Links and Lines: Some Notes on the Poetry of Öyvind Fahlström (By Jesper Olsson), 2000

[…] as
they say in math, it takes two lines to make
an angle but only one lime to make
a Margarita.
(Charles Bernstein, "On time and the line", Rough Trades, 1991)

In the first lines of his manifesto for concrete poetry from 1953, 'Hätila ragulpr på fåtskliaben' (the title culled from A.A. Milne's books on Winnie the Pooh), Öyvind Fahlström draws a quick graph of the literary fashion in Sweden in the early 1950s. The contemporary tendency - as it was disclosed on a conference that year, in the picturesque town of Sigtuna - is summarized in two lines: the bust- and hemlines of poetry are being modified in accordance with the covering up-work of metaphors and imagination. Instead of working in and on language, poetry clothes itself in symbolic patterns of eternal beauty and meaning. This initial passage of the manifesto is often overlooked in dealing with Fahlström's poetry and art. And it is easy to agree with the suggestion, that what is informative and innovative in his article, as the first manifesto for concrete poetry to be published, hits the reader later on in the text, either in the work of playful tropes or in the technical language of the idiosyncratic theorist. But still, this tentative and trivial mapping of the body poetic in Sweden puts the reader on the track of what I'd like to pursue here, which is the line, the line as a concept or as a material fact in Fahlström's poetry (and painting), as border or limit, verse or margin, grid or surface; as a cut that runs through the verbal, visual, and acoustic representations of the world. In a certain way, the importance of the line as a material and semiotic instance becomes more evident in a later phase of Fahlström's work. Especially in the cartographic imagination developed in the map paintings from the last decade of his life, such as World Map, from 1972, where fluid forms are bent into shape by curved but distinct lines. But these lines can be traced back, through the 1960s and 1950s, to a beginning of a kind, to a point when Fahlström, in a productive forgetfulness of the then prevalent codes of Swedish poetry and art, turned his gaze from the interiorized spaces of human emotion and thought to the exterior and material forces of the body and the world.

Öyvind Fahlström's early work as a poet, during the later 1940s and the early 1950s, was marked by an intense interest in surrealism, and especially in the 'darker' strands of this tradition, as it was embodied in the work of proto-surrealist writers Marquis de Sade and Lautréamont, and in a later poet such as Antonin Artaud. Marquis de Sade was also the topic of the first text published by Fahlström (in 1949) and his influence on the Swedish writer and artist cannot be overestimated. De Sade's mechanized eroticism had an impact on the reduction of psychology and the related development of a materialist view in Fahlström's writings, which explores a bodily universe, where people, animals, and machines are connected to each other in different constellations. What I want to underline is how these explorations involved a fascination for spatial constructions and images and not the least for surfaces and borderlines between inner and outer spaces, between human bodies and their surroundings.

During the pre-concrete phase this was mainly to be done at the thematical level of the poems, where surfaces and topographies are constantly invoked. Especially, it is the liminal zones of the body that are being investigated, through eroticism, scatology, alimentation, peristaltics, etc. In the prose poem 'Around eight' from 1950, for example, one encounters a main character, a woman, whose body is constructed as a channel, or a relay, between inner and outer space. She goes to the bathroom not to empty herself, but to get filled, and her life as well as the poem ends in an event where the walls between individual body and world collapses in a concrete and drastic way. This blurring of inner and outer space is a theme that is variated in a similar vein in several of the early writings. Of course it is also a topic easily related to the amorphous bodies of surrealist art and poetry. But Fahlström was not interested in connecting these images to an idealistic space of the dream or in explaining them as products of a subconscious. Instead one has to conceive of them as extreme illustrations of the actual material conditions for communication and interaction in the world. His interest in spaces is neither exclusivley oriented towards the figure of the body. The poems evoke strange geographies and landscapes, that de-familiarizes the spaces of every day life (mostly without turning into exotica). One is often reminded when reading htese texts of the words of Deleuze and Guattari: "Writing has nothing to do with signifying", but "with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come."

Fahlström's thinking was then from the start impregnated by a radical "imagination matérielle" (Gaston Bachelard), and this was to be further developed in the manifesto for concrete poetry, as well as in the poetry that Fahlström wrote in the years between 1952 and 1955. The mappings of the body and its borders were transposed to the linguistic body, and they came to gravitate around the concept of the line and some of its derivatives such as edge, limit, margin, joint, filter, and splicing.

Of course, the line is almost always the place where poetry takes place. The specific formations of lines of verse might even be considered to constitute the poetic. But the lines of concrete poetry were to form alternative trajectories across the page than the ones usually found in books of verse. The more or less well-shaped typographical blocks, neatly arranged between the white edges or margins of the page, tended to dissolve and form other textscapes. The traditional graphics of the poem was destabilized. This is a process that was explicitly addressed in Fahlström's manifesto. He wanted to construct a graphic space where the reader's gaze was liberated, as he said, in the same way as the gaze viewing abstract art. And he suggested several operations to perform this displacement, such as dissolved stanzas, vertical parallelisms, marginal stanzas, framings of stanzas, and so on.

