Sunday, March 29, 2009

The sound, shape, and "sign" of poetry

Is poetry meant to be heard, or seen?

Robert Pinsky's talk from the C-SPAN2 BookTv archive emphasizes The Sounds of Poetry.

That the art of poetry derives — primarily — from sound would indeed make sense when poetry's dissemination was primarily oral. With the printing press, poems began to be more widely read on the page, and today the visual appearance — it's shape, including the arrangement of words (even letters have shape: an 's' looks like a ssssnake, you know!) — of text on a printed (or now, electronic) page is a part of the art of poetry too. This becomes of primary emphasis in pattern (aka concrete) poetry.

So there is both "sound" (audible) and "shape" (visual) aspects of poetry. But just recently, I have been viewing the poetry of "sign".

This is "ASL poetry" (American Sign Language). Though I don't know ASL, one can get a sense of it by knowing the poem* it's signing. What this proves, I think, is that ASL poetry is an art — a medium for poetry — that can be appreciated by poetry lovers whether they are hearing-impaired or not. It stands on its own.

So here are the sound, shape** , and sign (language) of poetry. All good. All art. Does this say something, waxing philosophic, about what poetry is, that goes beyond these mediums?

* The Road Not Taken Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

** For the seeing-impaired, there is poetry in braille. So here, the "shape" is tactile instead of visual.