UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers | Concrete Poetry: A World View

Mary Ellen Solt

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


Haraldo de Campos, from: Galáxias "Circuladô de fulô"
Haroldo de Campos in UbuWeb Historical
Augusto de Campos in UbuWeb Historical
Decio Pignatari in UbuWeb Historical
"Concrete Poetry: A World View : Brazil" in UbuWeb Papers
"The Imperative of Invention..." Charles A. Perrone
"Interview with Augusto de Campos" Roland Greene
"The Concrete Historical" Roland Greene
Sérgio Bessa "Architecture Versus Sound in Concrete Poetry"
"Speaking About Genre: the Case of Concrete Poetry" Victoria Pineda
"From (Command) Line to (Iconic) Constellation", Kenneth Goldsmith

In 1952, the year Gomringer wrote his first finished constellation "avenidas," three poets in São Paulo, Brazil--Haroldo de Campos, Augusto de Campos and Decio Pignatari--formed a group for which they took the name Noigandres from Ezra Pound's Cantos. In Canto XX, coming upon the word in the works of Arnaut Daniel, the Provencal troubadour, old Levy exclaimed: "Noigandres, eh, noigandres / Now what the DEFFIL can that mean!" This puzzling word suited the purposes of the three Brazilian poets very well; for they were working to define a new formal concept. The name noigandres was both related to the world heritage of poems and impossible for the literary experts to define. They began publishing a magazine of the same name, and within the year had begun correspondence with Pound and had established contact with concrete painters and sculptors in São Paulo and with musicians of the avant-garde.

Between January and July of 1953, the year Gomringer published his first book of constellations, Augusto de Campos wrote the first systematic set of poems which gave body to the new formal concept: a series of poems entitled "Poetamenos" ("Poetminus") inspired by the "Klangfarbenmelodie" ( "Tone-Color Melodies") of Anton Webern and the ideogrammic technique of Pound's CANTOS. The poems from "Poetamenos" are intended for both eye and ear. The colors function as directions for reading (male and female voices in "eis os sem senão os corpos") and to designate word themes. It occurred to Augusto de Campos to use "luminous letters which could automatically switch on and off as in street advertisements" in the presentation of the "Poetamenos" poems, "but there was no money" so he used colors instead.

The "Poetamenos', poems came into existence as the result of research engaged in by the Noigandres group beginning in 1950. By 1953 they had "arrived at a radical selection of key-poet/writers": Mallarme, Pound, Joyce, Cummings. "In other fields, concrete art, Mondrian's space-structures ( Boogie-woogie Series), Calder's mobiles. And mostly, Anton Webern's "Klangfarbenmelodie," a melody played by alternating instruments, constantly changing color.''

The Noigandres group began to be felt as a force in the cultural life of Brazil. Pignatari was invited to participate in cultural congresses and lectures in Chile and in Rio de Janiero, where in 1954 a reading of the "Poetamenos" series was arranged. Contact was established with Pierre Boulez in São Paulo and again, by Pignatari, in Europe. Also with Cage, Varése, Philpot, and the conductor Scherchen.

In 1955 NOIGANDRES 2 appeared with the Poetamenos" poems, "Ciropédia on a Educacão do Principe" of Haroldo de Campos and the first theoretical articles on the new poetry by Augusto and Haroldo de Campos. Augusto de Campos used the term "Poesia Concreta" for the first time in one of the titles. "Poesia Concreta" also appeared in newspaper articles and on the program of an event commemorating the "Ars Nova" movement at which three poems from "Poetamenos" were presented. "Under the title 'poesia concreta' they were presented in the Teatro de Arena of São Paulo, in 1955, projected on a screen and read by 4 voices. In the same program there was music of Anton Webern and Brazilian concrete / serial composers.'' Also in 1955 Pignatari, a designer, visited the Hochschule fur Gestaltung at Ulm where he met Gomringer, then secretary to Max Bill. This meeting of mutual interest and surprise can be taken as the beginning of the international movement of concrete poetry.

