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LETTERS IN space? In his intriguing essay on the function and history of the visualized word, British art historian Clive Phillpot recalls the letters on the sides of rockets: USA, NASA, CCCP, BOCTOK and countless others that both signify something beyond themselves and at the time are wholly decorative, serving no immediate purpose.

"This propulsion of the visualized word into space," writes Phillpot, "might be taken to symbolize the way in which letters have escaped from captivity in this century."

The "visualized word" is one which, to quote Phillpot again, has "not only escaped into space and into our immediate environment . . . (but) from the carefully plowed furrows of the printed page and from the straightjacket of orthodox type styles."

Letters that once knew their place (inscribed in stone, painted onto fascias, or written on paper), are all over the place today. It is a phenomenon so familiar to the "commodified subjectivities" we have become, that it is necessary to point out that there was a time in our not so distant past when letters and words did not appear on our clothing; in gaseous clusters spewn across the sky by airplanes; on vehicles of transportation; on bottles, buildings, billboards or carved into our hair.

As words became part of our environment, they took on associative meanings outside their standard figuration. And artists and writers began to formulate methods to visually analyze their architecture.

Thus concrete poetry or visual poetry was born. You may never have heard of concrete poetry, but once you see it, its references and influences will not be wholly unfamiliar. And you'll get your chance throughout December and January as the Burchfield Art Center and UB's Poetry/Rare Book Collection present simultaneous exhibitions that constitute one of the most extensive examinations of this art form presented in the United States.

Concrete poetry takes many and varied forms, but characteristically arrays letters visually to represent processes or abstract relationships. Put more simply, concrete poetry employs language as material for visual art.

Michael Basinski, a Western New York poet who will have his work exhibited at the Burchfield, offers a fine example of the form in his description of his poem "Selected Gods," which presents the names of gods from the prehistoric through the present as something of a performance text. That is, the names, which are arrayed in geometric shapes on the page, are intended to be read aloud. One section of the piece incorporates images of the cave animals of Lascoux and a vocalization of their image/names leads to what Basinski calls "an awakening of the great goddess."

Letters, of course, and the words composed of them, have hopped out of their orthodox roles in other centuries as well as in our own. The visualized word in the form of concrete poetry was published in France as early as the 1520s and has appeared there with some frequency ever since.

Once considered impure

Concrete poetry was originally considered an impure form, suitable only for the production of amusing effects. Its name in French, jeux d'esprit, translates idiomatically as "witticism." Nonetheless, when a non-mimetic visual poem by Stephane Mellarme -- "A throw of the dice won't ever abolish chance," was published in a prominent French literary journal in 1897, it took the literary world by storm.

Appollinaire took up his pen to champion the jeux d'esprit and began composing visual poems of his own. The Dadaists went on to produce visually unorthodox verses using repeating lines in different type, geometric stanzas, huge headlines. Striking poster-poems showed up in the 1930s, and after a hiatus, the form reappeared in postwar Europe as "letterism," "hypergraphies," "hyperletterism," "kondretionen," "spatialism," "calligrammes."

Words 'atomized'

Not content to arrange type, the poets "atomized" words into letters, then parts of letters in a form of minimalist concrete poetry. Others produced puns that were both literary and visual -- concretions of some abstract principle.

New magazines like Inter and Doc that were devoted to concrete poetry sprang up in the early 1950s. Today they call themselves "zines" and carry names like MaLLife, Badnewz and Red Lines. They continue the exploration of the no man's land between word and image that has given birth to performance poetry, and high-tech visual art like the concrete minimalist poems of Jenny Holtzer, the U.S. representative at the 1990 Venice Biennale.

The Burchfield-UB collaboration features examples of virtually every permutation on this art form known to man. The exhibition opened on Friday with a reception at the Burchfield, but its twin reception in UB's Poetry Collection will take place on Tuesday.

The exhibits will present a broad range of work produced in the 20th century, much of it during the 1980s -- and each venue has a flavor of its own.

The Burchfield has chosen to center its efforts on an exploration of the history and visual aspects of concrete poetry as an art form. It focuses on the work of renowned poet/artist and former Olean resident Paul Lax, whose work has been published widely and shown extensively in Europe, although far less frequently in this country.

Some of the broadsides exhibited at the Burchfield are from the UB Poetry/Rare Book Collection, whose holdings include one of the largest, most comprehensive public collections of concrete poetry in the United States.

Concurrent with the Burchfield exhibit, the Poetry Collection will present the first comprehensive survey of work in this form from its collections. The UB exhibition opening on Tuesday will include broadsides and scores of small-press publications, usually the original publishers of this material. Included here is the work of the original European founders of the movement as well as second-generation poets like Emmett Williams, bp nichol, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Franca Zoccoli.

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