This sentence is a sentence about sentences. But it's only a sentence about sentences if you decide to play along with the social contract that every reader and writer implicitly agree to when collaborating on a text. It's really just a series of symbols with a discernable pattern. The symbols work together to represent ideas. (In our specific example, it's a self-reflexive idea about a self-reflexive idea, but whatever.) Writing is nothing more than highly stylized illustration: Memoirs are self-portraits, some cookbooks are still-lifes, political tracts are propaganda posters.
The Last Vispo, the new visual poetry anthology by Nico Vassilakis and Crag Hill (Fantagraphics, $39.99), doesn't allow its readers to make the single basic presumption—that words are a code, symbols to be received in a specific order, and not an arbitrary series of marks—that every reader makes on opening a book. As an art book, it demands hours of investigation. Some of the poems are recognizable as words forming a text (Mark Young's "defiant lethargy" is a checkerboard of words like "twitter," "the hand," "Transit of Venus," and "defiant" mixed with symbols like an elaborate letter B or an epsilon), and others look like gibberish that could, on another planet or in another time, have become a dominant language (are the scribbles in Jim Leftwich's "decomposition 2" made up of very bad Arabic handwriting or are they products of his imagination?).
It's telling that local comics publisher Fantagraphics is publishing Vispo and not one of our poetry presses: Some of the poems here are indisputably comics. Or at least they're the missing link between poetry and comics, such as the selections from Christian Bök's "Odalisques," in which fonts are manipulated to form sketches of women that wouldn't look out of place in a high-class fashion magazine: An uppercase J is inverted and twisted until it becomes the curve of a hip, an e is lopped in half to represent an earring, an s becomes a ponytail.
Poetry has always led the way for literature. We wouldn't have Tom Clancy without Homer, and T. S. Eliot created the template for the serious, studiously introspective literary fiction of the late 20th century. Vispo hints at the ways narratives can be related online, now that words and images belong to the same fluid field that can be manipulated by a relatively new language (HTML) written behind the scenes. For those linguistic pioneers looking to find the future of fiction, this could be one of the most informative poetry anthologies to be published in the new millennium.