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R. P. Draper
New Literary History, Vol. 2, No.2, Form and Its Alternatives. (Winter, 1971), pp. 329-340.
In its simplest definition concrete poetry is the creation of verbal artefacts which exploit the possibilities, not only of sound, sense and rhythm—the traditional fields of poetry—but also of space, whether it be the flat, two-dimensional space of letters on the printed page, or the three-dimensional space of words in relief and sculptured ideograms.
Taking advantage of the extra impact which can be given to words by visual lay-out is, of course, a common device in journalism and advertising. This is one of the skills of the graphic designer and the newspaper compositor, the literary equivalent of which is to be found in such devices of visual presentation as are used by George Herbert in "Easter- wings," by Lewis Carroll in the mouse's tail poem from Alice in Wonderland, and by Apollinaire in his Calligrammes. All of these have been widely cited as precursors, along with Mallarmé, the Futurists, Joyce, cummings, and others, of the more recent concrete poetry movement. But in what may, perhaps a little pretentiously, be called "pure" concrete the spatial element is essential to the communication, not merely something additional. It is a structural principle. As Stephen Bann says, "Concrete Poetry is all too often confused with the 'Calligrammes' of Apollinaire, and their modern equivalents, in which lines of text are ingeniously manipulated in order to imitate natural appearances."1 In "II Pleut," for example, which is included in the I.C.A. catalogue, Between Poetry and Painting, as a forerunner of the movement, Apollinaire arranges his text in drifting vertical lines to suggest visually the effect of falling rain; but the poem could be printed conventionally as verse with scarcely any damage to its meaning. "Easter-wings" presents a more complicated instance, since Herbert's "wings" provide both an effect of visual wit (in the seventeenth-century sense) that is additional to the poem qua poem, and a stanzaic outline which controIs the contraction and expansion of the line lengths to match the "fall" and "fiight" which are the theme of the poem. In view of this second, stanzaic function of the shape "Easter-wings" is perhaps a true precursor of concrete poetry. There is still, however, a valid distinction to be made in that Herbert's poem achieves its necessary and essential effect even when read aloud. One can dispense with the visual image because the fiight metaphor is adequately created by that sound, sense, and rhythm combination which has already been defined as the field of traditional poetry. The visual effect of the mouse's tail from Alice, highly amusing as it is, can likewise be dispensed with. Indeed, it lacks even the controlling stanzaic function of Herbert's "wings."
Each of these three poems is created through time and sound rather than through space and the seen image; they cannot, therefore, be regarded as strictly "concrete." It is in the work of Eugen Gomringer that one begins to find a use of space which is untranslatable into any other dimension. Perhaps the most well-known, though not the best, of his "constellations" (which dispose their groups of words "as if they were clusters of stars"2) is the frequently anthologized "silence." Fourteen repetitions of the word are so arranged that they form a rectangular bar of black print, itself penetrated by the white of the paper as to give an iron trellis-work effect,3 within which a gap is left precisely large enough to hold a fifteenth repetition. The obvious point made is that silence is the absence of something; the poem speaks most eloquently where it does not speak at all. But the gap could not "speak" were it not for the surrounding words, and, further paradox, nothing, in any case, is actually spoken. Silence is thus contextual, and the context exists essentially in space.
A slight anticipation—not, again, properly speaking a precursor—of this technique for arranging words can be found in certain aspects of the rhetorical patterning of Elizabethan poetry. Consider, for example, the opening of Sonnet XXXIII of Sidney's Astraphel and Stella:
I might — unhappy word! — O me, I might,
Granted that this sonnet belongs an an aural tradition, modified by adaptation to a situation of dramatic self-confiict, one can see, nevertheless, that it also has an effect which is in part visual. The repetition of "I might" is so arranged that it falls at the beginning and end of the line, thus seeming to hem in the interjections, "unhappy word! — O me." (The rhetorical device of anaphora, which, as it happens, is used in lines 6-8 of tihs poem, also has, necessarily, a visual as well as aural effect.) Even the "double-supply" of the second line, "would not, or could not," has some visual, as well as primarily audio-dramatic, effect. The main thing that Sidney is playing on is the change of effect achieved by varying the auxiliary preceding "see"; but, possibly more by accident than design, he achieves this by an arrangement that also calls attention to itself visually.
