Picture Poetry, Mannerism, and Sign Relationships

This article explores some cognitive and aesthetic principles about picture poems. It regards language as a hierarchy of signs: the graphemic string signifies a phonological string, which signifies units of meaning, which signify referents in extralinguistic reality. Our linguistic competence urges us to reach the final referents as fast as possible. Poetic language draws attention to itself, that is, to the hierarchy of signifiers. In manneristic styles there is a greater awareness of the separateness of signifiers than in nonmanneristic styles; hence their witty or disorienting effect. Whereas rhyme, meter, and alliteration impose additional patterning on the phonological signifiers, picture poems, acrostics, and some other manneristic devices impose additional patterning upon the graphemic signifiers. When alliterations are turned into puns, they become manneristic patterning of the phonological signifier. It is argued, by analogy with synesthesia, that stable characteristic visual shapes obstruct smooth perceptual fusion, and, on the basis of speech perception, that speech sounds are special in our cognitive economy, and visual patterning cannot achieve the naturalness of their patterning. That is why visual patterning is not admitted in nonmanneristic styles. Cognitive poetics suggests that in the response to poetry, adaptive devices are turned to an aesthetic end. In a universe in which "the center cannot hold," readers of poetry find pleasure not so much in the emotional disorientation caused by manneristic devices, but rather in the reassertion that their adaptive devices, when disrupted, function properly. This is one reason manneristic styles recur in cultural and social periods in which more than one scale of values prevails.