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  • Making Words Global
  • Brian Kim Stefans (bio)
Jamie Hilder, Designed Words for a Designed World: The International Concrete Poetry Movement 1955–1971. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2016. xvi + 277 pp. $100.00; $37.95 paper.

Jamie Hilder's first savvy move in this highly readable, compelling book is to focus on a work of concrete poetry that could never be identified with the pictorial, playful, or Pop―Mary Ellen Solt's often-anthologized "Forsythia," for example. Instead, Hilder focuses on a work that is nearly Brutalist in its severity (were it to be architecture) or uncompromising in its minimalism like a painting by Malevich or Ad Reinhardt, the plinth of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the dark blocks that punctuate Donald Barthelme's story "The Explanation." Austrian artist Heinz Gappmayr's "Zeichen" (Sign) from 1965, reproduced just before the start of the first chapter of Designed Words, teases the eye: the edges of the black, filled-in square seem frayed, as if a cat got to them, suggesting that the materiality of this imaginary box is more akin to yarn than polished steel. Looking closer, one discerns that these frays are, in fact, shards of letterforms: "[M]aybe the top of an uppercase O, or an uppercase M? Is that part of a lower case t, or an l?" (4), Hilder speculates.

The key issue is scale: as reproduced in Designed Words, the black box of "Zeichen" measures 4.25 x 4.25 inches; the letterforms emerging from three of its sides are so small as to be illegible, like tiny figures in a Romantic landscape, imbuing this otherwise [End Page 290] unremarkable glyph with a severe grandeur. The eye is vexed by this indeterminacy―how large is this thing? Hilder later notes that Gappmayr's poem "can be read as containing both the frustration and the promise that Le Corbusier ascribes to the shudder of architects discovering the poured concrete form method of building a dwelling" (110). But the elegance of the poem's execution, not to mention its relationship to many more established and esteemed forms of cultural production―painting, film, fiction, and architecture―begs the question: would I hang this on my wall?

"Zeichen" doesn't present us with the sort of verbi-voco-visual image-complex championed by the canonical concrete poets such as the Bolivian-Swiss Eugen Gomringer and the poets of Brazil's Noigandres group, in which the eye is teased with determining whether an image is a word (and thereby largely invisible), a sound, or an icon. In fact, Hilder eschews some of the favored approaches of previous critics of the material―critics, he notes accurately, who mostly expressed their enthusiasm in the form of anthologies―and focuses on a fairly small number of works that could be considered strictly "Concrete," intermingling them with images of a variety of genres. The works and images he brings into play include "Poem" by Fluxus artist Alison Knowles (a single thumbprint repeated until the ink runs out); illustrations from Ferdinand de Saussure's and Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver's human communication models; a page spread from Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore's The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects; sketches from architects Le Corbusier and Lucio Costa; a page spread from Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenor's Learning from Las Vegas; and one of the first photographs of the Earth from space. Several works by artists who refused identification with concrete poetry, namely Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, and Carl Andre, make up a large part of this exhibition.

Besides providing a snapshot of the range of fields Hilder wades into―we can, for example, add to that systems theory, Franco Moretti's notion of Weltliteratur, Alan Turing's "Bombe" (his device for cracking Nazi codes), Hannah Arendt's concerns with the scale of human life―each of these images is treated like an artwork itself, something to be looked at closely. In this beautifully designed book, each of these images, even Shannon and Weaver's sober "Diagram [End Page 291] of a Communication Model," is treated like Gappmayr's "Zeichen" in that it takes up an entire page...


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pp. 290-295
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