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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," Belloli wrote:

to see will become more necessary than to listen.

the people of the future will not seek poetry in libraries but on the walls of their rooms, and they will find in it an integrating factor uniting them with the environment in which they work.

the key-words of typographical constructions aim at the greatest possible economy of expression.

they do not create analogies, they do not invite comparisons. my text-poems neither evoke a state of mind nor do they tell a story.

optimism and pessimism play no part in my quest for poetic words.

only unadorned verbal architecture, dynamic in its unfamiliar distribution, totally optical in typographical and structural layout.

marinetti saw in my mural text-poems a new medium of expression, a new development in futurist research.

marinetti has urged me to form this collection of words which are to be visualized before being read for their meaning, to be repeated intermittently for their internal sound content.

war is our whole school of experience.

all values become essence.

the indispensable becomes more and more concentrated.

one word will be enough to write a book.

one thousand blank pages to reflect over and the simple

word "end" to be read slowly.

war is the only word that I know.

to seek other words, a few essential ones, becomes the

mark of a reactionary.

even young people sometimes wish to compromise them


war will not be the only word of the future.

we shall then be able to hang our helmet on that same nail

where we hung a text-poem.

and look at those word patterns that the war passed by.

Belloli called his introduction "visual poetry."

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.

in "futurist free-word compositions" poetry sought a place on the wall, crossed paths with calligraphy and even became pictorial.

my own futurist "mural text-poems" of 1943-1944 gave poetry a place in space, but without fully and firmly establishing it in that median. it was still necessary to make use of a basic support and to print on opaque paper, though with typo-visual structural devices in keeping with the semantic choice.

the poet of today becomes a semantic architect systematically seeking a new space medium, an open site which is to be found neither in the library nor on the wall.

for the poetry of ideas, for symbolical, technological and other forms of poetry, we have substituted a poetry of simple words whose semantic structure is capable of integration with a corresponding semiotic structure in space: the poetry body....

rather than an etymological and a structural and phonetic change, we propose a visual development in semantic structure, one which would be of absolute spiritual quality because it fully represents the relationship of word, sound and visuality....

a poetry body is an object composed of words set free, not fixed in space: visual words, in that they can be read, they become qualitatively visual because of the multisensory feelings that they evoke.... anonymous, silent, almost invisible poetry bodies: words set free in a transparent medium....

semantic structures can be prepared for the dingy rooms of motels and boarding houses, and for writing desks and office waiting rooms. Also for aunt emma's boudoir, if only to disrupt her relationship with the flowered chintz....

poetry bodies inaugurate the quest for flexible phonemes and hyper-acoustic words of verbal simplicity printed on plastic composed of transparent rodoid; alternatively on opaque paper arranged with intersecting characters inside liquid Plexiglas or phenolic resin. when solid these geometrical poetry bodies stand out clear, crystalline in space.... optical poems in letter patterns arranged progressively by sizes....

with the aid of poetry bodies it will be possible for the creative spectator to compose his own poem-object.

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.

for our system of semantic and morphological structures combined with semiotic and typographical ones, concrete poetry is substituting an arithmetical construction of monotone keywords of illusory effect without the necessary relationship with visual typographical construction, which It neglects.

It is the organic use of typography in relation to semantics that Belloli particularly emphasizes. He rejects "the expressionist evaluation of page space, as sought by Mallarme, Marinetti and Apollinaire":

for us a word is purely verbal material of visual conception and structure, a precise typographical arrangement deriving from selected semantic values....

what we seek is visual evaluation in semantic structure, a development entirely of spiritual quality in that it represents the unified relationship of word, sound and visuality....

in our poetry the semiotic structure is determined by the semantic structure, and, inasmuch as it cannot yield typographical solutions different from those based on semantic choices, it is univocal.

the typographical disposition of our audiovisual words is not determined by arbitrary decorative or graphic considerations. It is strictly regulated by the physiognomy and meaning of words used in the development of the semantic content area.

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 awe-inspiring example.

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.

this is seen in ancient "greek, latin, mediaeval and baroque ideograms, and in the modern examples of christian morgenstern ("songs of the scaffold," 1905); in those of f. t. marinetti ("zany tumb-rumb adrianopoli," 1914), ardengo soffici ("bif + zf = l8. simultaneity and Iyrical chemisms," 1915); corrado govoni ("rarefactions and words in freedom," 1915); pierre albert-birot (poems in "sic," 1916-1917), paul dermée (poems in "nord-sud," 1917); guillaume apollinaire ("calligrams," 1918); ilya zdanévitch "easter island," 1919). none of these examples can be regarded as legitimate sources, nor valid in any lineal sense, in relation to the history of visual poetry from its origins to the present.

these ingenuous and experimental documents are lacking in any pledge or commitment to integrate the semanticsemioric values of the poematic-formal structure, also the will to understand poetry as a mathematical-permutational construction of successive block-units of elementary and aphysical words capable of continuous and unlimited development in series.

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, he writes:

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.

for almost twenty-five years i have sought to express myself in poetry consisting of autonomous words unrelated to ideas of philosophical, psychological, social, historical or autobiographical origin.

i do not regard poetry as a narrative or Iyrical genre but as word patterns, a form of verbal architecture- in a space-time dialectic.

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.

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