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Radical Poetry

SUNY series in Latin American and Iberian Thought and Culture

Jorge J. E. Gracia and Rosemary Geisdorfer Feal, editors
Radical Poetry
Aesthetics, Politics, Technology,
and the
Ibero-American Avant-Gardes,

Eduardo Ledesma
Published by State University of New York Press, Albany

© 2016 State University of New York

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Ledesma, Eduardo, 1972– author.

Title: Radical poetry : aesthetics, politics, technology, and the
Ibero-American avant-gardes, 1900–2015 / Eduardo Ledesma.
Description: Albany, New York : State University of New York Press, 2016. |
Series: SUNY series in Latin American and Iberian thought and culture |
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016000471 | ISBN 9781438462011 (hardcover : alk. paper) |
ISBN 9781438462028 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Experimental poetry, Latin American—History and criticism. |
Avant-garde (Aesthetics)—Latin America. | Modernism (Literature)—Latin
Classification: LCC PQ7082.P7 L446 2016 | DDC 861.009/98—dc23 LC record
available at

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

List of Figures vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: An Overview 1

1. The Historical Avant-Gardes: Futurist Metaphors 19

2. The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes: A Political Turn 53

3. Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise: 81

An Introduction to Digital Poetry

4. Modernisms on the Move: Mechanic, Kinetic, Cinematic 109

5. Letters and Lettrism: Deconstructing the New Vanguards 147

6. Latin American Digital Poetry: Animated Embodiment 171

7. Modernismo: Cannibalistic Appropriation and Advertisement 197

8. Concrete Aesthetics: Abstraction, Mass Media, and Ideology 223

9. Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 251

Conclusion: Toward a Radical Aesthetics of the Digital? 281

Notes 289
Works Cited 309
Index 3 31


Figure 1.1: Josep M. Junoy. “A Portrait of Ynglada” 27

Figure 1.2: José Juan Tablada. “The Chirimoyo Tree” 41

Figure 1.3: José Juan Tablada. Fragment from “Li-Po” 49

Figure 2.1: Clemente Padín. “Signografía I” 62

Figure 2.2: Clemente Padín. “Inobjetal I” 67

Figure 2.3: Edgardo Antonio Vigo. “Ninth Signaling” 75

Figure 3.1: Jordi Pope. “Communication Systems” 87

Figure 3.2: Jordi Pope. “Atoms” 89

Figure 3.3: Jordi Pope. “Mathematical Poem” 92

Figure 3.4: Olga Delgado. “The Woman Who Walks” 99

Figure 3.5: Olga Delgado. “Island” 102

Figure 4.1: Francesco Cangiullo. “Smoker” 122

Figure 4.2: Joan Salvat-Papasseit. “Wedding March” 129

Figure 4.3: Joan Salvat-Papasseit. “Connubi” 138

Figure 4.4: Joan Salvat-Papasseit. “Edisson, Charlot” 143

Figure 5.1: Joan Brossa. “Disassembly” 153

Figure 5.2: Julio Campal. “Calligram” 161

Figure 5.3 Fernando Millán. “Negative Progression/2” 165

viii Figures

Figure 6.1: Ana María Uribe. “A Herd of Centaurs” 177

Figure 6.2: Ana María Uribe. “Discipline” 179

Figure 6.3: María Mencía. Cityscapes 185

Figure 6.4: María Mencía. Cityscapes 186

Figure 7.1: Cover for magazine Klaxon 212

Figure 7.2: Guilherme de Almeida. “Coma Lacta” 218

Figure 8.1: Décio Pignatari. “beba coca cola” 237

Figure 9.1: Arnaldo Antunes. Live Performance “Nome” 261

Figure 9.2: Eduardo Kac. “D/eu/s” 270

Figure 9.3: Eduardo Kac. “Não!” 273


This project would have been impossible without the support of many generous
individuals and institutions. I wish to express my deep gratitude to my professors
at Harvard University, and also at the University of Illinois-Chicago, for guiding
me as a young scholar through my transition from structural engineer to literature,
film, and new media professor, and for offering advice at various stages of this
project. I am grateful to my committee, Brad Epps, Luis Fernández-Cifuentes,
Joaquim-Francisco Coelho, and David Rodowick, for their tireless reading and
for nurturing this project in its initial stages. I am especially indebted to Brad
Epps, my thesis director, for his unfailing and constant support and friendship
throughout the years, as well as his invaluable guidance during my dissertation
writing. My very warmest thanks to Leda Schiavo, who suggested to me (in my
first-ever literature class at the University of Illinois at Chicago) that, yes, one could
indeed make a profession of that which one loved, the study of culture, initiating me
on this path. To Matthew J. Marr (now at Penn State), for his constant counsel and
friendship from my very first days at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Likewise
to Rosilie Hernández, Christian Roa, Margarita Saona, Klaus Müller-Bergh, and
all my other professors at UIC. At Harvard, many thanks to Mariano Siskind and
Sergio Delgado, who counseled me on many academic matters. I would also like
to thank my wonderful colleagues and friends in the Department of Spanish and
Portuguese at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who have generously
shared their advice and expertise, especially Mariselle Meléndez for her stead-
fast guidance and mentorship, our department chair, Silvina Montrul, and also
my literature colleagues Ericka Beckman, Elena Delgado, Dara Goldman, Glen
Goodman, Javier Irigoyen-García, and Joyce Tolliver, as well as Luciano Tosta (now
at the University of Kansas), and of course, all the other colleagues at Illinois, too
many to mention. My thanks also to our energetic graduate students at Illinois,
especially those that endured my graduate seminar on experimental poetry and
art in the fall of 2014 and provided intelligent feedback. To many other colleagues

x Acknowledgments

elsewhere, especially those working on experimental poetry and on electronic

literature within our field of Hispanism and in other disciplines, with whom I have
had the pleasure of exchanging ideas and many of whom have provided feedback
at various conferences and on earlier versions or parts of this work, including Ofra
Amihay, Laura Borràs Castanyer, Debra Castillo, Hilda Chacón, Osvaldo Cleger,
Luis Correa-Díaz, Christine Henseler, Lauren Walsh, Scott Weintraub, and many
more. I would also like to thank the excellent anonymous readers for SUNY press,
who, with their insightful comments, were instrumental in making Radical Poetry
a much better text.
Preliminary and partial versions of some sections, extensively revised, have been
previously published in: Hispanic Issues Online 9 (2012), Arizona Journal of Hispanic
Cultural Studies 14 (2010). Significantly revised portions of chapters 1 and 3 taken
from an essay entitled “From Avant-Garde to the Digital Age: Reconceptualizing
Experimental Catalan Poetry,” in The Future of Text and Image: Collected Essays on
Literary and Visual Conjunctures (2012) have been published with the permission of
Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Some portions of chapters 8 and 9 were originally
published in the Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies 14 (2010) and are repro-
duced here with the permission of the editors of the journal. I would like to express
my gratitude to all the poets and their publishers for generously granting permission
to reprint their works. Every effort has been made to trace and acknowledge all
copyright holders and I would like to apologize for any errors or omissions.
Many institutions provided support for this project. First, I am indebted to the
Fulbright Commission, which generously funded a year of research in Spain in
2009–10. Harvard University provided a number of fellowships and grants that
funded several research trips to Latin America in the summers of 2008 and 2011.
I should also like to thank the University of Illinois Campus Research Board
for a supported semester teaching leave (Spring 2015) that was instrumental for
completing this book.
On a personal note, I would like to thank my dear friends Eugenio DiStefano,
Emilio Sauri, Ana Martín Sagredo, Susana Domingo Amestoy, Tara Toscano,
Steve Buttes, Anne Bink, Lotte Buiting, Sergi Rivero, Melissa Machit, Ernesto
Livón-Grosman, and many, many others, for all your support over the years.
A very special note of thanks to Beth Bouloukos at SUNY, who eased the process
of turning my rough manuscript into a book, and is the best acquisitions editor one
might hope for.
And most especially, to my family: my mother Rosario, my sister Carolina, and
my amazing niece Ana, thank you for all your love and support.
And, still for Jill . . .
An Overview

a d i c a l P o e t r y. The title of this work immediately prompts questions:
What does radical mean when describing poetry? Is radical a reference
to transgressive aesthetic or dissident political practice, or both? How
can poetry be radical in our time, and more specifically, how can it be so in
Ibero-America? This project began as a kind of experiment in understanding these
questions, and “experimental” also defines the project. Indeed, assembling a text
that deals with both broad theoretical questions such as these and studies poetry
from a vast geographical area requires an anchor point, a coherent center, provided
here by the notion of “experimental.” This book weaves together two intimately
related research objectives in order to illuminate the centrality of experimental
poetry to the Ibero-American avant-gardes: one, an investigation into how the
most contemporary digital vanguard is linked with, and owes much of its practice
to this lengthy experimental “tradition”; two, a critical reanalysis of the artistic
and political concerns of past Ibero-American avant-gardes in order to shed new
light on a century of experimental poetry.
This endeavor involves moving beyond traditional approaches to poetry. In
this way Radical Poetry also bridges several disciplines: literature, art, media
studies, history; it also spans multiple linguistic and geographical regions
within Ibero-America (comprising Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan-speaking
nations, often considered as being in the periphery), and investigates a subject,
experimental poetry, that has been thought of as marginal, peripheral, and
troublesome to categorize within any specific discipline. In fact, Radical Poetry
seeks to celebrate and foreground a genre that has been neglected by critics and
readers alike: maligned, misrepresented, and misunderstood, experimental poetry

2 Radical Poetry

has often been banished, cast outside the limits of mainstream critical inquiry, a
misfit among more respected literary genres such as the novel or the short story,
or more canonical types of poetry; in the case of Ibero-American experimental
poetry, this marginalization has been acute, since critical attention is often drawn
toward European and North American works. This neglect is partly due to the
genre’s complexity: we are dealing with a poetry that self-consciously interro-
gates its own form, and violently defies categorization. Consequently, the book
explores experimental poetry’s close alliances with nonliterary art forms, such
as conceptual and abstract art, performance, photography, film, and new media
art. Profoundly self-reflexive, experimental poetry questions what the “literary”
means, what constitutes “poetry,” and how, if at all, visual and verbal arts should
be differentiated.
Naturally, one cannot speak about experimental poetry without also
considering the avant-garde, those movements and artists that were driving the
most forward-thinking, cutting-edge experiments in poetry. Indeed, despite its
apparent marginal status, experimental poetry has been among the most salient
artistic strategies deployed by the avant-gardes (along with manifestos, essays,
and performances), this being a term, avant-garde, that is not without its cachet
within cultural history. The link between the avant-garde and experimental poetry
is indissoluble, for if the manifestos expressed the theory and political aims of
the avant-garde, experimental poetry and art represented its praxis. Thus, the
two terms, experimental and avant-garde, permeate the pages of this book, and
yet their essence remains difficult to capture, as elusive, fluid, and dynamic as the
movements and works they describe. Not easily reduced to simple definitions, the
avant-garde is an artistic mode that is characterized by constant renewal and by its
representation and use of the latest technologies of its era (e.g., cinematography,
radio, television, computers, Internet). Moreover, the avant-garde manifests itself
in every art form and genre: painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, literature;
indeed, the avant-garde often seeks to blur these genres, and to achieve, as Peter
Bürger argues in Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974), “the liquidation of art as an
activity that is split-off from the praxis of life” (56). Experimental poetry partakes
of the same hybridity, raising the question as to whether it can be isolated and
studied for its own particularity. The answer is that it should not be isolated, but
rather studied in a way that celebrates the very elusiveness that constitutes it,
accounting for those overlaps with other artistic forms, visual, verbal, sonorous,
and corporeal. As I will show throughout the book, experimental poetry is radical
because of its position at the intersection of many art forms.
My point, of course, is that despite the apparent marginality, and indeed
Introduction 3

elusiveness, of its subject, Radical Poetry represents a timely approach to

contemporary Iberian and Latin American Studies by comparatively examining
the experimental writing of avant-garde movements in Spanish, Portuguese,
and Catalan through the breadth of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,
including its very latest instantiation, digital poetry (also known as electronic or
e-poetry), a kind of poetry typically created, read, viewed, listened to, and played
with on computers and other digital devices.1 It is precisely in an effort to tackle
the elusive subject of experimental poetry that it is necessary to examine jointly
these different avant-gardes that have been generally approached in isolation.
Indeed, it is when we take a broader view that we begin to see a constellation
of themes, strategies, and devices that reverberate across continents: word
and image interaction, kinetic text, anthropomorphic text, performative and
embodied poetry. Mapping out these constellations involves perceiving lines
of investigation that have gone unnoticed, finding the common threads that
connect such diverse poetic experiments. Other times it involves asking
deceptively simple questions, for example, the one that provoked this project:
How did the print experiments of the historical avant-gardes transition into
contemporary digital poetry? In other words, what is it that links the work of an
early-twentieth-century Futurist such as the Catalan Joan Salvat-Papasseit to the
work of the twenty-first-century Argentine digital poet Ana María Uribe, despite
the vast temporal and geographical distance that separates them? How do their
poetic experiments resemble and differ from each other? Is there some type of
genealogy at work? Radical Poetry follows these initial questions with a more
complex one: What do the changes and continuities in experimental practices
tell us about how the Ibero-American avant-gardes relate to technology, to their
historical and political context, and to their aesthetic aims?
To answer these questions, Radical Poetry retraces and contextualizes the
experimental literature, and specifically poetry, in three key periods—the so-called
historical avant-garde (1900–1930s), the neo-avant-garde (1950s–1970s), and our
own “digital age” (1990–2015)—and draws on the works of artists and poets from
the Luso-Hispanic world, comprised of Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula.
As Vicky Unruh notes in her Latin American Vanguards (1995), the avant-garde
is “simultaneously international and autochthonous in its orientation” (10). By
focusing on countries arguably on the margins of Euro-American cultural
production, Radical Poetry shows how the international dimension of the
avant-garde—the common ground of experimentalism that defines the vanguard—
is punctuated by local phenomena and peripheral discourses—the plurality of
regional and national characteristics of each movement.
4 Radical Poetry

In exploring the “experimental,” technology inevitably comes into play.

This book also illustrates how technoculture—the intersection of science and
technology with politics and the arts—has manifested itself in the experimental
arts of Ibero-America, and demonstrates how different technologies (print,
cinematography, radio, television, computers, Internet) have been incorporated by
poets not just on the level of content but also at the level of form and production,
oftentimes, though not always, as part of a radical political project—such was the
case, for instance in the 1960s as the Latin American neo-avant-gardes pursued
a radical Left politics in conjunction with innovative poetry that aimed to elude
censorship under dictatorial regimes; the interaction between aesthetics, politics,
and technology will be a prominent topic in this book. Of course, the radicality of
the avant-gardes need not reside exclusively, or even primarily, on its connection
to the political (narrowly understood as direct action in the political sphere);
avant-garde art might very well exist beyond the simple duality of autonomy versus
engagement; here I agree with Unruh’s point, which she specifically applies to the
Latin American context, that

[v]anguardists were profoundly concerned with ideas about art prevailing in

their own times and, even when taking ostensibly apolitical stands, seriously
examined art’s possible roles within the problematic social and cultural
contexts surrounding its production. As they cast a critical eye on the value
of their own artistic activities, they often imagined art as an integral part
of an activist intellectual life. (7–8)

Radical Poetry argues that avant-garde movements emerge at moments of

intense technological and cultural change, or technocultural flashpoints, historical
conjunctures that are receptive to experimental innovation but also to recycling
past artistic strategies to new aesthetic and, at times, political ends. Inherently
paradoxical, the etymology of “radical” entails both a departure from tradition
and a return to the root, suggesting repetition or circularity—a circularity that, as
I shall explain, will be reflected in the book’s structure.2 I am arguing, therefore,
for a recurrence of the avant-garde in different historical periods, in both its
aesthetic and political dimensions. For that reason, this book offers a very different
perspective from accounts—such as Bürger’s—that emphasize the inevitable death
of the avant-garde, its passing, that is, as a phenomenon anchored to a very specific
time and place, with ephemeral and unrepeatable conditions of possibility; an
avant-garde seen as outmoded and elitist.3
Departing from Bürger’s teleological perspective, I propose that avant-garde
Introduction 5

experimentalism is a cyclical phenomenon in literature and the arts that

corresponds to an attitude of innovation and to a set of political and aesthetic
practices, and is not exclusively bound to any one particular period. Moreover,
the specificity of Latin American and other peripheral avant-gardes, as George
Yúdice observes in “Rethinking the Theory of the Avant-Garde from the Periphery”
(1999) provides a different entry point, one that does not position Ibero-American
avant-gardisms as belated copies of their Anglo and European counterparts, but
rather as an avant-garde that is profoundly autochthonous and displays its own
temporality. Challenging the universality of Bürger’s thesis, Yúdice argues, as
do I, that “it is possible, by a postmodern turn, to rethink the avant-gardes as
not constituting a particular moment in the history of modernity but, rather, a
transformative power that is generated whenever the conjectural circumstances
allow for it” (74).4 In a sense, this perspective avoids the problem of originality, and
as Fernando Rosenberg suggests in The Avant-Grade and Geopolitics in Latin America
(2006), it situates Ibero-American vanguards not as cosmopolitan imitators but
as artists who were transnationally connected and produced art simultaneously
coexistent and also critically decentering in relation to its so-called models.
Invariably, this capacity for simultaneity is connected to the technological, as
Anthony Geist and José Monleón observe in their introduction to Modernism and
its Margins (1999), noting that with the innovations in media and communications
after World War I, “the avant-garde movements appeared simultaneously in the
margins and the center. No longer can one speak of culture ‘arriving late’ to
the far-flung removes of the empire” (xxx). Accordingly, technology will play a
fundamental role in the creation and development of experimental poetry, as we
shall see. Ibero-America has had several avant-garde moments, and I have chosen to
focus on three of the most salient periods. Radical Poetry explores the paradoxical
nature of the avant-garde: on the one hand, the avant-garde is defined by its
radical newness at key moments. On the other, it is also defined by its continuity
in marking that newness.
The book shows that the avant-garde is neither conceptually homogeneous
nor politically uniform. In this way, Radical Poetry sheds light on the complex
intersections between technology and avant-garde poetry in Ibero-America (Latin
America and the Iberian Peninsula), regions characterized by political upheavals
that are reflected in their arts. A critical question implicit throughout the book
is: How are the technologically driven formal experiments of the Ibero-American
avant-gardes linked to both aesthetics and politics? Slavoj Žižek cautions against
the difficulty of charting the overlap between these two arenas, since, for him,
“revolutionary politics and revolutionary art move in different temporalities—
6 Radical Poetry

although they are linked, they are two sides of the same phenomenon which,
precisely as two sides, can never meet” (xx).
My claim, and one of the book’s critical points, is that Ibero-American poetry,
on account of its specific geopolitics, became aesthetically radical by progressively
disintegrating language, by erasing the distinctions between word and image, and
by pursuing the animation of script; it also became politically radical by subverting
certain established mainstream practices, such as commercial advertising, often by
deploying the same mass media used to promote militarism and commercialism.
It further radicalized during periods of military rule by making the body a site for
resistance against authoritarianism, as the Chilean artists of CADA (Colectivo
Acciones de Arte) demonstrated in the 1970s and 1980s.
Clearly, politics, aesthetics and the body are inextricably bound in the poetry of
Ibero-America. The same aesthetically radical experiments that pushed language
toward its destruction became increasingly linked to a politically radical focus
on the human body as a “technology” for challenging dictatorial regimes. Artists’
and poets’ technical experiments, for example, began to address the adverse
material and political conditions that distinguish the Ibero-American avant-gardes
by making visible the parallels between “tortured” syntax and tortured bodies.
Thus, the notion of embodiment, of embodied experience reflected through text,
image, and sound, also becomes a recurring theme in many of the works I examine,
poems in which the body of the text often blends with human and mechanical
or digital bodies, through metaphor, anthropomorphism, and other visual and
textual devices.
Although, as Žižek warns, radical politics and radical aesthetics are not the
same thing, as we shall see, for many of these artists, the objective is to map out
the complex relationship between the two. In this way, although transgressive
aesthetics and radical politics may not necessarily go hand in hand, many of
the artists and poets I examine grapple with precisely how to represent, or not
represent, the contradictions and consequences of capitalism, totalitarianism,
and other ideological constructs. This is especially true with the 1960s
neo-avant-gardes, when artists were intensely immersed in the explosive events
stemming from the Cuban Revolution, the Algerian and Vietnam Wars, May 68,
and the civil rights and student movements. While some poets are clearly more
concerned with form, with the boundaries of their material objects, others explore
the links between the material and ideological inherent in form, and yet others
still examine political concerns more overtly through content. Accordingly, Radical
Poetry shifts its attention between those aesthetic and political questions that
were most pressing for the experimental poets and movements of each period it
Introduction 7

In short, Radical Poetry analyzes Spanish- and Portuguese-language

experimental poetry from the avant-garde movements of the twentieth and
twenty-first centuries, such as Futurism, modernismo brasileiro, concretism, and
the digital vanguard. By focusing on three key periods—the historical avant-garde
(1900–1930s), the neo-avant-garde (1950s–1970s), and our “digital age” (1990–
2015)—I aim to contribute to the study of the avant-gardes from an Ibero-American
comparative and transatlantic perspective, making this a broad-based study, both
temporally and geographically.
Additionally, I suggest that Ibero-American avant-garde experimental poetry
is distinctive in two ways: first, because of the region’s uneven technological
modernization and, second, because of its particular cycles of revolution and
repression, which have been virulent and transformative. In both Latin America and
the Iberian Peninsula, poetic techniques attuned to the latest technologies such as
automatic writing, typography, sound and visual poetry, and performance poetry,
were deployed to break with poetic tradition and to resist political oppression, as
well as to shake local bourgeois sensibilities. Authoritarian regimes throughout the
region, intent on modernizing at all costs, often placed technological development
over individual rights, environmental considerations, or traditional ways of life.
As Rosenberg claims, in Latin America and other peripheries the avant-gardes
“are simultaneously agents and resistant subjects of colonial modernization”
(27). The Ibero-American avant-garde is therefore marked by a conflict between
its embrace of technology and its opposition to the region’s dictatorships. This
tension gives rise to types of poetry that often attempt to bridge the gap between
the technological and the human. Thus, the productive tension between the
regions’ uneven modernity and the avant-garde’s desire to engage (with) the latest
technology often endows the poetry of the Ibero-American avant-gardes with a
political dimension typically absent in other geographical locations.
Beyond these geographical variations, there are still many common threads
that we can find throughout these various regions. With Radical Poetry, I show that
despite the many different ways in which Ibero-American avant-gardists integrate
technology into their experimental poetry—by both writing about it and creating
with it—they were motivated by similar desires: to animate text; to endow it with
human characteristics; to make it “jump off” the page; and to blur the divisions
between words, images, sounds, and actions.
This brings us back to the importance of embodiment, affect, and the (often
troubling, uncomfortable, and imperfect) fusion of the human and technological
in these works. In Radical Poetry I suggest that the dazzling array of stylistic
techniques in the experimental poetry of the last century has at times obscured
the shared features of these poets’ innovations across all three time periods:
8 Radical Poetry

their recourse to metaphor, their reinscription of the human and the affective
into poetry and technology; and their efforts to turn words, machines, and more
recently, the digital, into flesh, by making words and objects come alive through
motion and making text act and seem human. These notions of poetry as an
emerging hybrid that combines the organic and inorganic, the textual, visual,
aural, and the human draw on theories of the posthuman and embodiment by
Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles, and Mark Hansen, among others.
Understanding how the avant-garde made poetry seem more human and more
dynamic through the innovation of moving text becomes the focus of several
chapters in the book and provides one example of the intricate interplay between
the aesthetic and the political across all three historical periods (the 1900–1930s,
the 1950–1970s, the 1990s–present), illustrating the comparative approach found
throughout the text. Initially, the kinetic impulse in poetry (a desire to make text
move) was satisfied through metaphor, by arranging text on the page to suggest its
motion. For example, Salvat-Papasseit, a Catalan futurist and committed socialist,
associated the disruption of linear syntax with political subversion. Writing during
Spain’s turbulent 1920s, a period marked by labor unrest and police repression, and
opposed to the Taylorist mechanization of the workforce that treated workers as
replaceable parts, Papasseit’s poem “Wedding March” (1921) critiques the repetitive
nature of factory work through typography: the word CHARLOT, the Spanish
nickname for Charlie Chaplin (a hero of the working class), is typeset in the poem
in a way that visually recalls the Tramp’s distinctive quick mechanical steps, also
denoting the dehumanizing effect of modern times on human bodies. Thus,
through typography and the simulation of motion Papasseit drives home a political
point against the dehumanization of labor. Such strategies have found echoes in
both the work of the 1960s neo-avant-gardes and in contemporary digital poetry,
where text and image are being programmed to move on computer screens, and at
times also mobilized to engage sociopolitical concerns.
Sociopolitical concerns are clearly manifest in recent digital works, which
renewed the experiments of previous eras, not as mere imitative pastiche, but
updating them with new technologies and linking them to contemporary issues.
Recalling Papasseit’s deployment of embodied letterforms, Ana María Uribe,
an Argentine poet of the digital avant-garde, dramatizes such concerns in her
online poem “Discipline” (2002), in which a group of capital Hs are organized
in military formation as they rhythmically stomp across the screen to an
electronic beat, accompanied by the unintelligible commands from an off-screen,
authoritarian voice. Connecting it with Argentina’s recent dictatorships, Uribe
remarks that the poem is about a group of tyrannized Hs, a letter that in Spanish
Introduction 9

is phonetically mute. The silent letters march in lockstep and activate their
“limbs” to simulate both human and mechanized motion, referring to the
region’s ongoing militarization. Originating in different periods and locations,
and referencing different technologies (the cinema and typography, computers
and the Internet), both Papasseit’s and Uribe’s poems share an understanding
of poetry as a bodily experience, capable of producing motion and emotion in
innovative ways that correspond to their individual epochs and serve to critique
different forms of alienation. Both examples display awareness of their own
historical significance, and in the case of the latter, a self-awareness of its
recuperation of an earlier moment, of reclaiming its avant-gardist legacy. The
structure of this book encourages these comparisons, since it returns several
times to the three historical periods of interest.
Today, we are witnessing an avant-garde that is still emerging and has not yet
exhausted itself: the digital avant-garde. With Radical Poetry I attempt to capture
the very newness of today’s digital avant-garde before its inevitable reification, by
comparing it with those past and by now arguably exhausted, avant-gardes. As we
have seen, the idea of exhaustion is also central to the avant-gardes. That is, the
avant-garde is also defined by its temporality, more so than other artistic modalities
that do not claim to be at the forefront of their time. The avant-garde’s power
is, precisely, in its timing; but that goes stale quickly (even as it is also prone to
return, under a different guise, as I argue here). The digital avant-garde has tapped
into, and produced, contemporary obsessions with newness and obsolescence,
making those aspects key to its aesthetic and political outlook. Digital works
access temporality, intermediality, and movement in excitingly cutting-edge ways,
which nevertheless maintain links to historical artistic and literary traditions.
To understand the digital vanguard and its poetry, we must see what it borrows
from its predecessors. And, like any vanguard practice, digital poetry is already
undergoing a process of institutionalization. Although still early in its development,
digital poetry is gradually losing its marginal status (and with it some of its edge)
by appearing in university syllabi, doctoral dissertations, scholarly articles, and
books such as this one; as such, it is becoming a more visible subject for critical
studies, and gaining recognition as a relatively noncommercial form of literature,
which is, at least until now, freely available for reading, or viewing on the Web.
The organization of this book is somewhat intricate, but it allows for many
possible reading options. The task of producing a seamless organizational
coherence can be daunting since, given the heterogeneity of this book’s material,
topics and themes can and will move in many different directions. My purpose is
to ensure that these marginal poets and poems receive proper critical attention
10 Radical Poetry

by emphasizing close, detailed readings of single works. This focus on individual

poets and poems, however, is periodized and sifted through key theoretical themes.
The structure of Radical Poetry is tripartite: the book is divided into three main
sections, and each section is further subdivided into three chapters. Each of those
three main sections addresses a particular theme: the first section (chapters 1, 2,
and 3) centers on word, image, and metaphor (by studyng the interaction between
text, images, and sounds in poems that often deploy body-centered metaphors,
and analyzing the role of metaphor itself within these works); the second section
(chapters 4, 5, and 6) explores kinetic script (by studying animated poems that
move within the page, the screen, or some other medium, oftentimes simulating
or emulating human motion); and the third and final section (chapters 7, 8, and 9)
investigates Brazilian experimental poetry (by paying particular attention to the
intermingling between poetry, advertising, and communication technologies in
Lusophone poems).
Within each main section, the first chapter approaches the overall theme
by close-reading examples from the 1920s avant-gardes (chapters 1, 4, and 7);
the second chapter focuses on the 1950s to 1970s (chapters 2, 5, and 8); and the
third chapter considers the 1990s to the present (chapters 3, 6, and 9). Naturally,
connections are established between all sections and chapters, but the tripartite
division by “eras” allows the book to be read through a variety of paths; for
instance, the scholar interested primarily in digital poetry may opt to read the
last chapters of each main section (chapters 3, 6, and 9), which focus specifically
on the digital avant-gardes. This structure, while complex, facilitates a diachronic
overview, while allowing for a synchronic analysis of paradigmatic poems.
The book’s cyclical structure, which revisits each historical period several times
(but each time with a different thematic and theoretical focus), is meant to counter
teleological progress narratives implied by linear chronology and parallels the
argument about the repeated returns of the avant-garde. I am proposing that the
avant-garde has potential to transform life habits in each of its reincarnations, that
past avant-garde practices can be redeployed, perhaps rearticulated through new
technological processes and become critically reinvigorated, even if, eventually,
new modes of capitalism assimilate them once again. This conception of the
avant-garde does not entail progress, teleology, but instead suggests a spatial
vision of moments of intensified artistic experimentation (often “sparked” by
new technologies) that lead to a reconceptualization of life practices. The book’s
organization responds to that spatial vision: on the one hand, it retains a certain
unavoidable linearity imposed by the book format itself. On the other, it hints at
recurrence, at an ever looping and reconstituting present or the enduring presence
Introduction 11

of the past in the present. What follows is a more detailed summary of both the
content and conceptual framework for each chapter.
The first three chapters follow the shifting uses and attitudes toward metaphor
by the avant-gardes. Chapter 1, “The Historical Avant-Gardes: Futurist Metaphors,”
engages debates about the nature of the visual and the verbal arts, in order to
problematize the division between text, image, and sound. As such, the chapter
does theoretical heavy lifting focusing on aesthetics, rather than politics. Engaging
theorists such as Gotthold E. Lessing, W. J. T. Mitchell, and Peter Bürger, I present
my analysis of how the historical avant-gardes—Futurism, Cubism, Dada—
attempted to synthesize semiotic systems (script, image, sound) by suturing them
through verbal and visual metaphors that rendered script as image and/or sound,
just as they endeavored to fuse artistic production and technological innovation
by applying their visions of speed, movement, and the mechanical to the form
and content of their poetry. Ultimately unsuccessful in achieving synthesis,
their efforts demonstrate that there is an unresolvable tension between different
semiotic systems and media that even metaphor cannot resolve. I study these issues
through close, historically and geographically contextualized analysis of visual
poems by the Catalan Josep Maria Junoy and the Mexican José Juan Tablada, two
poets who despite their geographical distance display a kindred aesthetic, as well
as a troubling Orientalist bent.
Although preoccupation with form did not subside, historical events after World
War II placed Ibero-America at the center of geopolitical upheavals that demanded
from the avant-gardes a more direct (less figurative) engagement with history.
Shifting attention toward politics without abandoning aesthetics, chapter 2, “The
Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes: A Political Turn,” observes that during the turmoil
of the 1960s Latin American experimental poetry became politicized in ways
unseen in previous periods, engaging formally and thematically with mass media
communication technologies such as radio and television, but also circulating
through both popular and underground forms such as mail, graffiti, stencil, and
mimeographed art. At the same time, the corporeal becomes central to these works:
the body as a technology of performance, and simultaneously as a weapon for
protest and resistance. In that sense, Ibero-American poetry becomes embodied,
so that even a relatively “immaterial” modality such as conceptual art becomes
concerned with physical matter, with concrete objects, with human bodies. As
the emphasis on politics grew, real life and current events propelled art away from
pure aesthetics, from autonomy and from the rhetorical; metaphor was condemned
as formally and ideologically regressive. In this context, metaphor became all too
easily associated with the lies of the region’s dictatorships, spurring theoretical
12 Radical Poetry

debates about its use. While philosophers and theorists such as Plato, Friedrich
Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset, and Susan Sontag have warned against the insidious
danger of figurative thought as escapist, others, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Paul
Ricoeur, or George Lakoff, insist on its transformative potential. Here, I query the
work of two poets who were particularly concerned with issues of representation
and its intersection with politics, the Uruguayan visual poet and artist Clemente
Padín and the Argentine performer-poet Eduardo Antonio Vigo, both of whom
suffered during the Southern Cone’s political violence. Padín’s “Nueva Poesía”
experimented with minimalist and conceptual poems (letter poems, mail art,
nonobjective poetry), subordinating representation to a direct intervention
on reality; Vigo deployed his own body to protest against the dictatorship in
Argentina. Their poems, performances, and actions displayed the tensions between
metaphor and ideology as distortions of an unrepresentable external reality.
Chapter 3, “Digital Poetry: Metaphor’s Reprise,” marks a period of renewed
concern with the aesthetic and the affective, as new technology is fetishized
and sociopolitical issues recede somewhat to the background. With the arrival
of digital technologies, especially the personal computer and the Internet, there
has been a move toward the convergence of media (as Henry Jenkins points out
in Convergence Culture) and an increase in the hybridization of semiotic systems
(word, image, sound, gesture) recalling concerns of the historical avant-garde, as
poetry becomes more fluid, dynamic, kinetic, and, perforce, laden with metaphor.
The precision afforded by the digital has, perhaps paradoxically, intensified
poetic experimentalism by enhancing ambiguity, interactivity, nonlinearity,
immediacy, and the visual qualities of text, making script more image-like.
Establishing a dialog with New Media theorists such as Jay Bolter, Richard Grusin,
and Katherine Hayles, as well as digital poetry specialists such as Loss Pequeño
Glazier and Christopher Funkhouser, I argue that the intermedial sensibility
of experimental poetry has reinvigorated metaphor’s transformative potential.
Illustrating New Media’s formal malleability, contemporary digital poets such as
the Catalans Jordi Pope and Olga Delgado combine script, image, and sound with
motion and interactivity, optimizing the anthropomorphic potential of digital
text, which they deploy to elicit the reader’s affective response (the emphasis on
the anthropomorphic also signals a renewed interest in the embodiment of text
and poetry). Here I examine online works such as “Communication Systems,” by
Pope, a digital poem that skirts the boundary between science and poetry, and
“The Woman who Walks,” a poem by Delgado in which she draws an interactive
subway map with hyperlinks to poems about contemporary human relations.
While political concerns become less direct and no longer adopt the revolutionary
Introduction 13

characteristics of the utopian sixties, or the programmatic outlook of the first

avant-gardes, these poets nevertheless critique the historical contradictions
germane to a technoculture fully immersed in late capitalist modes of production.
The next three-chapter unit (chapters 4 to 6) coheres primarily about the
issue of the kinetic, specifically the avant-garde’s fascination with moving text
and images; closely linked to the question of metaphor through devices such
as anthropomorphism and script animation, exploring the “kinetic” becomes a
common obsession through all three periods. Chapter 4, “Modernisms on the
Move: Mechanic, Kinetic, Cinematic,” opens with the claim that the incorporation
of moving text, which ranks among the most spectacular effects of digital poetry,
results from the actualization of older print experiments with the capabilities
of New Media. Setting script in motion, I argue, realizes the kinetic aspirations
of the historical avant-gardes. In this chapter I trace the kinetic impulse in
twentieth-century Ibero-American poetry to early attempts by Futurists—such
as the Catalan Salvat-Papasseit—to make poems dynamic through typography,
images, and sound technologies. In the first part of the chapter, I establish some
links between theories of affect and kinetic effects in poetry. In addition, by
referencing the work of film theorists such as Mary Ann Doane and Tom Gunning,
I examine in particular how poets were impacted, not just by biological and
mechanical motion, but also by other significant motion technologies of their day,
notably film (moving images), but also radio (moving sound waves), as their work
transitioned from “stasis to mobility” (Doane). Through a very close reading of a
work titled “Wedding March” (1921), I analyze how Salvat-Papasseit’s poem marries
aesthetics and politics via its commitment to the anarchist cause, and its wish to
fuse the mechanical and the biological.
Once again shifting to the political dimension of experimental poetry,
Chapter 5, “Letters and Lettrism: Deconstructing the New Vanguards,” argues
that the adverse political conditions in Francoist Spain drove neo-avant-garde poets
toward a poetics of silence that reduced aesthetic expression to a minimalist use of
letters, blank pages, unreadable and crossed-out text, conjoining form and critique
in an ironic commentary against the state’s repressive censorship apparatus. In
this period the kinetic and silence go hand in hand, as quiet motion becomes a
form of dissent when discourse is policed. Three poets, the Catalan Joan Brossa,
the Uruguayan exile Julio Campal, and the Spaniard Fernando Millán, shared an
interest in blurring the boundaries separating semiotic codes (text, image, sound)
and in redeploying mass media—newspapers, radio and television advertisement—
toward instigating social and political change in Spain. Moreover, like their Latin
American counterparts, they took poetry to the street: they mimeographed,
14 Radical Poetry

performed, graffitied, and stenciled it on walls.5 Spanish neo-avant-garde poetry

became revolutionary by contesting the linguistic and bureaucratic order and by
opposing the dominant artistic and political ideology. In their poems, language is
mistreated, broken, and dismembered, reduced to phonemes and letters that no
longer signify in conventional ways, implying that the disconnect between signifier
and signified is analogous to the disjoint between political reality and appearance,
between the State’s official jargon and its actual motivations.
Chapter 6, “Latin American Digital Poetry: Animated Embodiment,” delves
into New Media’s relation to affect by examining the digital animation of text in
the work of Argentine poet Ana María Uribe and Venezuelan New Media artist
María Mencía. Uribe and Mencía’s postmodern artworks also establish a direct
link with previous traditions in a familiar pursuit to destabilize several codes and
binarisms: visual and verbal, static and kinetic, human and technological, freedom
and constraint, embodiment and disembodiment. Both Uribe and Mencía explore
how digital poetry and art engages the reader’s bodily senses and his or her affective
response, and therefore reinterpret the “kinetic” in relation to bodily effects. As
affect theorists such as Brian Massumi, Mark Hansen, and Patricia Clough have
shown, actual “reading” is only one mode activated in what is gradually becoming
a total-body experience that engages multiple senses, affective resonances, and
modes of knowing: touching, typing, viewing, reading, writing, listening, and
engaging through different peripherals.
This new attention to the body, as displayed by recent digital poetry, marks a
significant departure from past approaches to embodiment—for example, from the
sixties when the body referred to very concrete instances of political oppression.
Today, Latin American and Spanish digital poetry displays not so much a direct
concern toward the overtly political, but rather an interest in our status as humans,
and how we might mesh with the pulsating and flickering rhythms of the machine,
conceptualizing politics in terms of affect. These poets believe that the digital
might lessen that rift between our subjectivity and its being-in-the-world, making
the reader “feel” and sense a new type of poetic materiality; or, the digital might
precipitate a virtualization of the reader whose physical body might lose its fleshy
quality and become gradually indistinguishable from the pixelated objects it
contemplates. This poetry obviously represents a turn toward the posthuman.
The final three chapters (7 to 9) are centered specifically on Brazilian
experimental poetry; this intense focus on a single geographic location responds
to the special relevance this country has had in all three periods I examine, and
restores the often-neglected Lusophone component to a place of prominence within
the narrative of the Ibero-American avant-garde. Finally, these chapters allow me
Introduction 15

to revisit the previous themes (text and image, metaphor, kinetic script, and so
on) now intensely focused on one national literature. Chapter 7, “Modernismo:
Cannibalistic Appropriation and Advertisement,” returns to pressing questions
of aesthetic order, and thus opens by observing that a willingness to appropriate
and modify—to culturally cannibalize—imported models, coupled with a desire to
embrace emerging technologies, has placed Brazil, time and again, at the forefront
of artistic innovation. Brazilian modernists Tarsila do Amaral, Mário de Andrade,
and Guilherme de Almeida created Klaxon (1922), the first avant-garde magazine in
Brazil, which was notably interartistic as it included poetry, photography, sketches,
advertisements, and even film criticism. In this chapter I review visual poems
from Klaxon which doubled as product advertisement, studying how they present
their elements as spatially juxtaposed, not sequentially arranged, illustrating the
oscillation between the sequential, temporal nature of language and the innovative
spatial logic and word arrangement on the page. Doubling as product marketing,
the poems show that the avant-garde was connected, conjoined, and complicit with
advertising and borrowed from commercial publicity strategies for its aesthetic.
In fact, much of modernismo was underwritten by a cultural logic that, as Roberto
Schwarz and Antônio Cândido have observed, betrayed an inherent unease
stemming from the disjunction between pretechnological social conditions and
modern aesthetic form. By reading Klaxon’s cover and its poem-advertisements, I
show Brazilian modernism as struggling between its complicity with international
capitalism and an uncritical fetishization of “the modern,” on the one hand, and
its vindication of local and national(ist) traditions, on the other.
Returning to the fifties and sixties, Chapter 8, “Concrete Aesthetics:
Abstraction, Mass Media, and Ideology,” begins by unearthing the genealogical
antecedents of Concrete poetry and painting in European painting, especially in
the Dutch Neoplasticists (Mondrian) and the Russian Suprematists (Malevich).
The chapter then considers the association between Concrete painting and poetry
in post–World War II Brazil and their integration within an industrialized—or
rather, industrializing—society steeped in mass-media communications (television,
radio, newspapers) and gripped by ideologies of developmentalism. I show, for
instance, that the Concrete painters drew heavily on science (gestalt theory)
to create perceptual effects, such as the illusion of movement, by the precise
configurations of color and geometrical shapes on the white pictorial plane.
While also pursuing kinetic illusions, the Concrete poets endeavored to enact a
“verbivocovisual” style, encouraging readers to marshal all the senses to experience
the poetic “text.” Although the chapter’s primary concern is with its aesthetic
development, I also suggest that Concretism brought about a radical shift in
16 Radical Poetry

ways of reading and viewing ultimately linked to sociopolitical changes taking

place within Brazilian culture during the Kubitschek years, as the country was
swept by both anti-imperialist fervor and a nationalist modernizing craze. I show
how poetry plays out these tensions by analyzing poems by the Noigandres group
(Décio Pignatari, Haroldo and Augusto de Campos), and comparing them to other
international Concretists, such as the Swiss Bolivian poet Eugen Gomringer and
The final stop in this narrative, Chapter 9, “Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and
Performance,” asserts that digital poetry has joined other twenty-first-century
paradigms of artistic innovation such as performance, virtual reality, bio art,
and installation art, in adapting the visual experiments of previous local and
global avant-garde movements to New Media modalities, by incorporating sound,
enhanced dynamism, and the simultaneity afforded by the computer. Indeed,
despite its newness, Brazilian digital poetry has deliberately cannibalized (to
borrow Oswald de Andrade’s term) visual elements from both Concrete art and
modernismo. There is a structural affinity between contemporary digital poetry
and its experimental ancestors, which explains why many earlier works have
been adapted for the computer, making the journey from paper to digital. For
example, the isomorphic nature of concrete poems, as well as their inherent
capacity to suggest movement, makes them ideal for digitalization. Following
Bolter and Grusin’s concept of “remediation,” I examine how digital media
(poetry) enters into a symbiotic relationship with older media, appropriating and
reelaborating the strategies of representation from print, television, and film.
Moreover digital poetry’s capacity for “morphing”—the seamless transformation
of shapes afforded by the plastic and filmic nature of the digital—allows the
actualization of avant-garde metaphors of movement, endowing the poetic image,
formerly confined to the imagination of the reader, with augmented visualization
capabilities. The symbiosis between image and script, human and machine, digital
and analog become topics for poetic exploration both off and online. The chapter
counters accounts that characterize digital art as espousing an uncritical, shallow,
and triumphalist vision of techno-progress, one that fails to acknowledge historical
conditions and real-life inequalities. Instead, the artists I examine, Brazilians
Eduardo Kac and Arnaldo Antunes, are ethically and historically aware poets who
dialog with social issues such as poverty, injustice, and the increasing devaluation
of human life.
The conclusion, “Toward a Radical Aesthetics?” brings the book to a close by
reassessing how these poetic projects also represent a radical potential in what
we might consider a cyclical (revolutionary) return of the avant-garde in cultural
Introduction 17

work (aesthetically, but oftentimes also politically), whose latest incarnation is

the “digital,” but whose future remains open to any and all experiments, whether
bio art, holographic poetry, augmented reality, or some unforeseen future
techno-artistic development. Digital literature from Ibero-American peripheries
counters technocultural concepts of teleological progress by offering works that
are geographically decentered and temporally ambiguous, the product of an uneven
and troubled postmodernity. Decenteredness in poetry and action may prove to
be the radical alternative needed to challenge established ideologies in our time.
On a final note, I would like to clarify the rationale behind my selection of
works. As I have intimated throughout this introduction, the selection of poets
and poems I include in this book was guided by my intent to have a varied
sampling of experimental poetry that would at once demonstrate the common
pursuits, aesthetic and otherwise, displayed by the international Ibero-American
avant-gardes, and to also offer particular glimpses into their regional and local
characteristics. Such a wide-ranging selection is perforce incomplete, its limits set
by the scope and length of the project, which is intentionally broad.
It is also important to clarify that although I contextualize the works I analyze,
rather than detailed biographies or lengthy descriptions of movements I focus
in depth on a small selection of works by poets from throughout the region.
Reading them closely yields rich interpretations that can be calibrated with the
sociohistorical events surrounding the genesis of each poem. There are many other
works that deal with specific periods, countries, and movements; this book is not
a catalog of isms, my aim is, precisely, to offer a macro view that connects the rich
history of the Ibero-American avant-garde with our own digital moment. I hope
that, despite its limits, Radical Poetry will inspire readers to fill in the blanks, to
delve further into the biographies and works of the poets I included, and of those
whom I only mention briefly but who also merit more attention in future studies
of the avant-garde.
As I aim to show, these poets were chosen because they were precursors and
innovators internationally and within their own national avant-gardes; thus, the
Mexican José Juan Tablada, credited with introducing haiku to the Americas,
preceded all other Mexican movements (i.e., the Muralists, the Estridentistas, and
the Contemporáneos), anticipating many of their own experiments and concerns.
Similarly, the Catalan poets Josep Maria Junoy and Joan Salvat-Papasseit were at
the forefront of both Catalan and Spanish avant-gardism, representing the first
stirrings of Futurism in the Iberian Peninsula. I also selected those poets in the
neo-avant-garde period that stood out singularly for their commitment to art
and political resistance: the Uruguayan Clemente Padín, the Argentine Edgardo
18 Radical Poetry

Antonio Vigo, the Spaniard Fernando Millán, the Uruguayan Julio Campal, and
the Catalan Joan Brossa, among others. For every period there are many other
deserving poets whom I might have included in the list. To the chapters on the
historical avant-gardes I might have added the Mexican Manuel Maples Arce, the
Peruvian César Vallejo, or the Argentine Oliverio Girondo, or indeed, the Chilean
Vicente Huidobro, all of them precursors in their own right in deploying a new
visual, spatialized poetry and spearheading the inclusion of new technologies
thematically and formally in Ibero-American poetry. The same could be said
for the many neo-avant-gardists I might have added, such as Octavio Paz whose
“signs in rotation” embodied a truly revolutionary poetry, as characterized by the
poems “Piedra de Sol” (1957), “Blanco” (1967), or the “Discos Visuales” (1968), or the
neo-Concrete poet Ferreira Gullar whose “Poema Sujo” (1976) written while in exile,
remains to this day one of the most evocative and seamless fusions of eroticism,
politics, and aesthetic self-reflexivity in Brazilian letters. Inevitably, much was also
left out from the sections on digital poetry. I leave a more comprehensive work
focused exclusively on contemporary digital poetics in Ibero-America as a future
project, one in which other notable names will be included, such as the Argentine
Belén Gache and her deeply ironic net poetry, the Mexican Eugenio Tiselli and his
randomized computer poems, or the sophisticated multimedia poetry of Brazilian
André Vallias. Although a specialized text focused exclusively on Ibero-American
digital poetry is warranted, I felt it was critical to first establish through this
volume a genealogical linkage between those contemporary experiments and
the rich Ibero-American tradition that came before, to avoid the misconception
that our digital poetry and art is merely derivative from its North American and
European counterparts. Besides the intentional emphasis given to Brazil, for
reasons already mentioned, several Catalan poets have been included, perhaps
proportionately more than would correspond to a small nation, and yet with that
gesture I seek to redress their generalized erasure from Ibero-American avant-garde
studies, as if the Catalan language precluded their poetry from inclusion despite
its many affinities with Mexican, Argentine, or for that matter, Spanish works.
The Historical Avant-Gardes
Futurist Metaphors

Introduction: Text and Image before the Digital

espite the varied nature of the avant-gardes I examine in this book—from
Futurism to Constructivism, to Lettrism, Concretism and digital poetry—
and of their geographical and ideological specificity, they all shared a
preoccupation with the ever-shifting status of the visible versus the readable,
the complex relationship between text and image. Each movement experimented
with intersemiotic relations in the arts and, in turn, with the links established
between sign systems and different media platforms: the page, the canvas, or the
screen. This gets at the heart of the notion of “experimental,” the idea that, despite
their particular stylistic approaches, avant-garde movements are fundamentally
vested in exploring boundaries and effects, in expanding the understanding of
genre, taking poetry to exhilarating extremes where it begins to disintegrate,
becoming something other than itself. Such poetic experiments represent, at least
implicitly, a critique of the status quo. Accordingly, the aesthetic and ideolog-
ical aspects of script-image interaction have received close critical attention in
important studies such as W. J. T. Mitchell’s Iconology, Image, Text, Ideology (1986) or
Wendy Steiner’s The Colors of Rhetoric (1982), two of the primary texts in the study
of intersemiotic relations.1 Mitchell, for instance, delves into the lengthy tradition
bent on keeping script and image as separate entities, exploring the interests served
by this polemic, and explains that “the relationship between words and images
reflects, within the realm of representation, signification and communication,
the relations we posit between symbols and the world, signs and their meanings”
(Iconology 43).

20 Radical Poetry

Indeed, much ink has been spilled with regard to the relationship between text
(script) and image, one of the fundamental aesthetic problems tackled by twen-
tieth- and twenty-first-century experimental poetry of the avant-gardes. In order
to understand why the interaction between text, image, and, to a lesser extent,
sound, has been a central issue in experimental poetry for more than a century, I
survey, over the next three chapters, a period that spans from the first avant-gar-
de’s visual poetry, through 1960s experimental poetry—Concretism, Lettrism,
phonetic and process poetry—and culminating in today’s digital poetry.2 To be
able to contextualize the relationship between images and written words requires
understanding, at least on a schematic level, how the analogy between the visual
arts (painting, photography, film) and the verbal arts (poetry, prose) has changed
through time. In this first chapter, I investigate how metaphors, both visual and
aural, played a key role in the at times seamless fusion, but also dissonance and
tension, between verbal and visual meaning in the experimental poetry of the
historical avant-gardes, lasting approximately from 1900 until 1930. Chapters 2
and 3 examine the same issue in later periods. These first three chapters represent,
therefore, a coherent, closely knit unit dedicated to tracing (via three intercon-
nected yet distinct temporal nodes) the uses of metaphor as a device deployed by
the avant-gardes to exceed the limits of media and genre and increase the porous
interactions between text, image, and sound.
The inter-artistic analogy (the study of relations between two or more arts)
can be traced to a phrase in Horace’s Ars Poetica, his well-known simile ut pictura
poesis, which roughly translates: “as is painting, so is poetry.” Horace’s dictum was
understood as espousing the belief that painting and poetry are not, in essence,
different. The phrase later inspired many Renaissance artists—polymaths such as
Leonardo, Michelangelo, or Brunelleschi—who fervently believed in the proximity
of the arts. According to art theorist Rensselaer W. Lee, the belief in inter-artistic
kinship between poetry and painting was central to Renaissance thought, and
the “sister arts” as they became affectionately known, were understood to differ
“in means and manner of expression, but were considered almost identical in
fundamental nature, in content, and in purpose” (197). Applying a broad meaning
of poiesis as creation, some early modern theorists considered any composition,
whether a painting, sculpture, or prose, to be poetry, pushing the analogy to efface
any essential difference between the arts. The desire for artistic synthesis led to
tendentious differences in how art was viewed, read, and understood.
With the Enlightenment, there was a sharp epistemic shift that tore the
“sister arts” asunder. In his widely read polemic, Laocoön: An Essay upon the
Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766), German philosopher and art critic Gotthold
The Historical Avant-Gardes 21

E. Lessing dealt a blow to the sisterhood of the visual and verbal arts. Focusing
on the differences rather than the similarities between poetry and painting,
as well as sculpture and architecture, Lessing advocated for the “purity” and
separate nature of the arts, which, in his view, needed to be rationally and
taxonomically policed by limits and clear-cut categories. Lessing’s zealous
understanding of purity meant respecting medium specificity: an artwork in one
medium (say, painting) should not be contaminated by the influence of another
medium (say, poetry), instituting a strict segregation between words and images.
This separation was based on what he saw as an irreconcilable difference, that
painting was spatial and poetry was temporal. Of course, this difference hinges
on the erroneous idea that spatial art is experienced only after its creation, while
the temporal is experienced only as it unfolds in time, as it comes into being; the
fallacy in Lessing’s perspective stems from not taking into account poetry that is
meant to be seen spatially, or painting, such as action painting, that emphasizes
its process and temporality.
I would suggest that, although important differences between the arts do
exist, so do grounds for a metaphoric treatment of the relationship between
script and image. Metaphor is one of the keys to bringing the individual arts
closer together. But, what sort of device is metaphor, how can it bring closer
together different artistic systems? Metaphor might be defined as a verbal
construction or figure of speech that illustrates analogical relations between
two different concepts, making those similarities more vivid. Along these lines,
in an essay entitled “La metáfora” (“Metaphor”) (published in Cosmópolis, Madrid,
1921), Jorge Luis Borges, who claimed the device was the most significant trope
for Ultraismo, defined it as “una identificación voluntaria de dos o más conceptos
distintos, con la finalidad de [estimular] emociones [a voluntary identification
between two or more different concepts, with the purpose of (stimulating)
emotions]” (Textos recobrados 115). This association between the emotional or
affective and metaphor, to which we shall return, also taps into the importance
of motion and movement, of the kinetic. In the same essay, Borges affirms that
metaphor can establish links between the visual, the textual, and the aural, and
that it may also succeed in creating images that transmute “las percepciones
estáticas en percepciones dinámicas [static perceptions into dynamic ones]”
(118). 3 Alternatively, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in Metaphors We Live
By (1980), define it as “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in
terms of another” (5). Metaphor, therefore, is a malleable device that might be
used to translate the visual into the scriptural (or vice versa), and to analyze
similarities, differences, and other correspondences between script and image.
22 Radical Poetry

This explains why metaphor and its use in poetry, painting, and film has been
among the principal aesthetic preoccupations of the avant-gardes (for poets such
as Vicente Huidobro, Oliverio Girondo, César Vallejo, and, obviously, Borges
himself), and, as I will argue throughout this book, has gone hand in hand with
their exploration of inter-artistic relations in works where text, image, and sound
commingle promiscuously.
This commingling of the arts has sparked contentious debates. Following
Lessing, post–World War II critics such as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried
produced theories of “medium specificity” to enforce the division of the arts.
Greenberg famously insisted that “a modernist work of art must try, in principle,
to avoid dependence upon any order of experience not given in the most essentially
construed nature of its medium. . . . The arts are to achieve concreteness, ‘purity,’
by acting solely in terms of their separate and irreducible selves” (139). For
Greenberg, the nature of a medium (writing, painting, film), its physical properties,
determines the form each art should strive toward, which in turn depends on the
effects the medium can best achieve: thus, painting should be flat and spatial;
writing should be linear and temporal. As the twentieth century progressed
(especially post-1960), our understanding of “medium” became increasingly
complex, encouraging a hybridization of the arts that relativized concepts of genre
and artistic purity. Today, calls to separate media and establish clear divisions
between the arts have been rendered irrelevant by the increased intermediality
brought about by the digital arts. By intermediality, I am referring to the instance
in which different media are bound or combined with one another so that they are
simultaneously and heterogeneously present, maintaining traces of their separate
forms but also displaying new characteristics. An example is the way collage brings
together painting, photography, and objects of everyday life; or how new media
arts create composites from photography, film, and written text. Of course, media
are always already composites of other media and materials, further complicating
the definition of “medium.”
However, just because the categories of text and image have been destabilized
does not mean that an inter-artistic analysis of twentieth and twenty-first-century
poetics is unproblematic. Negotiations of medium and genre are further compli-
cated by the following question: How can we establish comparisons between the
arts of the historical avant-gardes, considered as “traditionally” analog modes of
representation, and our contemporary modes of digital production—digital poetry
or art—which are supposedly ontologically different? One possibility is to consider
the intriguing notion that “digitality might be embedded in analogicity (and
perhaps vice versa in an ongoing recursion-regress?)” (73), as Whitney Davis posits.
The Historical Avant-Gardes 23

As we shall see throughout this book, increasingly indiscernible, and often

hybrid, the digital and the analog commingle in contemporary art, resulting in a
partial de-differentiation of the terms—a loss of specialization in form or function.
Materiality (of print, of objects, of the digital) is a critical concept here, as the
physicality of matter, of bodies, is interpenetrated by the virtual, the digital, by
data and information. Careful attention to materiality shows that the process of
de-differentiation is never fully complete, with persistent traces of the analog in
the digital and vice-versa, but Davis insists that, “the representational value of
their distinction (if any remains) can only be generated figuratively in analogies
to this condition” (84). Davis privileges the figurative over the materiality of both
analog and digital, suggesting that the only way to define either category (digital or
analog) is through metaphor (analogy). This claim seems overstated and dismissive
of physical differences that can be at times blurred but still persist.
Despite his inattention to the material, Davis’s claim shows great value on
two fronts. First, he foregrounds the importance of metaphor to bridge the gap
between seemingly incompatible systems, in this case analog and digital, but by
extension (and following Borges), word and image, or literature and painting.
Second, his concept of a hybrid recursivity between analog and digital is worth
considering. A recursivity that recycles the digital (processed by a computer and
coded in binary, discrete units) into the analog (processed by a human and coded
in continuous units) and back, is precisely what contemporary artistic practice is
all about. Recursivity easily links to Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s concept of
remediation as a reworking or reusing of old media by new media. “All current
media,” they write, “function as remediators, and remediation offers us a means
of interpreting the work of earlier media as well” (345). The digital has remediated
the analog by including formerly analog genres—photographs, paintings, films,
literature—within new digital formats. In turn, Bolter and Grusin claim that the
analog has mutated to mimic the appearance of the digital, as with television’s
use of multiple windows, a strategy adopted from Internet with aesthetic and
commercial implications. In the hybrid environment of contemporary media,
the supposed ontological differences between analog and digital are increasingly
As we can see, comparing the poetry of the early-twentieth-century avant-garde,
neo-avant-garde, and digital avant-garde entails exploring the boundaries
(temporal, spatial, technical, and aesthetic), and overlapping spaces between the
arts. How do the avant-gardes combine painting, poetry, and other arts? How
do strategies from one art apply to the other? We will also study, in Mitchell’s
words, “the social construction of visual experience” (Picture Theory 35), asking,
24 Radical Poetry

How have political and social forces shaped the relations between different arts?
The first three chapters of this book analyze poetry from the three periods in
question to better understand the critical role played by metaphor in the blurring
of the text-image-sound divide: Chapter 1 looks at Josep Maria Junoy (Catalonia)
and José Juan Tablada (Mexico), two early-twentieth-century poets who shared
an internationalist and intercultural outlook and attempted to fuse script and
image through elaborate verbal and visual metaphors. They were a part of the
international exchanges, the translations (a term closely related to translatio, to
metaphor) and movements between nations, between systems and codes, living
in a period of frenetic and simultaneous activity that Marjorie Perloff dubs the
“futurist moment.” Junoy’s and Tablada’s poetry, in addition to sharing the futurist
obsession for new inventions (automobiles, airplanes, radio) and for international
travel, also shared an Orientalist tendency, product of a colonialist perspective, for
Tablada, as a wealthy criollo (who traced his ancestry to Spain) and supporter of
the Porfiriato, and for Junoy, as a Catalan nationalist; for both, it was an obsession
about the “exotic” periphery from their own periphery (Mexico and Catalonia/
Spain, in relation to North America and Europe). Then, recalling an antimetaphoric
turn during the militant 1950s to the ’70s, chapter 2 studies the subversive art
of two Southern Cone poets, Clemente Padín and Edgardo Vigo. In chapter 3, I
examine how contemporary digital poetry by Jordi Pope and Olga Delgado (both
Catalan) adopts metaphor once again to expand on the visual and typographic
experiments of past avant-gardes through new capabilities afforded by the digital
computer. The coherent focus of these three chapters resides in their analysis of
the interplay between metaphor (not restricted to the linguistic) with semiotic
systems, occurring in specific geopolitical contexts (Mexico, Spain, Argentina,
Uruguay) that inform poets’ attitudes toward these poetic devices.

Josep Maria Junoy’s Visual Poetry and Futurist Haikus

Many prominent Catalan avant-garde poets, inspired by the incessant motion of

modern life, began to mobilize poetic language itself, to take it beyond phonetic
and textual signification and toward a poetics of visuality, seeking to “paint” with
words, letters, and symbols; to live the inter-artistic analogy. Obviously, these
inter-artistic projects were not always married to the same ideological positions,
proving the link between radical politics and aesthetics as tenuous for the historical
avant-gardes. Whereas some poets such as the avowed anarchist Salvat-Papasseit
(discussed in chapter 4) were politically progressive, another prominent avant-garde
poet, Josep Maria Junoy (1887–1955), was profoundly Catholic, politically
The Historical Avant-Gardes 25

conservative, and a devoted monarchist. Divided by politics and social class,

however, these two artists shared a pro–Catalan nationalist sentiment that set
them apart from the rest of Spain’s avant-gardes. They also shared a common
linguistic project that hinged on promoting the Catalan language and culture,
which had suffered under centralist rule and had only begun to flourish again in
the nineteenth century.4
Trained as a journalist and artist, Junoy belonged to the wealthy Catalan bour-
geoisie. His privileged background allowed him, as a young man in 1903–04, to
work as an art dealer and bookseller in Paris, where he was influenced by the latest
currents: Impressionism, Fauvism, Symbolism, Realism, and the first embers of
Cubism. Upon his return from Paris, Junoy became an art critic writing about
Futurism and Cubism in Catalan periodicals such as La Publicitat. In 1912, Junoy
organized an impressive Cubist exhibition at the famed Galeries Dalmau in Barce-
lona, counting on the participation of internationally renowned artists such as
Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Marie Laurencin, Marcel Duchamp, and Juan
Gris, among others, many of whom visited or lived in Barcelona. Indeed, between
1914 and 1916, Barcelona became an important locus for the avant-garde because
of the influx of artists dislocated by the Great War as well as Latin Americans
who wanted to soak up the European art scene. The exchanges that took place
in Barcelona between European (Spanish, Catalan, French, Russian) and Latin
American artists would result in a mutual influence that left an indelible mark in
every aspect of avant-garde production. In Madrid there was an equally dynamic
scene during those years, which was formed around the Spaniard Ramón Gómez
de la Serna’s weekly gatherings (tertulias) and included several Latin American
avant-gardists: the Argentines Jorge Luis Borges and his sister Norah Borges, the
Mexican Diego Rivera, the Chilean Vicente Huidobro, and, shuttling back and forth
between Madrid and Barcelona, the Uruguayan painters Joaquín Torres-García and
Rafael Barradas, and although, as Aránzazu Ascunce observes, “the Avant-Garde in
Barcelona emerged from a very specific political and cultural context that differs
significantly from Madrid’s” (69), nevertheless, “there was a significant amount of
communication taking place between avant-garde actors representing Barcelona
and Madrid” (71).5
This Ibero-American intermingling, a veritable movable literary and artistic
feast, would only intensify over the next decades as more Latin American
avant-garde artists traveled to Spain (and also to Paris, New York, Berlin, and so
on), among them the poets César Vallejo (Peru), Pablo Neruda (Chile), Nicolás
Guillén (Cuba), and Octavio Paz (Mexico), or painters such as Wifredo Lam (Cuba).
There is a restless, harried quality to many of the works of the first avant-gardes,
26 Radical Poetry

a preoccupation with incessant motion, with kinetic effects (applied to text, as we

shall see with Papasseit, also to images, as we shall see with Tablada and others)
that is undoubtedly related to both the excitement of the new technologies of
motion, but also to their unremitting traveling and criss-crossing of air, land, and
oceans. Space was being defied, indeed “conquered” in every sense during this
period, simultaneity was becoming possible, and artists wished for everything to
become dynamic, animated, kinetic, at times explosive. Politics were also mutable,
in flux: cosmopolitanism and internationalism uneasily mixed with nationalism
and separatism. These were conflicting feelings that stemmed from a life in motion,
from poets and artists who were defined by constant change, by a desire to keep
“making it new,” and in whom rootedness and deracination coexisted as a mark of
their tumultuous times and peripatetic lives. Needless to say, all this movement
became a key element in the content, style, and technological devices employed
to create and inspire avant-garde art, increasingly animated, kinetic, cinematic.
In 1916, inspired by this cultural effervescence, Junoy published the inaugural
issue of Troços (Fragments), a magazine that presented a series of visual poems
dedicated to many of those visiting artists, such as Pere Ynglada, Albert Gleizes,
Hélène Grunhoff, and Serge Charchounne (Bohn, Aesthetics 85–88; Ynglada 71–80).
We can witness this internationalism—which nevertheless retains its Catalan
specificity—in one of Junoy’s paradigmatic visual poems, published in Troços
(see Figure 1.1). I will expand Willard Bohn’s short but well-informed analysis
of the poem in his Aesthetics of Visual Poetry (1986). It is worth paying further
attention to its visual and textual metaphors, characteristic of the early
avant-gardes’ skillful use of that trope, admired by Borges as the essence of
poetry. The poem is dedicated to the now-forgotten painter Pere Ynglada
(1881–1958), a close friend of Junoy’s born in Cuba to Catalan parents. A skilled
draughtsman, Ynglada was known for his sketches of circus scenes and galloping
horses, executed in a loose style that imitated Chinese and Japanese ink brush
drawings. Junoy’s poem is a tribute to his friend and a formally innovative work,
one that complicates the referential connection between signifier and signified.
It represents a link in the passage from traditional verse to ideogrammatic or
visual poetry, a watershed moment for the Catalan, and by extension Spanish
and European, avant-gardes, preceding Apollinaire’s Calligrammes (written
1913–16, pub. 1918) and Ezra Pound’s use of ideograms in the Cantos (1922). It
is also among the first appropriations of advertising for poetic purposes, a
strategy that recurs often in the poetry we examine. The poem situates Junoy
and Ynglada squarely in the ranks of the refined bourgeoisie they belonged to,
far from the leftist poems by Papasseit and other working-class avant-gardists.
Figure 1.1. Josep M. Junoy. “Ynglada” (“A Portrait of Ynglada”).
Biblioteca de Catalunya. Barcelona, Spain.
28 Radical Poetry

Looking at the poem, on the right side of the page there is an advertising logo
that provides the first clue about Pere Ynglada, the subject of the poem. As Bohn
identified in his analysis, it is the logo of a well-known English hat company,
James Lock and Co., a manufacturer of luxury hats founded in 1676. Written in
Catalan, as with most of Junoy’s poetry a sign of his nationalist identification with
Catalonia, the content nevertheless also betrays a great deal of cosmopolitism as
the many “international” elements indicate. For instance, the internationalization
of Pere’s name to the French form Pierre introduces another referential aspect into
the poem by alluding to Ynglada’s long stays in Paris.
The poem functions as a referential description of Junoy’s friend by juxtaposing
two different elements, one strictly verbal (the script poem), one both verbal and
pictorial (the logo). Bohn comments that in Junoy’s poem “decoration is juxtaposed
with denotation” (Aesthetics 86), so that some lines of free verse are placed next
to the deconstructed logo. Yet, the poetic text is not exclusively verbal, nor is the
design entirely pictorial. The poem on the left seems to be arranged to visually
counterbalance, compete with, even dislocate the advertising design on the right,
which contains various types of script. Both elements remain in a state of visual
tension, and in both, the verbal and the iconic elements illuminate, even “illustrate”
each other. Also in productive tension is the conflation of the type from the old,
hand-operated printing press of the hat logo (prior to 1800) and the newer type
(product of a mechanized press), the cohabitation of different eras (as well as
geographical areas, and cities: Barcelona, Paris, London) through the juxtaposition
of different printing codes. Such printing codes are a fascinating reminder of
the domination of the alphabet over other visual codes in the aftermath of the
development of the printing press. By including these printing codes, Junoy evokes
the long history of typographic media, a tradition that, as an avant-gardist, he
intends to both uphold and disrupt.
There is much more happening graphically in this poem, as the hinge point
where the two halves of the logo intersect echoes the conjunction “i” [and] in
the irregular haiku on the left. This conjunction amid disjunction functions as
a point of both articulation and disarticulation, as language itself is cut apart,
bisected. Indicative of the resilience of the linguistic, a point of contact remains,
and the lowest point in the upper semicircle is also the highest point in the lower
half. Bearing some resemblance to the Xiantian taijitu, the yin and yang symbol,
the play of the split logo sections creates a serpentine “s” shape, echoed by the
curlicues inside the logo itself. Undulating lines that seem to ensnare the letters
(script) indicate a playful seesawing between the figurative and the verbal. The
haiku evokes several idyllic mental images and reads as follows:
The Historical Avant-Gardes 29

Jardí a la francesa
Estança de Racan
Maduixes en crema d’Isigny
del distant Japó
Herbari Lineal

[French garden
Stanza by Racan
Strawberries in cream from Isigny
from distant Japan
Lineal Herbarium]

Bohn’s analysis describes this haiku as seven conventionally arranged and

unrhymed lines of poetry (Aesthetics 86). The poem does in fact read left to right
and the words are not arranged strictly for their visual effects as in later poems by
Junoy. Nevertheless, the poem’s use of word and image is quite unconventional.
Juxtaposing the poetic text with the logo (and the lineal with the circular, or the
straight and the curved) creates an elegant but asymmetric visual arrangement
providing the poem with a decentered and dislocated sensation of fragmentation,
of Cubist simultaneity, while maintaining a taut relationship between image
and text.
In spite of the almost spectacular (and specular) prominence of its spatial and
visual aspects, the poem does not discard meaning or denotative value, as will be
the case with later experimental poetry, which will press on toward an erasure of
sense, or its separation from both graphic sign and from sound. The poem formally
prefigures Junoy’s later haiku production, adumbrated in the reference to “distant
Japó,” (distant Japan). Haiku’s influence on Junoy’s poetry coincides with Ynglada’s
aesthetic penchant for Sino-Japanese art, which he imitated with the elegant line of
his ink drawings. Through poetry, Junoy “paints” a portrait of Ynglada, presenting
both “halves” of his friend’s aesthetic inspiration, the European (the English hat,
the French cream) and the Japanese. Skillfully evoked by Junoy, the painter is
metonymically present through the hat logo as well as metaphorically through
his penchant for japonerie. The polysemic verses “del distant Japó / un / Herbari
Lineal [from distant Japan / a / Lineal Herbarium],” might be a reference not just to
30 Radical Poetry

Japanese gardens but also to Ynglada’s black ink and brush “Orientalist” sketches,
and to Junoy’s own obsession with haiku.
Examining the verse distribution we see that the central “i” (which in Catalan
means “and”) articulates or provides a hinge for the poem’s many dual structures:
the upper and lower sections of the haiku, the “pictoric” and script elements, the
Western and the supposedly non-Western. The upper three verses describe Western
images of refined luxury (the French Garden, Racan’s seventeenth-century poetry,
which refers to an obscure French aristocrat-poet Honorat de Bueil, seigneur de
Racan, French strawberries with cream from Isigny—a premium dairy product
from Isigny, Normandy), while the verses below deal with topoi of “oriental”
refinement (the Japanese art garden, and indirectly, Ynglada’s “Asian”-style art).
Why this obsession with the East, we might ask? Was this resurgence of
Orientalism an atavistic throwback to nineteenth-century colonialist art as
exemplified by French Romanticism or Latin American and Iberian modernismo? I
would suggest instead that the literary vanguards’ renewed attentiveness to East
Asian art stemmed in part from an obsession with the visual characteristics of
letters, whether handwritten or typeset, and, as they saw it, the apparent ease with
which representation and signification were synthesized in so-called pictographic
systems in China and Japan.6 The avant-gardists, especially the Imagists in
England, and notably Ezra Pound, believed that in the Far East, language and
the visual arts were in close contact through haiku and calligraphy. Ideograms,
they argued, are both scriptural and pictorial. The same can be said for the haiga,
a minimalist, restrained calligraphy-style painting associated with, and often
accompanying haiku (Zolbrod 44). The Imagists insisted that Chinese script is
iconic because its characters are based on pictures that retain a visual, and arguably
natural, link to their referents.
This obsession with the integration of sign and referent followed at least
two paths: one, a pictographic approach, that of the calligrammes, where lines of
poetry are shaped as objects. The other, more abstract approach, relied on less
direct strategies based on metaphor, closer to Pound’s use of ideograms and best
exemplified by Brazilian concrete poetry in the fifties and sixties and anticipated
by Junoy. Although Junoy’s poem might also have been influenced by Apollinaire’s
earliest calligrammes, dating back to 1913, Bohn points to their differences. “Junoy’s
version” he writes, “does not resemble the French prototype. Predominantly
abstract, it rejects the figurative bias of the latter, its fascination with objects, and
its pictorial structure” (Aesthetics 86). Unlike Apollinaire’s calligrammes, Junoy’s
does not rely on spatialized words in order to create a referential pictorial image.7
Rather, the hat logo objectivizes the materiality of print: the nonfigurative letter
The Historical Avant-Gardes 31

types and the varied font styles of the logo call attention to their graphic, decorative
function, as material objects worthy of notice for their own sake. The logo also
calls attention to script as a signifier that can be visually interpreted by the viewer
without the need to read the actual text (on the logo) or process its semantic
content: the symbol can be recognized rather than read. The contemporary reader/
viewer would have instantly recognized such a symbol of “wealth and elegance”
(Aesthetics 87), signifying the oldest luxury hatter in London, and hence understood
it to stand both metaphorically and metonymically for the dandy Ynglada. The
reader can choose to interpret the words as words, or as image, or both. A sense
of the poem can best be surmised by considering the tension between haiku and
advertising logo, which operate at different levels of referentiality. Through the
operations of metaphor and metonymy already described, language is disassembled
and reassembled from its fragments into an unstable visual “totality,” and visual
form is then interpreted through its implicit message.
Junoy’s poetry challenges readers to go beyond conventional linear reading
methods and shift toward an active engagement with the text that relies on both
spatial and temporal apprehension. In his poems, words and images become highly
associative, metaphoric, and as such, open to multivalent signification. Syntax
becomes fragmented, even at the level of the individual word (note the words and
even letters split in two by the severed hat logo). All that visual fragmentation
triggers a performative dimension, as the reader must pay close attention to the
mise-en-page, becoming a kind-of performer of the poem, traversing it spatially
as well as temporally, with his senses. With visual poetry the reading experience
itself becomes highly individualized, and its actual process is a hybrid of different
modes: it is likely that there are many in-between positions, neither “reading”
nor “viewing,” but rather some other fractured or fragmentary procedure. These
first experiments of the avant-garde blur the word-image distinction in ways that
challenge the ontological nature of both. One might consider a continuum of
“textuality” with “texts” at one end showcasing a mostly verbal and nonvisual
arrangement of type, while at the opposite end there would be “texts” that reveal
their information mostly or even only through visual cues, perhaps even images.
It would not be a linear spectrum but rather a series of overlapping territories that
would accommodate Junoy’s poem somewhere in between the “either/or” verbal
and visual edges. In such an overlapping if highly fractured region between the
verbal and the visual, temporary cohesion might be found when connections are
established between the fragments either at the level of content or the level of
form (expression). An example of this uneasy cohesion at the level of content is
the associations between the words of the haiku (its rarefied elite references) and
32 Radical Poetry

the status of the hat logo as also a symbol of elitism. Admittedly, there are other
political and ideological implications that also map onto these associations. At the
level of form one might cite the use of the “i” to join the two halves of the haiku,
and its visual relation to the point of intersection between the logo’s semicircles.
These elements allow for semantic interaction between the visual and verbal levels,
thereby increasing the force of the associations and the coherence of meaning.
Alternatively, the same mechanisms might serve to contradict, separate, fracture,
or negate intersemiotic relations, resulting in a shifting terrain that is ruled by
metaphoric thinking.
While I began the chapter with Junoy, partly because of his “privileged” position
as one of the first practitioners of experimental writing in the twentieth century,
other contemporary poets in Spain and Latin America were exploring the nexus
between the visual and the scriptural—Joan Salvat-Papasseit (whom I examine in
chapter 4), Guillermo de Torre, Marius de Zayas, and Vicente Huidobro, just to
name a few—and several were also using haiku as a vehicle for these investigations.
In Spain, Antonio Machado, Ramón Gómez de la Serna, and later Juan Ramón
Jiménez, cultivated haiku-inspired short form poetry (Rabasso 204–205).
Crossing the Atlantic, to Mexico, we find José Juan Tablada, a poet who combined
haiku with other visual devices such as sketches and calligrams to provide the
beginnings of a new poetry that, unlike Italian Futurism or Iberian Ultraismo, did
not dismiss past traditions. Both Tablada and Junoy reaffirm Bürger’s statement
that “the position of individual avant-garde movements vis-à-vis tradition varies
considerably” (“Avant-garde” 704). In some cases, such as Italian Futurism, there
was outright rejection, others, like the Surrealists, created a countercanon, and
others reinscribed new approaches within indigeneous and primitivist “traditions.”

Synthesis and Fragmentation

in the Poetry of José Juan Tablada (Mexico)

The stylistic affinities between Junoy and the Mexican José Juan Tablada (1871–
1945), two poets who had parallel experimental trajectories and shared artistic
concerns, suggest a potentially productive juxtaposition of their work that
enables understanding some of the multidirectional flows of vanguardist activity
across the Atlantic, a crucial task since, as Cecilia Enjuto explains, “avant-garde
poetics, and the friendships that emerged, were fundamental to the Transatlantic
re-conceptualization of the literary and political relations between Latin America
and Spain” (16). Mobility, circulation, international exchange; Tablada’s and
Junoy’s poetic innovations stem partially from their travel experiences, from their
The Historical Avant-Gardes 33

translation efforts (from one language to another, from one code to another, from
textual to visual), making displacement and mobility key elements of their poetics,
as they explored forms such as visual poetry or the haiku.
Admittedly, Tablada is perhaps not the most radical experimenter when one
thinks of the Latin American avant-gardes; that title might belong to Vicente
Huidobro, whose long poem Altazor (1931) progressively disintegrates language
and negates the very possibility for a lyrical voice, or to Oliverio Girondo who,
despite the violent sexism of his poetry, “tests the boundaries of poetic discourse”
(Kuhnheim, Gender 48), or to César Vallejo, whose groundbreaking Trilce (1922)
demonstrates a “recognizably avant-garde aesthetic, featuring typographical
play, fragmented lines, and the jolting mimesis of disconnected street sounds”
(Clayton 55). But Tablada, who traveled extensively to Japan, and who frequented
the art scene in New York, is a prime precursor to those (arguably) more “radical”
poets, and a critical influence for others who came later, like Octavio Paz or
Nicanor Parra. Tablada’s haiku and visual poetry predates efforts at renewal
initiated by Mexican avant-garde groups such as the Estridentistas (c. 1921) or the
Contemporáneos (c. 1928). He deserves, therefore, greater attention for his role as
a detonant and promoter for the avant-gardes, especially in Mexico, but also in
Ibero-America at large.8
Tablada explored the possibilities of visual poetry and metaphor through haiku,
almost concurrently with Junoy, although the two never actually met. Tablada,
a Mexican diplomat who lived in numerous countries (in America and Europe),
visited Japan c. 1900 as a reporter for the Mexican periodical Revista Moderna;
in that country he learned about Japanese art and Zen Buddhism, which left
indelible marks on his work (Ota, “La influencia” 136; Buxó 12). Tablada’s trip took
place during the Porfiriato, when the Mexican government wanted to emulate
Japan’s technological and industrial modernization (Buxó 12). His interest in
Japanese art also linked him to the European avant-gardes, and while in Paris,
Tablada discussed haiku with Apollinaire (Hadman 11). Critics credit Tablada with
introducing a modified version of Japanese haiku into Latin America, a fact that
bonds him to Junoy’s own lifelong interest in Japanese verse (Mata 112; Hadman
14–15; Hokenson 707; Ota, “La influencia” 134).
Like other poets at the vanguard, Tablada’s first forays into poetry were part
of a transitional second wave of turn-of-the-century Latin American modernismo
spanning approximately from 1900 until 1910 (not to be confused with the English
term modernism).9 His first anthology, El florilegio (1899), was a work characteristic
of the late modernista phase, highly praised for its technical virtuosity by
contemporaries such as fellow Mexican poet Manuel Maples Arce (1898–1981).
34 Radical Poetry

Tablada’s best work came during his avant-garde period after 1917, when he began
to write haiku and calligrams; according to Carlos Monsiváis, Tablada engaged
with “insistencia en el experimento [y] en la renovación formal [insistence in
experimentalism and formal renewal]” (28). When Tablada introduced haiku to
Latin America in the 1920s these short poems were seen as a radical novelty (Mata
112). Tablada believed that classic haiku would provide an entry point to pursue a
course that emphasized images, both verbal and pictorial, while minimizing the
strictly verbal (Ota, “La influencia” 133–34). Classic haiku, from which he departed,
is an unrhymed yet rigorously structured form that contains three verses of five,
seven, and five syllables respectively, and whose content reflects seasonal, cyclical,
and natural images; modern haiku have long left such thematic restrictions behind.
Haiku typically condense meaning by reducing language to a few intense verbal
images, which in turn stimulate mental images. But the verbal and imagistic
are shown to be quite fluid in haiku. For example, classic Japanese haiku were
individually painted by ink brush, tracing the suggestive, fluid strokes of the
artist’s hand on the scroll and conceding to only a single mechanically imprinted
element, the poet’s signature stamp, known as a hanko seal. This emphasis on
natural and handcrafted methods would not do for the Mexican avant-gardists,
who, in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, were now in the throes of a
technological revolution (Gallo). In contrast with classical haiku, Tablada’s work
embraces mechanical reproduction replacing the silent brush with the clatter of
the typewriter, perhaps losing the sensuous intimacy of calligraphy but replacing
it with other forms of tactility. Although his haiku stayed focused on the natural
world, Tablada turned their content to capture the Mexican flora, fauna, and
Tablada’s haiku—which like Junoy’s were the product of a long fascination
with the East not exempt of Orientalist shortcomings—first appeared in 1919 in
a collection titled Un día (A Day) (1919), followed by Li-Po y otros poemas (Li-Po
and Other Poems) (1920) and El jarrón de flores (The Flower Vase) (1922). These
works included both classical haiku and haiku-like poems, which Tablada
named “synthetic poems,” perhaps as a reference to synthetic Cubism and its
heterogeneous synthesis of different materials and subjects superimposed
together by collaging images and script from many sources (Ota, “La influencia”
133–35). Familiar with Cubism, he sought to transfer to poetry the multiplicity and
simultaneity of that painting style.
Tablada’s second anthology (Li-Po) contained the first examples of Mexican
ideographic and visual poetry; these poems were not created in a vacuum, but
as part of a growing international interest in visual poetry. Li-Po’s publication
The Historical Avant-Gardes 35

was a scant four years after Junoy’s Troços appeared in 1916. Following Bohn’s
intuition regarding this matter as outlined in Apollinaire and the International
Avant-Garde (1997), it is likely that Apollinaire, Junoy, and Tablada form part of a
complex weave of mutual influences, direct and indirect: Apollinaire’s Calligrammes
(1918) might have benefited from some of Junoy’s earlier work, and Junoy also had
learned from Apollinaire’s poetry published earlier in the magazine Nord-Sud
(1912); moreover, both had links to Tablada.10 Furhter complicating this tapestry
of mutual influences and international crossings, Tablada was an intimate friend of
the Mexican caricaturist Marius de Zayas (1880–1961), with whom he spent time in
New York, and was well acquainted with Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and
other visual artists who had made the trek to Paris, Madrid, and Barcelona; also
with poets such as Xavier Villaurrutia, Manuel Maples Arce, and Alfonso Reyes,
among others (Ota, Su haiku).11 Undoubtedly, a poetry of the image was in the
air, both in Europe and in the Americas, marking a time of profound intermedial
experimentalism and a turn toward the graphical/visual nature of language.
An example of these mutual influences can be seen in how both Junoy and
Tablada were experimenting with different variations of haiku, altering the number
of prescribed verses (to four and five, in the case of Junoy) and the number of
syllables, in an effort to “Westernize” the form. The exchange of ideas across oceans
speaks to the fluidity of the avant-gardes and the complex international strings
that connected the different poetic movements to each other. To be sure, Tablada’s
work shared many innovative characteristics with the poetry of the European
avant-gardists (Salvat-Papasseit, Junoy, Apollinaire): their poems were structurally
similar, relying heavily on short verse or free form, verbal economy, an emphasis
on temporal and spatial simultaneity, and all engaged with visual and haiku forms.
But there were also notable differences in both style and content; Tablada, Maples
Arce, and other Mexican poets were caught up in a post-Revolutionary zeitgeist that
encouraged a return to the national, and therefore appropriated European models
only selectively.12 Their intent was to renew Mexican national culture through
artistic and technological modernization, but to remain rooted in a (somewhat
idealized and deracialized) pre-Columbian past. In Mexican Modernity (2005),
Rubén Gallo argues for the central importance of technological developments
such as the typewriter, the photographic camera, and the radio in the artistic
representations of the period, stating that studying the effect these technologies
had on the arts facilitates the presentation of “a comprehensive account of Mexican
post-revolutionary culture in the age of mechanical reproduction” (28). No doubt,
incorporating the haiku form was also symptomatic of a Janus-like desire to both
innovate and recuperate for Mexican poetry what were perceived as ancient but
36 Radical Poetry

potentially rejuvenating traditions; this was a typical avant-garde move: to seize

ideas and styles from the past but recontextualize them in ways that departed from
their tradition. Octavio Paz, who also wrote haiku, described Tablada’s poetry as
a rupture with tradition whose effects reverberated throughout Latin America,
affirming that “su innovación es algo más que una simple importación literaria.
Esa forma dio libertad a la imagen [his innovation was more than a simple literary
import (from Japan). That form freed the image]” (Generaciones 159).
Fascinated by ideogrammatic and visual poetry’s capacity to fuse the poetic
with the pictorial, Tablada soon abandoned the more discursive modernista style of
his early poems, so laden with rhetorical flourishes, in favor of the spatial qualities
of haiku and calligrams:

La ideografía tiene, a mi modo de ver, la fuerza de una expresión simultá-

neamente lírica y gráfica. . . . La parte gráfica sustituye ventajosamente la
discursiva o explicativa de la Antigua poesía. . . . Mi preocupación actual es la
síntesis . . . porque solo sintetizando creo poder expresar la vida moderna en
su dinamismo y en su multiplicidad.

[Ideography has, in my opinion, the strength of an expression simultaneously

lyrical and graphical. . . . The graphical part advantageously replaces the
discursive or explicative component of the Old poetry. . . . My present concern
is to synthesize . . . because only synthesizing can I explain modern life in its
dynamism and its multiplicity.] (cited in Pacheco 62)

But why was the concept of “synthesis,” the often repeated or repudiated call for a
fusion of the arts, so central to Tablada and other avant-gardists? Tablada suggests
that to reflect the frenzy and simultaneity of modernity, visual poetry must be
stripped from its discursive elements, reduced to its bare essentials, so text and
image can coalesce. Synthesizing the fragments of the modern, however, leads
to unresolved tension, especially when those fragments, systems, or codes resist,
resulting instead in disjointed collages, quilted patchworks.
Was modern art, including poetry, to be characterized by fragmentation,
by synthesis, by both, or neither? Critical opinions at the time varied as much
as artistic practice. T. S. Eliot’s often cited verse from The Wasteland (1922)
which captures the disjointed nature of the modern, “these fragments I have
shored against my ruins,” is opposed by what German Bauhaus dramatist Oskar
Schlemmer dubbed as “the yearning for synthesis,” following Walter Gropius’s
own call for a synthesis of the arts as one of the Bauhaus’s goals (Paret 168).
According to art historian Klemens Von Kemperer, the German Expressionists
The Historical Avant-Gardes 37

were also gripped by the obsession to put Humpty Dumpty back together. The
Expressionists’ concern with form and the unresolved tension in their works, he
argues, stems from their almost religious “sense of mission” to renew culture,
to overcome the fragmentation of modern life, to reassemble “the fragments
into a new whole” (91). Synthesis, however, was neither easily achieved, nor the
(necessary) opposite of fragmentation. In a number of Cubist paintings, when
viewed from a distance the fragments form a whole, which is nevertheless
difficult to discern as such.13 This “synthesis” is constantly disrupted by the
fragments it attempts to pull together, and as one approaches the Cubist work
the individual fragments reveal their trace, their origin as something else, a
train ticket, a torn cloth, a piece of newspaper. Dislocated and dismembered but
juxtaposed and sharing the same canvas, the fragmentation persists, a reminder
of the failure of synthesis. The Cubist style was transposed to visual poetry, by
Apollinaire in his Calligrammes (1918), but also by Blaise Cendrars in his long
poem (illustrated by Sonia Delaunay), La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite
Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France) (1913),
and by Huidobro in Horizon Carré (Square Horizon) (1916).
In Latin America, fragmentation and the search for “origins” (another aspect of
the desired synthesis) took on additional levels of complexity, given the continents’
past, their genealogy rooted in the contested mix of their indigenous, African, and
European cultural traditions. Unruh theorizes this point, insisting on the mediated
nature of these original, organic moments, and the impossibility to know them in
an unmediated fashion, or as a synthetic whole:

On one level, these [avant-garde] works do enact the search for an “authentic”
tradition in the distant past of the continent’s nonWestern cultures. But
instead of the definition of America’s “essence” . . . these works embody, as
Haroldo de Campos has said of Brazil, a “refusal of the essentialist metaphor of
gradual, harmonious natural evolution”. . . . They propose instead a tradition
of “random appetites” and “adjacency,” to borrow Said’s terms, or, to employ
Bürger’s, of the “simultaneity of the radically disparate.” By appropriating
vanguardist motifs as the idiom through which to explore Latin American
cultural specificity, these writers create sometimes bizarre “hybrid works,”. . . .
Through these unusual works, these writers also laid claim to the vanguards’
dislocations, fragmentations, and nonorganicity as peculiar to and definitive
of Latin American lived experience. (169)

Fragmentation and synthesis were, therefore, part of an equation whose vari-

ables were both cultural and aesthetic. Tablada also understood the fragmentary
38 Radical Poetry

nature of writing, as he downplayed discursivity and foregrounded the visual aspect

of script. Moreover, he aimed toward a paradoxical conception of “pure” poetry in
which script combines and freely interplays with images, resulting in an otherwise
“impure” intermixing of the arts. His notion of synthesizing or concentrating
meaning through an economy of verse, using fewer words that evoke powerful verbal
images, is close to both the Japanese tradition of the haiku and to the condensed
imagery and precise language displayed by Pound and the English Imagists’ poetry
from 1914 to 1917. There might be in this reductionism of the verbal, which reduces
words to just another element in poetry, an element increasingly displaced by the
visual—including by the word’s own graphical qualities, disposition, etc.—the
beginning of a turn toward image that becomes more pronounced with time, and
reaches its culmination in today’s digital poetry. It might be a case of the exhaustion
of the verbal dimension in literature, a fatigue of everything that is strictly verbal.
During this period (roughly 1910–1925) there was a great deal of translation,
transcription, and transformation of both Japanese and Chinese poetry for Western
readers.14 Roughly a year after Tablada published Li-Po and Other Poems, a former
associate of Ezra Pound, the American Imagist poet Amy Lowell, also published a
book of translated Chinese poetry titled Fir-Flower Tablets: Poems from the Chinese
(1921), where she reworked many of Li-Po’s poems. In the preface, Lowell shares an
insight that encapsulates Tablada’s own belief that the visual makeup of painted
Chinese characters, otherwise known as kanji, was critical not just because of
their semantic significance but because of the suggestive nature of their visual
form. Lowell states:

Very early in our studies, we realized that the component parts of the
Chinese written character counted for more in the composition of poetry
than has generally been recognized; that the poet chose one character rather
than another which meant practically the same thing, because of the descrip-
tive allusion in the make-up of that particular character; that the poem was
enriched precisely through this undercurrent of meaning in the structure
of its characters. (viii )

“Kanji,” which is Japanese for “a character from Han China,” were Chinese symbols
later adopted and simplified by the Japanese. Each symbol represents a syllable or
a single sound, but it might also stand in for a complete word or a group of words.
Like calligrams, kanji are sometimes associated through formal resemblance to the
objects they represent. The pictographic origin of a kanji can remain residually in
its form, even if only schematically. I will examine a poem that relies on the visual
aspect of the kanji a bit farther on; for now, I want to underscore the importance of
The Historical Avant-Gardes 39

Eastern poetic forms such as haiku and Chinese script (or for that matter, Japanese
script, which is derived from Chinese kanji), which avant-garde movements were
simultaneously tackling in different corners of the globe. For Tablada, both the
condensing force of haiku’s verbal images, and the apparent “simplicity” and
“purity” of Chinese ideographs, embodied the characteristics of what a modern
poetry should be, paradoxically turning to the past to produce something new.
As we examine Tablada’s poems, both those that use the haiku form or its deriv-
atives and in some cases poems that deploy actual kanji characters, it is useful
to reflect on critic Andrea Bachner’s pointed question, “Is a non-Chinese poet’s
claim to harness the graphic and expressive power of the sinograph always only a
metaphor?” (74). Bachner’s answer is in the affirmative, and while I concur, I would
not charge the figurative approach to kanji or sinographs with a wholly negative
valence; rather, I suggest a critical point, that the strength of the figurative, the
recourse to symbols from another cultural milieu, may have the power to defamil-
iarize and to effect the type of dislocation of expectations that ultimately facilitates
the slippage between the visual and the verbal sought after by the avant-gardes.
Tablada’s poem “El chirimoyo,” from Un día . . . Poemas sintéticos (1919),
exemplifies his initial efforts to synthesize text and image.15 Un día . . . is divided
in four sections, each corresponding to different segments of the day, morning,
afternoon, twilight, and night, and containing, respectively, twelve, nine, nine, and
seven haikus, most of which deal with plant and animal subjects. Tablada attempts
to capture in the book’s pages or “leaves” (hojas in Spanish means both sheets of
paper and the leaves of a tree) both the essence of the creatures he describes, and
the present-ness of the instant, stating so in the first few lines of the prologue:
“Arte, con tu áureo alfiler / las mariposas del instante / quise clavar en el papel
[Art, with your golden pin / the butterflies of the instant / I would like to pin on
paper].” Every poem in this anthology is accompanied by a circular watercolor
sketch (see Figure 1.2), painstakingly painted by Tablada in each of the first edition’s
two hundred books, thereby reintroducing the artisanal and the original into the
mechanically reproduced, and arguably rescuing the works’ aura. Significantly,
the watercolor sketches reference the Japanese haiga, the subtle ink drawings that
accompany classical haiku. Much like the elegant yet restrained calligraphy of
haiku, haiga use few brush strokes, which nevertheless emphasize the gesture
of the hand, sparse color, and schematic suggestion rather than naturalistic
representation. There is reciprocity, not redundancy, in this combination of script
and image: while haiga trigger associations that complement the haiku, they do
not explain the poems (Zolbrod 42–44).
Likewise, Tablada’s sketch does not merely illustrate the haiku, instead, both
are conceived integrally to establish a semiotic relation between linguistic and
40 Radical Poetry

visual codes and thereby capture the fleeting instant with condensed brevity
and expressive force. Tablada meant for both poem and sketch to function in a
synthetic union, forming a coherent whole. Although it is a precarious synthesis at
best, as the equilibrium might unravel at any moment, in the balance between the
juxtaposed but distinct systems there is the promise of an instant of revelation.
The precariousness is also present within the text, crystallized by the kireji (a
term meaning “hinge” that I will return to), and between the literal and symbolic
meanings (Zolbrod 42–44). The issue of balance, or lack of it, is thus closely linked
to the capturing of the instant. Tablada’s attempt to freeze the poetic instant
functions as a kind of ekphrasis, the rhetorical technique that captures visual
images with words. Characterized by the plasticity of a highly expressive written
language, ekphrastic description is so vivid that it triggers visual mental images,
leading to what Murray Krieger calls “the still movement of poetry.” Note that
Krieger theorizes the ekphrastic poetic instant as one that renders possible the
synchronous perception of motion and stasis, akin in the visual arts to Dalí’s Surrealist
hypnagogic paintings or, more recently, the works of Op-Art (“Appendix” 263–88).16
For Tablada, the intensity of the ekphrastic experience is related to the arresting
of time and to the dissolution of distinctions between visual and verbal codes.
In fact, all three poetry collections written by Tablada during his avant-garde
period sought to dissolve strict divisions between the visual and the textual
imposed by Lessing and other Enlightenment theorists, by commingling words,
graphic signs, pictographs, and images.17 His choice of the haiku, with its brief
and condensed expressiveness, seemed ideal; by arresting the instant through
ekphrastic language, Tablada hoped to transcend the limits, and indeed, blur the
distinctions between word and image, perhaps even art and life. Does ekphrasis
have such magical properties, or are we once again speaking figuratively? Ekph-
rasis is one of the most debated of rhetorical forms, and carries within it its own
failure: the failure of ekphrasis to actually construct or produce a visual image of
something that is absent; a failure that has a corollary in the impossibility of any
mimetic effort by the arts. There is much tension in the connection between the
two fields, visual and verbal, not as easily resolved as Tablada’s synthetic desire
would have it. It is this failure that might ultimately reassert the barriers between
image and script even as it collapses and interrogates the borderline between them.
The simultaneous collapse and separation of the categories renders the moment of
awareness that the poem seeks as an ephemeral, tenuous glimpse into “something”
whose contours remain blurred, unassailable.
The poem in question (“El chirimoyo” [“The chirimoyo tree”]; see Figure 1.2)
deploys a visual arrangement suggestively similar to Junoy’s tribute to Ynglada,
Figure 1.2. José Juan Tablada. “El chirimoyo” (“The Chirimoyo Tree”).
Consejo General para la Cultura y las Artes (Mexico D.F., Mexico).
42 Radical Poetry

with a title and three verses on the left of the page, and a circular sketch on the
upper right, both text and image charged with figurative meaning; indeed, the
entire poem serves as a metaphor whose terms are “hinged” on the haiku’s colon
(:), a visual mark that cleaves the poem in two. Although traditional Japanese
haiku are untitled and might be said to function as a Zen koan or riddle, Tablada
provides interpretative clues for Western readers by adding a title to the otherwise
enigmatic poem. In a sense, the title “El chirimoyo,” which refers to a fruit-bearing
tropical tree, functions like “Ynglada” in Junoy’s poem, as a marker that identifies
the subject/object of the poem. The title’s obvious referentiality, however, is also
deliberately misleading, since the “object” of the poem is something more complex
than merely a chirimoyo tree. The text reads:

La rama del chirimoyo

Se retuerce y habla:
Pareja de loros.

[A cherimoya tree branch

Twists and chitchats:
Pair of parrots.]

Tablada, like Junoy, departs from the syllabic structure associated with classical
Japanese haiku, but does abide by its thematic tradition, presenting a fleeting,
living moment in nature. The poem marks the mysterious and ephemeral instant
when the tree’s foliage unexpectedly reveals, or resembles, a pair of parrots, an
ambiguous glimpse either real or imagined, which has the shimmering intensity of
the ekphrastic. Rejecting external and objective absolutes, classical haiku and haiga
typically only offer images of subjective inner vision and of almost imperceptible
movement, even when the poems are ostensibly about something concrete. This
prompts the question, what, then, is “El chirimoyo” really about?
The parrots in Tablada’s poem, which might very well be within the branches,
also stand in for something other than themselves. Best known for their vocal
mimicry, Tablada chooses instead to foreground the parrots’ ability to blend in
through visual mimicry, a phenomenon famously studied by Roger Caillois in
relation to surrealist metamorphic images. Caillois theorized that mimicry was
the “temptation by space” of an organism seeking dissolution into its environment,
desiring to define itself in terms other than its own self, wanting, like the first
term of a metaphor, to embrace the alterity of an other, second term. Hence, the
parrots in the poem only become distinguishable from the gestalt of the greenery
The Historical Avant-Gardes 43

for the flicker of an instant, after which the spatial confusion of figure and ground
returns, blurring, as Caillois said “the frontier between the organism and the
milieu” (32). On another level, in “El chirimoyo,” the phenomenon of mimicry
serves as a metaphor for the moment of poetic revelation (or reader recognition),
when a possible meaning of the poem avails itself to the reader in a flash of insight.
The poem is, among other things, about the sudden understanding of a riddle, or
a poem.
How does the interplay between verbal and visual contribute to this flash of
insight? The haiku’s vivid verbal image depicting the metamorphosis from luscious
branches to squawking birds makes the sketch appear tautological, superfluous,
like mimicry, and perhaps artistic mimeticism itself. Indeed, the beauty of such a
moment might at first appear to be trivialized by the depicted image. The sketch,
however, fulfills an important semiotic function. The image playfully represents
two parrots (in all likelihood, two green parakeets, a species natural to Mexico,
Central, and South America) in a yin-yang arrangement, and in vivid, nuanced
color, in contrast to the stark black and white in conventional yin-yang signs;
moreover, the colors seem to prevent the image from fully representing male/
female, or earth/moon in any distinctive way, as the yin-yang does, hinting perhaps
at other types of sexual possibilities beyond the conventional or conventionalized.
The sketch perversely shows the “male” and “female” (or some other combination)
birds in a mating sexual position that is not generative but rather (potentially)
pleasurable. The erotic position is quite anthropomorphic, as one would not
expect birds to engage in a presumably human practice. Their yin-yang position
suggests something dynamic, as if indeed they were revolving (“retorciéndose”) about
each other, symbolizing the interdependence of apparent opposites, masculine
and feminine, day and night, and significantly, the “impure” mixing of word and
image that the poem gestures toward by spatially juxtaposing both codes, but also
teasingly denies by introducing the negative space that separates them.
Of course, Tablada’s choice of a parrot, which has the capacity to imitate the
human voice, cannot be fortuitous, but is perhaps also present to remind the reader
of the importance of “sound,” which is as much a part of poetry as sight. One
might imagine the cacophony of the parrots in their imitation of human speech,
rendering the chirimoyo as a speaking bush that, albeit incomprehensibly, since
it produces noise rather than language, addresses the reader, and completes the
verbal and visual dimension with a vocal one.
A blank and somewhat disturbing space, which Tablada does not “fill,” separates
the poem’s verses from the sketch.18 What does the space contribute to the
character of the sketch and the poem? The blankness, which might signify silence
44 Radical Poetry

and stillness, also serves to render both the poem and the sketch more visible, as a
moment of quiet reflection can be a counterpoint to the overwhelming cacophony
of parroted speech. The stark, empty flatness of the page facilitates, by contrast,
the perception of poem and sketch as collage-like fragments, providing a hint
of pictorial depth, enhancing the kinetically unstable spatial relation between
script, image, and surface that suggest imperceptible motion. Thus, the space
that is not represented, or that represents nothing, is a meaningful, if minimal
form of expression that both joins and divides haiku and haiga. Furthermore, the
sketch in conjunction with the haiku fulfills an important semiotic function by
setting up an oscillating duality of reading and viewing, like calligrams, which,
according to Foucault, “aspire playfully to efface the oldest opposition of our
alphabetical civilization: to show and to name; to shape and to say; to reproduce
and to articulate; to imitate and to signify; to look, and to read” (21). The haiku’s
words unfold in time while the haiga provides a visual shape, and Tablada’s poem
becomes a kind of calligram whose terms have been separated by a space, ironically,
almost the opposite of the synthetic operation he desired.
By questioning what the nature of poetry is, the poem seems to also bring
us back to a familiar debate, Lessing’s insistence on separating media based on
their temporal or spatial nature. Fenollosa echoes Lessing’s distinction by posing
a question about Chinese ideographic poetry that is also relevant for Tablada’s
yin-yang sketch, which is an ideograph of sorts:

In what sense can verse, written in terms of visible hieroglyphics, be reckoned

true poetry? It might seem that poetry, which like music is a time art, weaving
its unities out of successive impressions of sound, could with difficulty assim-
ilate a verbal medium consisting largely of semi-pictorial appeals to the eye.
(6; emphasis in original)

Fenollosa’s characterization of poetry as a time art, like Lessing’s, reductively

focuses on poetry as a recited genre, perforce sequential, a format that evokes ritual
incantation and oral poetic performance, but also rote repetition, parroting. Yet
poetry, when read on the page, as Jakobson observed, clearly retains a visual and
spatial aspect that imbues it with a degree of simultaneity (“Language in Relation”
706). Other critics, such as Jiri Veltrusky, postulate that very short poems such
as haiku, even when recited, retain an element of spatiality, since “the spatial
principles in the structure of a short poem are perceived by the listener, too, though
not as strongly as by the reader,” creating an aural gestalt effect in which “space
intervenes as a negation of time” (117). While synesthetic speculations about an
The Historical Avant-Gardes 45

“aural” spatiality may be met with reserved skepticism, a poem of short extension
easily retained in the mind of the listener might well achieve a degree of mental,
if not spatial, simultaneity. In any case, the oftentimes antagonistic relationship
between space and time might play a role in the representation of the yin-yang
parrots in Tablada’s sketch, by bringing both dimensions into closer contact.
Evidently, visual poetry and ekphrasis in the work of Tablada disrupts
Enlightenment ideals of aesthetic purity and medium specificity (already
compromised given the radical changes in printing technologies during the
nineteenth century), problematizing the separation of the spatial and the visual
arts.19 Likewise, the haiku fulfills a similar function from within a “purely”
script-based locus. If traditional poetry created a sense of space through ekphrastic
description, I have suggested that haiku renders spatiality possible, like visual
poetry, by facilitating the apprehension of the complete poem spatially and
simultaneously in the mind’s eye. For Tablada, this sudden apprehension was
the essence of the poetic instant, and its achievement tantamount to a small
miracle, a moment of quiet transcendence. I would suggest that this mechanism
of quasi-instantaneous apprehension relies on the intensity and evocative power
of the images and metaphors activated by the haiku. Clearly, an image’s “intensity”
cannot be measured objectively, the poem is only experienced subjectively.
In general terms, however, the greater intensity would be produced by the
concentration of the greatest significance in the least number of words possible,
or through the accumulated force of related images (through semantic layering,
a palimpsest of signification). These charged images elicit an emotional response
from the reader, and quite possibly, the intensity of an image is also derived from
the tensions and contradictions created between its figurative and literal meanings.
In haiku the images strike the reader at the instant of decryption or perhaps
epiphany. Even the Zen term satori seems appropriate as it brings the analogy of
poetic understanding into mystical territory, and paradoxically, beyond the reach
of analysis, exceeding the power of the verbal and entering the ineffable.
In Tablada’s haiku, this mystical instant of recognition occurs when the poem is
received as the movement and chatter of the parrots within the chirimoyo tree. The
tree branches are not the birds, and the birds are not the tree, but they share certain
characteristics that allow the reader to first mistake one for the other, to carry one
term of the metaphor, the vehicle, to the other, the tenor, to use I. A. Richards’s
terminology. The tree branch functions as the tenor (the “ground” of the poem),
and the parrots are the vehicle (the image or “figure” that embodies the tenor in
sudden insight), and their interaction produces meaning, the insightful moment.
According to Richards, “The vehicle is not normally a mere embellishment of a
46 Radical Poetry

tenor which is otherwise unchanged by it but that vehicle and tenor in co-operation
give a meaning of more varied powers that can be ascribed to either [alone]” (55).
One might, however, reverse the tenor and vehicle positions in this poem, since
the haiku remains ambiguous as to which is which, birds or tree. The central
verse (“Se retuerce y habla:”) has variable meaning (as either the parrots or the
personified tree branch) depending on whether it is grouped with the first or the
third verse, allowing for reversal of the terms of the metaphor. The colon marks
this reversibility. The instant of recognition illuminates the difference between
the moving figure and the static ground, indicating the contours or limits of the
metaphor and suspending the equivalence between the chirimoyo leaves and the
camouflaged parrots. But even this is not certain, since it might be the leaves that
are moving and the parrots static, or everything could be in motion, and then the
distinction is no longer clear, signaling again the evanescence of it all.
When did Tablada intend for such a (fleetingly unstable) instant of insight to
occur? That instant of recognition is now, that is, the time of the writing, but also,
and indeed perhaps more importantly, of the reading, an ever-present instant that
demands that the poem be in present tense, and thus, in a sense, the poem escapes
time, paradoxically engaging with both the ephemeral and the eternal, seeking
simultaneous immanence and transcendence. The sketch is also apprehended
and understood in an almost imperceptible instant, by virtue of its recognizable
yin-yang shape, its small size, and its delicate quality that seems as fleeting as the
precise moment of now-ness the poem crystallizes. In contrast, a larger image
might not be apprehended at once, needing to be “scanned,” as Steiner postulates,
resulting in an experience closer to sequential reading, “a matter of temporal
processing” (Colors 36–37). It is the synthetic tension of Tablada’s haiku, and of the
haiku form (as it attempts to capture a single instant), that permits the apparent
collapse of the qualities of time and space. For all its collage-like verbal and spatial
visuality, Tablada’s haiku, even as it relies on ekphrasis, is not laden with ekphrastic
description; rather, it juxtaposes simple, stripped images of the tree branch and
the birds, presenting in plain style the moment, the thing-in-itself. Returning to
my original point, the haiku in its entirety functions as a metaphor: the concrete,
quasi-cinematic image of the rustling tree and the chattering birds connotes a
mystical experience, one that remains out of reach. According to Bruce Ross,
“Metaphor in haiku includes the presentation of a state of wholeness in which
the particular leads to the absolute and first things” (n.p.). The mystery possibly
“hinges” on the poem’s dual structures. It is articulated as a two-image poem,
the tree and the birds, but also, as a two-code poem, the script and the image,
which provides a caesura—a hinge—represented by the colon at the end of the first
The Historical Avant-Gardes 47

verse and duplicated by the space between the haiku and haiga. Above the hinge, a
description of the twisting branch. Below it, the depiction of the parrots.
The connection between these dual linguistic structures has to be experienced
by the reader as the moment of insight or recognition, and corresponds to the
physical cutting or connecting element in the haiku—a mark called kireji in
Japanese—in this case materialized by the colon, in other poems by a different
punctuation mark or by a key word (recall the “i” in Junoy’s poem). The colon is also
a graphic trace of the problem of translation, whether from one language or culture
to another, or one place to another, it is always fraught with misrecognition. In
Japanese, the kireji is a sound, an inflection of tone which sets off the nuanced and
multivalent significance of the haiku; it is not translatable, not really reducible
to a visible punctuation on the page, but is rather a polysemic cue that makes the
reader reevaluate, loop back to, return to what she already read, to glimpse it in
new light. The circling-back movement of the reader is where the pivotal nature
of the kireji resides. This articulation allows the poem to change direction from
one image to the other, establishing an unstable, kinetic relation that is (for an
instant) free from causality. Thus, Western modernism’s understanding of time
and progress as linear narrative is subverted by the cyclical movement of the haiku,
establishing a parallel with non-Western conceptions of time and space (East Asian,
but also, pre-Columbian). The opposition between linearity and circularity is also
present in the verses of the poem, in contrast with the circular sketch; and yet,
such an opposition disappears if one shifts perspectives, or frames of reference,
and conceives of both as elements of a sphere; the kind of shift that might be
necessary to experience Tablada’s poem as fully and multidimensionally as he
might have intended.
Far from merely parroting or paraphrasing, Tablada’s efforts to translate
haiku’s form and content move beyond mechanical reproduction into the creation
of difference, producing a precarious cultural hybridity composed of European
modernism, traditional Asian forms, and, arguably, Mexican pictorial traditions
that combine images and verbal signs, such as pre-Columbian codices and Casta
paintings. The mysteriously ambiguous punctuation mark, perhaps the key to the
poem’s reading, serves as either a visible manifestation of temporal and spatial
aporia, or of an epiphany, arriving at the precise moment of understanding, at
the nexus of a possible synthesis between plant and animal, or text and image,
or indeed, poem and reader, a synthesis that remains incomplete, however, as its
terms remain in “twisting” tension.20
Tablada’s interest in synthesizing the visual intensity of writing, coupled with
his fascination with Asia, led him to experiment with kanji. A remarkable poem
48 Radical Poetry

from his Li-Po anthology weaves together three forms: conventional poetry, visual
poetry and a calligraphic kanji symbol (see Figure 1.3). By representing a kanji as
the central figure of the poem, Tablada shows his fascination with the power of
ideographs to convey meaning through multiple semiotic systems such as their
graphic shape, their semantic significance, and their phonetic sound. In a letter,
Tablada told his friend José María González de Mendoza that he wished to write
poetry like the Japanese poets who, after painting the character that represented
a nightingale with ink brushstrokes, could watch it fly away (Fleck 195). He
wanted to capture that movement, visible through its trace, in the gesture of the
kanji, which also retains a memory of the act of writing. Tablada’s admiration
toward calligraphy betrays nostalgia for the passing of the handwritten and the
hand-painted, replaced by typescript and printing. A hand-painted kanji permits
seeing the irregularities of the brushstroke, indicating the force applied, the speed
of its motion. Even though a typographic kanji made by a computer, or typeset,
or reproduced by other mechanical methods retains a trace of an “original”
gesture predating its stylization and homogenization, sadly, the importance of
the individual artist, the calligraphic signature that made each kanji unique, has
been replaced by the digitally and mechanically mass-produced. While the trace
of the original and the individual, the faded gesture of the calligrapher, might still
be seen in the direction of a kanji’s strokes and the disposition of the radicals that
conform the symbol, there is no denying that something material has been lost.
Tablada renders his poem as a farewell to calligraphy and the calligrapher, so the
trace of the human hand remains visible in the print:
The poem is part of a longer work that presents different facets of the poet
Li-Po’s life (a Tang Dynasty poet also known as Li Bo or Li Bai), starting with
his youth and love of wine and ending with the poet’s death by drowning as he
attempted to embrace the moon’s reflection in a pond, perhaps a lyrical musing
on the elusiveness of representation. Despite its visual immediacy, the anthology
retains a narrative component, since it presents, albeit fragmentarily, a story of
a life and a portrait of the Chinese poet. Tablada’s ideogram displays a modern
sophistication in its structuring of language as image. It is difficult to interpret
the symbol itself, although it is a thirteen-character kanji (the strokes are drawn or
performed from upper to lower, so the square radical at the bottom left, associated
with the meaning for “mouth,” counts as three strokes. Critics attempted to
decipher the kanji as being related to the symbol for “voice,” or “poetry,” but this
alluring interpretation, according to Atsuko Tanabe, is misleading, illustrating
the difficulty of interpreting kanji without being conversant with these symbols,
and recalling Bachner’s comment about the West’s metaphoric uses of kanji.
Figure 1.3. José Juan Tablada. Fragment from “Li-Po” Consejo General para la
Cultura y las Artes (Mexico D.F., Mexico).
50 Radical Poetry

Tanabe, who is Japanese, has analyzed the poem and determined the symbol to
be related, although incorrectly drawn, to the Chinese kanji for “longevity,” which
etymologically comes from an ideogram that schematically depicts an old man
kneeling and praying for long life.21 The script written inside the kanji reads:

guiados por su mano pálida

es gusano de seda el pincel
que formaba en el papel
negra crisálida
de misterioso jeroglífico
de donde surgía como una flor
un pensamiento magnífico
con alas de oro volador
sutil y misteriosa llama
en la lámpara del ideograma

[guided by his pale hand

the brush is the silkworm
that traced on the paper
black chrysalis
of a mysterious hieroglyph
from which emerged like a flower
a magnificent thought
with golden wings
a subtle and mysterious flame
in the ideogram’s lamp]

The vivid visual imagery revisits many of the images from the earlier poems and
refers metapoetically to the act of writing itself, for instance in its mention of
the hand guiding the brush, of the black ink and its trace on the page, and of the
material aspects of creating the kanji, the “mysterious hieroglyph.” The poem
addresses the concept that lies behind the material symbol: the magnificent
thought (“pensamiento magnífico”) that arises, like a butterfly from its cocoon,
from the lines on the page. The poem’s meaning comprises not just its visual form
and the significance of the kanji symbol, but also the process of its making, the
act of tracing its contours, and the concept that may unite (synthesize) its verbal
and visual components.
Functioning as an Ars poetica of sorts, the goal of the poem seems to be the
The Historical Avant-Gardes 51

synthesis of an idea, in this case the description of the writing of calligraphic

poetry, with a highly concentrated symbol, the kanji. The fact that the symbol is
set against a dark page serves to provide a light—and hence legible—background
for the verses written in cursive, and possibly to signify the status of the symbol as
a light-shedding “lamp,” “la lámpara del ideograma.” It is also the “negra crisálida”
(black chrysalis) where the silkworm (the handwritten poem) hides. The inversion
of negative and positive, as in a photographic negative, is reminiscent of the Yin
and Yang, the male and female, and, in a poem that relates the Western alphabet
and Eastern symbols, it signals the overlapping of two worlds, and the amalgam
of something avant-garde and “new” such as the calligram, with something quite
old, even “ancient,” such as Chinese script and Zen philosophy. The upshot of this
typically avant-garde maneuver was not unlike the incorporation of African masks
by the Cubists, or the recovery of European folk tales by Chagall and the Nabis,
or Sergei Eisenstein’s use of Chinese writing to inspire his theory of montage. My
reference to photography, cinematography, and negatives also brings to mind the
tension between the mechanically reproduced and the handmade that might be
traced through Tablada’s poetry.
In his analysis of Tablada’s ideograms, Klaus Meyer-Minnemann argues that the
Mexican poet’s attempt to reconcile semiotic systems is ultimately unsuccessful,
since the synthetic and simultaneous nature of the poetic experience is divided
between a spatial perception of the graphic design (gestalt) and a temporally
sequential reading of the text (syntax). In his commentary to Magritte’s painting
Ceci n’est pas une pipe, Michel Foucault had also observed that one cannot
see the image and read the words at exactly the same time. If we agree with
Meyer-Minnemann, synthesis might take place only after the reading, viewing, and
mental processing of verbal and visual script are complete, assembled cognitively
in the mind of the reader where the uneasy and tense union of disparate fragments
actually takes place. If so, Tablada’s poetry might be understood as a metaphor
for cognition itself, in its fragmented apprehension of the rhythms of modern
life. Just as fragmented, Tablada’s visual poetry is remembered as pioneering in
its combination of such disparate elements as Japanese traditional forms, such as
haiku and calligraphy, with the new tendencies and printing technologies of the
avant-garde, such as typographical games, parole in libertà, etc.
The historical avant-gardes, exemplified here by two paradigmatic cases, Junoy
and Tablada, had set the stage for another flourishing of experimental poetry in
the post–World War II period, particularly during the 1960s and ’70s, a period
that warrants and receives close attention in the following chapter. Technology
had evolved by leaps and bounds in the interim: the typing machine and the radio
52 Radical Poetry

had given way to the television with its possibilities for mass media advertising,
but also mimeograph machines, silk screening, and other technologies that
allowed artists to circumvent state-controlled media as well as commercial media
in favor of underground avenues to reproduce their art. This was paramount,
since “resistance, defiance, and challenges to the dictatorships in Latin America
during the 1960s, 70s and 80s by media owners was the exception and not the
rule” (Cañizález 216). On the political front, these Ibero-American artists were
nevertheless able to mount resistance to governments increasingly hostile to
leftist utopian projects. On the aesthetic front, experimental poetry in the sixties
expanded the avant-garde’s inquiries into how script and image interact in the
poetic text. This period, in turn, has been superseded by the latest instantiation of
the “experimental” ethos in contemporary poetry, stemming from the development
of the personal computer, and subsequently, of the World Wide Web, which offers
a radical engagement in the interplay of word and image.
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes
A Political Turn

hereas in the previous chapter we saw two paradigmatic poets, one from
Latin America and one from Spain, who were profoundly interested in
what some may dismissively consider as strictly aesthetic pursuits (but
which had obvious connections to social concerns), this chapter captures a sharp
turn to the political that began in the aftermath of World War II, and increasingly
led toward a reconceptualizing of poetry as event, as a happening, as an art form
without objects and without poems but firmly rooted in lived experience, so that, as
Camnitzer suggests, “in Latin America art, education, poetry and politics converge
and do so for reasons rooted in the Latin American experience” (37). No doubt,
the sixties and seventies were violently chaotic decades throughout the globe, but
especially so in Ibero-America where intense political conflicts coincided with
rapid technological changes and a charged cultural scene. Artists politicized their
work, often associating art and militancy. This is not to say that politics had been
absent from the historical avant-gardes; one need only consider Italian Futurism’s
connections to fascism, or Constructivism’s relations with communism, later
assumed by Surrealism as well, and the antiwar nonconformism of Dada, just to
name a handful of movements and their ideological leanings.
But the intensity of political involvement in Ibero-America was on a larger
scale, especially in Latin America. The ravages caused by the Spanish Civil War
(1936–39) and World War II (1939–45) relocated the artistic vanguards from Europe
to America.1 The horrors of these wars, like War World I before them, shattered—
at least temporarily—many of the utopian projects of the early avant-gardes. In
the 1960s, however, artists began to once again conceptualize art in terms of its
transformational and corporeal possibilities, and their focus shifted, generally

54 Radical Poetry

speaking, from the finished art object per se toward process art, performances,
and happenings aimed at mobilizing art as a tool for political and social action.
There was also a shift to emphasize the body’s potential in art making, a turn
away from the linguistic and toward the interactive, toward embodiment. While
Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism had also staged performances, in the decades
following World War II there was an increased attention on the body as both the
subject and object of art, giving rise to movements such as Abstract Expressionism
(and its extremely physical action painting), Fluxus, and neo-Dada. The greater
emphasis on performance, on speaking through and with the body, was tied to an
increased political self-awareness brought about by convulsive historical events such
as the May 1968 student revolts, the onset of the Cold War, the Cuban Revolution,
and the Vietnam War; bolstered by the vigorous countercultural movements
that stemmed from these same events, as well as theoretical developments such
as poststructuralism and Althusserian Marxism. As Bürger notes, it is as if the
rupture caused by fascism, which rendered the avant-garde a failure (since its vision
resulted in a world of technologized and dehumanized warfare), “began to change
when surrealist slogans started showing up on the walls of Paris in May 1968.
At this moment the historical avant-gardes and their utopian projects were also
rediscovered” (698). Unfortunately, in Latin America, the ideological projects posed
by the Left were forcefully countered by dictatorships, repression, and political
violence; this in turn fueled an art of resistance.
It was, therefore, in the turmoil of the sixties and seventies, and lasting well into
the eighties, that art became further radicalized, striking against established social,
political, and aesthetic norms. The focus also shifted from the individual artist
toward art collectives, something that had taken place to a lesser extent during
the first avant-gardes (with Surrealism and Dada). Artists resisted authoritarian
regimes by employing diverse tactics to elude censorship, circumvent the imposed
silence, and register dissent. State censorship of printed material forced artists to
find creative ways of making and distributing their art. Many resorted to mail art,
radio, television and video art, fax art, phonetic and visual poetry, found objects,
artists’ books, body art, and happenings. Some notable politically motivated
artist collectives active in the seventies and eighties included CADA (Colectivo de
Acciones de Arte) in Chile, Taller E.P.S. Huayco in Peru, No-Grupo in Mexico, and
Taller 4 Rojo in Colombia.2 Much of their artwork has been lost, either because of its
ephemeral nature—as with conceptual and performance art—or because authorities
destroyed “permanent” works that were critical of the state. Many pieces were
of the moment, intended for mass reproduction and immediate distribution (as
leaflets, postcards, or underground papers), and their aesthetic value was secondary
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes 55

to the conceptual and political messages they encoded. Provocatively, perhaps

misguidedly, Camnitzer argues that some guerrilla groups such as the Tupamaros
in Uruguay practiced what might be construed as an “aesthetic” in their insurgent
operations, blurring further the separation between art and militancy, aiming
to “creat[e] a new culture instead of simply providing old perceptions with a new
political form” (On Art 14).3
Studying these neo-avant-gardes not just for their own historical and political
significance, but also as forerunners of today’s digital practices, provides insights
into the origins of tendencies present in contemporary net art and digital poetry.
For instance, in the sixties and seventies the arts engaged with media technologies
and began to emphasize their “communication” function, and increasingly,
communication at a distance through technological means (i.e., mail art, radio
art, video art, TV art). It is true that the earlier avant-gardes had also used paper
publications, broadsides, and the radio to divulge their programs and manifestos.
But with the new politicized atmosphere of the sixties and its countercultural
thrust, mass media were approached more critically, as artists were suspicious
of the types of media manipulation exemplified by the fascist states in the
thirties. Increasingly, there was an interest in a kind of horizontal or networked
communication that eschewed the top-down hierarchical model and would, in our
time, be materialized by the Web. In the sixties, therefore, the avant-garde’s relation
to mass media ranged from collaborative to adversarial as concerns about United
States influence, commercialism, and the complicity of the culture industry with
the region’s regimes also began to grow. Communication through art, however,
was seen as necessary to achieve utopian goals: an educated working class, greater
economic equality, and, for some, the creation of socialist states, via democratic
processes or through revolution. Art, then, was to lay bare the grim reality of life
with the purpose of changing it.
Engaging with art and poetry for political ends also had aesthetic consequences.
Among these was a wish to restrict or to eliminate metaphor altogether, inasmuch
as it was perceived to be a device that distanced the word from the object, as
it privileged elegance and beauty to the detriment of what were otherwise
understood as the true struggles of life in 1960s Latin America. Antimetaphoric
attitudes can be traced back to Plato—who in the Republic charges poets as liars,
and poetry and rhetoric as misleading and dangerous—and to later empiricist
views that considered the trope as decoratio. Nietzsche also considered metaphor
as “falsehood,” lamenting its pervasiveness in language: “We believe that we know
something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and
flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things—metaphors which
56 Radical Poetry

correspond in no way to the original entities” (118). In contrast, José Ortega y Gasset,
so insistent in his desire to separate art and life (to maintain art’s autonomy),
was enthusiastic about the trope’s escapist function (which he saw as a positive
quality), arguing “la metáfora escamotea un objeto enmascarándolo con otro, y no
tendría sentido si no viéramos bajo ella un institno que induce al hombre a evitar
realidades [metaphor masks one object in terms of another, which makes little
sense unless we consider how it is fueled by an instinct that induces man to avoid
reality]” (Deshumanización 47); more recently, Susan Sontag has equated the use of
metaphor with harmful deceitfulness,4 and David Punter insists that metaphors
“establish complex hierarchies of understanding . . . thus, metaphor needs to be
seen in terms of operations of power” (87). Building on Althusser’s argument that
we are the subjects of ideological control, Punter states, “the principal way through
which we are [ideologically] interpellated is metaphor” (42).
In today’s postmodern context an antimetaphoric stance seems excessively
dogmatic, since metaphor has been reembraced as an inextricable part of
poetry (especially so with digital poetry), and, according to Borges, of language
itself—also corroborated by Lakoff and other cognitive linguists who insist that
metaphor is the very source of language. But in the political climate of the 1960s
many artists and critics considered metaphor and other rhetorical tropes as
anathema to a contestatory, politically committed poetry. The Uruguayan poet
Clemente Padín, for instance, avoided metaphor because of its propensity to
“smother reality under a layer of words or signs, signals which are meaningless,
or in the majority of cases, at the service of an interest of whoever is using it,
in our specific case the capitalist system seeking to preserve itself ” (Art and
People n.p.). Evidently, within this unyielding worldview, metaphor was seen as
dually suspect: first, it was perceived as formally regressive, and second, it was
assumed as being perforce allied with oppressive hegemonic systems; as such,
countercultural artists refrained from its usage. This was surely the case in the
radically experimental poetry of the period, as practiced by Clemente Padín
(Uruguay), Guillermo Deisler (Chile), Wlademir Dias-Pino (Brazil), or Edgardo
Vigo and Luis Pazos (Argentina), to name but a few. Whereas the first wave of
avant-gardists, as we saw with Junoy and Tablada, made metaphor the pivotal
device to disrupt semiotic boundaries (text and image), these neo-avant-gardists
wanted to inject poetry with raw, unmediated reality.
And yet, despite such vociferous disavowals, metaphor was still widespread in
Latin American poetry; in fact, bodily metaphors were often mobilized to describe
the ailing “national body” (itself a metaphor, as is the reference to its ailment),
or to refer to torture and the disappeared as in work by Raúl Zurita, Diamela
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes 57

Eltit, and other members of the Chilean group CADA. Allegories and metaphors
became necessary once the military dictatorships in the region began to censor
artistic production. There was, however, a general sense by artists that contestation
through art was best achieved by presenting things as they were, or as they seemed
to be. A somewhat instrumentalist Marxist perspective on art prevailed, positing
that artwork should go beyond mimeticism and become a tool to forge reality.
The “new art” emphasized message and results, rather than aesthetic value, so
that artistic means often became unglamorous and secondary to their political
ends. Examples of this gritty art included the widespread use of graffiti, mail art,
mimeographed or hand printed leaflets, hastily assembled street performances, and
other intermedial practices that appropriated their grainy, rough-around-the-edges
and on-the-fly aesthetic from mass media communications. New attitudes toward
metaphor entailed, therefore, a stepping away from representation and toward
conceptualism. While the new poetry of the sixties reclaimed certain strategies
of the historic avant-gardes, such as foregrounding the plasticity and materiality
of letters and words as seen earlier in Junoy’s poems, it abandoned the mimetic
tendencies that had used typescript to evoke realistic images and objects, as was
the case with Apollinaire’s calligrammes. In this sense, the sixties represented a step
toward further abstraction.
To sum up, this chapter examines how metaphor was all too easily associated
by the neo-avant-gardes with the lies of the region’s dictatorships. Despite their
bias against the trope, the neo-avant-gardes relied especially on body metaphors to
protest the mistreatment of actual bodies in the context of political violence. While,
as I mentioned, some theorists (Plato, Nietzsche, Sontag) have warned against the
insidious danger of figurative thought, others (Borges, Ricoeur, Lakoff) insist on
its potential to transform lived experience. Yet others, such as Derrida, assert that
metaphor cannot be avoided in the arts, indeed, in language, since “any statement
concerning anything whatsoever that goes on, metaphor included, will have
been produced not without metaphor” (“Retrait” 50). The rest of the chapter
is dedicated to the work of two poets who were particularly concerned with
representation and its intersection with politics, the Uruguayan Clemente Padín
and the Argentine Edgardo Antonio Vigo. Padín’s “Nueva Poesía” experimented with
minimalist and conceptual poems (“letter” poetry), subordinating representation to
a direct intervention on reality; Vigo deployed objects and his own body to protest
against encroaching dictatorships in Argentina and elsewhere in the Southern
Cone. Their poems, performances, and poetic actions displayed the tensions
between metaphor and ideology as distortions of an unrepresentable (ineffable)
“external” reality.
58 Radical Poetry

Clemente Padín’s “New Poetry”: From Sense to Non-Sense

Clemente Padín, born in Uruguay (1939–), was imprisoned for more than two years
on account of the Marxist resonances in his art, which the military dictatorship
declared as an assault on “the morale and reputation of the Army” (Kostelanetz 461).
Installed by a coup in 1973 with the support of the democratically elected president
Juan María Bordaberry (less than three months before Chile’s September 11 coup
and the fall of Salvador Allende), Uruguay’s military junta set about eliminating
all political opposition. During those difficult years of political repression, Padín
created a visual art at the service of the community, an art of action as opposed
to an art of merely words or images, an art, in short, inextricably bound to the
political (Kuhnheim 114–16). Although it is easy to trace the political in overtly
ideological poems such as “Paz-Pan” (1973), a work Padín wrote while in jail that is
highly critical of militarism and economic inequality, I will tease out the political
in works not typically read through that lens.
Padín has been a profoundly intermedial artist, since well before the terms
intermedial or multimedia were coined. Since the sixties he has been a poet, a
graphic artist, and a performance artist as well; indeed, his work combines all of
those practices. Padín edited two influential literary magazines that vigorously
promoted what he called the “New Poetry”: Los Huevos del Plata (The Eggs of the
Plata) (1965–69) and Ovum 10 (1969–1975).5 While Padín’s term New Poetry did
not achieve any currency beyond the Southern Cone, its general characteristics
could be appreciated in experimental poetry movements throughout the globe.
The single most important characteristic of the New Poetry, as described in Padín’s
manifesto/article “La Nueva Poesía,” published in Ovum 10 (1969), was its openness
to transformative action, and its deployment of the graphic image, of letters and
words, in alternative spaces such as the street; spaces, in short, where the line
between activism and art blurs. Poetry as “action writing” shares much with other
guerilla art tactics of the Latin American neo-avant-garde, such as leaflets, mail
art, posters, graffiti, and stencil art, which allowed the spreading of messages about
social and political resistance quickly and directly to the masses. As Jill Kuhnheim
notes, “Padín continually uses mass media or strategies that come from advertising
against the market or to reach a wider audience” (Beyond 114–15).
But by what aesthetic means were messages of resistance communicated? What
was, in other words, the most effective way to reach the masses? And how might
the “New Poetry” act directly upon reality? Poetry’s move to the streets became
possible once poets adopted low-cost, rapid mass reproduction techniques such as
mimeographing, stenciling, xerography, and stamping, so as to circumvent printing
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes 59

presses and other mainstream methods subject to state control. Their aesthetics
reflected urgency, simplicity, and the seriality of works that were no longer unique
or seen in institutional spaces; naturally, for performances, the uniqueness and
presentness was still very much the point. The first step toward achieving this
new, agile art, argued Padín, required a “complete” stripping away of discourse,
the elimination of metaphors and other rhetorical and poetic devices, in order to
present the object itself and act directly upon reality. He insisted that the emphasis
on presentation rather than representation was the chief difference between the
neo-avant-gardes and previous vanguards:

El futurismo, el dadaísmo, el cubismo, el surrealismo, etc., son corrientes

artísticas que se valen de lenguajes de representación—hablar, pintar, recitar,
cantar o cualquier otra técnica conocida—son en los hechos actos, pero actos
cuya índole determinante es la emisión de representaciones y no la emisión de
un lenguaje mediante una acción.

[Futurism, Dada, Cubism, Surrealism, etc. are artistic movements that use
languages of representation—speaking, painting, reciting, singing or any other
known technique—that are in their process also actions, but actions whose
main characteristic is the production of representations and not the production
of a language through an action.] (“El Lenguaje de la Acción” 30)

While selling somewhat short the achievements of the first avant-gardes in

nonrepresentation (I am thinking of Dada anti-art, noise performances, and
generally outrageous pranks that were focused precisely on action, polemic, and
agitation), clearly Padín’s aesthetic position in the sixties paralleled poetry’s gradual
shift from representation toward a type of direct action that nevertheless remained
connected to the poetic. In other words, for Padín and other neo-avant-gardists
it was the “action” and how it changed reality that created the art piece, and not
the other way around. The move from object to action was connected to the
proliferation, visibility, and public involvement in performative art, which at times
became indistinguishable from political protest.
In order to stretch the limits of what might constitute the art object, Padín
turned to the theories of a well-known Brazilian concrete poet and art critic,
Ferreira Gullar. In 1971, borrowing from Gullar’s “Theory of Non-Object”
(1959), Padín developed a kind of poetry he called “Poesía Inobjetal” (non-object
poetry), or Action Poetry. Action Poetry, as defined by Padín in his text De la
representación a la acción (From Representation to Action) (1973), attempts to abandon
60 Radical Poetry

representation to enter into the arena of action. Alas, Padín’s effort to repress the
representational—his rejection of illusionism—will come, paradoxically, through
several representational means, proving (once again) the resilience of metaphor,
mimeticism, and representation in art.
In De la representación a la acción, Padín, anticipating Sontag’s critique against
metaphor, declares that so-called traditional art provides a substitute for reality
that is conducive to escapism and not to the wished-for confrontation with
society’s ills. Debates about metaphor were part of the sixties’ general move toward
a “literalist” art that could be classified as nonart, a shift toward what Michael
Fried calls “objecthood” in his now-famous attack on Minimalism in “Art and
Objecthood” (1967). In that essay, Fried argued that the inclusion of the beholder
as participant in the experience of recent avant-gardism diluted the centrality of
the art object in favor of foregrounding the relationship between viewing subject
and object. The failure to maintain distinctions between art object and life, or
performance and life, for Fried (as for Greenberg and Ortega y Gasset) meant art’s
degeneration and the abandonment of concepts such as quality and value. Such
concerns by (mostly) Anglo-American and Western European high modernist critics
about the commingling of art and life and the loss of artistic autonomy were closely
related to their defense of medium specificity, as discussed in chapter 1. Concerns
about the loss of artistic autonomy had less resonance in Latin America, where
artists where engaged in life or death ideological struggles. By rejecting artistic
autonomy, Padín and other Latin Americans chose instead to involve art with an
everyday politics of resistance. According to Padín, with the union of art and life,
the art object is eliminated and replaced with the art action. Paradoxically, it would
seem that he attempts to subdivide action from ideology. Employing Saussure’s
semiotic theory as a starting point, Padín defines a semiotic system in which the
sign becomes an “action”:

Por una parte, a nivel de significante, la acción opera sobre la realidad y, por la
otra, a nivel del significado, opera ideológicamente.

[On the one hand, at the level of the signifier, an action works on reality, and
on the other hand, at the level of the signified, it operates ideologically.] (De
la Representación n.p.)

Nevertheless, Padín’s semiotics of action is a difficult proposition to accept

wholesale. While actions can clearly function as signifiers—they might “speak”
louder than words, as the popular saying goes—the separation of the action from
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes 61

its ideological content is rather difficult to envision. More likely, what he points to
is a use of “action” as a form of representation (indeed, a form of theater, happening),
which acts on the “real” but is still located within a realm of the performative.
Indeed, this communication, or speech-act, uttered in a public space, might be
construed as both artistic and political action; a public artistic action is rendered
meaningful by those that perform it and those that witness it.
There is in Padín’s work, in a sense, a certain element of the theatricality that
Fried abhorred in Minimalist art, a return of performance, and an unintended
reinstitution of certain boundaries between art and “real” life, which have to do
with the presence of the observer. This return of artifice, despite Padín’s efforts
against it, is no doubt closely linked to the return of metaphor and the discursive.
The presence of this element of performance, in my view, does not render the artist
or the artwork any less committed. Ultimately, as Fried argues, theatricality, or,
we may call it performance or metaphor, can only be denied through theatrical,
performative, or metaphoric means. Yet, there is still a kind of authenticity in the
efforts by Padín, Edgardo Vigo, and others to engage with and understand their
historical conditions and the real world that inspired their work.
It will be useful to frame these discussions in specific works. I would like to
examine two experimental poems by Padín, one from the period immediately
before his development of nonobject poetry, and one from the period after. Neither
is overtly political in the way many of his other works are, but they illuminate his
understanding of “poetry” as something extraliterary, as an action or performance.
While Padín refers to this work as a poem (see Figure 2.1), some might challenge
this label in favor of another; perhaps graphic art, or a visual poem, and possibly a
nonobject, to use Gullar’s terminology. Representative of efforts to minimize the
content of poetry, the poem explores the limits and overlapping regions between
poetry and visual art. For this reason, for some readers it may insistently prompt
the question, Is this poetry? To this question, I reply with Jonathan Mayhew’s point
that “avant-garde movements in poetry almost by definition, will produce work that
will not appear ‘poetic’ to contemporary readers” (21), in fact, even to sophisticated
readers and critics. Perhaps a better question might be, at which point does poetry
stop being poetry and become something else? And, if the author intends it to be
“poetry,” even if a variant of experimental poetry, might the critic question this
label, which is, after all, just that, a label? Within the context of the experimental
“tradition,” the same question was asked of Dadaist sound poetry, of Futurist
parole in libertà, and so on. According to Antonio Monegal, the concept of the poetic,
by the start of the twentieth century, shifts from referring strictly to the verbal arts
to becoming “un rasgo potencialmente presente en cualquier actividad artística,
Figure 2.1. Clemente Padín. “Signografía I.”
Printed with permission from Clemente Padín.
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes 63

con independencia del medio [a facet potentially present in any artistic activity,
independent of its medium]” (34). The very resistance to labeling or categorization
is one of the constitutive characteristics of the different modalities that conform
experimental poetics. This particular work could also be referred to as “word” or
“letter” art, or as an anti-poem; I will refer to it as a visual poem.
Part of the Signografías series, published in Los horizontes abiertos (The
Open Horizons) (1969), this poem shows—especially in its concise, minimalist
presentation—the aesthetic influence of the Brazilian concrete poets and of the
Noigandres group in particular (Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, Décio Pignatari)
which I discuss at length in chapter 7. Its title, “Signorafía I,” identifies it as
the first of a series of visual poems created with the semi-industrial process of
serigraphy (serigrafía), or silkscreen, which was popularized by Andy Warhol in
the 1960s but invented as an artisanal process in tenth-century China. Silkscreen
is related to stencil art, since both deal with the transfer of ink through a filter.
But whereas silkscreen was used in publicity and graphic arts, stencil art enjoyed
a more marginalized existence, closer to graffiti and other street art. In this sense,
this method of production is itself positioned in between the marginal and the
commercial, between the graphic and the pictorial, between “poetry” and “picture.”
Padín’s poem (like Tablada’s haiku in chapter 1) might also be understood as
investigating relations between figure and background, as well as the instability
of semiotic systems, in particular as letters transform into images. The poem
resembles variations on the letter “a,” although certainty is impossible given the
letter’s deformity, indeed, its illegibility as letter. Alternatively, these might not
be letters at all, but rather graphisms, signs that only imitate letterforms without
actually referring to any specific standard recognizable letter, as in the work of
Spanish poet José Miguel Ullán.
“Signografía I” self-consciously plays with its own ambiguous status as either
“poem” or “visual art,” or perhaps both, or even neither. If the viewer expects or is
presented with the first option (the work is framed as “poetry”), the expectations
about conventional poetry may overdetermine his reaction. The eye wants to
perceive letter components in an effort to relate linguistically to the work. Thus, the
fourth letter in the top row bears some resemblance to the “a,” but at the same time
the similarity is thwarted by the left side of the letter, which clearly departs from the
familiar shape of a lowercase typescript “a.” The denial of the stereotypical function
of the letter as a signifying object, which forms part of a word, is a constant in
Padín’s early poems, and it creates a tension between the scriptural and the visual.
These letter shapes suggest movement, strange contortions, as they acquire the
appearance of exotic, amoeba-like organisms reacting kinetically to some unseen
64 Radical Poetry

stimulus. Using white symbols on a black background also reverses the traditional
arrangement of typescript: black on white. Karl Young has interpreted a similar
work by Padín in musical terms, stating that

en cierto modo, las variaciones de la ‘a’ parecen seguir principios de la impro-

visación del jazz, o acaso formas minimalistas de música más actual: las
modulaciones de las figuras siguen formas musicales básicas como la sucesión
invertida de una locución melódica, poniendo la melodía del derecho o del
revés y así sucesivamente.

[in a certain way, the variations of the “a” seem to follow jazz improvisa-
tional principles, or perhaps contemporary minimalist musical forms: the
modulations of the shapes follow basic musical forms such as inverted and
successive melodies, placing the melody one way and then another, and so on,
successively.] (14)

Young’s “musical” interpretation grapples with how the different graphic symbols
relate to each other. Arranged in a seemingly orderly grid of five rows (as in
the five lines of a musical staff) and four columns, the shapes struggle to break
out of the Cartesian rigidity, to break, so to speak, out of the mold. The signs
that are closest to each other share some resemblance or affinity, which creates
a sense of progression or movement from one to the next. Some even display a
degree of complementarity, as if they were reacting to each other, for instance
the fourth and fifth signs in the second row, which cross into a common space, in
a sort of dance-like arrangement, or even a poetic “enjambment” (see Figure 2.1).
The color reversal (white on black) also refers to the alterity of the signografías’
“writing” system that might be considered as a shadow of conventional forms of
writing, or as a deliberate challenge to the writing norm. In this sense, it echoes
Torres-García’s well-known 1935 drawing of an inverted South American continent,
which, according to Rommens, is “representative of the dynamics of inversion of
periphery and center” serving as “an emblem for the desire for an independent
and genuine Latin American art,” an art inverted, like Padín’s colors, so that now
it favors the subaltern (n.p.).
Padín’s theories notwithstanding, this early work does not engage frontally with
the political, certainly not in any direct or active way, although it does engage with
language, or rather, with its absence (presenting “signifiers” without discernible
“signifieds”); through its minimalism and its emphasis on the “object” quality of
the graphisms, it attempts to disrupt the metaphoric (as we saw unsuccessfully,
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes 65

since we can “read” all kinds of images into the Rorschach-like shapes).
Nonetheless, the poem is much more than a mere formal exercise; it is a
meditation on the arbitrary nature of our roman lettering (and indirectly of our
classical heritage), which, arguably different from the ideographs we discussed
previously, does not bear any connection to the physical world. Developed in
Sumeria in 3300 BC, the first writing system—used to represent spoken language
graphically on clay tablets—was radically transformative. After its invention,
it became necessary to understand written language to interpret its signs into
some form of meaning, whereas before, other types of signals or body gestures
might have sufficed to “naturally” convey meaning. Padín’s sign system seems to
connect instead to some proto-writing system where the graphemes do not have
a preestablished meaning and are devoid of linguistic content, but function to
metaphorically suggest possible meaning(s), all of which remain open to subjective
interpretation, indeed, to overinterpretation or perhaps even overreading. And
although my own analysis might not be completely exempt from overinterpretation,
the process of making meaning through interpretation is in itself a return to the
centrality of the observer, a return that lessens (to the disapproval of critics such
as Fried) the gap between art and life. In that sense, Padín’s language games do
become political.
The poem’s graphemes or markings can be interpreted as being merely visual
patterns or as having some other “hidden” significance. In the first case, we see the
work as being an asemic type of writing in which no predetermined meaning can
be ascertained; rather, it remains open for the reader to interpret in various ways.
Despite the difference with pictographic systems, however, Padín’s signografías
share with Japanese, Chinese, or Korean kanji one important aspect: the oscillation
between the reading and the looking, which leaves the spectator/reader suspended
between the two functions. Since asemic writing did not begin to become prevalent
in visual poetry until the late 1970s, “Signografía I” might be considered as one
of its earlier examples. Asemic script, however, has also been connected to both
Paleolithic sign systems (proto-writing) and to a new postliterate “calligraphic”
writing trend that courts the nonsensical in a kind of neo-Dada sensibility. But
“hidden” significance can be found, or “read” into the work. In spite of Padín’s
intention to strip away any possible figurative meaning, as stated in his Manifesto
of Non-objective Art, meaning, as well as metaphor and interpretation, succeed
in resisting eradication. Implications can be drawn from even the most abstract,
minimalist works, and Padín’s visual poetry is far from complete abstraction.
I mentioned that there was in the sixties a hostility coming from Modernist
critics (i.e., Fried, Greenberg) toward conceptualism and interpretation, as well as
66 Radical Poetry

toward intermediality and other artistic experiments deemed as too heterodox,

as compromising the role of art as an autonomous space free from real-life
concerns. Part of the concerted effort directed against interpretation (and against
overreading), as outlined in Sontag’s essay by the same title (“Against Interpretation”
1966), was a criticism that overreliance on (perforce reductive) constructed
intellectual abstractions will result in the overuse of rigid grids, which are then
applied to investigate works of art with the purpose of overlaying predetermined
meanings onto them. Sontag makes specific reference to Freudian and Marxist
analysis as bearing responsibility for much overinterpretation.
Interpretation, thus viewed, is not a truth-seeking enterprise but rather an
ideologically driven and historically determined critical strategy or technique. This
critique is on a par with similar attacks on the Author, the Critic, and other figures
of authority put forth in the sixties by Barthes, Foucault, and others. To be sure,
the elimination of content in Padín’s signografías series would seem to impede the
discourse of interpretation, since there is no “content” (or, rather, verbal content is
minimized) to analyze, leaving only description as a possibility. As Sontag argues,
referring to the sixties, “Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation
is largely reactionary, stifling . . . interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon
art” (4). Advocating for description over interpretation, however, Sontag fails to
observe that the first always already entails the latter: every description contains
an interpretation, just as the most abstract, contentless art will entail meaning
and suggest metaphoric constructions. Where the border between interpretation
and overinterpretation might be located is never clear; it might just be located at
the place where the work of the critic overlaps with the work of the artist, when
criticism becomes in fact, creation.
What is at stake, then, in metaphor’s resilience, or in the insistence on
interpretation? Padín’s effort to reduce content to the visual graphemes and
their relation to each other does not preclude metaphor from enduring, via the
creative flights of fancy of the viewer. This could, in fact, be considered as one
of the potentially revolutionary aspects of this type of poetry: that despite the
meticulous exploration of a seemingly abstract grapheme, the metaphoric trope
returns, generated by the reader’s own predisposition toward it or by the suggestive
condition of the language and its graphic forms. Although perhaps contrary to
Padín’s desire to present just the materiality of the graphemes, the insistence
and return of the figurative seems a reminder that no abstract grid can ever be
fully imposed on the imagination and attests to the ubiquity of metaphor and
the power of mental images. Nor do I see a problem or contradiction with this
metaphoric presence and Padín’s express need for political commitment to changing
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes 67

social reality, a commitment that does not come fully through in this early work
(except perhaps implicitly through its radical form: its disruption of the linguistic,
the discursive, etc.), but which becomes more evident in later poetry. In fact, an
allegorical reading of the work might suggest that neither the strict patterning
of grids, and rigid rationalist systems, nor the imposition of authoritarian rules
(artistic or otherwise) can ever imprison the work of the imagination. The work
then becomes liberational.
In a disquieting and problematic poem (see Figure 2.2) Padín attempts to
deconstruct the perceived barriers between art and life, which he believes are
a stumbling block to developing a political consciousness. For Padín, political
awakening occurs when there is a direct, unmediated interaction between the

Figure 2.2. Clemente Padín. “Inobjetal 1.”

Printed with permission from Clemente Padín.
68 Radical Poetry

reader/viewer/spectator and the poem (and indirectly, with the poet). From this
position as an active participant the spectator becomes, in the best of cases,
politically aware. By engaging directly with the spectator, the poet believes, art
transitions away from representation and toward “action art.”
It is important to start the analysis of the poem by addressing the obvious
misogynistic, or at least masculinist, component of the work, which in a sense
reflects one of the shortcomings of Latin American Marxism in the sixties, its
shocking sexism. Recalling Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting L’origine du monde
(more on this later), Padín’s “Inobjetal 1” “plays” with the void of the vagina and
the fear it projects (horror vacuii) in a somewhat stereotypical fashion. As the piece
attempts to “represent” the empty nature of art via a somewhat infantile caricature
of female genitalia, it becomes apparent that the problematic and insidious aspects
of gender discrimination are fully operative; the abstract has been breached, by way
of denigrating the particular, the concrete, the female body; indeed, the sketch is
in no way “innocent” or arbitrary, but quite possibly outright misogynistic.
But what, exactly, is Padín attempting to do in this admittedly grossly sexist
work? What is its objective, as it skirts, or straddles, a line that barely separates
the supposedly political from the barely pornographic? Or is pornography itself to
be read as a form of radical politics, here oriented to shock bourgeois sensibilities?
By its own admission, the work aims to eliminate the art object as such in order to
encourage the participant/reader/viewer to engage directly with reality, that is, after
verifying that engagement with the work of art does not take him/her anywhere.
Paradoxically, Padín’s search for the literal and the unmediated notwithstanding,
engagement cannot come about without the mediating function of the artwork, or
language (and therefore, of some sort of figuration). Even in this poem, which seeks
to leave art behind, the artwork is the catalyst that activates the transformative
experience that changes something in the external world. In the case of “Inobjetal
1,” one of a series of poem-manifestos that define Inobjetal poetry (Nonobjective)
its purpose is to spark the realization of the empty nature of representational art,
replacing it with a direct experience, as the “directions” indicate:

Stick your finger, or whatever you want, in, and you will feel the emptiness
and frustration that awaits you behind the paper. That is how art operates: it
offers a substitute of reality so that you might escape it. Art is what you do in
direct relation to your surroundings and not in relation to a representational
system of that reality.

Once again, we see that to practice what Padín calls “el arte de la realidad” (the
art of reality), the artist must eliminate the distance that separates art from
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes 69

life, questioning also other established dualisms such as the divide between
theory and praxis, or reason and emotion (even as it glaringly reproduces the
age-old misconceptions about gender, understood narrowly from a phallocentric
perspective as another dual structure, male-female). If followed to its conclusion,
the disruption of dual structures would also mean that every reader should become
a poet, and every poem an action, and so forth. The equating of art and life poses
some serious problems since it collapses all categories somewhat unproductively
or, more likely, presumes a collapse that will never materialize. Viewed in this
light, it seems as if the debate about art and life threatened to result in a choice
between a culturally elitist, complete autonomy of the artwork, versus a totalizing
nihilism: either art signified only its own materials and conditions of production,
or it signified everything and, therefore, nothing. There had (has) to be a middle
This, in a sense, brings us back to metaphor, interpretation, and the irreducible
complexity of systems, or to put it another way, the impossibility of a totalizing
synthesis. Perhaps some distance is necessary, some tension needs to be kept in
order for different systems to coexist. For instance, simply attempting to eliminate
the figurative from the work of art does not eradicate the division between literal
and figurative (as Padín would like to do), since both persist in the work. Indeed,
it is quite possible that the world of poetic figurative language and the world of
action are actually related through metaphor, and that the figurative is necessary to
achieve the type of political transformation that Padín’s work calls for. According
to Paul Ricoeur’s theory of metaphor, as laid out in The Rule of Metaphor (1975), to
neglect metaphor and the work of the imagination that it entails is to abandon
a powerfully transformative and dynamic tool that informs the tension between
identity and difference; indeed, metaphor facilitates spaces of negotiation between
concepts in opposition, which can be reconciled through the crossing of boundaries
(disciplinary, semiotic, generic) and at times lead to the surprise or shock of the
new, to imaginative discoveries.
Paradoxically, and despite Padín’s failed intent to purge the figurative, the
highly sexualized nature of the sketch (originally intended as a provocation
to conservative-minded Uruguayans, although it is now an assault on our
contemporary sensibility, much more attuned to issues of sexism) also functions
metaphorically: the reader is asked to “penetrate” the sketch in order to understand
the message about the emptiness of the representational sign, as opposed to the
“fullness” of a direct operation on reality. The penetration need not be literal (the
finger does not have to puncture the paper to “get” the point) since the reader
understands the concept and has no need to carry out the instructions; it is, instead,
a figurative penetration by the reader’s intellectual and emotive understanding.
70 Radical Poetry

But the action suggested by the lewd (also raw, in-your-face, confrontational, and,
as observed, misogynistic) nature of the sketch is first understood literally, and
only then symbolically, and from the tension between the literal and symbolic
arises a new understanding and the world-making possibilities of the poetic. It is
rather unfortunate that this potentially emancipatory effect is, after all, obscured
by the very “shock” Padín has enacted, for the work does not stand up well to
contemporary criticism, that is, to a nuanced and gender-attentive analysis; its
overt sexism is, quite possibly, its own undoing. As a work, however, it illuminates
the debates about metaphor, artistic autonomy, and commitment present in the
sixties, and the period’s changing, but still problematic attitudes toward issues of
race, gender, and difference.
At the same time, and somewhat curiously for a poem that seeks to leave behind
referentiality, Padín seems to be evoking (and perhaps deflating through caricature)
the aforementioned Courbet painting L’origine du monde, one of the pinnacles of
Realism, which hangs at the Musée d’Orsay (Paris) and was owned, at one point, by
Jacques Lacan, and quite possibly also served as an inspiration for Marcel Duchamp’s
last work, Étant donnés (1966) (Sayer 160–73). Courbet’s painting, which was made for
a private collector, is an equally provocative work that questions our understanding
of “origin” and “originality.”6 Both Courbet’s and Padín’s works present a body
reduced metonymically to its representation of the vagina, centrally located in the
focal point of the canvas and therefore “drawing in” the male spectator’s phallic
gaze, whereas the woman spectator is seemingly disregarded, although her reaction
would be quite different, presenting a challenge to the male perspective (as theorized
by feminist film scholars Laura Mulvey, Teresa de Laurentis, and Linda Williams);
noticeably absent from the body on display are other important organs and parts,
such as the head, the face and eyes, those parts that confer identity, emotion, and
personality, and therefore the woman thus presented is depersonalized, objectified,
or, to use Ortega’s term, “dehumanized.” There are other “penetrating” observations
to be made here, insofar as both Courbet’s brush and Padín’s pencil or finger,
whether gently or roughly, seek to break through to a new understanding of origins
in relation to art and sexuality, fears of castration and creative impotence, but
do so by rendering a brutal violence, indeed a rape, on woman’s body (this sexual
violence equally present in Duchamp’s Étant donnés which may very well depict
its aftermath). Nameless, cut up, and mutilated, Courbet’s painting serves as a
prelude to modernist fragmentation, while Padín’s may be read less figuratively,
as a reminder of the fate of countless women whose bodies have been violated.
In a bizarre turn of events, a canvas depicting what is suspected (and disputed)
to be the “head” of the model—excised by Courbet to protect her identity—was
discovered in 2010 by a Parisian collector, but thus far the art world has placed
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes 71

little value in the additional finding, preferring to keep its focus on the “original”
work. Courbet’s is in fact a painting that—much like Padín’s sketch—also represents
the quest for a lost origin, as well as reenacting patriarchal desires for, and fears
of, the female body, and both reaffirms the male order and reveals its “lack” and
dependence on the woman’s ultimate power of nonmechanical reproducibility,
also understood as a form of enslavement, a sort of immanent disempowerment,
by Simone de Beauvoir and, in Latin America, by notable feminist poets such
as Gabriela Mistral (Chile), Delmira Agustini (Uruguay), Juana de Ibarbourou
(Uruguay), and Alfonsina Storni (Argentina), as well as others.7
In his version, which appears to be hand-drawn (perversely remitting, therefore,
to the “digit” or finger), Padín challenges both the concept of origin and the notion
that art could ever represent that original moment of creation. Art, according to
Padín, would provide instead infinitely repeating images of images; in this case,
a copy of a painting of a model in an arranged “pose.” In this sense “Inobjetal 1”
displays the fundamental disconnect between male desire and the possibility of
representation, thereby revealing art as simulacra of an original (itself nowhere to
be found), or as Baudrillard would have it, as the “discrete charm of second-order
simulacra” (1). The substitution of reality with art, Padín asserts, is neither
possible nor desirable. And yet, the persistence, indeed the proliferation of artistic
representation and of rhetorical tropes suggests otherwise.
So why continue the task of imitating imitations of imitations? What is the
point of representation? If we consider the creative nature of metaphor, as Ricoeur
does, then we can consider the mimetic element of representation not as a copy or
imitation of a preexisting original “reality,” but rather as a creative interpretation
of our human perception. The play between the “real” and its “creative” or
metaphorical rendition thus produces a rich field of transformative possibilities.
According to Ricoeur in Interpretation Theory,

[I]n the case of metaphor, this redescription [of reality] is guided by the inter-
play between differences and resemblances that gives rise to the tension at
the level of the utterance. It is precisely from this tensive apprehension that a new
vision of reality springs forth, which ordinary vision resists because it is attached
to the ordinary use of words. The eclipse of the objective, manipulable world
thus makes way for the revelation of a new dimension of reality and truth.
(68; my emphasis)

Metaphor, Ricoeur argues, bears a relationship to reality by bringing concepts

that share a resemblance but remain different in tension with each other to create
new meaning. Borges says something similar, stating that metaphor can also
72 Radical Poetry

transform our perception of the world, so that through it, objective reality “se
contorsiona hasta plasmarse en una nueva realidad [contorts until it becomes
a new reality]” (Textos recobrados 119). Through metaphor, new understanding is
brought into being; in “Inobjetal 1” it might be an awareness of the limitations of
representation to express the domain of reality, and an appreciation of the reader’s
active involvement in the work and the world, both at an interpretative level and
perhaps at a political level (insofar as an active participant of the art work is also
likely to become involved in social action). As such, for Ricoeur, metaphor can bring
about a change of worldview, precisely what Padín wants to achieve through the
impossible banishment of metaphor and figurative language.
Can or should these opposing approaches to the use of metaphor and poetry
be reconciled? In the poetic movements of 1960s Latin America there were few
claims in favor of the autonomy of the work of art that had been so in vogue at
the end of the nineteenth century. In a context of dictatorship, repression, and
injustice, art and poetry have a stake in real life and its transformation, perhaps
an obligation to retain some referentiality, without falling into stark approaches
such as Socialist Realism. But a playful back and forth between the referential and
the poetic functions, as identified by Jakobson, is needed so that poetry may retain
the ambiguity and interpretative indeterminacy that give it its creative force, and,
if we agree with Borges and Ricoeur, its transformative capability.

Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s Corporeal Poetry:

Unearthing Memories of Dictatorship

Whereas with Padín we faced issues about mediation and artistic autonomy, the
Argentine Edgardo Antonio Vigo (1928–1997) brings us back, painfully, to the body.
Neglected by the art world for many years but featured in a recent exhibition at New
York’s MoMA titled “The Unmaker of Objects: Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s Marginal
Media” (April-June 2014), Vigo was instrumental in defining the political turn in
Latin American experimental poetry in the 1960s. Although still fondly remembered
in his city of La Plata, home to the Centro de Arte Experimental Vigo where his work
is archived, Vigo remains one of the continent’s unsung experimental artists. Vigo’s
poetic trajectory is analogous to his close friend Clemente Padín’s (whom he met in
1970) in several respects: in their shared commitment to a politically inflected art (in
Padín’s case most salient in his Mail Art projects), and in their efforts to transform
passive consumers of art into its active creators. Like Padín, Vigo produced a wide
range of experimental art, departing from using the written word as an exclusive
form of expression, and adopting mail art, performance, object poetry, and visual
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes 73

poetry. Vigo also edited two neo-avant-garde literary magazines in Argentina

during the sixties, Diagonal Cero and Hexágono ‘71.
The brief manifesto “Poesía para y/o a Realizar” (“Poetry to and/or Realize”)
(1970), published in Diagonal Cero, is among Vigo’s most notable contributions
to a theory of experimental poetry. In it he establishes the basis for a systematic
destabilizing of the function of art, as well as testing the traditional roles of
spectator and artist, with the aim of creating alternative networks of artistic
exchange outside of the accepted channels of the museum or the art gallery, and
fomenting a playful engagement with art:

Y hablamos de lo lúdico como puente de contacto en diferenciadas formas de

encarar el arte, porque está comprobado que esa es la única vía posible para
que la sociedad retome su interés y participación en el fenómeno del arte.
Procedimiento válido y accesible que se basa en la solución de una participación
REALIZACIÓN por él del poema.

[And we speak of the ludic as a bridge between different approaches to

art, because it is known that this is the only way that society may recapture its
interest and participation in art. A valid and accessible process that assumes
an active participation to achieve A PROFOUND INDIVIDUAL PARTICIPA-
TION: the REALIZATION by him of the poem.] (Escrituras en Libertad 426)

Vigo presents his poetry experiments (or “cosas” [“things”] as he refers to them)
in playfully shocking ways that destabilize the expectations of the viewer, using
verbal and visual play, fragmentation, humor, irony, but still underpinning his
work with social and political concerns. By calling the works “cosas,” Vigo has
already removed them from the strictly artistic or poetic and turned them into
objects, things, and therefore material, concrete; thus, he too attempts to erode
the separation between art and daily life.
Replacing the solemnity of the work of art (the hushed tones with which we
refer to it at the museum) with a playful and irreverent exchange between work
and spectator/creator might be considered subversive even in a democracy. Doing
so in Argentina in 1970, during General Onganía’s dictatorship, in a conservative
political climate in which such an approach to art suggested a lack of respect toward
hierarchy, authority, propriety, and order, was much more insurrectionary.8 During
the terrible decades of the Dirty Wars (roughly from the mid-sixties to the late
eighties, although it varies greatly by country) in Latin America’s Southern Cone,
74 Radical Poetry

the word subversive and the art of subversion carried a much greater risk than merely
shocking bourgeois sensibilities. Argentines labeled as “political agitators” by the
military authorities were “disappeared” into a vast network of extralegal, secret
detention centers where they were tortured and most often, killed and disposed
of in various ways.9 While Vigo was not linked to guerrilla activity, his art might
easily have been construed as being “subversive” under the strict censorship laws
instituted by the military. In some cases, Vigo engages directly with politics; in
Hexágono ‘71 Vigo makes references to events such as the massacre of sixteen leftist
militants in Trelew in 1971, or the massacre at Ezeiza of peronistas in 1973, and,
during the Proceso, Vigo intensified his protests through Mail Art. Evidently, Vigo’s
“revolutionary” artwork had a more potent charge in its original context than
now, viewed safely in retrospect. Vigo’s artistic tactics to shift the appearance
of everyday objects, or to “shake” the perspective of the passive art consumer in
order to alter their political conscience represented real-life risks: potential arrest,
torture, exile, or even death. His political artwork took a dramatic and personal
turn in 1976 when his own son, twenty-year-old Abel Luis “Palomo” Vigo, was
kidnapped and “disappeared” by the military and never seen or heard from again
(Padín, “Kairan 7” n.p.). Devastated, Vigo designed a stamp with his son’s image, the
date of his disappearance, and the words “SET FREE PALOMO” in English, with
which he stamped and sent his Mail Art internationally. Tellingly, he also stamped
Mail Art with the word “CENSURADO.”
In his manifesto, Vigo coins a term to describe his process-oriented poetry,
“poesía para armar” (poetry to be assembled), a name charged with hidden meanings.
With it Vigo echoes the title and formal characteristics of Julio Cortázar’s 62 Modelo
para armar (1968), a novel written in fragments, which the reader reorganizes at will,
creating her own text. Vigo’s text plays on the word armar, which in Spanish has
an ambiguous duality. It means either “to assemble” or “to arm” (with a weapon),
indicating a poetry that the reader assembles following a given set of instructions,
and that also “arms” her with the ability to question and think critically, qualities
that are construed as dangerous under an authoritarian regime, indeed, in any
regime, as “armed” struggle.
Next, I analyze an action-poem or poetic performance that treads a dangerously
ambiguous line, delicately balanced between playful, ironic criticism and potentially
dangerous subversion, as it indicts the bureaucratic mechanisms of totalitarianism;
it is also a work that mobilizes metaphor to act directly upon the real. Titled
“Señalamiento IX” (“Ninth Signaling”), the number IX “signals” its position within
a series of similar works. The following is one the photographs taken during its
performance (see Figure 2.3).
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes 75

“Señalamiento IX” staged two sequences of related actions, which took place on
different occasions, before two eyewitnesses. Here the word eyewitness or “testigo”
acquires added significance, since the “testigo” provides an account or “testimonio”
during legal proceedings to investigate a crime committed; and of course, testimonio
refers to the genre that documents and narrativizes violence in Latin America.
Testimonio connotes the direct experience of an event and that which certifies the
event’s occurrence. Applied to places such as Argentina, Chile, or for that matter,
Spain, the act of burying and disinterring evokes a history of disappeared bodies,
mass graves, and concerted efforts to conceal a troublesome past that demands
remembering—perhaps a literal re-membering.
Vigo’s action-poem unfolded over the span of a year and, taking place five years
before his son’s disappearance, seems almost prescient. The first stage was held on
December 28, 1971, when Vigo marked a particular spot of the garden behind his
studio with an arrow, where he proceeded to dig a hole—or a grave—and into which
he buried a piece of cedar. He created several bureaucratic forms, imitating, indeed
expropriating, the “legalese” jargon in order to document the event meticulously,
and more implicitly, to ridicule official protocols. This process was rigorously
observed: forms and copies were filled out and “legalized” by notary after Vigo
and the two eyewitnesses signed all the documents. Vigo “exhumed” the cedar

Figure 2.3. Edgardo Antonio Vigo. “Señalamiento IX” (“Ninth Signaling”).

Centro Experimental Vigo. La Plata, Argentina.
76 Radical Poetry

block during the second stage of “Señalamiento IX,” on December 28, 1972, at the
same hour and exactly one year later. The choice of cedar, a tree related to the
cypress, is highly significant. The cedar was venerated by ancient cultures, such
as Celtic tribes in Western Europe, as having a special connection to the spirit
world. It is a hardwood used in cigar boxes, chests, and caskets, precisely because
of its resistance to moths, termites, and other destructive invaders. The funerary
overtones provided by the choice of cedar, especially through the exercise of burying
and unburying it, bring to mind the “desaparecidos.” Although in 1971–72 there
were still few disappearances in Argentina (the repression began in earnest with
the Junta’s 1976 takeover), Vigo was aware of the threats to the region’s fledgling
leftist democracies, as shown by Bolivia’s descent into dictatorship after Hugo
Banzer Suárez’s 1971 coup.
The language captured by Vigo in the “official” documentation eerily and
presciently anticipates that of documents later used in the orders of detention,
torture, and elimination of “subversives,” a cold legalese distanced from the bodies
it “processed.” These official documents (discovered in Paraguay in 1992), which
have become known as “los archivos del horror” (the archives of horror), chronicled
the detention and interrogation of thousands of prisoners not just in Argentina
but also in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, all the signatories to the
Operación Condor (Condor Plan), the special cooperation agreement between the
right-wing dictatorships, under the aegis and technical assistance of the CIA, for
the surveillance, arrest, and subsequent extradition, or kidnapping of political
dissidents, many of whom were not actually affiliated with left-wing guerilla
groups. Vigo’s use of legalese acquires a chilling effect:

CERTIFICO por el presente que EDGARDO ANTONIO VIGO ha procedido

en la finca sita en la calle 15 no 1187 de esta Ciudad de la Plata, el día 28 de
diciembre de 1972 siendo las 19 horas, a DESENTERRAR un trozo de madera
de cedro cuyas dimensiones son 7 por 14 por 28 centimetros, cumplimentando
el compromiso adquirido cuando se produjo el 28 de diciembre de 1971 a las
19 horas su enterramiento, finalizando así el llamado SEÑALAMIENTO
NOVENO ’71–72.

[I hereby CERTIFY that EDGARDO ANTONIO VIGO has proceeded, in the

property located at 1187, 15th Street in La Plata City, on December 28, 1972 at
7 p.m., to EXHUME a block of cedar wood with the dimensions of 7 x 14 x 28
cms., thus executing the commitment acquired when its burial took place on
December 28, 1971 at 7 p.m. and thereby concluding the aforementioned NINTH
SIGNALING 1971–72.] (Escrituras en libertad 429, fragment of original text)
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes 77

Although “Señalamiento IX” ocurred before the Videla years (1976–1981) when the
disappearance of “subversives” became commonplace, and, more poignantly, it
predates the disappearance of the artist’s son, the work “points” to, or even foretells,
the gradual unraveling of political freedoms in the Southern Cone. The following
years saw much burying and unburying, by those trying to hide evidence of their
political leanings (books, artwork, leaflets) and by others disposing of an altogether
more organic type of evidence.
But what relation does “Señalamiento IX” bear to poetry, and to metaphor?
Is this type of performance not wholly divorced from the lyrical? Not so. The
piece parallels works by the first avant-gardes, such as the Dada performances
at the Cabaret Voltaire that mixed spoken word, sound poetry, and music, or the
participatory and unique happenings taking place since the 1950s in the United
States. Close to the theatrical, Vigo’s “signaling” emphasizes the importance of
place but also of the written and spoken word. It is at a crossroads between word
and world, between poetry and performance. The piece attempts to activate the
“spectator” into a productive engagement with the poetic work—with itself, the poem
therefore functions self-reflexively— in order to reveal some new understanding
of the world. This engagement takes place through the metaphoric content of
the actions performed by Vigo and seen, or “witnessed” later by the reader. In
Vigo’s “text,” understanding the historical context is absolutely necessary to decode
certain “buried” metaphors. Obviously, burying and exhuming a piece of wood in a
decontextualized performance today might mean something quite different than
it did in Argentina in 1971; therefore, the piece is intrinsically connected to the
time and place of its making. Critic-curator Fernando Davis offers the following
analysis to explain Vigo’s practice of signaling and calling attention to objects,
such as the wood block:

Body and territory were the two principal dimensions invoked by the
avant-garde in response to this state of affairs. The body was interpreted as
a dispositif of political action that was capable of fracturing and subverting
the precepts of meaning imposed by the repressive apparatus. The practice
of “signaling” urban space set out to tactically dismantle its measured order,
introducing a poetic drive where the urban economy was naturalizing complex
power relations, establishing hierarchies, and drawing boundaries and itiner-
aries. (n.p.)

The exercise might also bring to mind the “ready-mades,” but once again there
is a striking difference between Duchamp’s objects and Vigo’s “cosas.” Whereas
Duchamp took objects and displaced them from their expected locus (as was the
78 Radical Poetry

case with the urinal, the bicycle wheel, etc.), and reinterpreted them as art by
placing them in institutional spaces (museums, galleries), thereby questioning the
status of the work of art and problematizing notions of consumerism, Vigo does
something quite different: he places commonplace objects in public (or semipublic
spaces), documenting and signaling them (“señalar”) but not treating them as “pure”
or “autonomous” art objects, rather as triggers for some sort of social dialogue or
The historical context does not exhaust the text, however, which remains open
to interpretation and re-semantization. Evidently, both metaphor and ideology
had a part to play in the Latin American arts of the 1960s and ’70s, as they were
inextricably interconnected to the real conditions of life. Both metaphor and
ideology are, in a sense, distortions of some “external” reality that operate through
the work of art. Despite efforts by some artists to eviscerate the metaphorical
and to present just the naked object, the metaphorical insistently returns.
And the ideological is just as pervasive. It may be tempting to consider both of
these distortions, or perhaps reflections, of reality, or of utopian projections, as
antagonistic forces. In that case, perhaps, metaphor might be activated to make
new meanings possible, while ideology, often, although not always, associated with
domination and control, would enforce the maintenance of the status quo. And yet
this assessment is far too reductive and it might be better to view both, metaphor
and ideology, as mechanisms that mediate our experience of reality, and as such,
might be used in positive, negative, and neutral ways; there are, in other words,
revolutionary, anti–status quo ideologies, just as there are dangerous metaphors
that obscure meaning.
The simultaneous drive toward increasing abstraction and “concreteness,” two
terms that are apparently contradictory and yet bound together in tension, as
well as the rejection of metaphor seen in the 1960s and ’70s, suffers a reversal
in the nineties with the arrival of the digital (itself characterized by a back and
forth relay between the fingers or digits and the electronic), which once again
places value in the paradox of metaphor and in the ambiguity created by its
polyvalent interpretations. This recuperation of metaphor is due, at least in part,
to the increasing acceptance of relativistic perspectives, the abandoning of grand
narratives that insisted in the superiority of truth over metaphor, of realism over
fiction, etc. The reemergence of the metaphoric is also connected to a blurring of
the line between the sciences and the arts, which have increasingly overlapped into
each other’s spheres of activity. Our world today is no longer perceived as a fixed,
unchangeable object of knowledge, but as a construct subject to change depending
on the conceptual framework, model, or indeed, metaphor used to examine it. As
The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes 79

such, our “literary” texts escape the page and become indefinable and contingent.
Digital poetry is the most recent form of experimental poetics and, arguably,
the inheritor of the previous avant-gardes’ fascination with both metaphor and the
shifting boundaries between word and image. I would like to leave the turbulent
sixties and seventies (briefly) behind, and move forward by a quarter-century to
explore how another innovative technological shift—the arrival of computing—has
transformed experimental poetry, both in relation to the interplay between the
visual and the verbal, but also in relation to metaphor. Chapter 3 will be the final
one in the first section of the book dedicated to metaphor’s relation to semiotic
systems (script, image, sound); it also concludes the first approximation at exploring
the many links between the three avant-garde periods in question by analyzing
how metaphor has been recuperated as a fundamental trope to visualize and
conceptualize the elusive structure of the digital.
Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise
An Introduction to Digital Poetry

n a provocative essay dealing with “the uncertain future of the printed word,”
Jean Franco convincingly argues that, in Ibero-America, “the new technologies
of communication have created a class of technocrats and new audiences for
whom print culture has lost its luster and now competes with—and is often super-
seded by—visual and aural culture” (17). While this elegy for print is perhaps a bit
premature, the turn to the visual is widely documented. This drastic cultural shift,
according to Kuhnheim, has propitiated an “alliance of poetry and contemporary
technology . . . [resulting in] works that reformulate as well as consume images and
techniques from imported technologies and the mass media” (Textual 146). And, in
fact, the last few decades of the twentieth century have seen a new form of exper-
imental poetry, one that takes advantage of the advances in computing, wireless
communication, and the Internet, and which goes under the somewhat generic
name of “digital poetry.” Exciting and dynamic, digital poetry has been charac-
terized by its embrace of all types of digital technologies (from the now-obsolete
CD-ROM, to tablets, to the latest mobile devices) and by a turn toward further
hybridization, amalgamation, and porosity between text, image, and sound. But
what, exactly, is digital poetry? It is, among other things, a subgenre of digital or
electronic literature, which the Electronic Literature Organization—its “governing”
body—defines as, “work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of
the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer”
(Hayles, “Electronic Literature” n.p.).

82 Radical Poetry

Digital poetry could also be categorized as a subgenre of experimental poetry,

perhaps as the most recent resurgence of the experimental spirit in poetry. For
all its newness, however, the experiments made possible by the digital echo the
past. In fact, digital poetry has enhanced the expressive potential and injected
new life into the visual, typographic, and phonetic poetry of the avant-gardes
and neo-avant-gardes, by drawing on the added capabilities provided by the
computer’s graphical user interface, such as interactivity, high quality graphics, and
a greater potential for animation, sound, and so on. Critic and poet Loss Pequeño
Glazier, like Franco, observes that digital media, especially online, have shifted
poetry toward a greater emphasis on visuality. “The Web,” he writes, “continues
to bring to light poetry for the screen predicated upon the use of increasingly
faster connections. This means that sound, kinetic and video works will become
increasingly abundant” (167). Contemporary calls by technophilic digital poets to
animate text and images seem to echo the Futurists and other avant-gardists who
sought to fuse art and technology. By integrating older print experiments with
new media’s capacity to make text and images move, we are realizing the kinetic
fantasies of the historical avant-gardes. Every illusionistic attempt to make words
seem to move through typography and parole in libertà, every effort to blend image
and script, and the use of phonetic and sound elements in poetic performance, can
now be duplicated, enhanced, and subsumed by the digital arts.
Although such links to the past seem almost self-evident, comparisons with
previous experimental traditions spur a Bloomian “anxiety of influence” for
contemporary digital poets, resulting in somewhat exaggerated claims of radical
“newness” which at times fail to give proper due to those who came before. In his
text Digital Poetics, for example, Glazier derides static script in favor of kinetic
poetry, claiming movement as one of the defining characteristics of the digital:
“Text in digital media, inasmuch as it sits inertly on a screen, is simply a holdover
from print writing and from low threshold technology” (169). While, technically
speaking, script is never fully inert when displayed on a screen—it flickers, it shifts,
and responds to the mouse’s movements—Glazier is making a distinction between
“digital born” works that take advantage of the multimediatic possibilities of the
Web, and those which are simply transferred onto the Internet but could also
be read on paper. The drive toward a digital parole in libertà is paralleled by a
vindication of the image, which rather than being subservient to script, becomes
a salient component of the digital textual-visual weave:

The visual has as much to do with new media writing as text did to codex
[traditional paperbound book] writing. In fact, if we consider the vast role
Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise 83

the image has played in writing generally (cave paintings, Chinese writing,
Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, Mayan glyphs) the codex era can be considered
an aberrant period when text and image were temporarily isolated from one
another. (169)

While Glazier does not give the “codex” or traditional book enough credit for
the great deal of intermixing it can accommodate between text and image,
his somewhat primitivist point about the reunification of script and image in
today’s media is well taken.1 The precision afforded by the digital has, perhaps
paradoxically, enhanced experimental poetry by increasing its ambiguity,
interactivity, nonlinearity, immediacy, and the visual and formal qualities of text
(script), which has become more image-like. Moreover, the “new” intermedial
sensibility of experimental poetry has reinvigorated metaphor’s transformative
Illustrating New Media’s “enhanced” qualities of formal malleability,
contemporary digital poets such as the Catalans Jordi Pope and Olga Delgado
combine script, image, and sound with motion and interactivity, optimizing
the anthropomorphic potential of digital text, which they deploy to elicit the
reader’s affective response. While the “political” recedes somewhat in these works,
becoming less direct, they retain an element of critique that attempts to
challenge the neoliberal state, even though, paradoxically, the technocultural
modes deployed are themselves fully inscribed in Late Capitalism. And yet, digital,
or hypermedia poetry, as Kuhnheim sees it, “allows poets to explore new frontiers,
to bypass more traditional publishing channels, to reach different audiences.
People whose experience of language is shaped by exposure to the mass media
and computers, those to whom reading and writing, creating and receiving are not
separate activities, may find this system of writing more accessible than conventional
poetry” (Textual 166). All of which increases digital poetry’s liberatory potential.

The Palpability of Signs: Science and Disability Metaphors

in Jordi Pope’s Digital Poetry

Virtually unknown outside of his native Barcelona, the poet Jordi Barba i Pérez
(1953–2008), nicknamed “el Popeye,” hence “Pope,” dabbled in many experimental
poetic modalities such as phonetic poetry, polypoetry, and in later years—having,
sadly, lost his voice and mobility to the degenerative disease that eventually took
his life—he turned to cyberpoetry.2 During Franco’s dictatorship (1939–1975), in
Spain, many poets such as José Hierro or Blas de Otero turned to “poesía social”
84 Radical Poetry

(social poetry) a realist, sometimes-epic style that attempted to protest against the
regime while avoiding the heavy-handed censors (who, on the other hand, were
less preoccupied with poetry than with more popular genres such as the novel or,
even more so, film). Others, such as Joan Brossa, Juan Eduardo Cirlot, or, later, Pope
himself, turned to the experimental as a way to examine issues of aesthetics, but
also engage with politics more obliquely.3 After the transition to democracy, Pope
focused on exploring the confluence between poetry and science. With the arrival
of computers, and, more recently, the Internet, Pope began cultivating the affinity
between digital media and the poetic.
Among Pope’s many poems dealing with science topics, “Sistemes de
comunicació” (“Communication Systems”) (c. 2005) is a sophisticated work that is
composed as a four-poem anthology. It is a highly hybrid work that eludes facile
classification but partakes of a plethora of signifying systems or codes: a visual
code, a sound code, poetic and literary codes, numerical and mathematical codes,
all of them superimposed on the linguistic codes themselves. The “poem” also
explores rules of social behavior, and investigates biological codes—such as the
“language” or communication system of insects. And, the deepest, or least visible,
level of code is the computer code used to program the poem, which remains
“hidden” from view but always operative.4 An exception, in so-called code poetry
either the actual, functioning code or a simulation of it is displayed in the poem’s
content (Pope does not engage with code poetry).5
Working within these multilayered code systems that expand but also constrain
poetic possibilities, Pope created a poem that draws from Claude Shannon’s
theory of communication (1949), and is further enhanced by Roman Jakobson’s
attention to social context in communication.6 Shannon’s model, which Pope
borrows and modifies, describes a tripartite system comprised of a transmitter
that sends a codified signal, a channel or medium that carries the signal and a
receiver that decodes and processes it. In poetic terms, the poet becomes the
transmitter, the poem and the digital network constitute the media channels,
and the reader/viewer will be the receiver and decoder. Pope’s “Communication
Systems” also adopts the concept of the “palpability of signs” from Jakobson, that
is a process that makes signifiers visible and present (by making the physical
attributes of letters stand out, or by making the poetry call attention to its own
poetic devices and tropes) while simultaneously subverting, questioning, and/
or inverting the relation between signifier and signified (by lessening the role of
sense, meaning, and interpretation). Let us return to Pope’s poem to see these
mechanisms at work.
Viewable on a networked digital computer, the anthology’s first screen
Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise 85

opens with the title, “Communication Systems,” which flies in from screen-left
simulating rupturing the flatness of the monitor by unexpectedly “approaching”
the viewer and then rapidly receding into its final position, having visually
mimicked an insect’s “random” flight path. The author’s name arrives next,
as its letters glide in, unrecognizable until they rotate into legibility. Next, a
flower appears in the center of the screen and the animated sketch of a butterfly
flutters near it as if it were responding to a force of attraction, only to move
then to the upper left where it remains, suspended near the title. The concept of
biological communication systems is thereby established from the outset as the
thematic matrix uniting the individual poems (which can be accessed from the
main screen). The interspecies aspect of the communication (between flowers and
insects, for instance, or arguably, cybernetic machines and humans) has a parallel
in the intersemiotic nature of the “image” of the butterfly fluttering near the title’s
“script” (image and script enter into contact, blend briefly, yet remain distinct).
The images are more than mere illustrations and provide visual information,
acting as a “text” without script. Moreover the image on-screen flows into the
script and vice versa, as they share an overlapping, common space, the screen
plane. Furthermore, the physical appearance of script and its movement is as
important as the message the image communicates—a message which I shall
discuss in short—so they are both (script and image) taking on functions of the
other, operating as text in the broad sense provided by the etymology of the word
(from textus, a woven fabric).
Although here we have primarily a physical juxtaposition of script and
image, meaning that they overlap and are placed next to each other, in each of
the poems Pope presents hybrid forms where the categories script/image are
blurred even further. It is the hybridity and boundary transgression between the
written or verbal and the imagistic and visual, the suggestive cross-pollination of
dynamic script with moving images that spurs my interest in Pope’s poem. The
main screen’s flower is subdivided into four segments, each corresponding to a
different poem, and to a different “communication system” or code. The color
correspondence between flower, insect and text—they share a pinkish hue—also
establishes a connection that reaffirms a common code, and the possibility of
multimodal communication afforded by the digital (sound, image, touch, and
even taste or smell in some not too distant future). The reader must select one
among the four “zones” of the flower. Choosing zone “1” reveals a kinetic poem.
The image (see Figure 3.1), in constant flux, cannot be easily captured “on paper,”
and must be viewed online to be fully appreciated. A translation/transcription of
the text might read:
86 Radical Poetry

The atoms of the lantalic family

in this system which is not
permeable, have some variations of the
long bands with a well-defined
peculiarity, the exit tube is
elongated proportionately to the exit
of the wave.

Since the poem, written in a jargon-filled style, purportedly deals with the
micromolecular chemistry of insect communication, that is, the way insects
communicate using pheromones and other secretions, the reader (unless she is a
trained entomologist or biochemist) will make sense of it only with great difficulty,
getting vague glimpses of its possible significance. From its lexicon we see that
it alludes to interspecies communication, frequency waves, obscure biological
structures, elongated tubes, or sinuous antennae and raging pheromones released
as so many codes to be deciphered, just as the reader needs to decipher the poem’s
cryptic code.
Poring through reference books, or conducting an online search, the patient
reader may decode some of the highly specialized jargon. For example, lantalic
acid is an alternative name for allantoic acid, an organic compound that is a toxic
byproduct of uric acid. The connection of urine to communication is even more
obscure. As P. J. Gullan and Peter Cranston explain in The Insects: An Outline of
Entomology, lantalic (or allantoic) acids are

by-products of feeding and metabolism [that] need not be excreted as waste

. . . [but] may form the biochemical base for synthesis of chemicals used in
communication including warning and defense. White-pigmented uric acid
derivatives color the epidermis of some insects and provide the white in the
wing scales of certain butterflies. (84)

We therefore surmise that, in the insect world, waste can be recycled for
communicative purposes, and as an added benefit, for decorative reasons—as
well as for camouflage, protection, and oftentimes aggression. Such is the case
with the pigmentation of butterfly wings that helps them to blend with their
surroundings, protecting them from predators. The same entomological text has
a lengthy discussion about communication between insects of the same species or
even between different species, as well as communication-like exchanges between,
Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise 87

Figure 3.1. Jordi Pope. “Sistemes de comunicació”

(“Communication Systems”). Screen capture.

for instance, flowers and insects. These interspecies communications depend on

“semiochemicals,” that is, chemicals that facilitate communicative exchanges
between sender and receiver (lantalic acid is one such chemical), and that function
as the “channel” in Shannon’s communication theory.
The poem, however, does not easily or clearly yield the information I have
mentioned above; rather, it sets up an enigmatic scientific language that points
at the communicative, excretory, and reproductive functions of biological
life-processes, and demands the reader’s involved deciphering, even while it
resists coming into clear focus. Pope’s deliberate complexity and thematic options
raise more questions than they provide answers to: Why the accumulation—or
montage—of unexplained and abstracted scientific terms and images? What does
all the biological information and discourse have to do with poetry, and with the
digital? Or more to the point, what is the connection between scientific codes,
which function to communicate (computer code, DNA, pheromones, Morse code,
and so on) and cyberpoetry, or even to poetry at large?
We can begin to answer these questions once we frame Pope’s work as seeking
to provide links and insights into the relation between biology, poetry, and
existence. Indeed, Pope’s poem suggests an affinity with Jakobson’s account of the
poetic, which goes well beyond an understanding of how traditional verse form
and content operate. Jakobson, echoing Russian formalist doctrines about poetry
as a roughening of form that calls attention unto itself (by defamiliarizing, and
88 Radical Poetry

thus awakening, readers), argued that the poetic function of language disrupts the
communicative act, and might also interfere with cognitive processes. As such,
poetry is inherently disruptive and digressive—an undesirable element from the
standpoint of communication, according to Jakobson—in its effort to introduce
the aesthetic into the practical.7 In a similar vein, Pope’s poem is highly disruptive
of even the poetic function itself, as it relies on the prosaic rather than the lyrical
to present its content.
Indeed, Pope’s poem appears to be an anti-poem—in the sense of Chilean poet
and mathematician-physicist Nicanor Parra’s (1914–) concept of a concise poetry
written in flat, nonpoetic language that avoids overblown rhetoric, as seen in his
Poemas y anti-poemas (1954)— a gesture that was seen, in Parra’s case, to bring the
genre closer to the working class, although perhaps that particular distinction
or division (between poetic and nonpoetic language) is no longer possible or
even relevant in contemporary poetry.8 Granted, it is also possible for scientific
language to be pompous and overblown, overly rhetorical, although, arguably, not
when it is reduced to its mathematical components. Nor do I claim that Pope’s
poetry is in any way geared toward, or read by, the working class. There is, however,
an effort to redefine the poetic by changing the terms of its language and content
in a way that transgresses fields, both poetry and science. At any rate, Pope is
linking to a tradition that hails not just to Parra (who was influenced by the
Surrealists), but also to other Chilean poets, such as Raúl Zurita who also freely
employed mathematical symbols and scientific language in his groundbreaking
text Purgatorio (1979), a poetic anthology conceived as a veiled protest against
Pinochet’s regime. Pope’s poems also bring to mind a contemporary of Zurita’s
in the Escena de Avanzada (Chilean neo-avant-gardes), Juan Luis Martínez, whose
unclassifiable experimental text La nueva novela (The New Novel) (1977) is a work
which, as Gwen Kirkpatrick sees it, belongs to the Dada and Surrealist collage
tradition, through its use of mathematics and pseudo-mathematics, newspaper
fragments, poetry, photographs, perforations, and transparent pages, all arrayed
with the intent to “explorar los limites de un universo utópico en su busqueda de
un lenguaje original [explore the limits of a utopian universe in a search for an
original language]” (225).9
Pope’s, as it were, anti-poem adapts the form of a scientific exposition, but in the
treatment of its presentation the poetic function is enhanced through the power of
the images insinuated by the science, which is presented not as objective certainty,
but rather as enigma. By reintroducing the poetic into a decontextualized scientific
textual fragment, Pope underscores the notion that science and poetry are not
opposites, but rather intersecting or overlapping fields. At first glance the poem’s
Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise 89

language seems essentially nonmetaphoric, but rather “scientific,” discursive,

linear, metonymic; but the language is also exotic, rare, and specialized, displaying
characteristics that partake of the poetic. In fact, the metaphoric is introduced into
the poem through the presence of visual images as well as the evocation of mental
images that interact with the written text. Poeticity also infiltrates this poem,
arguably written in prose, or in a prose-like and prosaic style, through the analogies
presented graphically and through the movement of its digital typography. In that
sense, it is the physical presence, the volume of words and images, that confers the
poetic onto the text.10
In the first “verse,” if we might designate the topmost line of script by such a
conventional name, the to and fro screen movement of the word atoms models the
behavior of atomic particles, albeit in a simplified, conceptual way: by behaving
“like” an atom, the word atoms becomes a visual metaphor for atoms and their
constant movement. Thus, a mimetic relationship is, paradoxically, reinstated as
an important component of Pope’s digital poem, a device he returns to in other
instances. Through this isomorphic metaphorization, the poetic function becomes
dominant, and in effect imposes the figurative to the entire text, even as it propels
the transformation of “atom” from signifier into signified, or at least, into an iconic,
visual representation of the signified, depicted as a spherical atom-like shape:

Figure 3.2. Jordi Pope. “Atoms.”

Detail from “Communication Systems.” Screen capture.

Several other words likewise function as active visual and/or aural components that
“catalyze” a poetic reaction from the seemingly inert prose materials. The word
permeable, for instance (as can be seen in Figure 3.1), acts as a porous membrane
through which some liquid particles flow. The word llargues (long or elongated)
displays a moving letter “ll” which rotates into and out of the plane of the screen
simulating a molecular structure undergoing Brownian motion. Similarly,
the word tub (tube) is formed with a capital letter T that is shaped as a hollow
cylinder or tube, and the word ona (wave), when moused-over, displays outwardly
moving concentric circles or frequency waves, while emitting a sonar-like sound.
By “materializing” letters and words through a depiction of the physical
characteristics of the objects they signify (or the functions those objects perform,
90 Radical Poetry

such as the to-and-fro movement of atomic particles) the signifier mimics the
signified, and transposes the “literary” from the exclusively textual toward a text/
image hybrid.
Taking a cue from a long tradition of visual poetry and from avant-gardist
inventions such as the Futurist analogia disegnata (“designed analogy,” a case where
words use their typography to display physical characteristics, as in Marinetti’s
Zang Tumb Tumb [1914] poem), Pope’s poem represents an intersection between both
biological and semiotic systems, enacting a kind of interspecies communication
between written signs and images. At the level of the poem’s content, Pope is
also showing that the ways insects communicate are also suggestively poetic. In
addition, his visual and aural tropes point to the notion of “insect communication
as poetry” as being itself a metaphor, indeed a conceptual metaphor where the
domain “poetry” is understood in the terms of “communication,” more specifically,
“insect communication.” It maps simultaneously onto another system of
conceptual metaphors that might be termed “text as image” or “script as body.”
Indeed, despite their open-ended and evocative nature, which aims to mobilize our
affective response, metaphors also can cognitively communicate a message, can,
in fact, “literally” tell us something, even as they retain a degree of indeterminacy.
In this sense, Pope brings figurative and literal language into close contact in his
“scientific” poem, showing them to be unstable and temporary categories.
As linguists Lakoff and Johnson argue in Metaphors We Live By, the notion of
conceptual or cognitive metaphor posits that metaphor or analogy functions as
thought and not just as language. As such, the dividing line between scientific
thought and poetry wears rather thin, since, according to Lakoff, “Abstract thought
is largely, though not entirely, metaphorical” (272). For instance, many analogies
are “body-centered” or “embodied,” and indeed, Lakoff’s cognitive science research
indicates that figurative language is experiential and often (though not always)
centered on the body, on relations of spatiality, movement, gesture, orientation,
and directionality.
According to just one aspect of his complex theory of metaphor, Lakoff insists
that the functioning of the body informs our conceptual systems. This point has
a direct impact on poetry, since it means that the poetic (a mix of cognition and
affect) is also entangled with the body, with embodiment: we “feel” poetry, as
Borges said, not just as a concept, but also as an embodied form of knowledge.11
Furthermore, Lakoff’s theory presents science as founded on model-oriented
thinking, and consequentially, logic itself is subservient to metaphor. Science, as
Borges also believed, works through metaphors. Perhaps more radically, Lakoff
dismisses any claims to mind-body dualism by insisting that cognition is always
embodied, and that therefore metaphor also has physical (embodied) properties.
Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise 91

This explains why so many metaphors use body-centered language (“being in over
one’s head,” “feeling down,” “warming up to someone,” “having a heart-wrenching
experience,” and so on).
Lakoff was arguably the first to apply modern science (cognitive linguistics)
in an attempt to rescue metaphor (and poetry) from marginality, restoring it as
the basis for scientific thought itself, and thus inverting the traditional hierarchy,
which placed logic and literal thinking as superior to figurative and analogical
thought. Lakoff’s claim that metaphor, fundamental to poetry, is the mother
of scientific invention, suggests that poetry deserves to be restored to a place of
prominence among the disciplines, on a par with the sciences; Pope’s refashioning
of a scientific text as poetry seems to do just that, by establishing a dialog between
the poetry of science and the science of poetry.
In Pope’s poem the overarching “science as poetry” metaphor is reflected,
not in the relatively “dry” language of science—although an argument could
be made for the “poetic” nature of scientific syntax—but in the visual images
that evoke embodied, internal image structures. Although Pope “stripped” the
poem from verbal images, it is laden with visual analogies and aural actualities
that also reconnect it with a sense of the poetic. Whereas the traditional poetic
image can be construed as having two distinct components, a verbal and a
conceptual one (the word itself and the “image” the reader “sees” conceptually),
the visual analogies presented by Pope serve to bridge those two domains,
the visual and the conceptual. The reader sees the visual analogy provided
by Pope and links it to other images she has conceptualized in her mind’s
eye. The conceptual domain in turn refers back to the physical world and
to its verbal, visual, and aural representation. For example, the image of the
atom serves as a metaphorical reminder of the physical nature and behavior
of atoms, enhancing the poetic function in the text as described by Jakobson:

Poetic function is not the sole function of verbal art but only its dominant,
determining function, whereas in all other verbal activities it acts as a
subsidiary, accessory constituent. This function, by promoting the palpa-
bility of signs, deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects.
Hence, when dealing with poetic function, linguistics cannot limit itself to
the field of poetry. (“Closing Statement” 356)

Although Jakobson does not go as far as Lakoff in declaring the poetic function as
the origin of language itself, he does reserve for it a clearly important (although
apparently not essential or “dominant”) role in any discursive practice, including,
implicitly, in the scientific.
92 Radical Poetry

Figure 3.3. Jordi Pope. “Mathematical Poem.”

Screen capture.

Among the other four flower sections in Pope’s digital anthology (each linking
to a different communication system/poem), if the reader clicks on number 3, she
will be confronted by a mathematically inspired image (see Figure 3.3).
Poems about mathematics have existed since at least the time of the Sume-
rians, when the temple hymn to the moon god Nanna was written (“The Herds
of Nanna,” 1800 BC), a poem that traces the origins of both numbers and writing,
mathematics and literature, to the need to account for the wealth in cattle and
grain in the fertile Mesopotamia (Glaz 36). A contemporary of Apollinaire, the
lesser-known French avant-gardist Nicolas Beauduin (originator of Paroxysme,
a movement similar to Futurism but without the latter’s penchant for violence
and destruction) had also used mathematical symbols in his poem “L’homme
cosmogonique” (1922). In the Ibero-American context we have many additional
examples, demonstrating a spirit of admiration toward mathematics, as captured,
for instance, by Pablo Neruda’s “Oda a los números” from his Odas elementales
(1954) when the poet says: “¡Qué sed de saber cuánto! ¡Qué hambre de saber cuántas
estrellas tiene el cielo! [What thirst to know how much! What hunger to know how
many stars are in the sky!]” (173).
While Pope’s “poem” makes overt reference to the language of mathematics
by representing a cubed root function, it does not immediately reveal its
potential meaning(s), and, indeed, it might lead us to think that its sense is really
a non-sense.12 In the mathematical universe of square roots there is a specific
taxonomy that defines the “√” symbol as the “radical,” while the number to the
left is the index, which indicates what “power” root we are dealing with; to the
right of the radical is the “radicand,” the number the function operates on. We can
Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise 93

see that the formula’s index is 3, denoting a cubed root, and the radicand is b + a,
but since neither b nor a are provided with a numerical value, the expression is
unsolvable. Furthermore, we do not even know if this is an actual equation to be
solved (there is no equal sign present anywhere) or just a jumble of symbols and
notations assembled to create a sense of the mathematical through a more or less
arbitrary visual composition.
The work presents itself in a disconcerting, defamiliarizing way: the reader/
viewer is unsure what sort of exegetical operation to perform, but intuits that
she is facing a “problem” that demands decoding. Mathematics are present in
multiple ways: as the “language” of the poem, perhaps as the “subject” of the poem,
but also metaphorically as an “object” of inquiry that the reader can deploy to
solve the problem (and perhaps get at some “sense” or solution). The poem seems
to be constructed around the metaphor that presents mathematics as a special
“language,” a language that science deploys to explore and test abstract concepts.
The exploratory potential of mathematical language is illustrated and “literalized”
in the poem by the way the reader can use the mouse-over function to explore,
test, and investigate the screen space, comprised of active and inactive regions.
By moving the mouse, the reader haptically controls a spiral shape that shifts
colors and rotates hypnotically, providing a graphical representation or image of
an inward journey of discovery, strangely reminiscent of psychedelic patterns, or,
to recall our historical avant-garde examples, Futurist and Vorticist images. It
is also, arguably, a crude or schematic representation of the labyrinth, bringing
to mind Borges’s calling into question of origins, originality, and the limits of
representation, his understanding of the universe as a labyrinthine “unreadable”
library, and his parody of scientific efforts in stories such as “Del rigor en la
ciencia” (“On Rigor in Science”) (1946), a tale in which cartographers, in their zeal
for exactitude, create a useless 1:1 map of a territory. Pope’s poem may also be a
critique of the self-referential aspect of mathematics, the way logical systems such
as mathematics or language itself tend to “loop” (or spiral) back to themselves,
to refer to their own initial postulates, which are assumed to be “given.” This
circularity and its ultimate denial of an origin reveals such systems as useful, but
ultimately irrational, self-perpetuating, undecidable.
At the same time, we might recall that numbers were profusely used as
potentially empty signifiers by different avant-garde movements searching
for ways to avoid referentiality. Through the visual device of the spiral, Pope’s
poem sets up the hypothesis that mathematics might not be a stable, fixed, and
universal form of describing reality. The spiraling shape, by suggesting mutability
and endless motion, echoes nondeterministic and probabilistic concepts such as
94 Radical Poetry

fractals, nonlinearity, infinity, chaos theory, fuzzy logic, and other manifestations
of uncertainty in contemporary mathematics and physics. Using a pseudo-equation
further parodies mathematics’ claim to absolute truth, presenting it instead as a
highly formalized but enigmatic, mysterious language, which, under its logical
veneer, is uncertain and metaphoric, like poetry.
The reader is unsure what properties the displayed mathematical object
might have, or what exactly—in a traditional mathematical sense—if anything,
it is describing or defining. At the same time, however, the visual presence of the
spiral reminds the reader that the symbols constitute a notation system that has
a possible referent in the form of a graph or graphic image, which might in turn
stand in symbolically for something else: in the case of the spiral, a Jungian might
see the cosmic and infinite nature of the universe, but it might also stand for
something concrete such as the geometry of a seashell, or the propagation of liquid
or sound waves. Controlled by the reader, the spiraling shape collides, emitting a
bell-like sound, with the static formula; the latter releases a shower of 0s and 1s,
signifying the digital binary code that lies—figuratively speaking— just beneath
the poem’s surface.
The main metaphor presented in the poem, “math as communication” (or
perhaps miscommunication), does create a tension caused by surface differences
between tenor and vehicle, between math and verbal-visual language. However,
some of these differences are smoothed over by the visual and aural play, which
stresses their common function as systems of communication and partially sutures
the discontinuities. While the repeating single tone sound or “mantra,” heard
as the spiral intersects the formula, sets up a Zen-like atmosphere of reflection,
or perhaps indicates a metronome’s count (or a monochord’s relationship to
math), the silent formula inspires a parallel visual and imaginary prosody.13 It is
a kind of secret rhyme, which might be rendered audible as the reader reads or
chants the formula to herself, although not necessarily in English, “the cubed
root of b plus a divided by negative one,” perhaps reflecting on the mathematics
inherent in traditional poetry, filled with structures of repetition, meter, rhyme,
syllabic counts, and stanza control. Northrop Frye, in Anatomy of Criticism,
enumerates two central impulses in poetry, melos and opsis, which define,
respectively, the music of poetry—its sound—and its poetic images—metaphors
(244). Jordi Pope’s digital math poem displays both melos and opsis, as it uses
mathematical symbols, neither entirely linguistic nor entirely pictorial, in a
powerfully intersemiotic structure which leaves a challenging semantic nucleus
for the reader to decode and which, once again, reveals the intersecting spaces
of script, image, and sound. The metaphors of math as communication, which
Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise 95

describes the world and conveys abstract thought and shapes, and math as poetry,
overlap in Pope’s text where the graphic space and movement overturn any notion
of traditional poetic syntax.
There are two more poems within Pope’s Communication Systems, and although
I will not examine either in depth, I will mention a few relevant details about
one of them. It is a curious poem in which Pope establishes a series of names
and corresponding symbols, arranged as a table under the title “Nomenclature
and Symbols of the System.” Each of the names pertains to a specific wheelchair
brand, a poignant correspondence that supports the notion of disability as a
communication system, presenting a code which someone similarly disabled, or
familiar with wheelchairs, might immediately recognize, but which might require
considerable effort for most readers. As a poet suffering from disability, Pope fights
back against the “disabling” conception of disease through a veiled metonymic
representation of the same disability—the wheelchair acting as an extension of
the disabled body—which is sapping his mobility and his voice, but not his power
of expression.14 The wheelchair allows for movement, transportation, and thus
for translation (as in translational movement and metaphor, meaning transfer), a
critical term for poetics, and is also an object often codified by a symbol ( ) that
“stands” (pun intended) for disability at large. It is also a hybrid form, both in its
pictorial content—a man and a chair united as one—and in its iconic quality, which
places it between language and image. Pope appropriates the wheelchair symbol
as a kind of metaphor or model for an exercise in translation; in the first screen of
the poem he presents a table which also functions as “symbol key,” which displays
side by side the names and pictorial symbols for different wheelchair brands, thus
translating the verbal and the visual into each other. The poem, as mentioned, is
not easily accessible to the “abled” reader, and in this respect it impairs her, renders
her “disabled” from an interpretative perspective. While confusion, as well as
frustration and rejection, is not a rare effect in reading complex experimental texts,
here it is marshaled to challenge the exegetic task of the able bodied, inverting
traditional hierarchies. Paradoxically, the wheelchair user will likely recognize at
least some of the chair brands (with names such as GUIDO, SHORTES, MEYRA,
CRUISER, KÜSCHALL, and STORM) and possibly see in their schematic symbols
some visual analogy of the characteristics of each particular model, such as its
movement, its propensity to overturn, and so on, or she might otherwise determine
that the symbols are purely arbitrary.
A reader “embodied” with the necessary knowledge might decipher the code’s
enigma, or, possibly, a “tenacious” reader might also painstakingly ferret out its
meaning. The communication channel in this system is partially closed, as the
96 Radical Poetry

transmitter and the receptor rely, to a large extent, on a reader who has corporeal
knowledge. Access is thus effectively denied, or at least made difficult, to those
that lack the experience of disability, whether directly or indirectly acquired.
My aim here is not to trivialize or romanticize disability by rendering it as an
advantage or a special type of “knowledge,” but to show how Pope activates it to
temporarily reverse its status as the opposite of “ability,” indeed to challenge “the
presumed stasis of disability” (May and Ferri 2). Although the poem speaks to a
very specific type of disability, that of people in wheelchairs, its rendering of how
disability is socially constructed by texts and indeed, by discourse can be extended
to other types of disabilities. Language and images have been shown to reveal
such structural biases of exclusion, as we refer to the “wheelchair-bound,” “AIDS
victims,” and, worse yet, the “mentally retarded,” “cripple,” “abnormal,” and so on,
as opposed to “wheelchair user,” “person living with AIDS,” etc.
Returning to Pope’s poem, the movement of symbols across the screen, which
emerge directly from the chair brand names, and slide or roll toward their
eventual locations (as they emit vibration-like futuristic sounds), render these
visual metaphors expressive and could facilitate the mapping of concepts such as
speed and mobility onto what are essentially abstract forms (squares, lines, circles).
Through association with other icons—such as the handicapped, or better said,
disability symbol—the attentive “abled” reader might render (although always only
partially) meaningful the system that is being communicated, one that could
transport and carry—in keeping with the meaning of metaphor—the reader (abled)
to a new, more empathetic, domain of understanding the disabled. By undergoing
the experience of a text that “disables” the reader, she might—provided she
eventually decodes or acquires the knowledge of the wheelchair brand names—
experience how the world is constructed to render one as “disabled,” simply because
of a bodily difference. The image of the sliding chair symbols functions as a
multiple metaphor (etymologically from metapherein, from meta- “over, across”
+ pherein- “to carry, bear”): as the wheelchair carries the person, so does the
metaphor (ideally) carry the understanding of the reader to a greater sensibility
regarding disability issues. Hence, the poem is politically inflected by a perspective
that advocates for disability issues poetically. In fact, the poem requires the reader
to become figuratively “disabled” and to struggle with a task, which is “natural”
to the disabled (but only because the poem is constructed thus, and obviously,
only to those familiar with wheelchair brands), thereby, once again, subverting
traditional roles.
Although Pope was confined to his home, the digital medium allowed him to
remain an active experimental poet until his death; the poem examined here was
Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise 97

among his last works. Ultimately, through the autobiographical references, Pope
inscribes himself into the poem, which might be read as a bittersweet reflection
on his own disability and impending death, saving part of himself for a virtual
“afterlife.” Perhaps fittingly, after the dynamic effects subside, the screen becomes
still, silent, peacefully tranquil. Although she did not, to my knowledge, know
Pope, the next poet I examine shares much with his work, both in regard to uniting
poetry and science and in strengthening the possibilities of textual, visual, and
aural metaphors in digital poetry.

Metaphors and Metamorphoses in Olga Delgado’s Digital Love Poems

The transposition or translation of science and mathematics into the world of

poetry, as well as the influence from mathematical modes of thinking and the use
of technological models and analogies, appears to be a recurring element in digital
poetry. It is therefore not surprising that Olga Delgado, another contemporary
digital poet from Barcelona, holds a PhD in Biology and leads a double life as a
research scientist and experimental poet and painter. Delgado traces her work to
a long tradition of experimental poetry, at once imagistic and minimalist, which
originated with William Blake’s illuminated poems (product of the newly developed
printmaking technology called relief etching), moved through Stéphane Mallarmé’s
typographic poem Un coup de dés (1897), and continued with the French group
Oulipo’s mathematical poetry, the Catalan Joan Brossa’s object poetry, and the
Spaniard Felipe Boso’s visual poems.
Delgado’s “La Dona Que Camina” (“The Woman Who Walks”) (2002), relies on
the diagram as a metaphor for love’s journey, a device that at first seems somewhat
cliché, but works well here on account of the poem’s skillful integration of content
and technical virtuosity. “La Dona” uses subway mapping symbols in order to
relate schematic cartography to poetry, and hence the technical to the figurative,
rendering the “diagram” as simultaneously readable and viewable. The interactive
subway diagram provided by Delgado, which is also an index, visually cites the
iconic maps of Barcelona’s metro lines, a map whose style is common to most
modern urban transportation systems. Clicking on any subway station takes the
reader/viewer to the individual poems or subway “stops.” All the poems are highly
kinetic and hybrid works in which images and script transform and flow into each
other in a dazzling array of shape shifting.
The subway line is thematically arranged around the concept of “love,”
specifically the metaphor “love as journey,” and each stop offers a different
perspective on the subject, resulting in an affective map the reader can traverse
98 Radical Poetry

in multiple ways. Although the subway line has a start and a finish, there is no
immediately discernible logic to the progression of the poems, and one can begin
by clicking on any “stop.” Beyond depicting the postmodern love journey as
fragmented and episodic, as rife with “stops” and “starts,” the lack of emphasis on
a “final destination” seems to stress the notion of process, creating an appropriate
sense of whimsicality, perhaps promiscuity, adequate to the elusive subject “love,”
even in its ostensibly more “permanent” manifestations (i.e., marriage). If the
trajectory involves some transfer of meaning or knowledge, it is because “love” as
an experience has as many possible outcomes and endpoints as those suggested by
the multiple subway line stations, which are also each a distinct poem. As a rather
original method of “indexing” the individual poems, the multiple access points
avoid the inflexibility and hierarchization of the traditional index in print poetry,
creating unexpected connections between individual poems and diminishing the
primacy of front-to-back reading. As the reader chooses, perhaps arbitrarily, her
itinerary, she creates one type of love narrative or another, permitting a circular
return to the poem’s diagram to give love another try. The work does not provide
a single model of love, but rather a visual map, containing text and iconic images,
which metaphorically associates the recognizable and concrete activity of subway
travel to the affective and more accident-prone vicissitudes of the love journey.
The first screen displayed to the reader (see Figure 3.4) shows the schematic
subway diagram and a mock LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) sign that reads “Paraules
amb atributs” (Words with attributes), meaning words with physical characteristics,
again recalling Futurism’s belief in the tangible “materiality” of the word set free.
Also reminiscent of Julio Cortázar’s novel Rayuela (Hopscotch) (1963) and its multiple
reading options, the reader/viewer of “La Dona” can choose between the direct
“express” journey, an estimated eight minute sequential itinerary through all the
poems, or individual trajectories to any one poem following her own inclination,
an approach that is, as previously mentioned, closer to the poem’s notion of love.
While Delgado makes available the “express” option, which mimics the subway’s
linear and sequential motion, it is the nonlinear approach that is arguably best
suited to the online medium, “marrying,” so to speak, the idea of the journey with
that of the hyperlink, with the ability to defy the spatiotemporal stasis of print
with a more flexible type of reading.
Here, I am inclined to digress in order to compare Delgado’s poem with one of
its Imagist predecessors. While it is uncertain whether Delgado is alluding to the
Imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro” (1913) by Ezra Pound (whom she cites as an
influence), it certainly shares its emphasis on visuality. Pound’s poem reads: “The
apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough” (Axelrod
663). A model of precise language inspired by Japanese haiku, Pound’s poem points
Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise 99

to a tension generated by the distance between the two terms of the analogy, the
faces (“these faces”) in the crowd and the petals on a bough, triggering an intensely
“visual” reader experience. Yet while Pound “figures” a mental image, Delgado adds
a more explicitly ocular visuality to her work. Like Pound, Delgado has chosen
disparate terms for her metaphor, subway and love, with the hope of enhancing the
poem’s visuality, further materializing or literalizing Pound’s verbal metaphoric
style by mixing images with script.
Clicking on the first stop, titled “Metamorfosi” (Metamorphosis), the reader sees
the word metamorfosi flying into the plane of the screen, and then observes how the
word amor separates from it (met amor fosi). Amor then transforms into an initially
red heart, which then pulsates with different colors and is finally converted into a
petrified grey-green shape, which is pierced by thorns and eventually disappears.
Thus, through a complex visual metaphor Delgado bridges temporalities, relating
classical mythology (Ovid’s Metamorphoses) with the subway diagram, a symbol of
modern travel—and also of a journey that, suddenly, derails.15
The metamorphosis from word to image is almost seamless, as the letters from
“amor” merge together—like Jordi Pope’s word atoms—into the iconic heart-shaped
symbol. The letters “materialize,” becoming objects that signify isomorphically,
that is, they mimic the properties and behavior of the item they describe. They
do so first by turning red, the color of blood, passion, and the heart, and then by
adopting the shape of the organ that metaphorically and iconically symbolizes for

Figure 3.4. Olga Delgado. “La dona que camina”

(“The Woman Who Walks”). Screen capture.
100 Radical Poetry

the concept of love: the heart. Delgado’s poem is perhaps a reference to Apollinaire’s
early Cubist calligram (“Coeur, Couronne, Miroir,” 1918) in which a heart-shaped
poem reads “Mon coeur pareil à une flamme renversée [my heart resembles an
inverted flame].” Like the letters, the heart in Delgado’s poem also undergoes a
process of “embodiment,” starting from the commonplace two-dimensional
icon commercially exploited in pop culture ever since Milton Glaser and Bobby
Zarem created the famed “I love NY” rebus (1977), and gradually transforms into
a seemingly three-dimensional heart shape, which is anatomically incorrect but
nonetheless appears considerably more realistic than its schematic counterpart.
What Glaser’s rebus and the morphing kinetics of Delgado’s poem share (also the
emoticons that are now ubiquitous shortcuts in digital communication, such as
“<3” for “love”) is the partial or complete replacement of script with image in order
to create a hybrid system that can physically or visually represent its semantic
content. The notion of the visual analogy and its correspondent verbal concept
morphing into each other thematically parallels the changes that love itself may
undergo, from a red-hot, throbbing passion to an ossified, grey, dead thing pierced
by the thorns of disappointment, or perhaps, to a thorny cactus, which evokes
the verse from Eliot’s The Hollow Men (1925), “Here we go round the prickly pear,”
in which love is associated with something sour, sinister, thorny, and generally
unpleasant, as well as grotesque, lewd, and sexual.
If, as artist and critic Johanna Drucker maintains, words have visible and
material (physical) attributes, it is not difficult to extrapolate imaginatively that
at their center they have a “heart,” an element that provides them with expressive
force, perhaps in the form of an intense image or visual metaphor. In Saussurean
linguistics the “signifier” is the form the sign takes, the “signified” is the concept it
represents, and the “sign” is the whole that results from the association of signifier
with signified. We could then think of the form or shape of a word as Saussure’s
signifier, and its conceptual “heart” as the signified, which when “merged” together
corresponds to the “sign,” the word and its meaning (signifier + signifired). But,
of course, the strict Saussurean interpretation is also challenged by the poem.
Through its deconstructivist ambition the poem “separates” its structural elements
in order to render them visible, although by doing so it also demonstrates how they
are connected. While the move questions the binary opposition between script
and image, or time-based and spatial poetry, it also blurs the difference between
the literal and the figurative, between the word amor, the image of a heart, and
whatever external affect they might be signaling toward.
Drucker states that “writing produces a visual image: the shapes, sizes and
placement of letters on a page contribute to the message produced, creating
Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise 101

statements which cannot always be rendered in spoken language” (Figuring the

Word 146). For sure, one might argue that the opposite is also true, as stated earlier,
the impossibility to render the verbal as visual—the ekphrastic failure—seems
to once again foil the promise of a total fusion between codes. Nevertheless, the
visual metaphors present in experimental poetry such as Pope’s and Delgado’s can
either disrupt logic or provide a different type of logic from that provided by script.
The LCD advertisement in the opening screen of Delgado’s e-anthology, which
reads “words with attributes,” could also be read as “words with a heart,” a concise
description of the thematic core of the anthology and of the visual metaphors used
within it. In Delgado’s poetry, the metaphor (and metonymy) that conceives of the
letter as part of the “body of the text” becomes letter as “body part,” as heart. The
heart image functions metaphorically as love, and metonymically as the body, not
unlike the word metamorphosis that stands for the entire process of the life cycle
of a love relationship from its initial stage as concept (platonic), through its carnal
(embodied, supple, alive) phase, and to its eventual demise (petrified, ossified, and
eventually forgotten). With just a bit of artful semantic slippage, “metamorfosi” can
approximate “metafora” or metaphor, the visual and scriptural bearer of meaning.
For Delgado, the corporeality of the letters appears to reject the notion of the sign
as an arbitrary conjunction of signifier and signified; in their movement from
signifier to signified these letters perform and become the heart that “loves,” as
if trying to thematize the return to a metaphorical understanding of language
by stressing the iconic possibilities of the signifier and its relation to meaning.
In short, all “stops” or poems in Delgado’s subway line serve to deconstruct the
polarities text/image and figurative/literal; it might even be argued that the mere
list of stops constitutes a poem of its own.
I would like to analyze one last work from “La Dona Que Camina,” a poem that,
at first glance, appears unrelated to the love theme, except in its quality as an act
of friendship and admiration. The subway stop “Crucigrama Bosiano” (Bosian
Crossword Puzzle) is a tribute dedicated to the Spanish concrete poet Felipe Boso,
and, more particularly, refers to his book of poems La palabra islas (The Word
Islands) (1981). The poem concretizes Delgado’s debt to Boso and other members
of the Spanish neo-avant-garde. After the title, the first screen that appears displays
the word montaña (mountain), followed by the arrival of a second word, isla (island),
that intersects the first. The additive force of the two words resulting from sharing
the A (as in the game of Scrabble, or a crossword puzzle, or certain commercial
logotypes) is visually mimicked by the letters’ growth to more than twice the size
of the other letters. In subsequent screens a wavy line appears to represent water, a
palm tree seems to grow on the A, as a fish swims by, all of it suggesting the growth
102 Radical Poetry

of a volcanic island in accelerated geological time, rising above the water. At the
poem’s conclusion, the iconic transformation of the “A” into an island is complete
(see Figure 3.5).
The schematic poem, which appears simple or perhaps primitve, weaves several
intertexts together. Delgado is inspired by how Boso’s anthology combines geog-
raphy and poetry to explore the interplay of text and image. Delgado cites Boso,
who was both a poet and a geographer, as a direct influence for her poem. Boso’s
The Word Islands draws on several different islands as material for his concrete
poems, using either their names, their geographical shapes, or a symbol or icon that
represents them. Delgado follows Boso’s lead by foregrounding the duality of words
as signs and as “objects” with their own materiality, even as that materiality takes
different forms: ink on a page, digital image, etc. Thus, “montAña” signifies moun-
tain both semantically and by virtue of the amplified A, which adopts the shape
of the iconic symbol for mountain, or perhaps, of the childlike representation of
a mountain. Likewise “islA” signifies and visually metaphorizes the characteristic
of an island rising above the water, as well as suggesting that islands are (literally)
mountains rising from the bottom of the ocean. The poem also makes reference to
another work by Boso, “Open Air” (title originally in English), which Delgado credits
and reproduces on her website. “Open Air” poses questions that destabilize the rela-
tionship between the signifier and the signified. The poem begins with these verses:

¿Qué es una isla?

una isla
es una montaña.

Figure 3.5. Olga Delgado. “Isla” (“Island”). Screen capture.

Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise 103

[What is an island?
an island
is a mountain.]

In another section of the poem Boso contradicts the above verses, by

writing, “An island is not a mountain.” The rhythmic assertion and denial, which
has certain resonances of a Buddhist riddle or koan, is also part of a linguistic
game used throughout the poem that points to a disconnect between the names
and icons of things and their meanings, a favorite trope in Concrete poetry. The
poem underscores this disconnect by asking: “What is a word?” to then answer
with the unsatisfactory: “A word is.” Although claiming for words their own
status as objects autonomous from their semantic value (what Fried refers
to as “objecthood”) was a staple trait of the neo-avant-garde, Delgado chooses
a somewhat less radical route, unwilling to dispense with meaning. Like Pope,
in her poems she attempts to unite semantic value (meaning) with materiality
through the use of metaphor. Through her visual reinterpretation of Boso’s poem,
Delgado suggests that the power to signify resides both in semantics and images,
in the combination of the verbal signified with the plastic capabilities of the verbal
signifier. A more complete understanding is derived through the relation of the
different elements of signification, and specifically through the work’s visual
metaphors. For Drucker, the early-twentieth-century avant-gardes had searched
for equilibrium between the meaning and materiality of words:

This typographic work embodied and manifested a complex attitude toward

the materiality of visual and verbal aspects of signification—one in which there
was a continual interplay of reading and seeing, linguistic referential functions
and visual phenomenological appearance, as well as traces of social context
and historical production evidenced in materiality. (The Visible Word 89)

In fact, Delgado’s poem weaves image and script in such a way that neither can
be extricated from the other without a loss of signification. Nor is it easy to
extricate the visual from the scriptural, since the poem also draws on forms that
are “in-between.” The impurity of either system becomes apparent, for instance,
since both the sketch of the ocean, the palm tree, and the fish share iconic
qualities that approximate them to pictographs or to a rebus (rather than to a
naturalistic depiction), while the verbal doubles as a visual image. Perhaps there
is also an implicit reference in the poem to Spanish philosopher and art critic
Ortega y Gasset’s “La isla del arte” (“The Island of Art”) (1921), an essay that argues
for the need to understand art as an island separate from real-life experience,
104 Radical Poetry

much like the frame that separates a painting from the surrounding wall. Ortega’s
insular metaphors undergird an argument in favor of “pure art,” an art, that is,
somehow separate from ideology (as if that were a possibility) that was part
and parcel of modernist debates in the early twentieth century, and which has
reached our days with the renewed interest in the autonomy of art and authorial
Delgado rejects Ortega’s elitist notion of art’s isolation by dragging partially
to the surface the emergent connections between an island and a mountain
(perhaps a volcano), and more importantly by promiscuously blending script
and image in direct confrontation to Ortega’s obsession with the purity of the
aesthetic experience, which he believed needed to be “isolated” from real life:
“para aislar una cosa de otra se necesita una tercera que no sea como la una ni
como la otra: un objeto neutral [to isolate one thing from another we need a third,
which is neither like the one nor the other: a neutral object]” (El espectador 115–16).
Thus, “isolating,” for Ortega, was the function of the picture frame, but also, the
supposedly apolitical nature of real art.16 Far from advancing notions of “pure” art,
Olga Delgado’s and Jordi Pope’s digital poetry demonstrates a synthetic sensibility
that incorporates disparate and heterogeneous elements from earlier poetic
avant-gardes with scientific discourse and new technologies of digital computing.
Whereas Ortega advocated for a strictly aesthetic, “dehumanized,” nonutilitarian
art that retained only faint traces of functionality and of its manufacturing
process, Delgado’s poetry has a potentially democratizing dimension: since it is
accessed through a collaborative, communal, and ubiquitous platform (Internet),
whether in the private sphere of one’s own computer, or more publicly in a café,
library, etc. Granted, this democratizing dimension is problematic if understood
universally, insofar as in Ibero-America access to a computer may, at times, be
difficult or even impossible. But accessibility is rapidly improving, and, with it, the
sociopolitical dimension of cyber poetry.
One point on which the philosophy of Ortega and the poetics of Pope and
Delgado do agree is the transformative power of metaphor. Ortega claimed that

[l]a metáfora es probablemente la potencia más fértil que el hombre posee . . . ,

Sólo la metáfora nos facilita la evasión y crea entre las cosas reales arrecifes
imaginarios, florecimiento de islas ingrávidas.

[metaphor is possibly the most fertile power possessed by man. . . . Metaphor

alone facilitates our evasion by creating imaginary reefs arising from reality,
like a flowering of weightless islands.]
Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise 105

The quote, itself obviously a metaphor, is apropos for Delgado’s poem, presenting
metaphor as a reef or island arising from the surrounding ocean of quotidian
reality. It would seem problematic that Ortega accepts, even embraces, the trope,
especially given its troublesome nature for those who, like him, would aspire to
separate poetry from science and, by extent, philosophy. On that point, Paul de
Man’s essay on this very subject, “The Epistemology of Metaphor,” concludes that

the relationship and the distinction between literature and philosophy [or
science] cannot be made in terms of a distinction between aesthetics and
epistemological categories. All philosophy is condemned, to the extent that
it is dependent on figuration, to be literary, and, as the depository of this very
problem, all literature is to some extent philosophical. (30)

De Man admits that this lack of identity and specificity may be troubling, but he
maintains that it points to the power of the trope, and to the possibility that “the
entire semantic, semiological and performative field of language can be said to be
covered by tropological models” (30).
Returning to our poets, we can see that Jordi Pope deploys metaphor to explore
areas of the knowable related to science and poetry, while Olga Delgado marshals
the trope to explore the domain of the affective. The primacy granted by both poets
to the figurative reveals their own understanding of metaphor as a poetic device
that might blur distinctions between the scientific and the literary. Moreover,
digital poetry, through its visual and kinetic characteristics, facilitates the types
of metaphors and metamorphosis that blend the domains of script and image,
demonstrating their interrelationships. Furthermore, the logic that classifies literal
language as primary, and metaphoric language as secondary, decorative language,
begins to break down in digital poetics in favor of a fluid category that renders, as
De Man suggests, all language as metaphoric, and metaphor itself as a key element
of cognition, as we saw in previous chapters. Certainly this was evident in other
kinds of poetry, in other types of writing, but the digital grants greater visibility
and “animates” the metaphoric nature of language in new and complex ways.

Digital Poetry and the Recovery of Metaphor

The recuperation of metaphor, if it needed recuperation—vilified, as we have

seen, by some artists and critics in previous decades, but resilient even within
the very arguments mounted against it—seems to be a salient characteristic of
contemporary digital poetry that marks a departure from earlier efforts to efface
106 Radical Poetry

the metaphorical. For instance, in the 1960s, poetry was crucially influenced
by structuralism and its penchant for systematizing, minimizing, and breaking
everything down into fundamental units, binary oppositions, functions,
focalizations, and axioms. It was also politically radicalized, often preoccupied
with dogmatic worldviews. Poststructuralism recalibrated the situation toward a
deconstructive stance that has repositioned poetry as the endless deferral of an
unattainable origin, presenting a universe adrift in entropy and paradox, where
signifier and signified de-differentiate, where image and text collapse into one
(only to separate anew), and metaphor is restituted to a place of prominence. Such
a lack of resolution or finitude, with its attendant promiscuous heterogeneity and
boundarylessness, suggests an openness and freedom in poetry at a time when
the ethical limits of science have become painfully apparent, as evidenced by the
environmental crisis, modern warfare, unrestrained development and the first/
third world divide. And yet, the opening of humanistic spaces within technology
(such as the practice of digital poetry) might also offer possible solutions to global
issues, or, at least, new forms of denunciation.
As we have seen, twentieth-century experimental poetry blurs genre lines and
dissolves the categories differentiating script and image, denying either essential
character but locating both as a binomial to be deconstructed through theory and
praxis. While the first stirrings of the historical avant-garde broke with concepts
such as linearity and sequentiality in poetry, attempts at “liberating” poetry were
limited by the static nature of printed words, which in some sense closed even
the most “open” texts by fixing them in time and space. Despite such limitations,
poems were “animated” through the use of visual and aural metaphors. The 1960s
represented another explosion of text-image-sound experiments as new efforts
toward a “total” poetry were carried out by such groups as Problematica 63 in Spain,
Noigandres in Brazil, Oulipo and Lettrism in France, PO-EX in Portugal, or Fluxus
and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in the United States. The relationship of these groups
to metaphor was often problematic, as they intended to reject a poetics based
on figural and analogical thinking in favor of a “concrete” and literal approach
that foregrounded a narrow concept of materiality. Moreover, they were also
concerned with political context as a driving force behind their poetry. As such,
metaphor was seen as distancing the spectator—who needed to be shocked into
awareness—from reality. Defiant works by Clemente Padín and Edgardo Antonio
Vigo, among others, created in the face of dictatorial repression, demonstrated
that experimental poetry could serve for political protest, but their stance toward
figurative language was often intransigent.
Despite great advances in the integration of script, image, and sound, metaphor
Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise 107

proved resilient to any attempts at its effacement. With postmodern poetry and
digital poetry especially, metaphor has again been embraced as a device that
interrelates a poem’s multiple semiotic codes. No doubt (and this might also
count among digital poetry’s most “revolutionary” contributions to the arts), New
Media’s flexibility in combining script, image, and sound, and its capability for
motion, interactivity, and media convergence, has reinvigorated metaphor and
de-hierarchicized visual, textual, and aural systems. In that sense, metaphor has
been instrumental for the approximation of art and science through technology
(by dint of being considered, arguably, as the basis of both pathos and logos),
as these new forms of poetry increasingly mix the languages of the disciplines
and rely on interdisciplinary collaboration to create their objects. If affect is at
the foundation of our thinking (a point still in dispute), as Antonio Damasio
contends (79), it could be argued that by activating visual metaphors, such as
the image of a heart in Delgado’s digital poem, or the atoms in Pope’s, which
mobilize multimodal perception (sight, hearing) and engage multiple semiotic
codes (linguistic, visual, aural, haptic), there is an intensification of our affective
response to the poem; although, to be sure, such effects and multimodality might
also be overdone, and overwhelm the viewer with a superficiality that might
register as a “banalization” of affect, rather than its intensification. Nonetheless,
the idea that visual and sound metaphors may link the poem’s concepts to the
reader/viewer’s affective and embodied responses is supported by cognitive science
research. Michael Borkent, who understands embodiment (or embodied mind) as
the strong, mutually determined mind-body connection, posits that “embodied
metaphorical conceptualizations, then, start to address how images and texts
can synthesize since they offer a means of connecting perceptual and conceptual
meanings” (2). For Borkent, it is through embodied perceptual metaphors, which
“the verbal and visual can so seamlessly mingle into meaning” (2). In digital poetry,
the commingling of word and image is accentuated by movement and sound, which
provide a visual image and, by association, additional mental images, which are
added to the poem’s linguistic elements in a synthesis that amalgamates figure
and script. Digital poems often dramatize the “internal” activity that occurs in
the reader’s mind by depicting it through yet another visual metaphoric process,
that of words morphing into objects (the script “atoms” into visual spheres, or the
word amor into a heart). Thus, the metaphoricity of visual images merges with the
dynamic performativity of letters, allowing an element of narrative (of storytelling)
to enter the poem.
By this point it should be quite apparent that digital poetry disrupts, perhaps
even denies, essential distinctions between linguistic and visual codes. In all
108 Radical Poetry

likelihood, verbal and visual metaphors appearing on-screen during the playing,
reading, or screening of a digital poem engage with brain function and subject
construction. There is a dynamic interaction of recursive, mutual influence
between the human reader/author and New Media technologies. We can therefore
assume that the future poetic subject will be less prone to distinguish between
script, image, and sound, productively combining these via metaphoric processes
into an embodied experience.
Modernisms on the Move
Mechanic, Kinetic, Cinematic

Introduction: A Poetics of Motion

he next three-chapter unit (4 to 6) coalesces about a main theme: exploring
the implications of the avant-gardes’ fascination with movement in the
same three epochs we examined in the previous unit (the 1920s, the ’50s–
’70s, and, 1990–today); the hope of the avant-gardes was that endowing art with
a real or optically induced capacity to move—as motion became a prime element
of composition, like form and color—would dramatically shift the relationship
between spectator and work. The obsession with motion, which could be traced
back to Duchamp and Léger (among others) gathered significant momentum in
the aftermath of a 1953 exhibition titled “Le Mouvement” (Galerie Denise René,
Paris), which explored every aspect of moving art, from mobile sculptures and
paintings to optical art and cinema. In the following chapters, I focus primarily
on the animation of text in experimental poetry.
As we have seen in the preceding chapter, digital poetry’s innovative interplay
of the figural and the textual owes a debt to the historical avant-garde’s visual
poetry, to works by Tablada, Junoy, and, as we shall see, Papasseit. Despite claims
to newness by contemporary poets experimenting with technology to coalesce
graphics, text, video, and sound, most media theorists (such as Lev Manovich,
Katherine Hayles, Jay Bolter, and Dave Grusin) recognize that the “new” in “new
media” is in reality part of a continuum with the past and therefore the digital is
best understood through an “archeological” perspective. By archeological I am
referring not to the Foucaultian method of discourse analysis, but rather to the
process of “unearthing” poetic practices that have unfolded over time—often

110 Radical Poetry

branching off in unexpected directions and dead ends—in order to understand

where contemporary digital poetry is rooted contextually (historically, socially,
politically, and culturally), and where it departs from its avant-garde antecedents.1
Among those digital poetic practices traceable to the turn of the century
avant-gardes perhaps the most “spectacular” is the animation of script (i.e.,
making letters and symbols move, dance, slide, rotate, shift, reshape, flow, and
otherwise galvanize the viewer with different antics). Moreover, the movement of
text represents a theoretical challenge worth studying, since it problematizes one
of the assumed ontological differences between paper-based and digital platforms:
the belief that the word as printed in books, magazines, or posters is fundamentally
static, while the digital word—or perhaps more generally, “mechanical,” given that
celluloid-based “motion pictures,” also animated script—displays kinetic qualities
derived from time-based media such as film and video, but also performance
and dance. While time-based media have had a profound effect on digital poetry
(e-poetry), the digital has also borrowed techniques from its so-called “static”
forebears, such as paper-based visual and concrete poetry. By examining the recent
history of moving script we might tease out where distinctions between media are
reiterated and confirmed, but more interestingly, where those differences become
less pronounced and the mutual influence of media begins to approximate an
unstable synthesis. Unstable, because as Bürger saw it (echoing Adorno), “in the
avant-gardiste work, the emancipation of the individual elements never reaches
total detachment from the whole of the work. . . . It is no longer the harmony of
the individual parts that constitutes the whole; it is the contradictory relationship
of heterogeneous elements” (Theory 82).
In the next three chapters I trace the kinetic impulse in twentieth-century
Ibero-American poetry through a sampling of European and Latin American
writers who sought to do “things” with words: in addition to signifying, often
their intent was to make those words move, perhaps to defamiliarize, perhaps
to bring words into the world of images, perhaps simply to enrich poetry with
another, unexplored dimension. In the 1920s, Futurists such as the Catalan Joan
Salvat-Papasseit, or the Italians F. T. Marinetti and Francesco Cangiullo, used
graphic analogies in order to depict moving script. During the neo-avant-gardes of
the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the Catalan Joan Brossa, the Uruguayan Julio Campal, and
the Spaniard Fernando Millán, among others, suggested the movement of script
in their visual poetry. Today, kinetic and web-based cyberpoetry by Argentine
Ana María Uribe and Venezuelan María Mencía, and others, foregrounds two
important traits of contemporary e-poetry, moving text and morphism, the fluid
change from one shape to another. By drawing on the suffix “-morphism” I am
Modernisms on the Move 111

making reference to the condition or quality of having a specified shape or form,

for instance isomorphism, anthropomorphism, or mechanomorphism, in this case
applied to script.2 I argue that the change from “standard” letter forms (designed
for industrial processes such as Linotype presses) to polymorphic types (digital
letters that can adopt any shape, size, and spacing), and from static to dynamic
script (moving text, whether in advertisement, digital poetry, film, or elsewhere)
responds to a tendency to “animate” text that links motion to emotion.3 Emotion,
that is to say, affect is central to the transmission of meaning in art and is closely
interrelated with cognition. Poetry is all about the manipulation, production, and
institution of the affective; at times, however, the affective is excised, suppressed,
or negated, and a more conceptual, cognitive, or cerebral poetry is sought, as was
the case with much experimental poetry from the fifties through the seventies.
Regardless of individual poets’ attitudes, evidence supports a causal link between
the kinetic and emotion, as indicated by a recent study in the journal Cognition,
which states that “simple motor actions affect how efficiently people retrieve
emotional memories” (179).

