UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers | Concrete Poetry: A World View
Mary Ellen Solt
From Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968, Indiana University Press)
Although a few isolated poets have
been making concrete poems for some time, it would be an exaggeration
to speak of a concrete poetry movement in the United States. The
American concrete poet finds himself in the strange position of
being associated with a new formal movement whose origins are
foreign and many of whose foundation stones were laid by e. e.
cummings and Ezra Pound. Actually the impetus towards concretization
has been strong in American poetry since Whitman began to make
his long catalogues to name the objects in his New World, leaving
the rose for Gertrude Stein.
Until now cummings has remained for
the American poet in a place uniquely his own, admired for his
original style, death to imitate. Pound, on the other hand, along
with William Carlos Williams, has been the most significant influence
in contemporary American poetry, particularly upon the development
of what is called "Projective Verse," the principles
of which were formulated by Charles Olson. Projective Verse differs
from concrete poetry very significantly in that it keeps the line
and its syntacticalgrammatical structures and because it is fundamentally
expressionistic, personal, and concerned with speech--with articulating
a series of related perceptions. Its method is "field composition"
as opposed to filling in pre-conceived traditional patterns.
It is called "open" verse because the poet is restricted
by no formal rules except those which arise from the necessities
of his perceptions, thoughts and feelings in relation to the breath,
which controls the line. The concrete poem is also said to be
"open," but that means open to the formal possibilities
inherent in particular linguistic materials. The concrete poet
concentrates upon the object he is making rather than upon the
psychical or personal reasons which have compelled him to make
it. This is not to say that Projective Verse neglects form, for
like concrete poetry, it sees formal innovation as a present imperative.
Other common denominators can be found
between Projective Verse and concrete poetry: the insistence upon
the role of breath in the poem is akin to convictions held by
phonic concrete poets such as Henri Chopin. Both concrete poetry
and projective verse are concerned with atomization of the word,
with the syllable. Olson's insistence that "form is never
more than an extension of content" is but a hair's breadth
away from the concept: form = content / content = form. And Projective
Verse and concrete poetry share in common a conviction that some
kind of break is necessary with old grammatical and syntactical
forms to bring language in line with present human necessities.
. . . the conventions which logic has forced on syntax must be broken open as quietly as must the too set feet of the old line. But an analysis of how far a new poet can stretch the very conventions on which communication by language rests, is too big for these notes, which are meant, I hope it is obvious, merely to get things started.
But the concrete poet sees a need
for moving farther away from grammar and syntax to a constellation
of words with spatial syntax, or to the ideogram than does Olson,
who stays with the line. Also the concrete poet has discovered
greater possibilities in the space presented by the page and in
the typewriter than Olson suggests:
The irony is, from the machine has come one gain not yet sufficiently observed or used but which leads directly on toward projective verse and its consequences. It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first time he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work.
It is time we picked the fruits of
the experiments of Cummings, Pound, Williams, each of whom has,
after his own way, already used the machine as a scoring to his
composing, as a script to its vocalization. It is now only a matter
of recognition of the conventions of composition by field for
us to bring into being an open verse as formal as the closed,
with all its traditional advantages.
It would appear that at the time when
poets in Europe and Brazil felt the need in their languages for
concretization, the American poet felt a greater need to learn
to speak his own American language which, through the efforts
of William Carlos Williams, he was just beginning to discover.
But even in Williams, who was committed to the use of speech rhythms
timed by a musical stress measure, there are strong impulses towards
concretization: his insistence that a poem is made of words not
of ideas; that it is a construction of language--a made object--a
thing in its own right; his use of unedited samples from the real
world of speech and daily affairs; the importance of the way his
poems look on the page; and in the later poems his use of page
space (pause) as a formal unit in the measure. Among Williams'
poems there are some which seem almost to want to be concrete:
the river passage in PATERSON ill, for instance, in which the
lines slant in several directions on the page; or "For a
Low Voice," which uses repetitions of "huh," "ha,"
"heh," "ho," and other devices, somewhat in
the manner of the phonetic concrete poet. In "May 1st Tomorrow,"
the bird sounds, which the poet tells us originate in the mind,
"a queer sponge," are strongly suggestive of phonetic
poems by the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, whose experiments predate
concrete phonetic poetry. "The Testament of Perpetual Change"
is strongly kinetic.
