Beyond Words: Experimental Poetry & the Avant-Garde

Friday, August 30th, 2019 - Sunday, December 15th, 2019

Words are at the heart and soul of poetry. Whether summoned in hours of deep contemplation, snatched from momentary flashes of inspiration, or allowed to tumble out freely in the absence of conscious intervention, words combine to give a poem shape and substance: in the mind, the voice, on the page. From traditional lines of alexandrine verse to the latest experimental forms, they remain the essential element, carriers of sense, sound, cadence, meaning. So what is poetry beyond words?

The works in this exhibition challenge us to ask that question. How? Not necessarily by leaving words behind, though some of them certainly do this too. Lettrist hypergraphies blast the written word to bits. Not even vowels and consonants are safe in Gil Wolman’s megapneumies, or the cri-rythmes of François Dufrêne, or the recording sessions of Henri Chopin. But in most cases words abound, giving shape and substance to nearly all the compositions of experimental poetry here on display. Just as words have always done in poetry? Not quite. Even when they seem to make up the entire poem, words are by no means the only (or often even the primary) compositional element. Typography, layout, color (of ink or paint), even the material supports on which these words appear (paper, canvas, wood, iron, magnetic tape, to name a few) all come into play. But don’t such elements belong to words? Aren’t they simply part of them, an incidental part at that, subordinate but necessary for words to take concrete physical form and hence be read or heard? Well, no. Typography, layout, ink, material supports may be necessary for words to appear on a page, but they can also be deployed for other purposes, even at cross purposes, striking out at words, challenging their sense, altering or entirely subverting their meaning. By taking them up as compositional elements in their own right, experimental poets and artists of the avant-garde ask us to explore possibilities for creative expression in the purely visual, aural, tactile qualities of physical media. They ask us to look beyond words.

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
121 Wall Street

New Haven, CT

41.3116267, -72.9272259