"Writing on the Margins of Sound and Sight: Augusto de Campos and Transnational Poetic Traditions" by Enikő Bollobás
Enikő Bollobás is Professor of the Department of American Studies at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. She has published seven books on American literature, including monographs on Emily Dickinson and Charles Olson, and a history of American literature. Email:
Abstract: Augusto de Campos is one of the few poets worldwide who has not ceased to act, for over six decades, upon the avant-garde imperative of incessant innovation, of making it new, and of always doing something else. He initiated a succession of avant-gardes by having first immersed himself into the more static forms offered by the printed page—ideogram, spatial form, wordplays, permutations, and transformations—, then step by step incorporating the possibilities granted by the new technologies, thus allowing an unprecedented kinetic freedom in his installations, electronic displays, laser holograms, and performances. “Poetry is risk,” he famously claims; it is a “journey into the unknown,” in which color, sound, and movement work together in the “tongue journey” across languages to create what he calls the “verbivocovisual,” a material union of the verbal, sound, sight, and sense. Having always resisted the lyric impulse, he has attended directly to the verbal and visual strata of language, allowing meaning to be plunged into sound, noise, image, and movement, while at the same time isolating meaning from any particular language. Moreover, the concrete-digital poet who exploits the performative potential of language will not simply bring about what is being named, but will produce his own creative self as a subject agent who allows the linguistic material to take the place of the Cartesian subject, the poet’s “lyric self.”
Keywords: Augusto de Campos, verbivocovisual poetry, concrete poetry, digital poetry, performative poetry, experimental poetry
This is how legendary Brazilian poet Augusto de Campos described the role of poetry in a recent talk:
In a world where words often seem to have worn out in discourses that spread hate, race discrimination and stimulate social selfishness, perhaps poetry can be an oasis of meditation and sensibility. Who knows if the poetic speculations, even if seemingly inutilitary, deserve no greater appreciation, in order not only to bring beauty, but to combat the sclerosis of language and to show examples of freedom in experimentation and the unforeseen. (“Acceptance Speech”)
Citing Mayakovsky—that all poetry is a journey into the unknown—, Campos suggests that this trip “may have a more necessary meaning than the apparent one. By putting emphasis on changing and not just expressing, perhaps poetry, in some way, may […] help to resensitize us before the ‘unanswered questions’ of our existence.” These words—which I have taken from the speech given by Campos when accepting the Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry, also called the Nobel Prize for Poetry, in Pécs, Hungary, September 2017—give, I believe, a valid transcript of the poet’s summa vitae.
Let’s examine his poetry from the perspective of these claims. How has his poetry combated the “sclerosis of language”? How has it offered “examples of freedom in experimentation and the unforeseen”? As “a journey into the unknown,” how has poetry helped “to resensitize us before the ‘unanswered question’ of our existence”? And finally, what kind of poetry has emphasized “changing rather than expressing”?
Throughout the sixty-five years of his writing career, Campos has continued to act upon the avant-garde imperative of incessant innovation and to establish connections with international poetic traditions. A “concrete poet,” he founded the group Noigandres together with his brother, Haroldo de Campos, and friend Décio Pignatari in the 1950s. The magazine Noigandres would become the number one outlet of Brazilian concrete poetry to bring together Latin-American experiments and to tie into the international movement being formed at the time. The group was as unusual as the name Noigandres, a word without a referent, a sound construct taken from Ezra Pound’s “Canto XX,” originating in a poem of the Occitan troubadour poet Arnault Daniel (1180-1210).
Taking off from the more static forms offered by the printed page—ideogram, spatial form, wordplays, permutations, and transformations—step by step he incorporated the possibilities granted by the new technologies, thus allowing an unprecedented kinetic freedom in his installations, electronic displays, laser holograms, and performances. “Poetry is risk,” he famously insists (on his 1995 CD), a “journey into the unknown,” in which color, sound, and movement work together in the “tongue journey” across languages to create what he calls the “verbivocovisual,” a material union of the verbal (sense), sound, and sight.
As the embodiment of the experimental ethos of fifties poetics to create “poetic objects,” concrete poetry was striving towards objectivity and impersonality in the sense that it denounced the Cartesian “I,” the “lyrical ego,” waiting to be “expressed” by the poet. Poets who insisted on the emptying out of this lyrical subjectivity and the expressive-subjective-confessional voice associated with it, contributed to the particular paradigm change the poetry of the 50s went through from Latin America to the US and (Western) Europe.
