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In Search of the Originative Poetics of Concrete Poetry
A.S. Bessa

During the 1950's a new tendency permeated the realms of Poetry, Music, and the Visual Arts. This new tendency–given the name of Concretism–originated among music composers, and was immediately embraced by an international generation of young poets who ultimately gave the movement a wider scope. At first approach, one might attribute the main elements of the concrete aesthetics to a derivation from the parameters of the Bauhaus–constructivism, repetition, modules, form/function, "less is more", etc. If we cross that threshold, though and take a deeper look, we realize that the origins of concretism are in the nineteenth century, and that in a few seminal works of that century we are able to find its "originative poetics."

Towards Synthesis

"Poetics" may be defined, according to Earl Miner, as "conceptions or theories or systems of literature." His main contention in "Comparative Poetics - An Intercultural Essay on Theories of Literature" is that Western poetics, being built upon the originative poetics of Aristotle, is irremediably tainted by the mechanism of drama. "His poetics, Miner writes of Aristotle and, by implication, of all Western literary tradition "would be a very different thing if founded on Homeric narrative or Greek lyric." One aspect left untouched by Miner, though, has to do with the late nineteenth century attempt in Europe to merge all forms in one, and therefore abolish the boundaries between drama, poetry (and music), and narrative.

The new originative poetics (if I am allowed to borrow Miner's expression) began with Richard Wagner's defense of a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk ) and although his theories of art met with a great deal of resistance from the mainstream, they ultimately prevailed over the established norms and greatly influenced the generations of artists who followed. We can find traces of Wagner's theories not only in the area of music but also in literature and the visual arts. In modified ways and in different degrees, one can detect Wagner's ideas in the major works of Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and James Joyce, as well as in the postulates of the Bauhaus School, the Concrete Poetry Movement, and most recently in the tendency towards installation art. This impressive line up suggests that Modernism was inaugurated by Wagner.

Wagner's central idea in his critical and theoretical essays is the definition of opera in terms of poetry-music-drama (Wort-Ton-Drama ). Thus, Wagner proposed a work of art (opera, in this case) which would merge three strands which had always been separated–poetry, music, and tragedy. In his view, opera of the period sacrificed poetry and tragedy (plot), in the guise of badly written librettos and poetry of doubtful skill, in order to accommodate the flow of music. Wagner aimed at a high-concept work of art in which all three parts would bear the same weight. The application of this theoretical approach to his own operatic work led increasingly towards a huge, massive and unified piece of music. The distinctions between arias and recitatives were abolished and replaced by the concept of theleitmotiv , a conductive musical motif that provides the distinctive "tone" of each character or element in the opera.


The way Wagner's ideas were absorbed and transformed by other artists in a different media is famously illustrated by the poetry of Charles Baudelaire.


La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers

Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;

L'homme y passe á travers des forêt de symboles

Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent

Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,

Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,

Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

Il est des perfums frais comme des chairs d'enfants,

Doux comme les hautbois, vert comme les prairies,

- Et d'autre, corrompus, riches et triomphants.

Ayant l'expansion des choses infinies,

Comme l'ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l'encens,

Qui chantent les transports de l'esprit et des sens

"Correspondences" is considered by many poets and scholars to be the implicit poetics of Modern Poetry, a poetic manifesto that aims to introduce Wagner's ideas on synthesis to the realm of poetry. The melodious quality of its strophes has already been celebrated; but, perhaps with the intention to be more explicit, Baudelaire spells it out at the center of the poem: "Like long, distant and confusing echoes in a tenebrous and profound unity, vast like the night and the luminosity, perfumes, colors and the sounds resonate."

Chance is Introduced

Besides Baudelaire, another pioneer of the new poetics was the poet Stéphane Mallarmé: in his poetry as well as his critical writing we are to find the roots of Concrete Poetry. Like Wagner, whose embrace of Schopenhauer's metaphysics underlines a filtered influence of Eastern philosophy, Mallarmé was also exposed to Eastern culture, specifically Japanese culture. The precise extent of that influence is altogether unclear, and most of the information available points to a more superficial, fashion oriented trend. It's unknown, for example, whether Mallarmé had any real interest in Japanese literature, although one shouldn't discard that possibility. Nevertheless, Mallarmé's style seems to have benefited from a Japanese minimalist aesthetic as he moved from the strongly symbolist work of his early years, to the more refined, visually oriented work of his maturity. In some short poems, like the hundreds that Mallarmé wrote to celebrate his friendship with other poets and artists, the tone and format are decidedly haiku .

