Feature Articles


(PI News, September / October 2005)

Is the typography of poetry too conventional? Generally, lines in poems begin with a capital or more usually in lower case. Not many modern poets still use capitals to begin every line. In the schoolyard, poetry was talked about as the stuff that did not quite make it to the right hand side of the page while prose did. On the other hand, excessive typography which is not integral to a poem can undermine it and become print-eye-candy or mere showing-off.
’Concentric’ by Richard Kostelanetz uses only one word: ‘concentric’. The poem is visually circular on the page: a series of concentric circles becoming smaller to create a vortex of letters. That’s it. I don’t want to drive the editor crazy with formatting, so it is not quoted here. Another poem of Kostelanetz’s also pushes typography to the limits, ‘Tribute to Henry Ford’. Part 1 outlines a Model T car visually, using the letter ‘T’. Part 2 uses the letter ‘A’ representing double lanes of traffic which seem to be moving fairly well. Part 3 uses ‘A’ and ‘T’ showing busy traffic on a motorway with exits and roundabouts.

A poet who might be compared to Kostelanetz is Wayne Westlake, whose ‘Vitamin C Has Reduced the Pus’ is a square text block of ‘C’s’, 11 letters by 11, with the word PUS central to his design. E. E. Cummings whose name is sometimes written e. e. cummings, predominantly used lower case and can almost shock with the use of a capital letter. Emily Dickinson is famous for ‘dashes’ in poems - numbered without titles, as with many sonnet sequences from Shakespeare to Berryman:

Our lives are Swiss-
So still- so Cool-
- Emily Dickinson

One reason for such dashes at the end of lines is presumably to delay the inevitable eye-leap to the next line for longer than if there were no dashes.

Indentation of lines, italics, line breaks, italicised lines and epigraphs are long in existence but ‘experimental typography’ is associated with the modernists: Pound, Williams, Olson, Bidart and their followers. Before their heyday, Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hazard published in 1914 which first appeared in Parisian magazine Cosmopolis in 1897 marked an advance in typography for poetry. Brian Coffey has translated it into English. My own preference is for Henry Weinfield’s translation entitled A Throw Of The Dice Will Never Abolish Chance published by the University of California Press in 1994. Mallarmé is not only interesting as a poet but also as theorist; many of his utterances have genuine profundity, ‘all thought emits a throw of the dice’.

Different font sizes appear in Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hazard; lines fall away to blank space before the next word ‘appears’. There is an absence of punctuation not to mention syntax. At one point, in the nineteen-page poem, the physical layout of the text forms a hieroglyph of the Big Dipper. Paul Valéry, commenting on Mallarmé, said that he raised ‘the printed page to the power of the midnight sky’. The eye jumps visually and spatially as the poem is read. The effects can be trance like as the reader floats from one word to the next but of course this may not work for everyone. The poem has a seafaring element, owing something to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge’s long ballad has notes parallel to the poem in a lower font size making him part of the tradition of those who push typography to its limits.

Mangan’s poems too have much in the way of indentation and dashes, while in A Railway of Rhyme the rhyming syllables are listed in a separate column beside the poem. Brian Coffey uses wide spacing in ‘Death of Hektor’ and uses word-collage elsewhere. Carlos Williams has slanting lines of type in parts of ‘Paterson’. George Herbert, the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet, in his collection, The Temple, has poems, such as ‘The Altar’ which presents a square block of lines that are spaced out to render the text ‘like’ an altar. ‘Easter-Wings’ has only two stanzas that look somewhat like birds in flight, perhaps. Herbert based it on an anonymous Greek poem to Cupid with the text shaped into wings.

Donna Cartelli’s Black Mayonnaise (2000) is not averse to breaking up the prose poems in her collection into the more familiar typography of a poem. However, there is nothing typographically in Cartelli that is not already in Thomas McGreevy who creates similar effects in poems such as ‘Aodh Rua Ó Domhnaill’ with three words and less in lines creating intriguing results.

Ferlinghetti’s Modern Poetry Is Prose But It Is Saying Plenty makes a Poundian dictate that good poetry must be as well-written as good prose. Ferlinghetti’s lines claim that poetry sounds within us mostly in a prose voicein the typography of poetry. Neither is he denying the musicality of poetry and other victories for the form. ‘In Goya’s Greatest Scenes We Seem to See there are wide gaps and indents. Could Ferlinghetti be re-set one line under another without his gaping gaps? What exactly might be lost if this experiment were attempted? My own personal quibble with the typography of poems is those that are centred on the page especially over a whole collection. I am guilty of centring the text in one poem, entitled ‘Nursery Rhyme’.

Is there a Typographical Code for poets? Are there poetry police who arrest offenders in breach of such a code, dragging them into the court of critical appeal? Alas, there are only critics. So, if your typography is conventional, the next time the Muse beckons, perhaps it’s time to push your keyboard to the limits, utilising the shift, tab key, space bar, text boxes and other effects. These might become part of the process - but only if valid for your artistic purposes. And spare a thought for the proofreader hoping to format your poem exactly as you wrote it.

Kevin Kiely is a poet, novelist and critic. His latest poetry collection is Breakfast with Sylvia

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