- Concrete Poetry: An International AnthologyOur PickBy Stephen Bann
- The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st CenturyBy Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe
- Mary Ellen Solt: Toward a Theory of Concrete PoetryBy Sergio Antonio Bessa
- Reading Visual PoetryBy Willard Bohn
- Designed Words for a Designed World: The International Concrete Poetry Movement, 1955-1971By Jamie Hilder
- Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New CenturyBy Marjorie Perloff
- Earthquakes and Explorations: Language and Painting between Cubism and Concrete PoetryBy Stephen Scobie
- Concrete Poetry: A World ViewOur PickBy Mary Ellen Solt
- Border Blurs: Concrete Poetry in England and ScotlandBy Greg Thomas
- An Anthology of Concrete PoetryOur PickBy Emmett Williams
Important Art and Artists of Concrete Poetry
Eugen Gomringer's "Silencio" is perhaps the quintessential example of Concrete Poetry in its early or classical guise, its semantic minimalism and elementary visual form strongly informed by the aesthetics of Concrete Art. A frame formed from the title word repeated fourteen times - subtly alluding to the fourteen lines of a sonnet - the poem shapes a blank central space which comes, by implication, to stand for the quality of "silence" evoked by the language. Though the effect is realized on an ostentatiously small scale, the interaction of visual and linguistic form in this poem is foundational to the stylistic aims of early Concrete Poetry as a whole. The visual space would not evoke "silence" were it not for the hint provided by the words while the words seem somehow infused with the ambient effect of the visual form.
"Silencio" was published in 1953 in Gomringer first collection of Concrete Poetry, entitled Konstellationen in reference to Stéphane Mallarmé's descriptions of his poems as "constellations". A Bolivian-born Swiss poet, in his youth Gomringer had written poems in a range of styles, including sonnets and Symbolist-influenced verse. The influence of Concrete Art on the new, visual style of poetry Gomringer began to develop in 1952 is neatly signified by his employment from 1953 onwards as secretary to the Concrete Artist Max Bill at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, a post-war hub of Constructivist and post-Bauhaus aesthetics. At the same time, there are other creative contexts to mention in relation to Gomringer's poem. John Cage's 'silent' composition, 4'33", was first performed the previous year. In fact, in responding to the theme of silence through literature Gomringer was ruminating on the limits of subjective expression the same way as artists across a range of media.
There was, moreover, a political subtext to this preoccupation with silence which can be emphasized by comparing Gomringer's withdrawal from linguistic expression with the idiosyncratic, elusive poetry of the Romanian-born German writer Paul Celan, a survivor of the Holocaust. For both poets - though with a far more urgent basis in reality in Celan's case - eschewing a language of personal communication was partly a way of alluding to traumas so profound that they could not be expressed. The poet and critic Steve McCaffery has written about the related connotations of political silence in Gomringer's poem: a general unwillingness within post-war Western, and particularly German, culture to confront the brutality of its recent past.
Augusto de Campos's poem "Sem Um Numero" ("Without a Number" in Portuguese) consists of a twisting shape formed from several permutations of the title phrase, spelled out in sans serif, International Style type. The phrase gradually contracts as the lines shift down and inwards. On the fourth line, the only remaining word, "numero", is replaced with "zero", which is recreated as a numerical symbol, 0, at the center of the page. Beyond this point the lines start to expand, but into a different phrase, "Um Sem Numero" ("numberless"). As with much of the Noigandres poets' early work, one phrase evolves into another which, though grammatically and phonetically similar, has a very different meaning, with the zero symbol at the center of the page standing by implication both for absence and for the idea of infinity as numberlessness.
Augusto de Campos was one of the three founding members of the Noigandres poetry group established in São Paulo in 1952, along with his brother Haroldo de Campos and their friend Décio Pignatari. The Noigandres very earliest Concrete Poems were similar in import to Gomringer's, focusing on linguistic reduction and elementary visual arrangement, but from an early stage they were more concerned than Gomringer with incorporating wordplay and double meanings into their poetry. By the late 1950s this had developed into an interest in tackling political, social, and cultural themes, often using minute shifts in grammatical form to exact radical shifts in meaning which relayed polemical messages.
In this case, as the critic Willard Bohn has pointed out, the phrase "Without a Number" is not simply an evocation of an abstract quality of unknowability, but a reference to the social and cultural exclusion of much of Brazil's rural, peasant population from national society. In particular, they had been left out of a recent government census and were thus excluded from welfare programs. In this context, the phrase "Numberless" comes to refer to the size of this dispossessed population. Over the coming years, the Noigandres' work would become more and more politically engaged and responsive to pop culture, culminating in Augusto's case with his "Popcrete" poems of the early 1960s.
In this poem by a founding member of the Noigandres group, the phrase "Bebe Coca Cola" (Portuguese for "Drink Coca Cola") mutates over several lines to produce a set of ironic and subversive variations on that imperative. Separated from its partner word "Coca", the word "Cola", isolated on the second line, translates as "glue", while the other amputated section of the brand-name, "Coca", comes to refer to a different kind of stimulant, cocaine. These reworkings of an incessantly repeated marketing slogan suggest the insidious power of advertising culture, while on the following lines, "babe" and "caco" - "drool" and "shard" - offer further references to addiction and degradation. On the closing line, the word "cloaca", roughly translatable as "waste", "rubbish dump", or "cesspool", offers a forcefully grim closing image, emphasized by the space surrounding it. The coloring of the poem, in the red and white of the Coca Cola brand, adds to the overall quality of deadpan satire.
Décio Pignatari's critique of North American advertising culture may partly reflect his own training as an advertising designer. More generally, it is indicative of a shift in the compositional and thematic approach of the Noigandres poets during the late 1950s, which was also responsible for inspiring Augusto de Campos's "Sem um Numero". As in that poem, minute shifts in grammatical form generate radical shifts in connotation - as in the "bebe"/"babe" contrast (from "drink" to "drool") - while the absence of a first-person narrative voice (an "I") means that the poem avoids the quality of dogma or self-righteousness, making the political message more striking and convincing.
The broader cultural context for the composition of this poem is the expansion of North American companies into Latin American consumer markets in the decades following World War II, a process which the hugely successful Coca Cola brand came to embody. As the only major Western power to emerge from the war with its economy in good shape, the US was able to consolidate its economic and cultural domination over many other parts of the world during this period. In the late 1960s, Décio Pignatari would translate the work of communication theorist Marshall McLuhan - who had offered critiques of the hypnotic power of advertising culture during the early 1960s - into Portuguese, showing his ongoing engagement with themes of consumerism and North American cultural imperialism.