• Andrew Field

Bern Porter, Joel Lipman, and Visual Poetry

There is a growing interest lately in the literary world in the visual, in part because we are presented with the work of graphic novelists like Gabrielle Bell, or Chris Ware, or Liana Finck, whose work incorporates drawings into the very texture, or fabric, or organicism of the narrative, and therefore for whom storytelling itself is not a lexical act of only words, but a fundamental and cohesive and juxtapository configuration - and assemblage, even, though the word denotes and connotes something more abrupt, while graphic novels, as narratives, tend to involve more of a seamlessness, no matter how stark or experimental the images (collage being a spatial art form, and graphic novels being primarily a diachronic). This is a radical act in the history of literature, that seems natural, in some ways, and therefore goes under the radar, because the internet is a medium that involves before anything else images and words, and forms like the graphic novel recognize this while drawing into their wake, in the work of Bell, or Ware, or Finck, or R. Crumb, or Ben Katchor, or George Herriman, the best of the literary traditions while making them into something their own, a unique literary-visual tradition.

We have had with us, for at least two centuries in the Western world, an example of a literary-visual tradition that we do not think about enough, since to this day we are stuck, in academia and English departments, with lexical models of literature that refuse to look at the role that images have played in literature, though I do not mean illustrations, like those of Phiz, nor do I mean daguerrotype photographs, like those of Whitman - both which maintain the luster and dustiness of the literary without involving an actual integrated fit between the art forms within the medium of the book - but forms like the graphic novel, or the work of William Blake, or visual poetry in the work of Bern Porter and Joel Lipman.

Thus, as we can see above - in true Bern Porter fashion, the found poet among other hats and roles we will be discussing in this blog post, along with Joel Lipman, and hopefully later in different ways, and who recognized the possibilities in both both graphic design used in a spatial manner in books and a kind of aestheticizing, a reframeworking, of data and the obsolete - the unseen, the invisible, even if it surrounded us in plain sight, like air, like the manner in which we actually think and see and experience - a diagram that can hopefully express what we are attempting to talk about. Diagrams are themselves interesting - Liana Finck on her IG page is often experimenting with visual representations of thought experiements, or representations of how one feels but in interesting ways that involve a kind of exploration of data representation in a more subjective manner still within a similar purview as Porter - and diagrams are themselves forms that can be visual, or visual-literary, but that toy and explode various assumptions about the primacy of the exclusively lexical, or even for that matter the exclusivity of the English language and alphabet or reading left to right.

Letters are shapes, and shapes are things we look at visually, but over time, with written cultures, the shapes become impressed or pressed upon the mind in such a way - like Linotype, say - that we stop looking at them visually and only read them cognitively. Some artists, like Bell and Finck and Ben Katchor, are interested in handwriting, because handwriting returns us to the shaping of letters, and therefore aspects of reading that involve perception as much as interpretation. There are many different ways of reading, and this is one more reason why an exclusively lexical hegemony in academia and English departments is preposterous at this point and suggests a form of obsolescence without irony, versus the marvelously ironic playing with the ideas of obsolescence in Porter and Lipman's work.

Let's return for now to the diagram above. As you can see, on the side of space is visual poetry, so let me give three examples from visual poetry in order to illustrate my argument.

Bern Porter

Bern Porter

Joel Lipman

These are examples of visual poetry - the first two by Bern Porter, from a book called The Book of Do's, published by The Dog Ear Press in 1982, and the third from Joel Lipman's Origins of Poetry, published by redfoxpress in 2021. What we can immediately see is that these works demands a sophisticated literary-visual criticism to even begin to talk about or interpret them, even as our acts of interpretation involve just as much perception as interpretation - a form of both reading and looking and noticing - as it does interpretation as perception. We might think of works of visual art, like Ed Ruscha's painting, or various forms of word art, as equally important insights into differences between reading and looking, perception and interpretation, and I suppose one big difference in how we experience such art forms is the einvlorment or context or situation in which they are placed or embedded, and therefore how the artist intends us to experience them. A painting on a wall asks us different value-commitments than an image in a book, the former being something more remote, with something suggestive of a grandeur-seeking or a poking fun at such seeking (but therefore an indirect homage), while the latter suggests something quieter, humbler, and less interested in that sort of dialogue. Visual poems are often found in books - hence the phrase visual poems - and I think this is an important difference that can help us understand the difference between the work of Porter and Lipman, versus paintings by Twombly, say, which incorporate the image and cursive but in a painting in a large size hung on a wall.

