Exercise 2

Concrete poetry

This brief was split into two parts; a critical writing task and a visual task. First, I had to identify an examples of concrete poetry and write a short critique of the content, design, and the relationship between the content and form. Next, I was asked to use one typeface to create a playful design for the Tango with Cows (1914) by Vasily Kamensky.

To begin, I conducted some research about concrete poetry. I had a look at some of the names on the list in the course materials, and read about concrete poetry in Mary Ellen Solt’s 1968 Concrete Poetry: A World View.

This all gave me a good understanding of what concrete poetry was all about. I certainly got the impression of the importance of the physicality of the poem – the shape, the paper, the space. It was not necessarily about reading words – it was about experiencing and appreciating a structure.

Critical writing task

Identify an example of concrete poetry and write a short critique of the content, design and the relationship between the content and form. How has the use of typography, layout, and space been employed to help generate meaning?

My initial notes on and around the poem ‘Sea Poppy 2’

Ian Hamilton Finlay named this piece ‘Sea Poppy 2 (Fishing Boat Names)’, which gives the viewer an idea of where the text was generated. However, it is the layout used that really brings the text alive – without this inventive design, this would simply be a list of names.

Looking first at the overall shape created by the text, I was reminded of a ripple in the water, with the text growing outwards. This makes me think of perhaps something dropping in the water, like a fishing hook. The shape is also reminiscent of a whirlpool (this made me think back to my experimental typography for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Perhaps these shapes also come to mind due to the colour choices – Ian Hamilton Finlay has used emerald green text on a pale blue background, immediately bringing up associations with nature, water, and anything linked.

Building on this, the green on blue makes me think of land and sea on a map, and the circular shape could be inspired by our globe. A circle is a shape very much linked to nature, due to cyclical processes and the fact our Earth is a sphere. I am often reminded of continuous life by a circle.

An eye was another shape that came to mind, especially with the small circle in the middle of the text being blank. With the bold ‘star’ words jumping out, it is as if an eye is looking up to the sky. Finally, the circle shape made me think of a circular window in a ship – a porthole – again, a window to the sea and the sky.

Moving to the typography, Ian Hamilton Finlay has used a sans-serif typeface, which is very easy to read and looks sleek and clear. There are certainly no distractions from the content of the text. All the words are uppercase. Generally, capital letters are used for names (proper nouns) and all-capitals is meant to portray importance, urgency, status, or sometimes size. I am made to think of these fishing boats, each name special to the owner, towering next to each other. The names of the boats all seem to represent strength, and all describe desirable attributes (for example, radiant, faithful, divine, and peace).

The main focus of this piece of poetry (for me) is the word ‘star’ repeated several times in the poem. Each fishing boat has the word ‘star’ in its name – ‘Day Star’, ‘Star of Freedom’, ‘Morning Star’ etc. – and this word is heavier, bolder than the rest. This makes the word jump out to the reader. Along with words such as ‘universal’ and ‘guiding’, I am reminded of star-gazing and how sailors traditionally follow the stars to help track their course. This, combined with the shape of the poem, makes me think of looking up at a domed ceiling in a planetarium to see the ‘stars’ and constellations. I can imagine a sailor looking up to the night sky, really sensing the movement of the Earth while the stars remain fixed, consistent companions. I think Ian Hamilton Finlay achieved this sense of exploration with this piece.

A final thought I had while looking at this poem was of a maze – due to the spacing of the words and lines, there are little gaps between some of the names and a hole in the middle of the design. Perhaps this could symbolise another ‘guiding’ theme – the stars help sailors through difficult waves into peaceful, open waters. Without the stars, the sea would be a maze.

I also think the close spacing between each line and the space around the circle helps represent focus and open water. It is easy to be tempted off course by the apparent freedom of wide-open space, but it is important to remain on track, using the clues and directions given. In this sense, the poem is almost like a target, with the stars converging on the middle circle – the goal.

Typography, layout, and space have all been carefully considered in this piece of concrete poetry. The content of the text is not immediately obvious, but the words all conjure thoughts of the sky, the night, and positivity. The circular shape of the text allows for lots of different interpretations – circles being so synonymous with nature does help direct ideas towards the sea and the Earth – and the colours add to this – blue and green are very much the colours associated with water and land. The use of typography highlights the stars, essential to sailors, and brings the whole poem together to seem like a night sky, with the stars guiding the way. The spacing also adds to this by bringing to mind mazes or targets, all moving towards a central goal.

