Artworks 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, 4'11'', 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.
Sem Um Numero (1957)
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.
Bebe Coca Cola (1957)
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.
Pik Bou (1966)
Writing about this poem in Emmett Williams's 1967 Anthology of Concrete Poetry, the French poet Pierre Garnier noted that it was based on the regional dialect of his native Picardy region, in particular the local term for "Green Woodpecker", "Pik Bou", or "Pivert" in French. Set inside a circular frame, variants of the onomatopoeic title word - meaning that the word mimics the sound of the thing it refers to - skip in uneven lines down the page: "ik pik epeke pik epe/pik bou pik bou pik bou pi". As in many early Concrete Poems, the visual form has no direct symbolic relation to the semantic theme of the poem. For Garnier, visual composition was often used in an Expressionistic or, as he put it, "Spatialist" way to complement the phonetic and subliminal meanings of the words.
Pierre Garnier was born in Picardy, a region of North-Eastern France roughly demarcated by Paris and the English Channel, in 1928. He was one of the first poets outside of Concrete Poetry's initial hubs in Germany and Brazil to both respond to and substantially develop the idiom of the movement. He had produced poetry across a range of styles during the 1950s but in 1962 he composed his "Manifeste pour une Poésie Nouvelle, Visuelle et Phonetique" ("Manifesto for a New, Visual and Phonetic Poetry") signifying a shift in his style of work. In 1963 he circulated a statement entitled (in English translation) "Position 1 of International for Spatialist Poetries" to his new contacts in the international Concrete Poetry movement. This statement aimed to collate recent developments in Concrete, Visual, and Sound poetries worldwide. By the time it appeared in the journal Les Lettres the following year it had gained 25 signatories, from Germany, Austria, England, Belgium, Brazil, Scotland, Finland, France, Holland, Japan, Portugal, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, and the United States.
Garnier's own work, often created in collaboration with his partner Isle Garnier, was unique. His expressionistic arrangements of language-forms were quite distinct from the geometrical patterning of the first German and Brazilian Concrete Poems. Garnier was also interested in how Concrete Poetry could be used to preserve regional and historical dialects, by employing the kind of playful, onomatopoeic words that those dialects tended to preserve. Writing about "Pik Bou" in Williams's anthology, he noted: "[i]n general, dialects, old languages which live despite bureaucratization, have retained important concrete reserves, while the so-called national languages have developed an abstract vocabulary." For Garnier, then, as for the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan and the so-called Vienna Group of Austrian Concrete Poets, Concrete Poetry was an art of regional self-definition as much as global interaction.
Kawa mata wa Shū (1966)
This beautiful 1966 work by the Japanese Concrete Poet Seiichi Niikuni, generally translated as "River/Sandbank", offers a minimal visual representation of the landscape evoked by the two "ideographs" - written symbols that represent an object or idea directly rather than, or as well as, standing in for a sound - used to create it. The top-left half of the square frame is formed from repetitions of the symbol for "River", while the bottom-right section is formed by the similar but more closely striated symbol for "Sandbank". These two interlocking triangles, together with the hint provided by their semantic meaning, represent a river rushing past a precisely hewn bank of sand, the aligned strokes which comprise each symbol enhancing the overall impression of rushing water. In fact, the piece can be seen to visually represent what it describes in two ways: both as an overall visual form and through the pictorial function of each individual ideograph. Like many East-Asian writing systems, the Kanji language system - a Japanese writing system based on Chinese - has visible roots in pictography: writing systems which relay their objects through visual representation.
Born in 1925 in Sendai, in the north of Japan's central island of Honshu, Seiichi Nikuni was a leading member of several avant-garde poetry groupings in his home city before turning to Concrete techniques after moving to Tokyo in 1962. In 1963 he published a collection of visual poems called Zero-On, and in 1964 he co-founded a group called ASA (Association for the Study of Art) with the aim of exploring Concrete techniques and introducing the work of the international Concrete Poetry movement. The group magazine, ASA, published poems by Haroldo de Campos in Japanese, and Niikuni's contacts through the group eventually brought him to the attention of Pierre Garnier. The result of this encounter was the collaborative 1966 collection Poèmes Franco-Japonais ("Franco-Japanese Poems") for which "River/Sandbank" served as the cover poem. The Franco-Japanese poems consist of chunks of text formed from repeated Kanji symbols, arranged into interlocking and overlapping shapes on the page, often through the Expressionistic cutting and collaging of strips of paper.
It is unsurprising that a vibrant Concrete Poetry movement developed in Japan, given the propensity of the Kanji language to visual expression. There was a long history in Modernism and Modern Art of taking the Chinese writing system as a point of inspiration for literary and artistic experiment. The North-American modernist poet Ezra Pound was strongly influenced by the linguist Ernest Fenollosa's famous study The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (translated by Pound in 1936), which held, not entirely correctly, that Chinese writing provided a "vivid shorthand picture" of the objects to which it referred. In producing Concrete Poems using an ideographic writing system adapted from Chinese, Niikuni was thus responding to an established cross-continental tradition.
In this poem, Mary Ellen Solt arranges an anagrammatic poem in the shape of the flower to which it refers. It is one of a whole collection of such poems entitled Flowers in Concrete, published by 1966, which bring a unique range of influences and thematic associations to the Concrete Poetry movement. Solt's poem is notable for its linguistic and lyrical skill and subtlety as compared to the work of many of her peers in the Concrete movement, and for its concern with nature and the subtleties of personal emotion rather than with abstract concepts or qualities.
Mary Ellen Solt was one of the most talented poets associated with the Concrete Poetry movement, and one of the few women poets or artists who engaged with it. Born in 1920 in Iowa in the United States, she moved in 1955 moved to Bloomington when her husband Leo gained a job as a history lecturer at the University of Indiana. This indirect connection to the University allowed her to attend the prestigious School of Letters summer school in 1958, through which she established a correspondence with the famous American modernist poet William Carlos Williams, becoming both his friend and a perceptive critic of his work. This, along with her ongoing connection to Indiana University, allowed her to develop her own work as a poet and critic over the following decade. Flowers in Concrete was published by Indiana's fine art department in 1966, perhaps as a result of which, she was invited to guest-edit an issue of the Spanish language art journal Artes Hispanicas on the Concrete Poetry movement. This became the highly influential anthology Concrete Poetry: A Worldview, republished as a stand-alone book in 1970, which included Solt's still-definitive, country-by-country introduction to the movement.
Solt had initially turned to the visual arrangement of language-forms in her poetry out of a concern, influenced by William Carlos Williams, with using the visual arrangement of words to map the rhythms of speech, particularly regional and non-standard variants of spoken English. In her 1983 article "William Carlos Williams: The American Idiom" she referred to Concrete Poetry as "part of the legacy [Williams] left". Though this presents an Anglocentric view on Concrete Poetry as an international art movement, there is no doubt that Solt, along with the Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, was amongst the most talented poets who embraced Concrete Poetry as a way of mapping the music of spoken language.
The Present Order is the Disorder of the Future - Saint Just (1983)
This striking poem-sculpture, installed in Ian Hamilton Finlay's poetry garden, Little Sparta, in the Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh, is a monument both to Finlay's own singular artistic vision and to the grandest ambitions of the Concrete Poetry movement. A phrase from the French Revolutionary Louis Antoine de Saint Just is inscribed into a set of enormous stone slabs set into a rising fold of land at the rear of the garden, framing a view of the loch which Finlay had himself dug out during the late 1960s, and the heather-strewn hills beyond. The statement is granted a sense of authority and gravitas through its inscription in stone, indicating the way in which the visual presentation of the Concrete Poem could enhance the quality and ambience of the linguistic message. The Present Order is one of a huge number of such works installed throughout Finlay's garden, forming a series of distinct environments or, as Finlay called them, "interiors", framed by trees, paths, and waterways. The work was first displayed at the Hayward Gallery's Sculpture Show in 1983, and versions have also been installed in the grounds of the Cartier Institute in Paris and in the Parc Güell in Barcelona.
Ian Hamilton Finlay had practiced as a painter and writer during the 1940s and 1950s but, like many of his compatriots in the international Concrete Poetry movement, he started creating work in a radically different style during the early 1960s. His first Concrete Poetry collection, Rapel, was published in 1963, inspired by the work of the Noigandres poets. Across the 1960s Finlay greatly developed the form of the poem-sculpture, creating linguistic works set in glass, wood, metal, and stone. In 1966 he moved to Stonypath Farmhouse (renamed Little Sparta as a rebuke to Edinburgh's reputation as "The Athens of the North") and began to convert the grounds into an interactive, walkthrough environment populated with poems inscribed on objects and surfaces of every kind: from gateposts to columns to stone birdbaths.
Finlay used Concrete Poetry's connotations of truthfulness and clarity to engage with the ideologies of revolutionary politics and Classicism which endorsed similar notions of purity. The use of a Saint Just quote in this poem is particularly instructive. Saint Just was a loyal follower of Robespierre, the most uncompromising of all the insurgents of the French Revolutions - it was Saint Just who in 1793 began to issue the decrees for executions and purges that came to characterize the period of Revolutionary history known as "The Terror", seen to signify the souring of its ideals. Finlay thus offers an uncompromising comment on the relationship between the aesthetic order signified by Concrete Poetry and the kinds of social order enforced through political extremism.
Etched granite slabs - Little Sparta Trust, Dunsyre, Edinburgh, Scotland