UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers | Concrete Poetry: A World View

Mary Ellen Solt

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

Now in its second decade Brazilian concrete poetry is known the world over. Haroldo de Campos established many personal contacts within the international movement during his trip abroad in 1959. It is impossible even to begin to cover all the activities and events involving the original Noigandres group at home and abroad. But the important link between Brazilian and German concrete poetry developed through association with the Stuttgart group should be mentioned. In 1964 Professor Max Bense, who had for some time been vitally interested in the Brazilian movement and aesthetic, invited Haroldo de Campos to lecture on contemporary Brazilian literature at the Technische Hochschule, Stuttgart. He left for Europe in January, and during the following months renewed old and established many new contacts: among musicians with Boulez in Baden-Baden and composers working at the Studio of Electronic Music in Cologne, and with poets--Eugen Gomringer, Carlo Belloli, Pierre and Ilse Garnier, Henri Chopin, and others. A conference on concrete poetry was held at the Clube Mánes in Prague with slide projection of the poems. A lecture on Brazilian avant-garde music with a hearing of recordings was included in the conference. At this time Haroldo de Campos became acquainted with the leading poets of the Czech concrete movement: Josef Hirsal, Bohumila Grogerová, Ladislav Novak and Jiri Kolar. The Brazilian influence is strong in the concrete poetry of many countries, but wherever it is felt the poetry exhibits more strongly a national character of its own. In many instances poets had already begun working along concrete lines before the Brazilian influence was felt.

During the late fifties Germany began to emerge as an important center of concrete poetry activity. From 1957 through 1959 a group called the "Darmstadt Circle" published a magazine, MATERIAL, and brought out the first international anthology of concrete poetry in 1957. In the group were: Claus Bremer, a German dramatist; Emmett Williams, an American expatriate; and Daniel Spoerri, a Romanian-born artist, who served as leader. Books by Emmett Williams and Diter Rot were also published. (Williams' work will be discussed with American concrete poetry.)

Claus Bremer has been credited by Gomringer with having "enriched" the constellation form.' The poems presented in this selection are from the "engagierende texte" ("engaged texts"), which are intended to place the reader freely within "the realm of his own possibilities, the realm in which we are brothers." Put another way this means that the reader should feel free to make his own interpretation of the poem by himself becoming "engaged" in the process of its structure. In the star-shaped poem "nicht nur / informieren / haltungen / provezieren" ("not only to inform / but to provoke / attitudes"), for instance, the reader will be required to "move either the poem or himself. The text reveals its word play only to those who examine the subject from the right, from above, and from the left, that is to say, from all sides." Bremer has been able to achieve arresting abstract visual design by means of a manipulation of word elements aimed at semantic content. But tightly constructed as his poems are, they convey a sense of inevitability of form. "A text happens" ("Bin text passiert"), Bremer tells us in one of them; but inevitable as it may appear to be, it is only made possible by careful consideration of the possibility of making words, word elements and letters both semantically and visually significant. "The visual organization of my poems allows for an examination of the meaning of words and letters," Bremer states.

Stuttgart has become a more permanent center for concrete poetry in Germany due to the efforts of Max Bense, professor of science and philosophy at the Technische Hochschule, and Hansjörg Mayer, the leading poet-typographer of the international movement, formerly a pupil of Bense. With Elisabeth Walther, Bense has edited the Ror series of booklets since 1961. In addition to being responsible for the typography and design of ROT, Mayer has independently published the FUTURA pamphlets, books, and portfolio-anthologies of concrete poetry, emphasizing the international character of the movement.

The previously-mentioned interest in Brazilian concrete poetry in Stuttgart has not produced derivative poetry. Professor Bense has contributed most significant insights to the theory of the concrete poem, enlarging our conception of the poem as a language scheme or system that abandons "linear and grammatically ordered contexts" in favor of "visual and surface connectives" making possible "simultaneity of semantic and aesthetic functions of words" so that "meaning and structure reciprocally express and determine each other." Also he has enlarged upon Gomringer's concept of play-activity, which he defines as a form of "fascination," and "fascination is a form of concentration"; in this case, concentration upon linguistic material which must be perceived as an objectified whole before its meaning can be grasped by the appreciative faculties of the mind.

