The “image of voice” in Augusto de Campos’ Poetamenos(1)


Antonio Sergio Bessa

The Bronx Museum

Queste parole di colore oscuro


 O olhouvido ouve
  [the eyear hears]

 Décio Pignatari


With a poetic program that strongly emphasized the “visuality of language,” it would seem as if the Noigandres poets had embraced design in detriment of sound. Their effort to render language iconic, one might have thought, would have pushed concrete poetry to the brink of aphasia. Indeed, the poems from the so-called heroic phase of concretism display a heightened sense of design that seems to overwhelm other aspects of the text. Some of those poems appear on the page like highly modernistic architecture, while others strike the reader rather like graphic riddles that need to be decoded in order to be read; an operation for the eye only, the ear playing very little in the reading process. But it would be a mistake to affirm that sound was altogether out of the Noigandres picture. I suggest that in the work of these poets sound was submitted to as rigorous a program as the written text. This rigor however, as I hope to make clear in this essay, did not imply the loss of humor or the negation of pleasure.

In several texts written in the early 1950s by the Noigandres poets, collectively or individually, one finds repeated references to sound, particularly the emerging new music of composers like Boulez, Fano and Stockhausen. These references are telegraphed throughout the cryptic text of “Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry,” the concretist period’s culminating manifesto, but other texts explored some of the same themes to greater extent and they lay out Noigandres’ understanding of the role sound ought to play in poetry. Among these early writings, Décio Pignatari’s seem mostly concerned with form and design. But even in the midst of an argument about structure or organizing principles, we find references such as this:

Mário de Andrade, in “Prefácio interessantíssimo” [Most Interesting Preface], after commenting on the common melodic verse, approaches what he calls the harmonic verse, formed by words without any immediate connection among themselves: “These words, by the very fact of not forming a coherent sequence, superpose over themselves and form, to our senses, not melodies, but harmonies. … Harmony, combination of simultaneous sounds.”(2)


Departing from Andrade’s proposition of a “harmonic verse,” Pignatari traces a formidable micro-compendium of last century’s great synthesizers, including Lewis Carroll, Mallarmé, Pound, Joyce and the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. His idea of poetic “organization” is a composite that might include portmanteau words (Carroll and Joyce) arranged according to ideogramatic principles (Pound, Fenollosa) spliced together like in a film (Eisenstein). Eisenstein via Pignatari: “(sonorous!) representations objectively expressed gathering together to create a unified image, other than the perception of its isolated elements.” (Ibid, 87)

Haroldo de Campos seems to agree with Pignatari’s equation of visual organization and musical harmony. Compare Pignatari’s argument with the following quote from “Olho por olho a olho nu” [“Eye for an eye in daylight”], a text by de Campos from 1956:


THE CONCRET POEM aspires to be: composition of basic elements of language, optical-acoustically organized in the graphic space by factors of proximity and similitude, like a kind of ideogram for a given emotion, aiming the direct presentation—in the present—of the object. (48)


One senses in these writings a certain hesitancy to address sound (or music, or melody) head on. Note how “acoustics” is appended to the “optical,” and the use of “composition” is also kept ambiguously undefined as it might equally refer to a musical or writing composition. But three decades later, in an interview from 1983 with Rodrigo Naves, de Campos declared forthright that his rapport with the literary tradition was musical, rather than museological:


Note that both adjectives derive from the same word, muse (from the Greek Mousa), and that the Muses are the daughters of memory (Mnemosine). I prefer the derivation that ended up in music because I like to read tradition as a trans-temporal music sheet, making, at each moment, synchronic-diachronic “harmonies,” translating culture’s past onto a creative present.(3) 


But even here, de Campos’s conception of music, with its Sausurean overtones (how exactly are these “synchronic-diachronic harmonies” translated in terms of music?), seems subjugated to the command of language. We are reminded that in the Course in General Linguistics, Saussure explains the linguistic sign thus:


The linguistic sign unites not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image. The latter is not the material sound, a purely physical thing, but the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses. The sound-image is sensory, and if I happen to call it “material,” it is only in that sense, and by way of opposing it to the other term of the association, the concept, which is generally more abstract. (66)


The two excerpts by de Campos share a number of basic interests with Saussure, especially in regards to the compound sound-image. It is also worth mentioning that Saussure’s vision of language is not unlike Mallarmé’s “divisions prismatiques de l’idée,” a theme often echoed throughout numerous Noigandres texts—language as an operation that makes ideas visible (and/or heard). It is also worth stressing Saussure’s reference to “psychological imprint,” and de Campos’s “ideogram for a given emotion.” We shall return to this theme in a moment.

