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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.

( 2 ) The removal of poetry from the realm of myth, dream, symbol and from the dependence upon "inspiration" in order that it may become "an organic part" of the reality we live in "with its potentialities for life and evolution."

(3) The abandonment of the old concept of line as essential to poetry, resulting in freedom of "emphasis" and "word order"--a new syntax. But having thrown out the conventional uses of rhyme and meter, Fahlström insists that new constructive principles must be found "that will give the poem that general effect." The creation of poetry as structure so that "structure and content are one" he sees as the new formal imperative.

(4) Like Gomringer he speaks of the element of "play" in the interaction of the linguistic elements and of the necessity for

( 5 ) A new multidirectional concept of reading which corresponds to "the free movement of sight when you look at abstract art."

(6) Also, like Gomringer, he insists that "valid" new linguistic constructions will result in "an enrichment of the worn-out paths of thought, a link in the evolution of language--of thinking, which always occurs on the everyday, literary and scientific levels." In this connection he sees that "ideas to renew grammatical structures are bound to emerge if you make comparisons with foreign languages, with Chinese, for instance."

( 7 ) And like Bense he emphasizes "system," al though he relates it more emphatically to the autonomous elements in the poem.

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 declarations.

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