UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers | Concrete Poetry: A World View
Mary Ellen Solt
From Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968, Indiana University Press)
Moving to the English-speaking world we find no manifestoes; for the concrete poetry movement can by no stretch of the imagination be said to have originated in Great Britain, Canada or the United States, even though Joyce, Pound and Cummings are acknowledged fathers of the Brazilian concrete poem. But in Ian Hamilton Finlay of Scotland, publisher of Wild Hawthorn books and editor of POOR. OLD. TIRED. HORSE., we find the concrete poet who has been most imaginative in his use of materials. Finlay has enlarged our concept of the poem as a functional object in the environment. To function in the world the poem must be evident in the world. "My point about poems in glass, actual concrete, stone or whatever is," he states, "--simply--that new means of constructing a poem aesthetically, ought to lead to consideration of new materials. If these poems are for 'contemplating,' let them be made with that intention, and let them be sited where they can be contemplated." Finlay's poems embodied in various materials were anticipated, of course, by the "poetry bodies" of Carlo Belloli. Speaking of developments following his creation of the "poetry bodies" Belloli quoted Leonardo di Vinci as having pleaded: " . . . oh poet, give me something I may see and touch, and not what I can only hear" ( ". . . o poeta dammi cosa che lo posse vedere e toccare e non che solamente la posse udire.").
What impresses us most about Finlay's
use of materials is their organic relationship to content. "Fisherman's
Cross", in which man's life ("seas") rhymes with
his death ("ease"), would lose considerably were it
printed on paper: the hard, rugged mold of cast concrete is entirely
in keeping with the hard, rugged mold of the fisherman's life.
This is not an interpretative use of materials; it is a semantic
use of materials. Also, placing the cross within an eightsided
outline that modifies its shape, the word "seas" both
makes the cross and appears to be floating away from its definite
shape. "Ease" on the other hand rests quietly in its
place. Nothing is done with materials, typography, or space in
this poem that is not essential to the meaning. It was made to
be situated in a church.
The sea and all that goes with it--boats,
sailors, sailing, fish, waves, rocks, nets and stars, among which
one may be found to steer by--is Finlay's favorite subject. In
"wave rock" he captures it in blue sandblasted glass
designed to be placed where the light can shine through it as
it does through the wave destroying itself on the rock. Light
enters the poem as part of its meaning. Notice also that the letters
of the words "wave" and "rock" are typographically
related to the form of wave and rock and that the word "wave"
moves towards the word "rock." This is accomplished
by appeal to our normal impulse to read from left to right. There
is no dislocation in the placement of the letters: all of the
"w's," "a's," "v's" and "e's"
are placed directly on top of each other. Space created by left-out
letters is used to convey the textural quality of the wave. But
the poem actually happens in the crashing of the two words together.
For although it is obvious that the rock is destroying the wave,
it is equally true that the energy within the wave is exerting
a more subtly destructive influence upon the stable-seeming
rock so that the letters are thrown out of line without destroying
their rock-like solidity through loss of control of space,
and we are forced to read to the left. The crash is caused by
the conflict between the normal movement of the reading eye and
the stronger abnormal impulse to read in the opposite direction.
The movement here suggests that there is kineticism in the reading
process that is accessible to the poet skillful enough to use
it beyond the more obvious kineticism in the process of reading
and turning successive pages. "wave-rock" looks
like an expressionist poem, but its organization is basically
constructivist. Its permutations are spatial: either the letter
is removed from its space or its position is shifted slightly,
so slightly and subtly in the case of "rock" that after
we notice the crashing together of the words, we notice the instability
of "o" in "rock" which seems to float between
the two directional reading impulses.
"Wave-rock" is a great
visual poem. It not only happens in the eye but also makes poetry
from the movements of the eye. The eye is so actively engaged
that we forget the ear even though we can speak the words if we
consciously remind ourselves to do so. It is nearly impossible
to write a silent poem with words. This poem is about as close
to a silent poem as you can get:
In "purse-net boat"
the body of the poem, the sea, is polished aluminum, because the
sea where it touches the fish is "silver." The fish
is named by its adjective so that we see its textural qualities
better. Also there is textural sound in both the words of the
poem: "seiner" and "silver," which are alliterative
on the first syllable and subtly rhymed on the final syllable.
