I FIRST VISITED Macau in 1996, hydrofoil from Hong Kong. Late morning in the undercroft of the Hotel Lisboa, a brutalist bijou that stamped the humble skyline of the era, a young woman in taupe silk evening wear walked past, just out of the casino. I saw the A-Ma temple, and the black and white pavements I would later see in Lisbon, and back streets with marine engines in little sheds, next door to fire-cracker factories.
The second time was on a regional conference, drinking Tiger Beer between shifts with Al Dingwall as the fishing boats filed into the harbour ahead of a cracking typhoon. That was the year Macau reverted from Portuguese to Chinese control. Portugal put up some fine public buildings and bridges that seemed to stretch half way home.
Les jeux sont faits. Les jeux
Sont faits. Arrêtez tout.
Coop the Portingale, cut the pontoon.
The banyan hasn’t a croup to thrash
The tarnished estuary coughs up its cash
At the handover
From typhoon to China
Macao, Star of the Sea,
Descends to heaven.1
Then, in 2016, John Corbett invited me to a roundtable on the translation of experimental / concrete poetry – the Chinese, Brazilian, Anglophone connection. I should have sailed there using a Portuguese roteiro. Instead I read Camões, Os Lusíadas and wondered what I could contribute. I had heard Eugen Gomringer read in Vevey, and enjoyed the poesia é risco / poésie est risque performance by Augusto do Campos and Cid Campos in Geneva, in 2002. Edwin Morgan had been in contact with the Noigandres group since the ’60s; when I started research with him in the late ’70s he was still dabbling in concrete. I had visited Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Stonypath garden, as his Little Sparta garden was at one time called, and a planned installation of mine had been published by his son, Eck (it happened to concern the Opium Wars and therefore Macau).2 I’d also read Hugh MacDiarmid’s counterblast at Finlay and his minions, the ugly birds without wings.3 This didn’t add up to expertise, particularly since I share some of MacDiarmid’s reservations about concrete poetry.
For instance, the Campos show in Geneva was beautifully performed (and timed to the second at thirty minutes); it integrated video, live and recorded music and spoken word, but it had little to say. There was much more how than what to it, and the what was disputable: poetry is risk? It’s true Mandelshtam said Stalin’s USSR killed people who wrote it, but mostly it killed people who didn’t. There wasn’t much of a correlation. True also that Byron, Keats and Shelley among them wouldn’t have got a centennial telegram from the queen, but you can’t blame that on the verse. Bad conventional poetry is boring; bad experimental poetry is annoying, but not dangerously so.
I read a long way around the subject, starting with Tristes Tropiques, published by Lévi-Strauss the year the Noigandres group got going, because it starts in São Paulo. I took up Chinese again, because of Macau and because the name Noigandres comes from Ezra Pound, and his Cantos are full of Chinese, and because before they met Gomringer, the Brazilian concretists had called their things ‘ideograms’. I got two big anthologies of concrete poetry; dug out books on brutalist architecture because of Niemeyer, working in Brazil at the same time, knowing that the term ‘brutalist’ was a mistranslation: béton brut meant raw concrete, but brutalist it was. For good measure I went back to the Musée de l’art brut in Lausanne to remind myself that I am only one step away from the cursed and blessed souls who do their thing because they can’t help it and often can’t help themselves.
Musée de l’art brut, Lausanne
When I said mum she died and he hit me
When he hits me I say mum and she dies
He hit me when she die and I say mum. The mushroom key
Secretsecretsecretsecretsecret. Bricabrac think
I dye the carrot blue
I dry the pilchard tin
Toilet-seat turret : a tank.
Cover every empty inch
In zero point one millimetre ink
And bless me, doctor.4
I went back to the magnificent work of Ron King (born in São Paulo), and other masterpieces of typography in John Crombie and Sheila Bourne’s experimental Kickshaws publications and elsewhere. And I found notes from Xi’an, which I had visited after my second trip to Macau. If the forest of steles isn’t concrete poetry, what is?
