Concrete Poetry and Freeing Oneself from the Grid

Monday, March 17th, 2014 by eadodge

Last class, Devin made a good point that Kittler doesn’t take certain factors into account in his section about the typewriter, like print culture in previous centuries. I also noticed that with the concept of concrete poetry, some of Kittler’s assumptions about the typewriter also come into question, with regards to what it can represent. Kittler notes, “The typewriter cannot conjure up anything imaginary, as can cinema; it cannot simulate the real, as can sound recording; it only inverts the gender of writing” (183). I disagree.

During my last trip to the MAL, I tried out the big blue Olympia typewriter. I thought back to an art project I had undertaken as an undergradute, shortly after reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” My favorite lines from the poem were:
“Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

As an undergraduate, I wrote these lines on a blank sheet of paper and began to paint on the sheet. I created a red, gold, and black city, with figures like ants scrawled across the bottom of the page.

When I sat at that typerwriter, I thought of those words again, that picture again, and finally of “Pope Leo.” Whether I would create a scene from the lines or something different altogether, I started typing part of the poem, and as I did, I recognized the separation of my hands from the final result, connected only by key strokes. It felt no different from typing on a digital word processor, at first.

But then, as I struggled to feed a second sheet of paper into the machine, I realized that I could move the page however I wanted. I could type over letters, overlap them in a different line. I could change the orientation of the page and start typing in whatever direction I wanted. The grid structure that I had felt for so long from word processors was mostly gone, and the result was suddenly freeing. The representations in Writing Surfaces returned to mind, and I started to let the words drive themselves into corresponding shapes. The page that resulted is not one that I can share easily through this post. My wireless printer/scanner is not recognizing my computer on the network, and the ink is too light to be faithfully captured by a photo. But I’ll be sure to bring both versions to class. I’m even considering coming back to that typewriter in a future visit to the lab, in order to make something even less structured than the second page I produced.

Between examining the more established strain of concrete poetry that is out there and my own experience trying to reproduce it, I recognized that the page carries the baggage of certain concepts of ‘page.’ And language is still a set of arbitrary symbols that can combine and recombine. But with the ability to ‘break’ a typewriter so that its written standardization remains only in its character size and font, one can create something imaginary — something even like Swallows, which I think of as concrete poetry in motion. There could be some materiality aspect about concrete poetry which makes the comparison less than perfect, but what I am trying to convey overall is that Kittler’s argument, while it remains thought-provoking, is missing a few more creative elements.

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2 comments on “Concrete Poetry and Freeing Oneself from the Grid

  1. Lori Emerson says:

    Erin, I just wanted to register my admiration for your willingness and ability to create something imaginary with the typewriter – I think you’re exactly right, that there are plenty of ways to “hack” the typewriter to undo all kinds of rigidities and to create something new. But I should also point out that while I don’t complete understand what Kittler is after about gender in that quote, his use of imaginary is a little different as he’s drawing on Lacan’s notion of the imaginary…which I only barely understand myself but this is a really useful page that explains the symbolic/imaginary/real trio in Lacan: http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/symbolicrealimaginary.htm

  2. contromal says:

    Erin – really beautiful post. I think you identified something I had recognized in my own work with typewriters, but could not name. The only unalterably standard element is the letter itself. I love your idea of defying the grid.

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