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New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

A look at Concrete Poetry by Niamh Clarke

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Niamh is originally from Dundalk, Co.Louth. She received her BA in English and Philosophy from NUI, Galway. She is currently studying a Diploma in Journalism from The Irish Academy of Public Relations and has a FETAC certificate in Print Journalism from Dún Laoghaire Further Education Institute. She is the writer at the blog The Essay Yeti. She has edited several books and has an ITEC certificate in Proofreading and Editing. Niamh is based in Louth and is working as a freelance journalist. She is also editor and writer for the newsletter at National Learning Network, Dundalk branch.

 

 

 

Concrete Poetry is thought-provoking. It provokes thought about poetry and technology. It provokes thought about incision and inscription. It provokes thought about the legitimate forms poetry can take. It provokes thought about structure and space, about material and artwork, medium and message, sight and voice, eyes and minds. Language and media are crucial to this poetical engagement. Concrete Poetry1 provokes thought about the reading process: authorship, representation, translation, aesthetics, conceptualisation, plot, performance, speech, and mimesis (these, and so much more) spring forth as multiple issues to be concerned about. Visual Concrete Poetry falls in love with its own image; it consciously commits narcissism.

And within this narcissistic poetic moment the letters, the word and its contours elongate the reading process and they define that process: the lake-page is endlessly attractive; the reflection-letters are endlessly enticing. The luminous visage of the word is foregrounded as visually profound and poetic in its own status. Emmett Williams a notable concrete poet describes this as ‘a poetry of direct presentation – the word, not words, words, words’ (Davidon, p.15). What Williams describes here is to be taken literally. The word itself is what matters, the narcissistic word – the fallen word – the word falling into its own image and not the echoes of words, words, words. The word itself becomes engrossing, asserts itself as the most desirable and fascinating spectacle within the text.  Below is a prime example of the narcissistic word; the word to fixate on, the literal see-word looking up from the page-lake; the word to pay attention to in-and-of-itself; a narcissistic concrete poem falling deeply and irrevocably down into its glittering, phenomenal surface:

 

Image 1: Untitled poem by Derek Beaulieu

 

 

 

Here in Derek Beaulieu’s concrete poem it is seen how R strikes as a self-obsessed letter closed off from the impenetrable world of sound: blind to Echo. And all at once R is narcissistically overwhelmed by its own self-contained reflection. R is R: a self-obsessed poem, deafened within a narcissistic poetics. Martina E. Linnemann in her essay ‘Concrete Poetry – A Post-war Experiment in Visual Poetry’ states:

 

For the concrete poets printed letters are not just a means to fix speech on paper, for them they have an expressive power in their own right – and this visual information is what the concrete poets want to explore (Linnemann, p.213).

 

The concrete poem cannot escape itself. Trapped, it does know how to turn around to a different perception. To take an example of this visual inescapability, the copy below is by Eugen Gomringer, a notable figure in mid-twentieth century concrete poetry. In this his clean concrete poem below it is witnessed how the word cannot escape the word, how sight cannot successfully escape into sound:

 

Image 2: Silencio by Eugen Gomringer

 

 

Gomringer’s silent poem draws literal visual attention to the issue of silence. Silence is represented in the poem’s ‘middle’ by the omission of the actual word. The poem recognises, as Narcissus once did, that it can never touch upon the soundscape; it can never turn around to fix upon Echo’s face. The poem visually represents the schism between Echo and her lover Narcissus. Here image and voice are condemned to different worlds. Through its own narcissism the poem raises profound questions about the relationship between voice and image. In terms of the Greek myth, this poem provokes consideration of how to embody Echo. What would sound or indeed silence look like if she were visible? The answer is contained within the poem: sound cannot be described in full, cannot be captured or fully honed. The interval between what the poet sees and what the poet hears is presented as infinite. Silence is an experience never articulated: the same here goes for sound: Visual Poetry can never speak of the sound-world; it turns its back on the call of poetry but abstractly knows that poetry calls somehow.  Visual poetry falls into the image-world, falls in love with itself. Sound is not attempted to be found but it haunts the narcissistic poem nonetheless. This is a poetics where Echo and Narcissus can never meet.

And all Visual Poetry draws this narcissistic attention to both silence and call. All visual poetry questions the relationship between image and speech – some works more explicitly than others, but the distance between call and sight implicitly remains traced within all concrete poems. Precisely because this form of poetry focuses on what can be seen it therefore binds itself to the following questions: how do you translate what is heard into what is seen and vice versa? How close does writing come to consummating with the world of sound with all its rhythm and beats? Maurice Merleau Ponty says the following of music in his essay ‘Eye and Mind’ and this could arguably be applied to Echo:

‘Music…is too far on the hither side of the world and the designateble to depict anything but certain schemata of Being – its ebb and flow, its growth, its upheavals and its turbulence’ (Merleau-Ponty, p.123).

