Concrete Poetry

by Derek Beaulieu

Transcend, Transcribe, Transfigure, Transform, Transgress.
If poetry is going to reclaim a shred of relevancy for a contemporary audience then poets must become competitive for your readership and viewership. As graphic design, advertising and contemporary design culture expand to redefine and rewrite how we understand communication, poetry has become ruefully ensconced in the traditional. 

If, as Brion Gysin argued, “writing is fifty years behind painting”[1] then it is even further behind contemporary design. The vast majority of poets are trapped in the 20th (if not the 19th) Century, hopelessly reiterating tired tropes. The McDonald’s ‘golden arches’, Nike’s ‘swoosh’ and the Apple logo best represent the contemporary descendants of the modernist poem. Poet Lew Welch famously wrote Raid’s ubiquitous advertising slogan “Raid kills bugs dead” as a copywriter at advertising firm Foote, Cone and Belding in 1966. Los Angeles-based poet Vanessa Place argues that today

we are of an age that understands corporations are people too and poetry is the stuff of placards. Or vice versa.[2]

The stuff of poetrycraftsmanship and handiworkas opposed to the industry of advertising and business relegates poetry to a role out of touch with the driving economies of the culture. Advertisers and graphic designers use the fragments of language to fully realize emotional, social and political means—and in doing so have left poets with only the most rudimentary tools in doing the same.

Concrete poetry—the 20th-century’s first truly international poetic form—was founded in the late 1950s by a cadre of poets who were captivated by the blending of modernist poetic tropes with the cool, efficient use of language found in contemporary advertising campaigns. These early efforts reek of a controlled Mad Men aesthetic. Like the patriarchal, androcentric environment of amc’s drama, Concrete poetry was dominated by key personalities who issued manifestos and decrees and reveled in san-serif explorations of the evocative nature of type.

Kenneth Goldsmith, founder of UBUWeb, the premiere online repository of the avant-garde, argues that early Concrete poems are rarely “illusionistic; instead, unadorned sans-serif language inhabits the plane of the white page.” Goldsmith continues, evoking art critic Clement Greenberg, and describes the aesthetic of Concrete poetry in the 1950s:

as Greenberg says, “[the] shapes flatten and spread in the dense, two-dimensional atmosphere.” In doing so, the emotional temperature is intentionally kept cool, controlled and rational.[3]

Discussion and criticism of Concrete poetry continues to center on male figures like Eugen Gomringer, Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari, all of whose personalities and practices dominate the discourse—suggesting that women were relegated to minor, or merely occasional, roles. There are notable exemptions to this male dominance.

 The most exemplary early female Concrete poet is Mary Ellen Solt. Solt is best known as editor of Concrete Poetry: A World View (Indiana University Press, 1968), a major international anthology of Concrete poetry and related poetic statements. Solt’s Flowers in Concrete (1966), The Peoplemover—A Demonstration Poem (1968) and Marriage—A Code Poem (1976) assert her voice, as Antonio Bessa argues,

not by simply emulating [her male counterparts], but by bringing up themes and concerns close to her own life: the flowers in her garden […] her husband […] and her children.[4]

But the themes and concerns that Bessa asserts, sadly, seem to reify sexist gender roles relegating women to the subjects of flowers, spousal dedication and child rearing. Concrete poet Haroldo de Campos posited Concrete poetry as a “notion of literature not as craftsmanship but [...] as an industrial process” where the poem is a “prototype” rather than the “typical handiwork of artistic artistry.”[5] This formulation categorizes Solt’s work as craftsmanship and handiwork isolate from the industry of male Concrete poets. Tellingly, only 4 of the 80 contributors to Concrete Poetry: A World View are women, including Solt.[6]

Contemporary Concrete poets Fiona Banner, Jen Bervin and Erica Baum work against the traditional notions of feminine writing and trouble the line between craftsmanship, handiwork and industry.