The more time passes, the more Ezra Pound resembles the seventeenth-century Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, who had introduced the European reading public to the Xi’an forest of steles. Both were impresarios, antiquarians and second-hand sinologists who spent decades trying to get credentials to match their early reputation. Neither went there. Both sparked a global fascination with China that produced scholars and artists who improved on their own work. Both, incidentally, were under investigation that could have ended very badly; Kircher was much the more adroit. Pound, the modernist, might have been more at home in the baroque. Meanwhile Haroldo de Campos, in spite of his brilliant theorizing of Baroque Brazil, was a real modernist. And although, like T’ang verse, concrete poetry has topography take the weight from syntax, it is more akin to brutalist architecture. Which was of its time.
IF I RELATE to concrete at all, it is through architecture, so for me the Swiss connection isn’t Gomringer, it’s Le Corbusier. I spent childhood holidays running round St Peter’s Cardross (designed by Scottish Corbusier fans), before it became a famous ruin. Before it was completed, in fact, and I watched the swerving corridors and Clyde-built salients take shape. Also I’d studied in Minsk in 1976; to the locals that was just after the War, which had left only two streets of the old city. The new civic buildings really did put the brute in brutalism. The bars and restaurants were all cold shoulder. You had to put them out of focus to feel in any way comfortable. Some of them are on display in the recent HBO miniseries.5 According to a 2007 paper, a robot sent into the reactor itself returned with samples of black, melanin-rich radiotrophic fungi that grow on the reactor’s walls.6 Concrete can really shut things down.
But I digress. Sound poetry echoes off concrete; some people do both (Henri Chopin, Bob Cobbing, Jaap Blonk and others). Concrete, though, really should sing. And it does – most spectacularly not in Brazil but in one of the last projects managed by Le Corbusier, le poème électronique, which was the Philips pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels – a transient concrete temple designed by the composer Xenakis for an 8-minute piece of (concrete) music by Varèse. As Xenakis put it:
Thus mathematics, plastics, industries and materials (concrete, metal) have created a favourable trend for the introduction of curved planes in concrete… The electro-acoustical auditorium is the receptacle of present-day developments in electro-magnetic music:
The reverberation has to be sufficiently weak. Parallel planes have to be avoided because they give multiple reflections. Sharp angles are likewise not permissible since there is an accumulated reverberation on the bisecting planes of dihedral angles.
On the other hand surfaces with variable radiating curvature are excellent. But segments of the sphere, for example, had to be rejected, since they condense the sound in the centre.7
Cue for a song: my wife and I went to mass at the Cistercian church of Le Thoronet, built in the south of France around 1170. We got there late and spent a while wondering where the Gregorian choir was hiding. It turned out that it all was sung by the two men standing near the altar, making full use of the acoustics. When they stopped the priest began to speak and we understood not a word, because he wasn’t listening to the building, which put his sermon through a scrambler. It was great. What I want from the various approaches to poetry discussed below is form and function and performance connecting across continents and centuries. It happens.
I was introduced to concrete poetry in 1975: Bakhchanyan’s ‘Doklad Brezhneva’ in a Russian lecture at Oxford, and ‘Bees Nest’ by Edwin Morgan in a friend’s copy of The Second Life. They were guaranteed to raise a smile, which was not what I was looking for in poetry then, whether writing or reading it. From the same lecture, I remember a joke about Pravda and Radio Moscow. Odd the things that stick.8
Morgan was a busy bee himself, translating the Campos brothers from Portuguese, Voznesensky from Russian and so many more. Translation, pastiche, parody, and frequently ideas such as this poem, worked up and worked out like the finest of model aircraft; a global network of correspondence and a sedulously curated archive of his own work, and then the great generosity and modesty that so many people enjoyed, and still do, since he endowed a poetry prize to remember him by. His centenary celebrations have blown Hugh MacDiarmid out of the water. Who would have thought it?
