Tug, fug, chug, glug — such are the rhyming words used by the writer and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay in “Poem with 3 Stripes,” one of his earliest collage booklets and a playful example of concrete poetry. The book, published around 1963, speaks to Finlay’s interest in tooting tugboats, which in turn reflects his fascination with the sounds of words regardless of their meaning. That emphasis on sound, coupled with the effect of how letters appear as printed graphics, were primary concerns of the makers of concrete poetry, which emerged in the 1950s as an international movement out of South America and Europe.
Finlay’s book is one of a series of concrete poems acquired by the Getty Research Institute (GRI) earlier this month, by the Scottish artist as well as Brazilian poet Augusto de Campos. As the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary collections, Nancy Perloff, told Hyperallergic, “Concrete poems are material objects constructed of component parts that can include letters, words, phonemes, syllables, and typefaces. By rejecting traditional syntax and utilizing graphic space for both structure and meaning, concrete poets made the sound and shape of words their explicit field of investigation. Concrete poetry made language visible.”
GRI also acquired Finlay’s “4 Sails” (1968), a poem of just four lines printed on folded, bright yellow paper in a form that bring to mind the lines of a simplified sailboat. His series The Blue and the Brown Poems features minimal text coupled with dramatic typography to demonstrate how the meaning of words shifts depending on context. Published as a large folio calendar in 1968, the complete series contains a dozen poems, including “Ho/Horizon/On,” which visually dissects the word “horizon” and results in a piece shaped like a pyramid.
One of the principal founders of the movement, de Campos first approached concrete poetry with a manual, labor-intensive process, Perloff said, using individual carbon sheets to create colored letters and words for his pieces. His dedication to careful arrangements is evident in one of GRI’s acquisitions, “Linguaviagem,” a poem on a long sheet of paper that folds into a cube, with each side showcasing just three letters of the word. Folding the cube poem in certain ways thus yields different readings, from “linguagem,” or “language,” to “viagem,” or “voyage,” to “lingua,” or “tongue.”
Although separated by an ocean, de Campos and Finlay became acquainted in 1960 and corresponded with one another. The new acquisitions of their work will come together in GRI’s forthcoming exhibition Concrete Poetry: Words and Sounds in Graphic Space, featuring over 100 works by such poets as Henri Chopin, Ernst Jandl, Mary Ellen Solt, and Emmett Williams. On view through July 30, the show will examine the foundational years of the postwar movement, focusing on how poets experimented with different elements of their art, like wordplay and the three-dimensional forms on which their playful writings have been preserved over time.
Concrete Poetry: Words and Sounds in Graphic Space opens at the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles) on March 28.