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The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century edited by Victoria Bean & Chris McCabe (Hayward Publishing)

The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century edited by Victoria Bean & Chris McCabe (Hayward Publishing)

This sumptuously designed, colourful and beguiling anthology begins with a compendium of quotations on the nature of concrete poetry from poets past and present. The Bolivian poet, Eugen Gomringer, sums up the spirit of the early concrete movement: ‘The purpose of reduced language is not the reduction of language itself but the achievement of greater flexibility and freedom of communication. The resulting poems should be, if possible, as easily understood as signs in airports and traffic signs.’ And: ‘The visible form of concrete poetry is identical to its structure, as is the case with architecture.’ Here we have recognition that concrete poetry was more than a working around the materiality of language and that it was a way of working with that materiality towards a fresh communication in a broad range of forms.

Kenneth Goldsmith’s introductory essay analyses the collapse of concrete poetry in its first period and subsequent re-emergence in the digital age in relation to the technology of the typeface, typewriter and computer. He sees the changes as broadly running in parallel with ‘larger changes across cultural output.’ He cites the Brazilian Noigandres group of poets as the movement founders, as opposed to the German artist Max Bill, or Swedish poet, Öyvind Fahlström, who named the genre, with their efforts to create a universal picture language, a poetry that could be read by all, seeing this visual Esperanto as revolutionary in intent. Goldsmith gives attention to graphic space, as opposed to notions of it being a hybrid of text and image, as the key to understanding how this movement emerged and was conceptualised. This is central to Gomringer’s 1968 poem, ‘schweigen’ / ‘silence’:

schweigen schweigen schweigen
schweigen schweigen schweigen
schweigen
schweigen schweigen schweigen
schweigen schweigen schweigen

The poem works on many levels and leaves space around its margins and in the centre for the reader to engage and return to with a growing sense of its importance.

Drawing upon Poundian imagery and Joycean wordplay, the movement dovetailed with compression in advertising slogans, technological and poetic language use, and was firmly modernist in its rejection of subjective expression and negation of metaphor, lineation and organic form. It grew through extensive correspondence between international practitioners and reached its zenith in the Sixties with two special editions of the Times Literary Supplement, influential anthologies and exhibitions in galleries around the world. He links its decline to attitudes to typeface, in particular the reaction against the narrowness of Helvetica, seen as a Cold War artefact expressing unwanted binaries, the success of mail art, and the lack of a new role.

The digital age gave concrete poetry that new role. It now remixes language through text and image manipulation in even more condensed and multidimensional ways. Victoria Bean takes up this theme seeing the new concrete as a response to our immediate world, to culture and its rapid change, citing Turkish artist, Sekan Isin’s attempts to produce anti-codes to intervene against the codes imposed upon us and Ron King’s 2003 anti-war poem ‘Blah! Blah! Blair!’ It also, as Bean implies and is shown in the contents, gives women more of a voice in the art world. The Internet has opened up the past so that it is easier now to re-discover the work of Dom Sylvester Houédard, sadly not in the anthology, or Bob Cobbing the subject of a recent year long series of exhibitions around the country, or virtually visit Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta garden.

Chris McCabe writes engagingly of the prehistory and stages of Shape Poetry, Pattern Poetry, Concrete Poetry (1953-1977), Visual Poetry and Vispo producing a more complex and satisfying account of the genre. He shows how the editors arrived at their anthology seeing the visual poets represented, following Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, as travellers in both antique and future lands.

The poet artists are presented alphabetically from A-Z producing an unpredictable and random effect. Some of the classic exemplars, such as Augusto de Campos, Cobbing, Henri Chopin, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Gomringer, Edwin Morgan, Décio Pignatari are represented here. The joy of this book comes more from the exuberance and vitality of the range of international contributors, the spread of generations from Susan Howe born in 1937 to Sarah Kelly born in 1985, and in opening any of its pages to be startled, excited and moved by words, such as Thomas A. Clark’s ‘the moment before / the moment before’, or Sophie Herxheimer’s ‘Disaster’, an Oulipian anagrammatic found in the word ‘disaster’ and shaped into a tear, and their transcriptions.

David Caddy 17th November 2015

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