The Early Computer Poetry and Concrete Poetry

Matteo D’Ambrosio




I. Prefiguration and precursors: an art à venir

The few documented experiments in the early years of the history of Electronic Literature, under the label of what was then defined as ‘Computer Poetry,’ were essentially a prerogative of computer processing experts, only occasionally interested in the rhetoric power of words that intensifies their expressive potential by expanding the theoretical space of the verbal linguistic system.

As it happened with historical avant-gardes, the creative practices of the early stage prove that, regardless of the low complexity of the devices used and of the expressive results achieved, there was a longing  for an art à venir, not yet fully identified and therefore still without a plausible and recognisable definition, faced with the unavailability of languages and tools. Walter Benjamin had perceived this interim and yet meaningful state, and wrote: “The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, this is to say, in a new art form” (1992: 230).

In an interview entitled Riflessioni sulla scrittura elettronica given on 16 December 1996, Nanni Balestrini, the author of one of the earliest experiments of Electronic Literature, affirmed: “If Futurists had had computers ... they would have created their texts quicker, faster (...) their texts ... are waiting, ... are calling for the existence of a machine to do those things” (Balestrini, 1996).

Here Balestrini is referring to just one of the principles of Futurist aesthetics, i.e. speed. However, when the historical avant-gardes realized that they lacked the elements they needed for progressing any further, they started seeking other solutions that could by-pass their limits, at least partially. This explains, for example, their strategies of movement simulation and simultaneity of phenomena.

Proof of this might be the first anthology of Futurist poets, dated 1912, and the first and only issue of Cabaret Voltaire (1916). Marinetti opened the anthology with the Manifesto tecnico della letteratura futurista, which proposed a true theory of writing, although there were no recognisable equivalents in the texts he had selected (Marinetti, 1912). As for Dada, Cabaret Voltaire shows how difficult it was, for the ‘avant-garde of negation,’ to reach those radical positions that were to find expression only two years later, in Tristan Tzara’s manifesto (Tzara, 1918: 2-4).

Any attempt of historiographic re-tracing of the preludes to Electronic Literature should make a distinction between the mere prefiguration and the broader and closer activities of precursors.  

As I already suggested elsewhere (D’Ambrosio 2009b: 92), we owe to Roman Jakobson the preliminary prefiguration of a poetry where words were replaced by numbers (1914) (Jakobson, 1983: 71) [1]. However, this does not seem to have affected the works of Velimir Khlebnikov, one of the most prominent poets of Russian Futurism. Some other equally significant impact may be seen in the experimental practices of Italian Futurism [2].

We may instead identify a close precursor in the French OULIPO, founded in 1960, that considered using mathematical structures in literary works. One of its founders, Raymond Queneau, openly admitted, “Nous regrettons de ne pas disposer de machines” (Queneau, 1950: 322).


II. The role of Max Bense  

We owe to the German Max Bense, a distinguished scholar of international renown, the idea that the textual models of Concrete Poetry may have transferred into Computer Poetry experimentation.

He dedicated many years to writing a monumental treatise on generative, technologic and semiotic aesthetics. Bense’s studies appear to have been influenced, in particular, by his uncommon knowledge of such innovative disciplinary fields as Shannon’s information theory, cybernetics, and Charles S. Peirce’s semiotics. Bense, who is said to have never used a computer (Donguy, 1997), considered computerised poetry “a product of generative aesthetics” [3] and, associating Concrete Poetry with the texts produced by his student Lutz — also covered in this paper — regarded “stochastic and topologic poetry” as one of the six trends of contemporary poetry (Bense, 1967-68: 21). More generally, his definition of the poetic text as a surface justified all the branches of research that attribute a decisive role to the syntax of textual space (Bense, 1965: 1236-1244) [4].

Concrete Poetry in its early forms, documented since the mid-Fifties, could rely, apart from the centuries-long, deep-seated tradition that tried to give theoretical foundations to the relationships between verbal signs and images, also on the visual research of historical avant-gardes, and particularly on the Words-in-Freedom of Futurism, on the typography of Dadaism, and on Neoplasticism.

Bense, also a creative proponent of the international Concrete Poetry movement [5], was in close contact with the Brazilian poets [6] of the “Noigandres” group [7] and contributed to spreading that trend, including the editing of an international anthology for Rot, the review he directed [8]. Of all the system of the arts, his studies usually privileged new trends [9].       

Bense was the undisputed leader of that community of scholars in the field of new sciences (programming, calculation, linguistics) who, after advanced training, dedicated themselves to research activities that represented the foundations of what is now known as the Stuttgart School (Klütsch,  2012:  65-89).

