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Neshan 46/47

Archive - II

Verbo-Visual Pyrotechnics! An Overview Of Concrete Poetry

Foad Farahani

Concrete poetry emerged as a specific approach to language during the 1950s and 1960s. The language was no longer used as a means of describing an event, a state or even a thought. However, it was itself the aim and theme of poetry. Concrete poetry doesn’t utilized reference-function, and its three-dimensional concept is interpreted as a phonetic, visual and vocal tool. Concrete poetry is the creation of a perceivable object with linguistic means — to the Nietzschean concept of the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. The term 'concrete' in a Hegelian sense is defined as the opposite of an abstract concept, which implies nothing but itself. The concrete work is a non-symbolic reality. 

Single words (as opposed to sentences) are the aim of concrete texts; they are concrete aesthetic messages. These messages are still conveyed by language but in a new way. The graphical position is determined based on phonetic position and speech structures. Word, in this case, is not the basis for the message in the conventional linear text, as if the meaning is determined by grammatical and syntactic structures, but in concrete poetry, these structures are replaced by surface arrangement.
Max Bense has contributed most significant insights to the theory of the concrete poetry, enlarging our conception of the poem as a language scheme or system that abandoned grammatical and syntactic contexts in favor of visual and surface relationships, making possible simultaneity of semantic and aesthetic functions of words, so that meaning and structure reciprocally express each other.
 “Concrete poetry does not entertain. It holds the possibility of fascination, and a fascination is a form of concentration, that is of concentration which includes perception of the material as well as apperception of its meaning.”1
In his own poems, Bense creates a system of word-play activity. In the text 'Tallose berge', for instance, he pays tribute to the city of Rio de Janeiro limiting himself to only four letters (r-i-o-n). Using constructivist and onomatopoeia methods, he makes a visual image suggestive of the mountains around Rio.
The early concrete poems within geometric, symmetrical and pictorial arrangement were presented as a form of visual art, manifestos, and even as performance and sound work. One of the most influential of the first generation of this movement poets was Swiss-Bolivian poet Eugen Gomringer. In his compositions such as 'Silencio', he made bold use of blank page space. The whiteness of the page in 'Silencio' is interrupted by a regimented raft of text, the image/poem gives the impression of disrupted calm which is interpreted as monotonous instruction to the reader through the printed insistence of the word “Silencio”. Here like many other instances, the effect of text as image effectively seems to disconnect the act of reading from the narrative possibilities of language. “Silencio” paid direct homage to Mallarmé’s book work Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard. The typographical exaggeration of Mallarmé’s book was a calculated attempt to force the reader to encounter blank page space as a compositional element within an illusionistic picture plane which reduced the legibility of the written word to that of a typographic pattern to an extent that the viewer is forced both literally and metaphorically to read between the lines. Deliberately illegible layout renders Mallarmé’s book a naturalistic or figural narrative. Mallarmé disrupts the distinction between pictorial representation and representations made in words. Mallarmé’s belief that text could be manipulated as a visual special effect is in contract with many sanctioned uses of language, either as an agent for the preservation of knowledge or as a tool for enlightenment.
The development of visual poetry was not limited to European countries. From the mid-1950s, concrete poetry witnessed the emergence of the Brazilian 'Noigandres' group. The “Noigandres” group was distinct both conceptually and geographically from 'Darmstadt Circle', and was founded by de Campos brothers and Decio Pignatari in São Paolo. Their intention was to make encountering language like experiencing a natural phenomenon. The national identity and social and political orientations of this Brazilian group distinguished them from their European counterparts. Issues such as hunger and poverty were discussed in Haraldo de Campos’ poems. Pignatari challenged the necessity of poetry in circumstances of deprivation and hardship 'Hombre, Hambre, Hembra' (Man, Hunger, Woman), 1957. Noigandres beyond its social interpretation explained in their 'A pilot plan for concrete poetry' that the ideogrammatic picture-poem was intended as an appeal for non-verbal communication and to primarily deal with communication about form, not messages.
Interpretation of Brazilian concrete poets to see poems as 'the tension of things-words in space-time', the ideogram is studied as a spatial object that could utilize graphic communication whilst retaining paronomasia or multiple meaning in the word: a combination of typographical and geometric appropriateness.
Public showings such as Concrete Art at the Museum of Modern Art, São Paolo (1956) introduced concrete poetry to a wider audience. British poets such as Dom Sylvester Houédard and Ian Hamilton Finlay became acquainted with the poem’s possibilities. Houédard defined concrete poetry as a typographical poem and poetical typography. Houédard – one of the pioneers of typewriter art – was one of the key figures of concrete poetry, which the scarcity of his work since the 1970s, made this avant-garde artist a semi-legendary character.
In 1964 Banse, who was very keen on the Brazilian movement, invited Haroldo de Campos to lecture on contemporary Brazilian literature at the Technische Hochschule, Stuttgart. During his few months stay in Europe, Campos met many important figures: Pierre Boulez and composers working at the Studio of Electronic Music in Cologne, and Gomringer, Carlo Belloli, Pierre and Ilse Garnier, Henri Chopin, and others.
