Magic Iconism: Defamiliarization, Sympathetic Magic, and Visual Poetry
(Guillaume Apollinaire and E. E. Cummings)

At first glance, one might think that iconicity is just another one of those devices grouped under the rather vague heading of defamiliarization.  And one would not be far wrong:  many iconic devices do indeed "make objects 'unfamiliar' . . . make forms difficult . . . [and] increase the difficulty and length of perception" (Shklovsky 12).  Defamiliarization occurs in many guises:  it may refer either to the content (what Shklovsky calls "objects") or to the form (what Shklovsky usually calls "devices") of a work of art.  As Lee Lemon and Marion Reis remind us, defamiliarization "is not so much a device as a result obtainable by any number of devices" (5).  Writers defamiliarize form and content in different ways for many different reasons.  According to Shklovsky, Tolstoy achieves "the sensation of life" (12) by describing "an object as if he were seeing it for the first time" (13):  others like Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy "bare the technique" as "an end in itself" (30).  Still others like Duchamp may want to question the institution of art or the status of the artist as source or "genius," while others like John Cage may want to stage an event that changes the immediate environment (Perloff, Radical 27).

 Iconicity, too, works through various devices to achieve various ends:  as Geoffrey Leech says, "the possibilities of 'form enacting meaning' are virtually unlimited" (242).  In their widest definitions, then, both figures or "principles" (Leech 235) achieve their effects by the operation of a principle ("making content and / or form unfamiliar" and "form enacting meaning") through a variety of semiotic means.  The main difference between these two stylistic principles is this:  defamiliarization devices and effects work by making the usual or natural seems unusual or unnatural, while iconic devices and effects work by making the unnatural (language, for example) seem natural, or motivated.  One estranges the natural or the seemingly, while the other imitates the natural or the seemingly natural.  Defamiliarization has to do with culture rather than nature, with art rather than life, with difference rather than similarity.  On the other hand, iconicity is a figure based on its similarity to lifelike natural processes.  Indeed, Leech calls iconicity "the imitation principle" (233).

 Of course, imitation and similarity can also be alienating.  As Roman Jakobson's famous definition shows, poetry is based on similarity or "equivalence" (rhyme, rhythm, etc.), while it nevertheless stresses non-referential aspects of language, and thus differs from ordinary language use.  While traditional poetry introduces potentially alienating devices like rhyme and rhythm in the symbolic system of language, visual poetry sets up a further tension between two poles of the symbolic and iconic.  Words work within the usual symbol system, while various visual and iconic devices (e.g., patterns, breaks in words, white space, various type-sizes, visual syntax) work to defamiliarize that system.   Some visual poems defamiliarize the arbitrary symbolic nature of language in a rather extraordinary way:  by connecting with nature through sympathetic magic.  For example . . .

. . . in Apollinaire's poem "Coeur couronne et miroir," the poet "draws" a magic circle of words around his own name.  The words read:  "Dans ce miroir je suis enclos vivant et vrai comme on imagine les anges et non comme sont les reflets."  [In this mirror I am enclosed living and true as we imagine angels to be and not as reflections are].  The visual break-up of words into discrete syllables forces the reader into the slow, incantatory tone proper to the chanting of magic spells.  It is the reader who activates the spell which transforms the mirror into a halo or mandorla (or perhaps a laurel wreath)--which in turn transforms the name inside into the poet's living presence.  Indeed, this sort of poetry is a sort of charm, a word descended "from carmen, song" (Frye 278).  Apollinaire invokes an ancient sort of sympathetic magic, which works by metonymic transfer, to present himself "vivant et vrai" to the reader.

 Besides this example, the paper will discuss a few of E. E. Cummings' nature poems, which use iconic and magic means to reinforce the identity of poet and nature.  In all cases I have studied, the magic can only be activated in the reading process, through metaphoric or metonymic means.  As Frederic Jameson has pointed out, the two types of sympathetic magic (homeopathic and contagious) work by metaphoric and metonymic  means.  (cf. Jameson 123, Frazer 11-12).  One may say that homeopathic magic is iconic, while contagious magic is indexical.  In practice, of course, the two magics blend and work together.  But the crucial points are these:  through magic, iconism connects the poem to the world of nature, while at the same time creating a defamiliarizing tension between icon and symbol.  Most other defamiliarization techniques, however, call into question all sorts of cultural, natural, and aesthetic presuppositions while leaving the symbol system of language intact.  It is the simultaneous interruption of the normal language system and imitation of the natural that makes visual poetry a challenging genre to read.

Works Cited

Apollinaire, Guillaume. Oeuvres poétiques. Eds. Pierre-Marcel Adéma and Michel  Décaudin.     Paris: Gallimard / Pléiade, 1965.

Bohn, Willard. The Aesthetics of Visual Poetry, 1914-1928. New York: Cambridge UP,  1986.  [paper ed. U of Chicago P., 1993]

Bradford, Richard. The Look of It. A Theory of Visual Form in English Poetry. Cork:  Cork UP, 1993.

Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems, 1904-1962.  New York: Liveright, 1994.

Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough. 1 vol. abridged ed. New York: Macmillan:  1922.

Jakobson, Roman. "Linguistics and Poetics." Language in Literature. Ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987. 62-94.

Jameson, Frederic. The Prison House of Language. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

Leech, Geoffrey N. Style in Fiction. London: Longman, 1981.

Lemon, Lee T., and Marion J. Reis, trans. and ed. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four  Essays. Lincoln, U of Nebraska P, 1965.

Perloff, Marjorie. Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media. Chicago: U of
Chicago P, 1991.

Shklovsky, Victor. "Art as Technique." Lemon and Reis, Russian Formalist Criticism.  3-24.
---. "Sterne's Tristram Shandy: Stylistic Commentary." Lemon and Reis, Russian  Formalist Criticism. 25-57.