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Mary Ellen Solt

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

In France the new movement of experimental poetry follows in the wake of Dada experiments with the sound poem and Lettrisme, which explains, perhaps, why French concrete poetry is characterized by advanced methods of experimentation. It was launched in 1962 by Pierre Garnier's "Manifesto for a New Poetry Visual and Phonic," which appeared in LES LETTRES No. 29. Garnier named the new movement Spatialisme, for he sensed that man's new awareness of himself as a cosmic being in the age of space required a revision of language to express itself:
Once we lived safely beneath our stratum of air. Now we are waves spouting in the cosmos. How can we expect our words to remain wrapped up in the atmosphere of the sentence?

Let them be reunited, like ourselves, to cosmic space--word constellations on the white page.

Every word is an abstract picture.

A surface. A volume.

A surface on the page. A volume when spoken.

Garnier emphasized the necessity for a break with the old rhythms:

The rhythms of poetry have succeeded in deadening the reader's mind.

We listen to the purring of Racine but do not understand it. In poetry we become aware of the universe--for it to be based upon the enumeration of feet is an absurdity.

It makes no difference whether FER or AVION have one or two syllables. What counts is their meaning, the space which the words themselves occupy upon the printed page,

the vibrations they set up in fact the volume which they enclose-immense and horizontal in the case of FER, infinite but with a note of disquiet for AVION

The structure of the sentence would also have to go:
The structure of the sentence has caused the same damage as the rhythms of poetry. What a difference there is between: "The tiger is coming to drink at the river bank" and the single name: TIGER!

The poet is left with words stripped of all worn out structural trappings:

Words are as hard and as scintillating as diamonds.

The word is an element.

The word is a material.

The word is an object.

For those who know how to look at them, some words possess a remarkable topography.

TRANSATLANTIQUE, for instance, rocks and seas, peaks and abysses--why, even the moon cannot be any richer in craters and parched valleys, in rhythms and beauties.

Words are the visible aspects of ideas just as the trunk and the foliage are the visible aspects of a tree.

Underneath are the roots, the ideas.

We must grind our well-worn language to dust--in other words, make the individual words scintillate.

We must do away with imprecise terms, adjectives, for example--or again use them as nouns, as substance, that is to say, as material.

But the word cannot be set on the page unless it is in harmony with the atmosphere of the poem.

What is more, the value of each word is modified by the fact that the poem belongs no longer to a flux but to a static system.

(The list poem "JANVIER,' should be read in relation to the above remarks.)

In general Garnier's statements apply to both visual and phonic poetry, but certain distinctions need to be made. The visual poem should not be 'read.' It should be allowed to 'make an impression,' first through the general shape of the poem and then through each word perceived out of the whole at random.

The word "perceived" points up most clearly the new way of experiencing the poem, which is to replace reading, for:

A word which is read only grazes, the reader's mind: but a word that is perceived, or accepted, starts off a chain of reactions there.

This means that the experience of the poem will not be the same for all who look at it. The reactions to the poem will be "stronger and more profound in direct portion to the richness and sensitivity of the mind" that perceives the poem object.

Garnier defines the phonic poem "not as a complete entity'' but as a "preliminary," for it can be "spoken by one or more voices according to choice," and "while following the same rhythm and the same chain of images the speaker can add and improvise as he thinks fit."

A "Second Manifesto for a Visual Poetry" dated 31 December 1962 appeared in LES LETTRES 30. Here Garnier speaks of the new visual poetry as a "return to the solar play of surfaces" after the "submarine adventure" of exploring the unconscious--the "glory" of our century--but in the last analysis unconvincing, for "no work of any painter, no poem of any poet convinces [him] fully that it was born of the unconscious."

Where the word is concerned Garnier speaks of "the world of objectivation . . . being born" in which the word is coming to be known as "free object." It is the task of poets to make the word "holy again" like the "one or two sacred phrases of the Torah . . . more important than a whole century of poetry, . . the word is more expressive than the discourse." Its holiness resides in its materiality: "There is in all material a dignity not yet put to the proof."

This unmasking of the spirituality in that which we so far have called material is one of the great occurrences of our epoch. We have seen gold give way to zinc, to tin, to light metals. Man was bewildered to see coming toward him the spirit of lower beings. Distracted by thousands of years of arbitrary separation, he was not expecting it.

He had simply forgotten that the mind of which he is the depository is not his own but that of the universe.

Man today is no longer determined by his environment, his nationality, his social class, but by the images he receives, by the objects which surround him, by the universe.

If the material is spirit, we must let it work, the work of the painter and the poet will consist in making it objectively present.

The spiritual in the material can be made "objectively present" in the visual poem, which like 2 painting can now take its place among the objects which surround us:
Man has to be able to "see" the poem and think of something else. We live among objects, among beings, often we contemplate them without thinking of them; and they in turn contemplate us.

Insensibly they modify us--the best pedagogues are the silent presences....

Only the objects are stable: they are the islands and we are the sea.... We must therefore first discover them with our deep and innocent eyes. Then we will find that our glance alone has the power to make words, colors and sounds displace themselves. After that, due to their initial unsettling, the sounds, the colors and the words organize themselves....

The visual poem must be like these objects. It accompanies man without touching him.

Becoming object the visual poem "must overflow the page . . . the poem so far stays nicely in balance on the page. The visual poem, on the other hand, tends increasingly to scatter its words. See, they arrive freely even to the margin, they try to rejoin the universe, they vibrate, they are going to lose themselves in space." Freed of the necessity to limit itself to the paper, "which, because of its banality, platitudinousness, and neutrality is a poor carrier," the poem can now be inscribed "on walls, on stones, on windows, on firm sand, on wrapping paper, on old sacks."

Garnier sees the "road to an objective poetry" as "heading toward that ideal point where the word creates itself. Autonomy of language.... Language is no longer committed to man as man is no longer committed to language."

In the "world of objectivation" the artist is:

a universe in action within the universe in action. Suddenly he finds himself in this world without pope, without king, without religion and without recourse like the trees and the birds, the dancers and the boats, the waves. And he himself is tree and bird and dancer and boat and wave--free, now that all the masks have fallen.

In 1963 Garnier drafted a manifesto in which he attempted to unite the experimental poets working throughout the world. Since Spatialisme is concerned with space in both its visual and sound dimensions, it would seem to be able to accommodate most if not all types of experimental poetry presently being created. A draft of the manifesto was sent to the poets for their signatures and approval, and it appeared in final form as: POSITION I DU MOUVEMENT INTERNATIONAL (dated 10 October 1963) in LES LETTRES, No. 32. It is a most clarifying document, for it defines all types of experimental poetry, reserving the name "concrete" for "poetry working with language--material, creating structures with it, transmitting primarily esthetic information." Several of the poets in this selection signed it.

In many respects POSITION I is a re-statement of the two preceding manifestoes, but Garnier enlarges the concept of the "objective poem" as "the liberation of an energy, the sharing of esthetic information, the objectivation of language." The new poem should be thought of less as "art" and more as ''transmitted energy."

In his most recent work Garnier, in collaboration with his wife Ilse, has been experimenting with the poeme mechanique. In the typewriter poem, Pierre and Ilse Garnier find that the "linguistic elements" are joined to one another in such a way that "the action of a force--that of a word, of a group of letters, of psychic energy--acting upon one of them, can be transmitted to the others and oppose itself to the staticness of the poem." These are "driving" forces which express themselves as "speed." The realized poem amounts to "a transformation of work" to workactivity of the linguistic materials. The typewriter is particularly suited to this kind of poem because "it allows for objectivation, the introduction of speed to the concept of poetry, superposition, the progression of spaces, etc."

