experimental poetry

Experimentation is one aspect of all Modernist and Postmodernist poetry, but experimental poetry makes a special point of innovation, sometimes in the belief that current poetry is stereotyped and inadequate, but more often for its own sake. Experimentation in the arts is nothing like its counterpart in science, however, and there are no theories to correspond with observations, fit in with other theories, or broadly make sense. Even such concepts as foregrounding and defamiliarization, basic to much literary theorizing, are more taken as articles of faith than properly established. Visual poetry can be intriguing and pleasing, but it is not poetry as commonly understood by the term, and has therefore to be judged on different grounds, most commonly those of the graphic arts, which it increasingly resembles.

Experimental Poetry: Concrete Poetry

Experimental poetry is not easily categorized, but some forms do conform to the aims of Postmodernism, as will be seen most readily in concrete poetry. By being no more than simple letters on the page, the previous cultural standards are decanonized (iconoclasm), the images have no reference beyond themselves (groundlessness), and there is little attempt at harmonious arrangement (formlessness). Even the words are simple and everyday (populism).

Concrete poetry is one in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the meaning of words, rhythm, rhyme and so on. {1} Yes, but what's the point: what do the arrangements convey? Only what the words do in the little jokes they play on our conceptions or expectations, the way they open up connections or new possibilities in the most ordinary things. There is no further significance: it's a form of minimalism.

Here's famous example, from the French poet and art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire: {2}

Coeur Couronne et Mirror NNA.

Coeur Couronne et Mirror by Guillaume Apollinaire. Calligrammes 1912-18. NNA


Visual Poetry

Visual Poetry blurs the distinction between typography and graphics. In one of his pieces from Poems 1972-1997, Scott Helmes {3} gives us an ornamental fragment of a line that is joined up and repeated across the page in the manner of a fractal pattern or Chinese landscape. (Copyright prevents the example being reproduced, but follow the links to view what's being discussed) Do we like it?

Well, it's neatly placed on the page, though the intention is not to please but to make statements about the nature of poetry or art. Jessica Smith talks about the need to get the whole surface working: "Linearity is so inextricably built into the writing process, and into the printing process, that even when we have the resources to make nonlinear objects by using atypical materials such as glass, stamps, wood, ribbons, and other ductable items, we constantly create linear objects." {4} She approving cites John Cage's Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel, which is a stack of page-like glass rectangles, of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget, where the line is centered by white letters running across the white page at varying heights, and of Jackson MacLow’s A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree, where the relative weights and scattered locations of words prevent us getting a more complete sense of the piece.

Being statements, and not aesthetic objects, experimental poems need theory (as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry generally does not). To appreciate it, we have to understand what concept the experimental poem is espousing, though this often no more than novelty of exposition. Poetry and theory merge somewhat, and it's sometimes difficult to tell the two apart. The poetry deliberately uses non-traditional techniques, and theory is written as a Postmodernist poem, with much left unexplained.

Here is the concluding part of Jessica Smith's Manifest: {5}


1.2   The poem is a set of topological figures or features.
          1.2.1   Words are subject to disintegration, death, and other natural events that individuals of all types face.
          1.2.2   The words on the page represent the page at a certain geological moment.
             This moment implies a history.
             This moment entails a future.
             The reader sees merely a moment captured.
          1.2.3   The "level of the page" is the only level.
             The vertical "reader to page" and "author to page" and "author to reader"
                                 relationships are eradicated.
             The horizontal journey through the page, as a hiker on a trail,
                                 is the only way to search for meaning.
                      As such meanings will be different for each traveler.
                      As such meaning is made through memory.
                                             Connections are delayed, soundings are delayed, meaning
                                             is delayed. Meaning is put together.
                      As such meaning is a compound impression of a physically traversed
                                             space (the eye moves physically through the space as the mind
                                             encounters fragmented signifiers).
                      Each poem is a microcosm.
2.   The page is a slice of geological time. It has a past and a future. It has physical features.
          2.1   It could have been otherwise.
3.   The poem and the page become topological at the same time; as the reader traverses their space, he or she       perceives a shifting, coming-into-being topology.

