Concrete Poetry/ Extended Project brief

Introduction (from the brief)
Concrete poetry – which can also be conceived and referred to
as ‘conceptual writing’ – is an art and design practice whereby
language is conceived and manipulated in its ‘concrete’ form,
that is as it is seen and presented to us as text, type, words and
letters. Ever since the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s
experiments with movable type in 1897 (see module presentation),
artists and designers have for progressively explored language’s
concrete existence through all manner of material innovations, all of
which focus on what language does, or can do, when what it ‘says’
(its ‘content’) and what it ‘is’ (its ‘form’, or how it exists) are merged
conceptually under the influence of the artist or designer.
In this workshop you are asked to produce one or more concrete
poems using the knowledge and practical skills that you have
learned so far, documenting your work in your process book.

22/2/22 lecture notes


  • Adam presented to us the Concrete Poetry brief, then introduced us to the extended project of the module. (The 2 are connected).
  • The first presentaion focused on the background of concrete poetry itself. What it is, how it came about and how it has been used by different designers and artists.
  • For this project, we can use methods we used before for the un-creative writing.
  • ‘Conceptual writing’ is a phrase used by Kenneth Goldsmith.
  • Looking at language as text, form, meaning. what language does rather than what it says. Breaking it down.
  • Painters and writers looking at each others work.

Stephane Mallarme

From the Poetry Foundation website:

Stéphane Mallarmé was recognized as one of France’s four major poets of the second half of the 19th century. Much of his poetry was acknowledged to be difficult to understand because of its tortuous syntax, ambiguous expressions, and obscure imagery. His poetry became highly influential in France and beyond, including in the United States, among poets looking for new and innovative ways to write, during the turbulent times of the early 1900s.

1897 A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance. First time someone thought about placing text differently.

‘Mallarmé’s autograph “maquette” for the the book showing the proportion, layout, and type sizes and typestyles he wanted the typesetter to follow.’

This passage explains the poem:

No one agrees on how it should be read. It spreads out in all directions on the page, inverts normal French word order, eschews ordinary punctuation, and presents a variety of fonts, typefaces, and letter sizes. It surprises its reader with oddly placed italics and eccentric full-word capitalizations. It offers, in short, a cornucopia of visual oddities that seem arbitrary yet torment the reader because they suggest the possibility of meaning. It induces a thoroughgoing bewilderment that borders on mystification.’   

I really like the way the poem is drifting across the page. It reminds me of how the current of a river pulls the water in one direction.

EE Cummings was an American poet. His poems written on a typewriter 1930s, show us an example of instant publication. Before this period, writers only had pen and paper to plan a poem, and they needed to trust the printmaker to produce the work from their instructions. EE Cummings, having use of a typewriter, was suddenly in charge of the poem’s lay out and see the publication instantly on the page.

Both poems by Cummings:

I find it interesting, how easy this poem is to read, given that the letters fall on completely different lines.

Convergence of design and poetry.

Book design innovation- typographic experimentation. Kamensky (below)

Tango with Cows: cubo-futurist art by Vasily Kamenski’

Conceptual artists also produce books of text. In these books, they are speaking for the sake of speaking. Literally uncreative writing.

Bruce Nauman uses analogical, handwritten techniques. He also produces neon installations, usually spelling out words.

Alan Fletcher

Eugen Gomringer

‘Eugene Gomringer (Cachuela Esperanza, Bolivia, 1925). Eugene Gomringer is often presented as one of the fathers of Concrete poetry. In the 1950s, his art studies led him to nonrepresentational paintings, from which he emulated his first poems. In 1960 he founded his own magazine “Konkrete Poesie”, and begin a decades long period of intensive writing that continues into present day.’
«Tree» and «wind» – the eight letters of these two words serve Eugen Gomringer as building blocks for the square word picture from 1961/2014, which can be viewed as an exemplary example of visual poetry. Inspired by the Zurich Konkreten - Gomringer was once Max Bill's secretary at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm - the language artist, who was born in Bolivia in 1925 and grew up in Switzerland, initiated the concept of concrete poetry in the German-speaking world. In the work baumwind, the eight black letters can be found in 13 different views in a square arrangement – ​​as if the “wind” had rushed into the “tree” and twirled its letters like leaves. The apparently accidental combinations of black characters on a white background allow for various reading variants and associations. – And the viewers can let their eyes wander through Gomringer’s forest of letters as one walks through blown leaves in autumn.