“Moving” Poetry: Affect, Mimesis, Metaphor, and the Avant-gardes

Questions regarding affect’s role in new media (and in digital poetry) often are
concerned with how artworks produce and transmit affect to the viewers. It is
useful to succinctly establish the difference between several terms used to describe
affective phenomena, namely “affect,” and “emotions.” One issue complicating the
understanding of affect is how it might (and might not) be interconnected with
cognition, a source of debate in contemporary psychology and cognitive science.
Affect theorist Brian Massumi defines affect as a physiological state of intensity, a
fluctuation of the autonomic response system that is precognitive and distinct from
emotion and emotional response (26–28). Emotions (embarrassment, anger, fear,
desire) have been considered as a subset of affect, and are defined by the American
Psychological Association as “a complex pattern of changes, including physiological
arousal, feelings, cognitive processes, and behavioral reactions, made in response
to a situation perceived to be personally significant” (n.p.). At any rate, the status
of cognition vis-à-vis the affective is unclear, and lies outside of my scope; suffice
it to say that research seems to indicate that affect, emotion, and cognition are
coupled in complex ways and all three play a role in how art is viewed, understood,
and appreciated.
Whether affect is an embodied force that influences cognition, as William James
claimed in “What Is an Emotion?” (1922), or if, instead, it is affect that gives rise to
112 Radical Poetry

perception as Henri Bergson believed (“Matter and Memory” 112), the activation of
affect might be the key to establishing connections between the human and the
nonhuman (as in the typographic, the mechanical, or even the digital); indeed,
affect may be a crucial component in art’s function as a mediator between the
world and human experience, since, as media theorist Mark B. N. Hansen argues,
affect could “interface between the domain of information (the digital) and
embodied human experience” (“Affect as Medium” 209). But how does affect arise,
when and if it does, in response to the artistic object, in this case the digital poem
that might display vividly colored moving shapes often accompanied by sound? Or,
to view it from the creative side of the equation, how does the object in question
produce affect in the viewers? Several theories have been proposed to explain the
role of affect in art, yet these questions remain inconclusively open.
Media theorist and artist Jamie Bianco, for example, studies how affect is
mobilized in new media and in digital cinema. The production of affect, also
alluded to in part by the “productive” or even “re-productive” etymology of the
term, is achieved, according to Bianco, through the technical capabilities that
facilitate the “capture and release of temporalities,” meaning the possibility to
fragment time, to use repeating loops, to arrange sound digitally in ways that
alter our perception of duration (50). Bianco believes that affective responses are
the result of particular aesthetic choices (whether digital or analog), claiming
that “affect can be programmed, designed, and modulated by control parameters
and thresholds, as well as culturally interfaced with new media” (50). Of course,
while Bianco provides some loose parameters that can be manipulated in the
production of affect (color, shape, sound, and so on), somewhat problematically,
she does not make reference to aspects that lie outside of “choice” which might
also be at play, such as chance, or certain structural overdetermination (similar
for instance, to the trained tendency among Westerners to read from left to
right, and top to bottom) and even neurological “wiring” (the tendency among
humans to center our sight on faces and, within faces, eyes, and so on). Leaving
such objections aside, her claim that “affect can be programmed, designed, and
modulated” raises interesting and disturbing possibilities in regard to new media’s
potential. In the logical contradiction of something that is at once the product
of “choice” but also “programmed” and determined we might find a clue to the
analog/digital distinction. For, if part of what defines the digital is the presence
of preprogrammed algorithms, while the analog retains an element of chance,
randomness, and contingency (perhaps even of the human body), then in order to
engage and produce affect the digital poem or artwork might need to “reproduce”
that element of chance which is (perhaps) “naturally” present in the analog. Indeed,
Modernisms on the Move 113

it may need to reproduce or imitate the bodily, the human-made, the manufactured,
the artisanal, and so forth (recall Tablada’s imitation of calligraphy). In the first
case (seeking the randomness of the “natural”), the production of affect will require
the deployment of strategies such as the deliberate creation of “imperfections,” or
a conscious use of degraded images, the purposeful fragmentation of letters, and
the calculated use of randomly generated sequences. In the second case (seeking
the human, the humanity, or at least, the humanoid within the digital), certain
boundaries between organic and inorganic, object and being, may need to be
crossed, or placed into doubt, to approximate categories that seem at first to be
distinct but are quite hybrid.
One such strategy—a mimetic approach—for activating affect through poetry
(digital and non) has been to use anthropomorphic letters, letters, that is, which
acquire human shapes. Anthropomorphic letters project a sense of vitality, and
convey meaning through the imitation of biological appearance, motion, and
gesture (mostly human, but also of other animals, even plants). These letters and,
sometimes words, by dint of their human attributes hover in a space between
the human (or the organic) and the objectual, the animated and the inanimate
(paradoxically in the case of kinetic script, inanimate, and moving).4 But can we
even begin to fathom how such mimetic efforts, when applied to poetry, to letters
and words, might function? It is difficult to draw conclusions but one possibility
brings us back to metaphor, and its power to “transform,” to animate. Indeed,
the indistinct ambiguity of these poetic shapes, neither letter forms nor human
forms, or perhaps both, point to the hybrid and composite nature of their mimetic
operation and its underlying reliance on tropes. But imitating or resembling does
not mean becoming the same as. The mimetic metaphor, even as it imitates life,
must maintain some “distance,” some tension, between its standard terms—tenor
and vehicle—for it to be effective in producing the affective. Distance is necessary
to fully mobilize affect because the metaphoric “gap” provides a challenge for the
reader, requiring some analytic effort in the task of recognition. When the reader
or viewer of the poem sees a letter that is performing in a way that seems human,
while still retaining its function as a letter, the result might well be amusement,
laughter, perhaps even boredom, or some other affective response based on the
unexpected nature of the behavior and the effort to decode it as human, or
Although affect and difficulty do not always necessarily go hand in hand,
research by David Miall seems to bear out the complex interconnections between
difficult or unexpected metaphors (those displaying a significant metaphoric
“gap”) associated with creative thought, affect, and cognition. The metaphoric
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gap seems to both demand and produce affect in our interactions with metaphor,
although this has been difficult to verify. Miall states, for instance, that there
is “evidence that affect may be a significant variable in response to metaphor.
If this is correct, it may also indicate that affect plays a constructive role in
the process of comprehending metaphor. In examining the comprehension
of metaphor it has not been easy to understand how vehicle and topic [tenor]
interact to transform the topic [tenor]” (93). Despite the ambiguity in how
metaphor functions, Miall postulates “the affective cuing of salient concepts
as the key to comprehension” (93); in other words, by emphasizing remarkable,
noticeable, and defining qualities (such as placing a face on a letter, or giving it
legs), affect is both produced and mobilized to enhance the understanding of
metaphor and, by extension, of poetry itself.
In Art and Culture, Greenberg criticized the lack of distance in realism, which
he claimed produced a “cheapened” form of affect without work, arguing that
by sparing the viewer “the effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasure
of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art” (15). While I do
not agree with Greenberg’s strict formalism (elsewhere I also criticize his stance
on medium specificity) or with his dogmatic tone and dismissal of “realism” in
favor of a “genuine art” with “necessary difficulty,” I do believe that the notion of
distance might be worth examining, in particular as it relates to cognition and
affect. Although Greenberg’s demand for distance is indicative of cultural elitism
(and his use of “genuine” is problematic), digital poetry may mitigate, in the best
of cases, some of this potential “elitism.”
But how does the digital become more “popular” or democratized, and what
does that have to do with the potential affective engagement with the works
themselves? How is a balance between distance and closeness achieved? Digital
poetry draws on many media such as paper-based poetry, film, and television,
embracing the influence of both mass and high culture; it also simultaneously
inhabits the surface (the screen) and the depths (of reader interpretation),
displaying a poetics of hybridity, as we shall see, and hybridity of another order as
well: the surface as screen is material, indeed “literal,” in its referential thrust; the
“depths (of reader interpretation)” is psychosymbolic, more decidedly figurative;
hence, the interaction between the two, the material and the psychosymbolic,
the “literal” surface—traced, imprinted, pixelated with “letters”—and the
“figurative” depth—perhaps distance, difficulty—of the human viewer/reader,
and the intriguing possibility of bridging this distance, or gap, between the
human and the digital, through affect. The affective and the digital have been
brought into closer contact in our era of social media, online dating, and online
Modernisms on the Move 115

pornography, even as direct human-to-human interaction has (arguably) decreased.

Nevertheless, the gap separating the users of digital culture from their object(s)
of desire can be diminished but not eliminated; the interaction between human
and machine, similarly, the integration of emotional and affective factors into
digital technologies represents but a promise of a boundary erasing yet to be fully
actualized, such as the creation of a truly “feeling” computer. The promise of a
decreased distance in digital media is, paradoxically, maintained at a distance (in
tension), even as it is brought closer by affective forces, but both attraction and
repulsion serve to establish and strengthen ties between systems such as man and
machine, script and image, or the literal and figurative terms of a metaphor.
It should be noted that connections to the affective are not just the product of
distance, but also engage concepts of motion, mobility, kineticism, and kinesthesia,
that is, the displacement of bodies, images, or script over time and across space.
Motion equally responds to an innate desire (a craving, unfulfilled want) to
go elsewhere, a kinetic impulse to pass through, under, over, and around the
plane of the page, or the two-dimensionality of the screen, searching for spatial
arrangements of increasing “depth” and complexity. Maxine Sheets-Johnstone
theorizes in The Primacy of Movement (1999) that “movement is at the root of our
sense of agency,” indeed, it is “the generative source of our notion of space and
time” (xv). She argues, movement is “foundational” to all “animate forms,” a term
(animate) ambiguous enough to allow for more than biological forms. Initially,
the kinetic impulse in poetry was satisfied through metaphoric processes such as
visual and verbal analogies of the types seen in previous chapters; verbal meaning
“phonetic” or “sonorous” analogies, but also those relying on poetic devices such as
alliteration, rhyme, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia. Many such analogies
were indebted to Futurism and Cubism’s preoccupation with motion in painting
and poetry, but also to the cinema, which etymologically reflects the kinetic
(from the French cinématographe, from Greek kinēma movement + -graphe, from
graphein to write, and therefore “writing movement”). After an initial phase of the
historical avant-gardes when movement was merely simulated (except in the case
of moving sculptures, as in the work of Alexander Calder), the aesthetics of motion
became more “literal.” This occurred in the sixties with the “objectification” of
poetry and language by visual poets such as Joan Brossa (Catalonia), Lygia Clark
(Brazil), and Antonio Gómez (Spain), who became interested in the concrete and
material, in opposition to the abstraction that began to dominate painting. Motion
was also possible via the kinetic illusions inherent in Op-art, and, later, through
the script animation afforded by programmable media. The role of metaphor,
however, remained central throughout the different stages in the development
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of kinetic poetry, from the initial “movement metaphors” to the linguistic games
of concrete and visual poetry and now visible in an anthropomorphic aesthetic
that refurbishes a well-worn analogy of the human as machine, and vice versa,
increasingly giving way toward the cyborg. Paradoxically, even as contemporary
“high” art has abandoned mimetic representation, kinetic script continues a
longstanding representational tradition of anthropomorphism in the arts. High
art’s move toward abstraction is only partially the case within the academic and
art worlds where the nonmimetic is fetishized, but mimetic representation persists
in street art, advertisement, and popular culture.
The anthropomorphic tendency shuttles between human features and
typographical signs, meaning that human features are transferred into typographic
signs, but also translating nonhuman characteristics that are reflected back into
human terms, in a two-way flow that aims to facilitate the reader’s “incorporation”
of, and affective identification with, the poetic text. The idea that perhaps an
object or text from outside the body can be “incorporated” is very suggestive,
especially if we accept Sheets-Johnstone’s argument that “external organs of
proprioception were internalized during the course of evolution, thus eventuating
in a kinaesthetic-tethered corporeal consciousness” (Primacy xx). The evolutionary
tendency to “incorporate” implies that the new digital external organs might also,
in the course of time, become “internalized,” bringing to mind a “com-plex” and
“com-plicit” “infolding” of the human into something other than human and vice
versa, in ways that recall mimesis’ cousin, mimicry. An ever-closer relationship
with external devices such as headphones, cell phones, androids, and tablets attests
to the reality of technological incorporation, of techno-embodiment.
We might argue that through movement metaphors and by engaging the
reader’s affective mechanisms, kinetic poetry maintains tension between its
attempts to suture the spaces that separate seemingly incompatible systems
(word and image, body and machine, reader and poem), and its maintaining of the
“distance” (the gap) whereby “difficult” interpretative acts and activities occur. The
teasing interplay between distance and closeness intensifies the viewer’s desire and
affective response, a viewer who is at once in front of (and therefore apart from),
but also enmeshed and invested with what is happening on-screen, becoming, in
a sense, part of the image. To sum up the functioning of kinetic mechanisms, we
might say that motion activates and “mobilizes” the reader’s affect by evoking iconic
images and by enacting formal tensions that trigger embodied responses. In this
sense, we might say that emotion arises from motion.
As mentioned above, the deployment of dynamic script has been one strategy
used by those experimental poets who were interested in reinscribing emotional
Modernisms on the Move 117

content into written text. Moving script might be considered less “expressive” than
film, performance, or sound poetry because it is lacking in nonverbal emotional
cues derived from sound, as well as paralinguistic phenomena such as voice,
eye, and physical contact, body language, facial cues, prosody, and gesture, in
other words, characteristics associated with the face and body; however, some
contemporary kinetic poetry attempts to overcome these perceived shortcomings
by reintroducing biological forms that can mimic those cues into poetry. Indeed,
digital literary genres overcome the perceived emotionlessness of electronic
text-based media, so characteristic of some communication tools such as telegrams,
e-mail, word documents, and text messages, by substituting plain, static script
with polymorphic kinetic typography, that is to say, text that changes shape and
color, and moves in space and over time, often accompanied by sound. Letters,
previously presented as black, uniform script on white surfaces, syntactically and
hence spatially ordered—“kept in line,” so to speak—without any trace of the quiver
of the hand, and hence prone to an erasure that likewise leaves no trace, no blotch,
no blur, no smudge, no rugged, or even torn surface, now begin to dance, to rumba,
indeed to tango in a blur of color and motion that overtakes the screen space and
elicits, perhaps, some emotional investment from the viewer.
Admittedly, linking or measuring the emotional investment attached to the
viewing of these digital poetries might prove difficult, even impossible, and it might
be argued that what the viewer experiences instead is a dispassionately interested
(or even disinterested) recognition of the ingenuity, skill, and wit of the program
and the poem. The reader, however naïf, may not take at face value those human
traces on the page, or screen. Indeed, the same objection might have been made
about the reading of print poetry, which to a degree depended for its emotional
effect on the sensibility brought to it by the reader. What the digital surely offers is
to infuse static poetry with a new vigor, producing a type of digital ekphrasis that
animates older forms, so that poetry might be enjoyed in a variety of modalities
and thereby augment its possible impact. As Jen S. Curwood has observed, in digital
poetry, “classical literary devices, such as mood or imagery, can come alive through
sound effects, visual images, and dynamic transitions” (112).
Sheets-Johnstone, citing empirical studies, conjectures that we are hardwired
to respond to movement, even abstracted and stylized motion that is closer to
the mechanical than to the biomorphic, where the first is typically discrete,
fragmented, and “exact,” while the second is smooth, unpredictable, and ever
so complex. Static and dynamic spatial forms and visual patterns appear to be
recognized and processed through complex cognitive mechanisms. Maurice
Merleau-Ponty, in his Phenomenology of Perception (1945), conceives of the human
118 Radical Poetry

body as a perceiving entity that is inextricably bound with both consciousness and
the external world. That insight suggests that the arrangement and movement
of letterforms might trigger embodied affective responses in the viewer/reader.
I emphasize “might,” since I am not arguing that all movement, indeed any
movement, is necessarily associated with affect, only in certain circumstances.
An affective charge might occur when bodily and facial gesture and movement
exceeds mere functionality or communication seeking to negotiate the experience
of another being: a face reflecting sympathy, the caress of a hand. Moreover, our
bodily sensations of movement, comprising our sensing of the movement of others
as well, become part of our affective memory, as Noland observes: “Kinesthetic
sensations are a particular kind of affect belonging both to the body that precedes
our subjectivity (narrowly construed) and the contingent, cumulative subjectivity
our body allows us to build over time” (5).
The phenomenal object, returning to Merleau-Ponty, is not external to the
body, “out” there, as something to be studied by science, but rather imbricated
with the subject through the process of perception, and the body’s sensory motor
functions. Phenomenological accounts of perception have been extended to
neurophysiology and to embodied accounts of cognition, such as neurobiologist
Francisco Varela’s theories presented in The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and
Human Experience (1991). Varela retakes Merleau-Ponty’s intuition that “Western
scientific culture requires that we see our bodies both as physical structures and
as lived experiential structures—in short, as both ‘outer’ and ‘inner,’ biological
and phenomenological. These two sides of embodiment are obviously not
opposed. Instead, we continuously circulate back and forth between them” (xv).
Varela questions the established assumption in cognitive science “that cognition
consists of the representation of a world that is independent of our perceptual and
cognitive capacities by a cognitive system that exists independent of the world”
(xx). To replace this dualistic Cartesian mind-body model, he proposes “a view
of cognition as embodied action” that will “recover the idea of embodiment” (xx);
we are, essentially, “in” the world, and the disembodied eye of the observer who
looks “objectively” at external phenomena is now reembodied and in contact with
those same phenomena. Plainly, Varela’s understanding of cognition shares the
centrality of the body with theories of metaphor developed by Lakoff, Johnson,
and Turner to which I referred in chapters 1 to 3 to describe the uses of the trope in
experimental poetry. The connection to, and integration of emotion into cognitive
science is also provided by neurobiologists such as António Damásio, who considers
emotion as internal changes of the state of the body, at times induced by external
stimuli, but at any rate necessary for the body to maintain its homeostasis. In The
Feeling of What Happens (1999), Damásio establishes a link between cognition and
Modernisms on the Move 119

emotion vis-à-vis feelings (our external perceptions of the world), which supports
the views held by phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty in their rejection of
mind-body dualism. According to Damásio, “It is through feelings, which are
inwardly directed and private, that emotions, which are outwardly directed and
public, begin their impact on the mind; but the full and lasting impact of feelings
requires consciousness, because only along with the advent of a sense of self do
feelings become known to the individual having them” (36). So, for Damásio
we first experience a feeling of fear, desire, etc. (related to external stimuli),
which in turn provokes—as part of a homeostatic mechanism keeping internal
“tensions” constant—outwardly directed emotions. The emotions are, according
to Damásio, “cognitive representations” of physical (body-centered) states. As such,
experimental and digital poetry could, through an increase in the expressiveness
of their multimedia capabilities, and the kineticism of their typography, act as
visual, aural, even tactile and olfactory stimuli revealing the sensual possibilities
of the digital. Through the complexity of these internal and external mechanisms
and drawing on a rich tradition of experimentalism, the most accomplished
digital poetry engages affect successfully. The next three chapters examine how
experimental poetry, both paper-based and digital, triggers affect, feeling, emotion
through both motion (real and simulated) and anthropomorphism. The rest of
chapter 4 focuses on the historical avant-gardes, chapter 5 turns to the fifties
through the seventies, and chapter 6 will focus on the digital period.

Illusions and Perceptions: Early Kinetic Metaphors

Modernist interest in the expressive possibilities of kinetic script and moving

images can be traced back to the Italian Futurists and shortly thereafter to the
Russian Constructivists and the French Cubists, all of whom endeavored to achieve
“movement” in traditionally static genres such as poetry. This drive toward motion
is related, when we speak of the “modern,” to the increasing incursion of the
mechanical, the mass-produced mechanical, serialized, or Taylorized, as opposed
to the artisanal, handmade mechanical that preceded it. Taylorist and Fordist
methods and ideology were enthusiastically received and receptively incorporated
by some avant-gardists in their search for a union between the mechanical and
the artistic (Henning 79–80). Not to say that other strong tendencies, antithetical
to the technological, did not pervade the early avant-gardes, such as a fascination
with “primitive” and even “savage” forms, with masks, ritual, and dance, with
tattoos and other body writing. But techne was becoming predominant in every
artistic arena, as engineering and manufacturing advances and rapid technological
developments in mass production displaced earlier notions of ornamentation
120 Radical Poetry

(including corporeal ornamentation) with others of formal reduction, sleekness,

velocity, and movement.
Concerns with movement, speed, and sleekness were approached differently
by each artistic discipline, which were, paradoxically, becoming increasingly
difficult to distinguish. In painting, for example, motion was represented through
strategies such as multiplying forms and planes, blurring images, indicating lines
of action (showing magnitude and direction of motion with different shapes and
thickness of lines), displaying or suggesting motion trajectories, and applying cubist
techniques for depicting simultaneity such as representing multiple perspectives
at once—rupturing, then, classical “anthropomorphically situated” perspectivism,
something already at play in early modern anamorphosis; the aim of these effects,
simplistically put, was to capture, to represent motion, as it occurred, or to
simulate that effect.
Not surprisingly, at the root of much of this interest in making the arts more
dynamic was the recent invention of the cinematograph in 1895 by the Lumière
brothers. A paradox examined at some length in regard to cinematography by
the likes of Henri Bergson, Jean Epstein, and—more recently—Mary Ann Doane,
Zeno’s paradox, seems to be particularly useful to illustrate the generalized
transformation from the static arts of the nineteenth century to the dynamic
ones of the twentieth. Epstein wrote: “The cinematograph seems to be a mysterious
mechanism intended to assess the accuracy of Zeno’s famous argument about the
arrow, intended for the analysis of the subtle metamorphosis of stasis into mobility,
of emptiness into solid, of continuous into discontinuous, a transformation as
stupefying as the generation of life from inanimate elements” (Doane 173). The
paradox of the arrow, which at any particular point in time can be said to be at
rest but which is nevertheless moving, was problematic in its resistance to a clear
definition of motion, which was, in effect, somehow lost in the “interval” between
each consecutive movement of the arrow. Likewise, the cinematic interval, the
time between one frame and the next, is fundamental in creating the illusion of
cinematic motion. The difference between one frame and the next makes both the
“gap” and the transition possible. Patently, the essence of cinema lies in the gap, the
discontinuity, the distance or fragmentation, so characteristic of twentieth-century
art, and also science, which is also fractured.
After the great discoveries in twentieth-century physics, namely relativity
and quantum mechanics, our perspective on the continuity and indivisibility
of space, time, and matter changed dramatically, revealing a universe in
which the absolutes of the nineteenth century no longer have a place. Science
and art reflected each other’s fragmentation. In painting, efforts to capture
Modernisms on the Move 121

consecutive instants of motion were profoundly influenced by the technologies

of instantaneous photography and the cinema that were becoming prominent
concurrently with the emergence of the first avant-gardes. As Doane observes,
photography’s capacity to register equally spaced, sequential moments was
further enhanced when “cinematography made possible the synthesis through
projection of such moments, but nevertheless depended on their spacing and
separate articulation” (179). Unable to control the temporal dimension (restricted
to the time needed to visually apprehend a work), painters chose instead to tease
motion out of the static canvas by representing sequential movement spatially.
By showing movement through its multiple stages and depicting the vectors
that indicate its direction and force, they rendered time, space, and velocity
“iconically.” By varying the force of the brushwork, and the clarity of the image,
painters created a sense of speed—which could also be slowness, or changing
rates of velocity.5
In fact, Futurism’s principal tension, according to Wanda Strauven, was
“between art as a static work and art as a dynamic event, between (fixed)
expression and (unpredictable) experience” (276). Learning lessons about motion
from painting, photography, and film, and convinced that analogy was the key to
poetry, the Futurists developed strategies to animate their poems. In 1914, F. T.
Marinetti (1876–1944) announced the invention of a new type of analogy, the visual
or designed analogy (analogia disegnata), with which he described visual devices
used by fellow Futurist poet-painter Francesco Cangiullo (1884–1977) in “Fumatori,”
a poem about a smoker traveling to Rome in a second-class train car (see Figure 4.1).
This poem falls within the visual poetry subgenre of experimental poetry. In
an inclusive definition, Laura López Fernández establishes the principal semiotic
parameters of visual poetry:

In a visual poem one has to pay attention, at the very least, to the relations
established between two languages: the iconic, and the verbal, although also
imbricated with its visual language one might find the language of sound, the
language of phonemes, the language of mathematics, etc. These languages
intersect and form a kind of meta-language that operates differently from
verbal poetry. In the study of a visual poem one has to keep in mind other
functional elements, such as the typography of letters, the presence or absence
of color, the disposition of space, the inclusion of graphic design, photog-
raphy, sketches, musical scores, collage and other expressive components
that can create calligrams, pictograms, ideograms, object-poems, etc. (“Un
acercamiento” n.p.)
Figure 4.1. Francesco Cangiullo. “Fumatori” (“Smokers”).
Page 1 of 2, reprinted from Lacerba, 1 January 1914, 10–11.
Modernisms on the Move 123

I will shortly return to López Fernández’s mention of the “iconic” and relate it to C.
S. Peirce’s semiotics, but first I would like to note the wide variety of materials and
methods that she places under the rubric of “visual” poetry, which she understands
as an assembled metalanguage (a somewhat confusing term by which she means
a hybrid of script, image, and sound, and not a language about language, as the
prefix meta suggests) constituted by other languages—or linguistic levels—(verbal,
visual, phonetic, tactile, conceptual).
López Fernández is onto something critically important here. Conceptualizing
visual poetry as a (sometimes self-referential) metalanguage that includes icons,
linguistic signs, and other types of signs seems to discard the Saussurean
understanding of language as arbitrary and noniconic. Peirce’s system, in contrast,
does account for the inclusion of nonlinguistic signs, and introduces the notion
of icons. An icon is a symbol that shares a physical resemblance with that which
it stands for. For example, the handicap symbol could be said to be an icon, since
it resembles (schematically) someone in a wheelchair. But the concept “icon” can
be problematic; one question that arises is: How much of a likeness does there
need to be between the sign and the object it represents? For Peirce, words such
as onomatopoeias could function as “icons” since they imitate and refer to real
sounds. Inspired by Peirce, Jakobson theorized that linguistic signs share some
of the characteristics of nonarbitrary icons. Likewise, there is a significant link
between iconicity and metaphor; Peirce classifies metaphors as a type of icon that
signifies by “pointing” to the similarities (parallelisms) between two objects, a
concept I shall return to later.
“Fumatori,” in fact, exhibits a remarkable use of metaphors and icons. Bohn
analyzes the functioning of one such visual metaphor: “Cangiullo had taken
the word ‘fumare’ (to smoke), lengthened it to ‘FUUUUMARE’ and made each
successive letter larger than the one before so that the word appeared to expand”
(Aesthetics 17). The analogy works on multiple levels—semantic, phonetic, and
visual—overlooked by Bohn, however, is the phonetic play of the long, sonorous
UUUU where the poetic (or literary) becomes musical, or at least sonorous, as
was also the case in Marinetti’s use of onomatopoeias (inspired by machine guns
shots, cannon blasts, and exploding grenades) in his visual and “aural” phonetic
poem Zang Tumb Tumb (1914), depicting the First Balkan War’s Battle of Adrianople
(today Edirne, in Turkey).6
Briefly digressing, I would like to reflect on the general spirit of the times, before
returning to Cangiullo’s poem. The excitement displayed by Marinetti, Cangiullo,
and other early-twentieth-century artists was in part a result of their fascination
with the mechanized nature of war, also bound up with the rapid modernization
124 Radical Poetry

and industrialization of Europe, and coupled with a destructive ethos that glorified
and aestheticized war and violence in the avant-guerre avant-garde (an attitude that
changed once the horrors of the Great War became evident). At times the purpose
seemed to be the tearing down of the old and replacing it with something new, at
whatever cost. For Marinetti war was “the world’s only hygiene” (Futurist Manifesto),
which would in the wake of its “cleansing” destruction—erasure—usher in a new
and glorious age for Italy. In the literary arena, this praise of war additionally
signaled the breakdown of order and hence, by way of the breakdown, of orderly
referentiality as well. In Zang Tumb Tumb, Marinetti captures the overwhelming
sensorium of the battlefield, presumably inducing affective reactions in the
perceiver (whether fear, aggressiveness, or none is up for debate).
But it was not just visual virtuosity on display in historical avant-garde poetry.
Futurist and Dada sound poetry (also known as phonetic poetry) had a critical
influence on the development of later experimental forms such as visual and
concrete poetry, process poetry, action poetry, reaching up to contemporary digital
poetry. Early sound poetry comprised a variety of forms, including those that
emphasized the sound of phonetic fragments of speech, often with nonsensical,
onomatopoeic content, and those closer to music, or even noise. Dadaist readings,
performances, and recitals by Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, and Richard Huelsenbeck
tapped into sound poetry in an effort to connect the modern to the primitive,
tribal, and archaic. Hugo Ball’s “Karawane” (1916), for instance, exemplifies how
early phonetic poetry mobilized sonorous yet otherwise nonsensical syllabic
combinations meant to be listened to, rather than read on the page, and aimed
at triggering visceral reactions from the audience (rapture, rejection, stunned
silence, and so on). Despite the focus on sound and performance, Ball also carefully
oversaw the typography of the poem’s printed version, which relied on many
different font types. Like the Dadaists, the Futurists also gave performances in
which they reduced the human voice to sounds, whispers, screams, combining
these with both mechanical transcriptions and actual mechanical noises, allowing
for unusual juxtapositions and for an (often cacophonous) simultaneity of sound,
if not meaning. Of course, the lines separating the visual—script or image—from
the phonic are not altogether clear, for, as Christian Scholz observes, “visual texts
are sound texts without a sound. In other words visual texts are a sort of orchestral
‘score’ for a sound text” (“Relations “ n.p.). This “sound score” might then be played
(imagined), through an act of aural imagination, in the reader/spectator’s mind.
Returning finally to Cangiullo’s “Fumatori,” we can see the play between
different poetic levels (visual, aural, even tactile, olfactory, and most certainly
cinematic and kinetic). The visual imagery of the long UUUU mimetically
Modernisms on the Move 125

represents the movement of expanding smoke circles; although smoke is often

taken as exemplifying “indexicality,” (i.e., the smoke pointing to a fire, or to a
cigarette, or a train) something more complex is taking place here in Cangiullo’s
conception of mimesis, sort of like the de-referentialization of indexicality itself,
as deictics are all but absent from the poem as the visual field erupts into the
textual. The immediate visual image that the viewer perceives is arguably aligned
with that of the smoker on the train (as in a cinematic point-of-view shot); indeed,
it is almost perspectival, if one follows the lines converging on “NOTTE” as an
indication of depth receding into the train car, and yet, as if to deny the referential,
the smoke is not contiguous to any actual human figure. Suggestively, the shape of
the multiform letters acquires a quasi-filmic, kinetic quality, conferring a certain
documentary element to the text (since photography is, or was, the most indexical
medium). Referentiality is fairly complex here, however, and the “UUUU” and other
visual devices also put into play a degree of abstraction or schematization; even as
the referential is invoked, it is done primarily through linguistic symbols; a tension
is therefore established between the concrete and referential, and the abstract and
symbolic; the visual and the textual-phonetic.
We might tease out some of “Fumatori’s” complexities by applying Peirce’s
semiotics, especially as it categorizes the relation between signs and the objects
they reference: the distinction between icons (morphological similarity, such as
maps, diagrams, photographs, paintings), indices (physical connection, such as a
barometer, or a thermometer, a pointed finger, but also analog photographs), and
symbols (convention-based, as in linguistic or numerical symbols). Interestingly,
several of the objects depicted by Cangiullo fall into more than one category,
for instance the smoke UUUU which is, as mentioned, iconic, based on its
morphological resemblance to smoke rings, arguably indexical (if we consider
the rings as evidence of the smoker), and symbolic, insofar as they retain some
linguistic and sound qualities that evoke the breathing-out of the smoker. Peirce
would have considered smoke as a specific type of index, as a track or “tracks,”
which maintain cause and effect relationships but are no longer physically
contiguous with their object, like the tracks of an animal, or the smoke and
scent left behind by a cigarette, or the whistle of a train, or the ink traces in a
handwritten letter, and perhaps the train tracks themselves. It might also be
possible to classify smoke as a “symptom,” which connotes an even closer relation
of simultaneity between sign and object.
Similarly, the word velocità (speed) highlights iconically through its shape the
speed of modern train travel, even as it signifies symbolically through its semantic
meaning. The smoker is on board a train, as the poem refers to it graphically,
126 Radical Poetry

by arranging the words to indicate items in a train such as stored baggage;

semantically, by using words related to train travel such as viaggiare, treno, vaporoso,
and phonically, by deploying onomatopoeias such as “schschschschschschschs,”
indicating the sound of the wheels. In these analogies the word both signifies
symbolically and is iconic. Thus, “velocità” signifies speed semantically and
visually, as it “quickly” (each letter quite noticeably smaller than the previous)
decreases in size to further corroborate the notion of fast movement and distance,
and even its accent grave signifies the smoke of a locomotive, emblem of historic
modernity, and is a mise en abyme of the “smoker” in the title.7 The word brings
forth its materiality without sacrificing meaning, pointing indexically to the
absent referent while foregrounding its own material presence. The advantage of
applying Peirce’s semiotics to clarify the functioning of symbols in experimental
poetry is that unlike Saussure’s and other semiotic systems, Peirce’s allows for
the inclusion of visual signs, or signs from other media beyond the written text.
Cangiullo’s poem expands the medium of writing by crossing over into the visual
and the aural, incorporating both iconic and indexical effects that layer onto its
symbolic meaning, accentuating and reenacting the dynamic sense of motion of
the train journey. The newfound dynamism of letter types spread quickly from
Italian Futurism to other movements, in Russia, in Europe, and soon thereafter,
throughout Ibero-America. As we shall see, within Spain’s national boundaries,
Catalan Futurists led by Joan Salvat-Papasseit adapted the experiments of the
Italians to their own particular circumstances.

A Poetry of Attractions:
Joan Salvat-Papasseit’s Futurist “Wedding March”

Profoundly inspired by Marinetti and other Futurists during a 1921 visit to Milan,
the Catalan poet Joan Salvat-Papasseit (1894–1924) set out to liberate words
from the perceived tyranny of syntax, intending to “abolish adjectives, adverbs,
punctuation, and the ‘I’ itself” (Epps 330). Salvat took to heart what Marinetti was
provocatively clamoring: “Futurist poetry, having already destroyed traditional
metrics and created free verse, now destroys the Latin period and its syntax.
Futurist poetry is a spontaneous uninterrupted flow of analogies, each synthesized
in an essential noun” (Boccioni 51–65). Furthermore, the Futurist project aimed
to break down barriers between the arts, as well as generic divisions between art,
criticism, and indeed, life itself.
Naturally, Salvat was aware that Marinetti’s claims regarding the Futurist
reinvention of poetry were hyperbolic, since free verse, and other departures
Modernisms on the Move 127

from “traditional” syntax and poetic form had been around for quite some time.
Nevertheless, Salvat and the Catalan Futurists were on board with Marinetti’s main
aesthetic objectives: the rejection of strict linearity (and to a lesser extent, narrative)
and the adoption of metaphor as a fundamental trope in avant-garde poetry (war
metaphors, machine metaphors, body metaphors). Also inspired, like the Italians,
by the technological developments of modernity, Salvat-Papasseit’s visual poetry
displayed the vibrating energy of newly harnessed forces and their applications:
electricity, electromagnetism, X-rays, radio, telegraphy, and cinematography.8 His
work reflects on the materiality of words and on the dynamics of motion, ranging
widely from traditional rhymed poetry to Futurist visual poetry, which, as noted,
dispensed with versification and negated lineal syntax. Or rather, disrupted and
challenged it, since a trace of the linear—not easily negated—remains, under
erasure and “inadequate yet necessary” (as Derrida would qualify it) like the
written signifier, granting Salvat’s poetry a paradoxical radicality. Salvat’s poetry
represents the yearning for an art free from physical constraints (such as syntax),
in tune with the political implications of its anarchist counterdiscourse, but it also
reflected a wish to merge with the mechanical and technological innovations that
displayed a different kind of “syntax,” staccato rhythms, gyrating parts, telescoping
and grinding mechanisms. Viewed in this light, Salvat does not so much negate
all syntax as reinterpret it following the fragmented, rhythmically intermittent
models offered by the cinematograph, telegraphy, etc.; in other words, the same
drive or “force” that was behind the persistence of analogies of motion and the
creation of fictional humanoid robots, robots that could, one day, lead the working
class in anarchist revolt (i.e., Lang’s Metropolis).
As an aside, I want to underscore the radical political differences between
Marinetti and the Italian Futurists’ proto-fascism, and Salvat-Papasseit’s anarchism
(or anarcho-syndicalism), located at opposite ends of the Left/Right spectrum
and based on the diametrically opposed principles that sparked the modern
European wars. Despite these irreconcilable political differences, both Salvat and
Marinetti are linked through a common ground of formal praxis: the world of
leaflets, posters, and signboards in political demonstrations, with their political
slogans, mottoes, battle cries, that dispensed with argumentation in favor of the
immediacy and the transparency of perfunctory messages, flashy typography,
and variegated forms. Similarly, both anarchist and socialist publications and
fascist ones displayed such typographical innovations, joining art and revolution
to early advertising tactics in a powerful blend of lettering, graphics, photographs
and sketches, exclamation marks, symbols, forming a symbolic and immediate
language dependent on the skill of typesetter-artists such as Salvat himself.
128 Radical Poetry

Clearly, the desire to be free from syntax went hand in hand both with
politics and with those new developments that placed an emphasis on speed and
communications, since, as Marinetti stated in his “Technical Manifesto of Futurist
Literature” (1912), “the poet’s imagination must weave together distant things
with no connecting strings, by means of essential free words” (97). The analogy
of poetic imagination, indeed, poetic images, as wireless telegraphy is significant
insofar as it also represents the substitution of an older technology (the electrical
telegraph, commercially available since the 1840s) with its recently discovered
wireless descendant, radio telegraphy, which transmitted Morse code messages
through the use of Hertzian (electromagnetic) waves. The radio as we know it—
first developed by Marconi in 1897—with its transmission of sound waves, only
gained widespread use in the 1920s. Radio technology captivated the avant-gardes’
attention (e.g., Manuel Maples Arce’s Estridentista group in Mexico), inspiring
Marinetti’s concept of “wireless imagination,” a type of writing that, according
to Rubén Gallo, “prometía liberar a la poesía de la sintaxis y la puntuación—los
‘hilos’ que mantenían a la escritura atada a una época pre-tecnológica—e incitó
a los poetas jóvenes a buscar nuevos modelos literarios en la radio [promised to
liberate poetry from syntax and punctuation which Marinetti viewed as the strings
binding writing to a pre-technological age, as he incited young poets to search
for new literary models in the radio]” (“Radiovanguardia “ 273). The operation
of “weaving together distant things” functioned both as metaphor and as model
for a new poetry that activated an aforementioned equally new language derived
from science and technology, laden with images of vibration, waves, electricity,
irradiation, which not infrequently were endowed with sexual connotations.
Figure 4.2. Joan Salvat-Papasseit. “Marxa nupcial” (“Wedding March”).
Reprinted from Joaquim Molas, La literatura catalana d’avantguarda
(1916–1938), 153–56.
132 Radical Poetry

“Marxa nupcial” (Wedding March, 1921, see Figure 4.2), is one of Salvat’s most
analyzed poems, so I will bypass a comprehensive analysis to focus on elements that
denote, and often connote, motion, and which are also imbricated with complex
technoscientific images and metaphors. In my translation I attempted to duplicate
the disposition of the original typography:9
Modernisms on the Move 133


Flash from the FLOODLIGHT chameleonic above the hexagonal

Circus star.

Roll up! Roll up!! Roll up!!!

CLOWNS equilaterals Romantic leaders

That’s sound and in the constellations of four conical


The earth only turns because I am here and I am a

JESTER who is agonizing

Margot with her LEOTARD and painted red hair looks like a

candle that burns

She only burns for me:

Before the hundred centaurs which girdle the Ring


Margot gazes at me eye to eye and falling from the

Trapeze I read an ad in the screen:


Spit on the bald


of the idiots


That man who says:

—Circus music is more definitive than Richard Wagner

could ever have known nothing but a pompier!

134 Radical Poetry

The shade of the chorus in the sun of the boards

To move and to project oneself not to exist:

LIFE to Dynamism

I protest that this may also degenerate

—Because now the “lion-tamer” wants to juggle

and the horses with their legs

I love better EDISSON

and CHAPLIN who have become twins

to enter solemnly the glory of heaven

(for they don’t know that we come from yesterday

and the day before from the day before the day before

and still further before)

The Sphere of the clock at TWELVE spawns the hours

to come which are:

one two three

four five six

seven eight nine

ten eleven

and after the


—and so I will be immortal as from now has been born

my I in the ALL
Modernisms on the Move 135

Published as part of Salvat’s second anthology, L’irradiador del port i les gavines
(1921) (The Port’s Lighthouse [or Floodlight] and the Seagulls), the poem “Marxa
Nupcial” captures the dynamics of modern life by representing and joining
two forms of spectacle: the circus—more natural, organic—and the cinema—
arguably artificial. Although the latter point overly simplifies the complex status
of the cinema, which was often part of shows that also incorporated circus or
vaudeville acts, taking place in fairs, canvas theaters, traveling shows, thereby the
distinction between cinema, theater, and the circus was quite muddled, hybrid.
Michael Heumann stipulates that while Marinetti either rejected the natural or
consumed it via destructive processes, such as war, Salvat-Papasseit integrated
natural and artificial elements, uniting the technological with the biological.
The hybridization of nature and technology is evident in the anthology’s title
(L’irradiador del port i les gavines [The Port’s Lighthouse and the Seagulls]), formed
by a natural element—gavines (seagulls)—united with an artificial one—irradiador
(lighthouse or floodlight)—and a hybrid one—port, which could be either natural
or man-made.
The duality between the artificial and the natural is further “reflected” by
the images and metaphors presented, with the sense of “irradiation,” which
in the physical realm of optics and light waves means, according to the Oxford
Dictionary of English, “the apparent extension of the edges of an illuminated object
seen against a dark background”; an important detail, inasmuch as the image
of “irradiation” is bound to radial figures—“of or arranged like rays or the radii
of a circle; diverging in lines from a common center.” The “irradiador,” artificial
and “grounded,” emits, or radiates, light in what the reader can imagine to be a
circular, sweeping, reiterative motion—like a lighthouse—in which a center is at
once (re)affirmed and “cast out,” intersecting, the reader can likewise imagine,
the supposedly more erratic, chance-filled flight of the gulls; the latter being an
element that inflects an affective charge into Salvat’s poetry, through the use
of these biological-technological metaphors that are very distant, ideologically,
from the Futurist destructive and altogether mechanized war machines. Salvat
provides a softer, kinder, more loving, “cyborgian coupling,” a term coined by media
theorist Christopher Funkhouser. Salvat’s intent to bring together science and
nature, poetry and techné, art and life, propagates throughout the poem much like
the light waves from the title’s lighthouse; that intent returns us to the original
meaning of the Greek word techné as signifying both art and craftsmanship, as the
potential union between art and science—as with cinema. For Salvat, technology
does not “chain us” (as Heidegger claims); rather, it creates the possibility for
greater freedom, as long as the human element is not stripped from its core. It is
136 Radical Poetry

striking to see how he actualizes this philosophical position through a mechanistic

manipulation of typography, visual and kinetic analogies, and other rhetorical
The kinetic effects in the first section of the poem, for instance, consist mainly
in using larger, darker fonts to emphasize words related to the circus, which
accordingly become fragmented, or set off, from the rest of the text as they become
“focalized”—flashed—in keeping with the visual charge of the metaphor or, rather,
the image. It is as if a large spotlight—perhaps the aforementioned irradiador—
had illuminated the rings where the clowns and acrobats perform, directly and
indirectly signaled (here, this common semiological word, “signal,” seems even
more appropriate) by the words CLOWNS, PALLASSO, and MALLOT. Salvat’s
choice of semantic fields deliberately facilitates our immersion into the poem
not just as readers but, figuratively speaking, as spectators. Within the extended
analogy set up by the poem (the poem as spectacle, the words and syntax as its
performers, the space of the page as its circus canvas or cinema screen), the reader/
spectators are the invisible and ever so metaphorical audience sitting in the dark,
their eyes focusing first on the spotlighted regions of the page, the screen, or the
circus ring. The reader might then zero in on specific lines of the poem to flesh
out—perhaps even to “sound out,” in order to pay attention to voice, and not just
writing—additional details, which typically revolve around analogies of speed and
action. Note that the word I used to describe the spectator-readers, “audience,”
serves as a deliberate signal to the existence of the phonetic, the sound of poetry,
and the performative dimension of a poem that can be, and has been, recited out
loud sequentially, although such a performative reading limits meaning, since a
sense of simultaneity is partially lost if one cannot appreciate the work’s visual,
spatial synchronicity.
Far from being neglectful of the audible, Salvat, like the Dadaists and Italian
Futurists, insists on the need to recall the often-neglected sounds of poetry. Once
poetry began to be read on paper as opposed to performed, or listened to, the
aural—and the oral—aspect that used to be central became muffled, even silenced.
This represented a loss: the separation of poetry’s visual component from its
performative and sonorous one resulted in a schism between the poetic word
and its sound (akin to the separation of its visual aspect from its meaning), a
shift that relegated the lyrical experience to silent, reflective reading. On a social
scale, poetry shifted from being a communal activity to becoming an individual
experience. Indeed, much of twentieth-century experimental poetry (Concretism,
Oulipo, Fluxus, and digital poetry) has aimed to reconcile, juxtapose, and overlay
the visual, the aural, and sometimes even the tactile, but also to bring back a sense
Modernisms on the Move 137

of performativity and collectivity.10 But while a coalescence of poetry’s multiple

dimensions is desired, the elements are often also kept in separate tension, teasing
with the hope for a re(union) of parts, which some believe were, in a mythical
prelapsarian past, part of a synthetic “whole” (phoneme and phoneme, sign and
referent, vehicle and tenor).
There is a troubling aspect in modernism’s drive to synthesis and its
preoccupation with origins—quite paradoxical, given its concomitant obsession
with the future and at times blatant disregard for history—as evidenced by
its interest in artistic primitivism (tinged with colonialism), or in ancient
Chinese and Japanese poetic referents (based in oversimplification), or in its
notion of universality (at times dismissive of the particular) and its creation of
mythologies and proto-fascist master narratives (indeed, casting technology
as a new religion and war as artistic performance). But, looking beyond the
troubling connections between modernism and fascism, there is also an aspect
of this metaphor of (re)union, of the “coming together” of vision and sound—and
feel—which has an erotic or procreative charge, a positive charge that channels a
less threatening side of Futurist poetry (counterbalancing Italian Futurism), and
one arguably exemplified and brought to the fore by Salvat. In “Marxa Nupcial,”
this procreative stance can be seen in the notion of the “nuptial”—related to
“nubile” and “connubial,” related, in turn to clouds (“nubes” in Spanish, “núvols”
in Catalan) as in the “veil” with which a bride would cover her face, but also
more graphically represented by the detail below (see Figure 4.3), suggestive of a
nuptial “penetration” of another type of veil or skin, which remits avant la lettre
to Clemente Padín’s misogynist reinterpretation of L’origine du monde presented
in chapter 2.
As mentioned, “Wedding March” could be read as the troubled “union” of two
aspects of modernity, the circus, a world of pure movement and dynamism, and,
every bit as kinetic, the cinema. The poem might also refer to a “fleshier” union, to
a different kind of “wedding” alluded to by the word circus, which etymologically
comes from the Greek “kirkos” and is a spatial figure, a circle, which appears
several times in the poem (see Figure 4.3), where it is also isomorphically related
to an amplifier of sound (again an emphasis on the aural dimension) used in filmic
direction—a loudspeaker, also present in Cangiullo’s poem—and perhaps to the
“shaft” of projected light coming from a projector, irradiador, or circus spotlight.
Returning to the idea of union, a circle also connotes a hole, penetrated by the
phallic “connubi,” from nūbere—“to cover, veil” nūbere (with dative)—“to marry, be
married to,” and hence, “nupcias,” “nupcial.” The poem, one might say, “marches”
back and forth between these different signs, tantalizingly teasing the reader with
138 Radical Poetry

Figure 4.3. Joan Salvat-Papasseit. “Connubi”

(“Connubial”). Detail from “Wedding March.”

a motion that might be qualified as potentially generative, a motion which serves

as a reminder of the passage of time, as evidenced by the image of the clock and its
inexorably advancing hands: “L’Esfera del rellotge a les DOTZE fecunda les hores
que vindran” (“the clock’s sphere at TWELVE fecundates the hours that will come”).
Movement is presented as both linear and progressive and circular, as forward
motion coupled with revolution.
More can be said about Papasseit’s attempt to anneal the rift between techné
and physis through sensual, sexual, and sensational connubial metaphors. Critics
such as Gabriella Gavagnin have also seen in this union the hint of a possible
synthesis of the human and the machine: “L’autoil.lustració creada amb ‘connubi’
reprodueix en una mateixa imatge, realitzada únicament amb la combinació del cos
de les lletres i de la seva disposició no lineal, tant el referent immediat (el rellotge
a les dotze en punt) com l’analògic (la unió sexual)” [“the self-illustration created
with ‘connubial’ reproduces in the same image, achieved with the combination
of the body of the letters and their nonlinear disposition, both the immediate
referent (the clock at twelve o’clock) and the analogic (the sexual union)]” (202). The
widespread desire for a synthesis of the organic and the mechanical, combining
parts from each to form a new whole, was constitutive of twentieth-century
utopian visions that drew from such disparate sources of inspiration as Fordist
and Taylorist studies on assembly lines and “scientific” worker management,
early-motion studies by Étienne-Jules Marey, Edweard Muybridge, and others,
and the enhancement to human capabilities afforded by technology (to vision, from
Modernisms on the Move 139

microscopes and telescopes, to strength and speed, from automobiles and planes)
(Thomas de la Peña; Braun 334).
Constructivists in Russia, the Bauhaus in Germany, the Ultraists in Spain
and Argentina, the Futurists in Italy embraced this strange dream (or possibly
nightmare) of fusing man, or woman, with machine, as seen in films such as
Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926).
A mere decade or two later, after World War II and the Great Depression, the
perception of mechanization and synthesis between man and machine seemed
less desirable and its representation became dystopian, as seen in Charlie Chaplin’s
1939 film about the dehumanizing effect of assembly line work, Modern Times. But,
although tempered by fears of technology’s dark side, the union of human and
machine remained a recurrent theme in avant-garde poetry and reappears in later
experimental poetry, for instance, in digital poetry’s gesture toward a possible
collaboration, even integration, between man and computer in a new regime
described as (the) posthuman by contemporary critics such as Donna Haraway
and Katherine Hayles. One might say that the “connubial desire” for a fusion with
the mechanical is actualized in the symbiotic creation of the digital poem, since,
as Hayles explains, “the fact that all texts performed in digital media are coded
implies that reader and writer functions are always multiple and include actions
performed by human and nonhuman agents” (“The Time” 183). We shall return to
the figure of the cyborg or posthuman later.
We have in “Wedding March” a dramatization of the concerns of the avant-garde
over the potential, alternatively creative and/or destructive, of technology in its
relation to nature. Whereas the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, and
Marcuse) claimed that technology would eventually be deployed against nature,
leading to an endgame where man dominates man through the use of techné,
Salvat-Papasseit’s poetry seems to suggest a different, more optimistic outcome;
Salvat does not foretell of a totalitarian nightmare, hoping instead for a world
in which the human and the technological are harmoniously reconciled, united,
married even, toward a common purpose. His poem also returns to a debate we
examined in chapter 1, that of the supposed incompatibility between the spatial
and temporal arts. Salvat’s poem addresses the question: How might a poem,
made with words, convey something pictorial, even cinematic? His solution is to
present a (figurative) sense of vertiginous motion in “Marxa Nupcial” through the
varied typography, the visual images and by a generous use of exclamation marks
(denoting excitement, speed, and also, loudness), capturing the frenetic pace of
modernity. This sensation of speed is paradoxical, since the poem is not really
going anywhere and is presented as pure simultaneity: “Marxa Nupcial,” as a highly
140 Radical Poetry

spatialized poem, presents the configuration of its elements all at once—although

all poetry offers some type of complete Gestalt effect, visual poetry heightens,
amplifies, and singles out this effect, so that the reader perceives the form of the
entire poem simultaneously—partially denying a sense of syntax and sequence to
the reader.
Admittedly, the reader might confer a sense of linearity to the work by
following a “straightforward” reading progression out of habit, something which
Papasseit, ever the iconoclast, would likely have discouraged and yet, the strong
pull of tradition, and its unconscious trace, remains. But, habit and tradition
notwithstanding, the poem’s structure resists sequential readings with its
synchronous visuality: all elements present on the page at the same time, in a
deliberate avoidance of narrative sequence. This suspension of temporality, or its
replacement with a spatial temporality, is thematized through the image of the
clock’s sphere, always already “pregnant” with all the hours of the day. The only
sequentiality in the moving of the hands is the “imagined” movement the reader
spectrally generates, visualizes, as mental image. But while it seems to actively
disrupt narrative sequence, the poem does not deny narrative altogether, offering
up its fragments for the reader to assemble through the process of Gestalt. The
poem creates a sense of Gestalt, both visually and aurally, in a series of audiovisual
pleonasms where the image parallels and reinforces the aural component. Examples
of these are the large O that receives the potentially phallic “connubi” and both
visually and aurally suggests the sound and facial expression associated with
an orgasm. Likewise, the double SS in EDISSON (a word arranged to look like
either a marquee of lights or another loudspeaker) might suggest the sound of a
phonograph after the music has ended, as it circles around the “phallic” needle.
Stretching the cinematic analogy, the reader is drawn into the action-image and
the sound component as if she (now transformed into a spectator) were watching
a film, perceiving it all as an instantaneous Gestalt-filmic experience where sound
and image form a fractured, synoptic whole, which nevertheless reconstitutes,
reorganizes, and refashions itself as a spectacle. The presence of the cinema screen
in the poem emphasizes the multidimensionality of the linguistic sign, which in
“Marxa” also functions as image, sound, and movement.
Time and narrative sequence are thus suspended by the poem which acquires
meaning not through the chronological arrangement of preestablished concepts
but through the spatial arrangement of visual and aural components, and their
relation to each other, as well as their combined effect on the reader/viewer.
According to Gestalt theory, all these elements are apprehended by the reader/
viewer as a complex multidimensional structure in which the sum of the parts is
Modernisms on the Move 141

greater than the whole, encouraging her to proceed from a macro to a micro level
of interpretation, viewing the entire poem first, visually, and then proceeding
to “read” its parts, indeed, to “take it in parts,” to “take it apart,” to approach it
“partially” (i.e., subjectively, accidentally, even randomly); each part is significant in
relation to other parts and to the whole, as they modify each other (and the relation
of “parts” to “holes” is central to Salvat’s synthetic, nuptial, and procreative desires)
(Koenderink 304; Arnheim 71–72). Not surprisingly, the relationships between
parts and wholes are never straightforward in Salvat’s visual poetry. There exists
a constant tension between the “totality” or Gestalt vis-à-vis the “tyranny” of
syntax and its concomitant imposed linearity and, indeed, narration, a tug-of-war
between the synchronic and the diachronic terms of the poem. This productive
tension heightens the poem’s affective charge and propels its motion, its nonlinear,
random, anarchic, revolutionary motion.
Returning to “Wedding March,” the apparent transition from the circus to
the cinema screen in the poem is not sequential (as it might appear if we “force”
a linear reading); rather, both the circus and the cinema coexist. Tom Gunning’s
concept of the “cinema of attractions,” is founded on the affinities between circus
and cinema in film’s early era, both “spectacles” sharing an interest in shocking
the bourgeois public and displaying bodily feats (violence, impossible stunts,
derring-do). Attraction, in other words, functions as an affective force that draws
together (often violently) distant bodies—spectator and screen, for instance—all
part and parcel of the modern “aesthetics of astonishment.” A key factor in Salvat’s
use of motion analogies (i.e., the focalized typography, the iconic “EDISSON,”
the visual “connubial” analogies) seems to be a desire to imbue life (vitalism)
into the poem, suggested by both of the words in its title, “Marxa” and “nupcial.”
Gunning’s description of the powerful affective impact caused by the presence of
the kinetic on early cinema spectators seems apropos for the poem: “[The early
cinematic image] strongly heightened the impact of the moment of movement.
Rather than mistaking the image for reality, the spectator is astonished by its
transformation through the new illusion of projected motion” (“Aesthetics” 118).
Salvat envelops the reader in a frenzy of spectacle, tapping into every possible
sensory receptor, creating a poetry of attractions. If motion provoked emotion
in early cinemagoers (something Salvat would have known firsthand), and if we
consider the reading of a highly spatialized, dynamic, fragmented, and visually
charged poem as a kind of “spectatorship,” we may grant that poetry, like film,
has a capacity to engage the affects, not just through content, but also through
its kinetic visuality. The possibility to trigger the affective via perceptual effects
motivated avant-garde interest in the cinema, since, as Francine Masiello notes, “la
142 Radical Poetry

intervención tecnológica se convirtió en un modo más normativo de describir la

relación de uno con el mundo…el ojo de la cámara sirvió a la misión vanguardista
planteando cuestiones en el orden espacial y perceptual como tema de los textos
[the technological intervention became the normal way of describing one’s relation
with the world…the eye of the camera aided the avant-garde mission of exploring
spatial and perceptual themes in their texts]” (189).
At times, the cinematic and the circus components of the poem flow into
each other seamlessly. The poem’s description of the circus includes equestrian
acrobats—Salvat calls them “centaurs,” a metaphor that I examine in a later
chapter—and a lovely trapeze artist that catches the eye of the lyrical voice,
“Margot ara m’esguarda de fit a fit,” a slangy expression loosely translated as
“Margot is checking me out,” which then gives way abruptly to “i en caient del
trapezi he llegit un anunci a la pantalla” (“as I fell from the trapeze I saw an ad
on the screen”). This metonymic fall, perhaps from the trapeze girl’s favor, is
juxtaposed to the other major semantic field of the poem, cinematography. The
screen is represented iconically by two sets of thick dark lines that form its edges.
The advertisement displayed on the screen carries what may be a programmatic
antibourgeois message, not unusual in Futurist poetry; it may also represent a jab
at the older generation, as argued by Bohn who equates, perhaps too generally, age
with baldness (Aesthetics 140): “Escopiu a la closca pelada dels cretins” (“Spit at the
bald heads of the idiots”). Epps posits a reading based on the Catalan etymology
of “cretí,” from French crétin, a Swiss variant of chrétien; in other words, cretí is
an older term for “Christian,” hinting at anticlericalism. Salvat’s commitment to
anarchism and his involvement with the Catalan worker’s movement support both
the antibourgeois and the anticlericalist readings.
A few “verses” later, or farther down the page, the will to motion is explicitly
expressed in several sentence fragments: “Moure’s i projectar-se no existir: La VIDA
al Dinamisme” (“To move and to project oneself not to exist: LIFE to Dynamism”).
Movement. Projection. Life. Dynamism. Existence. The implicit desire to capture
the accelerating tempo of the newest technologies drives Salvat’s use of analogy
here, just as the reader arguably reinstates a sense of “trajectory,” “linearity” and
“order” to the poem; from one thing to another: impulse, drive, aim, acceleration,
endowing the poem with a centripetal force that leads toward metaphor, toward
a narrative center, impelling itself forward and yet remaining in a state of radial
tension, between the structure of the poem and its place in the world.
There are two other compelling typographical experiments (see Figure 4.4)
that express motion analogically, the proper name “Edisson” and the nickname
“Charlot,” whose proper name was Charles Spencer Chaplin. Critics have observed
Modernisms on the Move 143

Figure 4.4. Joan Salvat-Papasseit. “Edisson, Charlot.”

Details from “Wedding March.”

that “Charlot” is written in a way that recalls the character’s peculiar walk, his
small, quick “mechanical” steps (Bohn, Resina). The short dash underneath
the O serves as both an indication of movement, as if the letter had jumped
upward, and perhaps as a reference to his cane. If such an iconic reference is not
completely convincing, one might, more generally and safely, argue for a form of
disorder reflected by his name, a manner of exposing Charlot’s unconventional,
discombobulated understanding of the world; in other words, it is an act against
the rigor of typography, which in turn reproduces the rigor of conventional
language and is undermined here by a “different” vision. Chaplin’s name also brings
us back to cinematography and its link to mechanical movement, to the interval
(the “gap”), and to a potential connection between the organic and inorganic, as
discussed earlier.
Charlot also circles us back (again) to mimesis and mimeticism. Gunning
observes something in the Little Tramp’s figure and movement that recalls
Salvat’s typographic analogy. Making reference to a scene from Chaplin’s 1928
film, The Circus, Gunning links man and machine through the concept of kinetic
mimesis:11 “Chaplin’s most perfect imitation of a mechanical body comes in The
Circus, appropriately, a carnival automaton outside a fun house. Chaplin imitates
perfectly the stiff motions of this machine, its jerk of inertia between jolts of
movement, its sense of endless repetition and, perhaps most hilariously, the
grotesque expression the machine makes when it tries to imitate human laughter”
(“Chaplin and the Body” n.p.; my emphasis). It is precisely Chaplin’s physical
plasticity and his embodiment of the staccato rhythms of the machine that Salvat
captures with just one word, creating an image that anticipates the postmodern
144 Radical Poetry

posthuman. Gunning optimistically considers the potential union between human

and machine, remarking that “Chaplin offered perhaps [the] first mechanical ballet;
a synthesis in which the hard-edged rhythms of the machine had become part of
the human sensorium.” Chaplin’s mechanical mimesis, also evoked by Salvat’s
typographical analogy, displays what David Trotter calls a “will-to-automatism,”
the wish to become one with the machine, at once human and Other; a “will” that
is coupled with a “will not,” an uncanny anxiety, a trepidation, even a (some might
argue “irrational”) fear of a conjoining with the automata that was perceived as
unholy, as transgressing against some natural or Divine order. Avant-gardists’
drive to “synthesis” and their love of technology was tempered by an opposing
move that demanded skeptical caution before recklessly embracing biomechanical
unions.12 Perhaps for that reason, in Salvat’s poem the modernist encounter with
the machine retains and foregrounds the human: not responding uniquely to a
fetishist desire for technical embodiment, he incorporates human elements into
his vision, such as the agonic clown (pain and suffering) and the lovely Margot (love
and beauty): Eros and Thanatos, profoundly human extremes.
Another one of Salvat’s visual metaphors (see Figure 4.4) explores a different
kind of motion, related to the speed of light, the only “constant” in the universe,
according to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (1905): the word EDISSON whose
shape, as mentioned earlier, represents either a phonograph, or perhaps a beam
of light from a cinematographic projector. The word is created with a series of
white dots superimposed on a black shape, which might also refer to either lighted
billboard advertising, or to the perforations present in celluloid film stock, as Bohn
credibly suggests (Aesthetics 130). Significantly, Edison was not just the inventor
of the light bulb and the phonograph, but also of the kinemascope (where one
“peeped” at films through an opening into a projection box), and was also the
owner of Edison Studios, responsible for the production of hundreds of early films,
something to which Salvat is probably alluding. For Salvat, Edison represented
the best of a mechanistic modernity that was revitalizing the Old World with its
American dynamism and images of a new world—from the New World.
The energizing influence of the American cinema of attractions (a type of
cinema, which for Gunning, was more interested in image than narrative, in what
it could “show,” rather than what it might “tell”) on the European avant-garde is
attested to by the Spanish ultraísta Guillermo de Torre’s rousing endorsement of
cinema’s invigorating possibilities: “Spurning morphine, I inject myself with three
episodes of American film” (Minguet Batllorí 95). Learning about film’s impact on
spectators, the poets mimicked its formal devices, embracing a poetic style that was
“cinematic:” quick, visual, fragmentary, spatial. Through these techniques poetry
Modernisms on the Move 145

tried to elicit some of the excitement and strong emotions present in the cinematic
experience. Affective responses to the novelty of moving images by early film
audiences were notoriously extreme, from fear caused by an approaching train—as
in Lumière’s L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, 1895—to the desire awakened by
an on-screen kiss—as in Edison’s The Kiss, 1896.13 As Hugo Munsterberg outlined
in his psychological treatise on cinema The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (1916),
film is a visceral medium with tangible bodily effects, and the power to engage
with the spectators affectively, to tap into their “inner world, namely, attention,
memory, imagination, and emotion” (74). It follows that visual poetry shares this
capacity to trigger affect once it becomes cinematic, as it begins to “move” or
suggest movement.
Three components seem to be paramount for the generation of affect in art:
the presence of movement, the capacity to engage the viewer in some form of
interaction (involving cognitive and physical processes, and embodiment), and the
biomorphic representation that implicates the spectator emotionally. This latter
point was already known to early film theoreticians, as shown by Bela Balasz’s
claim that a close-up of the human face took spectators out of spatiotemporal
coordinates and thrust them into a dimension of pure mood and emotion; also
Jean Epstein’s theories of photogénie that closely associated filmic aspects such as
movement, duration, and the close-up with emotional response. For Epstein, the
close-up augmented the intensity of spectator emotion by rendering “precisely”
visible, indeed “legible,” the otherwise imperceptible movements of a human face,
claiming, “the close-up is the soul of the cinema” (235–40). In poetry, it is as if the
reader/spectator was able to come into contact with the visceral materiality of
human language through the animated letters (much as recited poetry brings us
closer to the visceral nature of the voice). The analogical depictions of Chaplin and
Edison in Salvat’s poem function metonymically as physical repositories of their
namesakes (even mimicking some of their physical attributes), retaining a human
affective dimension even while embodying patterns of mechanistic behavior. The
historical avant-gardes had, as shown by Salvat’s poetry, established an indelible
link between moving script, metaphor, and affect, setting a precedent of coupling
human emotion with inorganic (mechanical, digital) processes that would be taken
up again and again throughout the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, as
we shall see in the following chapters. Although the next two chapters represent a
considerable temporal shift (the fifties, followed by our time), and Ibero-America is
a diverse area to cover, I would like to place into dialogue the kinetic possibilities of
poetry in all three periods, and across the region; the continuities and similarities
are as revealing as the differences and disruptions.
Letters and Lettrism
Deconstructing the New Vanguards

Silence and Fragmentation in Joan Brossa’s Letter Poetry

he poetry in this chapter is, in many respects, an outgrowth of the Futurist
poems I presented in chapter 4, and displays kindred aesthetic preoccupa-
tions and, in the case of the Catalan Futurists, similar political concerns.
In the experimental poetry of the fifties through the seventies in Spain the pursuit
of kinetics, of movement, coincides with a poetics of silence that was a reaction
against the generalized suppression of political freedoms; a silence echoed by works
of poetry criticism that examine the postwar years but gloss over or ignore the
experimental genres altogether.1 The post–civil war period was difficult for those
artists who, not having gone into exile, were trapped in a stifling atmosphere under
the Francoist state and its Fascist National-Catholic ideology; as the last maquis
guerrillas fought on in the mountains through the early sixties, some poets found
in abstract, minimalist poetry a viable, less dangerous avenue to make their own
stand against the regime. Whereas, according to Debicki, in mainstream poetry
“the use of verse as propaganda limited creative goals and possibilities” (Spanish
55), experimental poetry afforded the chance to register dissent, at least on a
formal level. Antonio Méndez agrees, but relegates the experimental genres to the
margins of realism: “iba quedando en una zona de sombra la (im)posibilidad de
una corriente no realista, no figurativa. Esta subcorriente, vinculada no obstante a
la vía crítica, se asomaba tímidamente al surrealismo de Cirlot o Hidalgo, a Ory o
Pino [in the shadows lay the (im)possibility of a nonrealist, nonfigurative current.
This subcurrent, connected to critique, timidly showed in the surrealism of Cirlot
or Hidalgo, Ory or Pino]” (157). The experimental opened a possibility for denun-

148 Radical Poetry

ciation where there was none. Concealed under the guise of simple letters, images
and objects, often imbued with “human” attributes, laid a critique against state
violence, repression, and socioeconomic inequality that also challenged established
poetic norms.
In these dire circumstances, poetry became more tangible, material, physical,
one might even say, resistant. The use of anthropomorphism, visual analogies,
and minimalist poetry deploying single letters, much of it indebted to the
aesthetic influence of the first avant-gardes and to French Lettrisme, became even
more “concrete,” materially present, in the sixties and seventies. This trend, by
no means generalized, but representative of many sectors of experimental poetry,
is exemplified by the Catalan poet Joan Brossa, a transgressor of orthodoxies
who transformed poems into physical objects, as in his “Transitable Visual Poem
in Three Parts” (concept c. 1960s, built 1984), an open air sculpture in which the
“writing” is comprised of a twenty-foot reinforced concrete letter “A” and two
additional replicas in different states of destruction. Built after the dictator’s
death, the poem might nevertheless be understood as Brossa’s response to the
brutality of Franco’s own construction agenda, which began with the “Valle de
los Caídos” (The Valley of the Fallen), a massive mausoleum dedicated to fascist
troops fallen in battle and carved from hard granite by enslaved republican
soldiers held as political prisoners after the war; and ended with the low-quality
and dehumanizing building projects of the sixties and seventies, large monolithic
and repetitive building blocks intended to house immigrant workers who arrived
from impoverished Andalucía to provide the cheap workforce needed in Madrid
and Barcelona. Whereas Franco’s monument to the fallen inspires fear, hatred,
revulsion, perhaps, for some, admiration, its brutal scale rejects the human, and
the concept of humanity itself. In contrast, Brossa’s sculpture is centered on its
integration with the landscape and its interaction with viewers. Materialized
from paper into the object world, the letters invite the “reader” to experience
them physically, to move around them and reflect on the significance of their
disintegration, politicizing the avant-garde’s breakdown of syntax beyond mere
analogy by evoking more concrete efforts by Franco’s regime to destroy the
Catalan language, and to generally repress political freedom. In its commitment
to formal rupture and ideological resistance, Brossa’s poetry is representative
of works by other poets we will examine here, such as Fernando Millán and
Julio Campal, who frequently blur the space between language and object;
poetry and the material world; stasis and movement; art and politics. All of
them belonged to an avant-garde that sought to, from the margins, challenge
normalizing discourses institutionalized by Francoist “culture,” given that, as
Letters and Lettrism 149

Jonathan Mayhew says, “the desire to give voice to unspeakable experiences,

requires a rupture with the norms of social discourse. Such discourse could be
understood as a form of ‘implicit censorship’” (20).
Half a century after Papasseit’s untimely death one of his poetic “heirs,”
Brossa, carried on with his mimetic typography, transforming typescript
into anthropomorphic shapes, letters into body parts, and merging artificial
script with natural human or animal forms, a pursuit of the metamorphic
that signaled a renewed interest in the mixing of the arts. Embodying artistic
hybridity, Joan Brossa i Cuervo (1919–1998) was not only a poet, but an artist
who extended his creative curiosity to disparate fields, displaying a fascination
with impossible Surrealist juxtapositions, dynamic Futurist typography,
early cinematic extravaganzas, as well as esoteric and spectacular practices
such as “transformismo” (a kind of performative “transvestism” known in
English as quick-change art). Brossa was taken by the latter as performed by
Leopoldo Fregoli, a famed Italian master of protean impersonation who also
inspired Futurist theater (Gómez i Oliver 252). Brossa’s simultaneous interest
in Papasseit’s (and Mallarmé’s) visual poetry and in performers like Fregoli,
speaks to his obsession with impersonation as applied to poetry, to words,
and even more so, to letters, which in his poems “act” as solo performers—as
lonely vaudevillians. His letter poetry reconnects with the “theatrical” (or the
para-theatrical, as Brossa referred to the offbeat performances he so enjoyed) as
well as to recurring motifs in Papasseit’s work, mobilizing affect while blurring
the boundary between word and image, body and script.
To comprehend Brossa’s poetry in its cultural and sociopolitical context
it is useful to have some knowledge of the neo-avant-gardes in Spain during
the creative, yet difficult, period of the sixties. Several practices coming under
the rubric of experimental poetry, but not easily categorized with any label,
produced cutting edge artwork under the specter of Franco’s censorship and
repressive apparatus; among them Brossa’s visual and object poetry; Guillem
Viladot’s, Francisco Pino’s, and Felipe Boso’s concrete poetry; Juan Eduardo
Cirlot’s surrealist and phonetic poetry; José Luis Castillejo’s lettrism, and
Fernando Millán’s poetry of erasure (tachadura). While most opposed the regime,
these poets did not directly broach politics in their work. Brossa did, however,
writing books of odes and sonnets in the fifties such as El pedestal són les sabates
(1955) (The Pedestal Are the Shoes) that tendered a poetry that Glòria Bordons
qualifies as “comprometida y nacionalista [committed and nationalist]” (“Un
poema” 100). Brossa was a Catalan nationalist, a conviction that was not, as we
saw with Papasseit, incompatible with leftist ideology, and engendered an intense
150 Radical Poetry

desire for “llibertat,” political and cultural freedom (Bordons, “Un poema” 103).
His early poetry was clearly favorable to Marxist thought, as seen in “Passa un
obrer” (“A Worker Walks By”) (1950), which reads:

Passa un obrer amb el paquet del dinar.

Hi ha un pobre assegut a terra.
Dos industrials prenen cafè
i reflexionen sobre el comerç.
L’Estat és una gran paraula.

[A worker walks by with a lunch box

There is an indigent sitting on the floor.
Two industrialists are having coffee
and talk about business.
The State is a big word.]

Exemplifying a prosaic language aimed to capture the harsh reality of post–

civil war Spain, this poem also represents an intermediate step between Brossa’s
surrealist tendencies and his subsequent immersion into visual and object poetry.
While typical of poesía social (social poetry), such a direct engagement with
everyday injustice, with poverty and inequality, and especially the acerbic, even
ironic, tone in the mention of the State, are unusual in his avant-garde phase.
Brossa preferred to fight these battles in the field of form, keeping the political
content concealed, or presented obliquely. Through formal transgression, poets
such as Brossa and Cirlot opposed the Falange’s vision of the “traditional” and
“castizo” (“pure blooded,” or, linguistically and culturally Spanish), represented
in poetry by a mediocre Golden Age revival, neoclassical and imperialist, and
enthusiastically backed by the regime; this poetry appeared in publications
with evocative names such as Garcilaso, Escorial, and Espadaña recalling Spain’s
“glorious” imperial past, although, admittedly, the latter publication included, from
time to time, timid oppositional poems that began to foreshadow the eventual rise
of protest and social poetry.
Brossa and the Barcelona-based neo-Surrealists with whom he was affiliated,
Dau al Set (Die on its Seventh Face), chose as their symbol the incongruous seventh
side of a standard six-sided die, an impossible and “magical” number that pointed
to their debt to Dada and Surrealism; their rebellious artistic tendencies offered
Brossa and his Dau al Set companions a partial escape, an antidote to the grey,
stifling environment in Franco’s Spain, especially true in regions, such as Catalonia
Letters and Lettrism 151

and the Basque country, where cultural and linguistic repression was most virulent.
The impossibility to communicate—of any type of free speech, indeed, even of
daily speech if it was in Catalan, a language prohibited by Franco—drove the poets
toward courting a language of the absurd, of incommunicability, of bitterly ironic,
yet veiled or muffled criticism.
Who were the integrands of this group, Dau al Set, that defied the artistic
establishment and who, at least obliquely, critiqued the sociopolitical status quo? It
was an eclectic, multidisciplinary group of artists (poets Brossa and Juan Eduardo
Cirlot, painters Antoni Tàpies, Joan-Josep Tharrats, Joan Ponç, and Modest Cuixart,
the philosopher Arnau Puig, the musician Carles Santos, and the filmmaker Pere
Portabella) who came together and published a magazine by the same name, Dau
al Set, from 1948 until 1956. The magazine displayed a decidedly surrealist or
absurdist aesthetic, steeped in an existential ethos and Marxist ideology. Owing
to Tàpies, who achieved international recognition as a painter, the group became
somewhat known outside of Spain (Parcerisas 50–57; Quer). Later, Portabella also
gained some notoriety as a filmmaker. The artistic diversity of Dau al Set influenced
Brossa’s own interdisciplinary approach to poetry.
Brossa, as noted, was immersed in the performing arts, including film,
theater, and the circus. Accordingly, in his visual poetry letters perform
theatrically or cinematically, as Brossa endows the alphabet with an appearance
of three-dimensionality and movement; this trend toward activating the
“objecthood” of letters is fully materialized in his object poems, his installations,
and his poem-sculptures, many of which are located in public spaces throughout
Barcelona. To create his object poems, Brossa refashions with ironic overtones the
objects of everyday life, or, in the tradition of Duchamp and Man Ray, presents
decontextualized, fortuitously juxtaposed, hybrid or invented objects such as hats,
lightbulbs, clothespins, soccer balls, and so on. Transitioning from “letter” poetry
to object poetry was, for Brossa, a logical step, given the presence of metaphor in
both; conceptualizing words as both symbols and objects, Brossa deduced that
metaphors could be constructed with the “language” of objects (Parcerisas 156–58).
Quite clearly, even in his most object-oriented poems the play between the title and
the object itself often holds the key to possible “readings,” and in that sense, Brossa
is always exploring the relationships between signifiers and signifieds, between “les
mots et les choses,” to borrow from the title of Foucault’s 1966 treatise about the
categorization of knowledge.
Brossa’s visual poems often seek to “minimize” semiotic codes with the
exception of the iconic, for instance, by eliminating verbal and semantic complexity
by using single letters, rather than words or sentences. But fragmenting words
152 Radical Poetry

into their most basic unit, the letter, is not sufficient for him; he proceeds to break
the letter as well, in a relentless pursuit of reduction. Paradoxically, despite this
apparent minimalism, his “texts” remain charged with iconic meaning. Brossa’s
minimalism functions as an ironic commentary on and play with censorship; the
suppression of words, their reduction, was a frequent tactic in the poetry of the
fifties and sixties elsewhere, such as in Latin America under right-wing military
rule, or, for that matter, in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union under Stalinist
Brossa’s interest in the materiality of language is expressed through playful
works that rely on typography, graphic design, and visual tropes. I am referring
to visual poems in which letters display carefully proportioned parts which at
times resemble hands, arms, feet, eyes and often wear props such as hats, guns,
or magic wands. Understanding the inherently metaphoric capabilities of letters
as graphic objects, as images with a wide range of plastic possibilities, Brossa
maintained that the essence of the poetic resided on the material surface of the
letter just as much as on its possible meanings. Bordons insightfully observes that
“la ruptura formal iniciada en los años cincuenta le conduciría a una sintetización
progresiva [the formal rupture begun in the fifties would drive him toward a
progressive synthesis]” (“Un poema” 98), toward a reduction of poetic elements.
For many poems, one letter sufficed as raw material, the first letter of the alphabet,
which was also the last letter of his name, BrossA. Another reference to the most
internationally recognized member of Dau al Set, Antoni Tàpies, is in order here,
given that he created throughout his life paintings where the A and the T of his first
and last names figure prominently, if not exclusively. From the standpoint of genre,
one might ask, What is the difference, if any, between Brossa’s poems and Tàpies’s
paintings? Granted, they share a reductive minimalism, a Zen-like approach to
their creations, but there are distinctions to be made. Although their choice of
materials is not dissimilar—Brossa has created large outdoor letter-sculptures
out of concrete, as well as canvas installations and painted posters, and Tàpies
has worked on paper and also sculpted; indeed, his paintings often resemble
“constructed” walls—it might be argued that the poet seems to rely mostly on the
printed page, and the painter on his canvas (Parcerisas 240–43). We are returned
again to the question of medium specificity, both to its elusive nature and to its
pervasiveness. Perhaps what we can observe, although somewhat reductively, about
the overlap between Brossa’s and Tàpies’s work, is that both redeploy linguistic
signs, typically considered as immaterial and transparent, as something quite
material and physically tangible; however, Brossa, who often uses standard letter
types even if they are torn, deformed, or provided with appendages, more often
Letters and Lettrism 153

achieves this materiality through the “behavior” of his letters, while Tàpies does
so through his pioneering use of nonstandard “painting” materials, such as sand,
ropes, nails, bricks, etc., as well as maintaining his insistence on retaining a trace
of the hand, arguably absent from Brossa’s mechanically reproduced poems.
Returning to Brossa’s visual poetry, his 1974 poem “Desmuntatge”
(“Disassembly”) (Figure 5.1) shows a single letter, a capital A in black font, and
directly below it three vertical segments adjacent to each other, two longer ones
placed next to a shorter one. It is clear from the size and thickness of the segments
that they are the individual components of the letter A above them, which have
been “taken apart.” The juxtaposition of the two images, with the assembled A
above the disassembled segments, allows the viewer to see both configurations
simultaneously. “Desmuntatge” is paradigmatic of a poetry that rejects mere
representation (presenting something again, which is really elsewhere, making
an absence “almost” present), to instead present itself as object (as materially
there). Brossa’s poem is not read so much as apprehended in its formal totality,
“read,” that is, through a Gestalt, as in the viewing of one of Tàpies’s canvases.
As we analyze “Dissassembly,” as we take it apart, that is, to examine its “pieces”
critically and individually, we see that Brossa “theatricalizes” the very division of
the poem’s functions: The A is first shown in its original functional status as a
complete letter, to be thereafter shown as the product of its parts, its materials. The
transition from (or juxtaposition of) “assembled” to “disassembled” is paradoxical:

Figure 5.1. Joan Brossa. “Desmuntatge” (“Disassembly”).

