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The Form of Meaning and the Meaning of Form in Johanna Drucker’s


 The American poet, theorist, and book artist, Johanna Drucker, in her book poem The History of the/my World (henceforth History) (1995) explores language and, more specifically, how linguistic form may be creatively and skillfully arranged in order to construct meaning. In her piece, she extends the definition of the term “poetic language” to include a broadened kind of discourse that is comprised not exclusively of words, but also of elements such as images, captions, and symbols, all presented in fonts of various colors and sizes. The elements of discourse she employs, their display on the page, as well as the unending possible conjunctions that are to be realised between those particles of language through unions and separations, arrangements and dislocations, guide readers towards their own interpretations of Drucker’s work. History, subsequently, transforms into an ongoing process of manufacturing meaning which, as outlined by the poet herself, is dependent upon each and every one of the readers.

For one to appreciate Drucker’s writings, one needs to take into consideration the cultural climate that had been formulated just after the second War World in the U.S. impacting on “many fields of cultural endeavor – architecture, literature, photography, film, painting, video, dance, music, and elsewhere” (Hutcheon 1). Fredric Jameson in his book Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism refers to the postmodern impulse, so as to highlight the forceful reaction that occurred on a socio-political, cultural, and historical level challenging all dominant pre-World War II ideologies, beliefs and values. Hutcheon in her book The Politics of Postmodernism suggests that trying to form a definition of what postmodernism is would be ever deficient in encompassing its multifariousness, while it would eventually lead to further confusion (16). In challenging previously established attitudes and ideologies, postmodernism “ultimately manages to install and reinforce as much as undermine and subvert the conventions and presuppositions it appears to challenge” (1-2). Hutcheon suggests that the core of postmodernism is partly to be found in the fact that “it is both critical and complicitous with that which precedes it” (119). This insider position may make it “unavoidably compromised” but that does not mean it impedes it from dismantling the conventions and practices it argues against (119). As regards American poetic production, postmodernism mainly came about as a reaction against the constrictions of traditional poetic form, and, through the abolishing of formalist conventions, resulted in a diverse poetic activity which is contingent upon the social and cultural background it is read against or derives from.

 As mentioned earlier the language through which Drucker constructs her poem is not exclusively comprised of words; rather, she extends the notion of language so as to incorporate in her poem images, captions, shapes, and symbols knowledgeably allocated on every page. The words in History appear in different colors, as well as font sizes. In the main body of her book poem readers encounter three types of font: the first and most dominant one is the big-sized black font, interrupted and interchangeable with a small-sized red font, while an even smaller-sized black font is used for the labeling of the objects depicted, as well as for captions. As far as images are concerned, Drucker has stated in her book of essays Figuring the Word that they are “cliché images [,] […] engraved cuts which serve as generic figures” and which she had collected from the press where she used to print (256). Essentially serving as another form of language, since they are in themselves self-contained stories, they appear in various sizes, colors, and distributions across the poem while they are often accompanied by the captions mentioned above. Finally, symbols are dispersed across the poem, either in the form of red and black arrows pointing towards all directions, in the shape of asterisks and small stars. On the top or bottom of several pages, one may also discern small cubes of black or red color. Even though they are not words, the shapes and symbols are incorporated in the narrative becoming, thus, inescapably an integral constituent of the language through which Drucker constructs and communicates her work. Furthermore, her book poem lacks pagination1  challenging, thus, the conventional book format by disputing the linearity and order that numbers provide. The text does not impose a sequence of events on readers, a prescribed manner in which to approach it; rather, the order in which pages are to be encountered relies as much on the semantic relationship between the text as it does on the readers’ arbitrary choices, color, or image associations they decide to rely on.

 One of the distinguishing elements of postmodern poetic works is its indeterminate form which is distinct in its display, especially when compared with the strict lines of traditional poetry. It was Charles Olson in his “Projective Verse” (1950) who suggested a motion-driven poetic practice, one that resisted the formalist traditions of strict line arrangement and metrical conventions, what he termed the “non-projective” verse. Instead, he proposed the “composition by field” where the poet is “in the open,” and the poem is a construct of energy where breath serves as the main structural unit. Olson – quoting Robert Creeley – wrote that “form is never more than an extension of content,” while he added the notion of “right form” for every poem, one that is “the only and exclusively possible extension of content under hand” (“Projective Verse”). It appears, thus, that the visual display of a poem can serve as an indicator of its meaning, at least in the sense that the two are associated.