This internationally instituted paradigm change—the continuation of earlier radical poetics (of the Russian Futurists, for example)—consisted in a recurrent emphasis on the pictorial and iconic, as well as object-like nature of the poem, as opposed the figurative and abstract. As Campos puts it in his answers to a questionnaire, “Concrete poets may be differentiated from other experiences (zaum, lettrisme, phonetic poetry) for not rejecting semantic values but rather placing them on equal footing with other material, visual, and sonorous parameters of the poem” (Questionnaire).
Proclaiming the imperative of continual invention and innovation, it aims at the pursuit of new forms. These new forms involve, Campos insists, “radicalization and condensation,” “graphic experiences,” the “suppression […] of syntactic links,” an “emphasis on the nondiscursive character of poetry,” and in general “making explicit the materiality of language in its visual and sonorous dimensions” (Questionnaire).
Campos published his first manifesto in 1956, Concrete Poetry: A Manifesto [Poesia concreta: um manifesto], to be followed by Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry [plano-piloto da poesia concreta], written by the Noigandres founding fathers, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, and Décio Pignatari, and by the anthology collecting their critical writings and manifestos, Teoria da poesia concreta in 1965. Reasserting indeed the “international prospects” of Brazilian avant-garde poetry, the concretistas of the 1950s proposed, as Roland Greene puts it, “the critical ingestion of European culture” by naming Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and the lyrics of Pound, Cummings, and Mayakovsky as the regnant international influences on Brazilian poetry and poetics” (“From Dante to the Post-Concrete”). They defined the concrete poem as visual constellation in these early writings, a “magnetic field of possibilities” (“Manifesto”) informed by graphic space as a structuring agent. In particular, they appropriated Ezra Pound’s “ideogrammic synthesis of meaning” where the ideogram becomes “a relational field of functions” as well as Joyce’s “sentient ‘verbivocovisual’ totality” (Concrete Poetry: A Manifesto).
Above all, he writes,
The concrete poem communicates its own structure: structure-content. Concrete poem is an object in and by itself, not an interpreter of exterior objects and/or more or less subjective feelings. Its material: word (sound, visual form, semantical charge). . . Concrete poem. . . creates a specific linguistical area – “verbivocovisual” – which shares the advantages of non-verbal communication, without giving up words virtualities. (Pilot Plan)
Indeed, Brazilian concrete poets very consciously picked their predecessors. As Campos himself claims,
engaged with the practices of vanguard, experimental or—as it should probably more adequately be called—inventive poetry […] the task of Concrete poetry, after it appeared in the 50s, was to reestablish contact with the poetry of the vanguards of the beginning of the century (Futurism, Cubofuturism, Dada et alia), which the intervention of two great wars and the proscription of Nazi and Stalinist dictatorships had condemned to marginalization. (Yale Symphosymposium 369)
In particular, Campos names Mallarmé, whose “intersemiotic” Un coup de dés offered a model of “fragmentary structure […] conjoining visual mural and musical score”; Pound, in whose Cantos he identified not only the ideogrammic method but also the collage technique and metalanguage; Joyce, with the “vocabulistic kaleidoscope” and “textual polyreadings” of Finnegan’s Wake; “the experimental, minimalist, and molecular prose of Gertrude Stein”; and the “atomization and syntactical dislocation” in e.e. cummings (Yale Symphosymposium 376). Campos adds a particular generation of musicians and composers to his list too: “the Vienna Group (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg), […] the great individual experimentalists (Ives, Varese, etc.), and the […] new vanguard composers, from Boulez to Stockhausen to Cage” (Questionnaire).
Moreover, he picked his predecessors in poetic theory as well, such innovative practitioners of poetic theory as Paul Valéry, as well as the Russian Formalists and the Prague Circle. From Valéry, he adopted the imperative résistance au facile, that is, a resistance to the “easy”—the easily understandable text; from the linguists, he took over the definition of poetic language as departure, a systematic deviation,” from the “norm” of everyday language. The poet, as the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky claims, will adopt the device of making the familiar strange (остранение) in an act of “creative deformation,” whereby an “organized violence” is committed on ordinary language, as Jakobson puts it (see Victor Erlich 176 ff).
