The Design Space of Language

By Johanna DruckerOctober 10, 2019

The Design Space of Language

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon by Dennis J. Bernstein and Warren Lehrer

IF PHILIP ROTH’S CLASSIC coming-of-age novel Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) had been designed in the style of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes (1918), the result might be something like Five Oceans in a Teaspoon. This virtuosic new collaboration between artist Warren Lehrer and writer Dennis J. Bernstein has the tonal and experiential range of a memoir, but it is rendered in artfully designed poem-texts. Each piece in this funny, poignant work is scored — almost in the musical sense — with graphic organization for performance on the page. The intersection of visual and verbal articulation, sustained across the entire span of almost 300 pages, never flags or becomes repetitive. The result is an engaging masterwork that has only a handful of precedents in literary and design history. (Animated versions of some of the poems can be viewed online.)

Bernstein’s texts record incidents and observations from his life as a baby boomer. Scenes of growing up (kindergarten terrors, family violence, threats, and intimacies) are followed by tales of social life, addiction, journalism, and war; the dramas of family; and the details of parents aging and dying. Short and succinct, the texts add up to more than individual statements by virtue of the ongoing chain of references connecting them. The details of his mother’s dementia, for instance, unfold in multiple moments rather than in a long discursive account. Likewise, the vignettes of addiction are tight and concise even as they weave a larger narrative. Bernstein does not linger on any particular incident. He makes vivid statements and moves on, his descriptions deft and distilled. The glimpses into American life across more than half a century are always personal, a background of current events within the alternating minutiae and milestones of existence. Small, well-observed moments accumulate: whole decades come and go as we glimpse a life lived in snapshots taken over many years.

But the graphic design of this work is what is so striking. At first, a reader might think this is mere novelty, special typographic effects. But how would these passages read if they were not scored so dramatically? The writing belongs to a conventional lyric idiom that chronicles moments of epiphany: Bernstein’s tone is curt and ironic, unsentimental, and firmly rooted in the tradition of personal voice. The texts gain their distinctive impact from Lehrer’s graphic scoring, which turns each line, word, and breath into an opportunity for transformation. The daily trauma of school, of studying math, of dealing with death in childhood, is worked out in diagrammatic designs that reinforce our understanding of how the language is working in these poems. Lehrer gives graphic form to the poetic line, using the breaks between phrases or the emphatic attention to certain words as a way to explore the way meaning is produced.

A perfect example is “Better than But”: in this poem, written from a child’s point of view, Bernstein’s three statements read: “mama’s maybe / sounds like a yes / with its fingers crossed”; on the page, the “y” in “maybe” and the “s” in yes are repeated in a crossing pattern that is neither a literal image nor a second text, but simply a schematic echo of the thought form suggested by the poem. The same analysis could be done for every page in this book. The visual emphases are schematic and diagrammatic, the dynamic image of thought coming into language.

The phrase “visual poetry” often invokes poems whose form depicts the shape of things. In classical antiquity, the Greek poets wrote funerary verse in the shape of urns; in the 17th century, the metaphysical poet George Herbert composed “Easter Wings,” a work that has provoked much critical reflection on the relation between format and meaning. Other instances of visual poetics can be cited across cultures and time periods, from expressive calligraphy to animated digital texts. But within this varied tradition, only a handful of works are sustained, book-length treatments. Fewer yet embody the sophisticated diagrammatic quality of Lehrer’s approach. A diagram has dynamic properties by virtue of the schematic quality of its components. Think of a wiring diagram or one for a dance performance or an elaborate play in football — the drawing would have arrows, showing movement and paths of activity.

The designs Lehrer created for Bernstein’s succinct poems in Five Oceans are dynamic by virtue of the way they place each word, phrase, or (sometimes) letter in relation to the others on the page. The designs turn the short lines and statements into vectors of force in fields of action. The effect is remarkable and the range of graphic innovation is impressive. No two poems use the same format. Each is scored to optimize articulation — in the sense that joints articulate relations among segments of limbs. The result is a bit like taking the grammar school exercise of diagramming sentences and raising it to a theoretical level so that meaning-production, not grammatical structure, is exposed. The potential of language — poetic language in particular — to be turbocharged through the graphical exploration of meaning is fully realized on each page. As we read, we note the distribution of the words as part of their timing, their impact, their collision or separation. Lehrer’s skill is analytic as much as graphic. Something of Saul Steinberg’s metaphoric visual sense plays through these designs, giving concrete form to the abstractions that structure our understanding of time, space, and identity. Whether using a bracket and an ellipsis to stretch a dream event across the book’s gutter (thus evoking a space of deep oblivion), as in “Night and Day,” or creating an arc of motion in “Clockless Alarms,” Lehrer takes advantage of our expectations about reading, torquing our habits just enough to give us insights into the design space of language. We know how to read these works, but they push against our standard reading practices in just the right way.