Elaborating on Pound’s concepts of melopoeia and logopeia in yet another interview from around the same period (285), de Campos reveals that his collection of poems Signantia quase coelum was “conceived in the form of music, as a tripartite composition,” and explains the poem’s minimalist structure as a visual equivalent of the use of silent gaps in music. And at the end of the interview he quotes from Severo Sarduy, who wrote that in the texts that compose Galáxias one finds:


(…) La exaltación y el despliegue de una región de la dicción, de un espacio del habla vasto y barroco como el mapa de su pais: soplo y articulación, aliento y pronunciación: nacimiento del discurso. (287-8)


 With extraordinary precision Sarduy sums up the entire concretist approach to sound: the vast legacy of the Baroque filtered through a “blow of air and articulation, breath and pronunciation.”

Augusto de Campos, among the Noigandres poets, seems to be the one most overtly interested in sound experimentation. He is the author of two important books on music, O Balanço da bossa—e outras bossas [The Balance of Bossa Nova—And Other Bossas], and Música de invenção [Invention Music], and since the 1950s, his poetry has persistently pursued a kind of writing fused with music. His micro-sequence of sparsely diagrammed poems Poetamenos [Minuspoet], 1953, helped launch concretism in Brazil and was admittedly inspired by Anton Webern’s concept of Klangfarbenmelodie. Augusto de Campos’s musical ideas, as one might expect, was from the start highly unorthodox, a mix of Viennese dodecaphonic theory and Brazilian bossa nova swing. He prefaced Poetamenos with a short text that is still striking in its visionary audacity:


… or aspiring in the hope of a



with words

like in Webern:


a continuous melody dislocating from one instrument to another, constantly changing it’s color:


instruments: phrase/word/syllable/letter(s), whose timbres are defined by a graphic-phonetic, or “ideogramic,” theme




reverberation: oral reading—real voices functioning as timbre (approximately) for the poem like the instruments in Webern’s Klangfarbenmelodie. (Teoria, 15)


It is worth dwelling for a moment on Webern’s concept because of its deep impact on concrete poetry, a poetics often accused of being too cerebral, devoid of emotion and, on many occasions, of impoverishing language. To the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, however, Webern’s music was deeply steeped in emotion, and Klangfarbenmelodie was the method that heightened its expression:


The string quartet pieces of Opus 5 are one of (Webern’s) first essays in atonal writing. Though nothing could display a less extrovert emotionalism, there is a strikingly sensual quality manifest not only in the treatment of the strings themselves, but also in the manner by which Webern frequently isolates an individual tone or short interval-group, and, by alternating dynamic levels and instrumental timbres, succeeds in immobilizing a particular pitch level around which the oblique shapes of his half-counterpoints seek to fulfill their evolutionary destinies. It seems to me that the expressionistic qualities of this music such as the above mentioned isolated tone procedure - (Klangfarbenmelodie) carries to its zenith the very essence of the romantic ideal of emotional intensity in art. (Gould)


Another important aspect of Webern’s compositional style that attracted de Campos, and is not addressed in the preamble to Poetamenos, was the Viennese composer’s use of “mirror forms,” through which he was able to structure a musical composition around as few as three notes.(4) In Música de invenção, de Campos writes:


In Webern we find an unprecedented use of formal concision and of the dialectic between sound and silence (the latter made audible for the first time, and used not merely as pause but as structural element, at the same level as sounds). (96)