Bense published, also in Rot, the Manifesto of Permutational Art by Abraham Moles, a scholar of international recognition in those years [10]. That manifesto was an attempt to investigate the interaction between human and machine “that came to help the poverty of the human spirit” (Moles, [1962]) [11] within the framework of an all-encompassing science of technology. Pragmatically speaking, the manifesto proposed the use of permutation, a textual strategy that, as Bense thought, can free creativity from all concerns in terms of contents and meaning, scaling down the value attributed to the imagination of each individual artist by Surrealism and, before that, by the Symbolist tradition.  


III. Lutz, the School and the Stuttgart Group  

Theo Lutz, who is credited as the author of the first text classifiable as a work of Electronic Literature [Cf. Fig. 1] (Lutz, 1959: 3-9), was one of Bense’s students. After his ‘stochastic’ texts, Lutz produced few other works of literary relevance (Funkhouser, 2012: 263 [note 9]). It is worth noting that the article in which he explains the method used for his compositions (Lutz, 1960: 11) makes no reference to previous avant-gardes. There is no evidence that he carried on those experiments: almost certainly he preferred working as a mathematician and programmer.

In terms of literary value, thematic ties with Franz Kafka’s works have been identified in Lutz’s texts: “Lutz … has chosen passages from Franz Kafka’s The Castle that put the machine processing for probabilistic techniques in parallel with the routing systems of social control described in the novel” (Higgins and Kahn eds., 2012: 9).


Figure 1. Theo Lutz, “Stochastische Texte,” 1959.


According to Rolland Caignard, the Stuttgart Group included Lutz, Nees, Nake and Walter (1998: 48). Elisabeth Walter, a semiologist, was Bense’s wife. Georg Nees and Frieder Nake were artists who worked in the computer graphics field. Another member of the group was Rul Gunzenhäuser, a computer science expert. In his production there is only one known work, Weihnacht, “made up of words from the semantic area of the concept ‘Christmas’” (Franke, 1971:  97-98). Following the indications given by Bense, Gunzenhäuser, in a book dated 1962, “applied Shannon’s information theory to Birkoff’s concept of aesthetic measure, building up a theory of a microaesthetics” (Klütsch, 2012: 69).

In his essay on the Stuttgart School, Christoph Klütch asserts that the group started its activities essentially in the mid-Sixties, concomitantly with the publication of an article by Nees on “statistical graphics” (69). The activities of certain concretist poets such as Reinhard Döhl and Hansjörg Mayer (Ferran, 2017), particularly focused on the pertinence of the typographic variations of verbal signs, started in a second phase.

A few other occasional experiences in the United States, often neglected by the critique, seem to have developed independently. Examples are those of R. M. Worthy (Worthy, 1962:  96-99) [12], Clair Philipy, “spécialiste en informatique” (1964) (Caignard, 1998: 48) and the Pocketa School, whose existence is only known for having been reported in a short and quite vague article published in “Time” magazine [13].

Greater interest was raised instead by Brion Gysin’s permutational poem I am that I am [Cf. Fig. 2 and 3] [14], often quoted with variable dating [15]. Its integral version of 2420 lines was developed with the contribution of mathematician Ian Somerville, who used a Honeywell Series 200, model 120 [16].


Figure 2.  Brion Gysin, I am that I am, [1960].

Figure 3.  Brion Gysin, I am that I am, [1960].


Nanni Balestrini is also a concretist poet (Balestrini, 1963: 195-205) [17].  His Tape Mark I (October 1961) (Balestrini, 1961: 145-151) [18] is a “derivative” text, generated from a selection of passages  from three pre-existing narrative works belonging to different genres: Hiroshima Diary by Michihito Hachiya, The Mystery of the Elevator by Paul Goldwin and the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu [Cf. Fig. 4]. The pre-existing linguistic materials were first broken down into minimal units and then recomposed in a pre-ordinate collage. This is shown in the instructions given with the program (146-149). In the foreword, Balestrini wrote:

The problem posed was not about obtaining from the machine an imitation of processes peculiar to humans. It was simply about exploiting the abilities of the electronic means to resolve, very fast, certain complex operations pertaining to poetic technique. The usefulness of, and the legitimate resort to, the methods and means made available by science and by the most advanced technologies, intended as an integration of the literary and artistic creative work, become manifest insofar as we belong to an industrial civilization. (145)


Figure 4. Nanni Balestrini, Tape Mark  I,  1961.


