Concrete Poetry as an International Movement viewed by Augusto de Campos: An Interview

August 2008, São Paulo, Brazil

Marina Corrêa

Marina.Correa (AT(

(Lecturer at the Department of Romance Studies, University of Vienna, Austria, EU)


Do any fundamental differences exist between Latin American and European concrete poetry (especially for the most orthodox phase of the movement?)

It seems to me that differences have existed from the beginning, but not of a fundamental kind. Fundamental and appalling were, however, the affinities. And in such a way that made us believe that the new poetic language that we were looking for did reflect a necessity that was collective, historical, and not just some kind of idiosyncrasy or individual exhibitionism.

Post-war liberation, starting from 1945, the defeat of Nazism and the decline of Stalinism, enemies and censors of Modernism, put the universal need into focus to recover the proposals of the first avant-gardes, which had been marginalized since, and to renew them.

In Brazil, the First Biennale of São Paulo in 1951 had revealed us Max Bill, who was awarded for his moebiusculpture "Tripartite Unity". The Second Biennale featured, among others, a large retrospective of Calder. The cinematheque of the Museum of Modern Arts in São Paulo unveiled the art cinema of the 1920s and 1930s—and there are many more examples.

Haroldo and I had met Décio [Pignatari] in 1948 and our first books were published between 1950 and 1951, containing some daring poetical experiences, like the word interpolations of the poem "O Jogral e a Prostituta Negra" (The jester and the black prostitute), by Pignatari.

In 1952, when we launched the magazine-book Noigandres, we got in contact with the visual concrete artists of the Ruptura Group, which had formed in the same year in São Paulo.

Schönberg, who had died in the year before, resurrected 1952 through the beatification of "St. Anton" (as Stravinsky had baptized Webern). We discovered the music of the Viennese trio and furthermore of Varèse and Cage, whose first LPs had arrived in São Paulo at this time. Boulez and Stockhausen.

My edition/copy of Pound's Cantos was acquired 1949. In the beginning of the 1950s we obtained an edition of Finnegans Wake (1949), and, shortly thereafter, the Collected Poems by Cummings (1938). The new complete edition of Un Coup de Dés came out the same year, 1952, and we discovered a Brazilian edition, from 1947, with only 500 numbered copies, that contained the complete poem with the principal phrase printed in ocher. Apollinaire's Calligrammes were accessible.

What is not as well known is that the NRF had published, that same year 1952, the book of unpublished Apollinairean poems, Le Guetteur Mélancolique, where we discovered the phrase that became our motto: "Il faut que notre intelligence s'habitue à comprendre synthético-ideographiquement au lieu de analytico-discursivement."! From 1953 to 1958, correspondence with Ezra Pound, then locked up in the St. Elisabeths Hospital in Washington. Our "paideuma" was already formed when Décio embarked for Europe in 1954. We tried, with difficulty, to find affinities with poets of our generation, both locals and foreigners.

The poetry published in the magazine "Nueva Visión" (related to the Argentine concrete painters) seemed post-surrealist to us and of little interest. Gomringer, whom Pignatari met in Ulm in 1955 through the Brazilian designer Alexandre Wollner, was the first European poet in whom we located the affinities we were searching for. To our surprise he had started like us from Mallarmé's Un Coup de Dés, which was then regarded a poetic failure by the mainstream (10 years later I sent the Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, who wanted to know the poem, a copy I made myself, by hand, based on the edition of the NRF…).

Differently from Gomringer, our literary background arose from Ezra Pound, Cummings and Joyce. Our poetry began under a strong influence of the most radical works by these authors and also of music (especially Webern's), in addition to the concrete painting. Gomringer was more directly linked to the Maxbillian plastic minimalism and to the European avant-garde. We speculated with more spatial, organic forms, assimilating neologisms and vocabular fragmentations.

After the meeting, we converged with him in the direction of a simplification of the language, and for a short period—the orthodox phase from 1956 until the end of the decade—we approached each other a lot, arriving at a kind of least common multiple of the poetical language and even at the one-word-poem.

Later, our ways opened up to more individual directions and we proposed more complex speculations, comprising the investigations driven by the incorporation of "chance", under the influence of the ideas of Cage, Mallarmé's posthumous aleatoric "Le Livre" (published in 1957) and the semiotics of Peircian origins, in addition to the re-appropriation of Duchamp's "ready-mades", rehabilitated in the 1960s.

