Grzegorz Dziamski, Language Games by Stanisław Dróżdż
Stanisław Dróżdż is the icon of Polish concrete poetry, the most remarkable and the best-known Polish concrete poet. However, he is not only a poet but also a theoretician, an animator and a propagator of this poetry. His determination and ability to attract the followers of his ideas have led to the publication of the first, and so far the only one, anthology of the Polish concrete poetry: Concrete Poetry. A Selection of Polish Texts And Documentation 1967-1977, Wrocław 1978 and to the organisation of the first literary session on concrete poetry in Poland in Ośrodek Teatru Otwartego Kalambur [Open Theatre Centre Kalambur], Wrocław 28-29.01.1979. It was followed by further sessions and exhibitions of the Polish and foreign concrete poetry organized by Stanisław Dróżdż1.
The anthology of the Polish concrete poetry appeared late, almost ten years after the anthologies summarising the oeuvre of international concrete poetry2. Nevertheless, its rich bibliography (above 300 entries) effectively records the interests of Polish poets, artists and art critics in this type of poetry since at least the early 1970s3. Dróżdż had got interested in it even earlier, in the 1960s, during his studies of Polish literature at the Wrocław University, and at the end of the 1960s he developed the idea of concept-shapes. Were the concept-shapes his individual version of concrete poetry such as the Signalism of Miroljub Todorovic, Active Poetry of Ewa Partum or the Poetry of International Notation by Andrzej Partum? Is concrete poetry a literary phenomenon ascribed to poetry or an intermedium that resides on the border of various arts? Finally, there comes the most important question, namely if Stanisław Dróżdż, the author of the famous installation między [in-between] presented in the Foksal Gallery (1977) in Warsaw, could be still identified with concrete poetry at the end of the 1970s. Was the term concrete poetry accurate to define his artistic activity? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to consider what exactly concrete poetry meant to Dróżdż.
Claus Clüver recalls that the first concrete poem he has encountered was the text by Eugene Gomringer Ping Pong:
ping pong ping
pong ping pong
ping pong (1953)
I was looking at this text published in a Spanish-language periodical, which was the only text I could read without a dictionary and I did not know what to do with it, admits Clüver4. I knew how to play ping pong but I did not know how to play the game of this text. Nothing I had learnt about reading poetry could apply there, nothing could help me. What about the syntax? What about the grammar? Where is the verb? Where is the subject? There was no I, no person, no voice, only the perfect consonance of two syllables, each of which in almost all languages requires the other to make any sense, echoing the sound produced in playing ping pong – two syllables, ping pong, repeated five times in four lines5. It appears that the very object, the ping pong ball, is speaking in this poem.
Gomringer’s text struck me, confused me and got imprinted in my memory so deeply that I will never forget the encounter with it, recalls Clüver. I soon realised that the reason for my difficulties with reading this poem was that instead of looking at it carefully I unsuccessfully searched it for non-existing traditional features of poetry. It was just enough to free my mind from the wrong expectations, acquired throughout the years of reading traditional poetry, in order to notice that the rules of reading this text have been built into its structure. The first and the fourth lines state the two syllables alone, in their normal sequence, thus presenting identical visual shape. But to reach the last ping pong from the first one in this text, the eye has to jump diagonally across two longer lines stretched out between them […] as if following a ping pong ball jumping back and forth across the net. […] The text has been made to embody concretely in its structure and verbal material, the extra-literary reality it evokes. A mere succession of five ping pongs would, to be sure, approximately reproduce the sound characteristic of the game, but beyond that it would communicate relatively little, and as a text it would be indifferent, dull and also arbitrary, for there is not reason why the succession should not stop at four or extend to six or even more ping pongs. Gomringer’s poem, however, which could not be any shorter and which any extension would destroy, has become a concentrated image of the game – its ideogram6.
Gomringer applies minimal verbal content, only two syllables which form a dynamic text that activates readers and makes them follow it back and forth along the horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. The poet creates a field for the game and defines its rules. However, the course of the game depends on the readers, on their imagination and ability to become involved in it. Gomringer often repeated that concrete poetry refers to the instinct of a game and play. In order to produce the effect of a game, concrete poetry does not have to speak about a game as directly as Gomringer’s Ping Pong. In most cases, according to Clüver, the poem invites the reader to play with visual, acoustic and semantic possibilities of the word, to play with language.