Perhaps we were too close to concrete
poetry to require a "movement," for with very little
effort one can find concrete poems written by distinguished American
poets simply included in their collections without its having
occurred to anyone to attach a new label. "Julia's Wild"
by Louis Zukofsky, constructed upon repetitions of words in a
line from Shakespeare s THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (First Folio
IV, iv, 202) is an outstanding example. It can be compared to
Belloli's "acqua" from the standpoint of its force as
meta-language. It is not, however, an audiovisual poem. Its
force comes through as a composition of sounds based upon the
ten syllables of "Come, shadow, come, and take this shadow
up" created by the play of the mind among the words. All
of Zukofsky's work, which concentrates upon the musical value
of the syllable as the repository of sight, sound and intellection,
presents a preoccupation with language as material of the highest
and most complexly synthetic order. His Catullus translations,
in which he attempts to bring Latin as language into English,
may very well be the most concrete translations to date.
Louise Bogan's "Train Tune"
is a series constellation published in 1951.
And in Robert Creeley's "Le Fou"
(for Charles Olson) we find a fascinating counterpointing (conflict)
of the too-slow movement of the old grammar and syntax against
the propulsive energy of the new, which moves through the poem
in a succession of key words repeated somewhat in the manner of
the concrete poem: breath moving slowly breath slow slowly slowly moving slower moving. It is possible
to take these words in their exact order in "Le Fou,"
to arrange them in a spatial structure imitative of the serial
poems of Haroldo de Campos, and to make an embryonic ideogram
of the essential message of "Le Fou":
Of course Creeley's "ideogram"
cannot be fully realized in a reduced concrete structure because
its meaning is organic to the more fully stated conflict of structures
in "Le Foul" Notice in the poet's final statement ("So
slowly . . . we are moving/ away from . . . the usual,/ which
is slower than this"), in which the movement of the old and
the new run parallel to each other, how the skillfully-placed
comma stops the slower grammatical-syntactical movement and
throws the poem into the new more propulsive movement:
So slowly (they are wavingIn "Le Fou" form is so little "an extension of content" that one could almost say here ''form = content," for too much grammar in the slower statements in the poem is part of the meaning. Also this very-close to-concrete poem makes us realize that kineticism in the poem is a matter of progression of energy as well as of visual succession.
Impulses toward concrete poetry have,
then, been strong in American poetry, but none of the above poets
would wish to be or could be labeled "concrete." Concrete
tendencies are present, I am sure, in any number of other American
poets, in the calligraphic poems of Bob Brown, for instance.
Our painting like our poetry has been
dominated by expressionism, but here, too, a strong kinship with
certain aspects of the concrete movement can be felt. Jackson
Pollock's paintings are, for instance, a kind of writing, which
creates a surface analogous to the poetry of surface defended
by Franz Mon; and they are related to the TYPOACTIONEN of Hansjorg
Mayer. Concrete poets acknowledge the influence of Pollock, as
we have seen in the title of Ladislav Novák's book. As
was the case in our poetry, strong impulses relating to the concrete
movement in art have been felt. Josef Albers, who has used the
label "structural constellations," was mentioned in
the Brazilian "Pilot Plan" and is greatly admired among
concrete poets, also Charles Biederman. Optical painting, which
is a reaction to highly subjective and emotional abstract expressionism,
belongs to the immediate family of concrete poetry, and we have
noted an occasional link with pop art.
When we attempt to assess the role
of the United States in the international concrete poetry movement,
we run into some difficulty even where poets who are considered
to be concrete are concerned; for a complete lack of unity presents
itself with respect to both commitment and method. This is due
to a large extent, probably, to the fact that American concrete
poets have worked in isolation from each other, unaware, for the
most part, of other Americans following the same tendencies. Robert
Lax, for instance, began writing "vertical" poems with
"one word to a line" and others using "typographical
innovations" in 1934. "Poem", which is strongly
concrete in its repetitions, linguistic play-activity, and
ability almost to be read backwards, appeared in the AMERICAN
SCHOLAR in 1941. But Lax wasn't thinking "concrete"
at the time, and to this day, after having been published on several
occasions as a concrete poet, he does not feel ready to make a
general statement about concrete poetry. "quiet,/silence",
a concrete poem using the mirroring technique, seems to say that
there is a quiet, a silence, to which the poem aspires beyond
the meaning of words.
Emmett Williams is the first American
poet who can properly be called concrete in terms of commitment
and consistency of method. He states that he was always "profoundly
interested in poetry" and that he came to concrete poetry
after having learned "to assess the manipulation of linguistic
materials by major poets of the past (under the tutelage of john
crowe ransom)." He supposes he saw "no reason to continue
manipulating material in the same old way. that is to say, 'make
it new' meant, ultimately, to the traditionbound poets of our
century, make it as new as you can without stepping on grandpa's
toes." He was able to perceive that language as material
substance has a poetic content that is entirely its own apart
from "poetic" contents to which it can be made to refer:
"material meant material to me," Williams states,
and i felt that i could do anything i wanted to with it. collage it, paint it over, isolate every detail and look at it that way, throw it together at random, put it together according to a strict system. it wasn't so much a protest as finding a way, my way, to be a poet under the circumstances of my place and time.
Emmett Williams' "place and time"
from 1949 on was to be Europe. There, he writes:
i soon found kindred souls--daniel spoerri, clause bremer, diter rot, gerhard rühm, etc. the results (for daniel, claus and myself) was the darmstadt circle of concrete poets, which flourished from 1957 to 1959, and brought forth the first international anthology of concrete poetry (1958) and books by diter rot and myself.
Strange as it may seem, Emmett Williams
wrote most of his first concrete poems in German:
it didn't have to be in german, but i was there, and it seemed the thing to do it in. it wasn't really a german thing we were doing, of course. spoerri was romanian, bremer was german but more oriented toward france, and i was an expatriated american, diter rot was a swiss-oriented german living in iceland.
But he had discovered the impulse
towards concretization in his poems before he went to live in
Europe. In an unpublished novel THE CLOUDS (1954-55), Aristophanes,
"a deceased button-hole puncher" administers the
following eye-ear test to the hero:
By making a progressive exchange of
letters, the poet transforms sense into sound, sound into sense.
From this simple permutational poem, Emmett Williams would go
on to become a master of the concrete permutational method.
His originality within this strict
systematic method became apparent with the publication of material
3, from which the permutational text constructed with the
letter "e" is taken. material was the magazine
put out by the Darmstadt Circle, but no. 3 contained only the
permutational poems of Emmett Williams. An attempt was made to
show the system operating in each text by means of a cut out.
An ingenious use of the rubber band in place of conventional binding
gave material 3 a distinctively new character as book object.
All of the poems were reproduced from a "typewritten original."
The significance of the use of the typewriter was explained by
Bremer, someone named Riekert, and Spoerri in the introduction:
emmett williams' concretions take their form from the regularity of the machine, they achieve their meanings through the systematic employment of signs. of the available signs of the machine' only the letters of the alphabet and fixed spaces are employed.
The "meanings" of the poems
were said to be contained in the "systems" and to "presuppose
the systems." Since the "concretions" were "systematic
in themselves and related only to themselves, their position on
the page [was] left to chance." The text constructed from
the letter "e" was said to be:
a concretion showing all possible transportations of four units . . . built with the letter e. the units consist of one, two, three or four letters. the first twelve transpositions read from left to right top to bottom, mirror the second twelve, read from right to left bottom to top.
Emmett Williams has made a variety
of experiments. Our small selection cannot begin to do justice
to his originality and versatility. His works include "universal
poems" made with rubber stamps by spectators in the gallery,
a "poetry clock," and a "cellar song for five voices"
made of five phrases which operate within a system of 120 permutations:
first voice: somewhere
During the course of operations the
bluebirds and the blackbirds exchange places. "cellar song
for five voices" is both a typesetter's and a performer's
nightmare, but it emerges visually as a beautiful typographical
design entirely organic to the progression of thought within the
poem, and it is meant to be performed. It is reported that during
its first performance in the Living Theater in New York, the performers
became so confused trying to keep the permutations straight they
started to giggle; and the director, Jackson Mac Low, had to stop
the performance and begin all over again.