Write a brief summary of your thoughts, feelings and reflections on how concrete poetry creates new meanings.

To summarise, I have found that concrete poetry makes me think much more deeply about a few words, letters, or even pieces of punctuation. In the example I analysed, Ian Hamilton Finlay makes use of layout, colour, typography, and space to give a whole new meaning to a list of names. So much imagery and emotion can be generated from very little by employing well-considered design choices.

My favourite pieces of concrete poetry are those that work within limitations. I am particularly fond of Emmett Williams work, especially ‘Sweethearts’. By using just a grid of the same word repeated and eliminating certain letters, he creates new words, new phrases, and new meanings. The reader is left stringing together the leftover letters, interacting with the poem, wondering about the artist’s intentions. Similarly, Eugen Gomringer used the letters of ‘wind’ and scattered them across the page, making the reader move between the letters, pulling them together. I like this process of interaction between the artist and the reader.

Visual task

Next, I was asked to create a playful design for Vasily Kamensky’s ‘Tango with Cows’ (1914), using just one typeface. I started by picking apart the brief and reading through the poem in the course materials. It was helpful to highlight key words in both and make some notes around the edge. I found that I was drawn to words linked to ‘red’, movement, and anything that I could try to portray in text.

To build my understanding of the poem, I researched the book ‘Tango with Cows’. This was created as a collaboration between Vasily Kamensky and two artists – David and Vladimir Burliuk – printed on cheap wallpaper. I learnt about Cubo-Futurism, which helped me understand the clash of this new, erotic, playful dance with the traditional, rural cow – symbolic of the changes Cubo-Futurists were hoping to bring about in art and society. The entire book is playful.

I wanted to learn more about the history of the tango. I did ballroom and Latin dancing for about ten years, so I already had some understanding, but I thought this would be an interesting route to take to help the reader experience the poem and tie the structure to the form. Some key words linked perfectly with the poem and the brief, such as ‘playful’, and I really wanted to find a way to bring the structured ballroom steps as well as the unexpected, improvisation of the original Argentine tango. I was also keen to find a way of conveying the intimacy of the dance; the push and pull, call and response, of the partners.

Additionally, I did generated some key words, based on all this research, and using my Roget’s Thesaurus, to help tie my ideas together and help me focus.

With all this in mind, I moved on to generating a series of sketches and ideas, as specified in the brief. I knew I wanted to be true to the original intention of clashing urban and rural, new and old, contemporary and traditional. I also thought about how I could include multiple viewpoints (as was common in cubist work) and so some of my sketches have feet tangled up from one angle and footsteps/hoofsteps from another, overlapping. Overlapping was also important – it was a good way of showing that intimacy between the dancers. I collected images of dancers on a Pinterest board (see below) to help inspire the positions I was drawing in my initial ideas and sketches.

I did try looking at including other parts of the body, especially of the cow, but it did not convey the movement or experience of the tango – I preferred the idea of feet and footprints as they give the impression of movement. I had the idea of including the steps for a square tango (which is a simple tango routine danced socially) and found a good little diagram, which I saved to my Pinterest board.

Next, I investigated the typeface I wanted to use. I printed off a few different trials and made notes around them. My favourites were the ‘Russian’-style typefaces, as they gave the poem a place, a location, and that would help the reader experience the content in a different way.

My favourite was ‘Kremlin’, which I settled on for my final design. It was also at this point that I considered the other ways the concrete poets I had researched had changed the way the reader experienced the poems.

The brief specified choosing one idea to develop into my final design, so I chose the overlapping hooves, with the footprint tango routine over the top. This gave me the shape of my poem, and the space too, but I could still experiment and adapt the size and weight of the text, or of certain words, in my digital creation process.

I chose A4 portrait because it would be the easiest format to print at home, and also the portrait format allows for the impression of two leaning figures, dancing (in that distinctive A-frame from Argentine tango).

I started with drawing the shape of the hooves with the pen tool, as the frames for the two sections of text. At first, the words were all the same size and had the same spacing between each letter (tracking).

To exaggerate certain themes and words, I started playing with the size and spacing. It was important to me to make the tango and the cows the main feature. Sometimes I tried to reflect the meaning of certain words in the way I changed the size and spacing – for instance, shorter became smaller, and floe was more widely spaced.

I also liked the idea of making the question mark bigger; the Cubo-Futurists were pushing and experiencing the change from old to new, so they must have had moments of feeling conflicted and confused (or making others feel this way!) Also, the whole poem is expressive, fun, and playful, so to have a giant question mark reflects the feeling of reading it.

