Select an exhibit case to explore:

Written language is by its very nature a visual medium, as consideration of Egyptian hieroglyphics, European runic alphabets, and other early writing systems makes apparent. In these early alphabets, the "letters" are pictures of common objects, or abstract designs, representing vocal sounds. The same is still true of all present-day written languages, even though we do not tend to think of them this way.

In so-called "visual" poetry, the visual aspect extends beyond the letters themselves. The words formed by the letters still read as poetry, but the shapes and arrangements of those words and letters give the poetry additional meanings and resonances. In a visual poem, the physical layout of the writing is as important to the overall work as the meanings of the words used.

Visual poetry has existed since the dawn of written language. In classical Greek and Roman times, it was associated at first with magic, and later with spirituality. Via Christianity, visual poetry developed into a political genre through the Middle Ages. The Renaissance saw a new expansion of subject matter in visual poetry, and poets of the media-saturated 19th and 20th centuries embraced it for its capacity to shock and surprise.

This exhibit begins with the earliest surviving visual poems (c. 325 B.C.E.) and continues chronologically from case to case, stopping just shy of the 21st century. There are surely new forms of visual poetry developing in our modern cyberculture; time and distance will allow us to recognize them as such.

All of the works in this exhibit are drawn from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's libraries and special collections. Special mention must be given to Dick Higgins' Pattern poetry: Guide to an unknown literature, an invaluable resource for anyone interested in exploring visual poetry further. (State University of New York press, 1987; Davis Library call #PN1455 .H54 1987.)

- -