Showing vs. Telling: Toward a Rhetoric of the Page

If we think of the page at all, it’s probably as something necessary to writing but of little interest in itself.  While writing, publishing, and reading are, we recognize, socially and culturally mediated, the page seems neutral enough and constant enough across time and genres that it can be ignored. It simply stores language and conveys it to the reader. The page, it seems, is like a shoebox. If we were shopping for shoes, we might note the label (“Are these authentic Air-Shakespeares?”) and ponder the shoes themselves (“To style or not to style, that is the question”), but we wouldn’t analyze the box. All shoes—high heels, sports shoes, wingtips, cowboy boots—come in a box. The particular shoe dictates the size and shape of the shoebox. The shoe is all; the box nothing. But is the page simply a “box” for the shoes we fashion from writing? What if it’s, at times, more than a surface for the writing printed on it? For poetry, at least, this seems to be the case. In poetry written for the page and circulated in print, the page is not a passive surface for conveying words to the eye. It functions as part of the poem’s system of measure and partly determines how its sound and its linguistic gestures function. In poems, the page and the writing it holds are not shoebox and shoe but, instead, an integrated, culturally mediated system that can shift over time in response to such things as how writers and readers treat the relationship of writing to speech and speaking and how they theorize their relationship to that broader phenomenon—language. The surface of the page is itself rhetorically constructed—for both the writer and the readers who try on a particular poem and walk about in it. And, if the rhetoric of the page is in part historically constructed, it may well be that a writer’s assumptions about the system of the page and writing may differ at times from the various assumptions that later readers may hold and that this can complicate, even compromise, how readers engage various poems without the reader being aware that this is the case.

This claim that the surface of the page matters as something more than just an empty box for written objects is based on the assumption that writing and speaking are two different modalities of language and that our various ways of understanding what writing is and how it functions necessarily reflect (and embody) a response to this difference. The medium of writing must be, it seems, either an attempt to subvert, an attempt to ignore and hide, or an attempt to engage the differences between the twinned but solitary moments of writing/reading and the social interactivity and speaking, listening, and replying—whether we are consciously aware of these different options or whether our approach to writing and reading leaves these options as latent, unexamined matters.

The work of the linguist Josef Vachek offers a way to understand how the dialectic of speaking and writing as distinctly different modes of language can support different uses of the page and how the page can function as an element in the system of writing. Vachek argues that writing can relate to speech in several ways. It can, for one, function as a visual image of the sound of speech. Appropriately clustered letters evoke spoken sounds, and writing can, thus, be used to represent approximations of speech on the page and thereby both store these approximations for later use and circulate them beyond the place of their speaking. Similarly, writing can be used to construct texts that we, as readers, hear as if the systematically arranged letters represent something that was spoken, even when the writer may have reviewed and revised the writing so that the final product has an economy or density or stylistic finish that we seldom manage in the impromptu exchanges of actual speaking. In both of these approaches—whether writing represents actual instances of speaking or has been fashioned into a kind of distilled or supra-speaking—writing is an analogue to speech. It is, that is, a visual representation of an aural system that derives from and emulates spoken practice.

But writing can also, Vachek notes, function directly as a visual system that need not reference the sound of speech, restrict itself to practices that would actually work in the give and take of speaking, nor mime speaking in any way. When we write expository prose for silent reading and read it silently, the letters of words needn’t imply sound. In writing operating as visual language (rather than representation of spoken language) distinctions such as “to,” “too,” and “two” are visual cues that contribute to the processing of the visual units even though they do not register as aural differences. When writing and reading are manipulations of a visual code, a visually self-sufficient system, there is no need understand what is written as if it is a representation of speech and speaking. Writing is no a way of encoding and presenting an aural system. Writing becomes, itself, language rather than an analogue storage of language. But writing, once its potential to function fully as a visual system through writing for the silent eye and reading silently comes into play, is no longer restricted to being a mirror of speech and the dynamics and processes of speech.

