A widespread revival of interest in concrete poetry has been a long time coming. The movement flourished internationally from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s. In the early digital typography period, designers such as Phil Baines and Tomato would sometimes mention its influence. There were many points of overlap with the fractured layouts and emphasis on type’s materiality in the digital experiments of the 1990s. But no strong connections, either practical or critical, were forged between past and present and a ‘new concrete poetry’ didn’t quite emerge at that time.
Since 2000, the focus of Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe’s The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century, a visual genre that might plausibly be regarded as a continuation of concrete poetry has gradually taken shape. Signs of recognition include the Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. show at the ICA in 2009 (which I reviewed for CR), Barrie Tullett’s recent book Typewriter Art (though this is only one aspect of concrete), and the exhibition Graphic Constellations: Visual Poetry and the Properties of Space at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge earlier this year. Like Tullett, Will Hill, co-curator of Graphic Constellations, is a graphic designer.
Closer to art than to poetry as it’s conventionally understood, concrete poetry has always existed in a nebulous cultural space. As the poetry scholar Marjorie Perloff observes in the book, only the rarest of English or comparative literature departments would offer courses in concrete poetry. “Doesn’t the subject belong properly, if at all, in the art department … specifically in courses on graphic design?” her colleagues ask her – and they don’t sound entirely sympathetic. If The New Concrete, despite its timeliness, has an obvious oversight for designers, it’s that it doesn’t adequately address what the areas of overlap might be. ‘Word artists’ of every stripe often borrow the visual techniques of graphic design, an implicit acknowledgement of their cultural omnipresence and value. Where are the fruitful points of connection between concrete poetry and graphic design in the handling of typographic material, or the graphic transmission of meaning, and what insights and devices might the two activities have to offer each other?
Bean and McCabe present their selection of recent work, which occupies most of the book, alphabetically by name. This allows chance rather than visual editing to determine visual relationships and it tends to mask aspects in common that grouping the work by style or theme might more usefully reveal. Some pieces have brief explanations and this was presumably a matter of choice for the artist. Many works are built around words and letters, while others are pictorial or abstract; concrete poetry always encompassed these variations. In Christian Bök’s Of Yellow (2001), he transposes a sonnet by the French visionary poet Arthur Rimbaud into coloured bars “according to the schema described in the sonnet itself” – it looks like a cross between 1950s ‘concrete art’ and an album cover by Peter Saville.
There is a fair smattering of typewriter-made concrete poetry – by Bean herself, Sean Bonney (Hackney Declares War on the City), Jen Bervin and Barrie Tullett – but it runs the risk of looking a little too nostalgically retro in this mixed company. It may be true that any work made today, even on a typewriter, is somehow imprinted with our awareness of the intangibility and mutability of the word in the digital era, but the feeling remains that the original wave of concrete poets have already done just about everything with a manual typewriter that a person can do. Many learned to play their Olivetti Letteras like orchestral virtuosos.
By comparison, a work such as Sam Winston’s Backwords (2013), consisting of a printer’s plate with raised letters and a printed sheet, which form mirror images of each other, takes the new concrete to a new level of material and aesthetic impact. Two monumental columns of type begin to break down into swirling clouds of letters. This hugely intricate piece has a fabulous sense of control about it and an almost mystical aura. I wasn’t surprised to read that Dom Sylvester Houédard, Benedictine monk and recently rediscovered pioneer of concrete, was an influence on Winston, both formally and philosophically.
Even reader-viewers sympathetic to this kind of art may struggle sometimes to decide what the point is. Rachel E Foster’s Mr and Mrs Houdini (2012) consists of just two words, ‘Rosabelle, believe.’, set in italic on two lines. This might resonate for you with haiku-like power, or it might not – the famous escapologist supposedly addressed his widow with these words from the afterlife. Either way, it’s an experience that doesn’t seek to detain you unduly. In his introduction, which is rather good, poet and UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith argues that, “While concrete poetry has always been a fast poetry – purposely resistant to close reading – in the information age, it seems intentionally designed for short-attention spans.” It’s no giant step from Twitter to these “snappy one-liners”.
Is ‘concrete’ the best term for this kind of art? In their two afterwords, the editors let slip some passing doubts. Bean concludes that the book “isn’t about imposing a new concrete on the world, it’s about a sense that people are making visual poetry that is still responding to the work of others.” McCabe wonders whether they should be defining the work they are collecting “under the descriptor of an old movement” before agreeing that there is a need to show how the legacy of concrete’s past is impacting on current practice in visual poetry. Alongside the new visual poets, the book includes a number of later works from early practitioners who never gave up on the cause, among them Henri Chopin and Bob Cobbing (both now deceased), Augusto de Campos and John Furnival.
The curious thing about this otherwise welcome collection is that the editors largely sidestep the concrete elephant in the room, which surely has to be the question of poetics. In what sense is a piece of art made graphically out of words, or some other non-linguistic material, a ‘poem’, rather than simply a novel kind of picture? Or is any picture also potentially a poem? Given the new context, it’s not enough to assume that the original concrete poets have dealt with these matters, leaving nothing more for us to say. If this is to be a new movement with any lasting traction, then the question will need to be investigated thoroughly for 21st-century viewers before the reanimated genre can progress much further.
Lead image: Sam Winston, Backwords (plate), 2013. Courtesy: Sam Winston. Rick Poynor writes a weekly column about photography at designobserver.com/profile/rickpoynor/81. The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century by Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe (eds) is published by Hayward Publishing (£30). See southbankcentre.co.uk/hayward-publishing