© 2015 Fundació Joan Brossa / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /
VEGAP, Madrid.
154 Radical Poetry

on the one hand, the poem resists the referential facet of language (in its strict
semantic sense, although it visually represents a letter, connotes a phoneme); on
the other, it metaphorizes a process of deconstruction that is anthropomorphic,
since “someone,” perhaps “something,” has to dismantle the letter—a reader
might establish analogies with other disassemblies, such as taking furniture
apart or cutting a celluloid strip (signaling the graphic, cinematic resonances of
“desmuntatge,” and “muntatge,” which Buñuel called “segmentación,” referring to
filmic montage). The letter is “spectrally” embodied—in the reader’s mind—even
as it is taken apart by a disassembly that hints at the kinetic agency of a human
participant. The reader deconstructs and recognizes—re-cognizes—the letter as
its “component parts” and vice versa. The operation subjects the basic unit of
alphabetic language, the letter, but also the phoneme, to creative work, revealing
the graphic sign to be other than “simple” or, “basic” (more “basic” still being the
three lines, or traces, that comprise the letter).
On a metacritical level, the taking apart of the poem and its reassembly,
or perhaps the opposite operation, also echoes the very “operation,” at once
constructive and surgically deconstructive, of reading poetry critically: the
segmentation of the whole, the analysis of the individual parts, and the attempt
to synthesize or somehow connect those fragments to an interpretation; not a
unitary interpretation as in the expectations of New Criticism, but as an unstable,
fragmentary “reading” that might, at any moment, fall apart, disassemble. If we
are to carry the analysis into the realm of referentiality and the political, such
a denial of “wholeness” might be equated with a departure from totalizing—
and totalitarian—ways of seeing. Antonio Méndez interprets fragmentation in
that same revolutionary light, “quien llega a usar el lenguaje cómo tácrica de
des- y recomposición…está a un paso (o ya en el paso de) participar en la des-
y recomposición de la sociedad donde ese lenguaje circula—y que ese lenguaje
funda de hecho como sociedad [he who uses language as a tactic for de- and
recomposition…is one step away from (or in the midst of) participating in the
de- and recomposition of the society in which that language circulates—and
which that language constitutes]” (150). Similar fragmentary characteristics are
further displayed by “Broken A” (1988), a work in which the letter is not merely
disassembled, but instead is fragmented into two equal halves. While the first
“half ” remains in what we might assume was its original location, the second
is “falling” off the page. The break of the single letter leaves us with only the
remains of language, a language that, once objectified, is subject to the laws of
gravity, to decay, fragmentation, displacement, and other kinds of manipulation.
While on some level the split A could symbolize Spain’s own Right-Left political
Letters and Lettrism 155

fragmentation, Brossa’s message, if we insist on finding one, might point to

the ease with which referential language can be manipulated, twisted, broken,
misappropriated, and made to “do” things, as in propaganda, newspaper censorship,
and state newsreels.
In Brossa’s poetry the space between language and image, between the literary
and the visual, is, as critic Gómez i Oliver describes it, “osmotic” in the sense of
a membrane or separation that allows for flow between two systems, but where
each system remains (partially) distinct (254). Once the linguistic sign has been
deconstructed, the shape of the A or its parts can become anything that Brossa
desires, creating a space where the dynamic and anthropomorphic (or polymorphic)
might come into play. At times the type of movement itself is the key to expressing
a particular morphism, suggesting human, mechanical, or android motion. Other
times, the “image” might be elicited with the addition of props that are distinctly
“human,” or “humanoid.” For example in “Alpha” (1986) a capital “A” sports a top
hat somewhat anthropomorphically, precariously balanced on the vertex where
its “legs” come together. Another project that decorates a public library wall,
“The dancing A” (1994), paints multiple red “A’s” in adjacent locations and at even
intervals to create the quasi-cinematic illusion of a somersaulting letter, perhaps
as a reference to an acrobat, a dancer, a rotating machine part, or, quite “simply,” a
dancing letter A. Despite the pervasiveness of Brossa’s use of anthropomorphism,
there is also, simultaneously, the presence of something “dis-anthropomorphic,”
something quasi-mechanical in his poems, (de)constructive, objectual, and even
perhaps numerical (the letter disassembled in its component parts; these parts
split in turn, etc., hinting at an infinite diminishing series, which, some would
argue, ends in nothingness, the empty set, blank space). The tension between
anthropomorphic and mechanomorphic tendencies recalls the man-machine
hybrid discussed in reference to Papasseit’s “Marxa Nupcial” and Chaplin’s The
Circus, as well as proto-filmic references such as Muybridge’s and Marey’s motion
studies, which also segment time into parts, creating equally spaced series that aim
to take apart and then put together again the components of motion, to define its
elusive quality.
The condition of political and artistic isolation present in Spain since the
end of the civil war (1939) began to slowly improve in the sixties, as the country
registered a rapid rate of economic growth and moved toward greater (but still
limited) freedom, which resulted in a lessening of the stifling censorship laws.
The economic stability brought about by the so-called Spanish miracle—a massive
development plan that included investment in infrastructure and the opening up
of Spain as a major tourist destination—also benefited artistic freedom, facing the
156 Radical Poetry

government with the contradictory goals of maintaining a firm ideological and

political hold while at the same time (superficially) “liberalizing,” to improve the
country’s image abroad. The relative freedom lasted from Manuel Fraga Iribarne’s
appointment as Minister of Tourism and Communications in 1962 until 1969, when
the period of aperture came to an abrupt end and the regime reestablished its firm
control over the arts; this regression was a reaction to growing political unrest by
an opposition that involved many sectors of the population, particularly students,
intellectuals, artists, and workers. The brief interlude of freedom, however, allowed
for artists (and their works) to travel to foreign film festivals and art biennales,
and to participate in an international exchange of ideas, which in turn fueled
an energetic pushback against censorship and renewed calls for “libertad” in the
waning years of the dictatorship. As for Dau al Set, although Tàpies, Portabella,
and, less so, Cuixart, began to gain currency outside of Spain, Brossa remained
largely unknown until well into the eighties during the transition to democracy.
Despite his obscurity vis-à-vis the general public, Brossa was quite influential in
artistic circles, and became an inspiration for two Madrid-based poets who would
rebuild the experimental scene in that city: the Uruguayan exile Julio Campal and
the Spaniard Fernando Millán.

Two Sides of the Same Coin? Julio Campal’s

and Fernando Millán’s Poetry of Erasure

It is in this context that we shall examine the work of another pioneering

experimental poet of the 1960s, a man who bridged both the Spanish and the Latin
American avant-gardes, fomenting the transatlantic flow of ideas. To say that Julio
Campal (1933–1968) was one of the most influential forces in Hispanic experimental
poetry in the sixties is no exaggeration, and can be substantiated on at least two
accounts. First, because both in Argentina, where he spent his formative years,
and in Spain, where he lived his final years, he organized numerous landmark
artistic events (conferences, poetry readings, formal and informal colloquia)
that reintroduced and rekindled interest in the somewhat forgotten poetry of
the first avant-gardes, such as the work of Mallarmé, Marinetti, Huidobro, Tzara,
and others, in turn inspiring a new wave of avant-gardists. Second, and just as
important, he introduced and promoted several novel experimental forms, thereby
breaching the cultural isolation of the Spanish poetry scene: from Latin America
he brought the new currents of Brazilian concrete poetry and Argentine action
poetry, as well as, from France, Lettrism and sound poetry (Escrituras 244–49;
Parcerisas 360–62).
Letters and Lettrism 157

Regrettably, despite having influenced a generation of avant-garde artists,

Campal is one of the least-known poets in twentieth century Hispanic letters, a
situation attributable to several circumstances: the adverse historical conditions in
Francoist Spain, a tragic early death, his condition as a Latin American poet living
in Spain (with all the racism and marginality that entailed), the limited availability
of his work, as well as experimental poetry’s (lack of) status as an obscure subgenre
within a genre (poetry) that has itself lagged far behind narrative in popular appeal.
Whereas Brossa achieved some acclaim near the end of his career, Campal remains
unknown to all but a few specialists. It is time, I believe, to recognize his work.
When Campal—a Uruguayan who had long resided in Argentina—arrived in
Madrid via Paris in 1962, he found a dismal situation for experimental poetry and
set about to change things. As in Catalonia, most avant-garde, and even a great
deal of “mainstream” poetic activity had ended with the triumph of Franco and
the exile, self-imposed or forced, of the best national literary talent (poets such as
Luis Cernuda, Rafael Alberti, Pedro Garfias, León Felipe, Pedro Salinas, Ramón
Gómez de la Serna, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Josep Carner, Juan Larrea, Jorge Guillén,
among many others) (Debicki, Spanish 55–56). The exception to this exodus being,
of course, a handful of Falangist poets who were able to keep publishing, many
of them members of the Generación del 36, such as Dionisio Ridruejo, founder of
the poetry magazine Escorial, (who eventually turned against the regime), Luis
Rosales, Leopoldo Panero, Agustín de Foxá, or Luis Felipe Vivanco. But, although
some of them were good, even excellent poets, most had turned to classical forms
and conservative themes, and away from any prewar vanguardist pretentions (ibid.,
53–54). Little was happening in Spain, then, in the poetry of the forties and fifties,
although in Barcelona, as we saw, Joan Brossa and the group Dau al Set had been
actively pursuing a second wave of surrealist and visual poetry, and in Madrid, in
the post–World War II period (roughly 1945–1970), there was a brief flourishing of
another neo-Surrealist group, also influenced by Dada and Futurism, which vaguely
coalesced about a set of artistic principles that approached poetry from a playful
yet technically innovative angle, for example, by engaging in a disarticulation of
syntax and drawing on word games, on the use of prosaic language and an informal
register, as well as deploying literary clichés and parodying older forms, all of
it in keeping with their irreverent, absurdist, and yet light tone. This so-called
movement, although it was closer to a loose affiliation of like-minded artists, was
called “Postismo” (Post-ism, or the last “ism”), and comprised the poets Eduardo
Chicharro (also a painter), Carlos Edmundo de Ory, Ángel Crespo, and the Italian
Silvano Sernesi. Postismo had resonance outside of Spain, in particular in Italy,
but fizzled out, leaving a few manifestos and a respectable number of works
158 Radical Poetry

spanning several media: poems, paintings, drawings, collages, photographs, and

photo-montages (Debicki, Poetry of Discovery 5).
Such exceptions, however, merely confirm the rule, as critics generally agree
that the years between 1939 and 1962 saw a significant decrease in Spanish
poetic production, especially when compared to the output by the preceding
Generations of ’98 and ’27; the slowdown was the product of what José Antonio
Sarmiento describes as “un panorama totalmente adverso a las nuevas ideas [a
panorama completely adverse to new ideas]” (11).2 Somewhat oversimplified, the
three major poetic tendencies in postwar Spain—barring exceptions such as
Dau al Set’s experimental poetry—were, first, the traditionalist poetry favored
by the regime, heavily influenced by the Golden Age masters, and especially
Garcilaso; second, a rather exhausted social poetry, which, despite its laudable
political intentions, was unread even by the censors, and, third, arriving a bit
later in the sixties, an apolitical, aestheticized, and overly refined poetry by the
so-called novísimos. It is in this context that Campal joins a group of like-minded
young artists—musicians, performers, and writers—who founded Problemática
63, a collective dedicated to interartistic experimentalism which also included
Fernando Millán and Ignacio Gómez de Liaño. As head of the literature section
for Problemática 63, since his arrival in Spain in 1963 until his death in 1968,
Campal conducted a series of lectures and public events whose objective was to
recuperate and reinstate the forgotten traditions of the historical avant-gardes
and to encourage a new poetry based on experimentalism. Problemática 63
promoted and exhibited, for instance, Brossa’s visual poetry and publicized the
work of the Brazilian concrete poets.3
Campal’s poetry is difficult to access, since his only book, Carpeta sin título
(1969), was published posthumously and few copies were printed, by now becoming
collectors’ items with a limited, one would almost say cult-like following.4 Assessing
Campal’s contribution is also difficult because he viewed poetry, in the spirit of
the sixties, as a collective enterprise. This collectivist philosophy coupled with a
sense of modesty led him to neglect the publication of his own work, and not claim
ownership of what he saw as group creations, as Fernando Millán—his closest
collaborator and promoter—observes, “su idea de la cultura y por lo tanto de la
poesía como algo colectivo ponía en primer término su actividad informativa y de
promoción (lo cual dio lugar a que le calificaran de ‘divulgador’) [his concept of
culture, and poetry as something collective, led him to prioritize his promotional
activities (which earned him being called a “disseminator” of others’ poetry)]”
(“Campal, Boso” n.p.). Indeed, the notion of collective experience, encompassing
both the collective struggle against Franco, but also collective artistic creation,
Letters and Lettrism 159

was key to Campal’s idea of poetry, which he also understood as inextricably

bound with public performance; poetry, he believed, could function as a form
of political protest linking individual actions to public consciousness. Hand in
hand with public performance, and public readings, also went public exhibition,
presenting poetry as a scriptural and visual art that could be hung on a wall for
everyone to see (Millán, “Campal, Boso” n.p.). His intent was to transgress the
formal limits established by the classical poetic canon, and to engage directly
with the public, shaking them out of their cultural, and perhaps political, apathy.
Campal repeatedly stated his belief in the importance of the collective to anyone
who would listen, for example, at a conference in Soria in 1967 he proclaimed
that “el arte de nuestro tiempo se hará por la unión de todos nuestros esfuerzos y
nunca de forma individualizada [the art of our time will be created through our
united effort, and never as an individual action]” (Campal “Noticia,” n.p.). It is not
difficult to read, in that call to arms, a resistance not just to Francoism but also
to capitalist concepts of private property, individual ownership, and intellectual
property rights, displaying a world vision opposed to the status quo in Spain and
Latin America. However, despite their resistance to the system, Campal and other
members of Problemática 63 did not wish for their work to become propaganda, or
poetry to be instrumentalized.
Like Brossa, Campal experimented with different formal techniques and
modalities: besides “writing” poetry on a diverse number of surfaces, from paper,
to newspapers, to posters, he also enlisted the (relatively) new technology of the
reel-to-reel tape recorder (in Spanish “magnetofón de bobina abierta”), which
he used to record poetry readings and sound poetry, and for demonstrations in
conferences and colloquia (López Fernández “Un acercamiento” n.p.).5 In the
field of “written” texts, Campal followed several lines of inquiry, bringing back,
for instance, the calligram, a form that, as we saw in chapter 1 with Tablada and
Junoy, actively investigates the relationship between typography and calligraphy,
gesture and machine motion, manual production and mechanical reproduction.
Campal settles on a particular approach to explore the intersections between
two previously separate “types” of writing—the handwritten and the typeset—
by resorting to the system of “objective chance” (“el azar objetivo”), a concept
devised originally by André Breton and the Surrealists. While “objective chance”
at first referred to the random juxtaposition of found objects or unexpected
events, Campal transformed it to create something more deliberate. Instead
of surrealist objets trouvés, Campal overlaid hand painted calligraphy onto
pages of carefully selected newspapers, thereby juxtaposing the two systems,
one dependent on “chance” and one on “rational” methods. Although Campal’s
160 Radical Poetry

method of “random” scribbling onto a surface bears some resemblance to

surrealist automatic writing, it is instead based on a rationalist approach that
“systematically” marks nonsensical calligraphic script onto newsprint and other
printed materials. It also parallels Tàpies’s use of newspaper as base material
for the production of handpainted symbols. Campal’s technique also partakes
of earlier traditions of pictorial collage such as the Cubist paintings by Pablo
Picasso, Juan Gris, or Georges Braque, and, as the title of his anthology indicates,
Caligramas (1971), he means to reinterpret in a more abstract note Apollinaire’s
own Caligrammes (1918), which often drew the outlines of objects with a “line”
of verse made up of written script. There is more intertextuality to Campal’s
methodology; it also draws upon Brazilian Concrete poetry, more specifically
from theoretical postulations by the Noigandres group formed by Haroldo and
Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari. Noigandres explored an aesthetic
of the “surface,” whether of the page or canvas, using a minimum number
of geometrical and/or verbal elements to create an abstract poetry devoid of
symbolism (see chapter 8). Campal was, together with Ángel Crespo and his
Revista de Cultura Brasileña, a fierce promoter of concrete poetry in Spain.6
Campal also wished to incorporate poetry into the world of mass media and
communications, “al mundo de hoy, de ahí, que el afiche, los anuncios radiados,
o televisados, la arquitectura, el cine, etc., se vean cada vez más determinados
por los nuevos hallazgos poéticos [into today’s world, and that is why magazine
ads, radio, or TV commercials, architecture, and film are increasingly influenced
by the latest poetic discoveries]” (Sarmiento 13). As in Pop Art, poetry should, he
believed, both partake of and influence the aesthetic of advertising and its use of
the image, but unlike the more commercially wily ventures of Pop Art, Campal’s
experimental poetry would maintain a critical edge, a commitment to instigating
social and political change. Let us see how this played out in Campal’s poetry from
Caligramas (1971).
The calligram in question (Figure 5.2), which at a first glance seems to
follow the aesthetic of the objet trouvé, that is, of being simply a random sheet
of newsprint found by the artist and repurposed to challenge the status of the
art object as such, is instead revealed not to be a found or discarded item at
all, but a deliberately selected page from the newspaper ABC from 1967, which
Campal proceeds to resemanticize. The newspaper page is used as a medium to
overlay a gestural calligraphy that is, for the most part, unreadable, and which
also obscures large portions of the printed text underneath. The selection of
ABC, a Spanish journal of decidedly conservative-monarchic tendencies and the
oldest newspaper with nationwide circulation, is itself highly symbolic, pointing
Figure 5.2. Julio Campal. “Calligram.”
Archivo Lafuente. Santander, Spain.
162 Radical Poetry

to a certain subversive vein within Campal’s poetry that attempts to undermine

any kind of monolithic perspective on so-called national culture. Such an act of
“signifying” onto appropriated material, functions as an inversion of the censorship
act that seeks to censor the State’s own “propaganda” source, the ABC. To the
ABC’s authoritative print, supposedly objective journalism, or even a journalism
expressing views held by the nation at large, Campal counters with his subjective,
gestural script, which resembles a dance of the wrist that “follows,” or seems to
fall in line with the newspaper’s well-ordered columns but also resists them by
instilling a different “reading” direction, perpendicular to their rigidly regimented
type. Indeed a “superficial” falling-in-line with the ordered mainstream is shown
as merely an act that covers an unwillingness to submit to such established order,
and therefore it references the poet’s own unwillingness to acquiesce to order.
This partial rejection of, or resistance to “order” and “linearity” is, of course,
something we saw previously in Salvat-Papasseit’s work. Negating the established
order and the utilitarian or, indeed, “prosaic” (etymologically from the Latin prosa
meaning direct or straightforward discourse) aspect of “readability,” Campal’s
script demands visual attention in a way closer to the work of a visual artist such
as Tàpies than to an arguably “traditional” poet such as Antonio Machado who
followed well-established poetic forms.
There is an important, if also somewhat prosaic, contextual fact that should
also be taken into account in the analysis of Campal’s choice of a newspaper
substrate, namely that at a time (the postwar years) when paper was relatively
scarce and expensive, and newspapers, as printed matter, were very short-lived,
people gave the news “paper” multiple uses, starting “the day after” its publication:
as wrapping paper, paper towels for cleaning, toilet paper, insulation paper, etc.
These prosaic uses of the newspaper, although not intended as political critique,
also contrast greatly with the inflated prose and the triumphalism of Franco’s
rhetoric, illustrating instead the real economic difficulties Spain was facing. As
such, Campal’s recycling act might be read as both an economic necessity and,
given the choice of newspaper, an ideological statement.
Why is the scribbled writing, which remains illegible, significant, we might
ask (and what does it signify)? The handwriting superimposed on the newsprint
or typeset page also echoes graffiti, a “common” (in the sense of frequent, but
also “popular,” and public) element in, once again, many of Tàpies’s works, and
hence, it signals the traces of the voices of those who do not have access to official,
state-controlled press mechanisms. In those years graffiti was one form of political
resistance that could be sprayed on walls, public restrooms, factories, or university
hallways, in order to incite strikes, express disagreement, or expose the regime’s
Letters and Lettrism 163

contradictions; spraying graffiti against the walls of official government buildings,

while considerably risky, was even more effective; Campal is, in a sense, enacting
a similar maneuver.
Additionally, Campal’s text, like Tablada’s kanji calligram in chapter 1,
plays with the notion of presence and absence, the presence of the trace, of the
now-stilled movement of the poet’s brushstroke, which also marks the absence of
the poet who is no longer there. It also marks the presence of the strong material
graphisms (barely intelligible writing, but undoubtedly some type of script),
even as it paradoxically “registers” the absence of a direct semantic connection
to those symbols. However, despite the illegibility of the “writing,” meaning is
not negated; rather, it is affirmed in the enigmatic revelation of the gesture,
at once metonym and metaphor for the absent poet himself. Furthermore, and
this is possibly the point of many of Campal’s calligrams which deploy this
approach, the piece places, confrontationally and collaboratively, within the
same space two competing systems of “reading/writing,” the linear, contiguous
syntax of the mechanical newsprint and the illegible calligraphy of the human
hand. The presence of two coexisting systems may be said to correspond to Jean
François Lyotard’s description in Discours, figure of the two semiotic approaches
to a “text.” According to Lyotard, in the first, linear approach, as the eye detects
the appearance of the alphabetic symbols and words it registers the semantic
content fairly quickly. In the other system, which, as in a Gestalt, apprehends
the whole all at once, discerning major patterns, color, etc., in order to achieve
a full appreciation of the semantic content, the “reader” must slow down and
study the surface, applying critical judgment to the whole and to how it relates
to the parts (218). The necessary tarrying over the formal content of the image,
the belabored “work,” are reminiscent of Shklovskian distancing theories, which
aimed to break the habitual reading patterns in order to intensify perception of
the object. The sense that reading the meaning of a visual image might require
more work than processing the semantic content of text reverses “normalized”
notions that assume that the image demands less attention than the text; rather,
in Lyotard’s argument, to “read” the image well one must analytically “cut”
into its materiality. In Campal’s poem, he partially denies the first reading (of
the newspaper) to supersede the second (which obscures the first, rendering
it illegible). The text, composed of a lower stratum of newsprint and an upper
stratum of gestural calligraphy, privileges the second, associated with the poetic
function, over the first, associated with the communicative, instrumentalist, and
propagandistic function of mass media. At the same time, the presence of the
graffiti also appeals to another kind of mass “media,” not as easily controlled,
164 Radical Poetry

regimented, or forced to align with existing power structures. It is this unruly

element of resistance that Campal’s poetry successfully activates.
Fernando Millán (1944–) became one of Campal’s closest friends and
co-conspirators in the Problemática 63 group. Millán wrote social poetry until
1964, when he met Ángel Crespo and Campal at a conference about Brazilian
concrete poetry organized by the latter. This, appropriately, “chance” encounter
had a profound influence on Millán’s subsequent trajectory. From Campal, Millán
learned how to write a more daring type of poetry, and, as he recounts, gained an
understanding of what it meant to be in the vanguard, aesthetically and ethically:

Sin Campal no hubiéramos tenido un planteamiento vanguardista en el sentido

completo de la palabra, puesto que el planteamiento vanguardista supone un
compromiso ético con la voluntad de cambiar la situación. El vanguardista no
quiere cambiar sólo la literatura, también se propone que ésta participe en el
cambio de la sociedad.

[Without Campal we would not have had an avant-garde perspective in the

complete sense of the word, since such a perspective demands an ethical
commitment toward changing the existing situation. The avant-gardist does
not wish to change only literature, but also wants literature to participate in
the changing of society.] (cited in de Francisco Guinea n.p.)

Millán’s commitment to change began with a frontal attack on the most basic
elements of type and its legibility. The process of disruption of the base text
(indicative of Campal’s influence) reaches an extreme in his tachadura works (also
known as “textchones,” or “textos tachados”), were Millán crosses out words from
printed material to create a new text, a procedure that resulted in the almost
complete deletion of the substrate printed material, which only survived as short,
unintelligible sentence fragments, or as the visible marks and letter fragments that
escaped the author’s manual censorship (see Figure 5.3). “Progresión Negativa/2”
(“Negative Progression/2”) was first created in 1967 as a postcard, reformatted in
1969 as a poster for Millán’s experimental collective “poesía N.O.” and reprinted
in Textos y antitextos (1970).
In the prologue to Textos y antitextos Millán outlines the logic behind the
“tachaduras,” arguing that by “negating” the printed page one can alter its
preexisting value, its meaning. The act of erasing becomes a response against
the overwhelming nature of the discursive, since as Millán argues, “Frente a
la invasión de lo discursivo, de la atracción aplastante de la publicidad, de la
Figure 5.3. Fernando Millán. “Progrsión Negativa/2”
(“Negative Progression/2”).
Printed with permission from Fernando Millán.
166 Radical Poetry

verborrea, la poesía sólo puede responder de una forma: tachando, negando,

borrando [Before the invasion of the discursive, of the overbearing influence of
publicity, of the excess of verbal noise, poetry can only react one way: crossing
out, negating, erasing]” (Escrituras en libertad 332). López Fernández believes that
the tachadura as a (poetic) protest can be associated with the May 1968 events,
but becomes more nuanced as Millán perfects it (Depresión 15).
The upshot of Millán’s tachaduras is the opposite of the blank page or the
white canvas, as in Malevich’s monochrome paintings, specially his Suprematist
Composition: White on White (1918), or his earlier Black Square on a White Field
(1913), or Rodchenko’s “Pure Color” series (Pure Red, Pure Blue, Pure Yellow), all
from 1919, and similar abstract works which were inspirational for Campal,
Millán, and other neo-avant-gardists exploring the limits of painting and
writing. Spanish poets were not, however, interested in nihilist positions that
advocated for the ultimate emptiness of art; on that point they differed from
the Russians Suprematists. Whereas Malevich pursued the representation of a
“pure” mathematical, indeed geometrical painting, and Rodchenko advocated
for an end to painting, Campal and Millán were after something quite different,
implementing a style that despite its abstraction remained closely linked to the
referential. Namely, they wished to situate their work in a specific political and
social context, and to represent reality, whereas the Suprematists were arguably
“pure” formalists, pursuing nonrepresentational abstraction for its own sake.
Instead, for Millán, the act of negation is “dialectical,” it creates new meaning
rather than just erasing the preexisting signification; it is like Papasseit’s poetry,
which was procreative, and unlike Marinetti’s, which was destructive. Millán’s
tachaduras, or writing by erasure, also has another lengthy tradition, indeed one
might mention that Laurence Sterne already did “this” in the eighteenth century
in the obliterated, dark ink page number 73 (vol. 1) of Tristram Shandy (1759–1767),
which symbolically marks the death of one of the characters, and therefore the
black page, both conceptually and mimetically, signified death, mourning, etc.
Similarly, in 1924, Man Ray created an untitled visual poem first published in
Picabia’s 391 magazine that relied on a poetics of erasure. In it, black dashes of
variable lengths stand in for words and are arranged in something akin to stanzas.
Whether Man Ray is mocking poetic convention or affirming the visual over the
verbal is open to interpretation; what is significant is that his poem functions as
the ultimate “erasure” of words, one in which words were never even present, but
are only there “symbolically,” schematically.7
How does Millán put into effect his logic of erasure, and how is it specific to the
Spanish context? He presents red paint marks over a yellow field, yellow and red (in
Letters and Lettrism 167

Spanish, rojo y gualda) are the colors of the “official” Spanish flag. The colors do not
seem accidental, and quite possibly constitute a form of protest against everything
the national flag represented in that political context, when the “national” was
very narrowly understood as the culture of Castile, and the beliefs of the Catholic
faith, to the exclusion of other regions, languages, and beliefs. The title, “Negative
Progression/2,” indicates a concern for the degradation of Spain’s freedoms,
evidenced soon thereafter (by 1970) by a crackdown and repression following
apertura and lasting until Franco’s death in 1975. López Fernández concurs with
this political reading:

Las tachaduras, de textos individuales o de un libro, ejemplifican la práctica

artística más deconstructiva de Millán. Es una escritura que vive en los límites,
que quiebra nuestro sistema unívoco de lectura. Nos hallamos ante una
abstracción de los sentidos individuales. Se produce una difícil continuidad
entre creación e interpretación y se ataca el poder totalitario que se le ha
dado a la página impresa, al mundo impreso, político, artístico. En un sentido
contextual, los textchones de los años sesenta y setenta presentaban una buena
denuncia al sistema represivo franquista que Millán padeció como español.

[The crossing-out of individual texts, or of a book, exemplifies Millán’s

most deconstructive artistic practice. It is a writing that inhabits the limits,
breaking our univocal reading system. We find ourselves before an abstraction
involving the individual senses. A strange continuity forms between creation
and interpretation, which attacks the totalitarian power of the printed page, of
the printed world, whether political or artistic. In this context, the textchones
of the sixties and seventies are an accusation against the Francoist system of
repression under which Millán suffered, as a Spaniard.] (Depresión 16)

According to this reading, the piece would deny any totalizing synthesis by
separating the sensorial experience, by excising the process of reading from
the process of viewing, and by denying any unifying meaning that would pull
the individual fragments together. The poem, in other words, rejects any single
interpretation, even as it remains open to a plurality of meanings.
There is, additionally, a “formal” explanation for the title which points to a
more corporeal interpretation, since this piece was the second work in a triptych
of visual poems that put into effect what Millán describes as a “desaparición
progresiva” (progressive disappearance) of the subtext strata (“Tachar o Tener”
n.p.). This word, desaparición, as seen in chapter 2 in relation to the Southern Cone,
168 Radical Poetry

carried connotations that went beyond the textual-visual, and entered into the
political, the repressed, and most certainly the bodily—as in the disappeared bodies
of “subversives” in dirty wars throughout Latin America, but also, in the aftermath
of the civil war, in Spain itself. Read thus, the “crossing out” may stand in for the
judicial and extrajudicial killings, and many disappearances, frequent from the end
of the civil war until the late 1940s or early ’50s, when Spain became “stable,” once
the regime felt firmly in control. The sinister nature of crossing out, of crosses,
would point to the so-called white terror of the Francoist repression meant to
“limpiar,” to clean or erase any trace of the Republic and its defeated supporters.
So we might conclude that while it shares some similarities with Suprematism,
and with other poetics of disruption, Millán’s process of crossing out (tachar)
functions on both a metacritical and a poetic level: he creates a new form of
visual poetry and comments/documents its process of creation/destruction. As
he reads and eliminates the words of the substrate text following procedures
from the random to the deliberate, Millán’s method suggests a mix of political
protest against censorship and a Zen-like yearning for silence. On the aesthetic
plane, Zen pointed to a poetics of the empty space, of silence, of contemplation
and minimalist expression, a poetics that aligned itself well with the realities of
life in Spain, and therefore proved to be a useful metaphor. Relying on silence
as a vocal and visual form of protest after years of forced political muteness was
a recurring strategy for many poets, including Brossa and José Miguel Ullán.
Other artists and filmmakers took notice, such as Brossa’s close friend Pere
Portabella, whose silent, black-and-white footage in films such as Umbracle,
Vampir: Cuadecuc, and Nocturn 29, besides paying tribute to early cinema, also
served as an allegory for censorship.
I close the chapter with a second calligram by Campal that engages, not so
much with silence, as with the affective potential of gesture. It relies on a printed
textual substrate and overlays colored script onto the composition, to augment its
expressive force and perhaps trigger an emotive effect. Once again, a free-flowing,
calligraphic style lettering—reminiscent of non-Western calligraphy (Hindu and
Arabic, but also Chinese, Japanese, Korean)—is painted onto a biographical note
about the French abstract painter-sculptor Jean Ipousteguy (1920–2006), whom
Campal probably met in Paris, before arriving in Madrid in 1963. The choice of
substrate fulfills a different function than it did in his other calligram. Using the
biography of a visual artist as background serves to “foreground” interartistic
collaboration while expressing admiration for Ipousteguy’s work. The colorful
calligraphic marks stand out against the typeset page. Although the physical
dynamics of the poet’s gesture can only be surmised from its trace, one can
Letters and Lettrism 169

discern—indeed, almost “feel”—the points where more or less pressure has been
applied, where the stroke accelerated or decelerated, based on the darkness and
thickness of lines. As with the previous calligram (Figure 5.2), the reader’s affect
responds to the patterns the “calligrams” create, from the perceived movement
of the lines, their degree of opacity or transparency, heaviness or lightness, etc.
The foreceful dynamism of Campal’s script results from a tension between
formal rigor and gestural abandonment. It almost appears that there is, or rather
that there was, a continuity between Campal’s hand, the brush, and the paper.
Naturally, this is an illusion, since what we are seeing is a reproduction of the
original, even a digital image of it, but somehow that notion of once direct, if now
absent, connection remains, carried through by the strength of the image alone.
The script “registers” different kinds of strokes, up, down, hard, soft, and one can
almost visualize the process of its creation by “feeling” these movements, embodied
through our proprioception (the sense of hand position, force, and movement) as
we “imagine” how we might create those same strokes. It is critical to note that
proprioception is a key element in the phenomenology of motion, since it purports
to eliminate, or at least blur, the distinction between the cognitive and the physical.
By looking at Campal’s gestural calligrams one gains a certain bodily awareness
of the physical mechanics of its making, of muscle movement, speed, tension, and
pressure, and therefore the reader has a psychophysical experience, as opposed to
a strictly cognitive one; in a figurative sense, the reader participates “bodily” in
the work’s creation.
More can be said about Campal’s and Millán’s poetry, so complex despite its
apparent silence, erasure, or minimalist reduction. Historically, Julio Campal’s
poems reflect on a rich tapestry of intertexts: medieval manuscripts, Arabic
texts, which likewise reject figuration in favor of script, and, as mentioned, other
non-Western systems of calligraphy. In creating an aesthetic script, the meaning
of words becomes secondary, or even irrelevant. The substrate text might or might
not have any bearing on the surface script, but its primary function is formal, as
“backdrop,” even if it retains its ideological value, which may (in these poems)
signify a critique of repressive systems. There is still, despite all the abstractions,
a “story” of order and resistance here, but it relates to the struggle with the
materials, and through them, by analogy, one can project the speculative image
of resistance onto the world at large. Such projections are always imaginative,
figurative, inconclusive, and like the poetry itself, deny any totalizing certainties.
There is an affective charge in the calligrams that is actualized in the viewer, not
through a straightforward semantic revelation, but through a visual, and bodily,
apprehension of the image,
170 Radical Poetry

[L]os caligramas de Campal producen un efecto visual y emocional antes

de llegar al estado racional o discursivo. En un poema tradicional el lector
descubre el significado primero y luego recibe una emoción estética. Esta
inversión del orden de significación privilegiando la percepción directa
antes que la conceptualización es uno de los efectos buscados y explorados
por muchos poetas visuales y experimentales. Con ello producen o intentan
producir una experiencia estética inmediata y en este sentido inefable.

[Campal’s calligrams produce a visual and emotional effect prior to arriving at

a rational or discursive state. In a traditional poem the reader first discovers
the meaning and then experiences an aesthetic emotion. This inversion of the
order of signification which privileges direct perception prior to conceptual-
ization is one of the sought-after effects of visual and experimental poetry. It
is how they attempt to produce an immediate aesthetic experience, which is
also ineffable.] (López Fernández n.p.)

By immediacy López Fernández means the retrieval of the experience of manual

writing, of the moving hand, that marks an intimacy between author and viewer,
and relies on affective mechanisms rather than cognitive ones. Mark-making
as a bodily activity leaves a trace—a remainder—in Campal’s poetry; indeed, it
functions as another instance of the anthropomorphic, now united to the kinetic.
Latin American Digital Poetry
Animated Embodiment

Ana María Uribe’s Kinetic Poems:

Mythical Monsters and Tyrannical Letters

n the two previous chapters, I established certain continuities between the
approaches to experimental poetry by the first avant-gardes and by the later
neo-avant-gardes, showing how poets from both periods not only focused on
aesthetic and wider social and political issues, but also wrote about, interacted
with, or deployed the latest technologies to enhance the poetic experience. On
the aesthetic front, I presented several trends, for instance, a persistent desire to
animate script and individual letters, and thereby introduce movement into static
poetry; and also a recurring interest in molding text to reflect other shapes, organic
and inorganic, with a clear tendency toward imitating human or animal forms and
behavior. In addition to making a case for the presence of the anthropomorphic
in these two important periods of twentieth-century experimental poetry, I have
shown that both the historical and neo-avant-gardes understood poetry as a hybrid
combination of script and image. Next, I investigate the international, interlin-
guistic, and intermedial “interplays” that have radically redefined experimental
poetry since the arrival of the digital computer. For example, the computer has
afforded the possibility to make script less transparent, that is, to foreground the
shape, appearance, and aesthetic possibilities of the textual. This is a departure
from the traditional function of script, which is to become invisible or transparent,
to recede from sight so that the reader may become immersed in its meaning
alone. The digital computer’s enhanced motion graphics, its capability to simulate
three-dimensionality and create the appearance of volume, the activation, even

172 Radical Poetry

integration of image, text, sound, color, movement, and texture to create a total
poetry experience; these are the key ingredients in the creation of digital poetry
which render text more tangible, more material, and more visible.
But, patently, none of this is really “new.” Digital poetry dates back to at least
the 1950s, when the computer—the mainframe, in this case, since PCs only arrived
in the mid-sixties—was still a technology of limited access; already then some
poets saw the creative potential of the new device, and produced poems using
the screen, the printer, or later, the punchcard. Richard W. Bailey’s pioneering
anthology Computer Poems (1973) introduced sixteen poets that used computers.
Recalling Futurism, Bailey’s prologue describes computer poetry as warfare against
language conventions, which he thought had become “automatic.” His argument
is paradoxical, since methods that are in one sense or another automatized,
programmed, could in his view be used to break out of habitual patterns, disrupting
our human tendency to repeat by rote.
It was with the advent of the personal computer, once access became more
widespread, that the number of digital poets increased modestly, although
admittedly less so in Latin America due to a lack of resources. There were also
justifiable concerns about the medium’s instability, and about the limitation
for diffusion, which was only possible through cassettes, floppy disks, and later,
CD-ROM, or, alternatively, by printing the poems, which extracted them from
their “natural” virtual environment and eviscerated their most interesting
characteristics, which needed to be viewed, or rather experienced on a computer.
Although we have also seen concerns about medium, durability, and dissemination
in paper-based poetry, with digital poetry these matters become paramount.
Concerns about finding a suitable, “natural” home for digital poetry, one that
would be at once a locus to read, play, and write poems, but also an archive, and
a forum for the exchange of ideas and criticism, were mitigated with the next
technological developments: the inauguration of the World Wide Web in the early
nineties, and the invention of the Mosaic web browser in 1993, facilitating access,
storage, and graphical capabilities.
After the development of the World Wide Web there was an explosion in the
production of digital poetry, on account of the possibility for increased exposure,
a certain “stability” as long as pages and links were maintained, and, perhaps
more importantly, immediate connectivity with other digital poets and net
artists working elsewhere in the world, which resulted in virtual communities of
like-minded creators. The virtuality of the online medium marks an important
difference with previous avant-gardes, resulting in less face-to-face interaction,
less in-situ performances or poetic events, as every activity and locus of exchange
Latin American Digital Poetry 173

moves online, and every exchange becomes “virtual.” Although there are no schools
or movements to speak of, or at least that can be easily identified as such, there
is a global exchange of ideas, and many online, interest-based communities that
post work from different artists on specific, localized servers. Notable groups
that curate, critique, and archive digital works include the Electronic Literature
Organization, the Electronic Poetry Center (SUNY Buffalo), and, in the Hispanic
milieu, the research group Hermeneia, affiliated with the University of Barcelona.
Creating taxonomies for this highly fluid and pluri-artistic “genre” has proven
difficult and, arguably, unnecessary. There is not one unique form of digital poetics,
but rather a variety of trends that include all kinds of multimedia, animated,
randomly generated, and interactive works. A particular trend that we already
observed in paper-based work has also been ubiquitous in digital poetry: works
displaying hybrid forms combining mechanical and biomorphic elements, such
as objects and letters that dance, move, and perform all kinds of antics. Why has
this type of digital poetry become so prevalent? A possible answer may lie in how
we respond to it affectively. As we saw with Papasseit’s poetry, the combination of
natural and artificial elements seems to trigger an affective response from viewers.
This should not be a surprise, since anthropomorphism and personification
(prosopopeia), which Paul de Man dubbed the “master trope of poetic discourse,”
are special kinds of metaphor that originated in early societies steeped in animism
and mythical thinking, and thus, are foundational tropes, located at the origins
of both poetry and narrative that connect with readers viscerally (The Resistance
to Theory 48).
Moreover, evidence shows that the anthropomorphic trope is key in creating
engaging digital “environments,” whether poems, narrative fiction, video games,
social media sites, or other virtual reality experiences, since anthropomorphism
facilitates “the real time transmission of some of the body’s communication
cues,” and in that sense it creates a feeling of embodiment for the viewer (Choi,
Miracle, and Biocca n.p.). It is not, however, just a matter of making everything
human-like but of maintaining a certain balance, so that the moving letterforms
retain their characteristics as “objects” even as they adopt human traits. Portraying
the letter types as “too” human, exceeding a mimetic threshold of sorts, arguably
has negative effects, entering what cognitive researchers call the “uncanny valley.”
A recent article about the influence of anthropomorphism on viewers’ perceptions
of animated films found that “realistic anthropomorphic characters are widely
regarded as the most challenging, in part because they sometimes look eerie or
repulsive . . . anthropomorphic characters, for example those animated from the
movements of real actors’ recorded using motion capture . . . ‘feel more uncanny’
174 Radical Poetry

than the stylized heroes moving unrealistically” (Chaminade, Hodgins, and

Kawato, n.p.). Seemingly, the combination of human and nonhuman characteristics
in the visual objects we view on-screen responds to a mimetic drive through which
both the poet and the viewing subject seek a projection into, indeed, a more
intimate participation with the digital world. Our desire to see ourselves reflected
in the machines and software we use is yet another example of our analogical
thinking that posits the human as model for everything else. Just as computers
are designed to model our own cognitive processes (they have memory, they use
tools and perform tasks), the physical appearance of our digital objects (hardware
and software) is modeled on our physical look. And yet, the underlying fear is that
the machine may become us, a resemblance so perfect that it ultimately threatens
our substitution. So our anthropomorphic desire is a wish to “inhabit” the digital,
to commingle and interact with it but, at the same time, to keep a safe distance
from it, to allow it to mimic human form but not too closely, to avoid creating a
sense of the uncanny.
Ana María Uribe (1944–2004) was an Argentine poet from La Plata whose work
was first inspired by concrete and visual poetry, and by the sober, minimalist
typography promoted by the German Bauhaus. Her poetry was also shaped by the
sixties avant-garde magazine Diagonal Cero, edited by Edgardo Vigo (see chapter 2).
Uribe first used a typewriter to craft her letter poems, later she experimented with
large-scale poster art, and she even attempted to animate her poems using 8 mm
film. In the 1990s, Uribe began to “translate” her poems from their paperbound
format into computer animation, infusing them with anthropomorphic imagery.
I would like to stress that Uribe exemplifies an intensified turn toward a global
and often collaborative approach to poetry facilitated by the digital medium, which
arguably makes national distinctions less important; Uribe herself stated, “I do
not feel tied to a particular time or place” (Antonio n.p.). Without entering into
the complex issue of how the local and global might be constituted in the Web,
suffice it to say that Uribe’s work shows a postnational sensibility inflected by the
international avant-garde and neo-avant-garde, which nevertheless still retains
connections to the specifically local, such as links to the poetry of her predecessor
and fellow artist from La Plata, Edgardo Vigo, or her oblique references to the
Dirty War. The same claim of “internationality” (or perhaps postnationality)
could be made for the historical avant-garde—I am thinking of their emphasis
on the “international,” the “cosmopolitan,” and the “universal”—although even
with today’s digital and instantaneous information technologies, the national is
not so easily undone, but persists in any number of ways, and hence my reference
to Uribe’s Argentine origin. An aspect of Uribe’s poetry I wish to highlight is its
Latin American Digital Poetry 175

debt to previous movements, inscribing it within an “experimental tradition,”

as observed by Anna Schaffner, who considers digital poetry as “a third stage,
contemporary continuation and further development of earlier experiments”
(n.p.). If Schaffner is correct, and I believe she is (although I would avoid her
sense of progression or teleology and focus instead on “connections”), finding
traces of Salvat-Papasseit’s, Brossa’s, and Campal’s understanding and activation
of anthropomorphic tropes and hybridity in Uribe’s poetry should demonstrate
that this so-called third stage reactivates many aesthetic concerns and political
“flashpoints” of older experimental poetry.
Characterized by a stark minimalism reminiscent of Brossa’s lettrism, Uribe’s
poetic oeuvre can be approximately divided into three phases of increasing
expressivity: her soberly beautiful typographic work on paper from the sixties (such
as the poem “A Train in Motion” 1968, see below); the initial phase of her digital
poetry, from 1997 to 2001, represented by monochromatic, single font kinetic
letters; and her latest digital phase, which added color, multiple typescripts, as
well as rhythm and sound to her “dancing” letters. The poem “Tren en marcha”
(“A Train in Motion”) from her handcrafted artist book Tipoemas/Typoems (1968)
is characteristic of her first, paperbound phase:

tren en marcha
tttttttttttttttttrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrren en marcha

This apparently “simple” early poem displays all the characteristic elements
of Uribe’s later works: a will to motion, as the train “caboose” both insinuates
movement and onomatopoeically illustrates it with the repeating “chchchch”
sound; a tendency to rely more on letters than full words—as shown by the gradual
disintegration of words from the first “verse” to the last two; an interest in the
visual shape and materiality of poetry used to emphasize something other than
semantic meaning; the integration of the typographical with the mechanical (a
train), or in other cases, with the biological. In fact, all three stages in Uribe’s
poetry display two dominant characteristics: first, the use of motion and, second,
the mecanomorphic or biomorphic, often anthropomorphic, deployment of letters,
which Uribe (in a move that courts the animistic) describes as having a secret
life.1 Accordingly, she affirms that the letters themselves are a major source of her
inspiration, while “the main components are typography and motion” (Sapnar
n.p.). Her letter poems are imbued with a mechanistic and animistic vitality, and
emphasize a visual language increasingly animated and engaged with the viewers’
176 Radical Poetry

senses. Raley’s observation about digital poetry’s most salient aesthetic turn
describes Uribe’s work with remarkable exactitude:

The first and most significant turn . . . [has been] . . . an embedding of humans
and computational media within a larger assemblage comprised of human and
nonhuman actors and lively, vibrant, animate matter. The second marks a turn
from a mode of composition in which different media elements—such as text,
image, video, sound, and algorithm—are contiguous but distinct to a mode of
composition in which they are more clearly syncretized. (889)

Other critics have noted the perceived “syncretism” between animate and
inanimate, human and nonhuman matter. Poet Jim Andrews has praised the
“corporeality” of Uribe’s work and observes that, in her poetry, letters and words
have the capacity to “dance with human feeling, with the gestures of the body,
with the body of the body” (“Nio and Visual/Sound Poetry” n.p.). In the later phase
of Uribe’s poetry the anthropomorphic component is enhanced by the addition
of a sparse narrative plot structure, eroding the separation between poetry and
narrative and proving that temporality and spatiality are not at odds with each
other in the digital medium. The result, I suggest, is that the letters’ potential to
engage the viewer’s affect increases dramatically.
“A herd of centaurs” (1998) (Fig. 6.1) is an early digital poem whose significance
hinges on understanding how it deploys the anthropomorphic, and its
related term, theriomorphic, “literalized” through the trope of the centaur.
Theriomorphic is derived from the Greek for either a wild beast, or a bestial
man, (therion) and “morph” for shape. The dual definition pointing to man
and beast reflects the complexity hidden under the poem’s apparent simplicity.
Inherently hybrid, the poem’s key image, the centaur, calls to mind Surrealism
and its particular fondness for the juxtapositions of man and machine, or
man and beast, as with the Surrealist magazine Minotaure (1933–39). Uribe’s
poem simulates the mythical half-horse, half-man creatures with a group of h’s
sliding across the screen, differing in size to simulate a kind of perspective and
relative distance to the viewer. Here the use of the “h” is telling, since it does not
necessarily refer to the words in English for herd or horse, given that the original
poem’s title in Spanish is “una manada de centauros”; rather, it is mimetically
and graphically reminiscent of the shape of a centaur, with its upright torso
represented by the upright segment of the “h,” and its back and hind legs by
the curved portion. Thus, the poem presents the image of a mythical beast that
has stood for liminality, transgression, monstrosity, and at times nobility and
Latin American Digital Poetry 177

Figure 6.1. Ana María Uribe. “Una manada de centauros”

(“A Herd of Centaurs”). Screen capture.

courage, as chaotic and polyvalent a symbol as the trope of anthropomorphism

itself, which it signals and exemplifies.
In any case, the use of a letter shared by many languages as a mimetic image
begs the question of whether language does, in fact, matter to this poem that
aims clearly to also transcend the linguistic. More importantly, given that I am
considering the anthropomorphic as a trope central to the poem, I would like
to demonstrate that the mobilization of the rhetorical figure of the centaur has
profound implications. The centaur is a hybrid not just of human and animal
but of divine nature, a powerful metaphor indeed. Endowing the “h” with the
anthropomorphic and theriomorphic characteristics of the centaur makes Uribe’s
poem (at least) doubly metaphoric. The poem hails back to a creature found in
archaic Greek myth, at a time when figurative language was arguably conflated
with history, entangled with the “origin” of language itself, if indeed there was
such a founding moment for the linguistic. A centaur’s status as a symbol of hybrid
nature references other contemporary bioethical debates of hybridity, such as
those questioning the effect of technology on the posthuman body, or the ethics
of tapping into augmented cognition through the combination of human reason
with the brute calculation of the machine (all of which elicit charges of the human
“playing God” reminiscent of many cautionary tales such as Shelley’s Frankenstein).
Conversely, the power of metaphor resides in its status as a trope that attempts
to bridge a “gap” between similar yet different terms, a gap that can never be fully
178 Radical Poetry

closed. As such, the centaur is also an image of the tension between the different
systems the poem configures and tries to connect: visual and textual, static and
kinetic, human and technological, freedom and constraint, order and chaos,
embodiment and disembodiment. If we concur with Alexander Regier’s assertion
that “language must, in its origin, be anthropomorphic if it wants to be intelligible
and recognizable as language to the human” (419), then it follows that our affective
response to Uribe’s biomorphic kinetic poems might be preconditioned by our
humanity, our physical and cognitive nature as humans—even as it paradoxically
complicates that nature by pushing it toward its hybrid potential, its union with
the artificial.
I recognize that such a universalist claim, one that appeals to our basic
humanity as foundational to our experience of technology, might appear somewhat
distant from, or incompatible with, posthumanist assertions; and of course,
universalism always carries the danger of effacing the importance of the particular,
the specific, and the temporally encoded aspect of our humanity. My appeal to
our (common) reaction to the trope of the centaur must therefore be qualified by
acknowledging that viewer responses to anthropomorphism likely also depends
on cultural factors. Indeed, Chaminade et al. have (predictably) observed in studies
investigating human affective response to animated cartoon characters that they
varied significantly from one culture to another. Culturally specific responses
notwithstanding, it could also be argued that the activation of our emotions
entails an imaginative act that rescues the idea of the human, which remains
(even if only as a trace) a part of the posthuman. Perhaps, as De Man claimed, the
anthropomorphic trope attempts to reclaim language for the human, to render
it meaningful: “Anthropomorphism seems to be the illusionary resuscitation of
the natural breath of language, frozen into stone by the semantic powers of the
trope” (247). In digital poetry, we can replace De Man’s qualification of “illusionary”
with “virtual.” Uribe provides an additional creative breath, and releases the
anthropomorphic shapes from their static petrification by “reanimating” them from
paper to screen, from “illusionary” to “virtual,” and perhaps, concrete. She draws on
the technological to power such a reanimation, as the computer (hardware) and its
programs (software) are indispensable in the process of vivifying her letter poems.
Other key ingredients in this (somewhat monstrous) generative act are the
biomorphic and kinetic qualities of typescript (at least of Uribe’s letter types after
digital “manipulation”), which engage a reader’s sense of embodiment through
proprioception and kinesthesia, feedback mechanisms tied to our sense of
locomotion, and potentially activated by the moving letters. As anthropologist
and visual culture theorist Michael Taussig argues, the sense of embodiment, the
Latin American Digital Poetry 179

“palpable sensuous connection between the very body of the perceiver and the
perceived,” is facilitated by the mimetic element of the anthropomorphic trope (23),
as we saw in our earlier discussion on anthropomorphism and metaphor. Naturally,
any sense of complete fusion or identification between perceiver and perceived,
human and machine, or script and image, remains just out of reach, maintaining
desire for the unattainable intact.
In another poem, titled “Discipline” (2002) (Fig. 6.2), Uribe uses animated
anthropomorphic letters once again, but increases the narrative component further,
enlisting the affective and ethical involvement of the spectator by deploying a
greater range of visual stimuli, including color, simulated 3-D movement, sound,
etc. As Raley astutely observes regarding digital poetry trends, there is a noticeable
shift from a poetic practice prior to the year 2000 that “plays with text behaviors
and the concrete arrangement of letters in a monochromatic and two-dimensional
screen space” and, after the new millennium, toward “work that starts to emerge
with different software platforms and scripting languages . . . which makes
intensive use of video and ambient sound and thereby invites new modes of sensory
apprehension and both reflects upon and opens up into the world beyond the
screen” (“Living Letterforms” 884). In Uribe’s poem a group of capital H’s display
a “militaristic” appearance and rhythmically goose-step across the screen to an
electronic beat that mimics the sound of marching boots, accompanied by the
unintelligible commands from an off-screen voice. In an interview, Uribe remarked
that the poem is about a group of capital H’s, “a letter which in Spanish is always

Figure 6.2. Ana María Uribe. “Disciplina” (“Discipline”). Screen capture.

180 Radical Poetry

mute [which] are tyrannized by a dictator” (Andrews, n.p.). Although the H, a

voiceless pharyngeal fricative, is not always mute, as it is aspirated in regional
accents (a trait that has been used for class discrimination), Uribe’s point about
the “silent” behavior implies their subservient acquiescence and kowtowing to the
voice’s commands. The letters, which could stand in for either soldiers or prisoners,
march in lockstep with a rhythmic, meticulously programmed motion, activating
their “limbs” to simulate human, or perhaps humanoid mechanical movement.
In “Discipline,” the intensity of the added narrative element—the story of a
group of soldier-prisoners drilling to the orders of an unseen tyrant—is surprising,
especially since it is achieved with such an economy of means: just a few H’s
repeating the same motions in a loop, and the relatively minimal soundtrack of
“voices” and sound. No doubt, some critics of Uribe’s poetry might contest this
particular point, finding instead of narrative the endless repetition of visual
patterns, and an absence of plot, an absence, in essence, of a “point,” and therefore
a frustrating quality of the poem that might ultimately result in boredom for
some viewers. Such criticism, however, entirely misses the point—and in so doing
mistakenly assumes there is none there to be found. The point of this poem is,
precisely, to convey a message, a narrative even, with the least possible number of
elements: it is concise, concentrated, and (almost) instantaneous. Such minimalism
and formal repetition, obviously already present in Dada and Futurism, as well
as Concretism and visual poetry, would not be questioned in the case of (now)
canonical authors such as Gertrude Stein or e. e. cummings. Nor should “boredom”
be rejected as a possible desired effect in poetry, as a way to test readers’ patience,
or induce them to see things from a very different perspective, bringing us back to
both Greenberg’s notion of “difficulty” and Shklovsky’s roughening of form, or to
the gap, let us say, between the terms of a metaphor.
But while undoubtedly boredom has been an effect courted by some
contemporary art, this is not the case with Uribe. Moreover, I would argue that
there is a clear narrative element to Uribe’s poems, just as there was to Brossa’s
letter poetry. The narration needs to be teased out, admittedly, and is not a
narrative in any traditional sense; it might in fact function as an antinarrative of
sorts, in the sense that it is a narrative that also challenges discursivity, linearity,
sequence, and even the nature of language itself. But it cannot be denied that
a “story” arises from its fragments, and is in part realized through the reader’s
interpretation but also triggered and bolstered by the dramatization of the letters’
behavior. The affective connection of the reader is replenished through the act
of storytelling, even while the poem retains a concentrated force characteristic
of the modernist cult of the pure, bare image. Uribe injects the poem with a plot
Latin American Digital Poetry 181

(admittedly stripped, minimal) precisely by using anthropomorphic tropes, and

creates a sense of climax and dénouement by punctuating the visual through
rhythm and sound.
Perhaps more radically, the surplus narrative, evocative of a history of
twentieth-century dictatorial regimes in Ibero-America, politicizes our engagement
with the poem in troubling and complex ways. While we might sympathize with
the oppressed letters (contingent, of course, on whether we “see” and “read” the
letters as “oppressed” or as “instruments of oppression”), wishing for them to rise
in revolt, we can also understand the poet’s formalist desire to dominate language,
to discipline the text in order to achieve the type of aesthetic arrangement that will
facilitate establishing affective links with the viewer (if that is, indeed, what the
poet desires). Subjected to the rigid rules and unyielding logic of its programming
code, the existence of the poem is itself bound up in the balance between structure
and creative freedom.
Much of the poem’s relevance relies on the way the anthropomorphic is deployed.
By activating not just physical (mimicry of appearance) but also behavioral
(mimicry of behavior) anthropomorphism, Uribe presents the letters as displaying
a simplified model of human behavior, making the poem politically relevant. The
poem dramatizes the long-standing debates about the aestheticization of politics
in modernism, thereby raising the stakes of the reader’s affective and intellectual
engagement, demanding she take a stand. The poem foregrounds the reader’s own
potentially ambiguous relation to issues of hierarchy and control, also inextricably
tied to current questions about freedom, form, and content in the World Wide
Web. A historical reading might even connect “Discipline” to concrete examples of
dictatorship (for instance, to Argentina’s “Dirty War”); it is also quite conceivable
that the poem might be playing on filmic patterns of discipline as established by
paradigmatic documentary films such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will
(1935). The connection might be difficult to establish, and would be based on the
“uniforms,” the marching in formation, the closing speech by the dictator, and the
general staging of its propaganda, but in that case, if we accept this proposition,
the H might stand for Hitler himself. Interestingly, Riefenstahl’s filmic imagery
served as a model for Chaplin’s parody of Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940), once
again linking the outcast Tramp to a modern poetics of resistance. These “creative”
readings are both sparked and permitted by the minimalism of the piece, which
leaves a wide field of interpretation available, and hence, provides ample freedom
even within its programmed constraints and infinitely looping structure.
Also tied to these questions of freedom, order, and restraint are questions
concerned with urban mapping, social change, and the redevelopment of cities in
182 Radical Poetry

an inclusionary way; inclusive, that is, of different socioeconomic and marginalized

groups, immigrant populations, etc. Digital poets are also working on developing
visual analogies of space and cartographies of power, often also linked (or
hyperlinked) to the topography of networks in hyperspace. But “fixed” models such
as maps, paper or digital—and despite the usefulness of tools such as MapQuest,
Google Maps, or Google Earth—do not accurately reflect, represent, dynamic
systems that are in constant flux. Digital artists are searching for other ways to
model the topography of a city that will place on the map important questions
regarding class difference, gentrification, multiculturalism, and poverty in the
urban environment. These solutions demand for digital poetry to take a leap from
the screen and into the street. The next Ibero-American poet I examine, María
Mencía, has taken her poetry to the streets, taking a direct cue from graffiti and
other forms of street art.

María Mencía: Digital Graffiti and the Mapping of the Postmodern City

Venezuelan-born María Mencía is a digital artist and researcher concerned

with new ways of mapping, traversing, and interpreting urban space in order to
understand its social fabric and bring transparency to its social problems. She
exports dynamic forms previously confined to the computer screen, such as moving
typography, digital art and poetry, to the real world by including them in electronic
billboards, or as projections on the landscape. Transgressions from screen space
to real place are not gratuitous: with this form of digital graffiti, Mencía wishes
to provide urban citizens with a sense of participation in their city’s art, while
charging them with a renewed sense of social responsibility. At the same time,
her brand of billboard art is also closely related to (albeit in trangressive ways)
advertising and other commercial practices, and so it hovers, like graffiti, between
legality and illegality, law and order, chaos and organization.
Now living in London and having long resided in Madrid, Mencía is a
representative of the cadre of “global” contemporary artists whose work displays
transnational characteristics and spans several continents. Her digital practice
is grounded in her theoretical background—Mencía obtained a doctorate in
“Digital Poetics and Digital Art” from the University of the Arts-London. On this
account, her work is analytically complex, as opposed to simply “impressionistic.”
In the following pages, I discuss an interactive piece in which Mencía skillfully
integrates text, image, and sound to promote a social agenda of urban inclusion. In
Cityscapes (2005), Mencía, assisted by programmers Michael Day and Mark Bennett,
creates a platform that allows users to design virtual “advertising” signs—which
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also function as textscapes—that can be placed over stock background urban

photographs of different cities. The project is “transmedial” in the sense that it has
multiple versions that have crossed media boundaries: it has an online version, it
has been shown in gallery installations, and ultimately it is meant to be integrated
into real city spaces.
Cityscapes is a net art project difficult to qualify as poetry-proper although it can
be quite poetic; within it, words and images function as virtual bodies, signifying
semantically, visually, and kinetically (spatially), as well as phonetically, in several
languages. This piece (versions of which have been exhibited at different venues,
including at the Tate Modern in London, the Caixa Forum in Barcelona, and the
2009 E-Poetry festival, also in Barcelona) is part of a larger project that aims to
explore “how to integrate e-poetry into the realm of social and urban poetics”
(“Proposal” n.p.). In its online version, Cityscapes displays a series of virtual, moving
signs laid onto static photographs of real locations in Melbourne, and users are able
to contribute to the piece by working with an interactive program. The reader/user
chooses from a complex palette of sounds and visual effects, overlaying a virtual
palimpsest of lighted and kinetic signs onto the fabric of the (virtual) city. Mencía
reconnects art, photography, poetry, painting, and architecture with the world of
advertising—another common thread in the historical avant-gardes, also fond of
posters and lighted billboards. The project, describes Mencía, “uses the language of
advertising to create poetic/artistic public work in urban spaces” (“Proposal” n.p.).
Cityscapes’s diachronic associations to predecessors in avant-garde cinema (city
symphonies), process poetry, and phonetic poetry are enhanced by its synchronic
connection to other contemporary participatory urban art forms, such as graffiti
or online banner advertising, forms whose gamut runs from providing spaces for
public expression to implementing the messages of crass consumerism.
Mencía qualifies Cityscapes as a “social poetics,” and her interest in social
exchanges, frictions, and interactions is evidenced by the inclusion of many
multicultural, multiethnic groups from Melbourne, both as part of the project’s
creative process, and in its “final” product—although to speak of finality in an open
project that is still evolving is really not quite accurate. In the online piece, the user
can manipulate sound fragments taken from the languages spoken by Melbourne’s
immigrant population, including English, Greek, Vietnamese, Italian, Spanish,
Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Hebrew, and Wathawurrung, an aboriginal language.
Mencía performed dual roles as both artist and ethnographer, walking around
the “real” urban environment to record the voices and disappearing languages (as
may be the case with aboriginal languages), sounds, and images of the multilingual
street signs, to be included in Cityscapes.
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Let us analyze how Cityscapes functions. The first screen, after the title and
instructions page, looks blank, except for a series of “pull-out” menus that appear
on the sides when moused over. It becomes immediately obvious that Mencía
wishes to encourage participation; indeed, the piece is meaningless unless one
engages with it interactively. The user/reader/author has two available modes to
explore the blank canvas, an “edit” mode that allows her to create a new piece of
visual poetry, and a “play” mode that allows her to view it without the interference
of the pull-down menus. In the “edit” mode she can drag-and-drop all sorts of
visual (animated and static) and sound fragments onto a main area or workspace;
it is also possible to digitally manipulate these assorted items, scale them, move
them around, and to a lesser degree, allow them to “interact.” The piece partakes
of Cubist collage practices and Eisensteinian montage techniques. From Russian
montage, Cityscapes derives the importance of movement and of visually striking
contrast within the screen diegesis; its denial of smooth seamless continuity, and
the image/text dialectic that involves static conflicts of color, scale, volume, and
also kinetic conflicts of rhythm, motion, directionality, etc. From collage, it derives
its superposition of planes, the juxtaposition of colors, the addition of words and
word fragments, and a certain “randomness” that follows a logic of accumulation as
it layers both objects and meaning unto the initially blank screen (page). An initial
stage entails selecting as background a photograph that already contains several
kinetic signs directly related to the express social aims of the project (see Fig. 6.3).
The “base” photo image already carries an impressive degree of intertextuality
and displays multiple “layers” of text and image. The signs displayed in the
otherwise static image are in motion, their letters playfully interacting in several
ways. Note how the semantic social content relates to the visual form of the text in
these kinetic signs. For example, in the display of the moving word “segregation,”
one letter, the “g,” clearly stands out from the rest of the text because of its
different color and size. Its movement is equally telling: the word first appears
as a whole, from one side of the sign, and then it fragments as part of it moves
away from the outcast “g,” thus visually illustrating the concept of segregation
(se g regation), clearly an antiracist message within the multicultural milieu of
inner-city Melbourne. In a second LCD sign, situated farther in the background of
the photograph’s receding perspective, two words spelling “REUNION,” each of a
slightly different type, arrive from different sides of the sign and unite to form one
word of a single font, illustrating not just the concept or “joining” together, but also
indicating how Mencía conceives of the city as a place to re-unite people; in this
case, the “reunion” stands for a coming-together that is at once digital and analog.
Something similar happens to the word “HOMELESSNESS” displayed in the
farthest signboard, which is originally an unreadable cloud—perhaps signifying
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Figure 6.3. María Mencía. Cityscapes. Screen capture.

our unwillingness to “read,” or to see, or even hear the homeless—from which

a couple of letters separate, and then slowly the entire word forms (emerging
from the blur, from the blot) and demands our attention; the transparency of
the word is shattered, it now appears before us, materially, a stand-in for the
homeless themselves. The linguistic deconstruction of the word “homelessness,”
is reminiscent of Brossa’s disassembly of the letter “A,” although in this case the
process occurs in reverse (the word is reconstructed as opposed to deconstructed),
possibly because Mencía’s implicit aim is not just to bring attention to the word as
object, but also to the very “real” social problem that lies hidden or blurred behind
it. The relation between form and the political is, here, quite direct.
The user/reader can continue “layering” onto this photodynamic canvas,
choosing from the available palette options—including from the sound/voice
fragments. Other background or palette selections present additional wordplays,
in an almost infinite field of combinatory possibilities, providing a cacophony of
sights and sounds that reflect the dynamic textuality of a modern metropolis,
awash in words and letters, flooded with visual and textual metaphors. Figure
6.4 shows an example of what the viewer can create by adding to the original
186 Radical Poetry

Figure 6.4. María Mencía. Cityscapes. Screen capture.

Mencía’s work goes beyond Uribe’s beautiful yet minimalist handling of letter
types while retaining a similar interest in the connection between the human
and the typographical. Her multilayered Cityscapes allows the user to model
the complexity of a twenty-first century urban space, revealing the signs of its
migratory patterns and its social conflicts. Recognizing that cities consist not just
of buildings and streets, or virtual networks and power grids, but of their flesh and
blood inhabitants and visitors, Mencía’s project reincorporates the human back
into the “textual” billboards, advocating for a type of advertising that carries poetic
and culturally significant messages against war, racism, poverty, and homelessness,
and does it through the formal qualities of the text, the sound, and the images
it deploys. It is significant, for instance, in the cityscape shown in Figure 6.4,
how the word “FREEDOM” has been “graffitied” over (signified on) by a series of
letters that might be some type of “Chinese” calligraphy or some other type of
writing. This might be foregrounding issues of immigration, while also pointing
to a problematic notion of freedom in a world increasingly threatened by greater
surveillance and control mechanisms, a world that recalls apocalyptic films such as
Blade Runner (1982)—and its invasive multilingual advertisements. It is also telling
how the sign that denotes “war conflict” uses a militarized font that enhances its
Latin American Digital Poetry 187

threatening valence and might represent a disturbingly accusing reminder of the

West’s overmilitarization and its insatiable neo-imperialist drives.
As Mencía herself describes it, the Cityscapes project “became a new calligram,
which engendered a poetic space of the language of intercultural exchange; of
traveling words (to other languages) and the in-between communicative areas
generated by the visual and audible qualities of these forms” (“Proposal” n.p.).
Mencía constructs a new, utopian virtual space—which she hopes will in the future
be implemented as “real” urban billboards to improve a “real” urban environment—
and engages the participation of the online spectator who contributes to this
vision of urban renewal. Additionally, although Mencía does not overtly rely on
anthropomorphic tropes like Uribe, the behavior of the text she employs mimics
the behavior of the urban denizens, their coming together and drifting apart, their
conflicts and differences, as well as the rich tapestry of their voices against the
backdrop noise of the city. Such an interweaving of sounds and voices creates a
twenty-first century city symphony, for even a cacophony can be, with its noise and
discordant sounds, strangely beautiful, as John Cage believed. Mencía is proposing
a “reading” of the city, something cultural studies scholars have long championed.
To interpret urban semiology one would treat the cityscape as a readable “text,”
examining script-based clues (street signs, symbols, leaflets, discarded newspapers,
advertisements, billboards, ads posted on vehicles), but one would also be attentive
to other visual cues (body signals, traffic lights, cultural markers) as well as
sounds, smells, etc. As cultural historian David Henkin sees it, “Urban texts
have a contingent history that reflects, among other things, changing patterns of
residence, work, commerce, education, social control, and visual representation” (3).
Similarly, Cityscapes serves as both a “documentation” of the fabric of Melbourne
and other cities, and a project for an urban utopia (not devoid of its dystopian
elements) created as a collage, from collected fragments, as Mencía observes:
“This new kinetic, nomadic, ever-changing calligram of the city became that
of broken human voices, fragmented realities and the composition of different
languages encountered in these cityscapes in flux” (“Proposal” n.p.). Thus, if
previous kinetic poetry—such as Uribe’s Anipoems, or Brian Kim Stefan’s The
Dreamlife of Letters—was focused on the movement of a few letters in order to
metaphorically illustrate a story or highlight the aesthetic qualities of the letters
themselves, Mencía brings e-poetry to a macro level, adapting polymorphic kinetic
text to model societal movements. If the Cityscapes project were carried out to
its planned completion (as initially outlined by Mencía), it would eventually be
implemented three-dimensionally back into the built environment, entailing
the actual construction of LCD displays in different urban locations to make
188 Radical Poetry

visible and audible the messages of social responsibility, pluralism, and ethical
justice, enacting a kind of counter-advertising strategy that promotes not
consumerism, but civic values. In this respect, Cityscapes is a project that maps
nicely onto Bianco’s definition of how affect might be mobilized by new media
projects, in order to “demand a political aesthetics that might engage these
faster and more intensive material and energetic dynamisms” (51). In the digital
on-screen interaction of the spectator with Cityscapes (or analogically, if the signs
were implemented into the real street environment, in her walking through and
physically engaging with them), it is through the movement of the piece and the
movement of the perceiver that affect is generated, in an interplay where the body
of the perceiver is not a discrete fragment of matter but part of a continuum,
always part of the environment, open to interaction—either with screen technology
or with the technologies of the built urban space, or a hybrid of both. The shift
from the virtual toward the material/physical, facilitated by technologies such
as GPS, android phones, and other portable devices that blur the line between
real and virtual, is a trend displayed by recent net art and digital poetry; indeed,
Patricia Clough convincingly stipulates that new media technologies are moving
from “representation and the narrative construction of subject identities” toward
“affecting bodies directly, human and non-human bodies” (99). These new forms
of embodiment do not guarantee greater freedom or inclusivity, as they may be
emancipatory, but just as easily they might enact new regimes of surveillance and
control, or, more likely, a combination of both.
The phonetic dimension of Cityscapes also reinforces this bodily, visceral
materiality through its avoidance of commonplace aural perceptions such as a
musical background or conversational speech—complete sentences—by using
instead fragments of words—phonemes mostly—from a variety of languages, and
thus presenting the type of rich, disjointed sounds (the cacophony of modern life)
one might hear when moving quickly through an unintelligible multicultural urban
space. The addition of street noise might have further enhanced this strategy, but
Mencía decided for practical reasons not to go as far as including the sounds of
machines (car horns, construction sounds). The piece is, nevertheless, “attuned”
to experimental concerns regarding sound and how it might be integrated into
nonmusical artwork to enhance, negate, parody, and/or dialogue with the “total”
work—the play between parts and whole evoking ideas of Gestalt previously seen
in earlier poetry, but extending them to aural experimentation.2
Sound experiments have since the historical avant-gardes been tied to the
development of technological devices, as Douglas Kahn notes: “We only begin
to really hear about sound as a cultural entity with the introduction of Cros’
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paleophone and Edison’s phonograph right into the midst of ascendant modernist
and avant-garde culture” (5). Kahn believes it was the phonograph that began
to problematize issues concerning the separation of man and machine, as well
as speech and writing. “Disembodied” voices, sometimes echoing the past, the
departed, join the other “fragments” of modernity (products of mechanical
reproduction) that avant-garde and experimental works foregrounded: image,
script, sound, movement. Mencía’s use of sound is closely allied with the
capabilities of the digital medium but also draws on earlier periods. Concrete and
phonetic poetry from the fifties and sixties provided Mencía with inspiration, as
she admits: “It is my aim to stretch the possibilities of programming to produce
generative texts activated by sound and rooted in the tradition of concrete poetry,
its formal representation, production processes and progression with technological
advances” (“Speech-Sound” 2).
We saw with Uribe that digital poetry can be envisioned as a bodily practice:
her moving letters, although only schematically, imitated the movement
of bodies, enhanced the performative nature of the digital medium, and
tapped into the potential affective (bodily) response of its viewers. But how
is affect experienced by the readers, listeners, and viewers of Cityscapes, how
does its mechanism work? In New Philosophy for New Media, Mark Hansen
explores notions of digitality and embodiment that, in his opinion, enable the
establishment of affective relations between digital works and their performers
and viewers. Hansen posits the digital image not as a two-dimensional product
of representation, but rather as “an embodied processing of information”
(10). Hailing back to Bergson’s understanding of affect—and his dismissal of
rationalism and qualitative scientism— and even (much) earlier, back to Spinoza,
Hansen suggests that “contemporary media art has operated what amounts to
a paradigm shift in the very basis of aesthetic culture: a shift from a dominant
ocularcentrist aesthetic to a haptic aesthetic rooted in embodied affectivity” (12).
While I am not as ready as Hansen to discard the influence of the still-prevalent
ocularcentrist aesthetic perspective (until I “see” or am “shown” otherwise), I do
agree that at the very least the haptic and the aural have gained greater currency
in digital poetics due to the multimodal nature of the computer as a medium,
and with the inclusion of these other senses, the computer user has become
more “bodily” aware. The shift, according to Hansen, involves a partial turning
of the viewer/reader’s attention “away from the object and back onto its bodily
source . . . for if the digital image foregrounds the processural framing of data
by the body, what it ultimately yields is less a framed object than an embodied,
subjective experience that can only be felt” (12; my emphasis).
190 Radical Poetry

Undoubtedly, the turn from object to body was present in earlier, nondigital
works such as Tablada’s haiku or Campal’s calligrams, through the gesture of the
brush, for instance, or the imprint of the personal signature. In this respect, the
digital ultimately converges with the human in a symbiotic looping relationship,
something that was already especially true in performative poetry, sound poetry,
process poetry (such as Vigo’s “signalings”) and installation art, but which can
also be applied to the digital kinetic poems we have seen. While it might seem
as if the more clearly direct convergence of human and object in “performative
poetry” is not analogous to the obviously mediated convergence of human and
digital, where the computer might be construed as a literal mediator/separator
between the body and the digital artistic product, this perspective does not take
into account the effects digital connectivity have (often quite directly) on our
bodies—for instance, obvious cases of human-machine hybridity, such as the
presence of cochlear implants, artificial limbs, artificial corneas, pacemakers,
but also external devices that are changing our cognition, such as tablets, smart
phones, GPS systems, and so on. The notion of cybernetic organism, or cyborg,
denotes precisely a type of connection where the organic and digital becomes an
“exogenously enlarged organizational complex unconsciously functioning as an
integrated homeostatic system” (Clynes and Kline 27). Adaptations of the human
to the digital become radically extreme when actual prosthesis are “strapped on,”
for instance, by virtual reality gamers (goggles, gloves, partial or full body data
suits, joysticks, even sexual toys and attachments), but even in the case of less
immersive digital technologies, such as those deployed by digital poetry (screens,
speakers, headphones, keyboards, mouse), still partake of the feedback loops
between user and machine program. Moreover, these cyborgian adaptations
establish a symbolic and symbiotic relationship between the human user and
the computer, so that in the complex entwining of the two bodies (mechanical
or digital, and biological) what results is a type of posthumanity that remains
aware of both its “original” fleshy parts, and their digital enhancements as both
distinct and specifically grounded in a given time and place (whether that place
is Melbourne, London, Madrid, or Caracas, in the case of Mencía).
The specific case of Edgardo Vigo’s “Poesía para y/o a realizar” (“poetry for and/
or to realize”) also offers a direct antecedent to Mencía’s work. “Poetry for and/or to
realize” was derived from the sixties’ Brazilian “process/poetry” (poema/processo)
movement—a nontextual, participatory late phase of Concretism—and from the
Argentine/French “poesía para armar” (“poetry to arm [assemble]”), also from the
sixties and derived from the French poet Julien Blaine (1942–), the editor of the
poetry magazine Doc(k)s (1976–1985) who had also published in Vigo’s Diagonal
Latin American Digital Poetry 191

Cero; both of these are nontextual practices that emphasize participation, bringing
poetry into the streets, “a la calle.” “Poema/proceso” was led by the Brazilian poet
Wlademir Dias-Pino and attempted to include the process of writing the “poem”
as a part of the work itself. Its poetry comprised not only verbal components—
often just letters—but also symbols, drawings, fingerprints, and the traces of its
making, stains, pen marks, doodles, and crossed-out syntax. “Poetry for and/or to
realize” foregrounds a significant difference from these other forms, at the level
of involvement of the reader/creator who does not simply “assemble” a work (by
performing certain required actions), but rather originates it, and through the
process becomes “realized,” actualized, acquiring do-it-yourself knowledge. As
Vigo defined it:

The support of elements given (process/poem), the necessity of a previous

design (poem to arm) gives way before the project of an idea that creates the
shocking so that each one in turn on receiving it constructs a poem that will
arrive at changing itself into “his” poem. This property acquired by the free
development of the reception of the shocking-idea puts us before a “creator”
and not a “consumer.” (Corrosive 75)

The rejection of consumerism does not, however, entail a wholesale rejection of

advertising tactics, as we saw with Mencía’s deft deployment of billboards. Part
and parcel of 1960s liberational ideologies included moving toward a restitution
of art to the masses, the will to activate each person’s artistic capabilities by
turning them from consumers into creators; as I mentioned, “poetry for and/or to
realize” maintained the need to take art out of the galleries and into the streets.
With Cityscapes, Mencía reactivates the concept of taking art into the streets, but
understood broadly to include both the physical spaces and also a shared, common
virtual online space. Cityscapes therefore aims to transform every computer user
into a poet, not in the sense of a “maker of verse,” but rather in a broader sense,
as a creative artist of great imagination and capacity for expression through the
digital medium. The activation of the viewer as poet returns us to an earlier time
and place where art is/was practiced by all, and not just by a specialized few.
Mencía also recuperates some of the more compelling anticapitalist
formulations of past Latin American movements by appropriating and subverting
advertising strategies such as signs, banner ads, and other marketing tactics.
She provides the user with some basic units to create her own piece: the urban
photographs used as the canvas or base strata, the moving and flashing signs the
user can click on and drag, etc. Certain elements are less determined and allow
192 Radical Poetry

greater input by the user who becomes a co-creator, for instance, by choosing
how and where the messages will be located, how signs will overlap, juxtapose,
or obscure other signs, etc. Through this participatory component, Cityscapes
enacts a mixed reality in which the “virtual” computer-designed environment can
potentially be reintegrated into the urban environment through the embedding of
digital signs into the real city. Thus, a socially committed digital technology, rather
than withdrawing from the physical world, might, in Hansen’s words, “virtualize
the physical” (Bodies in code 27), bring the world into the digital and the digital out
to the world.
The turn toward affective embodiment echoes, indeed loops back to, even
hyperlinks with the avant-gardes’ fascination with “morphism,” especially their
obsession with mecanomorphic (such as Picabia’s machine diagrams for 391) and
biomorphic shapes applied to the arts, to typography, to film, to advertisement.
If, on the one hand, the human body and its attributes (face, limbs, gesture, voice,
movements) are echoed by digital, virtual letters and objects (Uribe), on the other,
bodies and their movement through real space are also “looped” back into the
digital, with techniques such as motion capture, or by bringing the issues of those
bodies (homelessness, segregation) from the street into the virtual realm (Mencía).
The rapid growth of digital poetry, and specifically kinetic poetry with its emphasis
on performance and movement and the incorporation of the viewer/spectator into
the poetic process, stem from sixties’ radical experiments such as process poetry,
happenings, and open-ended performance arts, which privileged and politicized
the actions of the body. This brings us to an important discovery: kinetic poetry
forms part of a posthuman search for the ultimate interface, a kind of human
embodiment, which will mediate between the computer and the world, keeping
the human/biological/organic as the central component in a complex environment
encompassing all kinds of human-computer interactions.

