Today's poet almost certainly can't help but think about
how their poem looks on a page. It's easy to change line breaks,
stanza breaks, word spacing, line length and fonts with a
word processing program. And it's interesting to see how changing
the line length or a stanza break can slightly alter the meaning
of the text. But what happens when we take the words out of
the poem and the letters out of the words and play with their
relation to the page? What happens when the visual form of
the poem is as important as the words that make it?
Although the Chinese were actually the first to invent movable
type, Johannes Gutenberg is widely credited for inventing
the printing press around 1454, when his Guttenberg Bible
became the first mass-produced book. In no time, typesetting
technology spread rapidly across Europe. Within only fifty
years, thousands of printers set up shops in over two hundred
European cities. The invention of the printing press was quite
the revolution. Not only did moveable type allow for the mass
production of books (before its invention scribes had to write
out entire books by hand--you try copying an entire book word-for-word!)
and provide a healthy income for early entrepreneurs, but
it opened an expansive field in which artisans, visionaries,
and craftsmen could experiment with the visual aspect of poetics.
Indeed, since the early beginnings of the press, artists
began creating what would later be called "concrete poetry."
In the early 20th century, experiments in visual poetry occurred
in Russian Futurist typographic work, the Italian Futurists,
and in the "calligrammatic" works of Guillaume Apollinaire.
(The word calligram comes from the Greek "calli"
and "gramma" which together mean "beautiful
But it wasn't until the early fifties that the term "concrete
poetry" was coined. Amazingly, the term came about simultaneously
in three countries. In Switzerland, Eugene Gomringer, published
a book of poetry in which each poem only consisted of one
word. He spatially arranged each word so that the placement
of the word represented the poem's meaning and called his
word placements "constellations." Swedish artist
Öyvind Fahlström wrote a Manifesto for Concrete
Poetry in 1953. In it, he described a poetry in which the
words were used in the way a painter would use representational
forms. And at the same time in Brazil, Haroldo de Campos,
Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari formed the Noigandres
group, named for Ezra Pound's Canto XX. The group produced
a literary magazine which served as an experimental ground
for their three-dimensional poetry which they called Poesia
By 1956 the First National Show of Concrete Art included
posters of non-linear poems. In 1959, the first international
show of concrete poetry was held in Stuttgart, Germany and
by the early 1960's, exhibitions of concrete poetry were widespread
in Europe, Japan and the United States. And although the term
"concrete poetry" is now a blanket term for the
many forms of visual poetry, it lived on through artists such
Williams , and bpNichol.
This issue of Poems that Go features work which continues
in the tradition of typographical experimentation--this time
on the Web. Our featured artist, Michael Madsen, presents
Demand Things," in which Madsen seeks to explore
the relationships between letters themselves-- both in what
they represent and their physical structure. He masterfully
breaks the letters down into sounds and shapes, all the time
allowing the audience a first-hand glimpse into his textual
The Jabberwocky Engine" by Neil Hennessey builds
up these letters to produce nonsensical words that sound like
English words, in the same way that the words from Lewis Carroll's
Jabberwocky sound like English words. Hennessey realizes a
linguistic chemistry with letters as atoms and words as molecules.
And finally, YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES presents "Betty
Nkomo" in their signature style: devoid of color,
interactivity and graphics, leaving the audience with one
rhythmically charged word on the screen at a time--making
what else? Poetry.
For more information visit:
Concrete Poetry: A World View, Mary Ellen Solt http://www.ubu.com/papers/solt/index.html
Figuring The Word, Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics,
Johanna Drucker. Granary Books. 1998.
Plan for Concrete Poetry
Augusto de Campos, Decio Pignatari, Haroldo de Campos: Brazil.
Specific Concrete-Visual Poems on the WWW-InterNet. Selected
and Indexed by Michael P. Garofalo. http://www.gardendigest.com/concrete/cvpindex.htm