Concrete Poetry - History and Concepts
Beginnings 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.
However, it is generally acknowledged that a concern with the visual representation of language in the modern era originates with French Symbolist Literature of the late nineteenth century, in particular the writing of Stéphane Mallarmé, whose 1897 poem Un Coup de Dés utilized typographical arrangement in a way that totally broke from early traditions of picture and pattern poetry.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, these early advances were picked up by the more iconoclastic spirits of the Futurist and Dada movements. Poet-polemicists and artists such as F.T. Marinetti, Hugo Ball, and Kurt Schwitters stressed both the visual appearance and the sound of language - often writing and performing nonsense poems arranged chaotically on the page - as a way of undermining rational thought and expression. In an era of war and rapid technological development, breaking apart and rearranging language encapsulated both the anxieties and the excitement of the age. The French poet and critic of Cubism Guillaume Apollinaire, a brief fellow-traveler of the Futurists, also created a series of famous visual poems or "calligrammes" in the shape of buildings and objects such as the Eiffel Tower.
This early-twentieth century explosion of visual poetry died away with the great early-twentieth-century avant-gardes: Futurism, Dada, Constructivism. Meanwhile, in the world of literature, the emergence of extremist politics in the 1930s and, ultimately, World War II, ushered in an era of more sober, realistic writing.
From Concrete Art to Concrete Poetry
After World War II poets and artists in Europe were looking to both rebuild national and international culture and to reclaim the legacies of the avant-garde movements whose development had been stemmed by political turmoil. It was in this spirit that Concrete Art and modernist architecture came fully into flower in the West, as movements which reignited the ambitious, abstract styles of the early twentieth century and sought to establish new, rational, international languages for creative expression.
The Concrete Artist Max Bill, with associates including Inge Scholl, sister of the murdered White Rose Movement leaders Hans and Sophie, established the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, West Germany in 1953 as a kind of second Bauhaus, and crucible of cultural rebirth. The aim was partly to reignite the tradition of rational abstract art and functional design that had defined the Bauhaus prior to its closure by the Nazis in 1933. It was here that the young Swiss poet Eugen Gomringer secured a job as Bill's secretary. Gomringer's work was already expressing the same logic of rational experiment as characterized the Hochschule's faculty of architects, graphic and industrial designers - he had created his first Concrete Poem, "Avenidas", in 1952, though he would only define it as a Concrete Poem three years later. Gomringer's early compositions stressed the use of minimal linguistic elements and the repetition and arrangement of language in simple patterns on the page.
The South American Context
Meanwhile, in post-war Brazil, the influence of Concrete Art was being felt equally strongly. The Latin American continent had benefited from an influx of Constructivist-influenced artists fleeing the conflict in Europe, whose presence invigorated the existing abstract art scene that had been spearheaded since the 1930s by artists such as Joaquín Torres-García, resulting by the late 1940s in the founding of groups such as Asociacíon Arte Concreto-Invencíon and Arte Madí in Argentina. By the 1950s Brazil was going through a period of rapid economic and industrial development, and Concrete Art seemed to epitomize a new spirit of rational optimism within the country. This led to the emergence of groups such as Grupo Ruptura in São Paulo and Grupo Frente in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil also proved fertile ground for architects working with the techniques of large-scale rational functional design spearheaded by Le Corbusier and others earlier in the century. The most famous result of this was the construction of Brazil's new capital, Brasília, by Le Corbusier's acolyte Oscar Niemeyer between 1956 and 1960.
In this atmosphere, three poets based in São Paulo - the brothers Augusto and Haroldo de Campos and their colleague Décio Pignatari - were inspired to create a new style of poetry that would embody the principles epitomized by South America's emergent Concrete Art scene. Calling their group Noigandres, after a line from an Ezra Pound poem, they created their first poems in 1952, the same year that Gomringer had begun independently to create Concrete Poems in Europe. The Noigandres poets struck upon a similar range of techniques, stressing the minimum use of words, simplicity of grammatical constructions, and abstract visual arrangements of language. However, their work quickly became more concerned with exploring double meanings and wordplay, and with tackling political and social themes.
A Movement Defined
In 1955 Décio Pignatari met Eugen Gomringer at Gomringer's workplace, the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm. The two poets realized that they were producing work that was identical in fundamental respects, and they agreed to forge an international poetic style to be called "Concrete Poetry". Gomringer wrote his first manifesto for Concrete Poetry in 1956, intended to serve as an introduction for an anthology - though this never appeared. The Noigandres poets first referred to their work publicly as Concrete Poetry in an exhibition of Concrete Art held at São Paulo's Museum of Modern Art later that same year.
