter-spacing are slightly peculiar. The letters look a bit squeezed together and vertically stretched. Each letter in “FORSYTHIA” serves as the start of a new word whose letters appear on an implied perpendicular intersecting line. The result is a curious, grammar-ambiguous word string: “Forsythia Out Race Springs Yellow Telegram Hope Insists Action.” Each of these words, in turn, gives way to one to four curving, occasionally dividing fronds that repeat between four and eighteen times the first letter in the word from which it originates. Between these repeated letters appear stippled lines that, on closer inspection, turn out to be a mix of dots and dashes that correspond to the Morse code for that particular repeating letter. Between the H’s, for instance, appear four dots, whereas between the A’s occur one or more dot-dash combinations. Seen not in parts but as a unified whole, the poem looks like a side-view of a forsythia bush in bloom.

The relation here between form and thematic content is extremely tight. The word “FORSYTHIA” serves as the root, so to speak, from which the poem as a verbal construct and the flowering plant that it depicts both grow. The nine words that sprout from the root identify a setting and occasion. “FORSYTHIA OUT”: the plant is among the very first to flower in Spring, to be “out.” Indeed, it blooms before it produces leaves. “RACE SPRINGS”: one hurries to see this harbinger of a new season of growth. It is a “YELLOW TELEGRAM,” a vivid and colorful missive after a gray dead winter that gives “HOPE” and “INSISTS ACTION,” that is, provides an example of revived life that provokes a corresponding stir of energy in one who sees it. The telegraphic way manner in which the poem’s language suggests this scene is apropos. Everything is urgent, immediate, swiftly emergent. Hence, too, of course, the switch from Roman letters to Morse code and the celebratory spray-spread of text-boughs, reminiscent of the ecstatic jets of water in Guillaume Apollinaire’s calligramme “La colombe poignardée et le jet d’eau.”

One could talk endlessly about “Forsythia.” It connects to a venerable tradition of female poets who compare their poetry to flowers, from the “Pierian roses” of Sappho’s Fragment 55 to Stein’s “a rose is a rose is a rose.” It plays with the Colridgean ideal of organic form, the belief that a superior poem unfolds as a plant grows from a seed. It reinvents the Imagist and Objectivist faith in a poem’s ability to record and convey through the particulars of its form an epiphanic moment of perception. Etc. Mary Ellen Solt’s “Forsythia” enabled me, all in a flash, to begin to see vispo not as a foreign graft on the Western poetic tradition but instead an integral part of it, root and branch.

Brian Reed is Chair and Professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle, and the author of Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012) and Nobody’s Business: Twenty-First-Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013).


Louis Bury /on  bpNichol

H-an alphabet-bpNichol hybrid copy_smbpNichol’s “H (an alphabet)” (left)

What first attracted me to bpNichol’s iconic concrete poem “H (an alphabet)” is its visual wit, its combination of a clever underlying conceit with an equally clever execution of that conceit. Like a beach chair with twenty-six improbable settings, or a contortionist pretzeling herself for sport, H, in the poem, reconfigures itself into a series of amusing and unexpected shapes in its effort to resemble the other letters of the alphabet. These permutational hijinks are similar in their effect to the ninety-nine stylistic variations of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style; in both texts, much of the fun derives from seeing how the author conjures up an unlikely yet apt solution to the constraint. My personal favorites in “H (an alphabet)” are the letters L and T for the way they resemble, respectively, a chair in profile and football goalposts.

But the poem, like the best visual poems, is not simply an amusing visual exercise. Just as Queneau’s exercises enact a philosophical inquiry into the nature of storytelling, Nichol’s H-alphabet enacts inquiries into the nature of the alphabet, the nature of form, line, and shape, the nature of identity, similarity and difference, and the nature of other bedrock values that inhere, hidden, in the contours of a language’s letters. One of the poem’s most curious letters in this regard is O, which, because of the visual logic that requires H’s horizontal line to be in the middle of each character, looks more like an ordinary A than does the A in the poem. The H-alphabet O can in a sense “pass” for an actual letter, but not the one it would like to pass as. What’s more, given how unconventional twenty-four of the other twenty-five other letters in the poem look, it’s debatable whether O could even be said to pass at all: at a glance, it and the letter H stand out, in their normalcy, as the oddballs in the series.

It’s important to insist on the larger resonances of “H (an alphabet)” because it inhabits a tradition of visual poetry that can too easily be mistaken for mere joke. Poems such as Aram Saroyan’s four-legged “m,” Christian Bök’s odalisques made in part out of letters, and others that rely on subtle visual humor, are the types of visual poems most likely to be encountered and remembered by readers not already familiar with the genre. That’s a mixed blessing: it can be a way into visual poetry, as it was for myself; but it can also be a way to dismiss the genre as slight, as in the decades-long indignation over the use of 1965 NEA funds to compensate Saroyan for the publication of “lighght.” Such dismissals, not uncommon, point up perhaps the hardest thing about appreciating visual poetry as a genre: how deceptively easy it seems to read and to write.


