Letterpress Exhibition Cards


For centuries, poets have used layered rhetorical devices to seduce, persuade, and create beauty in their words. For my thesis, I developed a system called Verse Patterns to underscore the layering of rhetorical figures in any piece of poetry. Since graphic design is about typography, organization, and elucidating information, it is the perfect medium to reveal the nuances in literature that are often overlooked. My design system shows the subtle, yet exciting aspects of poetic language and hopefully entices people to delve more deeply into what they read and hear.


Verse Patterns

Verse Patterns is a system that uses graphic design to identify rhetorical figures in poetry, verse, and song lyrics. Rhetorical figures (also called figures of speech) are a stylistic subgenre of rhetoric that depart from ordinary language; they enhance meaning while also ornamenting a poem. They consist of hundreds of devices under the umbrella of schemes and tropes. Schemes alter word order while tropes alter word meaning.

I assigned patterns to a series of specific terms; these patterns provide a means of examining literary language while illuminating its intricacies. The simple patterns are elemental enough to overlap and create super-patterns where multiple rhetorical devices are in play. Applicable to any poem, Verse Patterns seeks to reveal poetic universality across time, oceans, and genres. Below: a few of the patterns are listed with their respective figures, and an example of how they are used in a line of verse.

Pattern Key Line Sample

The System

A select list of rhetorical figures that occur in classic and contemporary verse is the basis of my pattern system. I started with my favorite figures, derived from a long-time fascination with poetic devices in Latin literature (like allegory in Ovid's Metamorphoses or litotes in Vergil's Aeneid, among many others). I then added to the list the figures that are prevalent and entertaining, like alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme. In the end I narrowed the list down to thirty rhetorical devices matched with thirty patterns.

I considered the options and risks of how I brought design to bear on displays of poetry. The patterns employ simple structures of dots and stripes to enable layering. A variety of colors, as well as two different dot sizes and stripe thicknesses, form a coded significance within otherwise uniform shapes. I chose the colors of the patterns while keeping in mind their frequency and dramatic power. For example, I adorned the often-used internal rhyme device (rhymes within a line of poetry instead of at the end) with thin gray stripes, while assigning the rare yet exciting feature of antanaclasis (the repetition of one word in two different senses) thicker stripes of green. The color assignments are not meant to favor any particular rhetorical figure, but to allow for the prevalent figures to work well with the patterns that would inevitably be overlaid on them.


Formally, the dot and stripe patterns add dimensionality to otherwise flat words. I typeset large, light gray, super-bold verses to provide a subtle, yet substantial base for the layering. From the beginning of the process, again derived from old Latin class habits, I incorporated metrical scansion, or symbols that represent syllabic emphasis, into the typeset poetry. The scansion adds another layer of information and interest to the system, and shows a poet's careful rhythmic considerations in a pleasing way.

Applied to Verse

Verse Patterns uses color and pattern to reveal connections, strategies, and themes in poetry. The system not only identifies literary terms and rhetorical strategies in a single verse, but also compares and contrasts the elements and strategies of separate verses. For the Verse Patterns exhibition examples, I chose two very different, but well-known poets for the sake of comparison, education, and irony: Geoffrey Chaucer (14th Century English poet), and Jay-Z (21st Century American rapper).

One of the goals of Verse Patterns is to use accessible beauty to ease the heavy divide that accompanies lofty, obscure poetic language. In Geoffrey Chaucer's day, the density of rhetorical elements marked the strength of the poet. "Chaucer lived in an age of especially conscious elaboration of figures of speech. This rhetorical tradition implies a highly sophisticated, subtle, and technical attitude to the art of poetry" (D.S. Brewer, Parliament of Foules, 1960). Below: Verse Patterns applied to an excerpt from Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale.

Chaucer Passage Chaucer and Jay-Z2

Above: Verses from Chaucer and Jay-Z employ similar strategies, like anaphora and alliteration, to talk about money (or cheese, or cheddar, or cake). Complex yet casual, humorous yet insightful, and bawdy yet polished, Chaucer’s poetry was pun-filled, rhythmic, and forward thinking: an archetype of rhetorical verse. After many shifts in the popularity of rhetorical figures over time, contemporary poets and lyricists today return to the Chaucer-esque traditions of poetry, overlapping and intersecting these classic formulas. Jay-Z, like Chaucer, is a metrical poet whose words, rife with figures of speech, flow with syllabic emphasis and culminate in pleasing end rhymes.

