The Spiritual Concrete Poem?

17 06 2009

In 1968 Indiana university Press published ‘Concrete Poetry: A world view’. I looked at it very briefly for my undergraduate honours thesis, and I’ve just dredged it out again with all my other papers as part of my preparation for an upcoming Masters application.

I have a few issues with the small excerpt I bothered to copy back in 2006. Mostly because the author, Mary Ellen Solt, seems to make an assumption about the purpose of poetry that I take small issue with.

She writes, at one point:

If the poem is to take its place as a functional object in the environment for spiritual contemplation, maybe we need to take the noise out of it.

Which is reasonable in its assertion that silence can be said to be the ultimate goal of the visual poetry that was flourishing in certain circles back in the late 60s when the book was published. However, framing the purpose of poetry as being ‘spiritual’ goes that touch too far. We could read it as a throw-away comment, with Solt writing from her own aesthetic, but her comments at least attempt to encompass the entire movement.

‘… man having discovered, or rediscovered, himself as a cosmic being in the age of space, space itself takes on (spiritual) content. The visual poem is a material object in space which can achieve spiritual influence.’

Where, then, does this leave the non-spiritual concrete poet? I would make the argument that the concrete poetry of, say, Ian Hamilton Finlay does not represent a spiritual struggle, but an intellectual struggle perhaps best encompassed within the word: ‘play’. Where does this leave him, then? Where does it leave an anti-spiritualist poet?

I think Solt’s parenthesise cut to the heart of the matter. After ‘spiritual’, she puts ‘(poetic)’ and assumes we can equate the two. What I think is occurring is that the new forms left some writers in that time at a bit of a loss for how to describe the new type of reading experience that was emerging. In a form of poetry that shared as much of its form and matter with graphic design, art and music as it did with poetry, perhaps spiritual was the best word for the non-verbal epiphany that the form engenders.

There is another theory, of course. Solt was focussing mostly on the concrete poetry movement that had emerged in Brazil prior to her writing. Perhaps ‘spiritual’ describes that movement more that the effects of their art. I’m not sure. What do you think?