Page from Revisioning Webster by Joel Lipman
Article by Jeanne Lesinski

In an age when methods for analyzing visual rhetoric are being taught routinely in high school classrooms, visual poems should elicit more interest than ever. What do I mean by visual rhetoric? The ability of not just the words but all of the visual aspects of a piece to work in concert to communicate with the viewer, both consciously and subconsciously. Advertisers have long used all of the tools of visual rhetoric, convincing consumers to purchase products, and today's advertising-saturated consumers, if aware, might discern not just the intent but the often subtle methods used on them.

Like advertising spreads, visual poems, are written for the eye. They involve not just the words and their meanings, but the dialogue that takes place between the words (their color, shape and arrangement) and the images with which they are combined. Visual poetry dates from Palaeolithic times when gouging and scratching ornamented cave wall paintings; later the ancient Greeks created the calligramme, that is, a shaped work of writing intended to resemble a letter, an object, an icon or glyph, or an image. In the more recent past (from the 1500s), a visual poem might look like words arranged as a concrete shape, for example, a poem about angels shaped like angel wings. Poets gradually developed other forms and formats: mathematical equations, poems that snake across the page like flowcharts or electrical circuit diagrams, mind maps made of ovals each filled with a word sprayed across a page and joined in a web. With 150,000 display fonts available at, the text itself can be more communicative than ever before. The possibilities are endless, without spelling a coherent word. 

Forty years ago, printing technology did not allow for the flexibility we have today, and many visual poems were unique creations—original, handmade artwork—in the form of letters, postcards, or collages. If duplicated, they might be published in D.I.Y. formats, say, as zines using a primitive photocopy machine. Today, however, with the widespread access to Photoshop and Illustrator, visual poetry can be duplicated easily as a digital collage, or take flight as an animation published on the Internet in zines or blogs, or on paper through print-on-demand publishing.

On Tuesday, April 20th artist and poet Joel Lipman will be reading and discussing visual poetry as part of Saginaw Valley State University's "Voices in the Valley" speaker series at 7 p.m. in Science East, Room 204. Lipman, a professor of art and English at the University of Toledo, holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin and from the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he studied with Robert Creeley, Gwendolyn Brooks, and James Wright. Lipman has been publishing poetry since the 1960s and can speak to the evolution of visual poetry. Among his bookworks, mail art, and visual poems are the lengthy sequences Jesse Helms' Body and Origins of Poetry. To see examples of his work, visit Light & Dust Survey: 

© Jeanne Lesinski, 2010