What might there be between poetry and painting? In the brave days of the sixties counter culture this place was called the intermedia. Some people imagined that in the future all art forms would merge into a homogenous and culturally satisfying mass. Wall to wall painting. Poetry in everything. Didn’t happen. But there were a few around who wanted to explore.
Meic Stephens, the then pretty traditional editor of Poetry Wales, produced a version of Eugene Gomringer’s famous concrete poem, Silencio. In the original there’s a block of print made from the word for silence with a gap of real silence in the centre. Meic’s version substituted the Welsh equivalent.
Reaction was pedictable. Streams of jokes about poems and building sites and outrage from those who considered anything not in the styles of the long past as rubbish.
Concrete poetry was supposed to save the literary world. But naturally it didn’t. After a few flashes it found itself in the early eighties up a side alley with nowhere further to travel.
In the years since virtually no one in Wales has picked up the baton. There were loads of early Finch visual things but not a lot after the start of the ninties. Cardiff’s Lloyd Robson has, in some of his wilder moments, used mangled typefaces to good effect. And the tri-lingual bard of the north, Peter Meilleur (otherwise known as Childe Roland), continues to produce visual work with words that often defies description.
But that planned common ground for poet and painter just faded. It’s a pity.
In London recently at the ICA’s Poor Old Tired Horse concrete poetry exhibition you could see where some of this might have taken us. Lots of stuff from the Scots, whose climate clearly encourages innovation – Ian Hamilton Finlay’s waves and boats. Lillian Lijn’s machines that made poetry spin. The late Dom Sylvester Houédard’ s meditative typewriter creations. Carl Andre’s words set out like piles of bricks. David Hockney. Robert Smithson. Nothing in the slightest bit Welsh.
Although to be fair they did invite me up to give a sound poetry reading. Took me right back to where it all began. Puzzlement, passion, precision and sore throats.
On the train back I got talking to a completely plastered bloke who’d just flown in from a holiday in Malaga. “Poetry’s brilliant”, he said, after I’d told him where I’d been and what I’d been doing. “But I never listen to it myself”. Then he got off in a drunken rush at Reading leaving his passport, tickets and wallet on the seat. The woman next to me handed the stuff in to the guard. “I wouldn’t try to contact him yet,” she advised, “he’s had too much vino collapso”. Poetry again. It’s in everything.
An earlier version of this posting appeared in the Western Mail on 22 August, 2009 as The Insider