On Representational Poetry

The painting at right, if you can call it that, is quite famous, but only in the right circles.

If you’re not already familiar with Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. then you may wonder why these are considered worthy of a museum wall. And if that’s the case, then you’re going to have to accept the critical construct from which their value is obtained.  That is, the artwork’s importance exists entirely within the critical framework from which it arose. Another way to think of it is that the artwork gives value to the critical construct, making the critical construct the work of art rather then the other way around and, in truth, much art of the 20th century probably falls under this rubric. “Modern” art never stopped being representative, but rather than immortalizing lovers, wealthy merchants or aristocrats, 20th century “abstract” artists immortalized ideas, values, schools of criticism and conceptualizations. The long and short of it is that without an appreciation of their historical and artistic context, Rauscheberg’s artwork is little more than nice canvasses on which to actually paint something. Or, to put it another way, without the accompanying essays explaining White Paintings, Rauschenberg’s work is meaningless. The same can’t be said for the Mona Lisa. No one disputes that the painting is of someone and it’s valuation can proceed from that alone (without a knowledge of DaVinci or the painting’s historical context).

The problem for poets is that poetry is about ideas and has been from the get go. But nothing kills a poem like turning it into a lineated five paragraph essay. 20th Century poets got around that (whether successfully is up for debate) by turning their poems into (to coin a phrase) Representational Poetry. I would prefer to call it Conceptual Poetry, but that parking place is already taken.  So, thinking big: One might divide poetry from the 20th century onward into Notional and Representational Poetry. By far the vast majority is the former.

Notional, among it’s other definitions, is defined as:

Consisting of, or conveying, notions or ideas; expressing abstract conceptions.

In, On a Definition of Poetry, I defined poetry as being more than it’s notional or semantic content. Poetry also emphasizes linguistic form, like rhyme or meter (as found in any Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme). Both traditional and free verse poems are notional but only traditional poetry emphasizes linguistic form. Representational Poetry, as I use the term, diminishes or entirely dispenses with the notional intent of language. You could think of Representational Poems as paintings painted with words. If Representational Poetry can be considered a continuum that starts where Notional Poetry breaks down, then I would argue that the most successful Representational Poet of the 20th century is John Ashbery.

He still uses recognizable words and one may understand individual phrasal units, but Ashbery disrupts any notional content with a kind of notional incongruence that defies the communication of a larger, consistent idea or notion. It’s probably not a coincidence that Ashbery’s most famous poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, is the best known because (if we accept close readings) it’s one of the few Ashbery poems that can be explained as a Notional rather than Representational poemwhich is to say, I have read analyses of Convex Mirror that explain the poem in terms of a congruent whole—as having a unified meaning. Another example of this sort of “weak” Representational Poetry, might be Chronic Meanings by Bob Perelman (under the rubric Language Poetry):

The phone is for someone.
The next second it seemed.
But did that really mean.
Yet Los Angeles is full.

Naturally enough I turn to.
Some things are reversible, some.
You don’t have that choice.
I’m going to Jo’s for. []

An example of “strong” Representational Poetry” might be what’s called Typographic Poetry (and I’m guessing that Concrete Poetry falls into this spectrum):


Wherein even the minimally notional content of syntactic units, such as we find in Ashbery, is dispensed with. A similar example of concrete poetry from here:

O Pulsar

O Pulsar (The Pulsar), 1975, Augusto de Campos

In keeping with the definition of Representational Poetry as poetry that discards the notional intent of language (or verbal significance), consider Wikipedia’s definition of Concrete Poetry: “an arrangement of linguistic elements in which the typographical effect is more important in conveying meaning than verbal significance.”


  • Representatoinal Poetry isn’t to be confused with Visual Poetry, Shape Poetry, Pattern Poetry or Picture Poetry (all being notional) which, if you’re the Poetry Foundation, is nevertheless precisely what you do. If you’re the Poetry Foundation, you call George Herbert’s “Easter Wings”, written in the 17th century, an example of 20th century “Concrete Poetry”.
  • The Princeton Encyclopedia defines Visual Poetry as follows: “In Visual Poetry, in the strict sense, the visual form of the text becomes an object for apprehension in its own terms…. Among devices for creating visual form that written language furnishes the poet [not available to oral poetry] are lineation, line length, line-grouping, indentation, intra- and inerlinear white space, punctuation, capitalization, and size and style of type. ¶ In general, the visual form of a poem may be figurative or non-figurative; if figurative, it may be mimetic or abstract.”
  • Free Verse is Visual Poetry in that free verse relies on its typographic appearance, unlike traditional poetry, to define it. Traditional poetry (arising from oral traditions rather than typographic traditions) relies on the audible effects of meter and rhyme to define it.
  • Representational Poetry is Visual Poetry that dispenses with the notional intent of langauge.

Representational poetry has far more in common with a Rauschenberg than Shakespeare. Appreciating the representational poetry means having a knowledge of the critical school and/or concepts which gave rise to it and which the poetry is “representing”. If you haven’t read up on Concrete Poetry, for example, then an example of the same is probably going to look like somebody’s bored doodling. That said, some representational poems can be appreciated as aesthetic works of art in and of themselves, as with “O Pulsar” (above) though, as a work of art, it may or may not be to your taste.

