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Typography in the Visual Poem
Mary Ellen Solt

From Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968, Indiana University Press)

But no matter how enthusiastic the poet may allow himself to become about the potential for positive influence in the world of the new visual poem, when he gets down to practicalities, he is confronted with certain problems inherent in his materials. If he is going to find poetry in the visual dimensions of words, he must learn to handle them typographically. In the world of advertising where visual communication with words is a cut-throat business, it is the designer's job to decide which type face or type faces will best persuade the viewer of his advertisement to buy the product he is selling. The poet's typographical concerns are far more subtle and significant, and he should exercise even more care, perhaps, in making typographical decisions; for the form, weight and scale of letters and words can be used to heighten, can at best become physically part of what he has to say; they can unobtrusively have little effect upon what he has to say; or they can intrude a discordant note into what he has to say.

The typographical problem is beginning to define and clarify itself in the work done so far. For the most strictly constructivist poem the lower case, simply-constructed letter has been almost universally adopted. It seems to intrude least upon the poem and to afford the poet most semantic freedom, particularly in relation to space. And within this general trend distinctive typographical styles begin to emerge.

Belloli has made semantics the ruling principle of his typographical decisions. The visual weight of words is handled so organically to meaning that typography becomes part of the autonomy of words.

In Gomringer's case typography becomes organic to sensibility, so that we have inimitable typographic style--lyrical, personal, spiritual. To change the type style of Gomringer's poems would be to do them irreparable violence. Using essentially the same typographic style throughout his work with the utmost restraint, he is often able to convey the impression that the type face was chosen especially for a particular poem--in "ping pong" and "wind" for instance. Gomringer makes semantic use of space. Much of the meaning in his poems, particularly spiritual content, comes through as the result of the delicate relationship between the scale and weight of his letters and words and the space they occupy.

A bold, penetrating type face has come to be associated with Brazilian concrete poetry; but within the framework of this over-all characteristic style, the poets have been able to work with a great deal of typographic freedom and individuality. They seem to be able to use the bold, lower case letters when that seems best for the poem and to employ other kinds of typographical material where the content of the poem can be more effectively presented by using them. Decio Pignatari departs from typical Brazilian type style to use the familiar typographical image of the word LIFE as created by the magazine of the same name. Making semantic use of the constructive principles of these commercialized letters, he transforms a word tarnished by association with a magazine for mass consumption into an object of radiant beauty. "terra" ("earth") becomes beautiful, too, in the neutral type style by means of spatially organized typographical word play, which yields truths about the earth. In "beba coca cola" he says far more about coca cola in an ideogrammic anti-ad made of uniform bold letters than the familiar Coca Cola ad with its expensive word symbol and layout.

Augusto de Campos is also able to adapt typographical design to particular semantic content. It is very difficult to use a decorative type face in a poem, but he can do it in LUXO (LUXURY) because the decorative type face defines the word more accurately than a simpler one would. And when the fold-out spells LIXO (GARBAGE) the typeface intensifies the surprise and satirical effect. Augusto de Campos does not hesitate to use capital letters, color, anything that heightens the meaning of the poem. But in "sem um numero" ("without a number") he stays with the simple bold type face to create an ideogram that strikes us incisively in the eye like a warning sign. In "o novelo ovo," on the other hand, using the same type style, he creates an object of shining spiritual quality.

Haroldo de Campos, as we have said, has created a language close to music and the speech idiom. He uses his visual materials with the utmost economy and subtlety to harmonize the semantic-sound structure. Using the neutral typographical style associated with the constructivist method, he does not disturb the perfect balance between thesis and antithesis in "cristal fome" ( "crystal hunger" ), "fala prata cala ouro" ("silver speech golden silence"), and "nasce morre" ("to be born" "to die"). Still the words stand out clearly in space, their relationship to the other words in the ideogram positionally defined. The simple shift in position of "fome" ("hunger") and "forma" ("form") creates thesis-antithesis in "cristal fome": hunger creates form; form is itself a kind of hunger. "cristal," occupying its own defined and balanced space at the beginning and end of the poem, takes its form from a process no matter what its ultimate shape. The word "cristal" is kept in a strict line vertically and follows a broken line horizontally so that it seems to sparkle in space as no definite shape, still it has form.

In "nasce morre" the central and ageless realization of the nature of human existence: that to be born is to die, that not to be born is not to die, that to be reborn is to die again is presented as an ideogram constructed from the relationship of word elements alone. The arresting visual image the poem makes is entirely organic to meaning. "nasce morre" is an entity situated in space created by the semantic play activity of its own elements.

Reversal occurs in "fala prata cala ouro" when golden silence, silver speech becomes silver silence, golden speech in the clear, true utterance of the poet. The poet might have been tempted to emphasize "clara" typographically, also "pare" ("stop") when the coin is flipped and the other side turns up. But the parallel arrangement of the ideogram at the end and the clear sound of the word "clara," subtler and more organic to meaning, make typographical emphasis unnecessary.