Another important element in the rhetorical technique of Elizabethan poetry is its frequent use of word-play, which, combined with repetition and assonantal and consonantal echoing, seems to fuse sense and sound into a verbal continuum. Gomringer and other concrete poets likewise make extensive use of this kind of language, and, again, for the reason that what is created primarily as a sound-and-sense pattern also tends to take positive visual shape. For example, in the following lines from Spenser, the repetitions of "both," "full" and "loth/lief" very
Both were full loth to leave that needful tent,
(The Faerie Queene, III, ix, 14)
nearly fall into the columnar patterns often favoured by the concrete poet. If this is an unintentional result, it is, nonetheless, one to which such rhetorically patterned verse is inherently prone, and it is a simple next step for the concrete poet to transform accident into design, using similar aural relationships, but making the unintended visual effect a controlling structural principle. (If he uses a typewriter he is further helped in this direction by the automatic horizontal and vertical spacing of his machine.) Thus Gomringer in his variations on "baum/kind/hund/haus" 4 emphasizes the visual relationships inherent in the aural relationships of his four words by rotating them systematically in groups of three, according to the formula, b/bk k/kh h/hh h/hb, so that they appear on the page both as strict vertical columns and miniature stanzas. The aural connections suggest the pattern, but the pattern then takes over as a spatial merry-go-round in which the riders, who are the words, regularly change places.
In this kind of poem meaning arises out of the associative conjunctions that pattern brings about. One way to describe Gomringer's "constellations" would be to call them rhetoric without syntax. He develops the characteristically modern tendency, deplored by a strongly syntactical poet and theorist such as Donald Davie,5 to dispense with logical syntax as embodied in grammatical relationships. Many of his poems consist of words, especially nouns, not articulated into sentences, but poised in spatially suggestive relationship to one another.6 This involves some loss of semantic control by the poet, but a corresponding increase of opportunity for the reader. As Gomringer says, the poem becomes "a playground" and "an invitation":
These are grandiloquent words, but one must allow something for the boldness of a manifesto. The important thing, although Gomringer himself thinks that this can be given too much emphasis, is the idea of play. Concrete poetry is a game, a delightful one for the poet to devise and, when successful, a source of delight for the participating reader. Many of Gomringer's poems, in particular, are beautifully symmetrical, and yet open-ended, unfinished, leaving room for the reader to join in. This is certainly the nature of Gomringer's generative poem on the words "flow/grow/show/blow." The words seem to grow out of each other. Starting from the bottom left of the poem—although this is, in fact, an arbitrary point of departure, as any other point would be—"flow" multiplies in a triangular pattern, and then contracts to its basic vowel "o," which appears at both upper and lower extremities. From the upper extremity the "o" then develops into a triangular mass of "grow" which is a mirror image of the original "flow" mass. Via another connecting "o" at its middle extremity "grow" next becomes "show", and this is again developed into a triangular mass, which, in its turn, produces "blow" exactly as "flow" had produced "grow." This completes the poem as printed on the page, but there is no real reason why the process should not go on indefinitely. It is capable of expansion in all directions; Gomringer has merely set the process going. For the sake of description I have focused on the rhyme-words of which the poem is composed—or, rather, which emerge from it; but the vital particle is the letter "o." "O" is the verbal seed from which rhyme-words develop, and the concrete poem created by Gomringer is an instance and a revelation of this organic process. If it concludes, it concludes with the tacit instruction to the reader: "Now read on."
The poem can, of course, be given some sort of crude explication, such as: the seed of life ("o") begins its radical "flow," pushing up a shoot which reveals itself as a plant that we see "grow," and from its stem develops the "show" of its blossom which returns to seed that the wind comes to "blow" away. The effect, as already suggested, is, in fact, more complicated than this, but the possibility of explication serves to show that the spatial principle operates to produce meaning. The order manifested on the page is both visual and literary. At least, that is the healthy state of affairs in a Gomringer poem. The danger for concrete poetry in general is that it can lead to whimsy and individualism run riot. The syntactical relationships on which poetry is traditionally founded derive, not from an individual, but the usage of a whole society, and from both the present and the past, whereas much so-called concrete poetry may well seem to grant the individual a license to print letters with no other raison d'être or controlling principle than the poet's own facility for making pretty patterns. From the creator's point of view this may be excitingly liberating; from the reader's point of view it is apt to look like ingenious doodling. In the critical argument which may result from the opposition of these two points of view the poet may well fall back on the justificatory reasons available to any practitioner of the visual arts who interprets experience through, and for, the eye. He will then be aligning himself with those who treat letters as simply materials for composition, and his creations will properly be called "graphics" rather than "poems." 8 If, however, he insists that his purpose is to communicate through words, and to appeal to the literary imagination, he must occupy himself, not only with constructional principles, but also with the relationship between the pattern which he creates and the semantic content of the words, or even letters, used. In some manner the spatial elements of the poem must do the work of traditional syntax and articulate the meaning that lies dormant in words.
