CHAPTER EIGHT Concrete Realities
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130 CHAPTER EIGHT Concrete Realities John Corbett This chapter traces the influence of the poetry and manifestos of the international avant-garde of the 1950s on Edwin Morgan’s concrete poems of the 1960s. Morgan’s committed experimentalism in this period was shaped in great part by his direct engagement with fellow writers, in particular the de Campos brothers in Brazil, through the exchange of letters and the processes of translation.1 In the correspondence between Morgan and the de Campos brothers, and in the versions he made of their work, we find the Scottish poet trying out techniques that would inform his original poetry in this mode. The Haroldo de Campos archive in São Paulo contains copies of his pamphlets and books sent from the mid-1960s to the late 1990s, usually with a handwritten inscription to either Haroldo or Augusto. For example, a copy of Morgan’s selected translations, Rites of Passage (1978), is dedicated to Augusto de Campos, acknowledging, in Morgan’s Portuguese, that the Brazilian’s ‘esperimentalismo incentiva a poesia se transfigurar em novas formas’ (‘experimentalism encourages poetry to transform itself into new forms’). The aesthetic merits of the new forms of poetry as practised by writers such as Morgan and Ian Hamilton Finlay were fiercely contested in the 1960s, but Morgan’s championing of them remained firm and the growing acceptance of experimental verse signalled a new kind of internationalism in Scottish literature. Poetry that draws attention to the materiality of its medium – the raw sound of the voice and the shapes of the characters on the page – has an ancient pedigree, but the early decades of the twentieth century saw a series of largely independent moves to revolutionise conventional ways of reading and writing poetry by foregrounding the aural and visual substance of language.2 Bohn traces the outcomes of this radical aspiration through the ‘literary cubism’ of Spanish Ultraist poets, led by the 131 concrete realities Chilean Vicente Huidobro; Mexican poets, such as Luis Quintanilla and Salvador Novo; French poets and artists like Guillaume Appollinaire and André Breton; and Italian Futurist ‘aeropoetry’ as practised by Ignazio Scurto, Pino Masnata and Tullio Crali.3 All of these poets sought to break with tradition by using, in particular, the visual substance of their compositions – diagrammatic or iconic designs, varied typefaces – to signify in unconventional ways that, in many quarters, both courted and provoked ridicule. Most of these nascent movements had little wider impact until the 1950s, when disparate clusters of poets who were all experimenting with visual and sound poetry became aware of each other’s work and began sharing ideas and offering mutual support. Among these poets were Eugen Gomringer, born in Bolivia but raised in Switzerland, author of a volume called Constellation (1953), and a Brazilian trio, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos and Décio Pignatari, who had published the first volume in a series of experimental poetry pamphlets, Noigrandes, the previous year. It was the ‘Noigrandes’ group that popularised the term ‘concrete poetry’, one of the first recorded uses of the phrase ‘poesia concreta’ being the title of an article written by Augusto de Campos in 1955. The epithet ‘concrete’ alluded to then current avant-garde work in the domains of music and the visual arts; it might be noted, however that the Swedish writer Oyvind Fahlström independently published his ‘Manifest for konkret poesie’ in 1953.4 In 1955, the same year that Augusto de Campos published ‘poesia concreta’, Pignatari and Gomringer met in Ulm, in Germany, and began planning an international anthology of concrete poetry. Although their proposed volume did not finally materialise, Gomringer did support, publish and write about the ‘Noigrandes’ group, and he adopted the name ‘concrete poetry’ to describe his own work. One of the more influential documents that set out the ethos of the new form of poetry was the Noigrandes group’s ‘Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry’ (1958).5 Alluding to the then-topical Plano Piloto de Brasília (1957), which was architect Lucio Costa’s model for the construction of a new, modernist Brazilian capital city, the ‘pilot plan’ was later translated by the authors as follows: Concrete poem, by using the phonetical system (digits) and analogical syntax, creates a specific linguistical area – ‘verbivocovisual’ – which shares the advantages of nonverbal communication, without giving up word’s virtualities. With the concrete poem occurs the phenomenon of metacommunication: coincidence and simultaneity of verbal and 132 john corbett nonverbal communication; only – it must be noted – it...