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Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Context of a Vanguard: Toward a Definition of Concrete Poetry, Jon M. Tolman
The Context of a Vanguard: Toward a Definition of Concrete Poetry
Jon M. Tolman

Poetics Today, Vol. 3, No.3, Poetics of the Avant-Garde. (Summer, 1982), pp. 149-166.

This essay represents an attempt to define Brazilian concrete poetry (and the world-wide movement it headed) within the context of contemporary vanguard movements. It is my intention to demonstrate that concrete poetry developed into the first truly classical literary movement of modern times. It achieved this breakthrough by rejecting the effort of neo- classical restoration groups to establish a contemporary poetic movement by disinterring the past. Concrete poetry will be shown to be essentially anti-romantic in sensibility and technique. Whether an isolated phenomenon or the first manifestation of a new spirit, its psychological, social and literary profile will be seen to be undeniably classical. As a pioneering movement it necessarily employs a number of strategies developed by earlier, romantic avant-gardes, but the theoretical writing of the movement clearly demonstrates that this use of the past is not anachronistic but rather that the recognition that certain achievements of the past have made possible a new aesthetic awareness. The concrete poets possess a well-defined sense of culmination or supplantation in which they do not worship or imitate the past, but build upon it.

Before undertaking my demonstration of these theories, I shall begin with a brief historical presentation in order to locate the Brazilian movement within its immediate literary tradition. Brazilian literature entered the twentieth century twenty years behind the times, having been kidnapped by a Parnassian movement which dominated Brazil as it never dominated France. Its domain was so pervasive, in fact, that Symbolism was almost stillborn, reduced in impact and relegated to distinct minority status until 1922, when it was rescued from oblivion by a revolutionary generation that used it as a weapon against a moribund Parnassian establishment. What happened in 1922 was the Modern Art Week, which ushered in an eight-year spree known in Brazil as Modernism, and which under the banner of innovation, brought Brazil into line with Europe. Iconoclastic, destructive and intensely nationalistic, Modernism was basically expressionist in orientation, but only certain elements of the European avant-garde were imported into Brazil. There was marked indifference to imagism, Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism (in sharp contrast with Spanish America, where Surrealism, even today, has a profound influence). However, certain attitudes universally shared by avant-garde movements were accepted. Among them were a rejection of traditional poetics, with its formalistic emphasis on rhyme and meter; a gleeful spirit of épater le bourgeois; a search for a national language, a national identity. By 1930 Modernism had worn itself out and gave way to a more constructive spirit which maintained its formal iconoclasm even while turning away from it thematically. Nationalism was abandoned as poets turned inward searching for individual identity, thereby anticipating the alienation which would be the dominant attitude in the literature of postwar Europe and America. In prose, the poetic nationalism of the previous period crystallized into the novel of the Brazilian Northeast, neo-realistic in technique and reformist or revolutionary in its social message.

In the late forties a growing dissatisfaction with the formlessness of the previous aesthetic began to manifest itself in poetry through a return to traditional poetics. The first traditional form to reappear was the sonnet, to be followed by the ode and other long-abandoned devices. In prose a similar reaction took place. In fact the entire evolution of postwar Brazilian literature may be said to have been dominated by formalism and formalistic experimentation. In poetry this formalistic preoccupation coalesced into what would be called the Generation of 1945, later to be accused of being neo-Parnassian. The most important poet of this period, João Cabral de Melo Neto, collaborated only briefly with the "Orpheus Group," as they called themselves, before pulling away from them to develop his own formalistic aesthetic under the influence of Paul Valéry.1 While the poetics of the Orpheus Group more nearly resembles that of Rilke or T. S. Eliot, Cabral's poetic theories--after coming into contact with Valéry, and incorporating local influences of two of Modernism's greatest voices, Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Murilo Mendes--developed along the lines of an anti-rhetoric, a negative poetics exalting an extreme, ascetic formalism.

The aegis of the Generation of 1945 was short-lived. A small group of young men in São Paulo, restive under the constraints of what they perceived as literary anachronism, published their first work in Orpheus periodicals, but as they gained confidence and knowledge, they launched a fulminating attack on their elders. The Generation of 1945, repudiated in their moment of dominance, never recovered. What was surprising was the sudden development of the Noigandres Group (initially Augusto and Haroldo de Campos and Décio Pignatari) and their movement which they called concrete poetry. It was in the early fifties when they took the country by storm and succeeded briefly in dominating the literary scene. By the early sixties, in spite of continued influence among certain young poets, concrete had lost its hegemony over contemporary poetry. The following period in Brazilian literature seems marked by eclecticism with no really definable trends, or at least by no trends with any large following. Concrete continues to exert considerable influence, and the concrete poets continue to be active, but there is widespread hostility to the group, the result of the polemics which marked its birth and development. Internationally, however, the Noigandres group still has prestige, and as a dynamic element of the concrete movement of the fifties which had worldwide ramifications, it continues to be prominent.2
Two concepts underlie the essay which follows. The first is that romanticism is less a movement than an all-embracing state of mind and culture spanning two centuries, with its beginnings in the late eighteenth century and extending to the present. The second is that romanticism and classicism are poles between which Occidental art has always oscillated. Critics and literary historians as diverse as Mario Praz and Hiram Haydn have contributed to these concepts, while such modern theoreticians as Murray Krieger and Morse Peckham have been instrumental in applying them to postwar literary phenomena. It may be helpful in the present context for me to define, in the broadest possible terms, what I mean by classical and romantic. For that purpose, Haydn's epistemological definition is admirably suited. Eschewing an attempt to list "characteristics," always vitiated or completely nullified when one goes to the work itself, he strikes at the heart of the matter by examining the differing attitudes of romanticism and classicism to that most basic of human problems: the gap between the real and the ideal:

The only definition of the Classicist that I have found possible to apply with equal validity to Plato and Pope, to Racine and Dante, to Addison and AEschylus, is that the Classicist is a man and artist who finds it possible to accept without misgivings the authority and discipline of a fixed order and rules because he believes in the essential congruence and relatedness of the ideal and the empirically actual--that which should be and that which is. Whether the actual is but an imperfect extension of the ideal, as with Plato; whether it is an ordained and limited part of the creation effected by the ideal (in Christian terminology, God), as in Pope's and Addison's version of the Great Chain of Being; whether, as in the concept of "immatered form" of Aristotle's mature philosophy, which recognizes the usefulness and relatedness of intellectual concept and empirical observation, it is a question of rooting the ideal in the actual, and motivating the actual by the ideal--in any case, the Classicist recognizes the relation as a direct and certain one, and fixes upon that recognition his aesthetic as well as his moral, philosophical or religious creed.

The Romanticist, on the other hand, is that man or artist who, moved by the discrepancy he finds between the ideal and the empirically actual, cannot reconcile the two. As a result, he may, like Keats, yearn more and more nostalgically for an escape to, and a complete immersion in, the world of the ideal--which becomes increasingly, and perhaps even exclusively, real to him. [...] On the other hand, like Shelley, the Romantic may dream of effecting a reconciliation between the two by the ultimate imposition of the ideal upon the empirical actuality in the distant and improbable future. [...] Still again, with Wordsworth, he may find the ideal in simple and primitive nature, and in those closest to her. [...]

But whether the particular Romantic's form of rebellion is escape or reform, passive or active, he is always a rebel against the established order and skeptical about the validity of the value of fixed laws. [...] He does not accept the established relatedness of the ideal and the actual, and he refuses to abide by rules derived from this central premise, whether aesthetic ones or ones pertaining to the conduct of life (Haydn 1950:15).

It should be borne in mind that Haydn's study involves Elizabethan literature (in spite of the nineteenth-century references in the quote), not "Romanticism" in the limited historical sense of the word. According to these concepts, it is possible to postulate the essential romantic identity of movements as diverse as Symbolism and Surrealism, the essentially romantic nature of apparently anti-romantic movements such as Realism and Naturalism. Further, if the modern age in art has been essentially romantic, it is possible to postulate the eventual exhaustion of that great impulse and its replacement by its antipode, classicism.

But if romanticism triumphed in artistic milieux in the mid-nineteenth century and then proceeded to develop a tradition which can be traced through Baudelaire to Verlaine and Rimbaud and to the Symbolists and thence to avant-garde movements such as Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism, it did not triumph socially until recently. It was romanticism's long struggle with public taste that shaped its development. The public in the Western world has always taken "for its ideals, or idols, what may be called, if not classicism, at least the traditional or the academic" (Poggioli 1973:50). In the first third of this century this basic divergence in taste was exacerbated by a growing alienation of the avant-garde artist from society. His alienation, according to Poggioli, took several avenues of expression; antagonism, in which the artist deliberately affronts public morality and etiquette, and attacks (usually his predecessors) in violent polemical jargon; nihilism, in which the artist reaches "a point of extreme tension toward the public and tradition" (p. 64), which culminates in a destructive impulse capable of annihilating all cultural values; agonism, in which the artist, convinced of the impending end of civilization, acts suicidally in an attempt to bequeath something of value to the future; and Futurism, in which the artist has an acute sense of being in a state of transition, perceiving himself as a precursor of future developments. Important in contemporary nihilism have been two factors, the commercialization and vulgarization of art, and the increasing tendency to regard the relationship between an artist and his work as a private one, negating the social value of art in favor of art as private fantasy.