Critics are so adverse to certain content in hip-hop music that they fail to recognize complex vernacular poetry with similar rhetorical devices and rhythmic stylings of its Middle English predecessor. Not only does a parallel analysis of Chaucer and Jay-Z make sense in terms of structure and style, but also in terms of motifs. The recurring themes of sex, drugs, misogyny, storytelling, pop culture, lyrical prowess, politics, social issues, and money permeate both bodies of work. At a closer look, new-school rap resembles old-school poetry performed over a beat, and verse patterns accumulate where the poets consider multiple rhetorical devices at once.

Jay-Z Passage

Verse Patterns uncovers the hidden relationship between wildly different styles of verse and treats both as complicated poetic form. No, Chaucer did not perform the Canterbury Tales to a beat, but he did use assonance on top of personification on top of allusion, just like Jay-Z. Jay-Z does not craft intricate frame narratives (story within a story) in iambic pentameter, but he does consider verbal scansion and pronunciation to create puns that ornament his socially-progressive storytelling, like Chaucer did in his time.

Verse patterns is not just a means of comparison; it is a means of illuminating. By themselves or in a series, the system applied to any snippet of poetry could reveal what is not always evident, or obviously pleasing. As delightful as paronomasia, or pun, is in any classic poem or rap lyric, is becomes even more outstanding when overlaid with magenta stripes.


Additional Work

Below: letterpress postcards for the thesis opening and a rhyme-scheme study in which I overlaid verses from Chaucer and Common.

Letterpress Invite

Rhetorical Chairs

For an explanatory supplement to the Verse Patterns, I took the list of poetic devices and used it as a prompt for visual invention. Rhetoric, or the art of communication, encourages active connections between concepts and visual understanding. There is value in the application of specialized literary forms and tactics that deviate from the ordinary, to design. These rhetorical figures, while typically referring to words or phrases, can also apply to form-making. They can serve as practice tools to influence concept-building as well as formal arrangement. Just as using figures of speech in language helps a writer depart from conventional form, applying them to design helps create elements of surprise.


I took a common object, the chair, and re-designed it to illuminate different figures of speech as illustrated visual examples of the Verse Patterns terms. The anastrophe chair, for example, has legs on the seat of the chair instead of underneath, because anastrophe is the rearrangement of typical word order. Repurposing figures of speech to relate to design adds new appeal to tired visual elements.


Iambic Pentameter

I designed a wordless poem using scansion symbols and color as visualizations of iambic pentameter and heroic couplet. Iambic pentameter is a meter that Chaucer often employed, consisting of five iambic feet of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables. Legend has it that Chaucer pioneered the heroic couplet, which is an end-rhyme scheme in which the last words in two consecutive lines form rhyming pairs. Below left: an exercise color-coding meter. Passage from Chaucer's General Prologue. Below right: Hear the audio component that was combined with the iambic pentameter poster for the exhibition. Audio: Clip from Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale" read by Forrest Gander, djembe iambic pentameter drumming, and "Wrath of Kane" iambic rap verse, by Big Daddy Kane, 1989.

Meter Iambic Pentameter and Heroic Couplet

Simile Poster

A poster in which I collected sixty similes from Lil' Wayne lyrics and designed them around the "like" or "as" in each line. Green dots represent the word "like," while pink represents "as," both of which anchor the verbal comparisons for which similes are known. Lil' Wayne often layers paronomasia, allusion, and metonymy with his similes.


Magnified Patterns

For this series I enlarged super-patterns from the Verse Patterns posters. These studies show the layered patterns on a larger scale and help viewers associate swatches with their respective rhetorical figures.

Epistrophe Wall

Jay-Z Rhetoric

I typeset my collection of Jay-Z verses that use a variety of specific rhetorical devices. This provides another example to help relate the meaning of a rhetorical device to poetic language that uses it.

Jay-Z Rhetoric Line

MFA Exhibition

Thesis exhibition in Meyerhoff Gallery. March and April, 2010.

Exhibit People looking at exhibit Listening Wall Small Quote Other Wall Reading Line

The Designer

Virginia Sasser, MICA Graphic Design MFA, 2010.


Sources: The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, with notes by Peter G Biedler, Bantam Classics; Design Papers: Rhetorical Handbook, by Ellen Lupton and Hanno Ehses; Book of Rhymes: the Poetics of Hip Hop, by Adam Bradley; Jay-Z, Lil' Wayne, and Chaucer, among other poets and MCs.


(c) Copyright 2010 Virginia Sasser. All Rights Reserved.