The poem "do you remember"
operates within a less complex system. The poet's explanation
of it appears in the WORD GLOSS. It was "'translated' into
a beautiful 6-color, 24-foot long collage" by Alison
Knowles, to whom it is dedicated.
In the long kinetic book SWEETHEARTS,
one of the most remarkable achievements in concrete poetry to
date, Emmett Williams shows us how much can be said with one word
of eleven letters within the play activity made possible by a
We are able to present only a short
sequence. The poet's explanatory notes reveal a great deal about
the structural and textural characteristics of this erotic poem cycle derive from the 11 letters of the word sweethearts. unluckily for the poet 3 or these 11 letters are es and 2 others occur twice so that there are only 7 different ones for word building. from these letters are extracted all the words that make the poem. the position of each letter on the page is determined by its place in the word sweethearts. no single poem can be more than 11 letters wide or 11 letters deep. in addition to the word poems there are kinetic metaphors also constructed from the 11 letters of sweethearts.
The cinematic organizational principle
of the book, which is to be read back to front, contributes greatly
to the succession of surprises of which the poem consists:
these sections can be animated by flipping the pages fast enough to achieve a primitive cinematic effect. the words and the kinetic visual metaphors work hand in hand to express what the poem is all about. the author feels that this fusion is best achieved by beginning the book where in the west books traditionally end.
To read a book backwards is a renewing
experience. But above and beyond this SWEETHEARTS is Iyrical,
metaphorical, witty, thoroughly delightful. It was interpreted
typographically by Hansjörg Mayer.
Emmett Williams is also the editor
of the large hard-cover: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONCRETE POETRY,
recently published by the Something Else Press, New York.
Three other American poets working
as part of the international movement--another Williams, Jonathan,
publisher of Jargon books, Ronald Johnson, and myself--also became
aware of concrete poetry through European contacts, specifically
Ian Hamilton Finlay. Jonathan Williams' "The Crooked Cake
of Leo Cesspooch; or How I Survived Bucolic Plague & Came
unto Concrete" is the closest thing we have to date to an
American manifesto. Jonathan Williams states that he began corresponding
with Ian Hamilton Finlay in 1960 and began writing in the concrete
manner in 1962 during a hike through the Lake District with Ronald
Johnson. He had previously been associated with Projective Verse
as the result of his having attended Black Mountain College.
Jonathan Williams is fascinated by
the kind of word play that allows the poet to make new words from
old, to substitute new words for expected old words, or to find
words within words, as in "From Colonel Bert Brecht's Alabama
Song Bag", "Be My Bloody Valentine", and "news
from other small worlds". He likes to make poems from whatever
is at hand in the world around him, whether it is segregationist
signs for public facilities--"black only white only"--or
the tiny miracle the "instant". The Civil Rights poems
protesting the tragic brutalities of the attempts to keep dead
Jim Crow attitudes towards the American Negro alive are as savagely
humorous and damning as the brief "instant" of words
is delicate and Iyrical. Jonathan Williams along with Emmett Williams
signed Garnier's POSITION I DU MOUVEMENT INTERNATIONAL.
Ronald Johnson sees "The Round
Earth on Flat Paper." His influences have been:
Samuel Palmer: his "thirty-three moons and vast flaming suns but never a cast shadow," the curved arrows on black and yellow road signs, both Thoreau's square yard of earth and Agassiz's fish, and Charles Olson, Ian Finlay and the typewriter.
Although the typewriter is essential
to his work in the more traditional modes, his impetus towards
concretization is calligraphic:
As I am unable to think except on the typewriter, my poems have been, from the beginning, all 8 1/2" X 11". This is not only misunderstood by the printers, it is ignored. And if one should happen to bring it to their attention they say--do it yourself. So I have. I have begun to make my own letters and to think in ink. Besides 8 1/2" X 11" is too small, or too large, or the wrong shape for a barn, an ant, or the sun above them.