Poggioli convincingly argues that only modern bourgeois societies create conditions in which avant-garde art may flourish, nurturing a counter culture which despises its source. The bête noir opposed by contemporary avant-gardes has been mass culture, in all its forms. In technological urban societies there has been a radical and permanent separation between popular and avant-garde culture, accentuated by a homogenizing process in which ethnic and folk elements are lost under the pressures of mass media and other forces. "By means of specialization and technology, modern society has broken all the links between artisan and artist, destroyed all the forms of folklore and ethnic culture; it has even transformed the very concept of 'the people,' now a synonym for the quite different concept of 'the masses'" (p. 122). Poggioli sees the attempts of such modern artists as Eliot to recreate or restore a lost sense of craftsmanship as doomed from the start. I shall return to this point later.

In his epilogue Poggioli summarizes the evolution of the avant-garde, divided into four moments or phases. The culmination of this development in our time is the triumph of the avant-garde spirit and its ramification into all artistic spheres. But Poggioli does not perceive that this success extends even to society, which has become impervious to shock, permissive to extremes, willing to tolerate and reward the most outrageous artistic extravagances. Avant-garde has become chic, not merely among the elites, but among a vast bourgeois audience which has at last been weaned away from academicism. There remains a sullen residue which opposes all such decadence, but the numbers of adherents have been vastly swollen by affluence and the public education it has fostered. This success has put the avant-garde into crisis, undermining the alienation necessary to its survival. Harold Rosenberg has aptly summarized this situation in Discovering the Present (1973: X-X:):

The cultural revolution of the past hundred years has petered out. Only conservatives believe that subversion is still being carried on in the arts and that society is being shaken by it. Today's aesthetic vanguardism is being sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, by state art councils, by museums, by industrial and banking organizations. Foundation grants are made to underground film and magazines, to little-review contributors, to producers of happenings and electronic music, to the Merce Cunningham dance group. The art-historical media have become thoroughly blended with the mass media and with commercial gesign and decoration under the slogan of community art programs. Reciprocally, commercial movies, thrillers, even TV advertising spots have become so daringly experimental in the formal sense as to elicit not the comprehension of a message but the immediate total response of a work of art.

By and large, the contemporary artistic scene demonstrates that the boast of the Dadaists that they had done it all was true. There is a kind of desperation in the most extreme manifestations of contemporary avant-garde art of the now traditional left. It is besieged by a sense of déjà vu. Literally everything has already been tried. According to Rosenberg:

In art, "conservative" and "radical" ought to be abandoned and attention concentrated on déjà vu. The purpose of education is to keep a culture from being drowned in senseless repetitions, each of which claims to offer a new insight. In America an almost total absence of genuine education in modernist creations and attitudes of the past hundred years is responsible for wave after wave of déjà vu novelties. The dejavunik exploits his audience's lack of education by appealing to its desire to be advanced and its expectation of being repelled by new work. Today, cultural professionals can count on avant-garde déjà vu to arouse the enthusiasm of undergraduate movie makers, post-art aesthetes, far-out curators, and collector-dealers for whatever makes the grade as Time-Newsweek shock (p. xi).

These quotes suggest that the romantic age as I have defined it may be ending. It is too early to determine such a hypothesis objectively, but there is mounting evidence that something of the sort may be happening. I refer to the prevalence of a neo-classical revival during the last forty years. It can be stated without exaggeration that the most powerful literary impulses of contemporary culture have come from artists basically hostile to romanticism. I refer to Eliot, Pound and Valéry. It remains to be seen, however, whether this "anti-romanticism" is any more authentic than preceding manifestations in the nineteenth century. T. E. Hulme's prediction of a new classical spirit, although widely assumed to have been futile, did have serious repercussions in its effects on Eliot and Pound.3 Poggioli takes up this question and dismisses the possibility of a new classicism, at least as it is exemplified in Eliot, largely because Eliot's impulse is nostalgic. Poggioli does admit that recently the dynamism seems to have gone out of avant-garde, manifested in increasingly rare appearances of new movements, but attributes this lack of intensity to a broadening of the avant-garde spirit in its contemporary triumph:

In modern poetry and art, classicism can operate only as a retrospective utopia, as a logical counterbalance to the futuristic utopia. In any case, the frequency within the recent avant-garde of positions such as Eliot's along with the rehabilitation and renewal of the very concept of tradition, has certainly contributed to making new movements and manifestoes more rare and scarce. Thus the appearance of a series of new poetics, neoclassical on the surtace, has devaluated experiment as an end in itself (p. 223).
It is significant that Haroldo de Campos's rejection of the poetics of the Generation of 1945 is couched in quite similar phraseology. I refer to the essay entitled "Poetry and Paradise Lost." It is precisely a "retrospective utopia" which is repugnant to the concrete poets:

Anodyne and anonymous lyricism, and love of conventional patterns of vagueness lie, for instance, behind the "rediscovery" of the sonnet in the manner of a "dernier cri." These are the well-known manifestations of Sunday-Park art, a backwater where poetry is perfectly codified in little metric rules, adjusted to a serene formal elegance and equipped with a stock of metaphors prudently controlled in all their petite bourgeois self- sufficiency by a curiously repressing policy: the so-called "atmosphere" (climate) of the poem (1975:25).
Other passages from the Theory of Concrete Poetry (Teori a de Poesia Concreta) demonstrate that for concrete, the poetry of the previous generation was doubly damned: it looked backward in attempting the restoration of clichéd poetic forms, and it was romantic in its sensibility, alienation and sentimentality. While the apparent neoclassicism of the Generation of '45 and other postwar groups might thus be disposed of as a kind of cloying anachronism, the poetics of Valéry and Pound offered sterner resistance, and it was only after deliberation that the concrete poets concluded that they must push beyond them.

Beyond its rejection of nostalgic anachronism, how is concrete poetry's classical protile delineated? Brietly, concrete poetry is not alienated, not agonistic, not nihilistic, not Futuristic. It subscribes to a theory of Zeitgeist, conceived in Russian formalist terms. It rejects subjectivism in all its forms, even the detached subjective role of the artist in the work as conceived by Valéry or Pound. It rejects the idea that art and society are inimical, and in fact attempts a conscious rapprochement with the public. It embraces modern technology and scientism, and is fascinated by communication theory.4 It totally rejects the cult of the metaphor which has characterized contemporary art, and refuses to accept a favorite avant-garde dictum that legitimate art is exceptional.

Concrete's rejection of alienation is profound. It rejects the whole subjective-romantic emphasis on the subconscious, on correspondence, on the poet as mystic or seer. In fact, it overwhelmingly rejects what Hannah Arendt has called the "deep-structure fallacy": the idea that surface is superficial or frivolous and that what matters, what is essential, is what is hidden from view. Concrete affirms the thingness of things, accepting the phenomenological reality of surface. It is therefore opposed to the oneiricism of the Surrealists, proposing instead the maximalization of lucidity. Poggioli has analyzed the Schopenhauerian conception of will as an irrational, unconscious, automatic vital cosmic force. It is this conception (which lies behind avant-garde theories of automatism) that is specifically rejected by the concrete poets, for whom even chance and intuition are subject to rigid control. Décio Pignatari speaks of "the chronomicrometering of chance," and "the most lucid intellectual work for the clearest intuition" ("newpoetry: concrete," 1975:41). He later elaborates these ideas in "Chance, Choice, Shots," where he speaks of chance shaped by mathematical theories of probability. Concrete does not flee from technology, but rather embraces its empiricism and functionalism.

The ingenuous or academic notions that someone might have about mathematics are also not important. Mathematics cannot be opposed to art to the point of conferring to intuition that traditional absolute value, which betrays an idealistic education prisoner to the apparently infinite field of the Arbitrary. Those who ignore principles through the panicked belief that they limit or restrict (one knows not what ... inspiration, perhaps) is compelled to justify "post factum" his work. He can only do this by using dubious articulations or subjective sub-levers. Right was always on the side of those who had reasons instead of mere justifications (1975:147-148).
In this statement, Pignatari redefines intuition in biological terms which do not permit the slightest idealization of the process: "A [ ... ] physiological, psycho-cultural perception mechanism [ ... ] at the root of elementary feedback circuits and high-grade options, stimulating experimental actions." For concrete, creativity is not a process of blind subjection to the unconscious justified post factum as art, but the a priori determination of an aesthetic problem to be solved in a specific and straight-forward manner. In his essay "From the Phenomenology of Composition to the Mathematics of Composition," Haroldo de Campos makes this plain.

