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Mary Ellen Solt

From Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968, Indiana University Press)

Concrete poetry began to appear in Austria in the early fifties in the work of a few poets, known as "The Vienna Group," who had begun experimenting with visual and phonetic forms: Gerhard Rühm, a composer; Friedrich Achleitner, an architect; Oswald Wiener, a jazz musician; and the poets H. C. Artman and Konrad Bayer. The work of Rühm, who has experimented with a variety of forms--constellations and ideograms, phonetic and counting poems, montage, photographic and other types of visual texts--is the most widely known. In "die blume" he has achieved a constellation of high Iyric quality in which the technique of repetition is skillfully used both as basic pattern and as variation in the permutational words "blüht" ("blooms") and "welkt" ( "withers" ) to set up the meaning tension thesis-antithesis required of the form as defined by Gomringer. The shift from dark to bright vowel sound in "die blume blüht" ("the flower blooms") further intensifies the meaning, as does the shape of the poem, which suggests flower and stem.

Rühm has been most concerned with maintaining an organic relationship between the visual and the conceptual as can be clearly seen in the graphic text "bleiben" ("to stay"). The act of writing the word by hand beside a fine white line on a solid black page conveys the message "stick with it" far more profoundly than any number of ordinary sermons on the subject of following your own little beam of light. In "und zerbrechen" ("and something breaks"), the breaking apart of the word after a series of monotonous "unds" creates an ideogram with psychological, sociological and formal implications. "I have avoided being purely illustrative in the graphic presentation of concepts," Rühm states. "Rather I try to establish a tension relationship between both dimensions (the graphic and the conceptual), so that one dimension does not simply support the other but completes it, or the optical form fixes a definite aspect of the concept."

Ernst Jandl, also of Vienna, began to write experimental poems in 1955 "as an act of protest against . . . traditionalism." The first poems "that may be called 'concrete'" were written in 1956. Jandl states that he had read "a few things by Gertrude Stein, Joyce, Stramm, Dadaists, [Hans Arp] and knew two poems by Gomringer." He made contact with the Vienna Group and found the work of Rühm and Artman "most inspiring," mostly because of "the amount of freedom they had achieved." Jandl had had "several years' practice in writing plain, unadorned, straightforward poems." The members of the Vienna Group were not interested in doing "the same, or very similar things" but in getting "as much freedom as possible" whether they were writing poems, prose, plays, whatever. Their aim was "to move as far as possible from traditional poetry," to write their "own things, unhampered, yet with a sense of form."

Jandl's traditional background enabled him to try "to combine old and new elements" in his experimental poems. "Manipulating linguistic material became an absorbing end in itself." He tried his hand at the sound poem, which was "suggested by Schwitters, and the Dadaists" and which had been tried by Rühm." He tried to "modify" it by "using words rather than pure sounds" though he wrote some "pure sound poems too." He called these poems SPRECHGEDICTHE (POEMS TO BE SPOKEN). Schtzngrmm", made from intensifications of most of the sounds in the German word for "trench" ("schützengraben"), has probably not been surpassed as a war poem, especially as it is read by the poet.

Jandl believes that "the most successful methods" of writing experimental poems "are those which can only be used once, for then the result is a poem identified with the method in which it was made." The complete identification of poem and method is strikingly apparent in "erschaffung der eve" ( "creation of eve") in which a portion of the alphabet is used structurally from "o", the central letter in the word "gott', through "v", the central letter of "eva." The poet himself thinks of "o" as the mouth of God "from which vertically downward issues God's breath, alphabetically." Notice that the words "rippe" and "adam" on the left disappear through a process of reduction until "e", the last letter of "rippe," becomes the first letter of "eve" and the word "adam', is created again on the right side from the "a" of "eva." According to Jandl, the disappearance of the word "adam" on the left signifies "man living alone" and its reappearance in a larger form on the right signifies "man joined to woman.'' Pulverization of the word only to put it back together again in a fresh new context is characteristic of the kind of linguistic feat Jandl is able to accomplish again and again with a variety of methods.

Heinz Gappmayr, of Innsbruck rather than Vienna, considers "the connection between notion and sign" to be one of the principal clarifications accomplished by concrete poetry. "Visual figures, straight and crooked lines, drawing with ink or pencil mediate thoughts and sensations .... it is not indifferent for the meaning of a notion whether, for example, the sign stands on the top or on the bottom of a page, whether the signs of a word are quite or only partly visible. The form of the signs gives the meaning of a notion a peculiar shade.... Only the reader [who sees] the difference caused by the form of the signs will understand ... concrete poetry.... For example . . . in . . . concrete poetry the notion in this form: light [is] not the same as l i g h t." In our text from Gappmayr we can see that he relies on geometric shapes as "signs" to convey "notions." Perhaps this is because he is a designer. He has other poems which convey their message by means of a black square, but he also uses words apart from geometric design. To him "'concrete' means all conditions of language."

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