Whether through fonts, colors, or jumbled placement, much of what characterizes experimental poetry today is typography, or the art and technique of arranging type to make written language readable and beautiful.
After discovering Gerard Genette’s definition of Paratext as “those things in a published work that accompany the text”, and exploring the many ways that Paratext can be presented and used to influence perception it is evident that, by definition, a text with clever typography can support itself without Paratext.
This can happen in a number of ways. After spending time with M. NourbSe Philip’s “Zong” one would realize that many of the poems tried to cluster and brake up groups of words to emphasize certain aspects of the text. An example of this can be seen in Zong #20, when Philip clumps together phrases to create the first two stanzas.
M. NourbeSe Philip Zong #20
In doing so, and by placing the second one diagonally below and to the right of the first she creates a suggested “slide” that leads the reader’s eye down, thus forcing them to naturally compare the two areas of text. This effect can be explained by looking at the way that we humans generally set up our comparisons. Ven-Diagrams, charts, tables, and other visual forms of comparison all place categories side by side, and separate them to make them distinct. In this particular instance the poem shows an evolution from the decisions made by the insurers to the uncertainty and chances involved with going on the voyages of the slave ship. The clumped structure takes a twist when Philip decides to suddenly break up the text by fragmenting phrases and spreading them across the page. This genius approach completely changes the way that the text is interpreted. Due to the time it takes for the reader’s eyes to travel across the page, the messages carried by the words appear as bubbles of light bursting in the dark, each distinct and direct. It is the equivalent of writing: “the between of day… a sea of negroes… drowned… live… in the thirst…”, as the ellipses provide natural, audible breaks when read aloud.
Similar to, yet different from this approach toward creatively structured writing is the technique of constructing recognizable objects by using the text to draw both lines and negative space.
For example, when looking at this script poem, after a mere glance most could identify the shape as the Eifel Tower. Although the average English-speaking fellow may not be able to read the words, the iconic image presented by the poem conveys its message, and allows almost anyone to instantly associate it with French culture and nationalism.
Another common use for word art is for Valentines Poems. Just as in the last example, the shape of this poem (heart) will convey its most probable theme to the reader before they even begin to process the words. Word Art is a truly unique movement in that it can use font color and text structure to create the images and support that Paratext would otherwise provide.
Experimental poets love to manipulate the reader in numerous ways, one of which being directing their attention through subtle hints. By making use of inherent human behavior, writers can influence the way that their works are perceived. Before I elaborate more I would ask that you, the reader, quickly scan through this work:
If one were to show this picture to a sample and observe how they approached it, the majority of people today would have probably chunked words that were on the same diagonal together, and created mental breaks whenever switching to text written on distinctly angled lines.
In addition to this, one might find that people generally try to read words grouped by a similar font and color, such that “ABCDEF…KLMNO…” is read separate from the block of text: “Helvetia Neue”. This is because humans are creatures of continuity. By nature, we categorize texts by discriminating their differences and similarities. This allows us to process information more efficiently, but it also allows for literary artists to redirect our attention with relative ease. The artist of the poster above not only created an eye-catching, pretty image for people to enjoy, but also provided a text-based advertisement with the same advertising potential as a poster surrounded with visuals that contribute to the text.
Experimental writing is reshaping the means of literary expression through the efforts of contemporary artists seeking to explore. By altering the typography of traditional text in clever and unconventional ways, poets have proven that words can create both visual and literary appeal at the same time, and thus no longer need to rely on other modes of communication to help convey the same messages to the reader. Movements like Word Art, Constructivism, and others experimenting with typography have begun to use words to create not only literature, but meaningful forms of expression that have otherwise been experienced only through art and music.