Something I’ve heard said a lot: “concrete poetry isn’t really poetry”.
Wrong. Poetry is the negotiation of language over a set space, engaging with a myriad of potential stylistic and representational concerns and options, to bring about some kind of reflection on a theme or themes. Concrete poetry appeals to some different rules, but most definitely engages with all of the above.
This week I’m going to look at one of my favourite proponents of the style. Seiichi Niikuni (1925-1977) was a Japanese poet responsible for bringing Concrete poetry to the foreground of Japanese literature. Though sadly not celebrated during his own lifetime, Niikuni’s work has been more recently rediscovered and analysed, and placed at the head of the international avant-garde concrete poetry movement. He started out as a lyric poet, but moved to Concretism as a better way of expressing what he really wanted to do in his work.
Things that Niikuni likes: Visual and aural representations in poetry, use of calligraphy, layers of meaning, working within the entire ‘field of the page’. Themes are language orientated, also representations of life, death, sex and nature. Very interested in surrealism and existentialism, questioning the meanings of words and metaphors, stripping words down to their barest forms and reappropriating meaning into poetry constructed out of shapes and sounds. In his calligraphic poetry (some examples on this post) he focuses on kanji of various sizes, with a special emphasis on spaciality.
Things that Niikuni doesn’t like: As a concrete poet, Niikuni places great emphasis on the sparseness of what is put on the page. At the same time, meaning must be densely packed: there is no room for hollow or inefficient words. Poetry that is unconscious of its sounds or excessive in its construction is avoided.
Some cool things about Niikuni’s poetry: All of Niikuni’s poems are written in Japanese, but recent editions include a translation key at the bottom of each page, so that readers can interpret the breakdown of each kanji for themselves. Each poem operates as a piece of visual art, as well as literary art, and each poem also has musical qualities. Kanji are particularly suited to being used in concrete poetry, since they can be read from all directions, and make sense even when scattered across a page or standing alone. However, some of the word plays going on in each poem require firmer knowledge of the original Japanese text in order to get the most from the piece.
Some good poems: My favourite poem is “Rain”, in which the kanji for rain visually appears to be a small house in the middle of a rainstorm, with “droplets” of rain created by the interior parts of the original kanji. The poem invokes ideas of fragmentation, division between nature and language, but also a sense of peaceful engulfment. “基” uses two kanji – 土: land, earth – and 基: foundation, base. The poem is visually very striking, and brings to mind rows of memorial markers stretching into the horizon, with the kanji for “foundation” appearing only minutely in the background. The vastness of the natural world, with hints to its connections with life/death, and the very small “human” base element are central to this work.
I would recommend getting hold of a copy of Seiichi Niikuni’s Zero-On or his most recent edition of collected works, plus a Japanese-English dictionary. Very fun stuff!