The letters of both "eyelevel"
and MAZE, MANE, WANE were made by the poet himself. The latter
"is a maze mostly," the poet writes, because:
one tends to read left to right at first & it makes no sense. Then one sees the vertical words: MAZE, MANE, WANE & thinks, trapped as I planned, to read it that way. But the way out of the maze is a visual one & one sees at last that it is simply three words MAZE (since the M's & W are made exactly alike, as are the Z & N's, so that the W is simply an upside down M, etc.) So it is actually the word maze making itself into one. And as an added delight, there are the handsome words MAZE, MANE, WANE.
What delights Johnson about the new
poetry that suddenly we can see the poem:
Till recently, poetry, like prose, has been invisible. We can now make a line of poetry as visible as a row of trees. We may see, not through, but with the letters. (The 't' leaves. An 'r' branches. The 'e's' have annual rings. Beloqv, the snake believes it is an 's'.) It is a magical world where all is possible. And placed properly on the page an 'I' can not merely resemble but have all the structural capabilities of an I-beam. An 'O' can rise, like the real moon, over the word 'moon'.... One could spend a lifetime writing with just the 26 letters of the alphabet.
"Most people," he goes on
to say, "think of concrete poetry as an art of exclusion,
but this is only true in that the poet is seeing the world in
a grain of sand. The preceding 'period' is the grain of sand?
It is the poet's business to make us believe it."
William Carlos Williams objected to
the metrical line on the grounds that it couldn't accommodate
the rhythms of the American speech idiom and that it forced the
poet to use words he didn't need just to fill in the pattern.
The word the poet doesn't need isn't poetry. Pattern, of some
kind is essential to poetry, he claimed, but it should be structural,
organic to the poet's thoughts and feelings, not superimposed
from the outside. Furthermore he said that the "spaces
between the words" must now be taken into account as
part of the measure. When I insisted that William Carlos Williams
had brought space into his measure as a "variable foot,"
no one was convinced. "Space can't be a foot," they
would argue. I now agree with them. It can be a great deal more.
But I was convinced Williams had used space as pause, somehow,
in his later poems; he insisted there was structural pattern in
his poetry; so it behooved me to find out what kind.
I devised a system with the help of
linguistics for transcribing the patterns of William Carlos Williams'
speech as he read his poems on records or tapes. When I started
to translate the symbols back into words, I found a patterned
use of pause (space) in the late step-down line poems and
semantic serial patterns running vertically through all the poems--
embryonic poems within the larger structure. These serial patterns
were made up, for the most part, of single words and simple grammatical
structures. There was a good deal of word repetition, and the
grammatical elements which grouped themselves together tended
to be of the same construction. It was these interacting serial
patterns that held Williams' poems together structurally; and
in the late poems he was able to bring space (pause) into the
structure as a formal element. The horizontal "line"
or "measure" was simply a timing device based upon the
isochronic speech accents inherited from Anglo-Saxon, which
are spaced wider apart than metrical stresses. This meant that
William Carlos Williams could accommodate more speech rhythms
in his line; and the lack of set metrical pattern eliminated the
necessity for padding. When I tried to analyze traditional metrical
poems using my own speech, I found essentially the same things.
There was less pattern where pause was concerned, there were more
so-called iambic patterns, the rhythmic units were shorter
for the most part, but there were the same kinds of semantic serial
patterns running vertically through the poem made up of single,
often repeated, words and simple, often parallel, grammatical
constructions. I now believe that William Carlos Williams carried
the stress line as far as it can go. The next step is prose or
a new concept of structural organization. Projective Verse substituted
a breath line for the stress line and kept much of the old grammatical
baggage. What did concrete poetry do?
As I see it, concrete poetry as defined
by Gomringer, Fahlstrom, and the Noigandres group, Augusto
and Haroldo de Campos and Pignatari, keeps the three essential
elements of poetry: pattern, semantic serial structure, and the
net of interacting linguistic relations--reticulation or "play-activity,"
as Gomringer defined it. The innate serial organization of poetic
thought is given form in "constellations" or "ideograms"
whose "meter" ( or framework ) is space, structurally
accommodated space. The play-activity of linguistic elements
operates within this controlled spatial area. Belloli has been
able to organize semantic serial patterns by means of a structural
use of typography. In "cristal fome" and "fala
prata cala ouro" by Haroldo de Campos, the serial patterns
achieve form in a manner remarkably close to idiomatic speech
structure. The kinship the Noigandres poets felt with the
serial compositions of Webern, as in our cover poem, was central
to their endeavors and not "inspiration."