Concepts and Styles
The Concrete Poetry produced by Eugen Gomringer and the Noigandres poets from the early to mid-1950s was defined by certain key characteristics: small groups of words or letters were arranged in iconic patterns on the page, often using repetition (thematic, phonetic, and visual) as a way of suggesting the fundamental truthfulness or accuracy of the words presented. Aspects of graphic presentation, including the use of certain sans serif Modernist fonts such as Helvetica and Futura, also became key stylistic aspects of the genre. It was a highly unusual move for a literary movement to define itself by such means - it is partly in this sense that Concrete Poetry can be considered a movement in modern art and design as well as modernist literature.
Internationalism: The Movement Spreads
Concrete Poetry aimed to define a type of poetry that, like International Style typography or Modernist architecture, could be reproduced in any given cultural context without loss or distortion of meaning. As such, the first proponents of the movement were always keen that its influence would spread around the world, and writers and artists in far-flung locations were keen to respond to this challenge.
From the mid-1950s onwards, poets and artists based all over the globe started communicating with Gomringer and the Noigandres poets, responding to their new techniques for literary creation. Others who had already been working in similar styles found a new context for their work. In Germany there was the so-called Darmstadt Group, including the German Claus Bremer, North American Emmett Williams, and Swiss Daniel Spoerri, while in Stuttgart a collective sprung up around the poet and theorist Max Bense, including Hansjörg Mayer, Helmut Heißenbüttel, and Reinhard Döhl. In Austria, a school of poets referred to as the Vienna Group, including Gerhard Rühm, Ernst Jandl, and Friedrich Achleitner, had already been creating poems in a Concrete idiom, while focusing more on political themes and intermedia art events. The only major grouping of Concrete Poets to emerge behind the Iron Curtain was based in Czechoslovakia. This group, including the collaborative duo of Josef Hiršal and Bohumila Grögerová, were similarly concerned with turning Concrete Poetry to political ends, in response to the recent political history of their country.
In Brazil, an alternative group to the Noigandres poets emerged in Rio de Janeiro, partly inspired by the work of Wlademir Dias Pino, who had been practicing in a style very similar to Concrete Poetry prior to the Noigandres group, and partly by the local Grupo Frente of Concrete Artists. It was from the Carioca group - those based in Rio de Janeiro - that the first significant challenge to early concrete style arose, in the form of Ferreira Gullar's "Neo-Concrete Manifesto" of 1959, which defined a more intuitive, spontaneous approach to Concretism across art and literature, paving the way for the Neo-Concrete Art of Lygia Clark and others. At the same time, the Noigandres approach presaged the larger and more creatively diverse style of the Invenção group, which included Ronaldo Azeredo, Edgard Braga, José Lino Grünewald, Pedro Xisto and others. Developments within this group included Semiotic Poetry, which used non-linguistic symbols, as if to suggest the development of entirely new writing systems.
In the Anglophone world, particularly North America, Concrete Poetry had been picked up by the early 1960s by writers frustrated with the conservatism of much 1950s English language poetry. These poets were turning back to the stylistic innovations of early-twentieth-century Modernist writers such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams. Pound and Williams were interested in using the placement of words on the page to suggest the rhythm of speech, so there was a natural overlap with the ethos of Concrete Poetry, which also stressed the visual arrangement of words. Moreover, in North America this tradition had never really died, having been carried forwards by subsequent generations of poets connected to Objectivism or the Black Mountain School, such as Charles Olson, Lorine Niedecker, Louis Zukofsky, and Robert Creeley. North American Concrete Poets such as Mary Ellen Solt, Jonathan Williams, Robert Lax, and Ronald Johnson were therefore responding to twin influences: both the challenge of the international movement and their own national Modernist literary tradition. Beat poets such as Gregory Corso and cut-up poets such as William Burroughs and Brion Gysin had also produced visually informed work and were responding in a different way to the same precedents.
In Great Britain, and particularly Scotland, poets such as Ian Hamilton Finlay and Edwin Morgan began using concrete techniques. Like their North-American counterparts, they were partly interested in embracing the innovations of early-twentieth-century North American poetry, and were frustrated by what they perceived as the formal conservatism of their native traditions: particularly with poets associated with the English literary grouping known as "The Movement", notably Philip Larkin. Finlay would go on to create a garden full of poem-sculptures, Little Sparta, that stands as one of the most remarkable monuments to the ethos of Concrete Poetry.