By not translating the turbulent world of sound, Concrete poetry asks: what is the distance between light and speech? Regarding reading, Concrete Poetry also asks: how should you begin? Where does plot fit in when there is no identifiable starting-point or end? Because there is no true identifiable beginning, middle or closure when reading Concrete Poetry — There is only ever what is seen at once. There is no real voice.  Concrete Poetry recognises its absent lover. Yet by being narcissistic Concrete Poetry paradoxically recognises the auditory perhaps even more so than sound-poetry ever could. While that sounds odd – this negative recognition of sound, by virtue of the negativity, haunts the poetry more poignantly than its opposite. Through complete absence of sound in Concrete Poetry, sound is missed and thus problematized profoundly. Sound is always silently in the background of this poetic form, and this makes the issue of sight and sound all the more provocative. It is not assumed in this poetics that optics can be translated into sound, rather it is recognised that the two are so different from each other and that their gulf cannot be bridged; the distance between the couple is too vast, too tragic to reconcile, too foreign to intersect: Jacques Derrida surrounded by cameras and mirrors said that ‘speech is blind’ (Derrida, Speech is Blind, You-tube video). Concrete Poetry through its very narcissism recognises that speech is blind where sight is mute.

Blinded and bound to itself Concrete Poetry makes visible its own material slavery. It is captive and articulated via its signs and symbols, glaring in the concrete liminal space between semantics and semiotics, and apparently conscious of the situation. It makes known its own slavery – it visually rattles its chains: no-one hears but only sees. But by accentuating the visual it makes the reader conscious of its own mastery and not just its visual slavery. Visual Poetry, like Narcissus, is very beautiful, intricate and enticing on a purely superficial level. Take the specular works below by Jiří Valoch, Carl Andre, bpNicol, and Derek Beaulieu as examples of this narcissistic mastery:

Image 3: drop by Jiří Valoch

 

 

Image 4: Shape and Structure by Carl Andre

 

 

Image 5: bpNichol Lane, Toronto, Canada by bpNichol

 

 

Image 6: Untitled poem by Derek Beaulieu

 

When asked by the Toronto Quarterly about his writing Derek Beaulieu describes Concrete Poetry in the following terms:

With these visual poems I concentrate on the smallest particles of language and how they can interact. Each poem allows the particles to dance with each other along the lines of design and shape instead of meaning and definitions. Visual poetry allows the reader to make their own meanings (Derek Beaulieu, taken from interview published on http://thetorontoquarterly.blogspot.ie/2010/11/ttqs-poem-of-week-week-2-derek-beaulieu.html)

This visual poem narcissistically dances with itself. Echoless – what is seen alone in a concrete poem cannot be liberated into verbal speech. And still what is seen alone becomes masterful – poetic in its own right, impervious to the caverns of sound that implicitly circle around the narcissistic artwork. It is poetic because it contains the visage of language, the yearning for song, but its cry has no voice.

Concrete poetry is not about the rapprochement that we associate with children’s shaped poetry; it is not naïve expression. It is philosophical, often political. It invokes longstanding and contemporary philosophical thought about language, media, meaning (topics that concerned prominent western thinkers from Plato, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Saussure, Derrida and countless others). It has a long tradition within literature despite the association of the term ‘concrete poetry’ with modern Formalist, Structuralist and Concrete art movements during the twentieth century2. In arguing against the classification of Concrete Poetry as literature, Louise Hanson firstly elucidates what she means by Concrete Poetry. Concrete Poetry can be understood historically, but is also understood with a less ‘historically specific use’, according to Hanson (Hanson, p.2). Historically, Concrete Poetry emerges in twentieth century Switzerland, Brazil and Sweden and Japan3, with artists like Eugen Gomringer, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, Decio Pignatari (the Noigandres group), and Öyvind Fahlström (Hanson, p.2) Famously clustering around the latter figures, Concrete Poetry became an international movement in 1950s and 1960s. Retrospectively, the term concrete poetry has been applied to writers such as Simias of Rhodes, George Herbert, Mallarmé, and Apollinaire (ibid.). Michael Davidson gives a different emphasis from Hanson on the historical importance of Concrete Poetry when he notes that it ‘owes its aesthetic origins to movements such as Constructivism and Futurism to the long tradition of shaped verse’ (Davidson, p.15).  Hanson analyses Concrete Poetry outside its historicity whereas Davidson gives the historical its recognition.