I was having a great deal of trouble
with my own poetry when I found the serial patterns in the poems
of William Carlos Williams and in traditional poems. But it didn't
occur to me, as it occurred to Gomringer and the Brazilians, to
get rid of the line, which never seemed to want to stay where
I put it. It didn't occur to me either that I could get rid of
the too-many words that were glutting the lines of my poems
by isolating essential serial structures. But one day in March
of 1963, I wanted to write a poem about some yellow crocuses blooming
outside my window in the snow. I had been trying to read the Portuguese
anthology of Brazilian concrete poetry, POESIA CONCRETA, with
the aid of a dictionary. (Ian Hamilton Finlay had introduced me
to Brazilian concrete poetry when I visited him in Edinburgh the
preceding August.) I had probably read the "Pilot Plan,"
but I didn't begin to understand it. I began to make a poem from
words beginning with the letters of YELLOW CROCUS. When I had
finished the first series of words, another series seemed to want
to be made from words beginning with the final letters of the
words I had made from YELLOW CROCUS. Also the form seemed to want
to be circular, moving out from center, so I found myself turning
the page around and around. When I had finished, the serial order
of the words and the page turning round and round seemed important
to me; also I felt that making my own letters and from them a
visual object had brought me closer to words than I had ever been
before. But I knew immediately there was something wrong with
the poem. The circular form moving out from center had nothing
to do with the way crocuses grow, and the words were not closely
enough related to each other. It occurred to me, though, that
the form I had just made was suitable for a poem about a rose,
for the rose grows in circles out from center. So I wrote a poem
called WHITE ROSE, which I sent to Finlay. To my surprise he printed
it in POOR OLD TIRED HORSE. I went on to make a book of flower
poems in which I attempted to relate the word as object to the
object to which it refers by studying the law of growth of the
flower and making a visual equivalent. If there was a text, I
used the serial method based on the letters in the name of the
flower. When the text could not be incorporated within the visual
pattern, I made two poems: a serial text and a visual object.
There were some one-word poems, and in two instances I found
an identity between the form of the letter and the form of the
flower. The poems were primarily expressionistic, but I felt the
need for a formal system inherent in the words.
FORSYTHIA, made from the letters of
the word and their equivalents in the Morse Code, is one of these
poems. When John Dearstyne was able to make typographical versions
of all but one of the calligraphic originals ( "DOGWOOD"
), I knew I would have to face up to the problem of typography.
There is no doubt in my mind that I feel closer to words when
I make my own letters, but the machine makes them so much better.
Unless, like Ronald Johnson, the poet is a good enough calligrapher
to compete with printed letters, I think he should give up calligraphy.
Occasionally, as in "bleiben" by Gerhard Rühm and
in the "calligrams" of Julio Campal, the gesture of
writing with the human hand is of semantic significance and entirely
"moonshot sonnet" was made
from the scientists' markings on the first photos of the moon.
I noticed that by simply copying these symbols I could make a
visual sonnet. No one has been able to write a sonnet to the moon
since the Renaissance, and I could not do it unless I was willing
to incorporate its new scientific content. The moon has become
a different object.
The sonnet was a supra-national,
supra-lingual form like the concrete poem. "moonshot
sonnet" is both a spoof of old forms and a statement about
the necessity for new ones.
The pure concrete poems we have looked
at would seem to have proved Gomringer's thesis that reduced language
reveals man as a sane, rational being. This is a poetry primarily
of nouns, as though man now has the need to say the unqualified
names of things over and over again to restore life to words and
actuality to objects. The other parts of speech and simple grammatical
constructions are used with the utmost care and economy. In "animals
yes animals", Dick Higgins illustrates the point in a different
way. Using most of the parts of speech, one interrogative sentence,
and prepositional and participial phrases, he shows us that by
adding a minimum of grammatical construction man can be revealed
as an irrational if not insane animal.