Two Scottish concrete poets, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Edwin Morgan, illustrate the range that lies between these two poles of literary and visual emphasis. Both are concerned with the articulation of meaning through space, but Finlay is inclined towards the visual arts (his poems include, for example, a "Homage to Malevich" and another dedicated "To the painter, Juan Gris"), while Morgan, as one might expect from a university teacher of English, is much nearer the literary pole.
A successful concrete poem in which the emphasis is visual, but not merely graphic, is Finlay's "XM poem." As the author himself explains,9 the waveringly vertical line of x's and m's represents the path of a little stream, and included in its flow are the words, "this is the little burn that plays its mouth-organ by the mill." Besides spatial arrangement, this poem exploits the suggestive possibilities of different kinds of type to bring out the visual implications of the two letters; but the humming, or murmuring, of the m's and the slightly plosive suggestion of the x's are aural elements which are aIso part of the poem's total effect. "XM" is a delicately evocative concrete lyric in which sound, sense, vertical movement and a certain pictorial effect combine to express Finlay's sensuous response to the stream and, at the same time, as in Gomringer's work, leave the reader enough freedom to join in with his own subjective response.
Among Finlay's more limitedly visual poems are the now well-known "au pair girl," which it is hard to see as more than a pictorial joke, and his ingenious arrangements of "ajar" and "acrobat" so that these words kinetically act out their meanings. Photographs of the latter in their enlarged, three-dimensional versions suggest that there are very interesting possibilities for development of concrete poetry by poets willing and able to learn from sculpture as well as from drawing and painting. Such work intensifies our awareness of the relation between a word and its literal components and recovers for us something of the child's experience of the uncertainty and unpredictableness of letters. As Dom Sylvester Houédard sees it, this childish experience is aIso primitive, and he would accordingly push the origins of concrete poetry back to "cave-paintings pictographs ideograms alphabets hieroglyphs—any concrete medium to be looked at as well as through— any words treated as friends not slaves—as holy not débris." 10 In this sense Finlay is one of the best of concrete "primitives."
Edwin Morgan, however, is decidedly sophisticated and literary. In a note contributed to the I.C.A. catalogue, Between Poetry and Painting, he states:
I became interested in concrete poetry as a means of producing economically and arrestingly certain effects which would not otherwise be possible. These effects I still consider to be within the realm of poetry, though the use made of graphic space, and the exaggeration of such visual or sonic gestalts as exist in embryo in all poems, are clearly beginning to draw the poem over into other areas—painting, sculpture, advertising, music. In my own work I don't feel that the boundary into these other areas is crossed, because I have a strong sense of solidarity with words as parts of a semantically charged flux, and in so far as I isolate or distort them I do this in obedience to imaginative commands which come through the medium of language and are not disruptive of it. . . . I like to extend the possibilities of humour, wit, and satire through concrete techniques. And although this involves 'play,' whether of words, letters, or punctuation, it must be an imaginative and therefore fundamentally serious kind of play.
Extension of the possibilities of humour, wit, and satire is what Morgan very effectively achieves in such poems as the politically earnest "starryveldt" and the more light-hearted computer Christmas card, "jollymerry/hollyberry/jollyberry ... ," and "Unscrambling the waves at Goonhilly." These exploit the columnar principle of Gomringer and the rhetorical inheritance of concrete poetry. They are strictly spatial, but aIso depend like non-concrete poetry on their movement through time. This is even more true of the delightfully witty (and aIso seriously expressive) poem, "Orgy." This poem depends on progression through variations of the syllabic components of "anteater" (with whose "orgy" it is concerned) and other words, such as "canter," "encounter," "accountant," "nectar," and "trance," which are closely related aurally. The border which Morgan almost crosses here, but does not quite, is that between concrete and phonic poetry. The spatial element consists of the simple device of abolishing conventional word separation, and printing every letter at equal, but double the normal, intervals at the rate of 24 per line. As the number of lines is aIso 24, the result is almost a square. Some relief is given by the substitution of asterisks for letters in lines 17 and 21, which indicate pauses in the narrative movement, but the overall effect, visually, is of optic dazzle and literal congestion, which admirably reinforce the orgiastic theme.
