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Poetry, printing, and the senses

In this article, Dr JT Welsch discusses poetry, printing, and the senses.

Although my body is equipped with five senses, only two are used regularly when consuming poetry from a page. A book might have a notable texture or smell or even taste, if I really wanted to investigate, but information between the poet and reader is mostly transmitted through sight and sound. Even when reading silently or recalling lines from memory, a poem’s visible and audible material is conjured by our mind’s eye and ear. While this sensual substance is often felt unconsciously, it can have a profound effect on our relationship with a poem’s content. As with any living thing, the poem’s physical ‘body’ is deeply connected to the feelings and ideas we get from it.

As the linguist Roman Jakobson says, language’s ‘poetic function’ shines through when words seem most aware of their materiality. In practice, poetry’s appeal to our eyes and ears is also the most immediate way it distinguishes itself from other writing. It might seem like an obvious point, but it’s worth considering differences in the way we are conditioned to visually process poetry. If you were idly flipping through an unfamiliar book and came across a set of lines that didn’t quite reach across the page or maybe left other gaps between them, your brain’s poetry alert would be ringing before you even read a word.

More than that, we know to attribute that visual arrangement to the author themselves, and therefore link it with the suspected poem’s meaning. We know a novelist has no direct control over the words-per-line or line-breaks in their books, so we ignore these things completely. (The existence of ‘prose poetry’ doesn’t make these categories irrelevant; on the contrary, this hybrid form relishes the tension between them, and the different rhythms required to maintain poetic energy in prose forms.) In other words, we know at some level that a poem’s appearance on the page is a special sort of collaboration between the poet and printer, or whoever did the typesetting.

In this regard, it can be helpful to think of the interaction between sight and sound in a printed poem as something like that in a musical score. Poetry is, by definition, a form of writing full of subtle notation. Like musical cues, these help us create our own mental performance. In more traditional lyric poetry, you may have seen lines with their first letters capitalised or noticed poets like Emily Dickinson making special use of dashes and other punctuation. The very idea of a ending a line before the page ends it for you is another means of encoding loose instructions for reading. The white space itself becomes part of that notation, which the publisher will have done their best to preserve as intended. While they might not be as explicit as stage directions in a script, the way these cues are baked into a poem is what makes it a poem. Something essential to our experience of a poem is happening in those nano-second gaps, as our eyes move to the start of the next line or stanza. When the ancient lyre is removed as musical accompaniment, the printed lyric poem asks that we use our eyes and ears to recreate a physical presence.

Poets have long experimented with the expectations of our readerly programming, often manipulating the flow of reading with line-endings. As extreme expressions of poetry’s material essence, you might have also seen poems by people like E. E. Cummings, imitating a grasshopper’s movement on the page, or George Herbert, playing with shape poems a few centuries before. In the mid-twentieth-century, William Carlos Williams described a poem as ‘a field of action’ and poets like Charles Olson and Denise Levertov took his prompt to explore ways of projecting verse across the page that emphasised this active movement. In her essays and poetry, Levertov seeks out ‘organic form’, in which the human body and breath and other senses are deeply intertwined with the poem’s appearance on the page, so that form itself becomes ‘a revelation of content’. When reading or writing about poetry, sensitivity to poetry’s physicality must be central to our critical activity, whether that means tapping your foot, marking patterns with your own notation, or reading something aloud as many times as it takes to feel it in every sense.

Over to you

  • How do you use your senses in your reading of poetry?

  • Are there any collections of poetry, or individual poems, that you can think of that use the printed page particularly well?

Let us know in the comments below.

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This article is from the free online course:

Poetry: How to Read a Poem

University of York