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In 2001 Joel Bettridge and Eric Selinger asked me to write an essay for their collection on Ronald Johnson in the National Poetry Foundation’s “Life and Poetry” series. I decided to explore Johnson’s early Concrete poetry, which has interesting analogues to the work of Haroldo de Campos discussed in chapter 9. But the difference is also telling: Johnson’s Concrete has a stronger sound component, deriving from particular musical compositions rather than from the Pound-Fenollosa ideogram, as was the case with Brazilian Concrete. 10 Songs of the Earth Ronald Johnson’s Verbivocovisuals Words which sound alike belong together. Oyvind Fahlström Songs of the Earth (1970) was Ronald Johnson’s favorite among his own books of poetry. Johnson’s editor, Peter O’Leary, tells us that “he thought of it as nearly perfect,”1 and accordingly O’Leary reproduces all twelve of these minimalist Concrete poems in his Selected Poems. In his preface Johnson explains that these “squarings of the circle”or “strains”were based on the “musics of silence” as recorded by Thoreau on his night walks in the Concord woods as well as on “a progression of hearings of Mahler’s Song of the Earth [Das Lied von der Erde] on records, in concert, and in my head.”2 The reference to Thoreau, a key ¤gure for many poets of the sixties and seventies, especially John Cage, is not surprising. But the homage to Mahler, who would seem to be too musically complex and melodic to suit Johnson’s minimalist bent, seems anomalous until one recalls that Mahler’s Song of the Earth (1908) had its own minimalist/imagist base in the Chinese poems translated (quite freely) in Hans Bethge’s collection Die Chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute)—poems by Li Po, Ts’ien Ts’i, and Wang Wei. Indeed, notes Henry-Louis de La Grange, “the discovery of Chinese music stimulated Mahler to adopt certain features, such as the pentatonic scale, and to use instruments suggesting those of China, such as the mandolin harp, winds and tambourine.” And La Grange cites two key innovations in the composition of the song cycle: (1) “the use of the same motifs in both the principal and secondary voices—pre¤guring one of the basic principles of Schoenberg’s serial composition, ‘total thematicism’”; and (2) “heterophony (or ‘imprecise union’), a principle in which a melody and an ornamented or varied version of it are heard simultaneously, or in which identical voices diverge slightly in rhythm or in interval structure.”3 These principles, as we shall see, also operate in Johnson’s Songs of the Earth, where the Mahlerian themes of love and death are treated to the concentration and simpli¤cation characteristic of the Chinese lyric. Mahler’s six songs—“The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow,” “The Lonely One in Autumn ,” “Youth,” “Of Beauty,” “The Drunkard in Spring,” and “The Farewell” —become Johnson’s twelve condensed “squarings”: the composer’s delicate sonorities and exquisite orchestral re¤nements, ¤ltered through the minimalism of Li Po and Wang-Wei, provide the impetus for Johnson’s particular brand of Concrete poetry. The founders of the Concrete movement—Eugen Gomringer of Switzerland and the Noigandres group of Brazil—equated “concrete”largely with the visual aspect of the poem. “Concrete Poetry,” wrote Gomringer in 1960, “is the general term which includes a large number of poetic-linguistic experiments , characterized—whether constellation, ideogram, stochastic poetry, etc.—by conscious study of the material and its structure.” This new poetry, emphasizing as it does “formal pattern” in “reduced language,” should be “as easily understood as signs in airports and traf¤c signs.”4 And Noigandres similarly focuses on “graphic space as structural agent” rather than “mere linear-temporistical development.”5 Central to their concept of the concrete poem was the Poundian ideogram, and although the ideogram was de¤ned in Joycean terms as “verbivocovisual,” Noigandres concerned itself with typography , word and letter placement, and spatial disposition rather than sound as such.6 Concrete poetry, after all, was poetry to be seen. The one early Concretist who quali¤es this emphasis on visual art was the great Swedish poet-artist Oyvind Fahlström. In discussing various verbal systems in his “Manifesto for Concrete Poetry” (1953),7 Fahlström remarks: “I can construct . . . for example, a series of 12 vowels in a certain succession and make tables accordingly, even though a twelve vowel series as such does not make the same sense as the series of...


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