Three Polish Traces of Concrete Verse Poetics: Dróżdż, Grześczak, Białoszewski
1. Polish Concrete Poetry (Dróżdż)
Concrete verse, defined in Shipley’s dictionary in hardly several sentences in the time when the phenomenon referred to as ‘concrete poetry’ (Dictionary of World Literary Terms, London 1970) enjoyed worldwide popularity, played in the literature analogical role to that played by abstract painting in fine arts 50 years before. The Concrete Poem – as described by Noigandres group in plano piloto para poesia concreta (1958) – is the communication of its own structure. It is not a representation of another external item but a self-reliant object which carries out the phenomenon of meta-communication.
The line and color of the abstract painting is the line and color of its optical structure based on the characteristic features of paints and the base but none of these elements means nor represents anything else but itself. The affirmance of Abstract Art was the result of a gradual evolution of the painting which had transformed from landscapes and still natures by Cezanne, to analytical and synthetic Cubism to the picture constructs created by Kandinski, Mondrian or Malewicz. Abstract Art developed vividly for approximately thirty years but it finally got exhausted in the middle of 20th century in the splashes and runs of paint spilled over by Pollock directly from the buckets to the canvas stretched out on the floor. The idea of a poetic ‘self-sign’ has resulted from ‘vom Vers zur Konstellation’ which is the title of the manifesto of concrete poetry by Eugen Gomringer written in 1955, in a really rapid manner and – after the time of slowed down vegetation – it was manifested in the forms which were often shocking by their lack of similarity to the poem conceived as a traditional object in the theory of literature. It became a strong worldwide shock of self-consciousness of the word art which soon got exhausted and faded to the past. The concrete verse with its form too rapidly developed from the traditional script and entangled in the phenomena of the modern art of the 1950s and 1960s of the non-literary aesthetic origins visibly separated from the literary background and became a sub-culture of the word art. Stanisław Dróżdż is the first and the most characteristic representative of this subculture.
The appearances of Dróżdż and his friends as the protagonists of polish concrete verse on the seminaries on poetry ‘Klodzko Poetic Springs’ outraged the audience because they were interpreted as the form of subculture. ‘Is that poetry?’ asked the literature critics and traditional poets commenting on the poems by Dróżdż who in fact at the beginning of his poetic career in the 1960s was also one of ‘normal poets’. The right venue for manifesting the idea of the phenomena referred to as concrete poetry were the fine art exhibitions and the collective and individual meetings which were mostly held in Wroclaw. The concrete poetry developed or adopted special editing forms such as volatile print, a particular type of the poster known as envelope magazin mutated in Poland into the Samizdat-type publications resembling the collection of painting reproductions framed in the envelope and printed on loose paper sheets; the brochure and, finally, the book in the form of anthology similar to the album or catalogue of fine arts rather than the literary anthology.
At the end of 1970s Stanisław Dróżdż developed and published in Wroclaw the book in the square-like shape entitled Concrete Poetry. Selection of Polish Texts and Documentation from the Years 1967-1977 which crowned almost 10-year activity of its author as a protagonist of this movement. The publication of this anthology was accompanied by the exhibition of Polish concrete poetry at the beginning of 1979 and parallel expositions of foreign authors and theoreticians: Jiři Valoch from Czech Republic and Mary Ellen Solt from the USA, the author of one of the key international anthologies – Concrete Poetry. A World View published in 1968 at the Indiana University where Solt was the professor. Simultaneously, Dróżdż organized in Wroclaw a theoretical session on concrete poetry. In fact, unlike at the session held in Bydgoszcz at the end of that year, only the literature theoreticians were asked to deliver their papers whereas the theoreticians of art and aesthetics did not take part in it. The event was named ‘session on literary theory’ likewise the next one held in 1981 in Dąbrowa Górnicza, which may prove that the organizer of this complex session himself located his work and his entire activity related to promoting concrete poetry in Poland right in the field of literature. The literary character of his oeuvre cannot be even denied by the argument that he initially reached his audience through his participation in art exhibitions rather than literary publications. Actually, that was a regular practice in the worldwide concrete poetry which was even more justifiable in Poland where those days it was easier to present something at the exhibition than to publish it (nowadays both these forms of manifestation are easily available). The fact that the anthology presented also the works of the artists related to contemporary avant-garde movement in fine arts and para-fine arts was the result of its author’s intention to provide a multi-level representation of described phenomenon (many authors referred to in this anthology were close to the idea of Conceptualism, which was a popular trend in Polish fine arts from the 1960s to the 1980s) rather than his powerlessness in face of the genealogical divisions made in contemporary art.
Since Dróżdż approached concrete poetry as a literary phenomenon he had to get interested in its purely instrumental affinities rather than aesthetic and ideological connotations which, apart from the works developed by linguism, were almost non-existent in Polish contemporary poetry. That is why his anthology includes works by Marian Grześczak resembling concrete poems by their form which prove their author’s interest in concrete poetry although they do not manifest the aesthetic ideology of ‘self-sign’. The anthology also allows some space for ‘fraszki-maszynopisaszki’ [type-written epigrams] by Roman Gorzelski who applied in them the instruments associated with concrete poetry for humorous purposes in a nearly parodic manner. The phenomenon presented by the anthology of a similar type is ‘the chair’ by Aleksander Rozenfeld contemporary carmen figuratum based on the written phrase ‘it is better to sit well than to stand wrongly’. This example was analyzed not long time ago by Seweryna Wysłouch in her publication Literature and Semiotics [Literatura a semiotyka, PWN, 2001] which is a specific epitaph for concrete poetry approached as a historical phenomenon.