Concrete poetry is moving toward the rejection of organic structure in favor of a mathematical or quasi-mathematical one. In the poem of the word-after-word type, structure results from the interaction of words or fragments of words produced in the spatial field, with each new word implying something like a structural option. Such an option solicits a marked intervention of chance and intuitional readiness. Concrete poetry instead seeks a mathematical structure planned before the word. The solution of the structural problem will therefore require that words be used under the control of the thematic number. The definition of structure which fits the poem will be the exact moment of the creative option. From that point on the intervention of a disciplining and critical intelligence will be effected with greatest intensity. The structure selected will rigorously determine the elements of play and their relative positions in an almost mathematical way.
We seek a planned verbal structure, "as precise as possible," as neat as "symbolic logic," as exact as the "visible ideas" of a concrete painter (1975:91-93).
Haroldo de Campos's theory of a "thematic number" conclusively refutes a common criticism of concrete poetry that it represents nothing more than a kind of automatism where isolated words are arbitrarily thrown together as in one of Tristan Tzara's games. Two examples follow, from different moments in the movement's evolution. Even as early as 1953, concrete had moved away from extrinsical, "shaped" poems à la Apollinaire. This is evident in the Poet-Minus series by Augusto de Campos. In this series, Augusto worked with color and words, seeking to reproduce in poetry some equivalent to Webern's musical theories of Klangfarbenmelodie (it is unfortunate that this presentation is limited to the printed word, since the spoken-musical version of the following poem is essential to its Gestalt, to its verbi-voco-visual wholeness):

It is clear in "Here are the Lovers" that we have words arranged by an aprioristic but open-minded/receptive creative mentality which allows full play to what Pignatari calls "factors of proximity and likeness." It should be equally obvious that this is no mere word-picture poem. The juxtaposed words resonate together, setting off refractions of meaning that scintillate around the columns and contribute to its Gestalt. The experience is in some ways akin to synesthesia, where one sensation evokes a response in another sense area. In this case, what the poem manages to evoke/provoke in the receptive reader is a sensual response that goes far beyond the usual intellectual titillation essential to love poetry.

Haroldo de Campos's "Poemandala" from his Lacunae series (1971) exhibits an ethereal grace, managing to evoke the oriental (concrete's fascination with the ideogram can be traced to Pound and pervades the movement's theory) while teasing the mind with its haiku-like columns of words. As insubstantial as a shadow, as permanent as the symbol that forms its core, the poem seems almost like the image left on the retina when one blinks after seeing a strong light. It is a perfect demonstration of what can be achieved with "minimal means," with "a planned verbal structure" that nevertheless is neither clumsy nor pedestrian (as might be assumed by the mathematical formulations of the theory):

Concrete's rejection of subjectivism, the romantic cult of personality, is carried to the extreme of excluding from the poem all traces of the author's presence. This quality is amply demonstrated in the two poems that precede this paragraph. In this effacement the concrete poets go far beyond the craftsmanship of Valéry, Pound or Eliot, where, for all their formal discipline, the authors maintain a persona, a mediator between author, work and reader. It was Eliot, in fact, who revived the Renaissance theories of persona in his attempt to reestablish distance between author and work and eliminate the romantic tendency to blur the distinction between maker and speaker. In the concrete poem there is simply no speaker. To the extent that the reader and the author make contact they do so in the poem itself, not outside it. The concrete poem makes great demands on the reader, since the raw materials of the poem are presented to him, along with certain instructions, and it is he who must realize the poem. This act of faith on the part of the concrete poet reflects his belief in Gestalt, in the validity of the concept that 2 + 2 can equal 5 in art. But the problem is that in the concrete work, the Gestalt is not presented pre-digested by a persona but left only as a potential. This quality is demonstrated in Augusto's "Eis os amantes" where the reader re-creates/re-experiences the copulation that forms the poem's experiential foundation. For another convincing demonstration of this dynamism in concrete poetry, the reader is referred to Haroldo's "Si-Ien-cio"(1956). An equally convincing demonstration of the direct, experiential qualities of concrete may be found in Décio Pignatari's "beba coca cola," in which the poet expresses a profound existential nausea. This is a protest poem with a difference: the reader is invited to participate in an experience that begins with a slogan, "Drink Coca Cola" and culminates in an explosion of rage/ nausea/expulsion (as in excretion). Once again, to listen to the aleatoric vision of this poem in a recording is to materially increase the intensity of the experience. Even more than in traditional word-after-word poetry, concrete is dependent for complete impact on complete experience:

A striking feature of the concrete movement is its attempt to rejoin the severed relations between poetry and public. Concrete theory attempts to demystify art, advocating a kind of Functionalism in which the poem is treated as an object, not an objet d'art to be carefully preserved and saved in a museum case, but an object like a piece of bread or a newspaper. Rather than emphasize craftsmanship in an attempt to valorize the artist's creative effort, concrete poets emphasize creativity as a process akin to industrial design, in which the designer's creative efforts go into conceiving a prototype. Such a prototype is anonymous and capable of infinite reproduction. The test of its efficacy is not the personal taste of an elite collector, but whether the object functions and satisfies the needs of the public. As a consequence, concrete poetry strives to present itself without mystery directly to the consumer. The intellectual elitism involved in the modern cult of the metaphor is also avoided, along with the entire rhetorical-discursive apparatus of traditional lyric poetry. Décio Pignatari says:

