Brazilian Concrete Poetry

K. David Jackson


POEM/ART Brazilian Concrete Poetry, the title of an international conference at Yale University (November, 2006) commemorates 50 years of the First National Exhibition of Concrete Art in the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo in December, 1956. Representing a moment of intense creativity and experimentation in poetry and the arts in Brazil, following the first international art exhibit at the Bienal of São Paulo in 1951, the 1956 exhibit imprinted powerful images on the public imagination and projected the combined forces of Brazilian Concrete poetry and plastic arts as the vanguard of an international aesthetic movement.

Augusto de Campos contributed the original design for the conference poster, reproducing the Chinese ideogram for “sun” found in Décio Pignatari’s celebrated poem LIFE, with the words “poem” and “art” spelled in vertical columns to the left and right, and in alternating red and black colors. The Yale conference was the third dedicated to Brazilian Concrete Poets Haroldo de Campos, Augusto de Campos, and Décio Pignatari, after the 1995 Symphosophia (Experimental, Visual, Concrete: Avant-Garde Poetry Since the 1960s. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996) and the 1999 joint Oxford/Yale conferences in honor of Haroldo de Campos’s 70th year (Haroldo de Campos: A Dialogue with the Brazilian Concrete Poet. Oxford, 2005).

POEM/ART featured a major exhibit in Sterling Memorial Library, with materials from the Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscript Library, under the title “Verbivocovisual,” curated by art historian Irene Small.  The special exhibit included rare folios, pop-up books, manifestos, fold-outs, and games, described in the accompanying brochure. 


Verbivocovisual: Brazilian Concrete Poetry

Irene Small

Yale University


Verbivocovisual traces the development of Brazilian concrete poetry from its emergence and theorization in the mid 1950s through its polemicization, rupture, and continued experimentation in the 1960s and 70s. Drawn from Book II Episode 3 of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the pormanteau word “verbivocovisual” was used by the Brazilian poets to evoke the synesthetic character of their work. As in Augusto de Campos’s tensão (tension), of 1956, in which the poles of sound (“com som”/”with sound”) and silence (“sem som”/”without sound”) are anchored by the graphic tension of the poem’s structure on the page, the dynamism of Brazilian concrete poetry lies in its attention to the materiality of language. In the current exhibition, this materiality is explored in works and documentation that range from folios and pamphlets to pop-up books, manifestos, fold-outs, and games. Verbivocovisual presents Brazilian concrete poetry as a distinct literary movement and a wider field of formal experimentation – in short, a pluridimensional art.

Concrete poetry emerged independently in Brazil, Switzerland, and Sweden in 1953, when Augusto de Campos completed poetamenos in São Paulo, a collection of poems for multiple voices based on Anton Webern’s idea of “Klangfarbenmelodie”, the Swiss-Bolivian poet Eugen Gomringer published his spatial Konstellationen poems in Ulm, and the Brazilian-born Swedish poet Öyvind Fahlström wrote his Manifesto for Concrete Poetry in Stockholm. One year earlier, Augusto de Campos, together with his brother Haroldo and Décio Pignatari, had formed the Noigandres group in São Paulo and published their first magazine. With Noigandres, the young poets established a formal precedent in the poetry of Ezra Pound, specifically, the ideogrammatic method of the Cantos. The poets soon expanded this conceptual universe to include Ernest Fenollosa, Sergei Eisenstein, e.e. cummings, Guillaume Apollinaire, João Cabral de Melo Neto, James Joyce, Oswald de Andrade, and most importantly, Stéphane Mallarmé, whose 1897 Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard established the typographic character of words and the white space of the page as active, structural elements of composition.

By 1955, the Campos brothers and Pignatari had established the central principles of concrete poetry in a series of works and theoretical texts published in Brazilian newspapers, and in Noigandres 2, where poetamenos was published for the first time. The concrete poem, according to Augusto de Campos, was “the tension of word-things in space-time.” It did not unfold linearly, according to the discursive, syntactic conventions of verse, but presented itself instantly, as a “relational field of functions”. The concrete poem was analogous to the rapidity of modern communication, its structure as economical as a billboard, a poster, or an advertising slogan. The concrete poets saw a direct link between their work and the modernization of Brazil’s post-war industrial boom, which brought with it the country’s first institutions of modern art, the São Paulo Bienal, Latin America’s first school of industrial and communication design, and the euphoric “JK” years and their promise of “fifty years of progress in five.”