Ian Hamilton Finlay

Other interesting designers:

My concrete poetry experimentations

What is your strategy?
Knowing your strategy is an important learning outcome for this
module. Even if you don’t feel able define or conceive a strategy – that
is to say, identifying what you’re seeking to do to/with the material at
hand, or how you might practically archive a specific goal – before
you begin working (which is not at all unusual), it will be important
for you to record your reflection on what may be at stake in the work
retrospectively, as you work and after you complete the poem.
What media could you use?
The most innovative use of media can produce the most effective
concrete poetry. Take some time to consider what exactly could be
used; a media’s not conventionally being associated with typographic
design (such as photography) might lead to interesting innovations.
What are the deeper questions at stake?
As well as thinking about how you can conduct visual research –
working with different media a techniques to produce innovations – you
may want to stop to consider some of the philosophical implications
of conceptual writing and concrete poetry: What is writing?, Where
do/might we find it? What does writing do? What could writing do?

Extended Project brief: Rethinking the magazine

Lecture notes-

  • Experimenting with magazine design because of redundancy of magazine (because of digital age.)
  • Create a mini monograph magazine
  • anthology of concrete poetry
  • Experiment with this as much as possible
  • Can use given poetry, or make your own. must also include 2000 word essay by Goldsmith. ‘Why conceptual writing- why now’- goldsmith. it is introductionary.
  • playing with type
  • Could produce your own with bookbinding techniques or go with the newspaper club and order from them and they make it for you. (more industry based option) Tabloid, digital, broad
  • Need to work within a grid, will need to be ordered early because of production and delivery time.
  • Choosing bookbinding, you have more time. Own binding- you can print on newspaper paper.
  • Could be helpful to do the newspaper route because you don’t need to think about binding/ format etc. Allow for production time, more than 1 week.
  • Before you start: Make a project plan. (Consider when and how you will proceed.)
  • Research magazine design.
  • early formal experiments- can combine with process book because playing with type. Think early on about production.
  • Due 26th April
  • Magazine/ newspaper/ zine
  • Can open PDF file of text in illustrator
  • Could use just one font. Could include the introductionary paragraphs to each poem.
  • Neat or radical.

My first thoughts are to use rubber letter stamps, label machine, embossed words, staple words, stitched words. To maybe use a different method for each poem or each few poems.

Rubber stamp experiment:

Concrete poem experiments (using labels)

When writing the concrete poem, I used text from a book for my un-creative writing process. In this case, the novel A Man Called Ove.

I approached the exercise like picking lottery numbers: Randomly and from my head.

I counted the number of lines on a page and number of words in a line roughly. I made a note of the number of total pages. I then chose numbers at random for each category, to select 6 words:

I re-arranged these words to form sentences.

I got old my embossing label maker:

I stuck the words in a neat order, which naturally cannot be 100% precise. I chose red for the word ‘change’ to give it emphasis and create a visual pattern.

Scan of the experiment:

The page held against the window on a sunny day:

I was inspired by the adhesive element of the labels. I wondered how I could use a different surface to lay out the words.

The fashion design poster designed by Letman (earlier in this blog post) , shows the idea of using the surface of the body to display text.

I made more labels with the embossing tool, this time using the green tape. I stuck these onto my hand and took photos in different hand positions. (below)

I then opened the images in photoshop, to remove the background from the text.

I used the direct selection tool to select the labels. I copied and pasted them onto a new layer, then deleted the background.

I layered the words from the photos into one image:

I removed the backgrounds of the photos and kept the hands in. I adjusted the photos to greyscale and adjusted the levels:

I used the posterise tool in this image. I like the way the words lead off into the distance, getting smaller gradually.

After taking the photos with the labels on my hand, I stuck the labels onto paper.

I photocopied the labels in colour onto another page. I then turned the paper and photocopied the same labels in black and white onto the page. This meant the words were upside down.