In ‘Doklad Brezhneva’ (Brezhnev’s Speech) by Vagrich Bakhchanyan, we have the same structure, but it’s a political stink-bomb. There is also the matter of Russian word order, which — like Latin — is particularly flexible because the conjugations and declensions show who is doing what to whom even when the words are shuffled; but there are limits, which Bakhchanian gleefully oversteps, as if you were to say
Who is doing what to whom
Who to whom is doing what
Who what to whom is doing
what who to doing whom is.
Дорогие товарищи! Аплодисменты
Скоро у нас будет очень много Пепси-Колы. Аплодисменты
У нас скоро будет много очень Пепси-Колы. Аплодисменты
Очень много Пепси-Колы скоро у нас будет. Аплодисменты
Пепси-Колы очень много у нас будет скоро. Аплодисменты
Скоро будет Пепси-Колы у нас очень много. Аплодисменты
У нас Пепси-Колы будет много скоро очень. Аплодисменты
Много у нас Пепси-Колы будет очень скоро. Аплодисменты
У Пепси-Колы скоро очень много будет нас. Аплодисменты
Скоро у будет нас очень много Пепси-Колы. Аплодисменты
У много нас скоро Пепси-Колы будет очень. Аплодисменты
Очень нас скоро много Пепси-Колы будет у. Аплодисменты
Спасибо за внимание.
Бурные, долго не смолкающие аплодисменты.
Раздаются возгласы “Ура”, “Слава КПСС”, “Да здравствует Пепси-Кола”.
Dear comrades! Applause.
Soon we will have very much Pepsi Cola. Applause.
We soon will have much very Pepsi Cola. Applause.
Very much Pepsi Cola soon we will have. Applause.
Very we soon much Pepsi Cola will have. Applause.
Thank you for your attention.
Thunderous, long-echoing applause.
Cries of “hurrah!”, “Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union”, “Long live Pepsi Cola”.
It could be a Warsaw-Pact take on Décio Pignatari’s cloacal ode to Coca Cola.9 And it brings back that joke from Brezhnev’s USSR: ‘What’s the difference between Pravda and Radio Moscow? You can’t wipe your arse with Radio Moscow.’ It is true (pravda) that their information content was indistinguishable, that toilet paper was scarce in the USSR, so you did tend to see copies of Pravda either in kiosks or in cloacal trash baskets (paper didn’t flush), and that people spoke freely in those filthy public conveniences, smoking bad tobacco to cover the stench, because it was believed that that was the one place where there were no microphones. It was also — and this is no joke — appropriate that in that systematically mendacious régime, the toilet was seen as the right place for the truth.
That couldn’t happen here, could it? Total surveillance, denial of evidence; stand up or shut up.
Getting ceremonially drunk at home with your Soviet friends you would gradually let it all out. You’d attend their shows, their trial, and visit them in hospital (to which everyone had free access and excessive recourse for lack of public health messaging on healthy lifestyles). As one wag put it, ‘they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work’. It was universal basic income before the letter. In their publications these same intellectuals would punctiliously reference Lenin and Marx in every paper they wrote. Because if they didn’t, they were out of circulation. The Chernobyl explosion happened a fortnight after the 25th anniversary of the Gagarin flight and a few days before the May Day holiday, one of the biggest booze fests in the Soviet calendar. They tried at first to deny that they had an environmental catastrophe on their hands.
Couldn’t happen here, could it?