Some examples, from Les Loisirs de la Poste :


Je te lance mon pied vers l'aine

Facteur, si tu ne vas où c'est

Que rêve mon ami Verlaine

Ru'Didot, Hôpital Broussais

From Dédicaces, Autographes, Envois Divers :


Les demoiselles Cazalis

L'autre une rose et l'une un lys


Son doux oeil est agrandi

Apres le cherry-brandy


J'ai mal à la dent

D'être décadent !

In Mallarmé’s work, the seeds planted by Wagner and Baudelaire developed to full-grown trees. The radical nature of the work is unprecedented, and it still keeps intact its power to astonish. As a matter of fact, Mallarmé's reading of Wagner's ideas took such a great turn in a new direction, that when we compare the achievements of the two men we see that Mallarmé's work points straight to our present time, whereas Wagner's remains intrinsically connected to the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the main trait of this opposition consists of Mallarmé's bent towards minimalism. Around the time he composed his masterpiece, Un Coup de Dés, he confided to his friend Henri Régnier "You can say everything in four pages; in four pages I could explain the world." Un Coup de Dés has ten pages, a few more then he had desired, but in them we see such a fertile ground as to seemingly never exhaust our interpretative attempts. Un Coup de Dés can be considered the implicit poetics of modern poetry, and particularly of the Concrete Poetry Movement.

The unusual form of Un Coup de Dés is in itself a key to its complexity. The poem is laid out on the pages as to suggest the movement of falling dice, waves, or constellations; it is actually an attempt to extract some expressiveness from the printing process and bring it closer to a manuscript, or to Japanese calligraphy. The empty spaces are the equivalent to musical rests, or silences. "Music, as it is heard at a concert; several of its methods, which seemed to me to apply to Literature, are to be found here." Mallarmé writes in the preface to the poem. As a matter of fact, the whole poem can be read as a music sheet, in which its several different typesets ("motifs" as Mallarmé calls them) indicate either different timbres or voice modulations.

Lyrical Drama

The dramatic heritage of Western tradition is also transformed in Mallarmé's work. The three major works that can be considered "dramatic"-- Hérodiade, L'apres-midi d'un faune , and Igitur --all defy the conventions of the dramatic genre. Hérodiade, perhaps his work of longest gestation, was actually written with La Comédie Française in mind. It is indeed composed around a dialogue in the second scene, preceded by an overture (Overture Ancienne d'Hérodiade) and followed by an aria, so to speak, (the Cantique de Saint Jean). Hérodiade, was never performed, partly because the work suffered so many revisions, and was put aside at innumerable times because of other works, remaining unfinished for about twenty years. L'apres-midi d'un faune was also offered to La Comédie whose director refused it on the grounds that the story-line was not "strong enough to sustain the interest of a theatrical audience."

Igitur can be better described as a performance piece. Its only character, the Prince Igitur, is modeled after Hamlet, and the whole scene is a kind of interior monologue anticipating Igitur's action of throwing down the dice in his ancestors’ tomb. Mallarmé called this piece a conte , a short story, but one can see in it the precursor of a Becket play. The action is extremely detailed, and the monologues are reduced to a minimum. There is an atmosphere of Noh theater in the highly stylized "action", and its ghostly scenario. As with most Noh plays, there is a web of plots implicit in Igitur , but only one scene is depicted–one scene that embodies the lyricism and drama of the character's story. The musicality of Mallarmé's poetry was conscious and intentional, and although he failed to bring his "dramas" to the stage, it is noteworthy that Claude Debussy wrote a musical prelude to L'apres-midi d'un faune .

