UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers

A Short History of Pattern Poetry
Dick Higgins

from Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature, State University of New York Press, 1987

Dick Higgins' Audio Works on UbuWeb Sound Poetry
Dick Higgins' Visual Works in UbuWeb Historical

0NCE UPON A TIME there was a form that wasn't a form; perhaps it was a tribe. The story of pattern poetry is, in fact, not the story of a single development or of one simple form, but the story of an ongoing human wish to combine the visual and literary impulses, to tie together the experience of these two areas into an aesthetic whole. Pattern poetry did not originate in any one simple situation or even century, as, for example, the opera did in the late sixteenth century in Florence and elsewhere in Italy. it is, rather, a maze within a maze covered over with obscurity, an attempt which recurs century after century to make the synthesis, in almost every Western literature and many Eastern ones. To those who attempt this synthesis, something of the picture of the whole seems crucially important. A visual poem has always suggested its own traditions, but to make a tradition the artist cannot feel that he or she is operating without any precedent - there must always be a trajectory through time, even when the entire story is not known. So it is that in the 1950s and 1960s the concrete poets were intensely conscious of their antecedents in dada and futurism, and, for all their apparent anti-intellectualism, the dadaists and futurists felt themselves in an iconoclastic tradition which included visual poetry somewhere in the background. For example, Waldemar Deonna, who wrote one of the early studies of pattern poetry in 1926, also published a good number of works in futurist publications. And each wave of pattern poets drew on at least some knowledge of earlier pattern poetry. Even those works which appear to come at the very beginnings of pattern poetry cannot be stated definitely as being beginnings; we can only say that no earlier ones have survived.

Pattern poetry is extremely hard to define, since it is no one thing. But it is, at least, both visual and literary art -visual poetry. The visual poetry of the twentieth century is rather well known, and its subclasses -concrete poetry, poesia visiva, parole in libertà, etc. - are fairly clearly defined. For the moment it will suffice to define pattern poetry in very general terms as visual poetry from before the twentieth century but in any Western literature. That there is visual poetry in non-Western literatures is not surprising, since, as I have mentioned, it seems to be so universal a tendency to attempt the synthesis of visual and literary experience. Some discussion of the citra-Kavyas of India and Burma and of the hui-wen of China appears in Chapter Three, which is devoted to the visual poetries elsewhere than in European literatures; in addition, we have attached as an appendix an article by Dr. Herbert Franke, currently President of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, dealing with the Chinese materials, which are not at all well known in the West.

Pattern poetry is itself a fairly modern concept; the origin of the term is unknown, but it appeared some time in the nineteenth century, along with the synonymous term, "shaped poetry." How the earlier pattern poets felt about their work, how they saw it as fitting into the whole of literature or art, is largely unknown, though we shall deal with this too in due course. But it seems unlikely that the renaissance or baroque poets would have been happy with simply isolating what we call pattern poems from their cognates in sound poetry and analogous forms. The forms associated with pattern poetry -leonine verse, proteus poems, and various kinds of inchoate sound poetry, for instance-are not always visual. But in many cases, the poets who did them composed pattern poetry as well. They seem to have had some sense of these being alternate forms of poetry, intended to enrich the fabric of poetry as a whole (and perhaps of visual art). In addition, the distinction between poetry and prose is not always a binding one. Thus, there is a tradition of shaped prose as well as of shaped poetry. And there are even graphic musical notations-one would be tempted to call them pattern notations-which are part of the picture of the analogues of pattern poetry.

Too, the terminology associated with pattern poetry is hard to make consistent; it is unfamiliar enough that virtually every critic who has attempted to describe pattern poetry and its subforms means something different from every other critic using the same terms. A glossary is therefore given with the appendices, to which we refer the reader who wants to clarify the special terminology used in the text. But we should repeat once more that there is, in fact, no consensus on what the terms mean. I have tried to use a common sense approach in this regard, inventing no terms of my own but repeating a sort of statistical averaging of what others seems to mean by this or that term.

The theoretical implications of pattern poetry and the questions which it raises, the problems of what our ignorance and understanding of the subject mean-these things cannot really be dealt with until enough material has been gone over to make our theorizing appropriate. The questions cannot be posed in vacuo without seeming more abstruse than they are or quite irrelevant; or, equally bad, "for specialists only," which is damning in a subject in which there are almost no actual specialists and in which the work should be of interest to anyone who wishes to understand whatever it is about our visual and literary experience which pattern poetry can explain.

