Concrete poems just are
In the digital 1990s, the innovations of concrete poetry are starting to make a new kind of sense
While a handful of contemporary designers have cited the influence of concrete poetry on their typographic thinking, for most the subject has, been, quite literally, a closed book. Few anthologies of even the acknowledged landmarks of the genre are currently in print. Never finally accepted by the literary mainstream, this once global though always semi-underground tendency had by the 1980s all but disappeared. In the digital 1990s, however, in the ‘rule’ –breaking page mutations of David Carson, the typographic riffing of Tomato, and the abstract electronic mark-making of Neville Brody’s Fuse, the concrete poets of an earlier generation have found a perhaps unexpected legacy. Thirty-year-old ‘verbicovisual’ experiments of the McLuhan era, painstakingly worked out at the typewriter or laboriously drawn by hand, are beginning, like the newly resurrected media prophet himself, to look prescient and timely again.
Some of the difficulty in staking a permanent place for concrete poetry in the cultural lexicon may have come from defining what it is. ‘Concrete poetry begins by being aware of graphic space as its structural agent, as the cosmos in which it moves,’ wrote one of its finest and most tireless British exponents, Dom Sylvester Houédard, in 1963. ‘A printed concrete poem is ambiguously both typographic-poetry and poetic-typography – not just a poem in this layout, but a poem that is its own type arrangement.’ But a concrete poem does not have to be linguistic, or even typographic at all; it can be made out of anything from a collection of right-angles to a pyramid of eyes, mouths and car headlights clipped from magazines. Lying somewhere ‘Between Poetry and Painting’ – as an influential 1965 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art was titled – it can, like painting, be either figurative or abstract. Put simply, it could be defined as a tendency for a ‘text’ of any kind to illustrate itself within that text. Put even more simply, as Houédard expressed it in the same article: ‘concrete poems just ARE’.
The production of concrete poetry reached its peak in the 1960s and early 1970s. The term was first used by the Swedish pop artists and poet Öyvind Fahlström in 1955 and almost simultaneously in Latin America by Augusto de Campos and in Europe by Eugen Gomringer and others. Many of the ideas outlined in concrete poetry manifestos draw on theories of Concrete Art as expressed by Theo van Doesburg, Jean Arp, Jan Tschichold, Max Bill and Max Bense. But such manifestos often use the term ‘concrete’ to mean ‘abstract’, in much the same way as Mondrian, within an overall quest for non-representation, occasionally produced paintings which are abstractions of something, for instance the late Broadway Boogie-woogie and unfinished Victory Boogie-woogie. For all its avant-garde attributes, in the practice of concrete poetry, the past is ever present.
While concrete poetry in its narrowest sense may appear to have emerged from nowhere in the mid-1950s, as with most artistic innovations it has an extensive prehistory. This prehistory stretches almost uninterrupted back to 1700 BC with the Phaistos Disc found in Crete, or to Egyptian hieroglyphs. Pre-concrete visual poetry is sometimes termed ‘pattern poetry’, especially in American sources.
Concrete poetry was initially disseminated by practitioners such as Houédard and Ian Hamilton Finlay by mail, and the volume of international correspondence of such figures is prodigious. The next stage was the publication of small-circulation magazines, totalling as many as 50, which were distributed internationally either on a commercial basis through specialist avant-garde art bookshops or on an exchanges basis among practitioners. Some of these magazines, for instance Cavan Macarthy’s Tlaloc, were originated by typewriter and produced by a duplicator (known as mimeographs in the US). The typewriter always played an important role in concrete poetry, some of its practitioners (such as Houédard) being highly skilled and innovative. Two anthologies of typewriter works were published, edited by Alan Riddell and Peer Finch, and an American concrete poetry magazine Typewriter was devoted solely to this form. At the other extreme was Rhinozeros, edited by the Dienst brothers in West Berlin and devoted to concrete poetry in calligraphy or handlettering.
Concrete poetry was distributed via small press magazines and exhibitions because the established literary presses of most demoncratic countries rarely paid it any attention except occasionally to vilefy it. This explains the lack of entries under the heading ‘concrete poetry’ in most reference books and why there is practically nothing on the subject to be found in bookshops, although over 20 anthologies of concrete poetry have been published in different countries. In Britain these were a long-running, intermittent and acrimonious dialogue between the proponents of concrete poetry and the traditionalists of the Poetry Society, which from time to time erupted into the national press. Concrete poetry’s development as an international phenomenon was better aided by the innumerable exhibitions including ‘Poesie Concreta’ at the 1969 Venice Biennale, the ‘Exposicion de Poesia novissima’ which opened in Buenos Aires in 1969 and subsequently toured South America, and ‘Concrete Poetry’ at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1970, which toured Europe. Art magazines have shown more interest in concrete poetry than literary ones, and Scottish artist and concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay has continued to exhibit in establishment art galleries and has received accolades in mainstream colour supplements. But Finlay is the exception.