For Vachek, then, the single code of writing can operate in two different ways: (1) as a visually encoded representation of speech (where speech is the expressive system) and (2) as a self-sufficient visual system where writing is the expressive system. For Vachek, writing in this second sense, while it has evolved from speech and speaking, has come to operate through and for the eye and has over time come to have its own norms and practices (distinct from speaking) that reflect its particular advantages and limitations as a visual rather than aural medium.[1]

For the most part we shift so easily between these systems, these media, that we seldom consider the different norms, occasions, or capacities and limitations that shape our practices of speaking and writing as two distinct modalities of language. We are, in a sense, bi-languageal. We talk one way; we write another; and we are so comfortable with the occasions for each and so adept at their respective dynamics that we have little reason even to notice their differences, much less reflect upon them. Yet, our practices of language do not always divide so cleanly into the separate realms of the immediately interactive exchange of speaking/listening and the deferred interactivity of writing/reading. Our practice also includes various hybrids. We have all encountered conference “talks” that are lucid and reasonably paced if read by the eye as “writing” but when heard as if speech (what might be termed voiced writing) are so turgid that even a triple latté can’t keep us awake. Similarly, anyone who has “transcribed” a taped panel discussion knows that what seemed a brilliant point brilliantly made in the actual give and take can be a baffling series of elliptical fragments when transferred verbatim to the page. People who write good “talks” adjust their prose to accommodate the needs of the ear, and people who are skilled transcribers often must translate what was spoken into a prose that “sounds” to the eye as if it could have been spoken. Such hybrids as conference talks and transcribed discussions illustrate that writing for the ear is not the same thing as writing for the eye and show that voiced writing is not the same thing as interacting in speaking with a listener who functions as a responding “you” rather than an audience.

These hybrids also illustrate that the doubled system of writing (its capacity to function, on the one hand, as a visual representation of spoken sound and to function, on the other, as a visual system derived from but not limited to the action of speech) often plays out in our actual practices of language not so much as a binary either/or but as various intermixtures that combine writing as represented sound (and potentially image of speech) and writing as units of visual meaning in different ratios. The unvoiced efficiency of technical prose suggests one end of this dialectic. Written speeches that emphasize incantatory rhythms, repetitions, and the like as performance elements fall somewhere toward the other end, while conference talks and transcribed discussions fall somewhere in between. The practices that we aggregate as literature, I’d suggest, also fall somewhere in between.

If voicing writing (that is reading aloud) is not the same as speaking and if writing speech is not the same as writing writing, the way composing in language can involve various negotiations of writing as represented sound and writing as visual code seems especially, and unavoidably, a factor for poetry with its roots in oral practice and its history of emphasizing auditory elements (rhythm, meter, rhyme, alliteration, etc.). While the novel has been from the start a written form, produced for print and read silently, poetry preceded the advent of writing. And though poetry’s successive formal incarnations in writing and print have changed the role of sound in it, we continue to believe that poetry is written at least in part to be voiced and heard. The belief that poetry should continue to relate to the ear (even as it is composed for the page and circulated on the page as writing) has never fully died out. This may be one reason why the history of poetic experiment is so much a history of poets attempting to come to terms with what it means to transcribe sound onto the page and work out ways to utilize the page as a visual field, to make the line function as a visual unit of measurement, and to exploit typography as a stylistic element.[2] It may also be a reason why the history of experiment in the novel tends to move in the opposite direction and to involve more a series of plays on and with the spoken—Sterne, Joyce, Faulkner—that push us to hear the page in ways that supplement or disrupt the written mode and its visual norms.

In any case, the relationship of writing to page tends to differ in prose and poetry. In prose, the page has relatively little to do with measuring the writing. Whatever the ratio of representation of sound and speech to visual code a particular writer’s style might involve, we tend to read as if the writing unfolds continuously without being measured or bounded by the margins or page breaks. The modulations within sentences and between groups of sentences come from syntax, punctuation, shifts in register that we may hear within the style, paragraphing, and chapter divisions. In most prose, then, we “read” the page as a relatively neutral surface, and prose that breaks up the space of the page to create visual, spatial relationships among the written units seems experimental (or it reflects a specific, codified use of space and spacing such as hanging indents and bullets in certain kinds of technical writing).

In poetry, though, the page is not a neutral surface for writing. It is an element in the poem’s system of measure that helps create the specific ratio of writing as represented speaking to writing as visual code in a given work. In poetry, the page is much more than a shoebox that stores the poem on the shelf until we slip it out to try it on for size. Rather, the surface of the page and the writing on it are a single mechanism that enact the various conventions poets and readers have negotiated over time for what the space of the page actually is, what poetic “writing” is in relationship to this space, and the system for how this space and the verbal units in it interact.

