Unscrambling the Waves at Goonhilly

April 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

– Edwin Morgan

Goonhilly Downs, situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel, contains the Satellite Earth Station, a cluster of satellite dishes that was once the largest ground station in the world.  “Unscrambling the Waves at Goonhilly” starts as a garbled satellite transmission trying to relay the names of various sea creatures. Like the computer in “the Computer’s First Christmas Card”, the satellite, or the scientists manning the satellite, must make several attempts to sort out a simple message. The transmission ends up being a list of rather mundane marine life ending in telstar, which sounds like an aquatic animal but is actually a type of satellite. This semi-surprise ending emphasizes the tension between the phonetic and spatial aspects of the poem; when we hear star we think it will match with fish, but we see that the two could not be paired with each other. Part of the fun is watching the odd combos that result in the syllables bouncing off each other before finding their proper partner — dogphin (dog’s fin?), hadfish (lost at sea?), sardock (cynical sardine?)

Easter Wings

April 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
   Though foolishly he lost the same,
     Decaying more and more
       Till he became
          Most poor:
          With thee
       O let me rise
     As larks, harmoniously,
   And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did begin:
   And still with sicknesses and shame
     Thou didst so punish sin,
       That I became
          Most thin.
          With thee
       Let me combine,
     And feel this day thy victory;
   For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

– George Herbert

Like, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Herbert’s religious beliefs helped fashion a body of truly inventive and inspired work. Contrasting with the artifice of its secret acrostics and nonce forms, his poetry speaks frankly to God on issues of faith and morality.

“Easter Wings”, which is probably the earliest concrete poem in English, bolsters its message by the use of form. Originally published sideways, each stanza mimics the shape of an angel or bird wing in flight. The lines, which wax and wane in length, are shortest when expressing doubt or severance from God and longest when proclaiming His glory. It is, at least in a typographic sense, a resurrection.

Poem Recognizing Someone in the Street

March 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

e   y   ?   h
e   ?   h   e
h   e   y   !

– Aram Saroyan

Saroyan modulates three letters and two punctuation marks to turn the most quotidian of events into a sparkling and surprising play of language.

One can buy Complete Minimal Poems, which contains this poem and is neither complete nor, at almost 300 pages, very minimal, from Ugly Duckling Press.

Eye for Eye

March 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

– Augusto de Campos

After founding Brazil’s concrete poetry movement in the 1950s with his brother, Augusto de Campos became increasingly interested in the visual aspects of poetry. “Eye for Eye” is a pop-concrete concoction that subverts an optometrist’s eye chart by using pictures of actual eyes and playing with proportion; the chart’s lines grow gradually larger with the very top line almost inscrutable (a visual pun: the letter I enclosed in a red triangle) and the bottom lines made of easy-to-see eyeballs (although Brigitte Bardot’s lips make an appearance in the penultimate row next to Elizabeth Taylor’s heavily mascara’d oculus).

Not just a literal eye chart, de Campos includes lips and fingernails which, in this context, begin to look like the eyes surrounding them.

A reference sheet to the various body parts can be found here.

Siesta of a Hungarian Snake

February 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

s sz sz SZ sz SZ sz ZS zs ZS zs zs z

– Edwin Morgan

Not just a dance of fricatives, but a concrete poem as well: the capital letters represent the snake’s bulging stomach after a midday snack.

the Mouse’s Tale

January 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

– Lewis Carroll

Happy birthday, Reverend Dodgson! Barring George Herbert’s “Easter Wings“, this is probably the earliest example of concrete poetry in English. It is rather amazing how many of the 20th century’s art and literary movements Carroll either influenced or foresaw — dada, surrealism, futurism, pop art, postmodernism, absurdism. The term “concrete” wasn’t coined until the 1950s, when the de Campos brothers of Brazil wrote its manifesto and pioneered the form.

Martin Gardner, in his Annotated Alice, suggests that Carroll’s idea for the poem may have come from Tennyson:

Tennyson once told Carroll that he had dreamed a lengthy poem about fairies, which began with very long lines, then the lines got shorter and shorter until the poem ended with fifty or sixty lines of two syllables each.

Tennyson forgot the poem when he awoke, which is a shame, because I’d love to read it.

Below is an early version of “the Mouse’s Tale” written out by Carroll, a tail that doesn’t end in death.


January 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

– Eugen Gomringer

I played the cello for about 10 years during my childhood. One of the first lessons I learned, and the one that has stuck with me, was the importance of silence, that the nothings were equal to the notes. This idea has circulated in music forever — without rests music becomes one jumbled mess of A B Cs — but perhaps was never more eloquently expressed than in John Cage’s 4’33”.

Cage’s piece isn’t just about silence. It is also about what ambient sounds break the silence and become part of the piece — the audience rustle, the lone cough, the slammed door as one leaves the concert hall. Silence is where things happen.

Likewise in the poem. There are 14 instances of silencio and not a single one of them is actually silent. We get a representation of the word, but are not shown its meaning. It is only when the word doesn’t appear, in the white box of its absence, that we begin to understand what silence incorporates, what it really sounds like. We need the noise of the silencios to realize true silence, just like how 4’33” needs all of those ambient sounds to illustrate silence’s fleeting nature.

In his essay on concrete poetry, Roberto Simanowski describes the effect:

[The] gap is the point in Gomringer’s piece for which all other words are just a preparation because the gap conveys the message that, strictly speaking, silence can only be articulated by the absence of any words…Certainly, the message is to be seen but it will only be revealed on the fundament that one did read the surrounding words before.

Pure silence is ephemeral, impossible, rare. Like that missing silencio in the poem, the only way to experience it is to not be there.

4’33” at the Barbican:

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