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Narrative in Concrete / Concrete in Narrative: Visual Poetry and Narrative Theory

From: Narrative
Volume 22, Number 2, May 2014
pp. 234-251 | 10.1353/nar.2014.0011

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This essay situates itself at the intersection of two recent trends in narrative: the study of intermedial narrative and the study of narrative in poetry. Its subject is “visual poetry” and its interest is in degrees of narrativity in a subset of visual poems appearing in different media. Visual poetry, a genre that blurs formal boundaries between the poetic and the visual, provides a unique testing ground for identifying narrativity’s visual and poetic potential. In visual poetry the layout of text on surface typically contributes to the intended effect of the work. That is, in visual poetry, how the text appears on the page (or whatever surface) matters just as much if not more than the semantic content of that text. Whereas most forms of writing—especially poetic writing—depend in some part on the organization of text on the page, visual poetry foregrounds this material structure as the primary wellspring for creative potential. This concern with semantic and material characteristics of printed language often manifests in visual poetry as a resistance, if not an outright rejection, of narrative as a structuring system.

This non-narrative tendency is most prominent in the many manifestos throughout the Concrete Poetry movement. Eugen Gomringer, for instance, claims that his poetry relates “less to ‘literature’ and more to earlier developments in the fields of architecture, painting, sculpture, industrial design” (“The Poem” 70). Augosto de Campos, Décio Pignatari, and Haroldo de Campos define concrete poetry as “tension of thing-words in space time” (“Pilot” 72). Dick Higgins identifies three characteristically spatial elements of visual poetry—the breaking of linearity, the transcendence of the verbal text, and a near separation of langue from parole (the quasi-division of signifying systems from concrete speech acts through an emphasis on the text as a visual object—what Higgins calls “an emblematic array of [text] images which embody a verbal message”)—each of which undermines a generic narrative thrust (see Horizons 29–39). Most explicitly, Carlo Bellolo asserts that his visual poems do not “evoke a state of mind nor do they tell a story. … i do not regard poetry as a narrative or lyrical genre but as word patterns, a form of verbal architecture in a space-time dialectic” (qtd. in Solt 37, 41). Yet despite this resistance to narrativity, a critical approach that negotiates the form’s intermedial aims has the potential to reveal instances in which interactive visual and textual systems create explicitly narrative effects. These narrative instances offer limit cases for recognizing the lower bounds of narrativity, the event horizon when texts slip from narrative into wholly non-narrative formal categories. Moreover, by employing both visual and textual cues to trigger narrativity, they provide grounds for investigating various intermedial narrative systems.

In one such intermedial system, Werner Wolf defines narrativity as a “non-categorical, intensifiable quality, in which missing elements can be supplied by the recipients’ faculty to fill in the frame narrative” (192). Three core elements anchor this narrativity: 1) the presence of experientiality, representationality, and potential meaningfulness; 2) the creation of, or reference to, a possible world in which anthropomorphic beings experience temporal change through actions or events; and 3) a thematic unity that coheres and interrelates disparate elements. These elements need not all be present. Instead, Wolf proposes a spectrum of narrativity ranging from strong “Narratives,” which embody all characteristics of narrativity, through “Quasi-Narratives” with tendential or partial narrativity and “Narrative References” that produce narrativity through relationships to externally constructed narratives, down to “Non-Narratives,” which lack all narrativity. A graph of this increasing narrativity might look something like this:

With Wolf’s sliding scale in mind, I first turn to two examples of visual poetry—by Swiss poet Eugen Gomringer and Austrian poet Ernst Jandl—that exhibit very different levels of narrativity dependent upon each work’s inherently intermedial form. These examples reveal visual poetry’s narrative and non-narrative potential by exploiting the idiosyncratic affordances and limitations implicit in each text’s intermediality. I then turn to the multimedia work of Scottish poet and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay. As poet, through Wild Hawthorn Press, and as gardener, most famously at his garden Little Sparta, Finlay foregrounds semantic...



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