There is a question of how the concept-shapes of Stanisław Dróżdż were perceived when the author presented them in the odNowa Gallery in Poznań in 1969. Were they approached as poetry? Were the readers searched for traditional features of the poem and analysed them in terms of syntax, grammar and the speaking subject? How was his famous 1968 triptych Niepewność – Wahanie – Pewność [Uncertainty – Hesitation – Certainty] approached? It consists of three boards, the first of which (Uncertainty) was covered with question marks, the second one (Hesitation) with question marks and exclamation marks, and the third one (Certainty) exclusively with exclamation marks. How were his other works, such as Samotność [Loneliness], 1967; Zapominanie [Forgetting], 1967; Trwanie [Duration], 1967; Klepsydra [The Sandglass], 1967; Język i matematyka [Language and Mathematics], 1968, and Optimum, 1968 interpreted? All these works in the form enlarged to the graphical boards sized 100 x 70 cm and 70 x 70 cm were presented in the odNowa Gallery.7
Claus Clüver is right; concrete poetry refers to a game and to the game instinct which resides in each of us. We can experience that ourselves on our first contact with this poetry: either we accept the invitation to the game extended to us by its author and start to play, or we will reject a concrete poem as boring, banal and uninteresting. What results from the board covered with question marks? Nothing or very little; however, when we look at the entire triptych, a number of questions may arise. We may ask who goes through uncertainty and hesitation to certainty and which way is proper and desirable – the one from uncertainty to certainty or the converse one, from certainty to uncertainty. Then we can go beyond the text and ask who in Poland in the year 1968 went through certainty to uncertainty and who went in the opposite direction. If we start asking such questions, it will mean that we have joined the textual game. What is the message hidden behind the board presenting all the letters of the alphabet and punctuation marks in the work Język i matematyka [Language and Mathematics]? Nothing, unless we get involved in the textual game. We will then observe that the alphabet by Dróżdż consists of 27 letters. There is the letter ‘ł’ but there are no other Polish letters such as ą, ę, ć, ó, ś, ź, ż, without which it would be difficult to write any Polish text. It is not really the Latin alphabet due to the appearance of the letter ‘ł’, but it is not the Polish one, either. Furthermore, the alphabet is arranged in four six-letter rows, which give a total of 24 letters, the number of letters in the Greek alphabet. In the fifth row, however, there are three letters: x, y, z and three dots which may refer either to punctuation marks which form the other part of text or to new letters which may appear in the alphabet in the future. What does the board covered with number ‘1’ in the work Samotność [Loneliness] mean? Does it refer to the singleness of each living being and to the fact that I always speak on behalf of myself, in the first person singular? People are individuals, but the work by Dróżdż contains the many ‘1’. Is that the sign of the power of individuals or their weakness? And maybe, it symbolises the power of the powerless who are stuck in their individual convictions resistant to common myths and all the forms of plurality, even the first person plural, i.e. we?
Concrete poetry disturbs traditional expectations of poetry and that is where its releasing power lies. It makes readers look more carefully at the text and analyse its structure (in the odNowa Gallery the concept-shapes were presented under the name ‘structural poetry’). It encourages the reader to observe the construction of the text and, since it usually consists of words or their fragments, to look closer at the word itself with its visual form, sound and vulnerability to visual and semantic changes and transformations. Such transformations are visible, for instance, in Optimum, where the initial word ‘minimum’ is transformed into the final ‘maximum’. Was it the main purpose of concrete poetry8? In order to verify this hypothesis it is necessary to reach for the foundation text of concrete poetry, the manifesto Plan piloto para poesia concreta (1958) written by the brothers Augusto and Haroldo de Campos and Décio Pignatari. It says that concrete poetry uncovers graphic space as a structural agent of the text, replaces the time-linear development of the poem with the time-spatial structure and creates a specific ‘verbivocovisual’ – a language area where verbal communication cooperates with the non-verbal one. Concrete poetry are the words-things in time-space. The concrete poem communicates its own structure: structure-content. The concrete poem is an object in and of itself, not the interpreter of exterior objects and/or more or less subjective feelings. Its material: word (sound, visual form, semantics). Its problem: functional relations within a word. […] Concrete poetry: total responsibility toward the language. Total realism. Opposite to a subjective and hedonistic poetry of expression. To create precise problems to solve them based on the language sensitivity. A general art of the word. The poem-product: useful object.9
Concrete poetry was to be a general art of the word and the word was traditionally ascribed to literature and treated as a literary means of expression. There is nothing strange about the fact that concrete poetry was associated with the realms of literature. At the above-mentioned literary session organised by Stanisław Dróżdż in 1979, Jacek Wesołowski defined concrete poetry as a representation of an old though marginal literary tradition of the pictorial poem initiated by Greek technopaegnia (Symias of Rhodes) and medieval carmina figurata (Rabanus Maurus, Optatius Porphyry), baroque poems shaped to resemble real objects such as eggs, wings, axes, glasses, Sand-glasses, hearts, altars, shields or wreaths which led to the calligrams by Apollinaire, visual experiments of the Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists and further on to the literary-typographical and literary-graphical works of concrete poetry10. During the same session Marianna Bocian talked about the interdisciplinary Concretist movement11. Therefore, while Wesołowski defined it as an example of a specific literary tradition which then he subsequently tried to separate it from, Marianna Bocian perceived it as an artistic movement involving not only poets but also artists of various areas: painters, musicians and even technocrats with humanistic interests.
