Friday 18 December 2015

A revolt against transparency

The New Concrete has been lying around for a while, propped up against bookshelves, looking good: a near-square block in textured concrete white, the title in raised type and crossword style.  A fat white door that says Open Me, a door to all kinds of strangeness. 

ROSEMARIE WALDROP: Concrete poetry is first of all a revolt against the transparency of the word.

The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century is edited by Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe with an essay by Kenneth Goldsmith.  It’s published by Hayward Publishing at the Southbank Centre, who describe the book as an “overview of contemporary artists and poets working at the intersection of visual art and literature”.  I should declare here that I know Chris McCabe and that Hayward sent me a review copy (to my delight).  Also that I lack any background in the visual arts, linguistics or semiotics; what follows is a poetry reader’s review / reaction.

The white door works as a signal, meditation white to put the brain in a receptive state.  I get much pleasure from opening it anywhere and leafing through… looking? reading? being surprised and excited again and again by the inventiveness of the contents.   Most of all, being made to think about the strangeness of letters and words.  They change, disappear leaving an aftermath, are disrupted, superimposed, dissolved, de/reconstructed; they prance, flare or lurk in many different typescripts, pay grungy homage to early typewriter concrete, make/don’t make language and some sort of sense to the regular reading brain.

MAX BENSE: Concrete poetry does not entertain. It holds the possibility of fascination, and fascination is a form of concentration, that is concentration which includes perception of the material as well as perception of its meaning. 

Concrete poetry raises some reviewing questions.  How to describe the poems/pictures?  The contents list calls them ‘artists’ plates’.  There are around 180 of them, in alphabetical order (good decision – looking for ordering reasons would be a distraction).  Each is given its own page, framed in plenty more white.  I’ve just opened the book at random and hit ‘concrete poetry’ by nick-e melville.  Spoiler alert.  Various black geometrical shapes spread across a double page, like off-cuts from a suprematist’s collage session.  Ah, that one’s the inside of an R.  And there’s an O.  Another O with its head cut off like an egg; the top appears next to it.  The inner spaces of stencil letters!  What’s the oblong with a diagonal slash?  The right-hand side of Y.  Ah, it spells CONCRETE POETRY but some of the letters are missing or decapitated.  Mind and eye enjoy the confusion of floating lost among the black and white, then seeing/not-seeing the letters, then the puzzle.  Once the solution’s found it’s not possible to see the page the same way as before.  The strangeness of looking and thinking. 

DEREK BEAULIEU: Concrete poetry momentarily rejects the idea of the readerly reward for close reading, the idea of the ‘hidden or buried object’, interferes with signification and momentarily interrupts the capitalist structure of language.

Another reviewing question is: how to quote?  I’ll play safe and only show the pages that are on the Southbank Centre’s website.  I can't download them properly so please visit the page to see.  Here is ‘Flesh’ (left) by Décio Pignatari, one of the Brazilian founders of concrete poetry in the 1950s, still working in 2002; and ‘fallen’ (right) by Jörg Piringer, a foamy torrent of letters within which words seem to appear, or perhaps a cross-section of the chaos of a brain?  

One of my favourites, for its watery beauty, is Francesca Capone’s ‘Oblique Archive VI: Isidore Isou’.  An underwater book (apparently), its typewritten lines wavily distorted and luminescent as if seen on a poor quality screen.  It’s possible to make out some words: et même si, Rimbaud, lettristes, Tristan, voulons, Marx, tracts pro-soviet, (sym?)boliste. With time more becomes apparent, but which phrases go with which?  They merge and separate with the ripples on the water.  Moving my head around ought to work but no, this is a page.  Isidore Isou was the founder in the 1940s of the French avant-garde movement Lettrism: “many of their early works centred on letters and other visual or spoken symbols” says Wikipedia.

DONATO MANCINI: The typewriter creates the page-as-grid which creates the page of much concrete poetry…

This is ‘Grand Eagle (capitals and columns)’ by Henningham Family Press.  It’s one of the few plates that carries an explanation: “..If only propaganda were this difficult to read”.  The title sends us straight to American power both military and financial yet this could also be a digital-age and multi-coloured (rather than red-and-white) representation of the banners that used to appear in Eastern Europe in the days of the Warsaw Pact, strung across road bridges or on the front of factories.  Structurally it looks like a plan not just of Wall Street, say, but of a Roman military camp, lines and rows split into four quarter-squares.  In much of this book there’s no indication of scale – the original of ‘Grand Eagle’, despite its postage-stamp size on this blog, ought to take up a whole gallery wall or a stadium of North Korean dancers spelling out a message.  It probably fits inside another book.

I’ve opened again at random and come across Christian Bök’s ‘Of Yellow’ which contains no letters at all but a sort of representation of a computerisation / encoding of Rimbaud’s sonnet ‘Voyelles’.  Each vowel has been replaced by an oblong according to Rimbaud’s own colour associations as described in the sonnet.  Consonants are grey.  This is fun (like most of the book: forget what Max Bense said) and it’s interesting to see Rimbaud’s sound-patterns.  

KARL KEMPTON: [While computers and the internet have allowed people to create and publish] compositions that take hours instead of days or weeks or months, it has also generated a lack of respect for discipline and seriousness leading to widespread creation of insignificant works.

The pages that work best for me tend to be the ones where letters/words collide in strangeness and do the old Ezra Pound thing of MAKE IT NEW; where enough sense is made for that sense to be questioned, distorted, undermined, negated.  The space between meaningful language (whatever that means) and alphabet soup.  Some pages I respond to more as works of art, with the letters/words as props or still-life components. Occasionally I feel the sense just goes on making sense... 

This is a multinational collection of concrete poetry from the last fifteen years.  Most of the names are unknown to me; occasionally a known, usually British one leaps out (A code-hand-written page by Edwin Morgan... could be anything, perhaps the Loch Ness Monster singing in Linear A?)  There is some political work but not, I think, covering the Arab Spring and its aftermath or climate change, though the latter may underlie some works such as Richard Skelton’s ‘Limnology’.

The New Concrete has an excellent introduction by Kenneth Goldsmith on the history of concrete poetry and its current reincarnation as, he suggests, “post-digital concretism”.  There’s a sense that some contemporary practitioners feel they are riding on the shoulders of the giants of the 1950s and 60s.  Goldsmith suggests that the influence of social media means that “much of the new concrete poetry takes the form of snappy one-liners”.  I don’t find this when reading/looking through; perhaps the editors have avoided this phenomenon. Each has contributed an essay, subject matter ranging from a chance bookshop encounter to the shape poetry of 300BC.  And the book is book-ended by a wall of extremely quotable quotes, a few of which appear in this review. More on the book here.

IAN HAMILTON FINLAY: Concrete poetry is not a visual but a silent poetry. 


  1. Dear Fiona

    First of all, Happy New Year! Concrete poetry sounds a bit experimental for my taste. When Max Bense writes: 'Concrete poetry does not entertain.' I don't doubt him for a nanosecond. The best poetry book I received this Christmas was 'I walked As Lonely As A Cloud' by Ana Sampson which contains many classic poems from Chaucer to Cope. I sometimes wonder whether any contemporary poets will ever be as loved as Keats and Wordsworth still are and somehow I doubt it.

    Best wishes from Simon R Gladdish

  2. Dear Fiona

    I meant, of course, 'I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud' by Ana Sampson. (I also managed to kick a bottle of wine over on new year's eve.) What a great start to the new year!

    Best wishes from Simon