UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers | Concrete Poetry: A World View
Mary Ellen Solt
From Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968, Indiana University Press)
We have been around the world with concrete poetry. And if we still don't know what it is except for some conclusions relating to "pure," or what may come to be known as "classical" concrete poetry, it is the triumph of the new experimental forms rather than their failure. The day we know exactly what concrete poetry is will be the day we know exactly what poetry is. We have said that the pure concrete poem extracts from language an essential meaning structure and arranges it in space as an ideogram or a constellation-- as a structural word design--within which there are reticulations or play-activity. But this is like saying a sonnet consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter divided into an octave and a sestet according to a certain rhyme scheme. The sonnet was obviously a most significant formal concept, for it appealed to the imaginations of poets in many languages in many cultures, but we can't write sonnets any more because we no longer live in the sonnet's world. We need a form or, it is more likely, forms organic to the nature of our own world which, rather than being walled in, extends itself outward into space. And we seem to have arrived at the concept of a poem made from the possibilities and limitations of specific linguistic materials that has taken hold as an international formal concept. The concrete poem finds itself isolated in space to make a significance of its given materials as contemporary man finds himself isolated in space to make a significance of his life.
There seems to be a conviction held
in common by concrete poets that the rationalistic method of the
concrete poem penetrates to the core of man's present situation:
a life and death struggle between his conflicting natures. Is
man an irrational animal in mortal danger of destroying himself,
or at the very least his human qualities, with the technology
he has created? Or is man a rational being who can use his scientific
and technological achievements to make a better life? The concrete
poem, they contend, by liberating words from meaningless, worn-out
grammatical connections, cleans up language; and by means of its
orderly method, it places a control upon the flow of emotions,
thus creating a distance from the poem that allows the poet as
man actively perceiving and articulating his experience to examine
and consider the quality of his human materials.
Whether or not the pure concrete poem
will emerge as the "sonnet" of the latter half of the
twentieth century it is too soon to say, but the broad categories
within which we began this discussion still hold; that is to say,
the new experimental poetry can be classified as visual, phonetic
(sound), and kinetic.
The sound poem, defined by Weaver
as an "auditory succession" in which "the figure
(sound) rises off the ground (silence) producing a configuration
of filled time against emptied time," evolves most obviously
from the oral tradition of poetry. Its serial form is easily seen
to be related to the structural serial forms within the linear
framework of the traditional poem. Concrete poetry adds the machine
(primarily the tape recorder) as a new medium of oral expression
that creates new experiences of hearing the poem and probes new
depths of the human psyche to discover or reveal new layers of
The kinetic poem, as Weaver defines
it, is "a visual succession" in which "the dimensions
of the visual figure are extended to produce a temporal configuration
only possible by the sense of succession." Meaning is revealed
to us gradually, then, as we turn pages or open a fold-out.
Here "serial method replaces discursive grammar" so
that the "use of poetic means without support from familiar
spoken or written forms produces an exclusively artistic 'subject."'
This would seem to imply that the kinetic poem is less related
to the tradition of poetry than the sound poem, or phonetic poem.
But is it really? The kinetic poem is essentially a re-creation
as artistic form of our habit of reading poems from books, a far
more common experience with poetry than listening in the present
world. The act of reading (making the connections between the
words in one's own mind) enters the kinetic book as part of its
poetic content. The serial form of the kinetic poem also introduces
into the poem the cinematic method of reading, which relates to
our "reading" or viewing of movies and television programs
and commercials, bringing the silent reading of the poem more
in line with contemporary habits of reading. Our passive viewing
of entertainment contains within itself the potential for creative
cinematic reading and seeing.
There have been signs throughout our
reading of the poems that other strong kinetic impulses are at
work in contemporary poetry, but they have not yet arrived at
the synthesis necessary in the artistic consciousness to bring
them into definitive formal expression. The kinetic poem may still
be in its infancy.
Where the visual poem is concerned,
Weaver takes over Gomringer's definition: The visual poem is a
"'constellation' in space." And he raises a fundamental
question: since the visual poem is a "'constellation' in
space," the "sense of simultaneity and multidirectionality--a
spatial order--inhibits a successive, phonetic response to the
verbal units." This being the case, he discerns that "where
phonetic elements are distinguishable they evoke a response at
the motor level even when undetectable at the conscious level."
The degree of remoteness of the visual poem from the assumed oral
tradition of poetry seems to be the point in question.