The poets’ interest in the efficiency and rationality of communication led them to make contact with visual artists such as Waldemar Cordeiro and his Ruptura group as early as 1952. Cordeiro, who became spokesperson for the Concrete artists of São Paulo, had been influenced by Italian and Argentine concrete art as well as the Swiss Concretist Max Bill, who had exhibited in São Paulo in 1950. Cordeiro called for a “productive” art free of expression and subjectivity. Following Theo van Doesburg’s 1930 distinction between abstract and concrete art, he insisted that the work of art has its own, objective reality, a description close in keeping with the concrete poets’ formulation of their own work. Conversations between the groups led to the planning of a national exhibition which would place works of art and poetry side by side – both “products” of the new, modern world.

With the 1956 National Exhibition of Concrete Art, concrete poetry entered, in the words of Pignatari, its “polemic phase.” The exhibition was inaugurated at the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo in December of 1956, and traveled to Rio de Janeiro in February 1957, where it was installed in the Ministry of Education and Culture. The concrete poets now counted among their adherents poets such as Ronaldo Azeredo, José Lino Grünewald, Théon Spanudis, and the Rio-based art critic Ferreira Gullar, whose 1954 publication A Luta Corporal enacted the atomization and deconstruction of language. A conference in Rio de Janeiro on the occasion of the exhibition’s opening erupted in controversy, resulting in national coverage of the movement in popular magazines such as O Cruzeiro. In an article published shortly thereafter, titled “Concrete Poetry and the Brazilian Poetic Moment”, the respected critic Mário Faustino recognized the Concretists as the most innovative poets in Brazilian literature yet.

As theoretical positions became more polemic, however, internal fissures began to appear among the artists and poets from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In 1957, with the publication of Haroldo de Campos’s “From the Phenomenology of Composition to the Mathematics of Composition” and Ferreira Gullar, Oliveira Bastos and Reynaldo Jardim’s “Concrete Poetry: Intuitive Experience”, the two groups split, the Carioca (Rio) group calling the Paulista (São Paulo) poets and artists excessively rational and mechanistic, the Paulistas complaining of the Cariocas’s subjectivism and lack of rigor. These differences in sensibility were magnified in the coming two years. In 1958, the Paulista group consolidated their position in the Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry, a manifesto inspired by architect Lúcio Costa’s pilot plan for the country’s new, ultra modern capital, Brasília, then under construction. The Pilot Plan’s description of the poem as a “mechanism” or “feed-back loop” was in stark contrast to the methods of the Rio group, who favored intuitive rather than a priori composition. In 1959, the Rio group formulated their own position in the Neoconcrete Manifesto, which described the work of art not as a “machine” or “object” but a “quasi-corpus”.

In 1962, the São Paulo poets published the last issue of Noigandres and regrouped under the name Invenção. Although they maintained the designation “Concrete” and adhered to the essential conceptual principles they had outlined in the years proceeding, the poets displayed an increased engagement with popular, political, and social issues and a more flexible approach to composition. Augusto de Campos’s cubograma of 1960-62 paid homage to the Cuban Revolution, while his Poemobiles and Caixa Preta [CASE 8], collaborations with the São Paulo-based Spanish artist Julio Plaza, exhibit an interest in graphic art, chance, and play. Pignatari, too, became interested in non-verbal communication and the nature of signs, publishing with Luiz Angelo Pinto the Manifesto of the Poem-Code or Semiotic in 1964. From 1965 through 1976, Pignatari taught information theory at the Superior School of Industrial Design in Rio. Haroldo de Campos, meanwhile, devoted increasing attention to his work as critic, theorist and translator. Campos’s interest in the Tropicália movement in the late 1960s brought him close to the musician Caetano Veloso and the artist Hélio Oiticica, who had emerged from the Neoconcrete movement years before. Campos’s translations, or “transcreations”, as he termed his method of creative misreading, meanwhile, range from pillars of the concrete poets’s original formation—Pound’s Cantos, Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake—to Mayakovsky, Dante, parts of the Iliad, and even the book of Genesis. Despite their later variation in method, the concrete poets remained committed to the project of formal experimentation. On that note, we might end with the post-script the poets themselves appended to their Pilot Plan in 1961: “Without revolutionary form there is no revolutionary art -- Mayakovsky.”