POETICS AND VISUALITY:
A Trajectory of Contemporary Brazilian Poetry
by Philadelpho Menezes
Theory and practice are inseparable in the poetry of this century, marked so deeply as it is by social, political, scientific, and cultural changes. Because this terrain is shifting with the instability that characterizes the entire period, both theory and practice must be seen as interdependent if one ever hopes to capture the significance of these transformations. The turbulence of cultural events, continually imposed and then canceled, is marked by a speed that seems exacerbated by the contemporary capacity to rapidly record and historicize events in a manner that is simultaneously dizzying and frightening.
In this era of specialization, to make poetry requires of those who attempt it a critical awareness, a manipulation of theoretical concepts inseparable from other, intuitive, less rational processes that possibly comprise all creative acts. More so than ever before, poetry today is an act of language specialists who, as a rule, are fully aware of the instruments utilized in the construction of a poem: theoretical foundations form the basis of the practices of creation, whether in simple manifestoes or in critical texts which accompany the processes of the movements of contemporary poetry. In turn, creative practice ends up washing back through efforts to theorize this work.
The goal of this study is to furnish a theoretical framework for reflections on the pathways taken by experimental poetry in Brazil. At the same time, I hope to suggest that these increasingly intricate formulations might map out their own zone, thereby allowing the method herein elaborated to be applied to other kinds of cultural experimentation. The reader of poetry today all too frequently is confused by a body of material that seems to be little more than a collection of formal exercises that take their origins ex nihilo. I will try to undo this error by showing the inverse: in the apparent chaos of avant-garde Brazilian poetry, there is a backbone that structures a trajectory in the direction of an incorporation of visuality in the poem, a depositing of the poetic function in the visual image.
By "experimental poetry" I understand that kind of poetry which experiments with new procedures of composition, aesthetically valid insofar as they reflect a broader ideological order. Therefore, experimental poetry proposes, even if only subliminally, a transformation of the cultural complex out of which it grows. Clearly, the mere declaration of transgressive principles will not produce a poetry which pretends to be "avant-garde." The objective trait (which causes confrontation) is the "procedure" utilized, understood here as the means whereby signs are concatenated and combined in the body of the poem in order to process the poetic function of the work. Reflecting a new poetic posture, this procedure comes into confrontation with other procedures which manifest the then dominant ideological complex.
One might hypothetically ask if to write an entire book without the use of the letter "a" or to make a poem in which all the words begin with the letter "c" is a "procedure." I would have to answer yes. They are procedures, but useless, banal, sterile ones. A procedure does not serve for much if it merely takes the form of the circus juggler playing with language, but it has value only if it takes the form of a compositional method projected from the semantics themselves of the work from which one can extract aesthetic meaning through examining how its antecedents inform it and the developments which mark these previously created procedures. The aesthetic significance of a work can best be analyzed, therefore, as a real consequence of an experimental procedure.
Exhausted through overuse, today the term "avant-garde" has ended up caricatured through its co-optation by the marketplace, forcing those who want to use the expression to attempt a recuperation of its original meaning of invention and confrontation (which is why I have used the term "experimental"). If we address ourselves specifically to the "visuality" of experimental poetry, we cannot base our reflections on vague, non-technical definitions which explain or define "the poetic" using subjective concepts such as "the beautiful," or "the artistic," not to mention "simple," "lunatic," and suchlike.
"Visual poetry" as a term must be understood in the context of this research. "Image" or "visuality" says nothing about what is produced by verbal language: they have nothing to do with a description of images by words, or, as Ezra Pound would say, with "phanopoeia," or the image visualized by means of the verbal text, as in "ekphrasis" narrative.
As used in this study, "visual poetry" specifically delimits one subdivision of a vast amount of Brazilian poetry produced from the end of the 1960s to our own time. This work has not been treated adequately in the theories of the movements and manifestoes which preceded it. At the same time, I do not want to imply that "visual poetry" characterizes a uniform tendency or movement: in fact, the period mentioned has generated an extremely diversified body of poetry, oftentimes featuring the antagonisms one would expect from such scope.
A discussion of "visuality" must question the concept of "poetry" itself. The critical examination of such a concept (formalized in the question "What is poetry, after all?") tends to devour the questioner. Therefore, from the viewpoint only of the current work, I propose distinguishing between the standard notion of poetry as "a coded articulation" (according to this view, there would be no poetry outside the verbal code) and a second, related notion which amplifies the first to an "articulation of language." This understanding of poetic language would permit the creation of poems also from non-verbal signs. Accordingly, a systematic complex underlies the term, involving the work as a sign articulation, as well as reading, here understood as an exclusive and special semantic-pragmatic decoding of language. Thus, poetry is separated from the visual arts, advertising, billboards, cartoons, and other manifestations that also operate within the field of intersemiosis. Some such understanding of poetry does not attempt an essentialist definition of the term but proposes a theoretical basis for approaching the following question: is poetry possible beyond the verbal sign?