Pattern poetry is far, far more widespread than most people realize. One hears it said that there are, perhaps, one hundred pattern poems. But everyone who knows any of them seems to know a different hundred from everyone else. The French scholar knows the French materials, the German scholar the German ones, and, while most scholars know at least the most famous group of pieces, those that have come down to us from Hellenistic times, in the medieval collections known as the "Greek Anthology" or the "Planudian Manuscript," most scholars do not know many pieces apart from their various individual disciplines. And almost nobody seems to know very many of the pieces in the largest group of all, that in Neo-Latin poetry. In fact, we have collected some fourteen hundred or so pieces in the various Western literatures. Desirable though it might be to prepare and anthology of all known pattern poems, it would be economically unfeasible; thus, we must leave these listings raw, as it were, giving only a small number of illustrations that show the various genres and subgenres.

The story of pattern poetry is, as I have said, a complex and ambiguous one, complicated by its overall obscurity. The story has been told mostly without regard to the field as a whole, by specialists of one kind or another, in spite of the fact that the larger public, when confronted by some actual pieces, tends to find them interesting or at least exciting.

The earliest known pieces that are possibly pattern poems are the two texts on the faces of the "Phaistos Disk," a modest-sized grey disk from roughly 1700 B.C. which is in the Heraklion Museum on Crete. These are certainly spiral-shaped and they are certainly texts, but are they poetry? Since they are written in Minoan A, which has not been deciphered, this question cannot be answered with any degree of certainty. However, one can say that it is unlikely that they are prose in any mundane sense, business letters for instance, since it is most improbable that straight prose would be arrayed in a spiral form. Furthermore, the distinction between prose and poetry is not always applicable to very early writings. For example, the Hebrew Bible is often poetic prose to the extent of seeming like what we today call prose poems. So it seems to be with many such early texts. Another thing which should be noted about the Phaistos Disk is, however, that its origin is uncertain. Nothing is known from Crete which resembles it, thus raising the possibility that it was brought, at some unknown point, to Crete from wherever it was made. Therefore, it is best thought of as some sort of enigmatic forerunner of a more substantial group of pieces.

These are the six Hellenistic Greek pattern, evidently composed between 325 B.C. and A.D. 200, and shaped as two altars, an egg, a pair of wings, an axe, and a syrinx. Very little is known about the poets, though none is anonymous; only Theocritus is at all well-known, and the dates of the others remain somewhat controversial; the pieces have never been truly unknown to those who would seek them out. One does not feel, when one reads them, as if they were innovative or avant-garde in their time. Rather, they seem like surviving texts from a lost tradition of some kind. This does not seem unlikely, since they all come down to us from the "Greek anthology," which was compiled some time in the early Middle Ages by unknown editors as poems which were acceptable to the church, probably to be used as reading materials for those few who studied Greek at that time. Except for the piece by Theocritus, the poems are all religious, perhaps intended to serve some mystical or magical function. It has been speculated that these five were originally texts intended to be inscribed on sacred objects.

The fact that we have no entire pattern poem from Classical Latin literature does not mean that none existed, merely that none has survived. In fact, Laevius (first century A.D.) is known to have written a phoenix-shaped piece which only survives in a fragment quoted in a later work, described in section 11 of our Chapter Two. In addition, there are several pieces in Greek, but from Rome, carved in marble between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50, known as "tabulae iliacae" because their faces depict scenes from Homer's Iliad. Nothing is known about the sculptor but his name, Theodoros, which appears on one of the pieces. They are described in detail in the section on labyrinths in Chapter Five. The texts, which appear on the backs, are permutational, evidently intended to serve some magical function. They closely resemble cabalistic texts that date from a much later period.

But there are twenty-five pattern poems by Optatian (fl. A.D. 325), rectangles for the most part, sometimes called "carmina quadrata," with secondary texts within the body of the main one, cancelled out from the background (so that they are also "carmina cancellata"); because these texts include other texts, the interior texts are also called "intexti" or " intexts," and they are also "mesostics" in that some inner array of letters forms such an intext. As for Optatian, he probably came from Africa, and his poems are panegyrics, praises of Constantine the Great. They must have pleased the Emperor because he appointed Optatian to be his court poet around A.D. 325.

We now come to one of the typical aspects of pattern poetry, which is its characteristic function of serving very specific social purposes as occasional verse. Occasional verse has a bad reputation, since most of us assume that poetry is intended only to serve eternity. But the very fact that a pattern poem is visual, that it evokes shapes which are suitable as commemorative objects, means that it was recognized as adding to its subject in some way a visual dimension which is perhaps comparable to the function of allusion that is so much at the heart of our traditional verse. It somehow reduces the sense of datedness and triviality which occasional verse is apt to evoke. We will see this again most notably when we get to baroque pattern poetry. Nobody would argue that Optatian was one of the great Latin poets; he simply isn't. His language is rather flat and extravagant, his imagery opaque. But that he is remembered at all is probably due to his visually striking works. In their original form, according to the scholia in the Kluge and Polara editions, the pieces were executed in precious metal letters on dark blue or purple backgrounds. But unfortunately they have not survived in that form, so that the extent of their visual appeal in their original form cannot be measured. Rather, they survive in several manuscripts of a much later date, the rest given in Polara (1971) and Optatian (1973). And even here, our usual experience of the pieces is similarly inadequate, because usually we see the poems in typeset versions which are less visually striking than they would be in manuscript. Thus, the extent of their visual effectiveness is difficult to measure, and it is unfair to judge them by their literary quality alone. One of the pieces, "Carmen XIX," is a carmen cancellaturn of a trireme with sailes; what can it have looked like in the original? "Carmen XV" is an organ, with its right hand side forming a sort of syrinx effect. "Carmen XXVI" is an altar. Do these last two indicate that there was any degree of consciousness on the poet's part that the Hellenistic Greeks had found the syrinx and altar suitable shapes for their own pattern poems? We can only speculate, but it could form the evidence of a tradition.

The cross in Gardthausen (1913, 2: 60-1), probably from the fifth century, is the earliest known cruciform poem. There are also a goodly number of anonymous Greek and Latin minor pieces from the early Christian period. But the next major pattern poet is Venantius Fortunatus (ca. 540-600), one of the principle writers of the Merovingian Frankish kingdom. He composed three surviving rectangular carmina cancellata, and one cruciform poem in which the text seems to be only a formality needed to flesh in the whole as a symbolic or ceremonially evocative entity; that the piece has come down to us as one of the most consistently popular of pattern poems, surviving into the nineteenth century in German where it was worn as a good luck talisman and called the "Thom askreuz. " Since Venantius is also the author of other, more traditional hymns and poems which show an excellent poetic sense, it is not reasonable to suppose that he did not know what he was doing when he departed from normative poetry into pattern poetry, and since the poetry of his time is virtually all extremely conservative, one suspects he knew many pattern poems which have not survived. Venantius is also the first pattern poet whose works do not display any reference to the Hellenistic Greek pieces. Of course, he may well have known some of them; but his shapes do not duplicate theirs, though they do seem somewhat similar to Optatian's. In Venantius, we really enter mediaeval literature.

Passing over such minor works as a carmen cancellaturn by Winifried (St. Boniface, (680-755) and a modest cruciform. poem by the Lombard poet and historian Paul the Deacon (ca. 720-97), the next important group of pattern poems comes from the Carolingian period, by Alcuin (775-804), Charlemagne's tutor, byJosephus Scottus (ninth century); and others. The first highlight of this body of materials is the De laudibus sanctae crucis of Hrabanus Maurus (784-856), abbot of Fulda and a formidable poet, who wrote the Roman Catholic hymn for Pentecost, "Veni creator spiritus," whose ecstatic flavor Gustav Mahler catches perfectly in his setting of it in the first movement of his Symphony No. 8. For those familiar with this setting, the quality of Hrabanus's thirty carmina cancellata in the De laudlibus will come as no surprise. They are joyful meditations covering the principal points of the Christian faith as Hrabanus saw them. The intexts are rather simple, almost in the nature of inscriptions and formulae; the poetry is in the field texts from which the intexts emerge, and in the relationship between the two. In addition, the original work survives in at least three exquisite manuscript versions, both equally valuable, detailed in part two of our Latin section. Unfortunately, many people know these pieces only from typeset versions in which the visual dimension is greatly reduced; thus, we should be extremely skeptical of criticism of the pieces which does not reflect some knowledge specifically of one or the other manuscript version, two of which have been published, the one in facsimile and the other in black and white.

Following Hrabanus's time, carmina cancellata slowly wane, with only a very few pieces being known from the tenth century, though these include the exquisite pieces by a monk from Riojas province in Spain, Vigila de Albeda (Vigil), who made five magnificent carmina cancellata that are almost unknown; fortunately, they have been reprinted recently.