ONE OF THE most striking features of Tristan (as in “and Isold”) is that he never tells the truth. This isn’t mentioned in any of the commentaries I read — and I did read a lot of them — but it’s an iron law. Whenever he opens his mouth, it’s another whopper. I realized that, in a long poem based on the key moment in that story — when the lovers meet but before they realize what’s going on — I could use my truth for his lies. I was reading up for my first visit to Hong Kong (in 1996), on trade and the opium wars. The raw material of this next passage was an OECD list of goods available for international trade. Someone is asking Tristan how he came to lose his fortune and he says:
Next day I bought yarn of tram silk, whelks and whetstones,
wrestling rings, torque meter wrenches, tang,
vellum, venom, vaulting blocks and turbans,
truffles, trumpets, truncheons, tubers, tubes,
truffles, sockets, socks and switches,
truffles, throats,– Throats?!
truffles, throats,- Throats?!– Throats, opoponax,
incense, incunabula, jams and jackets,
hats, harps, harpoons and harpsichords, glycerol, glue,
regulators, reliquaries, pudding,
pear pips, pit props, and – what do you call dried plums?
pear pip– Prunes.
pear pip- Prunes.– Prunes, yes, groats and grindstones,
pear pipbear fat, bone fat, slitter and scran,
brine and brimstone, cases, corrydander,
axe heads, axle-boxes, ratchel salt,
oxter pickle, haver-straw, earth colours,
catalogues, mung beans, alluvium,
catalog then one of the merchants asked
catalog if I had met Boo-Bull Mahoun.10
There follows an account of how the Scots made use of India to pillage and corrupt China. This privateering has been a theme in my poetry since then. MacDiarmid had made the canny move, on his return from the First World War, of dissociating Scotland from the British Empire. But the Scots had been up to their necks in it, not only as cannon fodder, and the prosperity of Scotland was built on it.
THE FIRST TIME I passed through Hong Kong everyone was using mobile phones. I didn’t have one, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to, so I bought a dictaphone and talked to it instead, while walking around. The little machine largely dictated the slight and rather placid form of the poems, which became Double Click. Here’s a sample:
When it starts I’ll let you know.
It started one line back. It’s nothing
lithium based or opium laced. Relax.
Double click on this
and nothing happens.
Today I scaled the ultimate
8000-metre peak of boredom
I’m not going to write a book about it
but just plant this little flag.
In deference to the godhead
the snow on the very mountain-top untouched.
You’ve got fifteen seconds in which to
achieve enlightenment, pal.
The last run of a diesel oily
ferry on the Pearl River
islands at the end of empire
hung like lanterns on the sea.
Finished with engines.11
Each of those poems is, I think, an attempt to reproduce the silence that caused it. There’s a similar concentration in the following found poem:
The radio told him:
Tiree south-east 7, slight drizzle and rain,
3 miles, 1,005, falling.
Butt of Lewis lighthouse, south-east by east 6,
22 miles, 1,008, falling more slowly.
south-easterly six to gale eight,
rain at times, moderate or good.
Forth, Tyne, south-easterly 5 to 7,
occasional rain, moderate or poor.
Dogger, Fisher, German Bight,
south-easterly, 5 to 7, mainly fair, moderate or good.
Biscay south-west 5 to 7, veering west 4,
rain then showers, moderate or good.
Fair Isle, Faroes, south-east Iceland,
south-easterly 6 to gale 8, rain later,
moderate or good, becoming poor at times.12
In context, that section is the lyric apogee of a long poem called The Devil in the Driving Mirror. Like any found poem, though, it has this peculiarity: it reproduces not the effect on the poet but the cause, which of course might work quite a different effect on the reader, and indeed on the poet in later times. Thirty years back I could find that type of weather forecast only on certain wavelengths, late at night. I knew none of the places mentioned and had no intention of experiencing storm winds at sea. Intended as warning, it was strangely soothing: ‘when the wind blows, the cradle will rock’. That’s not the way a trawlerman would hear it.
There are, nonetheless, ways of increasing the likelihood that an effect will be reproduced. There’s an arresting phrase by Carla Demierre which makes childbirth resemble a crime scene. I have translated it then worked out some implications of a man’s reading a woman’s words:
‘On a trouvé mon corps dans le corps de ma mère’
My body was found in my mother’s. Same pink
The same face more or less the same tripe
And intestinal flora I guess maybe blood type.