The Brazilian "pilot plan" relates concrete poetry to advances in linguistic science and to Gestalt psychology. Bense adds a philosophical dimension, relating the process of the concrete poem--creation of a perceivable object "with linguistic means"--to the Nietzchean concept of the world as an "aesthetic phenomenon." And he defines the term "concrete" in the Hegelian sense as the "opposite of the term abstract," which implies "something from which certain characteristics have been abstracted." The concrete is "nothing but itself." The concrete work of art "uses its material functionally and not symbolically."

Commenting on the three-dimensional concept of the word as "verbivocovisual," formulated by the Noigandres group, Bense states that concentration upon the material elements of language has made us suddenly aware of the three-dimensional nature of the linguistic "communication sphere," rendering the old syntactical relationships inadequate for the concrete poet: "a word that is to be used in a text should not be chosen according to its role or position in a possible sentence," according to Bense. "Ensembles of words" rather than sentences are the "aim of concrete texts . . . a specifically concrete aesthetic message." It is important to note that this "aesthetic message" is still conveyed by language, though in a new way. Graphic position must be seen to correspond to phonetic position in poems based upon speech structure. Also it is "equally clear" that as the word is "not the basis of the message" in the conventional linear text because its meaning is determined by syntactical and grammatical structure, so in concrete poetry "it is being replaced by the surface arrangement." Therefore the concrete poem partakes of the nature of sign communication, poster communication, for its scheme (or design) is a meaning structure.

In his own poems Bense is able to create a system of word-play activity with a bare minimum of linguistic materials. In the text "tallose berge" ("valleyless mountains"), for instance, he pays tribute to the city of Rio de Janeiro limiting himself to only four letters (r-i-o-n). Using constructivist methods, he makes a visual image suggestive of the unique pinshape of the mountains around Rio and manages to create metaphor and onomatopoeia as well to express the character of the city and his love for it. In the other "statistical" text we have included, Bense obtains an entirely different result using six words according to a numerical ( counting ) scheme to create a series of accidental word events which communicate a meta-language divorced from reference outside the poem.

We have noted briefly the contribution of Hansjörg Mayer as a typographical artist to the concrete poetry movement. A look at his own texts reveals him to be a ''typoet'' (as he was christened by Haroldo de Campos) of extraordinary graphic gifts. In "oil" the tension between semantics and typographical design achieves perfect balance. Our sampling from TYPOACTIONEN can only suggest the wealth of variation and textural interest derived from over-printing a personal alphabet created by Mayer in 1962. (A note in the Word-Gloss section partially explains the technicalities involved in the creation of the TYPOACTIONEN. ) One is tempted to speak of them as type-action paintings, the resemblance to action paintings is so close, but they were made by the machine.

In all of his typographical interpretations Mayer has limited himself to one type face-lower case Futura-and he divides typography into three types:

industrial typography which follows the rules of industrial design; craftsman typography which makes use of all possibilities involved in craftsmanship; art typography which employs letters or type as basic elements of composition.

Mayer goes on to say:

I am only concerned with the use of the 26 lower case letters of the alphabet and ten numerals, since this is all one needs in typography--the most neutral type faces, simplest characters. I believe that it is necessary to get away from personal taste and style, the constructed letter based on line and circle is my material. All my compositions are constructed in the concrete way--all material is used functionally. The compositions are based on serial relationships or random systems of the 26 letters of the alphabet. This kind of concrete typography relates to concrete poetry on its visual side, in the same way that sound poems, devoid of semantic values, relate to the phonetic side.

Concrete poets and publications have followed Mayer's lead to the extent that lower case sans serif alphabets of type faces resembling the construction of Futura have become almost a trademark of concrete typographical style.

Undoubtedly the great German typographical heritage, and in particular the innovations of Bauhaus typography, have contributed to the visual excellence of German concrete texts. But not all German poets have followed the lead of Hansjörg Mayer. Franz Mon, for instance, has experimented with non-semantic visual texts in which the subjective element is present to a great extent. What saves Mon's non-semantic texts from being merely abstract design using fragmented letter forms and their negative areas is psychic-emotional content that he might have attempted to channelize into more conventional linear structures. Mon's visual texts are representative of a new type of non-semantic poetry being created also by poets in other countries, so his arguments should be fully presented.

