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Paula Claire announces publication of her book fromWORDtoART on 18 March 2020 with three blasts of the ramshorn from her attic window

On 18 March 2020, the self-styled ‘poetartist’ Paula Claire, confined to her house by COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, announced the publication of her latest book by three blasts of a ramshorn from her attic window, having invited neighbours and enthusiasts to observe the event at a safe distance from the street below. This ‘happening’, named as such and documented in an insert accompanying the volume, is the most recent expression of what Claire might call her ‘Poetry at Large’. Her practice is rooted in the lyric poetic tradition but stretched to the point of detachment from exclusive literary genealogies, as signalled by the incorporation of extra-semantic media and motifs of all kinds: not just those of concrete, visual, and sound poetry but action and event-based tropes also, with their origins in the neo-dada milieux of 1960s-70s literary London, where Claire cut her teeth as a performer. [1]

The book itself, fromWORDtoART: Browsing the Paula Claire Archive; International PoetArtists, is one of the fruits of Claire’s own publishing project, Paula Claire PoetArtist Publications. It’s clearly realised at considerable expense, in full colour, but the aesthetics of the text–currently available in a limited run of 50, with plans for a larger-scale release down the line–suggest a lack of concern for the boutique minimalism of some contemporary visual and object-based poetics (and for the ostentatious bricolage scruffiness of others). It has the feel, more than anything, of a primer for an educational curriculum, set in MS Word and spiral bound, with Claire beaming back from the cover next to a photograph of her archive, accrued over half a century of restless connection-making and creative exchange from 1970 onwards. There is, in the best possible sense, a lack of guile to the method of presentation here. All the items in the collection were offered in return for publications or artworks of Claire’s, a bartering system which seems just right.

Fig 2 Ammonites
Paula Claire, ‘Ammonites’, 1981. This and all other poems are reproduced from WordsWorkWonders with the kind permission of Paula Claire.

Concrete poetry, the movement (literary or artistic) to which Claire is most appropriately attached, has been defined throughout its history by a connection to pedagogy (often used in schools or university courses as an example of what poetry or writing is at the most elementary level) and, perhaps not coincidentally, by ostracisation from narratives of ‘serious’ modern art or literature. When Joseph Kosuth derided concrete poetry in 1970 as ‘a kind of formalism of typography… cute with words, but dumb about language…,a simplistic and pseudo-avant-garde gimmick’, he set the tone for its reception across a certain portion of the artistic and literary world for decades to come. Concrete poetry was naively, risibly invested in the qualities and connotations of material presence that were being undone by Conceptualism and Post-Structuralism (only to return with force through the new materialisms of the last ten years or so).

By way of reference points, Paula Claire’s practice is defined by the same kind of joyful, Romantic sensuality as that of the sound poet Bob Cobbing, one of her two avowed ‘guiding lights’–along with the Italian text-artist Mirella Bentivoglio. Claire’s curation of the work included in fromWORDtoART–by 100 of the artists and poets represented in her archive whom she considers most significant–reveals a sense of visual and sonic poetries as bearing an almost anthropological significance. Seen like this the book details or recreates the emergence of human character and language, from primal communicative systems (section one) to the accretion of language as pictorial or phonetic code (section two), to the unbinding of the Gutenberg-era page grid (section three). Sections four to six document book-art and event-based works: the movement from poetry to material, bodily, and sensory gesture as a logical extension of the repertoires of human language. Though many developments in extra-semantic poetry and art language were prompted by the emergence of the computer and digital communication systems from the latter half of the twentieth century onwards, the question of non-human languages, and what they suggest about the limits and thresholds of the Human, an ideal which the editorial teleology seems indirectly invested in, is not directly broached. (On the other hand, one work of Claire’s, included in the collection, consists of a photograph of foxes’ pawmarks in snow.)

