Foreword: australian poetry journal 3.2 #concrete

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 10.05.39 amIn everyday scale, a letter of the alphabet is usually no bigger than a freckle or an iris, and a word is not much wider than a thumbnail. The tiny components of written language are rendered almost invisible to us in our race to extract all-important ‘meaning’. But in concrete poetry, language stands in our way: letters and words fight – through scale or arrangement – for visibility. As Roberto Simanowski puts it: ‘concrete poetry deals with the relation between the visible form and the intellectual substance of words’. It is visual, he says, because it ‘adds the optical gesture of the word to its semantic meaning’. As a consequence, concrete poems ask readers to look simultaneously ‘at’ and ‘through’ language.

Some poems make a performance of typography. John Warwicker’s design for ‘In the Belly of Saint Paul’ – replete with stylish ornaments, discretionary ligatures and mimetic kerning – would seem to validate psychologist Kevin Larson’s 2006 finding that an aesthetic typeface can elevate our mood (it can also increase creativity and cognitive focus for a period after viewing). Jordanian calligraphic artist Ibrahim Abu Touq depicts a poem by 12th century Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi; while the late Cornelis Vleeskens (whose work has rarely appeared in editions greater than a handful) appears to reference Japanese calligraphy, though the spill of Roman letters doesn’t quite add up to a word. Extracted from his series of concrete anagrams, Christian Bök’s ‘Odalisque 02’ employs the 21 components of letterforms – serifs, spurs, ascenders and so on – as brushstrokes to evoke the female figure within a fractured alphabet; while Ken Kempson’s ‘Saint Poet Quoted’ uses the single inverted-comma to illustrate a field of infinite quotation.

Chris Edwards, Toby Fitch and Pascalle Burton reveal that quotation is frequently the stuff of concrete poems. Edwards’s After Naptime, an extract from a 12-scene ante-narrative about a trip to a haunted lighthouse, retains traces of Dickens’s David Copperfield and Bleak House and Dennis Cooper’s ‘The Anal-Retentive Line Editor’ and snips images from Ward, Lock & Co.’s Great Inventors and Lawrence Lessing’s DNA: At the Core of Life Itself. Fitch’s ‘Missing Scène(s)’ presents as a redacted poem but is, the author says, a mistranslated inversion of Rimbaud’s ‘Scènes’. In contrast, Burton’s poème trouvé makes no mystery of its source: the physical object of H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon.

Not surprisingly several of the poets here are also practitioners in the visual and plastic arts. The original artwork for Angela Gardner’s ‘A Quiet Voice’ is a watercolour on Chinese concertina-folded paper, and Nancy Campbell’s ‘How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic’ is made from hand-printed pochoir and letterpress. Campbell’s full sequence comprises 12 words: one for each letter of the Greenlandic alphabet, although here we present only six. (In case you are wondering, ‘asavakkit’ is how Greenlanders declare their love.) Visual poems by pete spence and Eryk Wenziak explore a zone of indeterminacy but retain an affiliation with language that prevents their work from stepping over into objects. Elsewhere Cecilia White and John Selenitsch eschew ink and paper to sculpt poems out of marble, wood and Perspex for the gallery floor.

In criticism, π.o. shines the spotlight on legendary performance-poet Jas H. Duke – a big-boned fan of rounded sound, who reportedly once ate a page of Yeats while reciting a poem, and whom π.o. says is Australia’s only Dadaist poet of any note. Alison Clifton looks at recent poetry collections to flirt with text and image: Marionette: A Biography of Miss Marion Davies, Jessica Wilkinson’s biography of silver-screen siren Marion Davies, and Fitch’s Rawshock, accompanied by homonymic Rorschach inkblots. Selenitsch gives a fascinating run-down of the development of concrete poetry from an Antipodean perspective and identifies Alan Riddell – Townsville-born poet and editor of the classic anthology Typewriter Art – as a precursor to the art form in Australia. To accompany his essay we offer a selection of classic Australian concrete poems, courtesy of the 2013 Born to Concrete exhibition (which inspired this special issue) curated by the Heide Museum of Modern Art and University of Queensland Art Museum. In ‘Heartheart’ poet and installation artist Richard Tipping contributes an essay that chronicles his 40-year fascination with circle poems and poem squares, while Martin Duwell rounds out the issue with a look at Clive James’s new translation of Dante, paying his respects to the Inferno’s resplendent architecture and dramatic portraits and noting that the sign above the Gates of Hell has been changed.



  1. a says:

    First of all I would like to say great blog!
    I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing.
    I have had difficulty clearing my mind in getting my ideas out.
    I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost just trying
    to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints?


    • bronwynlea says:

      Hi Sherrill, unless inspiration hits hard it’s normal (at least for me) to have a warm-up period – I try to think of it not as a waste but as part of the process. I think regularity is the key, not that this is always easy. Happy writing, Bronwyn

  1. […] Cecilia White and more. It is a visual word feast edited by Bronwyn Lea. Bronwyn has posted the Foreword on her website and I am particularly fond of her comment ‘concrete poems ask readers to look […]

  2. […] It is a tribute to the quality and readability of Bronwyn Lea’s poetry that a selection of her work forms the second volume in the new George Braziller series (edited by Paul Kane), which aims to introduce contemporary Australian poets to American readers. True to lyric poetry, Lea’s poems are musical in their composition, and they can be intimate in their subject matter. However, Lea’s work is never just about crafting agreeable verse, and it is never just about her personal experience. What makes Lea’s poetry so striking and meaningful is its acknowledgement of a wider and worldly context: historical, geographical, biological, political. In fact, Lea’s poetry might be said to enact an ironic rejection of the claustrophobic potential of autobiographical verse by continually fleeing from it to something else. This might be typical of contemporary post-Romantic poetry generally, though in Lea’s poetry—highlighting the importance of gender to the work—that flight is often symbolised by the rejection of the trappings of romantic love for a liberating movement into ‘a vantage point … a vista’ (as we read in ‘Driving into Distance’). This makes Lea’s work reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s restless verse, with Dickinson’s presence apparent in the exquisite poem ‘Insufficient Knowledge.’  Continue reading → […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: