Bob Cobbing's "tyger 1" (1971)

Bob Cobbing (1920–2002) was a (if not the) master of concrete and visual poetry. He began working in typewriter and duplicator monotypes (single-run prints) in 1942, sound poems in 1954 and also initiated his press Writers Forum press in 1954 (more on Writers Forum in a forthcoming column). He worked continuously in those forms (and more) until his death in 2002. Cobbing’s influence and notoriety in Canadian poetry peaked under bpNichol’s efforts in the late 1970’s (Nichol published Cobbing’s Sensations of the Retina in 1978 and shepherded his 1976 book bill jubobe: selected texts of bob cobbing, 1942–1975, as edited by Cobbing and Sean O’Huigin, through Coach House Books). His work deserves further, and on-going, exploration.

I plan on returning to Cobbing’s work with some frequency as part of this ‘an irresponsible act of imaginative license’ series, but for the time being, I want to turn my attention to a GLOUP and WOUP, a 1974 collection that Cobbing edited (Kent, UK: Arc Publications, 1974). A extremely difficult collection to find in the 21st-century, GLOUP and WOUP documents the efforts by two geographically distinct groups of visual poets in the UK in the late 1960s/early 1970s: the GLOUcestershire grouP—as represented by Dom Sylvester Houédard (1924–1992), John Furnival (1933–) and Kenelm Cox (1927–1968) and the Westminster grOUP—as represented by Tom Edmonds (1944–1971) and Cobbing himself.

Much visual poetry from the 1960s and 1970s retains a whiff of hippie-like optimism and faith in universal, liberatory, language. Most collections of concrete poetry from this period have not dated well (a problem common to much poetry: it doesn’t date well), and there is often a great deal of repetition between the major anthologies of the time (the best of which can now most easily be found, of course, on ubuweb). GLOUP and WOUP is not immune to these charges, but none-the-less does include some vital, rarely seen, work.

Published in a printed pink gate-fold wrapper, GLOUP and WOUP is a gathering of single-fold poetic statements and introductions along-side a series of roughly 7 ½” square broadsides printed black and white on lovely matte-finish cardstock.

The collection opens with Cobbing’s own 5-poem selection, each of which represents a disparate facet of his varied concrete oeuvre. Typical of his work are dense black overprinted pieces that combine repeated texts, crumpled and distorted page fields and collaged advertising lettering. Its certainly unreasonable to sum up Cobbing’s work in 5 pieces and I know of at least one visual poet who has found that as he’s explored his own practice he was confronted with the fact that Cobbing had covered most bases, exhaustively, more than 50-year prior. Cobbing’s “tyger 1” (1971) is pictured at top-left.

Kenelm Cox is new to me, and his work is machine-centred and focused on the “process of becoming, existing, disintegrating and thereby becoming something else” but wanted to “exorcize some of the machine’s terrifying aspects—and give it some charm.” My work (especially in fractal economies) has been more focused on those ‘terrifying aspects’ of mechanistic poetry—especially in light of increased automation and mechanization in correspondence and communication. Cox argues that he is open to his work being “funny, that is part of being friendly, but […] would like it to have some elegance too” and thus his contributions to GLOUP and WOUP are primarily photographs of letter-based mobiles and simple clock-like machines. Approachable, audience-friendly, Italian Futurism (which is an oxymoron if there ever was one).

Tom Edmonds was also a new addition to my reading, and his contribution to GLOUP and WOUP are, like Cox, are sculptural in tone though Edmunds display a greater debt to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s glass and text-based work. Edmunds constructs cool shadow-boxes with ordered sheets of glass, each inscribed with textual fragments. The resultant pieces have an intriguing engagement with depth, moving for the page as 2-dimensional space to a 3D conceptualization of poetry. (See Edmunds’s “compromise poem box” (1969) on the right…)

Tom Edmunds's "compromise poem box" (1969)

John Furnival is the most problematic inclusion in the collection. His work—which exuberantly overwhelms the reader with panels of hand-lettering arranged in architectural structures—sadly typifies many concrete poetry clichés. The panels, which the author admits are “still very confused, which [he] take[s] to be an artist’s privilege” centre on two overly enticing images for visual poets—the Tower of Babel and John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God…”). Placing both of these images as ejaculate from a huge textual phallus, however, quickly negates any astonishment the viewer may have towards the process of erecting these structures in the first place.

Dom Sylvester Houédard (who I also plan to write on in future columns) is, like Cobbing, also a sadly under-discussed and under-appreciated master of concrete poetry. His inclusion in GLOUP and WOUP is the high point. His typewriter abstracts—typescracts—are the most technically complex examplars of clean concrete. Sadly, his work is rarely reproduced in colour (and this is no exception), as often worked with multi-coloured typewriter ribbons. As concise as Houedard’s work is, the realization that each piece was created on a manual typewriter (see Houedard’s “typestract the five buddhas” (1967) on right…).

Dom Sylvester Houedard's "typestract the five buddhas" (1967)

GLOUP and WOUP closes with a “Bibliography and Sources of Comments” leaflet which provides yet more openings for future research. I’ve searching out more than a few titles. Compared to the major anthologies of the 1960s/70’s (Mary Ellen Solt’s, Stephen Bann’s, Emmett Williams’s, etc.) GLOUP and WOUP has a very focused editorial mandate, but the 5 poets included make this collection an admirable model, exemplifying both the triumphs and pratfalls of historical concrete poetry.