Although it is difficult to generalize, it seems to me that, in the subsequent developments of concrete poetry, the Brazilian variant valuated ever more the semantic dimension, taking a distance from the gratuities of the purely visual and `sonorist' (i.e. sound poetry) manifestations, and trying to maintain as a constant the demands of the isomorphism between matter and signification.


Figure 1 - Olho por olho (Augusto de Campos, 1964)
Figure 1: Olho por olho (Augusto de Campos, 1964). (Reproduced with permission, click to enlarge)


Olho por olho schematics, explaining some of the components.
Figure 2: Olho por olho schematics, explaining some of the components. (Click to enlarge)


Even the `semiotic' poems are dyed with political signification—the case of "Pelé" [the country is the amplified family (with TV set)] by Pignatari (1964). "Olho por Olho" [Eye for an Eye] (1965) uses traffic signs (general danger, left turn prohibited, one way right) to denounce the military dictatorship (cf. Figure 1 and Figure 2). Even so, concrete poetry has always maintained a rigorous production, concentrating itself on few "paradigmatic" poems and renouncing a quantitative and repetitive production. I am referring—to simplify the outline of the question—to the poems which were specifically defined as such.

Haroldo's work with the poetic prose of Galáxias, as well as Décio's with his "semiotic" tale-poems is already a differentiated experience, even though not indifferent to the linguistic conscience of concrete poetry.

LUXO (cf. Figure 3) was inspired by an advertisement for luxury apartments in the newspaper "O Estado de São Paulo" in 1964. The baroque kitsch of the typography stroke Augusto's aesthetical perception and gave him the impulse to impugn the condescending approval of the rich to the military coup of the same year. The poem deconstructs this advertisement through the transformation of the word "luxo" (luxury) in to its opposite, "lixo" (garbage). The first version, published in 1965, was a piece of cardboard that could be unfolded. The last version (2007) was presented as a piece of concrete music by Cid Campos, an audiovisual combination of Augusto's lectures and video projections.


LUXO (Augusto de Campos, 1965) [LUXURT-GARBAGE]
Figure 3: LUXO (Augusto de Campos, 1965) [LUXURT-GARBAGE] (Reproduced with permission, click to enlarge)


In comparison, Gomringer—who represents for me, more than any other European poet, the fundamental concept of concrete poetry—seems to have remained more faithful to the initial orthodoxy, while the Brazilians continued to be more experimental and baroquizing. (cf. Figure 3)

I would like to make it very clear that I do not know, in detail, all of the numerous international production, including the one in German language—where the concrete poetry had big impact and development—so that I could express judging concepts, since I am informed mostly by scattered poems I read in anthologies, rather than by books or topical products.

And that which is called, more generically, `visual poetry' would take us even further. This would be research work and work in an area that I am not equipped to undertake, nor is it my goal. I believe that the inverse also occurs, because abroad the Brazilian poems that are known are always the first ones, the constants of the anthologies of the 1960s. Little is known about its evolution, be it in the work of its very founders, be it in the one of the subsequent generations.

I insist that I consider more relevant than the differences to be the elements of proximity and similarity that united all of us, even though the differences should have led to inflexions and variants of great complexity.

These `non-antagonistic' contradictions give life to the literature, they de-mimetize it. When he stayed in Brazil, Bense ran to Brasília (the architectural capital by Niemeyer), declaring himself indifferent to the Baroque, because he had already absorbed enough of it in Europe.


Ouro Preto 1963, photograph by Augusto de Campos
Figure 4: Ouro Preto 1963, photograph by Augusto de Campos (Reproduced with permission, click to enlarge)


But he did not miss out to see the churches of Ouro Preto and he used a photograph (cf. Figure 4) of mine (that he attributed by mistake to the Brazilian painter Almir Mavigner)—the baroque town viewed at various levels—in the book Brasilianische Intelligenz [Brazilian Intelligence] (1965), in the pages 32 and 33.