No womb for the next just a plug for some socket
I shrugged her off like an old shirt.13
NOT ALL LYRIC poetry is so pure as the shipping forecast, and some inadvertently sets itself up for parody, which Edwin Morgan and I did on a set of poems by Shakespeare, Milton, Arnold, Pope, Byron and Tennyson. They were called ‘Rehabs and Reconstructions’ (ie ‘refurbishments’ [by McCarey] and ‘perestroika’ [by Morgan]).
Shakespeare sonnet LV
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room,
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
__So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
__You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
Rehab No. 6: (Shakespeare, Sonnet LV)
“Piano tones … begin loud and bright
and then decay to silence in a complex way
that’s characteristic of the instrument.”
— Robert Moog, Byte 6, 1986
Marrying clearest word to soundest verse
And five reiterations of the burden
Rowed in fire and stone (like a pharaoh’s curse),
Intoned to last until the final Amen;
And we can’t make head nor tail of who the song’s
Regaling with its DECUS ET TUTAMEN.
Our end is nigh indeed if verse among
Stunned sinners is recalled when doom is clapping;
Absorb and sift, time, shift all that we’ve done,
Remit, maybe, a broken seal, Harappan
Inscription pan -ar ki(r), “the singer’s mark”,
A thunderstone. Love doesn’t fear the dark.14
It turned out that the Shakespeare sonnet was in its turn a parody of Horace:
Exegi monumentum aere perennius,
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
Non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei
vitabit Libitinam. Usque ego postera
crescam laude recens. Dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex.
dicar, qua violens obstrepit Aufidus
et qua pauper aquae Daunus agrestium
regnavit populorum ex humili potens,
princeps Aeolium carmen ad Italos
deduxisse modos. Sume superbiam
quaesitam meritis et mihi Delphica
lauro cinge volens, Melpomene, comam.
Which gave rise to this:
I’ve made a monument bigger than Elvis,
slick as a simile, anti-corrosion
guarantee long as the law is enforceable;
gist will survive when the language is lost,
weathering author and inspiration
as long as lives are brought in sacrifice
to death, in which the rose’s red
petal is tender as bedsores, death
as a train while the couple steals a last
death that hones the present tense
and the blade sings as it dwindles. Sober up:
nothing anyone ever said
will last as long as I am dead.15
There is a touch of parody in any translation; in the next example, it’s more than a touch. I picked on Baudelaire’s Spleen because it’s so overdone. (It also features the first deaf bat in poetry, but that’s irrelevant.) For the same reason, I used only the first four lines, because by that stage the reader has got the point. Taking his rhyme word cercle, I used synonyms of ‘circle’ (hoop, ring, round) for the rhyme scheme, in a sawn-off sonnet form, ie with half-length lines, to emphasize the imprisoning rhymes. The sonnet, with glittering exceptions, is the classic form for poetic tedium.
Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle
Sur l’esprit gémissant en proie aux longs ennuis,
Et que de l’horizon embrassant tout le cercle
II nous verse un jour noir plus triste que les nuits;
Quand la terre est changée en un cachot humide,
Où l’Espérance, comme une chauve-souris,
S’en va battant les murs de son aile timide
Et se cognant la tête à des plafonds pourris;
(… etc., etc.)
When rhyme is a loop
And reason a circle
When nothing at work’ll
Work out for the coop-
er of verse in the hoop
Of routine, in the murk of
Loch Gloom with the snorkel
Bunged up, don’t say “bloop”,
Don’t throw in the sponge at round
Ten. See, I’ve found
This horse shoe. Here, loos-
en your glove. To the ring,
Gaun and land a good swing,
It’s his trapdoor and noose.16
But this is tradition as a loser’s argument: the dead set the terms of a debate they can’t control. Though with the laws of copyright their heirs can try; I came across this bit of legal bullying in Granta magazine:
_____All rights reserved. No part of this poem may be
reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior written permission of the copyright owners. No part of this poem may be reproduced, whether for private research, study, criticism, review or the reporting of current events, without the written permission of the publishers. Any unauthorized reproduction of any part of the poem may result in civil liability and criminal prosecution.
