• Dr.Pragya Suman

Arc Archive, Featured Poet, Arc Summer Issue2021

Writing the Negative Way

Gregory Betts


There are different models for transforming our way of seeing. One of these ways is via negativa, the negative way, that seeks knowledge obtained by denial. The opposite of via negativa is the kataphatic or positive way that is understood as the way of speech. If we think of the via negativa in relation to speech, we start to attend to the energy and knowledge of the unwritten doctrines of language, speech, and communication. Language is an unseen third factor in any example of communication, whether art or everyday. It is a mediator that shapes the limits of that communication, that structures the way we experience ideas, insight, and knowledge. Despite its limitations, the positive element of language is essential for daily life, for story, and self-understanding. Visual poetry, in contrast, reverses the kataphatic role of language and arrests speech to see the elements in strategic isolation. It becomes a tool to open our consciousness to the way that we inherit ideology, to disrupt our habits of language use.


What visual poets discover is that when you reverse the polarity of language, pursue the via negativa of speech by exposing the mechanisms that drive the engine of communication, you discover the vibratory verve of letters. In Canada, visual poets such as bill bissett, Judith Copithorne, and bpNichol from the 1960s, or M. NourbeSe Philip, Derek Beaulieu, and Kate Siklosi more recently, have shattered grammar and language habits as if they were shattering the worst poisons of contemporary life – colonialisms, capitalisms, misogyny, wanton environmental destruction, and so on. They connect to a wider field of writers and artists who seek a more holistic perspective on knowledge, who combine rather than isolate the senses, and attend to and expand the unseen, secret underbelly of knowledge that establish the boundaries of thinking. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.”

So, while language allows us to move and work and live in the world, we are also approaching a crisis point at this point in human history where the ways we have moved, worked, and lived in the world will turn against the possibility of doing so in the future. Visual poetry becomes a means of counting our sorrows, consoling grief, by attending to one thing with complete abandon. Instead of being overwhelmed by incomprehensibility, such artists pursue the brutal beauty of language and, thereby,

expand its insidious scale. I don’t think the tradition seeks to change the world by itself – the scale of a visual poem is microscopic compared to farming methods, energy sources, and warfare. What becomes of consciousness, though, if we expand the limits of language art to the widest imaginable limits, and gain a tool to help see the implications and harms of human cultures? We might pause in our habits and customs to think about what needs to come next, to come in its place. Visual poetry is a rich invitation into the pause of habits. It is a recognition that there are entire worlds not known, oceans in the very letters of the words through which we experience and understand the world.



Bio: Gregory Betts is the author of nine books of poetry, most recently Foundry (Redfoxpress (Ireland), 2021), a collection of visual poems, and Sweet Forme (Apothecary Archive (Australia), 2020), a visualization of the sound patterns in Shakespeare's sonnets. He lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, and teaches at Brock University. He is the curator of the bpNichol.ca Digital Archive.




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