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Jonathan Williams

From Concrete Poetry: A World View, 1968, ed Mary Ellen Solt

The title is no more confusing than trying to figure out why one does This, as opposed to That. Leo Cesspooch is an Indian studying Domestic Science at the Institute of Indian Affairs in Santa Fe. A newspaper photograph showed Leo looking at his pathetic, crooked cake, baked, one supposes, in some warsurplus, crooked, white-man's oven. I sympathized. One thing leads to another-but seldom does one see how.

I have been peripatetic for far too many years to keep literary details straight. I certainly don't remember when I became privy to the word Concrete, as coined by Eugen Gomringer and the Noigandres gents. I used to get the Swiss magazine Spirale as far back as 1953, when Gomringer was one of the editors, and found that visually very stimulating, as was searching through Stuttgart's bookshops for original publications from the Bauhaus period. My correspondence with Ian Hamilton Finlay dates back to 1960, at least then. Finlay has been my tutor in the Concrete mode, and he is, to my taste, the finest exponent of the poem manufactured as an object of contemplation.

But, to pin down my first use of Concrete, memory dates that from October, 1962 during a month's hike of the English Lake District. Every day I wrote a postcard to Jessie McGuffie, a friend of Ian's in Edinburgh, and these cards were later collected as a small book, Li~zes About Hills Al~ove Lakes. One of the entries was a poem, "A 75th Birthday Maze," for Dame Edith Sitwell. It was an acrostic, and the impetus had come Irom visiting the ancient topiary ancl maze gardens of Levens Hall, near Kendall The notion was naturalistic, then, in one obvious sense-as form has been said to be nothing but an extension of content. However, cowbells in a Mahler symphony don't stay cowbells-there is the new, second formal content of art-and letters in a poem are not made out of clipped, shaped yews and beeches. One cannot be a 7nan of letters, as we say, without coming to a recognition of

their look, as well as their sound and their various notations. Note, for example, that in the title, Lines About Hills Above Lakes, each word contains five letters, and that their initials make another five-letter word, LAHAL, of which I am very fond. Poets are happy with such simple pleasures found in the language's substance.

In a letter dated September 12, 1954, I received a poem from Robert Creeley called "Hi There! " He appended a suspicious, scribbled note: "Maybe I'm losing my mind?" For me, the poem was a delight and opened up a new world of possibilities. Since it is one of Creeley's least known poems, let me cite it here:


Look, love

from out the

fact, a new






( )


surface of a pedestrian


So, this is the modern instance. Since it was written close to my own home in spirit and is so particularly "american" (albeit written by an American living in Mallorca at the time), I got more push from that poem than from any prior to a discovery of Finlay's work. Here again, I have enough of the Scots obsession with purity in blood to heed IHF. Pound makes the point that we divide poetry into what we can and cannot read. We should add, and what we can and cannot see. And we are, altogether, more automatic in this than reasonable, for who knows what it is that reasons the Muses? Is it blood? Ichor is thicker than blood. It flows as a celestial green fluid in the veins of the gods and, now and then, of some poets.

To conclude, do not think there has not been a tradition of the poet as visualization, as substance, from Way Way Back. Dom Sylvester Houédard (Silver-Star-Who-Ate-Art), OSB, the distinguished, fate Kin/Kon Servo-Mechanistie Seribe of the Western Cotswolds, can clue you into Baby-Lon-Con, the peerless Saggil Kinam Ubbib, He of the Theodicy writ with a cuneiforlrl acrostic circa 1500 B.C. But, I go only A Little Ways Back: George Herbert, Blake, I,eNvis Carroll, Morgenstern, Malevich, Schwitters, Apollinaire, Bob Brown, Stein, cummings, William Carlos Williams, Patchen, Zukofsky, the Institute of Design (Chicago), Jan Tschichold, Black Mountain College, and Biederman's Art As the Evolution of Visual Knowledge since I was l8. And then there is always Pound's realization that it is the sign that constantly renews its vitality, as against themthere dim symbols. I take it--from there.