Bense himself knew about Balestrini’s experiments, but remarked that they were of limited complexity, because programming techniques diminished the heuristic value of the process, alien to the paradigms of the information theory:

In 1963, Nanni Balestrini published in his Come si agisce machine-generated artificial texts that were not really developed as Shannon’s approximations; on the contrary, they were programmed via an IBM 7070 into 1200 orders relative to combinations of 10 pre-given elements according to syntax rules. (Bense, 1967/68: 21) [19]

There is an affinity between Lutz’s ‘stochastic’ texts and Balestrini’s Tape Mark I, in the sense that they are both derivative works: “Here the basic principle is to take an existing line or poem and alter it in some systematic way.” [20] The specificity of this approach was determined later, when it became necessary to differentiate between that form of derivation and other types of texts, of ‘formulary’ nature: “Formulary poems consist of strings of sentences generated by means of a formula or syntactic rule” (Franke 1971: 51).

Considering that the former derivative texts require literary skills and sensibility, we understand why Lutz did not continue his experiments.

In these textual devices, the most relevant aspect is the re-affirmation of the role of the author as the one responsible for the evaluation of the materials processed and their final selection. In other words, here the author acts as writer/reader, or ‘wreader.’


IV. Cybernetic Serendipity

When, in the summer of 1968, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London organized the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity [21], we may infer from its catalogue that Bense’s aspirations had not been followed. Up to that moment, there was but one isolated experiment tried by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan. Besides, in the section on Computer poems and texts (Reichtardt ed., 1968: 53-62), haiku was privileged as “perfect for computer reformulation” (Funkhouser, 2007: 35), being a textual model of only 3 verses and a total of 17 syllables, deriving from a centuries-old Japanese tradition known and appreciated by many Western poets (Masterman, 1971: 176).

Morgan’s three “simulated computer poems” (Reichtardt ed., 1968: 57), that in any case establish a connection between Computer Poetry and Concrete Poetry [22], had been developed with “the scope to simulate computer poetry without recourse to the machine” (Bailey, 1973:  40) and are basically limited to performing the serial completion of permutational phenomena [Cf. Fig. 5, 6, and 7]. In other words, we can recognise in those works the principles of Moles’ permutational art, but we can also read them as an expression of the wish for a more complex operational feasibility that was not available then. The other contributions, “a fragment of the complete programme” of The house of Dust [Cf. Fig. 8 and 9], a work by Alison Knowles and James Tenney (Vostell and Higgins, 1969), and the “automatic sentence generation” experiment by Jean A. Baudot, dating back to 1964 (Reichtardt ed., 1968: 58) [23], appear to be more interested in the importance of program development, which in the latter case was based on a mathematical model. 



Figure 5. Edwin Morgan, Computer’s first Christmas card, 1965.


Figure 6.  Edwin Morgan, Computer’s second  Christmas card, 1965.

Figure 7. Edwin Morgan, Computer’s  first Code Poem, 1965.


Figure 8. Alison Knowles, A house of dust, 1968.


Figure 9. Alison Knowles, A house of dust, 1968.



V. Haiku

The Japanese haiku gathered more success, at least in terms of quantity.  Margaret Masterman and Robin McKinnon Wood’s haiku were the output of a TRAC (Text Reckoning and Compiling) generator (Reichtardt ed., 1968: 54).

Charles O. Hartman explained the use of haiku by John Morris from the Michigan State University (Morris, 1967: 17-20) in 1967 with these words:

Haiku were especially common. The reasons are clear from the history of modern Imagist poetry. As both poets and programmers have realized, for different reasons, the reader’s mind works most actively on sparse materials. We draw the clearest constellations from the fewest stars. So the nonsense factor is low for a tiny collocation of words that can be imbued with imagistic significance. It’s hard to put together two words that don’t make some kind of sense to the willing reader. (Hartman, 1996: 31)

While listing the Computer Poetry works that used haiku — that appear to have not decreased to this date — understandable comparisons led Masterman to acknowledge that the results achieved by Computer Poetry appeared to be inferior compared to the results obtained by graphics, music, and cinema. Still, she underlined the decisive importance of the author’s selection in the last stage of development:  “He himself programs the algorithms at the beginning, and he himself chooses between the vast number of mechanical poems which have been generated, at the end” (Masterman, 1971: 183).


VI. Concrete Poetry anthologies

In the Sixties, Concrete Poetry gradually spread to many countries in the world, as is shown by the many publications of creative texts and exhibitions (D’Ambrosio, 1979: 249-261).  In those years, Concrete Poetry benefited from a wide network of international relations. A global community guaranteed exhibitions, publications and reviews, which in the best cases were tied to studies on semiotics. The poets tried to remedy to the lack of critiques by promoting public and publishing initiatives.

