Klankteksten - Konkrete Poëzie - Visuele Teksten

Sound Texts - Concrete Poetry - Visual Texts
Director Liesbeth Crommelin
Curators Hansjörg Mayer, Reinhard Döhl, Bob Cobbing, Paul De Vree
Publisher Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Publishing date November 1970

Klankteksten - Konkrete Poëzie - Visuele Teksten (Sound Texts - Concrete Poetry - Visual Texts) is the title of an exhibition catalogue released in conjunction with the exhibition 'Klankteksten?' at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands in November 1970. The exhibition provided an overview of the concrete poetry movement.


Installation view including Revolution (1969).

The exhibition came at a time when concrete poetry was in a crisis position internationally. This crisis situation was reflected in the question mark that appears in the title of the exhibition. After all, concrete poetry was declared dead in the English magazine Stereo-headphones.

The exhibition was divided into different sections: a didactic one in which some forms and methods in visual poetry were presented; and the representation of the diversity of constellations and arrangements (mainly typographical) divided into different groupings or geographic regions. As a result, the exhibition was in danger of becoming historic. De Vree was the great advocate for reversing this with the establishment of a third section entitled Open End. This more forward-looking section accommodated poetic work by artists who also used other visual means than purely typographical, often incorporating clear expressions of political-social or conceptual thoughts. Most of these poets will later group themselves into Lotta Poetica, the international artists' magazine founded by Sarenco and Paul De Vree in 1971.

- M HKA Ensembles, ? Klankteksten, konkrete poëzie, visuele teksten

Exhibition Catalogue

The exhibition catalogue is approximately 230 pages long, and contains texts on concrete poetry from the exhibition curators in Dutch, English, and French. The catalogue is divided into sections, including Some forms and working methods in visual poetry, writer biographies, a bibliography of concrete poetry publications, and listings of exhibitions and recordings. Many of the concrete poems have been reproduced in full-page format.


The exhibition ‘Concrete Poetry ?’ features over one hundred artists. The complexity of the setup required an exceptionally great organisational endeavour, for which homage is due to miss Liesbeth Crommelin, deputy-curator of the Museum’s department of Applied Art. Apart from her study of the matter in hand and her untiring efforts, along with the devoted care of the secretariat which could hardly cope with the spate of poetic contributions, we were committed to advice and actual assistance from outside, which, in fact, has been extended to us in a generous and profuse manner. In various countries, our advisors have collected material for the benefit of the exhibition. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the following persons:

Pierre Garnier, France Haroldo deCampos, South-America Reinhard Döhl, Germany Bob Cobbing, England Paul de Vree, Belgium and the Netherlands Seiichi Niikuni, Japan Bohumila Grögerova and Josef Hirsal, Czechoslovakia Emmett Williams, USA Hansjörg Mayer, Germany and England Ugo Carrega and Sarenco, Italy Michael Rhodes, Canada

In addition, as the preparatory operations proceeded, all kinds of new work were sent in; it was all viewed and graded during two strenuous weekends. During the stimulating discussions with Paul de Vree, Hansjörg Mayer, Bob Cobbing and Reinhard Döhl, the setup as well as the title of the exhibition were constantly subject to change and under fire of criticism. Bob Cobbing handled the material for the longplay record as well as the program for the tape recorders; Hansjörg Mayer consulted with general public.

In the Netherlands for one, which on the score of its limited language territory, finds itself from the start at a disadvantage, it has been possible since 1962 to get acquainted with the latest ideas on visual poetry, notably through the extremely well documented publications in the periodical De Tafelronde, published at Antwerp by Paul de Vree. There are in the Dutch language area in all some six magazines that are almost entirely committed to this visual aspect of poetry. In the official literary press in Holland, however, visual poetry is all but totally ignored; not until this year (1970), on the spur of the publication of some visual poetry in book form, did the literary columns of a few dailies and weeklies devote some more column space to this event. Could it be that we Dutchmen are by nature wary of amalgamating individual disciplines ? On surveying the international publications in this field, we are bound to recognize that we are here indeed concerned with a professional field, alas with the inevitable concommittant issues of birthright, confusion of ideas, etc. We have tried to be as objective as possible in our approach of the matter in hand, but realize full well that we have not been successful all the way. While, on the one hand, it was obvious that a movement which originated some twenty years ago, has by now become a closed historical chapter, on the other hand it seemed equally conceivable that its influence or aftereffect might evolve along entirely different lines according to tradition, personality or circumstances. In the spring of 1970, Nicolas Zurbrugg collected, in the magazine Stereo Headphones, a number of stagements on the death of concrete poetry, as voiced by various well-known poets in this field. The opinions ranged from fierce attacks on those artists who continue to work on the old established lines and don’t, in fact, achieve more than feeble typographical jokes, to the recognition of the ‘death’ of concrete poetry which would clear the road for the emergence of new forms in poetry.

What we have tried to visualize in the present exhibition, is

a. the evolution of the new typovisual forms as from 1950; b. poetry which avails itself also of other plastic means than the printed (or typewritten) character.

The first section of the exhibition opens with the somewhat isolated figure of Carlo Belloli, disciple of Marinetti’s, who constitutes in a way a transition from the futurist ideas to the ‘concrete’ thinking of around 1950. The second section shows the afore mentioned major influential groups and individuals who worked quite independently in various places. Next is shown, in a rather random order, work originated in a number of countries, in particular publications by people who have been creative in this field since before 1965. An exception has been made for Japan which country, on account of its fundamentally heterogeneous characters, was difficult to place in a chronological pattern, and also for Czechoslovakia which, as a result of its isolation, has produced work of such an individual character that it baffles all efforts to distinguish different periods.

The last section of the exhibition features artists who search for other than purely typographic means to make poetry ‘concrete’. They include authors who either originally came under the first group but have changed their working methods afterwards or, from the start, used other formative means and who, in many instances, appear to think in terms of politico-social or philosophical ideas as is evidenced by a number of texts by Italian and French poets which share many properties with other forms of plastic art. A third group is formed by some of the latest examples of typovisual expression having an originality of their own and of their own time.

To the end of elucidating the didactic side of the exhibition, it was thought appropriate to open with a number of examples of working methods that visitors may identify in the exhibited texts. The grouping as shown in this opening section, has been derived, in a shorter version, from the exhibition Text Buchstabe Bild which was organized in Zürich this summer by Felix Baumann and Reinhard Döhl.

I have refrained from giving here a definition of what concrete poetry is, on the assumption that the essays by Bob Cobbing, Reinhard Döhl and Paul de Vree included in the catalogue, present an illuminating description of, respectively, its phonetic, its linguistic and its graphic-visual aspects.

Liesbeth Crommelin

In order to obviate all misunderstanding as to visual poetry (i.e. the form) which, in its concrete manifestation, obviously tends toward graphic and plastic art, we’ll have to elucidate the difference with the current trend in plastic art to use lettering and printed texts (cf Cubism and Merz), i.e. semantics(1) as constituent material for a composition and/or structure. In both cases, we are concerned with the phenomenon of ‘Vermischungen’ (amalgamations, fusions) which Helmut Heissenbüttel views as characteristic of the development of art in the 20th century, and which has spawned as yet unnamed forms of art. In the former instance, however, the poets still adhere to the notion of poetry, because through the text - however rudimentary, reduced or truncated - they are confronted with an optical process. The text remains primary. It appears often difficult to clearly differentiate in these matters. For not infrequently, visual poetry is practised by poets who are also painters or inversely. A great number of these works may therefore be labeled as standing ‘between poetry and painting’.

In general terms, the definition as formulated by the Bolivian Swiss Eugen Gomringer and the Brasilian Noigandres group is central to the visual aspect of concrete poetry: the conscious perception of the material and its structure, the material as the sum total of all the signs with which we make poetry. This vision of poetry did not come out of the blue around 1955. Since Stéphan Mallarmé (Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard), it developed via futurism (F. T. Marinetti), Dadaism (H. Ball, R. Hausmann, Tristan Tzara), Sic (P. Albert-Birot) and De Stijl (Theo van Doesburg) to the proto-concrete conception of Carlo Belloli (1944-1951) and poetic lettrism (1945, I. Isou, R. Altmann) and finally came to full fruition in Gomringer’s ‘Konstellationen’ who, inspired by Max Bill, pointedly transformed semantics1 into a graphic pattern. This optical process derives from the vision that wants to reestablish the organic function of poetry in society and, consequently, to make poetry directly visible as an object meant to be seen and used. What is primarily envisaged here is a rediscovery of constituent elements (Gomringer), a breaking-down of linguistic elements to the end of achieving new material (Fahlström). (Here the difference with Dada is apparent this movement obviously was aimed at the parodic negation and destruction of bourgeois culture and only later, at first intuitively, then consciously, engaged itself in formative issues.) The constellation hinges on the juxtaposition (repetatively or combinationwise) of a group of words whose intermetric relations, in order to be seen, demand a typographic enhancement (M. Weaver). ‘Aesthetically’, Max Bense adds, the scope or play of a sentence (a text) is the sentence itself, i.e. identical with (…) its material realization.’ (‘Essentially, play is a realization, not a code’). This accounts for the research carried out by the ‘Materialgruppe’ of Darmstadt. Emmett Williams, Diter Rot, Claus Bremer and André Tomkins organize concretizations that consist predominantly of the regular typewriter print and derive their significance from the systematic handling of the text. In this perspective, the importance of the alphabet which had already been used before as a poetic ingredient by such typographers as Hendrik Nikolaas Werkman and by the lettrists, becomes evident.

With reference to Franz Mon’s ‘Artikulationen’, Carlfriedrich Claus, (in Nota 4, 1960, p. 42-43) remarked how the characters as such, through their proportions, their power of attraction and repulsion, their flowing and intersecting (horizontal-static or vertical and diagonaldynamic) impart, as it were, word meaning to each individual letter and, optically as well as acoustically, create a new universe. This was taken up by Dorn Silvester Houédard in his cosmically charged typestracts, but it is especially Pierre and Ilse Garnier who have built their spatialism on this principle. Primarily, however, spatialism is aimed at making the body partake in the realization of a poem - in this respect, it is allied to the ars poëtica of the audiopoet or sound poetry poet Henri Chopin it sees language as a living organism endowed with energy. This energy is unleashed to advantage in the mechanical poetry 1 (impulsively) and in the visual (script) language planes of Carl-friedrich Claus and others, an arresting, labyrinthical example of ‘the visual encompassing the readable’. The mechanical poem 1 is a micro-structure which, on the spur of psycho-physical impulses (tied in with the engagement of body, hands, fingers, eyes plus the machine), creates a visual unit in which syntax is atomised, chance incorporated, areas of language and tension are projected. The result springs from a gesture. (In painting, the mechanical poem has its counterpart in action painting and kinetism.) In the mechanical poetry 2 the topography (spatial disposition) of the linguistic material is more homogenous and more modular. While the typewriter still reflects the lyrical impulse - witness the French-Japanese nature poems by Pierre Garnier and Seichi Niikuni, the whirling explositives of De Vree’s and Bengt Emil Johnson’s visionary clusters of characters -, with the typography as practiced, in an autonomous (i.e. aesthetic) way, by the Stuttgart group, a more radical, rational, structural and definitely more typovisual trend has set in. In Hansjörg Mayer’s ‘Typoems’, ‘Alfabetenquadratbilder’ and ‘Typaktionen’, the functional small futura letter is rampant, while the ‘Poem structures in the Looking Glass’ by Klaus Burkhardt and Reinhard Döhl are built up, purely topographically (in line with photo and film techniques) with letters, numbers and words. The above mentioned visual manifestations -mostly found in countries like Czechoslovakia, Italy (Modulo group), France (spatialism), Germany, Austria and Brasil - are covered by the formula which Siegfried J. Schmidt - on the line of Van Doesburg’s postulate - gives of concretevisual poetry: it is a non-mimetc, generative art that does away with the sensorial perception of visual reality and concentrates on the thematic development of its devices (linguistic units and textual structures). He takes exception, though, to acrobatic typography which threatens to burst through the boundaries of graphic art and which also Gomringer signals as a potential danger.

This view does not quite tally, however, with the one that sees the historic roots of visual poetry in the earlier figure poems, emblems, calligrams, ideograms and such like. From the start, the Noigandres group has referred to the work of Apollinaire, Marinetti and the Dadaists, what is more, to the use of extra-linguistic elements, viz. semiotics.(2) The English concrete poets, including Scottish Ian Hamilton Finlay, John Furnival, Edwin Morgan and others, followed, if not always with the same objective, by the Americans M. E. Solt, R. P. Brown, M. J. Phillips, J. Hollander), the Belgians (Paul de Vree), the Dutchmen (F. van der Linde, H. Clavin, H. Deman), the Germans (R. Döhl, C. Bremer, F. Kriwet), the Frenchmen (H. Chopin, J. Blaine, J.-F. Bory), the Japanese (Kitasono Katue) and others, realized poems-in-the-shape-of or, in other words, mimetic, optical-semantic tautologies, ‘imaged words’ (a neologism coined by Kostelanetz) that not infrequently serve as outlets for humor, grotesque and criticism (witness Furnival’s architectural mammoth Towers of Babel).

The influence of popart and new realism (i.e. references to scenery, personalities, cities, objects) can be traced in present-day poetrygraphy, while also photography and letter drawings break up the geometric-typographic models (the French Approches group). The Amodulo group (Sarenco) rebels against the f utura letter in that it uses baroque headlines. Whereas the simbiotics(3) of Ugo Carrega advocates the merger of verbal, verbo-graphic and graphic elements (sign, form and color), semiotics 2 adheres to non-verbal elements that are explained by key-signs (D. Pigni-tari, L. A. Pinto). The Foundpoems and Newspoems as introduced by E. Morgan, consisting of short-lived topical materials (clippings from dailies and weeklies), are increasingly practised (among others by M. Perfetti and L. Ori).

In the three-dimensional range, mention should be made of the object poems, e.g. the Music-box and the Theatre-project by Alain Arias Misson together with the printed character compositions of P. A. Gette. A great number of concrete poets, including Ian Hamilton Finlay, Ugo Carrega, Sarenco, are currently engaged in work executed in plastic constructions.

End notes:

  1. The term semantic, derived from the Greek adjective semantikos (= meaning, that which means, signifies, informs), came into usage around 1887. It denotes the relationship between a linguistic form and the concomitant mental process of symbolism involved in the act of speech. In broader outline, semantics is the doctrine of the meaning of words, a side -discipline of linguistics, a science involved in the study of language and languages in all their aspects (structure, history, mutual relations, interrelations with all other modes of human behavior). Translating semantics into graphic art relates to the manner in which linguistic signs, as to shape and spatiality, no longer evolve as textual lines but as textual planes. In terms of concrete realization, they don’t appear as a message but as visual aesthetic information.

  2. Semiotics is the domain of Max Bense and Elisabeth Walther. In his Theorie der Texte, Bense departs from aesthetic information which objectively establishes the aesthetic status of an object, i.e. a text in its material elements and describes it independent of the subject (the author) and the observer (the interpretant). The aesthetic information does not transmit a meaning, only its own realization. The process of realization precedes the process of information. Language can only be extant through language. AH the rest makes language to an illusion. What is at stake is an awareness of linguistic possibilities. One aspect of the text problem is the semiotic analysis which applies semiotics, i.e. the doctrine of signs. A sign is understood to be anything which stands for something else to arouse the same gamut of reactions. A sign is everything that is presented as a sign and only that. A sign is a triadic relation between an object (which is signaled), a means (which, as a sign, takes the place of an object) and an interpretant (on whom, through the means as a sign, the object is focused). This triadic relation should not be neglected when evaluating visual opetry. (For further information, I should like to refer to Bense’s ‘Semiotik’).

  3. The scrittura simbiotica distinguishes six categories of signs or elements in analysing the signs on a printed page. In terms of words, it distinguishes the propositional (semantic) and the phonetic (sound) elements. The printed character of which the physical structure is emphasized, acts as a verbographic agent. Purely graphic elements are the sign in a semiotic sense, Reform (geometric structures, etc.) and the color as a semantic, non-plastic constituent. AH these elements make for a symbiosis of organic structures that affect each other to advantage. Thus arises, not a logical, but a ubicentric poetry, a multiple textual space that implies the gesture as its context. This reveals another tangent with spatialism. In the last analysis, I cannot alert the interpretant enough to the fact that, alongside imagination (ingeniousness), action is a primary agent in the realization of concrete poetry (both acoustically and visually).

in the overall picture, the manifesto’s of the fifties, the tentative anthologies, exhibitions and essays of the sixties, in their efforts to delineate, to collect and to describe what concrete literature, resp. concrete poetry actually is, present a plenty of not only terminological differences and blurred notions, well before and concurrent with the rather belatedly accredited term ‘concrete literature’, we meet with such expressions (often used either synonymously or but slightly varying in meaning) as ‘elementary’, ‘abstract’, ‘absolute’, ‘material literature’ with mostly striking parallels in a so-called literary revolution, time and again, the terms concrete and visual poetry are used as synonyms, whereas visual and phonetic poetry are clearly differentiated, and while heissenbüttel views the concept concrete poetry as coined on the pattern of concrete art, fahlström, in his manifesto, employs the term concrete rather ‘as relative to concrete music than to concretism of imagery’.

in the face of this dilemma, schmidthenner resignedly admits that the authors of concrete poetry only concur in that they insist that ‘what is materially concrete in language should be incorporated in the production of literature’ but otherwise agree to differ widely as to ‘what should, still or already, be considered as coming in the pale of concrete poetry’. i believe, however, that, in a broader perspective, farther reaching aspects may be gained, when we are prepared to conceive of literature as a process of which concrete literature is in fact but a phase; and that, by attempting to understand concrete literature from its historic roots, we may find access to it in a meaningful way.

the manifesto’s of the fifties dealing with concrete literature concur in stressing that the literary product is a primarily linguistic happening; they aim at excluding all that is subjectively incidental, oppose traditional habits of writing and reading, call for new modes of writing and reading, and view, with max bill, the literary product as an object for intellectual use. in his vision, bill refers, by and large, to an art that in its self-awareness - in order to answer the definition ‘concrete’ - should be dated not later than 1930, i.e. following the publication of the first and only issue of van doesburg’s magazine ‘art concret’. like various other manifesto’s of the mid-and late twenties, the ‘manifesto of concrete art’ as published in this issue, does not formulate a new beginning but presents a systematic review of the various individual achievements of the artistic revolution, whether the notion ‘concrete’, relating to plastic art, was used before 1930, cannot be conclusively substantiated; is, however, highly probable.

in the present state of research, it is deemed unlikely that the term ‘concrete poetry’ was already current usage at such an early date, yet a retrospective essay by arp, ‘kandinsky, Ie poète’ (1951), published prior to the early manifesto’s of fahlström and gomringer, includes some revealing clues: ‘in 1912 i visited with kandinsky in munich. (…) it was the time in which abstract art started its transformation into concrete art. (…) in the year of dada, poems by kandinsky were read for the first time in cabaret Voltaire in Zürich (…). the dadaists were fervent protagonists of concrete poetry, in 1916, hugo ball and tristan tzara wrote onomatopoeic poems that have substantially contributed to bringing concrete poetry into clear focus, my volume of poems ‘die wolkenpumpe’ contains mainly concrete poems, kandinsky’s body of poems ‘klänge’ is one of the outstanding great books. (…) in these poems, there are sequences of words and sentences (…) that (…) remind the reader of the continuous flux and birth of things, often with a vein of dark humor and, what is characteristic of concrete poetry, non-didactic, in one of goethe’s poems, the reader is alerted, in a poetic manner, to the fact that man must die and be reborn, kandinsky, on the other hand, confronts the reader with a dying and resuscitating word image, a dying and resuscitating word order (…).’ meaningful in this respect is that arp sets goethe’s poem against that of kandinsky, the poetically didactic poem against the linguistic manifestation, the symbolic against the concrete poem, one might stretch this statement by saying that just as goethe, in formulating his idea of the symbol, offsets the symbolic manner of speech, as truly poetic, against the allegorical parlance (of the 18th century), arp contrasts the concrete mode of expression with the symbolic parlance (of the 19th century), as a case in point: goethe’s symbolic poem ‘wanderers nachtlied’ (über allen gipfeln), resp. its dialectic inversion in brecht’s ‘lithurgie vom hauch’, is superseded in concrete literature by gomringer’s one-word constellation ‘schweigen’, resp. achtleitner’s linguistic demonstration of restlessness (‘ruh und’), the beginnings of concrete literature date indeed back to the literary confrontation with a traditionally symbolic mode of expression, this may be exemplified by works of the other exponents mentioned by arp, ball and tzara, in the field of phonetic poetry as well as by arp’s own poems, in many ways similar to kandinsky’s ‘klänge’, so much admired by arp, they bespeak the confrontation by their linguistic and verbal playing with literary ingredients, by converting sense into nonsense, eventually, they lead, beyond this toying with colloquial language, to the tryout of new linguistic devices, to the innovation of novel syntactic forms (e.g. permutation), to the initiation of a new way of speaking in the poem, e.g. in the ‘konfigurationen’, resp. ‘konstellationen’ of 1930.

it is not just accidental that in the line of ancestors of concrete literature, the name of apollinaire figures, his much quoted ‘il pleut’, still fully steeped in the tradition of symbolic imagery, takes a traditional lyrical image literally and externalizes it, as it were, in the typogram, other ‘calli-grammes’ of his hand evince - e.g. by the pointed introductions of colloquial props -a progressive erosion of the symbolic imagery, when, in the late fifties, the noigandres group finally calls for the suppression of all metaphoric approximations, it marks the end of a process, sparked by apollinaire and others, in which, in keeping with concrete literature, the traditional literary image was superseded by the extra-linguistic, f igurate relationship, the typographic model, the multitude of resulting possibilities reveals itself in a gamut ranging from near tautologies (when kolar organizes the letters of the name albers into albers-squares) to the intended contradiction of typographical image and text (when bremer inscribes words of the sermon on the mount in the picture of two tanks).

crucial to this figurate typography is the demand voiced by the italian futurists of the ‘parole in libertà’: that the text be liberated from its traditional left-to-right sequential flow, a freedom which opens up the possibility of positioning signs, syllables, sounds, words and groups of words freely over the page, the call for the disruption of traditional syntax has assigned part of the role and function of established syntax to typography; it has inaugurated in literature, as it were, a typographic syntax, accordingly, the role of italian futurism has been of major importance in the early history of concrete literature in which moreover, through the personality of marinetti’s disciple and protégé belloli, it flows out almost without transition.

the ‘parole in libertà’ have been criticized as being disruptive for form and content, what the critics do not sufficiently realize is that their call for freedom sprang from the confrontation with a literature that was irretrievably anchored in the category of content, the concept of form as a traditional poetic entity, the duality of form and content, style and quality, heissenbüttel - whose line of thought i largely adopt - has qualified this confrontation as a process of reduction of the content and liquidation of the form in their traditional manifestations, and has come to the conclusion that, in the thus effected reduction and back-orientation of language itself, the issue of form and content has become irrelevant, meaningless.

what heissenbüttel, on this score, illustrates with texts of gertrude stein, another exponent of concrete literature, i.e. reduction to the variation of a model, is further conclusive evidence of concrete texts, one might, for instance, organize the purely formal setup of an exhibition in such a way that the number of words that go into the making of the text, decreases progressively, until eventually the text consists of just one single word; this gomringer once called the ideal concrete poem, one could, indeed, trace this process of reduction back beyond the word and show it up in all possible visual constellations of syllables or even mere letters, also in this field, yet another champion of concrete literature, kurt schwitters, in his so-called ‘elementar-gedichte’, has already come up with some exemplary reduction models and, with the free typography of his ‘composed f igurate poem’, has blurred the boundaries with plastic art. when, in 1960, heissenbüttel claims: ‘reduction must engender wit’, it obviously points to the danger of sterility, the eventuality of unimaginative playing with typographic forms, yet in his program he includes the joke or pun as an essential asset of the reduced textual, verbal or character model, this, indeed, is an inherent element of the works of f inlay and jandl.

but schwitters, although somewhat underrated as to his merits for the development of concrete literature, appears to be a ‘witness for the crown’ for yet another, wider aspect, i.e. for the increasing difficulty of discerning whether, in dealing with the numerous specimens of concrete literature, we are, in fact, confronted with poetry to be looked at or with pictures to be read, ‘i have’, he notes in 1921, ‘pasted poems together from words and sentences in such a way that their rhythmic positioning represents a drawing, conversely, i have pasted together pictures and drawings so as to make sentences that must be read my object was to obliterate the boundaries between the various arts.’

a last significant ‘witness for the crown’ should be named here: stéphan mallarmé from whose ‘un coup de dés’ gomringer has derived the motto of his first manifesto. what karl einstein has formulated for mallarmé: that he was concerned with ‘the difficult point where language can only justify its existence by being pinned down in the contrast of the written black and the virginal white of the paper’ - this indeed is reflected in texts such as gomringer’s ‘das schwarze geheimnis’, in numerous works of gappmayr and others, in this context, there is clearly a certain capacity for linguistic mysticism in some of the authors of concrete literature.

without going into a detailed inventory, the foregoing covers, in broad outline, the precinct of concrete poetry, nevertheless, the picture, it seems to me, justifies the statement that concrete literature can only be understood from its basis, from its historic origins, its break-away from ‘the poetic structure that had existed for some hundred years’, from ‘the structural unity of modern european lyric poetry’ much criticized by friedrich, occurred in its early days, whether concrete literature, as a form of poetry ‘that does not deal with language as just an object, but wants language to speak itself’, ‘inaugurates not only a new but an ultimate phase in the formative history of poetry’, as wagenknecht suggests, this question will perhaps be answered by the present exhibition of works of the last twenty years, in addition, it should also reveal whether the criteria found in the precinct of concrete literature, indeed lead to concrete literature or point to a development through and beyond it.

The first use of the term ‘concrete poetry’ in a manifesto was by Öyvind Fahlström (Sweden) in 1953. He related it more to concrete music than to concrete ‘art’. He emphasised rhythm as ‘the most elementary, directly physically grasping means of effect’ because of its ‘connection with the pulsation of breathing, the blood, ejaculation.’ He opened the way not only for the structural aspects of concrete poetry which play such a prominent part in the theory and practice of Eugen Gomringer (Switzerland), the Brazilians and the Germans, but for expressionist aspects which a second generation of concrete poets has found so potent. bpIMichol (Canada) says that ‘for too many people, concrete poetry is a head trip, which is to say an intellectual trip, and as such I can look at it and admire it. For most people I know it’s a gut experience.’ Fahlström in 1953illustrated what he called a fundamental concrete principle by referring to Pierre Shaeffer’s key discovery in concrete music when he isolated a small fragment of a sound and repeated it with a change of pitch, then returned to the first pitch, and so on. This anticipated one line of development in concrete sound poetry, the electronic-musical one. Fahlström himself did not produce sound poetry until 1961.

The other line, the phonetic one, was anticipated much earlier by such poets as Lewis Carroll (‘twas brillig, 1855), Morgenstern (kroklokwafzi, c. 1890), Sheerbart (kikakoku ! - ekoralaps ! 1897), Khlebnikov, Hugo Ball, Pierre Albert-Birot, Marinetti, Raoul Hausmann, Kurt Schwitters (Ur sonata, 1923-28), Michel Seuphor, Camille Bryen and, within the period covered by this exhibition, Antonin Artaud and Hans Helms. Sound poetry exists today in a diversity of forms and styles in more than a dozen different countries. Present-day developments had their real beginning in France in the early nineteen-fifties. Concrete sound poetry today is both a return to the primitive and a succession of steps into the technological era. Sten Hanson (Sweden) has described it as ‘a homecoming for poetry, a return to its source close to the spoken word, the rhythm and atmosphere of language and the body, their rites and sorcery.’ Whereas Henri Chopin (France) sees it as finding ‘its sources in the very sources of language and, by the use of electro-magnetics, as owing almost nothing to any aesthetic or historical system of poetry.’ Strangely enough, the invention of the tape-recorder has given the poet back his voice. For, by listening to their voices on the tape-recorder, with its ability to amplify, slow down and speed up voice vibrations, poets have been able to analyse and then immensely improve their vocal resources. Where the tape-recorder leads, the human voice can follow.

However, in 1950, Francois Dufrêne and Gils Wolman (France) began to make their cri-rhythmes and mégapneumes without any aid from the tape-recorder. They had gone back beyond the word, beyond the alphabet to direct vocal outpourings which completely unified form and content. They were back where poetry and music began. In primitive song, the melody often starts on a high note, generally falsetto, and descends. High is high both in volume and in pitch; low is both soft and deep. The emotional outburst, the physical giving out of sound and breath is the song. One thinks of primitive song on hearing FranQois Dufrêne. His cri-rhythmes employ the utmost variety of utterances, extended cries, shrieks, ululations, purrs, yarrs, yaups and duckings, the apparently uncontrollable controlled into a spontaneously shaped performance. Wolman places more emphasis on breath sounds and works in shorter, more isolated, less rhythmically organised soundunits. Both performed at first live, and later recorded their creations on tape, the tape-recorder being used simply as a recording instrument.

However, Dufrêne gradually warmed towards the more creative aspects of the tape-recorder and other electronic devices, which he had at first regarded as contaminations. He began to superimpose one recorded performance over another, and to use certain varieties of echo effect and reverberation. This was mainly from about 1963 onwards, although there are earlier examples. At this time, Jean-Louis Brau also employed similar echo and reverberation techniques in his instrumentations verbales.

While Brau and Wolman seem to have been less active recently, Dufrêne has continued with a steady output of cri-rhythmes, exhibiting the utmost virtuosity and mastery in an area of sound poetry he has made his own. His performances are highly-skilled physical achievements. Dufrêne was the author also of a lengthy and supreme example of lettriste or ultra-lettriste poetry, published in 1958, ‘Tombeau de Pierre Larousse’, in which he employs words, often proper names, ellided, strangely spelt, given unexpected accents, structured into rhythmical, textured sound patterns of subtlety and force.

With Dufrêne, the time taken to make a tape is the time taken to accomplish a performance (or little more than twice that time if superimposition is used). However a tape can take far longer. Henri Chopin speaks of ‘requiring for each work days and months’ of application and research, as ‘here all the authors are analysts of the language which they synthesize in their productions.’ He is alluding to his own practice and to that of such poets as Paul de Vree, Brion Gysin and Bernard Heidsieck.

Chopin began to work with tape in 1955, though his first really successful composition was not made until 1957. He at first employed the sounds, vowel and consonantal, of words, decomposing and recomposing them in the process. An early work was based upon the words ‘sol air’, recording the individual sounds, slowing them down or speeding them up, superimposing not once but up to fifty times, adding other sounds such as breathing effects and smackings of the lips, also slowed or speeded. In later pieces, Chopin abandonned words altogether and used only particles of vocal sound.

Over the years, he has explored more fully than anyone else these ‘micro-particles’ of the human voice, and has over them the utmost control. The sounds he makes are often almost imperceptible to the ear, but by amplifying, changing speeds and superimposing, one mouth becomes an orchestra. His ‘poésie sonore’, which he utterly distinguishes from ‘poésie phonétique’, is a fully worked out and expressive new language which frees him from the Word, which he regards as an impediment to living, an imposition upon life. His programme thus is both artistic and social-political.

Paul de Vree (Belgium) makes a similar point when he says that ‘all predication is an assault upon the freedom of man. Poetry as I conceive of it, is no longer the handmaiden of princes, prelates, politicians, parties, or even the people. It is at last itself.’

De Vree seems, in his audio-visual poems, at first more orthodox. For a start unlike Chopin’s poèmes sonores and Duf rêne’s cri-rhythmes, they can be written down. But one notices the reliance on sound to convey meaning, the subtle overtones and undertones, fantasies, nonsense words, echoes of the surreal world. De Vree then takes these texts and, in collaboration with a reciter and a composer or an engineer, he realises them in a performance on tape. ‘Actually all depends upon the new possibilities of mechanical expression.’ Using loops and repetitions, echo effects, reverberation and the like, he forges a delicately pointed and precise collaboration between the voice as concrete sound and the form and expressiveness of the original poem. The result is exciting and beautiful. But, he adds, ‘it goes without saying that the reciter (where it is not the poet) and the engineer of sounds have contributed personally to the originality of the realisation. The dawn of the era of electronic poetry is no longer a figment of the imagination.’ De Vree’s first audiovisual poem ‘Veronika’ dates from 1962. It was broadcast in 1963. The function of the machine treatment in many poems by De Vree, Brion Gysin and others is to intensify them and point their qualities, particularly their qualities of sound, to make the poems more like themselves. Brion Gysin (Tangiers) is a permutational poet. A simple five-word phrase such as ‘I am that I am’ will produce up to 120 permutations of word order and thus of meaning. ‘Poets are meant to liberate words, not chain them in phrases. Who told poets they were supposed to think ? Poets are meant to sing and to make words sing.’ Gysin restores to words their substance and vitality. By the almost mathematical precision of his permutations he multiplies subtleties of meaning and establishes each word fully in the round. The text may then be further transformed by treatment on tape. ‘I am that I am’, with permutations, superimpositions, speedings and slowings, becomes in turn statement, question, affirmation, doubt, hysteria, negation, obliteration and slow climb back to selfestablishment. Gysin’s poems were first published and broadcast in 1960.

Bernard Heidsieck has been working in France, since 1955, first on a series of poèmes partitions and, since 1966, on his biopsies. He describes both as ‘action poetry’ because they incorporate actuality in the form of recordings of everyday sounds and events, and pre-existing, often topical, texts from newspapers and magazines. The action poem incorporates ‘anything that the poem authorises itself to take’ and, by superimposing various texts or strands of sound, manages to ‘arouse, to awaken other layers of sensibility’, and to deal with aspects of contemporary life in a satirical, humorous or probing way. It is a ‘ritual, ceremonial or event’ whose purpose is ‘to question our daily gestures and words and cries. To appropriate them or dynamite’them. To make them meaningful… to animate our mechanical and technocratic age by recapturing mystery and breath’. Heidsieck’s poetry is made on tape by ‘manipulations of speed, volume, superimposition, cutting and joining.’ Often the texts are rapidly and skilfully read in Heidsieck’s own voice, and the weaving of the strands gives a rich contrapuntal effect which can be appreciated as texture and expressionistic vocal music quite apart from the humour and satire of the disparate textual meanings.

Duf rêne, Wolman, Chopin, De Vree, Gysin and Heidsieck have all been published by Henri Chopin on the records accompanying issues of his magazine Cinquième Saison or, as it is now called, OU. This magazine has been the most important influence in propagating knowledge of concrete sound poetry throughout the world. It is joined now by another series of records published jointly in Sweden by Fylkingen and Sveriges Radio. The first text-sound compositions in Sweden were by Öyvind Fahlström in 1961 and 1962. In 1964 and 1965, two poetcomposers, Bengt Emil Johnson and Lars-Gunnar Bodin began to work in the field of sound-texts. In 1967, the Fylkingen group concerned with linguistic arts collaborated with the literary section of Sveriges Radio to give several other poets a chance of working in this new area. The Electronic Music Studio of Sveriges Radio was made available to poets and work began in earnest. In 1968, 69 and 70, three festivals of text-sound compositions have been held in Stockholm. Altogether, sixteen Swedish poets and fifteen poets from abroad have been given the opportunity of making compositions for one or more of these festivals. A large proportion of these are included in the records which document the festivals.

Fylkingen, which began as a music organisation, gradually became interested in the other arts, especially from the point of view of the relationship between art and technology. Not only did Swedish sound poets have a fully equipped electronic music studio at their disposal, but several of them had the opportunity also of using computers and voice synthesizers. Calling their works text-sound compositions left them free to use other types of sound, including electronically generated effects. Stereo was common from the first and, since 1967,4-channel reproduction has almost become the rule, allowing sound to be placed, controlled and moved in space with the utmost precision.

Bengt Emil Johnson has been foremost in the search for new techniques of expression. In ‘Through the mirror of thirst’, fragments of one of his earlier poems have been randomly selected and, also on a chance basis, have been allocated to one of four voices; controlled as to density per time unit of 30 seconds; in speed, from very fast to very slow; spatial position on the four channels; type of electronic treatment, etc. In this way, within a basically semantic structure, small details of recorded text have been separated out and vividly exposed.

In another piece, Johnson uses a computer to effect a series of gradual transformations from one text to another; and for a third, produced also with the aid of a computer, a text of invented words which obey all the rules of Swedish wordconstruction and syntax was prepared. Lars-Gunnar Bodin has a musician’s attitude to his material. In ‘From any point to any other point’ the text has been modified and transformed electronically until the semantic meaning disappears and only the rhythmic structure of language remains. All that is left is a vestige of ‘oral behaviour’. This approach is appropriate in a work which discusses and reflects on scientific and technological views of the world.

The trend is taken still further by Christer Hennix Lille, also a composer, who in his ‘Still Life, CL’ makes one of the first uses of synthetic speech in an artistic creation. The synthesizer’s computer unit is used to ‘generate parameters of articulation, so that malformations in syntax and pronunciation become a ‘value’ of the ‘local’ mutation frequency of the piece’. Q is a ‘code’ which has reference to the behaviour of memory in language as related to the genetic code of the individual. In the future, many more works are likely to be realised with the aid of the synthesizer.

In theory, it will be possible to produce synthetically exactly the voice quality required as constituent material for any composition.

Sten Hanson makes use of the letters A C G and T, which are abbreviations for the names of the bases forming the genetic code, in his piece ‘La destruction de votre code génétique par drogues, toxines et irradiation.’ As the piece proceeds, the pronunciation of the letters is distorted and broken down by the introduction of ‘foreign’ sound elements produced in a purely electronic way. Hanson, in his smallscale works, uses advanced techniques for social-political ends.

Åke Hodell, after a number of very effective phonetic pieces, has produced large-scale works almost in the documentary mould. ‘USS Pacific Ocean’ is concerned with a dramatic, imagined political crisis; while ‘Where is Eldridge Cleaver ?’ is based on contemporary events in America. In this piece, 4-channel tape-recording is used effectively to give, for example, the sound of soldiers marching round and round the audience.

There is a danger, of course, that electronic and other effects will be used in a sterile way, but the Swedes, on the whole, seem to have avoided this. Johnson and Bodin, largely in musical terms, and Hanson and Hodell in social-political terms, have proved their ability to use effects to engage and implicate the listener. Often, there is a continous interplay between semantically meaningful portions and the resonant development of these, frequently in combination with other sounds. Form is a vehicle for content, and even the use of 4-channel reproduction is carried out in a way that illuminates the meaning of the composition. There seem to be as many approaches as there are poets. Many others could be mentioned:

Ernst Jandl (Austria), the primary exponent, at the present time, of phonetic poetry for the unaided voice, who breaks words up into meaningful soundfragments, recomposes them, organises them with rhythmic and structural precision. (Even Jandl, though, has realised electronically some of his poems in collaboration with the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Radiophonic Workshop);

Ladislav Novak (Czechoslovakia), whose complex superimpositions of, often, a single sentence in Czech or Latin seem to be cries of freedom, in line with Franz Mon’s observation that spatially articulated language becomes effective at the point when ‘conventional language sanctioned by society reaches its limits, or for some reason may not be used’;

Frans Mon himself (West Germany), who has conducted a continuing study into the structure and method of language;

Gust Gils (Belgium) who uses vocal sounds without semantic meaning, seeing the sound poem as an opportunity for a poet whose native language has a limited audience to break out of his isolation;

Bengt af Klintberg (Sweden) whose work often contains elements of folklore, cusha-calls and incantation;

Svante Bodin (also Sweden) who has used the computer to scramble and transform a text in a number of valid ways;

and dozens more, in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia, U K, U S A, Canada, Japan, South America and elsewhere.

Two lines of development in concrete sound poetry seem to be complementary. One, the attempt to come to terms with scientific and technological development in order to enable man to continue to be at home in his world, the humanisation of the machine, the marrying of human warmth to the coldness of much electronically generated sound. The other, the return to the primitive, to incantation and ritual, to the coming together again of music and poetry, the amalgamation with movement and dance, the growth of the voice to its full physical powers again as part of the body, the body as language.

The very diversity of sound poetry is in line with its emphasis on the freedom of the individual and the withering of external authority, on man as a communal and social animal, on communication as a lifegiving activity, things which in this bureaucratic and technocratic age we need constantly to remember.

Explore the Catalogue

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Vinyl LP

Sound Texts - Concrete Poetry - Visual Texts
Publisher Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Publishing date 1970
Format Vinyl

The exhibition catalogue came with a LP of concrete poetry recordings, supervised by Bob Cobbing.

  • A1. Henri Chopin - Espaces et gestes (4:50)
  • A2. François Dufrêne - Crirythme pour Bob Cobbing (5:50)
  • A3. Bernard Heidsieck - Chapeau (4:43)
  • A4. Paul de Vree - Rivièra (3:05)
  • A5. Paul de Vree - Het leven is een baccarat (1:20)
  • B1. Bengt Emil Johnson - 5|1970 (Lecture on...) (4:50)
  • B2. Sten Hanson - Subface (4:15)
  • B3. Bob Cobbing - Variations on a Theme of Tan (6:55)
  • B4. Ladislav Novák - Descartes' Metamorphosis into Liquid (3:00)
  • B5. Ernst Jandl - Ode auf N (1:50)
  • B6. Ernst Jandl - JEEEEEEEEEEEEEESUSS (1:50)
Dates of composition:
  • A1 - 1959
  • A2 - 1970
  • A3 - 1970
  • A4 - 1967
  • A5 - 1967
  • B1 - 1970
  • B2 - 1970
  • B3 - 1964/1968
  • B4 - 1968
  • B5 - 1957
  • B6 - 1966