UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers | Concrete Poetry: A World View

Mary Ellen Solt

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

There has been a great deal of experimentation with new forms in Czechoslovakia where the impetus towards concretization was born of a reaction against verbosity, literary affectation of style, sentimentality, pathos and emotionalism in traditional poetry. The first Czech concrete poets were also translators who, as the result of their preoccupation with linguistic material and its problems, perceived the need in their own language for a new poetry involved with the actual mechanisms of language, poems that would show "not only the image of the world but its schemes," as it was stated by Josef Hirsal and Bohumila Grogerova.

As the preceding statement would indicate, Czech concrete poetry has been influenced by the aesthetic of Max Bense as well as by the poetry of the Noigandres group of Brazil, but it has developed along lines which have allowed it to become distinctive in its own right. Due in part, no doubt, to the close contact between poets and painters in Prague and to the fact that some of the Czech poets themselves are gifted graphic artists, much of Czech concrete poetry is of distinguished graphic quality. Franz Mon's conviction that spatially articulated language "breaks through whenever the conventional language sanctioned by society reaches its limitations or for some reason or other cannot be used" may possibly be apt to the Czech situation. Ladislav Novak's collected experimental poems, semantic for the most part, published under the title POCTA JACKSONU POLEOCKOVI (HOMAGE TO JACKSON POLLOCK) was attacked in the official paper of the Red right RUDE PRAVO. It was also sold out in Prague the day it was published.

But Czech concrete poetry is not only remarkable graphically. It is also distinguished in its ability to rescue finer qualities of the old poetry for the new without allowing sentimentalities from the past to intrude. There have been a variety of new developments along visual, phonetic, and mechanical lines, involving attempts to come to terms with the new technology. And beyond its technical concerns, Czech concrete poetry is deeply involved with the human situation: with the relationship of the individual to society, as in Novak's "individualista"; and with the more intimate human relationships, which are dealt with in other selections.

The poets whom Haroldo de Campos met during his visit to Prague in 1964 are the acknowledged founders of the "new poetry" in Czechoslovakia. We have mentioned Ladislav Novak. In "kouzlo letni noci" ("magic of a summer night") he deals with an old, if not trite, theme in a pastoral setting. But he makes it new in his method, which makes a new form also reminiscent of an old form. For the poem divides according to the grouping of its words into two parts: one of eight "lines" the other of six, like the sonnet. ( Mike Weaver once told me that he thinks of the European concrete movement as essentially a search for a new sonnet.) But, of course, they aren't really lines. If it weren't for the fact that ''hmatam'' (which suggests "hmatam"--"I am touching") emerges when the poem is "read" in the normal way from left to right, it might conceivably be read downwards, or upwards. It is the meaning contained in this form which insists that the poem be "read" in the conventional way, for the repetition of "tma" emphasizes the fact of "darkness," and the variation "hma-tam" says: "I am touching darkness." In the last six "lines" the same concrete method of word repetition is employed with "srp" (sickle or scythe) which is onomatopoetic. Also by bringing in "prs," which means "breast" and is also "srp" spelled backwards, the poet is able to convey the sense of the back and forth movement of the scythe and to suggest the presence of a woman, which introduces the possibility of erotic overtones. "Pes" means "dog."

Novak weaves the same kind of spell reminiscent of the "magical" quality of older Iyric poetry and achieves the same kind of tactile effect in "zakleta" ("enchanted woman") or, literally, "a woman upon whom a spell was cast." Here the elements of the words "laska" ("love") and "skala" ("rock") are arranged visually in an unvarying order that could conceivably have gone on indefinitely in keeping with the impasse being experienced by the poet, for "laska" is the third person of "laskat" ("to caress"), so the poem also says: "He is caressing a rock"--an old story ("La Belle Dame sans Merci" in new formal dress.) The repetition of sounds also is organic to the meaning. In KAMEN MUDRCU ( THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE"), a long series poem we find the same depth of personal involvement combined with linguistic play-activity that creates the poem. It is difficult not to be overly facetious or gymnastic with this long constellation form. Novak is neither. The poem "individualista" needs only one letter and one change in its graphic position to convey its message.