Mon's primary concern in his experimental visual poems is to create a new "poetry of surface" which, like Gomringer's constellations and the word ideograms of the Noigandres poets, claims descent from Mallarmé's "Un coup de dés," which returned surface to literature as "a constitutive element of the text." Mon wishes to incorporate into the content of the poem the negative forms of the surface created by the positive letter (sign) forms. Negative forms, now taken for granted as part of the painting, should be seen also as part of the poem. Mon sees a need for returning the poem to the visual meaning it lost when printing standardized the page and writing became "a mere function of sound." As things now stand, he reminds us, "writing serves us best when its optical dimension is least apparent to the eye." We forget "that script was once of a pictorial nature and that its pictorial character might have a significance which goes beyond sound language." That there exists "the possibility of a spatially rather than temporally articulated written language" is what Mon sets out to prove.

A spatially articulated written language is not proposed to supplant temporally articulated written language but to make possible the expression of that which conventional language is incapable of articulating. Spatially articulated language, according to Mon, "breaks through whenever the conventional language sanctioned by society reaches its limitations or for some reason or other cannot be used." He gives as examples the chemical formula (the Benzolring which "exploits surface as a syntactical dimension") and the use of script signs in painting and graphic design since the seventeenth century" to paraphrase or negate conventional pictorial themes."

Where the lyric poem is concerned, he reminds us, the tension between the page surface and the poem has never been completely destroyed because the act of writing the poem down represents a "progression from the more flexible medium of the linguistic sphere of articulation into the slower one of writing." This slowing-down process "can affect the vocabulary and syntax of a language" so that the structure of the language object being created (which in the case of the poem "depends to such an extent upon the tension between stability and flow") cannot help but be significantly influenced.

The relationship of the poem to the surface upon which it is written down is exceedingly complex, for "the poem springs from the unqualified; it is its own background or it is not a poem at all. Surface is its negation, against which the positiveness of its setting can assert itself. The poem doesn't exist without the isolation of empty surface, that area of free play cut out of all context, which, nevertheless, is made oblivious and disowned when the first word is set down." Mon seeks to "interrupt this oblivion to return the reality and effectiveness of the surface to the text. A poem which has once abandoned itself to being written down, which has withdrawn from the dithyrambic stream of pure speech, demands silence and to be seen as a whole--semantically it is 'mystical' and 'theoretical' at the same time."

Mon's "poetry of surface" can perhaps be thought of as a kind of hieroglyphics of the spirit aimed at bringing into the content of the poem the "whatever else" which exists but which "so far could not show itself" because of the concern of language and the poem with "discovering 'just this'." Mon states: "In everything I perceive the presence of both impulses, but 'whatever else' dominates in the images reduced to indicating signs, particularly the letters. They function best when their 'just this' has been completely obliterated by the 'whatever else,' which is aimed at. A letter no longer has anything in common with a picture. No one realizes today that 'M' once signified 'water.' Why should anyone know that? Anything is possible now, not only that which is implied, but that for which no symbol could be created is within reach."

.. the "poetry of surface" we find the text in the "spaces," the negative areas between fragmented letter forms. Mon readily admits that to some the fragmentizing of the visual elements of words to make non-semantic texts may seem "futile acrobatics." But from his point of view:

neither futile nor acrobatics has in this century of most horrifying industries a pejorative connotation. That which seems most useless might be of the utmost use. That which was previously dully readable trembles in expectation of the text which was not seen in advance. The poster suddenly becomes something that can be torn, it resists my hands and begins to sing. It answers questions no one had ever asked it. The newspaper: thin and dry, sprinkled with tiny black dots, familiar to me--they open up before the scissors,

I recognize them as they do this; but what I now read I did not previously know, it exists only along this cutting line . . . traditional meanings and common syntax have evaporated in the curiosity about "spaces"; a curiosity directed not only towards the fragmentation of letters and their regrouping along a cut, but towards the whole, also towards the behavior of the paper, for instance the appearance of fibers in between the torn letters, the laying bare of the covered surface. Once the convention which converts script instantly into sounds and their meaning has been abandoned, everything is drawn into the suction of the newly forming structure: in combination with fragmented letters, a fold or a tear suddenly acquires the function of punctuation. Cutting lines unite signs which hitherto had not been connected and make centaurs of them. They take on syntactical functions like space and spaces.... Long numbers which I cannot pronounce appear, but still I can read them, even perhaps for the first time.