In modern poetry the page can function in at least two contrasting ways: (1) as a space where writing as a visual system can be inscribed and measured against the field of the page, and (2) as a space where writing as represented sound enacts a voice.


Section XXII of William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All (1923), usually anthologized as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” is a poem that exploits writing as itself a visual system of language, and it illustrates how the page can function as part of the poem’s measure—an element in the writing:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The poem presents a single visual moment, a single image. How the page and phrases interact is clear if we read it as if prose: “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.” This reduces the poem to a flat assertion that is of little (actually no) interest—at least without a story or argument to specify why anything could “depend” on a wet wheelbarrow in the chicken yard. But breaking the sentence into lines creates a seemingly energized moment of visual perception. In prose the words are a kind of summary; but arranged against the field of the page, the words become a set of visual recognitions, actions, where we engage texture, color, and spatial relationships. Chunked as smaller than usual perceptual and linguistic units, the scene’s elements gain specificity and energy (the way lines five and six split the word “rainwater” into two so that we attend to “rain” as action and thing and to “water” on objects as outcome illustrates this). The cumulative effect is to intensify an ordinary glance into a moment of energized seeing in which the discrete details become a set of visual qualities and relationships that in turn become an imaginative whole. In this sense, “much” does “depend” on this poetic still life and the active, engaged mode of looking that it enacts and elicits.

In “The Red Wheelbarrow” the page functions as a visual space that modulates the writing on it and is necessary for the poem to work at all. “The Red Wheelbarrow” does not represent speech and need not be voiced (or heard) to be experienced. It can be read silently, so long as it is not read as prose but is read with attention to the conceptual emphases and linguistic disruptions the line breaks and space create. The functioning of the crucial word “depends” demonstrates this. In reading the poem aloud, we would presumably emphasize “depends” because of its position at the end of the line. This emphasis is not, though, driven by the way the sentence of the poem would be read if it were treated as a unit of speech, nor is it driven by any aural patterning of rhyme, meter, or rhythm. The emphasis is conceptual, and it depends on the visual action of reading (the way our eyes stop when they reach the end of the line, before shifting down and left to begin processing the next unit) and on our recognition of how this break and those that follow cut against the syntactical grain to re-organize the units of the sentence as units of visual apprehension. Similarly, the way the whole poem hangs down from, and conceptually derives from, “depends” (literally hangs from or on) is a play that energizes the word but turns almost entirely on how “depends” functions as a visual unit of writing (a word) in a specific visual position on the page. The occasion of “The Red Wheelbarrow,” then, is visual; its action is visual and conceptual; the writing emphasizes the words as visual units rather than units of speech; and the way Williams’ uses the page to disrupt and recast the written visual system energizes the language. We can, of course, choose to hear the poem, to read it aloud with the pauses and inflections the line breaks mark, but nothing requires us to do so, since the inflections derive from the writing that is the poem, not from speech or speaking.

A somewhat earlier Williams’ piece, “To a Solitary Disciple,” (first published February 1916 in Others: An Anthology, then collected in Al Que Quiere! in 1917) underscores the visual, writerly basis of his approach in his early Imagist work:

Rather notice, mon cher,
that the moon is
tilted above
the point of the steeple
than that its color
is shell-pink

Rather observe
that it is early morning
than that the sky
is smooth
as a turquoise.

Rather grasp
how the dark
converging lines
of the steeple
meet at the pinnacle—
perceive how
its little ornament
tries to stop them—

See how it fails!
See how the converging lines
of the hexagonal spire
escape upward—
receding, dividing!
that guard and contain
the flower!

how motionless
the eaten moon
lies in the protecting lines.

It is true:
in the light colors
of morning
brown-stone and slate
shine orange and dark blue.

But observe
the oppressive weight
of the squat edifice!
the jasmine lightness
of the moon.[4]

The poem’s language, because cast as an address to an imagined disciple, seems to suggest that the writing, here, functions as stored speech and that we should hear, rather than see, these phrases. But, as with “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the poem’s system and logic is actually visual (emphasizing writing as itself language) rather than aural.

