One of the narratives of visual poetry since the 1950s is that the form has become one that can be taken up by any poet at some stage of their writing life. The concrete movement had such a strong impact that it’s impossible not to write poetry and to consider, at some point, how these techniques might be put into practice in a particular poem or sequence.
Edwin Morgan is significant here. His work is remarkable for its variety, dexterity and energy. I have always felt that his concrete poetry allowed him to get right down into the syllables, particles and phonemes of poetic language which he could later put to such effective use in his non-concrete work. Like an arachnophile coming back from years of living with insects the poet who’s immersed in visual poems hears the rustling underwiring in the ecosystem of language. Options and possibilities appear on every level of poetic play. The poet’s understanding of the micro elements that poetry can explore – including space and erasure – gives them a forensic eye for maximising each element of their poems. When Morgan began his poem ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’ (in Glasgow to Saturn, 1973) with:
he had developed an instinctive awareness of how the compacting of consonants can accelerate the sound and sense of a poem; he had explored these techniques to the nano-level in a poem like ‘Starryveldt’ (from The Second Life, 1968) written over half a decade earlier:
Concrete poetry allowed him to become an architect of all kinds of poetic structures and gave him the ability to design the internal corridors and finials of his poems with a jeweler’s eye-piece. It’s this approach to writing poems that Victoria and I will be helping students develop in our online course The New Concrete for The Poetry School.
We will look closely at letters: their shapes and visual impact. We will take Hansjorg Mayer’s The Last Alphabet as inspiration. We all know what a letter ‘e’ looks like, represented beautifully in Mayer’s piece here:
Mayer then takes the insides of the letters, inverting the white space inside the black print, to play with the pattern left behind – making these new letters forms appear as compellingly other:
The white space around poems will be looked at, giving primacy to the idea that the slightest mark or piece of type can transform blankness into galactic meaning. Simon Barraclough does this brilliantly in his poem ‘Tromso’:
Movement will be looked at too; through poetryfilm but also through how the kinetic poem uses placement and overlay to create a sense of visual shift – as Paula Claire does here:
And don’t let the black and white minimalism of the above suggest that there will be no colour. We will be looking at poets who’ve used paint, lithograph printing and computer graphics to arrest the eye through patternings and juxtapositions of colour – as in this work by Augusto de Campos:
Victoria and I have been researching this book for three years and editing for the last two: there are conversations with over 100 poets and artists from around the world that we will be drawing on to inspire those taking the course. The book is the launching pad for discussion, idea-sharing and offers the inspiration for the writing of new work. Like Morgan, what you take from such close-up attention to poetic language will reinforce and energise everything you go on to write. Which is why Morgan continued to work with visual poems throughout his life, creating this curious code poem a few years before he died; its curious made-up language of Runic and Cyrillic returns us to the idea that visual poetry emerges from humankind’s first languages and that the merging of the visual and textual in visual poetry is a form potent with current possibilities:
Book your place on the online course The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century here
The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century is available to buy from Hayward Publishing here