Webern’s reputation as the difficult, demanding conductor whose compositions are equally difficult to perform, is a source of great excitement to de Campos, who sees in this difficulty the very sign of genius. When a Uruguayan composer visiting São Paulo in the late 1970s tells de Campos that, “To this day, no one has ever listened to Webern! There are no recordings that can reproduce his compositions with fidelity,” he seems undaunted and ponders how Webern’s work might be even greater than he has assumed it to be. (Musica 95) This incident stresses some of the issues at stake around the Webern affair. In the São Paulo of the 1950s, knowledge of dodecaphonic theory was still fragmentary, mostly through rare imported recordings, with their liner notes, rather than live concerts and lectures. Surely there was the figure of Hans-Joachim Koellreutter championing new musical theories, but the dissemination of information is still minimal. The interest in Webern, therefore, seems to rely more on his conceptual rigor, his pursuit of an ideal structure, rather than on how his compositions actually sounded. On the occasion of a concert of works by Stravinsky, Webern and Xenaquis in the Festival of Avant-garde Music that took place in São Paulo in 1965, de Campos writes that the Six Pieces for Orchestra, an early work by Webern, already demonstrate an “extremely concise language, the precise dialectic between sound and non-sound, ‘an entire romance in one sigh,’ non multa sed multum, microcosmusic.”(Balanço, 213)

Like Pound, Webern aimed to “make new” an entire musical tradition, from Bach all the way through the Romantics, and the two men would certainly find much to agree upon  as far as the issue of melopoeia is concerned. In the “Ricercare for six voices,” for instance, whereas Bach originally indicated only lines for no instrument in particular, Webern disperses the notes among the instruments transforming the sound of the melody and accentuating its melancholic quality. The rhetoric qualities of baroque music, its doctrine of affects (affektenlehre), is hence recovered by Webern through his method of klangfarbenmelodie.

Freeing music from ”themes” and/or “motives” is generally perceived as Webern’s major contribution; his ability to convey “sound clarity” through the pure structuring of musical elements. According to Pierre Boulez, in Webern “the architecture of the work derives directly from the ordering of the series." Composition becomes a system of proportions, of relationships between intervals. This concept can be illustrated by the “Sator Arepo” palindrome found in the ruins of Pompeii and that became a source of great interest to Webern.(5)


S  A  T  O  R

A  R  E  P  O

T  E  N  E  T

O  P  E  R  A

R  O  T  A  S


To Webern, this diagram represented the ideal porous structure as it can be read horizontally or vertically from top left to bottom right; and horizontally or vertically from bottom right to top left. In addition, it uses a minimum of elements (eight letters, five words) to create a greater number of combinations (“Non multa sed multum”). The “monadic architect of the mirror-form” is how Herbert Eimert, founder of the WDR Studio in Cologne, called Webern; and de Campos is equally fascinated with the possibilities of the “spiegelbild.”

But how exactly, one might ask, were these concepts by Webern translated onto textual terms? The five elegiac poems that compose Poetamenos were written as homage to the poet’s wife-to-be Lygia, in the tradition of spousal verse, or epithalamium. Throughout the sequence, words are cut in syllables or letters with their fragments often interspersed among other words. Different colors indicate different timbres while the spacing between words and lines dictate the rhythm. Words, syllables and phonemes mirror each other creating the effect of an echo chamber. Amidst this cacophony other literary works resonate adding new shades to the poet’s erotic reverie.(6)

Poetamenos opens with a lyrical proem, introducing the series’ central themes through two felicitous portmanteaux: (7) the first, “rochaedo,” suggests the figure of a poet, (“aedo,” from the Greek aoidós), inert like/with the rocks (“rochedo” [cliffs]); the second, “rupestro,” suggests that poetic imagination (“estro” from the Greek oîstros) is a force of nature (“rupestre” denotes vegetation that grows on rocks). The “voice” of the poet seems to be directed to his beloved, (“somos um” [“we are one”]) and at the same time unisonous with hers (“uni / sono” [“uni / sonous,” or “one I am,” or “I dream I am one”]).