The now classic postulation, "form follows function," involving the notion of useful, utilitarian beauty, means an awareness on the part of the artist, both artistically and economically, of the new world of assemblyline industrial production. In this world, "et pour cause," craftsmanship is put out of circulation as anti-economic, anachronistic, incompatible and incommunicable with that impersonal, collective and rational world that comes to depend entirely on planning on all levels and meanings.

The contradictions between industrial production and individual artistic craftsmanship opened a chasm between art and the public. In the face of these divergencies, it became necessary to join beauty with utility in order to attend to the needs of a new type of consumer, a "consumer of physical design," in the words of Neutra ("Form, Function and General Project," Campos and Pignatari 1975:107-108).
Lest anyone mistake his meaning, assuming that concrete seeks to commercialize art, Pignatari adds that these consumer goods lie "in the realm of thought and sensitivity, not convertible into mere utilitarian values." This is n ot to say that commercialization and art are necessarily inimical. Pignatari himself established a successful ad agency in Sa o Paulo for a number of years, and one of his ads is usually included in concrete anthologies. In his "Disenfo rmio" (an anti-diarrheal medicine) the letters of the product invade and consume the "intestinal disturbance." The ad is a t once a highly effective commercial message (part of whose effectiveness is subliminal) and a demonstration that what works has artistic value.

The concrete poets showed an early interest in the media and in communication theory, and the use of concrete graphic techniques by ad agencies and television are seen by them as proof of the validity of their theoretical position. The modern urban consumer, accustomed by television and the newspaper to headlines and simplified syntax, has been conditioned to high speed communication. In the concrete aesthetic what functions, what communicates, possesses artistic value. In the words of Haroldo de Campos:

Concrete poetry is language fit for the contemporary creative mind. It permits high-speed communication. It prefigures for the poem a re-integration in daily life similar to that which the Bauhaus achieved for visual arts: whether as a vehicle of commercial advertising (newspapers, signs, TV, movies, etc.), or as an object in itself (functioning in architecture, for example) with a field of possibilities analogous to both industrial design and painting. It substitutes the magical, the mystical and the "maudit" for the useful (1975:46).
Concrete's rapprochement with mass culture may be partially explained by the specific Brazilian situation, which in some ways resembles that of Russia in the time of the Formalists. In both cases a technologically oriented, innovating avant-garde reacts to a stratified literary tradition it identifies with a colonialist mentality. In such a situation, the avant-garde may regard a mass-oriented aesthetic favorably rather than adopt the hostile attitude typical of the avant-garde in more advanced countries. In this instance there is a confluence of specific local conditions and generalized cultural ones which produces an avant-garde movement quite unique in contemporary art. It is the '45 Generation's traditional elitist sociopsychological orientation that sets off the concrete movement's mass-accepting intransigence.

Beyond concrete's non-alienated orientation to society and art, there are other characterisitics which identify the movement as classical. The most prominent is perhaps the movement's historicism. As Poggioli has noted, classical movements have a well-defined sense of being a culmination as opposed to the agonistic sense of transition which besets the romantic avant-garde. Concrete regards itself as the fruition of a half century of vanguard efforts, and its Theory is replete with analyses of the movements which preceded it. These analyses emphasize the failures of Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism and of such figures as Apollinaire even while conceding their contribution to the concretist aesthetic. For example, in the essay "Aspects of Concrete Poetry," Haroldo de Campos (1975:94-106) analyzes the contributions of Mallarmé, Pound, Apollinaire, the Futurists, Dadaists and others to concrete poetry. In spite of his respect for their contributions, he rejects the contemporary validity of these precursors, accepting their innovations only in the spirit of an inheritor, saying that "the cinematic descriptiveness, the frenetic subjectivity and the ultraromanticism of the futurists hypostatized in their characteristic machine made their compositions barren of constructive organization." Similarly, Augusto de Campos rejects Apollinaire, after recognizing his contributions, in the following terms: "Apollinaire condemns the poetic ideogram to the mere figurative representation of theme. [...] This removes most of the vigor and physiognomic richness which the calligrammes might have had, in spite of the grace and visual 'humor' with which Apollinaire almost always 'draws' them" (1975:19). Pound himself, the direct aesthetic forbear of the concrete poets, is ultimately rejected for his attachment to craftsmanship and the individualistic, subjective relationship between maker and poem that this attitude implies. It should be evident from the foregoing remarks that I have used the term "precursor" advisedly. Perhaps the only way in which a previous author can be a "precursor" is in the literal sense, of a forerunner, a contributor to one's aesthetic, and even then only when the formulator of such a statement has a classicist mentality, perceiving himself as a culmination.