Bense cubagramma (Augusto de Campos, 1962)
Figure 5: Bense cubagramma (Augusto de Campos, 1962) (Reproduced with permission, click to enlarge)


And he sent me a portrait of him, Bense, with my poster-poem agit-prop "Cubagramma" (1962) in the background… (cf. Figure 5)


In what ways are cultural aspects reflected in the compositional material of Brazilian concrete poetry and how can these be distinguished from the German concrete poetry after the political break 1964?

The 1960s threw us into an ideological crisis, in Brazil. We dreamed with the idea of a new socialism, towards which Cuba seemed to lean.

We studied Russian, discovered `the other face' of Mayakovsky, his experimental poems (the spreading of which had eased by then), and the lemma, "without revolutionary form there is no revolutionary art" (which we added to our Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry) then began to orient our production in the sense of trying to embed significations at least emblematically linked to the idea of revolution and socio-political transformation into the new texts, abandoning the auto-metalinguistics of the poems of the orthodox phase.

The military dictatorship of 1964—which lasted 20 years—upset our poetics. The routes of the Brazilian concrete poetry were deeply affected by this detestable political situation. We could not just make structural poems any more.

The concrete rationalism was run over as our utopias shattered on the floor. It took us a while to go back to the experimental forms and by the time we returned, we were not the same anymore.


Is it appropriate to state that the concrete poetry by the Noigandres had a more international character in its beginnings than after 1964?

I think that the changes in ideological direction did not reach as far as to affect the international character of the Brazilian concrete poetry. It is true that a large part of their production became of a more semantic kind.

A part of it began to require, to be understood, a better knowledge of the local idiom, while for the minimalist works of the first phase it did not take more than to use a glossary for those who did not know Portuguese; in return, it became less strictly paronomastic and more amenable to translations.

Another part integrated more intensely the non-verbal language, signs and photos, getting even to experiment with poems based purely on imagery, as is the case of the `semiotic poems' or poems without words ("An Eye for an Eye")—becoming even more strongly international, due to being translinguistic, than the productions of the initial minimalist phase.


How did the Brazilian historical avant-garde (above all Oswald de Andrade) and Modernism (represented by your discovery Sousândrade) influence the international concept of the structure of the poems of the Noigandres-Group?

These works, extracted from our poetic past, some of them expressly under the heading of `re-visions', brought to light works that had been left marginalized in relation to the canons of the academy and the university.

In these works we discovered forerunners and innovations that confirmed our poetical speculations and had large relevance for our contextualizing of the transformations of the poetic language that occurred internationally in the same period. In the case of Sousândrade, in parallel to works such as those by Mallarmé, Holz, Hopkins; in the case of Oswald, in relation to the avant-gardes of the beginning of the century. We discovered an anti-normative past: stopped being orphans in our own country. Our `re-visions', which covered other authors such as Gregório de Matos (seventeenth century) and Pedro Kilkerry (1885-1917), gave a body to this marginalized past, "at the margin of the margin", in the expression of Pignatari. On the other hand they strengthened the concept of `invention', which is less localized and fleeting then the one of `avant-garde', since it covers the poetry of all times.


Is it possible to distinguish international and national iconicity and what kind of power do non-verbal inter-medial elements, such as the Bauhaus-colors or the Klangfarbenmelodie exert in your poems?

I think that iconicity is a general characteristic, independent of nationality. In the best concrete poems iconicity began to have a determining character to the extent to which it created an additional parameter, i.e. the necessity of making material and matter coincide ("isomorphism = form and content in search of identification", to quote Décio Pignatari). As requirement of the same functional degree as the visual and the sonorous, the semantic level was an additional complication, which contributed to consolidating the form of the poem, in the perspective of a `verbivocovisual' unity, a neologism created by Joyce that we already used in our writings of 1955 with a precise meaning, before McLuhan would refer to it. The issue of the colors in my poems of the series Poetamenos admittedly was influenced by the `Klangfarbenmelodie' exposed by Webern (that would later induce, in poetry, an attempt to fragment minimalist sequences into forms of timbristic-verbal collage or montage), but it was also obviously influenced by the plastic concretism, in that case, the inflexion of certain compositions of the concrete painters from São Paulo (Luis Sacilotto, Mauricio Nogueira Lima), in which the complementary colors were privileged, in pairs, this being one of the fundamental color-related orientations of my poems.


Referring to your affirmation, the poem cidade city cité is the only poem that reflects an international concept comparable to Gomringer's: What is the fundamental difference between the concepts of internationalism and universalism in the poetry concepts of Noigandres, Gomringer and Bense?