The fish ("silver" printed in larger letters) seems
to rest more than swim, oblivious to the fragile-looking
seiner which approaches to destroy it. Printing "seiner"
in smaller type heightens the tension between the delicate filigree
quality of the net and its insidious function. The purse-net,
very efficient, captures the fish by making a ring around it.
Here again, in the spatial arrangement of "seiner,"
we have the normal direction of reading to the right playing against
a created urge to read the poem to the left. This poem is predominantly
expressionistic, but space and reading have been used semantically,
and there are semantic overtones in the change of size in the
type. The sculptor Henry Clyne is responsible for these sensitive
concretizations of Finlay's word designs.
"earthship" is also a sculpture
poem, but it is made of small curved rectangles of bristol board,
with thirteen words printed on them, and staples. Since it is
made of such fragile materials, it is light and can be played
with like a toy. It is a variable sculpture. Finlay, it should
be mentioned, is a toy-maker as well as poet. The words are
grouped as follows:
fin funnel eye hold bow stern
The first group of words tells us
that the earthship has the essentials of any ship plus one more:
It is a star sailing in space, and, like a ship, it could have a number.
Finlay gives us a few words as hints.
The poem happens in the play-activity of the mind as it makes
the connections between them. Metaphor is revealed by this process.
But we do not wish to leave the impression
that the use of new materials to make the poem an object of contemplation
in the environment has been Finlay's sole preoccupation; for he
is a poet of great versatility. As we have seen, he is capable
of the strictest concrete practice, but if the poem demands a
more expressionistic technique he does not attempt to force it
into a constructivist form. He reserves the name "concrete"
for those poems which adhere strictly to constructivist principles.
His more expressionistic work he calls "fauve" or "suprematist."
In all his work he seeks repose. He has made several kinetic books:
one, OCEAN STRIPE SERIES 3, from the two words ark arc. The whole
history of mankind could be written between them, but the leap
the mind makes in the poem is accomplished plastically. "Arc",
the final word, is defined by rainbow-colored stripes of
tissue paper down the side of the page; so the book, the physical
object, is used semantically in the poem.
Don't look to Finlay for great generalizations,
but if you are willing to make the effort to probe into the spaces
between his words, you may find profound truths there. Actively
he is concerned with what "is little" and "is here"
or what "was little" and "is lost". He hasn't
needed to write a manifesto because he doesn't need one and because
he accepts for the most part the views of Gomringer and the Noigandres
group. Also he no longer cares to write prose, although he
has written the SEA-BED AND OTHER STORIES. But when Garnier
was working on POSITION I DU MOUVEMENT INTERNATIONAL ( 10 October
1963), Finlay wrote him a letter, dated 17 September 1963, stating
certain of his convictions about writing and concrete poetry.
For him, he states, a theoretical explanation of concrete or any
kind of poetry is:
an attempt to find a non-concrete prose parallel to, or secular expression of, the kind of feeling, or even more basically, 'being,' which says, if one listens carefully to the time, and if one is not sequestered in society, that such-and such a mode of using words--this kind of syntax, this sort of construction-is "honest" and "true.". . . I think any pilot-plan should distinguish, in its optimism, between what man can construct and what he actually is. I mean, new thought does not make a new man; in any photograph of an air crash one can see how terribly far man stretches-- from angel to animal; and one does not want a glittering perfection which forgets that the world is, after all, also made by man into his home. I should say--however hard I would find it to justify this in theory--that 'concrete' by its very limitation offers a tangible image of goodness and sanity .... 'concrete' began for me with the extraordinary (since wholly unexpected) sense that the syntax I had been using, the movement of language in me, at a physical level, was no longer there--so it had to be replaced with something else, with a syntax and movement that would be true of the new feeling (which existed in only the vaguest way, since I had, then, no form for it ).
Edwin Morgan, also of Scotland, relies
on unexpected, often humorous juxtapositions of words and word
elements, as in "The Computer's First Christmas Card",
which is Morgan as the computer rather than the computer itself.
In his experiments with concrete poetry Morgan has remained in
close relationship to the mainstream of tradition. He has translated
Brazilian concrete poetry, our two translations of poems by Haroldo
de Campos, for example.