2. Visual Poetry: Confluence of Languages

Visual poetry, a synthesis of centuries of poetic experimentation (recall the poems of Simias of Rhodes and Theocritus of Syracuse, around 300 AD), reaches an unusual point of development at the beginning of the 1950s. At that point we see its "expressionist" bent, which derives directly from French lettrism and, prior, from the "words in liberty" of the futurist Marinetti. Also, there is the "concretist" bent, derived from the visual concretism of the School of Ulm (Max Bill) and, earlier, from the abstract-geometric movement De Stijl, above all, Mondrian.

Much freer and less preoccupied with structure, the first tendency in many cases downplays the very semanticity of language, arriving at a sole privileging of the plasticity of the minimal units, that is to say, letters. The second tendency is much more rigorous, above all in its first stage; it causes space and verbality to coincide in a unique structure of semantic interrelation. Only with the appearance of the semiotic poem could words be substituted by forms, but mediated by lexical keys. Then the Process/Poem movement (1968) (see chapter 3c) totally liquidated this dependency. In this formal aspect, visual poetry, stemming from lettrism, had already freed itself of signification, although in general the forms it utilized were letters next to other visual elements.

In Latin America these currents are consolidated around 1968 with the first exhibitions of "New Poetry" (thus was named visual poetry at that time) organized by Edgardo Antonio Vigo in Argentina and by Clemente Padin in Uruguay, and above all by the experimental-poetic work that had been published much earlier by the network of alternative magazines of the time: Diagonal Cero and Hexágono 71 published by Vigo in Argentina; Signos by Samuel Feijóo in Cuba; La Pata de Palo published by Dámaso Ogaz in Venezuela; Ediciones Mimbre in Chile by the graphic artist Guillermo Deisler; Ponto, Totem, and Processo published by Joaquim Branco and Wlademir Dias-Pino in Brazil; and Los Huevos del Plata and OVUM 10 published by Clemente Padin in Uruguay. Today, at the beginning of the 1990s, the theme has been reborn, above all furthered by the Mexican poets of the Nucleo Post-Arte group, coordinated by César Espinosa, who have already sponsored two International Biennials of Visual and Experimental Poetry (1985/86 and 1987/88), and by the movement that is being pushed forward by the poet Philadelpho Menezes in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who has organzied the first International Show of Visual Poetry in 1988, together with a significant symposium which brought together the most important creators and critics in this medium from all over the world.

Perhaps the major characterization of visual poetry we owe to the Uruguayan critic and poet Nicteroi Argañaraz, who, in his book Uruguayan Visual Poetry (Montevideo: 1986), says, ". . . visual poetry is poetry to be seen. . . This type of poetry incorporates a series of elements (visual) external to those canons of traditional poetry and proper to other expressive forms. It is not limited only to the verbal, and, in this sense, it represents an extension of the possibilities of traditional poetry. . . Visual poetry experiments in diverse levels with the relations among words and images and bases its results on a unique context. For this reason, its grammar (in the structural sense) is not exclusively verbal nor exclusively visual, but is inter-semiotic." It is precisely this "inter-semioticity" which relates visual poetry to proposals of the conceptualist movement that created a multiple space in which languages give up being privileged one over the others (the "intermedia" of Fluxus art or the "multimedia" defined by the North American critic and poet Dick Higgins). This de-hierarchization of the languages reflects the clearly democratic and participatory sense of the new poetic tendencies. Art (in this case "literary" or "experimental-poetic") stops being a passive mirror in which are reflected the social relations privileging the old primacies of one language over others or the concepts of "good/bad" or their derivative "beautiful/ugly," which reproduce the relations of the social sphere by allowing someone or some institution to exercise the cultural "dictate" in one more manifestation of ideological repression.

Thus, the spectator or "reader" of visual poetry is in a situation of genuine relationship with the work through his knowledge and through the elements that this contributes, making real his option to decide whether or not it has living value for him, without pre-established judgements or impositions of any kind. This attitude of poetic experimentalism has generated new languages, valuable and genuine in themselves, which are related to the rest of the creative processes that conceptualism ushered in: performance, video, installations, mail art, street actions, etc. (expressions in which it is not unusual to find visual poems). At the same time, on encouraging the spectator to discover the information for himself, participation was offered, which did away with the paternalism of the "unique genius" creator, expression of the domination of some by others.

Go to gallery for this chapter.

Go to contents page of Clemente Padin's Art and People.

Copyright © 1997 by Clemente Padin.

Return to Light and Dust Poets.

Light and Dust @ Grist Mobile Anthology of Poetry
in cooperation with Atticus Press.