What makes the work of Porter and Lipman poetic? For we often hear poets as "painterly" - think of Elizabeth Bishop, or John Ashbery, or Marianne Moore. And we hear of paintings as lyrical, or poetic, as in Twombly's work, or a wash of color in Frankenthaler, or a particular lyricism in Chagall. But these comparisons are not the greatest when considering Porter and Lipman's work, because they are interested in graphic design in a way that neither the poets mentioned above are, nor, in a way, is Twombly or Frankenthaler. There is something in the interest of these pages that suggest an interest in shaping, but a kind of interest corresponding to the visual dimension of a poem, its shapeliness, the way it hangs between space and time, since, in Elaine Scarry's terms, in poetry "the page does not itself sing but exists forever on the verge of song." (Scarry, Dreaming by the book, 7) There is a hardness to these investigations, a kind of embattled penetratingness, that raises questions about tone, and location, and color, while also forcing us to ask questions about how we read, and therefore placing us in a kind of Socratic position where we begin to wonder about how we wonder, or look at how we see, or wonder about the various frameworks through which we see the world, and why.

In the first image, for example, in Porter, there is a freedom not provided by customary lexical poetries. Two words are magnified to wonderfully inordinate size - suggestive of a strain in Porter that foresaw things like the internet, or Procreate, or other softwares for playing with shapes and forms and colors and lines, via more lexical approaches or more visual approaches - and yet it is also a meditation not just on graphic design but the semantics of it, and how no design - including architecture, something that graphic novelists are all interested in to some degree, because of the nature of arranging panels (Ben Katchor being to buy mind one of the most prominent in this regard) - is without ethical connotations in addition to the aesthetic connotations. One only needs compare a mental hospital to a hospital for physical needs to recognize that design changes one's experience and suggests what society values while making palatable and visceral difference in an individual's experience, for if one is suffering with depression while walking around in a haunted Siberian-camp looking place, or a haunted institutional-school that is depressing to be in, one begins to feel that society has given up on one. If one is suffering with depression, but walking around in an air-conditioned biodome with a food court and sleek floors and comforting art on the walls, one might feel differently about how society and culture feels about one. This is as true of hospitals and schools as it is in the layouts of cities, and Porter and Lipman are both interested in civics in marvelously insightful and thoroughgoing ways. To read more about this, one can read Lipman's introduction to Porter's Found Poems, published by Nightboat Books in 2011, or read Where to Go, what Do Do, when You are Bern Porter: A Personal Biography by James Shevill, which could be found through most libraries via interlibrary loan.

There is simultaneously in the first image a meditation on aphasia, which is the loss of ability to understand speech, and Porter unsurprisingly has an entire book of found poems called Aphasia, which can be found along with other of his books on UbuWeb, on the Bern Porter page. Porter was a mathematician as well as an artist, and he worked on the Manhattan Project. I think after the bombing of Hiroshima, which caused an enormous crisis in his life, he began to question what the meaning of language itself was, and this might be one reason why he explores white space with such audacity in the image above, for example. White space can be connotative of a pause, or of absence, but also of expressionistic grief that screams without being heard, like something muffled one cannot even muster because of the horror and terror of it. In Porter, there is a deep ethical component to his work, and yet also something child-like, as if one is simultaneously harvesting for ideas and making an enormously disturbing and heart-wrenching commentary on human obliviousness and callousness and cruelty while refusing to not look at one's own role, whomever one is, in the perpetuation of these violent and cataclysmic cycles.