Lehrer and Bernstein have collaborated before. Their first book, French Fries — a play staged in a fast-food restaurant, with voices typographically scored — became a cult classic almost immediately upon its publication in 1984. Copies of the first edition, when they can be found, sell at substantial prices. The book was honored with many design awards and was widely collected and exhibited, as was their second collaboration, Grrrhhhh: A Study of Social Patterns, which followed in 1987. Both books received AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) awards for reasons that are evident when looking at their pages. Five Oceans may be less flamboyant, since it has no color, no images, no patterns, and no large-scale design motifs. But this means that the text has now become the real focus for visual wordplay.

In the history of visual poetry, only a handful of works have been book-length publications. The technological challenges and labor involved in creating a work that sustains creative typographic invention at this level were daunting, particularly before desktop design programs allowed for the kinds of manipulation that are now more common. The exceptions are well known. For instance, in 1914, the Russian poet Vasily Kamensky created Tango with Cows. Printed on wallpaper in multiple fonts and nonstandard formats that zigzag inside diagonal lines and complicated layouts, the book was a demonstration of what Kamensky called “ferro-concrete poetry.” That same year, Filippo Marinetti published Zang Tumb Tumb, a book-length poem about the Battle of Adrianople that used mathematical symbols — for addition, subtraction, and multiplication — to disturb the normative syntax of Italian literature.

These two works stand out simply because there are so few others. The pioneering work of Stéphane Mallarmé, A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance, originally printed in the British journal Cosmopolis in 1897, later appeared (also in 1914) in a form closer to the vision of his hand-drawn mockup. But these works took the considerable effort of highly skilled letterpress typographers. With the exception of Ilia Zdanevich, a Georgian-born Russian Futurist who apprenticed to a printer in Tbilisi in the late 1910s and set his own type for publications for the next six decades, these poets were dependent on the work of professionals. The costs and labor were considerable since automated techniques, such as linotype or monotype, could not have been used. Each page needed to be set by hand in a compositor’s stick and then locked into a form. By midcentury, photocomposition techniques were in use, such as those that made possible the notable 1964 treatment of Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano by Robert Massin.

As the field of artists’ books developed in the later 20th century, and artists acquired design skills and understanding, playful and imaginative typographic treatments began to appear with greater frequency. But the skills of analytic and creative design are not merely a matter of “playing” with type or making use of mixed fonts or novelty effects. The skill that Lehrer brings to his work goes beyond technical efficiency: he gets inside the writing, exploring the ways its structures can be amplified, its meanings extended, through graphical means. The intellectual art of this work cannot be overstated. If Five Teaspoons has fewer dazzling distractions and fireworks than Lehrer and Bernstein’s earlier collaborations, it has more depth and appreciation of the poetry itself, by virtue of adding nothing to the work but a diagrammatic structure.

The introductory note, by renowned design historian Steven Heller, lends extra credibility to the project. But the poetics of this book — its made-ness through attention and its use of diagrammatic force — needs no explanation to engage the reader. We are made acutely aware of the moving parts of a poetic work, shown how clearly the force of a phrase or the pivot of a line break works as a dynamic vector within the text. Bernstein’s narrator comes through all the more clearly for this graphic treatment. Wit and humor, brevity and clarity — these qualities characterize the book as a whole. Bernstein fits many oceans into the well-defined parameters of Lehrer’s teaspoons; this is a true collaboration, and neither artist would or could have made this work without the other. The complement of their now fully mature talents is evident throughout, and the publisher has taken real care with the design of the physical object so that it opens well and feels as good in the hand as it does in the eye, mind, and heart.


Johanna Drucker is Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. She has written extensively on graphic design and digital aesthetics. 

LARB Contributor

Johanna Drucker is the inaugural Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA.


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