From Manifest by Jessica Smith. Ubuweb

The whole poem is a series of statements, laid out as an index. The statements are prose, and pass from the dubious (1.2.3 to to the highly doubtful ( to 2) and thence to the obvious (2.1). They show no understanding of how reading (vertical. . . relationships are eradicated), the brain (the eye. . . fragmented signifiers) or geology (page. . . geological time) actually work, and frankly tell us nothing that is worth knowing. What's the point of the exercise?

Well, the poem exhibits a concept. As the section below on theory will show, the piece uses strategies common in radical theory. If we believe such theory we will nod our heads in approval; if not we can only pass on: there are no aesthetic qualities to make us linger.


Experimental poetry often employs nugatory concepts. The little graphic entitled Ideograms by Avelino de Araujo {6} is divided into three sections. The top section shows the silhouettes of two trees. The middle section presents a bar code. And the bottom section shows to consume is to destroy (in Portuguese). Once we've got the point, there's nothing more to say.

Happily, that is not always the case. In John Cayley's untitled piece {7} odd phrases and words relating to time are grouped around a circular space in which appears, fragmented, forever the   wind demon    time entropy   destroyed under. The words read across the space, but can also be read sequentially down the two halves, left and right of the space. The top sentence reads each shaped breath tells    real time is concealed, and the bottom sentence makes a little joke: the speaking clock  so unlikely to repeat itself.

The charm of the piece lies in the words — forever the   wind demon or beneath the cyclical behavior of clock   and time, etc. — which are themselves extremely pleasing, and would create a decent traditional poem, and in the typography that reflects the concept of breath: the central emptiness and the scattering of breaks between the disjointed phrases. Oddly, it seems to hang together, and in place of shaping by stanza we have placings that show an equal regard for the connotations and properties of words.

Code as Text

If we increasingly use the Internet to view poetry, and especially if that poetry has multimedia additions, why shouldn't the coding required to display text be itself a type of poetry? "Codework is a term for literature which uses, addresses, and incorporates code: as underlying language-animating or language-generating programming, as a special type of language in itself, or as an intrinsic part of the new surface language. . ." {8} An example by the author of this explanation:

Pressing the "Reveal Code" Key {7}

on write
  repeat twice
    do "global " & characteristics
  end repeat
  repeat with programmers = one to always
    if touching then
      put essential into invariance
      put the round of simplicity * engineering / synchronicity + one into invariance
    end if
    if invariance > the random of engineering and not categorical then
      put ideals + one into media
      if subversive then
        put false into subversive
      end if
      if media > instantiation then
        put one into media
      end if
      put the inscription of conjunctions + one into media
    end if
    if categorical then put false into categorical
    put media into ideals
    put word media of field "text" of card understanding & "text" into potential
    if the mouse is down then
      put conjunctions into potential
      put potential into card field agents
      put true into encoded
      exit repeat
    end if

From Pressing the "Reveal Code" Key by John Cayley

Of course this is not true code, but could it not be imitating the hidden codes and control structures written into everyday language? Some theorists believe so. {9}


A brief survey, which I hope this will not seem too negative. Experimental poetry is not poetry in the usual sense of the word, but something altogether different, a vast field much more varied than this page suggests, with expanding fields in sound, flash, machine-modulated, typewriter, etc. poetry. A search through the outlets listed below will turn up animations that are often entertaining, despite a heavy casing in theory, to which we now turn.


