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Architecture Versus Sound in Concrete Poetry
A.S. Bessa

And thereby let us anticipate the delineation of a site, the familial residence and
tomb of the proper in which is produced, by différance, the economy of death.

--Jacques Derrida

Attired with stars we shall for ever sit
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee, O Time.


For those who study the history of concrete poetry, the often underrated role assigned to Öyvind Fahlström’s "Manifesto for Concrete Poetry" in the broader context of the concrete poetry movement remains puzzling. Granted, the manifesto is often cited and quoted in anthologies and essays throughout the world, and its groundbreaking status has been widely acknowledged; but the way in which parts of the manifesto have been exhaustively quoted suggests that the whole of Fahlström’s manifesto has hardly been digested, and that his poetic vision has been understood only partially. In fact, excerpts from the manifesto have often been used to corroborate a perception of concrete poetry that is utterly alien to Fahlström’s personal view. My contention is that there is a schism at the core of concrete poetry, beginning with the very definition, or assumption, of what the word "concrete" should stand for. This schism is nowhere better illustrated than in the theoretical works of Öyvind Fahlström and the Noigandres Group in Brazil. This article is an attempt to address the schism and the problems involved in the different approaches to the concept of "concrete" as it was taken by Fahlström on the one hand, and by the Brazilian poets on the other.

Before going any further, I should emphasize that the discrepancies between Fahlström and the Noigandres poets (Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos, and Décio Pignatari) are easily minimized or obscured by what they have in common. Indeed, there are many aspects in which they all agree, and which they incorporated into their practice. What I am after here, though, is the element that has been less considered- the difference- which is something that has enormous resonance. That difference, I will try to demonstrate, resides in the rigid architectural metaphor embraced by the Noigandres Group, as opposed to Fahlström’s musical approach-- and it points to an essential question that pervades the concrete poetry movement as a whole: writing versus sound, text versus performance.


The impact of modernist architecture on the Noigandres group

For the poets of the Noigandres group, the concept of "concrete" was taken in an architectural sense: a structural material of "endless expressive possibilities," the element that not only would free architecture from the tyranny of beaux arts language, but also would enable it to address pressing social needs. This close association of concrete poetry with modernist architecture is revealing. The movement so strongly identified itself with modernism that its own modernity became obsolete; in other words, once the "concrete lexicon" was exhausted, the Noigandres poets were unable to develop their concrete project any further. Moreover, Brazilian concrete poetry also shared with modern architecture ideas that run from the broad social concerns of modernism-- such as utopia, utilitarianism, and sanitation-- to technical and stylistic matters involving structure, modules, form, and repetition.

To better evaluate the emphasis on architecture advocated by the Noigandres Group, it is necessary to understand the impact that modernist architecture had in Brazil in the 1930s and 40s. The radical views on urban planning that swept Europe at the beginning of this century seem to have encountered a sort of blank slate in a country striving to overcome its colonial past. One needs only to be reminded of two landmark projects to understand the visionary, if not messianic, role ascribed to architecture at the time: LeCorbusier’s "corniche extensions" proposal for Rio de Janeiro in 1930, and the construction of Brasilia in the 1950s.

LeCorbusier’s proposal for Rio consisted of "a coastal highway, some 6 kilometers in length, elevated 100 meters above the ground and comprising fifteen floors of 'artificial sites' for residential use stacked beneath its road surface." The project would simply and systematically erase four hundred years of culture and history in a radical attempt to start from scratch. The "corniche extensions" plan failed to leave the drawing board, but the program for a revolutionary architecture was advanced further through the foundation of Brasilia, the nation's capital, which was designed by two of Le Corbusier's disciples and former collaborators, Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa. Once again, the scope was monumental and geared toward bending history’s path. In this context, modernist architecture was identified with social and political progress, and "concrete," as building material and concept, became the embodiment of a utopian promise: no more "empty words."

The Noigandres Group was formed concomitantly with the construction of Brasilia, and the impact of that major architectural event in shaping the group’s views can be measured by a close reading of their manifesto, published in 1957. Beginning with its title, "Plano-Piloto para Poesia Concreta," the manifesto is written in a highly controlled style, reminiscent of architectural jargon, which renders the whole text utterly impersonal. The poet is "elevated" to the position of an architect or an engineer: "João Cabral de Melo Neto— o engenheiro e a psicologia da composição mais anti-ode: linguagem direta, economia e arquitetura funcional do verso." The overall tone is extremely dry and cryptic, and the reader goes through sentence after sentence without identifying an "author" (a personal voice), or even feeling assured that the text is directed to him or her. This sense of disorientation, or alienation, in concrete poetry, which I will discuss in detail farther on, is of an essentially architectural nature. "Concrete poetry: the product of a critical evolution of forms," begins the manifesto, celebrating in its epigrammatic style its bond with modernist architecture through the reduction of the poem to a "product," and "by the recognition of the graphic space as a cultural agent" —"o poema-produto: objeto útil."