For one thing, the disciple is less an auditor than a device that provides an occasion for the speaker to respond to the visual scene (imagined or actual) and develop how it might best be composed in writing. This requires, first, setting aside prior conceptions of what might make the scene beautiful in order to experience its elements and their relationship freshly. This scrupulous regard for the scene, this rejection of painterly and poetic conventions of the picturesque, allows the speaker to perceive the scene actively and participate in it. As with “The Red Wheelbarrow,” so much “depends” on this imaginative apprehension of world. But also “To a Solitary Disciple” delineates the nature of the looking that supports the writing of poems such as “The Red Wheelbarrow.” It shows the speaker avoiding (and instructing the imagined disciple to avoid) both conventional perceptions of the picturesque and conventional expressions of it. One reject the conventional satisfaction of seeing “that its color/is shell pink” if one is to grasp—and express—the scene’s actual set of relationships and its dynamism. And by doing this one can reach a moment where the perception of “the jasmine lightness/of the moon” is genuine rather than trite because it is engaged specifically and as if directly without conventional mediations. This enables the image to function as the apprehension and expression of what is actually there and also as an imaginative intensification of it that can enable the viewer to apprehend the scene’s energy.

The way the page disrupts language as speaking to foreground, instead, writing as a visual system is less obvious in “To a Solitary Disciple” than “The Red Wheelbarrow,” but the speaker of “To a Solitary Disciple” is more properly a perceiver/writer than a “speaker.” Although the speaker explicitly addresses the disciple (“Rather notice, mon cher”), experiencing the poem is more a matter of seeing the writing on the page than hearing it, as the break between the second and third lines illustrates. The way the second line can stand alone as the completion of what the disciple is to notice (“notice, mon cher,/that the moon is”) emphasizes “is” and allows the line to function as an assertion of the moon’s physical being, emphasizing its presence as a matter of primary importance. The third line then recasts “is” more simply as the linkage of “moon” to its being “tilted”:

Rather notice, mon cher,
that the moon is
tilted above

The way “is,” in this stanza can be both an assertion and a simple linkage depends on writing operating as a visual system. It requires the position of words in visual space rather than the syntactical modulations of speaking. And it requires that the poet and reader have a shared sense of the conventions for how the units constructed from the visual code—the “lines”—interact with the space of the page; how, that is, the page as space and surface mediates the interaction of the lines a composed units of writing. This point is, I’d suggest, more apparent when we recognize that there is no direct equivalent in speech. We can read these phrases to emphasize the final “is” of the second line (“Rather notice, mon cher, that the moon IS tilted above”), but doing so does not underscore that the “moon is” in the way that responding to the written code on the page does. Reading the lines as actual speech (rather than voiced writing) instead emphasizes the need to attend to the quality of being “tilted.” The modulation of “is” as we voice this written construction is not a product of the language as speech recorded in writing; it is a product of writing and the way units of writing relate to each other spatially on the page.

“To a Solitary Disciple” is composed as writing (with language operating first as visual code and the aural dimension of the words not only secondary but to a significant degree disposable) rather than as speech that has been encoded and thereby preserved in writing. The way the poem builds from verbs emphasizing perception and how the pattern this creates functions conceptually and aesthetically underscore this. In the poem’s first verse paragraph, the disciple is to “notice,” in the second to “observe,” then to “grasp.” The three verbs show the speaker/writer demanding that the disciple’s looking become progressively more engaged and active; this pattern helps create the imperative energy to the directions “See” and “See” in the first two lines of the fourth paragraph, and this progression of “notice” to “observe” to “grasp” to “See/See” shapes how the imperative “observe” (repeated three times in paragraphs five through seven) functions. In the second paragraph, “observe” is more simply the instruction to pay careful, accurate attention; in the fifth and seventh paragraphs it becomes not only a matter of observing but of grasping, seeing, and projecting the images that are the scene’s true and actual beauty (and its imaginative realization and expression).

