UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers | Concrete Poetry: A World View
Mary Ellen Solt
From Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968, Indiana University Press)
In France the new movement of experimental poetry follows in the wake of Dada experiments with the sound poem and Lettrisme, which explains, perhaps, why French concrete poetry is characterized by advanced methods of experimentation. It was launched in 1962 by Pierre Garnier's "Manifesto for a New Poetry Visual and Phonic," which appeared in LES LETTRES No. 29. Garnier named the new movement Spatialisme, for he sensed that man's new awareness of himself as a cosmic being in the age of space required a revision of language to express itself:
Once we lived safely beneath our stratum of air. Now we are waves spouting in the cosmos. How can we expect our words to remain wrapped up in the atmosphere of the sentence?
Garnier emphasized the necessity for
a break with the old rhythms:
The rhythms of poetry have succeeded in deadening the reader's mind.The structure of the sentence would also have to go:
The structure of the sentence has caused the same damage as the rhythms of poetry. What a difference there is between: "The tiger is coming to drink at the river bank" and the single name: TIGER!
In general Garnier's statements apply
to both visual and phonic poetry, but certain distinctions need
to be made. The visual poem
should not be 'read.' It should be
allowed to 'make an impression,' first through the general shape
of the poem and then through each word perceived out of the whole
The word "perceived" points
up most clearly the new way of experiencing the poem, which is
to replace reading, for:
A word which is read only grazes, the reader's mind: but a word that is perceived, or accepted, starts off a chain of reactions there.
Garnier defines the phonic poem "not
as a complete entity'' but as a "preliminary," for it
can be "spoken by one or more voices according to choice,"
and "while following the same rhythm and the same chain of
images the speaker can add and improvise as he thinks fit."
A "Second Manifesto for a Visual
Poetry" dated 31 December 1962 appeared in LES LETTRES 30.
Here Garnier speaks of the new visual poetry as a "return
to the solar play of surfaces" after the "submarine
adventure" of exploring the unconscious--the "glory"
of our century--but in the last analysis unconvincing, for "no
work of any painter, no poem of any poet convinces [him] fully
that it was born of the unconscious."
Where the word is concerned Garnier
speaks of "the world of objectivation . . . being born"
in which the word is coming to be known as "free object."
It is the task of poets to make the word "holy again"
like the "one or two sacred phrases of the Torah . . . more
important than a whole century of poetry, . . the word is more
expressive than the discourse." Its holiness resides in its
materiality: "There is in all material a dignity not yet
put to the proof."
This unmasking of the spirituality in that which we so far have called material is one of the great occurrences of our epoch. We have seen gold give way to zinc, to tin, to light metals. Man was bewildered to see coming toward him the spirit of lower beings. Distracted by thousands of years of arbitrary separation, he was not expecting it.
Garnier sees the "road to an objective
poetry" as "heading toward that ideal point where the
word creates itself. Autonomy of language.... Language is no longer
committed to man as man is no longer committed to language."
In the "world of objectivation" the artist is:
In 1963 Garnier drafted a manifesto
in which he attempted to unite the experimental poets working
throughout the world. Since Spatialisme is concerned with
space in both its visual and sound dimensions, it would seem to
be able to accommodate most if not all types of experimental poetry
presently being created. A draft of the manifesto was sent to
the poets for their signatures and approval, and it appeared in
final form as: POSITION I DU MOUVEMENT INTERNATIONAL (dated 10
October 1963) in LES LETTRES, No. 32. It is a most clarifying
document, for it defines all types of experimental poetry, reserving
the name "concrete" for "poetry working with language--material,
creating structures with it, transmitting primarily esthetic information."
Several of the poets in this selection signed it.
In many respects POSITION I is a re-statement
of the two preceding manifestoes, but Garnier enlarges the concept
of the "objective poem" as "the liberation of an
energy, the sharing of esthetic information, the objectivation
of language." The new poem should be thought of less as "art"
and more as ''transmitted energy."
In his most recent work Garnier, in
collaboration with his wife Ilse, has been experimenting with
the poeme mechanique. In the typewriter poem, Pierre and Ilse
Garnier find that the "linguistic elements" are joined
to one another in such a way that "the action of a force--that
of a word, of a group of letters, of psychic energy--acting upon
one of them, can be transmitted to the others and oppose itself
to the staticness of the poem." These are "driving"
forces which express themselves as "speed." The
realized poem amounts to "a transformation of work"
to workactivity of the linguistic materials. The typewriter is
particularly suited to this kind of poem because "it allows
for objectivation, the introduction of speed to the concept of
poetry, superposition, the progression of spaces, etc."
Machine poetry (that made on the typewriter,
tape recorder, etc.) is a recent development accruing from the
same "liberation of language" that has made other types
of experimental poetry possible:
Objectivation, disappearance of the primacy of semantics pulverization of words, language-matter able to produce energy or change into energy.
Ilse and Pierre Garnier have made typewriter
poems employing both whole words and single letters. In "texte
pour une architecture" making use of energy in typing (accenting
the word "cinema" as it is pronounced in French) and
of the space bar to move the entire line to the right one space
per line, atomizing the word, they have been able to capture the
play of black and white in the light projected onto the movie
screen. The flat, windowless wall of a theatre might well undergo
metamorphosis into a textural poem made of the word "cinema."
Although Garnier is considered the
spokesman for the international poetry movement in France, the
names of the other French poets presented here do not appear among
the list of signers of POSITION I. Some of them may not have been
working in the new way at that time; others were probably not
known to Garnier. Henri Chopin, however, found himself in the
position of being in sympathy with POSITION I DU MOUVEMENT INTERNATIONAL
but unable to sign it. His letter stating his reasons was appended
to the signatures. Essentially these were his objections:
. . . "position" tells us where we stand. The movement of which we are a priori "members" does not exist. I am not a member of a movement but I am "with" movement. I am movement. International? There again I balk. What does it mean? Does it mean beyond nations or with all nations? Possibly. But why not rather with life, with the moving force, combustion. From then on international need not be mentioned....
Chopin refuses to be bound by anything,
above all by le Verbe (the Word); for it is "an impediment
to living, it makes us lose the meager decades of our existence
explaining ourselves to a so-called spiritual, political,
social or religious court. Through it we must render accounts
to the entire world...." Consequently he has found more freedom
and integrity of expression in the sound poem made of "a-significant
human sounds, without alphabet, without reference to an explicative
clarity." For "the mimetic sound of man, the human sound
. . . the vocal sound . . . does not explain, it transmits emotions,
it suggests exchanges, affective communications; it does not state
precisely, it is precise."
Chopin's audio (sound) poems must,
of course, be heard. Our page from "sol air" ("earth
air") is part of the notation of a poem for tape recorder.
"sol air" is realized exclusively by the voice of the
author on magnetic tape. Various speeds and volumes of the tape
recorder are employed, also superpositions. The linguistic materials
of this poem are: the vowels and consonants of the words "sol
air," certain noises produced by the mouth, such as the clacking
together of the lips, and breathing. The result resembles electronic
Garnier, as we have seen, spoke of
the sound poem as "preliminary," open to various possibilities,
rather than as a "complete entity." At the Biennale
in Paris in 1965, Laura Sheleen and Francoise Saint-Thibault interpreted
"sol air" (composed 1964) as a "ballet of spaces."
One is struck by the impression of space hearing it.
Chopin also makes visual poems (with
or without words), which convey their message with graphic force
and a minimum of language. Like Augusto de Campos and Pignatari,
he has used the visual poem as an effective weapon for attacking
society and its institutions. Taking one of man's monuments to
his military "greatness," L' Arc de Triomphe, he makes
it of the word "saoul" ("drunk") and places
it upon earth that is "feu" ("fire"). But
if there is nothing admirable left in man who makes war for the
poet to glorify, he can still find a subject for pity and fear
in the naked, unknown soldier who burns alone in his commemorative
The new mechanical sound poem accomplishes
a union between the age of technology and the oral tradition of
poetry. Bernard Heidsieck has created another kind of oral poem
which is also a descendent of the various kinds of dramatic poetry:
the PoemPartition, meant to be performed as a simultaneity of
rapidly-spoken sentences punctuated by human or non-human sounds
and noises, some of them accidental. That is to say, in "La
Penetration", a double-talk discourse on man's nuclear and
sexual problems, the two halves of the page would be performed
at the same time, as events occur simultaneously in life. The
Poem-Partitiorz belongs to a species of experimental poetry which,
because it incorporates actual "living" material into
the poem, is called Póesie Actuelle or Poesie-Action.
Action Poetry, according to Heidsieck,
is one manifestation of the poem's return "to the world,"
of its desire to exert itself toward the reintegration of society.
"Places of 'actions' or of auditions take the place of the
written page: stage, street, listening room, studio." The
Action Poem is made from "anything that the poem authorizes
itself to take . . . the voice, the cry, the gesture, the act,
the noise, the sound, the silence, everything and anything."
And it uses the phonograph, the tape recorder, the juke-box or
any mechanical help it needs as its "new supports and vehicles."
Speaking particularly about Action
Poetry which makes use of the tape recorder, Heidsieck sees it
as a new approach to the poem from a "certain angle more
exact, perhaps, of reality, which the machine authorizes "
For it permits the poet "to arouse, to awaken other layers
of sensibility, to reach or lay bare other horizons or dimensions
of consciousness. Individual or collective." This is made
possible by: "manipulation of the speeds, cuttings, volumes,
superpositions, couplings." The resulting tape represents
"a photograph, a tracing, more faithful to the movements,
magic, interlacings, rhythms, softenings, shortenings, interferences
of thought," according to Heidsieck.
It is contemporary man's "desire
for the trace," his "desperateness to seize reality
by that bias" which "undoubtedly results from the mad
thickness of uncertainty which attaches itself to our collective
future, taking account of the apocalyptic possibilities or probabilities"
that brings the Action Poem into being, Heidsieck goes on to say:
Moreover the Absolute is despairingly searched for even at the heart of the relative or of its appearance, even the flesh of this quotidian having become the only certain element to which it is still permissible to cling.... The rage to find there or to rouse the miracle-stone.... From whence its [the poem's] desire . . . to exorcise the banal. To incorporate it within itself. To stigmatize it. To burn it. In order to extract from it the quintessence of events or to kill it. To return life to it or to make it give back its soul.
The Action-Poem, then, is a "certain
ritual, ceremonial, or event . . . lying in wait for the participation
of others," that arouses it, or provokes it "during
the course of Offices or of 'moments' which attempt to become
sacred" more by responsibly searching and questioning human
existence than by celebrating it, for:
We must begin at the beginning. To question our daily gestures, and words and cries. To appropriate them or dynamite them. To make them meaningful and to put our names to them. At best. It's a question of recovering their energy potential or of eliminating the slag from them. Of recapturing the mystery and the breath. Of events. At their roots. In order that our mechanical and technocratic age may be animated by them, imbued with them from the point of their unmoorings.
Julien Blaine follows a course closer
to traditional concepts of the poem. In "3 + 3" a high
degree of Iyricism is achieved with the concrete method of formula
and repetition. The effectiveness of the poem results from the
play of subjective tone and musical quality against a "mathematical"
pattern. In "X" the precise mathematical sign for the
unknown becomes the predominating letter in "voiX" ("voice").
The poet's voice speaks to us in terms of a fantastic riddle.
In the world of signs, though, the meaning of X is perfectly clear.
Jean François Bory's poem "femme"
("woman") establishes a kinship between a contemporary
method of picture writing made possible by the camera and the
ancient calligraphic character. In "S" he uses the letter
as the "sign of signs" of the times, typing within the
letter form words and phrases beginning with "s," which
taken all together make a scathing comment, belying the beauty
of the visual sign of the poem. Bory and Blaine are associated
with the magazine APPROCHES.
Jean-Marie le Sidaner also makes
a despairing comment on the world using the technique of the layout
to suggest a full-page advertisement of the world. An advertisement
is some kind of invitation. We are offered fragments: phrases,
sentences, single words, visual images, which suggest symbols
(some not completely recognizable) and the ancient character for
"fire" as the Han mark of the poet. LeSidaner is committed
to Spatialisme as: "the greatest artistic movement