Summary of Concrete Poetry
Concrete Poetry is perhaps the only significant twentieth-century art movement that is also a significant twentieth-century literature movement. Partly as a result of this, critics have struggled with defining and compartmentalizing it, so it is still less well-known than it might be. Concrete Poetry emerged from the major hubs of Concrete Art in Northern Europe and Latin America during the 1950s and sought to bring the same clarity and simplicity of composition that defined that movement to the written word.
Understood in simpler terms, Concrete Poetry is a kind of linguistic art in which the way words and letters look is as important as what they mean. In such broader view, the movement emerged from a long historical tradition and inspired far more diverse and globally dispersed tendencies, melding with advances in Anglo-American literary modernism and Performance Art, amongst many other things. Today Concrete Poetry is perhaps unique amongst avant-garde literary movements in being more popular outside academic institutions than within them, and is ironically better-known than the movement that inspired it, Concrete Art.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- The most immediately recognizable characteristic of Concrete Poetry is the arrangement of language in visual form. Words, letters, and other linguistic material are deployed as a visual compositional tool in a manner that was initially inspired by the Concrete Art movement. Indeed, the first Concrete Poets, many of whom were closely connected to Concrete Artists, often borrowed elementary visual designs directly from Concrete Art pieces, arranging letters in grids, columns, spirals, or other basic visual forms.
- Concrete Poetry reduced the linguistic element of poetry to an absolute minimum. As a late movement in Literary Modernism, it was responding to the challenge of first-generation modernist writers who had stressed complexity and linguistic expansiveness as means of experiment. Concrete Poets struck out in the opposite direction, presenting poems in which just one of two words, arrestingly laid out, could encapsulate a whole credo.
- Concrete Poetry stood for a post-World War II spirit of internationalism, optimism, and cross-cultural communication. Working in the wake of global conflict, the Concrete Poets were inspired by modern art and architectural movements such as Concrete Art and the International Style, which had defined global vocabularies for their respective media. The Concrete Poets were interested in creating a similar, International Style for language.
- Although its origins were in Concrete Art, Concrete Poetry became closely associated with developments in Performance Art such as the emergence of Fluxus and Happenings. In troubling the boundaries between linguistic and visual expression, the Concrete Poets were pushing at the boundaries between artistic media that had been established by earlier theorists of Modernism such as Clement Greenberg, in the same way that Intermedia, Performance-based artforms were attempting.
Overview of Concrete Poetry
The act of presenting language as a visual entity has a vast and unwieldly history stretching back to the dawn of civilization and of modern writing systems, all of which evolved from pictography: from writing systems which represented things visually rather than phonetically. Arabic calligraphy, Chinese written characters, and medieval pattern poems from the Western Christian tradition all played their role in establishing this heritage; so too did the technopaegnia of Ancient Greece, emulated in the seventeenth century by the Metaphysical Poet George Herbert.
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.
Useful Resources on Concrete Poetry
- 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
- The Noigandres Poets and Concrete Art.' Poesía ConcretaBy Claus Clüver / Special issue of Ciberletras 17 (2007)
- Words as ImagesBy Matthew Larking / Japan Times / January 1, 2009
- Writing as Re-Writing: Concrete Poetry as Arriere-GardeBy Marjorie Perloff / Poesía Concreta / Special issue of Ciberletras 17 (2007)
- Ian Hamilton Finlay & His WorkBy Greg Thomas / Little Sparta Trust
- Word Hoards: Masterpieces of Concrete Poetry - In PicturesThe Guardian / April 7, 2017