The way the sequence of these verbs shape their precise meaning in the poem is a feature of the writing. The eye can track such patterns, because the page allows the eye to move back and forth between the written elements arranged on it. The eye, that is, can follow the unfolding of the writing as linear process (and thus, in this poem, the way these commands evolve through the poem as a series), while also constructing the imperative verbs as a set in which each element takes something of its meaning (its particular nuance or resonance) from the way it repeats, extends, and diverges from the set’s other elements. The eye can hold (or review) the words as visual units and thereby process the writing both as linear series and as spatial set, process these two in terms of each other, and generate the poem’s system.

That these qualities involve writing (i.e. the visual elements on the page) as itself language rather than writing as speech represented visually is, I think, clear if we imagine hearing the poem rather than reading it from the page. In hearing the poem, the speech action of addressing the disciple would be immediately clear, as would (if it were read well) the way the perception of the scene becomes increasingly engaged and energized as the poem moves from “moon is” to “jasmine lightness/of the moon.” The poem might well be a compelling emotional experience, but the ear could not track the way the poem as composed writing builds from the more specific unfolding of the series of verbs nor construct them into a functional set. The ear can track inflection, tone, and pace better than the eye can see them, but the ear cannot stop the text and reflect as it listens, cannot move recursively up and down the page, cannot extract and pattern the units of a set of elements from a text with the same power or precision as the eye. “To a Solitary Disciple,” that is, builds more from the simultaneity of the images and phrases as a systematized visual set than from the unfolding of sound in time that characterizes speaking.

This is not to suggest that listening is inferior to visual processing. It is, rather, to note that speaking/hearing and writing/reading are different modes of language and that poems that are imagined as operating more within the aural domain (as if performed speech recorded in writing) and those that are imagined as operating more within the visual domain (as compositions made from the visual system of writing) engage and deliver language differently. “To a Solitary Disciple” was written to be read visually more than it was written to be heard. And this becomes, I’d suggest, even clearer if we note that the gesture “Rather notice, mon cher” functions less as speech (either as monologue for the benefit of disciple and reader or as imagined dialogue with the disciple) and instead functions more as an “equation” as Pound uses that term in his essay “Vorticism” to explain the distillation and transformation of an actual experience in the metro station into the aesthetic perception that becomes “In a Station of the Metro.”[5] In “To a Solitary Disciple” the imperative verbs support a series of equations (notice a not b; observe x not y, and so on). And the poem itself becomes a larger equation that is the sum and result of this series (attending to a not b transforms the landscape from sentimental convention into energized visual field).

For Pound “To a Solitary Disciple” might have seemed a lesser poem than “The Red Wheelbarrow.” It is more discursive, less distilled; and one could argue that it circles around its “equation” rather than expressing the equation directly (as “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “In a Station of the Metro” perhaps do). But one value of “To a Solitary Disciple” is that it models the perceptual process that would yield the particular moments of seeing in a poem like “The Red Wheelbarrow.” And it illustrates why “The Red Wheelbarrow” needs to be read visually (both in the sense of attending to the scene being evoked and in the sense of mapping the poem’s linguistic units both from the surface of the page and against the space or field of the page). And it shows that poems that emphasize writing as visual code may well incorporate moments of represented speech and spoken touches, yet still require primarily the attention of the eye, not the ear, to engage not only the poem’s material but also its mode of language. In these three poems the external world is a text to be read—that is, seen and possessed through the imaginative energy of the eye. And this process of reading as seeing becomes the written text (the distillation and realization of the imaginatively apprehended “equation”) that the reader, reciprocally, sees and possesses in reading the visual code of words and images. The poem, that is, is a textual object to be viewed and appreciated, and its value comes in large part from the power of the textual object to elicit a recognition of the “equation” that distilled the original experience and transformed that biographical and discursive reality into the poem. In this sense the poem as writing does not refer; rather it “is” as the “moon is.”