Between 1967 and 1971, the main anthologies — i.e. those edited by Stephen Bann (1967: 174), Emmett Williams (1967: [216]), Mary Ellen Solt (1968:  210) and John J. Sharkey (1971: 69) — contain merely a reproduction of “Computer’s first Christmas card” by Morgan. Certain personal choices of the editors are worth noting: Williams even ignores his own experiments — Musica (1965) [24], IBM (1966) [25] —   and prefers proposing a page from a short story by Ekbom, an unidentified author. On her part, Solt presents the program (but not the text) of a Computer Poem by Carl Fernbach-Flarsheim (Solt, 1968: 246).

Those early anthologies show that a new sub-genre was slowly being born, a scarcely significant variant of the corpus that could be defined as “Computerized Concrete Poetry.” The existence of a new form of art characterised by the use of the computer as a tool was noted maybe for the first time — not without indicating plausible examples — in Computer for the Arts, a book by Dick Higgins that defined an artificial language, Fortran, as useful for the “solution of creative problems” (Higgins, 1970: 1).


VII. Franke’s interpretation

“Basic computer-versifying principles of permutational change, randomness, and repetition had always been common ingredients in Concrete poetry” (Newell, 1983: 161). The connections between Computer Poetry and Concrete Poetry were highlighted in 1971 by the physicist and artist Herbert W. Franke, “the first significant writer on computer art:  (…) he stated that only members of the scientific community had the language, awareness, and skill to approach the new form” (Franke, 1971: 7).

Apart from marginality, Franke recognises in Computer Poetry a stylistic reminiscence of Concrete Poetry, even though the configuration criteria refer especially to the research in Computer Graphics:

The relatively simple language patterns accessible to contemporary computer poetry are reminiscent of the stylistic means of concrete poetry. This is marked by a restriction to linguistic elements of the utmost simplicity, the breaking up of relations, the juxtaposition of fragments and so on. If computers are introduced for such experiments, satisfactory results may well follow. […] Alan Sutcliffe’s works are an example of this. The kind of concrete poetry where the surface distribution of linguistic elements becomes a formative component — in a sense already a transition to graphics — is also open to the application of the computer. Works of this kind come from Marc Adrian. (Franke, 1971: 51)

Therefore, Franke gives two examples to support his considerations. A “Semantic infra- and meta-structure” by Adrian [Cf. Fig. 10, 11, 12, and 13], who worked at the Vienna Institute for Advanced Studies (51) [26], is defined as “computer-generated ‘concrete’ text” and classified among the results of research on ‘optical semantics.’ [27] However, in Cybernetic Serendipity Adrian had assured that “choice, size and disposition [of words] are determined at random” (Reichardt ed.: 53). As to the Poems for SPASMO by British Alan Sutcliff [Cf. Fig. 14] [28], a pioneer of Computer Music, Franke explains how the author introduced verbal configurations in a “multimedia composition”:

These works are components of SPASMO, a multi-media composition for magnetic tape and colour slide presentation. Each run of the program produces 256 poems. Through the input of a vocabulary and other data, a fresh series of poems can be produced. The program is written in FORTRAN and was run in the ICL office at Reading, Berks., on an ICL 194. The première took place on February 10, 1969, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. (50-51)

Figures 10, 11, 12 and 13.  Marc Adrian, “Semantic infra- and meta- structure,” 1970.



Figure 14. Alan Sutcliffe, “Poem no. 3142,” 1969.


The first anthology dedicated entirely to this genre, edited by Richard W. Bailey, shows that early Computer Poetry had not progressed much. Its textual models reminded not only those of Concrete Poetry, but also referred to (1) “poetry of sound in verbal orchestration,” (2) “imaginistic poetry in the juxtaposition of the unfamiliar” (hardly identifiable) and (3) “haiku” (Funkhouser, 2007: 9).

The scarce quantity of texts produced within this “largely disorganized global phenomenon” (Funkhouser, 2007: 28), and by science scholars more than by artists, is probably due to the following reasons: (1) limited availability of data processing tools; (2) isolation of individual authors, without any or scarce exchanges of information and ideas, especially as far as neo-avant-garde poetry was concerned.


VIII. Conclusions

Jakobson’s prefiguration had no significant impact on the poetry of Velimir Khlebnikov. Neither did Bense’s involvement cause an immediate and significant diffusion (including in quantitative terms) of a Computer Poetry related with Concrete Poetry. Just as historical avant-gardes had tried to simulate effects that could not be achieved in their times, Morgan’s experimental simulations showed the way for the future feasibility of a Concrete Poetry capable of accomplishing the options available in its textual models.

