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Eye Training: Visual Patterning

Summary:

A brief exploration of the various visual aspects that can be utilized when making a poem. If the crafting of the aural aspects of a poem is what we may call "ear training," the crafting of the visual aspects is what we'd call "eye training."

Contributors:Sean M. Conrey, Dana Lynn Driscoll
Last Edited: 2010-04-25 08:46:25

We've already claimed that pattern in a poem is "The artistic arrangement and use of the material (aural and visual) aspects of words into particular repetitive and/or serial forms as a means to structure a poem." The combination of sound and visual elements provides a poem's structure, the resultant sum of all sound and visual form in a poem. The craft of poetry has traditionally concerned itself only with the sounds of the words, but as a written thing, we cannot deny that there is also a certain "paginess" to a poem, and that the patterns developed in that visual field can't be overlooked if we are to concern ourselves with the full potential of the poem's structure.

Whereas the aural patterns of a poem are concerned largely with the rhythm and tone of the words (the horizontal and vertical axis on the musical scale, respectively,) visual pattern and variation are more geared more toward the poem's placement on the page than in the way it sounds when read. Where the aural aspects of the words are more concerned with how the words sound when read in time, the visual aspects are more concerned with how the words look when revealed in space. Like a painter at a canvas, the poet whose concern is the visual patterning of the poem looks at how the thing sits on the white canvas of the blank page and how that visual structure creates patterns that can be used to create a richer poem.

Bearing this in mind, we ask a few questions:

Definition:

Visual pattern: The artistic arrangement and use of the visual aspects of words into particular repetitive and/or serial forms as a means to create structure in a poem. Prominent places to look at visual pattern include verbal, grammatical, syntactical, linear, stanzaic and sectional elements within a poem.

What is Visual Pattern?

Visual pattern is, then: The artistic arrangement and use of the visual aspects of words into particular repetitive and/or serial forms as a means to create structure in a poem. Said another way, visual pattern is any recurring or consistent visual aspect of a poem. Since the whole visual field of the poem on the page is available, we must break down some of the aspects of that field into workable pieces. Since the standard elements of written language are letters, diphthongs, words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs and sections, then we must break down our visual patterns into similar elements, with a few exceptions.

In working with visual pattern, the goal is to relax the eye, so to speak, so that the page can be read "at a glance," therefore allowing the visual aspect to come forward. Thinking of the words as being in a field, or whitespace, as it's commonly called, will help you see the different aspects of visual pattern.

Of course, recurrence and predictability are the basis of pattern. This includes words, phrases, sentences, and other grammar-based variations. But rather than dealing with the more obvious uses of repetition on the letter and diphthong level, we start with the recurrence of words on a page, which can be easily scanned and seen. Since a poem has some qualities that are unique only to poetry, namely line and stanza, they are also possible places to seek repetition and subsequently pattern. This leads us to ask...

What are the aspects of a poem that can be varied and patterned?

Visual pattern can arise in the verbal, grammatical, syntactical, linear, stanzaic or sectional elements of a poem. This list is by no means exhaustive, but in order to create an art of visual pattern, we have to put the breaks on somewhere. The reader is encouraged to discover other visual elements within a poem, but for our purposes here, we stop at these six terms. Below is a description of each of these elements, in order of small to large physical presence on the page.

Verbal: A verbal pattern is a pattern that derives from word choice. Verbal patterns arise in the common letter configurations and repetition of certain words. Take as an example Edgar Alan Poe's well known poem "Annabel Lee" (and I use this poem because it makes its patterns obvious— with free verse poetry the patterns are typically more subtle.):

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of ANNABEL LEE;—
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

She was a child and I was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud by night
Chilling my Annabel Lee;
So that her high-born kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me:—
Yes! that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of a cloud, chilling
And killing my Annabel Lee.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in Heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:—

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I see the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the side of the sea.

Comparing the first two stanzas, there is an obvious verbal pattern in the repetition of the word "many" in the first line of the first stanza and "child" in the first line of the second stanza. Also note the pattern of ending the stanzas with the word "me" (this is not continued throughout the poem, although he does end a few more lines with "me", and varies the word with "we" in the 5th stanza, thus placing emphasis on "we.") What other verbal patterns are there?