Concrete poetry techniques
Let’s examine the techniques the concrete poem.
The concretistas found Pound’s compositional method most useful, which they had applied from the Cantos (translated by Campos too). The ideogram offers unique tool for realizing the coexistence of space and time contributing to the poem’s prosodic structure. For much like Pound, Campos considers the ideogram a prosodic category, a visual prosodic category, which blends the rhythmic structure and visual representation of words into a cognitive unity. Originally inspired by Ernest Fenollosa, this method works with what Kenneth Goldsmith calls “unadorned sans-sérif language”: it strips words of their syntactic valencies—suffixes, prefixes, connectives—in the “non-illusionistic space,” or “the plane of the white page” (From [Command] Line to [Iconic] Constellation). Moreover, taking words from different languages and thereby transgressing the boundaries of individual languages, its vocabulary is consciously multilingual. A multilingual vocabulary will not only contribute to the internationalism of the movement, but foreground the materiality of language, so that words will be less understood for their sense, rather be perceived for their look on the page, sound, tactility and materiality in general—as body, mass, matter.
As such, linearity is replaced by spatiality in the concrete poem, logical connection by association, subordination by coordination, hypotaxis by parataxis. We have complex visual units created in two-dimensional space, which over-writes syntax, so to speak, and the autonomous artwork or visual constellation is achieved. The concretistas developed as technique similar to that of the Russian Futurists, who “shook syntax loose” (qtd by Nancy Perloff, Explodity 57), and, as Perloff explains, placed words “next to each other […] to acquire new, lateral (semantic) associations through the unexpected ‘crisscrossing of meanings’” (Explodity 67).
The poem is neither self-expression nor a narrative-discursive account with relation to a particular referent; it simply means.
Concrete poem is an object in and by itself, not an interpreter of exterior objects and/or more or less subjective feelings. Its material: word (sound, visual form, semantical charge). Its problem: a problem of functions-relations of this material. (Pilot Plan)
The primary technique of the ideogram is constituted by reduction and concentration, the pressing of sentences into minute poems, the finding of the “least common multiple of language,” as they claim in Pilot Plan. Stripped of explicit relational words, the poem will rely on space and matter to establish connections; this is what they call, after Ernst Cassirer, “inner grammar” or “pure relational syntax,” whose idea was inspired by the Chinese language (or at least, Fenollosa’s understanding of it). Such reduction and concentration will result in a minimalist poem-object, often just a handful of words, or even just one word, as the end-product of a procedure of extracting the essence of the sentence.
“Viva / Vaia” is a one-word poem, or more precisely, two words pressed into a one-unit ideogram, playing with the contrast of background and foreground, so it reads as either VIVA or VAIA (Hurrah / Bravo or Hissing / boo), suggesting that the boundary between acceptance and resistance is permeable; and that there is a very obvious ambivalence of love and hate. This evokes, as Nancy Perloff put it in her talk on Campos given in Budapest, “the confrontation between the artist and the audience in the popular music scene in Brazil, mid to late 60s” (“Behind the Scenes”). Moreover, Perloff points out, if we just read the geometric shapes as triangles and hexagons (and not shapes made of meaningful letters), “the upside down triangles become street signs,” evoking an urban atmosphere. Again, what Perloff terms as the Russian Futurist’s “new attention to the independent word,” together with their concept of “sound as such” and “image as such” come to mind (Explodity 57, 66, 75).
Moving on to the second technique the concrete poem applies, we have what Campos calls the “verbivocovisual.” Explaining the word coined by Joyce, and the compositional principle of the verbivocovisual, Campos says, “the materiality of the word was given new emphasis: the voco and the visual, the sound and the graphor the significant live here in equal condition with the verbi or the signified” (qtd. in Roland Greene). So verbivocovisual happily conjoins all three dimensions—semantic, sonorous, and visual—in concrete poetry.
