UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers | Concrete Poetry: A World View

Mary Ellen Solt

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

The recent advent of a new poetry movement in Spain was the result largely of the efforts of one man: Julio Campal, who began to champion avant-garde work in PROBLEMATICA 63 in 1962. According to Fernando Millan the situation in Spain at that time was such that:
the Spanish literary scene appeared hardly favorable to anything resembling avant-garde writing or innovation. Likewise the cultural scene, which had suffered from the years of isolation and from a total lack of publications about modern (avant-garde) currents, obstructed any move toward innovation unless an audience aware of the new situation could be created. Literature, which in 1939 had broken with the European tradition--the tradition which had made possible the poetic generation of 20s, had fallen into a complete neoclassicism of form and style. This situation became more grave because of official censorship which labeled any attempt at innovation as subversive. Literary movements were stifled as soon as they were being launched. Literary publications, which were either official or subsidized, rejected any work which deviated, even if only slightly, from the traditional. And at this point it should be noted that for Spanish poetry the traditional models are provided by the poets of the XVIIth century with the exception of Góngora, of course. Under these circumstances the work of Julio Campal at the head of PROBLEMATICA 63 provided the luminous possibility for a renovation.

The younger writers were attracted by the work of Campal, and through it became acquainted with the avant-garde tradition: Hopkins, Mallarmé, Marinetti, Apollinaire, Tzara, Huidobro, German Expressionism, etc. Gómez de Liaño and Fernando Millán joined PROBLEMATICA in 1963.

In 1964 Enrique Uribe "published the first poem in the new direction in Spanish" in the London TIMES And in 1965 two exhibitions were organized by Campal, one in Bilbao and the other in Zaragoza. Uribe collaborated with Campal in organizing the Bilbao exhibition, which included also work by Angel Crespo. Interest in the new poetry in Spain can be said to date from these exhibitions, with the exception that notice had been taken of Brazilian concrete poetry by P. Gómez Bedate and Angel Gespo, editor of THE BRAZILIAN REVIEW OF CULTURE. Also Haroldo de Campos had visited Spain in 1959 and had returned during his tenure at the Technische Hochschule, Stuttgart, in 1964.

In 1965 two international exhibitions were organized by Campal in Madrid and San Sebastian following which "the prospects for a new Spanish poetry have assumed distinct form and new dimensions," according to Millan. Campal, Uribe, Millán, Gómez de Liano, P. Gómez Bedate and Blanca Calparsoso exhibited in Madrid. The new movement progressed with "whirling rhythms" leading to the San Sebastián Exhibition to which the work of Ocarte and Díez de Fortuny was added. Campal organized the exhibition according to the "ideological motives of each type of poetry [and] made use of the nationalistic base of concrete poetry," achieving a critical basis for new work. Later M. Lage Rey, J. García Sanchez, and J. A. Cáceres joined the group.

There was a great deal of response in literary circles. Younger poets accepted the new experiments and have begun to participate in them. "Visual works of all international experimenters of importance" have been shown in Spain, and the phonetic work of Pierre and Ilse Gamier, Mon, Lora Totino, De Vree, Chopin and others." Today there exists in Spain a "dedicated and well-informed audience for avant-garde poetry" and close contact between poets, painters and musicians working along the new experimental lines. And a new magazine (SITUACIÓN, I believe) has been launched as the organ of the new Spanish poetry.

The poets themselves feel that although "the new Spanish poetry already has vigor and life of its own," it has not had time to develop "any currents within the movement" and that "it is still too early to assess its importance. The adverse conditions under which it was born have left their mark until today."

The most obvious trace one finds in Spanish experimental poetry of the difficult conditions it has had to overcome is a semiotic use of language from which it is sometimes difficult or impossible to extract a meaning although one senses the presence of specific content. Perhaps a reader living in the culture would be able to grasp it better. In any event, the use of language in some Spanish poems appears to be related to the theory of semiotic language set forth by Pignatari and Pinto and to Mon's theory that the poet is impelled towards visually articulated written language when the common language is inadequate or for some reason cannot be used. Millán attributes the predominantly semiotic quality of Spanish poetry to the practical fact that the high cost of assembling the necessary equipment to make phonetic poetry has made that kind of experimental poem inaccessible to Spanish poets.