Incorporating the Digital; Digitizing the Corporeal

The challenge posed by these poets—those who wrote before digitality and those
who have come since—is the proposition of a symbiotic union with technology
(even as they remain vigilant of the potential dehumanizing dangers of such a
union), suggested through the act of animating poetry and endowing it with
polymorphic shape and motion, thereby opening up a new space of representation
which questions modern and postmodern concepts of the human, challenging the
segregation of two contending semiotic systems (script and image) through the
mediation of the metaphor of the hybrid, be it a centaur, a cyborg, or an “enhanced”
Latin American Digital Poetry 193

Much like Marcel Duchamp’s machine assemblies, Alexander Calder’s mobiles,

or Francis Picabia’s diagrams, the poems in this chapter also function as machines.
To borrow William Carlos Williams’s analogy about the union of the physical
and the linguistic: “A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words” (The
Wedge 256). But the machines depicted by modernist and postmodernist art are not
abstract constructs; they often display some type of morphism, some recognizable
shape. Often, they are biomorphic parodies of the mechanical and retain traces
of the humans that created them. A fundamental tension in twentieth-century
modernism was represented by the opposite tendencies of, on the one hand, a drive
toward abstraction and, on the other, the (often repressed) desire to metaphorize,
to return to the mythical and the human.
Given these biomorphic tendencies, it is not surprising that contemporary
digital poetry is a genre where fluid word/image hybrids habitually adopt the
shape and behavior of humans, animals and/or machines in order to engage the
reader/viewer’s affective and cognitive responses and active involvement to/with
the works, in a drive to reembody the virtual reader, to make the reader “feel”
what is happening on the screen. It might be worth considering a comparison
between, on the one hand, the kind of engagement a mouse, keyboard, or
another electronic device may provide, and, on the other, the kind of engagement
provided by the “book” or codex as a tangible, collectible, material (as opposed
to virtual) object that is perceived to be threatened with inevitable extinction.
In fact, the very tactility and materiality of the book, of its page turning and its
ordering system, has had a profound effect and left its trace on electronic media.
Thus while we might “click” on a screen or “scroll” with a mouse to see the next
“page,” we also “touch” tablets by sliding our fingers over their surface in ways
reminiscent of the turning of pages in a codex book. While the tactile, visual,
olfactory, and aural qualities of the book’s binding and paper, its smoothness or
roughness, its opacity, its “whiteness,” its particular odor, the sound of the pages
turning, cannot be duplicated or transferred to the digital environment (at least
not yet), these are replaced by other, inorganic but no less material sensations:
the manufactured smoothness of the keyboard, the ergonomic shape of the
mouse, the degree of brightness of the screen, the sleekness of the computer’s
casing, and the added sensations provided by movement, color intensities,
sounds, moving images. As Johanna Drucker explains, “Electronic media are
not ‘immaterial’ except in relation to the properties of extant media—whose
material properties are greatly diminished when pre-existing work is replicated
in digital form. But the specific materiality of the electronic form is a factor in
producing works of art in the new technological environment” (96). Some critics
argue for the digital’s connection to manual writing (handwriting), indeed, to
194 Radical Poetry

the “digits” or fingers, over the codex’s already “fixed” typographic text. Carrie
Noland notes:

The motions associated with the use of paper and writing implement
return in digital poetry both literally, as small motor movements involving
only the fingers and wrist (shifting the mouse, clicking, dragging, and so
on), and figuratively, as replications of letter production acted out on the
screen. Whether letters are constructed stroke by stroke by an anonymous
program . . . or moved about the screen and made to appear or disappear
according to the hand motions of a real-time user . . . digital poems mime
and displace the corporeal energy channeled by the gestures of handwriting.
Writing poetry on the computer makes it possible to retrieve aspects of a
subject’s experience of writing as a corporeal practice that cannot be captured
by more traditional print forms. (Agency 119–20)

Considering the amount of effort expended by the avant-gardes to go beyond the

boundaries of the book, to escape the page, the nostalgic appeals to return to those
bounds and to the material nature of the codex seem like a (perhaps miss-placed)
craving to return to some “mythical” wholeness that predated the virtualization
and fragmentation of the “book.” It may be more productive to engage with the
new technology on its own merits, seeing how the body adapts and respond to its
possibilities and its boundaries (as in the edge of the screen, etc.). This, I believe,
is precisely what digital poets such as Uribe and Mencía are up to.
But the digital, I argue, is not just a matter of implementing a different form, it
is also an “added” form; it has enriched the possibilities of poetry providing today’s
avant-gardes with a tool that can actualize long-held desires for body-centric
interfaces, for poems and art works that are responsive to our bodies, to our touch.
The “phenomenal” experience (using the total body to create and experience the
poetic) already present in older forms of recited poetry, is enhanced by digital
poetry by dint of the works’ kinetic and imagistic properties, its animated and
“shifting” signifiers (words, images, symbols), which place the act of poiesis at the
center of our “bodily” understanding of the world; digital poetics respond to and
metaphorize (and symbolize) “reality” in ways that resonate with our affective
mechanisms. We might say that the desire to reconnect the Self with its Body is a
key concept driving the design of digital poetry. Moreover, the desire to reembody
the virtual has its roots in the avant-garde’s concerns for the materiality of text,
the “thingness” of words. There is also an opposite but related wish to virtualize
the material, to blend our bodies within a virtual experience. This, no doubt,
Latin American Digital Poetry 195

is the same type of drive that fuels the creation of virtual reality environments
(CAVEs), data gloves, VR goggles, complex 3-D gaming systems, and fantasies such
as the Star Trek Holodeck. In the intersection of these two desires, the desire to
feel and be materially and affectively connected to the poetic works as experienced
by the viewer, on the one hand, and of producing a poetry that almost seems
to transcend its own virtuality and become “real” (it moves, it resembles the
familiar, morphically), on the other, a strange (uncanny) type of boundary blurring
occurs that seems to ultimately deny any clearly definable ontological separation
between digital and analog. Despite attempts by “purists” who insist in categorical
distinctions between different media, what digital poetry points to is, instead,
the hybrid, presenting itself as a type of a poetry that opens up new routes for the
exploration of affect and embodiment through the digital.
Of course, the flip side of embodiment, also present in these works, is the
alienating effects of the digital, the “uncannyness” and defamiliarization that
make the reader step away from it, drawing a boundary between herself and the
machine, reestablishing, so to speak, the ontological differences previously blurred.
But was this defamiliarizing effect not a component of previous technologies,
even of manual writing itself? Was the mediating effect of pen and paper not
a type of boundary that separated the body from the handwriting produced?
Noland suggests that is in fact the case, pointing out that “all writing, in short,
is disciplined corporeal energy; as a corollary, then, writing always involves an
originary alienation, a moment of negativity, that is not necessarily exacerbated—
but only inflected differently—when new implements, such as the electronic
keyboard, are introduced” (Digital Gestures n.p.). The digital may prove, in the
best of cases, to lessen the rift between our subjectivity and its being-in-the-world,
through the sheer exuberance of its visual display, making the reader “feel” and
sense a new type of materiality; or, the digital might precipitate a “virtualization”
of the reader whose physical body could lose its “fleshy” quality and become
gradually indistinguishable from the pixelated objects it contemplates (the latter
may be viewed as a nightmarish or liberational outcome, depending). Between the
poles of body-centered interactivity at one extreme and the complete immersion
with the digital at the other, there are many possibilities of how we might, or might
not, mesh with the pulsating and flickering rhythms of the machine.
Cannibalistic Appropriation and Advertisement

Setting the Stage: The Luso-Brazilian Avant-gardes

in the Age of Dynamism

s I have shown throughout the previous chapters (especially 3 and 6), digital
literature is an emerging phenomenon that shares many characteristics
with the historical avant-gardes, such as its perceived threat to estab-
lished art forms, its experimental status, its vital interconnectedness with the
visual arts, and its affinity with technological changes. The focus of the present
three-chapter unit (7 through 9) is the experimental poetry of Brazil, although
I will make pertinent references to works from other countries when relevant,
maintaining a transcontinental perspective. As stated in the introduction, Brazil
deserves its own section, on account of the neglect it has suffered in studies of the
continent’s avant-garde, by virtue of being considered “apart from” Latin America.
While Brazil has significant linguistic, historical, and cultural specificity that needs
to be accounted for, it shares much with the Spanish-speaking countries (which
are not a homogeneous whole).
Far from being peripheral, Brazilian poetry has been remarkably innovative in
the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not merely a passive receptor of foreign
influence but an active exporter of new ideas, practices, and artistic movements;
this has been all the more impressive considering the upheavals associated with
nation building that saw Brazil under the rule of strongmen such as Getúlio
Vargas (president from 1930–1945 and 1951–54) or Juscelino Kubitschek (1956–1961),
and decidedly more traumatically, under the auspices of a military dictatorship
(1964–1985). Throughout every period of chaos, unrest, exceptionality, the ups and

198 Radical Poetry

downs that have characterized modern Brazilian history, artists and poets rose to
the challenge of continuing to innovate. Indeed, Brazil’s rich history of artistic
experimentation ushered in the twentieth century with modernismo brasileiro, a
movement that combined elements from several European -isms with Brazilian
cultural traditions, and closed it with the ever-expanding field of net literature.1
The “multimedia” work done in the 1920s by the modernist Grupo dos Cinco—
comprised of Anita Malfatti (1889–1964), Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973), Menotti
del Picchia (1892–1988), Mário de Andrade (1893–1945), and Oswald de Andrade
(1890–1954)—represented a revolution in genre porosity and media blending that
would reverberate through all of the syncretic, hybrid, and intermedial work of
posterior avant-gardes from the fifties to the seventies: Concretism, Tropicalism,
Fluxus, and Neo-Concretism.
Today, Brazil is again at the cutting edge of developing art forms such as digital
literature, electronic poetry, holopoetry, and online art. In the 1980s—twenty years
after poet Albertus Marques presented his first battery-powered Electric Poems
in 1961 (the ancestors of contemporary digital poetry)—the next generation of
artists adopted computer technologies inaugurating a digital revolution in the arts
(Marques 156). Once Internet was introduced to Brazil in 1988, first in Rio’s and
São Paulo’s universities, and by 1995 to the general public, these artists, born in
the sixties at the high point of Concretismo and Tropicália, and already creating
art with personal computers, were poised to become the first net artists. Poets,
performers, artists, and in some cases academics who doubled as net artists,
such as Arnaldo Antunes (1960–), Eduardo Kac (1962–), Philadelpho Menezes
(1960–2000), Giselle Beiguelman (1962–), Lucia Leão (1963–), and André Vallias
(1963–), were keen on magnifying, intensifying, indeed, “electrifying” the visual
poetry of the historical avant-gardes by incorporating motion, sound, and video
elements. They also engaged directly with telecommunications, mass media,
and digital modes of artistic delivery, resulting in the instantaneous transfer
of both art and information throughout the globe, and influencing (and being
influenced by) net artists elsewhere. This resulted in profound changes in poetry
itself: movement and the flow of words, numbers, symbols, and images became
art; concept and visual pattern playfully merged in digital literary landscapes,
and works of art now partake of “media convergence” where, to quote the subtitle
of Henry Jenkins’s acclaimed book Convergence Culture, “old and new media
collide.” Of course, my own understanding of how old and new media interact
is that it entails a blending, overlapping, juxtaposing, or intersecting rather than
a “colliding,” which implies a forceful impact and necessarily signals a (perhaps
violent) confrontation. Nevertheless, one might ask (as we have been), Are these
Modernismo 199

multimedia literary approaches really “new” or merely the latest manifestation

of an “intermedia” attitude—always already present in Brazilian art—that found
its ideal environment in cyberspace, a place where time and movement become
digitally representable, fulfilling and facilitating long-awaited desires for increased
dynamism, interactivity, and multidimensionality? To answer this complex
question, I will once again take up some of the themes explored in the previous
two sections of the book: the use of metaphor, the drive toward kineticism, the
ways in which historical, cultural, and political circumstances have molded the
content of experimental poetry, in this case, in Brazil.
In the three chapters that comprise this section, I consider poetry that
emphasizes movement and reader interaction in three periods or temporal “nodes”
of technological development in Brazil: the so-called heroic phase of modernism
in the 1920s (during the first Republic, concurrent with the arrival of the radio, the
automobile, the railroad, the cinematograph, and the rapid growth of magazines,
broadsides, and newspapers), Concrete poetry in the fifties and sixties (during
the period of developmentalism that brought television, advertising technologies,
mimeographs, reel-to-reel recorders, and home appliances), and works of digital
and performance poetry beginning in the eighties and nineties (coinciding with
the proliferation of personal computers, the arrival of Internet and communication
technologies such as dial-up, broadband, fiber optics and satellite).
As seen in previous chapters, a fundamental component of avant-garde poetry
was its attention to movement, to dynamics, sparked by a fascination with the
proliferation of technologies of motion, bicycles, cars, trains, airplanes. The
excitement inspired by these discoveries translated in the literary realm into new
modalities of writing.2 Links between poetry and an expanded understanding of
space, speed, and motion remain vital for today’s avant-garde poetry. In this section,
I track the changes and kinetic nature of experimental poetry in the light of a
dynamic principle analogous to what the eminent critic Murray Krieger called the
“ekphrastic principle,” briefly mentioned in our discussion of Tablada in chapter 2.
Krieger understood the importance of both motion and stasis to poetry, and was
searching for an immediate poetic language, a language shaped into visual patterns
where spatiality “arrests” the motion of the sequential, overcoming the divide
between visual and verbal (10). In short, Krieger wanted to apply the rhetorical
concept of ekphrasis on a wider basis than its standard (classical) definition as
the poetic description of a visual artwork. To this end, he developed the concept
“ekphrastic principle” to describe the driving force behind any poem that emulated
the visual arts by foregrounding spatiality, thereby capturing an instant frozen in
time, in a sense reconciling—or rather attempting to reconcile—the spatial with
200 Radical Poetry

the temporal. For Krieger, the poem imbued with this (elusive) ekphrastic principle
functions like a photograph whose materials are words rather than film. In such
(rare) ekphrastic instances, he argued, the verbal might almost transform into the
visual, and “the exhilaration, then, derives from the dream—and the pursuit—of
a language that can, in spite of its limits, recover the immediacy of a sightless
vision built into the habit of our perceptual desire since Plato. It is the romantic
quest to realize the nostalgic dream of an original, pre-fallen language of corporeal
presence” (10). All of this has some mystical overtones, but Krieger was convinced
that such an instant of complete “presence” was possible at the precise moment of
the ekphrastic experience. As such, ekphrastic description functions as “sightless
vision,” conjuring images from script, as well as motion and spatiality from stasis.
Naive as it no doubt may seem in light of postmodernism and poststructuralism’s
questioning of concepts such as “origin” or “natural signs,” the utopic search for an
ekphrastic or dynamic principle has been ubiquitous, as Krieger theorized, since
(at least) the Romantics. It represented a yearning, the search for a language that
could articulate beyond the dialectic image-script and dismantle fixed semiotic
structures, creating a space where movement might serve to transform verbal
modes into visual ones, where words might have an existence in volumetric space,
as well as time; no doubt, these fantasies were already prefiguring the digital. The
search for a dynamic principle has been a key driving force behind the experimental
poetic movements of the three periods in question, as poetry has increasingly “sped
up,” becoming multimediatic, increasing its recourse to images and sound, and
eliciting greater interaction from readers who have also become spectators, players,
and viewers, while remaining readers.
As we saw in the first two sections of this book, the fascination with movement
is reflected in the artworks of the three periods mainly through metaphoric
approximations and imitations of physical motion: from optical illusions that
date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as phantasmagoria,
magic lantern shows, flip-books, and similar proto-cinematic spectacles, to the
early twentieth century and analogies of movement in Futurist painting, the
simulated motion of cinematographic projection, hypnagogic images, afterimages
and the hallucinatory and psychedelic artwork of the sixties and seventies, the
optically induced motion from 1960s Op-Art, and the “virtual” movement of
contemporary digital works, to name but a few of the most obvious examples.
In all these instances the role of the spectator in the perception of movement
is paramount; in fact, often motion occurs only as a perceived illusion, or as a
physical afterimage, or as an abstract concept that forms, upon reflection, in the
mind’s eye of the beholder.
Modernismo 201

More importantly, the spectator, also a reader, viewer, and listener, forms part
of a complex system with the artwork into which he or she is integrated, embodied.
And yes, it could be said that the reader of poems in a codex (the traditionally
bound book) is also integrated, incorporated, embodied into its pages, at least
during the act of reading, and therefore there is nothing new or special in these
other cases of reader immersion. I would suggest that these are different types of
integration, since, for example, the interaction between human and computer is a
recursive and emergent process, in which the human reacts to the program, and the
program in turn reacts to the actions of the human, and in some cases incorporates
those actions into the programmable code (as in interactive online poetry where
the reader enters input, which then becomes part of the poem). Such a high degree
of recursivity is not possible in the bound book (wonderful in so many other ways),
on account of its permanent, static, and reified nature.
Recursivity, no doubt, is a loaded term with a history very relevant to the topic
of the digital. The notion of recursivity between human and machine originated
with and belongs to the field of study of cybernetics, the science of communications
and automatic control systems in both machines and living things. The ideas
generated by cybernetics in the 1940s and ’50s led to the development of complex
feedback mechanisms and inspired theories about the hybrid, the cyborg, and the
posthuman. The electronic literature critic Katherine Hayles is adamant about
the recursive possibilities of human embodiment within digital environments,
claiming that

boundaries of all kinds have become permeable to the supposed other. Code
permeates language and is permeated by it; electronic text permeates print;
computational processes permeate biological organisms; intelligent machines
permeate flesh. Rather than attempt to police these boundaries, we should
strive to understand the materially specific ways in which flows across borders
create complex dynamics of intermediation. (My Mother Was a Computer 242)

While I wholeheartedly agree with Hayles about the porosity of boundaries, I would
qualify that the limits, while penetrable, pervious, and permeable, nonetheless
do exist and that recursive communication across boundaries still presupposes
a degree of independence and autonomy, although shifting, fluctuating, and in
constant negotiation, on the part of the systems she describes. Hayles herself
recognizes as much, stating, “Boundaries have not been rendered unimportant
or nonexistent by the traffic across them. Biological organisms are not only
computational processes . . . humans are distinct from intelligent machines even
202 Radical Poetry

while the two are becoming increasingly entwined” (242). It will be necessary, then,
to see how embodiment, incorporation, and integration occur in specific works,
and how human and digital are entwined. The illusion of movement engages with
psychological, physiological, and phenomenological mechanisms that depend on
the functioning of the ocular apparatus, and the brain, but also on the design
of the artworks themselves; in that sense, the “recursive loop” involves the triad
of human, machine, and art work. The reader/viewer, in turning spectator and
participant, becomes an active part of the meaning making of the work; part of a
rhizomatic structure that includes authors, readers, and the poetic process. As we
saw in preceding chapters, metaphor, fundamental to all poetry, and indeed to all
language, serves as a tool for the construction of meaning by activating relations
of similarity and difference, and by facilitating through comparisons, and delaying
through increased complexity, the “understanding” of a poem, if understanding is
the way to describe the not always cognitive experience of poetry. In the Brazilian
kinetic poetry that we examine in this section, the movement of its “parts,” its
verses, words, letters, or images, is often an integral component of its meaning, if
not its main thrust. The poems express action, depict action, and are themselves
presented as action, fulfilling an ethos of movement, enacting and performing
rather than merely referring to their explicit and implicit content.
What is, then, movement, and what does it “do” in, and for, the work of art?
Through the presence of the analogical processes, movement—translation,
displacement, rotation—becomes a key element deployed to suture, fragment,
combine, configure, and reconfigure the spaces and silences that separate media
and systems that at a first glance seem incompatible or autonomous: painting
and poetry, word, image and sound, body and machine. The process of animating
the arts is one of a constant putting together and pulling apart: kinetic “systems”
such as film, video art, hypnagogic paintings, and digital poetry are animated
from stasis into motion by starting with their basic static fragments—photograms
(individual frames) in a film, pigments in a painting, or individual letters or words
in a poem—and reorganizing or reconfiguring them into a greater dynamic unit.
Such is the “magic” of motion, constructed from the fragments of the static, an
illusion that depends on the persistence of vision and on the complicity of the
brain to smooth over the gaps, disconnections, and seams of the real. Although the
phenomenal persistence of vision has been called into question in recent research,
cognitive mechanisms are undoubtedly at play in the task of “smoothing over” our
perceptual experience. Gilles Deleuze defines movement—in its interplay with
duration and change—as a complex relation between the parts and the whole not
unrelated to theories of Gestalt:
Modernismo 203

Movement has two aspects. On the one hand, that which happens between
objects or parts; on the other hand, that which expresses duration or the
whole. The result is that duration, by changing qualitatively, is divided up in
objects, and objects, by gaining depth, by losing their contours, are united in
duration. . . . Movement relates the objects between which it is established to
the changing whole which it expresses, and vice versa. Through movement the
whole is divided up into objects, and objects are re-united in the whole, and
indeed between the two “the whole” changes. (11)

Deleuze’s observations are generally applicable to any kind of movement, but

specifically capture the movement of images in cinematography. For Deleuze, the
filmic image is more than a group of assembled “moving” photographs or static
images; it has a link to moving matter, and to time, duration, but represents
temporality only indirectly. As David Rodowick stipulates, “The movement-image
provides only an indirect image of time because time is reduced to intervals defined
by movement and the linking of movements through montage” (Time Machine
11). Time is (only) indirectly captured, as fragments of the physical object’s real
movement are sequentially recorded (a clock’s moving hands, the pendulum of
a metronome, the passing of a film frame), and then, motion is reassembled and
projected through the cinematographic process: the assemblage or montage of
individual time-slices into a seemingly complete whole.
The same reassembling mechanism might be at play for a different type of
image montage, such as the moving parts of the kinetic poem in their complex
relation to matter, time, and the apprehension of the work as a whole. In various
ways, the kinetic (and its relation to matter and time) is central to the three periods
that I discuss here, indeed, to modernity in general. How did the perception
of time change in all three epochs? Yes, time and motion have been perceived
differently throughout history. But, in a simplified, schematic way we might
(grossly) generalize as follows: in the first avant-gardes, movement was understood
as a mechanistic process in which the parts were integrated into the whole with
clockwork precision, a conception derived from the mechanical age’s universalist
tendencies, firmly based on visions of linear progress, Taylorism, Fordism, and the
perfection and measured homogenization of movement (Thomas de la Peña). By
the 1950s and ’60s, as relativity and relativism began to permeate popular thinking,
artists conceptualized motion as probabilistic and indeterminate; although they
still valued the work’s overall Gestalt, many problematized “wholeness” as an
illusion, a deception, ideologically suspect, imbricated with totalitarian narratives,
indicative of bourgeois culture and the “banality of figurative art” (Mattick 155).
204 Radical Poetry

Questions about the power of Gestalt and other totalizing concepts were reflected
in a growing distrust toward mimetic and representational art, Hollywood cinema,
and any so-called grand narratives, aesthetic and ideological. In the digital age,
randomness, chaos, and discontinuity have paradoxically become “systematized,”
indeterminate and partial perspectives are the new organizing principles of art,
and fragmentation cohabits with convergence in unstable dynamic arrangements.
The following chapters traverse these three avant-garde eras in Brazil,
examining poems that can be studied both for their semantic, verbal, and
conceptual signification, and as visual works of art (aspects that cannot, at any
rate, be decoupled), as words in motion reinforce, contradict, or “perform” more
or less independently from the meaning of their verbal content. We shall examine
how experimental poems are enmeshed with the technologies of their time, and
respond to the historical context that gave them rise. And we begin in the roaring

(Fast) Moving Times: Modernismo Brasileiro

and the Modern Art Week (1922)

The Semana de Arte Moderna (Modern Art Week), which took place in São Paulo
from February 13 to 17, 1922, was a turning point for Brazilian art, possibly the
single most important event in the modern period, and was significantly bracketed
by two other definitive moments: Anita Malfatti’s 1917 painting exhibition in São
Paulo and Tarsila do Amaral’s 1929 show in Rio de Janeiro. While my focus is
experimental poetry, one cannot comprehend the poetry of the modernists without
examining its connection to the visual arts. The radical artistic transformation
begun by the modernists originated with Malfatti’s groundbreaking 1917 exhibition,
which introduced Expressionism to Brazil at a time when even São Paulo’s art
scene could be characterized as provincial, lacking in galleries and museums and
entrenched in academicism, exemplified by the prevalent and outdated Neoclassical
style (with its landscapes and historical allegories), associated with the “Academia
Imperial de Belas Artes,” a relic institution established by the Portuguese Court in
the early 1800s (D. Williams 34–36; Ades 132–36).
Tarsila do Amaral described Malfatti’s pioneering show as “the first Modern Art
exhibition seen in Brazil” (“Malfatti” 207). But although Malfatti was instrumental
in introducing Expressionism to Brazil, Tarsila’s own first solo show in 1929 was
even more pivotal for the Brazilian avant-garde as it generated the antropofagia
movement, with such iconic paintings as A Negra (1923), Abaporu (1928), and
Antropofagia (1929), bold works that combined primitivist traits with Cubism and
Modernismo 205

Expressionism. Although all three paintings are thematically and aesthetically

linked, the painting titled Abaporu, which in the indigenous Tupi language
means “anthropophagous,” is credited with launching the modernist Antropofagia
movement, closely linked to Surrealism, but as Nicholson asserts, also borrowing
from Dada, Futurism, and other imports (10). Amaral described her painting as
“uma figura solitária monstruosa, pés imensos, sentada sobre numa planície verde,
o braço dobrado repousando num joelho, a mão sustentando o leve peso-pena
da cabecinha minúscula. Em frente, um cacto explodindo numa flor absurda [a
monstrous and solitary figure, enormous feet, sitting on a green plain, bent arm
resting on a knee, the hand supporting the featherweight minuscule head. In front
a cactus exploding in an absurd flower]” (Amaral, Tarsila 245). Dazzlingly colorful,
the painting used predominantly the greens and yellows of the Brazilian flag, as
well as flesh tones applied to the figure. Abaporu had a profound and immediate
influence on the poets Oswald and Mário de Andrade, inspiring Oswald’s Manifesto
Antropófago (1928), a text that articulated the movement’s tenets: turning the
concept of cannibalism into a virtue, the manifesto called for the creation of a new
Brazilian art that would “devour” European influence and assimilate it into Brazil’s
own artistic traditions in order to create an irreverent, syncretic, and dynamic new
art (Jackson, “Literatura” 1–16). Tarsila’s paintings demonstrate both the influence
of Cubism, Constructivism, and other European avant-gardes’ departure from
naturalistic representation; they also evidence the inclusion of Brazilian elements,
such as the semitropical landscape, Afro-Brazilian or indigenous figures, colors
associated with the tropics and the Brazilian national flag (blues, yellows and
greens), as well as oneiric and mythopoetic themes. These rapid, even radical,
developments in painting and literature would not have been possible without the
climate of experimentation born and nurtured during the Semana de Arte Moderna
and its aftermath.
Let us, then, examine what took place that momentous week in 1922, and what
led up to it. The Semana, considered by critics and contemporaries as the symbolic
beginning of Brazilian modernism, was a weeklong celebration of painting, poetry,
music, and symposia. Its chief goals according to the organizers were to épater le
bourgeois and to “lay the cornerstone for a genuine modern Brazilian aesthetic”
(Korfmann and Nogueira 127). Just what “genuine” meant at this early stage of
Brazilian modernism was not altogether clear, but the intent was to depart from
prevalent academic styles and find an autochthonous modern expression that would
be at once strongly nationalistic but also influenced by the latest developments
from European and North American modernisms. The Semana was stacked with
a who’s who of avant-gardists ready to shake up the art establishment. Among the
206 Radical Poetry

major figures in attendance were writers such as Mário de Andrade, Oswald de

Andrade, Plínio Salgado, and Menotti del Picchia, painters of the caliber of Anita
Malfatti, Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, and Vicente do Rego Monteiro, sculptors such as
Victor Brecheret, composers and musicians like Heitor Villa-Lobos and Guiomar
Novaes, and architects such as the Spanish-born Antonio García Moya—in short,
young and promising talent from every discipline (Korfmann and Nogueira 127).
The Semana rivaled in transformative power its North American predecessor, the
Armory Show, held in New York (1913)—and later traveled to Chicago and Boston—a
modern art exhibition that (in)famously showcased Duchamp’s Nude Descending a
Staircase N. 2, a work that expressed motion through the quasi-filmic multiplication
of static images, and which inspired pictorial counterparts in the Semana.
The interest in movement and fragmentation displayed by many of the pieces
in both the Armory Show and the Semana de Arte warrants a closer look. Why did
both shows, despite their widely eclectic nature, have so many works that displayed
great visual hyperactivity, often depicting technological motifs, or representing
both contemporary mass media such as newspapers, radio, and cinematography,
and also focusing on multiple types of human and mechanical motion? We must
conclude once again that modernists everywhere had a profound interest in the
depiction of motion, and that such a coincidence of interests might confirm the
existence of the dynamic principle. Duchamp’s famous Nude (1912) and Brazilian
painter Emiliano Di Cavalcanti’s Pierrette (1922) are illustrative examples of the
transnational, common interest in depicting the kinetic. But what, exactly, do
these two works reveal about modern concerns regarding the nature of motion
and its representability?
Let us begin with Duchamp’s painting, which quite possibly served as
model for the Brazilian. Reducing the body to a series of fragments, lines,
and volumes that stage motion in various ways, Duchamp assembled a series
of static positions in a succession that, when viewed as a whole, represent a
figure in the act of descending a staircase. It is worth noting that the sketchy,
geometrical quality of each static position in the series seems to invoke time,
that is, the fleeting view of the object that its movement allows the viewer,
which makes one wonder if the painting is not about the perception of motion
and visual deception more than about motion itself. In fact, Duchamp seems to
be capturing the image as in cinematic stop-motion, but offering even greater
precision by showing instants in between photograms, providing a painterly
effect that fills in the gaps, and therefore establishes a difference between its
methods and materials and those of photography and film, and, in so doing,
the painting both affirms the cinematic and maintains a certain autonomy for
Modernismo 207

painting. One might even consider whether the image depicts more than one
nude descending the staircase at the same time, for although I would discard
that notion based on Duchamp’s own declarations about the work’s purpose (i.e.,
to display movement in progress), the ambiguity remains. Nude’s remarkable
Brazilian descendant, Di Cavalcanti’s Pierrette, depicts a harlequin surrounded
by doves, near a fluttering curtain, about to descend what seems like a stair or
a single step. Di Cavalcanti’s painting, while more “timid” in its fragmentation,
also relies on the thrust of diagonal lines and impossible planes to endow its
female harlequin figure with a sense of graceful motion. Coming, as it did, after
Duchamp’s painting had shocked the world, Di Cavalcanti’s may seem derivative;
this, however, would be an unfair assessment, since the Brazilian artist was
working within a more conservative artistic milieu, and was, therefore, relatively
more transgressive than Duchamp, whose work was already being favorably
received by many European galleries and critics.
There is more to be said about these works. In Nude, by abstracting the
human body and its movement Duchamp foregrounds the sheer temporality of
the represented action, bringing an element of duration into what was typically
considered to be a purely static art, painting. Di Cavalcanti provides a similar effect
with a lesser degree of abstraction, by creating an image where the figure is out of
balance and aligned with the planes and vectors that indicate its movement and
that of the depicted doves. In both paintings, the series of movements, or temporal
intervals, are closely related to filmic motion. As in a serial progression of static
photograms, Duchamp’s work engages a technical decoupage that takes apart a
seemingly fluid motion, a schematic “nude” descending a staircase, and reassembles
it to show how it is composed of individual time and action segments. Duchamp
stated in relation to Nude that “chronophotography was at the time in vogue.
Studies of horses in movement and of fences in different positions as in Muybridge’s
album’s were well known to me” (Acton 68). As in time-lapse photography,
Duchamp controls the painting’s “frame” rate (the frequency at which individual
images or moments in time are captured) by spacing the intervals equally, and
then “playing” them back on the canvas simultaneously, providing at once a sense
of accelerated motion and of fragmented, “frozen,” or captured instants, a bit like
the ekphrastic phenomenon in poetry. The direction and spacing of the lines and
volumes in both paintings provide a “bodily” sense of movement. As Philip Rawson
observes, “As part of its structure, a work of art provides tracks for our attention,
to follow in and across its format” (67), tracks that indicate the direction of the
depicted elements, as well as guiding the sweep of the spectator’s eye. Thus, from
its inception, modern painting displayed a distinctly photographic, and later,
208 Radical Poetry

cinematic aesthetic, to fulfill its goal of depicting motion, as a concretization of

the dynamic principle.
In The Colors of Rhetoric, Wendy Steiner argues that by adopting analogical
methods to represent movement, the individual arts usually conform their
methodology so it is best suited to the medium with which they work: thus, in
traditional poetry, motion is represented by “freezing” actions in time through
descriptive ekphrasis, or in concrete poetry by arranging words on the page and
using typography to indicate movement. In the case of painting, it is not enough
to represent the frozen instant, since the lack of mobility of the pictorial work
foregrounds its artifice: one cannot just show a figure in motion and expect it to
unequivocally or convincingly suggest movement. Rather, by fragmenting visual
planes, as we saw with Duchamp and Di Cavalcanti, or through the inclusion of
simultaneous perspectives on a single object (as in Picasso’s, Braque’s or Gris’s
Cubism), or through the actual use of the painter’s moving body to represent
gesture, (as with splattering in the action painting of Abstract Expressionism),
movement is “recorded” rather than merely “portrayed” on the canvas. Other arts
use different approaches: photography has sought to capture motion through the
instantaneous recording of consecutive instants. This requires certain techniques;
for instance, by leaving the shutter open through the duration of a movement, the
overall motion will be imprinted on a single frame, although blurred, as in the work
of the Italian Futurist Bragaglia brothers.
At the end of the nineteenth century the motion studies by Etienne-Jules Marey
and Eadweard Muybridge, in conjunction with the technological capabilities of the
photographic camera, were further applied to study scientifically the component
parts of anatomy in motion. These first scientific attempts to study motion caught
the “eye” of inventors such as Edison and the Lumière brothers, who proposed
one more solution to resolving the challenge of the depiction of movement:
mobilizing photography itself by juxtaposing photograms and playing them back
sequentially. Commenting on the new invention, Henri Bergson observed that
cinematographic movement also depended on visual deception, on the successive
projection of static images, and therefore was also an essentially analogic process.
For Bergson, and later for Deleuze, the cinematographic mechanism and its
saturation of images results in a fusion of image and movement that provides a
“false” representation, an overly “synthetic” image of the real that does not reflect
the actual discontinuity of lived experience. There is in the understanding of
the dynamic principle in avant-garde art a palpable unresolved tension between
continuity and fragmentation. By that, I mean that it is perhaps contradictory that
despite their artistic conceptualization of the modern in metonymic and dynamic
Modernismo 209

terms that emphasized spatiotemporal continuity and contiguity, duration, and

the relationship between distance and velocity, the avant-gardists nevertheless
presented their works through fragmentation and formal repetition in painting,
through telegraphic and segmented styles in literature and through montage in
film, achieving the mere illusion of continuity by engaging metaphor and optical
deception. This points to a fascinating observation: that the constant tug-of-war
in modern art between, on the one hand, the fragment and the whole, the analytic
and the synthetic, and, on the other, the attempts to bring together, conflate, and
sublate script and image, stasis and motion, into a single work, plays out time and
again in the avant-garde’s representation of movement and, as Bürger suggested,
may be the very essence of the work of art.
But where did the Brazilian modernists “stand” in relation to the avant-garde
interest in depicting motion? The Brazilians painters (Malfatti, Di Cavalcanti,
Amaral) were fully aware of the kinetic possibilities of art, having seen in Paris
dynamic paintings by Italian Futurists such as Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni,
Gino Severini, Carlo Carrà, and Gerardo Dottori, among others, as well as the
German American Lyonel Feininger’s polyphonic paintings with their multicolored
overlapping planes. They were quite familiar with Duchamp’s paintings, even with
some of his kinetic and cinematically inspired ready-mades, such as Bicycle Wheel
(1913). The Brazilians were not yet aware in the twenties about the retinal illusions,
self-induced phosphenes, and hypnagogic paintings by Salvador Dalí, since the
earliest of these might be the Spaniard’s Surrealist Composition (1928), but they
certainly would learn of them as his fame grew in the late thirties. They would
also have been aware, through sculptor Víctor Brécheret, about Consructivist
movable sculptures by Naum Gabo, Antoine Pevsner, and Duchamp. Moreover,
the American Alexander Calder, who would become renowned for his mobiles,
created his Cirque Calder in 1926: an intricate wire model of a circus in which the
different “performers” were not only moveable, but in many cases self-moving
automatons that included fire eaters, lion tamers, weightlifters, tightrope walkers,
and trapeze artists. Calder held shows in his studio in Paris and would have been
known to Oswald de Andrade and Tarsila do Amaral. The Brazilian modernists
almost certainly would have been exposed to the dynamic photography of László
Moholy-Nagy and the Bragaglia brothers, as well as to all kinds of film, which had
arrived in Brazil in 1896.
If the 1913 Armory Show came as a profound shock to its North American
visitors, the Semana’s audience was no less outraged by the radical nature, both
programmatic and polemical, of the works on display: paintings, poems, and
music that represented a rejection of realism and classicism in favor of greater
210 Radical Poetry

abstraction; works unintelligible for the Brazilian bourgeoisie and for most of
the critical establishment. While many of the Semana’s artists pledged their
commitment to multidisciplinarity and aesthetic rupture, the Grupo dos cinco
stood out for their bold interartistic propositions. Vicky Unruh has underscored
the Week’s multimediatic nature:

three evenings of audacious multigeneric, multimedia presentations that were

confrontational in their novelty: lectures on modernismo and contemporary art
by Graça Aranha and Ronald de Carvalho; poetry and prose readings by Mário
and Oswald de Andrade, Manuel Bandeira, Ribeiro Couto, Plínio Salgado,
and Guilherme de Almeida; exhibitions of cubist paintings by Anita Malfatti
and sculptures by Víctor Brécheret; and a piano recital of music by Heitor
Villa-Lobos. (34)

Naturally, kinetic works originating in the Semana were not restricted to painting,
sculpture, or music: the literary arts and advertising also sought to represent
motion, for instance, through the use of typography. Following the lead of the
Italian Futurists, the Brazilian modernists realized that letters could also be shaped
to indicate lines of movement, challenging the opposition of image versus script.
Modernist works grew in self-awareness, commenting on the technologies that
produced them, foregrounding the complexity of verbal and visual language, even
while remaining grounded in the materiality of the different media, which they
folded into increasingly trans-generic works. I will now examine the work of the
Brazilian group in the area of poetry, or more specific, poetic advertisement as
exemplified by their avant-garde journal Klaxon.

Klaxon: Modern(ist) Locomotion in Poetic Advertisement

By the 1920s, mass media in the form of radio and newspapers was used widely in
Brazilian marketing and advertising. Borrowing from collage and photomontage,
advertisers quickly appropriated the techniques from early Cubists such as
Picasso, Braque, and Gris, who, in turn, had also been influenced by mass media
and included newspaper and magazine fragments in their work. This circularity
of influence could be construed as somewhat problematic; soon, the parodic
or critical deployment of advertising strategies began to be indistinguishable
from its commercial, uncritical application. Indeed, a significant portion of
avant-garde art was connected, conjoined, and complicit with advertising and
therefore borrowed aesthetic strategies from commercial publicity. Moreover, the
Modernismo 211

modernist “art for art’s sake” initially practiced by a handful of wealthy bourgeois
artists soon trickled down to artists who made their living by practicing applied
and commercial arts such as graphic design, poster advertisements, newspaper
and magazine ad design. Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, all
engaged with advertising, either to embrace it for profit, or quite the opposite, to
reject it or criticize it through parody and appropriation. The Brazilians viewed
commercial advertisement as a force driving modernity in its unyielding appetite
for development, progress, and consumption; they were, in fact, eager to tap into
its economic possibilities.
Intent on continuing the innovative work they began with the Semana, Tarsila
do Amaral, Mário de Andrade, and Guilherme de Almeida created the first
avant-garde magazine in Brazil, Klaxon (1922), dedicated to the “new,” the dynamic,
the kinetic, and the cinematographic. Interartistic to a fault, the magazine included
modernist poetry, painting, literature, and the occasional article about film. A
model for later magazines such as Festa (Rio), Revista Antropofagica (São Paulo),
Estética, and Terra Rouxa, Klaxon published texts in Portuguese, French, Spanish,
and Italian from Mário de Andrade, Manuel Bandeira, Serge Milliet, and others.
Klaxon exemplified the avant-gardists’ creative typography, mobilized for both
literary and commercial purposes; in Klaxon, visual poems double as ads for
product placement. Almost indistinguishable, poetry and advertisement deploy
a similar aesthetic of fragmentation: minimalist syntax, short sentences, an agile
lexicon (drawing on active verbs, dispensing with unnecessary rhetoric), and a
peppering of colloquialisms, neologisms, and neographisms.
Designed by its editor, the poet Guilherme de Almeida, the cover of the
first issue of Klaxon (see Fig. 7.1) is visually daring, with a stylized advertising
layout and a bold typography reminiscent of Futurist words-in-freedom. While
declaring itself as fundamentally Paulista (São Paulo’s name features prominently
about the A’s legs), confirming the hegemony of that city in Brazil’s modernist
movement, the magazine also demonstrates its avowed cosmopolitanism, indeed,
internationalism. Case in point, the cover is inspired by Russian Constructivism’s
use of primary colors and typography. The Constructivists considered bold color
and highly stylized and geometrically precise lettering as the essential building
blocks for visual signification, such precision echoing “the methods of technical
drawing, and . . . the work of the scientist or engineer” (Lodder 105); Klaxon
reminds one of the equally precise magazine designs by El Lissitzky (1890–1941),
or Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956). Sure, from an ideological standpoint, there is
little overlap between the Costructivists’ promotion of an international proletarian
artwork that “equated the work of art with an object of use . . . subordinated to
Figure 7.1. Cover for magazine Klaxon. Reprinted from Klaxon 1,
facsimile edition by Ed. Cosac Naify (São Paulo, Brazil).
Modernismo 213

the project of revolutionizing living conditions” (Bürger 697), an art that would
transform not just the Soviet Union, but the world at large, and the Brazilian
modernists’ position as an artistic nationalist elite complicit with plans to
modernize their country aesthetically and technically, but without altering its
power structures, endangering their own privileged class, or destroying art’s aura.
This, of course, is a simplified narrative (necessary to make a general point), as
modernist intellectuals during the Republic (1889–1930) and the Getúlio Vargas era
(1930–1945), far from homogeneous, displayed many contradictions and positions
individually and collectively, and through the many subgroups that splintered
after disagreements with main line modernistas. The point must also be qualified
in regards to those modernists who departed from the nationalistic in favor of
a leftist internationalism, notably Oswald de Andrade, his first wife, Tarsila do
Amaral, and his second wife, Patrícia Galvão (“Pagu”), who joined Brazil’s fledgling
Communist Party.
There was, at any rate, a tense, complex relationship between modernismo and
the state, at times mutually beneficial and bound up with state patronage and the
furthering of nationalist goals, at times one of repression and resistance (Gouveia
55–56). A mere two decades after the century’s turn, the modernists’ desire to see
Brazil construct, urbanize, and modernize rapidly—motivated by the possibilities
of the Industrial Age, mechanical reproduction, and mass production—contrasted
dramatically with their country’s harsh rural reality. Although São Paulo was
removed from the extreme poverty of agrarian Brazil, the country’s conditions were
quite different from those in Western Europe, but similar to the Soviet Union’s,
another enormous nation attempting to modernize rapidly. In the 1920s, Brazil
was a vastly underdeveloped and essentially rural nation, and the urge to “catch
up” to the European models meant that any program of “rupture” was perforce
counterbalanced with an aggressive plan to “construct.” Mechanization and
industrialization led artists to focus on rational principles of organization, on the
material properties of the artwork as object, on how it was assembled as well as
its spatial presence, but much less attention was paid at this stage to art’s social
potential. Later, this changed with Oswald de Andrade’s politicized antropofagia
movement, but, for the most part, in the early 1920s the work of the Brazilian
modernists was not quite socially progressive.
The connection to Constructivism bears further reflection, since that is one
possible source for associating the modernists to progressive ideals, at least on
aesthetic grounds. To illustrate those aesthetic links it is useful to think about an
influential and momentous, one might say monumental, Russian Constructivist
artwork conceptualized in 1919, four years before the Semana de Arte, which
214 Radical Poetry

received a great deal of press in both Europe and America, and was likely known
to the Brazilians, especially to Tarsila do Amaral (whose fascination with the Soviet
Union led her to visit that country in 1931). It was Vladimir Tatlin’s proposal for
the Monument to the Third International (1919), aka “Tatlin’s Tower,” a building
designed as a giant steel double helix, four hundred meters tall, deliberately higher
than the Eiffel Tower’s 320 meters, meant symbolically as an homage to utopian
socialism that would “top” similar capitalist achievements. Designed as a giant
mobile, “Tatlin’s Tower” assembled many mechanical moving parts and geometrical
volumes into a dynamic abstract shape that incorporated the latest technological
wonders: communication devices, projection screens, searchlights, loudspeakers,
radios, telegraphs. Inside its impressive steel frame, it contained three rotating
shapes—a cube, a pyramid, and a cylinder—meant for housing meeting rooms and
offices. Its design captured the socialist sense of utopia, materializing its singular
union of art and technology, utilitarianism and aesthetics. Ironically, like other
grandiose utopian projects, the tower was never built, due to its prohibitive cost
(Lodder 47; Lynton).
“Tatlin’s Tower” was meant to be a symbol of modernity, the socialist answer to
Paris’s Eiffel Tower, and like the latter, Tatlin’s was also to be an amusement park
to which visitors would be able to “ride” up in various conveyances; but unlike the
French tower, it also served as a conference center and the political headquarters
of a future—but imminent, as it was believed—socialist “world” government
(Lynton). It is almost certain that its international notoriety reached Brazil,
and that the artists of the Modern Art Week were aware of its plan. Nineteen
twenty-two was also, coincidentally, the year when the Brazilian Communist Party
was founded in Rio de Janeiro, and admiration for the achievements of the 1917
October Revolution was, at this juncture, fairly prevalent, even among the Brazilian
bourgeois elite. Therefore, although many modernists (such as the verde amarelistas)
remained strongly nationalistic, most were open to embracing aesthetic aspects
of Constructivism as a model. Some of the Brazilians had come into contact with
the Russian Constructivists while traveling in Europe. After her 1931 visit to the
Soviet Union, Tarsila do Amaral organized an exhibition of Russian Constructivist
poster art in São Paulo, featuring works by Rodchenko and Lissitzky. Although it
predates events promoting Constructivism in Brazil, Klaxon’s cover clearly reflects
a Constructivist vision of modernity.
What does the magazine’s cover show us about Brazilian modernism? For
one thing, it shows the connection of modernism to industrial processes, to a
mechanized world. The word itself, klaxon, was derived from the popularized name
of the North American manufacturer of the electric horns used on automobiles—
Modernismo 215

the New Jersey–based “The Klaxon Company,”—and etymologically from the Greek
word klazein “to roar,” close cognate with the Latin clangere “to resound,” and hence
its nomenclature remits to both motion and sound. The modernists chose Klaxon
as the emblem of their magazine, sounding a clarion call to Brazil and the world
that a new aesthetic had arrived. And, in addition to its Constructivist design,
Klaxon does resound with the echoes of both Futurism and Dada’s preoccupation
with collage and typography.
Returning to Klaxon’s design, it is worth noting that the cover’s lettering is
dominated by a large red A that functions—in keeping with the constructivist
theme and aesthetic—as a support column from which the other words cantilever.
The striking graphic scheme points to the sophistication of advertising design; in
fact, the letter A varied in color for each published issue, becoming the magazine’s
instantly recognizable “brand” or logotype. The clarity and simplicity of the
modernist visual aesthetic made its fusion with the commercial aesthetics of
company logos almost inevitable. As for the Klaxon A, the letter is polyvalent from
a semantic and a syntactic standpoint. It fulfills several syntactical purposes,
functioning as a letter for several words which it links together (as a playful
acrostic or crossword puzzle), and it stands in as a symbol for the significant
words arte or atual (actual, contemporary), or perhaps even alegría (happiness),
which is mentioned in the magazine’s first issue as a key characteristic of
the twentieth century as embodied by modernism, along with traits such as
“raciocinio, instrucção, esporte, rapidez, alegría, vida” (reason, instruction, sport,
speed, happiness, life). And, obviously, the A visually evokes the Eiffel Tower
(perhaps also Tatlin’s), a modern icon ubiquitously featured in modernist works,
in calligrammes by Apollinaire, Guillermo de Torre, and Vicente Huidobro, in
paintings such as Robert Delaunay’s Eiffel Tower series, or in Tarsila do Amaral’s
Carnaval em Madureira (1924), and, in film, in Edison’s Panorama of Eiffel Tower
(1900). The red A, with its simple and elegant typescript, occupies the entire length
of the page, contrasting visually with the black color of the other letters. The
horizontal orientation of the “No. 1” is reminiscent, but less radical, of Futurist
parole in libertà in its defiance of the expected vertical arrangement of type. In
accordance with the fragmented and telegraphic nature of modernist writing, a
full understanding of the message arises only when the reader assembles the letters
through a “constructivist” Gestalt, or a cinematic decoupage in reverse, reuniting
the many text blocks into the full title: “Klaxon: Mensario da Arte Moderna”
(Modern Art Monthly).
The presence of “fragments” leads to an important observation: as seen in
earlier chapters, the tendency toward syntactical fragmentation is ever-present
216 Radical Poetry

in modernist poetry and prose (and other arts), whereas the reliance on Gestalt
effects to facilitate interpretation achieves full force later with Concretism
and, more recently, with digital art’s propensity to subsume everything into the
digital image, into 0s and 1s. Linked with the aesthetic of the fragment is the art
of motion. Far from static, Klaxon’s cover explodes with activity: Simultaneity,
dynamism, sound, and movement are echoed by the meaning of “klaxon” as
car horn, and also by the visual metaphor found within the shape of the A
which resembles, among other things, a loudspeaker, a phonograph, or an early
automobile klaxon. The word klaxon also recreates onomatopoeically the sounds
of a car horn, not unlike “honk” or “beep.” The loud klaxon of a motor car
represented modernity’s clarion call, as if the future made its presence felt in the
present; a rallying call for forward-thinking artists, as well as a sounding of an
alarm as a warning to possible unforeseen danger—a danger also brought about
and signaled by the velocity of planes, locomotives, automobiles, explosives,
in other words, the darker side of modern life, the dystopia of unrestrained
rationalism, the violence of mechanized war.3
Admittedly, there is much in Klaxon of imitation, although with variations,
of European models, whether the Portuguese magazines Orpheu (1915) and
Portugal Futurista (1917), or that of the Spanish Ultraist magazine Ultra (1918)
or the British Vorticist magazine Blast (1914–15), or the publications and posters
by Russian Constructivism. Even though Klaxon is characteristic of an early
modernist phase saliently inf luenced by foreign models, once the Brazilian
avant-gardes began to articulate the concept of antropofagia in the late 1920s that
attitude changed. By then, Brazilian artists, no longer content with imitating
and assimilating European models, were instead bent on “cannibalizing” and
transforming them in order to conform to local traditions, mining the lost
pre-Columbian cultural inheritance, researching Tupi and other indigenous
myths, and fashioning a hybrid discourse; and although such a discourse
typically included such indigenous influence in shallow, unreflective ways, it
nonetheless expressed a combative and postcolonial sensibility struggling for an
autochthonous art.4 The point is that if modernismo’s first phase, exemplified
by the Semana and Klaxon, drew inspiration from European modernity and
artistic models, the second phase drew from the Brazilian countryside, searching
for a “deep” Brazil, and reaching toward the natural world, to primitivism—a
primitivism that was critically questioned as such, and often proven to be
anything but “primitive”—and to popular culture, which already freely mixed
European with Yoruba and Amerindian traditions.
Of course, as we can see from Klaxon, advertising played a key role in the
Modernismo 217

development of the avant-garde. Their use of advertising tactics dates at least to

Marinetti’s launching of Futurism’s inaugural manifesto in a newspaper with a
broad audience, Le Figaro, in 1909. Marinetti habitually mobilized promotional
techniques such as advertising artistic events in print and radio, and going
on “spectacular” international tours to provoke the public into engaging with
Futurist art; indeed, such sensational techniques prompted critics to say
that the antics of the Futurists often overshadowed their artistic production.
Marinetti’s promotional—and self-promotional—hyperactivity caused British
modernist Wyndham Lewis to call the Italian a “sign, signboard, if you like,
of conscious and clamorous modernity” (29). Like the Futurists, the Brazilian
modernists also enthusiastically adopted a mix of “high” and commercial art,
and viewed advertising as a field for both artistic expression and self-promotion.
As previously discussed, the cover of Klaxon carried a prominent, oversized
image and an easily readable bold typeface that closely mimicked street posters,
billboard advertising, and newspaper ads. The imbrication of visual culture and
advertising coalesced with the Brazilian artists’ emulation of a brash Futurist
aesthetic that was bent on mobilizing conspicuous, attention-grabbing designs
and visual puns to jolt spectators into awareness, both of the “product” being
promoted, and of the plastic virtuosity of the ad itself. The “coma Lacta”
(eat Lacta [chocolate products]) (see Fig. 7.2) and “Guaraná Espumante” ads
appearing in Klaxon, for example, doubled as commercial advertisement and as
eye-catching visual poems, fulfilling a dual status as product placements and
modern aesthetic objects, and placing the modernists squarely within the grasp
of, or rather in bed with, capital interests. As mentioned, while antropofagia
was reticent to ally itself with commercial interests, earlier modernists sought
patronage wherever it could be found.
What are the defining aesthetic characteristics of poetic advertising works
such as “coma Lacta”? In Klaxon, ads and poetry—and poetic ads—present a
fragmented, telegraphic style that minimizes syntax, keeps vocabulary simple,
and relies on neologisms and colloquialisms to create a “national” Brazilian
language, albeit at the expense of regional and indigenous variation.
Vandersí Pereira describes the “coma Lacta” ad, located in the first issue,
as imaginative, innovative, and far ahead of its time (213–16). Indeed, the ad is
quite striking when compared to other ads for “Lacta” products circulating in
mainstream periodicals, which depict, for instance, domestic scenes in which
a family consumes Lacta products (chocolates) around a table, or which a man
presents to a woman as a gift. “Lacta,” a chocolatier founded by German Swiss
immigrants in 1912, used the latest imported German machinery and, in 1917,
Fig. 7.2. Guilherme de Almeida. “Coma Lacta.”
Reprinted from Klaxon 1 facsimile edition by Ed. Cosac Naify
(São Paulo, Brazil).
Modernismo 219

became the first company to have a lighted billboard ad in São Paulo, indeed,
in all of Brazil, making it a national emblem of the modern. There is much that
can be “read,” “seen,” and “heard” in this ad. The variable typography of the
word Lacta is a “concrete” reflection of the great variety of chocolate products,
and invokes an aesthetics of repetition and variation, and hence, movement
(more on this point shortly). In her analysis of the poem, Aracy Amaral—who
identifies it as a pre-Concrete poem—observes that the different angles of the
word Lacta suggest lighted billboards and the perceived motion of their flashing
lights, which is altogether plausible knowing that Lacta had pioneered this type
of advertising (“A propósito” n.p.). Echoing, like Klaxon’s cover, Futurist parole
in libertà, Apollinaire’s calligrammes, and Dadaist cut-ups and collage, the ad’s
author, Guilherme de Almeida, departs from horizontal, left to right “poetic
space” by playing with letter size, allowing the work’s visual style to be more
prominent, arguably, than its advertising “message.” Perceiving a disservice to
their advertising goals, sponsors threatened to pull their support unless future
ads were more conventional, making patent the problem in the relation between
art and advertisement, namely that aesthetics were understood as subordinate
to commercial interests, to providing an unambiguous sales message.
There is no doubt, however artistic, that this “poem” is first and foremost an
ad. The repetitive nature of the message, the prominence of the name-logo of
the company, and the very disposition of the words emphasize its consumerist
point. Yet, for all its faults, there is a beauty to the semiotic complexity hidden
behind the ad’s apparent simplicity, a complexity that stems from the interplay
between script and image, an operation linked to the concept of repetition. As
Foucault outlines in This Is Not a Pipe (1973), the use of script as both image and
written text, as in calligrams, allows for the dynamic emphasis of repetition
without rhetoric, meaning that the message can be shown (visually) and stated
(verbally), without the need for excess narrative, increasing the communicative
force of both the verbal and the visual fields (31–45). To put it another way, letters
and words can be used as graphic linear elements, spatially arranged to create
images, and they can also signify when read syntactically and sequentially as
part of a “message.” These playful visual orchestrations, as seen in “coma Lacta,”
show and name at the same time, functioning doubly as discourse and design,
and conveying the message with greater intensity, the force of its verbal images
multiplied by that of its visual ones.
We might say that De Almeida designed the “coma Lacta” ad as a “poetic”
advertisement with both denotative and connotative functions, or in Jakobson’s
terms, referential and poetic ones. Armed with his knowledge of calligrams
220 Radical Poetry

and the billboard advertising that was becoming increasingly prevalent,

Almeida cleverly distributes the words in the graphic space to show and tell
simultaneously, enlisting graphic design and discourse to sell the product. To
make the poem more kinetic he separates the two morphemes of the slogan
“coma Lacta”; “coma” is placed along the four edges of the page, and the brand
“Lacta”—represented by uneven-sized letters of different typescripts—is
dynamically and strategically placed in the center of the ad. The word coma,
wrapped along the edge, engulfs the product as if enacting the visual analogy
of a gaping mouth, and its repetition works as an insistent invitation to “chew,”
to consume the product. There is a visual cannibalism at work in the ad’s
disposition, one that is not yet at all oriented to the political, but merely to the
commercial. The advertisement functions as a verbal package to be “unwrapped,”
exposing its visual and delicious interior, which will be figuratively, and as the
manufacturer hopes, also literally consumed. The imperative “coma” reinforces
a consumerist drive that is visually enhanced by the force of the color red and
verbally and typographically materialized by the enveloping character of the
repetitive “coma,” which focalizes the reader/viewer’s attention toward the
brand “Lacta.” The visually and aurally (orally) repetitive and imperative “coma”
fulfills a poetic function as defined by Jakobson, who states that repetition,
parallelism, rhyme, and alliteration are inherent to the structure of verse,
suggesting that repetition is poetry’s most prominent and constitutive device,
setting it apart from prose and everyday speech. Of course, repetition is not
exclusive to the poetic, it is also constitutive of advertising, which relies on
eroding the resistance of consumers by overwhelming their senses with the
repetitive familiarity of jingles and slogans. Perhaps repetition also serves a more
“dynamic” purpose: repetition provides emphasis and cohesion, and, through
slight variation, creates a sense of movement, as well as temporality, in poetry
and other arts. At the same time, repetition also evokes the mechanical in its
worse sense, as in the habitual, the assembly line, the dehumanization of labor,
the exploitative aspects of Taylorism and Fordism, and, the enslavement of
modern man to a never-ending chain of unnecessary consumption. Repetition
in advertising encourages habit formation, leading to impulse buying, addiction,
and the loss of one’s will to resist the commercial lure. The “coma Lacta” ad
tellingly illustrates and enacts the positive and negative “ends” of the modernist
connection to material and mass culture.
What do the Lacta ad and Klaxon’s cover tell us about the modernist
aesthetic in Brazil? What lessons did the Brazilian modernists learn from their
predecessors and pass on to future avant-gardists? They learned much. From the
Modernismo 221

Futurists, they learned that disrupting the syntax and linear continuity of an
utterance, even radically fragmenting its lexicon, might be useful to complement,
contradict, even render unintelligible or otherwise engage with the meaning of a
text. They realized that by arranging their writing (poems, prose, advertisement)
in a spatio-visual gestalt, it could be apprehended as visual art, with a visual
scanning of the image that was then processed almost instantly, making their
work immediately accessible to the senses. They also noted that the temporal
disconnect or interpretative lag between the quasi-immediate visual decoding
and the more gradual linguistic deciphering could cause confusion, but also
a kind of “dynamism.” The lack of synchronicity as the viewer attempts to
“fuse” the two codes together, unable to reconcile the visual and textual into a
cohesive unity, results in unsettlement, unease, even certain disturbing sense
of imbalance, which could lead to a phenomenological experience or illusion of
motion and duration, a hallucinatory moment of imagined kinesis.
The modernists also began to understand the strength of the icon,
conceptualized semiotically as a sign that bears the power of resemblance to
the object it refers to. Thus, the script of “coma” and “Lacta” becomes iconic as
the words adopt some of the material characteristics of the items they denote: a
lighted billboard and/or a box of assorted chocolates, but also, a mouth and its
contents. The shape of the signified, that is, the objects “represented,” bears on
the visual representation of the signifiers, including their syntax and typography.
Interferences and dissonances between the two systems of representation, the
linguistic (verbal) and the iconic (pictorial), serve to increase the poetic charge
of the advertisement. As I indicated, in the “coma Lacta” ad, the script and the
image contaminate each other productively, resulting in an unstable pictographic
“whole” that the reader attempts to synthesize cognitively, without success. The
modernists learned how to make the poem advertisement work as art and as a
revenue source. “Coma Lacta” is a sophisticated combination of poetry, visual
art, and design advertisement serving multiple purposes (in a small package): it
provides visual pleasure, partially fulfilling an ekphrastic desire to see in images
what words only evoke; and it transmits a commercial message that nevertheless
sacrifices some of its denotative clarity for the sake of poeticity, establishing a
balance between its artistic and commercial functions.
These discoveries, rediscoveries, or refashionings of vanguard aesthetics were
passed on to future artists. For example, the use of dynamic or animated words
as images is a common and frequently revisited thread connecting the historical
avant-gardes with 1960s Concretism and with current digital innovations.
Klaxon’s forward-thinking ads prefigure later Concrete poems such as Décio
222 Radical Poetry

Pignatari’s “beba coca cola,” analyzed in the next chapter. Although the link
between modernismo brasileiro and Concretism was partially ruptured, indeed
traumatically severed and disrupted by major historical events such as World
War II and the start of the Cold War, the continuity of these connections was
reasserted in developments of the visual and literary arts in Brazil in the postwar
period. Ruptures aside, such developments demonstrate that there was a strong
sense of familiarity among the avant-gardes of these three epochs.
Concrete Aesthetics
Abstraction, Mass Media, and Ideology

Concrete Art and its Antecedents:

Suprematism and Neoplasticism

ugusto de Campos, who with his brother Haroldo and their friend
Décio Pignatari started the Concrete poetry movement in the mid-fif-
ties, proposed somewhat hyperbolically that the three most significant
national cultural phenomena that Brazil had exported to the rest of the world
were bossa nova, soccer, and concrete poetry; I will focus on the latter. Steeped
in Brazilian modernist tradition—and indebted to the German Bauhaus, the
Russian Constructivists, and the Dutch Neoplasticists—the poets and painters of
the Concrete movement were wholeheartedly committed to an aesthetic of mini-
malist ornament, simplified syntax, carefully arranged and unadorned fonts, and to
enforcing a mathematical disposition of space and time in art. The Concrete poets
adopted the exact tenets that led to the construction of Brazil’s new futuristic
capital, Brasilia, sharing with its architects a vision of “design” that reveled in the
abstract, sleek, industrial, highly rational, functional, and pared-down patterns
applied to all kinds of “constructions,” whether buildings, paintings, or poems.
A nearly perfect alignment of artistic and developmental political interests was
evident in the profound similarities between the two respective “Planos Piloto,”
the one written by the architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa for Brasilia,
and its counterpart, the Concrete poets’ drafted directives for their new poetry.
But the origins of Brazil’s rationalization of the arts can be traced to an earlier
moment, to the perceived exhaustion of modernist painting, which made itself
felt after World War I.

224 Radical Poetry

As with modernismo, in order to discuss Concrete poetry in its proper context it

is productive to first understand its ties to the development of Concrete painting.
Perhaps as early as 1915, but certainly by the 1930s, as the first avant-gardes were
entering their latest phase and their utopian dreams had been smashed in the
carnage of the European trenches, artists suspected that modern art was losing
its way, reaching an impasse. It was perceived, for example, that two-dimensional
painting was at a conceptual limit: neither figuration nor abstraction served
representation any longer, as the first seemed obsolete and the second exhausted.
The search for new paths led toward a gradual elimination of elements, toward
the slow removal of anything that seemed superfluous. Two representatives
of this tendency to minimize had a profound influence on Concrete art: the
avant-garde painters Kasimir Malevich (1879–1935) and Piet Mondrian (1872–1944),
each of whom, acting independently, had reduced form and color to their basic
components, asymptotically approaching what Malevich referred to as a degree
“zero” of form—akin to what Barthes would later define as “writing degree zero,”
meaning a type of writing (or painting) free of reference, ideology, history, and so
on (Writing Degree Zero).
Barthes later retracted his position by recognizing that such a degree zero
was unattainable for writing, even if it were desirable. Prior to his retraction,
however, he proposed modern poetry as a type of writing stripped of history
and style, concerned with literary forms and modes alone (as if style could,
ever, be disentangled from form, or for that matter, from history). In modern
painting, the same reduction to putatively pure form left few directions available,
other than by delving into another dimension: time. For if content was to be
stripped from a canvas, then all that remained, besides abstract geometry (color
and shape), was time itself, its presentation, its presence through the act of
painting, and its recorded trace on the canvas. Form, color, and time became
the new subjects for painting. Imagine the experience of seeing Malevich’s Black
Square at the Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10 in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in
1915, as the Great War still raged. The astonishment at its lack of figuration
would have been great, even for spectators already familiar with Cubism and
Futurism. Black Square was altogether different. The spectator was confronted by
an unassumingly small canvass (3.5 x 3.5 ft.), and shocked by its daring effrontery
to acceptable canons of representation: a smooth, featureless black square,
superimposed on a white background, refusing any mimetic responsibility. The
painting seemed to signify the void, to be a jest or mockery of painting itself. The
absence of any depth left as its most salient component the contrast between the
intensely black square and the white, unpainted border, providing the slightest
Concrete Aesthetics 225

hint of a shift, an imperceptible motion between two opposing colors, the yin
and the yang (recall Tablada), inside and outside, “frame” and object. With Black
Square, Malevich initiated a process in which figurative painting gave way to
exploring geometry, surface, and material, in an effort to capture what he called
the “non-objective” element, the dynamic relations between shapes. His zeal for
reduction prompted him to claim that after reaching the minimum in terms of
representation, he would go “beyond zero” (Harrison 238). That “beyond” would
be attained through the addition of motion and time, which would be simulated
through form and color. Out of the initial black square Malevich developed
a complex vocabulary of colored forms. From the “atomization” or formal
reduction that created the black square arose a “dynamic field of expression.”
Malevich delivered on his promise. Within a year of his first Suprematist
painting, he had become adept at achieving motion effects through the
superimposition of planes and the suggestion of directionality, as in his
Suprematist Composition 58 (1916), a painting that overlays a series of rectangles
(white, yellow, and black) onto a convex shape (blue-gray). The technique of
superimposing different colored shapes on seemingly distinct planes fosters
a sense of movement. The sweeping motions hinted at by the shapes, which
prefigure the gestural action painting of the New York–based Abstract
Expressionists, defy the static nature of the canvas, creating the illusion of
forms in flight. Indeed, at a time when artists conceived of the airplane as the
highest technical achievement of their era, Malevich associated his dynamic
paintings with flight technology, commenting: “Suprematism is to be looked
upon as the art of the industrial, taut environment. This environment . . . has
been produced by the latest achievements of technology, and especially of
aviation, so that one could also refer to Suprematism as ‘aeronautical’” (Wilson
145). Moreover, there is something quite interesting in Malevich’s “dynamic”
paintings, as the relations and correspondences between shapes appeal to us
intellectually and sensually: there is a sense of immanent, self-organizing order
that arises from the chaos of the varied shapes in Suprematist Composition 58, a
quasi-Hegelian tendency to resolve the different elements (colors, shapes, lines)
into a moving, interdependent whole. None of the shapes or colors are placed
by chance; indeed, contingency appears to be banished from the paintings (of
course, contingency returns with time, as the lacquer cracks proliferate, and
Malevich’s hundred-year-old paintings begin to acquire complex networks of
spider webs that reveal the textile substrate, the material beneath the smooth
surfaces, and, ironically, create a new level of abstraction wholly unintended by
their creator).
226 Radical Poetry

But how does Malevich’s work “trigger” a sense of movement? While the
perception of movement in “motion” pictures has long been considered an effect
of both ocular physiology and cognitive processes, something similar could be said
for the painterly perception of motion, and, by extension, for the illusion of script
in motion achieved by the Concrete poets. Julian Hochberg and Virginia Brooks, in
their article “Movies in the Mind’s Eye,” discuss the phenomenon of virtual motion
(368–88). According to Hochberg and Brooks, the kinetic illusion created by film
and painting is founded on an empirical condition of stillness: neither the images
in the photograms nor those in the paintings move in any real physical sense. The
motion is entirely “virtual,” not physically existing but perceived by the mind’s eye
alone, an “active” spectatorial supplement of sorts. Likewise, paintings stimulate a
perception of motion when fragmented and distorted static images are “smoothed
over” by optical Gestalt effects that “join” the disconnected parts. Our perception,
according to cognitive scientists, cannot distinguish illusionary motion from “real”
movement, since the brain negotiates the discontinuities to provide a complete
and seamless image of the world. In a sense, the relationship between real and
virtual motion is analogous to the link between abstract art and the so-called real
world, which is also revealed as a world of perception, fraught with uncertainty,
ambiguity, and illusion—and yet, the “distinction,” and relative distinctiveness, of
the figurative and the abstract persists.1
Plainly, representing the temporal in painting was primarily a technical
problem. Time, obviously, could only be represented through optical illusions and
analogies of motion, unless it was represented symbolically by painting clocks,
signs of aging, time of day, as was the case with the Flemish vanitas tradition so
attentive to the transient nature of earthly concerns. But although an allegorical
solution was satisfactory to the Surrealists and the Dadaists, other modernists
(Cubists, Futurists, Ultraists, Stridentists, Vorticists) sought the thing in itself, the
capture of time as time. Cinema had demonstrated that time is linked to motion,
and, it was thought, movement might also be how static visual representations
could “transcend” the planar surface of the canvas, providing a sense of temporality.
If a static image creates a perception of a change, no matter how subtle or virtual,
it suggests and perhaps registers, at least in the viewer’s perception, time’s passage.
In 1912, French Cubist painters Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes wrote in their
theoretical treatise Du “Cubisme” that modern painting allowed them “to express
notions of depth, density, and duration supposed to be inexpressible,” prompting
them to “represent, in terms of complex rhythm, a veritable fusion of objects,
within a limited space” (Chipp 210; my emphasis). Were Metzinger and Gleizes
exaggerating what amounted to mere visual tricks?
Concrete Aesthetics 227

Perhaps. Nevertheless, it was evident that duration and movement were a

recurring obsession for avant-gardists attempting to surpass the limits of a “zero”
degree of representation. Malevich, Mondrian, and Theo van Doesburg, his
companion from the Dutch De Stijl group (also known as Neoplasticists)—were
fascinated by the effects achieved by varying the relative position of abstract
shapes, pursuing a type of trompe l’oeil that was not connected to the figurative, as
with the Surrealist works by René Magritte (1898–1967), Yves Tanguy (1900–1955),
Francis Picabia (1879–1953), or Salvador Dalí (1904–1989), but rather to the kinetic.
Mondrian and the Neoplasticists proposed a kind of Op Art avant la lettre, triggering
illusions that did not replicate objects from the world, but “animated” abstract
shapes and colors, making them seem as if they were on different planes, while
simultaneously emphasizing the flatness of the painting via the use of homogeneous
primary colors. The effect of the simultaneous flattening and the superimposition
of planes can prove destabilizing for the eye, resulting in a sensation of motion
or flickering, in other words, the Neoplasticist painting seems to “move.”
But, how could such rigid, uniformly calculated grids and flat planes as seen in
the work of Mondrian and other Neoplasticists be made to move? The apparent
uniformity of Mondrian’s paintings is misleading given that “the grid will lead to
and through a planar space which, although flat, is optically kinetic” (Schufreider
n.p.). Malevich “activated” his work by presenting abstract shapes against an empty
background to provide a sense of instability, of a floating and disorienting motion.
Mondrian, in contrast, relied on orthogonal lines that “boxed in” their interior,
uniform, primary-colored squares and rectangles providing a controlled, grid-like
composition that hinted at dynamism through relational shifts between the figure
and ground, or the grid and the color planes. A brief glance at how Malevich and
Mondrian achieved kinetic effects is useful, since they influenced the Concretists,
Optical Art, and much of Abstract Expressionism and color field painting by Mark
Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Kenneth Noland.
We can observe modest virtual motion effects in Mondrian’s early Neoplasticist
paintings such as Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue and Black (1921). A carefully
measured grid delineating squares of different colors and sizes, this composition
uses mostly whites, as well as red, yellow, black, and blue. Despite the geometrical
rigor of its perfectly square frame (exactly 2 x 2 ft.) the painting eschews internal
symmetry, aiming instead for a visual “rhythm” predicated on the juxtaposition
of similarities and differences. Squares and rectangles vary in position, shape,
size, and color, and even the whites have different hues and intensities, creating
the sensation that some planes recede while others approach the “surface.” The
thick, black grid lines in Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue and Black divide, define,
228 Radical Poetry

and delimit the spaces within. The solid, flat colors and their unbroken surfaces
are freed from any pictorial referentiality, and thus color and form becomes the
subject. The painting is paradoxically mathematical in its calculated effects, and
yet courts instability and surprise. Mondrian’s painting (and not just this particular
one) shows that color is an unstable and shifting category since the same pigment
looks different depending on the colors adjacent to it. For example, there are two
red shapes, one a large square centrally located, the other a small, rectangular sliver
at the lower right edge of the canvas, that appear to have different hues by virtue of
their juxtaposition with different colors, their size and location in relation to the
edge. On close inspection, without looking at the overall effect of the painting, the
two colors are seen to have the same hue, so that both the involuntary “motion”
and the color difference depend on viewing the whole work simultaneously; indeed,
the painting is more than the sum of its parts.
As a rule, in Mondrian’s paintings, color and line are the prime materials
for creating optical illusions of kinetic instability. The perception of motion
in his painting is the complex product of several factors: optics—related to the
functioning of the eye and the physics of light waves; cognition—in the brain’s
processing of motion; bodily perceptions—as when one “feels” the direction of
the strokes in a painting; and analogy—the translation of “virtual” movement
into real movement in our mind’s eye. Mondrian’s increasingly dynamic painting
culminated with the New York series of the early 1940s, works that were directly
inspired by the city’s bright lights and by the velocity of its automobiles, such as
Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1943) and his last, unfinished work, Victory Boogie Woogie
(1944). In these two paintings Mondrian subverts the grid and permits abstraction
and representation to be once again joined through the (schematic) depiction of
city lights, traffic, movement, and jazz music. In the Boogie Woogie works, he
partially disintegrates the reticular grid, which now, in the form of discontinuous
lines—or even altogether nonexistent lines—evokes urban images such as a “map”
of Manhattan, its streets, and perhaps its skyscrapers, the flickering lights of the
big city as well as, more elusively, the syncopated and improvisational rhythms of
American Jazz music invoked by the title, “Boogie Woogie.” 2 Schufreider suggests
that these visual and aural dynamic elements liberated Mondrian’s Neoplasticism
from the rigidity of its former grids, which had begun to act as a jail-like restraint
on the full capacity for the colors to “vibrate.” Mondrian asserted that his art
had progressed from stasis and equilibrium toward movement: “Many appreciate
in my former work just what I did not want to express, but which was produced
by an incapacity to express what I wanted to express—dynamic movement in
equilibrium. But a continuous struggle for this statement brought me nearer. This
is what I am attempting in Victory Boogie Woogie” (“Mondrian’s Opening” n.p.). The
Concrete Aesthetics 229

intermittent appearance and disappearance of the grid and geometrical elements,

and in Victory Boogie Woogie, the frame “turned” on its side by forty-five degrees,
the visual—and musical—force of the syncopated colors, the breakdown of lines
and planes provide the Dutch painter’s last work with its astonishing kineticism.
Mondrian’s procedures to “dynamize” static artwork were soon adopted
by Concretism, whose painters, poets, and sculptors were equally eager to
embrace non-iconic abstraction and a “less is more” philosophy, coupled with a
self-reflexive approach that turned art toward its own subject matter—the study
of form and material. After World War II, poets began to experiment with grids,
constrained writing, figure-ground relations and concepts of structure—planar
and three-dimensional—in their texts. In Brazil’s vibrant art scene, a fascination
with Constructivist and Neoplasticist kinetic art was magnified by the country’s
most radically modern architecture boom, taking place during the massive wave of
industrialization and development fomented by Juscelino Kubitschek’s government
(from 1956 until 1961).

Concrete Art and Poetry in Brazil’s Postwar Years

Even as they acknowledged Mondrian’s and Malevich’s role as precursors to

Concrete art, Brazilian artists insisted on departing from those models. The
painter Waldemar Cordeiro, for instance, declared that Concretism would exceed
the Neoplasticist and Constructivist project by incorporating a greater degree
of temporality, stating that, “spatial two-dimensional painting reached its peak
with Malevich and Mondrian. Now there appears a new dimension: time. Time
as movement. Representation transcends the plane, but it is not perspective, it
is movement” (Clüver, Noigandres n.p.). Although the shift toward representing
temporality through movement was decidedly present in Mondrian’s and Malevich’s
paintings, the Concretists made it their primary objective, intensifying the visual
perception of motion. When the Concrete poets outlined their program in their
“Plan Piloto,” they featured Mondrian prominently among other precursors,
mentioning the kinetic Boogie Woogie paintings:3

concrete poetry: tension of word-things in space-time. dynamic structure:

multiplicity of concomitant movements. likewise in music—by definition a
time art—space intervenes (webern and his followers: boulez and stockhausen:
concrete and electronic music); in the visual arts—spatial by definition—time
intervenes (mondrian and the boogie-woogie series; max bill; albers and the
ambivalence of perception; concrete art in general) (Campos, Pignatari, and
Campos, trans. Clüver, “The Ruptura” 174).
230 Radical Poetry

Obviously, the Europeans represented a decisive influence on Brazilian Concrete

art, however, there were also striking differences, not merely linguistic but also
through the inclusion of “human” and subjective elements into their poetry,
something absent in their models. This was especially true by the late fifties,
when the neo-Concretists (Ferreira Gullar, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Amílcar
de Castro) abandoned what they saw as the exacerbated “mathematization”
and extreme rationalism of the first phase of Concretism—exemplified by
the Noigandres group—to pursue the subjective and the intuitive, seeking a
more “phenomenological” experience of the art object; and by the early sixties
Concretism fused with music to usher in the Tropicália phase.
Just as critically, Concretism brought together many disciplines in an effort to
create a “total” art that defied categorization. As everyone focused on the concept
of “design,” the disciplinary lines separating architects from painters, sculptors,
furniture designers, or, indeed, poets and typographers, became nearly indistinct.
Finally everyone was doing “design” with similar goals: efficiency, modularity,
simplicity, functionality, and proportionality. Moreover, as Clüver declares,
Concrete poets, painters, sculptors, and architects participated in numerous joint
exhibitions, displaying their work side by side in order to better promote it:

[The “I Exposição Nacional de Arte Concreta,” (São Paulo, 1956)] established

the label “Concrete Art,” and with it “Concrete Poetry,” in the public mind. It
was apparently the first exhibition in Brazil where paintings, sculptures, and
poster poems were exhibited side by side. It thus gave visitors an opportunity
to explore the features that prompted visual artists as well as poets to use the
same label for their work. (Noigandres n.p.)

