“an ancient form of visual writing”

The Sun-Artist, Susan Connolly, Shearsman, £6.50 / $9.95.
reviewed by Stephen Nelson

connolly sun artistPattern poetry is an ancient form of visual writing whose most famous expressions in the English canon are most likely two poems by George Herbert. It found favour with the Concrete Poets of the 1950s and 60s and is still practised amid the huge bloom of visual poetry happening across the globe today. It seems to be the only form of visual writing larger publishers will pick up on, and as such, isn’t really indicative of the wealth of creativity blossoming online or within the publications of more marginal presses. That said, it still holds enormous potential for innovative visual expression of the letter or word.

I wonder, however, if Susan Connolly’s pamphlet The Sun-Artist (you can view a .pdf sampler at the link) doesn’t display a lack of faith in the mainstream poetry reader’s ability to read or comprehend text visually. For example, the poem entitled ‘The Sun-Artist’ renders the text in more conventional form at the bottom of the page, when in all honesty, it doesn’t take much effort to decipher the criss-crossed rectangular shapes above it. The shapes themselves, here (imitating a Celtic cross) and elsewhere (diamonds, stars, rectangles), aren’t particularly inspired, and that lack of faith in the visual word is communicated again in ‘sea-star’, where two interlocking “voices” form discernible star shapes. The use of an echo or choral effect communicating across the sea is adequately expressed by the pattern of waves and doesn’t really need the dramatic personae as “explanation”.

The use of shape does seem terribly simplistic, as in ‘Christmas Eve’, where the words of the title are shaped like stars, or the poem opposite, ‘A Candle in the Window’, where the word “window” forms a framed window, and the words “a candle” sit within like…

A

C
A
N
D
L
E

This is not without its charm, offering a quaint vision of hope or domestic contentment, but still appears somewhat naive. The reader/viewer doesn’t have much work to do.

Certain themes of hope, light and shade (suggested by bold font and introduced by the opening poem), peace, creativity, freedom are nice enough, and run gently through the book, but by and large lose their power in the ultimately simplistic use of form, while the text itself doesn’t play enough to support the basic shapes. This really only worked for me in ‘Towards the Light’, where a branch of lyrical text is drawn irresistibly up towards the sun. Here the visual element is dynamic, rather than merely pretty.

It may be that these pattern poems are a “way in” to visual writing, but one would be better advised to seek out the wonderful 60s typewriter experiments of Dom Sylvester Houedard, or the early work of the great contemporary Finnish visual poet Satu Kaikkonen. For me, the collection felt more like a mainstream poet dabbling with the form rather than the work of a truly inspired concrete poet attuned to the visual elements of text.

Stephen Nelson
www.afterlights.blogspot.com

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