Concrete poetry in England and Scotland 1962-75: Ian Hamilton Finlay, Edwin Morgan, Dom Sylvester Houédard and Bob Cobbing
Thomas, Gregory Charles
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This thesis examines concrete poetry in England and Scotland from 1962 to 1975. Through the 1950s-70s, international concrete poetry evolved away from constructivist influenced, “classical” ideals of minimalism and iconic visual effect towards principles owing more to Dadaism and Futurism: spontaneity, maximalism, sonority and an emphasis on intermedial expression. Against this backdrop, using close textual analysis supported by primary research, I engage with four poets whose work collectively exemplifies the wide range of values which concrete poetry represented in England and Scotland during the period in question. A movement away from classical ideals can be tracked across the oeuvres of Finlay, Morgan, Houédard and Cobbing; but many aspects of their work cannot be accounted for by this general rubric. Finlay saw concrete poetry as a means of casting off Scottish literary tradition, but also of embodying an immutable vision of aesthetic and ethical order, using a marriage of the visual and linguistic to emphasise links between disparate ideas and things. However, his restless reconfiguration of poetry’s visual-physical aspects ultimately resulted in a re-separation of word and image which, together with an increasing historical-mindedness, ended his attachment to the style. Morgan, by contrast, used concrete poetry to redefine rather than repel Scottish literary culture, and was a more context-focused poet, using concrete grammar – whose sonic possibilities he exploited more than Finlay – to depict specific communicative scenarios, and thus to register ethical and political imperatives, often reflecting Scottish nationalist ideals. The emphasis on semantics common to Morgan and Finlay’s work, reflecting relative fidelity to classical principles, is overridden in Houédard’s concrete poetry, which came to employ a grammar of abstract visual motifs in which linguistic meaning was subsumed, related as much to apophatic theology as to classical concrete. For Cobbing too, concrete became a means of evading language, in his case to access a transcendent realm of “intermedial” poetry equally related to language’s sonic and visual dimensions, and influenced by various contemporary artforms, and by counter-cultural ideals. However, Cobbing’s emphasis on performing poems, and the reintegration of semantics into his work throughout this period, led by the early 1970s to an alternative poetic ideal of relativity.