Greg Thomas’ Border Blurs, a recent addition to the Liverpool English Texts and Studies series, considers the relationship between English and Scottish poets and the international concrete poetry movement of the 1950s-1970s. We discussed this new publication with the author.
Could you tell us a bit about Border Blurs and what drew you to focus your research in this area?
Border Blurs tells the story of concrete poetry in England and Scotland from the early 1960s until the early 1970s. My aims are, on the one hand, to emphasise the significance of concrete poetry as a style and movement to broader developments in global culture, society, technology and economics during the decades following the Second World War, and on the other hand to contribute a regionally specific survey to the new critical picture of the concrete poetry movement which is already emerging. At the same time, the book is about four specific bodies of work (those of Ian Hamilton Finlay, Edwin Morgan, Dom Sylvester Houédard and Bob Cobbing) that I value very highly on their own terms.
I also see the book as crucially rooted in primary research. I have visited a number of archives and special collections libraries to pull together the story of concrete poetry in England and Scotland. This kind of excavation work seemed necessary when I started this research in 2009 because that story was almost totally untold at the time. I’ve also been lucky enough to interview people who were crucial to the development of the concrete movement (if it was a movement) such as Stephen Bann, Thomas A. Clark, John Furnival, and Liliane Lijn.
I got interested in concrete poetry just over a decade ago, when I was an MPhil student at the University of Cambridge. My route in was initially sound poetry: the use of non-linguistic vocal utterance to create poetry, music, or sound-art, potentially in combination with the use of live instruments (I was and still am a performer of improvised music.) By fortuitous coincidence I was then selected to undertake a PhD at the University of Edinburgh on concrete poetry in Scotland. I expanded the terms of the research project so that rather than just tackling the subject as a Scottish-specific one, I was able to talk about it as a movement which developed coextensively in England and Scotland along separate but continuously entwining tracks. The book emerged from the PhD but is substantially different from it.
This is the first in-depth account of concrete poetry in any part of the British Isles – why do you think concrete poetry has been somewhat overlooked in academic scholarship?
There has been a long-standing suspicion and/or disregard of concrete poetry in the British and perhaps wider Anglophone academy, in spite of its enormous relevance to the development of modernist art and literature in other parts of the world such as Brazil, Chile, Germany, Czechoslovakia (as it was) and Japan. It’s easy to assume this has to do with a kneejerk suspicion of avant-garde movements within British literary criticism, but to be honest the apathy has been most pronounced amongst critics of innovative, modernist, and avant-garde poetry. A sense developed during the 1970s-2000s, including amongst scholars I really admire such as Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Andrew Duncan, that concrete poetry essentially does away with language altogether, turning it into silly geometrical patterns or pictures of the thing it represents. It therefore (so the argument goes) does away with all the possibilities for invention, emotional expression, and (potentially) political activism that linguistic expression entails. As you can probably imagine I disagree profoundly with this view!
The book considers the work of four individual poets – Ian Hamilton Finlay, Edwin Morgan, Bob Cobbing and Dom Sylvester Houédard. Why did you focus on these four in particular?
I learned about the work of the English concrete poets first, which tends to be more concerned than the Scottish work with crossing the threshold from literature to visual and sound art. I was initially fascinated by the gesture of presenting what appeared to be music or art as poetry, and how much this work could teach us about what was happening below the surface of a lot of poetic expression. There was also an immediate sensory appeal to the work, because of its arresting visual and/or sonic qualities, which I loved. Though I am a scholar of literature I have always been really interested in visual art and music as well.
As for the work of the Scottish poets, one of the things I have found most interesting is how concrete poetry stands for an independent tradition of avant-garde and modernist Scottish literature which nonetheless exists in a relationship of inextricable inter-dependence with broader traditions of British, European, and global literature and art. It became clear as I was researching that Scotland is one of those countries – like those listed above – where concrete poetry was fundamental to broader discourses and debates around national literary culture and cultural identity more generally.
How does this volume pave the way for future research into concrete poetry?
I hope that I have provided a foundation for critics working on the British-specific development of concrete poetry to work on. I don’t consider the narrative I have provided in that regard complete. For example, the absence of women writers, artists, and musicians from the story is something that – while it undoubtedly reflects the sociology of small-press culture at the time – will hopefully be challenged by future scholarship. I have also been unable to talk about the development of concrete poetry in Wales, including the work of Peter Finch. Beyond that, I hope that scholars working on concrete poetry from a wider geographical perspective will take into account these bodies of work, and the stylistic dichotomies and socio-cultural resonances that I have highlighted, as important to the movement as a whole.
My more ambitious aim is that concrete poetry will come to be recognised as a globally significant movement in post-Second World War literature and art, vitally connected to contemporary culture, politics, technology and economics, rather than a quaint footnote in the story of modernist literature. I would love for the book to be read by scholars of modern writing and art of all stripes.
For more information on Border Blurs, please visit our website.