Poems for the Eye Are Not Merely for the Sake of Eye

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Poems for the Eye Are Not Merely for the Sake of Eye

What is poetry? Pressed for an answer, Robert Frost made a classic reply: “Poetry is the kind of thing poets write.” In all likelihood, Frost was not trying merely to evade the question but to chide his questioner into thinking for himself. A trouble with definitions is that they may stop thought. The nature of poetry eludes simple definitions. Definitions will be of little help at first, if we are to know poetry and respond to it. We have to go to it willing to see and hear. To a particular poem, thousands of readers will have thousands of understandings. A poem can please us in many aspects. We usually concentrate our attention on its sound, wording, and figure of speech. In fact, a poem in stanzas can please us by its visual symmetry. This kind of poems is usually called the poems for the eye including spatial free verse and picture poems. Though many poets seem hardly to care about it, enough importance should be given to the visual element of poetry. At least some of our pleasure in silently reading a poem derives from the way it looks upon its page.

Poems for the eye can be divided into two types. One kind is the visual quality predominates the whole poem; the other is the visual remains subordinate to the aural and other elements of the poetry.

There are indeed some spatial poems that can bring us pleasure through their words arrangement. And far from being merely decorative, the visual devices of a poem can be meaningful, too. For examples:

This is William Carlos Williams’ poem that describes an energetic bellhop runs downstairs. Beside the words sound like that man is running downstairs, the appearance of the whole poem is like the stairs. This is not only good onomatopoeia and an accurate description of a rhythm; the steplike appearance of the lines goes together with their meaning. This kind of appearance or words arrangement makes the common words “ta tuck a” vivid.

The same with the following Kenneth Patchen’s (1911-1972) poem:

The ball bumps down the steps…

In the two poems above, the visual quality dominates the meaning of the whole poems. You can say that the shape of the words arrangement overweighs the meaning of the words. But it does bring us pleasure. It is more interesting and meaningful and stronger than just say, “ta tuck a…” and “The ball bumps down the steps…” Maybe this is one of the great charms of this kind of poems.
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