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

star number

root branch

sail sap screw

The first group of words tells us that the earthship has the essentials of any ship plus one more: an eye.

It is a star sailing in space, and, like a ship, it could have a number.

It has no anchor but instead a root from whence comes the branch.

It has a sail and a screw, but its fuel is life-giving sap.

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.

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