Poem Illumination

For our Poem illumination workshop, I chose “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. My choice was perhaps partially sentimental. It was the first “short poem” I ever had to memorize as a student, and, having read about Kilmer’s life, the negative response his poetry continued to get, and his experiences during WWI, I thought perhaps trying to illuminate it would help me look at thet poem in a different way, outside of its “traditional” context or the context that I was given as a student.

Because I know that the author of the poem was a World War journalist, I have always read the “trees” that the poem describes as a metaphor for other things. Perhaps a metaphor for humanity, or for life itself. My interpretation freed me to “sketch” my illumination in whichever way I wanted. It initially considered having human beings at various stages of their life (children, adults, elderly) to correspond to the changes of the seasons in the poem. Especially since the lines seem to personify trees in their description of how trees touch the “bosom” of the earth, or raise their hands up to the sky to pray etc. However, I ended up deciding to have actual trees (or rather one big tress) in my illumination instead. I thought that nature has always been a great metaphor for the human condition, and since I interpret the poem symbolically and metaphorically then I’d like my illumination to be symbolic as well.

This is when I came up with the idea of having One single large sized tree grow out of the bottom of the page and gradually envelope the poem. I decided to reflect the changes of the seasons by having one side of the tree appear “dead” or dying, leaving falling, brown, crumbly, exposed to clouds and rain while the side of the tree would have green branches and flowers growing out of it. That, I thought, was a way of capturing the cyclical nature of the poem.

I worried briefly that while I might think I’ve done a great job of providing a “symbolic illumination” of the poem, other people who are in favor of a more literal understanding of the poem might also think that my attempt quite simply “illustrates” what the poem says. i.e. reads it as they would, to be literally about trees. I thought for several minutes about this before I picked up my pencil because I realized – from viewing a few of the illustrations shown in class in the past couple of weeks—that illuminations are as much for the “other”; the reader, the viewer, as they are for the author/illuminator. What sits on the page juxtaposed to the text has an influence on how we read perceive and interpret the text. This also made me wonder whether illuminations allow for symbolism as well. In other words, could the relationship between image and text be a two-way interpretative path? Is it possible that my illumination could count as a metaphor that the text attempts to interpret? Or that an illumination would trigger its own illumination in the reader’s mind as the reader attempts to understand it. I remembered then that we’d discussed in class a few illuminations that, upon first glance appeared to have very little to do with the actual text, and might be –for the most part—serving an aesthetic purpose. This freed me from the worry about an outsider’s perception, and I finally settled on my tree idea.

All that was left to do was to complete the illumination. My initial plan was to have the branches of my tree create a “frame” around the text of the poem enclosing it with leaves and flowers. However, after looking through Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts in class, the images that appealed to me most were all images that showed the illumination to be “interacting” with the text. There was no clear boundaries between text and illumination. Sometimes leaves would extend to touch some letters and words, some text had flowers embedded in the blank spaces between its lines. Those text-illumination dynamics seemed to me to be more organic and natural than ones that left a clear space between the two modes of expression, so inspired by medieval aesthetics, I decided I would attempt to do the same thing. (My excitement didn’t account for the fact that I don’t have the same artistic abilities that those illuminators had)

Besides my lack of artistic capacity, I gained an important prespective from this illumination workshop. First, I learned that “text interpretation” is an important tool outside of English classes and in a scope bigger than aspiring academics like me. Artists who work in ekphrasis  illustrators, and definitely medieval illuminators had to have been equipped with the right skills to read and understand text, perhaps they even needed the capacity to anticipate multiple interpretations in order to account for the different ways that text might be read within their one illumination. Second, I realized that a lot less time and effort goes into creating manuscripts and books today. We hardly ever see illuminated books anymore, and when we do they are a lot more expensive and would probably be used for display not actual reading. I wonder if digital media would allow us to “bring back” illumination at as less costly price. With virtual books, e-books, PDFs etc. we can create images (and videos even) that interact with our texts without the price of more paper, color etc. Or have our understanding of book aesthetics changed too far being illumination?

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2 thoughts on “Poem Illumination

  1. I find the illumination of the poem to interesting. We discussed in class how some of the illuminations we looked at seemed to frame the text but never attempted to go actually through the lines of text, while your illumination does. I think because of the way you chose to design it, it works well here. The branches of both the living tree bring our attention to certain words in the poem, while the branch of the dying tree serves as a frame for the text.

    Also, the way the two halves of the tree split at the bottom and then nearly, but only nearly, meet at the top continues to assist in framing the poem, keeping the eyes of the reader on the text and none of the white space on the page. I like this illumination very much!

  2. I agree with Chris that the flowers work well here, both as a frame and as a way to highlight particular words in the poem. Also, it matches what is probably the most common decoration within medieval manuscripts – in particular, medieval illuminators loved to include the fleur-de-lis within their designs.

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