I do not think that the poem "cidade/city/cité" is the only of our poems reflecting this concept. These basic characteristics were already present in the multi-linguistic flights of Pound and Joyce. We radicalized and summarized them. Poems before mine, by the Group, such as "LIFE" or "hombre", by Pignatari, had the same transnational premise, which was already embedded in the very concept of the movement. The case of "cidade" was, however, exceptional. When I was articulating the poem, I caught a glimpse of the possibility of making a trilingual text in which I could utilize words (of Latin origins) that lasted, of differing semantic nuances, but evident formal similarity, in various idioms, both Latin and Saxonian. Given the ease with which the poem expanded more and more (since, at least in Portuguese, the possibility of creating finalized neologisms in "cidade" is enormous) the idea of only admitting in my text words that should share in their first part the same grapheme in at least three idioms (in the given case, Portuguese, English, and French) appeared to me to be rich in inter-communicability.

And the presence of the semanteme "vora" (from devorar = devour) as final unity in the alphabetic-aleatoric succession of words, jointly with the circumstance that "cidade", "city", and "cité" had a substantive signification in common, in these three languages, let me take advantage of this anti-Babelian rarity capable of unifying idioms that differ so much in one and the same formal and contextual situation, which is at the same time iconic and isomorphic. In a more recent poem, made in the form of a `rebus' of images, I used words from different idioms with the same meaning of "heart" (coração), which, after having been recognized, are still pronounced, in an ironic context aimed at accentuating the sentimentality associated with this human organ.


If the concept of internationalism in concrete poetry was derived from an intention of reaching out to a public at large with the means of lyrics, what kind of audience did the Noigandres-Group try to reach and whom did the Group, in your opinion, really manage to reach?

Poetry, in its pure state, will never reach a large public. But, when necessary and true, whatever its form, it will eventually find its audience. This is as much as required. Rejected in her time, Emily Dickinson had only ten poems published in her lifetime, some of them anonymously. Today, her thousands of poems are admired by a public that remains a long way from being as massive as that of popular musician-poets, but it is sufficient to make her poetry a permanent necessity. It is too early to evaluate the international scope of concrete poetry, but the number of productions and critics that it aroused, from the west to the east, make believe it was not an irrelevant issue; rather, it corresponded to a transnational vocation.

And the simple fact that poets of a so little known language as Portuguese were involved in the launching of a movement that exceeded the frontiers of the western world to project itself until Japan, in the poetry of Niikuni, Takahashi and others, shows an uncommon vocation to overcome the linguistic barriers. This appears incontestable to be, even though the universal Babel—where few idioms, with the privilege of English, constitute a `lingua franca'—could delay the more detailed knowledge of its evolution. It was through Haroldo de Campos that the `plastic poetry' of Kitasono Katsue (until then known merely as the correspondent of Pound) and of the poets of the Japanese magazine Vou came about.


With respect to conceiving concrete poetry as a whole project, is there a parallel between its notion of poetry and the musical concept of Hauer, and Schönberg, Webern and Berg (the Second Viennese School)?

It is difficult to establish this kind of parallel, in particular when the names of Schönberg, Webern and Berg are mentioned, the biggest exponents of the arts in our time. Hauer had historical importance as a theoretician only. But the other three were great composers, who did not limit themselves to a single method of composition (the dodecaphonic one). They adopted it as a discipline, but they exceeded it in personal and unpredictable ways and with their example they opened the way for `serialism' and other speculations of new generations. I can only say that there was, in the founding group of concrete poetry, a similar team `spirit', a communion of ideas and an individual detachment that certainly was much inspired by the generosity with which the Viennese master and his disciples met, under a shared single ideal, to produce their works. Evidently this happened also, to a larger or smaller degree, with other groups of artists, such as the participants of movements such as Futurism, Dadaism, Vorticism, and institutions like the Bauhaus, that raised themselves with the same collective spirit. If we thus rule out any comparison by merit, it is perhaps possible to ascertain some parallels in the way the concrete poets submitted themselves voluntarily to a rigorous discipline, to a "restart from scratch", that led to the unifying convergence of their productions (in Brazil, this was expressed in the near anonymity of the poets of Noigandres 4 and in the "Pilot-Plan" of 1958), to only later open up progressively to the ways of a more ample and individual experimentation.