When Pignatari returned to Brazil in 1956, he and Gomringer were planning an international anthology. It was never published, but the introduction was, I believe, Gomringer's essay "Concrete Poetry" published here with the Manifestoes and Statements on Concrete Poetry. The Noigandres poets felt that the anthology should be titled CONCRETE POETRY. Gomringer agreed in a letter to Pignatari dated 30 August stating that he had thought of using the name "concrete" before he finally decided to call his poems "constellations": "Votre titre poésie concrete me plait tres bien. Avant de nommer mes 'poemes' constellations, j'avais vraiment pense de les nommer 'concrete.' On pourrait bien nommer tout l'anthologie 'poesie concrete,'quant a Maui.''

Local recognition was increasing. The Noigandres poets were invited to collaborate with Ferreira Gullar and the critic Oliveira Bastos in a Supplement of the Jornal do Brasil. And in December of 1956 the movement of concrete poetry was officially launched as part of the National Exposition of Concrete Art at the Museum of Modern Art, São Paulo. Poster poems were exhibited alongside paintings and pieces of sculpture. Ronaldo Azeredo had by that time joined the group. In February of 1957, the exhibition was moved to the premises of the Ministry of Education and Culture in Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian concrete poetry had also captured the interest of Kitasono Katué, editor of VOU, Tokyo.

NOIGANDRES 4 appeared in March of 1958 with poster poems and a synthesis of the theoretical studies and writings of the Noigandres group from 1950 onwards. It bore the title "pilot plan for concrete poetry" and the signatures of Augusto and Haroldo de Campos and Pignatari. In the "pilot plan" the concrete poem is advanced as the "product of a critical evolution of forms" from Mallarmé through Joyce-Pound-Cummings. In "Un coup de dés" (1897) Mallarme made the spaces on the page ("blancs") and "typographical devices . . . substantive elements of composition." This was the starting place. Apollinaire's Calligrams were another step in the evolution toward the concrete poem. Also his belief that: "il faut que notre intelligence s'habitue à comprendre synthético-ideographiquement au lieu de analytico discursivement." But the actual method of the Noigandres poets derives from THE CANTOS of Ezra Pound ("ideogrammic method"); James Joyce's ULYSSES and FINNEGAN'S WAKE ("word-ideogram; organic interpenetration of time and space" ); and the experimental poems of e. e. cummings ("atomization of words, physiognomical typography; expressionistic emphasis on space.)" The montage technique of Eisenstein, Futurism, and Dada also contributed. And the work of Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954) and João Cabral de Melo Neto ( 1920-), Brazilian poets.

Having freed itself from the requirements of the "formal rhythmical unit," the concrete poem was said to begin with the awareness "of graphic space as a structural agent." Like Gomringer, the Noigandres poets turned their backs on the linear concept of form ("mere linear-temporistical development"), putting in its place the concept of "space-time structure." And this was not less but more tied in with the problem of content.

The "pilot plan" deals with the question of form-content (the heart of the matter where any kind of poetry is concerned) in terms of isomorphism ("the conflict form-subject looking for identification"). The Brazilian concrete poets have been able to discern that "parallel to form-subject isomorphism, there is a space-time isomorphism, which creates movement." The concrete poet must be consciously concerned with this level of isomorphism. In the past poets have accommodated it to a limited degree only in linear organizations of structure. Further remarks concerning the form-subject conflict in the "pilot plan" contribute greatly toward clarification of the meaning of "concrete," for it is suggested that there are degrees of concreteness:

in a first moment of concrete poetry pragmatics, isomorphism tends to physiognomy, that is a movement imitating natural appearance (motion); organic form and phenomenology of composition prevail.

This would seem to apply to expressionistic poems, which those holding out for the stricter, constructivist definition of "concrete" are sometimes unwilling to admit to the fold. The "pilot plan" goes on to say:

in a more advanced stage, isomorphism tends to resolve itself into pure structural movement (movement properly said), at this phase, geometric form and mathematics of composition (sensible rationalism) prevail.

This latter statement would seem to apply to constructivist concrete poems. The difficulty resides, as we have noted, in the fact that many poems contain elements of both expressionism and constructivism. If we can think in terms of degrees of concreteness, much of the difficulty with the word "concrete" disappears.