On Friday October 11, 2012, patrons of Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art attended a moment of sartorial calm before the weekend’s festivities began—the vernissage of Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art, the largest exhibit ever staged at the mca. Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art was the first major exhibition of Conceptual writing and text-based art, and included internationally-renowned text artists and writers building upon the tenets and dicta of Conceptual Art and Concrete poetry.

That evening patrons and members of the mca were granted a private early viewing of Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art (which is touring to Toronto’s illustrious Powerplant Contemporary Art Gallery in 2013 and Michigan State University’s prestigious Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in 2014). A few pieces were still being unpacked and the final touches were being placed on the installation but the feeling in the air was one of expectation and excitement. Curators Andrea Andersson and Nora Abrams Burnett contextualized the exhibition, explained their curatorial mandate and hosted a guided tour punctuated by impromptu presentations by several participants in the exhibition. As Andersson and Burnett guided us through the exhibition, guests had their first opportunity to see exemplary work by Fiona Banner, Jen Bervin and Erica Baum.

Turner Prize nominee Fiona Banner, aided by several assistants, was still constructing her epic 1066 and thus took only a moment away from the exhausting process to speak to the eager audience. 1066 builds upon Banner’s previous texts Top Gun (1993) and The Nam, pieces she considers “still-films.” Top Gun, now in the Tate Modern’s permanent collection, is a handwritten subjective account of the cinematic action in the Tom Cruise film of the same name. The Nam (published in a now exceedingly-rare edition by Frith Street Books in 1997, but thankfully excerpted in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s anthology Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing) extends Banner’s textual practice by subjectively describing the action of several Hollywood films about the Vietnam War. Over the course of a thousand pages, Banner writes through Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon creating an inundation of description:

They haul him up off the bed, hook him up. “C’mon Captain, lets take a shower!” He’s heavy like a corpse. They talk him along, ‘C’mon, Captain, mind how you go,” the merest hint of amusement in their voices. The officer says, “Just stand him underneath this tap.” He turns it on, a jet of water spurts down onto Willard. He screams out, like it really hurts. But it turns into, is nothing compared to, the continuous beat of helicopter blades, wiping like crazy and coming down onto you.[7]

The text continues unabated, creating, in Fiona Banner’s description, a “tracing rather than a re-presentation.”[8]

With 1066 Banner shifts her gaze from Hollywood depictions of the Vietnam War to an 11th-century depiction of the Battle of Hastings. The Bayeux Tapestry is a 230-foot long embroidered depiction of events leading up to the Norman conquest of England and thus fits well within Banner’s ongoing engagement with the weapons and depictions of war. 1066, like Banner’s Top Gun and The Nam, consists entirely of textual description of the action depicted in another media, in this case the medieval embroidery of the Bayeux Tapestry. Much as John Cage wrote through other authors’ texts creating new compositions, Banner’s writing-though of the Bayeux Tapestry—a veritable “still film” in and of itself—creates a new text by pointing and selecting. Banner and her assistants painted every letter in 1066 in a rough-hewn, italic typeface that echoes the invading and repelling lean of English and French forces across the Tapestry’s depicted landscape. The overwritten palimpsest foregrounds the act of writing through, the processual act of constant re-creation that comes with reading and looking.

Charles Dickens sniffed at the Bayeux Tapestry as “certainly the work of amateurs; very feeble amateurs at the beginning and very heedless some of them too.”[9] Today the Bayeux Tapestry is widely studied, reproduced and considered by comic book theorist Scott McLeod as one of the earliest European examples of sequential art and, as such, as a forerunner of the modern comic book.[10] The scroll’s captions in English-inflected Latin provide textual context for contemporary viewers much as comic book caption boxes or motion picture title cards:

IC WILLELM DUX ALLOQUITUR SUIS MILITIBUS UT PREPAREN SE VIRILITER ET SAPIENTER AD PRELIUM CONTRA ANGLORUM EXERCITU / HIC CECIDERUNT LEWINE ET GYRD FRATRES HAROLDI REGIS