Which can be read thus:
Review by mechanical private without result,
permission of events unauthorized, current
copyright of photocopying,
reporting of any a be or C
reserved in research or reproduced.
The owners of publishers part (criticism)
the rights and the written part
form, poem, part.
all permission stored.
The electronic prior in the study
transmitted this poem,
no copyright, no liability or prosecution
retrieval for any written criminal
in this civil system
the poem means
whether otherwise or without
any may any may may be17
AT A CERTAIN point in history most office workers were beta-testing for Bill Gates. He sold defective software that the users corrected for him. One day when his spell-checker corrected Rio de Janeiro to Rio de Gonorrhea I realized he had provided me with a tremendous creative tool. So I keyed in some sixteenth-century Scottish verse — the ‘Flyting of Kennedy and Dunbar’ — and pored over the results, which were astounding. The original was a catalogue of foul abuse that two fine poets showered on each other. Things such as ‘hail sovereign senyor, thy baws hings through thy breeks’ (your testicles are showing through a hole in your trousers). This becomes ‘thy bawds whines through thy bricks’. Which doesn’t make much sense, but is somehow just as insulting. (I may have some bricks, but I don’t have any prostitutes; and even if I did they wouldn’t whine!) Here is Dunbar’s finale, one stanza from the original, then three from the translation:
Loun, lyk Mahoun, be boun me till obey,
Theif, or in greif mischief sall the betyd.
Cry grace, tyikes face, or I the chece and fley,
Oule, rare an yowle, I sall defowll thy pryd,
Peilit gled, baith fed and bred of bichis syd,
And lyk ane tyk, purspyk, qhuat man settis by the?
Forflittin, countbittin, beschittin, barkit hyd,
Clym ledder, fyle tedder, foule edder, I defy the.
Than rinse dhow dun the gait with gild of boos,
and all the tun hikes highland in thy helix;
of lards and lowness rises sic a nous,
quill Russias rinse away with Kant and critics,
for reread “of” and rattling of thy putties;
fishy wives cries, and captious skillless scheelites;
sum klatsches the, sum clouds the on the cutlass.
Lung like Nahum, be bung me till obey,
thief, or in grief miscue salt the petard;
cry thyroids face, or I the chicle and slue;
ouzel, yodel, I defog thy pred;
pellet glad, bait fed and bred of bishops sad,
and like a tyke, purse, quart man sceptics by the!
Formfitting, countbittin, persisting, Bairiki hod,
clam ladder, phylum tedder, furl udder, I defy the.
Match mutton, byte bottom, penlight glutting, air to Hideous;
rank beggar, ostler dredger, fouled flogger in the flat;
schist lifting, ruck rilling, lick schilling in the milieus;
bald reheat, thief of NATO, phallus tractor, effendis ghat;
filling of thatch, wrap satchel, cry crouch, dhow art our
(stet); hereby, loquat, busby, carillons pet,
routine croak, diction doc, cry coke, or I shall (quhat?)18
All Concrete Aspires to the Condition of China.
IT IS THIS mechanical aspect of parody that brings us round once again to concrete, which might equally have been called prosthetic poetry in the early days, the prosthesis being a portable typewriter.
