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Category Archives: Concrete Poetry

Surface Tension by Derek Beaulieu (Coach House Books)

Surface Tension by Derek Beaulieu (Coach House Books)

I have several Derek Beaulieu books on my poetry shelves; his work fascinates and intrigues me, but I still don’t feel I know how to read them (or perhaps the term is process them). Concrete poetry is an established genre and I am happy to put Beaulieu into that lineage, I’m also happy with poetry that uses the visual as a guiding or organizing principle, and poetry that doesn’t prioritise content or narrative or epiphany.

Yet, Beaulieu’s poems are beyond that. Often constructed from Letraset rub-down lettering, they are visual patterns and constructs, sometimes in sequences, sometimes seemingly treated even more (or made differently): “Calcite Gours 1-19”, published and given away by rob mclennan back in 2004, and my introduction to Beaulieu’s work, contains a ‘suite of poems’ which are circular-ish explosions of ink, reminiscent of star clusters. They are as seductive and engaging as the night sky, too.

That book is also dedicated to the memory of Bob Cobbing, which offers another lineage to place Beaulieu’s work into, that of improvisation and sound poetry, hand-in-hand with the farther reaches of experimental poetry. Beaulieu states that the work ‘is an attempt at engaging with the materiality of language; treating the construction of poetry as a physical task’, going on to reference ‘painterly/gesture based movements and modes of construction influenced by abstract expressionism’, to be considered as ‘an examination of mark making’.

Surface Tension is much more clearly made of letter forms, not only prompting the question ‘where on earth does the author find Letraset in the 21st century?’ but also offering a way in to the work through variation, change and mutation: the work in each sequence is clearly related and shares source material as it slides, disforms and reconfigures itself. My favourite sequence is ‘Dendrochronology’, which swiftly develops from a curvy conglomeration of letters into enlarged topographies of black and whites forms, reminiscent of rock strata or map details.

The book is also interesting for the poetics on offer, presented as prose between the series of poems. The first of these offers several interesting ideas and facts: that ‘Surface Tension creates landscapes from the remnants of advertising’ (which made me feel less guilty about my landscape comparison); and that ‘[t]hese reflections and distortions work to keep concrete current, in flow, a fluidity refusing to solidify around power.’

This idea of fluidity as a tactic to resist power is an interesting one, and Beaulieu builds on it in a later text where he states ‘that the usages of language in poetry of the traditional type are not keeping pace with live processes of language and rapid methods of communication at work in the contemporary world’, and also reminds us that ‘[w]riting is not aboutsomething, it is the something itself.’

Even if we want to argue with that notion, perhaps saying we want a poem to be about something as well as being something, we must be aware of  those ‘live processes of language and rapid methods of communication’, perhaps even the idea of society, nature, knowledge and matter itself in flux. I am reminded of Helen Vendler’s statement in The Given and the Made, when discussing the early work of Jorie Grahamthat:

‘The instabilities of matter must now be assumed by the self; and so any poem spoken in the voice of the material self must be an unstable poem, constantly engaged in linguistic processes of approximation.’ 

Beaulieu’s way of dealing with the unstable and approximate is to create ‘poems that refuse linearity in favour of the momentary’, poetry that ‘move[s] past declarations of emotion into a form more indicative of how readers process language’. To resist modern culture, advertising and the transient by producing poetry that works in the same way is an odd form of engagement, but it is an intriguing approach, and serves as a provocation and reminder that ‘[e]motions and ideas are not physical materials’, and that poems ‘are not rarified jewels carefully chiselled for a bespoke audience.’ 

Beaulieu prefers poetry to be constructed with ‘nuts and bolts, factory made, shifting from use to use’, thinks that ‘[l]iterature is not craftsmanship but an industrial process’, and states ‘[t]he contemporary poem is an understanding of juxtapositions’: all admirable responses to and rebuttals of the egotistical, lyrical hangovers and shaggy dog narratives we find in so much contemporary poetry. 

Once we realise it is okay to just enjoy Beaulieu’s poems for what they are, in the moment, a weight lifts and we no longer have to worry about content and understanding, can find our own way of engaging with these original and distinct poems. We should also be aware that how we read and what we read, changes. Jacques Derrida perhaps says it best, in ‘Living On / Border Lines’:

‘unreadability does not arrest reading, does not leave it paralysed in the face of an opaque surface: rather, it starts reading and writing and translating moving again. The unreadable is not the opposite of the readable, but rather the ridge that also gives it momentum, movement, sets it in motion.’ 

In Surface Tension Derek Beaulieu continues to set all sorts of things in motion, extending and refining the possibilities of poetry.

Rupert Loydell 31st January 2023

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

Alexandra Psaropoulou’s All The Stars (Austin Macauley, 2014)

Alexandra Psaropoulou’s All The Stars (Austin Macauley, 2014)

The arrival of this concrete poem coincided with that of Gordon Lish’s latest work Cess: A Spokening (OR Books), with its one hundred and sixty odd pages of rarefied vocabulary set between two longish notes. There could not have been a greater contrast. This long poem won me over though with its insistent rhythm, well modulated in terse, irregular stanzas employing a limited range of vocabulary. Its engaging charm and childlike simplicity has a surprising forcefulness.

Divided into 38 parts and set in 36 point bold typeface within seventy pages of colour digital designs the poem holds its own above the setting. The designs are intrinsically part of the whole serving to reinforce the cosmic, elemental and lived part of the poetic journey towards spiritual fulfillment. The poem is centred on a first person narrative attempting to transcend dead-ends calling upon inner will and imagination to create, both internally and externally, and enact the vision of a life longed for. The opening part sets up the repetitive structure and subtle twists that continue throughout.

And all the stars
are in the sky
and the waves
are lapping
and the nightbird
is singing
And all the stars
are in the sky
above
And all our wishes
are true
And may all our wishes
be true

The poem’s highlight is not so much the quest for a creative vision but rather the virtues it makes from such a restricted vocabulary. In a way Psaropoulou is a modern Greek equivalent to the concrete poetry of Edwin Morgan or Ian Hamilton Finlay employing subtle and nuanced changes within a narrow pattern of repetition. The difference being that Psaropoulou uses more words and thus has more rhythmic pressure over the longer poem.
The digital work is necessary serving to echo, adding detail on the page, and locate the vision in the daily life of the poet-narrator. It is thus not otherworldly. Nor is it timeless. The modern world is present from the coloured lights in the garden to the busy road scene where the poet-narrator is situated carrying a large handbag between a Range Rover and a scooter, and the text set on the right hand page reads ‘Running / to let out // Running / to let the madness/ out of my heart’. The poem is centred by the digital design adding to the impact and engagement of the whole. At its heart is a portrait of the poet-narrator and her family having an alfresco luncheon with the left page text reading ‘And you must find / the happiness now’. This is an instruction of which the late Lee Harwood and you, dear reader, would surely have approved.

http://www.austinmacauley.com/content/alexandra-psaropoulou

David Caddy 10th August 2015

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