We see that in ALEA I--VARIAÇOES SEMANTICAS Haroldo de Campos, as well as the other two Brazilian poets we have discussed, departs from a characteristic typographical style if the needs of the particular poem demand it. Here he uses capital letters to make evident the system within which the semantic variations operate and can be made to go on operating by the reader.

In Edgard Braga's "ilha" ("isle") the words, held together structurally by the look and sound of two pairs of identical syllables, paint a picture without the necessity of resorting to expressionistic graphic representation. Spatial pause and the lower intensity of "tranquila" allow the island of words to shine alone in a tranquillity of sun and sea. The poem was interpreted typographically by Nigel Sutton of England for POOR OLD TIRED HORSE. The size of the letters and the tension created by the space between them intensifies the visual message. Imagine the difference between this presentation and a typewriter version.

Jose Lino Grünewald makes a poem about typographical form from the word and word root "forma."

In "rue sol" ("street sun") Ronaldo Azeredo reveals his meaning entirely by the movement of the letter "l" in "sol" through "lines" made up of the word "rua." When the sun is shining, to use more words, each street reveals an identity of its own. When the word is removed from the line and the sun is gone, the streets "ruas" lose their identity in the darkness. Meaning here depends entirely upon word position and the construction of the letter "l," which stands out against the other letters. Lower case letters and the wide spaces between them are organic to meaning. The removal of "sol" from the last line makes it appear as though the letters were closer together removing light from the poem. The bold condensed capitals are equally organic to the eye definition of VELOCIDADE, which captures both the speed and volume of the word.

The typographical flexibility within Brazilian concrete poetry allows for calligraphic presentation when the poet needs it, as in the "logogramas" of Pedro Xisto, which are semiotic and the code is given. It allows also for the graphic metaphor of "anatomy of the muse", which seems to be a hybrid woman-dressmaker's form (José Paulo Paes).

The most important conclusion that emerges from an examination of Brazilian typographical practice is that the visual poem can accommodate any type face that can be handled so that it becomes part of the content of the poem.

Ian Hamilton Finlay should also be mentioned as a poet who has achieved remarkable control of his typographical materials. We have commented on the semantic use of typography in "purse-net boat" In his constructivist poems Finlay follows the common practice of using simply-constructed lower case letters. But he has made a poster poem "le circus," using lay-out techniques, in which at least four type faces are used in words of different sizes and three colors. For "le circus!!," the largest and most important word, he uses an italic type face, a blue word and black exclamation marks. A design made from blue italic commas is used for the border. Italic type faces are seldom used in concrete poetry, but in "le circus" the effect is emphatic and Iyrical.

Merely decorative typography in the visual poem is as undesirable as the merely decorative word in the traditional poem. But this is not to say that interpretative typography is out. On the contrary. To achieve complete typographical mastery is very difficult, impossible for many poets, who nonetheless have strong visual conceptions. We have seen in Braga's "ilha" how subtly a sensitive typographical reading of the poem by someone other than the poet can heighten its meaning without in any way destroying the poet's original conception of word relationships. Hansjörg Mayer and John Furnival are both poets with distinctive typographical styles of their own who can "perform" the texts of other poets to great advantage. What is required is a typographical artist with the sensitivity to interpret the poems and the integrity not to attempt to re-write the text or to take off from it and start adding things the poet didn't put there. This is not to say the typographical artist may not be able to discover possibilities in the text the poet has not discovered himself. Hansjörg Mayer's distinguished typographical style, seen in many of our texts, is always evident in whatever poems he publishes, but the interpretations can always be seen to be inherent in the text. Mayer, as we have said, uses only lower case Futura.

Furnival, on the other hand, has experimented with a variety of type styles. The use of italic type face as contrast in the poems of Julien Blaine, published by Furnival, seems entirely suitable to the play of Iyric and fantastic content against mathematically defined formula.

Elsewhere the typographical situation is confusing. Typography is such a formidable problem that some poets do paste-ups from letters cut out of magazines and other printed material. Others stay with the typewriter and try to make its peculiar qualities organic to the meaning in their poems. It is very difficult to find typographers who are artists and also committed to the aesthetic principles of concrete poetry. In England students at the Bath School of Art have done excellent work under the direction of Mayer and Furnival. The best work by Americans to date has been done by students in the Design Program at Indiana University under the direction of George Sadek and Joseph Lucca. Emmett Williams has been published by Hansjörg Mayer. His strict permutational poetry requires the constructivist style of typography.

The new visual poem has made us aware of poetic content in the typographical medium. Non-semantic visual texts are probably to some extent a product of this discovery. When we know for sure what language is, what the poem is, we will know for sure whether or not these texts are poetry. In terms of what we know about concrete poetry, these non-semantic visual poems present pattern and reticulation of visual linguistic elements that convey a nonspecific spiritual or aesthetic message. Any poet knows there is another poem above, below, or beyond the words he manages to get down on paper.

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