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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Robert Sheppard: Bob Cobbing and Concrete Poetry

Bob Cobbing, who died on September 29th 2002, aged 82, was a major exponent of concrete, visual and sound poetry in Britain. Long after its international heyday in the 1960s, he continued to produce visual texts that were also scores for performance, many of them published as booklets by his Writers Forum press, and launched at its associated workshop, which had been meeting in private houses and rooms above pubs since 1954. Both are set to continue operations.

Cobbing was brought up within the Plymouth Brethren. His family ran a business of sign writers. It is tempting to see this literal painting of words as presaging his later work, but it was probably the Brethren’s work-ethic and single-mindedness that left a lasting impression. During the War he was a conscientious objector. Although it has been said that he was a lay preacher at one time, a number of years ago he objected to a piece of mine that spoke of ‘religious’ elements in his work. ‘All my life I’ve been trying to free myself of religion!’ He was given a Humanist burial and is survived by his wife, Jennifer Pike, and his three sons and two daughters from previous marriages.

Trained as an accountant, and then as a schoolteacher, Cobbing began his life-long engagement with arts organising in the mid-1950s, with Group H and And magazine in Hendon, which grew into Writers Forum in the 1960s. After leaving teaching he managed the famous underground shop Better Books, venue of many readings and happenings of the ‘Bomb Culture’, as early Writers Forum poet Jeff Nuttall called those heady days in his book of that title in which Cobbing features. He was a founding member and vice president of the Association of Little Presses, a self-help organisation for poet-publishers like himself. In the 1970s he convened Poets Conference, which campaigned for higher reading fees and for the modernisation of the post of Poet Laureate. He served on the council of the Poetry Society, during a turbulent period in its history (the mid 1970s) marked by Poetry Wars between the mainstream and experimentalists like himself. Cobbing was awarded a Civil List pension for his services to poetry, a fact he never publicised.

Between 1963 and 2002 Writers Forum published over 1000 pamphlets and books, many of them his own work, but he was also generous as a publisher to younger writers of subsequent generations, such as Lee Harwood, Maggie O’Sullivan, Lawrence Upton, Adrian Clarke, Scott Thurston, and myself. He issued texts by John Cage and Allen Ginsberg, and by fellow concrete poets, such Frenchman Pierre Garnier and Italian Arrigo Lora-Totino, both of whom were guests at the workshop in the 1990s when I was a frequent attendee. The sense of permission on these occasions was tremendous, as poets at all stages of their careers tried out new work and worked in collaboration with performers. Books were launched. Beer was consumed. Little advice was given, by Cobbing, other than ‘Read it again, slower, louder!’ It was the opposite of the shred and edit type of creative writing workshop, but somehow the participants knew whether the work they were reading to their attentive peers was successful or not.

Cobbing was a visual artist before he was a poet. His earliest duplicator print of 1942 foreshadows his later work and his interest in the mechanics and accidents of office, rather than fine art, printing. However it was not until 1964 that Cobbing came to maturity with the alliterative sequence ABC in Sound, published the following year. By this time the awareness he had gained of the international concrete poetry movement and the various forms of 1960s interart, meant he gave himself to such experimentation with great energy.

The basic orientation that unites most forms of concrete poetry – in its recent century of experiment – is that it foregrounds, by emphasis or distortion, one or more of the conventional elements of poetic artifice (such as lineation or rhyme and alliteration, or even simply letters and their appearance in books), or their attendant sounds, and concentrates upon the resulting materiality of language. Appropriately, at one time the term ‘abstract’ was as popular as ‘concrete’ to describe this work. The link between the physical signifier and the conceptual signified of other kinds of language is problematized, a particular kind of the suspension of the naturalizing processes that Veronica Forrest-Thomson described in her book Poetic Artifice.
This poetry has been conventionally divided into two types: visual poetry and sound poetry, both of which were practised by Cobbing.