In the Sixties, the editors of major anthologies identified a sub-genre, not yet fully developed, that could be denominated ‘Computerised Concrete Poetry,’ and started to include works that were actually born from Computer Graphics, to counterbalance its limited diffusion. The Computer Poetry that was then developing, as is shown in the texts quoted by Franke, tried to assimilate certain textual strategies that reminded of Concrete Poetry. However, in the works of Adrian and Sutcliffe, the addition of the hyper-coding of verbal signs was inspired by contemporary computer graphics strategies.  

The early experiments (like those of Lutz or Balestrini) have their ‘literariness’ guaranteed by a prevailing feature that allows us to define them as ‘derivative’ works. However, the research focused mostly on programming and processing languages, where verbal linguistic system and creative variant are only a component. Apart from a combinatory approach (that has been implemented for centuries), the few texts produced appear to prefer the permutation referred to by Moles in his treatise on aesthetics. Both in Gysin’s I am that I am and in the works of Morgan included in the catalogue of Cybernetic Serendipity, there is the simulation of a further possible computer processing. In other words, by retracing the history of early times we understand the disappointment of a minority of the literary community, focused on the advanced research in innovative forms of post-verbal writing and in new connections between art and new technologies.




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[1] Cf. D’Ambrosio (2018a) and (2018b).

[2] See D’Ambrosio, 2009a: 263-286.

[3] Also Bense, 1974. A more cursory mention of that research is also found in Bense, 1969: 63.

[4] In the article “Stili sperimentali” (1966: 5-9), for instance, Bense speaks of topologic “structure” and “style”.

[5] A few of his texts are in Gomringer ed., 1972: 19-25. Gomringer wrote for “Augenblick” already in the 1950s.

[6] See Walther, 1996: 365. The young Haroldo de Campos, one of the “Noigandres,” had been Jakobson’s student at Harvard University.

[7] We owe to the “Noigandres” a partial translation of his treatise on aesthetics:  Bense, 1971.

[8] Bense and Walther eds., 1965. 

[9] A fundamental essay on these was written by Eco, 1962.  

[10] See e. g. his essay Moles, 1972: 131-152.

[11] Text in Italian, Czech, Hungarian, and German.

[12] The A. B. in the title is an acronym for “Auto Beatnik.”

[13] See “The Pocketa, Pocketa School,” 1962.

[14] Now in Burroughs and Gysin, 1978: 78-79 (incomplete version). Here is a statement Gysin made many years later about this, without any reference to permutational art: “The whole idea of the permutations came to me visually on seeing the so-called Divine Tautology, in print. It looked wrong, to me, non-symmetrical. The biggest word, That, belonged in the middle but all I had to do was to switch the last two words and It asked a question: ‘'I Am That, Am’” (Kostelanetz, 1980: 373).

[15] According to J. Donguy (1997), an early elaboration apparently dates back to 1959. 

[16] The poem was “programmed with a random sequence generator on a Honeywell computer (using punch cards) by Cambridge University mathematics student Ian Somerville in 1960” (Funkhouser, 2012: 247).

[17] A few months earlier, Balestrini had put his concrete poems on exhibition at the “Ferro di cavallo” art gallery in Rome. He defined them as “chronograms.”

[18] The text was preceded by a foreword by the author and with reproductions of spreadsheets, flow diagrams and part of the program.

[19] Later in Bense, 1974: 474-475. A quick mention of Balestrini’s research also appears in Bense, 1969: 63.

[20] Louis T. M[ilic], “Computer Poetry.” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1993, 230.

[21] See Reichtardt ed., 1968. Cf. the review by Radoslav Putar (1969: 84-100): “Cybernetic serendipity an exhibition in the institute of contemporary arts in London August 2-October 20 1968.” BIT international 1.1 [issue entirely dedicated to “The theory of information and the new aesthetics”].

[22] Many critics doubt that Concrete Poetry should be considered as one of the forebears of Computer Poetry. Cf. for instance, Newell, 1983: 159.

[23] The explanation and the two pages reproduced are taken from Baudot’s La machine à écrire (1964).

[24] A reproduction is found in D’Ambrosio, 2009a: 9-10.

[25] Also known under the title The ultimate poem. See the first section by Williams, 1973: [5-73].

[26] A text belonging to that same series was reproduced in the catalogue of the event Impulse Computerkunst. Grafik – Plastik – Musik – Film (see Franke, 1970). 

[27] The author, already a member of Group Zero, produced a number of markedly experimental films in those years.

[28] Text no. 3142 is taken from Event One, 1969.