'You can say everything in four pages; in four pages I can explain the world', claimed the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé to a friend around the time he was writing his masterpiece 'Un Coup de Dés' (A Throw of the Dice, 1897). He miscalculated slightly. With its broken lines, free-falling spacings and different font sizes, the work ended up being all of ten pages long. And it's fair to say that the isolated images of abyssal depths, shipwrecks, waves, dice and constellations that made up this bold experiment in verse didn't really explain anything. Instead, the poem created a new world of its own, using the visual space of the page to add another dimension to the effects of the words.
Graphic designers, signwriters and advertisers have long recognized the importance of how language looks. But poets, who usually like to weave as much magic into words as possible, have traditionally concentrated on the sound of verse - its rhymes, rhythms and cadences - rather than on its visual aspect. You have to delve into some fairly neglected corners to find poems that actively encourage the reader to stop and stare at them. Such works have barely been defined, and there are a variety of names describing a myriad of slightly different forms: pattern poem, calligram, technopaegnion, visual poem, concrete poem. Whatever you call them, they make up an age-old, if unacknowledged, current of literary history.
In the early years of the 20th century visual poetry surfaced more strongly than ever before, intersecting at some point with nearly every avant-garde artistic movement from Futurism to Fluxus. In a Parisian newspaper of 1914 Guillaume Apollinaire published some playful poems whose lines were arranged pictorially to mimic their subject: looped into circles and curves to represent a fountain or slanting vertically down the page like rainfall. Ezra Pound took many creative cues from his love of the Chinese language and its ideograms, and tried to organize his Cantos partly along visual principles. Another American, e.e. cummings, an artist as well as a writer, explored skilful fusions of word and image, stretching both the sound and the shape of his poems.
The self-proclaimed 'Concrete Poetry' scene finally arrived in the 1950s with a flurry of ambitious manifestos hailing simultaneously from several unlikely corners of the globe. Two of the main players, Eugen Gomringer from Switzerland and Decio Pignatari from Brazil, both came up with the term 'concrete' to describe their poems independently (as did the Swede Öyvind Fahlström). They met in 1955, the year the international movement, which had many other contingents and practitioners from far and wide, is said to have been born. Concrete Poetry went on to have its worldwide heyday in the 1960s before disappearing off the map once more. All the utopian mission statements made for this 'universal poetry' seem faintly poignant today, when it is so hard to find many of these works in print.
One of the best places to read and look at the legacy of the concrete poets, and to see new work, is UbuWeb (www.ubu.com). Started in 1996, it's a huge site, containing a fairly comprehensive collection of visual and sound poetry, as well as an archive of the admittedly scanty critical writings on the subject. Kenneth Goldsmith, UbuWeb's founder, initially launched the space as a home for this 'displaced genre in search of a new medium', by scanning in as many out-of-print visual texts as he could find. It has to be said that many of these poems, with their concern for the physical materials of language and for absolute economy of expression, have taken to this format extremely well. With hindsight, perhaps they were actually a little out of place on paper.
As readers, we're generally used to scanning sentences merely for their content (and, with poetry, maybe enjoying the music of words a little as well). As a result, much of the work here short-circuits conventional appreciation. What, for instance, should we make of Gomringer's 'Ping-Pong' (1960): just those two words arranged in a small splayed grid of alternating patterns? Or Aram Saroyan's notorious 'Eyeye' (1968), apparently created by accident and even more minimal, consisting of those two stuttering syllables alone? One concrete poet, Pierre Garnier, has suggested that 'literature [...] has become a sort of film projected in the brain at an increasing speed'. With these object-poems the usual sequence of images seems to stall unnervingly. You can't sit back and enjoy the show.
Needless to say, visual poetry, well before the fashion for concrete poems, has always been given a frosty reception by the literary establishment. On UbuWeb you can find examples of early pattern poems going back to Simias of Rhodes from around 300BC, as well as Latin verbal mazes tracing in outline the sacred shape of the cross. The English poet George Herbert picked up on this ancient tradition with his patterned 'Easter Wings' (1633), only to be lambasted by Thomas Hobbes. Other figures such as Michel de Montaigne, John Dryden, Samuel Butler and Joseph Addison have all taken time out at some stage to give what Ben Jonson once disparagingly termed 'a pair of scissors and a comb in verse' yet another critical kicking.
Perhaps it's all a question of context - one that the Scottish poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay helps to answer by literally positioning his work in unique spaces that force you to see it on its own terms. Having made 'straight' concrete poems such as his brilliant, brightly coloured 'Poster Poem' (1964) in blue, red and black letters, he soon went one further and began sculpting three-dimensional words out of glass, real concrete, stone and other materials. Unlike many of the manifesto-drafting concretists of the 1950s and 1960s, the explanation he offers for his way of working is refreshingly simple: 'If these poems are for "contemplating", let them be made with that intention, and let them be sited where they can be contemplated.' His starkly eloquent defence of visual verse is just as hard to argue with. 'If I was asked, "Why do you like concrete poetry?", I could truthfully answer, "Because it is beautiful".