In his book, The Poem’s Heartbeat, Alfred Corn likens the composition of poetry to the process of weaving. He writes,”The word line comes from the Latin word for linen. Lines of poetry form a weave like that of a textile. Text and textile have same origins as well.” Poetry is essentially a literary work composed in meter, which is a controlled pattern of relative syllabic stresses that traditionally falls into some kind of pattern. Like a heartbeat. As someone who enjoyed but never quite understood poetry, I thought that it would be an interesting exploration to create a physical representation based on the concept of poetry as textile and meter as heartbeat.
In particular, I wanted to take a closer look at series of poems written by ee cummings. I had recently discovered his “experiments” poems, which he wrote as graduate fresh out of Harvard in 1917 while waiting to hear back from employers. At that time, the typewriter had just emerged on the scene as the hottest new technology. Cummings, who was fascinated by the work of a poet by the name of Ezra Pound (known for his unconventional meter and line spacings), saw the typewriter as a tool to push the boundaries even further. Though he also wrote traditional poetry (he was a big fan of the sonnet), he is most well known for his lack of capital letters, odd punctuations, and some nonsensical, almost unintelligible compositions. I found this story of young ee cummings fascinating and inspiring because he sounded like, well, an ITP student. If ITP was around in the late 1910s and instead of ICM, there was a typewriter class, I’m certain that his experimental poetry would have been jaw-dropping Spring Show material. He rebelled against rules and convention, took risks, saw potential in new technologies and succeeded in doing what he was most passionate about. And I’m almost certain that the jobs he was applying for at the time had nothing to do with poetry.
My visualization looks at 8 of the 10 experimental poems. The yellow/orange threads essentially link the relatively stressed syllables together, while the secondary color links the unstressed syllables, thus illustrating the meter of each poem. I also laser etched the words on plexiglass frames exactly as Cummings intended for them to appear on a page, for reference and integrity. Each piece is been purposefully displayed sideways so that the representation of the meter by thread resembles that of an EKG. Though maybe not what one would consider a typical data visualization, I thought my personal experiment with the “experiments” turned out quite successfully.