We’re taught in American English, to read from left to right. We’re taught that all the most formal writing is either left aligned (for work) or centered (special occasions.) We’re drilled into seeing words just as words, not as what they truly are: representations of sounds that combine to make an image in our minds. Written language embodies our human experience and represents that which we encounter every day. Words on the page are codified and interpreted images, transferred from our brains to the paper in order to be shared with others, or burned in the hopes of some great forgetfulness.
But why, oh why, does the word have to be so restrained? Is there a real reason to keep all the loveliness of a spring day hostage on that left-hand side? No. Is there a real life threatening end of the world reason to capitalize the first letter of each line in a poem? No. Line upon line upon line
away from the
Left margin. The open space that grows all around a poem is just as free to be used as a common park after midnight for lovers or a backyard for a toddler under a watchful eyed parents. Pattern poems explore the space, roll around in it, and strive to become something more than just their words: “pattern poems combine symbolic signs to form an iconic – pictorial – super sign” (Gross). What, you say? Super signs and pictorial? Why yes, yes I do. Let us consider two poems form the reading this week, Women by May Sweson and Valentine by Lorna Dee. Cervantesv.
In Women, Sweson creates an image of the interplay between men and women, as well as a satricial and somewhat dark depiction of what seems to be the speaker’s idea of how men see women and their roles in society as well as personal relationships. The back and forth movement of the poem, from top to bottom, to top to bottom again, leads the reader on the ‘rocking horse’ ride, adding great strength to the overall metaphor within the poem. The up and down back and forth movement of the poem also alludes to intercourse, just a sort of pumping to get it done with no regard to romance or the needs of thine partner. Again, strengthening the overall ‘image’ that Sweson presents. But, without the back and forth, the poem flops. While The words are still there, and tough as a bad female day, they have lost some of their cohesion, and drive. The female element disappears, the curves, and the women become nothing more than ‘pillars’: two columns of straight text… blah.
Valentine, on the other hand, I’m not sure benefits from shape. Yes, it’s part of a heart, or a folded butterfly perched on the left-hand margin, but does that really help the poem? In some way, maybe. Cervantes starts with the happy love images of flowers and butterflies then drags the reader down through a jumble of images, ending in a deep heartbreak. So, we have a broken heart poem, half of a friend ship necklace forever missing its counterpart. Sort of flimsy, really. If we look at the shape of the poem as the butterfly, that’s a touch better. Then at least the vague shape isn’t so obvious and fits with the overall metaphor throughout the work. I think, though, that the poet couldn’t have picked a different shape in which to house her ‘pink trumpets on the vines’ and hummingbirds. While we’re resented with an interesting and strong poem, I think that the shape of it on the page is more of a distraction than an addition. I am not however, super familiar with this poet or her work. Perhaps this is part of a larger set used to create a stronger image. It would be sort of cool to see this on the left hand page of a book and its mirror image on the right.
So we see in both poems that shape has had an effect on the overall feeling of the poem, as well as either adding (is the first case) or distracting (is the second case) based on the ‘images’ the actual physical shape of the poem brings to the readers mind. The page layout and design is as much a part of the poem as the words and can be used as a tool to layer metaphor more strongly, add new meaning, or leave opening for interpretation and alternate readings.
Sarah Ockershausen Delp
Cervantes, Lorna Dee. “Valantine.” 1991. Poetry Out Loud. Web. Feb 2017. <http://www.poetryoutloud.org/poems-and-performance/poems/detail/49589>.
Gross, Sabine. “The Word Turned Image: Reading Pattern Poems.” Poetics Today 1997: 15. JSTOR Journals. Web. 6 Feb. 2017.
Swenson, May. “Women.” 1978. Poetry Foundation. Web. Feb 2017. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/48377>.