In 1957, a year before the publication of the "Plano-Piloto" manifesto, Décio Pignatari published an article in the magazine "Arquitetura e Decoração" titled "Forma, Função e Projeto Geral." The article doesn’t concentrate specifically on poetry, but it gives a glimpse into the original ideas that were to be developed more fully in the manifesto. Pignatari ponders the dichotomy of "form and function in the new world of serial industrial production." Handmade production, he writes, "has been thrown out of circulation," and the "new consumer is a consumer of physical design." The concept of a "consumer of physical design" is a direct reference to Richard Neutra, which Pignatari uses to combat the Dadaist approach of Picabia and his "beautiful useless machines." - the new art, and the new poem, should be instead a "beautiful useful machine" The "machine" here is meant in an architectural way, and is inspired by the "reductivist approach" of Neue Sachlichkeit architects such as Ernst May and Hannes Meyer, to whom a house should "function" as a "machine," or car. "In the formal approach of the new reality," Pignatari concludes, "it was evident that architecture and urbanism ... should lead to the proposition and solution of great and small problems of modern art ." Thus we have concrete poetry’s production system thoroughly exposed: the poet as the architect or designer, and the reader as the "consumer of physical design." This system, we shall see farther on, is completely opposed to Fahlström’s.


How architectural ideas were absorbed into poetry

Modernist architecture’s attack on the old eclectic architecture preexisting in Brazil-- a mixture of colonial-baroque, French neoclassicism, and Beaux Arts-- was paralleled by the Noigandres Group’s attack on the Portuguese language. One could say that concretism’s impact on language was as drastic as LeCorbusier’s plan for Rio, or Costa and Niemeyer’s Brasilia. The Portuguese language is as ornate as any other of Latin origin, and its excesses were not compatible with a "concrete’" approach to language. It is revealing to read the theoretical texts produced by Noigandres’ members for the ciphered style; in those texts the writing became extremely economic, avoiding redundant stylistic elements and grammatical conventions: "concrete poetry aims at the lowest common denominator of language, thus its tendency to ‘substantification’ (nouns) and ‘verbification.’ ... Hence its affinities with the so-called ‘isolating-languages’ such as Chinese."

Isolation, claimed as a goal to be achieved in language, was also pursued by modernist architects, either through the final product-- the building itself-- or its basic components, or modules. Isolation as a goal in poetry might be imputed to Brazil’s repressive political atmosphere, for the era of development of concrete poetry is situated right between the end of the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas and the takeover by a military junta in 1964. This environment was responsible for an epigrammatic style that pervaded all cultural areas. It is not surprising then that this approach led the Noigandres Group to a creative cul-de-sac in the space of a decade.

The pursuit of space and form in poetry had been inspired by the "typographical agraphia" of Stéphane Mallarmé, whom Roland Barthes describes as "the Hamlet of literature," representing "this precarious moment of History in which literary language persists only the better to sing the necessity of its death." Barthes’ commentary on Mallarmé acquires a prophetic dimension when we consider the later development of the Noigandres Group, for although the belief in language's power to influence or inform history had ultimately rescued concrete poetry from becoming a mere formalistic exercise, the overwhelming threat of being embraced by academia abruptly impelled the movement into a position that mistook death for freedom. "This art has the very structure of suicide," Barthes suggested, "in it silence is a homogeneous poetic time which traps the word between two layers and sets it off less as a fragment of a cryptogram than as a light, a void, a murder, a freedom."

This "silence," though, can be considered "strategic" -- a ruse to expose absence in language and an intentional manipulation of space, thus constituting itself as eminently architectural. Mark Wigley has explored the structure of architectural metaphor in the discourse of Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book The Architecture of Deconstruction. In a chapter dedicated to "space" and "silence," Wigley refers to "strategic silence," pointing out that architecture is "routinely constructed by certain silences that constitute rather than interrupt discourse, silences whose ongoing violence can only be addressed obliquely." This "architectural silence" thus works like a barricade, at once and alternately void and object, Heideggerian abyss and thing.

