Exploring the concrete labyrinth


Willard Bohn

Illinois State University


In 1952, three poets formed a group in São Paulo that was destined to become extremely influential: Augusto de Campos, his brother Haroldo de Campos, and Décio Pignatari. Paralleling a similar but independent development in Europe, the Noigandres group, as they came to be known, sought to exploit the physical properties of language.(1) Determined to revolutionize modern poetry, they began to experiment with the placement of words on the page, their sound, their physical appearance, and their interrelation to one another. Before long—the chronology is complicated--both groups began to refer to their creations as “Concrete” poetry.(Bohn 233) Like their European counterparts, the Brazilians treated words as visual and phonetic counters to be manipulated without regard to their meaning. “O poema concreto é um objeto em e por si mesmo,” they proclaimed, “não um intérprete de objetos exteriores e/ou sensaçoes mais ou meno subjetivas” (“The concrete poem is an object in and of itself, not an interpreter of external objects and/or sensations that are more or less subjective”).(2) Whereas traditional poetry operates on the conceptual level, Concrete poetry is based on perception. It differs from conventional verse in its ability to translate abstract ideas into visual images. This ability is what makes it concrete. In the absence of conventional grammar, Concrete poetry employs a spatial syntax. Words are free to combine with each other visually as well as verbally, vertically as well as horizontally.


Augusto de Campos

During the first half of 1953, Augusto de Campos wrote a series of poems that embodied this brand new aesthetic. Entitled Poetamenos (Poetminus), the volume was inspired by Anton Webern’s “Klangfarbenmelodie” (“Color Tone Poems”) and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. (3) The poems were intended not only to be read in the traditional manner but also to be recited by multiple voices.(4) In order to indicate which parts were reserved for which speakers, de Campos color-coded the words (and certain syllables) accordingly. Some of the works were designed for two voices, others for as many as five voices. Despite the obvious interest of such a procedure, production costs forced the poet to abandon his initial program. His current web site suggests he would have published all his poetry in color if he could have. For better or worse, black and white proved to be an excellent vehicle for the Noigandres poets because it allowed them to focus on structural concerns. “A poesia concreta comença,”  the trio announced in 1958, “por tomar conhecimento do espaco gráfico como agente estrutural . . . . O poema concreto comunica a sua própria estrutura” (“Concrete poetry begins by becoming aware of graphic space as structural agent . . . . The concrete poem communicates its own structure”).(Solt, 70) Published two years earlier, the following text is the first part of a longer poem composed of four circular figures.



o  v  o

                                                        n  o  v  e  l  o

                                                 novo      no      velho

                                            o     filho      em     folhos

                                           na   jaula      dos     joelhos

                                            infante         em        fonte

                                                 f e t o            f e i t o

                                                  d e n t r o       d o

                                                             centro  (5)


                        [egg / ball of yarn / new not old / the son in  ruffles / in the cage of

                        the knees / infant in source / fetus  made / inside the / center].

Although the work’s visual appearance is attractive, even seductive, it is highly atypical—at least for the three poets mentioned above. According to a key text entitled “plano-pilôto para poesia concreta” (“Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry”), it illustrates the first stage in the evolution of Concrete poetry, which is based on physical resemblance. In addition to evoking the egg verbally, the composition also depicts the egg visually. Interestingly, de Campos condemned Apollinaire for succumbing to the same pictographic temptation in an article published the very same year. (6) As practiced by the Noigandres group, Concrete poetry was, and continues to be, fiercely anti-mimetic. In keeping with the project outlined in the Pilot Plan, the vast majority of the compositions are dynamic and non-representational. (7)

The present text celebrates the incredible potential of the human egg, which miraculously develops into a fetus and eventually into a baby. The egg’s circular shape is reflected not only by the visual design but by two additional objects as well: the ball of yarn and the uterus in which the fetus is growing. According to de Campos, the womb is not only the source but also the center of humanity, since ultimately everything revolves about it. Discussing a similar work, which will be examined later, he provides the following gloss for novelo: “implying the complication of the human being.”(Solt 254) This appears to refer to biological complication rather than to the complications inherent in human existence. Thus the relationship between the first two words would seem to be metaphoric. Like a ball of yarn, which reveals innumerable twists and turns as it unrolls, the egg divides and re-divides innumerable times to produce the complicated animal we call homo sapiens. The poet envisions the young child dressed in ruffles and playing between his or her parents’ knees.