Robinson Jeffers’ “Credo” (probably written late 1926) is a quite different kind of poem than “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “To a Solitary Disciple.” It is not a moment of seeing distilled as writing that the reader is to experience as if directly even while savoring poem’s mediation (as if that mediation could, that is, both celebrate itself and erase itself if the poem is written with sufficient art, and as if such art would, then, in itself authenticate both the seeing and the constructed object of the poem). Instead, “Credo” is a reflection on what the speaker has seen and how he has come to think about that seeing. It is a series of comments, and it is openly, unapologetically, discursive. In this poem we do not relate directly to what the poet has seen; we relate to it through the mediation of a speaker who both represents and interprets perceptions that are prior to and outside the poem itself. “Credo” is, also, and in part for these reasons, a poem that needs to be approached as an act of speaking. Reading it is more a matter of hearing the writing from the page than seeing the writing on the page:

My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from the young blue-gum
And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt, the actual
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.
He believes that nothing is real except as we make it. I humbler have found in my blood
Bred west of Caucasus a harder mysticism.
Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone vault is only
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;
The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality. The mind
Passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage;
The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heart-breaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.[6]

Unlike Williams in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Jeffers in “Credo” does not attempt to inscribe images as if directly onto the page. Instead, the “I” who speaks the poem talks about them; he refers to the reality of things (“The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality”), and this “I” mediates the reader’s relationship to the real in way that is finally less immediate and direct than the way the writing “eye” mediates the reader’s relationship to the faces as petals in “In a Station of the Metro” or the scene of “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

The way “Credo” presents a speaker talking about reality rather than the poem presenting itself as offering reality (or as being reality) would be a weakness if “Credo” were an attempt at an imagist lyric. But to read the poem as failed Pound (or failed Williams or even failed Stevens) is to miss the nature and function of its discursiveness. As a credo, “Credo” is both a definition of belief and a public statement of belief. This occasion and the way “Credo” functions as composed speech (speech recorded in writing and shaped for re-enactment as if heard speaking) make Jeffers’ poem social in a way that an imagist lyric is not. Pieces such as “In a Station of the Metro” are socially constructed objects, and they function socially as they circulate, but social relationships are mostly not figured directly in the poems themselves (even in “To a Solitary Disciple” the disciple is less someone the speaker considers and addresses than a turn of speech—actually, a turn of writing, that initiates the speaker’s attention to the elements of the visual scene, and the speaker is finally not a “speaker” in any actual sense but actually a writer figured as speaker). In “Credo,” though, what happens within the poem is directly social. The “friend from Asia” (unlike the solitary disciple) is offered as an actual other, who “believes” differently than the speaker. And the open shows that the speaker and friend have already explored their different approaches to the world and the nature of its beauty. While this implied exchange is prior to the poem, it sets up the dichotomies of East and West (as they functioned between specific individuals and at a particular cultural moment) and of idealism and materialism as frames to the speaker’s speaking, and this nexus of having spoken and of speaking, in turn, projects the reader as an actual other, a listener who is asked to acknowledge the difference between the speaker and his friend as the context for this statement of belief and to consider the nature and validity of the speaker’s belief and to consider the reward (and cost) of believing as the speaker does.

The speaker of “Credo,” thus, stands at the intersection of two implied dialogues, one that happened in the past and the one that occurs as he addresses the reader who he imagines as listening and reacting. This factor is, finally, both the source and justification of the poem’s discursiveness. “Credo” is not so much an aesthetic object as an aesthetic action. The beauty that the speaker praises in the poem is not the beauty of the crafted beautiful object (the poem itself raised to the status of the beauty it supposedly records) but is instead “The beauty of things” that is prior to the poem, that extends beyond the poem, and which cannot be reified into an aesthetic object. The goal in “Credo” is less to transform the real into a poem than to use the poem to drive a recognition of the real and an engagement with it. If the imagist lyric can be a moment so intensely distilled, transformed, and fixed as language that it is redeemed from time, the lyric meditation of “Credo” must unfold as if in time and lead out to a recognition of time and process that eclipses the poem. The poem invokes reality in order to point to it and drive an apprehension of the real that is beyond the poem rather than being in the poem. It must, that is, unfold as a heightened moment of speaking, a witness, that happens to be recorded in writing.

Just as “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” show Pound and Williams using the page to intensify writing as visual code, “Credo” shows Jeffers using the page to intensify writing as a representation of speech. The line break that intensifies the word “only” in line seven illustrates this:

                                                                     . . . the ocean in the bone vault is only
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;

The emphasis the break gives to “only” can (unlike the emphasis on “depends” in “The Red Wheelbarrow”) be fully conveyed by the voice and perceived by the ear. Similarly, the way the seventh line offers “the ocean in the bone vault,” then follows “only” with two phrases that play against it uses the aural echo and near repetition to make both the image and what might be termed the conceptual action apparent to the ear and emphasize it. The writing, that is, functions as a script, and the spacing suggests how the line should be said and heard. How it is imagined as heard speech controls the experience. The repetition of words and sounds similarly works for and by the ear. It heightens or intensifies the language beyond ordinary speaking, yet the resonance and interplay of sounds reinforces the sense of the language as voiced and as a mode of speech. In the following lines some of the repeated or echoed sounds are noted in bold face, and several key repeated or varied words are italicized:

My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from the young blue-gum
And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt, the actual
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.

