The poet as designer of language

The ICA’s show of concrete poetry is a brave venture into the world of text-based art, says Rick Poynor

Concrete poetry now seems as distant as other transient 1960s phenom­ena such as paper dresses, love-ins and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. For 20 years, this energetic poetry movement flourished worldwide, from Brazil to Switzerland (its twin points of origin), giving rise to a steady flow of independent magazines, passionate theoretical statements, anthologies and exhibi­tions. Today, not a single illustrated history of concrete poetry can be found in print, and if you want to see classic examples you need to track down one of the original surveys, such as An Anthology of Concrete Poetry (1967) edited by Emmett Williams, or the Stedelijk Museum’s Sound Texts/ Concrete Poetry/Visual Texts catalogue (1971) designed by Wim Crouwel.

Part of the problem lies in the name. Reading poetry was always a minority interest. While the BBC’s attempts to drum up enthusiasm with poetry-loving presenters such as Peep Show’s Robert Webb are a positive development, it still feels increasingly marginal. Concrete poetry makes two further demands. Its visual appearance is at least as important as what it says linguistically, and often more so, and this fusion of art and literature puts it in an awkward position between two potential and perhaps distinct audiences. Then again, the technology most often used to create concrete poetry during its heyday – the manual typewriter – has become an anti­quated museum piece. The output is bound to look dated and quaint to viewers who have never laid hands on the contraption.

All this makes the ICA’s latest exhibition, Poor. Old. Tired. Horse., a brave departure. The title comes from a periodical consisting of just a few informally assembled pages, published by Ian Hamilton Finlay, one of the two or three most important British exponents of concrete poetry during the 1960s. The ICA is a fitting venue for this revival because, in 1965, the institute mounted Between Poetry and Painting, a landmark exhibition in the development of the concrete poetry movement in Britain. The work of several key figures from that show – Finlay, Henri Chopin, Dom Sylvester Houédard and Ferdinand Kriwet – can be seen in the ground-floor galleries.

As with any kind of poem, these are experiences that cannot be rushed. Some of the works, such as Houédard’s For The 5 Vowels quintet (1976), are small and you need to go in close and linger. Houédard, a Benedictine monk based at Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire, was a brilliant figure, a scholar of world religions who also managed to be exceptionally well informed about new developments in art and literature. He tapped out his visual poems in his cell at night using a portable Olivetti Lettera 22 type­writer, turning the paper in the machine to achieve delicate effects of over-printing based on only a handful of characters – dots, dashes, the letter ‘o’ – repeated in carefully positioned rows. These abstract forms have angles and planes that give them an almost sculptural presence. Like the monolith in 2001, they appear to be floating, tilting and revolving in space. They are signalling devices for mystical contemplation.

Other pieces are larger and involve more elaborate forms of manufacture. Kriwet’s Text Signs (1968), stamped into aluminium, look like car number plates expanded to the size of a man­hole cover. Each painted sign consists of several provocative new concepts forged by splicing old words together: ‘Interroriot’, ‘Eugeniclean’, ‘Subur­bandit’, ‘Phallicandy’, ‘Idolescence’. They capture the conflicting tensions of their decade – revolutionary politics, conservative fears of accelerating change, the new sexual freedoms – while anticipating the social complex­ities of the world we live in now (as well as the slogan-based art of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger).

These two rooms contain some fascinating material. They are neces­sarily selective, and left me wanting to see more. Upstairs, though, the curators seem uncertain that concrete poetry and its offshoots are interesting enough to sustain a complete exhibi­tion. They devote the third room to drawings by Robert Smithson, Philip Guston and Alasdair Gray featuring handwritten passages and a poetic theme. David Hockney’s series of etchings for poems by C. P. Cavafy is close to wordless. With many more examples, this might have amounted to a compelling exhibition in its own right, but here it just looks like a wrong turning.

Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. returns to its initial concerns in the final room. According to the curators, after a period when neo-Conceptualism held sway, “artists are now turning towards poetry and expressive language in a way that has not been seen for many years”. If that’s the case, then this could only be 2009. Sue Tompkins transcribes banal bursts of mobile-phone chatter: “Anyway you all right darlin” … “See you babe!” Carl Andre, on show downstairs, would have known how to repeat and permutate such unpromising lines into some­thing rigorous and remarkable. Perhaps inevitably, the rediscovery of the typewriter leads to a fixation on its non-digital glitches: poor spacing, wavering lines, crossing out, deliber­ately clumsy variations of typing pressure. Practitioners such as Chopin and Houédard strove to eliminate such flaws. The intellectual depth of the 1960s artists does the new generation few favours, but it’s still early days.

In Loose Change (2008), printed by letterpress, Matthew Brannon owns up to doubts, positioning what appears to be an autobiographical text next to a handful of coins. “He’s telling me why he didn’t like the show. It’s nothing more than graphic design,” Brannon writes. “I look away, set down my espresso, and mutter – who asked you?” Yet designers form one group of viewers that ought to have few problems with concrete poetry. The poet, it’s been said, is a designer of language. Concrete poetry depends on typographic articulation and it proceeds from the idea that the way something is said is a vital part of what it means. This is clearly an axiom of graphic design, and it’s the reason some designers have always savoured concrete poetry’s refined treatment of word shapes and its use of graphic space as a structural agent. If you bump up the ICA’s visitor numbers, they might even show some more.

Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. is at London’s ICA until August 23. Events are also being staged at the gallery in conjunction with the show; Power Game on July 28 and xprmntl ptry on July 30. More details are available at ica.org.uk

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