The image…has no need of scholarship.

The intimacies of word and image are various. From a formal standpoint, no intimacy is more playful than that of Earth and Moon, where the image is the Earth and the text is the Moon.

Another planet’s moon—Europa—features lineae, lines which, although they are a commentary on the Earth, are read mainly by Jupiter.

Venus has no moon of her own but is second in brightness to the Earth’s moon and amongst her craters is one named for Ma Shouzhen (1592-1628), the Chinese poet and painter of orchids.

There are more species of orchid than of bird. Birds pollinate some of the more wildly colorful orchids, and “The Bird” is a subdued variety of orchid, Chilloglottis valida. It grows on Mount Cannibal and is pollinated by pseudo-copulation. It is said to “feel” like a female wasp. In some esoteric traditions butterflies are the liberated petals of flowers, flowering plants are butterflies with roots. Goethe thought color was created by the senses. Colors on the computer are essentially an illusion. All of this is helpful in understanding the idea—and the fact—of visual poetry.

What is visual poetry? It is the visit of one thing upon another.

Or the reverse, as in a bundle of broken mirrors.

Or, an incoherent image fans out into intelligibility. There is incorporated text, and/or a title, or a thought elicited Rorschach-like by the image. The image, the text, title the thought evoked—what’s to distinguish anything as a visual poem?

I struggle with that question. It puts me in mind of those butterflies that impersonate  punctuation marks—the Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma) and the Question-mark Butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis). They remind me to look at a work from many angles (polygonally), although the Comma Butterfly also mimics a dead leaf.

The image of the dead leaf is important with regard to visual poetry. Sometimes our eye  (but not our notice) is met by a “dead leaf.” Or the leaf turns into something else when we surprise it.

Back to Ma Shouzhen, poet and painter of orchids. She owned a houseboat where on moonlit nights her fellow poet-artists would gather and drift. These “literati”, in contrast to the academic painters, were glorious amateurs, and the age was one where the materials and techniques of the writer coincided with the materials and techniques of the artist.  Paper, ink, brush, word, image—our own age marks the beginning of a similar coincidence of tool and technique—the computer—for both verbal and visual poets. Even more, the computer is also Ma Shouzhen’s houseboat, and visual poetry is a social, as well as an artistic phenomenon.

What visual poetry is, is what any poetry is. But how do I look at a visual poem? How do I read it? What’s it about?

Leibniz, the inventor of calculus, said somewhere in the jungle of 200,000 pages that he left to posterity, that images are confused ideas. I’m pretty sure the corollary of this statement is that confusion generates images, and that the questions I have asked are likely best approached by creating more, not less, confusion.

The Moon Orchid—its flower is a white moth in flight.


The title of this essay is a line by Thomas Traherne (1637-1674) from his poem “On Leaping Over the Moon”.

The epigraph is by Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space, translated by M. Jolas, Beacon, 1964, p. xix.

Leibniz’s page count approximates the number of butterfly and moth species.

Moon Orchid (Phalaenopsis aphrodite). In Lamarck’s system, Phalaena was the moth subcategory for Lepidoptera.

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