UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers | Concrete Poetry: A World View
Mary Ellen Solt
From Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968, Indiana University Press)
As the above remarks imply, we are interpreting the term "concrete" in its broader meaning in this presentation of the new experimental poetry. But in doing so we do not wish to deemphasize the importance of its stricter definition, for what has mushroomed into a worldwide movement was founded in Europe by a single poet, Eugen Gomringer of Switzerland, who adheres to the strictest concrete practice, and almost simultaneously in Brazil by the Noigandres group--Haroldo de Campos, Decio Pignatari and Augusto de Campos--who derived their new concept of form from closest study of poets who preceded them. The Brazilians have on occasion abandoned words, but the signs or objects they have substituted function semantically. As we shall discover, other poets following World War II were beginning to make similar or related attempts. Carlo Belloli of Italy had made and exhibited "mural text-poems" as early as 1944. Oyvind Fahlström of Sweden was writing concrete poems by 1952. But when Gomringer published his first "constellations" in 1953 and his first manifesto "from line to constellation" in 1954, he was not aware of the existence of other poets who shared his concerns or that Fahlström had published a "Manifest for konkret poesie" in Swedish in 1953.
Gomringer came to concrete poetry
by way of concrete art and as the result of dissatisfaction with
the old way of writing poems. As a student in Berne, having denied
himself the security of following in the footsteps of T. S. Eliot
and Gottfried Benn, as was the fashion after the war, he became
aware of Arno Holz, an east Prussian poet (1863-1929) who
had tried to find a natural rhythm divorced from traditional meters,
and of the Symbolists, particularly Mallarme. Holz impressed Gomringer
because he assumed "the freedom to interfere with the arrangement
of language, and even more so, that he concerned himself, like
hardly any other German poet, with every minute particular both
in the visual arrangement of script and in the organization of
sound." Gomringer's own work "had reached the stage
of the sonnet." He continued to write sonnets until 1950
when he reached a dead end. He realized that it was necessary
to make a new start, but he was unable to write much for two years.
During this time when he was a student
in Berne, Gomringer was in contact with painters involved with
concrete art. He had become aware of concrete art as a child in
Zurich and had begun to know concrete painters as early as 1942,
but he did not always understand what he saw. What became "more
and more obvious" was a "discordance" between his
sonnets and "the direct method of Concrete Art, which offered
a solution to unequivocal problems of line, surface and color."
Gomringer wrote a favorable review for an exhibition of concrete
painting in Berne in 1947; he saw the international exhibition
of concrete art in Basel, organized by Max Bill, in 1944; and
in 1944-45 he made the acquaintance of Bill, Lohse and Graeser
at the Galerie des Eaux Vives in Zurich, a special gallery for
concrete paintings. He did not, though, as we have said, give
up writing sonnets until 1950.
Luckily during the unproductive period
which followed, two friends of Gomringer in Berne, Diter Rot and
Marcel Wyss, both graphic artists, had arrived at approximately
the same place. But they were "certain something was about
to happen." From 1951 on the three friends were in close
daily contact. They decided to publish a magazine to be called
SPIRALE, whose contents would "embrace poetry, the plastic
arts, graphics, architecture, and industrial design." Gomringer
was made literary editor. "It was my task," he writes,
"to find a suitable form of poetry for our magazine, or myself
to devise and produce one." This was not an easy assignment
considering the fact that he had been unable to write for two
years. He began by making "a lengthy investigation into the
presentation of script on the page." When the first issue
came out in 1953, he "wished to put forward programmatically
a new type of poetry."
In 1951 Gomringer had tried to write
a few poems of the kind he would later call "constellations."
His first finished constellation, "avenidas" was written
in 1952, a poem made from three nouns, the conjunction "and,"
and the indefinite article. Gomringer chose the name "constellations"
rather than "concrete poetry" for his new kind of poem
because he was thinking in terms of clusters of words coming together
in response to a particular creative impulse. The concept of line
requires unnecessary words to fill in the pattern. Naming "avenidas,"
"flores" and "mujeres" ("streets', "flowers,"
and "women,") they become beautiful simply because they
are what they are. Comment would be superfluous and insulting.