Orchid Tierney /on Alison Knowles and James Tenney

Knowles and Tenney’s A House of Dust

Alison Knowles’s and James Tenney’s poem A House of Dust has been widely lauded as one of the first computer poems, although its production history suggests a far more complicated picture. As the story goes, Tenney had attended a seminar on the computer and the arts, hosted by Knowles and Dick Higgins in 1967, where he demonstrated how FORTRAN IV, a programming language, could be used to create chance-based art. Knowles proposed at the seminar a poem with randomized attributes inserted into the following structure:

a house of (list material)
(list location)
(list light source)
(list inhabitants)

Tenney later compiled Knowles’s sequences along with her list vocabularies in FORTRAN IV and generated the poem on a mainframe Siemens 4004 at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. In 1968, Verlag Gebrüder König published a small chapbook of the poem on dot matrix paper.[1] To compress this media history of the work even further, the poem was subsequently reimagined as an installation/sculpture, slides of gift objects, and postcards, not to mention numerous art performances that took place around the variants of the work.[2]

As a poem created for and executed by a computer, A House of Dust is unsurprisingly repetitive. Naturally, scholarship to date has tended to focus on the poem in the context of early computing and/or as a precursor to born-digital literature.[3] Yet less understood, perhaps, are the 4×6 postcards of the poem, published by Verlag Gebrüder König, which combine a stanza with an image. If the chapbook of A House of Dust stresses the programmatic registers of a computer, the postcards highlight instead the indeterminate fields of experimental poetics in which text and image are staged. Here, the postcards explicitly declare themselves as permissive art objects to be inscribed on by writers other than Knowles and Tenney and circulated through the postal system. In other words, the postcards not only incorporate the codes of a mass-produced souvenir item, but the bureaucratic networks of the postal service are also implicated in the aesthetics of the work.

House of LeavesWhile I am less interested in placing A House of Dust explicitly in a visual poetry lineage, the postcard “House of Leaves” (right) is clearly preoccupied about the relation of visual semiotics to the textual field.[4] Although Knowles’s aestheticization of the postcard foregrounds its status as a commonplace, personal medium, the image on this particular artwork is decidedly unfamiliar with arborous details only partially rendered legible. If the text is meant to establish a dialogic relationship with the imagery, then as reader and viewer, I find myself in an infinite feedback loop in which the stanza fails to provide additional illumination to emphasize, instead, the curious nonindexicality of the picture.

Indeed, what fascinates me about this particular postcard is the way it collates the socio-aesthetic impulses that still resonate in visual poetry today: the experimentation of media and artistic processes; the incorporation, breakdown, and ambiguity of spatial and linguistic fields; and the ambivalence toward graphical and visual signs as carriers of pure meaning. More broadly, A House of Dust demonstrates that the processes of production and distribution—and the everyday contexts of those processes—become inseparable from the visual-textual conditions of the artifact. (Of course, all this makes sense when we consider that Knowles is one of the founding members of Fluxus, a loose network of artists, writers, architects, and musicians, who have been committed to blurring the boundaries between art forms and life since the 1960s.) A House of Dust serves, then, as a reminder that we should search for the horizons of the material imagination in contemporary visual poetry, where the specificities of the medium, and the kinds of processes and networks they imply, cannot be easily disentangled from the poetic text.

  1. Examples of the chapbook can be seen on the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library webpage:
  2. Hannah B. Higgins offers a detailed history of the poem. See Hannah B. Higgins, “An Introduction to Alison Knowles’s The House of Dust,” in Mainframe Experientialism: Early Computing and the Foundations of the Digital Arts, eds., Hannah B. Higgins and Douglas Kahn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 195–199.
  3. For examples, see Christopher Funkhouser, Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 19591995 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007), 60–61; and Nick Montfort, “Conceptual Computing and Digital Writing,” forthcoming in Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art, ed. Andrea Andersson,
  4. Alison Knowles, “House of Leaves,” accessed September 10, 2105,


Aram Saroyan / on Ian Hamilton Finlay

Aram Saroyan - Ian Hamilton FinlayThe poem that came to mind for me was Ian Hamilton Finlay’s “acrobats” (left). I could see here and in other works by Finlay how a poem could enact rather than simply describe a meaning.  Love Finlay’s work in all its phases, including his early traditional poems collected in The Dancers Inherit the Party to his later garden designs and sculptures.