The formal range and overarching sensual appeal of the work included in the book is, in the truest sense of the word, invigorating. The thematic rather than chronological or geographical arrangement, meanwhile, allows connections to be drawn between times and places in a way which supports the intuitive Structuralism of Claire’s editorial arrangement. Of particular interest is work by a range of women artists exploring the formal dimensions of non-Western writing systems, from Iranian Golnaz Fathi’s calligraphic abstractions based on Persian script to Chima Sunada’s daubed Kanji ideographs. In these cases and others, the quality of emotive abstraction, combined with a suggestion of esoteric communication, is reminiscent of Tachisme or Abstract Expressionism, with their pseudo-orthographies. Amongst the highlights of the book-art section are the ragged, sewn and stitched book-works of Italian artists Maria Lai and Sveva Lanza, both of which make central features of thread or string, playing–like a similar work by Childe Roland, the nom de plume of English-Canadian-Welsh poet-artist Peter Meilleur–on the idea of thread both as a bookbinder’s material and as a binding quality of narrative.

I could continue at length on individual works. In summary, as Gustavo Grandal Montero notes in an essay included in the volume, Claire’s archive is not only ‘very likely the most important private archive in the UK for concrete poetry and related fields’, but also ‘very notable for its excellent representation of female practitioners…often poorly covered in institutional connections’ (45-46). The connections made through arrangement are also testament to the creative prowess of Claire’s editorship, though her own creative practice is better introduced by reference to WordsWorkWonders, a portfolio published a decade ago documenting the development of Claire’s poetry and art from 1961 onwards, in support of her unsuccessful 2010 Oxford Poetry Professorship bid. [2]

Claire has described WordsWorkWonders in conversation as a ‘traditional’ selection. Well, maybe. The strongest connection to pre-twentieth century verse is to the Romantic ballad tradition, particularly in the case of early works such as ‘Flock’ (1961), which also indicate her debt to the phonetic density and sprung rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins (with added, joyful catachresis): ‘Dazzles and glints of birds speaking to the sun,/ Dagger air, cliff down shear it.’ There are also ballads of ecological commitment such as ‘The Blackthorn Tree’, written for a group dance performance in 1992: ‘I can hear the flapping of the blackthorn tree/ rooted in the rock where the wellspring sings.’ In ‘Ode’, the lyric meter breaks apart in a scattering of one-word lines, no clear reading route implied. Maggie O’ Sullivan is in my head as I parse diamond-hard cascades like ‘nylOn/dipthOng/gorgon/ toxic/Acme/hAlo/Abyss/Psalm/Pyx/acE/lyre/zoo.’

Fig 3 Magic Carpets small
Paula Claire, ‘Magic Carpets’, 1996

As this straining at metrical and semantic constraint might imply, Claire is at her best when her commitment to a multi-media practice (visual, material, sonic, event-based) is at its most unapologetic: when the constraints are those imposed by media other than semantic language. Her visual range is wide, running the gamut of techniques developed across the second wave of Dada poetics during the 1950s-70s. ‘Sea Shanty’ and ‘Magic Carpets’ explore the constraints and possibilities of the typewriter’s letter-grid (poetry had its own Rosalind Krauss moment upon discovering this submerged grid in the ‘50s, Charles Olson amongst the polemicists for its use). The second of these poems produces an effect of optical dazzle akin to Op Art, or the ‘optical poems’ of the Czech artist Jiří Valoch.

Fig 4 From Orbiting Junk
Paula Claire, from ‘Orbiting Junk’, 1985-87

‘Orbiting Junk’ is in the category of ‘found poem’, a genre associated with Bob Cobbing but also with the tradition of aleatoric musical scores. Phrases jotted down from an Observer article–‘It has been calculated that in 10 years there will be so much debris it will form a continuous belt that will circle 500-700 miles above the Earth’–are appropriated as components of a prompt for performance, in this case first realised at the Music Department of Houston University in 1986. A subsequent recording at Keele University used fragmented text, multitracking, and electronic effects. The tape-manipulated voiceworks of Henri Chopin are one point of analogy. In other cases, lists of place-names or occupational paraphernalia–as in the ship-rigging terminology of ‘Running Rigging’, ‘Tacks/Jeers/Sheets/Tye/Lifts/Slings/Braces’ – serve as prompts for the more Palaeolithic dynamics of spontaneous group chant.