The second poem suggests an erotic interlude in a garden, with references to an idyllic setting (first a fig orchard “figueiral /figueiredo”(8) and later a hanging garden, “jardim suspenso”) gradually unfolding into a highly sexualized verbal environment. Nature is first evoked through literature, and immediately becomes animated (sexualized). Whether words break (“suspenso” becomes “sus pênis”) or unite (“ah braços” [ah, arms] can also be read as “abraços” [embraces]) they seem to refuse definition. For instance, in one line the pairing of “penis” with “flagrante” [flagrant] can be misread as “fragrant penis;” and once again “suspenso” is broken but this time as “sus/penso” [under/I think]. Amid this verbal turmoil, the stone-like poet (“petr’eu” [stone I] is brought out of his torpor (“exampl’eu”) through the woman’s thighs (“fêmoras”).(9) The poem feature clusters of words highlighted in four different colors (blue, red, green, yellow), and the overall effect is that of superimposed ideograms. The cluster in red, which starts in the third line and goes until the last includes pairings like “pubis / jardim” [pubis / garden], and “paraiso pudendo” [pudendum paradise].

The name of the poet’s inamorata, Lygia, is dispersed throughout the third poem with the letters rearranged in different combinations (“digital,” “dedat illa(grypho),” “felyna,” “figlia”) forming new words until the woman is finally morphed into a “lynx.” The poem opens with an apparent grievance: “Lygia finge” [Lygia feigns]. But the next line (“er ser”) moves meaning to another direction as “finge” can now be read as “finge-rs.” The third and fourth lines confirm this possibility: (“digital”) and (“dedat illa[grypho]”).(10) One possible reading then is that “Lygia’s fingers types” (the poem?), or maybe she “feigns to.” The poem’s final lines play with family bonds—“mãe” [mother], “figlia” [daughter, in Italian], and “sorella” [sister, also in Italian]—a theme that will appear again in the fifth, and antepenultimate, poem. There differences are finally balanced, visually conveyed by the poem’s symmetrical layout, in which, like in a Rorschach blot, and with minor distortions, the right side mirrors the left. Hence we have pairings like: “amantes/parentes” [lovers/relatives], “cimaeu/baixoela” [on top me/she below], “estesse/aquelele” [this it/he that].(11) The sexual tension accumulated throughout the series reaches its climax in this poem, indicated with another word-valise: “semen(t)emventre,” which unfolds in at least two possibilities, “semen inside the womb” and “seed inside womb.”

The series closes with a melancholic tone of departure, or absence, conveyed by a concerted series of signs, fragments and citations: The lovers are apart (“separamante”) uncommunicated (“sem uma linha” [without a line]); without his muse, the poet becomes “a nobody” (“expoeta”) near his end (“expira”); the beloved becomes enigmatic (“sphinx e/gypt y g”); and, looming over the entire poem, hints of family strife (through references in the first lines to a sonnet by Camões [12] and towards the end to Lygia’s family name [13]).

Poetamenos is a series remarkable, paradoxically enough, for both its consision and opulence; its restrained formalism concealing a torrent of emotions and sexual longing. In it de Campos’s technique comes the closest to uniting in one packet Pound’s concepts of melopoeia and phanopoeia. Each poem is composed as a “lyrical ideogram,” to use Jacques Donguy’s expression, with express indications for rhythm and tone.(14) Throughout the series Lygia is the principle that animates, enlivens and organizes the world around the poet. Before her arrival the poet is inert, rock-like. Her presence is both a force of nature (“lynx,” “felyna”), and the possibility of writing (“digital,” “dedat illa(grypho”). She is thus Echo, or rather Syringa.(15)

Augusto de Campos is obviously a refined reader, capable of incorporating onto his writing the most avant-garde tendencies available around. In addition to writing poetry he has also dedicated much of his time to inform the Brazilian public through an extraordinary translation program that includes authors as diverse as Dante, Donne, Dickinson, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Pound, and Valéry. He is also the author of three volumes of translations of Provencal poets. It is interesting to note, however, that despite the great variety of interests evident in his translation work and writings on music, his own poetry is in essence influenced by specific threads in Brazilian popular culture. In an essay from Balanço da bossa, for instance, he points out that Poetamenos was written under the influence of both Webern and Lupicínio Rodrigues, a samba composer whose torch songs were popular in Brazil in the 1950’s.(16) In the same essay, he praises Rodrigues’s “restrained expressionism” and notes that Webern “gave classical music the physical dimension of popular music.”(Balanço 315-316)

