Beyond Words: Experimental Poetry & the Avant-Garde

Friday, August 30, 2019 to Sunday, December 15, 2019
So I judge a poem’s importance, if it is obviously as well conceived as possible, if it is also the most perfect, but above all if it was capable of joining together man and poet, … of becoming flesh and blood, movement and gesture, word and speech, if it knew beauty and started to sing, knew all the possibilities and contained them all (all that which in the end we call spirit) in order to be and remain, departed from out of chaos, the last writing. Only then is it a poem …
Henri Chopin, 1960
Words are at the heart and soul of poetry. Whether summoned in hours of deep contemplation, snatched from momentary flashes of inspiration, or allowed to tumble out freely in the absence of conscious intervention, words combine to give a poem shape and substance: in the mind, the voice, on the page. From traditional lines of alexandrine verse to the latest experimental forms, they remain the essential element, carriers of sense, sound, cadence, meaning. So what is poetry beyond words?
The works in this exhibition challenge us to ask that question. How? Not necessarily by leaving words behind, though some of them certainly do this too. Lettrist hypergraphies blast the written word to bits. Not even vowels and consonants are safe in Gil Wolman’s megapneumies, or the cri-rythmes of François Dufrêne, or the recording sessions of Henri Chopin. But in most cases words abound, giving shape and substance to nearly all the compositions of experimental poetry here on display. Just as words have always done in poetry? Not quite. Even when they seem to make up the entire poem, words are by no means the only (or often even the primary) compositional element. Typography, layout, color (of ink or paint), even the material supports on which these words appear (paper, canvas, wood, iron, magnetic tape, to name a few) all come into play. But don’t such elements belong to words? Aren’t they simply part of them, an incidental part at that, subordinate but necessary for words to take concrete physical form and hence be read or heard? Well, no. Typography, layout, ink, material supports may be necessary for words to appear on a page, but they can also be deployed for other purposes, even at cross purposes, striking out at words, challenging their sense, altering or entirely subverting their meaning. By taking them up as compositional elements in their own right, experimental poets and artists of the avant-garde ask us to explore possibilities for creative expression in the purely visual, aural, tactile qualities of physical media. They ask us to look beyond words.
The range and diversity of experimental poetry is breathtaking. For more than a century now, the drive to uncover expressive potential in the nonverbal, physical side of the poetic medium has swept across continents and oceans, from Europe to America, Brazil to Japan, giving rise to new movements, forms, and genres along the way. Much as Cubists and Post-Impressionists set the stage for a revolution in modern art by exploring the flatness of the canvas and the physical qualities of paint, experiments with the raw material of printing, handwriting, and (later) voice and sound recording opened the door to a new understanding of poetry by altering perceptions of the nature and properties of language and its media. In fact, the two revolutions were deeply intertwined. Collage, montage, juxtaposition, superimposition, the inclusion of sculptural and performative aspects, found material, film, video, and sound, the predilection for mixed media in general are all common to contemporary art and experimental poetry today. So much so that the line between them, blurry from the start, seems increasingly difficult to draw. In both cases, ripples sent out by explosions at the turn of the twentieth century continue to widen. There’s no telling when or where they will end.