As de Campos declares, eggs are associated with things that are new not with things that have grown old. They are associated with birth rather than with death. In fact, this construction holds the key to much of the poem—not at the semantic but at the phonemic level. The text incorporates two acoustical structures that reflect, illustrate, and embody two important themes. Each structure complements the other but also competes with it. The first theme is that of birth and rebirth, which is evoked by the metamorphosis that continually takes place in the poem. The syllables in the first two lines are rearranged, for example, to form the third line. Filho is transformed into folho, jaula into joelho, infante into em fonte, and so forth. Viewed from a different angle, a second theme emerges which, for lack of a better term, might be called “security.” According to the printed text, the first expression is not transformed into the second but is simply juxtaposed with it. Five pairs of words are placed in opposition to each other to form a protective shell (or membrane). The egg is in the center, shielded by the acoustic walls that surround it.

Augusto de Campos published a poem entitled “uma vez” the following year that is more representative of his early work. Like most of his poetry, it is concentrated, abstract, and dynamic.

                                                            uma vez

                                                                     uma fala

                                                                                uma foz

                                                            uma vez                 uma bala

                                                 uma fala                uma voz

                                      uma foz                 uma vala

                          uma bala       uma vez

                                      uma voz

                                                  uma vala

                                                              uma vez

                        [one time / one speech / one river mouth / one time / one bullet  /

                        one speech / one voice / one river mouth / one ditch / one bullet /

                        one time / one voice / one ditch / one time].

Like the preceding text, “uma vez” illustrates James Joyce’s concept of the verbivocovisual, which was enthusiastically adopted by the Noigandres group. The poem is composed of words, it appeals to the eye, and it is designed to be read aloud. Indeed, Claus Clüver reports that a recording exists of the text featuring two male voices and two female voices. (8) At first glance, the composition resembles a capital Z that has been tilted on its side. The two transverse strokes and the two diagonal strokes are exactly the same length. Each contains four pairs of words that echo each other in a complicated ballet. Eventually, however, one perceives that the design is composed of two acute angles facing in opposite directions, which changes its whole Gestalt. The main problem that occurs is how to determine the correct reading order—assuming that such a thing exists. Depending on whether one follows literary conventions or artistic conventions, there would seem to be two possible paths. One can read from left to right and from top to bottom, as I have done in my initial translation, or one can decipher the figure on the right followed by the figure on the left. The second model produces the following poem: “one time / one speech / one river mouth / one bullet / one voice / one ditch / one time / one time / one speech / one river mouth / one bullet / one voice / one ditch.”

Both of these reading strategies generate interesting rhyme schemes. The literary model begins ABCA, adds three symmetrical couplets BBCCBB, and reverses the first four lines ACBA. The artistic model begins ABCB, reverses the first three lines CBA and repeats the whole process. Visually, the two figures mirror each other, but acoustically they are identical. Since the B rhyme (fala / bala / vala) concludes every other line, it provides a pleasant sonic constant. The question remains: which of these two strategies is correct? Interestingly, the recording described by Clüver follows both models. The first reading proceeds along the diagonals, while the second scans the poem horizontally. Beginning with “uma bala” on the left, the recital concludes with yet another reading. The four voices advance along the two diagonals simultaneously to create an example of Concrete polyphony. Instead of attempting to privilege a single reading, the conductor fashions an acoustic tapestry composed of multiple readings. Since de Campos’ own recordings observe a similar strategy, this seems to be the wisest approach. Instead of one poem the composition contains many poems. Or to put it another way, the composition consists of all possible readings.