Totalitarian regimes, left and right, tended to regard the writing of concrete poetry as an act of subversion for which artist-writers suffered opprobrium, house arrest or expulsion. Possibly this was part of a general proscription of avant-garde movements such as Surrealism, or perhaps concrete poetry was seen as an attack on the national language and culture or on language itself. Or was it simply that the censors failed to understand it and so decided to proscribe it just in case? It is likely that some of the same attitudes were held by the establishments in democratic countries, but with less dire consequences.
The effect of self-illustration in concrete poetry is achieved in a variety of ways, including the use of photographs or drawing and the arrangement of type. The categories I have outlined below, formulated originally in 1967 to analyse my large collection of word-images cut from advertisements, serve as means of understanding the basically parallel mechanisms at work in concrete poetry and as a conceptual programme for generating word-images. The terminology may sound rather flat, but in an attempt to be more clear and precise I have avoided apparently more learned but in fact more vague terms such as ‘image’.
Concrete poems have ingredients from signs, letter(s), number(s), picture(s) and colours. The enormous condensation of meaning present in the genre means that there are concrete poems which work at the level of a single letter. Ezra Pound stated ‘poetry = condensare = Dichtung’ (Dichtung is German for poetry, but also a pun in that dicht means dense). Concrete poetry is even more condensed than conventional poetry.
The range of media used by concrete poetry includes the typewriter, rubber stamps, stencils, handlettering, informal handwriting, rub-down lettering, collage, décollage, painting, drawing, photomontage, frottage, assemblage and other painterly and sculptural modes. The conceptual procedures involved are equally wide ranging and inventively syncretic, including the use of condensation, fragmentation, metonymy, onomatopoeia, palindrome, permutation, paronomasia, series, tautology and other rhetorical figures and tropes. Massin’s de luxe edition of Queneau’s Exercises de style (see Eye no.16 vol.4) is a wonderful source of the types of visual rhetoric also employed in the genre.
Concrete poetry extends to a much broader range of forms than one might expect. To many people, poetry connotes only books, magazines and perhaps postcards and posters, from the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann to the present poetry posters on London underground. While concrete poetry shares the use of the postcard and poster (exemplified by Ian Hamilton Finaly), it also developed into highly complex forms of artists’ books, for instance the elaborately folded books by Shohachiro Takahashi, as well as sculptural objects and kinetic sculpture. This is perhaps unsurprising since the peak in the production of concrete poetry coincide with the development of Conceptual Art, Pop Art, Op Art, minimalism, kinetic sculpture and that most democratic yet unpublic of art forms, mail art – all of these are reflected in concrete poetry. In 1965 Robert Brownjohn designed a brilliant series of television and cinema advertisements for the Midlan Bank called ‘Money ta£ks and Money wa£ks’: concrete poetry in motion.
Had personal computers been available to practitioners during the 1960s and early 1970s concrete poetry might have been even more widely disseminated. Most of the concrete poetry being produced today under that name is restricted to the traditional figurative pattern poem. While there are some signs of a wider reawakening of interest in the genre in a handful of literature and graphic design courses, the study of the subject is hampered by a lack of basic material in print. Re-publication is long overdue and the entire phenomenon of concrete poetry seems ready for reassessment. It may be that the best hopes for the development of the genre lie less in the traditional medium of print than in screen-based media where the condensation of meanings can be more fluidly accomplished, using digital, not graphic, space as their ‘structural agent’. At a time when television advertising routinely uses free-floating word shapes as an all-purpose linguistic confetti, the rigorous innovation of concrete poetry suggest ways in which a ‘poetic-typography’ might be applied by designers to more concentrated and thoughtful effect.
Bob Cobbing and Peter Mayer, Concerning Concrete Poetry, London: Writers Forum, 1978.
Dick Higgins, Pattern Poetry: Guide to an unknown Literature, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987.
Dom Sylvester Houédard, ‘Concrete Poetry and Ian Hamilton Finlay’ in Typographica new series no. 8, 1963, pp.47-62.
Peter Mayer, ‘Some Remarks Concerning the Classification of the Visual in Literature’ in Dada/Surrealism no.12, 1983 (‘Visual Poetics’), University of Iowa, pp. 5-13.
Kathleen McCullough, Concrete Poetry: an Annotated International Bibliography, Troy, NY: Whitston, 1989.
Mary Ellen Solt, ed., Artes Hispanicas/Hispanic Arts vol.I nos. 3 & 4, Winter/Spring 1968 (‘Concrete Poetry’), Macmillan for Indiana University.
Emmett Williams, ed., An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, New Tork: Something Else Press and Stuttgart: Edition Hansjörg Mayer, 1967.
Writers Forum have published concrete and visual poetry for many years. For a list, send a stamped address envelope to 89a Petherton Road, London n5 2QT.
First published in Eye no. 20 vol. 5 1996
Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.