"Reading has become an active, participant-directed process rather than passive, author-directed ... the rational-visual act of reading has become an experience of sight, sounds, and colours."

Paul Kloppenborg

The future of visual poetry.

   by Paul Kloppenborg

Visual forms- lines, colours, proportions etc -are just as capable of articulation i.e. of complex combination, as words. But the laws that govern this sort of articulation are altogether different from the laws of syntax that govern language. The most radical difference is that visual forms are not discursive. They do not present their constituents successively, but simultaneously, so that relations determining a visual structure are grasped in one act of vision." -Suzanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (1942)


The concrete poetry movement had been started in Europe and Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s. In the mid-fifties, Eugene Gomringer in Switzerland and a group of poets working together in Brazil, defined concrete poetry as writing that "begins by being aware of graphic space as a structural agent", so that words or letters can be juxtaposed, not only in relation to each other but also to the page area as a whole. The Brazilians - Deico Pignatari, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos-defined "concrete" with an emphasis on the word as a unit in space.

Traditional verse forms internalise a poem through its language so that meaning becomes clear when read and assimilated. Consider this poem by Gomringer, the father of concrete poetry, which can be read or felt along any of its axes.

"Wind" by Eugene Gomringer.

This type of writing highlights the movement of words and the balance between form and content.

The visual and semantic elements constituting the form as well as the content of a poem define its structure so that the poem can be a "reality in itself and not a poem about something or other."

"Ping Pong" by Gomringer shows the tension between similar words that can create feeling to the reader. There is an acute balance of meaning possible because of the word arrangements available to the poet.

Their principles are that concrete language structures do not follow tradional verse forms and are largely visual. As such, the content is strongly related to the question of attitudes towards life in which art is effectively incorporated and hence concrete or visual language is parly reflected and partly unreflected information which often uses sign schemes.

Importantly, visual language is reduced language; this is achieved primarily through an acute awareness of graphic space as a structural agent within the composition of the piece. Finally, visual poetry aims at the least common multiple of language. It is simple mind presentation and uses a word arrangement and linguistic means (such as sounds, syllables, words) which are independent of and not representative of objects extrinsic to language.

Consider these three famous examples of concrete poetry:

Edgard Braga (1963)

poema = poem
po = dust
mo = millstone


Freidrich Aclleitner (195?)

rot=red anstatt=instead of

Here the plot thickens when the poem is seen with each "rot" in a different colour.


Claus Bremer (1966)

The letters of a simple text, "for you and for me", are arranged in the last five lines to their alphabetical priority.

The concrete poetry movement of the 1950s and 1960s had its roots both in Surrealism and Dada and prior to that in the writings of the French symbolists, especially Apollinaire. All these movements are related in some way to the upheaval of thought and events that characterise the dramatic differences between the 20th century and the preceding one: advances in the technology of transportation, communication, and warfare; new concepts in philosophy and psychology, and the resultant confusion and change in the behaviour and even the structure of society.

In a sense, they were artistic movements taking advantage of the tremendous changes in the nature of everyday life at the beginning of the twentieth century. While the Impressionists acknowledged the importance of grasping the fleeting moments of experience, the tendency in the painting of that movement and of the Post-Impressionists was to freeze those moments rather than to glorify the inherent motion. Similarly, the poetry of the Symbolists, Surrealists and the Cubist movements represented in many cases a withdrawal from the activities of an industrialised society and the seeking of a new form of poetry that would communicate emotion in this "brave new world."

Consider this example of Apollinaire where he has used his own handwriting to make the letters of his figure.


The publishing industry has remained virtually unchanged since 1455 when Guttenberg first printed the Bible. Not only the publishing industry, but also the act of reading, unchanged for several centuries, is now being altered. In the case of computer CD-ROMs, reading has become an active, participant-directed process rather than passive, author-directed: turning pages in a book has been transformed into hypertext links. The rational-visual act of reading has become an experience of sight, sounds, and colours. As would seem obvious, writing techniques are also being profoundly altered. The poet of the future will have to be a more complete and unspecialized artist who will need to blend his writing skills with oral and artistic abilities and even more so with technological-computer knowledge. This, together with computer software that allows active participatory reading and even the introduction of modifications made by the reader in the work of art, will perhaps help to rehumanize literature and achieve the Surrealist, Cubists and Dada poets and writers's unfulfilled dream of merging art and life.

Consider these examples of animation through the use of Java software where the words employed in the poem are set in motion.

Or, a poem written with binocular reading in mind where the poem presents different letters and words to each eye simultaneously. Binocular reading takes place when we read one word or letter with the left eye and at the same time a completely different word or letter with the right eye.

Colour is important in computer poetry. Have a look.

Here colour is not fixed. The poem changes colour and shading.

Discontinuous space computer poetry is where the static presentation of the three-dimensional space of a poem is broken down into different spaces that may or may not overlap in space or time. i.e a poem can be 3 dimensional.

Another trend of computer poetry is discontinuous syntax where the words/syntax alter throughout the reading.

Other future directions are the Hyperpoem which is a digital interactive poem based on hypertext that branches out as the reader makes choices along the way. Hyperpoems promote a disengagement of the textual distribution characteristic of print.

In common with the great concrete poets of the 1950s and 1960s, computer poetry is composed more for the eye than the ear. The form of the poem on the page or compuer screen affects how we read it and so affects our experience of its meaning. In computer poetry, however, the image or text becomes an object of comprehension "within itself". In common with the past this is achieved by syntactic techniques within the text and the use of white space; juxtapositioning of images and ideas as well as the use of other printed mediums within the visual poem.

Computer poetry will and does employ these techniques. Moreover the Internet and associated software has opened poetry, and in particular, visual poetry, to a feast of new possibilities including animation, clip-art, hypertext links, rhythms of perception and new possibilities of spatial form.

A final question: Will the future poet need to be as much of a computer software expert as they are artist or craftsman? The future will tell us.


Richard Kostelanetz, Wordworks, N.Y. BOA, 1993.

Seaman, David, Concrete poetry in France, Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1981.

Sharkey, John (Ed), Mindplay: An anthology of British Concrete Poetry, London, Lorimer, 1971.

Williams, Emmett(Ed), An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, N.Y., Something Else, 1967.

Solt, Mary Ellen (Ed), Concrete Poetry: A World View, London, Indiana, 1971.

Levenston, E.A. The stuff of literature: physical apects of texts and their relation to literary meaning. New York, N.Y. U. Press, 1992.

Gumpel, Liselotte, Concrete poetry from East and West Germany; Yale, New Haven, 1976.

Jackson, K.D (Ed)., Experimental-Visual-Concrete: Avante-Garde poetry since the 1960s, Atlanta, GA, 1996.

Paul Kloppenborg is married to Deb and has 2 children, "and it's this family who has to put up with my passion for writing and critting."

Paul wasn't always as passionate about poetry. When he left University in the early 1980s, he wanted to establish a career. So with his History degree under one arm and a Diploma in Librarianship under the other, he started work in a variety of libraries, both public and technical, helping people find and use information. It was this constant drenching in words, paper, books and information that kick started him along the road to writing.

Paul is involved in a number of writing/poetry workshops and has seen his work published in numerous paper and electronic publications, including "A Year on the Avenue", a joint poetry book published last autumn by Two Dog Press. He is the Fiction Editor at "Recursive Angel."