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.

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Haiku and Fitting Surprise

8 07 2010

In a recent post, I cite a terrific paragraph from Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite.  That paragraph, titled “Surprisingly Apt,” reads:

“Ultimately, the devices of surprise may set up the pins, but they don’t guarantee the strike.  The essence of surprise is in its timing and execution: fast, graceful, and apt.  Aptness is paramount.  The best surprise of all may be how precisely an unexpected word or image pops a message.  Unexpected is easy; unexpectedly perfect helps separate writers from hacks.”

As I note in that post, what I like so much about this paragraph is that it jibes with a quality of writing that I’m very taken by: a quality I call “fitting surprise,” that moment in writing when something occurs that is both unexpected and yet truly apt.  “Fitting surprise” is not a kind of turn, but rather a quality of turn I value highly.

For those (potentially) interested in this quality of turn, I thought I’d highlight an essay I wrote a few years back that offers my clearest statement about what I think fitting surprise is: “Writing Degree ∞ (on Recent Haiku).”

While generally a review of some recent haiku, “Writing Degree ∞” also offers some history of the concept of fitting surprise (for example, how it is discussed by artists, writers, and critics such as Lee Gurga, Rene Magritte, Pierre Reverdy, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Margaret Atwood, Antonya Nelson, and Randall Jarrell) and employs the concept critically, showing how the application of the concept actually can make a difference in how one thinks about, in this instance, haiku.  (I suggest that the more structural quality of fitting surprise should trump formal considerations when trying to determine what are successful (or: awesome, astounding, wonderful…) haiku–haiku form (three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively) offers very little in terms of how to judge the success of a haiku (anyone can write a 5-7-5 haiku!) whereas the mysterious, difficult, and amazing quality of fitting surprise offers a worthy criterion: if one detects the presence of fitting surprise in a haiku, that haiku is doing something powerful, something singular.)

Please note that while I hope all of “Writing Degree ∞” is worth paying attention to, the essay’s turn to discussing fitting surprise and its role in the evaluation of haiku begins with the final paragraph on p. 150.