"Concrete poetry: tension of words-things in space-time" the "Plano-Piloto" manifesto proclaims, and in their most successful poems the Noigandres poets repeatedly reasserted their belief in "silence" as a determinant of space and time. This silence ultimately enabled the Noigandres group to address critical questions inherent to language’s architectural nature, such as "ornament," "structure," and "foundation." In a poem of 1957, "uma vez, uma vala," by Augusto de Campos, we see all these issues addressed at once:

uma vez

uma vala

uma foz

uma vez uma bala

uma fala uma voz

uma foz uma vala

uma bala uma vez

uma voz

uma vala

uma vez

The poem’s design resembles a modernistic mosaic pattern or a spiral staircase, and as we read it we go down into the abyss, which is here the theme of the poem itself. The words evoke time (uma vez: once upon), abyss (vala: ditch), death (bala: bullet), and word (voz: voice, speech) and its repetitive structure, much in the manner of architectural modules, keeps moving the reader endlessly back and forth from one idea (word) to another. Silence here creates space, an acoustic space that makes the isolated words reverberate in a ghostly way, creating the sensation of an abandoned house. This is a poem not meant to be read aloud, but rather to be inhabited. Reading it will only dissipate its spatial boundaries; the reading should be done only by the eye, and the sound created only in the reader’s mind.

Organic architecture

"Any house," wrote Frank Lloyd Wright in 1931, "is a far too complicated clumsy, fussy, mechanical counterfeit of the human body... The whole interior is a kind of stomach that attempts to digest objects.... The whole life of the average house, it seems, is a sort of indigestion." Wright’s organic approach to architecture is closer to Fahlström’s structural vision, for although "The Manifesto for Concrete Poetry" also makes use of architectural metaphor, the rigidity of this language is ultimately balanced by organic concerns. Furthermore, Wright’s reference to the stomach uncannily brings to mind Fahlström’s scatological bent, evidenced in poems such as "The March of the Borborygms" or "Müüüm and the Megaphones."

"The possibilities are endless," Fahlstrom writes; "In poetry there can be fractured stanzas with vertical parallelism, so that the content provides the form by the fact that when a word is repeated, it must be placed exactly under the last occurrence of the same word, or vice versa, so that when part of a line is put vertically in parallel with one above, it brings with it the meaning of the line above.... The profusion of possibilities enables us to achieve a greater complexity and functional differentiation, in which each of the various parts of the content of a work acquires its own form." To this gridlike view of poetic space, so akin to Bauhaus architecture, Fahlström juxtaposes "contrapuntal music" and atonal music: "Thus, for example, I can construct a series of twelve vowels in a certain order and make my worlets out of them, even though a twelve-vowel series as such does not have the same conventional justification as a series of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale." Although other architectural metaphors (verbs such as "construct" and "function") occasionally threaten to influence his writing, the final outcome of the manifesto is a vigorous defense of music’s primacy over poetry. The last paragraph of the manifesto begins "When I have used the word ‘concrete’ ... it has a stronger association with concrete music than with visual concretism in a narrow sense."

"Concretism" for Fahlström is thus less related to the béton-armé of modernist architecture than to the belief that words carry meaning. In 1973 he wrote, "Like many people, I began to understand during the late ‘60s that words like ‘capitalism,’ ‘exploitation,’ ‘alienation,’ were not mere ideas or political slogans, but stood for terrifying, absurd, and inhumane conditions in the world." This, one might add, was the culmination, radical and politicized, of a process initiated in the early 1950s-- a process of analyzing, understanding, "concretizing." Concrete poetry is an instrument, as he puts it, "to analyze our wretched human condition," and the human element is translated into language through an organic relationship to reality: "The concrete reality of my worlets is not at all in opposition to the reality of their surroundings: they are neither dream-sublimation nor futuristic fantasy, but an organic part of reality I am living in although with their own principles for life and development."

One shouldn’t overlook in this passage such words as "reality," "organic," or "life and development," for they also hint at the core of Fahlström’s idea of "concrete"-- the systematic as organic and the organic as a system. "Müüüm och Megafonerna" admirably demonstrates this equation: a surrealist tale written in the style of Rimbaud’s "Illuminations," it betrays Fahlström’s interest in "the logic of primitive people, of children, or the mentally ill." Its scatological account of the voice apparatus is made to resemble the systematic organization of a primitive society, and the poem is thus presented to the reader as a myth, a given, a "concrete" concept. "Müüüm och Megafonerna" is also revealing in its chosen subject matter: the voice apparatus.

