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Comic Theory 101: Visual Poetry

In this column I'd like to continue our discussion of the potential for visual language poetry that I began way back in my last column, with visual rhyming. At the end of that column, I created a visual poem by borrowing the verbal patterns of a limerick.

However, much of the nature and power of poetry comes from the natural features of the language that they are designed for. Sonnets and limericks use the power of the meter and rhyme found in the English language, while haiku utilize the syllabic structure of Japanese. While haiku in English might be fun, they fail to capture the essence that those in Japanese do, and rhyming in Japanese is far less interesting, since it's a syllabic language from the start. The poetic style is a reflection of the language it appears in.

So, if we would like to formalize certain tropes for visual language poetry, what structural features are available to us?

In previous articles, I've mentioned that we can quantify types of panels by the amount of "entities" in them -- the "characters" engaged in an action.

At the highest level, Polymorphics contain a full action, by repeating entities over and over again.

Macros hold a full scene, with more than one "entity" in them.

Monos contain only one entity.

Micros contain less than one entity - often through a "close-up" shot.

Finally, at the lowest level, Amorphics have no active entities at all - they only show elements that are not engaged in the action, perhaps of the surrounding environment. (* For those keeping score, yes, this is the first time I've mentioned this category).

We can graph these descending panel quantities in what I call the "Lexical Representational Matrix" or "LRM":

For poetic purposes, these various levels can be utilized in the same manner of syllables; they allow for a quantity of "beats" depending on how much information they hold. Let's pose a hypothetical poetic line:

Polymorphic - Micro Refiner - Macro - Micro Refiner - Mono - Micro Refiner

Here, the poetic aspect would come from traveling down the LRM, with an alternation of Micros between each panel. By "Refiner," I indicate that the Micro plays a grammatical role of "zooming in" on an aspect of whatever panel it follows (see my essay Initial Refiner Projection for a more dense discussion of this).

Here's what a poetic line of this fashion could potentially look like:

Now that we've established what the content is, how about we add another aesthetic/meaningful layer to it?

Poetry often uses a certain length of line or stanza, which we can adapt conceptually to the idea of layout. In the visual form, the size of panels and the shape of their arrangement can invoke certain feelings or allow various things: large panels allow for a expansive space, thin panels might feel cramped.

Bearing in mind the "narrowing" property of my poetic line above, how about we add this to a layout that starts off big, then grows smaller, emphasizing the alternation in the layout. Perhaps the Micro Refiners can overlap the panels they modify -- except at the end, when the Micro is still a Refiner but represents the bottom of the LRM. Here, the variance of the layout is modified to emphasize a different part of the structure. The formal properties would then look like this:

Notice that there are two main aspects heightened by the layout. Along the vertical plane is the reduction of the major categories of the LRM. Meanwhile, along the diagonal we find a row of Micros with similar content, but highly refined viewpoints. This diagonal emphasizes the feeling of narrowing of information. Both of these lines converge upon the Amorphic panel - reducing substance and refining substance, both focused down to a releasing point of no active elements at all.

All together my example from above becomes:

Voila! I've just created a formal type of poem for visual language. I dub this type of poem a "reducto," for its features of narrowing information as it goes. Admittedly, my example here perhaps doesn't reach the full height that the Reducto formalism could attain, and I'm sure you all could think of far better content to fill in your own works (hint hint).

However, this is just one example of infinite possible combinations of LRM values and layout (and potentially visual rhyming!) that people could think of and toy with poetically. To me, the important thing is that it reflects and plays with the attributes of the visual form itself.

So, put on your thinking berets, come up with some traits to play with, start a meme, and let's all become visual poets.

OK here's my rough attempt

grantcthomas's picture

OK here's my rough attempt at an Inverted Reducto

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Very nice. I like it a lot,

Neil Cohn's picture
Very nice. I like it a lot, except that you leave out the element of "layout" as a function that is worth modulating. The partitioning of the poem across various linked pages negates the reductive aspect of layout that I initially proposed. Perhaps your Inverted one could have an inverted layout?

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"I'd like to propose a few

grantcthomas's picture

"I'd like to propose a few more graphic poetic forms"

This may be a correction of my own statement earlier:

Neil do you consider this a poetic form or a meter? For instance, a sonnet is form that uses the iambic pentameter.

I could see using repeated reductos and (its derivations) to make several pages worth of material, but this would make the reducto a meter and not a form. Its probably splitting hairs to say this. Did you intend for these seven panels to stand alone or could they be linked into a larger work?

