Åke Hodell: igevär
Stockholm: Kerberos, 1963, 51p.
In 1963, the Swedish poet and visual artist Åke Hodell (1919–2000) entered the stage of the neo-avant-garde through a performance in Stockholm of his two new works igevär (which has been approximately translated as “presentarms”) and General Bussig (a title that has previously been translated as General Buddy-Buddy). The event marks a transition in Hodell’s production, from the metaphorical and expressive language of his first two books of poetry towards an experimental and intermedial practice of sound poetry, visual poetry and performance. Moreover, it marks a moment when the ideas behind Öyvind Fahlström’s manifesto for concrete poetry – published almost a decade earlier in 1954 – belatedly found fertile ground among Swedish poets. At this point, the local branch of concrete poetry became a significant element in the experimental art scene in Stockholm, a city that attracted visits from many international artists at the time through the networks of institutions such as the new museum for modern art, Moderna Museet, and the experimental music association Fylkingen. In this context, Åke Hodell’s igevär is an example of how literature seeks new directions in the neo-avant-garde through a double and contradictory movement that on the one hand explores the page and the book as materials and mediums, and, on the other, seeks to escape the confines of the book in favour of readings, performances, exhibitions etc.. Hodell’s work anticipates his text-sound-compositions from the end of the decade, and the more technically elaborate productions of the Electronic Music Studio in Stockholm, EMS. Above all, however, Hodell’s igevär is an exemplary case of the literary neo-avant-garde due to its fusion of form and politics, as well as its paradigmatic emphasis on the material, conceptual, and performative aspects of writing.
The Swedish title igevär is a contraction of the two words “i gevär”, which is a military drill command that can be approximately translated as “present arms”. This is also how the title is translated in the late collection of Åke Hodell’s text-sound-compositions Verbal Brainwash and Other Works (2000) – which the author acknowledged shortly before his death in the same year – while a French recording of the piece, as performed by the author, renders it as “présentez armes”. The author has used the same title to present three different versions of the work: as a stage performance, as a printed book, and as a sound recording. Later exhibitions of the work, where prints of the text were displayed on gallery walls could be counted as a fourth version with its own medium specifics. The main characteristic of the poem is that the title is the same as the text – the text is the title and nothing more. In the recording and the stage versions, however, it is stretched out in time as a very long pronunciation of a very short phrase. In the book and gallery versions, the individual letters of the title are instead repeated multiple times so as to produce a spatially extended text.
The work was first presented as a stage performance at a show with the concretist title 100/f POL. 1448, 56–>, held in November 1963 in Stockholm at the Z-hall in the new building for ABF, The Workers’ Educational Association. On this occasion, the piece was collectively performed by six readers and followed by a performance of Hodell’s anti-militarist poem General Bussig (General Buddy-Buddy), during which Hodell wore a miner’s headlamp, the light of which swept over the audience in a demonstration of what he would later call a “verbal brainwash”. The first of these two sound poems, igevär, thus consisted solely of the two words “i gevär” (in arms, or present arms) but pronounced so slowly that the performance took around ten minutes (Nylén 1998: 72). In view of the sustained duration of the three vowels of the phrase, the result could be compared with contemporary minimalist music, such as that of La Monte Young. In the case of Hodell’s work, however, the central effect lies in the difference between the military function of the original phrase and the semantically void utterance that results from the extended reading of it, in other words in the transition from language to sound.
Only two weeks after the original performance in Stockholm, the print version of igevär was to appear as the first title of Hodell’s one-man publishing house Kerberos. The poem was presented as a small booklet, in which the phrase from the title was drawn out over the oblong pages, resulting in long rows of repeated lowercase letters. Entire pages are filled with lines of i’s:
iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii (Hodell, 1963)
To be precise, the book contains “31 680 ‘i’s over slightly more than twelve pages, followed by a ‘gev’ on page 13 and thereafter 66 556 ‘ä’s over a total of 35 pages, and at the very bottom of page 48 an ‘r’” (Haglund 2009:24). The book could be regarded as a score for the acoustic versions of the work, but in view of is strong graphical expression and the fact that it is printed as a separate booklet with no reference to the performed versions, it rather functions as an artist’s book or a concrete poem in its own right. Indeed, an excerpt of the poem was featured in Emmett Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry from 1967.