Other significant international groupings of Concrete Poetry emerged in countries including France, where Pierre and Ilse Garnier developed a version of Concrete Poetry that they called Spatialism. Concrete Poetry also found fertile ground in Japanese literary and artistic culture. Many East-Asian writing systems had an inbuilt affinity with concrete techniques because of their strong basis in pictography - the visual rather than phonetic representation of objects and concepts - so Japanese Concrete Poets such as Seiichi Niikuni and Kitasano Katué had a particularly rich vein of compositional material to draw from in creating their work.
The literary critic Marjorie Perloff has suggested that what bound all of these cells of the early Concrete Poetry movement was that each of them was concentrated in one of the "smaller or marginalized nations of the post-war", far from the beleaguered war capitals. In modern art and particularly in modernist literature, with the notable exception of the USA, it was perhaps left to (economically) smaller, often newly emergent nations, defining themselves against an international cultural scene suddenly freed from the influence of major imperial and military powers, to carry the spirit of invention forwards.
The Concrete Poetry movement in this classical giuse had spent its energies by around the close of the 1960s, perhaps as the Utopian projects in Modernist Architecture and Concrete Art to which it was responding also waned. Three major anthologies of Concrete Poetry appeared in 1967-68, Stephen Bann's Concrete Poetry: An International Anthology (1967), Emmett Williams's An Anthology of Concrete Poetry (1967), and Mary Ellen Solt's Concrete Poetry: A Worldview (1968). According to the critic Stephen Scobie, "the very definitiveness of these anthologies 'froze' concrete poetry in its historical moment." A major group retrospective of Concrete Poetry, entitled ?Concrete Poetry, was held at Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum in 1971, and has been taken as a pragmatic marker of the end of the Concrete Poetry movement in its first form by critics such as Jamie Hilder.
Concrete in Context: Connections to Other Art Movements
Although the Concrete Poetry movement in a strict sense can be seen to have died away by the early 1970s, from the late 1950s it had also been expanding exponentially in multiple directions, most of them extending well beyond the boundaries just defined, many of them into the 1970s and beyond. Concrete Poetry outlived its own death partly because it was swept up in a broader wave of experiment within the world of literature and, particularly, modern art, which was concerned with mapping the boundaries and overlaps between language and other expressive and communicative media.
This is evident, for example, in the way that Abstract Expressionist paintings by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly, and Mark Tobey, began to incorporate symbols that looked like letters or pictographs; the way that Pop Artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Roy Lichtenstein incorporated text and image in their work in the form of collages or cartoon strip-style visual frames; and the emergence of Conceptual Art, which often relied on compositional maneuvers similar to Concrete Poetry. Though Conceptual Art's motives for integrating language into art were, at root, very different - leading the Conceptualist Joseph Kosuth to deride Concrete Poetry as "cute with words but dumb about language" - some Conceptual Artists, such as Carl Andre and Lawrence Weiner, began to incorporate genuinely lyrical linguistic sensibilities into their work.
Amongst the art movements with which Concrete Poetry became even more closely associated were Performance Art, specifically "Intermedia Art" as defined by the Canadian artist and theorist Dick Higgins through a series of manifestos in the late 1960s. This style of art was closely associated with the Fluxus movement and with the practice of Happenings, which were in turn rooted in the experimental musical performances of composers such as John Cage, who staged his first Happening at Black Mountain College in 1952.
The theory of Intermedia Art, in Higgins's conception, held that the boundaries between different artistic media were the product of social and economic structures that were historically and culturally rooted, and which would die away with the emergence of a new, radical society. Intermedia Art could help usher in this new phase of society by breaking down the barriers between different artistic media. It is for this reason that many Fluxus art performances and Happenings refused to adhere to any pre-ordained rules or structures, and were intended to unfold in a range of directions, passing, for example, between the genres of theater, musical performance, poetic recital, and political rally.
Higgins saw in Concrete Poetry what he called "an Intermedium between poetry and the fine arts" and sought to present it as part of the movement. His Something Else Press published Emmett Williams's Anthology of Concrete Poetry in 1967, which helped to popularize this understanding of Concrete Style. This culminated in a version of Concrete Poetry that was indebted to Dada techniques, stressing spontaneity of composition, the live performance of Concrete Poems, and a movement away from words and letters towards a form of expression that genuinely occupied the threshold between the literary and the visual.