Maybe we could call these poems "Cohnnets" written in "reductometer".Smile

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When I first thought of this

Neil Cohn's picture
When I first thought of this pattern (which was literally in the process of writing the article), I intended it to be a stand alone poetic form like a sonnet. However, I can see how the pattern could easily be thought of as more like meter if used like that. If you want to call the pattern itself something like a "reductometer" thats then used by Reductos in various ways, go for it.
My intention for this type of article isn't to come down from on high and offer up these scriptures of theory to be strictly followed. Use this sort of idea to get inspired and go crazy! I've shared just a few simple building blocks of creativity: you can create an infinite amount of poetic forms, meters, etc with them. And sometimes these things just grow organically: one person tries something, another responds, and then off it goes.
So, don't limit yourself to what I think of, run wild with what you can think of! (but... be sure to share with us what you come up with if its pretty cool)

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The components of your

The components of your visual poetry seem to be based on panel selection and formatting according to the quantity and nature of 'entities'. However, are there other tropes that we can consider to be part of a visual language's poetic scheme?

I was going to suggest colour choice and line quality, but those are stylistic choices that form the content of individual panels.

In literary poetry, a distinction is made between prose by the use of certain forms and rules regarding meter, rhyme scheme and other elements. Is the next step to identify different types of visual poetry based on the re-occurence of visual poetic forms? So then we'd be able to say, here is an early American 'limerick' comic, or there is a late Japanese 'haiku' comic.

There certainly are more

Neil Cohn's picture
There certainly are more tropes besides quantity of entities, layout, and visual rhyming, but some of them are too expansive to bring up right now (like visual grammar: i.e. the "refiners" in the reducto) and the rest just escape my mind. Really, every structural aspect of language can be played with, so there's lots of room to work with in the visual form. If I think of any more offhand, I'll probably write them up as an article, but in the meantime, got any good ideas?
Part of what I intended in this piece was to get away from the idea of translating verbal forms like limericks or haikus into poetry and seeking out "natively" visual language poetic forms. I think if any of these ideas catch on we'd certainly see the growth and evolution of how they're used.

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"However, are there other

grantcthomas's picture

"However, are there other tropes that we can consider to be part of a visual language's poetic scheme?"

yeah I've been trying to work on that part, too, So far all I've come up with is playing with visual rhymes which is really Neil's idea.

Neil- working on those examples. I think its gonna be a weekend of drawing.

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I'd like to propose a few

grantcthomas's picture

I'd like to propose a few more graphic poetic forms that are derived from the original reducto:

Inversion Reducto- much like an inversion in iambic pentameter. Take parts of the reducto and move the micro-refiner to the front. So now it's:

Micro Refiner- Polymorphic

Macro- Micro Refiner

Micro

Mono

Amorphic

This creates nice micro "bracketing" in the structure

Inverted Reducto- basically turning the structure upside down and backwards.

Amorphic

Micro

Mono

Micro Refiner- Macro

Micro Refiner- Polymorphic

 

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Very cool. Have any examples

Neil Cohn's picture
Very cool. Have any examples for us?
(and to anyone else who tries their hand at these, please post links!)

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If all you mean is "fit,"

If all you mean is "fit," then why use notions of power and fun at all?

You stack the deck in your favor when you use English v. Japanese, but can't really make the same case for language distinction and poetic form with Romance languages, with have related origins and enough similar structures and features to complicate your argument.

If someone writes a haiku in English doesn't it use features of English - isn't there a poetic form, the English haiku?

And how do you determine a rhyme in comics: what constitutes an exact rhyme versus a slant ryhme?

 

You say this has nothing to

You say this has nothing to do with taste, but the idea is all throughout your short introduction: words like 'power' and 'fun' are about taste; they indicate a subjective reponse on the part of the person looking/reading.

A sonnet in English that most people agree is lousy will therefore have no 'power' for these readers, despite the fact that it follows the rules and is connected - as you say - to the form of the poem and the language that form is related to.

I think you make a mistake when you start your essay off this way - these extreme generalizations and abstractions about power work against a convincing case.

"However, much of the nature and power of poetry comes from the natural features of the language that they are designed for."

Most people would say the power of a poem comes from the skill of the poet and his/her use of the language.

There is no automatic connection between power and the form, and this is a problem for your theory. When I edited my college's literary magazine, I read more awful poems in verse forms than good ones - if this proves anything it proves that forms and power have no necessary connection.

"However, much of the nature

Neal Von Flue's picture

"However, much of the nature and power of poetry comes from the natural features of the language that they are designed for."

Most people would say the power of a poem comes from the skill of the poet and his/her use of the language.

 

I'm having a hard time seeing a clear distinction between your point and Neil's. At each is an understanding of the unique qualities of a particular language.

He says ""However, much of

Neil says ""However, much of the nature and power of poetry comes from the natural features of the language that they are designed for."

I say very little of it - if any - intrinsically comes from the "natural features of the language." Good poets and bad poets use the same language and features to very different effects.

Neil talks about abstractions like poetry and power, I talk about poems and readers' responses.

He says things like the "power of poetry" but I reject the idea that poems come attached with an objective power; I say there is no necessary connection between power - a subjective emotional reponse on the part of the reader - and objective facts about a poetic form, such as the amount of syllables in a line and a rhyme scheme.