The Concrete poets exemplify a renewed interest in the 1950s toward the
structural—spatial, phonetic, verbal—possibilities of kinetic poetry (poetry that
appears to move). As I mentioned, Concrete poetry emerged simultaneously in
Germany, Switzerland, and Brazil as a rigidly structured subgenre of experimental
poetry that tried to directly relate its spatial arrangement with its semantic
content. “Concrete” was used to describe the material aspect of poetic texts
that deployed words as objects in addition to selecting them for their referential
properties, closely linking the two functions (aesthetic-poetic and referential).
Despite Concrete poetry’s emphasis on the material appearance and behavior of
words, it retains a strong component of referentiality.
But, as a central tenet in their aesthetic, although they maintained the referent,
Concrete poets rejected the figurative: unlike Apollinaire, Junoy, Huidobro, or
Concrete Aesthetics 231

Tablada, they refused to “draw” images with the arrangement of word-objects,

hence, none of their poems are real calligrams. Instead, they display pattern,
abstraction. For Pignatari, that sort of pictorialism was a “fallacy,” since it denied
both visual rhythm and movement for the sake of facile mimetic effects.4 The
Concrete poets also explored formats that went beyond the bound book, creating
posters, paintings, and sculptures. Now poetry could be displayed on walls,
hung in galleries, stenciled, or even assembled from construction materials; for
instance, the Mexican poet-architect Mathias Goeritz (1915–1990) cast his poem
“pocos cocodrilos locos” (1967) as an actual concrete wall. Concrete poetry was
regularly exhibited in galleries next to other Concrete art, as in the 1977 exhibition
titled “Projeto Construtivo Brasileiro na Arte (1950–1962)” held in Rio de Janeiro
and São Paulo, demonstrating that presumed binary opposites such as “poetry”
and “painting” or “concrete” and “abstract” were, in the case of Concrete art,
overlapping fields.
With that interdisciplinarity in mind, let us examine some works typically
categorized as “painting” before moving on to the “poetry” proper. Two well-known
paintings illustrate how the Concretists conceptualized art as kinetic “problems” to
be “experimentally” tested and solved, whether complications posed by the rhythm
of words on a poem, or by the suggested motion of shapes on a canvas. The first
painting is Movimento (1951), by Waldemar Cordeiro (1925–1973), a member of the
São Paulo group “Ruptura.” The other painting, Desenvolvimento de um quadrado
[Função diagonal] (Development, or Unfolding, of a Square [Diagonal Function]) (1952)
is by the Rio de Janeiro painter Geraldo de Barros (1923–1998), also a member
of “Ruptura.” For “Ruptura,” especially during the movement’s early phase, the
artwork required a rational or mathematical basis. They opposed both figurative
art and “undisciplined” abstraction (such as Abstract Expressionism and its
gesture-based painting) that did not display a rigorous underlying geometrical
foundation. The “Ruptura” group relied on optical techniques to create virtual
movement, following, as I suggested above, the footsteps of Dutch Neoplasticism,
Russian Constructivism, and the German Bauhaus. In addition, the Brazilian
Concrete painters relied on the latest industrial materials such as enamel, lacquer,
and acrylic paints on industrial board, plaster, and plywood supports, as well as
canvas. Their willingness to use new materials and industrial techniques, such
as plastic-based paints applied with airbrush, stencils, or other methods beyond
the “traditional” brush, paralleled efforts by the poets, who were “looking both
for inspiration from and confirmation by innovative practices of the past, and
cultivating the affinity of their work with contemporary trends in the other arts”
(Clüver, “The ‘Ruptura’” 174).
232 Radical Poetry

Movimento (1951) presents a set of rigorously geometrical color stripes painted

onto a slightly irregular white canvas (90.1 x 95.3 cm), a style adopted a few years
later by Venezuelan painter Alejandro Otero in which the color stripes appear
to move. The colored stripes of the same width alternate with the white ground
space at irregular intervals, creating slight “dissonances” within the otherwise
well-ordered, Cartesian composition. The strictly horizontal lines, of varying
lengths, might share a common starting or ending point, creating patterns and
emphasizing some “breaks” in the horizontal continuity. Even as the “breaks”
provide rhythm, the preponderance of the horizontal bands reaffirms a sense of
forward motion, as if the sleek, uniform lines were the “traces” left behind by
fast-moving objects. Guy Brett’s observations about Otero’s style also describes how
Cordeiro’s Movimento simulates motion: “Their dynamism [the paintings’] is due to
their emphasis on ‘rhythm’ rather than ‘form’, produced by a sustained ambiguity
between figure and ground. Our perceptual habits themselves are disturbed, or set
in motion, but without the behavioral rigidity of much later ‘optical art’” (Ades 261).
Quite different visually from Cordeiro’s, although guided by similar principles,
de Barros’s Desenvolvimento de um quadrado [Função diagonal] relies on a distinctly
mathematical, progressively unfolding motion. As the title indicates (Unfolding of a
Square [Diagonal Function]), the painting is predicated on a geometrical operation
that alternates black and white color squares, by folding each consecutive square
into the area of the first (ad infinitum) so as to rotate the figure by forty-five degrees
and place its vertices at the midpoint of the enveloping square’s legs, bisecting each
side, and suggesting an infinitely recursive arithmetic progression. After three
iterations of this process, however, a slight variation is introduced by inscribing a
smaller white triangle (which also forms a square) into the previous dark shape,
and then the process continues by placing a smaller black square within that
white shape, and so on. As the squares seem to get progressively smaller with each
subsequent operation the painting simulates a kind of inward motion, a folding of
the canvas onto itself (assuming one starts with the largest square, which doubles
as the outer frame). Admittedly, any sense of directionality is merely ascribed to
the work by the spectator, since there is no indication of what “order” the squares
were painted in. Nevertheless, there is an optical sense of movement that makes
the painting acquire depth, renders it object-like, prefiguring later work by Lygia
Clark, Lygia Pape, Hélio Oitica, and Ferreira Gullar involving folding poems and
objects (such as Clark’s folding Bichos, “critters”), artworks meant to be “lived” as
“experiences,” rather than merely viewed.
From the above description, it is obvious that Cordeiro’s and de Barros’s
paintings share an interest in optical illusions, movement, and Gestalt psychology.
The Brazilian Concretists, enamored of scientific approaches, were well acquainted
Concrete Aesthetics 233

with how Europeans had deployed Gestalt techniques, and determined to go

further. It is well known that Gestalt theories developed in the 1920s had a notable
impact on the work of Bauhaus and De Stijl painters; for instance, Paul Klee taught
his students how overlapping planes triggered sensations of depth, something
he learned from publications by Gestalt psychologists Friedrich Schumann
and Theodor Lipps (van Campen 133). Similarly, Bauhaus instructor Johannes
Itten’s color theory, which used the science of optical perception to study color
harmony, complementarity, afterimages, and related phenomena, was derived
from contemporary scientific research on the effect of color on human psychology.
We discussed how Mondrian’s painting displays a tension between planar surface
and “depth” as suggested by the illusion of superimposed color planes. Carefully
choosing specific hues and placing certain colors adjacent to or over other colors
creates a sense of in- and out-of-plane motion, related to the figure and ground
effect that alternatively shifts the appearance of which figure is in the foreground
and which recedes in the background.
Cordeiro’s and de Barros’s paintings show a direct application of Gestalt. How
do those Gestalt “effects” work? Cordeiro’s Movimento relies on perceptual effects
created by the precise configuration of the different colored stripes on the white
pictorial plane. According to Lipps’s Gestalt theories, visual perception takes place
in a two-step process, the sensory registration of the physical elements depicted on
the canvas (the purely mechanical operation of “seeing”), followed by the mental
construction of forms (a cognitive process), subject to the “illusions” caused by the
particular disposition of objects on the canvas (van Campen 134). The similarity
of the colored stripes in Movimento, identical in width, unifies the composition,
while differences in color, length, and line spacing result in visual anomalies that
shift attention to specific areas. The painting’s visual horizontality provides a
sense of continuity, guiding the eye into “following” the lines as if they were, in
fact, moving. The “vertical” breaks provided by the end and start locations of the
horizontal lines shift progressively closer to the left edge of the canvas (as one
moves “down” the painting), fostering the illusion that the movement is from
left to right, a sensation reinforced by Western reading proclivities. In contrast,
Geraldo de Barros’s painting explores the gradual “unfolding” of a square shape
in a mise en abyme that places alternating black and white squares “inside” of the
previous square. There is a pattern here, as squares are formed by rotating the
inscribed square by forty-five degrees, so that its vertices bisect the center of the
sides of the circumscribing square; but the pattern is not uniformly upheld and
other combinations are used as the shape gradually “unfolds” toward the right
of the canvas, producing a peculiar sensation of “outward” motion. De Barros
therefore uses both Gestalt psychology and the Droste effect, a recursive device in
234 Radical Poetry

which, similar to fractal geometry, an image reproduces an image of itself that is

a progressively smaller version, achieving a kinetic spiraling effect.
Of course, this geometrical étude carries within itself an unintended critique
of the concrete project at-large: potentially repeating to infinity, the endless
self-reflexivity of the exercise recalls the criticism leveled against geometrical
abstract art, by Lukács and others, that such endeavors—narcissistically obsessed
with form and surface, with appearance, as opposed to “substance”—are,
ultimately, meaningless and empty, all surface, no depth. Lukács, in The Meaning
of Contemporary Realism (1958), was vitriolic in his attack against abstraction,
which he viewed as symptomatic of the decay of the bourgeoisie, marking the
abstract for its complicity with capitalist modes of production and decrying its
disconnect from working-class struggles. Similar accusations of empty formalism
were also directed against Constructivism by both fascist and communist
governments during the 1930s and ’40s, which classified it as “degenerate” art—
and therefore one might, if generously inclined, read abstraction and concrete
art as an oppositional force to totalizing state-enforced artistic policies—at
least in specific historical contexts. Conversely, experimental, self-reflexive art
also had many defenders, for instance, Berthold Brecht who in his dismissal
of realism in favor of avant-garde modalities spoke about the impossibility of
capturing so-called real life, of representing human relations through direct
representation. There is, at any rate, certain unresolvable dimension in the
debate that pits abstraction against representation in art, a dialectical opposition
that eludes synthesis but perhaps reflects the very crisis of contemporary culture,
the impossibility to reconcile models and their fragments, as with capitalism,
the remnants of socialism, and other failed utopian -isms.
Admittedly, Concrete art was never persecuted by the Brazilian state. Whereas
punitive measures were taken against Formalists, Futurists, and Constructivists in
Stalin’s Soviet Union in an effort to enshrine the dogma of Social Realism, in Brazil
during the fifties and sixties, Concrete art, abstraction, and modernist attention to
form were associated with the state’s project of modernization and development,
as “enshrined” in the construction of Brasilia. Consecutive governments on both
the Left and the Right, from progressive presidents such as João Goulart to the
military junta that came to power in 1964, embraced avant-garde art as a sign of
progress and modernization. The close relation between modern art and the state,
based on a shared yet troubling ultrarationalist vision, led the neo-Concretists
to reintroduce the subjective, the organic, and the “human” back into Concrete
art, and eventually resulted in the emergence of more politically aggressive
countercultural and “organic” artistic movements such as Tropicália.
Concrete Aesthetics 235

Thus far, we have examined at some length the work of the Concrete painters
with an eye to see how it influenced the poets. But what were the Concrete poets’
designs for poetry? Chief among their goals was creating a kinetic, geometrical
kind of poetry that engaged all of the senses and artistic modalities, so that the
poetic “text” became a poetic event, an experience. They appropriated the term
verbivocovisual from James Joyce’s acclaimed modernist novel Finnegans Wake (1939),
to describe the multisensory and pluridimensional character of their own work,
attentive to sight, sound, and silence. Undoubtedly, anchored as it is to the graphic
representation on the page and reliant on the tensions between the visual, verbal,
and phonetic aspects of verse, Concrete poetry has much in common with the
Concrete art we discussed.
How and when did the Brazilian Concrete poetry movement begin? It is difficult
to establish an exact year, but one of its first public communications dates from
1952, when Décio Pignatari announced that the São Paulo Noigandres group,
integrated by the brothers Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, and Pignatari himself,
was conducting “research” on poetic structure, space, and motion, in order to
develop the mechanics and inner workings of an inter-semiotic poetry that relied
on several semiotic systems: words, images, symbols (Korfmann and Nogueira
140). They intended to approach poetry as if it were “science.” The use of scientific
language by avant-gardists was nothing new, and this particular group was well
poised to integrate scientific, technological, and advertising elements into poetry.
Although acquainted with Gestalt psychology and Eisenstein’s theories of montage,
which played an important role in the structural conception of Concrete poetry,
it was actually mass communication and advertising technologies that served as
paradigms to be emulated, as well as parodied, subverted, and remediated. The
influence of mass media and communications in the 1950s included older media,
such as newspapers, magazines, cinema, and the radio, and newer media, such
as television and billboard advertising. But whereas modernists such as Oswald
de Andrade and Tarsila do Amaral at times incorporated technology somewhat
superficially, representing it as content, the Concrete poets’ inclusion of mass
media and other communication technologies went further, seeking to “reconcile
formalism, technology and social relevance” (Perrone 48).
True to this scientific (at times pseudo-scientific) method of inquiry, Pignatari
declared that Noigandres would research “the plan[e]s for cleavage in the internal
mechanics [of the poem]” (Korfmann and Nogueira 140). Despite the intensified
emphasis on technology, such references to cleavage planes, to slices, cuts, or
analytic dissection of poems were, of course, also an echo of the modernists’
interest in fragmentation, simultaneity, and movement previously displayed by
236 Radical Poetry

works such as the “coma Lacta” advertisement examined in the preceding chapter.
Evidently, the kinetic was key to the Concrete poets’ understanding of poetry,
as it had been for the modernists. Unsurprisingly, Pignatari insisted that “[the]
problem of movement, the dynamic structure and the qualitative mechanics
[of motion]” were the defining characteristics of Concrete poetry. Endorsing
interdisciplinary collaboration, he stated that “[the] abolition of . . . verse brought
problems of space and time (movement), which are common both to visual arts
and architecture, to concrete poetry” (Korfmann and Nogueira 140). Indeed, as
Clüver corroborates, Concrete poems “are all spatio-temporal structures in which
highly reduced verbal material has been submitted to a rigidly controlled process”
(“Reflections” 137). The architectural vocabulary and spatial thinking mobilized
by the Noigandres group in their manifestos and declarations was a response on
the poetic front to the prominent construction of Brasilia during years of rapid,
intensified development: urban grids found a parallel in poetic grids. Embracing
the era of mass (re)production, the poets understood modern art to be closely
imbricated with those building processes, with architecture, road construction,
and the speed and movement associated with the automobile and the airplane. The
new industrial manufacturing, construction, and media technologies suggested
new ways of engaging time and space in poetry.
Although the avant-gardes of the “heroic” phase (1905–1939) had not attained the
sought-after inter-artistic synthesis by fusing the temporal and spatial properties
of poetry, painting, and music, an objective traceable to Wagner’s total work of
art (Gesamtkunstwerk), Concrete art made some progress in that direction. In
fact, Steiner claims that Brazilian Concrete poetry represented one of the few
instances in which there was a precise correspondence between the verbal text
and the spatiotemporal norms that organize it (50). Such correspondence between
visual and verbal, articulated by Noigandres with the “mathematical” expression
“Structure = Content” in their Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry (1958), correlates to
a media landscape that was increasingly faster, efficient, simplified, and highly
condensed; in effect, the poetry reflected the language of radio, magazines,
billboards, and television advertising, which required messages to be brief and
forceful to engage consumers effectively. For example, Augusto de Campos’s
anthology Poetamentos (1953) included poems with words written in different colors,
meant to both mimic lighted advertising signs and identify a reading pattern for
different “voices.” When performed publicly a different person recited each color,
treating the poem as a kind of advertising jingle.
Pignatari’s familiar poem “beba coca cola” (see Figure 8.1) is paradigmatic of
how concrete poetry “operates” to subversively mobilize advertising technology.5
Figure 8.1. Décio Pignatari. “beba coca cola.”
(Pignatari, Poesia pois e poesia 113).
238 Radical Poetry

In “beba” the fragmentation of syntax and its reorganization posits an ideological

message, or as Haroldo de Campos styles it, an anti-ad, a parody of the Coca-Cola
slogan. Without denying the close ties of Concrete poetry with both nationalism
and capitalism, at least this poem strikes a posture against international capitalism
and against the “coca-colonialization” of Latin America by performing an act
of cultural cannibalism (against consumption itself) in the spirit of the earlier
antropofagia.6 (The English translation of the poem is by Mary Ellen Solt).
Deceptively simple, and pared down to only six different letters (a, e, o, b, c, l),
the poem transmits a playfully subversive message through the deconstruction
and reorganization of its phonetic and semantic structure. Fragmentation and
syllabic recombination is accomplished through the use of metathesis, a sound
change that alters the order of phonemes in a word, such as the change from
“beba” to “babe” that occurs in the poem’s first line (not verse). Besides playing
on variations of the three components of morphemes, namely, the semantic
meaning, the sound, and the visual form, the poem activates the analogical
print kinetics of appearing and disappearing words by relying on illusionistic
mechanisms and Gestalt effects evocative of both the modernist “coma Lacta” ad,
and Cordeiro’s or De Barros’s paintings. But whereas the “coma Lacta” message
was, despite its aesthetic novelty, the unabashed promotion of a consumer
product, here we have the opposite, an anticonsumerist stance against the
culturally invasive and commercially exploitative penetration of United States
multinationals such as Coca-Cola.
Admittedly, Pignatari’s poem shares much with the advertisement poems of
Klaxon, for instance their ideogrammatic nature, and as Clüver observes, the way
it partially abandons traditional temporality and spatiality to create a visual and
sonorous syntax through the distribution of script on the plane of the page (138).
And, although Concrete poetry emphasizes the spatial over the sequential, this
poem still shows remnants of a left-to-right and top-to-bottom orientation, since
the top line indicates the slogan and the subsequent lines represent variations
that drive toward the “punch line” or counter slogan at the end. Nevertheless, as
in “coma Lacta,” the inherent multidirectionality of “beba” also invites the reader
to engage in ocular displacements closer to the observation of a painting than to
the reading of a printed text, movements that slow down and come to a halt as
they focus on a particular word, in order to read the word in the conventional,
lexical sense. Thus, foregrounding the nature of its own structure, “beba” functions
as metapoetry, engaging in a dialectic that both reaffirms and questions the
normative left-to-right reading, in addition to performing the more concrete,
ideological critique.
Concrete Aesthetics 239

Most “verbivocovisual” poems such as this one engage three lexical registers—
the semantic, the phonetic, and the visual—imitating movement through
typographic mechanisms, shifting and displacing the coordinates of words within
the space of the poem. Pignatari’s “beba coca cola” is representative of the first
phase of Concrete poetry, known as orthodox Concretism, a period defined by the
rigorous mathematical arrangement of the poetic elements (in this case words); in
fact, this poem arranges a Cartesian space where controlled “movements” are made
through deliberately planned patterns of repetition and variation. Although the
Noigandres group energetically disavowed metaphor in its Pilot Plan, the poem relies
on a kinetic analogy to carry out its phonetic displacements, cleverly concealing
the methodical calculation of its effects under the appearance of randomness.
Echoing the geometrical exactitude of concrete painting, the meticulous linearity
of “beba’s” three-word columns (which, with the exception of “cloaca,” are formed
by perfectly aligned four-letter words) produces an effect that is mathematically
more precise than—but similar to—the visual effect of the “coma Lacta” ad: the
illusion that words are flickering on and off, appearing and disappearing from view.
For Severo Sarduy, mobility is the principal mechanism for enacting the poem’s
visual experience and transmitting its message:

Mobility: as image implies fixedness, metaphor, as the substance of the poetic

system, invites a constant displacement of verbal bodies: planets out of orbit
that abandon their ellipses in order to be inserted into others: constant
change, movement and permutation of phonemes, slipping and escape that
is manifested above all when the text voluntarily limits its space, drawing a
precise geometry on the page, a clean contour, hard edge, or formal enclosure
whose drawing arrests the internal fervor of the signs, the crackling of sounds,
the constant noise of letters appearing mechanically at regular intervals like a
telex, or changing, like the electronic screens at airports, until it forms, after
multiple metamorphoses at the limit of meaning or legibility, a clear, obvious,
immediately decipherable and effective message. (“Towards Concreteness” 64)

Obviously, to reveal its message “beba” relies on a visual trick that plays with
the tension between the blank space(s) and the scripted space—similar to the
relation between figure and ground, or dark and light—resulting in the subjective
perception that the static words alternate kinetically. Such visual illusions connect
Concrete poetry not just to the Concrete painters, but also to the Op Art (optical
art) of the late fifties and early sixties. The Concrete poets were likely familiar
with early Op Art, and acquainted with the Gestalt theory that underpinned it.7
240 Radical Poetry

A brief aside into Op Art will illustrate some of the principles operative in
Concrete poems such as “beba coca cola,” to which we shall return presently.
Op Art relied mostly on precisely planned two-tone arrangements that used
the instability between figure and ground, as well as the visual contradictions
between different planes, to produce the sensation of movement, vibrations, or
shimmering afterimages. Popularized by a hugely successful exhibition called
The Responsive Eye (1965) at New York’s MoMA (which had greater diffusion
than the 1956 This Is Tomorrow London exhibition), Op Art comprises paintings
that refuse to stay still, interacting with ocular mechanisms and the cognitive
apparatus to produce effects that do not “objectively” exist except from a strictly
phenomenological standpoint.
Paramount among its goals, as theorized by painters such as the
Bauhaus-trained Josef Albers, Op Art, like Concrete art, wished to bridge art and
science through its inquiry into optical phenomena and its incursion into the
probabilistic. British artist Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares (1961) is a prime
example of how Op Art triggers kinetic perceptions, in this case by creating
the illusion of curvature and movement of a plane surface by gradually varying
the width of its checkered squares while maintaining the height constant.
Comparing Movement in Squares with a 1953 Concrete painting by Brazilian
Maurício Nogueira Lima (1930–1999), entitled Objeto rítmico No. 2 (Rhythmic
Object No. 2) reveals the association between Concrete art and Op Art. Both
works use two-tone arrangements and squares or stripes of varying dimensions
to provide a sensation of rhythm and motion, both self-ref lexively explore
their own process and materials, both trigger optical effects that occur in the
spectator in an involuntary fashion, and both seek to create motion where there
is truly none. Like their fellow painters, the Concrete poets used simple verbal
and visual patterns in regular and repetitive sequences to impress or stimulate
an illusion of movement. Although Pignatari’s “beba coca cola” requires a
viewer’s effort to reorganize the text, in Op Art the kinetic effects typically occur
involuntarily, although at times may also require a voluntary effort to “see” them.
There is a persistent trend, from modernismo’s kinetic analogies (“coma Lacta”),
which became optical illusions affecting perception in Concretism, followed by
today’s virtual motion achieved through digital means.
After this digression into optical illusions, let us return with a more in-depth
look at Pignatari’s “beba coca cola” and decode its message. Recalling that it is
a play on the slogan “beba coca cola,” let us examine each word. Analyzing the
poem’s “movements” and semantic ambiguities, José Fernandes observes that the
switch from “beba” to the polysemic “babe,” meaning to drool or slobber, begins
Concrete Aesthetics 241

a slide toward the eschatological. Fernandes adds that “babar se correlaciona,

ainda, a fala melíflua, fala enganosa da propaganda e do domínio cultural que se
impõe aos povos subdesenvolvidos [“babar” is related, still, to the silver-tongued
deceitful language of advertising and is related to the cultural dominion imposed
on underdeveloped nations]” (125). The poem degenerates from “coca”—with its
negative reference to cocaine—to “caco,” which means “shard,” and as Müller-Bergh
states, hints at the vulgar slang “cocô,” meaning “shit” (25). Semantic slippages are
facilitated by the visual effects triggered by optical illusionism, by the ease with
which one letter might be read as another. In a complex orchestration, “coca, cola e
caco procedem a um verdadeiro balé, em que fonemas e palavras se vão sucedendo
até desembocarem na cloaca, fusão das palavras, dos corpos e das essências [coca,
cola and caco proceed toward a true ballet, where phonemes and words succeed
each other until they flush into the cloaca, fusion of words, bodies and essences]”
(Fernandes 125).
Through the omission of morphemes and the recombination of phonemes,
the poem suggests several possibilities almost homonymous with “beba coca
cola,” such as “beba coca” (drink cocaine), or “babear cola” (drool glue), in a series
of perverse variations that delegitimize the original slogan. The (suggested or
imagined) visual draining of the poem leads into the “c l o a c a,” whose letters
are separated by spaces in a way that visually mimics a drain viewed in cross
section—the spaces between letters would be the drain holes— and underscores
their implicit relation to the brand “coca cola.” By virtue of their symmetrical
location in the first and last lines, and since the brand “coca cola” and the word “c
l o a c a” occupy approximately the same typographic space (their edges perfectly
aligned, so that the first “c” and the final “a” could be connected by a straight
line), the reader perceives the visual tautology Coca Cola = cloaca (cesspool,
sewer. excrement, rectum). The internal spaces of the word “c l o a c a” suggest
the kinetic and combinatorial possibilities of the letters, which, once separated
from morphemes and phonemes, can then be reorganized to explore syntactic
and semantic “discontinuities.”
Fernandes’s description of the poem as a ballet is appropriate given the carefully
arranged visual choreography of words and letters, evenly spaced to achieve kinetic
effects. The poem’s inherent performativity led to its adaptation into a 16mm
short film (1979), in which the words are animated and set to the syncopated and
microtonal music of the Motet em ré menor (1966) by composer Gilberto Mendes
(1922–) (Bezerra 29). Sound, and in this case the musical score, is paramount for
concrete poetry (as with Augusto de Campos’s graphophonetic poem “tensão”)
(Aguilar 197). Through motion and sound the film intensifies the sensation of
242 Radical Poetry

isomorphism (“form = content and content = form” [Solt 13]) rendering visible
and audible its critique against—or rather parody, mockery, charade of—cultural
imperialism and television commercial advertising, and enhancing its protest
against foreign “substances” invading the national body.
But what, exactly, is “isomorphism,” and how does it work in the concrete poem?
Concrete isomorphism is a reduced (more schematic) incarnation of the Futurist
analogia disegnata, where the visual linguistic elements—words, letters—assume
a shape that is analogous or recalls their meaning. “Wave/Rock” (1966) by the
Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay is a prime example of how an isomorphic poem
assumes a form that coincides with its meaning. “Wave/Rock” almost functions
like a landscape painting: in it, a series of words that spell “wave” in varying degrees
of completeness “collide” against (or rather, are placed increasingly close to, even
superimposed onto) another closely packed set of words spelling “rock” multiple
times. The poem both refers to and shows the action of the waves crashing against
rocks. Finlay also uses color to emphasize the relation between the words and
their referent, and so the words and letters spelling “wave” are blue, while those
for “rock” are brown. Even the title, “Wave/Rock” reflects this relationship and
visually parallels the layout of the depicted “landscape,” which situates the waves
on the left and the rocks on the right of the page.
A difference between a poem such as “Wave/Rock,” aesthetically evocative
of a calligram, and poems by the Noigandres group, is that the latter abolish
“pictorial” representation altogether, being primarily concerned with abstract
representation. Instead, Finlay’s poem represents the waves’ movement as they
crash into the rocks by depicting them iconically—the word wave, written in
blue, mimics the appearance and behavior of the waves and the shape of the “w”
and the “v” remind us visually of water, of the peaks and valleys of the waves.
The compact, overlapping repetition of the word rock provides a sense of solidity.
Something analogous occurs phonetically, the word wave is close to water, and
to other pertinent words such as wind or wharf. Rock is phonetically strong, with
its powerful “r” and “k” sounds that contrast with the softer, more “fluid” “w.”
When vocally interpreted by Finlay’s strong Scottish brogue, those r’s and k’s
reflect the solidity of rocky cliffs as the waves and the wind batter them, leading
to a vivid visualization, directly informed by the poem’s graphic form and by its
phonetic elements. “Wave/Rock” is highly isomorphic, but far too pictorial for
the Brazilian Concretists, who prefer “structural,” abstract isomorphism. “In its
most advanced state,” wrote Haroldo de Campos in the Pilot Plan, “[isomorphism]
tends to resolve itself into pure structural movement” (Bohn, Reading 236). For
the Brazilian poets, the “perfect” isomorphic image anneals the semantic,
Concrete Aesthetics 243

visual and aural/oral characteristics of the text without resorting to the visual
metaphors exemplified by “Wave/Rock,” which they judged a less sophisticated
type of isomorphism. Instead, structural isomorphism relies on the unity of a
“word-object” endowed with the illusion of movement. “Beba coca cola” is an
example of a less representational, arguably more abstract, and the Concretists
would insist more “advanced,” isomorphic poem, as is Bolivian Swiss poet Eugen
Gomringer’s “silencio” (1956):

silencio silencio silencio

silencio silencio silencio
silencio silencio
silencio silencio silencio
silencio silencio silencio

Gomringer, born in Bolivia but a resident of Switzerland for most of his life, trained
with Bauhaus painter and graphic designer Max Bill (1908–1994) and was influ-
enced by the Concrete visual art displayed at a groundbreaking 1944 exhibition
in Basel entitled Konkrete Kunst (Concrete Art). Although Theo van Doesburg,
Wassily Kandisnky, and Max Bill had already used the term concrete art in the
1930s, Gomringer popularized it with the publication of his poetry anthology
konstellationen (constellations) (1953), applying to poetry what he learned from Bill,
the Bauhaus, and Mondrian about typography’s spatial and visual possibilities.
I should mention, regarding the formal qualities of typography, a basic and
yet striking difference between Concrete art (as in Mondrian, Cordeiro, de
Barros) and just about any type of Concrete poetry: while straight lines dominate
Concrete painting, the endlessly twisted lines of the letters dominate Concrete
poetry, although these letters are, especially in the first phase of Concrete
poetry (the so-called orthodox phase), geometrically aligned in straight lines
and polygonal shapes, and typeset in a sober futura, sans-serif, boldface style.
In Concrete art, it might be argued that the disposition of the geometry is a
matter of choice and could have been otherwise; in typescript, the shape of
the letters is bound by typographic conventions, even if the choice of type
provides relative freedom within constraint. Obvious differences aside, as we
have seen, there are also many similarities between painting and poetry. The
poems, like the paintings, are often inscribed within “invisible” squares or grids,
especially during what Aguilar denominates the “reticular” phase of Concretism,
from 1956 to the early 1960s (235–37). In reality, there is a great deal of choice
in the “appearance” of the letters; at times, different fonts are chosen (despite
244 Radical Poetry

the preponderance of futura), and capital or lower-case letters are selected for
their aesthetic effects; lettering and background can be black and white or
polychromatic. The affinities between the art and the poetry are even more
noticeable if one considers “poem posters” that emphasize graphical qualities
with colored backgrounds and words disposed to convey the contours of various
shapes, rectangular, circular, and so on.
Often, the blank space becomes a critical feature in Concrete poetry. Gomring-
er’s “silencio,” included in konstellationen, reduces its lexicon to a single repeated
morpheme that significantly frames a noticeably blank space. The poem is pred-
icated on the paradox that the word for silence is, if spoken or read, not silent,
whereas the graphically represented blank space that is neither a word nor an
image “resounds” with the absence of sound. But the “silence” of the blank space—
or blank canvas, screen—could not exist without the reverberating echoes of the
word silencio that frame it (as a frame delimits but also constitutes a work of
art). The visual expression connects with the aural, since the absence of sound
(“silence”) becomes all the more audible and legible when contrasted with its
surrounding “sound,” emanating from the words (for) “silence.” Speech, music, and
noise are composed of alternating patterns of sound and silence, although we often
ignore blanks, negative spaces, and silence in favor of those spaces that are filled.
Gomringer’s poem isomorphically integrates form and content on each of its verbal,
vocal, and visual levels, and it indicates a threshold in language beyond which
expression is no longer possible, except through visual and metaphoric means. In
certain political contexts, silence might also function not as a noun but as a verbal
command that signifies to impose forcibly (an imperative), “to silence” dissent,
or, for that matter, expression of any sort. As we discussed, the 1950s marked an
escalation in Cold War confrontations in Latin America between conservative
nationalisms backed by the United States and utopian Marxism backed by the
Soviet Union, as well as direct Soviet and American interventionism in an increas-
ingly militarized hemisphere. Linked culturally to Bolivia and, through his poetry,
to Brazil, Gomringer was no stranger to the hemisphere’s politics. “Silence” was
a real condition indicating censorship and a lack of communication, preludes to
confrontation (revolutions, dictatorships, repression, state-sponsored terrorism)
that would frame and leave a void in 1960s and ’70s Latin American cultural life,
signifying an absence of civility, justice, and freedom. The empty space awaits
inscription or enunciation by the viewer in the form of verbal action, and perhaps,
serves as an elegiac gesture for the victims of dictatorships and political repression
(the “disappeared,” the “silenced”). Granted, it is difficult to glean political readings
from such playfully ambiguous concrete poetry; possibly the ambiguity is, itself,
(also) the point.
Concrete Aesthetics 245

In Defense of Concrete Poetry:

An Aesthetics and Politics of Commitment?

Concrete poetry has been criticized on two main grounds, on account of its
(supposedly) neutral or reactionary politics, and because of its minimalist
aesthetics; I will return to the first charge in short, but would like to address
the second immediately. Critics argue that both the more “abstract” versions
of Concrete poetry, such as “silencio” or “beba,” and the more mimetic or
representational ones, such as “Wave/Rock,” fall into what Umberto Eco calls
the “iconic fallacy,” the pervasive and mistaken belief that “a sign has the same
properties as its object and is simultaneously similar to, analogous to, and
motivated by its object” (191). Extreme examples of the iconic fallacy are a painting
taken for the thing it depicts, or a map for the territory, or a sign for the object it
points to; instances of the fusion or (con)fusion of an object and its representation
in the observer’s mind (where they become one). Those who apply this critique
against Concrete poetry—as Caroline Bayard does in The New Poetics in Canada
and Quebec: From Concretism to Post-Modernism (1989)—would argue, for instance,
that the blank space in the middle of Gomringer’s “silencio” should not be equated
with silence because to do so is to perpetrate the iconic fallacy, an erroneous, at
times malicious, understanding of the relationship between signs and their objects.
An icon, according to Peirce’s semiotics, is a specific kind of sign that shares some
properties with the object with which it is associated. A photograph or a painting
has a relationship of resemblance to the objects it depicts; such a relationship,
however, can never be one of identity. Likewise, the blank space in “silencio” stands
in for “silence,” but it is not the same as silence. Equating of a visual cue, such as
the blank space, with the verbal/aural experience of silence is deemed a superficial
analogy; the representation of silence would be better served, for Eco and Bayard,
via audible linguistic play and/or its absence.
This argument stems from the defense of a dogmatic position of poetic
“orthodoxy.” Erasing the distinction between icon and object, as the iconic fallacy
indeed does, is seen as a violation of semiotic “codes” (by detractors of Concrete
poetry), which obscures the represented concepts, failing to render them in any
way meaningful: Gomringer’s poem thus fails to convey the “true” meaning or
experience of silence. Arguments that prohibit the “iconic fallacy” echo medium
specificity theories that understand script and image as systems that must be kept
apart, a polemic which I examined at length in chapter 1. The iconic fallacy critique
can be sidestepped, I believe, by recalling that poetry, even when it is “concrete,” is
not literal, but rather metaphoric, allegorical, and figurative (although it is also a
poetry that points as much to itself as it does to a referential object). In that light,
246 Radical Poetry

one might compare a blank space with the experience of silence without being
concerned about the “objective” accuracy of such a comparison. Furthermore, such
policing of aesthetic boundaries to keep signs and objects separate is moot in light
of postmodern art where such transgressions are commonplace.
Perhaps more troubling, Concrete poetry has also been taken to task for
lacking ideological critique (and being complicit with the wrong kind of ideology).
I acknowledge that commitment is difficult to demonstrate in any case, but perhaps
more so for concrete poems since argumentation and critical evidence are left
out entirely from them, leading some critics to stipulate that there is something
else at work, for instance a solipsistic, self-indulgent exercise that uses the
anti-imperialist message (in “beba”) as a pre-text for formalist wordplay. Perhaps
it is questionable whether there ever was a collective ideal or project—beyond
the formalist one—that propelled the Concretists on a path of solidarity with
the intent to transform society for the better, as indeed there was with Russian
Constructivism, for example. Making a case for the putative social commitment
of Concretists is difficult, given their close links to art institutions, as well as
their complicitous stance in regard to Brazil’s developmentalist modernizing
project. I would counter, however, that a case can be made for Concrete poetry’s
commitment when it is viewed in its proper historical context: the drive to
modernize, whatever its shortcomings (easily recognized in hindsight), was seen by
many Brazilians as necessary to construct a nation free from the perceived, dreaded
“underdevelopment” that gripped Latin America. Seeking freedom from economic
subservience to the North, from former colonial powers, was a project shared
by most nations in the region; often, the route to such economic independence
was understood to involve industrial development, import substitution, and other
nationalist policies. The Concrete poets were undeniably associated with the
forward-thinking (and yet misguided) plan by President Juscelino Kubitschek to
modernize “fifty years in five,” as a popular slogan claimed.
The modernizing proposals were highly debated even then, since some Brazilian
nationalists opposed developmentalism by arguing that it amounted to handing
over national industries to foreign corporations, allowing the nation’s exploitation
by foreign capital. Caught in this maelstrom, the Concrete poets’ position shifted
over time toward a stance increasingly critical of the state. Acclaimed poet and
musician Caetano Veloso, arguably the foremost figure in the Tropicália movement
of the late sixties, defends the Concrete group with whom he was, at that time,
artistically associated. Both Veloso and Gilberto Gil had a close “intellectual
relationship” with the concretists (Dunn 69). Veloso describes positively both
Pignatari’s and the Concrete project’s politics: “[Pignatari’s political position] was
Concrete Aesthetics 247

a defense of concretist principles against the socializing attacks of the nationalists.

It was a critique of the folksiness that perpetuated underdevelopment, and an
assumption of responsibility for what happens at the level of language on the part
of those who work with it directly” (139). And even though Veloso’s statement points
to Noigandres’s defense of modernization, not all Concretists shared the same
plan for Brazil’s future. There were discrepancies within the ranks of Concretism,
leading to the creation of splinter groups, such as the Neo-Concretists, and in
the sixties the Tropicalists. Ferreira Gullar, for instance, who “defected” from
first-wave Concretism but remained closely connected to it aesthetically, argued
that the Noigandres group had taken rationalism to an extreme, losing touch
with the “human” and the organic. Gullar also felt that neglecting the discursive
(narrative) element altogether was proving too reductive and detrimental to
effectively communicate social content. Neo-Concrete politics were decidedly Left,
and their art reflected that tendency.
Bayard condenses both arguments against Concrete poetry stating that,
“changing the sign system does not in any way imply that one is modifying
the political system” (171). Indeed, while many recognize the achievements of
Concrete poetry as an experimental movement, few would qualify it as being in
the political vanguard. Bayard goes as far as to challenge their aesthetic project,
questioning what she sees as their nihilistic typographic experimentation,
which “dissolve[s] the very structure of perception in order to make room . . . for
what?” (171). More circumspect in my assessment of the Concrete project, I am
unwilling to dismiss Concretism, especially their aesthetic project, but perhaps
even their “political” one. Admittedly, the problem is a difficult one, entangled
with the question of the validity of the avant-garde itself, understood as both
artistic and political vanguardism. The Concretists, and perhaps to a lesser extent
the Neo-Concretists—more active in the political front—were a part of, deeply
entangled with, the institutional problematic of museums and galleries, which
co-opted the avant-garde’s oppositional possibilities (an inevitable fact, since once
it enters the space of the gallery the work of art is commodified). And, as we have
seen, there is an element in Concrete poetry’s anti-imperialist “critique,” if we
accept it as such, that is itself charged with a disturbing degree of nationalism.
While Brazilian nationalism might have been a justifiable response to perceived
acculturation threats, a response to the growth of United States hegemony, it
nonetheless remains problematic and far removed from progressivism.
Where, then, do we situate the Concretists in the spectrum of the politically
committed avant-gardes? Perhaps the key to the political question lies with
the aesthetic project. One might argue—as Foucault does in The Archeology of
248 Radical Poetry

Knowledge—that, since the dominant hegemonic system is present in language

itself, the rupture with linguistic codes is a form of system disruption. Foucault
affirms that discourses are not just “groups of signs (signifying elements referring
to contents or representations) but . . . practices that systematically form the objects
of which they speak” (54). Since rhetoric and discourse have been mobilized to
persuade, propagandize, and distort in order to exert power, a possible subversive
countermeasure is to disrupt language, thereby interrupting the code through which
the ideological is tied to the discursive, obstructing, in short, patterns of discourse
such as state legalese, political doublespeak, advertising jargon, and other forms of
institutional speech. By revealing how advertising works through its parody, but
presenting only a schematized version of its narrative discourse—as in the minimal
content of the “beba” ad—the Concretists arguably make explicit its “brainwashing”
function, even as they mobilize some of its mechanisms to counter its effects.
Ultimately, whether one takes the position, as articulated by Bayard, that
Concrete poetry fails to promote ideological critique or whether one accepts the
counterargument that the focus on radical form and the reflection it inspires on
language and its uses constitutes a form of critique, is a debate that cannot be
fully resolved, only rehearsed time and again (as evidenced by the many “theories”
of the avant-garde). The argument has been reenacted in many guises (perhaps
most famously by Theodor Adorno and Georg Lukács) in debates on the merits of
modernism versus social realism. It boils down to whether one is convinced that the
playful disruption of the symbolic order can have a revolutionary potential if it is
not accompanied by an overt political message. I would argue that the radical shift
in notions of poetry, reading, and viewing brought about by the Concretists was
linked to other emancipatory changes that took place within Latin American society
as it was swept by anti-imperialist fervor. Perhaps the links between Concrete
poetry and emancipatory ideals are not untroubled, direct, or even verifiable, but
they certainly exist. And, in some cases, the links are quite direct. The content of
some poems convincingly counters charges that Concrete poetry is ideologically
suspect of political conformism and pro-consumerism derived from its close
alliance with commercial advertising. While connections between Concrete poetry
(and later, Pop Art) and commerce are undeniable—Pignatari owned a graphic
design firm, Gomringer worked for a Swiss design firm called Rosenthal—it is an
oversimplification to equate Concrete art with consumer capitalism, although it may
not have existed, may not even have been conceivable, without consumer capitalism.
I have outlined some of the continuities between Concrete poetry and
modernismo brasileiro and other early avant-garde movements, concerning their
wish to include motion into otherwise “static” works of poetry and visual arts. I
Concrete Aesthetics 249

have also mentioned an important difference between the two periods, notably
Concretism’s ultimately unsuccessful suppression of metaphor and its interest in
the “concrete” and tangible aspects of language. Concretism attempted to replace
analogies of motion with “real” structural movement and, arguably, failed. In
twentieth-century poetry, the dynamic component became closely connected to
the primacy of the image, of the figural, as opposed to the scriptural. It is highly
remarkable that kinetic script, for the Concrete poets, functioned as a nonfigurative
image, the equivalent in poetry to abstract art, signifying both visually and aurally,
but avoiding mimetic representation (in contrast, in digital poetry the mimetic is
often embraced, as letters are made to “resemble” all sorts of other things). Haroldo
de Campos praised the quality of abstraction in Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de dés
(1897): “No poet after Mallarmé was as radical as Mallarmé. Not even Apollinaire.
Apollinaire is decorative where Mallarmé is structural” (Haroldo de Campos 176).
As I pointed out, de Campos’s disavowal of the figurative ignores Concrete poetry’s
debt to the figurative, including Apollinaire’s calligrammes, which, like metaphor,
often represent a return of the repressed. From Haroldo de Campos’s perspective,
Concrete poetry represented a special case of the interaction between word and
image. The viewer/reader approximates the poem as she would approach a painting,
apprehending its totality and its details without necessarily following a particular
order or reading hierarchy (such as left to right, top to bottom), but permitting the
eye to be attracted to particular focal points whose color or shape are distinctive,
or following lines of action. The process differs from the approach to reading a
calligram, where normatively, one first looks at the image depicted and then reads
the script that conforms the outlined picture. Granted, this is a simplification of
whatever back-and-forth, cyclical motion might take place between reading and
viewing. The viewer of a Concrete poem, on a first iteration, scans it randomly or by
looking wherever salient visual elements draw the eye. If the tension between script
and image is balanced, neither the visual nor the verbal elements will dominate,
facilitating what Gilman defines as a symbiotic relationship in a dialectic of mutual
clarification and adjustment (198).
Returning one last time to Gomringer’s haunting “silencio,” there is a visual
balance between the repeated word for silence and the blank space that reinforces
the work’s secondary nature as “image.” The space, which functions as a metaphor
for the absence of sound, is also mirrored by the “blank” space of the rest of the
page. “Silencio” references many concrete art and experimental poetry intertexts,
from Gertrude Stein’s word repetitions to early spatial poetry, such as Un coup
de dés, to abstract art by Mondrian, Malevich, and others. Gomringer’s poetry
functions as an object that is “memorable and imprints it, upon the mind as a
250 Radical Poetry

picture” (Solt 67). It also casts serious doubt on the binary arrangement of signifier
and signified, as shown by the paradox of using the word silence to signify the
absence of sound, as already noted. Such a questioning of language in Concrete
poems endows them with a degree of self-referentiality that characterizes them as
metapoetry, that is to say, as critically self-reflexive works. Insofar as “beba coca
cola,” “silencio” and “Wave/Rock” comment on their own poetic structure and on
the relationship between referential and nonreferential elements, they become
a commentary on poetry and, indeed, on language itself. Interestingly, at first
sight, Gomringer’s poem seems to be advocating for a kind of transparency—as
well as “erasure,” disappearance, and so on—of the word “silencio,” which would
be against the grain of (conventional) poetry, insofar as the aesthetic function of
poetry foregrounds the sign, as opposed to other forms of language that signify
(and hence the language becomes a “transparent” medium). According to Jakobson,
in poetry, “language is perceived in itself and not as a transparent or transitive
mediator of something else” (Todorov 271). In other words, poeticicty (rhyme,
alliteration, metaphor) is self-consciously foregrounded in poetic language.
Therefore, Gomringer relinquishes “normative” poeticity (which would explain
the translatability of the poem) in favor of pure transparency, of “visual” poeticity.
Gomringer is foregrounding the material substance of the poem, its visual structure,
the chosen font, its disposition, etc. The attention to the materiality of the poem
is also within the purview of Jakobson’s notion of the poetic; in What is Poetry?”
(1933), he writes, “Poetry is present when a word is felt as a word and not a mere
representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion, when words
and their composition, their meaning, their external and internal form acquire a
weight and value of their own instead of referring indifferently to reality” (750; my
emphasis). Thus, words are “felt,” they have a physical presence, but Jakobson also
reminds us about their affectivity, their “feeling.” Gomringer’s “silencio” would seem
to exemplify Jakobson’s passage, as an especially “material” poem.
Part of Concrete poetry’s fascination—as with the early avant-gardes—lies
within its international, indeed transnational implications. It enjoyed a modest
yet unusual (for poetry) global success, and rapid diffusion facilitated by its
translatability: from one language to another, one system to another (word to
image, script to film), one venue to another (book to screen or museum), and one
type of activity (poetic) to another (commercial, political). In the next and final
chapter, I examine how modernist and concrete legacies are being translated
and transmediated into new media poetry and other performative formats of
twenty-first-century Brazil.
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry
and Performance

The Arrival of the Digital in Brazilian Poetry

hen Concrete poetry first appeared in the 1950s, critics argued that
it was ultimately self-defeating and anti-lyrical. English poet-critic
Veronica Forrest-Thomson, for instance, claimed that it was a form
with no meaning and lacking in depth, “where language ceases to be language and
becomes simply material, visual or aural, for making patterns” (Perrone 61). It was
said that Concrete poetry was nihilistic, because its propensity to minimization,
condensation, abstraction, and reduction, if followed to its logical conclusion,
would lead to the dead end of complete silence, the blank page, an aesthetic exer-
cise devoid of signification. A polemic concept of “purity” was mobilized to argue
that Concrete poets sought the elimination of elements considered to be “impure,”
such as metaphor, narration, ideology, subjectivity, sentimentality, and so on. In
linguistic terms, these detractors claimed, such a minimizing drive attenuates
the referential function of language to emphasize instead its “material” elements:
letters, phonemes, morphemes, as well as the media of representation itself (paper,
screen). As I have shown, Concrete poetry’s critics sometimes missed what the
genre was really all about.
In the previous chapter, we observed that, while some reductionism was
indeed part of the process of “concretization,” the result was by no means
poetry devoid of political or referential signification. Today, five decades after
the inauguration of Concrete poetry elicited scandal, similar criticism has been
leveled against digital poetry (also known as electronic or e-poetry). Naysayers
accuse digital practitioners of technological fetishization, of being uncritical

252 Radical Poetry

and uninterested in the sociopolitical, and of ignoring the ethical implications

of the new mechanisms of production, namely, the computer and related
devices. Others charge that digital poetry has not addressed issues related to
lack of access, a problem especially for poorer nations. In short, digital art has
been characterized as a superficially bound, uncritical promoter of unfettered
“techno-progress” that fails to acknowledge historical conditions and real-life
inequalities. The artists I examine in the following section prove these assertions
wrong, and show themselves as ethical artists who establish a thoughtful
dialogue with both past traditions and the future potential of experimental
poetry. Both artists whose work I will analyze, the Brazilian poets Arnaldo
Antunes and Eduardo Kac, are keenly aware of their sociopolitical responsibility
and of the dangers and benefits posed by new media. They reactivate the
political and militant sense of the word avant-garde, going beyond formalism
into committed praxis, operating within a postutopian paradigm that critically
questions the term avant-garde itself.
As stated above, the hasty dismissal of digital art, and specifically poetry, by
those who charge that it is excessively austere and perhaps even “simple,” echoes
earlier concerns about print-based Concrete poetry. The comparison is a logical,
but somewhat reductive one, and yet their many shared features can hardly
be denied. Certainly, digital poetry has extended some of the lines of inquiry
pursued by modernismo and Concretism in regard to condensing language,
focusing on visual and spatial elements, deemphasizing (but not erasing) the
subjective, and so on; it also has, in my estimation, avoided falling into empty
formalism. Digital poetry, like Concrete poetry, relies on fragmented language,
on short bursts of syntax, rather than on long verse forms. It relies on visual
and aural elements, as well as textual, but the latter may not be, indeed rarely
are, the most salient. Some of digital poetry’s minimalist strategies respond
to a technical need to shorten verse to facilitate its screen manipulation and
increase its visual dimension, in order to challenge the division between the
poetic and the prosaic, the static and dynamic. The aim of modernist, Concrete
and now digital poetry has not been to minimize for the sake of reduction,
but rather to expand the field of the poetic to encompass areas formerly closed
to it, creating spaces of representation that cross into and overlap with music,
film, criticism, prose, and other creative modalities. This effort has perhaps
resulted in a lessened role for the scriptural, but not in its suppression. While
digital poetry might rely less on rhyme, meter, and traditional stanza forms, it
has clearly not rejected language. No matter how fragmented, distorted, and
disfigured language—and syntax—become in twentieth and twenty-first-century
poetry, digital poems remain vested in precisely those elements that so-called
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 253

pure poetry rejects: narrative, ideology, subjectivity, lyricism, and, most of all,
an impure generic hybridity.
Digital literature (including, but not limited to poetry) has arguably joined
other twenty-first-century paradigms of artistic innovation such as performance,
virtual reality, and installation art in incorporating into new media modalities
the visual experiments of previous avant-garde movements, by adding the sound,
enhanced dynamism, and simultaneity afforded by the computer, television,
or cinema screen to the works of Concrete and modernist poetry. It has also
created new modalities such as hypertext, hypermedia, Flash poetry, and
many more. Clearly, all these forms of expansion contribute to an immediacy
of perception and understanding that would, perhaps, seem to work against
the grain of poetry: through the new forms, everything is captured at once,
whereas conventional poetry, as the argument goes, requires patient reading,
processing, ref lection, quiet contemplation. This urgency, or immediacy of
perception reflects our contemporary ways of consuming information, and the
multitasking “nervousness” and hypervelocity of living in our contemporary age.
Undoubtedly, immediacy is one of the defining characteristics of new media
poetry, as it was of Concrete poetry, and, to an extent, other short forms, such
as haiku, that could be quickly apprehended. This is not a trivial coincidence.
With immediacy comes a notion of presence which affects the reader/viewer in
a quasi-instantaneous way: one feels, sees, and intuits the poem at once, and
can click, change screens, or dismiss it just as easily, retaining full control over
the experience, but, as critics say, perhaps facilitating a certain “superficiality”
of reading.1 The emphasis on immediacy might lead to the characterization of
the new poetry as a poetry of the surface with all the negative connotations that
such a term invokes. Yet, the same might be said (was said) of haiku, which is
also deceptively simple. Apparent simplicity and immediacy in poetry should not
perforce be equated with a lack of depth or of interpretative possibilities. The
digital may even require a greater degree of engagement, given the complexity of
its semiotic systems, which demand a new hermeneutics, as Roberto Simanowski

If nothing happens to the text it is not digital literature. As a result, when

we read digital literature, we have to shift from a hermeneutics of linguistic
signs to a hermeneutics of intermedial, interactive, and processing signs. It is
not just the meaning of the words that is at stake, but also the meaning of the
performance of the words which, let’s not forget, includes the interaction of
the user with the words. (“What Is and Toward What End Do We Read Digital
Literature?” 14)
254 Radical Poetry

Furthermore, the “deep” versus “surface” argument places two operative forms
in confrontation, one immersive (as in traditional literature and poetry, but also
film, virtual reality games, etc.); the other immediate, transparent, and supposedly
incompatible with careful reflection, a postmodern poetics of shallow surface
effect. Such an oversimplified opposition between immediacy and immersion,
however, discounts the importance of reception and the engaged (or unengaged)
participation of the reader. An attentive reader of digital poetry might appreciate
its “surface” technical flair and also be transported to a deeper understanding
resulting from careful reflection on its form and content and, indeed, how the
two interact. In that sense, the reader of digital poetry is no different from the
reader of “paperbound” poetry. Some digital poems, as we shall see (and have seen),
require reflection and close reading. Moreover, digital poetry allows for the actual
experience of the poem as an event, offering interactive possibilities not inherently
present in conventional poetry, and hence, bringing the “reader” into the role of
The verbivocovisual concept coined by Haroldo de Campos has now expanded
to a dynamic formal articulation adding the kinetic to the verbal, visual, and sound
elements, creating layers of montage that demand the attention of the observer’s
senses—with the exception of taste and smell, at least for now—in order to
decode the work. Within a fragmented digital space, narrative returns, as a poetic
element that is intermittently present, suggested, and/or suppressed. As Henry
Jenkins posits in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006), the
modernist urge to disrupt and fracture language is, in new media, counterbalanced
and resisted by a drive to synthesize and provide continuity by “stitching” together
a variety of media that converge into a single digital platform. According to Jenkins,
digital platforms engulf other media not merely as a symptom of technological
prowess, but rather reflecting a cultural trend of assimilating daily life into and
through the digital and of welcoming those same media to penetrate the most
intimate spaces of our subjectivity, for better and for worse.
As Bolter and Grusin have shown, digital media assimilate the aesthetics of
previous mass media, such as television (replicated by YouTube, Vimeo, and similar
video streaming sites), magazines and newspapers (adapted by electronic e-zines
and blogs), and billboard advertising (into banner ads and pop-up advertising).
Similarly, digital poetry draws on historical avant-garde techniques, such as collage
and montage, in order to produce an aesthetic of fractured visuality, dislocation,
and discontinuity, which establishes an uneven, “flickering” equilibrium with
the tendency to converge, fuse, and synthesize. The digital hypermediated and
hypervisual environment is further fragmented by individual user choices that
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 255

customize the digital experience through the simultaneous use of multiple

devices (tablets, phones, computers) and the opening of multiple windows and
media applications, in keeping with multitasking viewing regimes exemplary of
digital culture. Among the differences that make the digital new is the intensified
incorporation of technology by, with and into the work of art, and not just by
its representation in it. In earlier avant-garde paradigms, with the exception
of photography and cinema, the involvement with technology was largely
metaphorical, and experimentation was primarily at the level of the written
language or the drawn image. How, we might ask, is digital art different?
The answer should not be astonishing given our current level of enmeshment
with all sorts of embodied technologies: digital art goes beyond making symbolic
references to technology into a fuller involvement with technology itself, both
at the level of content and at the level of implementation and its constitution—
the code, the hardware, and software—so that the work of art can no longer be
separate from the technology that created it: digital art becomes permanently
fused with technology, dependent on it for its design, exhibition, and archival. Of
course, post–printing press “paper”-based technology also entailed an imbrication
of product, material, and process; after all, words were often mechanically printed
on paper, which was itself the product of the industrial processing of wood into
paper pulp. These material factors, however, were not essential to the poetry in the
same sense that the underlying code fundamentally constitutes the appearance,
content, and on-screen behavior of digital poetry, imbricating programmability
with the way in which we read, view, and listen to these works.
Movement is arguably the most significant constitutive variable of digital
literature, that which makes it singular. Although kinetic effects were important
in previous periods (and the focus of previous chapters), with the digital motion
gains an added significance, becoming more salient, less an “illusion” of motion
than an actual kinetic event. When digital script moves, it often dramatizes its
own process of signification, by making visible the way words are combined and
recombined from smaller units, revealing linguistic and other signs as conventional
symbols composed of interrelated graphic and sonorous elements, which at times,
though not always, correspond to some meaning. While we do not need digital
poetry to understand how language functions, self-reflexive digital poems often
bring very clearly to the foreground the connection between the material sign and
the concept to which it refers, achieving the effect with a visual immediacy that
was not possible in paper-based movement analogies. Digital literature emphasizes
the metalinguistic function through kinetic effects, as we shall see in Kac’s and
Antunes’s work.
256 Radical Poetry

As you will recall from chapter 8, activating both verbal and nonverbal
dimensions, Concrete poetry achieved a highly indeterminate semantic valence,
and arguably opened the poetry genre to a greater degree of interpretative freedom,
in effect enacting the open and internally dynamic texts that Umberto Eco
describes in Opera Aperta (1962). Digital poetry has further amplified indeterminacy
through the multidirectional, kinetic, and interactive possibilities offered by
new media’s expanded textuality. The digital poem does not just show and tell,
as modern and Concrete poetry did, but also acts: it is an event happening on
the screen. Moreover, digital poetry is not reduced to its technical flair, as Janez
Strehovec observes:

[Digital poetry] is by no means merely about technical innovations, it enables

us to face textual practices happening inside the text and in the context of
the present artistic production, defined by globalisation, multiculturalism,
the new economy, new forms of experiencing identity, the issues of gender,
community and embodiment, new forms and new modes of representing the
world and its objects, by a new audience, which is closer to the club (DJ and
VJ) culture than to the elite culture, by the Internet, the aesthetics of special
effects and of mosaic, and—this is of crucial importance—by present linguistic
practices. (145)

Strehovec’s point about digital poetry’s entry into club culture marks it as a
subgenre that challenges barriers between high and low, positioned closer to
video games, virtual reality, new media, and performance art than to “the world
of literary, book-based culture” (146). Digital poetry’s association with phenomena
such as clubbing, poetry jams, graffiti, hacktivism, videogames, hip-hop, and
cyberpunk imbue it with the youthful energy of these popular modes.
The work of Arnaldo Antunes and Eduardo Kac during the 1980s and early 1990s
illustrates two representative paths taken by Brazilian digital poetry in its initial
stages. Although today’s digital poetry has reached a greater degree of technical
virtuosity, becoming “flashier,” these early examples provide an instructive “bridge”
between recent work and older experimental poetry, and serve as a synecdoche of
a much larger digital production originating in Brazil since the 1980s and firmly
rooted in an experimental tradition. A considerable number of Brazil’s digital
artists were also Concrete poets, such as Augusto de Campos, who have added new
media to their artistic repertoire. Others form part of a younger generation that
grew up during the emergence of new media, for example Eduardo Kac (1962–),
André Vallias (1963–), Arnaldo Antunes (1960–), Lucia Leão (1963–), Elson Fróes
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 257

(1963–), among others. Despite its status as a paradigm of twenty-first-century

innovation, digital poetry unabashedly cannibalizes visual elements from both
Concretism and modernism. The isomorphic nature of Concrete poems, and
their inherent capacity to suggest movement makes them ideal for transference/
translation onto the digital medium. Bolter and Grusin’s concept of “remediation”
states that digital media often establish a dialectical relationship with earlier
media, appropriating and reelaborating print, television, and film’s strategies of
representation. This relation is bidirectional, since the influence of new media also
alters the appearance and function of older technologies:

Our culture conceives of each medium or constellation of media as it responds

to, redeploys, competes with, and reforms other media. In the first instance,
we may think of something like a historical progression, of newer media
remediating older ones and in particular of digital media remediating their
predecessors. But ours is a genealogy of affiliations, not a linear history, and
in this genealogy, older media can also remediate newer ones. (Bolter and
Grusin 55)

Digital poetry thus “remediates” avant-garde analogies of dynamism and

“materializes” them in the virtual environment (where poems move, flash,
transform), at times presenting itself, teleologically, as a step beyond the previous
static print phase. Showing how the digital has influenced older media, and,
conversely, how earlier media surpassed their material limits, problematizes this
simplistically linear understanding of progress. Bolter and Grusin do not fall into
such an oversimplified techno-deterministic narrative, one that neglects the early
avant-garde’s own commitment to kineticism, as seen in the poems and paintings
we have analyzed thus far and as represented in earlier “moving” media: in films
such as Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924) and Marcel Duchamp’s Anémic
Cinéma (1926), or in moving sculptures by Alexander Calder, Naum Gabo, Antoine
Pevsner, to mention some obvious examples.
Nevertheless, there is something quite unique about the current digital capacity
to “animate” objects. In Bolter and Grusin’s estimation, the digital animates
language, making it present, as it “fulfills the unkept promise of an older medium”
(60), the promise, that is, of actualized movement. Perhaps, as Bolter and Grusin
suggest, new media make us aware of something that was lacking in art, such
as greater interactivity, a sense of three-dimensional motion, and a sensation
of immediacy. The advent of the digital computer represented the fruition of
something that had been longed for, bringing about an awaited transformation
258 Radical Poetry

and intensification of the multimodality already present in modernism’s visual

analogies and Concretism’s verbivocovisual nature, which also had its own “origin”
in early avant-garde metaphors of motion. The arrival of the digital was a kind of
wish fulfillment for artists.
Digital poetry, like its predecessors, draws on mass communication systems,
on television, magazines, and advertising billboards, and deploys well-established
avant-garde techniques such as collage and montage. Arguably, these techniques,
which had lost their “cutting-edge” status on account of their (relative)
canonization and institutionalization, are, once again, fresh and innovative by
virtue of their repurposing in a different medium. The overlapping use of moving
script and text fragments, symbols, images, and sound results in a fragmented,
kaleidoscopic sensory experience that is often further enriched by requiring the
active participation of the reader, ranging anywhere from unreflective rote action
to attentive involvement. From simple mouse clicks, and scrolling, to navigating
through hyperlinks, to actually entering script and co-creating poems, the reader’s
role has greater prominence, bringing it closer to co-authorship, to performance,
and to video gaming, but in any case blurring distinctions between reader and
author. As Christopher Funkhouser remarks in Prehistoric Digital Poetry (2007),
“‘cyberpoetry’ does not necessarily qualify as a cybertext if the reader’s input makes
little impact on the poem’s construction” (241).
Even as we resist teleological models, the importance of genealogy for
experimental genres needs to be acknowledged; a genealogy that goes beyond
modernismo and Concretism. Poet and theorist Loss Pequeño Glazier outlines the
commonalities between digital poetry and earlier experimental forms in Digital
Poetics: The Making of E-poetries (2002). According to Glazier, digital poetries
“show characteristics of Futurism’s concern with the machine, the procedures
of Oulipo, [and] the multi-media events of Fluxus” (126). Inscribed in a history
of experimental poetry, the digital, argues Glazier, also emphasizes its poetry as
distinct from those precursors, by virtue of being programmable, self-reflexive,
and material as a product of both software and hardware, file, code, and URL (4).
A “new” kind of digital materiality—a materiality that is at once material and
virtual, hard and soft—that can change in real time according to the user’s wishes,
Glazier goes on to note, becomes a key distinctive feature for a genre that privileges
process over product. In his taxonomy of digital poetry Glazier identifies “the
three principal forms of electronic textuality: hypertext, visual/kinetic text and
works in programmable media” (6). In this chapter, I am interested in the last two
modalities, leaving aside hypertext, which has already been extensively studied by
Christopher Funkhouser, Jay Bolter, John Tolva, Michael Joyce, Susana Tosca, and
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 259

others. I would also like to expand Glazier’s definition of digital poetry to include
its performative (a key concept) outshoots, including, for example, live poetry
readings that incorporate digital media, to see how the latter integrate images,
moving script, and the performer’s voice and body movement into a cohesive piece.

Performative Digital Poetry: Arnaldo Antunes and the Body of the Text

Musician, painter, poet, composer, and multimedia artist Arnaldo Antunes

embodies what Jenkins defines as a contemporary convergence culture where every
artistic event can be created and promoted through multiple media, where every
medium “remediates,” borrows from, incorporates, and “cannibalizes” other media.
Jenkins articulates his view that all media are converging into a new paradigm in
which media itself ceases to be a relevant term:

Convergence does not depend on any specific delivery mechanism. Rather,

convergence represents a paradigm shift—a move from medium-specific
content toward content that flows across multiple media channels, toward
the increased interdependence of communications systems, toward multiple
ways of accessing media content, and toward ever more complex relations
between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture. (254)

Exemplifying this new paradigm of intermediality, transmediality, and media

convergence, Antunes’s performance poetry is readily available in multiple media
platforms, including via his Internet website, which archives his work. Media
convergence, however, has not been exempt from controversy. While its detractors
cite the danger of decreased independence of individual media as they become part
of a Web-based “matrix,” erasing plurality and specificity and replacing it with a
homogeneous totality, its proponents argue that media convergence is expanding
our understanding of the ontology of media, facilitating the creation of new hybrid
and mixed media with added artistic potential.
The challenge posed by digital convergence to medium specificity has led
critics such as Rosalind Krauss to redefine the concept of medium so that it is
no longer strictly based on material or physical properties—such as painting’s
pigment and texture, film’s chemical base—but rather on conventions or practices
derived from those media but exceeding the merely material (“Reinventing” 296).
Thus, the digital might retain painterly or photographic effects or practices, even
as the ultimate material that binds them together are pixels on a screen, or, in its
most physical aspect, the polarized glass, liquid crystals, electrodes, transistors,
260 Radical Poetry

capacitors, and other components that make up the “stuff” of screens and other
hardware. Some critics argue that traditional media are reaching a state of
obsolescence as they are assimilated by the post-medium digital; others counter
that the digital retains traces of prior media, including their imperfections and
contingencies, to which are added computer glitches, blips, freeze frames, sound
skips, and assorted digital flaws. The glitches and imperfections amount to a return
of contingency, as digital degradation, systems breakdowns, and viral infections
make evident the limits of programming and reintroduce the fortuitous that had
been pursued by Symbolists (Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés), Surrealists (automatic
writing, cadavre exquis), and other early avant-gardes. In the midst of (contentious)
theoretical debates about medium specificity, artists such as Antunes carry on
their intermedia work unconcerned with purity, specificity, or ontological clarity.
How does Antunes’s creative promiscuity, transgressive of genre and media
boundaries, show in his work? He uses a vast array of expressive tools: moving
script, images in flux and constant transformation, and script and images that
blend together. His work, difficult to categorize on account of its hybrid nature,
combines script with video, film, music, live performance, installations, and
different varieties of digital art; his “poesia ao vivo” (live poetry) performaces are
multimedia events.2 If one were to find a unifying axis, Antunes’s art might be
qualified as a semiotic exploration of the relation between sign and referent, words
and objects.3 He is primarily interested in how the materiality and corporeality
(visual, aural, verbal) of words affects their signification. I will analyze a complex
“piece,” which can be simultaneously categorized as live performance, poetry
reading, and “digital” environment. Performed live in several Brazilian cities, in
Errática: poema ao vivo (2008) Antunes creates an intricate layering of signification
by juxtaposing verbal language and sound, music and noise, and complementing
them with visual material, including images and script projected on screens and
other surfaces, as well as a performative, kinetic dimension involving gesture and
body movement (see Figure 9.1).
In Errática the written word, script, gains a body and circulates in a variety of
ways. As Antunes “performs” each poem script is projected onto several screens and
becomes another visual stimulus for the audience; script is recited and becomes
vocal and aural; and script becomes kinetic and embodied in the voice, movements,
and gestures of the poet through the live performance; later, the digital video of
the performance is archived for future online viewing.
Word and image relations become increasingly complex in Errática as script
moves through three-dimensional space, reflected off several screens on-stage,
and projected onto the performer-poet’s body who becomes a dynamic screen or
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 261

Figure 9.1. Arnaldo Antunes. Live Performance “Nome.” Screen capture.

YouTube, video taken at performance Errática: poema ao vivo (Brazil, 2008).

moving canvas. Another characteristic of Errática is the playful self-reflexivity

and attention to word games and linguistic structure that Antunes inherits from
Concretism and modernismo. This formal self-reflexivity does not mean, however,
that Antunes is unconcerned with extrapoetic reality; quite the contrary, his poetry
is informed by a concern with social justice, which gives greater heft to his interest
in the body as both a medium of expression and an object of repression, subjection,
and torture.
By engaging (with) his body as both an object of representation and an
instrument for poetry, Antunes performs an operation that Steiner has identified—
in regards to earlier avant-gardes—as attempting to dissolve or mask the limits
between art and life, sign and thing, writing and speech (“La analogía” 32).
Choosing to perform his poems live instead of (or in addition to) publishing them
as written or stand-alone poetry—which he has also done in visual poetry volumes
such as Tudos (1990)—Antunes embodies the movement of script in ways that are
not possible with print alone, underscoring the physical immediacy of his message;
he does so by projecting writing on multiple screens, by beating large physical
letters together as if they were percussion instruments, and by showing the many
combinatory possibilities of language applied to different surfaces. Poetry is
inscribed or light-tattooed—projected—on the poet’s body, written or projected on
walls, spoken, filmed, and uploaded. Moreover, Antunes’s body-centered approach
262 Radical Poetry

to poetic performance permits him to communicate the verbivocovisual elements

of the poem through different experiential domains: physically, cognitively,
and also affectively. Mixing “natural” (organic) and artificial media prompts
a heightened aesthetic experience that decenters the reader from the habitual
practice of encountering poetry on a page, creating novel ways of approaching it,
closer to spectating, viewing, or even writing than to reading.
Antunes’s poetry incorporates movement in a variety of ways. First, it
partakes of what I would define as “cybernetic nomadism” (unrelated to
Deleuze’s concept of nomadism), a work’s more or less unfettered movement
through cyberspace, and its corollaries of instant access and freedom from
geographic constraints. Cyberspace de-territorializes the poems from their print
and paper status and from their connection to a specific location; although
specific Errática performances are linked to place, their Web repostings partially
lose that link. Antunes’s Web page functions as a global portal to his theoretical
and creative work, facilitating its diffusion beyond Brazil. Obviously, despite
its “globalizing” potential, Antunes’s poetry retains traces of the national; it is
(mostly) in Portuguese and it remains untranslated. And, perhaps paradoxically,
Antunes considers his cybernetic nomadism with its hybridity of genres and
semiotic codes as not only inherent to his work, but also as characteristic of his
Brazilianness (brasilidade), as constitutive of a nationality celebrated for its racial,
cultural, and linguistic mix. Second, we might consider the back-and-forth and
overlapping movement between different genres and media in Antunes’s poems,
which include aspects of painting, music, film, and new technologies. Third, we
might also consider the moving words and images themselves, which incorporate
kinetic traces of other twentieth-century poetries, such as the metaphors of
the avant-gardes, or the dynamic elements of digital poetry. Finally, reading
Antunes’s digital texts also depends on movement: the textuality of a multimedia
discourse requires nonlinear, spatiotemporal readings, characteristic of a
heterogeneous, mobile, and fluid digital culture.
In his multimedia work Nome (1993), released in several formats (video-DVD,
CD and accompanying booklet, and uploaded to the Web), Antunes combines
various semiotic systems (written text, image, and body motion). A compelling
example of the poetry in this collection is the DVD’s eponymous song-poem
“Nome,” which was also performed live in the Errática show. In “Nome,” the reader/
spectator is witness to a progressive denaturalization of quotidian language, in
which the denotative function of words is gradually stripped away, revealing in
its place language’s raw materiality and previously hidden meanings. The process
complicates the “obvious” meaning of words by showing how these conceal other
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 263

less benevolent significations. “Nome’s” ethical purpose is to uncover the parallel

paths between the semantic/semiotic operations that question the naming of
things and those ideological operations that enact power structures and strip
the “Other” of his/her humanity through objectification and the manipulation
of language. In short, in “Nome” Antunes explores the linguistic production of
meaning and its political and ethical implications, raising questions about human
cruelty and social injustice:

algo é o nome do homem something is the name of the man

coisa é o nome do homem thing is the man’s name
homem é o nome do cara man is the guy’s name
isso é o nome da coisa this is the name of the thing
cara é o nome do rosto face [guy] is the name of the face
fome é o nome do moço hunger is the name of the boy
homem é o nome do troço man is the name of the piece
osso é o nome do fóssil bone is the name of fossil
corpo é o nome do morto body is the name of the dead
homem é o nome do outro man is the name of the other (Nome CD)

This poem illustrates the importance of language (and language games) in the
work of Antunes. In the English translation, “Nome” loses the musicality and
semantic ambiguity present in the Portuguese original. For example the word
“cara” in Portuguese means “face” but is also slang for “guy,” or “man,” something
that is completely lost in the tautological translation of the fifth verse, “face is
the name of the face.” “Nome” explores the ambiguity of language (also related to
translation) by questioning the process of “naming” and labeling, rendering evident
the disconnection between the linguistic sign and its material referent. Such a
concern with semantic and syntactic structures should remind us of the Concrete
poem “beba coca cola,” and its activation of rhythm and repetition. “Nome” leaves
little doubt as to its ethical commitment. Where “beba” was critical of imperialism
and commercialism, “Nome” is critical of the commodification, objectification, and
disposability of human beings in contemporary culture. The “man” identified in the
first verse (“algo é o nome do homem”) descends to progressively lower states, until
he becomes a “thing”: in successive metamorphosis he is a “piece,” a “body,” and
a “dead” body, perhaps from hunger and injustice; the “man” finally becomes an
“other” from which the poetic voice unsuccessfully attempts to distance itself. That
such a negative view of humanity’s condition is rendered in traditionally heroic
octosyllabic couplets (although the rhyme is not rigorously observed), a meter used
264 Radical Poetry

for epic poetry during the Renaissance, functions as an ironic commentary on the
lack of “epic” dimensions in contemporary existence.
Moreover, the poem links its principal concerns, the linguistic and the ethical.
In a metapoetic, Foucauldian sense the work explores the distance between the
name and the thing named, as exemplified by the verse “isso é o nome da coisa
[this is the name of the thing].” Parallel to this (post)structuralist challenge to
the stability of language, Antunes inserts a critique of power: on a political plane,
the same verse functions as an accusation against the objectification of man (or
woman), shown in the poem as reduced to a thing, to a “this.” The nature of words
and of humans is presented as elusive, and so is the “name” as a sign for “man.”
Both “man” and “name” function as arbitrary and interchangeable placeholders,
anonymous, generic nouns in need of concrete definition, empty signifiers awaiting
a signified. Such deliberate imprecision is evident in the choice of the words
“nome,” “isso,” “algo,” “troço,” all morphemes that lack a specific referent but stand
in as placeholders, as ambivalent signifiers.
Such questioning of the Adamic task, fraught with violence (as names are
“imposed”), arbitrariness, and indeterminacy, is juxtaposed with the effects that
“naming” has on the body of real individuals: as such, the fragments, pieces,
bones, hunger, and death of the final verses seem to indicate a disquieting
scene of torn, traumatized, and discarded bodies and their parts, on a par with
the work we examined by the Argentine Edgardo Vigo. It is, however plausible,
unclear whether Antunes fantasizes a potential return to a prelapsarian and
prelinguistic state when the Self was supposedly harmoniously merged with the
Other, prior to the intrusion of the Symbolic order and its concomitant linguistic
development. The poem, perhaps, also stages the distanced duality of Self and
Other as problematic, but also as constitutive of human experience, and more
violently so, as with the extreme experience of contemporary Latin American
man (or woman).
As in Concrete poetry, the repetition of verbal structures signifies much
more than a pleasing arrangement of its musical, rhythmic, or visual patterns.
For example, that “é o nome” (is the name of) that is rhythmically repeated
with each verse recalls the playful repetition of childhood games, indicating the
semantic slippage that the process of naming entails, a process that in this poem
paradoxically refuses to “name” anything permanently; the reason for such a
refusal also left unsaid, but hinted at, as if that which underlies it (the name, the
“nome”) is the unnamable horror of oppression and repression. The pivotal position
of the word nome in the middle of every verse renders it as a caesura, a break, but
also as an articulation point around which meaning has not, cannot, crystallize.
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 265

It is significant that “nome” means both “name” and “noun” in Portuguese, since
it adds to the linguistic ambiguity that Antunes foregrounds through the poetic
act. There is circularity in the repetition between verses, as words appear and
reappear in different locations, again, (and again), as in Concrete poetry. But the
poem, unlike a circle, does not provide closure, so perhaps a better analogy is a
spiral winding its way around the enigmatic “nome” without getting close to a
center, without naming the unnamable.
“Nome” is an enigmatic poem which does not fully yield its author’s subject
position vis-à-vis the role of language. It seems that Antunes writes from a
structuralist position since the poem “Nome” plays on the idea that language
is ambiguous and arbitrary, but that it nevertheless precedes and attempts to
constitute reality, to “structure” the world in some way. Indeed, his insistence
on the disconnect between words and things follows mainstream structuralist
thought, with its echoes of Foucault, Saussure, Jakobson et al.
But his insistence on the body, which is, critically, at the center of the poem’s
meaning (and of Antunes’s very physical performance), suggests otherwise. Possibly
Antunes is challenging that antiseptic, language-centered structuralist perspective,
attempting a return to some prelinguistic, body-centered knowledge that might
link direct experience with reality, closer to phenomenology than to structuralism.
These are precisely the questions that the poem presents and enacts but does
not resolve, leaving them for the reader. Are we only able to perceive and think
through language, or are there other possible forms of perception and cognition?
Is language the optimal way to relate to an Other?
Antunes is fascinated by how the body interacts with language, beyond vocal
articulation. When performing, Antunes’s entire body “speaks,” more so in his
live shows than in his audio recorded or written material. In Antunes’s live
performance, “Nome’s” prosody is integrated with gesture and body motion; for
instance, as the accented force of the poet’s voice falls on the first, fourth and
seventh syllables of each verse (algo é o nome do homem) Antunes steps down
forcefully to the beat or accompanies the vocal stress with some other body
movement (foot tap, clap, head movement). Internal alliteration within the poem
serves a similar rhythmic purpose, as each appearance of the repeating “o” and
“e” or the repeating phonemes “me” and “men” provide the work with a sense
of incantation, perhaps as an echo of oral epic poetry traditions. The entire
performance is at once fresh yet seemingly choreographed, as his voice, somewhere
between song and recitation (Antunes has sung in several well-known Brazilian
bands) works in precise tandem with the percussion sounds, with his physical
presence, with his gestures.4
266 Radical Poetry

As Antunes recites his poems, he keeps its script-base materially visible,

mobilizing and embodying the intersection of visual and verbal signs. The poet
and the poem, as well as the audience, coexist as a joint physical presence in
the live performance—a deferred experience for DVD or YouTube viewers—that
approximates art and life, as Surrealists and Dadaists had intended, for example,
in their extravagant shows at the Cabaret Voltaire.5 Despite his interest in the
body and live performance, Antunes does not reject the value of the arbitrary
linguistic sign. Quite to the contrary, he reinforces the materiality of script itself,
by projecting text, diagrams, and other linguistic fragments onto his own body.
These impermanent “light-based” tattoos recall the metaphor of body as script, or
as canvas, and also reference gesture as both a visual and a visceral sign. Antunes
also uses his voice as another way of materializing language for his audience, as
he performs from his written poems. Since he reads and interprets directly from
his notes, he reaffirms the importance of the written word, even as this word is
translated, transformed and augmented by Antunes’s tone, cadence, volume, body
language, facial expression, as well as by the different amplifiers he manipulates
during the performances. As I mentioned earlier, the link between voice, body,
and text can be traced back to epic poetry and to the performance of medieval
troubadours, whose role went beyond mere entertainment, engaging also in the
creation of a social body, facilitating connections between poet and audience,
providing social cohesion to the group. No doubt, the ethical and disquieting
content of Antunes’s poems demand some type of response from the social group.
The text fragments projected relentlessly on the walls and on Antunes’s body
are taken from various sources, from newspapers, poems, manuscripts, Chinese
ideograms, even from technical diagrams and sketches. They are projected at
such a speed that they cannot be read in their totality, becoming at times pure
visuality, image. Displaying a wide array of typographies, the images create the
sensation of a living collage or filmic montage as they intersect the moving body
of the performer. The omnipresence of script confers on the performance a fleeting
but intense presence, as linguistic signs are relayed through different channels
and signification codes: scriptural, verbal, iconic, phonetic, gestural. Enunciation
is not limited to the body, although that is where its origin and reception are
located. Words are projected on the folds of Antunes’s clothing and skin, but also
on the walls and screen surfaces, and ultimately, all those floating morphemes
and phonemes that are seen and heard in the “real” space of the performing venue
dematerialize and enter a virtual world of 0s and 1s; indeed, most reader/spectators
of Antunes’s work are not there with him, but consume the images through digital
media and thus the poetry is reconstituted in a delocalized, decentered, rhizomatic,
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 267

and nomadic fashion. Despite the deterritorialized nature of the experience, in

“Nome” language recovers certain perceptual immediacy, possibly because of the
relentless emphasis on the body and on materiality, to which the poem returns
time and again. Antunes redefines language as a heterogeneous sign system that
draws on multiple components, visual, verbal, aural, and haptic, extricating poetry
from approximations that are overdetermined by the homogenizing logocentrism
of the written word.
The text Antunes projects is sometimes pictographic, often illegible. The
contemporary spectator, already used to a fragmented visuality, anneals and
processes the phonetic and kinetic components of the text to create a unity, albeit
an unstable, flexible, mobile one that participates in a regime of the figural.6 As
I have shown, the complex relations of text and image, linguistic self-reflexivity
and the kineticism generated by Antunes’s action or performance poetry have
immediate antecedents in Concrete and modern poetry, as well as in older
oral traditions. “Nome” and other poems by Antunes incorporate both analog
and digital media into hybrid formats that productively explore the limits of
contemporary poetry and language.

