what is an experimental poem…?

Traditionally poems have been about the words—the meaning of the words—and how they come together to convey something through text. With experimental poetry, that is not always the case. The visual, the image, seems to be more of the ‘point’ sometimes, but I am not quite sure, then, why it is even important to call it a poem, even if it is experimental or innovative. Why not let it be something else, allow for the viewer to approach it in a different way. The word poetry comes with so much expectation and baggage that such a different use of words and language that experimental poetry may not need the word ‘poetry’ dragging it down— unless it is some sort of self-critique of poetry, but I digress—my question is, what, exactly, about being a poem, is integral to experimental/innovative poetry? Is it simply for categorization, is it about access? Why not let the viewer/reader know that the ‘poem’ is not going to be doing what traditional poems do, by dropping the word poetry? When does the experimental poem cross over to becoming mixed media, or art, or its own thing entirely?

Several of the pages in Julie Ezelle Patton’s poems are very visual, either drawings seemingly supplemented by text, images made up of text, or text used as collage in such an abstract way that the pages feel like doodles of someones thoughts that one would never expect to be able to understand. I can pick out words and phrases, but still feel like I’m missing something. Words isolated in this way, separated by placement, size, and font does not really allow for any kind of story or convey any type of meaning through the words alone. The ‘point,’ (if a poem even needs one) seemed to be less about all of the words, and more about the words as objects or images. Of course, the meaning of words can hold more power through tools such as repetition, the placement on the page, size, font, etc. that make it feel that their meaning deserves a certain amount of weight. I find it difficult to get something out of such visually focused poems, and end up coming away with very little.

A piece of art is deemed successful when the viewer feels, something, anything, even if it differs from what the artist intended. With a lot of Patton’s poetry I am left not really feeling much of anything. Maybe its my inexperience with experimental poetry, and I just don’t get it, or maybe I am not supposed to get it—but where is the fun in that? Is there value in being experimental for the sake of experimental if it is not really comprehendible? Does it need to be comprehendible to be valid?

A song is still a song even if the words are throwaway, or if you can’t even make out what the singer is saying. The song can still sound great if it relies on the melody, delivery and the flow of the words opposed to the story they tell or how beautifully they sound when strung together, but it doesn’t mean that the lyrics aren’t trash—because sometimes, they are. The lyrics can still be trash even if the song is enjoyable, and the song will still be valid. The lyrics can also have the opposite role of being absolutely beautiful, but you can’t hear them because the singer is more of a mumbler. I am trying to figure out if this can be applied to poetry. A poem doesn’t have any accompanying music or control of pitch the way music does, but it can have some control over sounds, emphasis, speed and even volume when formatted effectively. However, the author of a poem is working with a lot less than a song. Words on a page are a bit trickier, because that is pretty much all there is. A lot of playing around with words the way experimental poetry does also means a lot of trying to detach the symbols that are words, from their meanings, and that is a mighty task to take on. For that purpose, some words might be more flexible than others. Visually, a word can’t be detached from its meaning the way it can be when said aloud or muffled through a song. To muffle a word on the page, is to create something else entirely.

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2 Responses to what is an experimental poem…?

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Great questions about genre and category setting expectations for reader response. If we read something as a poem, how is that different from reading something as a painting? Reading something as a poem, and being asked to read something as a poem, what kinds of questions and approaches are we taking?

    I’d like to trouble your assertion that: “A piece of art is deemed successful when the viewer feels, something, anything, even if it differs from what the artist intended.” I wonder “deemed successful” by who? For who? Is success the goal of art? Is communication of affect the goal of art? Is success important? What do we gain when we talk about a piece of art in terms of it’s success? Are there other approaches that might lead to a more fruitful engagement?

    Patton’s poetry is very difficult, and working within a tradition of visual poetry and typographic experimentation on the page. In the same way that you think about songs having pitch and other elements, the visual elements of language on a page (type, font, size, etc.) are part of the cumulative effect that a poem can create. I’d love to hear you think about what the specific effects of her visual play are for you!


  2. Pingback: Class Notes Thurs 10/13 | Experimental Poets of Color

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