All definitions of concrete poetry can be reduced to the same formula: form = content/content = form. Individual poets tend to say this in less general terms to suit their own solutions of the form-content problem. Gomringer retains the term "constellations" when speaking of his own poems. The Noigandres group agreed to define their concept of the concrete poem in terms of the "ideogram," which they defined as:

appeal to nonverbal communication. concrete poem communicates its own structure: structure-content. concrete poem is an object in and by itself not an interpreter of exterior objects and/or more or less subjective feelings. its material: word (sound, visual form, semantical charge. its problem: a problem of functions-relations of this material.

It is the solution of the problem of "function-relations" that creates the "play-activity" mentioned by Gomringer as a characteristic feature of the concrete poem.

Gomringer's concept of the constellation emphasizes the visual. The Noigandres concept of the ideogram conceives of the word as three-dimensional: "verbivocovisual." This realization, which derives from Joyce, makes it possible for the concrete poem to partake of title advantages of nonverbal communication," without sacrificing the "virtualities" of the word. As the result "metacommunication: coincidence and simultaneity of verbal and nonverbal communication" occurs. But it must be emphasized: the concrete poem "deals with a communication of forms, of a structure-content, not with the usual message communication." It can be thought of as a kind of shorthand, a telegraphic message, for it "aims at the least common multiple of language. hence its tendency to nounising and verbification. 'the concrete wherewithal of speech' (sapir). hence its affinities with the so-called isolating languages (chinese)."

Conceived of as an ideogram, then, the concrete poem is related to the ancient Chinese written character via Fenollosa and Pound. But it also finds its place, as does the constellation, alongside advanced tendencies in other fields of knowledge and in the other arts: with linguistics (Sapir), cybernetics, and gestalt psychology. In the arts not only with the music of Webern but with that of Boulez, Stockhausen and other composers of concrete and electronic music; and with the work of Albers, Bill and "concrete art in general" as well as with that of Mondrian.

The Brazilian "pilot plan" challenges the poet to a position of "total responsibility before language" with the interesting result that although he is more concerned with the object he is making than with his personal-subjective motivations, his poems will express an individuality that is entirely his own. We hope to show by this limited selection that, despite its international outlook, concrete poetry displays both distinctively national characteristics and individuality, personal style. For example Gomringer's "constellations" are Iyrical and personal at the same time that they are objectified at a distance. And although the Noigandres poets wrote as a group, each developed in his own way despite the fact that Brazilian concrete poetry exhibits certain general characteristics which make it a distinctive school. It is not difficult to see that Gomringer's "constellations" do not look like Noigandres ideograms. And on the whole, Brazilian concrete poetry is more directly concerned with sociological-political content. In "sem um numero" ("without a number''), Augusto de Campos protests against the situation of the Brazilian peasant by making an ideogram in which the phrase "sem um numero" is reduced to its last letter "o" ("nothing") which becomes a "zero," the number that is no number at all. In "LUXOLIXO" ("luxury-garbage") the ideogram exists in the juxtaposition of the two words which are the same except for one letter. The kinetic technique of the fold-out reveals the meaning to us gradually, as we discover it in the process of becoming aware of the nature of the world. Decorative typography is used here to satirical effect. In "boba coca cola" ( "drink coca cola") Decio Pignatari makes an anti-advertisement from an American advertising slogan, condemning both the culture that makes and exports coca cola and the culture that drinks it. The word "coca,' in South American countries, refers to a number of shrubs, but especially to the E. coca, whose leaves resemble tea. Coca leaves are chewed to impart endurance. Pharmaceutically the dried leaves of the E. coca yield cocaine. By simply exchanging the position of the vowels in "coca" the poet gets "caco" ("shard"). With this most economical method he is able to bring into the poem a most provocative question: What will the archaeologist of the future be able to say about our civilization if the shards we leave are fragments of coca cola bottles? The final, damning word of the poem "cloaca" ("filthy place," "cesspool") also takes its letters from "coca cola."