Jiri Kolar was a well-known Czech poet and free-lance artist before he published Y 61 (probably 1960), which included constellations, linguistic concretions, clippings from newspapers and bits of conversation, among other things. In STGNBOARD FOR GERSAINT (1962), he introduced new experiments called Evident Poetry. "'Evident Poetry is all poetry that eschews the written word as the mainstay of creation and communication." According to Kolar, "the word . . . should remain within, instigating a monologue." The Evident Poem is primarily a graphic statement. Kolar has also made: illiteratograms, looniegrams, blind man's poems, transparent, knot, and depth poems, and object poems. We are presenting two of the Evident Poems. "brancusi" needs neither comments nor word gloss.

"Le poeme evident 1967" (Figure 49) doesn't need them either to be appreciated as an art object, particularly the original, which is a collage made of red and black print, probably a torn-up copy of the HORAE (BOOK OF HOURS) from the sixteenth or seventeenth century. But it is of interest to know that Kolar is known internationally through exhibitions and one-man shows for his development of the collage method after Schwitters and Ernst.

We may look at "Le poeme evident 1967" simply as a collage of fragments of Latin words and music from the Mass with two wrist watches containing details from Vermeer as faces. But surely all this care and selectivity is meant to "instigate" some kind of "monologue." Undoubtedly Kolar wants the individual reader to find his own meaning. A possible reading is that the poem expresses the religious dilemma of modern man, in this case the poet. He hungers to believe in the old way, but he cannot. Therefore he cannot write a religious poem except by destroying the old religious forms and making a new form of his own. In place of the BOOK OF HOURS, his own world provides the machine, the wrist watch, for whose face he substitutes the work of the artist. On the right we have the artist with his back turned, on the left a portrait of his timeless theme, or muse, woman (love).

The words from the BOOK OF HOURS have been fragmentized in such a way that many of them are recognizable. So anyone who wishes to can actually "read" "Le poeme evident 1967." We have provided a partial word gloss.

Josef Hirsal was also a writer of reputation before he became associated with the New Poetry movement in Czechoslovakia. From 1960 through 1962, in collaboration with Bohumila Grogerova, Hirsal made many linguistic experiments. The two poets published their experimental poems under the title JOB BOJ. "Boj" means "fight" or "action." "Job" is not a Czech word, but it mirrors "boj" by printing it backwards as if it had been blotted by folding the paper. The mirroring of words and letters is a device used by other concrete poets. Diter Rot is usually given credit for having introduced it. Each poem in JOB BOJ employs a completely different method. Some are of graphic as well as of semantic-linguistic interest. Their over-all intent is to reveal the world as mixed up and chaotic. In "sobectvi" ("egoism") the meaning is brought out by breaking a rule of capitalization. In Czech "ja" ("I") is never capitalized. "Ty" ( "thou" or "you" ) would be capitalized in a letter if someone were being spoken to directly. Notice that within the play-system of letters in "FREEDOM' a pattern of diagonals is created.

Vaclav Havel is primarily a dramatist, but his few poems achieve a balance between the graphic and the semantic relating to the human situation in the best Czech tradition.

The work of a second generation of Czech experimental poets is beginning to appear; and with it apparently an acute need for clarification of the relationship of the New Poetry to the old and to technology. Jiri Valoch, who traces his development from experiments with conventional poetry, which he came to realize was inadequate to our time and to the most important aims of poetry, began to work along concrete lines after becoming acquainted with the work of Novak, Kolal, Gomringer and Gamier. He has worked in a variety of modes, some concerned with semantic relations, others deliberately non-semantic.

The "Optical Poems" presented here represent the developmental "peak" of Valoch's experiments with typographic and mechanical (typewriter) poetry. A poem "freed from semantics appears" that is identical in its visual impact to optical painting--except that it was made on the typewriter and its formal elements (letters) existed ready-made on the machine. The optical poem, according to Valoch, is realized as "pure structure." Aesthetically it depends upon "the visual ( aesthetic ) value of the mechanical (or typewriter) signs used." But not in the static condition in which we are used to observing them. In the optical poem we learn to look at letters horizontally, diagonally, or in some other position, as well as vertically in "shivering microstructures." Valoch states that his typewriter texts present a response to an "active impulse." This impulse seems to be directed toward the creation of a new sphere of communication. For signs "which are losing their importance in terms of their original communicative connections . . . are creating a visual metalanguage as they appear in their relationship to each other." Valoch relates the creation of a "visual metalanguage" to developments in modern linguistic science and defends it on grounds of "pure Iyricism" aimed at "pure aesthetic information."

And he takes the position that so-called "new poetry isn't really new" but merely "an introduction of that which-potentially existed before.... visually or phonetically it existed even in conventional poetry. The new poetry "liberated" certain "compounds," which opened up two major possibilities: "to express what conventional poetry already expressed by new means more applicable to the present time" or "to enrich poetry by the new, by that which was so far unattainable." Put into practice "both of these traits become apparent and often they are unified. In the first example it amounts to no more than putting aside old-fashioned schemes which have lost all function. In the second the frontiers are expanding--penetrating the processes of creation, new elements." On this "second frontier" Valoch seems to be most interested in proving that in forms of language the aesthetic may sometimes be "elevated over the semantic" as it is in art.

Eduard Ovcacek combines an interest in experimental poetry with other accomplishments in the field of graphic art including experiments with various materials in states of destruction upon which have been branded or burned letters and texts. Our text is from KRUHY (CIRCLES). The aloneness and value of the I (JA in caps for emphasis) at the center of a crowded circle of "he's," "she's," "they's," "we's," "you's" and "thou's" is stated graphically rather than grammatically.

One of the second generation of Czech concrete poets, Zdenek Barborka has, like Gomringer, taken up the challenge of the new poetry on a basis that involves society and language at the most fundamental level. Gomringer, you will remember, insists that concrete poetry is capable of accommodating the most profound and serious dilemmas faced by contemporary man because it engages language "on the most basic level" and that it "will come into its own in the synthetic-rationalistic world of tomorrow." Barborka begins his journey down the "new and uncharted route" by examining certain widely-held assumptions about human nature. In a long essay "New Poetry," he comes to grips with the fundamental contradiction in the new concept of the poem, which claims to be a functional object organically part of the contemporary world at the same time that its use of language appears to be highly artificial as compared to the use of language in traditional poetry. This would seem to imply a loss of significant natural (human) content and that the new poetry is dehumanized like the world of technology it claims to inhabit. "This duality of concepts--nature and artificiality--is often associated with another duality of concepts, namely sentiment and reason," Barborka reminds us. He goes on to say:

The parallel is usually constructed as follows: nature = sentiment, artificiality = reason. At the same time, automatically, nature and sentiment are considered to be positive, to be the source of elementary certainties, to be something which automatically engenders good. The remainder is regarded as negative, as the source of all confusion, as that which engenders evil. It is surprising that this view is universally accepted, even though it is obviously erroneous. It is necessary only to examine the contemporary period and past history to come to the realization that the greatest misfortunes in the lives of individuals and in the history of society are derived precisely from t h e d e e p e s t r e a l m s o f h u m a n n a t u r e. Evil does not result from lack of sentiment, but from lack of reason.

Taking this position Barborka accepts the Catholic view of human nature that it is "corrupt" and "inclined toward evil," a fact which man himself has already realized "or better sensed" sometime "in the remote past," so that he has "taken the road leading f r o m i t, the unnatural [artificial] road, which has become his secondary nature, which has given him the human qualities that have enabled him to create the greatest works of civilization, and which is able to replace human nature entirely." (Barborka uses the word "nature" with one or the other of these two meanings. It is usually clear from the context whether he is referring to primary human nature or secondary human nature. Also there is no adequate English equivalent for the word he uses for the unnatural [the artificial]. So we have used these words interchangeably depending upon which one seems best suited to a particular context. It is clear from the context of the essay that he considers technology among "the greatest works of civilization.") Many advances in civilization which we now take for granted are unnatural if we stop to think, Barborka reminds us, even, for example, "the eating of roasted meat and riding on a bicycle."
To point "a warning finger" at technology as "something which dehumanizes and threatens man" is to indulge ourselves in "a hypocritical gesture," he asserts. "More appropriately it should be pointed at man himself and his nature which, being part of himself, can be much more dangerous to him than all that comes from the outside." Technology is "the world of things which exist apart from man, which by themselves can do nothing." It can never be more than "the obedient instrument" of man and his "love or hatred of his country, or of anything else, be it megalomania, heroism, devotion, justice, desire for power, etc." In other words, technology faces the same peril that all advances made by secondary human nature face: it may be appropriated by primary human nature.

The "meeting place of the conflict between man's two natures" is language. Barborka sees language as "the image of man: in its nature mixed, corrupt, and chaotic." In its present state "obviously it is the work of both primary and secondary human nature." Which of them actually created language is impossible to say, but it is more probable that language evolved from secondary human nature. For "when centuries ago man (it is better to say: half-man) began to articulate the first words, this was in relation to his nature obviously quite unnatural." Assuming that language was an achievement of secondary human nature, it was "immediately" possessed by primary human nature because it is its "age-long characteristic" that it "takes possession of what it did not create."