No matter which path the reader ultimately chooses, some sort of drama appears to be taking place. Or rather, since “uma vez” can also be translated as “once upon a time,” the poem appears to recount an event that happened in the past. Since there are no verbs to link the six nouns together, the relations between them must be intuited. Although the plot remains the same no matter how one proceeds, some versions of the story are more satisfying than others. The artistic reading model is probably the most rewarding because it is concise, linear, and to the point. From what the reader can gather, someone was giving a speech by the mouth of a river when he was shot and killed. He barely had time to cry out before he fell dead. And he was buried in a ditch. The numerical logic is inexorable: one man was killed by one bullet and buried in one ditch. It could scarcely be otherwise. Who this individual was, what he was speaking about, and why he was killed are never made clear. Was it a political assassination? A crime of passion? A case of mistaken identity? An unfortunate accident? For better or worse, we will never know. 

The final poem by Augusto de Campos, which recalls the first composition we examined, was published two years later. As Haroldo de Campos remarks, it is “another generative poem, this time with cosmic and existential hints. A kind of ‘portable cosmogony’ in cross-word form.”(Williams unpaginated)


    n  o  v  e  l  o

    o  v  o

o  v  o                    s  o  l

    e                                    o

    l                                     l  e  t  r  a

    o                                   e

                                e  s  t  r  e  l  a                 t          

                                s      r                                           e

               s  o  l  e  t  r  a                                  r

               o     e      r                                         r

                l     t      e                                         e

                         r      l                            t  e  m  o  r

                         a     a                                      o

                                                             t                      t             t

                                                             e          m  o  r  t  e

                        t  e  r  r  e  m  o  t  o                 r

                                                               o           r                     m  e  t  r  o  

                                                               r            t                     o

                                                                         t  e  r  m  o           m    m

                                                                                        e                    m  o  t  o  r

                                                                                        t              m o   t  o  r

                                                                                        r                      t  o   r  t  o

                                                                                        o             m  o  r  t  o

                                                                                                                r     o

                        [ball of yarn / egg / egg  / ball of yarn / egg / egg // sun / letter / star /                             
                        spells out / sun / letter / star / spells out // fear / death / earthquake /

                        meter / term / fear / death / earthquake / meter / term // motive /

                        motive /  unjust / death / motive / motive / unjust / death] 

One thing is clear at first glance: the composition represents a stunning achievement. Not only is its interlocking design a marvel of geometric precision, but the figures that compose it are endowed with a crystalline purity. Adding to the poem’s visual appeal, the version that appears in Solt’s anthology is printed in white letters on a solid blue background. While in theory, the reader could begin anywhere, the fact that the poem descends from the upper left to the lower right suggests that this is the preferred sequence. As in conventional poetry, one reads from left to right and from top to bottom. Like “uma vez,” each figure contains two identical groups of words. The vertical words echo the horizontal words and vice versa. The most productive strategy, which I have followed in my translation, seems to be to read the horizontal lines first and then the vertical lines. The whole composition is structured like a symphony with four distinct movements. In the same manner as the first two lines of “ovo novelo,” the initial figure celebrates the mystery of life. Like the ball of yarn, whose shape and complexity it shares, the egg possesses enormous potential. Just as the yarn is eventually transformed into a sweater, the egg gradually evolves into a complex animal.

The second figure celebrates the mystery of the universe, which, like Nature in Baudelaire’s “Correspondances,” occasionally emits confused (and confusing) words. Whereas the words in Baudelaire’s poem are whispered to a passersby, those in the present composition possess a visual form. Composed of heavenly bodies like the sun and the stars, they form a celestial text that has to be spelled out letter by letter. And yet, simple as it sounds, the process is fraught with anxiety. Some of the words lack letters, some are illegible, and others are missing altogether. Inevitably, despite a few tantalizing glimpses, the heavenly message eludes the viewer. By contrast, the third figure evokes life on earth, which leaves a great deal to be desired. According to de Campos, human existence is dominated by fear and death--in that order. Much of daily life is threatening, and no matter how hard one struggles it inevitably ends with his or her demise. Rather than an idyllic haven, the planet is a dangerous place to live, where earthquakes can swallow one up without warning. The fact that “termo” can be combined with “metro” to form the Portuguese word for “thermometer” reminds us that humanity is subject to numerous diseases as well. Confronted with life’s absurdities, the fourth figure is anything but comforting. Since motor is both a noun and an adjective, it may refer to the “engine” that drives the absurd universe or, as I suspect, to the Supreme Being’s “motive” for constructing that universe. Whatever the explanation, death is depicted as wrong, unjust, and unfair (all meanings of torto). What kind of Creator would invent a machine that self-destructs?

Looking back over the composition, one notes that it covers the entire gamut of human existence, from the moment of conception to the moment of death. In addition to the work’s existential preoccupations, it possesses a cosmic dimension that prompts Solt to call it “an object of shining spiritual quality.”(Solt 62) The arrangement of the words on the page mirrors that of the stars in the heavens and vice versa. In actuality the poem is concerned with two constellations, one poetic and the other celestial, one visible and the other merely imagined. Like the poem, the universe is composed of intelligible signs that demand to be deciphered. In several respects, the composition recalls Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard” (“A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”), which is spread across the page like “UNE CONSTELLATION froide d’oubli” (A CONSTELLATION cold with oblivion”) and which also must be deciphered word by word. As Augusto de Campos declares elsewhere, Mallarmé’s revolutionary poem “[opened] the door on a new poetic reality.”(Campos, A. 259)


Haroldo de Campos

Haroldo de Campos was a prolific translator and literary critic as well as an accomplished poet. “Guided by theory and research,” K. David Jackson notes, “Haroldo’s poly-faceted production across genres includes poetry, theory, translation, criticism, the essay, conferences, interviews, and university courses.”(Jackson 18) Throughout his work, K. Alfons Knauth adds, “there is a constant concern with the materiality of language, with verbal world making and the processing of a Concrete, multilingual literature.”(Knauth in Jackson 157) This preoccupation may be seen in his Concrete poetry in particular, where the linguistic sign’s semantic function is eclipsed by material concerns. In poem after poem, signification is sacrificed to visual and acoustic requirements. In Concrete poetry in general, Solt explains, “form = content and content = form.” (Solt 13) What you see—and what you hear—is basically what you get. This is especially true of Haroldo de Campos’ most advanced poetry, in which, to quote the Pilot Plan, “o isomorfismo tende a resolver-se em puro movimento estrutural . . . ; nesta fase, predomina a forma geométrica e a matemática da composição” (“isomorphism tends to resolve itself into pure structural movement . . . ; geometrical form and the mathematics of composition prevail”). (9)

Although the previous poem is largely non-representational, it contains occasional references to recognizable objects and actions. By contrast, the next poem is completely abstract. Composed of conjunctions, prepositions, and comparative adjectives, it refers to such concepts as size, quantity and intensity.

            mais      mais

            menos   mais      e    menos

                            mais    ou   menos   sem       mais

                                                                 nem    menos    nem      mais

                                                                                                 nem    menos    menos

                        [more more / less more and less / more or less without more / neither

                        less nor more / nor less less] 

Since “mais” can also be translated as “plus” and “menos” as “minus,” several critics have suggested that the poem represents a mathematical equation. Viewed in this perspective, the reader would presumably need to solve the equation in order to arrive at the poem’s final meaning. While the presence of five conjunctions and a troublesome preposition complicates this task, the composition appears to be divided into two symmetrical halves separated by the word “ou.” Since “mais” and “menos” oscillate back and forth between two meanings, the first half might also be translated as “more + more / - more and - / more.” If we treat this as an equation, the four terms add up to zero (2a – 2a = 0). Unfortunately, it does not seem possible to extract a meaningful solution from the second half, which is much more ambiguous. Although one can make similar substitutions, none of the results are significant. Perhaps the solution we are seeking is actually much simpler. While “mais” occurs four times in the first half and “menos” twice, for example, the proportions are reversed in the second half. Perhaps the positive and the negative charges simply cancel each other out, as they presumably do in the universe in general.