Max Bense considers the text as an "aesthetically articulated linguistic set of elements" (Bense: Augenblick 1958), arguing that the term "text" would better correspond to his idea of aesthetic expression than "literature", given that the latter goes back to a subjectivity that exceeds any understanding. As a creator of such "text", what is your relation to the text-production as aesthetic meaning given that the motto of the Noigandres-Group was "transpiration instead of inspiration"?

The dictum "transpiration instead of inspiration" existed already very long before the formation of the Noigandres Group and I know that many others shared this kind of thinking. As for me, not being a theoretician, rather a poet, I prefer to say besides in the place of instead. Pound once asserted that "the technique is the test of sincerity" and that "if a piece of work does not need technique it is because it does not deserve it, does not have merit."


On the other hand, he wrote that "only emotion endures". Schönberg came to assert that he could not author even ten bars without being `inspired'. And he also used to say that there is no technique without invention; who do not invent does not dispose of technique—but imitates. Bense maximizes the linguistic values. In a context of dilution which has a tendency towards complacency and sentimentalism, towards facilitating eclecticism and the everything goes of the `post-modern', it is necessary to re-affirm the importance of artistic elaboration, one of the pillars of the constructivism of concrete poetry. But the gray area of that `quid' that is covered by the disdained notion of `inspiration', (Hopkins used a much more subtle formula, which Jakobson accepted: "inscape"), intuition, sensitivization (to employ a not existing term) exists. Noel Rosa, the great composer of Brazilian popular music (in the 1930s) proclaims in one of his lyrics ("Feitio de Oração" /Manner of Prayer): "Nobody learns samba at school." When Milhaud told Schönberg that the dodecaphonic method was victorious and was being taught in all music schools, the Viennese composer answered: "But they also make music with it?"


Eugen Gomringer asserted, "Poetry is the linguistic principle of order of mind, applied to psychological concentrations." (cf. Gomringer: worte sind schatten 1969) How do you interpret this concept?

It is not easy to define poetry. When asked to give a definition of music, Schönberg remembered the anecdote of the blind who wanted to know what white is, and who, after touching a hand which imitated the undulated neck of a swan, exclaimed with relief: "Ah! Now I know what white is!" Gomringer's definition is still a good one. Pound said more or less the same thing, in another way: "a sort of inspired mathematics, which gives us equations, not for abstract figures, triangles, spheres, and the like, but equations for the human emotions." It is conceivable that there could be various good undefined definitions that complement each other. The one that I managed to formulate in the 1950s was: "tension of word-things in space-time". But I do not disdain the simplest of all I know, by Derrida (lecture on the topic Che cos'è la poesia?, 1992—what is poetry?) which you can accept cum grano salis, having the others as a premise: "Poetry is what we want to memorize." And this holds for the poetry of all times.


To which extent do you consider your "transcreations" (as well as the from the Group) to be part of the project of concretism?

The ideology of the "transcreations" (Haroldo) or "art-translations", how I thought to call them considering what in Brazil we call "futebol-arte" ("soccer-art"), is not necessarily concretist, although it was appropriated by the Brazilian concretism with an intensity unknown in many countries and languages. It comes, mainly, from the lessons of Ezra Pound, from his "criticism via translation", and from Oswald de Andrade's ideology of "anthropophagism" ("antropofagia"), under our interpretation of "cultural cannibalism". The idea was to make converge, with priority, into the Brazilian poetical language, in artistic recreating translations, poetics regarded as untranslatable, such as the ones of Mallarme, Hopkins, Joyce and Pound himself, Cummings, Gertrude Stein, Khlebnikov, and also those of the inventor-poets of all times, such as the troubadour Arnaut Daniel or the baroques Donne and Kuhlmann, translated from the originals, along with an enormous range of poetry of the past. The focus on the materiality of language, as privileged in concrete poetry, oriented without doubt this concretizing `anthropophagism' of the poetry of other idioms. We attempted, also, to "create an anti-tradition", to infiltrate the blood flow of our poetry with these radical linguistic rebellions.