So, one reasons for this post is as a way to hang your hat on the efforts of an artist like Ashbery or de Campos. If you’re trying to read Ashbery as a notional poet, then it’s little wonder that your efforts will end in frustration if not exasperation. One commonly reads something to the effect that Ashbery’s lines should be allowed to wash over the reader like evocative abstractions. In other words, like art. We view art, we don’t try to read it.  That said, the purpose of language is to communicate. Full stop.

If one treats words,  phrases and language as a sort of painter’s pallet with which to turn pages into canvasses (divorcing words and phrases from any sort of notional congruence) then it’s a legitimate question as to whether such “poems” can be considered successful. But then that brings us back to the standards by which we judge such poems—as Notional or Representational? And if the latter, then that requires knowing something about the history behind the poetry. Like the blank canvass of a Rauschenberg, is the accompanying essay enough? To quote the critic William Logan:

“If we took poets at their own valuation and judged them by their own methods, every scribbler would be a genius.”

Do Representational Poems, like the blank canvasses of Rauschenberg, have any  legitimate value if judged by standards other than their own?—if judged by standards other than those that gave rise to and define them?

Only time will tell.

upinVermont | April 19th 2019


11 responses

  1. Your timing is fortuitous: I’ve arrived at the moment in Pushcart XLIII when I must deal with a John Ashbery poem. I’m scared. Thing is, I have a great fondness for Ashbery, since he was a central, and highly emotional, part of the ModPo mooc took a long time ago.
    I also have great fondness for what I call sort-of poetry, the kind of thing you’re discussing. I need to re-read your descriptions to be sure I’m categorizing correctly (oh, I love to categorize!).
    And the type of art that can only be understood by reading concept statements.
    What i don’t have at the moment is time. But I will be back to play.


    • Good luck. If one tries to read Ashbery’s poetry as notional poetry, then it falls apart. But for a handful of debatable exceptions, it simply doesn’t work.

      On the other hand, if you read his poetry as Representational, then how do you describe its effect on you? You can’t say that the theme of the poem was meaningful to you because Ashbery poems don’t have themes. Ashbery may be meaningful to you, but only in the way an abstract painting is meaningful. It’s as if one needs to formulate a new way to talk about Ashbery poems, one that’s more like a discussion of splatter painting than literature, the splatter being Ashbery’s incongruent notional fragments).

      What else is to be said? The valuation of an Ashbery work (rather than poem) is almost purely subjective. One can’t discuss his deftness of characterization, his skill in the handling of larger themes, ideas, metaphors or conceits. There are none. (Not the way one discusses the same in Shakespeare, Frost, Eliot, WC Williams). The way he splashes notional fragments on the canvass of his works appeals to the reader or doesn’t. Likewise, a Jackson Pollock appeals to one simply by virtue of what it is rather than what it means.


  2. Both notional and representational poetry have their varieties of solipsism, which I would loosely describe as ideational vs. technical. And both can impose on the reader—as in “see me!” vs. “find me!” Nevertheless John Ashbery and representational poetry does give me hope that I can practically reinvent myself as a poet after I develop Alzheimer’s.


    • That’s actually a good way of putting it, and your quip concerning Ashbery really made me laugh. As for myself, death has always been my plan for greatness.


  3. You last comment got me thinking….

    Death, the ultimate equality.
    A communist I suspect, though
    I’d happy say a Democrat
    If she left me free to choose.
    Tyrant in the extreme
    To make of us a clod
    Then note for consolation
    Everyone is next.


  4. Pingback: Pushcart XLIII: John Ashbery, “Just the One Episode” (poem) from Litmag #1 | A Just Recompense

  5. I tried to see if I could get into John Ashbery’s brain and read “Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror” twice. This was the off-the-cuff result:

    I say of a crowd well heeled
    Vanilla extract on a silver platter
    But that is less a compensation
    Than the hordes ride with their envy,
    The young hordes have more time
    And there are billions of them
    Though with paper plates, ay,
    Because of paper plates
    To triumph. And so I tell the “best,”
    The all-complacent arriviste,
    Smug in his contempt of me, his own
    Who does not own
    Be done with your toys and silver platters
    These are reflections of your death,
    Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw—
    You are savage in your ken —
    Worse, without the willing gene.
    Go! Outgrow your extinction,
    This golden death wish,
    And make a toy to live!
    Vanilla extract on a paper plate.


    • That’s the idea, but Ashberry keeps things grammatical. If you work a little harder at making sense, while not making sense, you’ll have Ashbery down.

      I was just rereading some Ashbery poems from my selected John Ashbery (to compare), and was struck once again by how he seems to imitate Stevens in places (with whom he is often compared) while doing such a poor job of it. He’s like a Salieri to Steven’s Mozart. He hits all the same notes, but puts them in all the wrong places. From my perspective (apart from the novelty of his incongruous imagery and notional content) he’s an amateurish and repetitive poet. The same images and ideas keep popping up over and over again, but the fact of it is somewhat concealed by the poetry’s dense opacity.


  6. I let my John Ashbery channeling rest, came back to it after a couple of days, and—surprise!—liked it better than John Ashbery. So I posted it on my WP site:


    Meantime, I’ve about had it with death poems…but Emily insists:


    Death, the ultimate equalizer.
    A Stalinist I suspect, though
    I’d happy say a Democrat
    If it left me free to choose.

    Tyrant in extremis
    To make of us a clod
    Then note for consolation
    Everyone is next.

    Anything new there, or just the same old story (cliché) ?

    Thanks again.. This one post sparked two poems that otherwise would never have happened.


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