Or perhaps the explanation has nothing to do with mathematics after all. Upon reflection, one perceives that the poem illustrates the Zen Buddhist philosophy that “less is more.” Or rather, since it begins with “mais” and concludes with “menos,” it expresses the conviction that “more is less.” The first two words serve as a prelude and the last two words as a coda. The transformation from the first concept to the second occurs in the space of three short lines. Mais and menos alternate with each other until it has been completed. Taking place right before our eyes, the conversion demonstrates the truth of the very principle it espouses. As we have seen, Concrete poetry shares the same minimalist philosophy. By the judicious rendering of a few choice words, it manages to transform less into more. The fascination it exerts on the reader, the viewer, and the listener stems from the contrast between its limited means and its disproportionate effect.

Compared to the previous two poems, which employ highly restricted vocabularies, the following composition is positively verbose. Whereas the first work is composed of four words and the other work (for all practical purposes) of two, “fala prata” utilizes eight different terms. With two noteworthy exceptions, each word is repeated at least twice.


















                                    prata                                 ouro

                                    cala                                               fala



                        [speech / silver / silence / gold / heads / silver / tails / gold / speech /                              
                        silence / halt / silver / silence / gold / speech / clarity]  

This time Haroldo de Campos sets out to deconstruct a well-known proverb: “Speech is silver, silence is golden.” Formulated for the first time around 600 A.D., in the Judaic Biblical commentaries called the Midrash, the expression serves as the poem’s point of departure. The first pair of words: “fala / prata” remind us that a gifted speaker is known as “a silver-tongued orator.” He not only possesses a valuable talent, but he also renders valuable advice. However, the second pair of words: “cala / ouro” portray the subject in a different light. Speech may well be precious, as traditional wisdom maintains, but silence is even more precious. Since the two can scarcely co-exist at the same time, the second statement effectively contradicts the first statement. To somebody who is engaged in silent meditation, speech is obviously unwelcome. By the same token, however, to somebody who is waiting for a reply to a question, silence is equally unwelcome. If silence is priceless, speech must be worthless, and if speech is priceless, silence must be worthless. How can we reconcile the two statements? The remainder of the poem explores this rhetorical paradox and attempts to find a satisfactory solution.

The next two pairs of words, like the first two, are obviously juxtaposed with each other. This time gold and silver are associated with the opposite sides of a coin. Since coins were once made of precious metals, this makes a certain amount of sense. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two turns out to be metaphorical instead of metonymic. The next pair of words: “fala” / “cala” makes it clear that the metaphor describes the problem introduced at the beginning of the poem. Deciding whether silence is more valuable than speech or vice versa is like flipping a coin. Sometimes heads comes up and sometimes tails. At this point, two separate reading strategies present themselves, one primarily visual and the other literary. Readers can continue to the end of the diagonal, or they can continue to read from top to bottom and from left to right. On the one hand, the fact that the poem consists of pairs of words suggests that “clara” should be followed by “para.” On the other hand, the literary path makes more sense from a structural point of view. “Para” would interrupt the poem’s binary rhythm and prepare the reader for the double conclusion: “prata” / “cala” and “ouro” / “fala.” Stressing the conclusion’s clarity, “Clara” would serve as an epigram.


Décio Pignatari

The third member of the Noigandres group, Décio Pignatari, taught industrial design and communication theory for many years. In addition, he composed the most famous Concrete poem in Brazil, “beba coca cola,” which compares the American soft drink to a series of nauseating substances. Since several critics have analyzed this poem previously, it has been omitted from the present study. Together with Luiz Ángelo Pinto, Pignatari also invented “semiotic poetry” at one point, which employs visual signs instead of words. However, it is his experiments with Concrete poetry that interest us here. Dating from 1956, the following poem is arranged to form a spiral rotating about a vertical axis consisting of a series of “m”s. 