The first recorded version was released in 1965 and featured both of Hodell’s works from the original performance. Here, as in the performance, the single phrase “i gevär” (present arms) is pronounced just once, but very slowly: the duration of the work is approximately eight minutes, during which we hear around two minutes of “iiiiiiiiiiiii…”, followed by a short “gev” and then almost six minutes of “äääääää…” Although the linguistic structure of the two words are preserved, the effect is thus that the semantic content of the phrases transmutes into sound rather than meaning as the vowels are sustained in a vibrating vocal tone. The printed version similarly turns the reader’s attention from the meaning of the phrase as it is spelled on the title page, to the visual effect of the typography in the inlay, where the text meets the eye as an image rather than as words with a decodable semantic meaning.
Compared to literary works that respect the basic components of poetic language, such as metaphors, allusions, imagery, and words, Hodell’s igevär calls for a different set of questions. It is apparent that Hodell’s piece does not work in the same way as for instance a symbolist poem or a modernist poem. It does not rely on the production of a complex semantic content but approaches language and poetry from a completely different angle. It primarily calls for an initial shift from interpretation to function. Even if the work, as we will see, does not eventually abandon meaning and the following call for interpretation; the central question is no longer “what does it mean”, but “how does it work?”
Well, how does it? Let us highlight three of its key features. First of all, igevär activates the material aspects of poetry. In his manifesto for concrete poetry from 1954, Öyvind Fahlström had stated that “[i]t is certain that words are symbols, but there is no reason why poetry couldn’t be experienced and created on the basis of language as concrete material”. In Fahlström’s wording, language is something you should “squeeze” and “knead”. He writes: “We can obtain unexpected values from – as we now see it – the most amputated and kneaded (fragmentised) word elements and phrases. SQUEEZE language matter: that is what can be titled concrete” (Fahlström 1954). These are strategies that Hodell puts into practice with igevär, which treats language as matter that can be found and altered. Speaking with Fahlström, the military phrase “present arms” has been kneaded into unrecognizability and stretched if not squeezed. It is a very hands-on approach to language that foregrounds its materiality. The listener or the reader is not primarily confronted with the conventional signification of language, but with the sound of the voice or with the visual effects of typography. This shift might stand in opposition to the prevalence of semantic content, but it is not entirely opposed to representation. Contemporary reviewers did for instance note the visual likeness of the lines of ‘i’s to rows of soldiers. The structure of igevär is thus literally a stichic – bearing in mind that the Greek stíchos not only signifies a line of poetry but also a file of soldiers. Guided by the stretched phrase’s connotation of a military domain, the anonymous repetition of ‘i’ as a graphic element also evokes associations to the endless rows of headstones in war cemeteries.
Second, Hodell’s igevär is a highly conceptual work. Although it underscores the material aspects of writing in its execution, the idea behind the work is inseparable from the work itself. We could easily discuss the key features of the work, and even make a critical statement about its artistic quality, even if we had not actually seen or heard the poem, but only had its idea related to us. Simply put, the author has taken a phrase from its context of use, altered it and handed it back to us in a different shape and context. Since no words have been added or removed, with the exception of the colophon in the printed version and the paratexts that inform us that Åke Hodell is the author and Kerberos the publishing house, the poem is sufficiently similar to the original phrase to preserve its connection to it, and yet sufficiently dissimilar to become something totally different. Whereas the original phrase is usually uttered as a command, the mere act of writing it down and extending the letters into space make it inoperable as a command. Somewhat paradoxically, then, the work produces meaning through its attempt at destroying the meaning of its source phrase. The idea is to stretch language towards the point where signification is about to collapse, in this case to push the military phrase towards unreadability. The command dissolves into the space of the page where it is dismembered and stretched, or into the monotonous intonation of three continuous vowel sounds, momentarily separated by brief consonants, turning the phrase from military order into minimal music. igevär thus stages an unusually literal “demilitarization of language”, to speak with John Cage (Cage 1973: x).
This description of the conceptual status of the work leads us to its third and final key feature. Since the crucial idea behind Hodell's igevär fully emerges only if we consider the poem as an action, or as the result of an action, it follows that it is also a performative work. That is not because it has been performed on stage, but because the poem relies on the performative aspects of writing for its production of meaning. In order to grasp what it means we need to ask what it does. In that respect, the term “performativity” is employed in a more general sense than the initial, narrow definition that J.L. Austin gives it in his theory of speech acts (Austin 1975). Even an Austinian understanding of the concept does, however, apply to the work in question. The military command that constitutes igevär – “present arms” is a typical example of the performative in the sense that Austin outlined in his lecture series How to Do Things With Words. It is a phrase that is normally uttered with the intent of effectuating a certain action, in this case that of shouldering arms. It is, in other words, a “performative” rather than a “constative”: an utterance to effect something (whether successful or not) rather than a statement that relates or describes something. The performative act is the order that the utterance conveys: “I hereby order you to present your arms”. This is, however, merely the first instance, and it would apply to the military command whether Hodell had tampered with it or not. The performative aspect of Hodell’s work lies in another form of action: that of citing a speech act and distorting it, as well as transferring it to a literary scene.