One might also note the effect of the “er” sounds in the last of these lines and the way the hard consonants that close the word “salt” and the first syllable of “actual” sound out against the more open sounds that close most of the words (“magic” is the other word in these lines where the final consonant brings the sound to a hard stop) and add a dramatic and auditory emphasis to the phrase “the salt, the actual” that matches its conceptual emphasis in the poem.

The enriched sound and rhythm of the speaking voice in “Credo” has several functions. It marks the piece as “poetic,” as artful, as more than ordinary speaking. Yet it also intensifies our sense that we are hearing a voice, situated in time and addressing us. This gives the page a certain (albeit illusory) transitivity. In the imagist lyric as Pound theorized it, the poet composes (writes) the poem onto the page, and the written page becomes the poem. The page might be said to function reflexively: the poet interacts with the page in fashioning an aesthetic object; the reader in turn re-enacts this interaction with the page by regarding the aesthetic object in the proper way (much as one might regard a painting). In “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” we infer the poet as maker (writer) as having once stood, as it were, on the other side of the page, but we are not asked to imagine interacting directly with this figure. Indeed, the textual dynamic, what might be termed the textual rhetoric (along with the various critical essays and manifestos Pound offered) make it clear that we are not to imagine ourselves interacting, as if in dialogue, through the poem to the poet. To do so would be to erase a key element in what was, for Pound, Modernism’s modernity and its break with nineteenth century poetics. As readers we necessarily engage the poem, but our interaction is to be with the written object inscribed on and stored on the surface of the page—the constructed (i.e. meticulously composed) aesthetic object. As Modernist readers of the Modernist poem/object (later so aptly evoked through Cleanth Brooks’s image of the poem as “well wrought urn”) we engage the poem through its written gestures, the visual elements these project, and their functional interaction (that “equation” that Pound imagines as transforming the raw material of actual perception and emotional response into the aesthetic moment). In “Credo,” though, the way the writing is cast as speech asks us to hear a voice that speaks not only from the page but as if through it. The one approach casts the page as a space for organizing writing; the other treats it as a space for enacting voice. The one approach brings the reader to a seemingly direct apprehension of, and participation in, the poem’s aesthetic energy (its equation); the other approach depends on the reader’s ability to empathize with the figure who speaks as if across and through (though actually from) the page and poem.

In the case of “Credo” it is the reader’s ability to empathize with the speaker’s affirmation of the “heart breaking beauty” of the natural world—even as the speaker implicitly acknowledges that this acceptance of nature as other also confronts one with a sense of one’s own mortality—that gives the poem its energy and pushes the reader to experience this same mix of affirmation and loss. The poem looks beyond the social realm of speaking and listening but does so by harnessing the empathy of the social act of speaking and listening. One could, of course, see “Credo” as simply a chattier (and thus lesser) version of “To a Solitary Disciple,” where an “I” also presents the material of the poem, and the poem offers a heightened awareness of beauty, but in Williams’ poem the speaker is not dramatically specific nor dramatically active to the same degree or in the same way as the speaker in “Credo.” In “To a Solitary Disciple” the speaker is a device used to focus our attention on the written equation that the interplay of the visual elements embodies and that the reader can apprehend (“grasp”) through the right kind of looking at the poem and its writing. If we reach the perceptual and imaginative breakthrough that the poem sets up, the speaker simply drops from the picture (much as a catalytic agent drops out of a chemical reaction). In “Credo,” though, the figure of the speaker experiences the dilemma of the poem as if directly, speaks from this dramatic participation to the “you” of the reader, and remains engaged throughout the poem. The speaker is, in fact, doubly engaged—with the terms of the experiential dilemma and with the reader as the addressed other, and the speaker remains an active mediation between the reader and the terms of the poem—and actually, the speaker is most present at the end, when the speaker and reader both recognize and share their mutual yet distinct isolations in a redemptive nature in a moment of intensified awareness that derives from the poem but moves beyond it.


