There appears to have been an explosion of concrete poetry in Edinburgh over the autumn months, in the form of talks, discussions and exhibitions. Last month I started taking an evening class at Edinburgh University in experimental poetry forms, mainly concrete and found poetry. I have had no previous experience with either of these forms, and suddenly they are appearing all over the city in which I live.
Found poetry has been, so far, a highly enjoyable experience for me, it’s a kind of linguistic collage, it can turn your surroundings, the books you read, the signs you see, into something new. You are able once again to take a childish delight in discovering the world around you. That is not to say that it is easy, it can be extremely challenging, but I would recommend at least trying it once to every aspiring poet. It improves your observation, stretches you imagination, and insists on you exploring new ways to find meaning.
Concrete poetry on the other hand I have found much more difficult. Firstly I was not able to work out if it really is poetry, or if it is visual art. I came to the conclusion that it was definitely a type of art, however, could it be poetry at the same time? It stretches my traditional ideas of what a poem is. But that always been the part of the point of anything new, to make us question our assumptions? I found myself wondering if my definition of what a poem was is too narrow minded? Am I open enough to new ideas? or am I following blindly in a rut worn by generations? These are still questions I am contemplating.
One of the first things that put me off concrete poetry was that fact that a lot of it appears to be self consciously clever and lacking in emotional resonance. I have always considered poems to be difficult linguistic puzzles, for which there could be several right answers or none at all, and definitely many wrong answers, with few rules to explain the game. The concrete poem takes this to a higher level. At first many of them appeared little better than word searches with the extra letters taken out. When the class were shown one of the floral poems of Mary Ellen Solt, and while most of them cooed over it I just could not bring myself to join in.
However my opinion has started to change particularly thanks to one poem by Ian Hamilton Finlay. One example of which is shown above and is currently on display at the Scottish Poetry Library. At first this may just look like a jumble of words. However I would encourage anyone who feels that way to spend a little more time with it. By using shape and colour Finlay has manged to subvert all our assumptions about what a poem is. This poem by passes the intellect that we are so used to using when reading poetry and speaks purely to our instinct, our heart, our innate knowledge of the world.
Another of the strengths of concrete poetry is its accessibility. It was, and still is, a truly international movement. Thanks to its simplicity I have been able to read poems in Spanish and Japanese (I feel the form is very suited the Japanese), something I would have never been able to do before with a more traditional form, without years of language lessons.
I feel that my exploration into concrete poetry will certainly influence my work, the shape of my words is something I will be much more conscious of. It has been really exciting, and very challenging to be introduced to forms I had never known about previously. Not only will it strengthen my work, but it has also stimulated me to ask some important questions about my assumptions and beliefs surrounding poetry.
For more about concrete poetry in and around the city of Edinburgh check out the SPLs listings.