Experimental poetry theory does not pretend to be easy. Even when clearly written, it is apt to wrap itself in radical theory and flaunt avant garde credentials:

"While only a minor aspect of his oeuvre, as compared with his major contribution to the art of (musical) sound, Cage's mesostic texts, especially his 'reading through' of Pound and Joyce, stitch together a range of concerns - inter-media art, procedural composition, the rereading (and implicit deconstruction) of the High Modernists - which are highly relevant both to contemporary poetics and to writing in networked and programmable media. If Cage's work is recalled in the context of the Fluxus movement (with which he is associated), then its relevance widens and deepens. Fluxus is a model of performative art practice (including explicitly literary practice) where the record of inscription is problematized (the work is an event, or the publication of a set of materials which must be manipulated by the reader/user), and where the presence/absence dialectic has been side-stepped by representations which may literally absent an artist-author." {8}

And then we come up against things like the following. (Sorting out all the tangles would take too long, but I add the occasional summary and question/remark as bracketed italics to the first three paragraphs reproduced here.)

Latin American Art in Our Time {10}

The word names the object not out of any requirement but out of the need of humanity, which uses it. (naming has practical purposes) It is thus erected into a gigantic metaphor which replaces the outside world and is established as an intermediary, an alternate current, an irreplaceable mechanism between the outside and the individual and, consequently, between people themselves, constituting a particular expressive language: the tongue of nations and peoples. (people communicate) As a tongue is itself a metaphor, it authorizes, (having made naming into a metaphor, we now turn it into a tongue, and then something that can authorize: all the author probably means is that the everyday use of words, even by the uneducated, gives words an intrinsic authority) why in its area, the metaphorization (now we make metaphor into an image) of represented objects transforming them into a second or third nature: one says "I'm bored," or "I'm like a frog in a tomato path," or "ugh," or one says nothing: reference is made to a situation in the first expression; in the second, metaphorization reaches other levels although what is referred to is lost in the reference system of the poet and those few who are familiar with it; with the exclamation a greater approximation is made to the expressed object or situation (words have always tended to fuse with what they express); and finally, by means of silence expression attains, not another stage of language, but another language, that of the image. (the play with words has finally made language into an image, wrongly, unfortunately: a chain of reference may peter out, but that lacuna is not an image)

To operate with metaphors, which is in itself another metaphor, distances us from the essential function of speech, that is, to refer, but it allows creativity, the reinvention of the world, fiction, symbolic recreation, and also the destitution of the extant and the pernicious alienation which constructs ideal "worlds" to superimpose them upon the real ones. To the metaphorization of speech we must add the ambiguity of its constitutive elements, words, whose signification depends on and is modified by the hegemonic system of communicational reference and also the possession of those channels by which it is transmitted, with whose totality is assured the predominance of those values which preserve its socio-economic model.

It has become evident that the tongue (and any other representative language) whether in its referential function, its artistic role, or in the exercise of its projective power, fully justifies its existence and equally evident its distortion, the language of "how it's said," or of "the authority of who says it," or "how pretty the way it is said!", elegance of expression to the detriment of truth. (if only matters were this simple: see Barthes and theories of truth) This serves only to smother reality under a layer of words or signs, signals which are meaningless or in the majority of cases, in the sense of an interest of whoever is using it, in our specific case the capitalist system seeking to preserve itself. (a false terminology helps capitalist societies maintain themselves) It is against a background of this alienated tongue (maybe so, but do non-capitalist societies have less alienated voices: Stalinist Russia, Chinese Tibet?) and the representational, distorted languages that the Latin American poetic avant-garde arose, (reference to studies would be helpful) which by its historical authenticity and coherency has entered into the unceasing development of life and art and which, without confusing ends with means, could not develop in the area of a defiled expression, the semantics of a tongue the function of which has been altered in order to serve ends which are not its own. In its impetus to act upon reality, or it first worked upon words as objects (of visual or phonetic nature) and next attempted to codify itself in systems other than those of the known languages with the purpose of avoiding the deviations of the known representational forms. (The avant-garde tried to create a language that would evade historical or political distortion)

The thesis, overall, probably, is that images in the avant-garde art of Latin America circumvented the control exerted on language (and therefore thinking) by colonial and then capitalist powers: a conventional post-colonial argument. Avant garde poetry, which uses images extensively, is thus more authentic than conventional forms that were constrained by Spanish models.