 Drucker has also examined the issue of poetic form and its function as an ingredient of meaning. She claims that the process of poetic production goes hand in hand with the “contents – or, even, perhaps, […] the context of its composition” (Figuring the Word 134). From the implementation of visual means, such as “collage,” “calligraphy,” and “paint” (133) to the possible configuration of a poem as a “score or script,” Drucker states that any possible variant form a poem acquires through the creative manipulation of the elements at hand is not a mere “surplus” but, instead, it constitutes “the performative instantiation of the work, its condition of being a thing, a piece” (159).What was termed by Olson as the “process of the thing” (“Projective Verse”) – that is, the poem as a chain reaction of innumerable “perceptions” that should not end until the poem does – for Drucker it transforms into the broader term of “visual performance” (Figuring the Word 142) of the work where each linguistic element contributes its unique shape and properties to the page. Subsequently, each page transforms, according to Drucker, into a “space of performance” (142). It is this visual performance of the poetic work which extends beyond any restricted “referential field” (137) by broadening the connotations that derive from it and by making the performance about “the presence of a poem” rather than about “the presence of the author/reader” (131). Nonetheless, Drucker asserts that beyond all imaginative alignments and shape-like transformations of a poetic work, it is in letters, “those fundamental atomic particles of visual language,” that meaning is essentially to be spelled out from (147). She emphasizes the importance of language – of essentially each and every word – in the creation and formulation of meaning which moves beyond the mere rearrangement of discourse particles on each page.

 In her book poem, Drucker challenges the conventional notion of the way a poem should be structured and printed on the page. In Figuring the Word, she describes her poem as being a “‘polymorphous’ text, one in which a single, unified linearity is refused by format, by interweaving several layers of text which read against each other” (255). Apart from the creative arrangement of images that narrate a separate story through their organization on each page, it is the unorthodox lineal configuration of her whole creation which is unconventional in a sense as well. Her line is “visual,” “haphazard,” and “random” […] fulfilling itself by the brute force of its physical reality” placed in the poem “in relation” to and not in “strict sequence” with the other lines and discourse elements, such as symbols or images (140, 141). Her lines accomplish to enhance the poetic experience offered through their organization, line-breaks, and the “[d]isintegrating [of] the defining boundaries” (140). Amidst this “spatial play,” with the words in each line appearing in different sizes as well as colors, each line may create a range of associations, not only in terms of meaning, but also in terms of the various types of fonts they belong to (140). The narrative subsequently “becomes” as the readers come in contact with the poem.

 Drucker’s History, being as distinct in its formal display as well as in its division into different levels of discourse, allows for a discussion with regard to how she communicates her messages through the lineal configurations and lexical items she chooses. Drucker’s poem reads at one instance: “[…] we were / subject to per- / form. Suckling / the calf until it / turned golden / exhausted their / piety. Banished / to the desert / the chosen ones / spoke out on / the empty air” (History 9, 10). Her references here are mildly critical as the Golden Calf, which satisfied the Israelites while Moses was absent, is “suckling” like any ordinary calf while the “chosen ones” addressed the “empty air.” Drucker manipulates language in an intricate, covertly deprecating manner here that gives to the readers a first impression of how history writing is constructed. Yet, as she suggests, those “critiques are constructed out of biblical, historically authoritative language turned on itself” (Figuring the Word 256). In fact, the lexical and syntactic choices employed here complement the message she attempts to convey. For instance, and referring to the excerpt presented above, her sentences are fairly short; they are all clausal sentences, that is, single clauses with no coordination of a subordinate one. Like the writing of historical texts, this is a simple configuration, devoid of ornamental elements that challenge the accuracy of what is described. Furthermore, similarly to the writing of historical accounts, we encounter no personal pronoun serving as a subject, which allows, thus, for a deceptively objective delineation of events to occur. Nonetheless, this same structure through which Drucker attempts to dissociate herself from, claiming the role of an objective narrator of events, is the one that inextricably links her to her words, as it occurs for example in the following case of fronting: she puts the adjective “suckling” at the beginning of the sentence and not immediately preceding the noun “calf”; she, thus, finely emphasizes the ironic action of the otherwise sacred calf, while the lineal configuration of her sentence actually conceals the fronting in question. She uses the same practice in the subsequent sentence, where she fronts the whole complementary prepositional phrase – “banished to the desert the chosen ones” – by exposing the well-known narrative of the Israelites, so as to lend secondary emphasis on the fact that they actually “spoke out on the empty air.” Drucker is exact in her configurations, exploiting the apparent rigid English syntax to its full potential. The lexical meaning of her vocabulary choices is eventually accentuated and enhanced as their structural configuration lends them an additional level of emphasis.