But Brazilian concrete poetry is not only concerned with sociological-political content. Haroldo de Campos relates the ideogrammic concept to a method of composition closely akin to serial composition in music in "cristal-fome" ("crystal-hunger) and in "fala prata cala ouro" ("silver speech golden silence") to achieve a Iyricism which is both musical and intimate to the speech idiom. The spatial arrangement of the words on the page presents the score of a composition of word sounds in semanticideogrammic relationship. "nasce/morre" ("to be born / to die") poses a philosophical question using the building elements of words with striking visual results. "o novelo ovo" ("o ball of yarn egg") by Augusto de Campos conveys its larger meaning-- an affirmation of the beauty and holiness of life--in a strikingly beautiful abstract structure made from a visual arrangement of letters derived from the semantic relationship of the words. Notice, for instance, that all the words in the third section of the pattern relating to the earth are suggestive of the terror and brevity of life. Pignatari's kinetic or cinepoem LIFE also affirms life in a visual succession based upon the architectural structure of the letters of the word LIFE (out of usual order) culminating by the kind of happy accident possible in concrete poetry in the Chinese ideogram for the sun out of which the word LIFE (Figure 16) radiates. The "Semantic Variations" of Haroldo de Campos and "terra" ("earth") by Decio Pignatari show us two types of word play.

The Brazilian "pilot plan," like Gomringer's manifesto "from line to constellation," deals only with poems made from words. The Noigandres poets have, nevertheless, made poems without words on occasion. In "Popcreto: Ôlho por Ôlho" ("Eye for Eye"), August de Campos applies techniques derived from pop art to a Biblical theme to give it content consonant with our time. For in a world flooded with newspapers, magazines, television shows, movies, and directed by traffic signs, we are constantly looked at. And we in turn look more than we speak. Ours is truly a Babel of Eyes, including the poet's eyes. This poem without words is nonetheless semantic in content: it conveys a message as if it were made of words.

In 1964 Pignatari along with Luiz Ãngelo Pinto developed a theory for a new kind of poem to be written without words: the Semiotic Poem. Publishing their defense under the title "Nova linguagem, nova poesia," they defined language as: "any set of signs and the way of using them, that is, the way of relating them among themselves (syntax) and with referents (semantics) by some interpreting (pragmatics)." Included under this definition were: "not only all the idioms, but also any traffic signing process (highways and naval, aerial or spatial ways; languages of schemes and diagrams (computer programming diagrams, Venn diagrams, etc.); computer languages; mathematical and symbolic-logical languages; audio-visual languages, as movies etc." And what they proposed for the poem was "the creation of designed and constructed languages according to each situation or necessity." This would make the poem entirely functional in accordance with the "basic principle of modern industry." That is to say: "Any object must be designed and constructed according to the needs or functions it is assumed to fulfill." The poet, then, must assume the role of "language designer." It becomes his task to design and construct "new sets of signs (visual, audible etc. )." Also "new syntactical and semantical rules applicable to the new set of signs." It should be noted that "the syntax must come from or be related to the very form of the signs."

Pignatari and Pinto gave as their reason for making this proposal the fact that "in traditional writing syntax is the same as in spoken language," with the result that "we can't talk about anything or establish any kind of relationship but the ones subjected to the form of language we use," and "every language, ample as it may be, is always limited." They credited the "pilot plan" of 1958 with succeeding in "the creation of a new syntax," but the fact that it confined itself to "signs issued from a spoken language, whose form is fit to a linear writing process" lessened the possibilities for communication. In the Semiotic Poems by Pignatari and Pinto, we can see that a word definition of the signs is felt to be necessary. Once the code is understood we can easily and quickly perceive the meaning as we do from signs. Ronaldo Azerdo also made Semiotic Poems, which were presented along with those of Pignatari and Pinto.

In 1958 the Noigandres group separated itself from the Jornal do Brasil. At this time José Lino Grünewald joined them. In 1960 a larger group taking the name Invenção was formed. Included in it were Edgard Braga, who "after a long experience with modernist (post-symbolist) poetry . . . came to concrete poetry,'' and Pedro Xisto. Recently the work of José Paulo Paes has begun to appear in Invenção.

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