As Dom Sylvester Houédard puts it,
my own typestracts (so named by edwin morgan) are all produced on a portable olivetti lettera 22 (olivetti himself/themselves show sofar a total non interest in this fact) there are 86 typeunits available on my machine for use w/2-colour or no ribbon – or with carbons of various colours – the maximum size surface w/out folding is abt 10” diagonal – the ribbons may be of various ages – several ribbons may be used on a single typestract – inked-ribbon & manifold (carbon) can be combined on same typestract – pressures may be varied – overprints & semioverprints (1/2 back or 1/2 forward) are available – stencils may be cut & masks used – precise placing of the typestract units is possible thru spacebar & ratcheted-roller – or roller may be disengaged.19
Thus did the artist take up the cross of the typewriter (as human typists used to be called), and the increasing suspense, as they neared the end of a perfect page of work, as to whether they would complete it without the error that would consign the page and their productivity bonus to the bin.
And with monospace fonts we return to China.
Look again at Edwin Morgan’s ‘Bee’s Nest’ (right), its careful presentation of the poem as a page; of course there are eccentric precedents in English poetry, but, as a tradition, it is Chinese: each character, whether beguilingly simple or impossibly complex, occupies a standard virtual square. As a result the poem resembles the formal garden in which it might have been read.
Or see Zhang Ji’s ‘Night mooring at maple bridge’(left), a calque from the Xi’an forest of steles (the 28 large characters in three columns to the right are the poem itself). If the T’ang poem is a garden, each of its characters is a cultivar. In addition to producing a Chinese-style unity of the poem on the page, concrete often aims to create such ideograms, emblems, or heraldic devices.
Here is one attempt, in a poster for Poésies en Mouvement, on the theme of ‘fêlure’(flaw):20
And one more, lest we forget the weight of parody in concrete:
WHEN A VERBAL poem deploys an argument on a story that cannot be put on a single page, it carries on over the page or down the scroll in the time dimension. It ceases to be a lyric moment and becomes a rhythmic movement. When a concrete poem overflows a single page, it tends to expand into space, as object, installation, building or landscape. (A second edition of Bean and McCabe’s The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century could be issued as a pop-up book.) Instead of (for example) Hugh MacDiarmid’s epic poetry, expansive concrete gives rise to Iain Hamilton Finlay’s learned garden. It is not a coincidence that these egregious enemies were near neighbours in the Scottish borders as they honed and publicized their ambitions: the debatable lands engendered disputable claims as to what was poetry and, indeed, as to what poetry was. MacDiarmid’s late epic poems, which culminated when concrete poetry began, can be fiercely judged as poetry. IHF’s Little Sparta can’t be judged as poetry at all.
This is partly because Finlay surely realised that he wouldn’t get far as a poet, and partly because concrete poetry, when it expands into space, loses rhythm and syntax, and with that — the pulse of verse.
It is funny that MacDiarmid and Finlay both made far too much of erudition, as if that could make up for a tradition lost.
Going back in kind
To the Eddic ‘Converse of Thor and the All-Wise Dwarf’
(Al-viss Mal, ‘Edda die lieden des Codex Regius,’ 120, I f)
Existing in its present MS form
Over five centuries before Shakespeare.
You remember it?21
Well actually no I don’t, the author knows I don’t, and knows that I’m sure that he doesn’t either. But his point is that we must strive for something like omniscience if we are to get a grip on the world today (of 1955).
Finlay, quoting Vitulio, Iamblichus et al in Finlay’s Talismans and Signifiers seems to be playing the much older, indeed reactionary, game of seeking to impress or intimidate us with his reconditry.
Little Sparta is a lovely garden that enrolls the hills around it, geomantically, like many an old church or temple. And Finlay enlists many others — sculptors, calligraphers, masons, plumbers and printers. To wander round it is delightful. The sundials and birdbaths are beautifully made and surprisingly set. The cultural references, if you decide to pursue them, turn the place into an intellectual assault course, an aesthetic pitch-and-putt. But if you opt to go with the flow you might find the garden telling you that whimsy and violence are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps they are.