I then used rubber stamps to add the same selection of words onto the photocopy:

I stuck white labels on top of the embossed labels.

I placed this into the printer and photocopied my earlier experiment on top in black and white. (below)

I removed the labels and stuck them to the side of the page:

Un-creative writing

There is text that is seen and text that is read. I will be exploring what text does, rather than what is says.

Dada artists:

The optophonetic of poet Raoul Hausmann, presented by Cecile Bargues (Visual representation of sound poetry).

“I pasted words and sentences together into poems in such a way that their rhythmic composition created a kind of drawing. The other way around, I pasted together pictures and drawings containing sentences that demand to be read.” — Kurt Schwitters

Schwitters’ also wrote sound poems. This is where phonemes are separated and recombined so they are no longer words.

‘Twelve’ poem by Kurt Schwitters

Schwitters also produced drawings using letters. These cannot be read, but instead were to be viewed for their visual quality.

I really like the shapes he creates on the page, in the above poems. The ‘Cigarren’ poem has been designed to be displayed as a long thin line, imitating the cigarette shape.

Concrete poetry is poetry in which the poet’s intent is conveyed by graphic patterns of letters, words, or symbols rather than by the meaning of words in conventional arrangement.

Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith explores ‘Uncreative writing’ in his book with the same name. In this video, he is reading a newspaper article as a ‘contemporary poem’.


Being a reader myself, I have always been fascinated by the beauty of words. The mundane becomes interesting when frame it or combine it in new or random ways.

I particularly like a list. This is one kind of list, my housemate’s shopping receipt from the supermarket:

Sam Winston

In this poster, Winston has cut the words of a story up, and arranged them in lists of alphabetical order.

Winston creates incredibly detailed and intricate artworks using words. In the piece Stolen Dictionary, he cut the words from the dictionary and pasted them in a formation that reflected his own narrative. I like this idea of re-purposing words that have been printed for another purpose.

My Experiments with un-creative writing

My first approach was to collect together random leaflets, flyers, catalogues and an unwanted novel. I then cut out words, but in a loose way. For example, I didn’t want to control the process too much. I wanted the sentences to be a bit random and not make sense completely.

I glued the sentences onto paper and scanned the page:

My second method came as an accident. I had earlier cut words from the green paper. This left rectangular gaps in the paper. When I laid it onto another page of text, certain words showed through. I then continued to cut into the paper, mostly at random, but I had to look at the page underneath to check the gap would show a line of text and not half a line.

I like this formation, because it is not a predictably (left-aligned) arranged text. It can be read in more than one day, decided by the viewer.

Words from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

My third method was to use the random word generator.

I used it to generate singular words, writing them on paper as I went. I then re-arranged the text to an order that made sense to me/ had a better flow:

Blank arrangement

at the revolutionary bridge.

A perfectly palm-sized match.

How to place the text?

How the designer chooses to arrange the text will have an impact on the overall message.

Alignment refers to the way individual elements of a design are arranged. This is commonly seen in text placement- for example, most lines of text in a Microsoft Word document are left-aligned by default, where the text forms a uniform line on the left-hand side.’ (quote found here)

I looked at Modernist design to see how text could be placed within a design.

Kazimir Malevich, An Englishman in Moscow, 1913-14. Painted in what was known in Russia as a Cubo-Futurist style.’

The painting reflect the principles of Cubism. It has an underlying symmetry. The almost random placement of text in this piece, creates a feeling of freedom and playfulness. A more abstract alignment can add a dynamic quality.


A poster for Josef Albers’ Dismountable chair, 1929

The playful curving of text around the corner of the material echoes the curve of the furniture. The edge alignment of text at the top and bottom of the page act as a frame and focus the viewer’s attention to the central image.

A. M. Cassandre, Harper’s Bazaar magazine cover, 1939. ‘This cover playfully exploits Cubism, Purism and Surrealism to create a memorable image of chic modernity.’

Here, the cover lines are aligned around the shape of the mask.

Cover Lines: These are lines of text on the front cover which allows the audience to see what sort of content is within the magazine.’ (

The way the text is tiered makes it ‘step up’ across the cover. This is more fun than if Cassandre chose a right alignment for example.

