“Electrónicolírica” by Herberto Helder and PO.EX Combinatorics

Open resource on Electrónico-Lírica
by Herberto Helder

Note from the Publisher: Herberto Helder passed away on Monday, March 23, 2015. To honor his poetic legacy, we wish to celebrate one of his works with this entry by Álvaro Seiça.

Herberto Helder is one of the most consistent and innovative Portuguese poets of the second half of the 20th century. Even if his later œuvre has been marked by a traditional experimentalist reworking of crafted language, whose poiesis engages with a very idiosyncratic vocabulary, one should not forget Helder’s eclectic trajectory. Having been influenced by, among other movements, Surrealism and international avant-garde experimentalism, Herberto Helder was, firstly together with António Aragão (1964), and secondly with Aragão and E. M. de Melo e Castro (1966), the editor of two important anthologies or cadernos (chapbooks), Poesia Experimental 1 [Experimental Poetry 1] and Poesia Experimental 2 [Experimental Poetry 2]. Both these anthologies opened up most of the major pathways of literary and artistic experimentalism in the 1960s, from which the PO.EX (Experimental POetry) movement emerged. Several genres, formal and thematic threads were originally tried out in these two anthologies and further work of the movement, namely concrete and visual poetry, ‘film poetry,’ sound poetry, ‘object-poetry,’ ‘poetic action’ and happening. As Helder points out in the first editorial (“Introdução”) of the cadernos:

Uma concepção unilateral de aventura anularia o princípio básico de busca individual e livre, já que liberdade é, tanto em sentido estético como moral, o primeiro dos signos – o da eficácia. (1964: 6)

[A unilateral conception of adventure would nullify the basic principle of individual and free quest, since in both aesthetic and moral sense freedom is the first of the signs – that of effectiveness.] (Trans. by Seiça)

For now, I am focusing on one side of this adventure, which took shape in diverse experiments with randomness and combinatorics. One of the first focuses given to computational combinatorics as a literary proposal and the “princípio combinatório [como] base linguística para a criação poética” [combinatorial principle as a linguistic foundation for poetic creation] was Herberto Helder’s Electronicolírica [Electroniclyric] (1964). The book’s complex procedural composition – after the return from Italy of António Aragão, an avant-garde vehicle – was influenced, in Helder’s words, by Nanni Balestrini’s combinatorial experiments with an electronic calculator, in his series of generative poems Tape Mark 1 (1961) and Tape Mark 2 (1962). Nevertheless, let us not forget the multiplicity of similar approaches during this period. Melo e Castro had already tackled the mathematical combinatory principle in his poem “Soneto Soma 14x” [Sonnet Sum 14x] (1963: 38) and, later, in the very structure of his essay A Proposição 2.01: Poesia Experimental [The Proposition 2.01: Experimental Poetry] (1965). Simultaneously, António Aragão redistributed selected words from newspapers in the page’s space, enabling numerous recombinant readings in “poesia encontrada” [found poetry] (1964), published in Poesia Experimental 1. The random principle, based on a reading algorithm, would be explored by Salette Tavares in “al gar ismos alfinete” [pin al gor isms (digits)] (1966), a poem published in Poesia Experimental 2. Between 1965 and 1970, Ana Hatherly would recombine linguistic variations, publishing the results in Anagramático [Anagrammatical] (1970), whereas in her extensive theoretical work, Hatherly leaves us a reassessed legacy of a number of writers from the baroque period, punctuated by literary combinatorial experiments and visionary textual machines.

Electronicolírica, which was later renamed as A Máquina Lírica [The Lyric Machine], thus redirects the combinatorial flux in two ways. It shows evidence of influence by computational experiments, but redirects the flux back to the non-computational level of human combinatorial rewriting. However, it reinforces the opposite flux as well, inasmuch as it influenced future recombinant computational works, such as those by Pedro Barbosa and Rui Torres. Another of Helder’s work sustaining my viewpoint is “A Máquina de Emaranhar Paisagens” [The Machine of Entangling Landscapes] (1964). The poem was later recreated by Pedro Barbosa in the database generator “SINtetizador TEXTual” (textual synthesizer) “SINTEXT” (1992-95) in DOS, and, for the Web, “Sintext-W” (1999). Furthermore, Helder’s Húmus (1967) has been one of the basis for Rui Torres’s digital poem Húmus Poema Contínuo (2008).

Herberto Helder’s multiple poetic layers should be acknowledged, therefore, not just for what they have achieved, but also for what they have inspired and triggered in a number of contemporary and, I am sure, future writers and artists.

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