Autumn 2005

The dynamic challenge of graphic poetry

Graphic Poetry

A Wig-01 Project
Victionary, £25, €35

Give words to the image-makers, and what will they make of them? This is the exciting project of the creators of Graphic Poetry, the first in a possible series of anthologies in which graphic designers respond to assigned poems.

A poet typically says, ‘Get your pictures off my words,’ while an artist says, ‘Get your words off my picture.’ Here, poets have surrendered their egos and trusted designers to mix it up.

The brainchild of Andrew Townsend and James Warfield (the UK design firm Wig-01), the anthology treats the work of poets to the close and respectful attention of designers. The anthology also unleashes designers to romp in the park of creative liberty, a goal that would seem at odds with the critical rigour demanded by poetry. But the thrill of this anthology depends on its many tensions.

The thing itself is a green heft of heavy stuff, its mossy bark of a slipcover protecting the gray oak of the oversized book. Title and body type whispers plainly in left-justified sans serif, afraid to upstage the stars of the show, the two-page spreads of graphic poetry.

In the foreword, Paula Carson, deputy editor of Creative Review, raises all the right issues (like commercial versus fine art, literature versus consumer messages, etc.), but she says some unfortunate things. Only a designer or vice president in marketing would feel it necessary to say, ‘[Poetry] can prove to be a very efficient communication tool.’ Yes, and love can prove to be a very efficient reproductive tool. Good poetry reveals the messy complexity of gray where others see only the reductive efficiency of black and white. Obliged by the nature of the project to remark on similarities between designers and poets, she claims that, like a poet using metaphor, a designer uses an image for ‘added impact’.

Instead, poets use metaphor to invite the reader to make an imaginative leap, and this leap has to do with the meaning of the poem and, often, the relationship between the poem and the reader. The designer, by contrast, must fix an image. A poet might intend images to evolve in the mind rather than stop dead on the page. The graphic designer makes visually static what the poet wishes to leave imaginatively fluid.

The expressions here run the stylistic gamut, from bitmap fonts to hand-stitched letters, from sketches to photographs, from vector illustration to ink and paint. The achievement of this anthology lies in the interpretive tension each offering creates in the mind of the reader. Each graphic poem presents a dynamic challenge. What is the meaning of the poem? How does the designer interpret the poem? What is the designer’s intent?

Most designers literalise imagery from the poems and many of these merely make visually concrete what is already verbally explicit. Some vividly frame a conventionally set poem. Others follow inspirations triggered by themes or single words. A few manage to integrate word and image into a coherent whole, boosting mediocre poetry into art of greater interest. The rare design (like Keep Left’s for the poem ‘Whorl’) manages to avoid the clunk of the literal and achieve, with an odd and ambiguous graphic, an emotional relationship with the poem. This project will not increase the public’s appetite for more poetry, but it should increase its readers’ appetite for more graphic poetry.

For future editions, to which contributors are invited to submit, designers should justify their artistic decisions the way poets talk about their poems in contributors’ notes. To dispel the aura that this anthology is a savvy group portfolio promoting design in general and designers in particular, the editors should discourage designers from submitting as studios or firms and from marking their art with self-promotional dot-com monikers; if everything in a design counts the way every word in a poem counts, then I am bound to interpret the designer’s URL as part of the intended meaning.

While Carson promises readers will ‘find plenty to amuse, irritate and intrigue them,’ the hard-working contributors shy away from the ugly, disturbing, disgusting or viscerally startling, even though poems about war and sickness provide the license. Certain images linger in the mind (like Joel Lardner’s literal caricature for ‘Sheeple’, and Mathematics’ wonderfully organic composition for ‘Transition Movement’), but the jolts come from the poems themselves:

The bruise on my foot

is a hyacinth blooming

purple to blue –

or dusk

in a landscape of pain,

where dark clouds

billow up

from the marrow.

(From the poem Bruise by Christine Boyka Kluge.)

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