UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers | Concrete Poetry: A World View
Mary Ellen Solt
From Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968, Indiana University Press)
It has been mentioned that Öyvind Fahlström of Sweden, who lived for the first three years of his life in Sao Paulo, began writing concrete poetry at approximately the same time as Gomringer; also that he published the first defense of the new post-war experimental poetry under the title "Manifesto for Concrete Poetry" in 1953. This means that he had arrived at the name "concrete" for the new experiments three years before it was adopted by Gomringer and the Noigandres group, although Augusto de Campos had begun to speak of the Brazilian poems as "concrete" in 1955. However Fahlström's manifesto exerted no influence upon the international movement, for it was circulated, I believe, in mimeographed form; and Gomringer and Pignatari were completely unaware of its existence when they met and founded the international movement. To this day it has been read by very few concrete poets. Our translation from Swedish into English is to our knowledge, the first.
The "Manifesto for Concrete Poetry
(1953)" is long and highly metaphorical. But much
of the difficulty in reading it disappears when the reader realizes
that what seem at first glance to be nonsensical, meaningless
statements are in reality attempts on the part of Fahlström
to jolt him into an attitude of mind that will allow him to accept
familiar words in new (often strange) contexts and relationships.
Much of the manifesto is concerned with the question of new logical-linguistic
relationships in the poem related to thought processes of children,
primitive people, the mentally ill; and to a use of words as representative
symbols comparable to the contemporary use of representational
forms in abstract painting, for Fahlström, as a painter of
international reputation, brings to the theory of the concrete
poem the painter's sense of visual-conceptual relationships.
But there are also many statements that anticipate classical concrete
theory and practice.
Fahlström begins, typically,
by choosing a title to refer specifically to his own poetry--tables.
Our small selection cannot begin to convey all that he has
accomplished with this concept of form. Many of the tables are
a great deal longer than the usual concrete poem. Figure 62 is
a-typical, but it appears to present the concept of the poem
as table metaphorically, for it resembles the ornate, round, brass
tables associated with Eastern cultures, art objects of a kind,
and also the mandala. Figure 61, "Bob's Fence," one
of several "Bobb" poems, makes use of "parallel"
and "framed-form" strophes within which "motifs"
constructed of serial word patterns both repeat and reverse themselves
to make a statement about the fenced-in condition of contemporary
man. Notice that the central meaning of the poem ("from Bob
/ although he was / at the same time / human and") is stated
in the central square. The Swedish word "inhagnad" means:
a fence which encloses a square plot of ground.
Like other concrete poets Fahlström
thinks of his work as opposed to prevailing or "official"
literary "fashion." And many of the alternatives he
proposes are identical with proposals made by Gomringer, the Noigandres
group and others:
(1) The abandonment of self preoccupation, analysis and expression in favor of concentration upon language as material--single words, letters--so that poetry may be "experienced and created on the basis of language as concrete material." But Fahlström does not wish to be understood as meaning that the term "concrete" should be limited merely to matters of style: "what I have called literary concretion . . . is not a style--it is partly a way for the reader to experience word art, primarily poetry--partly for the poet a release, a declaration of the right of all language material and working means .... SQUEEZE the language material: that is what can be titled concrete," Fahlström asserts.
Much of Fahlström's manifesto
is concerned with specific new techniques, many of them related
to what would become general concrete practice: serial construction,
mirroring, repetition of various kinds (including repetition of
identical lines with variation). More specifically related to
his own "tables" he speaks of: strophes "broken
up into vertical parallelisms," "marginal strophes beside
the principal strophes," "framed-form strophes
with a kernel strophe within," etc.
It is most remarkable that in 1953
Fahlström could anticipate to such a specific and detailed
degree structural developments which would soon revolutionize
the art of the poem on a global scale, but his more individual
contributions to concrete theory should not be overlooked. For
instance he speaks at length about the possibilities for "widening"
the logical scope of the poem by "forming new agreements
and contrasts" so that new word contexts can be created.
Basically it is a matter of "unit and connection", for
the poet must essentially concern himself with knitting "the
net of relations tightly and clearly'' to achieve "the same
firmness of structure as that of reality." He must be "bound"
only by conventions he has formed himself "but not by those
of others." The new "intuitive" logic is that "of
likeness, of sympathetic magic," related to the processes
of thought of children, primitive people, and the mentally ill.
"Applied to language," this new "intuitive logic"
brings together " words which sound alike " and "the
fun comes from that." Many examples are included. Fahlström
relates this connecting of words that sound alike to rhyme, which
"has had a similar effect."
Also, unlike the authors of other
manifestoes for concrete poetry, he emphasizes the importance
of rhythm. "Above all I think that the rhythmic aspect contains
unimagined possibilities," he asserts. For he finds in rhythm
the "most elementary, directly physically grasping means
of effect" available to the poet because it "has a connection
with the pulsation of breathing, the blood, ejaculation."
But by rhythm he does not mean meter in the traditional sense.
Rather it is the "joy of recognizing something known before,
the importance of repeating"; for if the poet allows himself
to "stick with the motifs, to let them repeat themselves,"
he will find them beginning to "form new rhythms." Specifically
he mentions "filling out rhythmic words as a background for
principle meanings"; "independent onomatopoetic rhythmic
phrases"; "rhythms of word order, rhythms of space";
"metrical rhythms," also, but in new contexts.
New contexts can also be formed by
arbitrarily dictating "new meanings for letters, words, sentences
or fragments"; and by discovering "what there is to
keep in language found purely mechanically without the use of
reading direction or a series system of words and meanings . .
. the most amputated and kneaded, fragmentized word elements and
phrases" can yield "unexpected values."
In three instances Fahlström
speaks of "Mimömolan," the Swedish expression for
taking the path of least resistance. Primarily he sees the impetus
towards concretization in literature as a stance that pits the
energies of the poet against this fundamental human inertia which
inevitably opposes new developments; but, occasionally, he believes,
the poet can make use of "Mimomolan" in his use of language.
He can make "abbreviations," as we do to facilitate
communication in our use of everyday language, in order to create
new words and connections.
Fahlström sees his tables
as related historically "to formalists and language-kneaders
of all times, the Greeks, Rabelais, Gertrude Stein, Schwitters,
Artaud and many others"; also to surrealism, lettrisme, and
dadaism-except for their starting point: the conscious attempt
in their use of language material to become an organic part"
of the world we live in-the aim of all concrete poetry-which turns
away from dream and nihilism.
Also he feels a closer kinship in
his work with the formal utilization of sounds from the real world
in concrete music than with concrete art: more limited, he finds,
in some of its conceptions.
In the poem of another Swedish poet,
Leif Nylén, we find color words in new, sometimes synesthetic,
relationships, which suggests the possible influence of Fahlström's
insistence upon the need for intuitive new word-connectings;
but from the standpoint of construction and operation of system,
it shares much in common with German concrete poetry. A strong
concrete poetry movement does not appear to have come into existence
in Sweden as the result of Fahlström's early, predictive