Gomringer considers the fact that he wrote his first finished
constellation in Spanish to be of the utmost importance, for he
was born in Bolivia and Spanish is his native tongue:
. . . Spanish words continually came into my head. Later I often conceded to myself that it was decisive that my second start in poetry was based on Spanish. Even today this seems to me proof that it was a question of really getting to grips with language on the most basic level.... Concrete Poetry is quite definitely a test of character. It is comparatively easy to experiment with letters and a few arrangements of words . . . But Concrete Poetry demands a deeper foundation. It must--in my opinion--be closely bound up with the challenge of individual existence: with the individual's 'Life with Language', 'Life with Words'.
A year later, in 1953, Gomringer published
his first book of CONSTELLATIONS. By then he was able to make
poems using only one word. He found it "wonderful" that
he could "say so much with a single word" since it had
been his inclination "to express all thoughts in a short
form" and he had "always taken pleasure in algebraic
equations." Also he was beginning to use graphic space, as
an element of structure (meaning). "silencio," "wind,"
and "o" are spatially structured poems. had been unable
to write for two years. He began by making "a lengthy investigation
into the presentation of script on the page." When the first
issue came out in 1953, he "wished to put forward programmatically
a new type of poetry."
Notice that these poems can almost
be read backwards. "Inversion I consider as probably my most
important contribution to Concrete Poetry," Gomringer states.
He arrived at this new tension possibility for the poem when he
discovered that the message conveyed by the "single word
did not always appear sufficient," particularly "because
we have the habit of reading only in one direction, from left
to right." Had he simply printed the word "wind"
in the center of the page, it would simply have sat there. Arranging
it spatially so that we can read the word in four directions,
he is able to introduce an element of play into the "reading"
of the poem that captures the nature of the wind far more truly
than a longer poetic statement of many words. The letters actually
seem to float as if the wind were acting upon them. (The subtlety
of the typography is, of course, a contributing factor.) Inversion
for Gomringer "intimates that every message, be it ever so
slight, is aligned in one direction, even if it is examined in
an inverted order." And he has "related this phenomenon--inversion--to
one of the intellectual principles of existence"--"thesis-antithesis."
The principle thesis-antithesis is particularly clear in "ping
pong" in which we find not only inversion but a movement
of alternation in the syllables of the word. The essence of the
game ping pong is expressed by the word. The spatial grouping
of the syllables, which resembles line breaks in more traditional
poetry, is of the utmost importance. In the "o" poem
we find not only remarkably achieved inversion but thesis-antithesis
in the use of space: for the words are printed in the negative
areas between large white O's of space.
Using words with the utmost precision,
subtlety and restraint, Gomringer achieves the simplicity and
purity of concrete art. His poems remind us of the works of Hans
Arp. Arp characterized concrete art as "an elemental, natural,
healthy art, which causes stars of peace, love and poetry to grow
in the head and the heart." And he made many constellations.
But it is a mistake to assume the direct influence of Arp in Gomringer's
constellations, for Gomringer states that he was acquainted only
with Arp's Dada pieces when he made the first constellations and
that he "always hated Dada." Later he became acquainted
with Arp. The term "constellations" he took from Mallarme.
The method of composition in the constellations is constructivist.
Everything comes from the material: a design (or system) organic
to the word as a material object, its inherent message, and the
space it occupies, which can be utilized as semantic content.
In "silencio", for example, the message conveyed by
the word emerges from the white space in the center of the word
design and to a lesser degree from the white space of the page
which surrounds the poem. Few concrete poets can achieve or remain
with the austerity of the pure concrete of Gomringer. But the
principles of concrete art made manifest in his work underlie
much of the work now being done. The ideogram ("silencio"),
the spatial structure, the serial poem, the kinetic book can all
be found in his works. Actually Gomringer seems to be somewhat
amazed by the extent to which concrete poetry has in a little
more than ten years become a movement of global proportions. And
he seems to feel uneasy about the effects of certain developments:
Today I am anxious in case Concrete Poetry is accepted purely as a separate genus of poetry. For me it is an important, perhaps the most important aspect of the poetry of our time, and it should nor develop into a form of poetry set apart from the main tradition . . . since our Concrete Poetry should actually be a genuine constituent of contemporary literature and contemporary thought, it is important that it should not become merely playful, that the element of play which we advocate, should not result in a facetious kind of poetry. Concrete Poetry has nothing to do with comic strips. In my view it is fitted to make just as momentous statements about human existence in our times and about our mental attitudes, as other forms of poetry did in previous periods. It would be unfortunate if it were to become an empty entertainment for the typographer.