Certainly also incited by the circumstance that we did not belong to the cultural first world, given the marginalization of the Portuguese language, which obliged us to be transnational and polyglots, unlike the majority of the poets of the first world, anchored in solid tradition and in literarily self-sufficient idioms.

Once again Pound, who visited the most diverse literature and idioms, from Portuguese to Chinese (interested until his latest years to improve his knowledge of this latter idiom, as shown in the translation "text-cum-ideogram-cum-sound" of the Confucian odes), was a big influence.


Digital poetry: the computer simulating various possibilities of presentation—doesn't it inhibit and restrain reception (along the concept of the opera aperta)?

It seems to me that digital poetry, a far cry from restricting or inhibiting the reception of a piece of work, fosters its opening, to the extent that it offers resorts of all types, even of entirely automatized compositions that are free from the personal interference of the author and the receptor. Theoretically, anyone can do whatever he wants with any text. Only that in practice things differ. The very quantity ends up inducing a search for quality. John Cage, the great herald of indetermination, once told me: "I have to find a way to communicate with the musicians so that they understand that they have to be free but not fools." The biggest risk of the computer is exactly the increasing sophistication of its technical engineering, which can give us the illusion of being almighty, whereas poetry, in spite of its simple appearance, is a difficult art. On second thoughts, rare are the pieces of work—independent of the language employed—that really last. In any case, if you want to refer to the fact that interactive poems generally have limited readings because of the very mechanism of construction based on pre-determined options, I think that this would not curb the reception, even if it should limit the interaction to incisive forms, suggested by the author. With digital resources, it is possible to reconstruct the poetic forms in unlimited ways. For example my poem "cidade" already had many non-orthodox interpretations, which deconstructed it, cast its words in various directions, riffling or scattering them, with sometimes interesting results, even though they can hardly advantageously replace the succinct form, the best form, the most economic and `gestaltic' form of the original poem. On YouTube, an amateur group of young students from Salvador (State of Bahia) performs the poem "Pós-Tudo" (Post-Everything) in "hip hop" style, acoustically and visually, in a surprising way. In other cases, as for the permutational sonnet by Quirinus Kuhlmann, of which there is an aleatoric version on the Internet, the alterations, foreseen by the poet, feed our curiosity, but do not affect significantly the version chosen by himself. Even so, the computer enables and stimulates these experiences of opening of the reception, with unprecedented versatility.


When did concrete poetry stop being concrete poetry in your particular case?

In trying to answer this question, I risk to end up captured in a semantic trap. On the one hand, for me poetry is always `concrete', in the sense that materiality is its intrinsic way of being. On the other hand, `Concretism' is but a label (such as Cubism, Cubofuturism, and Dada), which we have taken on as fighting slogan. It is didactic and useful as such, but also disposable in qualitative terms, for the final evaluation of the poetic experience. This is how I understand the (surprising to many) proclamation of the "poemanifesto" named "Interessere" (from the 1970s) by Décio Pignatari, where one can read, among other "desinteresses" (i.e. "un-interests"): "In Concretism it is of interest what is not Concretism." After a first moment of convergence and self-discipline, the poets of the group expanded their proposals much beyond what was foreseen in the Pilot Plan, even though this did not invalidate its authority and various of its precepts still continue to be valid for me (manifestos are no decrees, but projects). It was necessary to radicalize. We radicalized. Once again Pignatari, from the early days: "In the Brazilian geléia geral (greasy gelatin), somebody has to exercise the functions of the marrow and the bone." After the `orthodox' period, we have opened up to a wider field of experiments. There are many who think that what I do still preserves much relation to the original `concrete poetry', but I see this stronger proximity attributed to me as a characteristic (or, who knows, a limitation) of a personal kind. I am much more of a `phanopoeic' and `melopoeic' than a `logopoeic' poet, a quasi-painter, quasi-musician. This attracts me inevitably to the non-verbal interstices. That is why I have been naturally impelled towards digital poetry, as soon as I could get access to its tools. I very much appreciate Duchamp's dictum: "No repeating, regardless of the encore." I publish few poems, preferring to translate the poetry of the others over my own: "My horizon: the unforeseen." (Tristan Corbière) I think that already in the 1960s I did not produce concrete poetry stricto sensu. But I would like to be remembered, if it should be, more as a poet than as a concrete. Or, preferably—if I should deserve it and it should be possible—as a poet only.


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