                                                          u m

                                                              m o v i

                                                              m e n t o

                                                        c o m p o n d o

                                                       a l é m

                                                                           d a

                                                   n u v e m

                                                            u m

                                                         c a m p o

                                                                   d e

                                                         c o m b a t e


                                                               m i r a

                                                         g e m

                                                                   i r a

                                                                           d e

                                                            u m

                                                                   h o r i z o n t e

                                                   p u r o

                                                         n u m

                                                               m o

                                                               m e n t o

                                                   v i v o (84)

                        [a / move / ment / composing / a / field / of / battle / beyond the/cloud/                          

                        mira / ge / fury / of / a / pure / horizon / at a / vivid / mo / ment]

That the composition is concerned with motion is apparent from the very beginning. As Iumna Simon and Vinicius Dantas note, it presents “uma descrição cinética de seu próprio conteúdo” (“a kinetic representation of its own content”).(Simon and Danta) Extending the length of the poem, from “movimento” to “momento,” the vertical axis anchors the revolving words and prevents them from flying off the page. In contrast to its physical appearance, the composition’s vocabulary is largely unremarkable. Similarly, despite a few phonic echoes, there is no systematic attempt at rhyming. Although the poem’s language is perfectly ordinary, the finished text is unusual. At first glance, it seems to be curiously abstract. While there are a number of references to natural phenomena, for example, these appear to be juxtaposed at random. Since verbs are practically non-existent, readers are forced to intuit the relationships between various components, several of which appear to be metaphors. In addition, as we will see in a moment, the composition possesses an extraordinary degree of ambiguity. Together with certain thematic considerations, these stylistic traits suggest that it was inspired by Mallarmé in particular.

The composition begins with a cryptic statement centered around a present participle--the only verb in the whole work. Some kind of movement is supposedly composing a battlefield. However, since motion is not endowed with agency, how it can possibly compose anything? And what in any case does it mean to compose a field of battle? Complicating the scenario still further, além can also mean “above,” and nuvem can describe a “moving throng.” The mysterious action could conceivably be taking place above the cloud rather than behind it, and the cloud itself could actually be a group of people. Similarly, “miragem” may not refer to a mirage at all but simply to an “illusion.” Without further details, there is simply no way to tell. Despite these momentary setbacks, the second half contains an allusion that finally permits us to decipher the poem. Although many of the references are obscure, the presence of an “horizonte” and a “momento vivo” suggests we are witnessing a vivid sunset. Unexpectedly, the poem turns out to be a landscape. The question that arises at this point is: who is the artist? An anonymous painter or Pignatari himself? Once again, for better or for worse, it is impossible to say. The poem may be a description of a landscape painting or of an actual landscape. In the last analysis, it does not make a great deal of difference. In either case, since the composition is a virtual creation, the scene it depicts is an illusion. The movement evoked at the beginning is that of the artist’s hand, either real or metaphorical, painting the battle scene in question. Mirroring the furious soldiers on the battlefield, the setting sun bathes the scene in a blood-red glow. 


José Lino Grünewald

José Lino Grünewald is a lawyer, journalist, and well-known film critic who joined the Noigandres group in 1958. In several respects, the following composition resembles Augusto de Campos’ “caracol” and Décio Pignatari’s “um movimento.” Like them, it is a self-reflexive poem that is both dynamic and isomorphic.

                                    êsse solo


                                    êsse sol


                                    êsse só


                                    êsse s

                                                                        c(esse (10)     

                        [that soil / callus / that sun / lime / that solitary / here / that s / c(eases]

Like the two works mentioned above, êsse solo” enacts what it depicts and depicts what it enacts. In general, auto-illustrative poetry that possesses a visual dimension utilizes one of two procedures. Either it portrays the subject in question, like Guillaume Apollinaire’s calligrams, or it illustrates the principle that the subject represents, like some of the Italian Futurists’ poetry. As mentioned earlier, the Brazilians rejected the first practice but embraced the second enthusiastically. Indeed, the concept of visual isomorphic form is identical to that of the Futurists’ analogia disegnata. As we have seen, there are basically two ways a principle may be invoked. It may be associated with a particular object, like “caracol,” or with an abstract category like “um movimento.” Although both poems are concerned with movement, the first one manages to evoke the animal as well, simply by naming it. Like the second work, Grünewald’s composition illustrates an abstract concept: disappearance. The initial expression in each column undergoes a progressive reduction from one line to the next. The operation proceeds carefully and inexorably, deleting one letter at a time. By the end of the poem, “solo” and “calo” have been reduced to their initial letters. As the poet notes in the last line, they will cease to exist if the operation continues. At both the visual and the acoustic levels, the poem performs its own disappearing act.

