UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers | Concrete Poetry: A World View
Mary Ellen Solt
From Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968, Indiana University Press)
In 1943, ten years before Eugen Gomringer published his first CONSTELLATIONS, a twenty-one year old Italian poet, Carlo Belloli, son of the fourteenth Count of Seriate, wrote and displayed TESTI-POEMI MURALI (WALL TEXTPOEMS). "trend" ("trains"). This was the year Italy surrendered unconditionally to the Allies and declared war a month later on Germany (October 8, 1943 ). He also wrote some war words (PAROLE PER LA GUERRA) from which guerra terra" ("war earth") is taken. The other word in the poem, "serra," means "clench." "Guerra terra" is in ideogram in which typography has been made organic to meaning. Belloli, in 1943, was making what would sixteen years later come to be called concrete poetry. He also met Filippo Tommaso Marinetti that year.
In 1944 both the TESTI-POEMI
MURALI and PAROLE PER LA GUERRA were published, by Erre (Milan)
and by Edizioni di Futuristi in Armi ( Milan ) respectively. Belloli
wrote an introduction to the TESTI-POEMI MURALI explaining
his new theories and relating them to certain necessities of language
made evident by existence following the war. This most significant
statement anticipates much that was said later in the manifestos
for concrete poetry, but, of course, neither Gomringer nor the
Noigandres group knew about Belloli's work. "In my
opinion poetry is moving towards a closer identification with
the changing needs and tastes of modern culture and art,"
to see will become more necessary than to listen.
Belloli called his introduction "visual
Marinetti also wrote an introduction
to TESTIPOEMI MURALI in which he hailed Belloli as:
the youngest futurist dedicated to the development of new forms, lively, striking, yet essential and stemming from positions already reached in aeropoetry and futurist art . . . essential, unadorned words arranged to evoke new space patterns; with belloli poetry has become visual art . . . transformed into flashes, word-ideas, progressive architectonic text-poems . . . the result of an exacting choice of pure linguistic material which is antianalogic, infradiscursive and asyntactical; with these essential instruments he builds an unusual world of characteristic anonymity . . . belloli has instinctively read the future of futurism . . . these textpoems anticipate a language of word-signs set in the communicational network of a mathematical civilization which will be marked by restraint in the use of dialogue, gestures and feelings.
And in his last manifesto written
a few months before his death in 1944, "manifesto futurista
della patrarte," Marinetti defined Belloli's experimental
poetry as "an original creation of sound-zones ( zone-rumor)
optically arranged in total page display."
Within the next few years, Belloli
enlarged his concept of poems to be seen with the creation of
CORPI Dl POESIA (POETRY BODIES), which consisted of words arranged
in simple patterns within synthetic and transparent substances.
Words were inserted into simple and, so far as possible, unobtrusive
settings such as cubes, spheres, polygons, pyramids and parallelepipeds
to form word structures in space. "Poetry body no. 3"
shows us the side-structure of a three-dimensional poem
that places the love of two people in a self-contained world
of its own. The CORPI Dl POESTA were intended for collectors and
general purposes. They were first exhibited and published in 1951
along with a leaflet: "instructions for the use of poetry
bodies" from which the following statements relating to visual
poetry in space and its attempt to integrate semantic and semiotic
structure are taken:
poetry was bound to escape from the pages of a book.
Belloli is the kind of artist who
can define what he is doing and use that synthesizing statement
as a stepping stone to something more. In 1959 he formulated a
theory to which he gave the name "audiovisualism." This
statement appeared in a volume of audiovisual texts which summarized
his explorations of semantic visual relationships between 1952
and 1959. At this time he disassociated his work from the label
"concrete" principally on semantic grounds:
failing to understand the concept that form can become the sole content of poetic expression, concrete poetry with which our work has often been mistakenly associated, is seeking an arithmetical solution to phonetical combinations thus transforming it into mere verbal puns.
It is the broad interpretation of
"concrete" that Belloli does not wish to associate himself
with primarily, for he agrees in many respects with concrete poets
working along strict constructivist lines and in particular with
Hansjorg Mayer in his insistence that "to obtain complete
semantic-visual unity of the token word the constant use
of small typographical characters is necessary."
The audiovisual poet, says Belloli,
is a "word builder" whose "aim is to define a language
of the spirit in meta-lingual terms." For him a word
is "purely verbal material of visual conception and structure,
a precise typographical arrangement deriving from selected semantic
values." In the audiovisual poem the word is "not mere
sound . . . it is transformed into an anonymous symbol of tone
and timbre. It assumes neutrality, breaking with human or divine
significance to become an anonymous instrument of comic fascination."
To recreate the word as "an anonymous symbol of tone and
timbre," the audiovisual poet does "not resort to onomatopoeia,
alliteration, vowel changes, or to homophones such as appear,
even in dadaist extension, in German expressionist poets, in the
flexible words of Joyce and in ezra pound's linguistic acrobatics
. . . of the constituent elements of language--phrase, word, syllable,
sound--[he] reject[s] the phrase element, using sometimes words
but above all syllables and sounds." What is sought is "visual
evolution in semantic structure, a development entirely of spiritual
quality in that it represents the unified relationship of word,
sound and visuality . . . in which the two-dimensional page plays
its part as a unifying factor."
The test of a poet's theory is his
poem. "acqua" is a great audiovisual poem. Typography
is organically united with semantics. Notice that "acqua"
("water") is the only word printed in bold type face
(as though the poet were engulfed in the word and its semantic
implications as water flows into water) until we reach the phrase
"nave acqua uomini" ("ship water men") almost
at the center of the poem, when "acqua" is suddenly
printed in light type face on an equality with the other two words.
