Singular Vispo :: First Encounters Part 3

Was there an experience, a specific interaction with visual poetry that infected your brain, made you see language differently or drew you toward exploring vispo further? Is there a vispoem that captured your imagination. What piece first awakened in you the possibility of a visual alphabet/language alternative? That was the general question posed and here are the results. Though this query is overly reductive, the poets were kind enough to choose, for the most part, a singular vispoem as example of this phenomenon. The over forty posts will be rolled out in groups of five each. Enjoy!


Crag Hill /on Seiichi Niikuni

As I’ve written before I had encountered Emmett Williams Anthology of Concrete Poetry on numerous occasions on the shelves of book stores around Berkeley. But the work within seemed opaque. I didn’t get it until I spent time with Clark Coolidge’s Quartz Hearts (This 1978) and Bruce Andrew’s Praxis (Tuumba 1978). When those two works helped me inhabit language, freed from the hegemony of syntax and semantics, I was able to approach concrete poetry from within. Seiichi Niikuni’s work was the first to strike me:


kawa ~ river

sasu ~ sandbank

The river flowing in and out of the sandbank, the character for river embedded in the character for sandbank, the character for river released from the character for sandbank. Every time I experience I’m thrilled to live in the liminal spaces of those two characters. I have then attempted to compose visual poetry that includes similar spaces that are and at the same time are not language, or at least how language is conceived for daily commerce and communication.


Billy Mavreas /on J. Lehmus

Errors of Refraction and Ocular Headache by J. Lehmus

jlehmus singular vispo MAVREAS

There is a particular agony in wading through reams of inspirational material from medieval talismans to Tolkien’s elvish to Rick Griffin’s lettering to every piece of succulent mail-art received to find that one jewel. Was it all of Once Again? Some arcane leaflet in an edition of 50? Some scrawl or sticker? Man alive.

I chose a piece seemingly entitled Errors of Refraction and Ocular Headache by J. Lehmus of Finland. It came to me circa 1990 printed on a postcard, a call for a “continuous visual/conceptual poetry portfolio project” entitled Brio Cell, part of Lehmus’s Cyanobacteria work.

This piece is composed of actual readable Latin letters and fragmented words (English ?) intersected (sutured ?) by a few lines stretching between word parts and lines. To me it is the right combination of machine degradation and a hint of a meddling human hand. Readable but not really. My subsequent descent into the marvels of photocopy manipulation would leave me striving for that balance. My admittedly juvenile participation in that inspiring portfolio project replete with international talent further stoked my flames towards improving my craft.

This piece speaks of industrial process, decay, collage, omission. It dekes meaning(s) while hinting at a personal communication. It rests within the lineage of machine arcana so redolent of the early Industrial music scene, a throwback to Victorian pomp rudely unmasked, civilization faltering. A cousin of both fantasy and science fiction, one that skips the conventions. Evidently not hippie, not punk exactly. What?

These attributes stir my desire to participate in poetics. They are all over the rubber stamped, cut-up, xeroxed, collaged litter of mail-art. Stark black and white, text hobbling in a paragraph, on the tip of my tongue.


derek beaulieu/ on bill bissett

bissettbill bissett’s “Quebec Bombers” (1973) typifies Dirty Concrete poetry with its overlaid text, use of mixed-media (typewriter and dry-transfer lettering in this case) and embrace of palimpsestic illegibility and anti-representationality. This style of Concrete poetry is best recuperated through a discussion of Sianne Ngai’s formulation of a “poetics of disgust” which “deliberately interferes with close reading” (Ngai “Raw Matter” 116).

“Quebec Bombers” is a rare example of a Concrete poem that is overtly self-reflexive. bissett aligns his poetic illegibility with explicit support for the Marxist-Leninist, cell-based, paramilitary group the Front de Libération du Québec (flq): “what can we say […] keep yr cell clen […] in praise of all quebec bombers” a voice-centred chant layered on a stanza of “dirtdirtdirtdirtdirt.” “Quebec Bombers” is an example of the poetic “inarticulate mark.” bissett does not produce a cogent, emotionally-laden poetic treatise on political injustice; he creates a lump of text through the disjunctive use of corporate and design material.

In “Raw Matter: a Poetics of Disgust” Ngai theorizes a space which articulates the poetic response towards the hegemony and capitalism. As capitalism imposes a limit on our ways of expressing outrage [and] has the effect of deliberately curbing our potential to articulate our abhorrence to it (Ngai “Raw Matter” 98, original emphasis) Ngai believes that the more frequent emotive response is that of rejection, exhibited not a moving toward the object, either to possess or be possessed by it, engulf or be engulfed by it […] but a turning away” (ibid 101, original emphasis) accompanied by an “inarticulate utterance”—a reflexive gagging (ibid 102). Ngai’s article has not been adopted by poets as far as I am aware but I believe that the “inarticulate utterance” is well-suited for adoption by Concrete poets as an “inarticulate mark” in order to situate Dirty Concrete poetry’s refusal to operate as semantically-grounded poetry.