Nearer the visual pole Morgan creates in "French Persian Cats having a Ball" what is possibly his most elegant poem, and certainly one that answers to his own statement of interest in concrete poetry "as a means of producing economically and arrestingly certain effects which would not otherwise be possible." The material is again traditional word-play—the punning series, "chat/shah/ cha cha / ha ha"—but the visual arrangement creates a choreographic pattern that is both charmingly novel and kinetically expressive of the feline dance. It has a lyric effect comparable with that of Finlay's "XM," but since it also incorporates Gomringer's generative principle it gives a greater sense of rational, structural relationship. In "concrete" terms it is thus a better poem, or, at least, one that contributes more than Finlay's to the development of the form. Its witty application of spatial-cum-aural relationships demonstrates the peculiar combination of novelty and tradition in concrete poetry.
What is new, however, and especially inventive ingenuity, are probably still the features of concrete poetry which attract most attention. And this often means that the shaping of patterns takes preference over communication. The results as manifested in the work of such artists as Franz Mon, John Furnival, Pierre Garnier, Mary Ellen Soit, Hans-jörg Mayer, Dieter Rot, and Dom Sylvester Houédard add a fascinating new dimension to abstract art. Houédard's "typewriter poems," for example, reveal technical possibilities in the seemingly rigid typewriter which prove once again the old truism that experiment often develops most fruitfully in conditions of extreme resistance rather than pure freedom. 11 How long this primarily inventive stage of development will continue it is difficult to say, but the time will come, presumably, when the technical possibilities of the medium will be exhausted—or, at least, the impetus towards invention will be mainly spent—and the emphasis will fall on the meaningful use to which technique can be put. At the literary end of the concrete poetry span this is already the case; the problem will be how to absorb the visual inventiveness into a fuller relationship with rational tradition via combination with this literary element. Before that can be accomplished, however, some analysis of the principles underlying invention will have to be made. As the foregoing comments on Gomringer, Finlay, and Morgan imply, it is through the application of a spatial principle to the semantic potential of words that concrete poetry becomes poetry rather than graphics.
The remainder of this essay will be devoted to a very tentative formulation of three main principles which such an analysis might have to include. What I have to say is elementary, merely a beginning which some better equipped and more perceptive critic may be able to carry to a substantial conclusion. If it has any value it will be simply as an opening of the rational case for concrete poetry.
In European printed language it is an automatic assumption that letters forming words are separated by space from other letters forming words, that these letters march across the page from left to right, and that the lines so formed are strictly parallel and progress downwards at equal intervaIs. Concrete poetry plays upon these expectations, but itself takes nothing for granted. Letters may be crushed together into a single block, as in the massed repetitions of Ilse and Pierre Garnier's "cinema"; or line distinction may be retained while word-spacing is eliminated, as in Morgan's "Orgy"; or the block may consist of the letters of one systematically emerging word, as in Azeredo's "velocidade," or of virtually one letter only, as in Gerhard Ruhm's "du," where the single exception to the constant repetition of "u" is the central "d." And many other variations on the accepted printing convention can be achieved, while still echoing its basic pattern, by, for example, slanting the text diagonally, as in Stephen Bann's "Dominikus Zimmermann," or by shrinking and expanding the text in triangular, pyramidal and diamond patterns, or by printing in columns that move laterally or upside down. (A brilliant combination of several of these variations is Claus Bremer's arrangement of the apt text, "nicht nur informieren haltungen provozieren.")
The logic of this principle is that it creates meaning out of the contradiction between itself and the printing convention. Thus, in the following concrete arrangement of one of Blake's Proverbs of Hell,
"The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction," the block principle is used for "the tigers of wrath" and columns for "the horses of instruction," arrangements which clash with each other, and which one is aware of because they are both at odds with the basic convention.12
A second tendency, and a very fruitful one, in concrete poetry is for words or letters to be arranged on an axial principle, as in Achleitner's "ruh/und," Azeredo's "tic tac," and Yüksel Pazarkaya's "yarim yarim." Vestiges of the line remain, but there is no longer an implied contrast with a conventional page of print. The axis itself becomes the norm from which variant departures take place, and it is out of this particular form of tension that meaning develops.
