Talking about visual/concrete poetry

I wanted to respond to derek beaulieu’s winnipeg suite (discussed earlier), without too much analysis, primarily because the people whom I dream of encountering poetry are people who don’t necessarily possess that language. However, I have read beaulieu’s “an afterword after words: notes toward a concrete poetic” which you’ll find on ubu listed alphabetically. Among other things, the essay acknowledges (laments?) the lack of critical language to talk about concrete poetry, while providing some useful tools at the same time. Ubu being the comprehensive resource it is, you will also find many of the texts referred to in the essay itself on the site.

One thing I was comforted by is the notion that this work does not require a “close reading,” which I took to mean that it was fine if I showed up ready and willing to engage, whatever I came up with. But when the author states that he is opposed to the reward system around the activity of close reading, I began to worry. All well and good to resist simplistic readings, or systems of reward, but not to urge close reading? Aren’t we supposed to be urging folks to look closer? Don’t we want people to have strong critical and visual language, to think and interact creatively? But no, I think that the resistance to close reading is a resistance to commodified language, and to specific ways of reading, to specific meaning, not to looking, but rather perhaps that which is too easily ingested.

Now those aren’t the same things it seems to me, but I’m willing to accept this premise for the moment and try not to feel stupid for seeing the work so literally. And I feel it’s important to do this, to be public about our not knowing, our engaging, our trying out new ways of thinking and writing and being. People are so busy trying to be an expert at something they get defended, they dig in, and especially as practitioners and instructors of poetry I think it’s a good idea for us to be put in the position of reader, of the one responding publicly, the gristly muscle of our minds put to the task for all to see.

“Concrete poetry,” beaulieu writes, “momentarily rejects the idea of the readerly reward for close reading, the idea of the ‘hidden or buried object,'” which it is argued interrupts the “capitalist structure of language.” He also discusses the value of silence, though I think not in the sense that Sontag means in this essay (which I also love), though it also resists the idea of commodity, or poetry as commodity, which after all is the most ironic result of the MFA industry. The silence that beaulieu describes however is a “poetics of disgust.” The poem, in this case the concrete poem offers what Sianne Ngai terms “our most common effective response to capitalism & patriarchy.” Thus the concrete poem is an interruption of value exchange, and on a practical level it offers a moment of silence for those who might acknowledge the passing of meaning.




There is something radical in that.

There’s a lot to bat around in this essay, and I urge you to do so. But as I said, showing up to the page and being open to it should prove satisfying enough. You might not appreciate the breaking down of structures that has occurred in concrete poetry since the 50s however, if you don’t read the essay, and that was something I found fascinating. And a scan through Shift & Switch bears this out: beaulieu’s entry rubbed away, Matthew Hollett’s “Rabbit Track Alphabet,” just as you might imagine, even Rob Read’s Heiroglyphs, which I thought might elude such distinction, fits. Though, Read’s pieces more than any of the others, resemble the corporate logo (which most of us can apparently identify 1,000 of, but only a handful of local plants and/or trees).

And that last statement might be what sells me on the value of such experiences: if the spectator feels a moment of shock when encountering a concrete poem, it isn’t the worst that can happen in a day…is it? In fact, perhaps it’s the best.