De Campos’s fascination with Rodrigues motivates him to track the singer/composer in his hometown, in the Brazilian south, to attend one of his performances and interview him. He admires Rodrigues’s soft singing, which was the opposite of the big voice, opera style interpretation that was current back in the 1950s. In addition, he is also amazed by Rodrigues’s lyrics, which make use of everyday, common-place language, and cliché phrases to the greatest effect. “Lupicínio, he writes, “attacks [the lyrics] with naked hands, with all the clichés of our language, using that which has been discarded to attain greatness, isolating redundancy from its context to achieve the new.” De Campos marvels at the fact that in popular music, lyric and melody are impossible to dissociate. And in the case of Rodrigues, his very interpretation of the song must be taken as part of the entire gestalt: “The degree of involvement is complete—one would even say “verbivocovisual”—and cannot be sectioned without losses.”(222-223)

Ultimately, the bridge proposed by de Campos between twelve-tone theory and samba is what prevents Poetamenos from being a mere illustration of a thesis. The series is rigorously structured, with three euphoric moments (“paraiso pudendo,” Lygia fingers” and “eis os amantes) and two disphoric ((“nossos dias,” and “dias dias dias”), and as in Webern’s music, echoes of other works and styles reverberate throughout—Provencal, Baroque, Parnasianism. But from within this rigorous structure, the poet’s voice comes forth to tell us the story of his love for Lygia, full of longing and youthful yearning.



(1). In a footnote on page 11 of John Hollander’s The Figure of Echo, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), we find the following reference to image of voice: “This phrase, (…) comes from the fairly literal Latin use of imago, or sometimes imago vocis, for echo. It precedes, rather than tropes, our primarily visual use of the word image.” I thank Fernando Pérez-Vilallón for bringing to my attention Hollander’s mention of this notion of acoustic image, a subject of central interest in the poetics of concretism.


(2). Décio Pignatari, “Poesia concreta: organização” [Concrete Poetry: Organization] in Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari and Haroldo de Campos, Teoria da poesia concreta—Textos críticos e manifestos, 1950-1960. 2nd Edition, (São Paulo: Livraria Duas Cidades, 1975), p 86. Coincidentally Mário de Andrade, in Pequena história da música [Short History of Music], lists the “composer” Ezra Pound in the same breath as Webern: “Also in trios, quartets and quintets a most interesting generation has bloomed, employing the most unusual and curious group of soloists (Kurt Weill, Falla, Ezra Pound and Anton Webern.” Augusto de Campos concludes that Andrade might have heard of the performance of Le Testament at the Salle Pleyel in 1926. (cf. Augusto de Campos, Música de invenção, [São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva,1998], p 27.)


(3). “Minha relação com a tradição é musical,” in Haroldo de Campos, Metalinguagem & outras metas. 4th edition. São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 1992. pages 257-8


(4). In his Concerto for Nine Instruments of 1934, for example, all the pitch material is derived only from the three-note series B-Bb-D and its three mirror forms (retrograde, inversion, retrograde inversion).


(5). This diagram, which Webern used as the basis for his Concerto, op. 24, and that was ultimately inscribed on his gravestone, can be translated as "Arepo, the sower, holds the wheels at work," and there is much speculation as to what it really represents.


(6). Prominently among these references are: an anonymous Provençal song from Galícia, and lines from Luís de Camões (“Esperança de um só dia,” [Hope of a sole day]), and from the Parnassian poet Luis Guimarães Junior (“Oh, se me lembro, e quanto,” [Oh, do I recall it, and how]).


(7). In a French anthology of de Campos’s work, (Augusto de Campos, Anthologie—Despoesia. Paris: Al Dante, 2002. p 16-29), Jacques Donguy performs a formidable “unpacking” of the word mutation going on in Poetamenos.


(8). The beginning of de Campos’s poem is a rearrangement of the first lines of Canção do figueiral [Song of the Fig Orchard], a Provençal song from Galícia that celebrates the rescue of six young women captured by Moors. The original song starts thus: “No figueiral figueiredo, e no figueiral entrei” [In the fig orchard, in the fig orchard I entered].  Cf. Marques da Cruz História da Literatura. São Paulo: Editora Cia. Melhoramentos, 1924.