While the composition is perfectly coherent visually and phonetically, the verbal message does not appear to make much sense. Although every other line begins with the word “êsse,” which alludes to a specific antecedent, we have no idea what that antecedent might be. For better or worse, the poem exists in a referential vacuum. Several linguistic peculiarities exist as well that seem to have no justification. In the fifth line, a demonstrative adjective modifies a descriptive adjective, for instance, which is grammatically impossible. And for some unknown reason, the very last word employs the subjunctive tense rather than the indicative. In addition, some terms have more than one meaning. Solo can also be translated as “by one’s self,” for example, calo as “blister,” and cal as “whitewash.” Finally, the relations between the various words that make up the composition are far from evident. Only with great effort does one succeed in constructing a provisional scenario. Without belaboring the point, the poem appears to be a Concrete version of the pastoral elegy. Mixing metonymy and metaphor, it laments the condition of the Brazilian peasantry and offers an ironic consolation. The first four lines evoke the brutal hardships of peasant life. Although the poor farmer toils endlessly in the fields, he receives little more than calluses for his pains. Burnt to a crisp by the blazing sun, which burns like quicklime, he is the very image of futility. The last four lines evoke the peasant’s solitary existence on earth, ignored by Church and State alike. His only relief comes--and this is scarcely much comfort—when he ceases to exist. 

The second poem paints a picture of life in general which, no matter what part of the world one inhabits, is characterized by four constants. Depending on one’s point of view, the portrait is either amusing or depressing.

                                                             a   v i d a

                                                            c o m i d a

                                                             a    v i d a

                                                             b e b i d a

                                                             a    v i d a

                                                       d o r m i d a                                                        

                                                              a    v i d a

                                                                       i d a

                                    [life / food / life / drink / life / sleep / life / gone]

That the three necessities of life happen to rhyme with the past participle of “to go” is fortuitous, to say the least. Portuguese and Spanish may be the only languages in the world where this is possible. Beginning with a phonetic relationship that is merely coincidental, Grünewald constructs a poetic scenario in which each word plays a significant role. The first three words designate actions that are essential for human existence. In order to survive, human beings need to eat, drink, and sleep. The fourth word reminds us that, sooner or later, life comes to an end. For better or worse, the preceding facts describe the human condition. Since the composition contains no active verbs, it resembles a shopping list more than a traditional poem. Alternating with each of the four words in turn, the refrain: “a vida” stresses life’s fundamental importance. The fact that each line ends with the same three letters interjects a humorous note. However, since –ida means “gone,” it evokes life’s transience at the same time. That comida, bebida, and dormida are basically past participles emphasizes the finality of the actions in question. They imply that life has already been consumed, that it is too late to make amends. As mentioned, at least two interpretations are possible. The poem could be viewed as an invitation to enjoy life to the fullest, for example. Something like: “Eat, drink, and make merry, for tomorrow you may die.” Or alternatively it could represent a diatribe aimed at people who do nothing but eat, drink, and sleep. Considered in this light, the poem could conceivably represent a wake-up call rather than a general denunciation.

Unlike the previous composition, which appeals primarily to the ear, the next work appeals primarily to the eye. Although one could theoretically read it aloud, it is designed to be seen rather than heard. Indeed, if it were deprived of its visual dimension, it would be virtually impossible to decipher. Proceeding phoneme by phoneme and morpheme by morpheme, the listener would become hopelessly disoriented. By contrast, the viewer is able to grasp the poem’s structure at a single glance.

                                    [wordspoem / syllablesletters / letterssyllables / poemwords]

This ingenious little poem celebrates the birth of language, both spoken and written, which it reenacts symbolically. The first stanza represents the earliest phase, when our ancestors’ vocabulary consisted of a few repetitive sounds. At this stage, language resembled stuttering more than speech. Thus the stanza is composed of a single vowel repeated over and over in an apparently random fashion. While primitive man is technically still inarticulate, these sounds represent an embryonic language. The vowel in question (a) will eventually assume multiple functions in Portuguese, serving as an article, a preposition, and a pronoun. During the second phase, illustrated by the next stanza, it is joined by two more vowels and seven consonants. The creation of monosyllables at this stage represents a major step in the evolution of language. If we add or subtract accents (a later development), a few simple words begin to emerge. These include the terms for “shovel” (), “frog” (), “dust” (), and “self” (si).