That may be true, but in place of argument, with quoted studies and examples, we are given such things as "Between the referential function and the artistic role is situated the projective power of language, not to transform but to induce transformation: between the real situation referred to and the referable situation at a specific time and place is located the baggage of the possibility of its realization, be it in a regressive sense when the referable aims at forms that have been superseded or in a progressive sense when it calls to something distinct and new." Eventually we move on to specific artists, though not escaping the likes of: "The most known, promoted by the Noigandres group of São Paulo, brought together by Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, Dýcio Pignatari and Ronaldo Azeredo, began by considering the word as an object "in and of itself" in relation to its context, structure, the joint implosion of form and meaning, extension and the temporal which cede duration to space, but conserving its "successive instants" (the logico-discursive schema of western languages that stagger and are only sustained thanks to the use of the syntactic-structural system), creating a specific linguistic sphere that brings together verbal expression and the nonverbal in the concrete poem."

The piece has important points to make. Uncontroversially, the last sentence claims that words are treated as object in concrete poems, when the separating spaces correspond to the time intervals between our reading the words. So why not say that? Or that the spatial arrangement of words in a concrete poem escapes the constricting syntax of western languages, which is less fluid than that of Chinese? Because the argument could then be tested, and experimental psychology or brain functioning be used to question the raison d'être of the movement. Better to take refuge in the "joint implosion of form and meaning" or "logico-discursive schema of western languages". The article also remarks that "Reality is replaced by its linguistic representation, and the same representation, by conceptual habit, assures its predominance over truth and life", a Postmodernist conception of language as endlessly self-referencing and deceptive. It's a defensive movement again, to muddle exposition and evade defeat.

But why take refuge on such doubtful ground, or even retreat at all? If science has yet to explain language properly, the shortcomings don't lie with language. The effects of experimental poetry are real, and their proper investigation might suggest added means of expression. The approach is well-established, {11} {12} and abstruse word-spinning does not help appreciation. Experimental poetry is like much of contemporary poetry, vexing but occasionally rewarding, and it surely deserves better. The prose of Klaus Peter Dencker is at least clear: {13}

"Concrete poetry got its name at the beginning of the 1950s. It is a language art form that is closed, international, and non-mimetic, proceeding from the material qualities of language: from the verbal, sound, and visual materiality of words. The graphic forms of single letters, the white space of the book page, the constellation of letters vis-à-vis one another, the change of reading habits, the combinatory possibilities of letters and words on a surface, the ignoring of syntax and metaphor, the free play with language material that simultaneously goes against the literalness of language-this calls for a wholly new reception attitude on the reader's part. No customary left-right reading will work, no usual sentences, no given sequencing, not even words that had once been complete-the reader must himself become productive, discover constellations, determine double meanings of words, develop his own history with the language material being offered."

Not so straightforward, but more rewarding, is an article by Reuven Tsur, {14} who develops Willie van Peer's {15} analysis of George Herbert's well-known Easter Wings.

Easter Wings

Easter Wings by George Herbert. The Temple 1633

Van Peer noted the importance of the shape, line lengths, tenses and placings of verbs, and the appearance of such work in a period of social and ideological upheaval.

Professor Tsur starts with a model. Human beings use long series and hierarchies of signifiants (words) and signifiés (things words refer to), and by evolution have been programmed to reach the last link of the chain as quickly as possible. In most areas of life, signifiants and signifiés are kept apart, but not in poetry. Phonetic patterning (rhyme, metre, alliteration) deters exit to a simple meaning and redirects us inward into a chain of meanings suggested by the phonological components of the poem. (Figurative language, on the other hand, directs us outward, but again not to simple reference.) Moreover, while this relationship between signifiant and signifié is resolved almost unnoticed by low-level patterning in traditional poems (alliteration, assonance), writers of mannerist and contemporary poems do not have a coherent outlook on the world, and use patterning at the highest level possible to advertise this discomfort. Their foregrounding (departures from the norm) is through typographic elements or stanza shaping that handles the emotional disorientation.