It is easy to find examples of this in his poetry from the period. In the long permutational poem 'Bobb', a cardinal poem in the work of Fahlström, which he was to return to several times, one finds the framed stanza as well as other conspicuos forms. In another important poem, 'Det stora och det lilla' ('The Big and the Little'), from 1953, he explores the marginal stanza as a poetic device. And even though iconic or mimetic graphical figures, such as cups or eggs, are rare in Fahlström's work, there are some examples close to the tradition of pattern poetry in this specific poem, where one page shows a constellation of words that suggest the moving arm of a clock as well as the beating drumstick thematized in the text. Certainly, the line as verse is not eradicated in these poems. But the page as such is transformed into a space or surface for multiple delineations. And this practice of visualizing the poem is combined with more subtle materializing operations. If Fahlström's graphic transformations are performed on a macro-textual level, there are other forms of delineating, splicing, and cutting up taking place within lines, sentences, words, and even syllables.

The most important aspect of the poetics that Fahlström forged in his manifesto, was a set of rhetorical operations that he subsumed under the concept of "kneading". The linguistic material should be dealt with, metaphorically speaking, in a tactile way. Different forms of ellipses, substitutions, and displacements in syntax and words de-naturalized the language, exposed its materiality and forced the reader to acknowledge the differential structure of the sign as a 'verbivocovisual' entity. The 'normal' or 'natural' linguistic body was deformed, and the smooth transition from sign to signification, from exterior to interior space was disturbed. These operations ranged from simple misspellings of a word to more elaborated interpolations and substitutions, based on rules invented by the poet. Usually it is difficult to disclose the rules or procedures that have generated a specific poem, but there are exceptions. In the poem 'MOA (1)', published together with the manifesto in an issue of the small magazine Odyssé in 1954, some of the rules for construction, as well as for reading, are appended in a note below the blocks of letters and words, and others are in turn possible to deduce from the permutations that take place in the poem - permutations that bring forth a downward movement in the text, from a relatively stable semantic order to a more entropic stage. 'MOA (1)' is a poem that negotiates the graphic space in a determined way and puts the reader's expectations to the test.

All these material instances of lines - from words and sentences to the spine of the book - are flanked by a thematics of the line that is perceptible here and there in Fahlström's concrete poetry. In 'Det stora och det lilla', for example, the marginal stanzas of the poem operate as a kind of filters to the main stanzas on the page; they produce noise, as Fahlström remarked. And "filter" as well as "margin" are words consistently used throughout this tumultuous text. The poem stages a confrontation between the smaller forces of the individual body and the greater forces of the material universe, as well as a politically charged play between opposing poles within society and the world of art (center and margin). In a certain way, the poem is about the practice of drawing lines, about the production of limits and categories in conceptualizing and communicating the world - but it also informs us that these lines are bound to collapse.

The connection between the line as a material instance in poetry and paintings, and the line as a concept with specific aesthetic and political implications was maybe not discussed in a more elaborated way by Fahlström in the early 1950s, when he wrote the bulk of his concrete poetry. But he would soon try to produce a framework for his interest in delineations, margins, and borders as well as in categories and rules that regulates vision, reading, and behaviour. In his extensive discussions of the sign, he would give much importance to the line, or the outline, as a distinguishing trait in his own art: "the outline (more than color or other formal qualities) is of overwhelming importance, it is the fundamental formal criteria of the sign's form", he said in relation to his large science fiction-canvas Ade-Ledic-Nander 2, from 1957. And during the first half of the 1960s this issue would be manifested in different ways in his visual art, not the least in the mobile elements of variable paintings, such as The Planetarium.

The material outline was also part of a play with the receptional space of the art work, a play that was to evoke the material and discursive conditions of a social and political context as well as involving the reader or viewer as a co-producer of the work. In his short essay 'Games', Fahlström wrote: "the crucial thing is that I, as an 'artist', and that I, like other 'people', in every moment of our lives collide with the absolute hardness of shapes and that we coordinate our possibilities of variation according to this. There is an elementary and inexhaustable tension in this. […] Beyond this fundamental fact we find the fragile hardness of other rules - as well as our conventions and regulations: the borderline between Congo and Angola, the numbers of the telephone directory, the buttoning of jackets …"

This kind of intermingling of aesthetic and social materiality and discourse was performed in a forceful way in a work called Minneslista from 1964, one of the few poems Fahlström published in the 1960s. This work is a concrete and visual poem, as well as a game to be played, like Monopoly, and in addition a memorandum for the large variable painting Dr. Schweitzer's Last Mission, that was to be created in the following years. Minneslista consists of four sheets where four continents or political blocks from the Cold War period are represented in map-like, differently colored shapes. Within the outlines of the continents, words related to the dominant images of Western culture and massmedia in the 1960s are assembled and manipulated. On the first sheet there is also a short text where the rules of the game are stipulated, and on the bottom of each sheet you find a set of nonsense-like words that are to be cut out and used as markers in the game. While reading the poem and playing the game the reader uses the markers to deform and manipulate the verbal and visual outlook of the world as represented on the four sheets, and the textual outcome approaches a kind of regressive and aggressive nonsense, which carnivalizes - in Bakhtins sense of the word - the official images and narratives of world politics in the 1960s. Minneslista can then, in a certain way, be read as an allegory on the right to represent and impose meaning on the world. It deals with the conditions and possibilities for drawing 'new' lines through the striated space of contemporary culture and society.