By changing the spacing and size of words, this also adjusted the layout of the page. I fiddled around until I was happy. The words that hit you straight away are ‘tango’, ‘cattle’, and ‘dance’. I also ensured ‘red’ words were larger, as I was intending to introduce red details next.

Using the pen tool, I created footprints, ready to create my square tango route around the page. This required some adjustment as I went along – I ended up making the square route a little angled/diagonal on the page, so it fit with the playful theme, and I changed the footprints to outlines for most of the footsteps, apart from one set in the top right corner. I still wanted the text to be the focus.

An early experiment, with a mixture of blocky and outlined footprints.
Still too square, with the odd lonely footprints in the top right corner.
Jaunty, which fit so much better in the space and with the design. Larger footprints breaking the frame, filling space and adding another perspective.
I then added little hoof prints at the bottom, to balance the composition (with the blocky red at the top) and also reinforce the ‘cow’ element.

I was thrilled with my design. It certainly appears playful and conveys movement, which was really important to me. The overlapping hooves also look like figures leaning towards each other, as if they are in an Argentine tango hold. The overlapping text and images also add to this close, intimate feeling. I also quite like the direction lines, as they seem to add order or instruction, clashing with the chaotic movement of the rest of the piece. The text is readable, but perhaps difficult to decipher in places, and especially difficult to understand where to start and end. However, this could be part of the point – the dance is spontaneous, and the message of the poem is circular. The type choice is fun and helps establish a place. I also really like how some letters are backwards – it looks like they are facing other letters, as if ready to dance.

I had a paper in mind for this poem, but I was hoping I had enough left! Luckily, I could cut an A4 piece to go through my home printer. It is a textured paper, which has a beautiful red and yellow floral design on one side, and a beige/yellowish parchment appearance on the other side. It is rough and feels as if it could have been handmade. The red appealed to me – to continue this symbolism of the passionate, erotic, sensual tango – and the natural element helped to clash with this, symbolising the rural workers. The texture gives it an earthiness, grounding the poem. Additionally, the organic, natural, flowing shapes of the flowers contrasts with the sharp, blockiness of the typeface, portraying this contrast of urban and rural once again. I tried to capture the texture of the paper in these photographs, and also took a photograph of the poem printed on normal printer paper, to show the difference in colour and texture.

It was interesting how the ink turned out on this piece – in places, the blocks of colour look a little speckled, but I quite like this too (it looks aged, linking to the time the poem was written). My printer puts a border around whatever it prints, so I might trim this, otherwise it looks like the movements are contained.

Write a short paragraph reflecting on the relationship between the form and content of your design.

My design shows the shape of two overlapping hooves, as if they are in the middle of dancing a tango – these form the path of the text of the poem. I think these could also be interpreted as leaning partners in the classic A-frame of the Argentine tango. The way the text overlaps indicates the closeness and intimacy involved in the dance, but also the clash of seemingly nonsensical elements; a cow (representing rural, traditional workers and lifestyle) and a tango (representing the changes coming from cities and urban areas, new ideas, and exciting, playful pastimes). The illustrations support this, showing the steps of a square tango (adding a kind of instructional element to the design) and footprints/hoofprints. I also used the colour red, as the poem brings up lots of red themes, such as wine, hell, and blood. The feel of the paper is rough and earthy, representing the rural, traditional side again, while the pattern on the other side is predominantly red, symbolising the passion and sensuality of the dance – perhaps also the perceived danger of change by some people. My type choice helps establish a location for the poem and is fun – some letters face the opposite direction, making the reader interact even more with the text, in trying the decipher it in places. I also think the letters look as if they have turned to face each other, as if ready to dance.

I found this task very enjoyable. I loved learning about the artists who created concrete poems and considering their design choices. My final design is one I am very proud of – another digital venture that I am pleased with – and I liked choosing from my paper selection. I also feel like I have gained an understanding of a whole art movement that I did not know much about before this exercise. Cubo-Futurism was an exciting area to research. In my process, I tried to do the original poem justice, by considering the original intention behind the playful poem, so I hope my final design achieves this.

Looking back at examples from my research, I think I achieved a concrete poem that has a structure reflecting the whole content – I definitely focused more on the poem as a whole. I think, as in these examples, I could have experimented further with individual letters, perhaps thinking about the sounds of individual steps across a dance floor. But, with the text I had, and with my goal in mind of focusing on the juxtaposition of tango and cow, urban and rural, I think my design reflected this.

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