There’s a sense, as I mentioned in my page on the concretist lineage, in which concrete poetry is best understood in its historical context, as a radical break from the more conventional “look” of poetry as everyone had known it throughout the history of changing literary tastes, from period to period. But it’s not enough to note that concrete poetry has a visual design that complements the thematics of the poem’s content, because (as I’ll explain shortly) that can get you into trouble.
Guillaums Apollinaire was a French poet and artist, often known for his affiliation with the surrealists of France and Italy; he was wounded in WWI and died during the Spanish influenza epidemic that occurred just after the armistice. His book collection Calligrammes appeared posthumously, and collects all of his concrete poems. One looks like the Eiffel Tower. Another looks like a woman with a hat (go ahead and google “calligrammes Appollinaire” and you can see some through google images, for more examples of what this book had to offer). One of the poems I had you read this week is called “La visée,” which is French for “the aim” or “the goal,” but the poem itself is fanned out like a visor or a woman’s fan. The poem that requires more attention (perhaps) is called “Lettres-océan” and looks like a giant sun (complete with rays of light headed in all directions. You may not have been able to tell this from context, but the line just below the header on the right of that images mentions “Chapultepec,” which is a reference to the Aztecs (jeunes filles aux Chapultepec means the “young girls of Chapultepec,” so clearly google translate only gets you so far sometimes). The Aztecs worshipped and sacrificed virgins to the sun, so the radiating lines, not nearly so benign as we may have seen them during summer in Virginia (if you are in Virginia), here have an ambiguous valence.
Appolinaire’s most famous concrete poem is called “Il pleut.” Thanks to the magic of the internetz, I can show you the original French and then link you to a version of the poem as an animated gif.
Il pleut des voix de femmes comme si elles étaient mortes même dans le souvenir.
c’est vous aussi qu’il pleut, merveilleuses rencontres de ma vie. ô gouttelettes !
et ces nuages cabrés se prennent à hennir tout un univers de villes auriculaires
écoute s’il pleut tandis que le regret et le dédain pleurent une ancienne musique
écoute tomber les liens qui te retiennent en haut et en bas
It’s raining women’s voices as if they had died even in memory
And it’s raining you as well marvellous encounters of my life O little drops
Those rearing clouds begin to neigh a whole universe of auricular cities
Listen if it rains while regret and disdain weep to an ancient music
Listen to the bonds fall off which hold you above and below
What this proves about concrete poetry is that Apollinaire was about a century ahead of his time, and that the act of reading the words down the page (as if they were water droplets raining) presaged what html coding can do for us today, except that this poet thought of such a tactic long before computers were a glimmer in Alan Turing’s eye.
But interpreting concrete poetry presents the reader/viewer with a problem that more conventionally visual poetry does not, since it can be difficult to know the degree to which the poet intended the image to supplement the text of the poem, or for the image to be the poem, in essence: a naïve tactic, all things considered, in the same way that the imagists’ belief that they could constrain the reader of an imagist poem from thinking anything other than the prefabricated interpretation they had built into the poem was naïve. Readers are going to think whatever they want, and some of us resist all the stronger when it seems like we only have one interpretive option.
If it were true that concrete poets had basically collapsed the visual design of the poem into the content of the poem, then we could accuse them of what Umberto Eco has called the “Iconic Fallacy”: the belief that “a sign has the same properties as its object and is simultaneously similar to, analogous to, and motivated by its object.” This term comes from the classical Greek Orthodox iconography, religious hagiographic images of saints that the faithful would pray in front of, and some suspected of actually praying to the icon rather than to the religious figure it represented. I don’t know how likely a reader would be to read “Il pleut” and confuse the poem for actual rain, the wet kind of rain, but that’s beside the point: if we suspected that Apollinaire believed he had created the iconographic equivalent of rain, or barred his readers from thinking of anything but rain merely because of the concrete image his words had to suggest, we should all become iconoclasts and rebel.
But again, there’s a difference between suggestivity and enforcement, and the animated gif version bears this out better than the static image: The repetition of the déjà vu feeling is what the form of the poem conveys, rather than forcing us to think first, foremost, and only of rain. It’s a spooky and haunting poem in ways that can’t be explained or dismissed by way of the iconic fallacy.
This brings me to the de Campos brothers, who saw themselves as carrying out, as the poetry critic Marjorie Perloff has argued, a rear-guard action to formalize the gains made by modernist experimentation. The pre-war experimental poets had made it possible to manipulate words in space without blow-back; they had also planted the idea of “the vortex,” of moving print rather than merely print that was stylistically arranged. I think de Campos’s “SOS” makes more sense if we imagine the middle abbreviation at the bottom of a sucking maelstrom with the surrounding circles rotating above and surmounting it; I like to think of the middle word as aware of all the others, which all appear less vulnerable than the SOS; in that sense, it upends our normal associations of priority and centrality. But you wouldn’t even need to associate SOS with the distress signal in Morse code… although, as with “Il pleut, ” I’m prepared to argue that those concrete poems that make something of the separations between words in a poem are savvier at using every single bit of data to their visual advantage – in other words, just as the words of “Il pleuts” resemble separate drops of rain, falling interminably, the separate words of “SOS” resemble the staccato dots and dashes of Morse code, for all the help they bring to the helpless figure trapped in the middle.
So to wrap up: when you read a concretist poem, DO focus on the image that the words of the poem constitute, but DON’T be fooled into thinking that, once you recognize that image, your work as a reader is completed. As with any discussion of poetic form, the meaning lies in the interaction between the words themselves and the medium by which they are conveyed.