The semantic dimension involves the axiom that language is a system of signs capable of generating complex meanings. But for Campos meanings are not produced by some smooth and easy referentiality—language’s pointing function, pointing to the world outside—but by signifiers interacting with one another producing difference. As Marjorie Perloff writes in her Janus Pannonius laudation, in 2017,
concrete poetry carried to its logical extreme the poetic notion, made clear by the great Russian Formalist Roman Jakobson, that whereas in ordinary language use, there is no relationship between, say, fig and figment, poetry is precisely that discourse where the relationship between the two matters. Indeed, in poetry, any phonological or visual coincidence is felt to mean semantic kinship. Not what is related but the relationship itself is what counts.
The poem “Viver – Sorrir – Sofrir – Morrer” serves as an example for the foregrounding of such semantic relationship deriving from phonological or visual coincidence.
This poem is an ideogram made up of four words piled on top of one another, live – smile – suffer – die in English, or, in terms of letter size, viver – morrer – sorrir – sofrir [live – die – smile – suffer]. In other words, you have morphological units with a shared structure, suggesting the semantic unity of a life cycle: to live, to smile, to suffer, to die—these acts form one continuity.
Here is a more complex example, the well-known “Cidadecitycité,” made up of a long undivided line of word roots that might end in the suffix –cidade, -city, -cité in Portugese, English, and French, respectively.
First, here are the word roots: atro, cadu, causti, elasti, feli, fero, fuga, histori, loqua, lubri, mendi, multipli, organi, periodi, plasti, publi, rapa, recipro, rusti, saga, simpli, tena, uni, velo, vera, viva, vora. And here are the suffixed nouns constructed out of the roots and the suffixes: atrocity, caducity, causticity, elasticity, felicity, ferocity, fugacity, historicity, loquacity, lubricity, mendicity, multiplicity, organicity, periodicity, plasticity, publicity, rapacity, reciprocity, rusticity, sagacity, simplicity, tenacity, unicity, velocity, veracity, vivacity, voracity.
In the newer version we get the words in Morse code too:
Note that the Morse code as a visual construct prefigures the city’s lights; this prefiguring will get confirmation once we see the multimedia event performed together with his son, composer and poet Cid Campos:
This digital version reaches a new dimension as the suffixes take on a life of their own, with the multilingual function words – city/-cite/-cidade interact with the abstract words making up the sights and sounds of the city. In other words, the interacting abstractions of word roots and suffixes together make up a very concrete concrete city: by always adding the formal unit of the English suffix –city (as well as its Portuguese and French versions, -cidade and –cité) to the same word roots to create nouns in three languages, the city itself becomes (and here I am simply giving synonyms for the suffixed words): brutal, cruel, horrifying; transitory, perishable, decrepit, senile; corrosive, eating away; elastic, resilient; happy; ferocious, fierce, violent, intense; fleeting, evanescent; of historical actuality; loquacious, talkative; lubricious; wanton, without check; full of beggars; multiple and various; organic, alive; periodical, regularly recurrent; alternating, molded, altered ; public; rapacious, ravenous, living on prey; reciprocal, mutually independent; rustic, rural; sagacious, of acute discernment; simple, uncomplicated; tenacious, cohesive, persistent; unique of its kind; quick, swift; accurate, truthful; vivacious, lively, sprightly; voracious, ravenous, insatiable.
The second dimension of the verbivocovisual refers to the materiality of words and sounds, their acoustic, auditive, and musical qualities not subordinated to syntax and semantics. Much like the Russian Futurists broke language apart and disobeyed the rules of grammar,[*] the concretistas also used noise as sound and created what the Russian Futurists called “transrational structures” (Explodity 60). We have several such poems in Poetamenos, the 1953 poem cycle that was the first to put into practice the abstract principle of verbivocovisuality. Inspired by Schönberg and Webern, who experimented with the color of sound in their Klangfarbenmelodie, Campos withdrew his words from the domination of syntax and subordinated them to graphic or color pattern. Theme or thematic is omitted, to be replaced by linguistic units such as phrase, word, syllable, sound to act quite like musical instruments act in an orchestra.