To my knowledge Campal is the only Spanish concrete poet who has experimented with the phonetic poem. Millán refers to experiments by Campal with "reversible" poems in 1964, but states that most of his work follows the prevailing semiotic trends. Campal has, according to Millan, already done "extensive work." His "Calligram", which is made by writing in a beautiful but illegible hand in purple ink on a page of the newspaper turned upside down, succeeds in doing precisely what it sets out to do: to make a textural surface by writing with purple ink in counter position to the printed letters. One can accept it on this level as a textural statement. But its more significant meaning resides in the gesture of the beautiful writing, the protest of the human hand, its attempt to create beauty in the face of the contents of the newspaper.

Enrique Uribe has probably the widest international reputation of the Spanish experimental poets; for he has been "closely connected with French Spatialisme," and his work appears in the Emmett Williams ANTHOLOGY. ( To our knowledge this is the first time the Spanish poets have been presented as a group in an international survey of the movement. ) Uribe has made both mechanical and concrete poems. "todo o nada" ("all or nothing") is the kind of poem that loses everything in translation, for it is a sound poem. Its meaning is its "music," which is "all" and/or "nothing."

The text of Fernando Millán, who is our source of information and a leader in the Spanish movement, succeeds as a composition of letter forms. It is similar to work of Hansjorg Mayer.

According to Millán, Ignazio Gómez de Liaño is a poet of "clearly concrete tendencies" who is only peripherally associated with the group. His work and that of Fernando López Vera is characterized by a purely aesthetic use of fragmented letter forms in the vein of Mon and Spatola.

From the Poems of José A. Cáceres and Jesús García Sánchez, we receive a strong semiotic impact although the reader is expected to make his own interpretation of the signs, which suggests the possibility of several levels of reading. Reading "feo" ("ugly," "deformed," "hideous") Figure 97 of Cáceres as a poem painting, the semantic meaning of "feo" is played against the beauty of the color composition, which takes its form from the letter forms, predominantly from the "o". A symbol may look beautiful and still say "ugly" is a possible reading.

In the "Vibrations" of Sánchez, we are moved by fragments of broken but still recognizable letters, and by symbols which do not quite succeed in being beautiful, either because they are being destroyed, or because the poet is unable to make them beautiful with his given materials.

The same possibility for many readings exists in the text of Joaquín Díez de Fortuny. Considering the elementary nature of the design itself and the fact that the column in the center is cut in two and half of it thrown out of line and turned upside down, the text suggests utter futility, disgust and despair in the face of the artist's problems. The letter "i" is not a word in Spanish. In English it is the most important letter of the alphabet. Read as English other interpretations would be possible.

Ocarte shows us a man bombarded by phrases in the mass media of communication--magazines, newspapers--which suggest the imminence of war and revolution, until his head is ready to split and he can make no sense of it. Instead of a solution we are given letters, an exclamation mark, and arrows pointing in all directions, and so in no direction. The letter "Y." which is red in the original, is the conjunction "and."

Herminio Molero's typewriter poems use visual pattern to suggest content: in our text the sections of a window, or perhaps cafe curtains. The patterns appear to have been cut from a page of typed letters. But they are words, or fragments of words, or combinations of words relating to what the poet sees or hears out the window. I am guessing that Molero is a new member of the new poetry movement in Spain.

Alain Arias-Misson is not associated with the movement. He lives in Spain because he is married to the Spanish painter Nela Arias. He was born in Brussels, brought up and educated in the United States. In the text based upon quotations from St. John of the Cross, the music of the vowels is conveyed to us from the visual "score." Arias-Misson has also made poem objects of plastic.

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