And historically Concrete Poetry provokes thought about poetry within tradition – it questions dominant poem-reading methods. There is a directing-away from reading the poem only in terms of the signified (Linnemann, p.213). ‘To the signifier itself’ becomes Concrete Poetry’s battle cry. Concrete Poetry denies interpreting the cast poem in the service of the poet’s spoken language alone; instead the means itself emerges as poetic; the means violently infiltrates the poetic significance and wraps itself around it. Visual Poetry aims at pure self-reference and self-preservation. It grapples with mimesis: it does not try to represent the world it tries to represent itself. Concrete poets react to Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction of language as signifier and signified (Linnemann, p.216). But that is not the whole story: Concrete Art is straightforwardly non-mimetic but Concrete Poetry is definitely not because it uses language as well, and language always refers to something outside of itself (Ibid.):

 

The late concrete poets are very aware of this problem, and in their attempt to be as ‘concrete’ as possible, their poems contain fewer and fewer ‘meaningful’ words and either use just single letters…or they even avoid language completely (Linnemann, p.216).

 

So perhaps Concrete Poetry is not straightforwardly narcissistic either.

Olson and Derrida are interesting thinkers to consider regarding this reaction to Saussure. In ‘The Poetics of Presence’ by Thomas A.Dodson he compares Derrida’s and Olson’s opposing views on writing:

Olson privileges speech as closer to being than writing, and he inveighs against a “print-bred” poetry that threatens to exile the poet from speech’s life-giving energy. Derrida rejects this view, arguing that Western thought has long placed writing in a subordinate position in order to secure for speech the illusion of a fullness which it does not and can never possess (Dodson,  p.62).

 

Now to consider Olson’s view in light of Derrida’s what emerges is the contrast occurring within Concrete Poetry as a conflict between Narcissus and Echo. It could be imagined that Olson’s view on speech is aligned with Echo, and that this view prioritises poetry in terms of sound. Imaginably (and this is merely speculation) Olson would not consider Concrete Poetry as poetry because the poetics dramatically turns away from speech through its ellipsis of sound. And some critics do not consider Concrete Poetry as a proper part of literature at all. Hanson for example does not classify Concrete Poetry as literature but as a ‘hybrid artwork’ because of its reliance on the visual (Hanson, p.23).  According to Hanson such use of language has become too visual and distant from ‘ordinary literature’ for it to resemble what is known as poetry.

Hanson also makes a useful connection between song and Concrete Poetry, arguing that the two are analogous and that we would not treat a song in the same way we treat a text, and likewise should not treat a Concrete poem in the way we treat ‘ordinary literature’ (Hanson, p.20). Yet, this entire argument centres on the acceptance of the existence of ‘ordinary literature’ as a reliable sounding-board. Because ‘ordinary literature’ is not explained or identified fully in Hanson’s argument the position that Concrete Poetry is not literature is unsatisfactory, and because Concrete Poetry is entirely withdrawn from its historical context – its literary roots are supressed. Hanson does not feel the need to address any substantive questions about literature (Hanson, p.2), but this is exactly what an argument about Concrete Poetry’s place in literature demands if one is to go there. Concrete Poetry here is penalised for its visual emphasis, and while this is not to deny the visual and spatial properties of Concrete Poetry, it is to question whether these characteristics set up against an unexplored definition of ‘ordinary literature’ necessarily inhibits Concrete Poetry from being classified as literature.

Nonetheless Hanson rejects concrete poetry as literature, arguing instead that it is a ‘hybrid artform’ that has literary aspects as well as visual aspects, and that this classification can accommodate all types of different concrete poetry:

‘the view I prefer, that concrete poetry is a hybrid artform, containing elements of literature and of visual design, can say the same thing about all concrete poetry, and allow for works that have more emphasis on one element than the other’ (Hanson, p.23).

 

It is not enough to class all Concrete Poetry as an artform on a of spectrum literary elements as Hanson does, because doing so omits the importance of the evolution of literary tradition that Concrete Poetry consciously embodies. The hybrid nature of Concrete Poetry is evident, but this hybridity emerges from its literary identity and its literary origins. It is because Concrete Poetry takes the visual aspects of the written word, transfigures our traditional notions of poetry, and reclaims the visual space of a page in order to foreground language that it takes it rightful place in literature. The visual narrative of a Concrete Poem occurs all at once on the page. Its visual design is used in the service of poetry, and emerges as a radical awakening of shaped verse. Hanson’s classification eclipses Concrete Poetry’s literary identity; her removal of Concrete Poetry from literature threatens proper treatment of the genre. The way in which we classify a work has a direct bearing on how it will be treated, perceived and analysed.  The intricate boundary and play on the visual and the auditory belongs to the poet, and the Concrete Poet arguably operates fully in the realm of literature. Concrete poetry beckons to what other works of literature has not done, brings the question of what literature is alive, pouring out in the visual ramifications poetically onto the page.  In relation to the issue of Concrete Poetry’s reliance on the visual, Davidson points out that:

‘Concrete Poetry aspires more directly than any other literary genre to the condition of the visual arts, although it would be wrong to assume that the linear possibilities of syntax or narrative are not highly active in the overall design’ (Davidson, p.15).