Machine poetry (that made on the typewriter, tape recorder, etc.) is a recent development accruing from the same "liberation of language" that has made other types of experimental poetry possible:

Objectivation, disappearance of the primacy of semantics pulverization of words, language-matter able to produce energy or change into energy.

Ilse and Pierre Garnier have made typewriter poems employing both whole words and single letters. In "texte pour une architecture" making use of energy in typing (accenting the word "cinema" as it is pronounced in French) and of the space bar to move the entire line to the right one space per line, atomizing the word, they have been able to capture the play of black and white in the light projected onto the movie screen. The flat, windowless wall of a theatre might well undergo metamorphosis into a textural poem made of the word "cinema."

Although Garnier is considered the spokesman for the international poetry movement in France, the names of the other French poets presented here do not appear among the list of signers of POSITION I. Some of them may not have been working in the new way at that time; others were probably not known to Garnier. Henri Chopin, however, found himself in the position of being in sympathy with POSITION I DU MOUVEMENT INTERNATIONAL but unable to sign it. His letter stating his reasons was appended to the signatures. Essentially these were his objections:

. . . "position" tells us where we stand. The movement of which we are a priori "members" does not exist. I am not a member of a movement but I am "with" movement. I am movement. International? There again I balk. What does it mean? Does it mean beyond nations or with all nations? Possibly. But why not rather with life, with the moving force, combustion. From then on international need not be mentioned....

It is no longer a stop that the little poem constitutes--the privileged moment of the poet of yesterday. It even goes beyond the poet who has become a professional man. It goes beyond professions. It goes "with" movement. It is a movement suddenly crystallized. Left behind by the author. The contemporary author is no longer author. He is a man who leaves in his tracks some precisions. And that is better than to have an impenetrable museum of movements that one beautiful day stopped.

Chopin refuses to be bound by anything, above all by le Verbe (the Word); for it is "an impediment to living, it makes us lose the meager decades of our existence explaining ourselves to a so-called spiritual, political, social or religious court. Through it we must render accounts to the entire world...." Consequently he has found more freedom and integrity of expression in the sound poem made of "a-significant human sounds, without alphabet, without reference to an explicative clarity." For "the mimetic sound of man, the human sound . . . the vocal sound . . . does not explain, it transmits emotions, it suggests exchanges, affective communications; it does not state precisely, it is precise."

Chopin's audio (sound) poems must, of course, be heard. Our page from "sol air" ("earth air") is part of the notation of a poem for tape recorder. "sol air" is realized exclusively by the voice of the author on magnetic tape. Various speeds and volumes of the tape recorder are employed, also superpositions. The linguistic materials of this poem are: the vowels and consonants of the words "sol air," certain noises produced by the mouth, such as the clacking together of the lips, and breathing. The result resembles electronic music.

Garnier, as we have seen, spoke of the sound poem as "preliminary," open to various possibilities, rather than as a "complete entity." At the Biennale in Paris in 1965, Laura Sheleen and Francoise Saint-Thibault interpreted "sol air" (composed 1964) as a "ballet of spaces." One is struck by the impression of space hearing it.

Chopin also makes visual poems (with or without words), which convey their message with graphic force and a minimum of language. Like Augusto de Campos and Pignatari, he has used the visual poem as an effective weapon for attacking society and its institutions. Taking one of man's monuments to his military "greatness," L' Arc de Triomphe, he makes it of the word "saoul" ("drunk") and places it upon earth that is "feu" ("fire"). But if there is nothing admirable left in man who makes war for the poet to glorify, he can still find a subject for pity and fear in the naked, unknown soldier who burns alone in his commemorative flame.

The new mechanical sound poem accomplishes a union between the age of technology and the oral tradition of poetry. Bernard Heidsieck has created another kind of oral poem which is also a descendent of the various kinds of dramatic poetry: the PoemPartition, meant to be performed as a simultaneity of rapidly-spoken sentences punctuated by human or non-human sounds and noises, some of them accidental. That is to say, in "La Penetration", a double-talk discourse on man's nuclear and sexual problems, the two halves of the page would be performed at the same time, as events occur simultaneously in life. The Poem-Partitiorz belongs to a species of experimental poetry which, because it incorporates actual "living" material into the poem, is called Póesie Actuelle or Poesie-Action.