Eduardo Kac’s Neo-Concrete Digital Poetry

Born in Rio de Janeiro (1962) but based in Chicago since 1989, Eduardo Kac became
known in the eighties for his performance art, which culminated in 1982 with a
group performance entitled Pelo strip-tease da arte (For Art’s Striptease) at Ipanema
Beach (Rio, Brazil) that commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the Semana de
Arte Moderna of 1922. At the event poems were read, songs were sung; there were
art objects on display and audience participation was encouraged. The body was
central to the performance, as artists stripped naked and bathed in the ocean, an
act meant to provoke the conservative sectors of Brazilian society.
Starting with the coup of 1964 and the forced closing of the Brazilian Congress
in 1968, and until the late 1980s, Brazil suffered from a great deal of political
and artistic repression at the hands of the military dictatorship. By the time
Kac began his work as an artist the military’s grip had lessened considerably and
many political exiles had returned, taking advantage of a 1979 political amnesty
law. Kac and his contemporaries of the “Generation of 1980,” as they were called,
questioned cultural and social norms through performance art and happenings.
Evidence of Kac’s performances, ephemeral by nature, has been all but lost with
the exception of some photographs and descriptions recorded by Brazilian art
scholar Bianca Tinoco. Returning us once again to the concept of embodiment that
268 Radical Poetry

we saw with Antunes’s poems, according to Tinoco Kac’s performances revolved

around the physical expression of poetry as a body in motion through the streets
of the city. Kac would read his “porno poems,” works of a highly erotic and often
pornographic nature, which he would “act out” and recite on the beach at Ipanema
in front of ad hoc audiences and passers-by. He created works that attempted
to unite the audience and the performer as one, even if briefly. From his early
interest in performance and street art, Kac moved on to investigate the interplay
between technology, poetry, and the body, leaving Brazil and becoming an artist
and research scholar in several U.S. institutions.
Despite his profound engagement with the very latest technologies (computing,
genetics, biomedical, optics, telecommunications, robotics) which he redirects
toward poetry, Kac nevertheless traces his poetic influence to much earlier—by
now “classical” examples—experimental poetry; he mentions, for example,
Mallarmé’s use of blank spaces and radical typography in Un coup de dés jamais
n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), as well as the
early-twentieth-century poetry that Pierre Reverdy published in the magazine
Nord-Sud, and also Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes. Kac’s recent work reaches
far beyond written poetry, far beyond even the most experimental poetry, delving
into new genres: holopoetry (poetry made with holograms), conceptual art, BioArt,
and much more.
A profoundly transgressive artist interested in boundary crossings (physical,
conceptual, ideological) and dialectical thinking, Kac (like Australian artist
Stellarc) is intrigued by the possibilities and risks associated with the interaction
or imbrication between man and machine, the biological and technological,
nature and culture, and as an extension of previous work in performance he
often engages with poetry through cyborg metaphors. He posits that humans
and machines obtain their objectives through the use of increasingly complex
feedback loops, a concept embraced by other posthumanists (Haraway, Hayles,
Hansen are prominent examples). In fact Kac’s theoretical and artistic premises
are closely aligned with Haraway’s theoretical contributions about the meshing of
human, animal, and machine, which she claims “are constituted and connected
by recursive, repeating streams of information” (134).
Kac’s poetry shows us that connections between the human body, including
the mind, and its surroundings, which require constant perception, calibration,
and reaction, are now mediated by information and technology in ways that are
changing those feedback pathways between body and technology, and, possibly, the
very internal wiring of our brains; Kac’s work interrogates the ethical implications
of the implosion and overlapping of these dissimilar regimes under an increasingly
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 269

globalized technoscience, from an impartial antideterministic stance: he is neither

a fervent technophile nor an apocalyptic technophobe.
But what is perhaps most remarkable about Kac’s work is the way he has
nurtured a link to poetry even when his work, of increasing conceptual complexity,
expands into fields such as genetics and robotics. While I will not engage here
with some of his more spectacular projects (such as the BioArt creation of a glow
in the dark rabbit, or his injection of a computer chip into his leg as a form of
externalized memory—the chip carried photographs from his childhood which
could be “read” by a scanner applied to his flesh), I will limit myself to some early
projects that fuse poetry and technology. Kac’s work has its roots in the first
“electronic” poems, which began to be seen in the late 1960s and ’70s, especially
in the United States and Europe, and soon thereafter in Brazil. Nineteen sixty-eight
marked a watershed year with the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition held at London’s
ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts), which featured all types of computer art,
including music, visual art, and computer-generated poetry. Kac was fully aware
of these developments, but access to mainframe computers for artistic projects was
quite difficult in Brazil, and he would have to wait for an important technological
development, the PC.
With the emergence of the digital (personal) computer in the late eighties
Kac incorporated sound, movement, and three-dimensionality into his already
cutting-edge poetry, with the hope that the computer would provide greater access
to the reader through increased interactivity. Digital poems, Kac observes, diffuse
the opposition between reader and writer in ways that extend Barthian notions of
the “readerly” and “writerly” text as outlined in S/Z (1970). According to Barthes,
the readerly text treats the reader as a passive recipient of information, presenting
her with linear accounts and fixed meanings. The writerly text, favored by Barthes
and Kac, places the reader—no longer just a reader—in a position of active control
transforming her into a co-creator of meaning in typically nonlinear, multivocal
works that provide no narrative “closure” or resolution. As Barthes describes it,
one of the goals of the writerly text is “to make the reader no longer a consumer
but a producer of the text” (S/Z 4). Digital literature, in its essential nonlinearity,
its multimediality, and its engagement with the reader through multiple interfaces
(mouse, screen, keyboard, touch pads, voice recognition) fulfills the mechanics of
the writerly text. Examining Kac’s work will test whether it challenges the reader
to break out of traditional reading positions and assume a creative, active, and
writerly role.
“D/eu/s” (“G/o/d”) is one of Kac’s earliest computer projects, shown in 1986 at
the exhibition Brazil High Tech organized by Telefônica in São Paulo, and also at the
270 Radical Poetry

Galeria de Arte do Centro Empresarial Rio (Rio de Janeiro). Undeniably, the piece
was immersed in a corporate sponsored event, and like modernismo and Concrete
poetry problematically entangled with advertisement and global capitalism; indeed,
much of Kac’s later work relies on corporate sponsorship and private donations,
necessary given the technical complexity of his projects. Kac, however, attempts to
maintain a high degree of content autonomy, not allowing sponsors to determine
subject matter. This seems to be the case with “D/eu/s” (see Figure 9.2), a work
that despite its complicity (whatever its degree), activates a cultural critique from
within a corporate framework. “D/eu/s” begins with a white rectangle over a black
background. As time passes the lines of a bar code commence to descend gradually
from the top of the screen, with a series of numbers and letters appearing at the
bottom (19D6E U4S86). The recourse to the UPC (Universal Product Code), which
dates from the mid-seventies and is used to scan and track individual product
trade numbers, serves as a reference to global trade. The bars represent a type of
encoding system, deployed for control, verification, even product tracking and

Figure 9.2. Eduardo Kac. “D/eu/s.” Screen capture.

Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 271

The numbers at the bottom (19D6E U4S86) are not random, but correspond to
the year and date when the work was presented (6-4-1986, or June 4, 1986). The
letters spell either EU, the Portuguese word for I, or, if we take all four letters,
DEUS, god. Kac observes that its possible meanings do not arise through traditional
semantics but through context, motion, and by understanding the relationship of
the nonlinguistic elements. Its meaning is not, however, immediately apparent.
Is it a critique of commercialism? Is it a celebration of scanning and consumer
technology? Or something altogether different?
There is, for example, a human presence within the work: the poet’s
subjectivity is, to an extent, inscribed into the poem as the EU (“I”), a lyrical I
that is nonetheless unassertive and lost amidst the other “figures.” The poem was
presented via Minitel, an online service launched in France in 1982, a precursor
to the World Wide Web that was accessible through the telephone lines. While
Kac was obviously working on the very latest communication technology, he was
not blinded by a strictly technophilic, utopian outlook; there is, here, an element
of critique that needs decoding. A relevant interpretation based on the poem’s
historical context suggests, for example, that this early version of the Internet is
problematically cast as a new “divinity,” as DEUS, a God that is not spiritual but
rather complicit with the market implications of the bar code. The bar code is
also significant in the wake of the devastating Southern Cone neoliberal politics
of the eighties that “priced” many individuals out of the middle class, into lives of
poverty and marginality, and which thereafter exploded into the global crises of
the early 2000s.
The numbers of the bar code, 6-4-1986 have an additional significance: 64
marks a key date for Brazil; it is an obvious reference to the dictatorship period,
which began with a United States–backed military coup d’état in 1964 (Golpe
de 64), when a cadre of right-wing generals deposed the democratically elected
leftist president and member of the Labor Party, João Goulart (1919–1976), who
advocated for the rights of Afro-Brazilians and the marginalized poor, the
dwellers of urban favelas as well as those in the impoverished rural hinterlands.
An equally significant number, 1986, signals the first year of the Nova Republica,
the era of post-dictatorship democratic Brazil which began with José Sarney’s
inauguration (late 1985), the first democratically elected president since 1964. Cast
in this political light, the dark screen that opens the poem can be understood
as a dark interlude, the “nocturne” twenty-year period when political freedom
was “put away,” set behind bars, so to speak, also signified by the black lines that
constrain the white section of the poem, recalling prison bars, and prison stripes.
The number might also reference the replacement of individuals by a number in
272 Radical Poetry

penal institutions, or, perhaps indirectly, the tattooing of numbers on prisoners,

as in the concentration camps of World War II, or, the corporeal inscription carved
into flesh, as in Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony” (1914).
Most obviously, the poem alludes to the insidious commercialism and
commodification and its imbrication with military dictatorships and with U. S.
neocolonialist practices in Latin America; indeed the U and S of DEUS might be
a (veiled) reference to the United States. Kac thus casts a critical eye on both the
possibilities and the dangers of new technologies in promoting freedom and/or
enslavement. Moreover, it could be argued that the poem’s ambiguity facilitates,
indeed encourages, its “writerly” function: Kac presents a text that prompts the
reader to elaborate—to “write”—a political and social critique of the troubling
meshing between capitalism and emergent media, thereby striking against the
readerly text and its status as a passive cultural commodity. The poem’s critique
against commercialism is rendered more effective insofar as it subverts and
appropriates the tools of capital, iconically represented by the commercial bar code,
in order to expose its workings. In that sense, it may be said to resemble Pignatari’s
“beba coca cola,” and perhaps less so, de Almeida’s “coma Lacta.”
“Não!” (“No!”) is another of Kac’s early digital poems that appropriates
advertising tools to critique the conformism of our contemporary culture (its own
nonconformity expressed even in the title). The poem was “born” in a paper format,
first published in Kac’s artist book Escracho (1983). In the first version the poem’s
letters were printed using “dots,” imitating an early computer printout or some
type of luminous advertising sign. The poem was presented in 1986 as a message
on a large-scale electronic signboard at the same Brasil High Tech exhibition that
featured “D/eu/s.” A few years later, Kac adapted the electronic poem for the
Internet. Both electronic versions run as a continuous loop organizing the poem’s
content into equally spaced moving blocks of script alternating with blank spaces.
The poem’s intermittent structure (space-text-space) formally and analogically
represents the way that discrete data blocks move through cyberspace, as “bundles”
of information alternating with instants of null content (see Figure 9.3).
At first glance, the script blocks gliding by the reader’s eyes appear to be
meaningless neologisms, spelling out several “nonsense” words: “OPOETAESS,”
nature of the nine letter units thwarts attempts at a meaningful sequential
legibility, functioning as a “secret” code. Decryption, however, is made difficult.
The temporal intervals between the scrolling script blocks—a few seconds—exclude
the possibility of seeing the entire poem at once, since each nine-letter string
appears only after the previous one has disappeared.
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 273

Figure 9.3. Eduardo Kac. “Não!” Screen capture.

Antonio Monegal argues that the avant-garde’s propensity to fragment script

amounts to an artifice used to challenge the monolithic logocentric system of
signification by disrupting continuity, paraphrases, and oral discourse (69). In this
case, more than a disruption for its own sake, the poem is presented as a game
or puzzle to be resolved by the reader. Kac only seeks a temporary disruption of
reading patterns, not intending to break communication or suspend meaning
permanently, but to reorient the spectator’s reading and viewing strategies and
expectations. The idea is to awaken the reader’s self-reflexive awareness about the
reading process itself, challenging her to ask: How do I read? Are there other ways
to read? What part do memory and recall play in the reading process and in the
constitution of a text?
Of course, we are still left with the most pressing question, which is: How does
one actually view, read and interpret this poem? As the letters zip by, the reader/
viewer attempts to decode them, perhaps growing frustrated. If she succeeds in
retaining the four text blocks that comprise the complete message in her memory
(or writes them down), and manages to re-space the fragments into a coherent
syntactic whole, she would read the following sentence in Portuguese: “O POETA
CHOIR OF YES.” It is unlikely, however, that a reader could muster the mnemonic
274 Radical Poetry

effort required to assemble the entire text in one iteration, especially since she
would need to first understand the “rules” of the game. Instead, the reader will
“recognize” some of the words and cognize that she needs to restructure her
reading to shift spaces and reading direction (i.e., the rules of the game), in order
to reconfigure (reorder) the text. If the reader is patient, the continuous loop allows
for a gradual decoding, since one can see the entire poem scroll by indefinitely,
and with each subsequent pass converge on its solution. The lack of proper spaces
between words forces the reader to assemble the fragmented coded sentence
piecemeal. In the ensuing collaborative effort between woman and machine, the
poem’s semantic signification is (re)created. Through this exercise, Kac compels
the reader to break with standard reading patterns, requiring instead a mnemonic
reconstruction of the text: one must remember the first script block, in order to
connect it to the second, and so on. Comparing “Não!” to “beba coca cola” we see
that in Pignatari’s poem the visual gestalt was almost instantaneous, while with
“Não!” the reader can only reconfigure the message after several iterations with
the machine.
The richness of the work allows for much more analysis. As I suggested, one
of the most remarkable aspects about “Não!” is how it compels the reader to alter
standard reading patterns. The typographic spacing of the letters is subject to a
Cartesian grid, and the flow of the letters does not change its speed, reminiscent
of the strict regularity Concrete poetry imparted on script spacing. Script arrives
into the field of view from the left, following traditional reading cues, its spacing
and timing meticulously controlled—and since forms of “control,” and power, are
what is being undermined in Kac’s work the use of such tightly regulated forms
becomes critically paradoxical. Paradoxical, because beneath the script’s Cartesian
regularity, its mathematical and isomorphic characteristics—the measured,
constant speed of the letters, their balanced size ratio—which provide the poem’s
sense of visual harmony, regularity, and order, there is a latent, concealed,
and subversive message of individuality that challenges the viewer’s reading
assumptions. As mentioned, the poem’s reading experience requires remembering
the first block of text in order to be able to connect it with the second, and so forth.
If the poem were laid out spatially on paper it would be relatively simple to decode,
but in its digital form, once the first block of text disappears it is irretrievable until
it returns in the next loop. The reliance on the temporality of the loop lends the
work a sense of sequential progression but also of circularity, since the loop is the
prime mechanism through which the reader negotiates the text. The reader is
therefore implicated with what might be considered as an animated Concrete poem
that enlists multiple senses and engages the ability to recall. This, if the reader
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 275

“recalls,” brings us back, also in a kind of circular loop, to our earlier discussion
about “screen reading,” right back to the question of our engagement with digital
text, whether it is shallow or deep. The looping-back that Kac’s poem demands
may be part and parcel of a shift from reflective book reading to real-time screen
reading, a kind of reading that expects immediate knowledge and alters behavior
in accordance with the feedback received (Internet navigation is a prime example of
real-time reading), but also demands patience and openness to learn new patterns.
Once the poem is reorganized so it can be read, there is still another type of
decoding remaining: understanding the significance of the decoded sentence.
Despite its apparent simplicity, the poem’s meaning is not trivial. The message
represents an affirmation of the individualism of the poet contrasted with the
uniformity and conformism of the group, the “choir of yes,” thus confirming the
existence of a lyrical subject, and perhaps an authorial voice, even as the poem
remains conceptually focused on language and memory games. Given the origin
of the poem, first written in the early eighties, prior to the end of the dictatorship,
the hidden message about adopting a nonconformist position takes on added
significance. It is possible to analyze the “meaning” of the poem in much greater
depth (including its political and contextual ramifications), but arguably, its most
innovative aspect lays on its “surface,” in how it functions, its process and not its
end (of course, its programming is not on the surface, but actually hidden quite
deeply, and remains ultimately inaccessible for most readers, under many layers
of code).
Indeed, I would suggest that the potentially transformative element is the way
in which the poem places the reader in direct collaboration with the computer. As
we have seen, the lack of correspondence between spacing and proper syntax forces
the reader to stitch together the fragments of the still codified sentence, by first
developing and then using an algorithm, in essence having to “think” or function
like a computer program. Although at first glance the type of reading proposed by
“Não!” might appear to be linear, it is based on a recursive, cyclical structure such as
those used by iterative algorithmic processes and servomechanisms—mechanisms
that self-regulate their own activity, for example navigational tracking mechanisms
or communication satellites. First, the coded text is “read,” or better said,
apprehended, then that information needs to be retained in the reader’s short-term
memory (the equivalent of a computer’s RAM, or random access memory) since
the text disappears from sight quickly, and afterward the reader follows a process
of decoding and reassembling. The preoccupation with memory, inscribed in the
process of Kac’s poem, points to the gradual loss of information and to software
obsolescence so characteristic of digital media and of the Internet, but paralleled
276 Radical Poetry

by our own human memory loss.7 The reader’s decoding actions are analogous to
how a computer translates programming language (BASIC, ALGOL, Pascal, C++,
Java) into the binary code of 1s and 0s. From a cognitive standpoint, this process
of translation requires both an information channel and a memory system, all of
which further suggests the well-worn metaphor of mind as computer. Curiously,
the return to metaphor (analogy) serves to establish a connection between human
and machine “thinking,” and therefore to forge a link between analog and digital.
In her book SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing
(2009), Johanna Drucker examines the relation between digital media and the
humanities, investigating how the subjective, nonlinear, and imaginative—
fundamental for analogy—might be integrated into the production of knowledge so
that it will act as a counterbalance to the supposed “objectivity” of the formal logic
operative in computing, mathematical, and scientific approaches. It is an attempt
at bridging the gulf between “the two cultures” bemoaned in C. P. Snow’s 1959
lecture about the unfortunate split in Western society between the sciences and
the humanities, a split that could prove fatal to our species. To suture the divide,
Drucker proposes that “insofar as the formal logic of computational environments
validates instrumental applications regarding the management and creation of
digital artifacts, imaginative play is crucial to keeping that logic from asserting a
totalizing authority on knowledge and its forms” (xiii).
If playfulness is to keep the “brutal,” unfeeling calculation and cold logic of
the machine in check, it is necessary to insert, inscribe, implant, and program the
human element into the digital. Accelerating technological progress has been read
as the end of the human era by pessimist cultural critics such as Friedrich Kittler,
whose techno-determinism (as outlined in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 1986) sees
the computer’s arrival as a requiem for mankind, quite possibly taking his cue from
Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918–1922) where the machine age is seen
as the harbinger and cause of the decline of Western civilization. Other critics,
such as Hansen, Haraway, and Hayles, see the possibility of a union with the digital
as a case of augmenting our human possibilities, not restricting or ending them. In
“Não!,” Kac is attempting to rescue the subjective, as the poem playfully integrates
the cultural legacy of the human and the as-yet-unrealized promise of the digital.
The fusion is not only metaphoric (mind = computer), but also metonymic and
augmentative (mind + computer = hybrid human). Kac combines the algorithmic
and mechanical/digital with the human heuristics of improvisation, innovation,
and affect: according to Kac, meaning is created in this poem specifically through
the collaborative effort between man and machine, a process that Funkhouser
humorously denominates cyborgian coupling (162), a term not devoid of eroticism
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 277

that evokes the jouissance of the writerly text, the pleasure of recognition, and the
joys of (pro)creation, which he derives from Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1991) and
its vision of human/machine hybrids. Hayles would argue that the interdependence
and cooperation with the computer resulting from “Não!” and similar works,
signify a reader that is becoming posthuman. No doubt, the potential for the
posthuman era is hinted at by Kac’s poetry, raising ethico-philosophical questions.8
The poem also provides the satisfied, satiated joy associated with a playful
peekaboo or fort-da game that the reader/participant has managed to resolve. As
Kac explains, “The visual rhythm thus created alternates between appearance and
disappearance of the fragmented verbal material, asking the reader to link them
semantically as the letters go by. The internal visual tempo of the poem is added
to the subjective performance of the reader” (n.p.). Language games are therefore
controlled by algorithmic processes, and decoded by human cognition, resulting
in a linkage (through play) of different codes: computer, linguistic, mathematical.
Questions of aesthetics are also in the foreground, as shown by the careful
attention paid to the work’s visual appearance. Moreover, the poem mimics, as
Funkhouser observes, the almost retro aesthetics of early digital works; it also
imitates an LED (light emitting diode) display characteristic of early computer
advertisement, indeed it somewhat fetishizes first generation–vintage technology
(162). Early LED lights were typically red, and used for on/off switches, calculator
displays, stock market ticker, arcade games, watches, televisions, and radios, and
therefore associated both with communication technologies, with the growth of
an increasingly globalized electronics industry, but also with games. Significantly
enough, LEDs are a light source that is used for signaling, as opposed to lighting
purposes (this was true, at any rate, when LEDs were first developed), and therefore
used to convey messages, poetic, or otherwise. American conceptual artist Jenny
Holzer has also used LED signs in public spaces—indeed, placing “subversive”
messages where commercial advertising is expected—since the early 1980s, on
a larger scale than Kac, culminating in a 1989 retrospective at the New York
Guggenheim and a subsequent exhibit at the Bilbao Guggenheim (Spain). What is
curious about Kac’s choice is that the movement of the words across a computer
screen, and the movement of words across an LED advertising billboard, are equally
virtual, meaning that they respond to the turning on and off of either individual
“lights” or pixels. There is no real continuous movement in either case, only its
resemblance, which brings us back, yet again, to the cinematographic image
as an illusion of motion created from a series of discrete, unmovable frames.
Viewed in this light, the difference between analog and digital begins to blur,
even to “pixelate.”
278 Radical Poetry

The fluidity of the LED-like moving text also serves as a metaphor for the
fluidity of new media, and of digital poetry itself (a fluidity, as mentioned, also
troubled by contingency, flickers, and pixilation). “Não!” seems minimalist and
somewhat dated in comparison with recent digital poetry that overwhelms viewers
with spectacular sounds, vibrant script morphing, and real-time interaction with
on-screen events. Precisely because it only manipulates a few possible visual and
script elements, while keeping the rest constant, Kac is able to show how minor
modifications of letter shapes, rhythm, speed, and the semantic message interact
with the addition of movement. Given the complexity of programming digital
media and of its underlying code, works prior to the 1990s minimized the use of
verbal and visual elements, carefully relating these different semantic spheres—as
Kac calls them—so they would produce the intended effects and meanings. Despite
its minimalism, these poems, I hope to have shown, were hardly reductionist.

Technology, Bodies, and Digital Vanguards

In sum, Eduardo Kac’s poetry functions as metapoetry, by analyzing how a poetic

text is constructed, and then deconstructing it by taking apart its phonetic
structures, reorganizing them and creating words with the fragments. Playing with
rhythm, blank space, syntax, increasing the role of the visual and emphasizing the
graphic component of letters and words and their displacements across the screen,
Kac and Antunes are invested in the materiality of language whether on paper or
digital media. They focus on the verbal, visual, and vocal dimensions of language
to create multimediatic and polysemic works that require an active reader that will
read, look, listen, and participate in the act of poiesis.
Yet, for all their similarities there are also significant differences in how Kac
and Antunes approach their respective digital practices. In Kac’s case, he views
technology and digital poetry specifically as a way forward, unsure exactly of
where his experiments might lead him—in that sense, he is truly a vanguard
artist. He is always seeking the next artistic technology, whether it is biopoetry,
holopoetry, or some other hybrid between the poetic and the technological.
Antunes, on the other hand, sees technology as a support for his body-centered
poetry, part of his search for a poetic origin, a prelapsarian moment he imagines
when signifier and signified were united, which he describes as the instant
“when the bonds joining the senses had not yet been untied, when music, poetry,
thinking, dance, image, smell, flavor, substance were all united in unabridged
experiences, associated with magic, healing, religious, sexual and warlike uses”
(“The origins of poetry” n.p.).
Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance 279

Through their exploration of syntactic and kinetic discontinuities Kac

and Antunes create spaces where signs flow, allowing what Kac calls “textual
instability,” a condition by which script produces visual and verbal structures that
vary in space and time, placing greater demands on the spectator to appreciate
the visual and conceptual complexity of their work. With greater interactivity, the
poems demand a more active participant who is now a co-author, as the boundary
between reading and writing breaks down. As digital poetry expands its formal
repertoire, readers enact new reading strategies, including viewing and interacting
with the text in various ways, reading “spatially” instead of linearly, establishing
new links and connections with the machine and becoming open to the “moving”
experience of kinetic poetry.
The nonlinear and multidirectional path that meandered from modernismo, via
Concrete art, to contemporary digital poetry in Brazil, entailed the search for new
ways to include the dimensions of time and space, of movement, in poetry. A point
that I have tried to stress throughout Radical Poetry is that digital poetry would not
have been possible without the experiments of the turn of the century avant-garde,
and later, of the Concrete poetry movement. The earlier movements articulated the
dynamic principles and were indeed the “motors” of a new poetic sensibility that
blurred generic and semiotic distinctions between symbolic and iconic systems
of representation. Digital poetry’s capacity for “morphing” (the plastic and filmic
nature of the digital) allows the actualization of the metaphors of movement of the
avant-garde, endowing the poetic “image” with new visualization capabilities. The
symbiosis between image and script, human and machine, digital and analog are
now topics for artistic and poetic exploration both off and online. Future models
of writing and reading are opening up to include the concept of game, in a search
or quest for the perfect ways to integrate reading, writing, and playing, a search
that is itself a perpetual metaphor of movement, and which seems to corroborate
the existence of a “dynamic principle” in poetry, in poiesis.
Toward a Radical Aesthetics of the Digital?

lthough the focus of this book was, broadly speaking, Ibero-American
experimental poetry in the modern and contemporary periods, as well as
its interplay with technology and its sociopolitical context, the topic was
also motivated by an aesthetic inquiry that hails back much farther, to classical
(Aristotle, Horace) and early modern (Lessing) times: the study of the interaction
between word and image, poetry and painting, the temporal and spatial arts. As
we have seen, a wish to synthesize these apparently incompatible systems has
compelled artists to innovate, intermix, and incorporate different media and genres
in order to produce altogether new and daring artistic “forms,” which are not easily
categorized. Today, the drive toward the new has reached an unforeseen dimension
as the programmable power of computers becomes the latest addition to the artist’s
toolkit, facilitating what could only be described as a “radical” aesthetics. A fasci-
nating project called “Screen” provides a window into the near future, showing how
categories such as script and image, performance and film, might be “meshed” and
transformed into a complete body experience, demonstrating how far the limits
of the literary have been pushed. Although the project is squarely based within
the Anglo-European tradition, produced in a major North American university’s
creative writing program, it nonetheless also points to what we might soon expect
from Latin America as the digital divide shrinks.
“Screen” is a project that was created in 2005 for the CAVE (computer assisted
virtual environment), a room-size virtual reality environment at Brown University,
by digital author and researcher Noah Wardrip-Fruin, with the intention of
pushing kinetic script beyond the screen into three-dimensional space. While
the CAVE has usually been deployed for visualization to aid scientific research,

282 Radical Poetry

its potential for artistic endeavors remains mostly unrealized. This project goes a
long way in bridging the gap between the two cultures, placed squarely between
science and the humanities. The “Screen” experience is as follows: A “reader”
enters an unlit room. Then, a series of luminous texts appear on the darkened
walls of the CAVE. The first engagement with the script is mostly passive, or
rather conventional, as the “reader” takes in its content, reading text fragments
that speak about memory, loss, and language. Not to say that reading is a passive
activity; rather, here, it is an activity that does not yet use parts of the body other
than those associated with sight and cognition. Gradually, some words “peel” off
the walls. The reader, equipped with a 3-D visor and a data-glove, perceives their
movement as if they were “artifacts” in motion rather than mere signs, their size
changing in relation to his or her location. The reader then becomes a “player” or
performer as he discovers that the moving script can be knocked back into the wall
when hit by the data glove. The session turns into a playful interaction where the
reader attempts to return as many words as possible to the walls. The language
of the original text becomes fragmented, as words break upon impact, and are
returned to different areas in the wall. Upon being struck, or reaching a different
spot within the walls, neologisms begin to form, recalling the word games of earlier
avant-gardes. In a sense, the reader is becoming the author of a modernist work,
as he attempts to shore the fragments against the ruins (paraphrasing Eliot) of
the “original” text. Peeling off the walls at an increasing pace, some words begin
to fall to the ground, while others “swarm” the embattled reader’s body. As the
vortex of the swirling text overwhelms his capability to read, strike, or interact
with it, the words collapse in a heap. The impossibility to “read” and “see” the
image that we encountered with early-twentieth-century calligrams now becomes
an impossibility to read and “play” with the words; the two functions, however,
interact in unexpected ways.
In fact, this project challenges our understanding of what reading has
become in the digital age, how and perhaps why text moves, and how our bodies
might interact with moving script to create new meanings, immersing us in
the poetry in very literal, transformative ways. This is, indeed, a radical new
aesthetic. Just as fascinating is what projects such as this one suggest about the
rapidly disappearing boundary between human and machine, another recurrent
obsession of many of the artists we examined. Hayles views these interactive
works as collaborative art between mechanical and biological systems, where
the CAVE is “an interface in which a human user cooperates and competes with
intelligent machines” (Electronic Literature 14). I have shown throughout the book
that the innovations introduced by each subsequent avant-garde have reinvented
Conclusion 283

and recycled, as well as “remediated” the drive to experiment with form and
content, not as mere copies of the past but with variation and difference. Far
from meaninglessly (and apolitically) or mechanically repeating the gestures
of the older movements, the 1960s neo-avant-gardes and their contemporary
digital counterparts have worked through many issues already present in the
diverse and wide spectrum of earlier avant-gardes, adding their own directions,
technological affinities, and political strategies. Although, despite our wish
for synthesis, there is no single unifying answer to how these movements are
interrelated, I delineated the multidirectional networks connecting all three
periods vis-à-vis their aesthetic inclinations, geographical locations, ideological
leanings, and attitudes toward technology.
In a sense, any critical approach to understanding or “piecing together”
experimental poetry and its complex history since the turn of the twentieth
century echoes both the fragmentation of the poetry itself, and its opposite
tendency, the convergent and (reductively) totalizing gesture of attempting to
provide a unified, and ultimately oversimplified story. As Schaffner has suggested,
language dissection, especially in poetry, takes place throughout the twentieth
and twenty-first centuries

in phases that are intricately interwoven with each other . . . the taking apart
of linguistic units from text to word, the discovery of the visual and acoustical
dimensions of the linguistic sign, the instrumentation of typography, the
reduction of the word material, and the conceptual use of space by means of
non-linear word arrangements on the page. (“Letters Learn to Dance” 150)

My intent, despite a focus through close readings on the workings, the mechanics of
the poems, was not to reduce them to form and stylistics alone, but to also examine
their immediate historical context, and their ethical and ideological implications.
In addition, I attempted to show how the different dominant technologies in each
of the chosen historical periods (print, radio, celluloid, computer screen) have
mediated poetry’s engagement with time, space, and the body.
As we have seen through the poems I analyzed, the early avant-gardes rallied
experimental poetry toward the blurring of genre lines, dissolving, juxtaposing,
or at times reaffirming, underlining, and reasserting the categories that
differentiate script from image, but at any rate being constantly preoccupied
with that particular semiotic relation. The programmatic objectives of
experimental poets were manifold, including: to bring the poem to life; to
incorporate its words, transforming them into a praxis; to bring the city and
284 Radical Poetry

its technologies into the contents of the poem (and, conversely, to bring the
poem into the city); as well as to engage with emergent media, locomotion, and
war technologies. Temporal, geographical, and generic distances were abolished
through new methods of technological exchange, even as local cultural practices
were reaffirmed in an effort to maintain national identity in an increasingly
interconnected world, or they were elided or effaced in favor of internationalism.
After the carnage of World War I, aggravated tremendously by the killing
“efficiency” of mechanized warfare, attitudes toward technology began to
change, as a growing disillusionment countered the initial utopian expectations
for the new inventions, and lessened the appetite for “destructive” aesthetic
practices. Political changes after World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars,
the Cold War, and the gradual spread of military dictatorships throughout
Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula also dashed utopian expectations
for technology’s liberating qualities and inevitably affected poetic practices
by charging them with a political urgency that reinserted concerns about
the human, the body, and materiality. Additionally, the fifties and sixties
represented another explosion of text/image/sound experiments as efforts
toward a “total” poetry—one that would involve all the senses—were renewed
by a generation of avant-gardists who, like their modernist predecessors, also
engaged with emerging mass communication technologies such as television,
video, mimeograph machines, and other graphic reproduction techniques. With
the increased politicization of the arts and the rejection of the “autonomous”
work, there was a move to bring poetry to the streets, and to create art that
challenged the idea of “work” or “product,” that could resist commercial
appropriation and avoid being transformed into “relics” by institutions such
as museums and galleries, but would instead act directly on daily experience
to change both spectators and reality. The shift was also from form—and
formalism—toward process-oriented art (performances, happenings, street art,
conceptual art, leaflets, and generally “unfinished” works), as art became allied
with countercultural movements, war protests, and activism. As Luis Camnitzer
posits in Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation, in the
aftermath of the Cuban Revolution (1959) conceptual, process-oriented, and
performance art functioned very differently in Latin America than in Europe and
the United States, where artists mostly attempted to destabilize the primacy of
the art object and its institutions. In Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula, and
Eastern Europe, artists turned to conceptualism to radically question not only
the aesthetic nature of art, but also its link with politics, and its capacity for
critique. Thus, whereas in the “developed” metropolises of New York, London,
Conclusion 285

Berlin, and Paris conceptualism might have been viewed as a style, in Latin
America it became a strategy of resistance, instantly becoming “political art”
(Camnitzer 1–2). In that light, the argument can be made that Ibero-American
avant-garde art and poetry has (almost) always been “political,” in other words,
aesthetically and politically radical.
New media, and specifically digital poetry, has brought an added dimension
to Ibero-American art, one that has further increased its “radicalization” on
the aesthetic front. New media’s capabilities to converge different platforms
and combine text, image, sound, and movement have led to an intermedial
poetry that engages all modes of communication, creating works of a previously
unattainable technological complexity. Similarly, metaphor has been a critical
tool in the rapprochement of art and science in new media poetry. Digital
poetry’s promiscuous mix of disciplines bridges the divide between the two
cultures (science and the humanities), representing, possibly, a return to the
notion of techné that went beyond mere instrumentality to an understanding
of technology as craft, as a complement to poeisis (artistic creation). As such,
digital poetry requires the collaboration of programmers—arguably, technical
craftsmen—and poets—arguably, creative, artistic minds—bringing those
“modes” of thought into close contact, which also raises the stakes for the critics
who examine digital texts by requiring at least a basic understanding of their
underlying mechanisms. One additional “radically” transformative component
of digital art, if we recognize that affect is critical to cognitive function, the use
of metaphors (visual, aural, tactile) in poetry can bring together two previously
separate realms: that of the emotions and that of conceptual thinking. This
seems to be in agreement with Theodor Lipps’s theory of empathy (a precursor
to Gestalt), which held that the work of art could elicit our empathy and that
our perception of its aesthetic value was connected to our sense of identification
with the object, an identification that was intensified by a mimetic urge to
see something familiar, recognizable, in art. Incidentally, Rudolf Arnheim
arrived at a similar conclusion in relation to the feeling of empathy derived by
a film spectator seeing human bodies on screen, especially those in motion,
a phenomenon also called “kinesthetic empathy” (Reynolds 93–95). This does
not deny the existence of an alternate urge that takes delight in pattern,
geometry, and abstraction, one that would also take delight in the abstractions of
machinery. I argued elsewhere in the book that the image of a slowly petrifying
heart in Olga Delgado’s digital poem “La Dona Que Camina,” for instance,
draws on multimodal perception (sight, hearing) and engages multiple semiotic
codes (linguistic, visual), in order to intensify our affective response to the
286 Radical Poetry

poem. Metaphor possibly serves as a bridge between the primarily sequential

and logical nature of language in everyday speech, associated with the left
hemisphere of the brain, and the “creative” aspect of poetic language, altogether
less “concrete” than everyday language, right hemisphere–dominant; metaphor,
despite its linguistic—or imagistic—construction seems to escape the “hard”
logic of language, able to bend its rules, thereby questioning the divide between
cognition and affect, providing some evidence that they are interdependent,
whether through disruption, enhancement, negation, overlapping, etc. I claimed
in the first section of the book that visual and sound metaphors activated in
digital poetics link the poem’s concepts to the reader/viewer’s affective and
embodied responses, something which recent cognitive science bears out;
researchers such as Michael Borkent argue in favor of the mind-body connection,
claiming that embodied metaphorical conceptualizations explain how images
and script can collude by offering a means of connecting perceptual and
conceptual regimes (2). Perceptual metaphors (visual, aural, and otherwise) in
digital poetry are further enhanced by motion, providing “literal” moving images
and concomitant “virtual,” mental images (the product of the reader/viewer’s
associative thinking), which are added to the linguistic effects of the poem to
create a multisensorial mosaic. Digital poetry’s marshaling of verbal and visual
codes has produced a hybrid system where human brain function responds
to on-screen material (more than just to text). Thus, the dynamic interaction
between the reader/author and the new media technologies constitutes a poetic
subject that is closely linked to the machine, a subject that does not make “hard”
distinctions between text and image, and fully expects a multiplicity of codes to
productively interact via metaphoric processes. This is, undoubtedly, a radical
What are the broader implications of a study that tracks Ibero-American
experimental poetry through the last one hundred-plus years? What does the
study of “poems” that often prompt the question, “Is this really poetry?” purport
and offer to the critical enterprise? Experimental poetry, and even more so the
poetry written for computer and Web-based environments, seems to be in a
constant engagement with the technologies of its particular age, using those
technologies to push at the edges of media and of genre, through cutting-edge
approaches (whether typography, moving text, sound, interactivity, etc.) in
order to present us with literary objects that demand a constant reassessment,
reconfiguration, and redefinition of the literary itself. It is becoming increasingly
clear that the poetic and experimental practices themselves are changing and
adapting faster than the critical methods and the academic apparatus, and that
Conclusion 287

the taxonomic drive is as inadequate as the concomitant desire to delimit the

object of study within traditional disciplinary boundaries. A possible solution
will be to shift critical attention to practices and processes, to new ways of
writing, reading, viewing, listening, and living poetry that no longer obsessively
return to the “finished” artifact, but rather recognize that we have entered a new
era that is in constant flux, and which requires fluid, flexible and intermedial
critical approaches. If this study has made that apparent, then it has fulfilled
its greatest possible objective: to open up the literary discipline to new ways of
“seeing” the “literary,” understood as more than words on a page.


All translations in this text are my own unless noted otherwise.

1. To date, most studies of the Latin American and Iberian avant-gardes have
emphasized synchronic approaches that study a particular period and
geographical location in isolation, for instance Rubén Gallo’s Mexican
Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution (2005), Charles
Perrone’s Seven Faces of Brazilian Poetry since Modernism (1996), Andrea Giunta’s
Avant-Garde, Internationalism, and Politics: Argentine Art in the Sixties (2007), or
Gonzalo Aguilar’s Poesia concreta brasileira (2005), all fine works but narrowly
focused. The same can be said about classic texts such as Vicky Unruh’s
Latin American Vanguards: The Art of Contentious Encounters (1995), which
examines strictly the first avant-gardes, or Luis Camnitzer’s Conceptualism in
Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation (2007), which examines the 1960s
exclusively. More comprehensive temporally, Melanie Nicholson’s Surrealism
in Latin American Literature (2013) covers the breadth of the twentieth century
but focuses on Surrealist literature, not specially poetry. My study, in contrast
does not address Surrealism except in passing.
2. As Jill Kuhnheim notes in her own study of Spanish American avant-garde
poetry, “Certain themes and styles, such as indigenismo, urban culture or the
neobaroque, provide continuity with past literary and cultural phenomena
even as they transform these—at times offering radically new perspectives on
tradition and at other times recycling leftovers from the past into a fresh recipe”
(Textual 145).

290 Notes

3. In fact, my text departs from most avant-garde studies, by insisting on the

linkages between the multiple recurrences of avant-gardism in Ibero-America,
distancing itself not only from Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, but also
from other accounts that posit the “death of the avant-garde” from a political
standpoint, such as Hans-Magnus Enzensberger’s “The Aporias of the
Avant-Garde” in The Consciousness Industry: On Literature, Politics and the
Media (1974), Matei Calinescu’s Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde,
Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (1987), or Perry Anderson’s The Origins of
Postmodernity (1998). Bürger’s argument, focused primarily on Dada’s and
Surrealism’s attack on the institution of art, was fundamentally teleological
and insisted on the inevitable failure of the avant-gardes as their work became
commodified by the art establishment, engulfed by the culture industry,
recuperated and co-opted by the forces of capitalism; instead. I conceptualize
the avant-gardes not as a linear progression but as repeating temporal-spatial
nodes, foci of experimentation—cultural, political, aesthetic—that appear at
different times and are linked to each other through a complex network of
appropriations, allusions, quotes, remixes, and remediations (Bolter, Grusin),
an artistic mode that circumvents linearity and eludes an endpoint.
4. In The Return of the Real (1996), Hal Foster rejects Bürger’s position, proposing
that the avant-gardes do return with renewed aspirations “to a critical
consciousness of both artistic conventions and historical conditions” (1).
5. This attempt to bring poetry to the streets, of course, also evokes tactics used
to bring poetry to the public by earlier avant-garde groups such as Borges’s
Ultraistas (including Eduardo Gonzalez Lanuza, Norah Lange, Sergio Piñero,
and others) and later the martinfierristas (in Argentina), through publications
such as Prisma, Proa, Inicial, Martín Fierro, but also through broadsides and other
publicity stunts, or even similar approaches in Mexico by the Estridentistas, and
so on in almost every Latin American country, as well as in Spain.

Chapter 1. The Historical Avant-Gardes

1. Several Ibero-American theorists have also tackled the word-image issue, most
notably Antonio Monegal in En los límites de la diferencia: poesía e imagen en
las vanguardias hispánicas [At the Limits of Difference: Poetry and Image in the
Hispanic Avant-Gardes] (1998), Rosa Sarabia with La poética visual de Vicente
Huidobro [Vicente Huidobro’s Visual Poetry] (2007), and, more recently, Mario
Boido’s De límites y convergencias: la relación palabra/imagen en la cultura visual
latinoamericana del siglo xx [About Limits and Convergence: Word/Image Relations
Notes 291

in Latin American Visual Culture of the 20th Century] (2012). All three theorists
have appraised and enhanced the work done previously by Mitchell and Steiner,
focusing their attention more specifically on artists from the Hispanic world.
Also worth mentioning is a thematic issue published by the Revista Canadiense
de Estudios Hispánicos 28: 1 (2003), edited by Claudine Potvin, which delves into
the same topic.
2. Visual poetry relies on the visual arrangement of script, symbols, and images
to create poetic effects. While visual poetry is at times called “concrete,” de
rigueur concrete poetry refers to a variant of visual poetry that uses almost
exclusively script and typography, and originated with the Brazilian Concrete
poets in the 1950s. Lettrist poetry is one artistic expression of the Lettrist
movement founded by French poet Isidore Isou and was typically reduced to
individual letters or symbols, as opposed to words. Phonetic or sound poetry
is usually performed live and lies somewhere between oral and written poetry,
deploying human speech and nonhuman noises. Process poetry arguably began
in 1960s Latin America and focuses on the act of creating poetry rather than on
its final product. Process poetry is closer to a happening or performance than
to written poetry. Digital and electronic poetry is created by the computer and
read or viewed on the computer, and often relies on image, moving text, and
3. Borges theorized metaphor quite extensively in several of his texts, and in some
of his fictional writing. Among the more notable essays where he expounds on
this topic, note the following: “La metáfora” (1921), available in Textos recobrados,
1919–1929 (1997), “Examen de metáforas,” in Inquisiciones (1925), “La metáfora,”
in Historia de la eternidad (1936), and “The Metaphor” (based on the Harvard
Lectures) in This Craft of Verse (1967).
4. The aesthetic radicality of Catalan avant-garde poets such as Junoy, Papasseit,
Foix et al., was restricted by their fear that by undermining a language that was
not yet fully institutionalized they betrayed Catalan nationalist goals.
5. For an in-depth analysis of the relations between the Barcelona and Madrid
avant-gardes during this period, see Ascunce’s Barcelona and Madrid: Social
Networks of the Avant-Garde (2012).
6. Another factor was Japonism, the impact of Japanese art, especially woodblock
prints, on Western European late–nineteenth-century painting, i.e.,
asymmetrical compositions, bold monochromatic colors, unusual perspectives
(aerial, flat), empty space, and abstraction. These techniques influenced the
development of Impressionism and, later, Cubism.
7. Sarabia argues that as the visual arts became abstract, some poetry relied on
292 Notes

figuration, each art pushing beyond its limits, working with that which is not
specific to itself, that which is other, supplementary (“Interarte” 54–55).
8. A text recently published by Luis Rius Caso, Las palabras del cómplice. José Juan
Tablada en la construcción del arte moderno en México (1891–1927) (2013) begins
to remedy the relative obscurity Tablada has been relegated to.
9. Latin American modernismo was close in spirit to the French Art Nouveau and
to Catalan Modernisme, sharing with these movements some affinities with
Romanticism, Symbolism, Parnassianism, and Decadentism but displaying
their own regional flairs and particularities (which differed considerably from
region to region), making the categories difficult to pin down. “Modernism,”
on the other hand, a term often conflated with “avant-garde,” comes from
“modernity,” a period that has been equated with the rise of the bourgeoisie
in the nineteenth century, the moment when Enlightenment values such
as rationalism, positivism, and progress were embraced. Following Bürger’s
distinction, modernism is the high-culture movement that stretched from
the turn of the century until after World War II and involved stylistic experi-
mentation concerned with establishing the autonomy of the work of art from
other spheres of life (focusing, therefore, on issues of medium specificity, pure
painting, and so on). For Bürger this was a strictly aesthetic movement, while
the “avant-garde,” as he envisioned it, was an ideologically inflected rejection
of aesthetic autonomy that sought to approximate art to life, and to attack the
very institution of art as a commodified arena. For a detailed discussion, see
Joche Schulte-Sassen’s foreword to the English edition of Bürger’s text.
10. There was a link between Apollinaire and Tablada via their common friend
Marius de Zayas who traveled back and forth between New York (where he
often saw Tablada) and Paris (where he frequented Apollinaire); if Hadman
is correct, Tablada and Apollinaire knew each other firsthand (Bohn 267;
Hadman 11). Huidobro’s Horizon Carré (Square Horizon) (Paris, 1917) featured
visual poems and was probably well known to Tablada.
11. Another fascinating link: David Alfaro Siqueiros published one of De Zayas’s
modernist caricatures on the cover of his short-lived Barcelona-based magazine
Vida Americana (May 1921), a journal staffed by Salvat-Papasseit, Torres-García,
and Siqueiros’s wife Gachita Amador (Stein 33–34). Mexican artists, including
Tablada, De Zayas, Rivera, and Siqueiros, had a lasting transatlantic influence
on many artistic fronts: poetry, painting, architecture, etc.
12. Tablada’s politica allegiances were complex, having opposed Madero and
supported the politically conservative dictator Victoriano Huerta during the
Revolution. In 1914, after Huerta’s fall from power, Tablada was forced into
Notes 293

exile, as the Mexican Revolution still raged. Tablada lived in New York from
1914 until 1935, when he returned to Mexico, was reconciled with Carranza’s
government, and eventually was assigned several diplomatic posts.
13. The tendency is to show the many “facets” of an object simultaneously by
splintering its planes, and to attempt to show three dimensions as two, to
reconfigure or synthesize the object into the canvas as an abstract form.
14. These works betrayed much mutual influence. Tablada might have read Pound’s
work on Chinese poetry—in turn inspired by Tokyo University scholar Ernest
Fenollosa’s (1853–1908) The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,
published posthumously in 1936 (Bachner 74–75). Pound’s work, titled Cathay
(1915), was a translation of nineteen Chinese poems that relied heavily on Fenol-
losa’s unpublished manuscript. The original poems were composed mainly by
Tang Dynasty poets Li-Po (AD 701–762) and Wang Wei (AD 699–759). Tablada’s
own interest in Li-Po may be a coincidence, but he could have been familiar
with Pound’s recently published Cathay.
15. The collection is dedicated “a las sombras amadas de la poetisa Shiyu [sic] y del
poeta Basho” (“to the beloved shadows of the poets Shiyu and Basho”]. Bashō
and Chiyo are the names of two early masters of the haiku genre (Ota, “La
influencia” 43). The conciseness and imagistic force of Matsuo Bashō’s poetry
(1644–1694) made him a favorite of not just early avant–gardists, but of later
poets from the American Beat Generation. The other poet, Fukuda Chiyo-ni
(1703–1775), was a Japanese haiku master whose poetry was inspired by her
Buddhist practice and her reverence for the natural world; Tablada’s anthology
pursues similar themes about plants and animals.
16. For a more detailed look at Krieger’s theories applied to avant-garde poetry see
chapter 7.
17. Naturally, the “dissolution” of semiotic boundaries had already been practiced
by the French Symbolists (Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud), who were interested
in engaging a variety of senses, of fusing them through synaesthesia, and they,
in turn, influenced Ibero-American modernistas such as Rubén Darío, Julio
Herrera y Reissig, and Tablada himself. We might say that any poetry blurs the
dividing line between text and image by its deliberate disposition of verses and
stanzas on the page, by their sonorous possibilities, and by the mental images
the juxtaposition of different words evoke, and, of course, through its attention
to typography, blank spaces, and so on.
18. “Filling” space is an obsession that later avant-gardes will, at times provocatively,
shift away from, as silence, the blank page, the crossed-out verse, and the
monochrome canvas or screen replace both language and image.
294 Notes

19. Medium specificity was dealt a blow with printing technology developments in
the late nineteenth century, as mechanization and the capability to reproduce
illustrations, coupled with advances in color printing, photography, and lithog-
raphy facilitated the cheap availability of illustrated newspapers, deluxe book
editions, and children’s “picture books” in which text and image were in close
proximity and commingled, so that “their synergetic relationship” meant that
“their total effect depends not only on the union of the visual and the verbal
elements, but also on the interaction between them” (O’Sullivan 198).
20. “El chirimoyo” bears a striking resemblance to another poem in the Un día . . .
anthology in which several leaves falling from a tree reveal themselves as
butterflies. Ota has traced it back to a poem by Japanese haiku master Moritake
Arakida (1472–1549). Ota stipulates that Tablada encountered the following
English version of the haiku in William G. Aston’s A History of Japanese Litera-
ture (1899):

Thought I, the fallen flowers

Are returning to their branches;
But lo! They were butterflies. (Aston 290)

Aston’s version transforms the flowers into butterflies in the last verse, and
although the surprise of the metamorphosis is still effective, much of the
tension of the poem is diminished with its resolution. Unlike Tablada’s “El
chirimoyo,” the poem fully “grounds” the upward flight—or downward fall—
of the butterflies and the leaves, disambiguating possible meanings. In his
version, Tablada masterfully reworks the poem’s form and content, retaining
the element of wonder and surprise, capturing the fleetingness of the instant,
and restoring ambiguity:

“Mariposa Nocturna”
Devuelve a la desnuda rama
Nocturna mariposa,
Las hojas secas de tus alas.
[“Nocturnal Butterfly”
Return to your naked branch
Nocturnal butterfly,
Your wings’ dry leaves.]

Tablada’s haiku performs a dual maneuver: it expresses a desire to turn back time
through its call for a fallen leaf to return to its branch, and it makes a metapo-
etic reflection, suggesting that metaphor (the butterfly) infuses the naked poem
Notes 295

(the branch) with its motive force (its wings). It is not a dry, fallen leaf but a
nocturnal butterfly that returns to the branch, returning with it its vitality. The
metamorphosis from dead leaf to living butterfly happens even as the reader
realizes—again, in a flash of insight, in a fluttering instant—that the poem’s
significance lies, quite precisely, in its depiction of the evanescent moment of
perception when a small miracle takes place: the return of a seemingly dead
leaf to its bare branch; the negation of death, and therefore, of time itself. The
butterfly, itself a sign and symbol of metamorphosis (and hence, life cycles), of
the renewal activated by Spring, might also stand in for the promise of a “new”
poetry for a new Mexico. The metaphoric strength of the visual image relies
partly on its fugacity; according to popular myth a nocturnal butterfly’s lifespan
is limited to a single night, which intensifies the poignancy of the haiku.
Furthermore there are two important phenomena alluded to by the poem,
the mimetic aspect of the butterf ly, and, as mentioned, its process of
metamorphosis. The layers of meaning opened up by these references are
virtually inexhaustible. The mimesis of the butterfly’s wings—or of a moth’s
wings—to mimic the branches or leaves of trees for self-preservation easily
refers to the mimetic enterprise in art, assailed, but also assisted by modernity.
In that case the death of the butterfly and its failure to return to the branch
might represent just such an end to naturalistic imitation. And yet, by the very
reversibility of time I mentioned, Tablada might be “reassembling” or rescuing
the representational from its premature demise. Ovid’s Metamorphoses would
also come into play, as the collection of its stories seem to provide images of
transformation, flux, transition from one thing into another, defying any possi-
bility of discrete or objective reality. Tablada might be making echo, then of
the aphorism falsely attributed to Heraclitus, “Everything flows.” My discussion
of digital poetry in chapter 3 will continue the analysis of metaphor and and
metamorphosis by focusing on how the transformations from text to image
and vice versa acquire additional fluidity through the increased malleability
of the virtual.
21. Whether Tablada was aware of his poem’s similarity to the “longevity” kanji is
uncertain, perhaps he had crafted it to merely look Japanese. Tanabe comments
that despite his insufficient command of Japanese, Tablada had a grasp of many
aspects of Japanese culture, including its poetic traditions, at least in transla-
tion (El japonismo 123). Despite his knowledge of all things Japanese, Tablada
struggled with the kanji as visual and verbal symbols. Yet, it is possible that his
stay in Japan and his study, however unstructured, of the Japanese Hiregana
writing system had given him some special insights into ideograms. It is also
296 Notes

possible that Tablada’s work was appropriative and superficial, merely playing
at appearing Japanese or Chinese.

Chapter 2. The Sixties Neo-Avant-Gardes

1. For example, with the 1941 exodus from Marseilles by Breton, Lam, and several
hundred other artists and intellectuals fleeing to Martinique.
2. CADA, part of an avant-garde scene (“Escena de Avanzada”) in post–1973 coup
Chile, was formed by the sociologist Fernando Balcells, the poet Raúl Zurita,
the novelist Diamela Eltit, and the visual artists Lotty Rosenfeld and Juan
Castillo. The Taller E.P.S. Huayco in Peru (1979–1982), integrated by Charo
Noriega, Francisco Mariotti, Juan Javier Salazar, Armando Williams, Álex
Ángeles, Alfredo Márquez, and Sandro Venturo, reconnected with popular,
traditional and artisanal arts, and advocated for the rights of indigenous
groups. No Grupo, based in Mexico City (1977–1983), was a conceptual art
group focusing on mail art, posters, and other popular art forms. Comprised of
Maris Bustamante, Melquiades Herrera, Alfredo Núñez, and Rubén Valencia, it
opposed enforced collectivism, and their provocations were more artistic than
political. The Colombian Taller 4 Rojo (1972), a Bogotá-based graphic design
group, with Diego Arango, Nirma Zárate, Jorge Mora, Umberto Giangrandi,
and Carlos Granada advocated for a revolutionary art.
3. In his book Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation (2007),
Camnitzer attempts to qualify several of the activities of the MLN Tupamaros
as political art (similar, in his view, to Tucumán Arde in Argentina), including
the Operación Pando, which resulted in several people killed and wounded
during a simulated funeral turned bank robbery. While Camnitzer offers a
convincing argument for including some of the MLN’s propaganda strategies
within the artistic sphere, it is much more difficult to envision how some of
their violent activities, such as Pando, might qualify as aesthetic or artistic. It is
true that the Tupamaros were not as violent as some other guerrilla groups, and
they were certainly less so than the infamous military and paramilitary death
squads operating in the Southern Cone, but they did capture and kill. In any
case, Camnitzer has succeeded in raising a fascinating polemic and awareness
about political art in Uruguay, and sparked questions regarding the possible
limits of Conceptualism.
4. This is especially the case in Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1977) and later, AIDS
and Its Metaphors (1989), where she criticized the metaphoric discourse that
associates disease with moral flaws and personal failings, as potentially life
Notes 297

threatening; for example, Sontag argues that such metaphors might prevent
some people from seeking treatment, therefore, “the metaphors and myths,
I was convinced, kill” (Illness 99). Montserrat Lunati, with a more nuanced
perspective, suggests that the trope’s excess of “intertextual, multilayered
meanings of words . . . is what makes metaphor potentially meaningful but
also a challenge in narratives of illness” (224).
5. The name of these publications is meant in a humorous, irreverent key: “huevos,”
in Spanish, means “eggs” but it is also slang for “testicles.” “Huevos del Plata,”
if we consider the semantic origin of the toponym Plata as signifying “silver,”
may also be an oblique reference to the Aesop fable, “The Goose that Laid the
Golden Egg” (in Spanish, “La Gallina de los Huevos de Oro”). In that story the
attempt to exploit the goose, to extract the golden eggs, results in the killing
of the goose, and the loss of goose and eggs; likewise, Los Huevos del Plata was
perhaps a reference to the history of exploitation and resource extraction in
Latin America, which would lead to revolution (and the loss of the “eggs” for
neocolonialist powers). Ovum 10, playing with the scientific name for the female
reproductive cell (also “egg”), continued the joke and added an ironic layer
of “science” jargon. The 10 referred to the number of issues, while providing
another oval visual image echoing an egg or testicle. Also, “tener huevos” is a
slang expression for “having balls,” to have courage, to be insolent and defiant,
describing the tone set by both magazines.
6. Linda Nochlin reads its originality in Freudian terms: “Its ultimate-mean-
ing-to-be-penetrated might be considered the ‘reality’ of woman herself, the
truth of the ultimate Other. The subject represented in The Origin is the female
sex organ—the cunt—forbidden site of specularity and ultimate object of male
desire; repressed or displaced in the classical scene of castration anxiety, it has
also been constructed as the very source of artistic creation itself” (77).
7. In fact, all these Ibero-American women poets, writing both during modernism
and the avant-garde periods, explored topics related to female sexuality,
eroticism, and patriarchal oppression, providing an antidote to the violently
misogynistic, homophobic, and denigrating poetry of many avant-garde male
poets such as Oliverio Girondo, Manuel Maples Arce, or to a lesser extent, Jorge
Luis Borges, and of course, the “father” of Futurism, Marinetti himself, and
combatting against what Francine Masiello has identified as the “misogyny of
avant-garde traditions” (Art 252). This ubiquitous misogyny was even reflected
in the choice of metaphors, since as Unruh demonstrates in her thorough exam-
ination of women writers in the early Latin American avant-gardes, “The tropes
of cultural modernism were as gendered as its group affiliations . . . [as] . . . the
298 Notes

prostitute, the actress, the mechanical woman . . . all manifested art’s ambiva-
lent response to capitalism, technology and social change” (Performing Women
8. Onganía’s rule was the first of three consecutive dictatorships known as the
Revolución Argentina (1966–1973), followed by a brief democratic yet trou-
bled interlude (peronismo) and finally by the takeover of the military juntas
(1976–1983) and the descent into a period of state-sponsored terrorism during
the euphemistically named “Proceso de Reorganización Nacional” (Process of
National Reorganization).
9. Exact numbers are disputed, but most accounts stipulate that thirty thousand
Argentines were executed extrajudicially in those terrible years. Arrest was
almost certain for those suspected of sympathizing with leftist guerrillas such
as the Montoneros or the ERP (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo).

Chapter 3. Digital Poetry and Metaphor’s Reprise

1. The mention of “codex” instantly brings to mind the lengthy tradition of picto-
graphic pre-Columbian codices that also dispensed with text-image divisions,
and which deployed very distinct forms of binding, such as the use of folding
screens—a format that Octavio Paz emulates in his poem “Blanco” (1967), and
which also remits to Blaise Cendrars’s La Prose du Transibériene (1913), and to
the earlier poem by Mallarmé, Un coup de dés (1897).
2. Polipoesía (polypoetry) is a kind of performance first practiced by the Italian
Enzo Minarelli (1951–) in the mid-1980s. Poems are interpreted through noise,
phonetic articulation, dance, gesture, audiovisual projection, and new media
technologies. Polypoetry draws on Dadaist and Futurist performance, as well
as Fluxus’s art experiments. Besides Italy, the only country where polypoetry
has gained limited recognition is Spain, promoted by Barcelona poet Xavier
Sabater. For more information see Enzo Minarelli’s Polipoesia mon amour (2005).
3. In the 1980s Jordi Pope formed part of a group called “O Així” (Or like that) which
was active in performance and poetry readings in cafes and bars of the Gràcia
neighborhood, a working-class district in Barcelona.
4. I am using the binomial code/message as Roman Jakobson does in his model of
linguistic functions, which is somewhat analogous to Saussure’s langue and
5. For more on code poetry see Ledesma, “The Poetics and Politics of Computer
Code in Latin America: Codework, Code Art, and Live Coding” (2015).
6. In The Mathematical Theory of Communication, Shannon laid out the basic
Notes 299

elements of communication; namely, a source that generates a message, a trans-

mitter that transforms the message into a signal, which is then sent through
a communication channel. At the other end, is a receiver that transforms the
signal back into the original message, which is then delivered to a final desti-
nation (organic, such as a person, or inorganic, such as a computer).
7. Jakobson defined six functions of language (referential, expressive or emotive,
connative, phatic, poetic, and metalinguistic), which are part of any communi-
cative act (speech event). In any speech act one of these functions is dominant
and the others are subordinate. The poetic function (also known as poeticity)
is concerned with the stylistic and formal aspects of the message, with the
creative use of language, as in poetry or in poetic uses of language.
8. Parra’s creative universe is intermedial and intergeneric, and far more compli-
cated than my simple characterization here. It includes “traditional” versified
poetry, visual poetry, collage poetry (his “quebrantahuesos”), performance,
object poetry, and more. For instance, in his use of everyday objects (“objetos”),
reminiscent of the work of Marcel Duchamp, Meret Oppenheim, and, even
more so, Joan Brossa (whom we will study in chapter 5), we can see the poet’s
efforts to take poetry out of the book, to bring it down from its cultural heights
to the common man.
9. For an in-depth analysis of the use of mathematics in Martínez’s La nueva novela
see Marcelo Rioseco’s article “La poética matemática de Juan Luis Martínez.”
10. Indeed, Jakobson underscores the physical nature of poeticity: “Poeticity is
present when the word is felt as a word and not a mere representation, or an
outburst of emotion, when words and their composition, their meaning, their
external and inner form acquire a weight and value of their own instead of
referring indifferently to reality” (“What Is Poetry?” 750).
11. Borges actually stated, “I know for a fact that we feel the beauty of a poem before
we ever begin to think of a meaning” (Craft 84; italics in original).
12. This poem is reminiscent of “mathematical” poems such as LeRoy Gorman’s “The
Birth of Tragedy,” which amusingly reads: (! + ?)2 . See entry on “Mathematical
Poetry” (Kostelanetz and Brittain 396).
13. A monochord is a musical and scientific instrument developed by the Greeks. It
has one, two, or three strings, stretched over a sound box and fixed at both ends.
Moving a set of bridges and shortening the chords at different intervals shows
how mathematics and sound relate, especially sound’s measurable elements:
pitch, frequency, etc.
14. Pope had a degenerative illness that affected his mobility and vocal chords,
leading to his untimely death.
300 Notes

15. Ovid’s allegorical work destabilizes traditional hierarchies such as the relation-
ship between love and reason (even as it upholds others, such as the dominance
of the gods over men) by foregrounding the power of love—personified as
Amor—as an irrational impulse that defeats logos.
16. Ortega’s wordplay with “aislar” (isolate) meaning “to become an island,” is a
reference to the autonomy of art.

Chapter 4. Modernisms on the Move

1. Media archeology (the title of a book by Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka), instead,
explores past media (from the camera obscura to newspapers, zootropes, teleg-
raphy, radio, television) to shed light on contemporary digital media.
2. Different “morphisms” represent the projection of physical or behavioral charac-
teristics from one object or organism to another. Isomorphism relates to objects
that are structurally identical, or are identical unto themselves (i.e., one of their
properties being identical to another); theriomorphism entails the ascription
of animal characteristics to humans, the latter, however, may connote bestial
or divine qualities (such as the figures of the centaur, or the minotaur); anthro-
pomorphism involves the attribution of human form or behavior to a deity,
animal, etc. Mechanomoprhism is the attribution of mechanical characteristics
to humans, objects, letters, etc.
3. The etymology of “emotion” connects it to movement, to “motion”: “Origin:
mid 16th century (denoting a public disturbance or commotion): from French
émotion, from émouvoir ‘excite,’ based on Latin emovere, from e- (variant of ex-)
‘out’ + movere ‘move.’ The sense ‘mental agitation’ dates from the mid 17th cent.,
the current general sense from the early 19th cent.” (OED). The sense of “mental
agitation” threads itself into larger sociocultural, political, and psychological
concerns famously theorized by George Simmel, Sigmund Freud, and Walter
Benjamin, dealing with the tempo, pace, movement, and excitation of modern
city life, and its effect on the psychology of its denizens.
4. “Mimetic” activates multiple references to the imitation of life: not just its
Attic heritage, as in Aristotle’s concept of tragedy as the imitating of actions
to produce emotions (Poetics), but avant-garde inquiries into morphological
or chromatic mimicry, by Roger Caillois (his study of the anthropomorphic
praying mantis), Salvador Dalí (his paintings of “object-beings”), Giorgio De
Chirico (his anatomical fixation on human-like mannequins), Francis Picabia
(his amalgamation of machine parts, body parts, and letters within his
5. Among the dynamic paintings representing a decoupage of motion some are
Notes 301

biomorphic, showing animal or human movement, such as Giacomo Balla’s

Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912), and Marcel Duchamp’s famed Nude
Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912), others are mechanomorphic and display the
movement of machine parts, such as Robert Delauney’s Propeller (1923), and,
suggestively hybrid, others combine man and machine in symbiotic motion,
such as Natalia Gonchorova’s The Cyclist (1913).
6. Comparing Cangiullo’s “Fumatori” and Marinetti’s Zang Tumb Tumb, written
in the same year, shows their common interest in visual and aural analogies,
intertwined with their fixation on the chaotic and rapid changes in twenti-
eth-century Europe. Besides attesting to Marinetti’s obsession with war themes,
Zang Tumb Tumb shows words that stand visually as projectiles and for their
parabolic lines of motion, and as blasts, with the heaviness of the font indi-
cating proximity or intensity in relation to the viewing/listening position, so
the reader might corporeally “feel” the poem’s explosive impact. The bellicosity
is not only textual or metaphoric, but was actualized in the rush to battle of a
generation of avant-gardists who participated in World War I, and from which
many, fighting on different sides, never returned (such as the painters Umberto
Boccioni and Franz Marc, the architect Antonio Sant’Elia, the sculptor Henri
Gaudier-Brzeska), or did not “wholly” return, came back incomplete, brought
back their wounds, mental and physical (as with Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise
Cendrars, and countless others).
7. Also fascinating is the interplay of “funnels” or the open triangles, typically
used to connote a field of vision, especially “perspectival,” and other fields,
aural included, in which a “source” is “open” or “expanded” to the point of
disappearance or dissolution; “notte” thus appears “central,” an axis of sorts,
and “fuuuumare” and “velocità” visually reminiscent of it; with “fuuuumare”
the lines of the “funnel” are included, “rhyming” with the lines above it, while
“velocità” is accompanied—“boxed in,” “funneled”—by no such lines; the
broken line running from “leggere” to “fuuuumare” is “telling,” self-referentially
circling or spiraling back on the act of reading the poem.
8. The titles of his publications reveal Salvat’s fascination with the “invisible” forces
of physics: Arc-Voltaic, Poemes en ondes hertzianes (Poems in Hertzian Waves),
L’irradiador del port i les gavines.
9. My translation follows, with alterations, Keown and Owens’s translation in
Selected Poems (32–37).
10. Oulipo stands for “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle” (“Workshop of Potential
Literature”). Founded in Paris in 1960 by writers and mathematicians (Raymond
Queneau, Jacques Roubaud, Georges Perec, and Italo Calvino) who practiced
a form of writing under constraint, applying rigid patterns and mathematical
302 Notes

algorithms to literature. Fluxus, derived from the Latin fluere, “to flow,” was
a sixties collective of international artists, poets, musicians, filmmakers, and
designers (including John Cage and George Maciunas) who embraced the prac-
tice of and coined the term intermediality, meaning working with many different
overlapping media (Friedman The Fluxus Reader).
11. Salvat’s poem recalls The Circus (1928)—Chaplin’s last silent movie—where
the archetypal Tramp joins a circus and falls in love with a lovely equestrian
performer (sounds familiar?)—the daughter of a tyrannical ringmaster—who
ultimately rejects him for a muscular trapeze artist. Although it predates the
poem, the film demonstrates the close association of both the cinema and the
circus with modernity in motion in the early twentieth century.
12. Fears of the commingling of metal and flesh can be traced back at least to the
Romantics (earlier, even), to E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” (1814), and
Gothic tales such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) or Edgar Allan Poe’s The
Man That Is Used Up (1839), all of which display a patent (pun intended) tech-
nophobia. What these tales were preoccupied with was our fear of becoming
wholly mechanical, of losing our humanity.
13. While some may be apocryphal, these reactions reveal the intense emotional
impact of film on early audiences.

Chapter 5. Letters and Lettrism

1. Such is the case, for example, with important books such as Andrew Debicki’s
Poetry of Discovery (1982), which examines the generation of 1950, or his more
comprehensive Spanish Poetry of the Twentieth Century (1994), or Jonathan
Mayhew’s The Twilight of the Avant-Garde: Spanish Poetry 1980–2000 (2009),
focusing on more recent poets. Although the latter does investigate the work
of the novísimos and the poetry of experience, there is no mention in any of
these texts of radical experimentalists, such as Brossa, Millán, and Campal, the
poets I examine.
2. Perhaps this characterization of the poetry scene, although essentially accurate,
is too general, and should be nuanced a bit further by mentioning other excep-
tions such as José Hierro, or Jaime Gil de Biedma, to name two very different
poets; but also other important poets of that period (Gabriel Ferraté, Blas de
Otero, Celso Emilio Ferreiro, etc.) along with the older yet still very productive
ones (Vicente Aleixandre, Dámaso Alonso, Gerardo Diego, Salvador Espriu, etc.)
who had also not gone into exile, but negotiated the censorship in often highly
creative ways.
Notes 303

3. Campal organized the first gallery exhibits of neo-avant-garde poetry in Spain,

including: “Poesía concreta” (1965), at the Galería Grises in Bilbao; “Poesía
visual, fónica, espacial y concreta” (1965), at the Sociedad Dante Alighieri of
Zaragoza; “Exposición internacional de poesía de vanguardia” (1966), at the
Galería Juana Mordó, Madrid; “Poesía concreta y espacial” (1966), at the Galería
Barandiarán in San Sebastián.
4. There are three publications featuring Campal’s work: Poemas (1971), an
anthology edited by Fernando Millán; Carpeta sin título (1969); and a recent
edition, 7 caligramas. Carpeta de escrituras 1969 (1998) (Sarmiento 14).
5. Campal did not only use the reel-to-reel to record poetry, merely replicating
what writers such as Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio were doing when they used the
device to collect samples of popular speech to incorporate in novels such as
El Jarama (1955); instead, using it as more than a “recording” device, Campal
enlisted the reel-to-reel to fragment, reorder, and otherwise alter the phonetic
structure of language, like contemporary sound (“electro-acoustic”) poets
such as the French Henri Chopin (1922–2008), or, later, the American Charles
Amirkhanian (1945–).
6. Much like Vicente Huidobro, Campal was a hinge artist, connecting Spain to
Latin America and the rest of Europe. Unlike Huidobro, Campal did not view
experimental poetry as a total break with conventional poetry, but rather as its
extension, and, in some cases, its extension into daily life.
7. There are many contemporary “erasure”-based projects that display a great deal
of self-reflexive attention to the materiality of the text, and of its ephemer-
ality, for instance Tom Phillip’s A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (1970),
which “signifies” onto the forgotten novel A Human Document (1892) by
painting, erasing, collaging, and crossing out its text to create a magnificently
visual and fragmentary new story. In the same vein, Ronald Johnson performed
an erasure operation on Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), calling his text Radi os
(1977). Or, to mention just one more, Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout (2010)
is a book of poems, which takes newspaper pages and by using a dark high-
lighter eliminates words until a “poem” remains. Millán himself crossed out an
entire found text, La depresión en España en 1980–1983, and republished the
modified version. Such palimpsestic and “writerly” texts, by drawing on a
heterogeneous array of tactics to decorate, signify on, and overlay messages
on a substrate text, or, by enacting a process of subtraction to bring out
hidden possibilities in preexisting textual fields, anticipate techniques that
are commonplace in twenty-first-century digital narratives, in hypertext and
electronic poems.
304 Notes

Chapter 6. Latin American Digital Poetry

1. The animistic in poetry can be traced back to the ancient “oracles” that read and
interpreted the messages found in the entrails of animals, and, in recent times,
is reflected by modernist efforts to seek poetic renewal in the art of so-called
primitive cultures understood as still bound to animism.
2. Mencía has other soundscape projects such as Birds Singing Other Birds’
Songs (2001), a work that creates visual calligrams using a phonetic transcrip-
tion of recorded bird songs. She is inspired by Dada phonetic poetry and by
John Cage and other Fluxus composers who experimented with recording

Chapter 7. Modernismo

1. Brazilian modernismo was part of the historical avant-garde and shares points of
contact with Anglo-American modernism, but not with Hispanic modernismo,
which was much closer to Art Nouveau. See note 9, chapter 1.
2. Just to name one spectacular example, the invention of the aeroplane inspired
Futurist aeropoetry and aeropainting, which, according to Marinetti,
attempted to capture “the immense visual and sensory drama of flight” (Bohn,
Reading 109); indeed aeropoetry adopted an aesthetic that, through visual
and sound effects, imitated the experience of flight, or the perspectives seen
from a plane, or, in some cases, involved the use of planes themselves. In the
sixties, air poetry practices were used for political purposes, for instance when
the Chilean group CADA (Colectivo de Acciones de Arte) deployed poetry
skywriting—writing excerpts from Raúl Zurita’s poem “La vida nueva” (“The
New Life”)—and dropped poetry leaflets from airplanes to protest the military
3. Klaxon’s technical rationalism, with its allusion to automobiles, phonographs,
and towers, contrasts with the Revista Antropofagica, which, less interested in
technology, followed Surrealism’s inquiry into chance and the unconscious.
4. The term cannibal is a delicious etymological morsel, derived from the
“mispronounced” European name for the Carib Indians (karibna),
accused—by Columbus and others—of indiscriminately eating human flesh,
which as anthropologists observe, they only did in limited, highly ritualized
contexts. Parting from this misunderstanding, the Latin American avant-gardes
refashioned a hybrid art to set the historic record straight and parody the
Notes 305

Chapter 8. Concrete Aesthetics

1. It may be that the addition of a temporal element (duration, historical time)

would have saved the modernists’ abstract art from the (often unfair) charge
of being too “autonomous,” excessively inwardly focused, and distant from
historical reality. For Malevich and others, their inquiry into the nature of
painting, of art, was not distant from reality, but rather placed them “squarely”
in the midst of debates regarding the commodification of art, art as fetish, and
the ephemerality of making art a vehicle for any specific political position.
2. It was during the rise of abstract art that the Swing Era of the ’30s and ’40s
ushered in the sounds of big band jazz, which became readily available and
popularized through the phonograph and the radio; the rapid beat of the boogie
woogie and the jitterbug and other sounds associated with the fast pace of
modern urban life inspired Mondrian’s works.
3. It is not a coincidence that the “Plan Piloto” mentions Max Bill and Josef Albers,
since the German Bauhaus represented another significant inspiration for
the Brazilian Concrete movement. Albers, a German architect, painter, and
designer had taught at the Bauhaus, and Max Bill, also an architect-designer
and typographer, had studied there; in the fifties both men taught at the
German Ulm School of Design, which followed the aesthetic principles set forth
by the Bauhaus. Moreover, Max Bill’s secretary at Ulm, the Bolivian Swiss poet
Eugen Gomringer, was another key developer of Concrete poetry who became
a “bridge” between the Latin Americans and the Europeans.
4. The relationship between the concrete and the referential is complex: paradox-
ically, considering the etymological meaning of “concrete,” Concrete poetry is
allied with “abstract” art, which eschews reference to something other than
itself, or establishes references through a process of abstraction that seems as
the opposite of “concretization.”
5. First published in 1958 in Noigandres 4. Reprinted in Décio Pignatari’s Poesia pois
e poesia 1950–1975, p. 113.
6. Coca-colonialization is a term coined by Reinhold Wagnleitner in Coca-Coloniza-
tion and the Cold War (1994) to describe the global penetration of corporations
such as Coca-Cola, and the subsequent Americanization of the globe.
7. The term Op Art itself was not coined until the mid-sixties, but the first Op Art
pieces, dubbed the “dazzle panels” (a disorienting arrangement of black and
white camouflage panels at the entrance of an art exhibit) were shown in John
McHale’s This Is Tomorrow exhibition in 1956 (London), a show dedicated to
design (architectural, interior, furniture, art) and considered as the birth of
306 Notes

British Pop Art and as the first instance when something akin to Op Art was
seen by a wide public; the earliest single piece of Op Art is Victor Vasarely’s
Zebras, dating back to 1938.

Chapter 9. Luso-Brazilian E-Poetry and Performance

1. Recent debates within the Digital Humanities regarding the respective bene-
fits of surface versus deep reading approaches crystallize concerns about the
impossibility for immersive reading in the digital environment, as outlined, for
instance, by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows (2011).
2. Antunes is interested in materiality, corporeality and the “concreteness” of
objects, but also explores the world of the virtual. He was present in 1992 at
the first international exhibition of digital poetry, p0es1e - digitale dichtkunst
(p0es1a - poesia digital), in the Galerie Am Markt in Annaberg-Burchholz,
Munich, organized by the Brazilian poet André Vallias and the German poet
Friedrich W. Block, with the participation of Eduardo Kac, among others.
3. In his installation for the Galeria Labirintho (Porto, Portugal, 2001) Antunes
covered the walls of a room with multicolored words and word fragments,
which could be read or viewed by sitting on benches also covered with words.
The piece brings script from the world of the two-dimensional into the
4. In the tradition of spoken-word, performance poetry, dub, and slam poetry
(poetry, in other words, also enmeshed with popular culture), the entire
performance of “Nome” seems to stage a tense balance between the verbal
and the nonverbal that ultimately seeks to establish an interdependence
between the performer, the work, and the audience itself. Every possible sense
is enlisted by the poem: the song-poem’s ethical content is inextricably linked
to linguistic exploration, and also to images, sounds, and music. As the DVD
version of “Nome” ends, the images on the screen show a mound of garbage, a
dystopian sign for the diminished value of human life in the twenty-first
century. The critique of transnational capitalism, globalization, Western
imperialism, and rampant commercialism is tempered in the live performance
with a note of optimism. Created for the spectators physically present at
his live show, but documented and uploaded for wider virtual consumption
in YouTube and other sites, Antunes’s performance engages the interplay
between the linguistic and the physical even in its virtual format. In one
of the clips of a performance of “Nome” available in YouTube, Antunes
can be seen “beating” language, quite literally, as he sets the poem’s internal
Notes 307

rhythm by clanging two enormous letters, an A and a Z, beginning and end of

5. Dada poets would perform “bruitist” poetry, a type of phonetic poetry that relied
on nonsensical human speech–like sounds that were often interspersed with
other noises during a show.
6. Defining the figural as “a semiotic regime where the ontological distinction
between linguistic and plastic representations breaks down” (Rodowick,
Reading the Figural 2).
7. Error 404—the “dead” link announcing the disappearance of a Web page—
reminds us of the temporal of the digital, which is, on the one hand
“indestructible” in its capacity to spontaneously regenerate, and on the other
is subjected to being replaced by newer versions, by incommensurable upgrades,
as attested in the loss of the first generation of digital poetry which is relegated
to a “prehistoricism” without an archive.
8. Among these is the pressing question of where it is that the exponentially growing
power of computing machines and our limited understanding of “progress”
might take us. Referred to as technological singularity, there is a theory that
speculates that as computers become more sophisticated and processing speeds
increase, the rapid changes will lead to unforeseen consequences, as the recur-
sive mechanism leads to faster and more intelligent machines which will either
work with, or ultimately against humans, or will aid one group of humans to
destroy another.
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