Derrida’s point about subordinating writing is worth considering in responding to the difficult classification of Concrete Poetry. While this debate over what counts as literature or indeed poetry could not be successfully answered here, it is worth thinking about the longstanding Western habit of believing that the written word is in servitude to speech only.  With the volume of signs and imagery in today’s contemporary Western cities, towns, villages, with the volume of symbols now visible and generally accepted in signified end-terms, with the emergence of products such as Google Glass, it could be worth keeping a closer eye on the signifier itself, because it at least seems that it is becoming increasingly easy to forget that these signs and symbols do not necessarily represent a profound concrete reality. In Concrete Poetry, the page and the word(s) become the language, but also visual moments of lack of tone, voice, metre, rhythm, rhyme, and narrative are significant in terms of sound. The reader’s vision, eye and mind, become emphasised, and the material poem is accentuated. This is a poetry that forcefully presents the visual moment of the poem, in its form, in its movement. It requires a reader first and foremost to engage with literature in consciously material pathways, and to engage with the technologies that form literature. Concrete Poetry does not belong solely to the art critic, but to the literary critic. And through its visual properties, it speaks about the most relevant issues of literature: medium, language, performance, meaning, authorship, mimesis and the role of the reader.

The concrete poem cannot be extrapolated from its appearance or its materiality. Take Wave Rock by Ian Hamilton-Finlay to see how the Concrete Poem cannot be distilled fully from its glass medium:

 

Image 7: Wave Rock by Ian Hamilton Finlay.

 

But also take Hamilton-Finlay’s poem in terms of the literary tradition. Look at Wave Rock in terms of Old English poetry. Wave Rock itself is isolated in its own material world not that unlike the speakers in OE poems such The Wanderer and The Seafarer who are removed from their loved ones. The material of the Concrete Poem (even if it is virtual material such as in the case with electronic poetry) becomes bound to the word. This poetry highlights tools themselves and the palpable, processional craft of visual poetry. Cursed and emancipated by the jealous technological gods, the tools once generally regarded merely to facilitate a transcendent signified are now incorporated into the poem’s very performance.

And performance is crucial in Concrete Poetry, leaving the vital question of how to perform reading very much open-ended. As with theatre, Concrete Poetry highlights its own performativity. Theatrical performance is renowned for foregrounding elements like staging and light, speech and gesture, the characters and costumes, the actors, audience and unique event.  Performance reminds the reader about the act of performance. Similarly, the foregrounding of materiality reminds the reader of the concrete poem’s material performance. How do we experience poetry? What does it mean to translate what we see into what we say and vice versa? The answer to the drama of Echo and Narcissus is theatrical. It is about awareness. When we enter a theatre we are aware that we are theatre-goers, and in the same vein we are made acutely aware that when we read a concrete poem we are poem-goers.

Concrete poetry operates within its theatrical space, and plays with vision sometimes in complementary ways but also in paradoxical ways, in subversive ways (Linnemann, p.215).  The page, website, clay, fabric, or wood, is tantalisingly knotted within the very sinews of the poetry. The concrete poem is embedded in itself, indebted to its material, indebted to its appearance and performance. Its unique ontological and immutable status emerges through the way it draws attention to its own revelation and materiality.

Derek Beaulieu discussing fellow concrete poets McCaffrey and bissett in ‘An Afterword After Words: Notes Towards A Concrete Poetic’ states:

Concrete poetry, as Steve McCaffery argues in regard to bill bissett’s writing, embodies an “interplay of forces & intensities, both through & yet quite frequently despite, language” in a flow of “non-verbal energy” (93). This flow, McCaffery argues, is composed of “forces oppositionally related to the signifying graphism of writing” (94) which struggle against the “constraint mechanisms of grammar” (93) (Beaulieu, p.4).

This essay interprets the interplay of forces and intensities as the interplay of Echo and Narcissus. Narcissus can only express himself as himself visually, and Echo blindly in her difference to Echo is the same as him. She can only express herself in her blindness, Him in his deafness. But CON-crete Poetry is aware of Sound, aware it cannot be reached.

Light and speech, voice and image: To conclude, Jacques Derrida, the sole cause for this essay, gets the final word on these two lovers:

Echo and Narcissus are two blind people who love each other. Now how do two blind people love each other? That’s the question (Derrida, Speech Is Blind, 2minutes 41seconds).

 

 

Image 8: Like by Emmett Williams

 

 

 Images key:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

 

 

 

 

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