(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Although Eugen Gomringer’s principal inspiration derived from the visual arts, he was also attracted in his university years to poets who emphasized the visual aspects of their works. He admired Arno Holz, who arranged the lines of his poems symmetrically on either side of an imaginary “central axis” running down the middle of the page. He enjoyed the idiosyncratic vocabulary and typography of Stefan George, and he was fascinated by the condensed elliptical style of Stéphane Mallarmé and the typographical pictures of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes (1918; English translation, 1980). These affinities, along with concrete poetry’s resemblance to the reductive and destructive tendencies of late Expressionism and Dada, have led some scholars to see a direct link between prewar and postwar linguistic experimentation—a misleading connection, for Gomringer does not share the philosophical tenets (the search for the inner essence of man that lies beyond the grasp of reason) or the elements of shock and negation found in this earlier poetry. Instead, Gomringer affirms the economic recovery of postwar Europe and rejoices in technological progress. He argues that the modern industrial world requires a level of communication that is direct, simple, abbreviated, and universally intelligible. The irrationalism of the prewar years has no place in his work. In Gomringer’s view, poetry today should resemble the signs in a large international airport, where travelers speaking a variety of languages must be able to find their way with a minimum of confusion. Poetry should be like contemporary advertising copy—straight to the point and easy to remember.

Gomringer chose to call his poetry “concrete” because his poems disregard the syntactical relationships of traditional verse. Isolated words are placed on a paper in such a way that the visual arrangement contributes to or even constitutes the field in which thoughts can move. The concrete poem is thus neither a statement nor a description but an assemblage of words that forms an object. That is, it is not an assertion about something, but rather its own concrete reality; it is not an abstraction from reality but a concrete object made of the reality of language. The development of this new form paralleled developments in what is generally called the “abstract” art of the first half of the twentieth century. A large group of abstract painters (Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Hans Arp, and Kurt Schwitters, to name only a few) created aesthetic constructions that, like Gomringer’s poetry, satisfy a natural desire for order. The aesthetic harmony characteristic of both the concrete poem and the abstract work of art is, however, basically different from the harmony of the natural world, and only the arrangement of the materials on the canvas or on the paper can make this harmony visible. Many of these artists claimed, too, that since they were dealing with the essential elements of reality, their paintings were not “abstract” at all but rather “concrete,” much more concrete than traditional mimetic art. Theo van Doesburg wrote a manifesto in 1930 about concrete art, Max Bill termed an exhibit of his works in 1944 “concrete,” and Kandinsky always maintained with great tenacity that his paintings were the only truly concrete works to have been created.

In order to call attention to the unique form of his poems, Gomringer uses the term “constellation.” He defines a constellation as a grouping of a few different words on a page in such a manner that the relationship between the words does not arise through syntactic means but through the material, concrete, and spatial presence of the words themselves. Thus, the reader is permitted to select, by experimenting and playing with the text, the interpretation that suits him best. The poet establishes the field of language from which meaning will emerge, but the reader is invited—indeed, obliged—to participate in the creation of the poem. Nothing is taught, narrated, or described: The poem is an autonomous product.

Such a process points to the most radical aspect of Gomringer’s oeuvre. Through a confrontation with the language of the concrete poem, Gomringer hopes, the reader will gain a new relationship to the objects of the real world, because these objects are reflected in and represented by language. These new relationships should lead to insights about the tyranny of language over thought—that is, the reader should realize that inherited language systems are no longer adequate to communicate ideas in a highly technological age and that a new universal language must be developed in order to facilitate the understanding of complex, specialized...

(The entire section is 1937 words.)