The multilingual poem “Lygia Fingers” (Lygia Fingers) turns on the number five. It has words in five colors: red, green, yellow, blue, and purple, emphasizing to the deconstruction of language units into smaller ones in five languages: English, Latin, Italian, German, and Portugese. The five colors and five languages obviously correspond to the five fingers that are capable of a variety of actions: they can pretend (finge), typewrite (datilografar), and even turn into ‘glyph’ or ‘griffin’ (grypho). All this is put in a language construct “bristling,” as Marjorie Perloff puts it in her brilliant discussion of the poem, “with puns and double entendres” (Unoriginal 68). For example, “Lygia has morphed into a lynx, a feline creature (felyna), but also a daughter figure (figlia), who makes, in a shift from Italian to Latin, me felix (me happy) (68). Now the suffix –ly, the paragram Lygia’s name is turned into, occurs five times again, “twice color coded so as to stand out from the word in which it is embedded” (68). Here the language into German and Italian, keeping up the puns and double entendres in both, by bringing in a beautifully sounding name (Solange Sohl), or phrase (so lange sohl), for the “ideal beloved in the Provençal manner,” and morphing the second syllable of Lygia’s name into an ambiguous gia la sera sorella (‘already evening, sister’/‘longed-for evening’). Multiplying the poem’s punning derived from the semantics of spatial design, the conclusion comes in an English “whisper or tap of tt and a single liquid sound” (68). As such, “overall verbivocovisual composition” seems to carry the poem, with a closure on pure materiality, sound, and visual composition.
“Lygia” thus emerges as a troubadour lyric made new: the time frame of the audabe or plnh gives way to the spatial-aural construct of this amourous Klangfarbenmelodie. The love song, moreover, nicely ironizes its conventional subject matter: Lygia, bith lynx and digital, has her own tricks, and in any case the figure of Solange Sohl looms in the background. (69)
The third element of the verbivocovisual refers to the visual dimension of poetry, simultaneous spatial form, taking over the job of linearity. The ideogrammic method and the montage structure closely related to it allow for a most effective exploitation of space, where words, word fragments, letter or word montages are piled on top of one another, bringing about a very tight structure. Among these tightly structured ideograms, one should mention the circle poem “Rose,” the poet’s visual transcreation of Gertrude Stein’s famous dictum.
“Rose,” as Marjorie Perloff points out, “beautifully enacts the concept” of the “continuous present” as explained in “Composition as Explanation”: “The sentence ‘A rose is a rose is a rose’ does not begin or end anywhere: begin reading the concentric circles wherever you like and the clause is read as continuing” (Unoriginal 70). Moreover, I’d like to add, in this sentence with multifunctional—and thereby always ambiguous and indeterminate—syntactic units, the nominal element rose of the predicate phrase is a rose turns into the subject of the next (continuous) sentence, which right away turns into predicate again, as visual circularity is counterpointed by grammatical or syntactic circularity. Indeed, as Perloff aptly remarks, while Stein’s sentence remains linear, “in his visual variant Augusto has found a way to apply Stein’s two other principles from ‘Composition as Explanation’ as well: ‘beginning again and again’ and ‘using everything’” (Unoriginal 70).
Such poems will demand a very different reading from the one we are used to. The reader must unlearn semantic interpretation and mobilize faculties other than the cognitive ones normally employed in thinking and contemplation: several senses of must be mobilized here, in order to see the poem as sight, hear it as sound, sometimes even touch it, taste it, smell it. At the same time, the reader must also resist the expectation of referentiality: for the poem refuses to be a window on the world—moreover, Campos insists, we must familiarize ourselves with the idea that a world beyond language might not even exist.
Philosophy of language
Campos defines concrete poetry as having taken “a position as a poetics of objectivity, attempting simply to place its premises at the roots of language” (Questionnaire). In this regard, he reveals a kinship with Charles Olson, the leading figure of US postmodern poetry, who argued for a particularizing use of language in several influential essays, and also realized this non-expressive and non-metaphorical poetics in his poetic practice. He insists that the metaphors built into language actually act as breaks on thinking, while textuality comes about not by reference to the world outside but by signifying processes mobilized in reading. The source of all knowledge is language itself, while poetic form involves the materiality of language, the physical space allowing for the interaction of words, which is, in other words, comes down to the intertextual and material character of writing.
