UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers | Concrete Poetry: A World View
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
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.