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In avant-gardes verbal iconism is complicated by orality that adds to it the flatus vitae of gesture, a characteristic and peculiar aspect of these movements: the word is gesture on the page and at the same time diction, in a surprising return of theatrics  analogous to that of baroque Mannerism.

Therefore this chapter dealing with verbal iconism in avant-gardes will go step by step with the one about orality, that is with sound poetry.

Already in “The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman” (1760-67) by Laurence Sterne,  typing oddities visibly stress the rhythmic variations of the story: a blank page, another one black, a marbled one, chapters often of one sentence only, whole passages that are replaced by asterisks, sometimes the author  breaking up on a comma, or offering a whimsical pictography. Here the graphic solutions have the function of making visibly evident the conventional character of literary forms and in actual fact also of the social ones, revealing their contradictions and absurdities (see Glossary, “The hidden word”)


                                   Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés”


But it is with Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés” that, as Paul Valéry wrote “il me sembla de voir la figure d’une pensée pour la première fois placée dans notre espace. Ici véritablement, l’étendue parlait, songeait, enfantait des formes temporelles” so much as to make evident the “subdivisions prismatiques” of the idea”.

Beyond the verse, the simultaneous vision moves onto the surface of the page “Cette page est prise pour unité comme l’est d’autre part le vers ou ligne parfaite” (Mallarmé).”

Consequently the text becomes a sort of canon for seven voices, each of which distinguished by the character and by the body of the type. The first voice consists actually in the title of the poem, that is “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard”. Secondary or adjacent motives cut through it pursuing one another from one page to the other till the conclusion of the poem as in a fugue by Bach.

For Mallarmé the text of the poem is a hazard conquered word by word and this randomness remains as a contribution to its being made true. One may suppose that “Coup de dés may be only a fragment of a much more complex work that the author left largely unfinished, the “Livre” on which the poet worked from 1875 to 1898, 23 long years of lucubrations in search of a text that could be organized as a total show. Of it there are extant 202 slips of paper that in some way are forerunners of the future and which Henri Mondor preserved and Jacqueline Cherer published in 1957. The poem was to have consisted in mobile pages that an audience of spectators-readers would interchange thus becoming co-authors: it was to have been the project of  a modular poetry whose author was going to be the audience, while the poet would keep for himself the role of operator.  Lastly the probable textual reality of this surprising and unfortunately phantom project was not to be limited by the page but getting out of it, would have expanded to other forms of art, such as the drama, mime, dance and even music. (about “Coup de dés” see Glossary, s.v. “The theatre of the word”)

Music? Why, not. A pupil of Mallarmé, René Ghille,  pen-name of René Guilbert (1962-1925) carries to their extreme consequences the canons of symbolistic poetry in his essay “De la poésie scientifique” (1909); elaborating the conception of “verbal instrumentation” based on the exploitation of the intrinsic musicality of vowels and consonants. It is almost inevitable to call to mind the analogy with the ideas expressed by the futurist Luigi Russolo in his essay “L’arte dei rumori” (the art of noises) (1916) where, dealing with the sound qualities of language he states that “in language  vowels represent sound, while consonants undoubtedly represent noise; and that “language  has a wealth of timbres unknown to the orchestra and this might prove that nature itself when it intended to enrich and increase the timbres of that magnificent instrument which human voice is, resorted to the timbres of noises…For centuries poets didn’t know how to use properly that very effective means of expression which language is.” We are, as you can see, on the treshold of an adequate theorizing of that new form of art that is sound poetry, which, on the other hand was coming into its own with the futurist dynamic and synoptic declamation.


Poetic Orphism


At the end of the Nineteenth Century and the beginning of the Twentieth, within the avant-gardes the argument about the new forms of poetry became divided into two vast perspectives, iconic on the one hand and phonic on the other, that is into visual and phonic poetry.

On the latter the argument was open by orphic simultaneism, particularly with the theory and subsequent practice of Henri Martin Barzun, Fernand Divoire ands Sebastien Voirot ( see “The poetry of orality” and for the pictures, the Glossary).

More  or less in the same years, Italian futurism propounded a different but not conflicting form of poetic expression with parole in libertà. Both in poetic Orphism and in parole in libertà, other systems take the place of verse: for Orphism a number of voices translated into scores to be read in manyfold simultaneousness as, mutatis mutandis, in musical scores; for futurism a form of typographical expressionism, at times also simultaneous for which writing optophonically mimes the act of speaking. In both cases the example of the “Coup de dés” as breakthrough action of a thousand year old lyrical tradition becomes evident.

In the chapter dealing with poetic orality we will speak more at length on both suggestions. Here we are more directly interested in throwing into relief the iconic consequences of these revolutions. The fundamental example of simultaneism is a work which is paradoxically still unpublished, “Orpéide,universel poème”  by M. Barzun; which in 1914 was to all intents and purposes completed but which, owing to a set of circumstances, the last but not least of which was the break of the first world war, was not immediately published. In 1927, at the theatre Art et Action, directed by Madame Lara and by her husband Autant, future parents of the famous producer Claude, the poem was performed with scenery by the music painter Henri Valensi and on that occasion the whole work was exhibited in a manuscript version of 250 20x50 cm tables drawn up by  Barzun’s son,  Jacques, the historian, who later, in 1922, made a typed copy of it which is now preserved at the Library for rare books and manuscripts of  Columbia University. (P: see Glossary).

It consists of 422 pages divided into 7 episodes-frescoes of various lengths, from 40 to 88 pages, and each of these frescoes has a visual structure of its own. This structure can be completely perceived by lining up in one succession only,  making 7 gigantic visual poems, that begin with a unisonous choral movement of voices. Voices, that little by little increase in number, then breaking the unison into more complex movements. Every page presents, aligned in the vertical, as in a musical score, several simultaneous voices, from 2 to 18.

Often, around one voice, which has the function of principal voice, other voices act, sometimes diluting the words into onomatopoeias and in any case giving rise to a plurality of expressions connected with one another.

From the point of view of the theme, the Orphéide is an epic poem and the 7 cantoes represent the stages of the eternal journey of human progress which is renewed throughout the various epochs. The conception, the building and the journey of the airship Atlas represent the social evolution of Man. Atlas’journey first around the earth and then among the constellation of the Cosmos make up the fantascientific side of the work. The fatal fall in the epilogue refers to Milton’s Lucipher myth and suggests the identification Prometheus- Lucipher as symbolic image of human destiny. The eternal cyclical return of events  is connected to the myths of the seasons, such as those of Proserpine and of Osiris. 

The voyage of the airship is graphically rendered by two groups of voices, one written in the top part in the succession of the pages and the other bottom of the page. While at regular intervals a series of columns made up of words acts as a bridge between top and bottom representing particular moments of the story. Two episodes in particular are spectacular. The one in which the airship, by now launched into sidereal space, where it wanders as if it had lost its bearings, remains suspended in a silence in which man becomes god-like among the various constellations; and the one, in the final canto where, because of his excessive presumption, the man-airship plummets down and crashes on a sphinx-shaped rock, solely composed of words, in a whirlwind of shapes that call to mind certain pictures of vortexes and circles by Delaunay; he too, by the way, a simultaneist painter.

One of the reasons that for a long time prevented the publishing of the work, was the difficulty of printing a text composed by words wheeling about in the space of the page (for pictures, see Glossary).

Fernand Divoire, instead, is the author of “Exhortation à la victoire”, a poem published on “Poèmes et drames” in 1913, which has several simultaneist moments clasped together by braces. (P.1)

Also in such a libretto-like form in Sebastien Voirot’s simultaneist poem “Le sacre du Printemps” was published  in 1913 a few months after the performance of Stravinskij’s very famous ballet (P.2).

Two more short simultaneist essays by Voirot, “Ladies in the wind” and the ballet “Tahi-nui”, later than 1913, appear to be unpublished.  The originals, now at the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris, are manuscripts and are written in several colours, aiming at differentiating characters and states of mind. Unfortunately with time the colours, probably in china ink, have partly faded .

A fourth simultaneist author, Nicolas Beaudouin, who already in 1911 had been the promoter of the “Paroxisme” movement, published on his review “La vie des lettres” (1922-1923) a series of  “Poèmes Synoptiques sur plusieurs plans”, where by “plans” he means various moments of simultaneousness with two or more voices and whose graphic look accurately translates the succession of the various moments. (P.3)



In Marinetti’s great parolibero poem “Zang tumb tuum” (1914) the magmatic state of the expressive matter is dealt with by two main techniques: the montage by intersection of states of mind and many–voiced simultaneousness. The former is particularly evident in the finale of the second chapter “Mobilitazione”, that is in the “Carta sincrona”, where synaesthetic verbal effects are also at play: “Uomo di silenzio dorato” (man of golden silence), “Cascata di suoni verdeggianti” (a cascade of verdant sounds), “Parabola stanca di suoni azzurri” (weary parable of azure sounds), “Pozzanghere di rumori sporchi” (puddles of soiled noises).

We find another superb example of montage in the chapter “Contrabbando di guerra” (Rotterdam), rendered with the brilliant device of drawing up a sort of balance sheet of the states of mind, imitating the pattern of a double entry book-keeping ledger (P.4). The simultaneist technique, derived from Barzun, is present both in the first chapter "Correzione bozze+ desideri in velocità" and in the two final pages of the “Ponte”, chapter where 8 voices express in synchrony widely different states of mind (P.5).

In “Zang tumb tuum” the visual aspect and the phonic one are intimately connected by the very lively rendering of the “Tipografia libera espressiva” (free expressive printing) , which acts on the page by miming step by step a viva voce reading .

The eye runs on along a ceaseless series of alterings of the characters and bodies of the types, that suggest a great variety of possibilities of uttering one’s voice, from fortissimo to pianissimo, in an authentic system of notations for the voice (P.6). In a manifesto Marinetti had also envisaged the use of colour, which he was actually to use, later, in the so-called “Litolatta ovvero parole in libertà futuriste olfattive tattili termiche” (Litolatta or futurist parole in libertà, olfactive, tactile, thermic) (1932). Among the other futurists ,remarkable for their interest in the iconic aspect of the word, we can list Balla, Buzzi, Jannelli, Boccioni, Carrà, Cangiullo, Depero, Soffici and many others.

Balla’s few examples are interesting because of the graphic rendering of noise effects, such as the line-o-type (1914) (P.7) or his “Sconcertazione di stati d’animo, sintesi teatrale” (disconcerting of states of mind, a theatre synthesis), where four different people, differently clad, simultaneously act on the stage different gestures and utter different exclamations. (P.8)

Guglielmo Jannelli, particularly in the poems published on “Lacerba” in 1914, as “Manovre di notte moderna”, proves to be the most rigorous follower of Marinetti’s parolibere style and ,as in Cargiullo’s “Fumatori” of the same date and in his “Serata in onore di Yvonne”, introduces within his parolibere patterns of calligramme that will not be ignored by  the Apollinairs of  the “Calligrammes”.

And it was actually the Neapolitan writer Francesco Cangiullo the one who was to be the most consistent in the work of evolution from parole in libertà towards the so-called “Tavole parolibere”. In “Piedigrotta” (1916) every page becomes a parolibera table complete in itself, even though it participates in the sequence of the whole text: every page is a pyrotechnic explosion of grapho-phonic gags, in strict analogy with the celebrated Neapolitan festival (P.10 and 11).

A four hand manuscript signed Balla-Cangiullo “Palpavoce” (1914) represents in a space shaped like a stairwell, the banister, onomatopaeically interpreted as the thread, through which the sound runs (trachea=passamano=palpavoce) (P. 12) (the play on words is untranslatable).

In  1918 Cangiullo published “Caffè concerto, alfabeto a sorpresa”, consisting in a series of variety acts entirely made up by the letters of the alphabet and other type symbols; a show of pure type mimics in composing images constructed with skilled and witty clusters of letters (P. 13 and 14).

Lastly in 1923 Cangiullo published his “Poesia pentagrammata”, where he joins the word to musical notations, matching the natural intonation of the spoken word with moments of musical intonation, in a sort of sui generis Sprechgesang (P.15).

Paolo Buzzi is the author of “L’ellisse e la spirale. Film+parole in libertà” (1915), a book  consisting in a series of calligrammes, each enclosed in a geometric figure of its own,  trapezoidal, or many-triangular or circular or parable-like and concluding by an ellipse. If one chooses to consider it a novel, it is certainly a matter of a novel by verbal images of violently anarchical tendency, a sharp contrast between the iconic stiffness and the chaotic verbal subversion (P.16).

In his “Rarefazioni e parole in libertà” (1915) Corrado Govoni joins futurist elements, such as the introduction of the aesthetics of the machine with a personal use of parole in libertà, by inserting calligramme-like episodes (“Mendicanti”, “Pecore”, in “Pallone frenato” or again “Fresca fucileria della pioggia”, Mare” in “Paesaggio+ mare=primavera”)  with stylemes of the crepuscolare school of poetry, that is with worn-out tools of “buone cose di pessimo gusto” (the good things in very poor taste – a quotation from the Italian poet Guido Gozzano: N.o.T.) and intimistic moods or outdated and dusty interiors as in “Camera sentimentale”. (P. 17)

With some other visual texts, published on “Lacerba” in 1914, the little book “BIF § ZF + 12 simultaneità e chimismi lirici” (1919), Ardengo Soffici offers his own contribution to  parolibera verbal iconicism. Perhaps  the two most characteristic pages are “Buffet di stazione”  and “Tipografia” (printing works): in the latter text four clusters of letters and printing symbols, thrown at random on the page, are commented by a kind of hymn to the art of printing. (P.18)

The painter Fortunato Depero in his book-machine “Depero futurista” (1927) and in his “Verbalizzazioni astratte” gives the futurist tavole parolibere a plastic compactness where the text is graphically constructed in precise geometric shapes. (P.19).

Of Pino Masnata’s futurist calligrammes we have already spoken in the chapter on Calligrammes and so we have about those by Nelson Morpurgo (“Il fuoco delle piramidi”, 1923).

The “Tavole panoramiche” (from 1924 onwards) by Bruno Sanzin from Trieste have some unusual qualities; in them the alphabet is used to build up a landscape in a few strokes: for instance, in “Case” the four letters that compose this word are sufficient to represent a building and the same goes for his panoramic “Treno che esce da una galleria” (a train coming out of a tunnel) or “Albero” (a tree). (P. 20)




In Russia Aleksej Krucenych, one of the two creators of the “Zaum Transmental Language” has left us a number of  handwritten books, where his own zaum poems are placed side by side with  works by some painter friends of his, such as Malevic or Olga Rozanova (“Pomata” and “Esplodità”, 1913) (P.21 and 22).

The poet Vassilij Kamenskij in the years 1914-17 created a small series of interesting “Poems in ferro-concrete”, that is verb compositions constructed by clusters of words inserted the ones into the others as in a picture of analytical cubism; as in “Constantinopolis”, “Aerodrom” (1914) or in “Tango with the cows”, “Sun”  and “Tiflis” (1917), the last of these compositions freer in their structure. These texts might be defined as microcalligrammes woven one next to the other (P.23, 24, 25).

Another Russian author who developed Zaum is Iliazd (Ilia Zdnavevic) by polyphonic texts of verbal chords and discords, graphically rendered in terse structure, where the many-voiced moments are rendered by overlapping letters: thus in the “dra” (drama) “Donkey for hire” of 1919 or in “LedentU come un fAro” of 1923. (P. 26 and 27) 


The patterns of nonsense and the protodada


The frequent presence of paradox in verbal invention between the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth characterizes the stream of the irrational that runs throughout Victorian English literature by way of reaction to the overpowering conformism. The same   can be said of Germany in reaction to the  Biedermeyer taste and to positivism in general.

Paradox found a place in the guise of nonsense, not only thanks to Edward Lear, but also in the works of many german authors as a way of celebrating thd logic of the absurd. Nor can we forget the works of Lewis Carroll, mathematician and writers for children. It is a tendency that may suggests analogies with the French “fatrasie” of the thirteenth century or with the Italian “burchiellesco” style ( see Glossary under respective entries).

Carroll is also the author of the famous calligramme of the tale/tail of the mouse in “Alice in Wonderland” and of that mental calligramme which is the Cheshire Cat, which disappears slowly except for his grin. The verbal fireworks of Jabbervocky (chapter I of “Through the looking-glass and what Alice found there”, 1871) is of paramount importance.

In Germany Paul Scheerbart and Christian Morgenstern  are authors of the same type. Of the latter we may mention  “Fisches nachtgesang” (The fish’s night song) in “Galgenlieder” (1905) , where the author replaces the verse by the corresponding metric scheme of the prosodic quantity with short and long caesuras, dumb phonetics of visualized silence: “Fishes are dumb and their song can only be expressed by dumb signs” Morgenstern wrote ( see Glossary s.v. “The absent word”)



The patterns of nonsense, of the grotesque and of the absurd abutted in Dadaism, born not by mere chance  in Zurich, in neutral Switzerland, from authors who were escaping from all over Europe because of the immense absurdity of the First World War. The non-sequitur of being becomes the central theme of an international culture, which adopts the inconsequential gesture as the utmost and most extreme emblem. (P.28).

Dada was to begin with an underground and elusive movement which little by little produced a negative aesthetics still predominant.

Tristan Tzara’s “Latent poetry” is born (P.29), carried out by collages of language fragments of incongruous phrases, like “La première aventure céleste de Monsieur Antypirine” (1916) and “Vingtcinq poèmes” (1918). And phonetic poetry is born as well with Hugo Ball (P.30), Raoul Haussmann (P.31) and Kurt Schwitters.

Dadaism appeared like a meteor, promptly swalloed up by surrealism. But by now it had shown that there are no longer any rules and its subtle acid still corrodes every value. From the point of view of poetic iconism, dadaism has developed to the utmost the possibilities of collage (P.32) as space within which various verbo-visual possibilities may vie with one another, though the degree of semantic ambiguity remains high. Another important revelation is the one supplied by the action of chance in the making of the text, see the later  random developments after World War Two by John Cage in music, Re Merce Cunningham in the ballet and Jackson McLow in poetry.



As the foundation of the birth of lettrism in his “Introduction à una nouvelle poòsie et une nouvelle musique” (1947), Isidore Isou,  the founder of the movement,  sets the following reflection: “Baudelaire had elaborated the concept of “specificity” of poetry separating it from activities such as  eloquence, morality, philosophy, psychologism, history, politics; stripped of all this, poetry is pure enchantment and abstract sensuality in the musical perfection of the style and in the “mathematical” exactness of the metaphor”. According to Isou, Baudelaire inaugurates the poetic phase of  ‘chiselling’ – a term which calls to mind that of ‘ornamental’  of Russian critical ascendancy – within a process of intrinsic in-depth study. Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, according to Isou, set some “précisions”, that is some distinctions. Verlaine would like to reduce the sensation to pure sound:     “de la musique avant toute chose”; Mallarmé gives us not the object but the effect that it produces, like the elusive nymphs for the faun that is absence:“Aboli bibelot dinamité sonore”.Valéry, the pupil of Mallarmé, renounce the aspiration to perfection and sets himself the problem of the poetic process, trying to fix its conceptual fluidity and accepting its dissolving.

For Isou Baudelaire overlooks the content in favour of form, Verlaine abandons the poem for the line. Rimbaud destroys the line for the word, Mallarmé condenses it in an obsessive process of contraction of the elements of sense, or reduction to the pure signifier, Tzara destroys the sense and inaugurates the random happening into alogic poetry. Poetry-word devours itself, moves towards musical  abstraction and, still according to Isou, from the chrysalis of the dead word the pure phoneme emerges.

The glossolalic form that is born from it, lettrist poetry, will appropriate not only the phonemes of the ordinary alphabet but also the whole consisting in the International Phonetic Alphabet, integrating it by many other sounds such a breathing,  the smacking of lips, the yawn, coughing, farting and so on, thus giving rise to a whole research on the vibrations of the phonatory apparatus; which, anyway had already been anticipated in “L’arte dei rumori” by Luigi Russolo (1913).

On the other hand Isou, though not being himself a good performer, maintaining that lettrist poems could be declaimed in public auditions, reopened, in the early years after World War Two the argument for sound poetry that had already been given rise to by  French simultaneists, by Italian  futurists, then by the Russian and by phonetic dada poets of the cabaret Voltaire.

Lastly if we carry on to its extreme consequences the statements of Isou, for whom the root of lyricism has its origin in the inarticulate yell, the ultra-lettrists Jean-Louis Brau, Jill Wolman and most of all François Dufrêne  will proclaim the coming of the cri-rythme or improtus of phonematic exasperations.  Let us here mention that already Apollinaire in his poem “La victoire” had written: “O bouches, l’homme est à la recherche d’un nouveau langage auquel la grammaire d’aucune langue n’aura rien à dire… on veut de nouveaux sons…de consonnes sans voyelles, des consonnes qui pètent sourdement…”

Isou propounds as well a musical form built on the human voice not intoned in singing but spoken naturally, where the recitation itself becomes also musical performance. Thus, for instance, Jacques Spacagna will lend his “rocailleuse” voice to a Mass by the concrete musician Pierre Henri. Thus Henri Chopin will be the author of the “Audiopoèmes”, a thick and dense sound paste made up of a number of overlapping noiseds produced by the mouth and by breathing.

Another one of Isou’s ideas will be that of the “Poema afono”. “On fait du silence una matière à travailler”, which will cause a moment’s reflection for the American John Cage.

By propounding since the beginning of the movement the “ipergrafia lettrista”, dominating all the writings existant or to be invented, Isou has given us  curious experiences of “metaphysical novel”, a sort of  “comic strip”  writing, and excellent exmples of graphic painting like his “Commentaires sur Van Gogh” or “Les entretiens avec Jean Cocteau” in which will also try their hands other authors, among whom the lettrist Maurice Lemaitre.

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