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Mary Ellen Solt

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

The term "concrete poetry" is now being used to refer to a variety of innovations and experiments following World War II which are revolutionizing the art of the poem on a global scale and enlarging its possibilities for expression and communication. There are now so many kinds of experimental poetry being labeled "concrete" that it is difficult to say what the word means. In an article in THE LUGANO REVIEW (1966), the English critic Mike Weaver, who organized The First International Exhibition of Concrete and Kinetic Poetry in Cambridge in 1964, distinguishes three types of concrete poetry: visual (or optic), phonetic (or sound) and kinetic (moving in a visual succession). And he sees individual poems within these three classifications as related to either the constructivist or the expressionist tradition in art. The constructivist poem results from an arrangement of materials according to a scheme or system set up by the poet which must be adhered to on its own terms (permutational poems). In the expressionist poem the poet arranges his material according to an intuitive structure. Weaver's definitions and classifications are most clarifying when applied generally; but when we are confronted with the particular text or poem, we often find that it is both visual and phonetic, or that it is expressionistic as well as constructivist. It is easier to classify the kinetic poem because it incorporates movement, usually a succession of pages; but it is essentially a visual poem, and its words are, of course, made up of sounds. We need only to look at Emmett Williams kinetic book SWEETHEARTS to see that it is possible to incorporate everything we have said about concrete poetry in this paragraph in one poem. Often concrete poems can only be classified in terms of their predominating characteristics.

The situation is such that the poets themselves are often reluctant to make the unqualified statement: "I am a concrete poet." In most cases they will say: "It depends upon what you mean by 'concrete'." The poets presented in this selection will for the most part accept the label "concrete" in its broad definition, very few in its narrow. Usually they prefer to find another name for their particular experiments. Often they speak simply of visual or sound poetry.

Despite the confusion in terminology, though, there is a fundamental requirement which the various kinds of concrete poetry meet: concentration upon the physical material from which the poem or text is made. Emotions and ideas are not the physical materials of poetry. If the artist were not a poet he might be moved by the same emotions and ideas to make a painting (if he were a painter), a piece of sculpture (if he were a sculptor), a musical composition (if he were a composer). Generally speaking the material of the concrete poem is language: words reduced to their elements of letters (to see) syllables (to hear). Some concrete poets stay with whole words. Others find fragments of letters or individual speech sounds more suited to their needs. The essential is reduced language. The degree of reduction varies from poet to poet, from poem to poem. In some cases non-linguistic material is used in place of language, in the plastic poems of Kitasono Katue, for instance, or in the "Popcreto" of Augusto de Campos, which is a Tower of Babel of eyes. But the non-linguistic objects presented function in a manner related to the semantic character of words. In addition to his preoccupation with the reduction of language, the concrete poet is concerned with establishing his linguistic materials in a new relationship to space (the page or its equivalent) and/or to time (abandoning the old linear measure). Put another way this means the concrete poet is concerned with making an object to be perceived rather than read. The visual poem is intended to be seen like a painting; the sound poem is composed to be listened to like music. Concrete poets, then, are united in their efforts to make objects or compositions of sounds from particular materials. They are disunited on the question of semantics: some insisting upon the necessity for poetry to remain within the communication area of semantics, others convinced that poetry is capable of transmitting new and other kinds of information--purely esthetic information.

But no matter where the concrete poet stands with respect to semantics, he invariably came to concrete poetry holding the conviction that the old grammatical-syntactical structures are no longer adequate to advanced processes of thought and communication in our time. In other words the concrete poet seeks to relieve the poem of its centuries-old burden of ideas, symbolic reference, allusion and repetitious emotional content; of its servitude to disciplines outside itself as an object in its own right for its own sake. This, of course, asks a great deal of what used to be called the reader. He must now perceive the poem as an object and participate in the poet's act of creating it, for the concrete poem communicates first and foremost its structure.

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