[Here Duke William speaks to his knights to prepare themselves manfully and wisely for the battle against the army of the English / Here fell dead Leofwine and Gyrth, brothers of King Harold][11]

Eschewing the propaganda of the original scroll, Banner’s “tracing rather than a re-presentation” is both intimate and monumental. One of the main tenets of Conceptual writing is the act of selection; here Banner asserts transcription and textual tracing as writerly acts. The original tapestry displays similar acts of pointing (“Here Duke William …”, “Here fell dead…”), presented in a highly personalized form—every figure, every piece of text is sewn by hand, lending an importance to every gesture depicted. Banner’s depiction of the Bayeux Tapestry is also an act of pointing: she decides which figures to describe, which actions to relate and what language to use:

The guy’s down on the ground, arrow in the side of his face. Another takes one in the hand, cries like a beast as he pulls it out.

Banner’s description of the images on the tapestry also suggest her 2001 piece Arsewoman in Wonderland in which she screen-printed a billboard-sized description of porn actors’ performances in the film of the same name. Every bead of sweat, every spasm of muscle, every time an actor “crie[d] like a beast” is textually represented. Banner’s description engages directly with the action depicted, not as captioning but as a subjective description of events.

1066 confronts the categorization of both handwriting and embroidery as craftsmanship and handiwork. Banner implicates both into the most industrious of economies—the military.

Jen Bervin—another contributor to Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art—came to literary prominence with Nets (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004) in which she erases the majority of the words in Shakespeare’s sonnets in order to create fragile poems of beautiful telegraph-like brevity from the remains. Shakespeare’s 2nd sonnet (“When forty winters shall besiege thy brow”) is, for example, transformed merely by occluding unnecessary words into “a weed of small worth / asked / to be new made.”[12] Once again the narrative of men as primary figures is erased as Bervin asserts a “weed of small worth” in the canonical work of Shakespeare. The “weed of small worth / asked / to be new made” is an ongoing concern in Bervin’s work as she harvests minor or overlooked poetic gestures emerging from the literary ground of other writers’ work. Her melancholic art focuses on creation through absence. Bervin writes through the whole of literature and creates a text that is “open, porous, possible—a divergent elsewhere.”[13]

Inspired by modernist fiber artist Anni Albers, Bervin uses the typewriter to compose weaving diagrams. Bervin places herself in a poetic lineage starting with Albers’ use of the typewriter for weaving patterns instead of the poetic theories of American modernist poets Charles Olson (ironically a colleague of Albers at Black Mountain College) and Robert Creeley. Olson and Creeley—contemporaries with Gomringer, the de Campos brothers, and Pignatari—suggest the poetic use of the typewriter to measure and chart the breath line much as composers use the stave and bars of sheet music. The typewriter, in the hands of Albers and Bervin, is no longer an office machine used to create and measure the male voice. Bervin silences the office and the male poetic breath line in favor of the grid created by the warp and weft of weaving, asserting the text in textile. Bervin writes that she “typed these works on a Brother Correctronic 50 typewriter” and continues;

I think of them as scores to be performed on a loom or with needle and thread. All of them were made following intensive time spent weaving cloth structures on the loom but refer back to draft notation, the pre-weaving diagrams a weaver creates or consults. They were inspired by Anni Albers’ typewriter studies from Black Mountain College (the impetus for my desire to study weaving). It was quickly apparent to me that her profound understanding of cloth structure gave her a unique perspective on the gridded space the typewriter offers.[14]

Bervin’s assertion that the typewriter creates scores for performance makes weaving a readerly and writerly act.

Extending her typewriter-driven work, Bervin also has an an-going engagement with Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts and correspondence. Bervin’s work in Postscript is excerpted from a series of quilt-sized fiber responses to Emily Dickinson’s poetry manuscripts. Notoriously reclusive and agoraphobic, Dickinson created a series of fascicles (hand-sewn packets of manuscript pages) that featured not only her handwritten poems but also her idiosyncratic amendments, insertions and editorial marks. Bervin uses these marks as inspiration for her large-scale embroidered works; each piece transforms Dickinson’s palimpsests of crosses, marginalia, tics and textual insertions into fragile marks formed from thousands of individual stitches and placed in testament to the hand-sewing that Dickinson herself did when compiling her fascicles.