The next phrase (printed in light type face) closes the first
half of the poem, and reversal in meaning is accomplished typographically.
For we notice that "palma sole voci" ("palm sun
voices") has been printed in reverse order in bold type face:
"voci sole palma" as though mirrored in the water. Looking
closer we can see that all the following words printed in bold
type face mirror the words printed in light type face, and vice
versa, in the first half of the central section of the poem. We
are now made aware of the words which we hardly noticed in the
overwhelming presence of the boldly printed "acqua."
"acqua" itself calms and recedes under the influence
of the lighter type face. Except in one instance: "water"
again takes its place typographically on an equal basis with "men"
and "ship" in bold type face. Reading these boldly printed
words in the center of the poem, we discover that they refer to
people, natural and inanimate objects, and qualities. The qualitative
words refer to water "colorless color transparent"),
to the "vertical" sky, to "distance," which
is placed next to "voice and voice," and to "silence,"
which occurs in the phrase "boat silence a man," which
is juxtaposed to "sun leaves a woman." (I have quoted
these phrases as they occur in the first half of the center section
before they were "mirrored" in bold type.) With a reversal
of type face, which reverses the meaning, the poet, nearly inundated
by the word "acqua," suddenly returns by way of his
words themselves to the world of men, women, children and things
where, an equal among them, water finds its place. The kinetic
typographical play in the shifting of "acqua" from bold
to light to bold in the phrases "nave acqua uomini"/"uomini
acqua nave" as the poet arrives at the moment of spiritual
illumination should be noted. For he looks into the water as a
great mirror from which objective reality, faintly visible for
a time, comes to the surface into the sunlight of "palma
sole voci / voci sole palma at the center of the poem.
A vision of clarity has been achieved by means of the process
of poetic creation.
Non-semantically Belloli has
been able to convey the visual-aesthetic qualities of water
typographically: the play of light and shade upon its mirror surface,
its rushing and calming. But the mirroring technique is not allowed
to become a mere system of exactly mirrored words (which usually
results in nonsense); the articles are allowed to remain in normal
position in relation to the nouns they accompany. So without making
his language artificial in any way, Belloli captures the instability
and inexactness of images mirrored in water. Beyond this there
is the dimension of sound. The over-powering boldly-printed
word "acqa" thunders in upon us to break into
an exultation of vowels and consonants in the world of men and
things. The meta-language that arises from this expert typographical-linguistic
composition is of overwhelming force.
It would be unfair to Belloli to say
that this is a great concrete poem. He feels that his "audiovisual"
poetry goes beyond concrete poetry. But it is encouraging that
having worked along concrete lines ten years longer than Gomringer,
he can arrive at this stage of accomplishment using concrete techniques
of repetition and word play within a system. For the mirroring
of words in the center of the poem presents a system. If you begin
reading with the first word and the last word and work towards
the center, "voci" and "voci" meet,
which is of great semantic significance: the poet has found his
true voice and can now bring the objective world into clear focus.
It is Belloli's freedom within this system that is so significant,
because it is so firmly anchored in semantics. Also his use of
typography organic with semantics in such an advanced way shows
concrete poetry defined strictly the significant, demanding and
liberating road it can take. If the concrete poet's commitment
is "total responsibility before language" this is an
In a statement written this year,
1967, Belloli states that while he considers his work as percussive
of the international concrete poetry movement and related to it
in certain aspects defined by Gomringer, the Noigandres group
of Brazil, Bense, and Gamier, he wishes to retain his own label
"audiovisual" to disassociate himself from non-semantic
work, both graphic and phonic, which has become associated with
the term concrete poetry. He adds further that it is his belief
that the best of the new visual poetry can stand on its own merits
as an entirely new kind of expression born of our own time and
need without having to back itself up with historical examples
which represent a distinctly different concept:
the origins of visual poetry are quite distinct from any attempt to illustrate the meaning of written words by giving them graphic or typographical interpretation of their content.
To the kind of poetry represented
by the above mentioned examples, Belloli would apply the term
"visive. " Unrelated to these examples Belloli
wants us to see the "lexical" structure of his poems
as tending towards "a horizontal form in which nothing obtrudes,
in which everything unites into a single compact and uniform whole.
they are closely woven linguistic patterns whose words are the
warp and woof that cross and recross to give syntactic structure
to the poem." As far as his own work is presently concerned,
for my part, a wide experience of visual poetry has enabled me to initiate new lines of research and new forms which, although in direct descent, seem to me to be fundamentally different from my first contributions to this genre, namely: "mural text-poems," 1944; "visual poetry panels," 1948; "poetry bodies," 1951, "audiovisual texts," 1959. i believe my new researches and the new forms resulting from them to be the only media through which today i can write words of poetry.
Arrigo Lora Totino is a leader of
the concrete poetry movement in Italy. He is director of the review
MODULO, which for its first number published a comprehensive international
anthology of concrete poetry. He helped establish the Museum of
Contemporary Poetry in Turin along with Carlo Belloli. Also he
is a painter whose work has been widely exhibited. In "spazio"
typography and design are used semantically with great effectiveness.
"xi-non" also conveys its meaning graphically.
Adriano Spatola, born in Yugoslavia,
now lives in Italy. He has published a novel as well as poems.
His zeroglifico (cut up poems) appear to be related to
Mon's theories about poetry of surface.