Augusto de Campos, Words in Three Dimensions


Augusto de Campos, Amor Te, 1970

The term “concrete poetry” suggests curious paradoxes — something like a weightless granite block or a riveted page of text. In fact, it’s poetry as a sort of three-dimensional art form, in which not only the meaning of the words come into play, but also their sound and visual representation — from typography to the arrangement of the text on the page.
“We thought that words should be revitalized in their physicality and freed from the strictures of logical discourse,” said Augusto de Campos, one of the founders of the concrete poetry movement, by e-mail as he was traveling in Brazil. “We did not reject [their meanings] but rather placed them on equal footing with the other elements, aural and visual.”
The results were highly visual and haiku-like in their overall effect.

Words tumbled down the page (as in Terremoto [Earthquake] by de Campos), spoke through their absence (as in Silencio by Eugen Gomringer) or subtly evolved, mutating as in an M.C. Escher visual puzzle and illuminating new meanings (as in Beba Coca Cola by Decio Pignatari).
De Campos is presenting Poetry Is Risk, a multimedia performance rooted in concrete poetry that he describes as “an interaction between word, music and image,” on Friday in Miami as part of the annual FLA/BRA (Florida/Brazil) Festival.

A Brazilian poet, translator and critic, he and several others began working with poetry in multiple dimensions in the mid-1950s in Brazil.
“There is humor in it, and a lot of it was political,” says Marvin Sackner, who with his wife Ruth are among the foremost collectors of concrete poetry. Their home in Miami Beach, the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, is one of the hidden treasures of South Florida. “Mostly it was another way of expressing yourself, and it became an international language because you didn’t necessarily have to know the language to appreciate the poetry. You could look at the imagery, the type, the structure and enjoy it. [In concrete poetry] you don’t only get the abstract thought of conventional poetry but also the concrete: You could see it, hear it, touch it.”

The last major show of concrete poetry was in Amsterdam in 1972, says Sackner, but many of its ideas have evolved and have not only been incorporated into the poetic mainstream and the visual arts but also new music and advertising. Meanwhile, new technologies and media, such as computer animation, DVD and the Internet, are exploding the creative possibilities.

Poetry Is Risk , for example, features reading by de Campos, music by composer Cid Campos (de Campos’ son) and a slide and video show by videographer and poet Walter Silveira.

It was released on CD in Brazil in 1995 with de Campos’ readings of his poems and translations with music and “sound treatment” by Cid. “To that basic material we added slides and videos with digital animations of the poems and related images, created by myself and by others, all edited by Walter Silveira, ” said de Campos. “We’ve tried to avoid mere accompaniment or illustration. The intent was to set up a real interactive poetic environment.”
The performance, de Campos said, includes some of his concrete poems from the ’50s such as lygia fingers, tensao and caracol , recent digital and video animated poems, a multivideophonic new version of the 150-letter poem cidade/city/cite and also “homages to poet-inventors and precursors like Blake (The Tyger), Rimbaud (Vowels, Drunken Coachman), Cummings (The Grasshopper Poem) and Joyce (a fragment of The Thunder Voice) .”

De Campos founded the concrete poetry movement with his brother Haroldo, Decio Pignatari, and Swiss-Bolivian Eugen Gomringer, publishing a manifesto, Concrete Poetry: tension of things words in space time, for the First National Exposition of Concrete Poetry at the Museum of Modern Art in Sao Paulo in 1956.
But concrete poetry was not only not new but had ancient roots, says Sackner. “You can go back into antiquity and find the word as image, pattern poetry in Hebraic literature, Dervish drawings made out of letters, words as the lines in Persian drawings of horses — everywhere.”

In fact, before they actually met and collaborated, the Brazilians and Gomringer had been working separately, arriving “at the same place from different starting points,” says Sackner, who started collecting concrete poetry in the 1970s. “And unbeknownst to them there was a poet in Russia in 1915, Vasily Kamensky, who had developed what he called ferro-concrete poetry, thinking of the same concerns they had.”

But more than about its rich past, de Campos is excited about concrete poetry’s future.
“In the last years I have been working with new technologies, from holography, laser, and multimedia to digital media, and [the work] seems to gain a new life when transferred to these media. I hope that Poetry Is Risk can give some hint of the view of concrete poetry as the prototype poetry of the Technological Era.”


This story appeared in The Miami Herald, October 1998

Fernando González