Concrete Poetry and Sound Poetry
At the same time, for many artists and poets, Concrete Poetry became closely associated with Sound Poetry, a kind of performed poetry or sound art in which the way language sounded was as important, or more important than, what it meant. This could extend to wholly nonsensical 'poems' created by performing abstract visual scores, or collaged vocal works produced on tape reel, somewhat akin to Musique Concrète. Like Concrete Poetry, Sound Poetry had a vast prehistory stretching back to the oral rituals and games of pre-literate and tribal communities, but had been most fully defined during the Avant-Garde heyday of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, especially by the Futurists and Dadaists, with Kurt Schwitters majestic vocal symphony Ursonate (1920-32) standing as its most lasting monument.
After the war, poets and artists in France such as Isodore Isou - who defined a Dada-influenced movement called Lettrism - and Henri Chopin, who broke from the group around Isou to form the Ultralettrist movement, began to extend the effects of Sound Poetry by creating new alphabets and language systems, and by manipulating the sound of the voice using tape recorders and other newly available technology. A similar group emerged in Sweden, where in 1953 the artist Öyvind Fahlström had written a manifesto for Concrete Poetry followed by a series of poems, both of which were only discovered by the existing Concrete Poetry movement towards the end of the 1960s. Fahlström worked in isolation from the Brazilian and German poets and was concerned with the sound of language and the use of onomatopoeia. Following this, during the 1960s, the Fylkingen Research Institute in Stockholm supported the emergence of a Sound Poetry movement connected to Concrete Poetry, spearheaded by artists, poets and composers such as Sten Hanson and Åke Hodell. In London, a similar group emerged around the poet and artist Bob Cobbing and his press and performance group Writers Forum, and in Canada around Steve McCaffery, bpNichol, and the so-called Toronto Research Group.
Through its cross-pollination with these and many other movements in Modern Art, Modernist Poetry, and even experimental music, Concrete Poetry survived as a thread of influence if not a distinct, coherent movement well beyond the early 1970s. Many writers and artists continue to cite the influence of Concrete Poetry on their work up to the present day.
The range of directions in which Concrete Poetry developed, and its difficult placement between a range of different genres (most obviously visual art and literature) makes it very difficult to trace its legacies from the 1970s onwards.
Limiting our focus to modern art, one of the most significant movement to build on the compositional frameworks laid down by Concrete Poetry was Digital Art. Many of the important early exponents and critics of Concrete Poetry, such as Haroldo de Campos and Max Bense, were also attuned to early developments in computer technology, and were interested in exploring the connections between Concrete Poetry and computer coding. Both pursuits, in a sense, involved devising new language systems through which existing languages could be encoded and simplified. The connection is particularly clear with types of Concrete Poetry using invented language systems, such as Semiotic Poetry, which was devised by Brazilian poets including Luiz Ángelo Pinto and Décio Pignatari in the early 1960s.
Publishers such as Hansjörg Mayer included serial artworks created using algorithmic computer sequences alongside their roster of published Concrete Poets, while Max Bense's workplace, the Technischen Hochschule in Stuttgart, fostered the work of a range of poets and artists, such as Frieder Nake, operating at the boundaries of Digital Art and Concrete Poetry. In 1968 the trendsetting exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity, held at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London and curated by Jasia Reichardt, presented examples of Digital Art and Concrete Poetry side by side. The influence of Concrete Poetry on Digital Art can be sensed today in the language-based practices of groups such as the Seoul-based Digital Art collective Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries.
There is also a history of interaction between Concrete Poetry and Post-Conceptual art, as evident, for example, in the work of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. Working in the wake of Concrete Poetry as well as the better-known paradigm of Conceptual Art, Holzer and Kruger utilize visually arresting linguistic arrangements, often in conjunction with photographic images or sculptural forms, to present politically and culturally charged slogans mimicking and subverting the techniques of advertising.
British land artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, meanwhile, explored the complementary relationship between language, image, and visual symbolism in their mapping and documentation of event and land-based practices. These artists were in contact with British Concrete Poets during the 1960s and the two schools can be seen to have mutually informed each other. The Concrete Poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, through the construction of his extraordinary poet's garden, Little Sparta, in the Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh, developed probably the most sophisticated oeuvre at the boundaries of Concrete Poetry and land-based sculptural practice.
Within the world of literature, Concrete Poetry's threads of influence spread far and wide. Perhaps most notably, it has strongly informed contemporary North American avant-garde movements such as Conceptual Poetry, associated with the writers Kenneth Goldsmith and Christian Bök. Concrete Poetry's influence can also be sensed across a whole sweep of new media poetries (poetry which explores the linguistic possibilities of new and emerging technology) as in the work of the Brazilian-American artist and poet Eduardo Kac.