Monday, May 10, 2004

The Beguiling Lettrists and the Crisis of Language

Lettrism is the almost-forgotten visual poetry movement of the twentieth century. Preceding the concrete poetry movement by almost a decade, the world all but ignored the Lettrists during its infatuation with the concretists in the 1960s and ’70s. Returning the favor to themselves, the concretists appear to have systematically isolated the Lettrists; in the four major anthology of concrete poetry, I can recall but a single Lettrist work, and it is one of the most effective poems in any of the anthologies.

Lettrism was the creation of Isodore Isou, a Romanian who moved to Paris in the mid-1940s before he could even speak French. Isou created the concept of Lettrism in the early 1940s while he was still in Romania, but he had to move to Paris to promote his ideas, to make them real.

His ideas were simple enough: To atomize language. To reject the idea of language and the word itself as the exalted conveyors of meaning. To reduce art to its most elemental form, the atom of language, the letter. Lettrism was not necessarily poetry or visual poetry at all (certainly not to the Lettrists themselves), and Lettristic art took many forms. The Lettrists recognized Lettrism as a new form of art, one that fetishized the letter.

Lettrist visual poetry rarely includes readable words, rarely even includes readable letters. Most Lettrist works depend on invented characters, and it is primarily an asemic artform. What attracts me to Lettrism is the beauty of the pieces, how the suggestion of a text (no matter how unreadable) pulls at my gut and reminds me that all art somehow transcends rational thought.

Although wide-ranging, the Lettrists’ work displayed a number of common techniques: The most common of these are unreadable visual texts. But Lettrists often combined these asemic characters with separable visual elements, producing drawings incorporated with text or invented characters encrusting images. Often they created a text out of dense tesserae of characters. And very rarely, the Lettrists produced work that we would simply call “concrete poetry,” if we didn’t know better.

Lettrism is the bridge between Dadaism and concrete poetry, between the now-quaint avant-garde and the always-sedate avant-garde. Yet Lettrism was rarely that much like either. The Lettrists were (and sometimes are) better visual artists than either. The Lettrists were never as famous as either. The Lettrists broke into more factions (the Ultra-Lettrists, the Situationists) and made fewer friends. Lettrism, finally, lasted longer than both. Even today Lettrists in their twenties continue to follow the precepts of the movement as laid down by Isou and enhanced by his protégé and co-conspirator, Maurice Lemaître.

Lettrism included not only want we might call visual poetry, but also sound poetry, the novel, installation art, painting, comic art, calligraphy, inscrutable rebuses, sculpture, performance art, architectural and practical design, cinema, and more than enough manifestos.

The Lettrists’ revolutionary stance concerning art and the world (they claimed to have fomented the 1968 student revolution in Paris) devolved at some point into Situationism, a pointless revolutionary movement most famous (and successful) in my mind for the creation of the concept of détournement, but that’s a topic for another day.

ecr. l’inf.

7 comments:

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Nice intro to the Lettrists. If I'd heard of 'em before I've since forgotten. I quoted a bit at my site (hope you don't mind): http://lovesettlement.blogspot.com

Clifford Duffy said...

im enjoying what u say about lettrism --however it was more than a bridge between dada and concrete poems. it was a line of change and flight, a molecule linking many poetries! in any case, its delightful to see yer blog!

CLifford Duffy


http://fictionsofdeleuzeandguattari.blogspot.com/

Geof Huth said...

Clifford,

I'd say there are lots of ways to consider lettrism. I was just suggesting one. Yours is more powerful, so maybe more appropriate.

Hey, I see you're posting to your blog again. I haven't looked at it in a while because it was a bit idle. A significant new look!

Geof

Clifford Duffy said...

deof, i ve been meaning to get back to you... so yes , its all suggestions. perhaps i was too polemical... I have not gone back to read what I wrote! I am truly uncompose dthen, past the initial letter word.. the blog, well the blog is always changing....if it seemed static its cause well, maybe U forgot to Look!
who knows, its a territory that does and undoes meanwhile its a process... of course poets make and unmake...
so then

Clifford Duffy said...

Geof!m Im sending this twice as the first time around I mispelled yer deceptively simple 'nomme'

Oh, i ve been meaning to get back to you... so yes , its all suggestions. perhaps i was too polemical... I have not gone back to read what I wrote! I am truly uncompose dthen, past the initial letter word.. the blog, well the blog is always changing....if it seemed static its cause well, maybe U forgot to Look!
who knows, its a territory that does and undoes meanwhile its a process... of course poets make and unmake...
so then

Clifford Duffy said...

yes well lettrism is a way to deterritorialize the language breakin it awayfrom its usualmoorings . its nice Bill Bissett has done alot of work along those lines in Canadada Canadada is where I and my characters live. we live in exile in Desire Land.
http://fictionsofdeleuzeandguattari.blogspot.com/

Geof Huth said...

Clifford,

I haven't seen much of Bill Bissett's work. But Canadada I know well. "Canadada" is the country of destination I wrote on a package this week.

Geof