The poet taking the imperative of condensation seriously works with a consciously reduced lexicon, having eliminated all the relativizing syntactic connectives necessary for creating phrases and sentences. At the same time, this poet moves with ease between linguistic and non-linguistic levels, withdrawing from language its narrative-expressive potential. The poet does not wish to narrate a story or express a feeling; the aim of writing consists simply in making the reader perceive, and even feel, language, which is no longer considered a tool but a material to be worked. The concrete poet uses language as a sculptor uses clay or stone: forms it, carves it, synthesizes meanings to “create a sentient ‘verbivocovisual’ totality” (Concrete Poetry: A Manifesto). By doing this, Campos continues, “the concrete poet does not turn away from words, he does not glance at them obliquely: he goes directly to their center, in order to live and vivify their facticity.” Not allowing the irrelevant to divert the poet’s attention, he [or she] will let the spatially structured linguistic units take over the function of syntax.
The poetics that demands a going directly to the center is framed by a particular philosophy of language. Not only does the concrete poet proclaim language to provide the limits and the grounds of our world, but also advocates the conviction that everything we know about the world we know from language. This is why Campos so favors puns and coincidences: to highlight the linguistic origin of knowledge.
The poem “Caracol” traces the process of taking on and taking off the mask (mascara) by simply connecting words to be then dismembered in various ways, while the successive bolding of the letters brings about the slow sliding of the snail (caracol).
These pieces applying word and letter puns constitute the representative works of concrete poetry, where the poet performs a very particular gesture: lets signifiers create meaning, recalling again the Russian Futurist concept, “THE WORD BROADER THAN SENSE” (Explodity 59). In other words, by allowing the dance of letters to bring about “content,” he relieves himself of the responsibility to make sense. The poem Luxo provides perhaps the best example for this technique, where by using the morphological unit luxo as the building block for another word lixo (garbage, waste), the constellation of letters bring about the proposition: luxury produces waste.
Similarly, three words—amor, morte, temor—make up the pyramid in the poem “amortemor”, where the words do not simply meet but overlap, thus can be cut at various points to make a-mor, mor-te, te-mor. By showing that these signifiers are actually impossible to separate, the poet concludes that the concepts themselves are ultimately inseparable too: love, death, and fear seem to embrace each other in the eternal chain of being.
‘Word things,’ performativity”
The concrete poet proclaiming the principle of objectivity seems to take extreme pleasure in making pictorial poetry or object poetry familiar from the classic concrete-visual tradition. These linguistic objects live in space and/or time; they are “poem-products” that are “useful objects”, as claimed in Pilot Plan, capable of energy discharge.
In these poems, Campos brings together the formerly dismembered units of language in such a way that he exploits the performative function of language while limiting the descriptive-constative function. He can do this by performing objects and performing processes; in Campos’s terminology, via “nounising” or “verbification” (Pilot Plan). The two modes correspond to the two modes of structuring information, topic and comment. Thus, Campos resorts to topic writing mode in his pieces bringing about an autonomous object (from which the verbal elements are missing), while he employs comment writing mode in his reductionist-minimalist pieces (from which nominal elements are absent).
To give examples, in his topic poems Campos assigns object performativity to his text: the linguistic material becomes a concrete object. It is by the classic “power of the word” that the poet brings about a linguistic object that did not exist before: an object which ranks with objects of the physical world. In addition to such topic poems as “The Rose” and “Ovonovelo” also serves as an example of topic writing mode, with the word turning into the object coming about, in the text, as words wind into balls.
Comment poems are more recent, owing their existence to modern electronic technologies applied by the poet to enact the processes he needs. A process is being performed in such comment poems as “pluvial”, enacting the movement of rain dropping, dripping, pouring.
“O Pulsar” seems also to turn on similar performative processes, performing the pulsing by inserting empty spaces in the linear structure.
Saying and doing are one in these poems, indeed; they say what they do and do what they say. The poet creating an object or enacting a process out of words abides by the classic Austinian performativity concept: although the form created by words evokes the real form, this representation cannot be called either true or false. Instead, the performative utterance—the concrete poem in this case—brings into being an object or process that now exists with other physical objects or processes in the physical world that has extra-linguistic existence in the realm of the signified. Framed by the modern episteme, in particular by the cognitive schemas of structuralism, these performative creations can be aptly called logocentric for their emphatic acceptance of signifier and signified, or Foucauldian words and things.
But can the poet really believe that concrete poetry actually brings about concrete objects or enacts concrete events? The raindrops, the pulsations or the ball spins are not “real”; rather, they draw attention—much like Magritte’s well-known la Trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe)—to the “treason” of images, the problematic nature of representation.
