the origin of the term “dirty concrete poetry” (en route to digital D.I.Y.)

(“Quebec Bombers” by bill bissett)

By Lori Emerson

Some time ago I wrote a post on netpoetic about Meaning as Making: From Dirty Concrete to Critical Code. Since then, I have been working on turning this post-turned-conference-paper into an essay for a special issue of the Canadian journal Open Letter on Steve McCaffery. This piece now has the title “Marking as Meaning: Reading Steve McCaffery’s Dirty Concrete as Digital D.I.Y.” and in it I’ve tried to delineate a history of the term “dirty concrete” – a term which is frequently used to describe a messy, typed-over aesthetic of concrete poems by McCaffery as well as bpNichol and bill bissett. I thought it worthwhile posting here some of the bits and pieces I’ve picked up along the way on this strange, long journey to discover the origin of the term – a journey which has still not yet come to an end!

Once again, out of the research I have been doing on digital poetry and digital Do-It-Yourself (D.I.Y.) communities, I am coming to think that McCaffery’s so-called “dirty concrete poem” Carnival – as well as his lesser known but no less relevant typestracts such as “Broken Mandala” and “Vowel-Grid Sequence” – can usefully be read through, or alongside, both communities of practice. These groups comprise a movement not only to democratize the creative process, but they also reflect a desire to make this same democratization possible through techniques which draw attention to the literary artifact as both a created and mediated object – techniques which essentially turn the artifact inside-out. It is a philosophy of making, similarly exemplified by the dirty concrete poem, that erodes the division between surface and depth, inside and outside.

The term “dirty concrete” has become a fairly well-used term to describe a deliberate attempt to move away from the clean lines and graphically neutral appearance of the concrete poetry from the 1950s and 60s by the Noigandres in Brazil and Ian Hamilton Finlay in England (a cleanliness that can also be construed to indicate a lack of political engagement with language and representation). Yet, despite the references and discussion around dirty concrete, there is no clear, written account of who originally used this term. As Steve McCaffery wrote to the Poetics Listserv, this could be simply due to the fact that certain concrete poets were meeting in person and so I assume they were not at that time invested invested in writing down their thoughts and activities for posterity’s sake.

After corresponding with a number of poetry critics and practitioners, as far as I have been able to determine the term “dirty concrete” was first used either by the English critic Mike Weaver or the Canadian critic Stephen Scobie; however, there are no documents that prove this definitively. 1 Still, it is worth noting that the first written reference appears in a letter Nichol wrote to Nicholas Zurbrugg, the editor of Stereo Headphones, in 1970 in which Nichol claims he learned of the term from Stephen Scobie (and Scobie informed me in a recent email that he learned of it from Mike Weaver). The term was likely then put into broader circulation first by way of bill bissett’s 1973 “Quebec Bombers” in pass th food release th spirit book which, as Jack David describes it, “begins with the phrase ‘dirty concrete poet’ repeated twice, then changes to ‘the concrete is dirty dirty,’ ‘sum like it clean what dew they ooo.’ . . . the comparison presents the clean ordered life of a capitalist system and the dirty chaotic life of the lower classes.” In the same article Jack David claims that Rosalie Murphy refers to “dirty concrete” in her 1970 Contemporary Poets of the English Language. (99) However: I inspected the Murphy book and could find no reference anywhere to either dirty or clean concrete poetry. In fact, Frank Davey informed me that David is in fact referring to Davey’s own 1971 definition of clean and dirty concrete that he includes in Earle Birney and which he wrote with the assistance of bpNichol: “Concrete is usually divided by its devotees into ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’. In clean concrete, the preferred and dominant type, the visual shape of the work is primary, the linguistic signs secondary. In this view the most effective concrete poems are those with an immediate and arresting visual effect which is made more profound by the linguistic elements used in the poems constituent parts. The weakest are dirty concrete, those with amorphous visual shape and complex and involute arrangements of linguistic elements. In dirty concrete there can be no immediate to the whole, only a cumulative interpretation gained by painstaking labour.” (65) In the same email correspondence, Frank Davey writes that “When I met bp in 1970, he told me that clean concrete was a kind you could understand by looking but not reading, and that dirty was the kind that had a visual shape made of phases or clauses or sentences that had to be read as well as viewed. (But he didn’t attribute that theory to anyone.)”

The term was also picked up in Stephen Scobie’s 1984 book-length study bpNichol: What History Teaches in which he aligns Mike Weaver’s use of the terms “expressionist” and “constructivist” with Ian Hamilton Finlay’s “suprematist” and “fauvre” and claims that “[m]ore simply, bpNichol spoke of a division between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ concrete.” (Scobie 35, 139)

I hope some of you find this history interesting – I am planning to interview Mike Weaver over the phone next week and I hope to put online the transcript. Some of you might recognize Weaver’s name because he was one of the first English-speaking critics to write about Concrete Poetry in 1964 and he also organized the First International Exhibition of Concrete and Kinetic Poetry also in 1964. He is a foundational figure in the history and development of concrete poetry which, in turn, has exerted tremendous influence over contemporary digital poetry and e-literature.

Incidentally, Frank Davey sent me scans of letters that Dom Sylvester Houedard and Zurbrugg sent to the Canadian poetry and digital poetry pioneer, bpNichol; one of the fascinating things about these letters is that they indicate that concrete poets were reading Marshall McLuhan as early as the mid-1960s and thinking about concrete poetry in terms of medium and message. I have posted these letters online at

[1] I am tremendously grateful to George Bowering, Jack David, Frank Davey, Jamie Hilder, Steve McCaffery, Stephen Scobie, and Darren Wershler for their attempts to help me track down the history of the term “dirty concrete.”

This post first appeared on netpoetic on March 12, 2011.