(9) Both expressions are complicated creations with very little trace of Portuguese. Donguy writes that “exampl’eu” is “un néologisme latinisé, au sens de ‘ouvrir vers l’extérieur,’” while “’fêmoras’ est une autre creation à partir du latin ‘femina,’ ‘femme’ et ‘femora,’ ‘femur.’” It’s worth noting that the Latin root ampl- is also present in amplexus [embrace]. This convoluted line would suggest thus an inversion of the biblical account of the creation of Eve.


(10). In the line “dedat illa(grypho)” de Campos deconstructs the Portuguese verb “datilografar” (typewriting) in order to insert his beloved’s name within his poetic practice. It could be said that the “ghost” (or presence) of Lygia haunts his writing (“grypho” can be read both as “glyph” and “griffin”).


(11). The portmanteau “estesse” (composed by two demonstrative pronouns with subtle difference: este [this] and esse [this]) can concomitantly be (mis)read as “ecstasy.”


(12). Camões’s sonnet “Sete Anos De Pastor...” refers to the biblical story of Jacob, who labored seven years in order to marry Rachel.


Sete anos de pastor Jacó servia
Labão, pai de Raquel, serrana bela;
mas não servia ao pai, servia a ela,
e a ela só por prêmio pretendia.

Os dias, na esperança de um só dia,
passava, contentando-se com vê-la;
porém o pai, usando de cautela,
em lugar de Raquel lhe dava Lia.

Vendo o triste pastor que com enganos
lhe fora assim negada a sua pastora,
como se a não tivera merecida;

começa de servir outros sete anos,
dizendo: — Mais servira, se não fora
para tão longo amor tão curta a vida.


(13). Here the beloved’s family name ”Azeredo” echoes “figueiredo” in the second poem. The word “azeredo” indicates an orchard of azeiros (Prunus lusitanica), a tree of the Rosaceae family. Most Portuguese family names are inspired by nature, and according to the legend around Canção do figueiral, after freeing the maidens from the Moors, the youth took on the name Figueiredo.


(14). A propos of “Lygia fingers” Donguy writes; “idéogramme lyrique de la féminité et de la félinité, avec la syllable ‘ly’ qui assume le caractère d’une cellule thématique.” Anthologie-Despoesia, p 8.


(15). Elaborating on the “signification of the relation of Pan or the natural world with a voice,” Hollander quotes the following passage from Francis Bacon’s De dignitate et augmentis scientarum: “For the world enjoys itself, and in itself all things that are. … The world itself can have no loves or any want (being content with itself) unless it be of discourse. Such is the nymph Echo, a thing not substantial but only a voice; or if it be more of the exact and delicate kind, Syringa,—when the words and voices are regulated and modulated by numbers, whether poetical or oratorical. But it is well devised that of all words and voices Echo alone should be chosen for the world’s wife, for that is the true philosophy which echoes most faithfully the voices of the world itself, and is written as it were at the world’s own dictation, being nothing else than the image and reflection thereof, to which it adds nothing of its own, but only iterates and gives it back.” And Hollander adds: “This marriage is one of nature to the true poetry of natural philosophy, the marriage for which he himself claims, in the Novum organum, to be writing the spousal verse or epithalamium.” Figure of Echo, p 10.


(16). The influence of Rodrigues’s songbook among other composers and poets still remains to be fully appraised. In Balanço da bossa Augusto de Campos dedicates three essays to this great composer, including a complete discography.







Campos, Augusto de. Anthologie-Despoesia, Ed. Jacques Donguy. Paris: Al Dante, 2002.


----., Balanço da bossa e outras bossas. São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 2003.


----., Musica da invençao. São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 1998.   


----., Poetamenos, 2nd Edition, São Paulo, Edições Invenção, 1973.

Campos, Augusto de; Haroldo de Campos and Decio Pignatari.
Teoria da poesia concreta. 2nd Edition, (São Paulo: Livraria Duas Cidades, 1975.

----., Metalinguagem & outras metas,
4th edition. São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 1992.


Gould, Glen. Mimeograph distributed with program for New Music Associates concert, Toronto, October 3, 1953 (rescheduled to January 9, 1954).


Hollander, John. Figure of Echo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981


Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Translated, with an introduction and notes by Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.