From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"A roll of the dice will never abolish chance"--Mallarmé
"Iron and gold in the air, dust and smoke on the ground"--Lawrence Weiner
Fury said to a mouse, That he met in the house, "Let us both go to law: I will prosecute YOU. --Come, I'll take no denial; We must have a trial: For really this morning I've nothing to do." Said the mouse to the cur, "Such a trial, dear Sir, With no jury or judge, would be wasting our breath." "I'll be judge, I'll be jury," Said cunning old Fury: "I'll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death."'
--"The Mouse's Tale" (1865) by Lewis Carroll
--"Boem Paukeslag" (c. 1921) by Paul van Ostaijen
Concrete poetry is an arrangement of linguistic elements in which the typographical effect is more important in conveying meaning than verbal significance. It is sometimes referred to as visual poetry, a term that has now developed a distinct meaning of its own. Concrete poetry relates more to the visual than to the verbal arts although there is a considerable overlap in the kind of product to which it refers. Historically, however, concrete poetry has developed from a long tradition of shaped or patterned poems in which the words are arranged in such a way as to depict their subject.
Though the term ‘concrete poetry’ is modern, the idea of using letter arrangements to enhance the meaning of a poem is old. Such shaped poetry was popular in Greek Alexandria during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, although only the handful which were collected together in the Greek Anthology now survive. Examples include poems by Simmias of Rhodes in the shape of an egg, wings and a hatchet, as well as Theocritus’ pan-pipes.
The post-Classical revival of shaped poetry seems to begin with the Gerechtigkeitsspirale (spiral of justice), a relief carving of a poem at the pilgrimage church of St. Valentin in the German town of Hesse. The text is carved in the form of a spiral on the front of one of the church pews and is one of several decorative designs there created in 1510 by master carpenter Erhart Falckener.
The heyday of the revival of shaped poetry was in the Baroque period when poets, in the words of Jeremy Adler, "did away with the more-or-less arbitrary appearance of the text, turned the incidental fact of writing into an essential facet of composition, and thereby…created a union of poetry with the visual arts". There were already precedents for this in Micrography, a technique for creating visual images used by Hebrew artists, which involves organizing small arrangements of Biblical texts such that they form images which illustrate the subject of the text. Micrography allowed the creation of images of natural objects by Jews without directly breaking the prohibition of creating "graven images" that might be interpreted as idolatry. The technique is now used by both religious and secular artists and is similar to the use of Arabic texts in Islamic calligraphy.
Early religious examples of shaped poems in English include "Easter Wings" and "The Altar" in George Herbert's The Temple (1633) and Robert Herrick's "This crosstree here", which is set in the shape of a cross, from his Noble Numbers (1647). European secular examples include poems on the subject of drinking in the shape of wine flagons by Rabelais and Charles-François Panard (1750), supplemented by the elaborate goblet of Quirinus Moscherosch (1660) and the playful "A Toast" (Zdravljica, 1844) by France Prešeren, with stanzas in the shape of wine-glasses.
The approach reappeared at the start of the 20th century, initially in the Calligrammes (1918) of Guillaume Apollinaire, with poems in the shape of a necktie, a fountain and raindrops running down a window, among other examples. In that era also there were typographical experiments by members of avant-garde movements such as Futurism, Dada and Surrealism in which lay-out moved from an auxiliary expression of meaning to artistic primacy. Thus the significance of the sound poetry in Marinetti’s Zang Tumb Tumb (1912) is expressed through pictorial means. Similarly in Germany Raoul Hausmann claimed that the typographic style of his 'Phonemes' allowed the reader to recognise what sound was intended. In Russia the Futurist poet Vasily Kamensky went so far as to term the typography of his Tango with Cows, published in 1914, 'ferro-concrete poems' (zhelezobetonnye poemy), long before the name became current elsewhere.
A further move away from overt meaning occurred where 'poems' were simplified to a simple arrangement of the letters of the alphabet. Louis Aragon, for example, exhibited the sequence from a to z and titled it "Suicide" (1926), while Kurt Schwitters' "ZA (elementary)" has the alphabet in reverse, and the Catalan writer Josep Maria Junoy (1885-1955) placed just the letters Z and A at the top and bottom of the page under the title "Ars Poetica".
Post-war concrete poetry
During the early 1950s two Brazilian artistic groups producing severely abstract and impersonal work were joined by poets linked to the São Paulo magazine Noigandres who began to treat language in an equally abstract way. Their work was termed "concrete poetry" after they exhibited along with the artists in the National Exhibition of Concrete Art (1956/57). The poets included Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos and Décio Pignatari, who were joined in the exhibition by Ferreira Gullar, Ronaldo Azeredo and Wlademir Dias Pino from Rio de Janeiro. In 1958 a Brazilian concrete poetry manifesto was published and an anthology in 1962.
Dom Sylvester Houédard claimed that it was the 1962 publication in The Times Literary Supplement of a letter from the Portuguese E.M. de Melo e Castro that awakened British writers such as himself, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Edwin Morgan to the possibilities of Concrete Poetry. Similarly in Germany Eugen Gomringer published his manifesto vom vers zur konstellation (from line to constellation), in which he declared that a poem should be "a reality in itself" rather than a statement about reality, and "as easily understood as signs in airports and traffic signs". The difficulty in defining such a style is admitted by Houédard’s statement that "a printed concrete poem is ambiguously both typographic-poetry and poetic-typography".
