Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925 is on view through April 15, 2013 at The Museum of Modern Art. Find out more at


This is Guillaume Apollinaire’s first published visual poem, for which he later coined the term  “calligramme” by joining the words “calligraphy” and “ideogram” (a picture used to represent a thing or an idea).

Such poems were meant to be read and seen at the same time. Breaking down the traditional block of text as well as the usual horizontal reading from left to right, letters are distributed across the page so that the white space of the page is integrated into the poem’s form. Letters are printed in various fonts and sizes to emphasize their graphic form as well as suggest sonic variation. The poem’s title Lettre-Ocean is  best rendered in English as “Ship-to-ship letter.” It refers to a type
of message that passengers at sea could send to shore by having it transmitted from ship to ship by telegraph.

You can learn more about this poem and its evocative meaning here.

See also our earlier post on Apollinaire’s poetic volume Case d’Armons published from the trenches of World War I

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