In visual poetry the physical signs of print on paper assume prominence. At its simplest there are the pattern poems of George Herbert or Dylan Thomas.4 The more experimental ‘calligrammes’ of Apollinaire prefigured modernist experiments in words arranged in patterns upon the page, whether it be the characteristic typographical violence of Futurist ‘words in freedom’ (‘ScrAbrrRrraaNNG!’) or the comparative stasis of Gomringer’s word ‘constellations’ (itself a term borrowed from Mallarmé’s influential Un Coup de dés of 1897), such as his ‘silencio’ (the word repeated in rows, though with a ‘silent’ gap in the middle). The Brazilian Noigandes group of the 1950s, the Lettrism of Heidesieck, and the spatialism of Pierre Garnier, suggest the range of visual experiment. There were brief vogues for signalist and semiotic poems (which used signs), and for op, pop and kinetic poems, which textually mimed the procedures of the visual artists who adopted those terms in the 1960s. The huge overprinted panels of Steve MacCaffery’s work of the 1970s, Carnival (a text which had to be partly destroyed to be unfolded for assemblage) contrast with the recent clean typographical devices of Johanna Drucker. The stone and architectural fantasies of Ian Hamilton Finlay, particularly the site-specific works in his temple garden at Stonypath, contrast with the earlier printed word-towers of Furnival’s ‘Temples’. The book-making projects of artist Tom Phillips, particularly his Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, involving the systematic overpainting and isolation of found texts from his original, is analogous to several kinds of concrete poetry. At its most abstract, visual poetry can present fractured signs that barely resemble orthographies, such as dom sylvester houdédard’s 1960s metaphysical and sometimes wordless typewriter designs that Edwin Morgan called ‘typescracts’. Cobbing’s use in the 1970s, by himself and by some of those he has influenced, such as Clive Fencott, Lawrence Upton and cris cheek, of the misuses of printing equipment in which ink, rather than print, becomes the medium, points towards the total integration of text and event in performance writing.

Sound poetry has been divided into poesie phonetique and poesie sonore, in France at least. Phonetic poetry originated, in modern times, with the primitivism of the Russian ‘zaum’ poets and with Kurt Schwitters’ Ur-Sonate (1923-8).This permitted later work such as Ernst Jandl’s ‘niaga/ra fëlle’, or Edwin Morgan’s poems of the 1960s, which work by making sound structures of syllables and words, meaningful or not.

Poesie sonore, such as the work of Frenchman Henri Chopin, resident in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, uses the voice and electronic superimpositions and speed variations to create sound textures, from whispers to bellows. François Dufrêne’s cri-rhythms take this essentially wordless technique one stage further. Some poets use unaided voice; others have used electronics, particularly the Swedish ‘text-sound’ poets, such as Sten Hanson.

Language experiments which do not distend either the visual or the aural might be called, after the work of Polish emigré Stefan Themerson, ‘semantic poetry’. Themerson’s work, such as the semantic poetry translations in his 1949 novel Bayamus, utilizes dictionary definitions of every word to re-write other texts, for example a folk song. Found texts, such as those of Bill Griffiths or Cobbing himself, work by framing an utterance and isolating it. A treated text is not necessarily the opposite of a found text, because both are methods of disrupting already existent texts. A treated text of Cobbing’s in the 1990s, which I quote here to complicate the narrative of his ‘development’ that this chapter might otherwise suggest, the incomplete sequence Life the Universe and Everything, is a hilarious collage taken from various popular science sources which perfectly preserves the dead-pan absurdity of the originals:

Predicting the weather
is one thing
predicting it correctly
is another …
elephants fleas
have a natural length-scale
coastlines don’t.

Cut up, an analogous technique used, more occasionally than supposed, by William Burroughs, himself British-based for a while in the 1960s, was practised by Cobbing as far back as the 1950s. The procedural and permutational works of the Oulipo movement, founded in 1960, and still active, suggests another relationship, one seen in Cobbing’s sideswipe at the inane figurative play of much contemporary British poetry when he generates lines such as ‘rock ’n roll makes me feel like rolypoly/a little lechery makes me feel like spotted dick’ from Liz Lochhead’s ‘a good fuck makes me feel like custard’.

While the exemplary internationalism of the concrete poetry movement must be acknowledged, the rigid distinctions of the French have not appealed to British artists and performers. Dufrêne and Chopin are, according to Cobbing,

very suspicious of using the word so importantly. Whenever I turn to non-verbal sounds, Chopin welcomes me with open arms!... But I go back to the word again, and they tell me the word is finished.