As the example of “Credo” illustrates, the difference between poems that use alphabetic characters as visual language (writing that need not be mediated by and perceived through the sound of the words to be understood) and poems that use this same set of visual alphabetic characters more as a system to represent composed acts of speech (that happen to be stored and transmitted through the visual units) isn’t that the latter place more emphasis on the sound of words (this is sometimes, but not always, the case). Rather, the difference has more to do with the function of the page itself. In poems like “The Red Wheelbarrow” the page is a visual field for structuring written units. In poems like “Credo” the page is an aural field for enacting speaking. The former operates as if beyond our outside or having transcended time; the latter operates as if enmeshed in time, the passing of time.

At least for poetry of the first half of the twentieth century, using the page as a space for writing as a visual system and using writing as a way to transmit composed speech have different rhetorical tendencies and implications. In poems where the page is more a visual field, the speaker is often effaced or is a figure or set of figures inscribed within the field of the poem (as are the various voices and registers of voices in The Waste Land) rather than being a subjective other or agent who (implicitly) stands beyond the frame of the poem addressing the reader as if a “you” who might hear and respond. We may, if we choose, project a disposition behind the text that we label Eliot or infer a position from the various figures of the epic heroes in The Cantos that we equate with Pound’s constructing consciousness, but we do not, for the most part, treat poems like The Waste Land or The Cantos as if the figure of the poet addresses us directly[7] (the crisis, both poetic and personal, that drives Pound to a more direct, confessional act of speaking in The Pisan Cantos is, I’d suggest, an exception that proves the tendency). And this is even clearer in pieces such as “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Red Wheelbarrow, which seem to have no speaker but seem instead (to borrow the poet Louis Simpson’s suggestive pun) to have an “eye” instead of an “I.”[8] In these poems the speaker (perhaps more properly the speaker function) is, finally, contained within the poem, while in poems like “Credo,” conversely, the poem seems contained within the speaker who speaks as if through the marks on the page. We cannot actually reply to the “I” in “Credo,” but we hear the poem as if we could, and the way the poem invites the reader to share empathetically in the final recognition functions something like a moment of response where the “I” and “you” are linked by their parallel participations in the process of projecting beyond the frame of the poem.

Today our canon of modern American poetry tends to privilege poets, like Pound and the early Williams, who focused on the potentials of writing as a visual system rather than poets, like Jeffers, who worked more in terms of writing as represented sound and speech and cast the reader in the position of listener and hearer. Perhaps poetry that treats writing as a visual code is inherently and inevitably more worthy than poetry that treats writing as an auditory system, but perhaps (and I think more plausibly) our critical training and current critical preferences have helped us be more alert to poems that must be seen than poems that must be heard. If so, perhaps we need to learn how, why, and when to hear the page as well as how, why, and when to see it if we are to understand more adequately the array of poetic projects that made the first half of the twentieth century such a rich period of innovation and achievement.

[1] Josef Vachek’s seminal 1959 essay, “Two Chapters on Written English,” is collected in Selected Writings in English and General Linguistics (Prague : Academia, 1976), 408-41. Vachek later updated and extended his discussion of these matters in Written Language: General Problems and Problems of English (The Hague, Mouton, 1973).

[2] Jerome McGann’s discussion of Anglo-American modernist poetry in Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993) provides an extended example of this.

[3] The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I, 1909-1939, Ed. A Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions Books, 1986), 224.

[4] The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I, 1909-1939, 104-05.

[5] Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (New York: New Directions Books, 1960), 81-94.5.

[6] The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume I, 1920-1928, Ed. Tim Hunt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988), 239.

[7] If we do imagine such a voice in these poems, we are, of course, reading directly against the grain of Eliot’s position in his highly influential essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

[8] Louis Simpson, Adventures of the Letter I (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1971). This distinction relates, clearly, to the vexed contemporary question of “presence,” a matter not addressed in this piece but which I hope to address elsewhere.


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Showing vs. Telling: Toward a Rhetoric of the Page by Tim Hunt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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