Grammatical: Grammatical patterns are found in placement of punctuation or repetition of similar grammatical units (ie: two lines with similar use of independent clauses). This also includes syntactical function ("function" meaning: does the sentence ask a question, make a statement etc...(this is with grammatical patterns because of the fact that they end with a specific punctuation)). We also include conventions such as capitalization, italics, boldfacing etc. here. In the Poe poem above note his convention (developed very well by the end of the poem) of beginning lines with prepositional phrases, most often "of" phrases.

Syntactical: Syntactical pattern arises when two or more sentences have similar verbal and grammatical patterns (thus making them seems similar in content and construction), have similar length or repeat identically the same sentence. The line "A wind blew out of a cloud by night" in stanza three line three, and the line "That the wind came out of a cloud, chilling" in stanza four line five, are an obvious syntactical repetition— with the variation in the fourth stanza putting emphasis on the word "chilling." In some ways, building from the smallest elements to the largest, it seems obvious that a combination of verbal and grammatical pattern leads to syntactical pattern.

Linear: Patterns that occur in the line are found primarily in how the line ends and visually how far the lines extends. The first aspect of linear pattern looks at whether the line is end-stopped, end-paused or enjambed. An end-stopped line ends with hard punctuation, typically a period, comma, dash or semi-colon. An end-paused line is one that breaks between phrases. Enjambed lines break the phrase and often contain internal punctuation. Thus instead of:

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of ANNABEL LEE;—

which has 2 end-stopped lines, an end-paused line and then an end-stopped line, we might have:

It was many and
many a year ago, in
a kingdom by
the sea, that a maiden there
lived whom you may
know by the name of
ANNABEL LEE;—

which has all enjambed lines (except the last). Visually, the ends of the end-stopped lines are obvious (by recognition of punctuation), and the visual difference between the end-paused and enjambed lines is that often, because the enjambment breaks against the phrase, a line will end with a preposition, article or conjunction, as happens in the enjambed example above. The second aspect of linear pattern involves how far the lines extend visually on the page. This may or may not relate to the aural pattern (a line with many beats might be very short visually, or vice versa). Take, for example, the fact that the third and the fifth lines in the first stanza of Poe's poem both extend to a nearly equal length toward the right margin.

Stanzaic: A regular or repetitive number of lines within a poem's stanzas is the first order of stanzaic pattern. The second is the combination of verbal, grammatical, syntactical and linear elements that fall in common locations from stanza to stanza.

On the first order of stanzaic pattern, we can say that a poem that has, say, regular four line stanzas throughout or that goes back and forth between a four line and a five line stanza has stanzaic visual pattern. But also keeping with the notion of serial pattern, as well, we must admit that a poem that goes from a two line stanza to a three line stanza to a four line stanza (or any such pattern, the possibilities are endless) has serial stanzaic visual patterning. Poe uses stanzaic variations throughout to show emphasis. He first establishes a six line stanza in the first two stanzas, varies it in the third stanza, returns to it in the fourth, varies it slightly in the fifth and then departs wildly from it in the sixth.

The second order of stanzaic pattern is the combination of verbal, grammatical, syntactical and linear elements that fall in common locations from stanza to stanza. So if we look at the first two stanzas:

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of ANNABEL LEE;—
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

She was a child and I was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

we can point out that (and again, this is by no means exhaustive) there is grammatical pattern that carries across both stanzas (thus making it also a stanzaic rather than a simply grammatical pattern) in the repeated commas at the ends of lines one and two in both stanzas, as well as the dash in line four of both (and the variation of the dash in line three of the second stanza). The repeated phrase "In a kingdom by the sea," in the second line of each stanza is a syntactical pattern as well as a stanzaic pattern because it is repeated across stanzas (it would be simple a syntactical pattern if it occurred within the same stanza). The repetition of the name Annabell Lee in the forth line of both stanzas is a verbal pattern made across stanzas, thus leading to a stanzaic pattern (although the change from all caps to standard capitalization in the second stanza is a grammatical variation).

Sectional: In a multi-sectioned poem, the patterns made by all of the above elements throughout the sections can make a consistent pattern. If we wrote a poem with sections and each section consisted of four three-lined stanzas ("tersets"), each with all lines end-stopped, every sentence being declarative, every sentence beginning with a preposition...this would show a tremendous amount of sectional pattern. Obviously "Annabel Lee" is not a sectioned poem, and therefore doesn't provide an example of this type of pattern. For some of the best examples of this type of pattern and variation, look into Joseph Brodsky's longer, sectioned poems.

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