"animals yes animals" meets
Gomringer's overall requirements for the constellation. First
of all it states a thesis at the beginning, which is joined by
the middle and the end of the poem: "animals yes animals/
wi th ba by y c a rriag es/ hot anima is." Its antithesis
is a question, the one grammatical sentence in the poem: "how
come animals." "animals yes animals" and "how
come animals" are counterpointed against each other here
and there throughout the poem. The rest of the poem develops the
thesis and antithesis. It shows man behaving as an irrational
animal. And since he behaves like one, that's "how come"
he is one. Man's tools and machines are identified with his animal
nature. "Winches" could easily be a slightly wrong pronunciation
of "wenches"; "toots" could easily be read
also as "toots," the somewhat derogatory slang word
for a girl, echoing also, in some contexts, "tits";
"animals animals observing drills" suggests the herd,
and the animals also climb drills. Their "car riages"
carry baby animals. Clothes serve either to reveal the animal
(bikinis) or to hide it by dressing it up ("elegant"
animals). Newspapers do nothing but describe man's animal nature.
But there are some higher-thananimal achievements. The animals
have made stamp collections, to save something of value from their
communications, and light bulbs (but the word breaks down: "bu
lbs" to suggest "boo"--they are afraid of the light).
The man in the animal hears the "tick sock" of his time
running out, and he is moved in some kind of direction by tugboats
pulling him along.
In addition to its thesis-antithesis
thought organization, "animals yes animals" meets Gomringer's
requirement that the long concrete poem must be organized in a
manner resembling traditional poetry so that it can be read without difficulty
in the way in which we are accustomed to read poems. "animals
yes animals" proceeds in spatially-punctuated unheroic
"couplets." But it adds a spatial (graphic) dimension
taken over from the shorter visual concrete poem. As the number
of spaces within the line and the number of words decreases while
the word play gradually reduces man from an animal with a "baby
car riage" (suggesting "rage") to a baby animal
babbling in a baby carriage, space intrudes more and more into
the poem until the baby animal says "by y" ("be"
/"bye"), and there is nothing but space left at the
center of the poem. Having been abandoned in space, the baby animal
man speaks at the beginning of the second half of the poem in
senseless broken down sounds of the word "carriages."
"rriag" is almost "rage." The poem begins
to push itself back into space with a restatement of the thesis-antithesis:
"animals how come animals" followed by an acceleration
of pace, accomplished for the most part by breaking apart the
words at the ends of the lines and by an increase in the number
of short interjections. As the result of this acceleration to
fill in page space and let more space back into the poem, "tick
sock" begins to fall apart, isolating the hard sound of the
word for time and at the same time increasing its hollow sound.
The fractured state of language in the second part of the poem
and the accompanying acceleration in speed suggest that if this
should go on indefinitely, the poem (and the animals) would eventually
be catapulted into madness. But the poem stops. The word "cheers"
is brought in to replace "toots" at the end of the poem:
"animals ea tiny cheers shoo skat animals wow hot anima [ted]
is." The only thing that brings them to life (animation)
is lust. The space of the page has, then, been used semantically.
Within the poem, space serves as punctuation creating semantic-syntactic
structures. This process creates also highly accentuated, accelerating-decelerating
rhythms. A riot of linguistic play-activity goes on within
the horizontal spatially-organized visual structure, which
bears some resemblance to couplets and stanzas.
The irrationality in "animals
yes animals" is kept under control by still more formal conventions
we have learned to associate with the constellation and the ideogram:
repetition and serial composition. There are seven serial structures
running through this poem; and when one examines them, its meaning
as realized in its structure becomes clearer. The serial patterns
are organized as follows:
(1) The repeated noun "animals." This is the most obvious constant, but it is varied on occasion by repeating the word more quickly: "animals animals" or "animals animals animals."
It should be noted that in the first
section of the poem often the "lines" end in semantic-syntactic
pairs and in nonsense, when it's apt. In the second section, in
which the language seems to be breaking apart, semantic combinations
at the ends of lines are less frequent.