Where does this leave the poet? The poet is "particularly" one of many people, "especially artists," whose "utmost endeavors" are directed "toward the liberation and maximum liberalization of primary human nature." The poet is particularly concerned because the material from which his art is made is language. The poet "turns against" language in its "natural state":

He deforms language, reorganizes it, and exercises the most brutal despotism over its nature. This, of course, is not new. Poetical work from time immemorial has consisted of wresting the language from its natural state, of deforming it, of organizing it anew.

How then did poetry get off the track so that it finds itself in the midst of a "tragic conflict between art and technology" and displaced in its "milieu," the contemporary world? Poetry got off the track, according to Barborka, because it assumed language should be "organized anew" in the poem in such a manner as to provide for a new organization which would resemble to the highest degree the original natural state of the language. If the original state of the language was A, its deformation B, then the new organization was again A, or ar best A'. And so the poem was a form in which the language appeared as if it were natural as if it were organized.... If the natural state of the language is A, its deformation B, then the new organization must be C.

This is Barborka's position with regard to the new poetry. To him it seems inconsistent and hypocritical for the poet to attempt to wrest language from its natural state in order to reorganize it in such a way that it appears to have been left in its natural state. For in the context of his argument, this implies a glorification of man's primary human nature and a neglect of the poet's most serious mission: "the liberation and maximum liberalization of primary human nature."

Does this mean that the concrete poet should start sermonizing about the conflict between primary and secondary human nature? Not at all. The poet's view of man and the world represents his "points of departure." They clarify for him his task as an artist. Holding the above views Barborka is compelled to come to terms in his use of language with "the period of technical civilization," which the old poetry cannot do. "Poetry of the traditional type," says Barborka, "reacts to a technical civilization in a more or less negative way. Some poetical trends oppose it outright Others take no account of it. Still others--and this is the great majority--assume the role of counterweight to this 'over-mechanized world.' Its effect on man, they claim, is 'dehumanizing,' and that its very substance stands in conflict with human nature."

The new poetry recognizes the conflict between art and technology as "pseudo-problematical," because it recognizes the legitimacy for art of man's reason, his secondary nature, from whose dictates his civilization advances. It is even possible, Barborka suggests, that man has created his "technological milieu" in conflict with his primary nature because he wishes "to destroy his nature." And he is inclined to the opinion that this is the case and that man "should wish . . . to destroy his nature." "Yet:" he asks, "If man destroys his nature, does he not at the same time destroy himself?" This question is answered in the negative, for Barborka believes that "under certain circumstances man can do very well without his nature, maybe even better than with it." It is highly possible, then, that so-called "artificial (new) poetry" is "more natural than traditional poetry" to man's nature in the present stage of his development.

Recognition of the fact that the possibility exists for a "humanized" rather than a "dehumanized" technological civilization in which the new poem can play a vital, functional role is, of course, still to speak more of the ideal than the reality. The concrete poet by no means assumes that he has saved the world. Barborka knows that he has simply reached a point where he must accept certain conditions relating to content and his use of language. "If a poet accepts the above-mentioned views," he concludes:

he has the duty to take the consequences of them even in the realm of his poetical work. In the first place, he must renounce the glorification of human nature. There is nothing beautiful, nothing admirable in it, nothing which would not deserve to be bound and, if not destroyed, at least consigned to strictly defined limits. Therefore he must subscribe to a poetry of discipline, harmony and strict order. (When I say strict, I do not have in mind cold. The moving force of a strictly rational and speculative method is, in the last analysis, a deep love of the world. The poet who accepts for his poem a strict order works toward an order that is in harmony with the order of the universe.)

Having said this Barborka arrives at the place where all statements about the new poetry meet: the content of the new poem "is predominantly in its structure; more than this, structure itself is the content." The poet "does not deal with philosophical, moralistic, and other similar considerations.... Rather he focuses his attention upon what at the given moment is most important, namely his work-material, his language. He examines its relationship to the above-mentioned concepts and to primary and secondary human nature .... the final aim has shifted somewhat." The new poem then is more the result of a particular view of man and the world than a conceptual statement of it.