But here’s the thing: a poem can explain itself, a concrete object can’t. Like a garden it allows the visitor to wander — without imposing an interpretation — except when the helpful glosses do just that, and in the process turn an autonomous object into the illustration of an explanation, which seems a shame. It should be possible to take advantage of the reticence of the concrete object in a way that allows the artist to frame a silence in a specific place, refusing to open what is meant to stay shut, so that visitors have to confront the thing themselves. But the balance between art forms and expectations isn’t easy to strike.
In 2017, I devised a pedal-powered confessional with a proxy sinner that kneels and bangs his (helmeted) head in repentance as the client back-pedals. It was my great good fortune that Duncan Scott, who had worked with George Wylie the sculptor, decided to build it. In exhibition it was accompanied with a series of photos of confessionals and vending machines from Lisbon to Nagasaki. I should probably have left it at that. In my experience the best ideas just happen; I find myself doing or making something that doesn’t have a rationale. Explanations are retrospective and as such, to some extent, misleading. But at the launch of the show I was asked to present the thing and I said:
If you were to travel from Europe to Asia north of the Caucasus you would find many a kiosk. Turkish word, and the little edifice it denotes is to be found all across the Turkic and Slavic lands. There, in Soviet times, you would have been able to buy your Pepsi Cola. South of the Caucasus things were different. By ocean, they were different again. As the Portuguese made their way round Africa, across to Goa and on to Macau and Nagasaki they built churches, and those churches contained confessional booths. The Japanese assimilated useful parts of Portuguese culture such as guns and tempura; they didn’t immediately figure out how to turn the confessionals to account, but they got there eventually, with their mania for vending machines — another cupboard-sized venue for private transactions in public places.22
Peter McCarey lives in Geneva, where he ran the language service of the World Health Organization for 15 years. The struggle to manipulate or in part survive variously defective systems informs his work. McCarey is a founding member of Poésies en Mouvement (Geneva) and panjandrum of Molecular Press. His early collected poetry, Collected Contraptions, was published by Carcanet in 2011. The rest is to be found in The Syllabary. His books include Hugh MacDiarmid and the Russians (Scottish Academic Press, 1987), Find an Angel and Pick a Fight (Molecular Press, 2013) and De l’Oubli (L’Ours Blanc, 2020). In 2016 he convened and chaired a meeting of international experts on an impossible pandemic. The proceedings were published under the title Petrushka in 2017.
- The Syllabary
- Without Day, Alec Finlay, ed. (Edinburgh, 2000), pp. 162-3.
- See also Hugh MacDiarmid, Albyn: Shorter Books and Monographs, ed. Alan Riach (Manchester, 1996), pp.318-331.
- The Syllabary.
- Chernobyl, created and written by Craig Mazin, directed by Johan Renck (2019).
- Reversibility of Chronic Disease and Hypersensitivity, Volume 4: The Environmental Aspects of Chemical Sensitivity, by William J. Rea, Kalpana D. Patel, citation via wiki
- Le Corbusier, le poème électrique / the electronic poem (Brussels, 1958), quoted from a plaquette taken from the volume published in the Forces Vives, directed at the Editions de Minuit by Jean Petit.
- The Second Life (Edinburgh, 1968), p. 26.
- In Emmett Williams (ed.), Anthology of Concrete Poetry (New York, Primary Information, 2013), no page numbering.
- Ibid., p. 144.
- Peter McCarey, Collected Contraptions (Manchester, Carcanet, 2011), pp. 81-90.
- Ibid, pp 69-70.
- The Syllabary.
- Collected Contraptions, p. 20.
- Ibid., p. 101.
- The Syllabary
- Collected Contraptions, p. 103.
- Ibid., p. 48.
- Emmett Williams (ed.), Anthology of Concrete Poetry (New York, 2nd edition, Primary Information, 2013), no page numbering.
- See Macaronic.
- Hugh MacDiarmid, In Memoriam James Joyce, in Complete Poems (London, 1978), vol. 2, pp. 755-6.
- See also details at Molecular Press.