Tsur refers to detailed analyses of Donne and Wallace Stevens poems to support his case, and takes the argument into synaesthesia. Romantic and Symbolist poetry used the phenomenon to create vague hallucinatory moods, in contrast to seventeenth-century and modernist poetry where the effect is more intellectual and sharper. In fact, synaesthesia of different senses is being employed, those of touch and sound in the first case, and those of touch and sight in the second.

I have grossly simplified Tsur's argument, which is detailed and technical, drawing on speech laboratory work that suggests a subtle interplay of speech and non-speech sounds that poetry exploits at a background level. He notes that the typographic arrangement of lines on the page are presented as perceptual units to the eye, and thence as intonational contours to our reading or auditory imagination. Blank verse is more than just "verse for the eye".

I do not know if Professor Tsur is correct, but we see the value of the approach: models that can be tested, wide-ranging implications. We understand that readers vary in their sensitivity to various aspects of poetry, and to their individual endowments will be added cultural pressures. We are probably living through a "mannerist" period that sees dissonance as authenticity, after a "classical" period in nineteenth century poetry which regarded it as incompetence.


Experimental poetry features largely in these sites.

References and Resources

1. Concrete poetry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concrete_poetry. Brief Wikipedia entry.
2. Magic Iconism: Defamiliarization, Sympathetic Magic, and Visual Poetry (Guillaume Apollinaire and E. E. Cummings) http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/Coeur.htm NNA
3. Untitled: Poems 1972-1997. Scott Helmes. http://www.thing.net/~grist/lnd/helmes/helm-a3.htm
4. The Page is Not a Neutral Surface. Jessica Smith. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/jessicasmith.html.
5. Manifest. Jessica Smith. http://www.ubu.com/papers/smith_manifest.html.
6. John Cayley. http://www.ubu.com/contemp/cayley/cayley1.html NNA. Untitled piece from Ubuweb's anthology.
7. The Code is not the Text (unless it is the Text). John Cayley. May 2003. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/v3/servlet/ebr?command=view_essay&essay_id=cayleyele NNA.
8. Digital Code and Literary Text. Florian Cramer. Feb 2002. Quoted in Cayley, above and referenced as http://beehive.temporalimage.com/content_apps43/app_d.html. Article not online.
9. Latin American Art in Our Time. Clemente Padin. 1997. http://www.concentric.net/~lndb/padin/lcpcintr.htm. Part of an extended essay, with examples, entitled Art and People. NNA
10. A Short History of Pattern Poetry. Dick Higgins. 1987. http://www.ubu.com/papers/higgins_pattern.html. Long excerpt from Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature. (State Univ. of New York Press, 1987)
11. Concrete Poetry and Conceptual Art: A Spectre at the Feast? Neil Powell. http://www.ubu.com/papers/powell.html. Twentieth century history.
12. From Concrete to Visual Poetry, With a Glance into the Electronic Future. Klaus Peter Dencker. 2000. http://www.vorticeargentina.com.ar/escritos/from_concrete_to_visual_poetry.html NNA.
13. Picture Poems: Some Cognitive and Aesthetic Principles. Reuven Tsur. http://www.tau.ac.il/~tsurxx/poem.htm. Technical article, but with some excellent references.NNA
14. Peer, Willie van (1993) "Typographic Foregrounding". Language and Literature 2: 49-61.
15. Ubuweb Papers. http://www.ubu.com/papers/. Excellent collection: themes, artists, individual conceptions.
16. Concrete Visual Poetry. Michael P. Garofalo. http://www.gardendigest.com/concrete/index.htm Every extensive listings.
17. Modern and Contemporary American Poetry. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/home.html. EPC's excellent listing.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.