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  • Concrete Poetry and Conceptual Art: A Misunderstanding
  • Jamie Hilder (bio)

Within the Anglo-American critical tradition, concrete poetry and conceptual art largely disavow each other. When representatives of one speak of the other, it is often to dismiss it or undercut its legitimacy as a poetic or artistic movement. For example, here is Lucy R. Lippard, in her text Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972:

Certainly there are at least twenty people using either words or written things as vehicles for their art, but there is a distinction between concrete poetry, where the words are made to look like something, an image, and so-called conceptual art, where the words are used only to avoid looking like something, where it doesn’t make any difference how the words look on the page or anything.


Here is Joseph Kosuth, quoted in the same text:

Most of the concrete poets are now starting to do theater and getting out of concrete poetry (Acconci, Perreault, Hannah Weiner, etc.). They realize the sort of decadence that follows from that sort of materialism [treating words as material]. They are trying to say things about the world that are illogical in terms of language.


Here are Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, in the glossary of their widely assigned textbook, Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (concrete poetry is not mentioned anywhere else in the book): [End Page 578]

As a historical term, Concrete poetry identifies the postwar resurrection and academicization of the linguistic and poetical experiments of the radical avant-gardes of the teens and twenties that had been conducted in the context of Russian Futurism, and the practices of international Dadaism in Berlin, Zürich, Hanover, and Paris. . . . The concrete poets of the postwar period typically emerged in areas that had been both remote and protected from the cataclysms of World War II, both privileged and disadvantaged with regard to the naivety of their early rediscovery of these avant-garde projects. Thus we find early resuscitations named Concrete poetry in the context of Latin American countries and in Switzerland in the forties, often working in tandem with the academicization of abstraction (for example, Eugen Gomringer and Max Bill). Here the celebration of a newfound ludic irrelevance and of typographical gamesmanship displaced both the political, the graphic, and the semiological radicality of the originary figures.


Here is Liz Kotz, in her 2007 book, Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art:

In the postwar era, various types of concrete and visual poetry, in particular, promised to probe the space of the typographic page and link contemporary literature with the visual arts. Yet a reliance on rather quaint illustrational or pictorial modes—as in poems that take on the shape of their subjects—left much concrete poetry out of touch with changing paradigms in the visual arts and the wider conditions of language in modernity.


And here is the Italian poet and critic Sarenco, in a 1971 Lotta Poetica editorial co-written with Gianni Bertini, railing against the disproportionate attention granted to conceptual art:

the recent publications (edition n. 3 of the paris review «vh 101» autumn 1970—the catalogue of the exhibition «information» at the museum of modern art in new york, in summer 1970) while analyzing the phenomenon of «conceptual art» intentionally missed to mention in any way the visual poetry. . . . we intend to exemplify in the next numbers our statements by publishing the product of « conceptual art » showing beside the visual poetic matrix from which it was copied. for example:

joseph kosuth copying from timm ulrichs, ben vautier, jean [End Page 579]     claude moineau etc. carl andre  copying from all northern concrete poets richard artshwager copying from heinz gappmayr     and so on


The preceding catalogue of slights and insults illustrates a long-standing conflict between concrete poetry and conceptual art, a conflict fueled by willful misunderstanding and cavalier dismissal on both sides. The purpose of this essay is to orchestrate a rapprochement, in order that they might begin speaking to each other again. Concrete poetry, despite its conventional reception as a postwar poetic eccentricity, is...


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