The third phase, during which more letters are added, witnesses the creation of various polysyllables. At this point, the conglomeration begins to look more like an actual text. Although the poem has not yet assumed its final shape, most of the syllables have been transformed into words. “Pala” means “eyeshade” (among other things), “raspo” is the first person singular of raspar, and so forth. At this stage, the stanza reads: “eyeshade / i scrape / to me / self / skirt / he reads / ras / behind / skirts / rhea / row / ace.” While the words are not arranged in any meaningful fashion, they represent an important step in the drive toward intelligibility. The ultimate breakthrough occurs in the fourth stanza, which marks the completion of this drive and the emergence of the finished poem. The final section groups words together in ways that, despite the absence of verbs, still manage to make sense. In addition to language, it celebrates the phonemes, the syllables, and the words of which it is composed. In this respect, to be sure, the composition resembles Concrete poetry in general, which transforms linguistic signs into visual building blocks. Like the previous poems, it erects a visual edifice that rests on a verbal foundation.




(1). For a study of Concrete poetry in general, see Willard Bohn, Modern Visual Poetry (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2001), pp. 232-55.


(2). Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari, and Haroldo de Campos, “plano-pilôto para poesia concreta,” Noigandres, No. 4 (1958). Repr. in Concrete Poetry: A World View, ed. Mary Ellen Solt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), pp. 70-71. The translation is my own.


(3). See Claus Clüver, “Klangfarbenmelodie in Polychromatic Poems: A. von Webern and A. de Campos,” Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. XVIII, No. 3 (September 1981), pp. 386-98.


(4). Three of the poems in this series are reproduced on the poet’s web site at www2.uol.com.br/augustodecampos/poemas.htm.


(5). Augusto de Campos, Poesia 1949-1979 (São Paulo: Duas Cidades, 1979), unpaginated. The other poems examined in this article are also taken from this volume.


(6). Augusto de Campos, “Points-Periphery-Concrete Poetry,” Jornal do Brasil, November (11). 1956. Tr. by Jon M. Tolman and repr. in The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1982), p. 263.


(7). One of four types of Concrete poetry identified by the “plano-piloto.” See Bohn, Modern Visual Poetry, p. 237.


(8). Clüver, “Klangfarbenmeolodie in Polychromatic Poems,” pp. 395-96. He describes the recording in detail.


(9). See Note 6.


(10). José Lino Grünewald, Escreviver (Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1987),

p. 66. The other poems examined in this article are also taken from this volume.






Campos, Augusto de. “Points-Periphery-Concrete Poetry”, Jornal do Brasil, November 11 1956. Tr. By Jon M. Tolman adn repr. In The Avant Garde Tradition in Literature, ed. Richard Kostelanetz. Buffalo: Prometheus, 1982.


Flexner, Stuart and Flexner, Doris. Wise Words and Wives' Tales: The Origins, Meanings, and Time-Honored Wisdom of Proverbs and Folk Sayings Olde and New.New York: Avon, 1993.


Jackson, K. David. “Haroldo de Campos and the Poetics of Invention” in Haroldo de Campos: A Dialogue with the Brazilian Concrete Poet, ed. K. David Jackson (Oxford: Oxford University Centre for Brazilian Studies, 2005)


Knauth, K. Alfons. “Palabrás: The Haroldic Emblem” in Experimental--Visual--Concrete: Avant-Garde Poetry Since the 1960s, ed. K. David Jackson, Eric Vos, and Johanna Drucker. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996.



Pignatari, Décio. Poesia pois é poesia, 1950-1975. São Paulo: Duas Cidades, 1977.



Simon, Iumna Maria and Dantas, Vinicius. Poesia concreta. São Paulo: Abril, 1982. unpaginated.


Solt, Concrete Poetry: A World View. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.


Williams, Emmett. An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. New York: Something Else Press, 1967.