It is not simply Cobbing’s achievement that he has taken the rare route of practising all the forms of concrete and semantic poetry, but it is crucial to his work that his (freestanding) visual poems are always scores for performance. Cobbing has done more than most concrete poets since Zurich Dada to liberate the text from the page into performance contexts - to use all manner of marks as a notation for vocal (and other) performance - yet the page is also a visual text. One of Cobbing’s titles, Sonic Icons, exemplifies the interdependence of the two sides of his work through its appropriate anagram. (This is currently part of the Text Festival Exhibition in Bury, by the way.) Cobbing performed in various ensembles, sometimes with improvising musicians such as David Toop and Lol Coxhill, or dancers, such as Jennifer Pike or Sally Silvers, but often with other poets, such as Bill Griffiths or Lawrence Upton. A group can develop techniques and procedures, possibly even establish provisional conventions of translating marks on the page into sound – even when the ‘text’ is apparently non-linguistic. As Eric Mottram writes, in the introduction to Cobbing’s 13th volume of Collected Poems, Voice Prints: ‘The issue of what images instigate what sounds, and the lengths and tones and volumes of the performance are left to the combined sense of a particular occasion.’ The scores are indeterminate invitations, as in some of the ‘open work’ musical scores Umberto Eco examines in his essay ‘The Poetics of the Open Work’, such as those of John Cage.

Cobbing’s division of labour between performance and self-publishing ensured the unity of his creative project, although the emphasis upon the performative element sometimes obscured his work as a maker of publications and as a publisher. Eric Mottram clearly summarized the ethos of Cobbing's little press, Writers Forum: it ‘stood for high standards of innovative work, inexpensive material production and rapid distribution to a reading public who wished to buy poetry but had restricted budgets’. Indeed it is the most generous and exemplary little press of our time; this ‘cheap and neat’ attitude sets it apart from the exclusivity and rarity of most of the art book market. (The work of the press is best illustrated in its anthology, Verbi Visi Voco; a note in it declared that all of its publications remained in print. Verbi Visi Voco gives some idea of the scope of the press and its associated workshops.)

The ownership of the means of production (at first an office duplicator and then a photocopier) also had implications for Cobbing's own work since, as he put it in 1974, ‘With a visual poem, the printing stage is a vital part of the creative process’. In later work the printing stage became the creative process, since his misuse of machinery matched his ‘misuse’ of language: ‘I do things with the duplicator that Gestetner really get horrified over,’ he said in 1973. Printing is, in effect, performance. The making of books, both in terms of conceptualising them and in terms of producing them, is the making of poetry. For Cobbing it was a source of creative self-renewal.









Non web Notes and Resources

See Page 457 for web-links.

See Bill Jubobe: Selected Poems 1942-1975 (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1976), pp. 102 for the 1942 ‘first duplicatorprint’. Cobbing had a tendency to refunction his early visual pieces as sound poems.

See Art without Boundaries 1950-1970, ed. Gerald Woods, Philip Thompson and John Williams (London: Thames and Hudson, 1972) for an account, and examples of, crossovers between design and art, performance and art, etc, including Cobbing on pp. 88-9. Of artists treated in this chapter it also features Robert Rauschenberg, Stefan (and Franciszka) Themerson and Dom Sylvester Houédard.

Major concrete poetry anthologies are: An Anthology of Concrete Poetry ed. Emmett Williams (New York: Something Else Press, 1967); Concrete Poetry An international anthology, ed. Stephen Bann (London: London Magazine Editions, 1967) Cobbing himself was involved with five anthologies, the first exclusively concerned with the subject: Concerning Concrete Poetry eds. Bob Cobbing and Peter Mayer (London: Writers Forum, 1978); GLOUP AND WOUP, ed. Cobbing (Gillingham: Arc Publications, 1974) Changing Forms in English Visual Poetry – the influence of tools and machines (London: Writers Forum, 1988); Verbi Visi Voco eds. Bob Cobbing and Bill Griffiths (London: Writers Forum, 1992); Word Score Utterance Choreography in verbal and visual poetry, edited by Lawrence Upton and Bob Cobbing (London: Writers Forum, 1998). Anthologies including concrete poetry are the two volumes of Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry, eds. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, (Berkeley: The University of California, 1995/1998). Concrete poetry of various kinds may also be found in Imagining Language: An Anthology, eds. Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery (Cambridge Mass: The MIT Press, 1998).

See Dick Higgins, Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987) for the long history of this form of writing.

For Apollinaire’s ‘Horse Calligram’ see Poems for the Millennium eds. Rothenberg and Joris, Volume 1, p. 119.

For Gomringer see Concerning Concrete Poetry, eds. Cobbing and Mayer, p. 31, and An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, ed. Williams, np. Also Marjorie Perloff, Radical Artifice: Writing in the Age of the Media (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 115-6. Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés may be found in Stephane Mallarmé, The Poems, trans. Keith Bosley (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), pp. 253-97.