An example is the borrowing arrangement of "top spin":
The axis provides a line around which repetitive expansion and contraction can take place to permute one four-letter word into another, aurally related, four-letter word which shares with it the central letters "s" and "p." The two joined together make up "top spin" (as used in tennis, for example), while the logic of the arrangement produces tops spinning, with subsidiary suggestions of op-art and spying and a continual hissing of the axial "s."
A third, and inevitably looser, category is that in which the vertical and horizontal of the page are ignored, the text becoming, for example, a circular image growing concentrically or diagonally from the centre, as in Ferdinand Kriwet's "Type is Honey," or a cut-out of immediately recognizable shape, such as Finlay's pear or DühI's apple. Poems of this kind are prone to lose the structuring force that makes true "concrete," possibly because of the virtual absence of any real tension with tradition.
In the following example the circular form is also a cut-out, readily recognizable as a rifle target (hence the title "target practice"), but
there is still some slight tension with the horizontal of the page because the words are in linear arrangement. Each linear text has been cut into a circle of smaller size than its predecessor, on which it is imposed in such a way that there is disjunction between their respective lines, and out of this disjunction emerges a literal equivalent of the contrasted colorings of an actual target.
These three principles are not in themselves of especial importance. They become significant only when used in particular poems to articulate verbal material. The same, of course, can be said of conventional syntax. But it is perhaps a useful thing to establish, even in such a rudimentary fashion as this, that concrete poetry has its informing structural principles which are capable of enhancing and developing meaning.
The actual achievements of concrete poetry are, it must be admitted, very minor compared with those of traditional, syntactically organized forms, and it may be (though it is much too early to say so with any confidence) that its possibilities are inherently more limited—that it will always be a form for brief, compact explosions of meaning rather than complex interrelationships. But enough has been achieved to prove that it is not fundamentally opposed to the rational imagination as embodied in at least the rhetorical branch of the European poetic tradition. In the earlier part of the twentieth century this aspect of the tradition was overshadowed, and unduly discounted, by a strong preference for the colloquial and dramatic kinds of poetry in which the emphasis is on tone and speech-rhythms. There is room for both aspects, and there is no need to assume that enjoyment of one involves hostility towards the other. But now that the colloquial is no longer felt to be inherently superior to the rhetorical, it may be possible for concrete poetry, which has its family ties with that aspect, to be recognised as a vital part of the main tradition. For, as Edwin Morgan says, concrete poems are
not in opposition to the spirit of poetry unless we demand that poetry should be able to be read aloud, or unless they move so far into the purely graphic or the mathematical that they are no longer making their appeal through language as such.13
Every avant garde form has its lunatic fringes—and lunatics who are on or beyond the fringe, no doubt—and concrete poetry has its full share of these. But within the area to which the term properly applies there is mainly sanity and scope for rational development as well as reasonable pleasure.
UNIVERSITY OF LEICESTER
4 Most of the examples of concrete poems referred to in this essay will be found in one or other of the following anthologies: Anthology of Concrete Poetry, ed. Emmett Williams (New York, Something Else Press, 1967). Chicago Review, XIX, 4 (September, 1967), (issue devoted to concrete poetry). Concrete Poetry: An International Anthology (see above, note 1).
6 Cf. "Concrete poetry aims at the least common multiple of language. hence its tendency to nounishing and verbification." Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari, Haroldo de Campos: "pilot plan for concrete poetry," reprinted in I.C.A. catalgue, Between Poetry and Painting (London, 1965), p. 70. This is not true of Gomringer's well-known "snow" poem, with its sequence of statements, "snow is english/snow is international," etc. But this, to my mind, is both arbitrary and tedious. The only noun here, with the possible exception of "brute" (in "snow is brute"), is the subject, "snow." The intention, presumably, is to be evocative, but the endlessly repeated formula, "snow is," becomes dogmatic rather than suggestive, thus provoking the reader to resistance instead of inviting him to pleasurable participation. Gomringer's nouns never bully like this.
12 This and the following concrete poems, "topspin" and "Target Practice," are my own. I apologize for thus introducing my own work. I make no claims for their quality, but I understand their principles of construction.
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