Does this mean that the poem that results from Barborka's premises excludes all that belongs to primary human nature? By no means. Barborka realizes that in stating his position he has over-simplified matters by speaking "of reason and sentiment, of nature and artificiality as if these concepts stood in isolation from each other." The new poetry, he goes on to say, "would be in conflict with its own rationalistic nature if it attempted to exclude from its considerations and poetical tasks the emotional, subjective and irrational elements of human nature." The poet seeks a "harmony" which masters and includes them:

[a] fullness and equilibrium of forces, above all a precise delimitation of conditions. A poem is a plan of the world in which all the factors I have mentioned are represented in a precisely determined ratio. Therefore in the poem reason must prevail. This is so because even though antagonistic elements were put into the work with the maximum degree of objectivity so that they are in absolute equilibrium and reason prevails, imprints are left upon the final work. This predominance of reason can only be referred to as a tendency; for in addition to being the fulfillment of a precise plan, a poem is the requirements of an ideal. . . . the ideal is postulated by the ratio of elements in the material structure (which is the content) of the poem.

Barborka has humanized the theory of the concrete poem from a most provocative philosophical stance that presents both man and the poem in a new relationship to the world of technology. And in keeping with his final argument that the personality and individuality of the author are not eradicated from the poem when the "speculative manner of working" is adopted, an argument substantially supported by our selection, he has discovered his own new system of structural organization-the Process Text.

The Process Text attempts to introduce plot as a possibility for the concrete poem. Its intent is to be "a plan and model of plots" directed towards "movement," "story," and the realization of its own "process." It could be called "epic," but the plot is not "described." It is "included directly in the material of the text" in characteristic concrete fashion. Movement in the process poem proceeds "from nothing towards something (starting, growing, multiplying)"; "from something to nothing (perishing, diminishing, reducing itself)"; "from something towards something (metamorphosis, transformation ) . "

As can be deduced from the above, the Process Text is a long poem as concrete texts go. Work on the text involves four "phases": (1) Construction of the "ground" text. (Our page from "potopa" ("flood") is the ground text, even though it becomes the last page of the poem in the final organization.); (2) Decision about "the program and operation through which the text must pass;" (3) Working out of the operation in accordance with the program; and (4) Final construction of the series of texts which resulted from the carrying out of the program. (The order may vary in accordance with the demands of the particular poem. In "potopa" the program of operations is presented in reverse order so that the "flood" can build up to a climax as the poem progresses. )

We regret not having space to present the process that reduces the ground text of "potopa" ( 24 lines, fourteen words of four letters to each line, making a total of 336 words) to the single letter "o". Suffice it to say that this is accomplished in eleven "operations" according to a mathematical program. ( See Word Gloss.) In "potopa" Barborka juxtaposes rational method (artificiality) and emotional (natural) content in his ground text, which represents a high water mark in the "flood" of human existence. The poet watches others drowning, or being injured, and inanimate objects being broken in the "flood." He is in danger of drowning himself unless he can find some way to control it. So he creates a calm, strictly ordered visual surface by a precise linear arrangement of words of equal length. Looking at the words we see that the word "voda" ("water") is repeated over and over to give the sense of a flood and to keep the highly emotional and subjective word groups formed by the other words from destroying the order of the poem. The poet "harmonizes" his anguished cryings out at what he sees:. man frightened, injured, drowning in the flood of human existence, a victim of his own nature. Reading the word groups contained within the flood of the repeated word "voda," we find fragments for a highly subjective and emotional poem that views human nature with compassion but does not glorify it. Ironically the poet masters his subjective material with his rationally controlled method and arrives at the letter "o".

It is in its solution of the problem of the relationship of the orderly to the accidental that Barborka's Process Text partakes of the order of the universe. The orderly is comprised of: "the construction of the basic text in relation to its aim (scope, proportion, topological location); . . . strictly rational determination of its operational program (its numerical principles);" and "the actual realization of its operations." The accidental of: "the intuitive choice of language material; the traditional method of writing the basic text (the subjective conceptions); the deviation from the pre-determined program in the actual execution of operations (interference in accordance with an immediate decision), the mistake in execution which is discovered and intentionally kept." Barborka sees the poet's task as the constant "attempt to apprehend and determine this relationship of the orderly to the accidental as an expression of the order of the universe." It should not be overlooked, though, that "what is involved is . . . apprehension, determination, and expression by an artifact, i. e. by a form which is to some extent autonomous."

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