Word For/Word [ Issue 17: Summer, 2010 ] [ Previous ] [ Next ] [ Notes ]

Irving Weiss

Emblematics: Introduction

Emblematics are picture-poems based on the historical emblem form of attaching a motto, epigram, or verses beneath an image in biblical picture books, broadsheets, and other types of popular print, to illustrate or explain the picture. My kind of picture, however, is a mass-media advertisement or news photograph cutout set above a quotation from a traditional English-language poem that in some way can extend implications in the picture above it without trying to explain it literally.


My purpose is to make the closed form of traditional verse metrics draw insinuations of meaning out of the open and diffuse forms of mass media print rhetoric.


All poetry, traditional or otherwise, is rhetorical in attempting to persuade but is primarily meant to be enjoyed as an esthetic form. The poems I quote from, the texts under the pictures, were chosen not because of their distinction but to show by example how the indissoluble form and content that defines poetry as an art can draw out the invisible drift in mass media ads or photos.


Advertisements and news photographs are almost entirely rhetorical contrivances made and paid for to in­fluence and persuade. But they rely on artistry, de­sign, and devices of modernist esthetics, such as irony and ambiguity, surrealistic juxtapositions, dream imagery, vernacular language, deliberate carelessness, and the often unexpected intermingling of graphics, text, and page-placement made possible by print technology. Print advertising since the mid-19th century has been a foraging technology.


Poems in strict verse form may be historically out of fashion, but as esthetic objects they are meant to be read separately, word by word in syntac­tical order, matching content to form, and they assume the reader’s compliance; whereas the commercial items vie for attention with each other in the same publication, using the latest stylistics in print technique, hoping desperately to keep the reader from turning the page.  

The verses address us on their own terms; they are exactly what they appear to be on the page and as works of art they ask to be read thought­fully. The mass-media print, for all its artful and provoca­tive lures, contains more information than its makers put there. Latent, shadowy, seductive but intrinsic information. Why so? Because there is always something human and social flowing through the customs, rituals, symbols, and fashions that both we and the commercial artists, copywriters, and news photographers share, whether we know it or not, in our transactions with each other. Because mass-media rhetoric draws upon the moral and esthetic reserves of the entire culture, even though the messages try to exclude everything beyond the aim of their propaganda.


We are supposed to look at an advertisement or news photograph exactly as the publication wants us to. It overdetermines its message because it anticipates our lax attention and indifference.


What happens, however, if we use the picture as part of a collaged emblem by putting a strictly formal poem of any kind below it as a legend to read it by?  The poem can’t possibly identify and explain, but if carefully chosen it can emphasize, allude to, bring to the surface and suggest connections. The clever but ephemeral flashiness of the ad or photo is magnetized by the poem and cannot avoid mythic implications the commercial artists may never have intended or even expected it to contain.


My premise is, of course, that all art of any kind, traditional or modern, highbrow or lowbrow, or postmodern catchall, is essentially mythic because it derives from basic types of human experience.


This kind of emblematic arranging may be the closest we can get to realize why mass-print visuals have such a strong hold on our imaginations even when we think we despise them.