Concrete Poetry

The foundations of concrete poetry are to be found in the late "typographical agraphia," in Roland Barthe’s expression, of Stephane Mallarmé. Nevertheless to Mallarmé's intrinsically formal experiments were added more pressing political concerns that, in the late 50's and 60's, aimed to influence the socio-cultural structure. Barthes' critique of Mallarmé, "the Hamlet of literature", as representing "this precarious moment of History in which literary language persists only the better to sing the necessity of its death" acquires a prophetic dimension when contrasted to the later development of concrete poetry. For although the belief in language's power to influence, or inform history, had ultimately rescued concrete poetry from becoming a mere formalistic exercise, the overwhelming threat of being embraced by academia abruptly trapped the movement in a position that mistook death for freedom. "This art has the very structure of suicide, Barthes wrote in 1953, in it silence is a homogeneous poetic time which traps the word between two layers and sets it off less as a fragment of a cryptogram than as a light, a void, a murder, a freedom."

The Concrete Poetry Movement was born in the early 1950's, and had a curious ancestry. Under the influence of Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrète and the visual revolution of the Bauhaus School, a significant number of poets in Europe and in South America began writing concrete poetry without knowledge of each others work. Öyvind Fahlström's manifesto for concrete poetry (Hipy Papy Bthuthdth Thuthda Bthuthdy, 1953) was published in Sweden in 1954, making him a forerunner theorist for the movement. The Manifesto sets the operational modes for a new poetics, and has a remarkable affinity to Levi-Strauss' seminal text "Structural Study of Myth."


Architecture of text

Another important inspiration to the Manifesto, as previously mentioned, might be found in the architectural theories of the Bauhaus School. "The possibilities are endless," Fahlström writes; "In poetry there can be fractured stanzas with vertical parallelism, so that the content provides the form by the fact that when a word is repeated, it must be placed exactly under the last occurrence of the same word, or vice versa, so that when part of a line is put vertically in parallel with one above, it brings with it the meaning of the line above. (..) The profusion of possibilities enables us to achieve a greater complexity and functional differentiation, in which each of the various parts of the content of a work acquires its own form".

Thus Öyvind Fahlström and the first generation of Concrete poets acknowledge the geometric (if not architectural) nature of (poetic) language–a philosophical approach that resonates some ideas hinted at by Heidegger in "Building Dwelling Thinking." In this approach, questions concerning the ornament, structure and foundation are exhaustively addressed. Some poems, such as uma vez, uma vala, by Brazilian poet Augusto de Campos, 1957, even attempt, intentionally or not, to address all those issues at once.

uma vez

uma vala

uma foz

uma vez uma bala

uma fala uma voz

uma foz uma vala

uma bala uma vez

uma voz

uma vala

uma vez


uma vez, uma vala is built in a helix like shape as if the words were meant to rotate around an invisible axis, but it also resembles the pattern of a modernistic mosaic, or a staircase, spiraling downward. The words evoke time (uma vez: once...), abyss (vala: ditch), death (bala: bullet), and word (voz: voice, speech) with an incantatory intonation that keeps moving back and forth from one issue (word) to another endlessly.

The use of architectural element in concrete poetry was somehow its watershed. Clearly the concrete poets in Brazil were more inclined towards an architectural approach to their poetic efforts, being closer to the strong constructivist tendency of Brazilian art during the ‘50s. The Swedish poets, on the other hand, stayed closer to their musical influences. The architectural approach, as it were, ultimately led concrete poetry in Brazil to a stifling cul-de-sac , whereas Fahlström's musical approach managed to broaden his own work's range of action.

Öyvind Fahlström

To the formalist rigor of concretism Öyvind Fahlström introduced a much needed anarchic element which would ultimately distinguish him among his fellow Concrete poets. His poetry was written to be read on radio programs, not solely confined to the pages of a book. And consequently, it quickly found its way into performance art. The Decline of the Borborygms , from the early 1950's, for instance, is a long poem that plays with the sounds and movements made by the intestinal tract, and the radio recording of it makes clear the musicality and theatricality of it.

From "The Decline of the Borborygms"

(When did you hear the canards through the lava through

the codfish through your thumbs through)



postage stamps



over the mashed turniposaurs







his sacred


now the equals sign disappeared in the darkness again

In the late 1950's, Fahlström's work took a radical turn toward performance and visual art, as an extension of his poetic work. The method he had devised in poetry was also extended to his visual experimentation and this later phase in his oeuvre can be regarded as Concrete Poetry's most daring and extreme expression. In this sense, one can argue that in Fahlström's work the complexity of the poetic enterprise in the twentieth century, as announced by Mallarmé, arrived at an exciting new place.