Concrete poetry revived the interest in the visual aspect of language, or more precisely, of writing. However, concrete poets have never reached back to the past so far as Jacek Wesołowski and other theoreticians of visual poetry12. The brothers de Campos and Pignatari believed that their predecessorsincluded Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Pound, Joyce, Cummings, the Futurists, and Dadaists13. Eugene Gomringer added to this list Arno Holz and William Carlos Williams14. Concrete poets were interested in visual forms of poetry, especially the ones originating from the Far East15. Still, their main objective was not to re-assess the literary tradition and to revive the pictorial poem16, a marginal trend in poetry, from oblivion but rather to explore the place and role of language, or more precisely, the writing in visual culture, which means that their activity was definitely future-oriented. Their reference point was not a medieval or baroque pictorial poem but the poetry of a big city, the poetry of neons, advertisements and newspaper headings, the poetry of international airports. Concrete poetry aspired to be the poetry of Marshall McLuhan’s time. Our time, like each time, speaks its own language. It speaks or, more precisely, it writes and it writes really a lot; this is how Eugene Gomringer began his manifesto vom vers zur konstellation17. The main task of each poet is to discover the language of their time and to remove the discrepancy between the language of the surrounding reality and the language of poetry. Since an ideal language in contemporary reality is based on quick communication and comprehension of the text, on the message using reduced and condensed language which engages its receiver, the same tendency to simplify and condense the message should be developed in poetry, thereby restoring the connection between both these languages. Gomringer did not refer to any marginal trend in poetry but to the main tradition of European poetry, namely to the vers libre and parole in liberta. His constellations may be regarded as a direct continuation of words in free (liberated words) and simultaneously as a prefiguration of today’s poetry of short text messages:
The text above should be read: ZU Dir Oder ZU MIr? (your place or mine?); LIebst DU MIch NOch? (do you still love me?); WAs MAchst DU HEUte? (what are you doing today?)18.
Concrete poetry exposed material and visual aspect of the language. The word was not the exclusive element of the literature anymore. It became the material for other arts, especially the concept art19. The concept-shapes by Dróżdż referred to the concept art by their very name. The artist tried to combine the symbol with its meaning or, to use the terms more familiar to the Wrocław artist, to visualise concepts and provide them with visual shapes, to create ideograms of words. This principle is perfectly epitomised by the work Zapominanie [Forgetting], 1967, where the poem presents and performs exactly what the title indicates; it is gradually disappearing, falling into oblivion letter by letter, thus transforming the word “forgetting” into an ideogram of forgetting.
In the year 1977 Stanisław Dróżdż made another important decision, namely he introduced concept-shapes into the gallery space and covered the ceiling, walls and floor of the Foksal Gallery with the letters of the word ‘między’ [in-between]. Although it was impossible to read anywhere the entire word of the title, the viewer could feel overwhelmed by this omnipresent word. This installation implied that the human being lives among letters which he collects with great effort in order to compose words that describe his place in the world. In other words, it showed that language is the medium which resides between the human being and the world.
In the year 1997, to celebrate the anniversary of Dróżdż’s exhibition in the Foksal Gallery, young critics of this Warsaw gallery prepared the artist’s small retrospective show20 which presented old works by Dróżdż in new editions. The famous triptych Niepewność – Wahanie – Pewność [Uncertainty – Hesitation – Certainty] took a form of endless computer print-outs sized to the gallery’s dimensions. Uncertainty appeared somewhere beyond the text and died beyond the text. The same applied to hesitation and certainty. All these three states of the mind manifest themselves in our speech but where they come from and what they are supported by remain unknown. Similarly, in the form of print-outs sized to the dimensions of the gallery, the other works by Dróżdż such as Samotność [Loneliness], Trwanie [Duration], Czasoprzestrzennie [Timely-Spatially] were presented. On two opposite sides of the gallery, directly on the walls, there appeared the other two works Życie / Śmierć [Life / Death] (1971) and Data [Date], 1975. The works by Dróżdż gained new meanings. That refers particularly to Klepsydra [The Sandglass], where a large ‘będzie’ [it will be] placed below the ceiling was gradually falling down through a little ‘jest’ [it is] into a large ‘było’ [it was] which was disappearing in the floor. The original poem by Dróżdż was shaped as an sand-glass: the future will soon turn into the past, an expectation will change into a memory. However, as soon as the sand from the upper glass bulb has fallen into the lower one, the sand-glass is put upside down and the past again becomes the future as the sand-glass function is only to measure the time. In the Foksal Gallery, Klepsydra [The Sandglass] turned into a metaphysical record of the passing time: what happened in the past has disappeared and will never come back, whereas we are all the time waiting for what will come.