‘Cassandre’s imagery was so strange that his work looks psychedelic today (the chemical Surrealism of a later time). For an American magazine of this era, his work must have stood out like a big strange thumb.’ (quoted from here)

“During his brief tenure as cover artist for this high-end fashion publication, Cassandre both brought Surrealism into American editorial illustration and depicted the emotional and mental collapse of an entire world as it rapidly disappeared forever.” — Art Chantry

Jan Tschichold

‘In 1927, he joined a group formed by Kurt Schwitters, The Circle of New Advertising Designers. It was this group that formulated the principles of what was proclaimed The New Typography. Although the group had some dialogue with the Bauhaus they kept a distance, possibly for fear that either side might subsume the other’s identity. The New Typography was organised around these principles:

  • asymmetrical balance of elements
  • content designed by hierarchy
  • intentional white space utilisation
  • sans serif typography

(above) The cover of Typographic Mitteilungen: Elementare Typographie, 1925, a trade magazine in which Tschichold introduced the ideas of the Russian Constructivism and The New Typography to Germany’s printers. The content was met with great controversy but was widely adopted.’

(info sourced from)

Russian Constructivism

(right) Gustav Klutsis, ‘Workers, Everyone Must Vote in the Election of Soviets’ poster, 1930. For this memorable image Klutsis used his own hand, repeated many times.

The elements in this poster create diagonal movement. This gives the image a sense of instability and something in motion.

“Constructivism is early Soviet youth movement created by Vladimir Tatlin that was inspired by Cubism, Suprematism and Futurism. It flourished following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and sought to abolish the traditional artistic composition, and replace it with “construction.” Concerned with the use of “real materials in real space”, the movement sought to use art as a tool for the common good, much in line with the Communist principles of the new Russian regime.

The foundation of Constructivism was to express the experience of modern life and to develop a new form of art more appropriate to the democratic and modernizing goals of the Russian Revolution and build a new society.” (info sourced here)

Herbert Matter, Travel poster, 1936

This poster is promoting the Swiss travel industry. Arranging the text at an angle reflects the slope of the mountains and action of the skier in the background. This text arrangement hints at the fun and adventure of the holiday.

Working with scans

scan of the collage
To create this effect, I opened the scan in photoshop and played with the levels. These colours are disturbing. They distort the words and affect the readability of the text.
scan of the collage

When working from the scan, I can achieve many effects. The image is restricted in that the placement will remain the same as when I manually stuck the pieces on the paper. However, I have the option of moving each piece individually by turning the image into a vector on adobe illustrator.

I can then select ‘line art’ ‘technical drawing’ and other options to change the appearance of the line.

I opened the scan in adobe illustrator. I transformed the scan into a vector image, by clicking ‘Object’ > ‘Expand’. This was the result.
I then selected ‘pathfinder’ > ‘outline’ > stroke 2 pt.
Because the image is now a vector, I was able to ungroup it, take the letters apart, or distort each letter, as above. I stretched the ‘u’ and ‘a’.

I experimented with bitmapping the image. After opening the image in photoshop, I then converted it to greyscale >bitmap > diffusion dither. This was the result:

‘Diffusion dither’
Diffusion dither, then ‘invert’ flips the image to the negative version.

Some effects affect the readability of the text. I opened this scan in adobe illustrator and turned it into a vector.

image trace > technical drawing> stroke increase> outline>
reversed the fill:

I liked the look of the word ‘substitutions’, but the other words are mostly unreadable.

The word ‘substitutions’ reminded me of this modernist style by the design duo Sawdust:

Legibility and readability are not the same thing. The degree to which a typeface is legible is entirely dependent on the designer of the typeface, whereas readability is largely the province of the typographer. Legibility is the degree to which individual letters can be distinguished from each other. Generally, the most legible typefaces are those with larger, open or closed inner spaces.’

Readability refers to the ease of reading text. ‘the reader should not normally be aware of the activity of reading at all.’

‘The ability to read quickly and to be able to select in order to use time efficiently depends very much on the order and arrangement of type being normal. Surprises are disruptive to the mechanics of reading.’