An unpublished manuscript from 1962 titled "Project for Dine’s Home" (fig.1) gives a clear measure of what the "animistic" tendency in Fahlström’s poetry involved. The work, meant as an homage to Jim Dine’s 1963 series of works on house appliances and compartments, is laid out as the floor plan of a house, with each of its rooms translated into "bird-language." Fahlström writes in his notes concerning "bird-language" that one of the methods to achieve the translation of an English word into "Birdo" is through "kneading," that is, through the manual work of a plastic, "claylike material." "Project for Dine’s Home" is thus revealing in that it points to both the architectural and organic concerns in Fahlström’s poetry. Moreover, shaping words through "kneading" hints at the scatological dimension of his systematic view, an (architectural) structure infused with life—pulsating, secretory, always evolving.


The voice as organic counterpart of language

The political dimension in Fahlström’s work demanded a "voice" to make its message thoroughly understood. This is clear from works such as the "Ade-Ledic-Nander" series, in which "painting" didn’t seem to be a medium sufficiently adequate to transmit the whole message. Painting in this case worked as an appendix, or merely a prop of a performance, in which the "voice" and the "presence" of its author were the indispensable elements. The "voice" and "presence" of the author are a complicated matter that shouldn’t occupy our

attention at this moment, but they refer to the tradition of the rhapsodes that is central to Fahlström’s approach to poetry, and in a way diametrically opposed to the Noigandres group. Fahlström seemed to be more interested in the conflagration of an event, an action, a performance, whereas the Noigandres group kept close to the constructive properties of poetry. In a "Notation" of 1974 Fahlström wrote, "Those who view the musical and poetic dimension of my work as an evasion, or as an opportunistic sugarcoating of serious conditions, I would remind of the scene in ‘Tosca’ where torture goes on offstage. Meanwhile, onstage, Puccini’s belcanto flows."

It is fair to emphasize that music, or sound, is only mentioned in the Noigandres texts for its secondary values. Pignatari suggests, for instance, that "the new music (electronic) has already been introduced in the cinema, television and radio as sound effects." In the "Plano Piloto" manifesto, we find a direct reference to music in poetry: "Rhythm: relational force. A concrete poem, using the phonetic system and an analogic syntax, creates a specific linguistic area-- ‘verbivocovisual’-- that benefits from the advantages of the nonverbal communication, without abdicating the word’s virtues." Elsewhere in the same text, a reference to music is merely for historical effect, that is, an attempt to link concrete poetry to Webern by way of Boulez and Stockhausen.

The absence of sound -- the silence -- in the poetry of the Noigandres Group is thus paradoxical, for their interest in popular music is well known. The musical element in their poetry has been internalized, bringing it close to a silent experience. Reading a Noigandres poem, one is caught in a mental web of associations and references that are of a thoroughly visual nature. This approach to reading completely denies performance: it is more about the writing than about the utterance. Some poems, such as Décio Pignatari's "beba coca cola," with its repetitive bilabial and palatal sounds, do invite some musical performance. But this aspect is entirely secondary or even gratuitous, for Pignatari’s main interest here seems to be the deconstruction of an advertising icon (Coca Cola), its debasement through scatology, and ultimately the "construction" of a little monument (or tomb): a spiral in the shape of the letter "c."

beba coca cola

babe cola

beba coca

babe cola caco




Last(ing) words

Whereas the concrete poetry of the Noigandres group worked towards the dilapidation (with all its sculptural implications) of the Portuguese language, Fahlström seems to have worked in the opposite direction— to add more complexity to Swedish, and, in the case of "Birdo" and "Whammo," to the English language. Physical space was not constricting to his practice, and he rarely submitted to the tyranny of the page’s format. His poems are rarely short, and when they are, the writing is still spread out and complicated, often undermining the simplicity of design. "Den Svåra Resan" for example, was printed in the Bonniers edition divided into five stanzas, but it is more likely that Fahlström intended it to be in an extended horizontal shape, like a sheet of music. This lack of visual rigor is in opposition to the highly "engineered" poems by the Noigandres group, and is the ultimate evidence of Fahlström’s personal take on concretism: "concrete" as the organic component in language, which confers a web of significations onto a word.

The impact of this particular concept of "concrete" theory, the one was first formulated by Pierre Schaffer and later embraced and expanded by Öyvind Fahlström, in present-day culture is signaled by events as distant in the cultural spectrum as, on the one hand, rap music‘s "sampling" techniques and, on the other, scientific experiments in "cloning." These two examples point to the intrinsic problem in "concretism," namely the outward cultural impulse and its inward organic counterpart. Never one to underestimate the power of popular culture, Fahlström, whose 1967 film "U-Barn" already pondered the effects of chemically synthesized drugs on the development of language skills in children, would certainly have a word or two to say on these subjects.