While Dickinson secluded herself, her oeuvre formed with poems and letters, her fascicles, and her own physical absence. Bervin erases Dickinson’s poems in favor of her private editorial marks—the marks that weren’t exposed in correspondence. Bervin’s fragile stitches echo the thread that held Dickinson’s own books together and stood as a private—and unknown until after her death—testament to her poetic craft. Bervin in Nets, in her typewriter weaving patterns, and especially in her responses to Dickinson, creates melancholic testaments to poetry, secluding the original author in favor of erasure, private marks and maps for creation.[15]

Postscript: Writing after Conceptual Art contributor Erica Baum also poeticizes our minor gestures. Baum transforms a reading act—the motion of dog-earing a book’s page—into a writerly one. Baum’s Dog Ear (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011) consists of a series of photographs, each of which lushly reproduces the image of the folded corner of a pulp novel. By dog-earing a page a reader employs the pages of a book as a new tool. Not only does each page impart the text of the written work, it also can be used to mark the reader’s progress through that very text. Gently flipping through any used book reveals the ephemeral record of the previous owners—notes, underlining, marginalia, bookmarks (accidental or intended)—and the dog-eared corner creasing. Each of these remnants marks the reader’s progress through the book; they map the imposition of life outside the novel on to the writing inside the novel.

With Dog Ear, Baum documents how each memory-assisting fold that the reader places within a book becomes a generative act, creating a new, latent, text. A uniting concern of Postscript: Writing after Conceptual Art is the engagement with the materiality of text and writing, that the information we receive and filter, generate and propagate, has a physical presence beyond the semantic. Baum’s engagement with the physicality of text is unique within the purview of the exhibition as she engages not only with the page but also with how readers manipulate and destroy books while reading. Dog Ear not only documents how the place-holding fold affects the book, it also how the folding creates something new to read.

Baum’s poems echo and extend the ideas of Canadian artist Brion Gysin and his notorious colleague William S. Burroughs. In the 1950s Gysin and Burroughs rediscovered the compositional techniques of Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara (the author of “ How to Make a Dadaist Poem” in 1918) in what they dubbed “cut-up” and “fold-in” writing. A “fold-in” poem, Burroughs argues, is created when the author

place[s] a page of one text folded down the middle on a page of another text (my own or someone else’s)—The composite text is read across half from one text and half from the other.[16]

Gysin and Burroughs’ collaborations are most famously documented in “The Cut-up Method of Brion Gysin” and The Third Mind (Viking, 1978). 

Gysin and Burroughs, like Tzara before them, proposed a democratic form of poetic composition. Anyone can pick up a pair of scissors or fold a page of the newspaper to create poetry—but Baum extends that idea from a form that anyone could do to something that everyone does do. Dog-earing books is a ubiquitous habit. By aestheticizing that minor gesture—the folding of a page’s corner to mark a pause in reading—she asserts that the Conceptual artistic act is an act of choosing.

The resultant texts in Baum’s dog eared pages can be read in multiple directions, piling up like Robert Smithson’s “heap of language” and each direction releases a text unintended by the original author. Dog Ear consists of reader-generated poems that use the destructive/productive folding of a page to both destroy (the original text is obscured) and produce (as the over-leaved text is revealed) a text that did not previously exist. Craig Dworkin, in his introduction to the Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing argues that Conceptual writing—as typified by Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art and Baum’s Dog Ear—is

not so much writing in which the idea is more important than anything else as a writing in which the idea cannot be separated from the writing itself: in which the instance of writing is inextricably intertwined with the idea of Writing: the material practice of écriture.[17]

