restricted access 9. The Invention of “Concrete Prose”: Haroldo de Campos’s Galaxias and After
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In 1999 David Jackson of Yale’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese organized a symposium in honor of the seventieth birthday of the Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campos. Known chiefly as one of the founders of the Concrete movement, Haroldo went on to produce important theoretical works as well as what I call here “Concrete prose.” I wrote a paper for the occasion and then enlarged it to include contemporary U.S. poets whose work moves in similar directions. The essay was published in the special issue on the nineties , edited by Thomas Gardner for Contemporary Literature (2001). 9 The Invention of “Concrete Prose” Haroldo de Campos’s Galáxias and After [Gertrude Stein’s] prose is a kind of concrete poetry with justi¤ed margins. David Antin, “Some Questions about Modernism” The language act is also an act of survival. Word order = world order. Steve McCaffery and bpNichol, “The Search for Non-Narrative Prose” On the face of it, Concrete poetry and prose poetry (or poetic prose) would seem to represent two extremes, with the lyric (lineated text framed by white space) as middle term. The Concrete poem is, by common de¤nition, a visual constellation in which, as the “Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry” published by the Noigandres poets of Brazil put it, “graphic space acts as structural agent.”1 Indeed, in the words of Dick Higgins, the Concrete poem characteristically “de¤nes its own form and is visually, and if possible, structurally original or even unique.” And further, unlike the Renaissance pattern poem or the Apollinairean calligramme—forms thatareinmanywaysitsprecursor— the Concrete poem’s “visual shape is, wherever possible, abstract, the words or letters within it behaving as ideograms.”2 But unlike, say, Ezra Pound’s ideograms in The Cantos, the text from which the Noigandres poets of Brazil took their name,3 the Concrete poem is usually short: “its most obvious feature,” as Rosmarie Waldrop puts it, “is reduction. . . . both conventions and sentence are replaced by spatial arrangement.”4 “We do not usually see words,” Waldrop remarks, “we read them, which is to say we look through them at their signi¤cance, their contents. Concrete Poetry is ¤rst of all a revolt against this transparency of the word.”5 Take, for example, Haroldo de Campos’s well-known Concrete poem “fala / prata / cala / ouro” (“speech / silver / silence / gold”),6 which plays with the hackneyed proverb “Silence is golden” as well as the classical epithet “silvertongued ”: fala prata cala ouro cara prata coroa ouro fala cala para prata ouro cala fala clara Of the constellation’s sixteen words, four—fala, prata, cala, and ouro (“speech,” “silver,” “silence,” “gold”) appear three times each: fala (“speech”) is ¤rst prata (“silver”), and its rhyming partner cala (“silence”) is ouro (“gold”). But the application of epithets seems to be no more than a matter of chance—“heads” (cara) or “tails” (coroa)—and so the ¤fth pair—fala / cala—joins the two contraries (“speech / “silence”) and is followed by a stop (para) that disrupts the poem’s staircase structure. Accordingly (below stairs, so to speak), a double reversal sets in: “silver” (prata), in a reversal of noun and adjective, is now “silent” (cala) and it is gold (ouro) that speaks (fala). Indeed, what is clara (the poem’s ¤nal word, used for the ¤rst time here, combines cala and cara both visually and phonically) is that ouro is the dominant, the one word that doesn’t match any of the others, containing as it does the only u in the poem and being the only word that doesn’t end in a and has no rhyming partner. Silence, Haroldo implies, may be golden, but, at least in our culture, it is gold that speaks!7 The poem is a good example of the reduction Waldrop speaks of: it has only eight different words (the count is [4 × 3] + 4 = 16), and its syntax is minimal, there being no connectives relating paired nouns and adjectives. 176 Chapter 9 Visual placement is central to meaning: the possible pairs—almost nudes descending a staircase—are blocked in line 11 by the isolated word para, followed by the reversed matching pairs of the penultimate lines, which yield to the ¤nal clara. The modulation from the initial fala / prata to the ¤nal clara is certainly temporal, but the text is also self-re®exive, each item pointing back to its previous partner as well as forward, the constellation as a whole resembling, as Haroldo himself notes, serial structure...