What is Abstract Poetry?
Abstract is a term used to describe poetry where the aural quality is of equal or greater importance than the meaning.
The term abstract poetry came into use in the 1920s, when English poet Dame Edith Sitwell coined the phrase to describe the work she had begun writing. Stillwell was noted for her capacity for rebellion, emerging as one of the foremost social poets of her day.
Initially drawing upon the works of T. S. Elliot and W. B. Yeats, Sitwell was born into a noted literary family. Her father was a antiquarian writer, and her brothers, Sir Osbert and Sir Sacheverell Sitwell, would also enjoy success in the fields of journalism, poetry and art critique, though it is Edith Sitwell who may have been the most influential within her field.
Sitwell performed ‘Façade’ for the first time in 1922 with musical accompaniment written by William Walton, a distinguished composer. Response was hostile. Sitwell recalls being forced “to hide behind the curtain. An old lady was waiting to beat me with an umbrella.”
In spite of this, Sitwell embarked on a period of wild experimentation, stressing the importance of sound in poetry, radically opposed to the movement of Imagism, led by Ezra Pound. In this regard, Sitwell could be considered the earliest contemporary ‘Performance Poet,’ though this term was not in use until the 1980s. Poets had performed their work for centuries but Sitwell’s focus on the aural quality of the work—instead of the meaning—can still be felt today in the work of many performers.
In 1949, while in New York, Sitwell performed ‘Façade’ to high acclaim, and in retrospect, her work is often overshadowed by its legacy. During this post-war period, Sitwell displayed a great degree of technical mastery and spirituality. She became a Dame in 1954.
Sitwell was far from the only abstract poet however, and many argue that the roots of this form lie in ancient oral poetry traditions. The Dadaists and Futurists had begun experimenting with audio effects, writing compositions that concentrated on pure sound.
Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti had discovered that onomatopoeia was useful to describe the Battle of Tripoli, in which he had served as a military reporter, having already established himself as a writer of merit. His work resembled more transcriptions of the sound of battle than any other war poetry.
The Dadaists explored sound as a medium more abstractly, beginning with Hugo Ball, often thought of as the founder of Dada, when he introduced his ‘Verse Without Words’ at a Cabaret Voltaire in 1926. The Dadaists would create a number of sub genres of sound poem, including Bruitist Poetry, which was fairly similar to the Futurist poems, Simultaneous Poetry, in which a work was recited by multiple speakers in multiple languages at the same time, and Movement Poetry, in which the poetry was accompanied by primitive movement that could not quite be considered dance.
While much is made of the male poets of the early 20th Century, abstract poetry has enjoyed an immense feminine influence, with a number of notable and successful women writers in the field including Else Lasker-Schüler and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
Abstract poetry is not a prescribed form. There are no rules to adhere to. Instead, the onus is on moving beyond words to create something within the context of writing and performing that uses those mediums as tools but is not bound by them.
In many ways, abstract poetry is akin to Avant Garde musical composition—musical notations that seek to move away from conventional musical theory.
An aspiring writer of abstract poetry may wish to record themselves attempting to make a sound no one has ever made before, inventing new words or cutting out letters from magazines and arranging them randomly and reciting the resulting chaos.
To ascribe a purpose to abstract poetry seems to miss the purpose. With each new composition, the purpose is invented anew, thus one poem could be intend to recreate the sound of a dripping tap, to explore the mundanity of domestic life, while another may attempt to mimic cannons to illustrate the horrors of war, or to invent new words to describe the uniqueness of an individual’s experience of existence.
I would advise not simply making sounds for the sake of it, unless that itself is the acknowledged point. Consider the why, and then decide whether the experimentation has been successful at capturing that.
© 2019 Connor Sansby
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Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.