Moreover, if one maintains that such a question can only lead to dogmatic, idiosyncratic answers (such as those given to questions like "Does God exist?" or "Do you like cheese?"), then this would certainly be the last paragraph of my work. But if one accepts the view that there can be an interpenetration of codes and sign systems within what is called "poetry," one can then pass on to the truly central questions of this research: does a "poetics of visuality" exist? In what sense is it possible to speak of a poetry in which the visual-plastic sign exercises a poetic function? (Clearly, this is different from an essentially verbal poetry in which the visual sign exercises a visual-plastic function.)
Visuality, of course, can already be found in the non-versified poetry that preceded the concrete-poetry movement. There are various scattered, historically removed cases of the use of different kinds of visuality, as much in Brazilian as in world poetry. However, in Brazil only experimental contemporary poetry features the constant presence of a theory and critical notes which validate it, giving a founding status to this kind of poetry.
Visuality appears in the gradual disintegration of the poetic verbal system which accompanied modernity. This decomposition leads diachronically to two moments: first, explosion; then implosion.
Explosion begins with the period of rupture with the canons of rhythm and rhyme, giving rise to free and unrhymed verse respectively, as points of origin of a new poetics. These first marks of modernity can be seen in the prose poems of the French symbolists and the literary movements of the beginning of the twentieth century, the aesthetic of which was fixed in Brazil as Modernism with Oswald de Andrade, Mario de Andrade, Manuel Bandeira, and others.
After this phase of the explosion of the rigid schemes governing the construction of verse, verse itself was smashed, eliminating an unexamined linearity of reading. Words were scattered across the page in violation of the linear unity of verse (including, of course, free verse), creating a graphic configuration that previous poetry had not manifested. This phase -- found in Mallarme's "Un coup de des", its distant, isolated progenitor -- is represented in the poems of the futurists, dadaists, and even the surrealists, arriving in Brazil in the early 1950s. Because this kind of work in Brazil, as a rule, retains unaltered verbal syntax while exploiting the full page, I call it "spatialized poetry."
Detecting a crisis in verse and trying to reorder the graphic chaos created by the destruction of linearity, concrete poetry emerges. As such, it inaugurates in Brazil the period of the implosion of the poetic verbal system. Concrete poetry resolves the problem of a spatialized poetry which had directed itself to the center of verbality through partially rupturing verbal syntax. Concrete poems rejoin words by sound similarity in the rational occupation of page space. As that moment of greatest critical reach offered by the then Brazilian avant-garde, concrete poetry prepares the way for a growing presence of visuality. Concretism would terminate by deepening the syntactic implosion, arriving finally at the molecular level itself of verbal discourse, on which the physical word is questioned as the exclusively primary material of the poem.
For these reasons, an analysis of recent Brazilian poetry must begin with concretism. Furthermore, "spatialized" poetry was produced in Brazil by those poets who would later create concrete poetry. "Spatialized poetry," therefore, is a form of "pre-concretism" in Brazil.
The backbone that the present study will try to demonstrate, then, is found in the phenomenon of visuality, the graphic structure of the poem. The story begins with concretism, examines semantic visuality, and focuses on a pragmatics of the image found in the Brazilian "visual poetry" of the last decades. Because this direction is not superficially intelligible and because its formulation is of course open to misunderstanding, I will offer a classification of the compositional procedures of each moment of our experimental poetics. My classification will take as a paradigm the way each moment emphasizes and uses visuality, shown in both discussions of theory and examination of actual poems. Such an operation will necessarily cause us to undervalue other, no less important elements of the poems and tendencies, which take a secondary position in the context of tracing a trajectory of visuality.
Thus, poems will be treated here as examples of procedures, suffering some degree of mutilation with regard to their other dimensions. My classificatory scheme has its value, therefore, not in elucidating individual poems but primarily in offering a useful approach to larger aesthetic questions through formulating directions which they manifest. Any panoramic overview can be accused of being reductionist from the viewpoint of its application to any given individual work.
For this reason, my classification of procedures must never be seen as a definitive evaluation of the aesthetic qualities of a given poem. Classification here does not imply a value judgment about the poem. From the viewpoint of the changing line which the poem reflects because of its use by the critical classificatory scheme, this does not mean it is a bad poem. By the same token, just because the scheme makes it possible to classify a particular poem, this in no way implies this poem has some value as an isolated work of art. These are not my positive classificatory preoccupations. I freely acknowledge that my analysis strategically privileges certain elements or tendencies to the apparent detriment of the individual criticism of poems.