Porter is nothing if not a disciple of Marcel Duchamp, and he was interested first and foremost in reinterpretation, or reperception, meaning learning how to look at things in a new light that could change one's internalized scripts or customary lenses of seeing. He recognized immediately the aesthetic potential of advertising in the same way Andy Warhol did, and he did the same with comic strips, as we can see in Aphasia. But there is something even more radical about Porter, for we can see, in the second image, that it was visual forms themselves, of any variety - from the most mundane to the apocalyptic - that he scrutinized for artistic merit via a sort of lens that, like Duchamp, was poetic through and through in the most ancient sense, meaning "what I name, what I call a poem, is a poem, because I name it thus," thus invoking simultaneously Duchamp's urinal and Adam's naming of the animals in the Genesis story.

What is a recipe when seen from a formalist angle? What is a series of numbers when placed on a page following a recipe, in a large format, in vertical order, with words beside them? What are the semantics of these aesthetic decisions? How do we read them tonally? Is it ironic, to read "Here's how," and then to look/read the numbers and words? It is a commentary on a kind of madness in the world, and the chasm between advice and reality or experience? Is it a mundane homemade homespun delighting in the quaint as an attack on the pretensions of the literary as a highbrow public enterprise, when it's mostly just families with men and women who appear in the spotlight for a moment and then return to their families? Is it about impossibility, or possibility, or something different, or neither, or both?

Lipman's work is less stark then Porter's, and perhaps less despairing. A good introduction to his work, written by the visual poet and writer, can be found here, and at the bottom of the page one can find a link to Lipman's work in mail art - Porter is also considered one of the major founders of mail art, along with Ray Johnson, and therefore in different ways associated with the Fluxus movement - as well as links to the Light & Dust Anthology of Poetry, curated by Karl Young, who seems to me one of the most important writers and artists for anyone interesting in exploring possibilities of an ekphrastic critical tradition, not to mention a literary-visual-musical one. Young is a very profound thinker on everything from the book from to ancient culture to forms of religion and even shamanism, and we neglect his work at our peril, and the peril of new hybrid forms being created today. An overview of his work can be found here.

Lipman's work introduces new tonal textures into visual poetry, and therefore into the art world at large, in the same way his teacher, Porter did. In these pages above, we find fascinating mixtures of design, enjoyably innuendo-y commentaries about desire, and something childish and lyrical that reminds one of Joseph Cornell. Lipman worked as a young man at a radio station - full disclosure, I had Lipman as a teacher as a masters student at the University of Toledo, and he was the best college instructor I ever had, and introduced me to possibilities in the visual and lexical - and one senses in his work a kind of glee in forms that combine a sort of electronic scientific rubricscupe investigation - as if palindromes, neologisms, riddles, word problems, koans, apothegms, gnomic epigrams, various suggestive traces of Kafka, puzzles, word searches, the artist and the scientist, the art museum and the science museum, the civics and magic of radio and the private and magic of poetry (Lipman studied with Robert Creeley, Gwendolyn Brooks, and James Wright), all came together in a fusion of form and content that delights in the ridiculousness of the under-the-radar, the pretentiousness that is valued versus the goodness that is not seen, and the art that is strong but not seen because of misplaced values in communities based on standards of taste that say nothing about the neglected artists like Porter and Lipman and everything with people who claim to be educators and critics of art but are in reality unadventurous, banal, staid, and mostly beside the point.

There is a reason why this blog post has mentioned two important archives online - UbuWeb, and The Light & Dust Poetry Anthology -since both archives are tremendous meditations on the possibility of the internet to not be a noxious trollhouse of gaseous attack, but actually a repository of legitimate culture that can help one figure out who one is and how to express that as one works on it. If we are to have any sophisticated understanding whatsoever about the relationship between literary forms like the novel, poem, short story, play, and essay, and literary-visual forms like William Blake's work, visual poems, poetry comics, and graphic novels - all of which take place within the three dimensions of the book - then we need to start looking into these criminally neglected sources, and start expanding our thinking about what literature is, or means.

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