Baum’s Index extends her artistic focus on the materiality of the book to the typographic materiality of the indices of anonymous volumes of non-fiction. Each piece in Index isolates and magnifies a series of entries from a book’s index and each revels in the poetic juxtapositions of seemingly random text. When placed in isolation the indexical nature of the text fades in preference of a new, uncanny meaning. Viewers are left to imagine the potential volume that might include:

Resolution of the Week, 313, 314

Results, concrete, 271–286

Reverie, 92, 154, 163, 172

Imagined texts point to a self-help book promising profound reveries from dedicated attempts to stick to change-making resolutions; the life-changing effects of “Results, concrete”—but, simultaneously, that inference is locked within the reader’s imagination, released only through the imposition of humanist, poetic tropes on three indexical entries.

Another excerpt from Index provides a list of poetic strategies that embody her own investigative, problematizing compositional techniques as well as those of her colleagues Banner and Bervin:

Transcend, 399.

Transcribe, 271.

Transfigure, 801.

Transform, 801.

Transgress, 549.

Each of these indexical instructions—transcend, transcribe, transfigure, transform, transgress—points to a poetic direction exemplified in Concrete poetry, in Conceptual writing, and in the oeuvres of Banner, Bervin and Baum herself.

Fiona Banner, Jen Bervin and Erica Baum represent the very best of contemporary Concrete poetry and each assert a space within a tradition that discards the fallacy of craftsmanship and handiwork as antithetical to industrious poetics. They trouble the poetic discourses of de Campos, Cage, Gysin, Burroughs and Smithson through the gendered exploration of Concrete poetry beyond classical san serif typography into mural-sized transcriptions; typewriter-based weaving and erasure embroidery; and folded dog-eared pages of pulp novels and photographed indexes of discarded tomes.



[1] as quoted in José Férez Kuri’s Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

[2] Place, Vanessa. “Poetry is Dead, I Killed it: an Essay by Vanessa Place.” Harriet: a poetry blog. Online 1 March 2013. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2012/04/poetry-is-dead-i-killed-it/

[3] Goldsmith, Kenneth. “The Bride Stripped Bare: Getting Naked with Nude Media.” Online 1 March 2013. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/goldsmith/nude.html

[4] Bessa, Antonio Sergio. “Mary Ellen Solt: An appreciation.” Ubuweb. Online 1 March 2013. http://www.ubu.com/historical/solt/index.html

[5] de Campos, Haroldo. “The Informational Temperature of the Text.” Novas: Selected Writings of Haroldo de Campos. Antonio Sergio Bessa and Odile Cisneros, eds. Evanston, il: Northwestern University Press, 2007. 223–234.

[6] Solt’s editorial, poetic and scholarly work is explored in detail in a special issue of oei. oei # 51 “Mary Ellen SoltToward a Theory of Concrete Poetry,” as edited by Antonio Sergio Bessa, reprints much of Solt’s poetry, her correspondence with William Carlos Williams, and her critical work on Concrete poetry.

[7] Banner, Fiona. “From The Nam.” Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, eds. Evanston, il: Northwestern University Press, 2011. 60–63. [spelling in the original]

[8] Rabinowitz, Cay Sophie. “Work-in-progress...” Online 1 March 2013. http://www.fionabanner.com/words/workinprogress.htm

[9] Bayeaux Tapestry. Wikipedia. Online 1 March 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayeux_Tapestry

[10] McLeod, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.

[11] Wikipedia.

[12] Bervin, Jen. Nets. Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004.

[13] ibid.

[14] Bervin, Jen. “untitled”. speechless. 6 (2009). Online 1 March 2013. http://www.ubu.com/contemp/speechless/index.html

[15] Bervin’s artistic explorations of Dickinson are published in two volumes by New York’s Granary Books: The Dickinson Composites (2010) and The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope-Poems (2012, with Marta Werner).

[16] Burroughs, William S. “The Cut-up Method.” Online 1 March 2013. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/burroughs-cutup.html

[17] Dworkin, Craig. “The Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing.” Online 1 March 2013. http://www.ubu.com/concept/

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