I My Feet: Poems and Constellations
Selected and translated by Rosmarie Waldrop
ISBN: 1-886224-75-7, 2004
Burning Deck, Ltd., $10
Ezra Pound could not have anticipated the extent to which his 1908 characterization of the Chinese ideogram as a medium for poetry would lead. But, it is with Pound via Ernest Fenollosa where the idea of a visual and concrete poetry—a reduction of the poem to a sign or ideogram—would begin taking shape in 20th century poetics and, eventually, become the building block of one of Modern poetry’s most radical experiments. Concrete poetry, as it has come to be called, involves an exploration of language where the "material" of the poem is privileged above all else. The "material" for the concrete poet involves the sonic quality via phonemes and syllables, as well as the visual and optic via letters. Through a direct exploitation of typography, white space, shapes, sound and the visual landscape of the page, concrete poets attempt to evoke sensations, concepts, and ideas, while also rejecting poetry of expression and subjectivity. This new selection and translation of poems, I My Feet: Poems and Constellations, by one of the foremost concrete poets writing in German, Gerhard Rühm, demonstrates the way in which language can access multiple points of sensory media in “a constellation of words” and objects, as Rühm himself noted in 1964. The book is volume 7 of Burning Deck’s DICHTEN series, which highlights current German language poetry in English translation.
It is apropos that Rosmarie Waldrop chose to select, translate and compile Rühm’s work today; i.e. in an age where intermedia texts and art installation rule the day. Rühm’s poetry exhibits a confluence of mediums: the phonic and typographic transformations of Dada, the composition of visual poetry, the multi-dimensionality of Bauhaus, the displacement of grammatical structure as in Gertrude Stein, and the phonemic transcriptions of Futurism. Trained in musical composition and Oriental music, it is clear that Rühm has been as obsessed with sound as he is with the possibilities that emerge from the visual image and from silence. In one constellation, he writes “leafleafleafleafleafleafleafleafleafleafleafleafleaflea,” and in the next:
His word play challenges meaning via shifts within the word itself, while calling attention to the way in which slight phonemic modifications, collisions, or separations challenge morphemic and semantic constructions. The reduplication of verbal patterns is characteristic of Rühm’s work—at least in one modality—and demonstrates his attempt to use conventional language to articulate something other than what it normally signifies. That is, these poems construct a “spatially articulated language” that points toward the very limitations of the words themselves. In a later poem, Rühm calls attention to the musicality of language via traditional sonic devices like alliteration: “WARY we walk WOODS we walk very quickly next to one another WALL.” However, for Rühm, this traditional poetic device becomes a challenge to meaning itself: “WAKE away from one anWOODSother we WADDwalkLE toward WARM one anWALLother WAIT.” The alliterative “w” sound is emphasized for its purely sonic quality, but it is also a challenge and subversion of conventional expectations regarding the musical quality in poetry.
Rühm, like most concrete poets, “seeks to relieve the poem of its centuries-old burden of ideas, symbolic reference, allusion and repetitious emotional content; of its servitude to disciplines outside itself as an object in its own right for its own sake.”1 Through optic and phonetic displacements, he calls attention to language as an object in and of itself. In the opening poem, a heart in the left place: cool poetry, he writes:
like a modem
is that mormal?
I hop you believe me
or I’ll have to hope up and down
Once again, the material aspects—the ‘objectness’—of the language are emphasized via alliteration, assonance, consonance, phonetic play and syntactic reconfigurations. But, more complexly, Rühm calls attention to the linguistic aspect of the poem and subverts our expectations of what a poem, as product, should be.
In another modality, Rühm exploits the visual and optic qualities inherent in language and, thereby, calls attention to the tangible image of letters. The images he reproduces on the page are what Scottish concrete poet, Ian Hamilton Finlay has called “the language of movement within.” In this sense, the images become a replication or representation of the experience of language in and through the body. The language seems to disappear behind the words, and the signs exist as a sort of scaffolding of consciousness. These visual experiments create a poetry of surface that emerges on the page as a hieroglyphic or alphabet of the self, reflecting on language qua language. However, it is a self that is a construction via the material aspects of language, not the self one imagines in a ‘lyric I.’
In section II of the book, Text Pictures, the visual poems exist in a liminal and dialectical space; i.e. an emerging tension between negative and positive, light and dark in the process of becoming. Some of the pictures present a black background with text in white, while others do the reverse. One such frame is a black square with the letter “i” in various sizes, dripping vertically down the center of the page. On the previous page is the letter “n” and “u” running horizontally across a landscape of white. However, Rühm has constructed it in a way so the page appears cut in half and the letters thus become a mirror image of the other. The poem becomes its own negation and exists on and because of the surface that makes its possible.
In a note at the end of the text, Waldrop writes “the world is language for Rühm, the dictionary is its body, and the alphabet its backbone” (119). His close attention to language demonstrates that his radical experiments are in many ways the precursor to what Waldrop calls the “linguistic turn” in the avant-garde. One can see his influences in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry as well as Oulipo. In a sense, Rühm offers a different, but equally radical, linguistic trajectory than a figure like Gertrude Stein. Whereas Stein offers a break with meaning though grammatical and syntactical disruption—among other devices—Rühm offers a break with dominant assumptions through different possible registers of meaning. Both deal with a rupture of structures and forms, but Rühm seems to hold onto an ontological notion of reality—i.e. a concrete—that needs to be disrupted in order to destabalize erroneous or static perceptions of the self or reality. Rühm’s fascination with the relationship between experience and cognition, coupled with his obsession for phonetic and syntactic patterns, exemplifies his divergent impulses. In section IV, Albertus Magnus, Rühm journeys through the alphabet, constructing a narrative that challenges conventional narrative structure. In this poem, the competing energies of language, via the alphabet, collide and are interwoven with the history of Magnus, whose body is relegated to a “cult of relics” in the Catholic Church. Rühm seems to suggest that, like the body, language decays and disappears, but there is something that remains and brings presence to both being and the language that encapsulates it. Magnus is at once a body in decay and embodied by language.
If Rühm’s world is language, it is a language that meanders and strolls through the conceptual and congnitive, hand-in-hand with the material. And, the reader walks with him, imagining and witnessing what is said and what has potential to be said:
i could say other things
about other things (13).
1 Solt, Mary Ellen. Concrete Poetry: A World View . Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1968.