I think that we are talking

Neil Cohn's picture
I think that we are talking about two entirely different things here. I'm saying that – regarding formal poetic types (i.e. not free verse) — before anyone actually says or does anything with that type, the poetic form is a reflection of the language's structure itself. The "power" that I am referencing has nothing to do with authorship or talent, but with the "fit" of the language to the poetic type.
People can write "good", "emotional," powerful" sonnets in terms of their meanings or skill with the poetic form, or they can write crappy ones. But none of these distinctions make a difference to what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the formal qualities of poems and nothing about how poets use them.
Here, I'm concerned solely with how "poetic forms are built" in relation to the languages they are used in.

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"While haiku in English

"While haiku in English might be fun, they fail to capture the essence that those in Japanese do,"

When you make claims like this - "may be fun" - you trivialize the powerful haikus that have been written and translated into English - You do this, I think, because it helps you make a point about a relationship betweeen an example and the language it comes from. But when the payoff is something as abstract as claiming an "essence" it hardly seems worth it - Can a sonnet in French never be as "powerful" as one in English? Why try to make taste objective in this way? This setup about language and essence seems a distraction.

Thanks for the comments.

Neil Cohn's picture
Thanks for the comments. This has nothing to do with "taste." It has to do with the structure of languages in relation to their poetic forms.
Built around syllabic constraints, haikus are a reflection of the structure of the Japanese language. The Japanese phonetic system is syllabic, always pairing consonants with vowels except when individual vowels stand alone. Consonants other than "n" don't appear independently. This lends to many words with very patterned syllabic constraints.
English language haikus might be "powerful" in terms of meaning, but they are hardly structured in a way that is attuned to match the language phonetically as well. English words can have a "slippery" amount of syllables because it isn't as constrained syllabically as Japanese. The syllabic nature of Japanese constructs the poetic form in a way that English just can't get at equivalently.
I can't speak to the degrees to which other languages "fit" poetic forms, as my (moderate) fluency is mainly in Japanese. English, Italian, and French as languages use fairly similar phonetic patterns, so I wouldn't be surprised if their poetic forms "work" better in translation.
Again in sum, as is connected to my broader point, while translation can transfer some degree of meaning, it can't necessarily transfer the "form" since languages are attuned to their poetic "styles" (or whatever you want to call it). Poetry has more to it than just meaning.

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"while translation can

"while translation can transfer some degree of meaning, it can't necessarily transfer the "form"

So a sonnet in Spanish could not be translated into English as a sonnet? or do you mean something different here by form than poetic form?

"Sonnets and limericks use

"Sonnets and limericks use the power of the meter and rhyme found in the English language, while haiku utilize the syllabic structure of Japanese."

I think, though I may be wrong, that the first Sonnets were in Italian.

"The poetic style is a reflection of the language it appears in. "

What do you mean by "style?" This word appears to refer back to your mention of poetic forms, but most don't use these terms - style and poetic form - interchangably.

The Italian sonnet did come

grantcthomas's picture

The Italian sonnet did come first, but there's no denying that Shakespeare (among others) made the English sonnet a respected part of English literature.

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It's not really clear to me

It's not really clear to me how this comment is relevant . . . .

Has anyone denied the role of Shakespeare and others? I think, though, that Surrey and Sidney played an important part before Shakespeare.

Neil,You say that "Micros

Neil,

You say that "Micros contain less than one entity"; yet in the 2 examples above it, the entities are not shown in full - so don't those panels not contain a full entity too? I'm confused by the micros example in that I can't make out what it is . . . How do I know it's an entity?

And without context - surrounding panels - how can we tell that the Polymorphics panel contains a full action? - It also looks like three creatures climbing . . .

Yes, technically these

Neil Cohn's picture
Yes, technically these categories of panels are decided entirely by the context of the sequence, though it's easier to show examples in isolation. I touch on this briefly in my essay "A Visual Lexicon" on my site, though it will be covered even more in a redux of that essay coming soon (hopefully).
To give a brief example: if sequence 1 shows a person jumping up and down, the whole person is the "grammatical entity." If the sequence is of an eye blinking through a close-up, then the eye is the grammatical entity and not the whole person. So, in sequence 1 the concept of "eye" is less than one entity and in sequence 2 it isn't.

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Levels

As always, interesting stuff Neil. I'm wondering about the logical sequence of levels - wouldn't 'macro' with more than one entity be above 'polymorphic' with just one - albeit in motion?

The reasoning behind the

Neil Cohn's picture
The reasoning behind the hierarchy (discussed more in actual papers at my site) is that Macros are "static" displays of information, just like the other categories. They simply modify the quantity of information.
Polymorphics on the other hand have a "predicate" within them: i.e. they show an action or event unfolding within the representation. Because of this, they have what would otherwise be syntactic structures within their borders. A verbal language comparison would be idioms (like "kick the bucket"), which are a single "lexical item" but have internal syntax.
I hope that wasn't too technical an answer!

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