 Even though postmodern narratives refute the “determinacy or decidability of textual meaning,” since there is neither an objective knowledge nor an objective truth to be delivered or revealed (Zagorin 7), this does not mean that the poem is devoid of message. On the contrary, it is this undecidability which illuminates the multiplicity of interpretations of History available, a multiplicity that is analogous to the number of readers that come in contact with the poem. The process of constructing meaning, according to Soon Peng Su in her book Lexical Ambiguity in Poetry, is a process of “interpretation,” a “cognitive activity” that is “subject-dependent” (94). Each reader plays an important part in the process as they provoke an “interaction between themselves and the text” (Su 97). This interaction will take the form of a negotiation that will ultimately reveal “the relation between the meaning of the linguistic signs and their communicative force” (Su 97). As Wolfgang Iser claims it is “the convergence of text and reader [which] brings the literary work into existence” (qtd. in Su 97) as through the amplitude of choices offered readers have the freedom to assemble and disassemble the elements on every page according to their preferences and conceptions – according to their “expectations of consistency” (Su 99). As regards History, the reader has several choices to make and, subsequently, divergent paths to follow, each one of which will lead to a somewhat different interpretation of Drucker’s work.

 The process of reading and interpreting History cannot but be inhibited by the hypotheses made by readers; it is all but a “smooth, uninterrupted act of expanding an image [...] – rather, the reader goes through a process of “‘back and forth’ [,] [...] of formulation and modification” (Su 98). This process of oscillating between divergent meaning paths, according to Su, does not happen in vacuum; it occurs within a “pragmatic context” which is an awareness of the text being “informed by an author’s meaning and governed by a communicative goal” (98). That is, it is outlined by factors outside those involved in the poem as a piece of written discourse. Therefore, readers’ freedom of interpretation is not unconstrained. Su is irresolute about what the case really is and suggests that “[t]here are varying degrees of involvement of a reader or different readers in the text; and different texts vary in their demand on the reader” (98). Thus, similar to the way that one piece of written work is different from the other, readers who come in contact with any text will contribute their unique views to and understanding of it that stem from each reader’s knowledge and experiences.

 In order to further contemplate on the dilemma posed above, one should consider the role of language, the one common element that is the basis of literature and informs the practices of both writers and readers with regard to how meaning is constructed – how many of the interpretations are freely formed by readers and how much is ascribed by the text itself. Each author or poet constructs their message in words and it is through each and every word that readers will attempt to assemble the meaning of a text. Norbert Schmitt states in his book Vocabulary in Language Teaching that the meaning of each word is composite, comprised by a sum of semantic features that range from the more to the less essential ones and delineate the core meaning and the encyclopedic knowledge that accompany each word (31). This highlights the fact that the core meaning of a word is the “common meaning shared by members of a society” and entails aspects of the basic meaning “without which it would be impossible to connect [the word] with the representing context” (27). Unlike the core aspects, encyclopedic knowledge is “idiosyncratic to each individual person, depending on that person’s experience and personal beliefs. It may be communal to a certain extent, but will almost certainly vary to some degree from person to person” (27). The number of core features of a word is limited, whereas “the amount of encyclopedic knowledge one can know about a word is open-ended” (27). Consequently, even if the poet’s choice of vocabulary is specific and intended, readers will inescapably bring to the text their own experiences and beliefs adding, consequently, to the kind of experience the text delivers. For instance, Drucker uses the term “civil war” which is a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country. However, readers will add to the term different semantic features, depending on who they are and what they know; for some, it might be the American civil war, for others, it may allude to other civil wars, ones that occurred in different countries and at different historical periods, while the amount of knowledge each reader has concerning a war is entrenched in their knowledge and previous readings and/or personal accounts. These are the encyclopedic features that enhance the knowledge one has of the meaning of a term and which allow a narrative to be effective in communicating an intended message, while simultaneously preserving its flexible meaning and strict specificity.