The performative gesture of this poem is the key to its politics. Whereas Jacques Derrida accused Austin of wrongly describing the relation of literature to ordinary language as parasitic (Derrida 1990), it is exactly this parasitic stance that is transformed into an aesthetics of resistance by Hodell. In Hodell’s case, however, it is not so much a question of how to do things with words, as a question of how to undo things with words. It is not that Hodell’s works are performative in a way that ordinary language (or his specific sources, such as military language) is not. To the contrary, Hodell exploits the general performativity of language to deconstruct, knead or detour the languages he uses. Just as the performative take on language of igevär draws on the performative function of language in its source context, its foregrounding of the visual components of the written word rather than the semantic content of the commando builds on a conception of the army itself as writing in its most extended sense, an inscription of the subject in a regulated system and simultaneously an inscription of a set of rules in the individual. If we acknowledge these performative and material aspects of igevär, the act of distorting a pre-existing linguistic system stands out, the order becoming a metonymy for the larger structures that create and regulate the military subject. Commenting on both igevär and his subsequent artist’s book Orderburch, which deals with the Holocaust through the literary form of a list, the author himself found that “The secret of igevär and Orderbuch lies in this formulation: A moral standpoint can exist in a form” (Hodell et al. 1966: 6).
Central as these ideological aspects are to Hodell’s igevär, they should not, however, be allowed to obscure the aesthetic implications of the work as regards the status of poetry. Obstructing conventions that treat writing as a more or less transparent medium, the printed version of igevär foregrounds the visual aspects of typography, the long rows of letters making the spatiality of the page stand forth. The acoustic version similarly enacts a transition from the semantic meaning of language and towards the timbre of the voice and the properties of language as sound. In addition, Hodell’s performances of the work on stage tours underscore the bodily presence of the voice in the room but also the similarity with, and by consequence the contrast to, the use of the command in its military context. These different manifestations of the work all point to an avant-garde conception of poetry that highlights the outside of the literary tradition, i.e. its formats and procedures as opposed to its inner, hermetic meaning. This is not to say that the avant-garde totally abandons the dimensions of content and internal reflection, but to point out how an attentiveness to the forms and external surfaces of art runs as one of its central veins.
Igevär manifests a double motion in which writing simultaneously foregrounds the medium of the book and leaves it behind in order to bring poetry to other domains than the printed text. The work is an illustrative example of how the experimental practices of the neo-avant-garde challenge established notions of literature and, in so doing, demand a reconsideration not only of the notion of literature, but also of its place within the system of the arts.
Considered in relation to Åke Hodell’s oeuvre as a whole, igevär marks a turning point in the author’s development. It indicates the point where he leaves symbolic and metaphoric modernism behind in favour of experimental and intermedial approaches that we can recognize from the tradition of the avant-garde. The original performance of the work in 1963 was moreover one of the events that indicated the establishment of a local neo-avant-garde with connections to concrete poetry as well as to the open art scene in Stockholm.
While the importance of Hodell’s sound poetry was acknowledged by international colleagues such as Henri Chopin and Bob Cobbing, his piece igevär does not stand out in an international avant-garde context through its dissemination or possible influence on other works. It does, however, contribute to an understanding of the multiple centres of the neo-avant-garde, and to how the avant-garde in general functions as a transnational tradition with a strong internal continuity in terms of its forms and procedures.
Above all, however, Åke Hodell’s poem has an exemplary value. Through its accomplished literary reduction, the poem clearly manifests the material, performative, and conceptual dimensions of writing. Hodell’s igevär, in other words, paradigmatically demonstrates an approach to poetry as thing, thought, and event. If we seek to understand how the notion of writing is transformed successively by the avant-gardes during the 20th century, acknowledging the importance of these three aspects might not be a bad place to start.
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- —. Verbal Brainwash and other works. Stockholm: Fylkingen Records, 2000. 3 cd’s.
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- Williams, Emmet (ed.). An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. New York: Primary Information, 2013 [Something Else Press, 1967].