These days there’s a lot of interest in what poems look like.
Issue 57 of Magma was titled The Shape of the Poem and the submission invitation began: ‘Poetry is a shaping of words and that shape can often be seen on the page’. It made reference to the visual cue of lines that turn before they reach the edge of the page: an early indicator that text is poem not prose.
Generally readers expect poems to look like poems. They expect more space round them than around prose. They expect a lot of other things too, many of which are conditioned expectations, operating subliminally – such as rhyme, an aural cue.
If you want to know a reader’s subconscious expectations of poetry, give them a poem that satisfies none of them. Give them a one-word poem. Give them an absence in the middle of a square. Give them a poem in which every line is struck-through or blotted out. Give them a poem they can’t hear. Give them a poem they can’t see.
Poetry – whatever it may be – works by acknowledging, and then – to various extents – both satisfying and disrupting expectation. If it doesn’t satisfy, you won’t like it much. If has no element of surprise, you won’t rate it.
Robert Pinsky says of poetry: ‘It’s voice. It’s a vocal art.’ Well, it can be, although it usually requires more than one sensual response eg. seeing and hearing.
But try watching Cochlear Implant, by the extraordinary British Sign Language poet Richard Carter, and see what you think. That’s if you can see him. Is vision the only way for British Sign Language to be accessible? There might be another way, through touch. Helen Keller could read speech by touching people’s lips with her hands.
We operate through our senses. We make communication in whatever way we can. We call some of those communications – especially those unusually important to us – ‘poetry’. Like water through porous rock, poetry finds ways to reach people.
But what if we think poetry is a visual art, and then lose sight? What if we believe the shape on the page (or the page itself) is essential? What if we believe the poem must be heard?
We are an exceptionally creative species. We find ways. Some of them are technological.
I’ve been fascinated in recent months by Giles Turnbull’s blog. Giles is a poet who can’t see – though he wasn’t born without sight, which means he has his own expectations regarding shape and form. He has acquired a pair of magic glasses, which do the most extraordinary things. His blog about the Orcam glasses is here. And his story is ongoing – do follow that blog.
Giles can’t, I think, respond to Richard Carter making poems in BSL. Richard can respond to Giles because deaf poets can read, though English may not be their first language, so there could be a language barrier. Barriers are not terrible obstructions: they’re creative opportunities.
As for poetry of touch, I expect it’s out there. Taste poetry may, arguably, already be with us. And dogs smell stories. If you don’t believe it, look or listen to this little film.
ps I will be at Poetry in Aldeburgh next weekend. Do come if you can. Paul Stephenson will be reading from The Days That Followed Paris, and Charlotte Gann will have a private launch of Noir on the Saturday afternoon at the Brudenell Hotel, to which you’re warmly invited. Email me (nell) at happenstancepress.com for details or use the message box on the website.
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I was once at an event where a poem was read, and at the same time, signed for a deaf audience. The poem finished with something (I forget what) dwindling away to nothing. You could tell, most of the time, that the interpreter was doing the words, sometimes spelling them out. But not all the time. As the poem ended, she repeated one action over and over, again, but in a smaller and smaller way, gradually lowering her arms until they were still. It was balletic, and moving. It was also enlightening, because although I have forgotten the subject-matter of the poem, I clearly remember the experience.