UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers | Concrete Poetry: A World View
The New Visual Poetry
Mary Ellen Solt
From Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968, Indiana University Press)
It is probably impossible to write a completely silent poem with words or recognizable fragments of words, although to be able to do so is probably the ultimate goal of the visual concrete poet. It is not that we can't speak the words in a visual concrete poem, it is that if the poet succeeds in keeping our eyes sufficiently engaged, we have no desire or need to speak them. Is this necessarily a deficiency? All true poems are said to aspire to silence, the silence of the spirit at their center, which is what Gomringer is saying with the white space at the center of his ideogram "silencio". If the poem is to take its place as a functional object in the environment for spiritual contemplation, maybe we need to take some of the noise out of it. Still the remove of the visual poem from the oral tradition cannot be ignored. Have we perhaps lost the poet's voice? That is very doubtful. Brazilian concrete poetry, which seems silent to those who don't speak Portuguese, can be read aloud by native speakers with great enjoyment. And Belloli, as we have seen, has succeeded in making poems that are both audio and visual.
The fact remains, though, that we
have an increasing number of poems which are primarily, and in
the case of non-semantic poems totally visual; and the tradition
of poetry is believed to be oral. Why suddenly the visual poem?
Suppose we stop trying to draw support for the visual poem from
the few historical examples of shape poetry, Futurist typograms,
calligrams, picture writing, etc. and join Carlo Belloli in his
bold assertion that the visual poem is a unique new art form created
by contemporary man from contemporary linguistic materials to
meet spiritual needs peculiar to his own time and place. Pierre
Garnier has suggested that the poem now wishes to become a material
object because man is becoming increasingly aware of the spirituality
that resides in the material itself of the objects that surround
him. Also, man having discovered or rediscovered himself as a
cosmic being in the age of space, space itself takes on spiritual
(poetic) content. The visual poem is a material object in space
which can achieve spiritual influence.
If the visual poem is a new product
in a world flooded with new products, then it must partake of
the nature of the world that created it. The visual poem is a
word design in a designed world. It can't be mere coincidence
that the founders of the concrete poetry movement in both Europe
and Brazil were involved not only with the world of contemporary
avant-garde poetry, painting and music but with the world
of graphic design as well. Gomringer was in close daily. contact
with Diter Rot and Marcel Wyss, both graphic artists, when he
began to come up with his new ideas for the poem; he was secretary
to Max Bill at the Hochschule fur Gestaltung at Ulm the year he
wrote his first manifesto "from line to constellation."
Décio Pignatari of the Noigandres group was a designer
by profession when the Brazilians were learning to clarify their
new theories. But Gomringer and the De Campos brothers were not
designers who also became poets, as was Pignatari, they were poets
who became word designers because the old world of the traditional
poem was no longer their world. This was not a decision, it was
a discovery made as the result of careful study of preceding forms.
Among the concrete poets there are many painters, graphic artists
and designers, as we have seen.
As we now move through our daily lives,
our eyes are literally assaulted by designs of one kind or another.
Every box of food we pick up or don't pick up in the super-market
is covered with words and more or less enticing visual images
to make us want to pick it up. Every cigarette we smoke against
scientific medical advice was advertised into our consciousness.
Every chair, table, knife, fork, spoon was designed by someone
as an object for practical use, although some of these things
are very beautiful. Our clothes, our cars, our appliances are
designs. Some of the designs in our world are excellent, but their
content is trivial. In some designs the content is insidious.
If the new visual poem has found ways to use the materials and
methods of presentation of the designer's world (mainly typography),
ways to give them significant human and spiritual content; if
it can find poetry in the designed world of our daily lives, then
we should rejoice and stop worrying about the oral tradition.
The plain fact is that the oral tradition neglected the visual
power of words.
Great functional designs seem always
to be related in some way to nature. The airplane, a mechanical
bird, is poetry when it flies, but not a poem. The poem is made
of language and partakes of human nature. Garnier speaks of the
design of the visual poem as "interior." The visual
poem as a functional design can humanize the materials and techniques
of the mass media of communication, can make them available to
the human spirit. The poem comes alive once again in the world
it has been assumed would destroy it.