Another difficulty of definition is caused by the way such works cross artistic boundaries into the areas of music and sculpture, or can alternatively be defined as sound poetry, visual poetry, found poetry and typewriter art. Henri Chopin's work was related to his musical treatment of the word. Kenelm Cox (1927–68) was a kinetic artist "interested in the linear, serial aspects of visual experience but particularly in the process of change," whose revolving machines transcended the static page in being able to express this. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s concrete poetry began on the page but then moved increasingly towards three dimensional figuration and afterwards to site-specific art in the creation of his sculpture garden at Little Sparta. The Italian Maurizio Nannucci's Dattilogrammmi experiments (1964/1965) were also transitional, preluding his move into light art.
Bob Cobbing, who was also a sound poet, had been experimenting with typewriter and duplicator since 1942. Of its possibilities in suggesting the physical dimension of the auditory process, he declared that "One can get the measure of a poem with the typewriter’s accurate left/right & up & down movements; but superimposition by means of stencil and duplicator enable one to dance to this measure." Houédard’s entirely different work was also produced principally on the typewriter but approximates more to painterly and sculptural procedures. So too does that of the American Minimalist artist Carl André, beginning from about 1958 and in parallel with his changing artistic procedures. And in Italy Adriano Spatola (1941–88) developed the artistic fragmentation of language using various visual techniques in his Zeroglifico (1965/6).
Edwin Morgan’s experiments with concrete poetry covered several other aspects of it, including elements of found poetry ‘discovered’ by misreading and isolating elements from printed sources. "Most people have probably had the experience of scanning a newspaper page quickly and taking a message from it quite different from the intended one. I began looking deliberately for such hidden messages…preferably with the visual or typographical element part of the point." Another aspect of the search for unintended concordances of meaning emerges in A Humument, the lifework of the visual artist Tom Phillips, who uses painterly and decorative procedures to isolate them on the page.
Despite such blurring of artistic boundaries, concrete poetry can be viewed as taking its place in a predominantly visual tradition stretching over more than two millennia that seeks to draw attention to the word in the space of the page, and to the spaces between words, as an aid to emphasising their significance. In recent years, this approach has led Mario Petrucci to suggest that the "extreme example" of concrete poetry can be seen as nested within the larger concept of Spatial Form. Starting from the observation that poetry can usually be told from prose simply by looking at it, this reading of Spatial Form encompasses the many aspects of subtle visual significance that are held, for instance, by typeface or in the textures of repeated letters, as well as the more overt visual signals generated by the poem’s layout.
As the literary and artistic experiments of the 1950s that were at first loosely grouped together as concrete poetry extended further into the ambiguous sphere which Dick Higgins described in 1965 as 'Intermedia', it became apparent that such creations were further and further divorced from the representational language with which poetry had hitherto been associated and that they needed to be categorised as a separate phenomenon.
In her survey, Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968), Mary Ellen Solt, observed that certain trends included under the label Concrete Poetry were tending towards a “New Visual Poetry”. Its chief characteristic is that it leaves behind the old poetic function of orality and is therefore distinct from the ancient tradition of shaped poetry from which Concrete Poetry claimed to have derived. Visual poetry, on the other hand, is to be distinguished by its deployment of typography.
Solt included in her proposed new genre the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, John Furnival and Hansjörg Mayer. Her definition was extended by Marvin A Sackner in his introduction to the Ohio State University 2008 collection of Visual Poetry: "I define concrete poems as those in which only letters and/or words are utilized to form a visual image, whereas visual poems constitute those in which images are integrated into the text of the poem". He also separated out artist-generated picture poems and artists' books as an allied category, citing the work of Kenneth Patchen. Also to be found in the university collection is Tom Phillips' A Humument, as well as an assortment of handwritten but non-linguistic texts.
In the light of these assertions, a new genealogy of forerunners to Visual Poetry emerges that includes Joan Miró's poem-painting Le corps de ma brune (1925), Piet Mondrian's incorporation of Michel Seuphor's text in Tableau-poème : textuel (1928), and Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman's work, using not just letters but also purely linear elements. Created during the 1920s, they anticipated the intermediary 'typestracts' of the Concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houédard during the 1960s that would equally qualify as Visual Poetry.
Klaus Peter Dencker also stresses the continuity to the new genre in his theoretical paper "From Concrete to Visual Poetry" (2000), pointing out its "intermedial and interdisciplinary" nature. The two are also interdependent and "without concrete poetry the current forms of visual poetry would be unthinkable". However, the academic Willard Bohn prefers to categorise the whole gamut of literary and artistic experiment in this area since the late 19th century under the label of Visual Poetry and has done so in a number of books since 1986. From his reductionist point of view, "Visual poetry can be defined as poetry that is meant to be seen – poetry that presupposes a viewer as well as a reader".
- Asemic writing
- Carmen figuratum
- Digital poetry
- Haptic poetry
- List of concrete and visual poets
- Video poetry
- Visual alphabet
- The Mouse's Tale (1865) by Lewis Carroll
- Tableau-poème : textuel (1928) is a work by Piet Mondrian which incorporates text by Michel Seuphor.
- druksels by H.N. Werkman using elements of typography.
- tiksels by H.N. Werkman, using not just letters but also purely linear elements.
- Le corps de ma brune, a painting by Joan Miró