Moreover, does the poet not exhibit the playfulness so characteristic of iconic poetry since the Renaissance, trying to give the illusion of making “real” objects with an existence the real physical world?
So the question arises, what is it that is being performed in the poem performing objects or enacting processes out of letters and words? Can the poet—by trying to return to the original meaning of the poet, ποιητής (poiētḗs)—indeed create objects with an existence in the physical reality? In other words, what is the object of the performative act in this case, of a poet with a serious ontological doubt concerning a world beyond language and the possibility of stepping outside discourse, and with an even more serious epistemological doubt concerning the knowability of a world beyond language?
Leaving behind the logocentric understanding of the performative, framed by the modern episteme, and applying the poststructuralist framework informed by the postmodern episteme, my answer is this: the poet does not make objects or enact processes in the physical world, but remains in discourse where he actually constructs himself as linguistic subject, speaking agent.
He assigns such agency to himself which will allow him to create a ball of an egg, pulsation, or raindrops, albeit within language, within discourse. His subjectivity thus constructed is not Cartesian: it does not precede the concrete poetic utterance but comes about by the performative act itself. Which also means that the subject returns to the concrete poem in a very particular way: not as the object of expressive-mimetic attention, but as both subject and object of the performative.
With this radical gesture, Augusto de Campos takes the final step to leave behind the lyrical paradigm of expressive verse: this poet does not express a self pre-existing the poem but accepts that his self is the ultimate product of the performative process enacted in the poem. As such, he breaks in a definitive manner with all urges of the Cartesian subject to make himself—as well as his thoughts, feelings, experiences—the object of his own attention. Having indeed suppressed the self-expressing poetic ego, and having replaced the Cartesian subject with language as material, concrete poetry represents the most radical departure from the lyric.
- Campos, Augusto de. “Acceptance Speech Given at the Janus Pannonius Award Ceremonies, Pécs, Hungary.” September 22, 2017. http.jpa.hu
- Campos, Augusto de. Concrete Poetry: a Manifesto [Poesia Concreta: um Manifesto]. http://www2.uol.com.br/augustodecampos/concretepoet.htm
- Campos, Augusto de. Questionnaire of the Yale Symposium on Experimental, Visual, and Concrete Poetry Since the 1960s. http://www2.uol.com.br/augustodecampos/yaleeng.htm
- Campos, Augusto de. Yale Symphosymposium. In: Experimental – Visual – Concrete. Avant-Garde Poetry Since the 1960s. Ed. K. David Jackson, Eric Vos, and Johanna Drucker. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996. 369-418.
- Campos, Augusto de, Haroldo de Campos, and Décio Pignatari. Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry [Plano-Piloto para Poesia Concreta], 1958. http://www2.uol.com.br/augustodecampos/concretepoet.htm
- Campos, Augusto de, Haroldo de Campos, and Décio Pignatari, ed. Teoria da Poesia Concreta. Textos Críticos e Manifestos. São Paulo, Edições Invenção, 1965.
- Erlich, Victor. Russian Formalism. History, Doctrine. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.
- Goldsmith, Kenneth. From (Command) Line to (Iconic) Constellation. http://www.ubu.com/papers/goldsmith_command.html
- Greene, Roland. From Dante to the Post-Concrete: An Interview with Augusto de Campos. In: The Harvard Library Bulletin, vol. 3, no. 2 (1992). 34-35. http://www.ubu.com/papers/greene02.html
- Perloff, Marjorie. Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
- Perloff, Marjorie. “Laudation Speech Given at the Janus Pannonius Award Ceremonies, Pécs, Hungary.” September 22, 2017. http.jpa.hu
- Perloff, Marjorie. Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 2012.
- Perloff, Nancy. “Behind the Scenes: Exhibiting Augusto de Campos at the Getty Research Institute.” Talk given in Budapest, September 24, 2017.
- Perloff, Nancy. Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2017.
[*] Russian Futurists announced in their 1913 manifesto, “We’ve ceased to regard word-construction and word pronunciation according to grammatical rule, having begun to see in letters only directions of speech. We shook syntax loose” (qtd by Nancy Perloff, Explodity 57). ↩