As bpNichol playfully states “[a]ll that signifies can be sold” (Nichol “Catalogue” 161) and as Sianne Ngai vehemently argues “most forms of cultural subversion are ultimately contained” (101). The inarticulate mark—the Dirty Concrete poem—“thwarts close reading” (102) as it doesn’t work along expected signifying chains; it “won’t coagulate into a unitary meaning and it also won’t move; it can’t be displaced” (114). It is precisely this resistance to displacement and refusal to co-operate which best exemplifies Dirty Concrete poetry: a poetry that co-opts degenerated text, letteral fragmentation, palimpsestic text and waste as poetic tropes.

Concrete poetry’s resistance to reading, and close-reading in particular, foregrounds the materiality of language, the rubble with which poets are left after the commercialization and co-opting of poetry and poetics for marketing, sales and government. Dirty Concrete rejects the spoken in favour of the written, and then rejects the legible in favour of the illegible. Instead of trying to reclaim poetry as generative, Dirty Concrete sits there, unwilling to participate, unwilling to mean, unwilling to do anything other than simply take up space:

[t]he poet’s expression of inexpressiveness thrusts the base materiality of language into the foreground […h]ere the question of what a word means […] as well as the question of how it relates abstractly to another word in the system […] becomes secondary to its simply “being there,” in all its insistence and affective force. (Ngai 106)

Dirty Concrete poetry lays bare the myth of transparency. Instead of the page operating as a smooth medium for clear, emotional transference, it is the site of a lump, a wad, a knot of immovable refuse.


Anneke Baeten /on Denis Smith

Denis Smith

Twenty years ago or so I was exposed to the work of Denis Smith – the exploration of language based on the ancient art of calligraphy. The artist explained to me the formal training and form led him to rework the visual and the written, and explore the formal segments of the writing into a re-arranged visual blend. Some of the work was a warm primordial soup of tribal ochre colours and patterns and rich textures mixed with ancient scripts. Other work was starker, monochromatic Japanese calligraphy which the artist was highly trained in, which then was transformed and mixed in a fluent flow mixing both into pieces that speak to the audience in an unusual form of storytelling. The contradiction of the disciplined technique of calligraphy turns into a frantic subconscious flow. Looking at the piece results in a constant pulling to and fro in search of meaning but in the end the visual pleasure of form takes over.


Lawrence Upton/on Bob Cobbing


lawrence upton - bob cobbing

A SINGULAR WORK: Bob Cobbing’s “Portrait of Robin Crozier”

No one work drew me towards exploring “vispo”.

I was aware of visual poetry long before I began to make my own. I saw what I would now regard as visual poetry which is worth experiencing without understanding it. (As an example of what I consider not worth experiencing, I offer a heart-shaped balloon with ‘love’ printed on it; though, out of an odd desire to save the maker public ridicule, I shall not name the maker.)

My earliest awareness of “vispo” which I have retained may have been of Bob Cobbing’s work; and later and to some extent Peter Finch’s. This was in the late 60s and early 70s. I was undoubtedly seeing much more than that, some of it worth seeing.

Where I am mentally now, it seems to me inexplicable that poetry of any kind, except perhaps in a very few exceptional cases, would be made and yet not, potentially at least, performed. I have seen rationales for making poetry for the page only and usually I do not accept the argument, when there is one. Generally it involves often subjective assertions or vapid irrelevancies (“it is the digital age”, “it is the twenty first century” et cetera).

I have always favoured live performance and came to adulthood in a city (London) full of poets keen on performance.

Cobbing, my subject in this ‘essay’, emphasised the importance of the human voice and that must have had a profound effect on me because during the 1970s I spent inordinate amounts of time working alongside and often with him. The influence, however, was one of reinforcement rather than persuasion. I do not propose here to make the case for performed utterance of poetry; that is not the subject I have been given.

I met members of the Language Group of Fylkingen in 1972 and first worked in the studio of the Fylking, then in Östgötagatan, Stockholm in 1973, an analog studio in a converted cinema. There I found a varying and fluctuating interest in the kind of visual work I knew, but always – so it seemed to me – respect for Cobbing’s work.

What I also gained from my association with Fylkingen was a deepening of my understanding of what I might call the shared category space inhabited by poetry music and graphic art; and I have since used the term text-sound composition, a 1967 coinage by Lars-Gunnar Bodin and Bengt Emil Johnson, both Fylkingen Language Group members, for one type of intermedial artistic activity.