Beyond Words explores just a small part of this vast universe. Giving little more than a brief nod to the revolutionary work and significance of the historical avant-garde, the exhibition focuses almost exclusively on postwar Continental Europe. Even here, vital contributions from Eastern Europe are largely absent, despite the intimate ties that linked experimental poets on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Connections to British, American, and Japanese allies are likewise lost. Most conspicuous of all, the Brazilian concrete poets make only a cameo appearance, and primarily in the role of foils, their massive and global impact on experimental poetry and the postwar avant-garde notwithstanding. Such omissions are glaring. Without collaboration of like-minded artists around the world, the creative expanse of visual and sound poetry within postwar Europe itself is hardly imaginable. A glance at exhibition programs or the pages of avant-garde reviews such as Cinquième Saison, Ou, De Tafelronde, and Lotta Poetica suffices to see the importance Europeans placed on maintaining these global networks at the time. The choice to focus on works from the Continent—and on France, Belgium, and Italy in particular—obscures much that was essential to their composition and meaning. But it also leaves room to explore at least some intricacies of artists and movements that by and large still remain unfamiliar even to connoisseurs of postwar experimental poetry. The works of Isidore Isou, Maurice Lemaître, Gil Wolman, and François Dufrêne provide opportunity to consider the defining role of Lettrism and its various offshoots, relegated to the margins of many existing narratives, in shaping battles over visual and sound poetry in the 1950s and ‘60s. The crucial alliances of Paul de Vree, first with Henri Chopin and later with Sarenco, emerge from the shadows to reveal the centrality of Belgium in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Alongside Sarenco, Lamberto Pignotti, Luciano Caruso, and Ugo Carrega offer a glimpse into the complex, obscure, yet densely populated universe that is Italian poesia visiva. Although a small episode in a much larger story, the span of visual and sound poetry in postwar Europe easily stretches the bounds of a single exhibition.
Bristling with color and texture, sight, sound, and passionate fury, experimental poetry reached a particular, heightened intensity in the decades immediately following the Second World War. Technological change played a part in driving this amplification. The widespread availability of microphones and reel-to-reel tape recorders allowed sound poets to explore dimensions of the voice that had never been heard before, teasing out physical properties of breath and utterance beneath the articulation of words in order to manipulate, splice, overlay, compose with them. If the standard typewriter remained a favorite of visual poets, new processes of silkscreen, offset and stencil printing, and above all the so-called “Mimeo Revolution” in photoduplication vastly extended the repertoire and reach of their experiments. But technology only goes so far. Behind the impassioned deployment of these new media lay a desire to challenge the unthinking use of words as reliable purveyors of truth, especially when they fell into the hands of a monstrous regime. The unspeakable trauma of the Second World War resounds in early Lettrist poetry, in the “transhuman” compositions of Altagor, and most persistently through the oeuvre of Henri Chopin, who first learned to savor the raw sounds of the human voice on an infamous “death march” from Nazi concentration camps, surrounded by fellow survivors from Eastern Europe speaking in tongues he could not understand. “After the war we witness the death of language as it was known,” Chopin wrote of the birth of postwar sound poetry: “the Word-Accomplice-of-the-Old-World was besieged and broken.” Assaults on the “language of power” only grew more urgent and strident in the works of younger poets like Jean-François Bory. Dismayed by Cold War propaganda, the increasingly sophisticated manipulation of text and image by mass media, the mindless conformity and new wars they seemed to dictate, experimental poets took their anger into the streets. Spelled out in letters the size of human bodies, wrapped in surgical bandages and splattered with red paint, the word ‘VIETNAM’ said it all in Alain Arias-Misson’s first “public poem,” displayed for the benefit of Christmas shoppers on a busy Brussels square. “Poesia visiva is ‘a Trojan horse,’” Eugenio Miccini declared, explaining the strategy of inverting the “iconography of mass media” in collaged poems: “and it wages war like a guerilla.”
The experimental poetry of postwar Europe not only asks, but demands we take a closer look at words, pry into them, beneath them, behind, above, and around them, in order to see what they are made of. Only then can we begin to grasp their meaning and explore possibilities that (also) lay beyond them. Drawn from rich archival holdings at Beinecke Library, the works on display tell only part of the story. As we continue to grapple with text, image, and sound in another age of new media and technological revolutions, it seems well worth delving deeper into this past, much as the postwar avant-garde looked to Futurism, Dada, and Constructivism in confronting the challenges of their own day. Beyond Words is an open invitation. Time to start digging in. 
Beyond Words is organized by Kevin Repp, Curator of European Modern Books & Manuscripts

Watch highlights of the exhibition below