7º International Meeting of
Experimental, Sound & Visual Poetry
THE VISUAL POEM, BETWEEN SIMULTANEITY AND MONTAGE
by Rodrigo Alonso (Argentina) *
According to visual poetry chroniclers, the poem Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard by Stephan Mallarmé has become an obligatory reference. The reason behind it is evident: in this poem, the French author transposes the linguistic syntagma into image, drawing the attention on its spatiality and on the materiality of the book as object. Such cancellation of the literary significance in the material display of its support, the separation of signified and signifier, and the relativity of the word as carrier of literary significance, open up a field of artistic research where the word and/or image expand the horizons of poetic creation.
For Filippo Tomaso Marinetti, however, the Mallarmean operation had been very limited. According to the Italian artist, the utilization of the book page as the space of visual transmutation of language fails to overcome the static linearity of writing. Instead, he proposes a true de-structuring of the written text. “My revolution is aimed at the so-called typographical harmony of the page -Marinetti declares in its Destruction of Syntax-Imagination without strings-Words-in-Freedom- which is contrary to the flux and reflux, the leaps and bursts of style that run through the page. On the same page, therefore, we will use three or four colors of ink, or even twenty different typefaces if necessary. For example: italics for a series of similar or swift sensations, boldface for the violent onomatopoeias, and so on. With this typographical revolution and this multicolored variety in the letters I mean to redouble the expressive force of words.”
Marinetti’s typographical revolution is not just a formal novelty. The relationship he establishes with the semantic aspects of the text -not of the words- multiplies the levels of reading, producing an effect of simultaneity that expands the text to zones unreachable by the words that fill it. Marinetti opens a true hypermedia reading, where color, typography or the direction of texts do not merely add plastic effects but also new channels of information.
This willingness is reinforced in its proposal of a multi-linear lyricism, described in the same manifesto, a procedure that, according to the author, would permit to achieve “complex lyric simultaneities”. In his own words: “On several parallel lines, the poet will throw out several chains of color, sound, smell, noise, weight, thickness, analogy. One of these lines might, for instance, be olfactory; another musical; another pictorial. Let us suppose that the chain of pictorial sensations and analogies dominates the others. In this case it will be printed in a heavier typeface than the second and third lines... The chain of musical sensations and analogies, less important than the chain of pictorial sensations and analogies (first line) but more important than that of the olfactory sensations and analogies (third line) will be printed in smaller type than that of the first line and larger than that of the third.”
Marinetti does not yet propose the de-structuring of the text vis-à-vis other materials, such as images or graphic resources. Later, however, not only will he do that, but will also transcend literature production by imagining complex multimedia shows in which he integrates all communication mediums available in his time, although these proposals do not go farther than speculations. El Lissitzky will emphasize the particular articulation of texts, images, and graphic resources, in a series of reflections on the “book of the future.”
A brief historical overview shows that Marinetti’s typographical revolution is taken up by El Lissitzky, who recognizes it a precedent of what he calls the simultaneous book. “Marinetti is not claiming a play with form as such -Lissitzky states- but is rather proposing to boost the action of new contents through the form.” For the Russian theoretician, publishing design will later be the carrier of this proposal, where images, texts, and graphic design are juxtaposed on the same page, hence leading to a joint access to various information channels. “Reading teaches our children a new plastic language -asserted El Lissitzky- they now grow up having a different relationship with space and the world, image, and color.” In the context of a country transformed by social revolution, the Russian artist anticipates the liberating, analytical, and critical nature offered by such innovations to the mass public, not just to the bourgeois elite to which Marinetti aimed. In Lissitzky’s view, the book of the future is that which stresses a plural, multiple, and critical reading.
In the period between wars in Germany, the confluence of different semantic levels and unconnected materials will mostly develop in montage and photomontage practices. These productions are radically different from the Cubist collages that emerged shortly before. In opposition to the unifying intention of the fragments employed in making a collage, montages evidence the different and unconnected nature of the parts making it up. In this way, each element maintains its individual traits while being an integral part of the composition.
In the tension between unity and multiplicity, the whole and the fragment, there is an enhancement of simultaneous readings. The collision of montage ingredients shoot, as it were, the possible meanings, due to the weakness of the whole to impose a unified vision.
According to Benjamin Buchloh, a key process in the semantic construction of montage is allegory, i.e., the co-existence within the composition of a literal and a figurative meaning, where each thing expresses itself through another, and different one. This explains the widespread use of photomontage in nazi Germany. According to George Grosz, one of its inventors, “photomontage... (allowed us) to say with images that which censors would not allow us to say with words.”
The allegorical meaning is also found in ready-mades, where the selected object is given a new meaning. In this act, the new meaning does not cancel the previous one, but is superimposed on it - hence, the metaphorical and the literal meanings co-exist while boosting the potential expressiveness of the object.
This re-instatement of the object in the allegorical practice was noted by Walter Benjamin in a chapter devoted to his reflections on Baudelaire titled Merchandise as Poetic Object. According to the German philosopher, the devaluation of objects to the status of merchandise, encouraged by their mise-en- circulation in the economic circuit, is overcome in the allegory through the re-semantization process. Buchloh explains it as follows: “The allegorical mind sides with the object and claims against its devaluation to the category of merchandise, re-signifying it a second time through an allegorical practice. Through the separation of signifier from signified, the allegorist subjects the sign to the same division of functions to which the object was subject during its transformation into merchandise (usage value/exchange value). The object is redeemed by the repetition of the original act of erosion and the new allocation of meaning.”
Appropriation and erosion (re-semantization), fragmentation and dialectic juxtaposition of fragments, separation of signified and signifier are some of the basic montage practice procedures according to Buchloh. Their presence can also be verified in the production of most visual poetry. In visual poetry, allegory and metaphor also arise from a confrontation of diverse materials and meanings, convened to create new readings for images, objects, and words, in many cases eroded by usage and circulation. The description provided by Walter Benjamin in connection with the Baudelairean use of fragments echoes in visual poetry practice: “The allegorical mind arbitrarily chooses from the vast and chaotic material housed in its knowledge. It attempts to unite one piece with another to inquire whether or not they can combine with each other. This meaning with this image, or this image with this meaning. The result is never predictable, since there is no organic mediation between both.”
* translated by María Rosa Andreotti