Action Poetry, according to Heidsieck, is one manifestation of the poem's return "to the world," of its desire to exert itself toward the reintegration of society. "Places of 'actions' or of auditions take the place of the written page: stage, street, listening room, studio." The Action Poem is made from "anything that the poem authorizes itself to take . . . the voice, the cry, the gesture, the act, the noise, the sound, the silence, everything and anything." And it uses the phonograph, the tape recorder, the juke-box or any mechanical help it needs as its "new supports and vehicles."

Speaking particularly about Action Poetry which makes use of the tape recorder, Heidsieck sees it as a new approach to the poem from a "certain angle more exact, perhaps, of reality, which the machine authorizes " For it permits the poet "to arouse, to awaken other layers of sensibility, to reach or lay bare other horizons or dimensions of consciousness. Individual or collective." This is made possible by: "manipulation of the speeds, cuttings, volumes, superpositions, couplings." The resulting tape represents "a photograph, a tracing, more faithful to the movements, magic, interlacings, rhythms, softenings, shortenings, interferences of thought," according to Heidsieck.

It is contemporary man's "desire for the trace," his "desperateness to seize reality by that bias" which "undoubtedly results from the mad thickness of uncertainty which attaches itself to our collective future, taking account of the apocalyptic possibilities or probabilities" that brings the Action Poem into being, Heidsieck goes on to say:

Moreover the Absolute is despairingly searched for even at the heart of the relative or of its appearance, even the flesh of this quotidian having become the only certain element to which it is still permissible to cling.... The rage to find there or to rouse the miracle-stone.... From whence its [the poem's] desire . . . to exorcise the banal. To incorporate it within itself. To stigmatize it. To burn it. In order to extract from it the quintessence of events or to kill it. To return life to it or to make it give back its soul.

The Action-Poem, then, is a "certain ritual, ceremonial, or event . . . lying in wait for the participation of others," that arouses it, or provokes it "during the course of Offices or of 'moments' which attempt to become sacred" more by responsibly searching and questioning human existence than by celebrating it, for:

We must begin at the beginning. To question our daily gestures, and words and cries. To appropriate them or dynamite them. To make them meaningful and to put our names to them. At best. It's a question of recovering their energy potential or of eliminating the slag from them. Of recapturing the mystery and the breath. Of events. At their roots. In order that our mechanical and technocratic age may be animated by them, imbued with them from the point of their unmoorings.

Julien Blaine follows a course closer to traditional concepts of the poem. In "3 + 3" a high degree of Iyricism is achieved with the concrete method of formula and repetition. The effectiveness of the poem results from the play of subjective tone and musical quality against a "mathematical" pattern. In "X" the precise mathematical sign for the unknown becomes the predominating letter in "voiX" ("voice"). The poet's voice speaks to us in terms of a fantastic riddle. In the world of signs, though, the meaning of X is perfectly clear.

Jean François Bory's poem "femme" ("woman") establishes a kinship between a contemporary method of picture writing made possible by the camera and the ancient calligraphic character. In "S" he uses the letter as the "sign of signs" of the times, typing within the letter form words and phrases beginning with "s," which taken all together make a scathing comment, belying the beauty of the visual sign of the poem. Bory and Blaine are associated with the magazine APPROCHES.

Jean-Marie le Sidaner also makes a despairing comment on the world using the technique of the layout to suggest a full-page advertisement of the world. An advertisement is some kind of invitation. We are offered fragments: phrases, sentences, single words, visual images, which suggest symbols (some not completely recognizable) and the ancient character for "fire" as the Han mark of the poet. LeSidaner is committed to Spatialisme as: "the greatest artistic movement since surrealism."

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