Fig 5 Running Rigging
Paula Claire, ‘Running Rigging’, 2002

Most arresting are those works where Claire’s painterly, collagist’s, or sculptor’s impulses are given free reign. Two sections of ‘Swimming-Birds-Flying-Fish’ consist of lush marblings, stencilled gaps forming negative pictographs as if on some prehistoric wallscape. ‘Delight for Lovers of Delight’ (1985) is a set of multi-coloured card sculptures daubed in silver and gold inks, inviting a tactile ‘reading’ process through touch, manipulating the works to explore origami-like slips and flaps.

Fig 6 1 From Swimming Birds Flying Fish 1
Fig 6 2 From Swimming Birds Flying Fish 2
From ‘Swimming-Birds-Flying-Fish’ ,1989

The theory-resistant mysticism of some of Claire’s–and Cobbing’s–poetics aside, she is a stalwart of a multi-media poetry community that has only recently found, through Web 2.0, the mobile, global networks which its trans-linguistic poetics always sought. She has been creating and collecting work for this world since 1966, initially in isolation from any movement at all, and for a longer period without the support of an encompassing network of women practitioners. [3]

Fig 7 Delight for Lovers of Delight cropped
Paula Claire, ‘Delight for Lovers of Delight’ ,1985

Primary Information’s forthcoming anthology Women in Concrete Poetry 1959-1979 will offer another chance to view Claire’s work in an international context, one of those it deserves. But encountering her work in the spiral or folio-bound print-outs that are currently our primary means of access to it says something important about her tenacity, creative vigour, and steadfast commitment to a genre-breaking body of work constructed over many decades, in the face of what must have seemed, at times, a yawning silence. A blast of the ramshorn for Paula Claire.


[1] The triumphantly brandished ramshorn has been incorporated into previous live realisations of her works, including of ‘Ammonites’ [1981], whose accompanying performance notes in WordsWorkWonders call for improvisation with ‘ammonites and ramhorn instrument’. Documentation of an interactive performance of ‘Ammonites’ at the 2016 Royal Academy symposium ‘An Aside to Onstage’ can be found here.

[2] WordsWorkWonders can be purchased here. The story of that bid is indicative both of the ongoing institutional marginality of multimedia poetries and the admirably unflappable quality that marks out Claire’s authorial persona. Under no illusions about victory, she hoped her candidacy would–as she put it in her introduction to WordsWorkWonders–reveal a ‘hidden mass of innovative 20th-century poetic forms, showing their relationship with time-honoured styles’, particularly through the media opportunities the application would afford. The University’s announcement of her candidacy suggested entrenchment on this point, demurring even to include the word ‘poet’ in its description of her as an ‘artist and performer’ (before backtracking upon Claire’s objections). She was also amongst the ten–of eleven–candidates denied coverage in the University Gazette prior to voting, with the preferred choice Geoffrey Hill, by contrast, offered a lengthy encomium. Claire’s subsequent resignation from the ballot–which afforded her a slot on Radio 4’s Today Programme to outline her actions–and the story of her candidacy in general was in the best tradition of innovative poets causing trouble for the British literary establishment (see Bob Cobbing and Eric Mottram’s takeover of the Poetry Society during the 1970s.

[3] There is more to be said on the amazing curatorial work of Bentivoglio in fostering some such network. Those seeking out the relevant information should look first at the second issue of Tinted Window [2019], which includes an interview with Claire and takes as its prompt Bentivoglio’s curation of Materializzazione del Linguaggio, an exhibition of text-art by women staged for the 1978 Venice Biennale.


Greg Thomas is a critic and writer based in Glasgow. His book Border Blurs: Concrete Poetry in England and Scotland appeared from Liverpool University Press in 2019. His most recent poetry was published in The Centenary Collection: For Edwin Morgan (Speculative Books, 2020). More info and an up-to-date publication list can be found at gregthomas.online.

Paula Claire is an artist and poet. Her sound-poems can be found here and her books ‘Paula Claire, fromWORDtoART: Browsing the Paula Claire Archive; International PoetArtists’ (Paula Claire PoetArtist Publications, 2020) and ‘WordsWorkWonders’ (Paula Claire PoetArtist Publications, 2010) are available here.