Partly on the strength of his book,
the CONSTELLATIONS of 1953, Gomringer was offered the position
of secretary to Max Bill at the Hochschule fur Gestaltung at Ulm
in 1954. That year he also published his first manifesto: "from
line to constellation." We have already discussed the concept
of the constellation as a form that "encloses a group of
words as if it were drawing stars together to form a cluster."
What remains to be made clear is Gomringer's argument for breaking
so radically with the old way of writing poems. Fundamentally
it is the realization that the usages of language in poetry of
the traditional type are not keeping pace with live processes
of language and rapid methods of communication at work in our
contemporary world. Further it is the realization that these processes
of language and communication rather than constituting a threat
to poetry contain within themselves the essential qualities of
poetic statement: "concentration and simplification."
Contemporary languages exhibit the following tendencies, according
to Gomringer: a move toward "formal simplification,"
abbreviated statement on all levels of communication from the
headline, the advertising slogan, to the scientific formula--the
quick, concentrated visual message, in other words.
Gomringer's bias lies in the direction
of the visual concrete poem, which we should be able to perceive
"as a whole as well as in its parts." As an object the
visual poem is "memorable and imprints itself upon the mind
as a picture." Viewing it we are permitted to participate
in the "play activity" of its linguistic elements by
means of which it arrives at concrete realization. This element
of "play activity" within the concrete structure, which
is highly serious in the best concrete poems, Gomringer sees as
psychologically beneficial to contemporary man and to "ordinary
language," which will be affected by the poet's "exemplary
use of the rules of the game."
Gomringer also observed in contemporary
usages of language a significant move toward fewer languages and
global communication. The following assertion appeared in French
and German in each issue of a series of booklets KONKRETE POESIE/POESIA
CONCRETA published irregularly by Gomringer beginning 1960:
la poésie concrète est le chapitre esthétique de la formulation linguistique universelle de notre epoque.
More and more, Gomringer observes,
"thought structures . . . are decisive." The concrete
poem which, as a construction of word materials contains thought,
belongs to this trend. The conviction that the poem must remain
within the sphere of word-sign communication permits it to play
its role as a functional object. Language "even in its most
primitive usage . . . serves a spiritual use," Gomringer
reminds us, "so long as it is a language of words."
Conceived in this context, the concrete poem fulfills Max Bill's
requirement for concrete art: "production of the esthetic
object for spiritual use." And it can function organically
in society again, so that the poet need no longer feel compelled
to continue the self-annihilating practice of addressing himself
"exclusively to other poets to experience a new view of the
world and new techniques." For the content of the concrete
poem is nonliterary. Basically it is a question of the poet's
positive attitudes towards life and his ability to achieve enough
distance from the subjective-emotional elements of his materials
to permit him to arrive at a rational synthesis. Concrete poetry,
then, relates "less to 'literature' and more to earlier developments
in the fields of architecture, painting, sculpture, industrial
design--in other words to developments whose basis is critical
but positively-defined thinking." Concrete poetry is in step
with the new directions in which our society is moving because
it evolves from "the contemporary scientific technical view
of the world." Gomringer is confident that it "will
come into its own in the synthetic rationalistic world of tomorrow."
A universal poetry: international, supranational.
Gomringer's vision of a universal
poetry appears to be becoming increasingly a reality even though
in most instances the concrete poets are not well-known in their
own countries. The concrete poet may find himself in the strange
situation of having acquired an international reputation among
concrete poets and none to speak of on home territory. But the
fact is that even in this rather large selection we have not been
able to present all the poets working along concrete lines in
each country. And new movements in additional countries are sure
to have emerged before these pages reach the reader. The new movement
in Holland, for instance, which we learned about too late to include.
The need for the concrete poem is making itself felt throughout
the world. It was anticipated following the First World War in
the second DE STIJL manifesto of 1920:
Eight years later in THE NEW VISION
(1928), Lázló Moholy-Nagy noted "a similar
quest for expression by subduing or lightening the material"
in sculpture, painting, music, architecture and poetry. In poetry
this would be accomplished by moving away "from syntax and
grammar to relations of single words."