For letteriste statements see Cobbing and Mayer, Concerning Concrete Poetry, p. 18. Noigandres are discussed in Perloff, Radical Artifice, pp. 116-7. See also Cobbing and Mayer, Concerning Concrete Poetry, p. 19. There is a spatialist statement by Garnier in Cobbing and Mayer, Concerning Concrete Poetry, p. 23 and p. 34.

For signalist poetry see Concerning Concrete Poetry, eds. Cobbing and Mayer, p. 52. There are two signalist poems in Steve McCaffery, Modern Reading, Poems 1969-1990 (London: Writers Forum, 1992), np.

For early Finlay see An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, ed. Williams, np. He is discussed by Perloff in Radical Artifice on p. 114, and in Alan Young, ‘Three “neo-moderns”: Ian Hamilton Finlay, Edwin Morgan, Christopher Middleton’ in British Poetry since 1970, eds. Peter Jones and Michael Schmidt (Manchester: Carcanet, 1990), pp. 112-24, at pp. 114-119. Furnival’s work may be found An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, ed. Williams, np.and in GLOUP and WOUP, ed. Cobbing, loose cards in folder.

The work of Dom Sylvester Houdédard (the spelling of his first name is inconsistent in texts; the Dom indicates that he was a Dominican friar) is found in most of the British anthologies listed above. See also In Memoriam dsh ed. Cobbing (London: Writers Forum, 1995) which is actually a collection of dsh’s work. See Concerning Concrete Poetry, eds. Cobbing and Mayer, p. 53 for a statement by Houdédard.

See Poems for the Millennium eds. Rothenberg and Joris, Volume 1 p. 224 for Khlebnikov’s zaum poem; p. 323 for Schwitters. A recording of the complete Ursonate by Schwitters has been recently discovered, and is available on CD as Kurt Schwitters, Ursonte, original performance by Kurt Schwitters, WERGO 6304-2, (Mainz, Germany, 1993), and there are several versions on ubuweb.

Jandl in most of the major anthologies; there is larger selection in The Vienna Group: 6 Major Austrian Poets ed. Rosmarie Waldrop (Barrytown: Station Hill Press, 1985), pp. 17-34. ‘Niaga/ra fëlle’ appears on p. 28 in translation and in Word Score Utterance Choreography, edited by Upton and Cobbing. Other works may be heard on the record Sound Texts/?Concrete Poetry/Visual Texts Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1970.

See Morgan, Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1985), and Concerning Concrete Poetry, eds. Cobbing and Mayer, pp. 20-21. See also Morgan’s ‘Into the Constellation: Some Thoughts on the Origin and Nature of Concrete Poetry’, in Essays (Manchester: Carcanet, 1974, pp. 20-34.)

For Chopin hear: ‘Espaces et gestes’ on Sound Texts/?Concrete Poetry/Visual Texts, and Henri Chopin, Audiopoems, Tangent Records, TGS 106 (1971), LP record. See also ‘Throat Power’, 1983, number 2, 1975. (cassette). Chopin’s own print magazine OU often contained records. See Concerning Concrete Poetry, eds. Cobbing and Mayer, p. 47, 56-7.

For Dufrene, see Concerning Concrete Poetry, eds. Cobbing and Mayer, p. 49-50. He speaks of the ‘CRIRYTHME, my desire to create a phonetic poem, beyond any concept of writing, directly on to the tape recorder’. (p.50) Hear ‘Crirythme pour Bob Cobbing’ on Sound Texts/?Concrete Poetry/Visual TextsHear Sten Hanson’s ‘Subface’ on Sound Texts/?Concrete Poetry/Visual Texts

For Stefan Themerson, see On Semantic Poetry (London: Gaberbocchus, 1975). Collected Poems (Amsterdam: Gaberbocchus, 2000). See also Concerning Concrete Poetry, eds. Cobbing and Mayer, pp. 37-42.

See also Eric Mottram, ‘Writers Forum: A Successful Campaign’, in Bob Cobbing & Writers Forum, ed. Peter Mayer (Sunderland: Ceolfrith Press, 1974), pp. 15-24, at pp. 17-19.

Note 2014: For my more recent critical work on form, see here.

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1 comment:

BoleyShuman said...

Dear Mr. Sheppard,

I read your article and thought you might be interested in my work with sound and language. I view spoken sound as movement, the movement of articulators and of textures and overtones. I try to reflect the movements of things in the movements of sound and then weave them with thought and meaning in search of a heightened language. I recently created a web site, and I invite you to look at it, listen to the work on it, and share your feedback. The address is: www.shumandreams.info

Thank you for your time.

Jonathan Albert