The choice of examples was governed by my intention to make as explicit as possible each of the procedures detailed, to illustrate them through their incorporation in the poems. A mini-anthology is offered of the different tendencies of visuality as well as for recent "currents" in Brazilian poetry. Here poems are not being critiqued, but a poetics is being suggested -- not the isolated work but its significance in an evolution of our poetry.
I have focused on this issue because it is important that the following study not be taken as yet one more anxiety-ridden academic classification. I would rather my reflections be seen as a diachronic organization of contemporary Brazilian poetry, indicating avenues and suggesting solutions to the problems that appear with each new cultural wave.
Language is in a state of permanent revolution. It seeks to register and reflect the complex ideology of a period of profound social and cultural transformation. Experimental poetry is sensitive to and structured by this historical conjunction of forces, echoing the turbulence and frenetic mutability of our times and turning its influence back upon these times.
I have tried to show the course of contemporary Brazilian poetry -- from spatialized pre-concrete poetry to manifestations of "visual poetry" -- over a period that includes forty years of poetic production. This course was analyzed from the point of view of a dominant of this poetry: the incorporation of visuality, begun in the typographic explosion of spatialized poems; to the measured and structural spatialization of concretism; to semiotic poetry with its wordless poems with lexical keys naming a geometric form; to process-poem, which deposits its poetic value in the syntax of non-semanticized visuality; finishing with an analysis of the until now untheorized production of "visual poetry," which I divided into three tendencies -- collage-poem, package-poem, and montage poem. Although I formulated that tripartite division of contemporary Brazilian poetry, one can apply the classification to international poetry today, especially that generally called "visual poetry." As I said in my introduction to the catalogue which accompanied the I International Exhibition of Visual Poetry of Sao Paulo (1988), "A Typological Approach towards Visual Poetry," I had the occasion to analyze the international production of experimental poetry today (almost 400 poets from 36 countries) and concluded that collage-poem, package-poem, and montage- or intersign-poem are divisions with which we can understand the trends of "visual poetry" all over the world at the end of the century.
Among the tendencies of visual poetry we observed how collage-poem, by the "de-syntax" of its deconstruction, privileges the graphic aspect of signs, rarefying the semantic level, approximating, as process poem, the graphic arts, distancing itself from the poetic function of language. In package-poem we found a poetry in which visuality is invariably the figuration of the verbal text itself, situating itself at the limits of verbal poetry. In montage-poem the poetic function is indebted as much to the word as to visual images, both of which produce the syntactic composition motivated by verbal signs, containing both planes of expression within a semantics of visuality created in the pragmatics of interpretation. Physical independence from the word, and semantic autonomy are elements that prefigure this actuation of visual signs. Thus, I have suggested the term "visual poetry" for this last tendency. Therefore, reading the trajectory of experimental poetry from the viewpoint of this distinctive and dominant aspect of its aesthetic (the programmatic incorporation of visuality), we can uncover an evolutionary line in the center of this poetics. This line initiates a visuality as structure of the verbal (concrete poetry), becoming visuality as syntax of pure visual-plastic forms (semiotic poetry and process-poem), resulting finally in a semanticized visuality of the intersign montage poem. Such poetry integrates and totalizes the sensory aspects of plasticity and the interpretant level of readings of signifieds immanent in the visual image, articulated with verbal signs.
These three stages denote the interpenetration which visuality was establishing with verbality: in visuality as structure, it results from the verbal sign, its arrangement in the page space. In visuality as syntax, perhaps in the unconscious desire to liberate visuality from its "verbal prison," it was radicalized by the extreme opposite, suppressing the word and not achieving with visual signs alone a recuperation of the semantics lost in this absence of the verbal (hence semiotic poetry and process-poem). In the semanticized visuality of intersign poetry, we have the synthesis of this dialectical process of attraction and repulsion between word and image in the course of contemporary experimental poetry.
This evolutionary direction shows us how the incorporation of visuality tends to filter the poetic function itself into the signs in the visual system. The poetic function before was typically found only in the duality of the word as sign endowed as both signifier and signified, surface and depth, expression and content. If we understand the poetic function as a reversion from the plane of contents to the materiality of the level of expression, revitalizing the initially arbitrary and conventional relation by the creation of motivation between them (capable of being achieved by the montage syntax which produces semantic meanings), we see that the incorporation by signs of the visual system happened through their receiving the faculty of developing in themselves this function. This semantic level should not be confused with the simple observation of denotative elements of the image, the common mistake of educated, "content-oriented" culture. In poetry, the visual image possesses not only the denotative signified of the object to which it refers (mostly if the image is figurative). On the contrary, also in montage poems endowed with the poetic function, the sign object distance is amplified in order to curtail the sign interpretant separation (in the Peircean sense) or the sign sensible chain . . . Visuality becomes integrated in the poem as an element in which the poetic function is unfolded, extrapolated from the limits of its retinal, visual-plastic expressivity, or from its representative, figurative function.
