After a couple of times through the exhibition "Robert Lax and Concrete Poetry," it may be a good idea to read some Wordsworth.
Concrete poetry, if you don't happen to know, is as anti get-out-and-get-under-the-moon poetry as it can be. If metered poetry is a flower, concrete poetry is the slab of dry earth beneath. If free verse is talk from the gut, concrete poetry is a preposition made in a space between mind and eye.
Concrete poetry -- to get as purple-prose-ish about it as possible -- is the word stripped naked, torn from its happy home in literature and forced to stand bolt upright on the harsh stage of the white page.
The words stamped out on the pages in this exhibition sometimes seem emissaries from some more perfect land where spiritual things can take tangible form. Other times, when the message stumbles, they seem like arrogant automatons that have been self-programmed for nothing more than clever witticisms.
Lax himself seems best when he holds back, not quite revealing his full intentions. For instance, his simple squares of typewritten numbers may seem a poor man's tantric magic square. But these numbers are brought rudely back to earth by the primitive typewriter that created them. Likewise, the rows of red and blue rectangles that make up "Another Red Red Blue Poem" look important, like a high-minded abstract painting, but could just as well be some kind of computer coding.
Lax's commissioned work "red red blue" has a tougher time of it. Here, he uses perfunctory script and arranges "red," "yellow" and "blue" in narrow vertical rows typical of the poet. The work presumably intends to invite a contemplative approach. But it never happens. The overriding decorative effect prevents it.
Overall, the concrete poetry on display here is strongest when it accomplishes a simple exchange of meaning between word and graphic presentation. Notable examples are Ian Hamilton Finlay's "King," Emmett Williams' vacu-formed piece, and a number of works from the '50s by Eugen Gomringer and other early pioneers of of concrete poetry. Many of these poets stick to page-size works and work out spare interaction between relatively few words. Often sound, appearance and a subterranean idea are unobtrusively dovetailed or set in unobtrusive tension.
The closer the poems come to standard abstraction, the less successful they usually are. When the words are buried in a complex structure or given up entirely to interrelating geometric forms, they become more strictly visual experiences. The peculiar brevity of concrete poetry seems at odds with the more flexible space of painting and the other "pure" visual arts.
UB's extensive collection of concrete poetry has never been shown publicly before. That fact alone makes this an exhibition of great historical importance. It is the first chance to consider this body of poems in anything like a comprehensive way. The show, conceived by Burchfield Director Anthony Bannon, was curated by Nancy Weekly, the center's Charles Cary Rumsey Curator.
Robert Lax and Concrete Poetry
The Chemical Bank Annual
Visual poetry centered around the work of Olean-born Robert Lax, with additional works from the holdings of the University at Buffalo's Poetry/Rare Book collection. Included are works commissioned from Lax, Ian Hamilton Finlay and bill bissett.
Burchfield Center, Buffalo State College, through Jan. 20.