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The New Visual Poetry
Mary Ellen Solt

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

It is probably impossible to write a completely silent poem with words or recognizable fragments of words, although to be able to do so is probably the ultimate goal of the visual concrete poet. It is not that we can't speak the words in a visual concrete poem, it is that if the poet succeeds in keeping our eyes sufficiently engaged, we have no desire or need to speak them. Is this necessarily a deficiency? All true poems are said to aspire to silence, the silence of the spirit at their center, which is what Gomringer is saying with the white space at the center of his ideogram "silencio". If the poem is to take its place as a functional object in the environment for spiritual contemplation, maybe we need to take some of the noise out of it. Still the remove of the visual poem from the oral tradition cannot be ignored. Have we perhaps lost the poet's voice? That is very doubtful. Brazilian concrete poetry, which seems silent to those who don't speak Portuguese, can be read aloud by native speakers with great enjoyment. And Belloli, as we have seen, has succeeded in making poems that are both audio and visual.

The fact remains, though, that we have an increasing number of poems which are primarily, and in the case of non-semantic poems totally visual; and the tradition of poetry is believed to be oral. Why suddenly the visual poem? Suppose we stop trying to draw support for the visual poem from the few historical examples of shape poetry, Futurist typograms, calligrams, picture writing, etc. and join Carlo Belloli in his bold assertion that the visual poem is a unique new art form created by contemporary man from contemporary linguistic materials to meet spiritual needs peculiar to his own time and place. Pierre Garnier has suggested that the poem now wishes to become a material object because man is becoming increasingly aware of the spirituality that resides in the material itself of the objects that surround him. Also, man having discovered or rediscovered himself as a cosmic being in the age of space, space itself takes on spiritual (poetic) content. The visual poem is a material object in space which can achieve spiritual influence.

If the visual poem is a new product in a world flooded with new products, then it must partake of the nature of the world that created it. The visual poem is a word design in a designed world. It can't be mere coincidence that the founders of the concrete poetry movement in both Europe and Brazil were involved not only with the world of contemporary avant-garde poetry, painting and music but with the world of graphic design as well. Gomringer was in close daily. contact with Diter Rot and Marcel Wyss, both graphic artists, when he began to come up with his new ideas for the poem; he was secretary to Max Bill at the Hochschule fur Gestaltung at Ulm the year he wrote his first manifesto "from line to constellation." Décio Pignatari of the Noigandres group was a designer by profession when the Brazilians were learning to clarify their new theories. But Gomringer and the De Campos brothers were not designers who also became poets, as was Pignatari, they were poets who became word designers because the old world of the traditional poem was no longer their world. This was not a decision, it was a discovery made as the result of careful study of preceding forms. Among the concrete poets there are many painters, graphic artists and designers, as we have seen.

As we now move through our daily lives, our eyes are literally assaulted by designs of one kind or another. Every box of food we pick up or don't pick up in the super-market is covered with words and more or less enticing visual images to make us want to pick it up. Every cigarette we smoke against scientific medical advice was advertised into our consciousness. Every chair, table, knife, fork, spoon was designed by someone as an object for practical use, although some of these things are very beautiful. Our clothes, our cars, our appliances are designs. Some of the designs in our world are excellent, but their content is trivial. In some designs the content is insidious. If the new visual poem has found ways to use the materials and methods of presentation of the designer's world (mainly typography), ways to give them significant human and spiritual content; if it can find poetry in the designed world of our daily lives, then we should rejoice and stop worrying about the oral tradition. The plain fact is that the oral tradition neglected the visual power of words.

Great functional designs seem always to be related in some way to nature. The airplane, a mechanical bird, is poetry when it flies, but not a poem. The poem is made of language and partakes of human nature. Garnier speaks of the design of the visual poem as "interior." The visual poem as a functional design can humanize the materials and techniques of the mass media of communication, can make them available to the human spirit. The poem comes alive once again in the world it has been assumed would destroy it.

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