While concrete poetry shares with other avant-garde movements a love of the experimental, it has developed a radical new conception of the theme-form equation which deserves analysis as it relates to classicism and romanticism. Standard avant-gardism's cult of the new presumes a feverish search for new forms of expression and their abandonment when they become generalized or vulgarized through mass acceptance. In other words, what commonly characterizes avant-garde movements is their abhorrence of stereotype. On the other hand, traditional classicism has taken the view that certain artistic forms are virtually immutable, defining originality in terms of surpassing models. To some extent this orientation explains the failures of neo-classical movements in modern literature, obsessed with restoring modes of expression anathematized by the romantic avant-gardes. This constitutes the central dilemma of the modern classical vision: the inability to invent a form adequate to express that vision in non-anachronistic terms. Instead, modern exponents of classicism have attempted the restoration of a lost paradise, and in so doing, have demonstrated that they continue trapped in the romantic ethos they abhor. The problem has been that the power of the Greco-Roman model was such that in spite of increasing distance in time it exercised (and continues to exercise) a fatal fascination for would-be followers of the classical way. In reality, only the exuberant optimism of the Renaissance prevented, and then only temporarily, an awareness of the incongruity of resurrecting a long-dead cultural model to express fourteenth- and fifteenth-century aesthetic and philosophical needs. As Hiram Haydn has demonstrated, the Baroque age was the first romantic period of modern time, one in which the paradoxical possibilities of the Greco-Roman model were fully explored. The eighteenth century's attempt to reassert the model foundered, at least partially, on anachronistic incongruity and ushered in the modern romantic age. The genius of concrete poetry lies in its freedom from the past and its invention of a form adequate to the expression of a twentieth-century classicism.

In its development of a new formal theory in harmony with the contemporary period, concrete poetry has abandoned classicism's traditional insistence that theme and form are separate entities. At best, classicism of the Greco-Roman mold will admit only that certain forms, such as the sonnet, are uniquely adapted to the expression of certain themes. Concrete poetry resolves the theme-form binomial in favor of a new synthesis in which form is theme (isomorphism) in which the structure and physical arrangement of words in a poem are determined in each case by the internal demands of the Gestalt created by the "factors of proximity and likeness" at play. Form is not imposed on the words from without, is not programmatic, is not extrinsic. This conception confronts the poet with a radical new creative option each time he begins a poem. In traditional poetry, a writer conquers a style and evolves thematically within it, content to innovate only in a relative sense. Even when the poet adheres to a new movement, for example, he simply takes over the new style, makes it his own and tinkers. For the concrete poet each new poem is a leap in the dark.

It should be evident from the foregoing that concrete poetry also has made a radical new formulation in the concept of originality. Leaving behind both traditional classicism's effort at surpassing models and romanticism's cult of the new, the concrete poet confronts each new creative moment armed only with his readiness to allow the words to shape themselves into an idea, which, once expressed, is relatively unique. At most a new idea will lead to a limited series of poems that exhaust its potentiality. The creative attitude of the concrete poet is one of patient awareness.

The related concepts of form and originality are themselves important in their relationship with another traditional shibboleth: that of "national" literature. Isolated behind very real walls of distance and time, modern Occidental literatures developed concepts of nationalism that seemed both logical and inevitable. The traditional artist, protected behind these arbitrary walls, was free to imitate, often rather closely, the efforts of contemporaries in other countries, and the product of his labor was assured a place in the intellectual market of his country. The concrete poet, operating in an age when communication is virtually instantaneous and travel is relatively so, fully accepts the impossibility in such a situation of any appeal to relativity or uniqueness. Concrete poetry developed internationally in such a way that limitations of language and culture were minimized within a tacit consensus that imitation or duplication from one country to another was impossible practically and illicit creatively.