Young critics from Foksal introduced Dróżdż’s poems into the context of Neo-conceptual art. His works became a record of ideas which may materialise in various visual forms. For instance, at the 2008 exhibition in the gallery Appendix 2 in Warsaw, Klepsydra [The Sandglass] was presented as a video-animation21. That refreshed the works of the Wrocław artist and indicated new forms of how the word may be present in today’s visual culture. However, the more visually attractive the exhibitions of his works, the more the artist emphasised his association with concrete poetry and a distance from Neo-conceptual works using the word as their medium. The grounds for such an attitude are understandable. It is enough to consider the statements by Lawrence Weiner provided below:
Bits & Pieceseces
Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole (1991)
Lost & Found & Lost Again
Broken & Fixed & Broken Again
Closed & Opened & Closed Again (2006)
to see that Dróżdż uses the words differently. Weiner’s statements describe actions which lead to some imagined situations and the structure of the text is not imposed by a word as in the case of Dróżdż. For Weiner words are vehicles of abstract meanings rather than objects of a play as they are for Dróżdż. Weiner heads toward sculpture, toward imagined object poetry; Dróżdż wants to remain a poet. His reference points were Mallarmé and Gomringer. The latter, according to Dróżdż, wanted to make poetry visible22. Dróżdż intended to achieve the same goal, namely, to make poetry visible. He did not want to make poetry come closer to visual arts but to make it visible. Therefore he was loyal to the term of ‘concrete poetry’ and he wished his poems to be interpreted in its context.
Stanisław Dróżdż remained loyal to the poetic approach to the word. What does this approach consist in? It is a game with the word. Poetry is such a game. Robert Barry said once: II use the words in the way so that I deprive them of their meaning and the only way to deprive the words of their meaning is to present all their possible meanings23. Dróżdż’s approach seems to be completely different. He wants to liberate the word from its grammatical system so that even the least sensitive viewer/reader could perceive the word as word in its entire lexical wealth and then place it in its own literary context. Thus a poem activates the reader and becomes a stimulus rather than a finished product. It is an invitation to cooperation addressed to the reader, like the poems by Ian Hamilton Finlay, a poet greatly appreciated by Dróżdż:
In the year 2003, in the Polish Pavilion at the 50th Biennale in Venice, Stanisław Dróżdż showed the installation entitled Alea Iacta Est [The Die Is Cast]. It alluded to the poem A Throw of the Dice by Mallarmé (1897) and to numbers which constitute, next to language, another important motif in his art. The main topic of A Throw of the Dice is the number (exactly the NUMBER), which is to be discovered in order to disclose the mathematical formula of the universe, the mystery of existence and thereby putting in order an undefined reality which eludes human cognition. The human being is searching for such a number, however, he or she can find it only by chance as All thought emits a throw of the dice and AA throw of the dice will never abolish chance24. The installation by Dróżdż presented in Venice was an homage paid to Mallarmé, the founding father of concrete poetry who commented on A Throw of the Dice as follows: It is difficult to define how it will develop in the future, whether it will become a new art or nothing. Stanisław Dróżdż wanted the poem by Mallarmé to develop into liberature, i.e. a poetry which would liberate us from aesthetic and cultural conventions and would not let us close it in any formula, a poetry which would play a continuous game with language and the viewer’s linguistic habits.
Text published in the exhibition catalogue Stanisław Dróżdż, początekoniec. Pojęciokształty. Poezja konkretna. Prace z lat 1967- 2007 / beginend. Concept-Shapes. Concrete Poetry. Works 1967- 2007, Ośrodek Kultury i Sztuki we Wrocławiu, Agencja Reklamowo-Wydawnicza Fine Grain, Wrocław, 2009.
1 In the years 1981, 1983, 1990 Stanisław Dróżdż organised a number of sessions and exhibitions: of American concrete poetry (1990), of Austrian concrete poetry (1990), of works by I. H. Finlay (1990). A complete list of Stanisław Dróżdż’s initiatives is included in the catalogue: Stanisław Dróżdż, Concept-Shapes. Concrete Poetry. BWA Wrocław, 1994.
2 Emmett Williams, An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, New York 1967; Stephan Bann, Concrete Poetry. An International Anthology, London 1967; Mary Ellen Solt, Concrete Poetry: A World View, Bloomington 1968. See also my early text: Three Insights Into Concrete Poetry, [in:] Points of View. Polish Nationwide Symposium On Concrete Poetry 20-21.10.1979, Bydgoszcz, 1979.
3 The reception of concrete poetry in Poland in the early 1970s is interestingly described by Wojciech Pogonowski in Concrete Poetry. Formation of Artistic Movement, Bydgoszcz, 1979, p. 37-45.
4 C. Clüver, ping pong concrete, [in:] A Critical (Ninth) Assembling (ed. R. Kostelanetz), New York, 1979, (non-numbered pages).
7 odNowa Gallery 1964-1969, (ed. P. Piotrowski), National Museum, Poznań 1993, p. 31. One year later, in 1970, two of these boards Zapominanie [Forgetting] and Klepsydra [The Sandglass], were presented by Dróżdż at the exhibition Concrete Poetry in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. See W. Pogonowski, Concrete Poetry. Formation of Artistic Movement, p. 40.
8 The best text on concrete poetry in the Polish literature is the one by Józef Bujnowski, Concrete Poetry, “Poezja”, 1976, no. 6. See also W. Pogonowski, Concrete Poetry. Formation of Artistic Movement and Sergiusz Sterna-Wachowiak, ‘Physiology’ of the Word. From the Semiotics of Concrete Poetry, Bydgoszcz, 1979.
9 A. de Campos, D. Pignatari, H. de Campos, Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry, [in:] The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature (ed. R. Kostelanetz), New York, 1982, pp. 257-258. A Polish translation of this manifesto is provided by Józef Bujnowski in his article. See J. Bujnowski, Concrete Poetry, pp. 42-43.
10 J. Wesołowski, Literary Motivations In Concrete Poetry, [in:] Concrete Poetry. Literary-Theoretical Session, (ed. St. Dróżdż), Wrocław, 1979.
11 M. Bocian, Symbol And Concrete Issue, [in:] Concrete Poetry. Literary-Theoretical Session, Wrocław, 1979.
12 The best work on the tradition of visual poetry written in Polish is the book by Piotr Rypson, The Image of the Word. The History of Visual Poetry, Warsaw, 1989.
13 A. de Campos, D. Pignatari, H. de Campos, Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry…, p. 257-258..
14 E. Gomringer, Vom vers zur konstellation: zweck und form einer neuen dichtung (1955). Quoted after: Konkrete Poesie. Deutschsprachige Autoren, Stuttgart, 1972. Stanisław Dróżdż regarded Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Ball, Tzara, Arp and Kandinsky as the forerunners of concrete poetry. St. Dróżdż, On Concrete Poetry (self-published).
15 The text by Ernest Fenollos The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry published by Ezra Pound in 1919 had a significant influence on poetry.
16 Ernst Robert Curtius, a great authority in the field of literature, defined pictorial poems (Figurengedichte) as playful poetic forms, as formal mannerisms. E. R. Curtius, European Literature and Latin Medium Ages, 1948, Kraków, 1997, p. 290.
17 E. Gomringer, Vom vers zur konstellation…
18 It is a street billboard advertisement of the Bild magazine from the year 2000. See J-Ch Ammann, From Claudia Schiffer (H&M) and Oliviero Toscani to BILD, [in:] Public Art. A Reader (ed. F. Matzner), Ostfildem-Ruit, 2004, p. 439.
19 H. Flynt, Concept Art (1961), [in:] Esthetics Contemporary (ed. R. Kostelanetz), New York, 1978.
20 Stanisław Dróżdż. Poezja konkretna (curator: A. Przywara), Galeria Foksal, Warszawa, 1997.
21 Stanisław Dróżdż. The Spaces of Concrete Poetry, Appendix2 Gallery, Warszawa, 2008, March-May.
22 S. Dróżdż, On Concrete Poetry, (self-published), p. 5.
23 Quoted after: T. Godfrey, Conceptual Art, London, 1998, p. 358.
24 S. Mallarmé, A Throw of the Dice, (translated by M. Żurowski), “Poezja”, 1975, no. 7/8. A commentary by Maciej Żurowski therein: The last poem by S. Mallarmé.