The eleventh century is close to being a void, with only one Latin piece by Pierre Abélard (see Frontz's), plus a Greek one for the Emperess Eudocia Macrenbolitissa. However, the gap begins to be filled in the twelfth century with the first known Hebrew pattern poems, the tree by Abraham ben Ezra (d. 1167) and the pieces by the two Abul Afias, Abraham ben Samuel AbulAfia (1240-ca. 1291) and Tadros Abul Afia (d. after 1298), the latter of whom composed another tree, while the former wrote a series of circular pieces which are cabalistic permutations of a simple text. With the appearance of the trees we have the first natural form that we know definitely to have been introduced since the Greeks. One might speculate that this is due to the influence of Hebrew micrographic texts, a genre of work which was new at that time. These are pieces in which a text is chosen, usually from the law or some other part of the Jewish Bible, and is then shaped into a brilliant visual display, with phoenixes, dragons, knights and other beings -- or sometimes simply ingenious geometrical formations. These works cannot be considered pattern poems, since either the poet was not responsible for the visual element or the artist was not responsible for the poem. But the works are splendid in their own right. The tradition appears to have originated in the levant in the ninth century and to have spread westward through Italy, finally dying out in the sixteenth century in Spain and Portugal. Also in the thirteenth century we find a copy of Hrabanus Maurus's "De laudibus . . ." was made by the Nürnberg scribe Berthold, indicating that the knowledge of earlier visual poetry remained alive. This is important if one wishes to argue for the continuity of pattern poetry.

Now we come to Nicolò de' Rossi (ca. 1290-ca. 1348), who wrote what may be the earliest pattern poems in any modern language, his "Canzone 247" and "248" (see Fig. 2.38). While it would be foolish to assert that the two pieces are definitely influenced by Sanskrit citra-kavyas, still the special characteristics of the pieces are significant enough and similar enough to these that they are at the very least a remarkable instance of parallel development. In Western pattern poetry, the poem normally stands alone; in the citra-kavyas, the piece is usually given twice, once visually and once in a linear transcription, as are de' Rossi's. The shapes of the poems suggest a necklace and a fourteen-spoke wheel, both unknown in pattern poetry but both common in citra-kavyas. De' Rossi says in his scholia that the pieces represent a star and an arch, but they do not look like either. While direct cultural influence on Italy from India was minimal at this time, we might speculate that the poet saw some manuscript which worked its way to Italy, recognized the pieces as interesting, even if he could not read what they said, tried his hand at similar pieces, and then, concerned that they not be acknowledged as pagan, might have called them whatever images seemed most acceptable. Poets have been doing such things since time immemorial. And, even if the pieces are not influenced by the citra-kavyas, they are at least very strikingly parallel.

Later in the fourteenth century we find the florid and startling poetic experiments of Jacobus Nicholae de Dacia (Jakob Nielsen, fl. 1363-79) a Dane who, around 1363, produced the "Liber de distinccione metrorum." This work, which exists in two manuscripts, "Ms. Cotton Claudius A XIV" at the British Library and "Ms Latin 10323" at the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris, and which was published in 1967 in an edition by Aage Kabell, includes a triangle, a series of concentric squares, a geometrical construction on squares (see Fig. 2.25), a complex star, and a wheel with concentric circles --all new shapes to pattern poetry. The work also includes some startling experiments in alliteration which approach being sound poetry. The whole work revels in novel forms. The fourteenth century was a time of great change in the arts, with the musica antiqua being gradually replaced by the musica nova and with the earliest graphic musical notations also dating from this time, with medieval painting being replaced by renaissance painting, and it is not surprising that Jacobus should participate in this change. Also during the fourteenth century, one finds some magnificent shaped prose, such as the anonymous "Cln 7960" manuscript in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in München, which include six similar urns or jars and one archway, meditations on the John II, 6 in the New testament. Other striking examples of early shaped prose, some Byzantine examples and the Liber figurali of Joachim de Fiore (1132 -1202).

The fifteenth century was perhaps less inclined towards formal innovation than the fourteenth, and, correspondingly, there are almost no known pattern poems, only the "Litera Pythagora" by Janus Parmonius (1432-72), a Y-shaped poem, and perhaps Enec, Silvio Piccolomini's labryinth (if it is authentic), but rather little else in actual poetry. However, a good deal of shaped prose was produced from the devotional cross of Catherina Regina von Greiffenberg (1633-94), to the pastorales of Johann Helwig (1609-74), Georg Philipp Harsdiérffer (1607 -58), Johann Klai ("Klajus," 1616-56) and their circle, to the many chalices ("Pokals") and hearts composed for weddings and crosses for funerals, some of which are, from a literary point of view, about on the level of greeting card poetry, but some of which are fine and sensitive verse; even those which are inferior poetry are often of linguistic or social interest, as documents of the language and formal sensibility of their times or as indicators of the poetic taste of the middle class, since, especially in Germany, the taste for pattern poetry was not confined to the literati or upper classes but was a bourgeois phenomenon as well.

In the Slavic literatures, Polish and Czech literature have the most pattern poems. Most of the Polish materials are in Latin, most of the Czech ones in German or Latin, reflecting the preferred languages of the elites in those countries. But there are also pattern poems in Russian and Ukrainian; . n the latter, notably a small number of extremely fine pieces by a mystical poet, Ivan Velickovskij (1687-1726) who demonstrates his awareness of earlier pattern poetry traditions by including, on the cover of one of his manuscripts, the "Enigma of Sator" (see Fig. 2-5), an anonymous Latin word square probably dating from the second century A.D., which was often treated as a pattern poem rather than as a charm (as which it may have been intended).

The Jesuit order had a long-standing tradition of supporting pattern poems; there are collections of them published or collected by Jesuit academies in Neo-Latin, such as the Carmina libri quatour discessuro Lemensium comite… (1616) edited by Pedro Fernandez in our Neo-Latin section, the Polish Latin pieces for Henryk Firley "Leopardus" (1624, see Fig. 2. 10), and the Neo-Latin and Neo-Greek pieces in Sylvae ... (1592) from France. The tradition continued into the late eighteenth century with the "Necrologbilcher" from Hungarian literature (see Fig. 2.31). These were books in which the deaths of students in the Jesuit schools were recorded, and pattern poems were occasionally written into these in their memory, presumably by their fellow students.

In Italy, most of the pattern poetry was written in Latin - for example, the most famous Italian piece of the sixteenth century, the pear-shaped poem of 1549 of Giovanni Pierio Valeriano Bolzano (1477-1558), known as "Plerius" (which resembles "pirus," the Latin word for "peartree"-so that the body of pieces in Italian itself is rather scant. Most important, however, are two actual groups of pattern poets. One was in the north, in the Veneto in the 1620s, and it included Bonifacio Baldissare (ca. 1570-1625), Fortunio Liceti (1577-1654), and their mycaenas, Domenico Molino. Baldissare's pieces based on the Molino coat of arms are of very high quality (see Figs. 2.14 through 2.17), and, while Liceti wrote rather few pattern poems himself and these of indifferent quality, he wrote a number of extraordinarily detailed books on most of the Greek and Latin pattern poems, comparing surviving versions and, in general, offering a startling hermeneutic analysis of the pieces.

The second group developed at Rome in the middle of the century, and it included Francesco Passerini (1619-95) and Juan Caramuel de Lobkowitz (1602-82), a Cistercian monk, born of a Spanish father and a Bohemian mother, who lived most of his life travelling for his order and inspecting buildings. Most of his published works deal with ecclesiastical architecture, but the two Primus calamus books are linguistic or aesthetic studies. The second of the two is less interesting from our point of view, dealing as it does with a proposed synthetic and universal language. But the first, known as the "Metametrica," which is short for its title, . . . Primus calamus ob oculos ponens metametricam, quae vards currentium, recurrentium, abscendentium, descendentium nec non circumvolantium versuum ductibus, aut aeriincisos aut buxo insculptos aut plumbo infusos multiformes labyrinthos exornat (1663), contains more than twenty rectangular or circular poems which Caramuel sees as labyrinths, as well as descriptions and speculations on all the sorts of unusual forms of verse he can find out about-leonine verse, anagrams, echo poems, and so forth. He even proposes some poetries which did not then exist-spherical and cubical verse, for instance. This work is the high point of the various poetics which discuss pattern poetry, such as those by Julius Caesar Scaliger (1561), Etienne Tabourot (1588), and George Puttenham (1587, this last already discussed), or the many German poetics which prescribe shapes and sometimes give examples.

Such groups were not unknown elsewhere in Europe either; we have mentioned the group in the mid- seventeenth -century Germany -Harsdörffer, Helwig, Klaj[us] et al. Another such group developed in Danzig, modern Gdansk, and elsewhere in Prussia.

Pattern poetry receded in popularity in the face of neoclassic taste. It was associated with baroque (or earlier) poetry, and, as the heroic couplets and alexandrines become predominant in poetry, the pattern poems become fewer. One might speculate that the neoclassic arts were suitable for the grand mercantilism and colonialism of the time, while pattern poetry was specifically unsuited for an art that was based upon power. But that is not for us to say. Suffice to say that it was never the predominant mode and that there were violent attacks upon it in each age in which it occurred; furthermore, since the history of any poetry is always to some extent the history of responses to it, the antagonism which it aroused continued great during the colonial era, so that it fell into disrepute in one literature after another, eventually, by the nineteenth century, surviving only in comic, folk, or popular verse.

Already in the sixteenth century Michel de Montaigne (1533 -92) attacked pattern poems in his "Des vaines subtilités" ("Of vain subtleties," 1967, 136):