Stanisław Dróżdż considers his own creation as important and serious, which has been proved by his newest concept Alea iacta est implemented by the specialists in art exhibitions in Polish pavilion at Biennale in Venice, 2003. In the times when the genre divisions in art were much more visible than nowadays Dróżdż regarded his creation as work in the poetic material. His projects noticeably realize the basic principles of concrete verse poetics such as moving from the level of sentence to the level of word: a naked paradigm released from syntactic entanglements as well as manifesting physical nature of poetic material. The word: a sign ‘self-sign’ placed on the white piece of paper of the anthology by Dróżdż is supposed to be a literary replica of the black square on the white surface of painting canvas created by Malewicz. This literary repetition of the manifestation of abstract art – so well known to the Polish readers of foreign anthologies of concrete poetry – communicates the core idea of poetic material: it is what it is and it means itself. The most distinguished and original experiments carried out by Dróżdż is the project Timely – Spatially based on two letters: D and O referring to the lexemes ‘do’ [‘to’] and ‘od’ [‘from’] which overlap and substitute one another in an endless, simultaneous, multiplied and multi-dimensional addition thereby forming a kind of grid. The text expresses its own linguistic existence, it is what it is: a physical time and space of the relation between the signs ‘do’ [‘to’] and ‘od’ [‘from’] which simultaneously signify the conceptual abstracts of time and space conceived as the features of Text and Universe.
Another experiment of this kind which reached even further was the interactive installation planned by Dróżdż for the Gallery ‘Foksal’ in Warsaw. At the same time, the installation manifested the act of exceeding the frames of traditional literary publication and entering the realms of ‘new art’, which was so characteristic for concrete poetry. The walls, the ceiling and the floor of the exhibition room were covered with the paper sheets covered with the writing of the pronoun ‚between’. It is a very well-known work by Dróżdż presented many times at the exhibitions and printouts. The letters of the writing repeated many times on all the six internal surfaces of the cube are arranged in such a way that they somehow drill into one another and get ‘in between’ each other. The word ‘between’ exists between itself describing the space and time of its own existence. The visitors of the gallery just step in between that in-between and that is how it should be expressed.
‘Concept-Shapes’, which is how Stanisław Dróżdż named his creations, are pure implementations of the formulated poetics of concrete verse. They are ‘self-signs’ intended to provide meta-communication. However, the traditional desire to convey ideas occurred very soon in the activity of this stubborn poet who although was working on the instruments for creating modern meta-art in accordance with extremely avant-garde recipes imported to Poland mainly via Czech Republic, for many years was not given due attention.
The tone of the message was serious, Dróżdż alluded to the romantic and Polish modernistic lyrical poetry based on reflection and metaphysics, which could be noticed, for instance, on the following palindrome based on the configurations of Polish words życie [life] and śmierć [death] (Attention, Mr. Computer Typesetter to the page or column breaking!):
Another example of this kind of poetry are the numerical quasi-tables entitled ‘Loneliness’ composed of digits presented graphically in various combinations of white and black hums or the project ‘The Date’ featuring the sequence of numbers signifying the birth of the poet and transforming into non-logical and inscrutable numerical systems. (Both of these projects are presented in the publication ‘Poetry’,1972, no 7). The numbers and digits are not far away from the graphical signs of formalized languages of science and technology – Dróżdż included them in the selection of his poetic instruments but he never went beyond them to use the forms which only stemmed from writing but were non-lingual in their character as foreign concrete poets and their Polish followers did. In accordance with the convention of lingual recording-reading, the mathematical signs signifying the system of logical functions like ‘more than’ (p>q) and ‘less than’ (q<p) approach each other, intersect one another, get into and get out of each other in order to invert themselves into the functions which is the converse of the initial function: 1. > <, 2. >< , 3. (sign superposition), 4. <>, 5. < >. This is the illustration of the ‘form-content’ concept invented by McLuhan or maybe also the resemblance of the ideas of ‘Spirit’ and ‘Letter’ developed by Norwid?
Note: I wrote the text Three Polish Traces of ‘Concrete Verse’ poetics in 1981 for the 3rd Polish Nationwide Session on Theory of Literature devoted to concrete poetry organized by Stanisław Dróżdż in May, 1981 in Dąbrowa Górnicza where I delivered a paper. It was published in the photocopied collection of the resources prepared for this session. The version presented above has been modified, updated and handed over to the monthly ‘Odra’ for publication approximately 20 years after. It appeared in the issue 3/2005 under a shortened title Three Polish Concrete Verse Poetics: Dróżdż, Grześczak, Białoszewski.
Jacek Wesołowski, Berlin, 24th August, 2011