Is it literature, or is it art?

The latest exhibition at the Saison Poetry Library, tucked away in the Royal Festival Hall complex on the London South Bank, explores the relationship between poetry and art by displaying poets that have taken their work into the ‘visual dimension’. This includes poetry presented as sculpture, on everyday objects, audio-visually, as paint and collage work and in various unusual methods of print, including flashcards and hand crafted booklets.

Sarah Kelly presents her work in a collage format. Printed words, individually cut to size, litter the page at odd angles and in sometimes bizarre combinations. These are coupled with abstract paint work she has applied to the page, lines and colours muddled together. She titles the work ‘Make My Eye Move" appropriately, as you find them wondering the page of their own accord and trying to piece together what the poem would have read in it’s original form. It is not clear if there was one. The order of the words, and consequently the meaning, is in the eyes of the viewer and not the poet.

Matt Martin’s takes this another step further with his work ‘Geohedous’. His poetry takes a 3 dimensional form, consisting of multi-sided 3D paper polyhedrons in different colours with a word, or few words, printed on each side. Each shape is a different ‘poem’ on a subject, but there is no linear order. The poem is ‘written’ by rolling the shape, and speaking the word it lands on. The only rule is that the next word must be on a side that touches the previous. The poem is therefore written by the viewer/reader, and an element of chance. Only the words themselves are the poets own. Here are a couple I… should that be ‘read’ or ‘wrote’? Each new side is indicated with a ’/’:


The dark/ fragmented/ and/ aged/ senses/ twisted/ riddles/ with/ silences/ echoed/ the limestone/ robes.


The giant/ rocks/ formed/ the forbidden/ shapes/ the uprising/ clouds/ worshiped/ mountains.

It was a great experience to be able to interact with poetry in this way, giving the control and the interpretation to the reader/viewer. It is also a great way of illustrating how poetry can be formed, how simple and how satisfying and inspiring it can be, but is this really poetry? Can there really meaning behind words that have been arranged at random, without thought behind them? How much ownership can we claim when the words are not ours? I like the concept, but the ‘poems’ feel like the beginnings of something, not the finished result.

Other poems have an order, but their meaning is gleaned or enhanced by the method through which they have been presented. Sophie Herxheimer’s work, ‘Disaster’ is a short and simple poem, is is the way it has been presented on a blood stained handkerchief that gives it a powerful impact and meaning through the tragic context it evokes.

Thomas A. Clark’s work captures the essence of the primary question of this exhibition. He has presented his long, imagery rich poetry in an A5 classic Ruskin sketchbook. Opening it you would expect to find visual art, but the visuals it contains are in the words. Evocative, beautiful descriptions of nature and other subjects printed on high-grade sketch paper. Art and poetry, he illustrates, are both visual arts which require our subjectivity and imagination to process and understand.

Poetry is art, and art is poetry.

The exhibition runs until Sunday 5th of May 2013.

The Saison Poetry Library will (hopefully!) be open long after then, as one of London’s (and the world’s) greatest libraries. 

“The Poetry Library is one of the occasional pure flowerings of the imagination for which the English are so seldom given credit" – Philip Larkin


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here