This introduction of visuality into the sphere of the poetic function disarticulates the divisions among languages, sectioned up and individualized by the ideological system to reflect the conception of the world. This disarticulation is not absolutely intended by the processes of multimedia and interdisciplinarity: these, on the contrary, produce a reinvigoration of the parts, disguising them in an experimental mess where each sign is kept within the limits of its semiotic nature; they share the same space but do not blend or fuse. The nature of signs (visual, verbal, or sound) determines -- even though these are multimedia and interdisciplinary processes -- their function within the system of languages. In intersign montage poetry, the disarticulation is given by the deprivileging of the nature of sign in order to consider as central the question of the functions of language. Thus, what determines language (poetic in this case) is not the nature of the sign (if this is verbal, visual, or sound), but the function it exercises. What defines language of poetry is the poetic function that can be produced by words and also by visual signs, in the case of intersign poetry. Thus words, evacuated of their semantic aspect, can realize graphic work, as collage-poem proves.
A final conclusion should be elaborated through the questions raised by the cinema. From its first years, cinematographic language was revealed as a hybrid, where various functions are present, including the poetic. But the predominance of the narrative aspect (inherent to the temporal discourse of film) and the strong capacity (heritage of photography) to "thematize" reality and the life it animates make the cinema realize an "intersign prose." From its comparison with intersign montage poetry, a glaring fracture appeared in the totalizing way of experimental poetry: the loss of the sound aspect. The significant density which the visual image achieved ended up banishing sound from poems.
Of the three divisions we established of "visual poetry," the matrix of sonority is found strong only in package-poem. This fact, however, is explained by the essentially verbal nature of this poetry, which sometimes recuperated the structure of sound reverberation of Noigandres concretism, and other times it was manifest in a poetry in which verse and discursivity were important. Consequently, sonority remains bound to the pronunciation of the text, to the discursive syntax of such poetry. The sound dimension of these poems reveals no semantic autonomy or formal independence of visuality as over against the verbal, such as we have in intersign montage poetry.
To reiterate, this new poetic visuality brings with it a neglect of the dimension of sound. Thus, sound seems to be the next problem for experimental poetry in its undeclared project: the verbal, the visual, and sound reunited in a joint production inflected by the poetic function: (a) visuality not as the figurality of the word and (b) sonority not as the oralization of the word. The problem of visuality is thus resolved by the intersign montage poem. Sonority, however, remains, for the utopian project of a totalizing poetics moving to gather up all kinds of signs pertinent to it.
By nature, sound does not show semanticization, does not possess conceptual signifieds, but when it is the sound of the verbal sign itself (and then its signifieds are those of the verbal sign). This is due to the fact that sound, contrary to figurative images, does not possess an object to which it can be referred and for which it can be substituted, being a finished example of the Peircean icon (with the exception of indexical sound which denotes the object it produces). To locate for poetry the problem of finding some autonomous signified (such as the visual image in intersign poetry) -- projecting a semantics of sound -- is a task of unpredictable yet certainly fruitful consequence. In the poem, a montage of sound with image and word finds its first difficulty in the conflicting nature of sound itself, which calls for a time lapse in order to be made explicit; visuality, generally static, is not discursive but atemporal. In the cinema, such a difference disappears because the image also is in movement and therefore creates the illusion of the passing of time.
We can glimpse the possibility of a series of experiences where sound is projected through material utilized to make the poem, which uses some of the sound potentialities of paper (different kinds of paper and various ways of paper being handled). The poem even leaves the page. Thus, the manipulation of the poetic object has the clear and specific function of producing a sound that interferes with the general semantics of the work, and not the ethereal and subjective "signification" of neoconcretism.
Again, the example of the cinema should help. There are cases in which the counterpoint of image and spoken word ends up semanticizing sonority, whether it be expressed in music or noises. This is the case in films like Alain Resnais's "Last Year in Marienbad," where the separation of oralization from the speaker, and the sinuous discourse passing over the baroque environment, produce the exact sensation of the labyrinth of memory that leads to confusion between past and present, fiction and reality, text and context. Another example would be Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," where the sound of the Strauss waltz transforms the coupling of the space craft with the mother ship in space, in a circular dance in the famous long sequence of the film. In its montage with image, music can change the interpretable meanings and the signifieds initially generated only by reading the words.
The project of a totalizing poetry embracing sound, visual, and verbal signs vitalized by one function (the poetic) is captured in this last question, the solution to which should accompany the tendency of de-compartmentalizing languages in a kind of sign socialization where the term "avant-garde" recuperates its original acceptation of opening up, experimentation, and confrontation with the ruling system in the field of the manifestations of language and, consequently, of the ideas, values, and habits (including sensibility itself) as structural bases of the dominant ideological complex.
Copyright © 1995 by Philadelpho Menezes
Edited and translated by Harry Polkinhorn
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