Poetry and Text Position

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Among written forms of expression, poetry is perhaps the most inherently expressive and artistic. The poet attempts to communicate the deepest human longings, fears and dreams. The poet delves into the mysteries of life. Poetry can be sublime, hilarious, pointed or even cruel. Often it points to the eternal or the darkness within.

Although the forms of poetry vary considerably, poetry usually features an economy of words, essential minimalism, and adherence to structure. For example, the structure of certain poetic forms imposes both a discipline on the author and provides a familiar visual form to the reader. For example, the sonnet, limerick and haiku have different forms and structures. As a result, the reader can differentiate these forms of poetry merely by looking at the collection of words on the page before these words are even read and understood. The reader knows something about what to expect before the first word is consumed.

Poetry represents an intermediate step in the evolution of text as an artistic element. The poet rarely changes typeface or type color (although the Avant Garde poet does), but poets do utilize word positioning and text layout to convey meaning beyond the words.

The Poet E.E. Cummings utilizes text positioning and white space in the following poem from 95 Poems:

silence

.is
a
looking

bird:the

turn
ing;edge, of
life

(inquiry before snow

(CP 712)

(from Isabelle Alfandry, Voice and Silence in E.E. Cummings Poetry). From a purely visual perspective, Cummings arranges his words on the page to emphasis the concept of silence. Would this poem have the same meaning if Cummings simply ran the words together? I think not. Indeed, the empty lines of space and the lonely floating words–a single “a”–emphasize the nature of silence. It is pure and cold. Silence is the base state from which existence and reality springs, much like these words manifest on the silent, white background of the page. Cummings masterfully manipulates the positioning of characters and uses white space to convey essential ideas about the nature of silence.

Eugen Gomringer also addressed silence in his 1958 poem “Silenco:”

silenco

(photo from the Visual Poetry Blog). The white space in the middle of the poem serves as a visual metaphor for silence. Silencio is the Spanish word for “silence.” As I read this poem, I hear the word silence in my mind. Paradoxically, by forcing me to “hear” the word “silence” over and over, the written word doesn’t convey the experience of silence. However, when my eye settles on the blank space in the middle of the poem, an astonishing thing occurs: I have an authentic experience of silence. My mind settles, and for a brief moment, I am sitting in silence. The blank space negates both the visual image of the word “silencio” and the sound it makes in my mind. Reading and hearing the word “silencio” is not an experience of silence, but the white space points to what silence truly is. Neither the repetition of the word “silencio” nor the white space is enough to evoke the experience of silence. However, in the careful juxtaposition of these elements by Gomringer, the experience of silence arise.