There are limits and borderlines, in art as well as in everyday life, lines that segment the space of reading and writing, thinking and acting. But to see the line as a border is just one way of seeing things. If one 'kneads' the language for a while, the line can turn into a link, a connective device or wire, an image that haunts the emblematic images of the technological landscape of the 20th century. And the step from the hyperlinear space of concrete poetry to technical systems and links is actually not very long. In the 1960s Fahlström had almost completely left poetry for painting, performance, and other art forms. But on the other hand, he was to explore its possibilites in the new media, such as the radio. With the help of recording technology he expanded the phonographic space of the lyric genre in his radiophonic poem Fåglar i Sverige (1963). A similar expansion was performed in the radio collage Den helige Torsten Nilsson (1966), a "blindmovie", as he called it, that consisted of cuts from films, radio shows, pop songs, opera etc. pasted into a bizarre narrative about political intrigues in a near future Sweden. In works like these one encounters, instead of the linguistic cuts of concrete poetry, the frayed edges between different technical media systems, such as phonography, film, and the book. And this is no coincidence. Fahlström was from the beginning interested in the use of technology in art. Especially influential was the French composer Pierre Schaeffer's method of recording sounds in his 'musique concrète'.

And the materialist imagination of concrete poetry is perhaps bound to converge with the problem of media technologies in 'the information age'. If the practice of concrete poetry discloses the material conditions for reading and writing, then the practice of radio poetry discloses how we as readers and poets are always linked to technical systems, whether they are materialized as books or as radio receivers or something else. That Fahlström realized this and that his art came to trace the implications of this condition is evident. There is a famous anecdote about him from the 1960s when a friend came to visit him in his studio on the Lower Eastside, and as they were talking Fahlström continued to work on his painting, while at the same time listening to the radio and watching TV, zapping between the channels with a home made remote, consisting of a long pole that reached the buttons on the TV set. For a writer and painter that conceived of his basic aesthetics not as symbolist or expressionist, but as manipulative, the artist was perhaps first and foremost a manipulator of media. And even though it is problematic to claim that art anticipates technological change, one cannot fail to see how the radical delineations of concrete poetry encroaches upon the concept of hypertext, for example, or how the different ways of transforming the reader or viewer into a co-creator of the work comes close to the celebrated interactivist behind the computer screen. This is probably one reason why it is a rewarding project to put Fahlström's poetry and art on the web today.

If lines of verse and visual outlines could be reformatted into media links, this was in any case just another manifestation of the materialist poetics that was worked out by Fahlström in the early 1950s. And his achievements, even though completely ignored by that time, was to have an enormous impact on the movement of concretism in Sweden in the next decade. Even though concrete poetry from other parts of the world were introduced in Sweden quite soon, not the least by Fahlström himself in the article 'Bris' from 1961, where he discusses, if briefly, figures such as Eugen Gomringer, Ernst Jandl, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos - even so, it was the poetics of Fahlström and especially his method of kneading the language, that came to mark the writings of poets like Bengt Emil Johnson and Jarl Hammarberg. Instead of working out their ideas in a purist or minimalist fashion, these poets mixed different techniques and materializing operations in a way that makes their work more akin to the 'dirty' concrete that has been connected with a later phase in innovative poetry. As Fahlström himself wrote, in a manifesto called 'Take Care of the World', published at Dick Higgins' Something Else Press in 1966:

Consider art as a way of experiencing a fusion of 'desire' and 'insight'. Achieve this through impurity, through a multitude of levels, rather than through purity, isolation. […] In the last instance, the goal is to achieve the 'un-natural'. (my emphasis)

The links and lines of Fahlströms dirty poetry forces us then, as readers and viewers, to take pleasure in and consider the physical patchworks of language. By distorting words and sentences, by torquing the signifier as such, by insisting on its stubborn materiality, Fahlström's writings resist every attempt to naturalize language in the name of some idealism. Such attempts are bound to be blurred. The relationship between meaning and materiality, between communication and noise is always temporary and unstable. And this unstable relationship also involves ourselves as subjects or in-dividuals. We are always linked and lined, connected to and divided from in ways that precludes complacent ideas of autonomy. Constructions of meaning and identity will only be possible in the form of a parenthesis, that in the end must fall apart, like the walls surrounding the woman in Fahlström's poem mentioned above. Even though it is just a single letter that distinguishes 'link' from 'line', it is one of those differences that makes a difference. And this is also where art intervenes and forces you to digress from the straight line.

© 2000 Jesper Olsson

On Fahlstrom: