Visual and Verbal Wit

15 01 2012

Recently, I’ve been reading, and viewing, a terrific book: A Smile in the Mind: Witty Thinking in Graphic Design, by Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart.  It’s a beautiful book, filled with hundreds of eye-catching, brain-pleasing examples.

The book also has a really good introduction to wit, in general.  The authors state: “Graphic wit is not really very different from verbal wit.  The medium changes, but the underlying technique is the same.”  I’m sure they’re right.  And, of course, as I read, I couldn’t help but think about the role of the turn in making wit.

According to the authors, “Wit is…[a] frisky tendency, in that it makes its impact through sudden jumps, skips, somersaults and reversals in the mind.”  And, they add: “Witty thinking is always structural….If you want to recognize wit in graphics, look for ‘the familiar’ and ‘the play’….’The play involves an agile or acrobatic type of thinking–a leap, a somersault, a reversal, a sideways jump–where the outcome is unexpected….The two elements–‘the familiar’ and ‘the play’–are responsible for the two main emotions experienced by someone ‘getting’ a witty idea–recognition and surprise.”

Turns aren’t always a part of visual wit–some visual wit occurs immediately.  However, if you’re looking for examples of visual wit created with turns, I can think of few better places to, well, turn than The Perry Bible Fellowship.  Of course, you can just keep hitting the “Random” link and enjoy yourself immensely, but check out specific cartoons (cartoons with very few words in them), such as “Peak Performance,” “b,” and “Today’s My Birthday,” and you can get a very clear sense of the role of the turn in creating visual wit.

Then, check out the thinking on verbal wit here, and see if it applies to visual wit–I think it does.

McAlhone and Stuart explain why wit is so powerful in graphic design.  They note that wit “wins time,” “invites participation,” “gives the pleasure of decoding,” “gives a reward,” “amuses,” “gets under the guard,” “forms a bond,” “goes deeper,” and “is memorable.”  These are, as well, the benefits of wit in writing.  Turn, turn, turn.

“Ecosystems are fragile…”

2 01 2012

“Ecosystems are fragile,”

Croons the corporate giving page gently.

“The delicate balance,”

Bleat the smiling, suited lions.

Nature? She was not always so delicate.

In tales you’ve glimpsed her with the gloves off.

Like the hyenas that separated the left buttock

From the little white girl lost in the brush in Africa after dark.

That insane, midnight dog-giggle of a circling pack, biting cleanly;

I bet that system didn’t feel so fragile.

You’ve seen her in the muddied floodwaters,

Surging with the elated viciousness of a lover.

Vengeful? No.

As you lick your wounds, she would rest you

Hidden in her vast dark underbelly

Until each day begins again.

Her topaz stare surveying you, indifferent,

Glancing away.

They’ve forgotten what she looks like,

Beyond the firelight of their forges.

They’ve stopped looking her in the eye.

They have made their cursory statements,

Offered paltry charity as though to an overlooked child.

She will eat through their profit margins and viscera

In the days when we remember why we used to be afraid.


Among other things, this strong, scary poem by Vera Leopold is an amazing example of the cliche-and-critique structure, subjecting the opening lines’ platitudes about nature to extreme poetic scrutiny.

Vera has a B.A. in English from Illinois Wesleyan University and an M.A. in environmental studies from the University of Illinois at Springfield.  She is Grants Manager/Development Associate for The Wetlands Initiative, based in Chicago.

My thanks to Vera for permission to publish her work.

Poetic Structures Workshop

2 01 2012

If you live in or around Austin, Texas, and you want to explore how the poetic turn might encourage new poems or sharpen some drafts you already have, you may want to consider attending “Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem,” a day-long writing workshop led by poet Scott Wiggerman.  Check it out!