Visual Poetics: Spatial Meaning from Mallarmé to Metalheart

dissertation Stanford 2004

Develops a reception theory of visual poetries in terms of the perceptual and cognitive resources at their disposal, in particular spatiality as a body-based semantics. Covering visual poetry and graphic design from 1897 to 2001 (print, digital, and architectural), it investigates the expanding role of 3-D space, and of embodied visual ‘reading’, in the experience of this work. Combines methodologies from literary theory, art history, aesthetics, semiotics, psychology of perception, and cognitive linguistics.


Cut Paper Thinker: some thoughts with Klaus Peter Dencker

in Klaus Peter Dencker, Visuelle Poesie II , Bibliothek der Provinz, 2016


Visual Poetry essay page shot

“Visual Poetry: Artists’ Writing in a Para-Literary Age”

in Avain: The Finnish Review of Literature, 1: 2008.

Historically, visual poetries originate in an exploration of, or in an exultation in, the visual forms of language. Whether we consider the millennial arts of calligraphy (East Asian, Islamic or European), the ancient tradition of shaped-text or “pattern” poetry (Simias of Rhodes, George Herbert, Guillaume Apollinaire, etc.) or the particularly modern practice of spatialized free verse that begins with Stéphane Mallarmé at the end of the 19th Century, visual poetry emerges where writing realizes the complementary potentials of its own visual forms.

resources for a visual poetics thumbnail

“Resources for a Poetics of Visual Poetry”

in Orientations: Space/Time/Image/Word, (Word & Image Interactions no. 5) Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005.

Visual poetry, or what is claimed as such, confronts us as a substantial and persistent cultural phenomenon before we are prepared to address it as a subject of theoretical study. When we do address it, the sheer dispersive variety of the forms it claims argues against there being any it there. At the core of the challenge is the suspicion that the notion itself is a contradiction in terms, embracing a visuality that lacks the precisions of language, on which, paradoxically, the vaguer, elusive effects of poetry traditionally depend.

Paper shot Attention Tracking Net

“Attention Tracking: Some Empiricism for a Visual Poetics”

(Redraft from Visual Poetics: from Mallarmé to Metalheart)

The possibility of taking the term “visual poetry” both seriously and literally depends on evaluations of perceptual experience, which in turn depend on articulations supporting the detailed semantic analysis of such experience. Attention analysis and the visual reception theory it supports help bring us through visual perception to the same domain of conceptual processing where poetic experience of words takes place. It thus allows an integrated assessment of verbal and visual reading, in what I would argue is a more natural, less reductive approach to meaning.


SAMPLES – Towards a Corpus

Visual Poetry – some samples

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Visual Poetics

Visual Poetics is a way of thinking about the creative potentials of visual communication. As the practical art-science that pushes visual communication beyond its conventional and functionalist limits, visual poetics represents the creative/critical know-how of a certain tradition of poets (visual poets), but it is just as much the specialty of graphic designers who have mastered the resources of visual language and are able to produce visual messages with the layered complexity and lyricism we usually associate with poetry.

Defining “poetry” is a fuzzy business, but studying how verbal language or visual messaging can be used to produce particular aesthetic, emotional or intellectual effects (the domain of “poetics”) is a considerably more practical science. The existence and obvious effectiveness of the advertising industry proves this point.

On the one hand this makes visual poetics an exciting field of study in an age when a) literary and artistic forms are increasingly “intermedial”, blending language and visuals in a new kind of textuality that requires new kinds of reading, and b) the cognitive sciences supply us with new, less reductionist models and methodologies for studying subjective experience and the conditions that produce it. On the other hand, because of how these same models and methods are used in the “persuasion industry” (which, with the rise of cognitive marketing and corporate or politically aligned Personal Relations campaigning, has achieved an unprecedented influence) visual poetics naturally inherits a tremendous responsibility: namely that of supplying the humanist project of “media literacy” with precise analyses and concrete strategies for countering the abusive onslaught of commercial messaging and increasingly overt propaganda.

Even as the academic study of poetry continues to lose relevance, the study of meaning production in cultural objects and in society at large is as crucial as ever. Visual Poetics in fact represents an important antidote for those who fear the death of literature departments in the media age, because it contributes to re-establishing the knowledge-base of literary analysis on the ground of more actual (intermedial) modes of textual production.

Spatial Poetics

At a deeper level, visual poetry and visual poetics extend the mission of literary study in another direction. If the study of language and of the art that’s made with language has traditionally provided some of the profoundest insight into the nature of thought and human consciousness, visual poetics corresponds to the overcoming of a four-century bias embodied in those insights. The idea that thinking and reasoning are basically verbal/linguistic functions (more or less heightened or contaminated by emotion) is a prejudice that has had a lot of influence on what has been considered intelligence in Western cultures and on what culturally sanctioned intelligence has been used for. Visual poets since Mallarmé (1897) have been among the first to face the challenge of learning to think positively and creatively with the new spatialized and visually intensive “languages” of the modern mass media. In this sense they represent a progressive humanism whose project the academy and educational programs in the West have been slower to pick up.

But the promise of visual poetics lies not only in the possibility of learning the kind of multi-modal intelligence required for keeping pace with the contemporary world. It is also the promise of truly new discoveries into the nature of mind and how it works. Valéry’s excitement about seeing “the form and pattern of a thought” made visible for the first time in the visual poetry of Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés (1897), corresponds with ideas emerging a century later in cognitive linguistics, concerning the fundamentally spatial nature of concepts and thought processes. In this sense, the study of visual language and of the art that’s made with visual language represents a speculative cutting-edge in the understanding of mind and human consciousness. It invites us to observe and explore the perceptibility of thought and meaning, the sensory and bodily dimensions of what Western intellectual tradition had convinced us was a purely abstract and disembodied phenomenon. On the one hand this opens the way for an evolution in the nature of “language” and textuality towards a greater integration of linear and non-linear, verbal and visual-spatial modes of discourse. On the other hand it supports the urgent and ongoing cultural project of waking up to the embodied nature of mind, and of correcting the error that has allowed us to construct modern civilization on the basis of a rationality and intelligence trained to ignore the input of the senses and the experience of embodiment.