In this essay I have attempted to demonstrate the possibility that concrete poetry is an avant-garde movement of classicist tendencies rather than romantic ones. For the purposes of example, parting from an epistemological basis, I have explored the various ways it rejects alienation, the predominant characteristic of modern romantic avant- garde movements. Beyond the movement's intrinsic merits as an approach to contemporary aesthetics, the intriguing possibility of its classicist nature especially recommends it to those interested in contemporary literary typology. Indeed, if concrete is classicist and avant-garde then a whole series of assumptions about vanguardism and aesthetics must be reconsidered, since vanguardism has been universally assumed to be a romantic phenomenon. If romanticism, after a two-hundred-year reign, has reached a point of inanition, a classicist revolt will assume certain characteristics of the avant-garde as a matter of dynamics inherent in the situation. This may also explain why contemporary neo-classical movements such as the Generation of 1945 in Brazil failed to generate impact. The possibilities of a technically formalist moderating reaction within romanticism were exhausted by such nineteenth-century movements as Parnassianism. Concrete has shown that formal tinkering within a romantic aesthetic is no longer viable. For formalism to work in the contemporary period, a radical psychological amputation is necessary. The affirmative, optimistic mentality of concrete, allied with its acceptance of avant-garde aesthetics makes it clear that we have in reality two apparently similar but radically different movements which contemplate each other across an unbridgeable gulf.


1. João Cabral de Melo Neto is reasonably well known in the United States and elsewhere. His poetry may be consulted in various anthologies, including The Literary Review (Winter issue, 1978), and Elizabeth Bishop's An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry (1972). These anthologies may also be consulted for the other Brazilian poets mentioned.

2. A kind of unofficial Brazilian blockade of concrete works was broken a few years ago, and the intervening period had seen the commercial publication of several important works. Prior to that time, within Brazil, all concrete works, including Invenção and Noigandres were privately financed and published. In 1973, a second edition of the Teoria da Poesia Concreta was published by the São Paulo publisher, Duas Cidades. In the same year, Augusto de Campos privately printed his retrospective Caixa Preta (Black Box), together with designer Julio Plaza. In 1977 Haroldo de Campos's Xadrez de Estrelas (Chessboard of Stars) (poetry and prose) was published in Sa o Paulo by Perspectiva. In the same year, Décio Pignatari's Poesia Pois E Poesia (Poetry? Damn Right!) was published by Duas Cidades. Finally, in 1979, Haroldo published his Signantia Quase Coelum, a collection of poetic fragments with a Dantean foundation, also with Perspectiva. These retrospective editions have for th e first time provided readers in Brazil and abroad with access to almost the entire corpus of concrete poetry.

In addition, the author of this essay recently finished translating the Theory of Concrete Poetry. It is possible that the Theory will become available to the English-speaking community in the near future. (All translations in this study are taken from that text.) The poems themselves are available in translation in a number of anthologies, most notably Mary Ellen Solt's Concrete Poetry: A World View (1970) and Emmett Williams's An Anthology of Concrete Poetry (1967).

3. See the essay entitled "Romanticism and Classicism" in Hulme (1936:113-140). The romanticism of the New Critics, Hulme's inheritors, is expounded by Richard Foster (1962: 30-44).

4. The movement's preoccupation with communication theory led it, in later stages, toward semiotics. The movement may be justly regarded as a pioneering semiotically oriented effort. See the Teoria da Poesia Concreta or the Anthology of Concrete Poetry (Williams 1967) for examples of semiotic poems. The Theory, with its phenomenological orientation, abounds in pre-semiotic discoveries.


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Campos, Augusto de, 1975. Caixa Preta (São Paulo).
Campos, Haroldo de, 1977. Xadrez de Estrelas (São Paulo : Perspectiva).
1979 Signantia Quase Coelum (São Paulo: Perspectiva).
Campos, Haroldo de, Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari, 1975. Teoria da Poesia Concreta, 2nd ed. [Original edition, 1965] (São Paulo: Duas Cidades).
Foster, Richard, 1952. The New Romantics (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP).
Haydn, Hiram, 1950. The Counter-Renaissance (New York: Scribners).
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Kreiger, Murray, 1960. The Tragic Vision (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston).
1971 The Classic Vision (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP).
Peckham, Morse, 1962. "Toward a Theory of Romanticism: II Reconsiderations," Studies in Romanticism 1:1-8.
Peckham, Morse, 1965. Romanticism (New York: Braziller).
Pignatari, Décio, 1977. Poesia Pois é Poesia (São Paulo: Duas Cidades).
Poggioli, Renato, 1973. The Theory of the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP).
Praz, Mario, 1960. The Romantic Agony (New York: Meridian Books).
Rosenberg, Harold, 1973. Discovering the Present (Chicago: Chicago UP).
Soit, Mary Ellen, 1970. Concrete Poetry: A World View (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP).
Williams, Emmet, 1967. An Anthology of Concrete Poetry (New York: Something Else Press).

reproduced from: http://www.ubu.com/papers/tolman.html


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