About concrete poetry
by Jean-François Bory
I would like to begin with an anecdote that, in my opinion, demonstrates very well what concrete poetry is.
One day the painter Edgar Degas went to dinner at the home of his friend Stéphane Mallarmé and said to him: “My dear Stéphane, I don’t understand what is happening. Last week I had some excellent ideas and in my enthusiasm I wrote a large number of poems, but they are all very bad. How can this be?”
“My dear friend”, Mallarmé replied, “one does not write with ideas but with words!”(1)
You will note that Mallarmé said with words, not with letters.
Any attempt to manipulate letters alone inevitably leads into the domain of visual art or decorative calligraphy.
Moreover, all concrete or visual poets consider themselves to be writers first and foremost. It is true that some of them hover on the threshold of linguistic abstraction, but I have never met a concrete poet who considers him- or herself to be primarily a visual artist. The principal subject of the concrete poet is language itself.
The failure of this excessively visual tendency is exemplified by lettrisme movement, which ended up in a blind alley.
The smallest unit of language is not in fact the letter but the phoneme. We need only to examine the first cuneiform writings (or hieroglyphics or ideograms) to realise that every language involves a representation of sounds comprised of a complex combination of signs Arabic calligraphy, elaborate though it is, is always constituted of words and meanings.
Otherwise stated, language can go no further than the distance that separates the signifier and the signified. This distance is considerable and infinite.
As the structuralists explained (Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and also, is a more premonitory fashion, Walter Benjamin in his rare text “Je range ma biblothèque” (2)(“Organizing my bookshelf”)), the signified represents the potentiality of the word and the signified its final meaning.
An obvious example of the interplay between signifier and signified can be found in Gomringer’s poem:
Americans and apricots
Apricots and Americans (3)
Indeed, the pleasure we experience in reading this poem lies in the discrepancy between the apparent banality of the words upon first reading them and the way in which they expand in our mind, delighting us with the subtlety of their meanings.
The great American semantician and logician Alfred Korzibski wrote “the map is not the territory”(4). This is obviously true. But a map is also an object in the world.
The concrete poem is an object in the world.
Whereas traditional poetry claims to be the replica of the world, which is impossible, concrete poetry is more realistic and expounds the following simple truth: poems consist of words and are objects in their own right.
A concrete poem can, of course, stimulate our imagination in the same way that a map can make us think of a landscape. But this landscape is never the replica of an existing landscape, only a figment of the imagination.
In other words, we could say that traditional poetry is derived from Galileo’s view of the world whereas concrete poetry is closer to Quantum mechanics.
Concrete poetry is not the revolution that its numerous detractors feared it would be. It merely represents a different point of view regarding words and the world, a minuscule reform of the poetic language.
However, it represents a great step forward for modern poets!
I did not know a great deal about this in Paris in 1964. I was a twenty year old and a poet of the second wave of the concrete poetry. But I had the good fortune to know Raoul Hausmann, the former Berlin Dadaist, who lived in France. Even in the avant-garde we need to know about the past in order to advance into the future. My acquaintance with Raoul Hausmann was very useful to me. I also knew Francis Ponge who spent the summer holidays in the south of France every year with Elisabeth Walter and Max Bense.
Following the advice of these illustrious “godparents” I sent texts to Ilse and Pierre Garnier, the directors of the review Les Lettres. Pierre welcomed me with open arms, gave me the addresses of numerous concrete poets and published my work in his review. This is how, having made contact with Haroldo de Campos and the review invenção, I was the first to translate the first four cantos of Campos’ Galaxias. I published the translations in Change, the philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye’s review.
It was a great pleasure for me to be among the first to participate in the globalization of modern poetry.
In 1965, Dada was forgotten in France and I was the first to rediscover Raoul Hausmann and to highlight his importance by publishing the first biography of him. Raoul Hausmann’s advice was precious to me, although very biased. He considered that nothing more could be achieved after Dada. This was also, more or less, the opinion of Hannah Höch, Richter and Huelsenbeck with whom I corresponded while writing my biography of Raoul Hausmann. The French public was also almost entirely ignorant of Futurism and nobody wanted to talk about it. I was able to initiate myself in Futurism – of which the manifestes and the Parole in liberta were extremely difficult to find – through the intermediary of the young Italian visual poet Arrigo Lora Totino who put me in contact with Carlo Belloli.
Armed with these credentials, I decided to found my own review, Approches (4 issues, 1966-1968) with some young Parisian poets, creating radical texts that covered the pages of the review and were perforated by “absent” letters. Naturally, I also published in Approches the work of all the members of the international avant-garde that I knew: Max Bense, Henri Chopin, Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari, John Furnival, Franz Mon, Gerhard Rühm, Jiri Kolar, Carlfriedrich Claus, Dom Silvester Houedard, Edgardo Antonio Vigo, Eugenio Miccini, Julio Campal, De Melo e Castro, Richard Kostelanetz, Seiichi Niikuni, etc.
Then in January 1968 I met Jochen Gerz through Manfred Mohr, at a lecture given by Max Bense at the Goethe Institute in Paris. Gerz was exclusively a poet at that time, and we decided to publish Agentzia.
We wanted Agentzia (1970-1972) to be “more” than a straightforward avant-garde review. We wanted to create a kind of poetic agency to publish books and to organise exhibitions and poetry events as well, of course, as publishing a review.
Agentzia lasted until the moment that Gerz decided to devote his energy entirely to visual art.
The Text und Aktionsabend organised in Bern on 27th February 1968 by Anastasia Bitos, at which I made my first public reading and to which Claus Bremer, Timm Ulrich, and others were also invited (publication with a catalogue and a record 33t.) remains in my memory as a great moment of human contact within the domain of concrete poetry. During the same year, another important gathering of avant-garde poets was the Festival de Fumable in the Italian Alps involving Eugenio Piccinni, Loral Torino and John Furnival among others.
It was not until much later, in the 1980s, that concrete poetry became more widely known in France through the Polyphonie evenings organised at the Centre Georges Pompidou.
From my point of view, aside from the important contribution I made to international avant-garde poetry with three successive reviews – Approches ( 4 issues, 1966-1968); Agentzia in collaboration with Jochen Gerz (40 publications, reviews, books, paper objects, 1968-1972); l’Humidité (25 issues + record 33t.), 1970-1978) – I have also published around 100 books, ranging from the first, Heigh texts + one, by Gallery number ten, 1966, London, to the most recent, Les derniers jours de l’Alphabet, A.D.L.M.,2010, Paris.
These books will be the subject of an exhibition, accompanied by a catalogue, at the Biblioteca Poletti, Modena, Italy and then at the Centre du livre d’artiste in St. Yrieix la Perche, France.
Printing techniques have obviously evolved considerably since 1965 and 2011 it is much easier to create avant-garde poems using computers.
However, the premise of creation remains the same: an extraordinary and fabulous mixture of senses and emotions which every poet is able, in his or her own way, to conjure forth into the world after plunging into the secret entrails of language.
Mallarmé knew this already when he said “The future is never more than the bursting forth of what ought to have occurred earlier, or near the origin”.(5)
- in Paul Valery, “Variété III”, Paris, 1919.
2) First published in France in my review “l’Humidité”, n°24, 1976, Paris.. Translated by B. de Launay.
- Eugen Gomringer, “Konstellationen”, 1953.
- Alfred Korzibski, “Manhood of Humanity”, “The role of language in perception process”, 1949, Spencer Press, USA.
5) Stéphane Mallarmé, “Divagations”, Translated by Lee Hildreh in my own anthologie “Once Again”, New Directions, NYC, 1968.