 Words, however, do not occur in a vacuum; they are part of a large surrounding linguistic as well as pragmatic context which, in its turn, influences the way the terms are understood and interpreted. In History, for example, the term “civil war” (30) is found in the historical narrative part of the poem, where, so far, readers have encountered references to incidents, such as the founding of the New World (i.e. America) as opposed to the Old World (i.e. Europe), the establishment of colonies, and so on. Therefore, the reader, influenced by the context of the enumeration of historical events, construes the mentioning of the “one civil war” as the American Civil War between the northern and the southern American states that broke out in 1861 and lasted until 1865. Additionally, the sentences that follow refer to the industrial revolution which accentuates the preceding chronological linearity that occupies the historical narrative up to that point. Subsequently, the linguistic context here constraints the meanings of the term and guides the reader towards a particular interpretation. All possible meanings of the term will be activated in the brain, and “brought up to the subconscious” but the context will “set the parameters of what actually reaches conscious thought [...] [and] limit what encyclopedic knowledge is finally activated [...]” (Schmitt 28). Apart from the surrounding context which is “necessary to activate the full resources of word meaning” and which influences the range of possible interpretations, words activate schemata. A schema is “knowledge of how things in a specific area of the real world behave and are organized” (28). The schema will be activated by the text in question and will demarcate the variety of semantic features that each reader is semantically and linguistically “allowed” to bring to the poem. Thus, a schema is again idiosyncratic and will help readers decide on the features of encyclopedic knowledge that can be implemented in order to interpret the words of the poet. More often than not, the reader will have to construct a context in which to situate what is being read, as part of the mind’s broader effort towards consistency which might, or, even, might not, be in agreement with the poet’s or author’s intentions (28).

 Amidst the freedom of form and the denial of one meaning that describe postmodern writing practice, History is in fact characterized by a very careful and orderly disordered arrangement of the language it employs which fabricates a “loosely-knitted” context through which the work can be approached. When first glancing at the title page of History, readers subconsciously enter the context that Drucker has prepared for them and which will permeate her whole piece. As in every title of any text, this provides a background against which all of Drucker’s words can be examined and, potentially, explained and accounted for (History 3). The division between “the world” and “my world,” “the word” and “my word” expands in the pages that follow into two complementary narratives that provide the reader with information that will aid their attempts to decipher her enigmatic but proliferated expansive message.

 After reading the first pages in History, readers are able to discern the structuring and the purposeful creative design of Drucker’s work. Different fonts convey different meanings: the black fonts include the general historical facts, while the red refer to her memories. For example, the word “children,” when mentioned in the black-font part of the poem, cannot be referring to her (i.e. Drucker) but to the children that were exploited and made to work –“suffered to come unto / the heavy heat of / labor and finally the [...]” (History 31, 32) – during the industrial period. However, when “childhood” is mentioned in the red-font part of the poem readers will hypothesize that it is Drucker’s own childhood that is being addressed. Readers interpret her words accordingly through making solid hypotheses on their meaning, letting Drucker’s context constrain the semantic features and the amount of their encyclopedic knowledge which they are “allowed” to contribute to the message formulated by the poet.
 With postmodernist writing exposing all the falsity of rhetoric, ideologies, and the
constructedness of language, Drucker constructs such a piece whose language is treated in a uniquely creative manner. In a piece without pagination, Drucker challenges the form and order of printed literary works while the use of pictures and symbols expands the notion of language by not limiting it to words only. Drucker’s work is an expansion of Olson’s comments concerning form and the extension of meaning at hand. For Drucker, form becomes a distinct component of the poem, one that is a work of art in its own sense, while maintaining a constant connection with the meaning it attempts to communicate. Drucker allows readers a somewhat controlled – yet indubitable – freedom in interpreting History as her every lexical choice and syntactic arrangement guides them to those analyses of her work that can be accounted for when taking into consideration the linguistic as well as pragmatic context within which the poem transpires. Nonetheless, readers’ individuality is all but obliterated as it is their uniqueness of thought and their choices that will direct them in the reading of the poem. Thus, poetic practice evolves through time, and through those readers that interact with its works; each poetic creation adds to the overall practice only to capitalize on what has been suggested earlier by constantly challenging conventions, promoting an unconstrained form and an interminably expansive meaning.




For readers’ convenience, however, all excerpts and/or references to History that will follow will be quoted from the paginated online version of the book which can be accessed at <>.



Bernstein, Charles. Introduction. Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual  Poetics. By Johanna Drucker. New York: Granary Books, 1998. xi-xiii. Print.
Drucker, Johanna. Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics. Comp.  Johanna Drucker. New York: Granary Books, 1998. Print
---. "History of the/my Wor(l)d: Work." Artists' Books Online. Druckwerk, 1990.  Web. 05 Feb. 2012.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989. Print.
Olson, Charles. "Projective Verse." 1950. Poetry Foundation. Web. 02 Dec. 2011.  
Schmitt, Norbert. Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University  Press, 2000. Print.
Su, Soon Peng. Lexical Ambiguity in Poetry. London: Longman, 1994. Print.
Zagorin, Perez. "History, the Referent, and Narrative: Reflections on Postmodernism  Now." History and Theory 38.1 (1999): 1-24. JSTOR. Web. 03 Dec. 2011.

Triantafyllia Chasioti
BA graduate, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki