Poetry Kaleidoscope: Guide to Poetry

Concrete Poetry

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Concrete poetry is poetry in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of the poem, such as meaning of words, rhythm, rhyme and so on. It is the self-consciously radical form of the technique of visual poetry (a term sometimes applied to concrete poetry).

The term was coined in the 1950s, and in 1956 an international exhibition of concrete poetry was shown in São Paulo, inspired by the work of Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Two years later, a Brazilian concrete poetry manifesto was published. One of the earliest Brazilian pioneers, Augusto de Campos, has assembled a Web site of old and new work (see external links below), including the manifesto. Its principal tenet is that using words as part of a specifically visual work allows for the words themselves to become part of the poetry, rather than just unseen vehicles for ideas. The original manifesto says:

concrete poetry begins by assuming a total responsibility before language: accepting the premise of the historical idiom as the indispensable nucleus of communication, it refuses to absorb words as mere indifferent vehicles, without life, without personality without history - taboo-tombs in which convention insists on burying the idea.

Although the term is quite modern, the idea of using typography to enhance the meaning of a poem is an old one. Early examples include the following poem by George Herbert (1593-1633) (here in a scan of the 1633 edition of Herbert's The Temple), in which the poem is merely a comment on the title, which presents the poem's principal meaning typographically:

How well her name an Army doth present, In whom the Lord of hosts did pitch his tent! How well her name an Army doth present, In whom the Lord of hosts did pitch his tent!

Another early precursor from Herbert is "Easter Wings", in which the overall typography of the poem is in the shape of its subject. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll contains a similar effect in the form of the mouse's "Tale," which is in the shape of a tail. More recent poets sometimes cited as influences by concrete poets include Guillaume Apollinaire, E. E. Cummings, for his various typographical innovations, and Ezra Pound, for his use of Chinese ideograms, as well as various dadaists.

Concrete poetry, however, is a more self-conscious form than these predecessors, using typography in part to comment on the fundamental instability of language. Among the better known concrete poets in the English language are Ian Hamilton Finlay and Edwin Morgan. Several important concrete poets have also been significant sound poets, among them Henri Chopin, and Bob Cobbing.

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