During the late 1950s, Germany became one of the important centers of concrete poetry activity. From 1957 through 1959 'Darmstadt Circle' published a magazine called, Material, and brought out the first international anthology of concrete poetry. Claus Bremer, Emmett Williams, Daniel Spoerri, Diter Rot were in the group.
Bremer in his poems presented in a selection called 'engagierende texte' intended to place the reader freely within “the realm of his own possibilities”, “the realm in which we are brothers.” Put another way, this means that the reader should feel free to make his own interpretation of the poem by himself becoming “engaged” in the process of its structure. In the star-shaped poem 'Nicht nur / informieren / haltungen / provezieren', the reader will be required to move either the poem or himself. The wordplay is revealed when the subject is examined from the right, from above, and from the left (that is to say, from all sides).
Stuttgart has become the permanent center for concrete poetry due to the efforts of Max Bense and his student, Hansjörg Mayer. In addition to being responsible for the typography and design of ROT, Mayer has independently published the Futura pamphlets, books, and portfolio-anthologies of concrete poetry, emphasizing the international character of the movement. Mayer was a “typoet” who the tension between semantics and typographical design in his works achieved perfect balance. In all his works, Mayer has limited himself to one type face-lower case Futura. 
Undoubtedly, the great German typographical heritage, and in particular the innovations of Bauhaus typography, have contributed to the excellence of concrete texts. But not all German poets have followed the lead of Mayer. Franz Mon with non-semantic and experimental texts to a great extent is concerned with the subjective element. Mon’s fragmented forms and their negative areas are psychic-emotional content. Mon’s primary concern in his experimental visual poems is to create a new “poetry of surface”, which like previous instances demands to return the surface to literature as “a constitutive element of the text”. Mon incorporates into the content of the poem the negative forms of the surface created by the positive letter (letters) forms. The relationship of the poem and the surface is exceedingly complex, for the poem springs from the unqualified; it is its own background or it is not a poem at all. The surface is its negation, against which the positiveness of its setting can assert itself. The poem doesn’t exist without the isolation of an empty surface, and the surface is made oblivious when the first word is set down. Mon seeks to interrupt this oblivion to return the reality and effectiveness of the surface to the text. Mon’s “poetry of surface” can perhaps be thought of as a kind of mystical and theoretical hieroglyphics which demands silence and to be seen as a whole.  Mon reacts to the statement that non-semantic texts may seem “futile acrobatics”:
“Neither futile nor acrobatics has in this century of most horrifying industries a pejorative connotation. That which seems most useless might be of the utmost use. That which was previously dully readable trembles in expectation of the text which was not seen in advance. The poster suddenly becomes something that can be torn, it resists my hands and begins to sing. It answers questions no one had ever asked it. […] but what I now read I did not previously know, it exists only along this cutting line […] a fold or a tear suddenly acquires the function of punctuation…”2
Ferdinand Kriwet, also finding the conventional use of words in books inadequate for the poetry of our time. Although his works are viewed in galleries like paintings, he does not think of himself as a painter; but rather as a writer who takes a language at its picture value as well as at its word value. In his works, words are formulated in such complex structures that are representative of a stream of thought in the language. Their form and their development is not clear. Reading activity here is similar to performing a piece of contemporary music.
By more and more blurred boundaries of other genres of art (painting, music, etc.), concrete poetry passed the standards of conventional literature and grew on the ground where our eyes and ears became more sensitive to the micro-aesthetic structures and distinctions. However, the decline of concrete poetry since the early 1970s was further accelerated by being constrained to its production of visually formulaic works and its irreversible tendency to decoration and over-elaboration until in a critical lethargy, it was muffled by the interdisciplinary concept.

 * Concrete poetry in this article is introduced briefly with an added emphasis on Germany.
 1. Bense, Max: Konkrete Poesie. Katalog der Ausstellung: konkrete Poesie International. th Stuttgart: Studium Generale, Studiengalerie 1965 / zugleich als ROT 21 erschienen
 2. Mon, Franz. Sprache lebenslänglich: gesammelte Essays. S. Fischer (2016).

For further studies refer to:
Als Stuttgart Schule machte.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century, Hayward Gallery Publishing (2015).
Higgins, Dick. Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature. SUNY Press (1987).
Solt, Mary Ellen. Concrete Poetry: A World View. Indiana University Press (1970).

Foad Farahani

(b.1983) graphic designer, visual artist and researcher, began his career activities in the fields of painting, sculpture and conceptual art from 2001. As a freelance designer and art director since 2005, he has been engaged in various projects. His research on phenomenological art and perception philosophy is being published in the book Space as Support. Moreover, he has participated in several art events as a curator and exhibition designer. As well as participating in internal and international exhibitions in the field of fine art and graphic design, he has the experience of teaching in the courses such as publication design and discourses of modern art in his background.


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