Mon equates an "increase of consciousness in which the objective measure of contents and their differentiation surpasses the power of comprehension of the individual" with "a desire for 'spaces."' As the result he finds that the "frame of reference" within which he has been accustomed to use "language and script is changing":

Language disappears behind script. The written signs remain for a moment like petrified scaffolding, but only as long as no demands are being made upon them. "M" will never again be "water," but suddenly it can no longer be manipulated simply as "M," with its fixed position in the phonetic system. Depending upon what happens to it on its way to a new texture, that of "spaces," it sparkles in a significance which can be conveyed by nothing other than itself in its present position: it is now sign as well as a message.

Mon's arguments apply only to his experimental visual texts. "It is clear," he states, "that every text is not suited to this," but we have been made aware of the functions of surface which "show the same kind of content formalism as conventional grammar . . .:position (of the word material on the surface), distance (of the textual elements from each other) and density (of the textual field)." Distance correlates with the constellation of meaning, density with the word roster:

Whereas the constellation crystallizes individual entities pregnant with meaning and contrasting sound form, the roster appears as a complete field of words in which it is not possible to determine exactly whether sounds, syllables, words or sentences are the basic units. Often they compare with each other; and at other times it is the micro forms which attract attention, although whole sentence structures might be found in the field. In a constellation, although open but pregnant figuration crystallizes itself out of sound and meaning through patient reading, in the roster the reading glance grasps a multitude of changing relations and implications without coming to an unequivocal result.

The emptiness of the original surface is suspended in the density of a roster inasmuch as its "points of reference" seem interchangeable and the field has no necessary limits, much rather it can be thought of as being continued at will....

In the two-dimensionality of the surface, a part of the gesture of a text can realize itself.... The optical gesture unites itself naturally with the phonetic and semantic one as complementation, extension, tension and negation.

Mon has experimented also with poetry made primarily of sound fragments or "articulations" and has written permutational poems. In the poster "Epitaph fur Konrad Bayer" he remains within the range of semantics and conventional letter forms, but the sign qualities of the letters "n," "o" and "t" are strongly evident.

A countryman of Mon's, Ferdinand Kriwet, also finding the conventional use of words in books inadequate for poetry of our time, has developed a concept of visual form which manifests itself variously as: POEM-PAINTINGS ; PUBLIT (PUBLIC LITERATURE) and SEHTEXTE (VISUAL TEXTS). Although he intends for his PUBLIT to be viewed in galleries like paintings, Kriwet does not think of himself as a painter; but rather as a writer who takes language "at its picture value" as well as at its "word value." He attempts to apply our "experience gained in public lettering for literary purposes." Like Mon, he hopes that the text "can be perceived immediately" ("coincidentally") as a whole; and that "it has, at least at . . . first glance,' sign character, as have all public texts on notice-boards, house fronts, hoardings, signs, lorries, on roads and runways etc.," which "remember their ideographical origin, their status before the creation of phonetics."

Removing the PUBLIT from the book designed for the eye of the solitary reader to the gallery where it can be "read" simultaneously by a group of readers, Kriwet does not wish to imply that book presentation of poems is entirely outmoded. On the contrary: "the age of the book has yet to come." The "flight of literature from the book out in front of the public" simply makes clear to us the fact that the book is a particular kind of functional object and "defines literature in book form as significant only when it is especially composed for it."

In the SEHTEXTE semantic content is less in evidence than in the PUBLIT, but Kriwet believes that it is "impossible to eliminate" semantics entirely. It enters into "the smallest language particle or rudiment on the background of experience and knowledge of writing and language," he contends. It is often possible to make out whole words within the intricate structures of the SEHTEXTE: the word "man," for example, in the SEHTEXTE we are presenting. But their primary intent is "to employ the possibilities of lettering in its widest sense productively and not just reproductively . . . to stimulate new experience in language and to convey and extend consciousness of reality, as far as this manifests itself as a current of thought in language." At "first glance" the SEHTEXTE have "sign character." Their form is "open; its beginning and end are both fictitious. Their development is nowhere definite," with the result that the "reading activity" of the viewer must "complete the text anew in each case and thus leave it always open." Reading becomes analogous with the "independent" performance of a piece of contemporary music, for the "process of reading" is of equal importance with "that which is read" which becomes "no longer exclusively essential." Kriwet believes that "only those will mock the missing 'meaning' for whom the literary art is of no other use than to add non-linguistic interest to the statement." Despite their departures from literary convention, he argues, the SEHTEXTE remain within the territories of poetry because their area and media of communication are basically linguistic, even though they require "the appreciative deciphering of intricate fine structures."

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