In "animals yes animals"
Higgins has enlarged the possibilities of the long constellation
by showing us that the long serially-structured poem need
not be restricted to a long straight line of variations within
one grammatical pattern. Using space semantically, as is done
in shorter concrete poems, he has at the same time shown us that
by employing concrete methods of word repetition and serial composition
in relation to a wider variety of grammatical elements, a complex
subject can be handled concretely. The result is, of course, a
more rhythmic and complex play-activity which reintroduces
some of the rhythmic elements and complexity of the traditionally-structured
poem. The short concrete poem has achieved simplification and
clarification of language, but it isn't likely that the poem will
rest entirely content in this rarefied zone. Gomringer has insisted
that the concrete poem is capable of accommodating content of
equal significance to the traditional poem. In some of his latest
work he seems also to be returning to more complex syntacticalgrammatical
Dick Higgins was born in England,
but he has lived in the United States since 1958. He is the publisher
of Emmett Williams' AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONCRETE POETRY and other
avant-garde works (Something Else Press).
Aram Saroyan, who is the son of William
Saroyan, places the word in the most literally autonomous position
of all the poets in this selection. He depends while working completely
on the typewriter and the word. His "obsolete red-top
Royal Portable," he states, "is the biggest influence
on my work." If its typeface, "standard pica,"
were different, he believes that he would write " ( subtly
) different poems." He is "sure" that when the
"ribbon gets dull', his poems "change." The remarks
below indicate that Saroyan takes the McLuhan approach to the
word: "the medium is the massage":
I began as a "regular" poet, imitating effects I liked in Creeley, Ashbery, everybody. Then one night by accident I typed eyeye. I didn't know what it was. Someone else saw it and said--yes! That was about two years ago. For a year after that I did plenty of visual poems. But differently than the concrete poets....
Also Saroyan's statement that his
typewriter is his strongest influence raises interesting questions.
Does this mean that his poems should be presented as typewriter
poems? Which is truer, the beautiful typographical version of
"crickets" made by Gregory Hull at the Bath School
of Art under the direction of Hansjörg Mayer or the typewriter
version made by the poet? The typographical artist was able to
show us more clearly the geometrical visual structure Saroyan
put in his poem, which is more difficult to see in the columnar
typewriter arrangement. The reader, the individual poet, will
have to decide for himself, but the typewriter poet seems to be
in much the same position as the calligraphic poet. Can he really
compete with the resources of typography unless he is making a
work of art on the typewriter like Kolar, Valoch, the Garniers,
or Houédard? What is suggested by the two versions of "crickets"
is that the presentation medium is the message as well as the
word, that there is poetry to be made from it. The artist typographer
can't make a good visual poem out of a poor visual-linguistic
conception, but he can interpret a good visual poem as a pianist
interprets a musical score, perhaps better than the composer.
This is probably the most basic problem the visual poet must come
to terms with, for questions of artistic integrity are involved.
Carl Fernbach-Flarsheim is the
most experimental of the American poets in this selection. He
does not consider himself a concrete poet in the strict definition
of the term. He seems to be interested in bringing into the poem
materials and methods made available by technology in both visual
and phonetic poetry. In the catalogue for an exhibition at the
Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, THE ARTS IN FUSION, organized,
I believe, by Flarsheim, it was stated that "such works as
Flarsheim's conceptual clouds, Rot's ideograms, and Flynt's concept-art
point the way," perhaps, "for an eventual fusion of
the arts and sciences." "PØEM 1' is one of two
"poems for creative and non-creative computers."
Flarsheim refers to them as "programs for computer"
since they are not "computer generated." "I am
not particularly interested in computer activity, the poet writes:
the program, since it is written in Fortran, is quite interesting in itself. So far as I am concerned, it could be considered a poem since it is strongly structured due to the inflexibility of the language....
There is a kinship in Flarsheim's
"Saturday, August 27" with William Carlos Williams'
method of jotting down notes and samples of actual speech on prescription
slips, the backs of envelopes, appointments calendars, etc., which
he would often later incorporate into poems. Flarsheim goes one
step farther by bringing the calendar page itself into the poem
as part of its material, so that we are made aware of the relationship
of particular things to particular events in particular time.
Considering what is written upon it, the calendar page is more
important than any other piece of paper with words written or
printed on it on the poet's desk on Saturday, August 27; for when
the scientist finds it necessary to make a revision of the rules,
so does the poet.
The "Mirror Field" is created
by predominately large letters which reverse themselves in pattern
groups. The same kind of "mirroring" can also be found
within the "Random Field" of predominately small letters.