‘Intermedial’ was also in the relevant lexicon of composer-and-more Dick Higgins – statement on intermedia, 1966, published 1967 – but is there in writings of Language Group members in the mid 60s. My usage is probably at some odds with that meaning, especially that of Higgins who referred to it as related to a general “change of sensitivities”; whereas I think it – the categorical intermedia space – always was there, though possibly without anyone who could be heard noticing it. ( I have just heard a BBC Radio 4 documentary on Black British composers, once compared to Mozart, whose names have almost vanished from critical appreciation, apparently because the idea of an important black composer was not one that many found meaningful – Handel it has been said invested in the slave trade.)

Thus, from the beginning of the 70s until the late 70s, I was rather immersed in the public expression of Bob Cobbing’s practice, working with him on a number of projects including Association of Little Presses; working alongside him in the Consortium of London Presses Print Shop and as a fellow member of the Executive of The Poetry Society / National Poetry Centre. Perhaps most importantly in the present context, I attended his “experimental workshops”, known now as Writers Forum Workshop but then, often, as “Bob’s workshop”, exposed thus to his constant encouragement. He gave that encouragement to everyone who did not throw his efforts back in his face; but from 1977 we collaborated for a time – and that collaboration was later picked up in new manner, expanded and cemented: from the mid 90s until his death, but then, though still influenced by him (and he by me perhaps) I had begun to formulate my own ideas on the matters involved.

In 1976, I with cris cheek and P C Fencott, equals, formed jgjgjg. Bill Griffiths was also part of the first performance as was Jeremy Adler in the later Berlin performances.

Also in 1976, I met bpNichol and Bill Bissett, plus Steve McCaffery (later, I think) and definitely later because he has previously corrected my memory on this the excellent Paul Dutton. Meeting Nichol and seeing him perform had a tremendous effect upon me although not anything I could cite as a direct influence in the current context.

In fact, by the late 70s I would say that the initial “influence” was done. Though it had been predominantly Cobbing at the core of my influences, there were many other, to me, important and powerful elements.

Text-sound composition was one of those even though I was soon trying to define for myself some of what I did by reference to its differences from what I had seen in Stockholm by other practitioners; and it wasn’t long before I was doing that with Cobbing’s work as well! I had been exposed to a great deal; and what may be beneficial in any field in moderate quantities may become toxic if absorbed to excess. In the early years of this century I threw away many many of my visual works which, it seemed to me, were too derivative of Cobbing’s work; threw them away before anyone had seen them.

Yet one of the ways that I have moved away from influence, making my own discoveries without direct imitation, has been to engage increasingly with others in collaborative works – primarily with composer John Drever; but also with violist / composer Benedict Taylor; and with composer Tina Krekels to the degree that conflicting schedules and locations allow; with poet Tina Bass, with whom the work is always or has always been semantic; with artist Guy Begbie. And one of the features of Cobbing’s artistry was his willingness to collaborate and the cross over of poetry and music and graphic art.

It’s 13 years since he died and they’re still trying unsuccessfully to absorb him. One current ploy of those seeking reflected glory is to say that his scores weren’t scores but jumping off points, occasions of “inspiration” I suppose, so that anyone can do it without too much effort.

Cobbing made an effort. His visuals were scores. They could also be jumping off points. It’s not the same thing. Cobbing’s work can be demanding to perform and jumping off is only one approach and probably not the most significant.

I found it difficult to decide which work of Cobbing’s to nominate as an example of his influence. I reduced the possibilities to Are your children safe in the sea (eye version), Beethoven today, Winter Poem 1 and Portrait of Robin Crozier.

I have chosen the last in that list, Portrait of Robin Crozier, from the first half of the 70s. Like Winter Poem 1, it is a decade on from ABC in sound, a poem which attends in its presentation to the visual but is still to a great extent typescript.

It may be appropriate here to break off and clarify my quibble about what is worthy of being called vispo. There are two things going on: one is my personal evaluation of others’ work, and of course of my own work; the other is a worry about the term.

My use of vispo as a term is both laziness and a desperation at the idiocy of the term “visual poetry”. Some years ago, I proposed “visually-emphatic poetry” (utterance and notation of poetry, Riding the Meridian, 1999). It never had a chance of becoming popular; but the proposition may have pedagogical use still. One advantage is that, by implication, it renders what some regard as being “true poetry” or some such – and some seem ready to fight to the death over this, especially if they haven’t bothered to learn much to support their beliefs – as “semantically-emphatic poetry”.

Portrait of Robin Crozier, in such a systematisation, emphasises the visual to something of an extreme. Unlike the first two in my list of four, it doesn’t originate in typescript.

Much is conceptually excluded by my categorisation. There is for instance the “picture poem” approach, or so I would argue, because it loses the connection to (written) language already being a picture. Lose that connection and you end up with heart-shaped balloons called “love”, relying on trite and tawdry commonplace images – perhaps what Coleridge in Biographia Literaria called Fancy — rather than works which draw you into new perception of perception and the means by which we express it.

There might be something to be done with Coleridge’s distinction between primary and secondary imagination. We could spend a lifetime wading through (what I tend to see as) the mud of his argument; but I am content to note here the idea that there is a lot more in some poetry than in others.

I have written about the Crozier poem before, in my essay Bob Cobbing: and the book as medium; designs for poetry in Readings magazine; and I shall not much reiterate here what I said there. Note from that essay, if you read it, that there is more than one version of the poem; that it is an assemblage of ink spills; that one version uses colour.

There is also PoemTalk #72 in Jacket 2. There it is surmised that Cobbing had not met Robin Crozier when he made the poem and indeed knew relatively little about him. That is so. And Cobbing told me that Crozier did not like his poem at all.

So the references in the Jacket 2 notes to friendship do not apply except in a very broad sense. The phrases “Gestetner smear” and “visual blot” are way off; and, by the way, the Gestetner was an ink duplicator and not a spirit duplicator – those are quite different processes.

“A kind of score”, they say. Well, no, it is a score; and it was rather apparently so in the first performance with David Toop and Paul Burwell. The degree to which Toop and Burwell followed it as such is questionable. Cobbing walked into the performance space, with Toop and Burwell already performing, handing the text to each of them; and Burwell took and dunked his copy in the bucket of water he was using to modify percussive sounds.

I think both the younger men were listening to Cobbing and each other rather than following the score. My colleague John Drever listens to me in performance, I think. So… You can hear Cobbing working through the score.

The reworking of the recording of that performance in the subsequent studio text-sound composition (Cobbing did not refer to his live performances as text-sound compositions to the best of my knowledge) may make that progress through the score less obvious because the studio work imposes its own order on the preceding order; but it is there. Portrait of Robin Crozier is an indicative score rather than a directive score; but it is a score.

I’m not sure that Cobbing did share Crozier’s sensibility as is claimed in Jacket 2. I say that not just because Crozier reportedly did not like the work but from my observations of the wide differences in their practices and my conviction, from observation, that Cobbing’s starting point is likely to be more formal than representational so that the determining elements arise from the formal ‘investigation rather than an analysis of the subject.

In my essay, referred to above, I trace some of that formal investigation, which is not apparent if one homes in on one example of the works in the Portrait of Robin Crozier set.

I have spoken of Cobbing as an occasional poet, but often the occasions on which he was occasional provided opportunities for making something new and the all-important limits and constraints to confound repetition rather than occasions for self-expression. The result is more likely to produce a response in the mode of “I have a new idea” rather than in the mode of “As I have said before”.

Expression is there but it originates from the formal elements, including structure, definitely including structures; and the whole person of the artist rather than the performance of details of his autobiography.

That’s not an absolute demarcation though. His poem for Basil Bunting, much less visual than the Crozier pieces, has deep personal warmth to it, or I find it so. Yet it is still formally rigorous every bit as much as it is extremely playful. All Cobbing’s work is playful.

If the Crozier poem or its performance is direct utterance, as stated in Jacket 2, it is a controlled but not controlling product of the formal operations of the poem rather the doggerel of the greetings card.

Poetry that interests me is not the same as the use of language as that which tells us something mundane which we knew already or could have known.

A final ‘word’, perhaps an afterword…. I shan’t say much of it because I have said it elsewhere…

In this text I have got as far as the mid 70s. Cobbing lived more than another quarter century. He was working as an artist to within days of his death.

Many accounts of that life of work get not much further than the mid 60s.

In one case in particular I strove to extend the account and analysis to cover his whole life and I might as well have sat down beside King Canute. Notes were taken; thanks were given; and that was it.

What is remarkable about the man as artist is the degree to which he renewed his practice repeatedly. And each time, as well as being an adaptation, the most striking being when he broke and could not repair his ink duplicator and moved to photocopying, it was also an expansion and deepening of what he had achieved already.

It seems to me that those who treat the work before and after that are missing much that is to be learned; and an examination of how he reworked the duplicator poems on the photocopier are illuminating of his craft skill and intellectual originality.

That I have limited myself to relatively early Cobbing vispo here is only a consequence of the question I was asked about the starting stimulus that the work provided for me in my own vispo career.

Faversham, Kent, UK; July 2015