ME de Melo e Castro (1932-2020) – I

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Commentary on similarities and differences between the visual poetry of Melo e Castro and Brazilian concretism

Ernesto Manuel Geraldes de Melo e Castro (1932), who signs his poetic, fictional, theoretical and essayistic work as EM de Melo e Castro, was one of the exponents of the Experimental Poetry movement (PO-EX) in the 1960s, alongside by Ana Hatherly, Salette Tavares, Antônio Aragão and Herberto Helder. In this article, we will comment on the resonance of the aesthetics of the ideogram in his textual production, the presence of visuality and the juxtaposition of signs in his poetry, in addition to the creative dialogue with the haiku, remodeled by the author in a four-line structure with an erotic theme, in dissonance with the almost absence of the love element in traditional haiku.

The erotic-loving theme will be more frequent in Japanese poetry from the Meiji Restoration onwards, highlighting the production of Yosano Akiko (1878-1942), author of verses like these, translated by Donatella Natili and Álvaro Faleiros: “listen to the poem / how to deny the carmine / of the flower of the field? / delights the girl / sinning in the spring” (Akiko, 2007: 53). In the book Ideograms, published in 1962, Melo e Castro brings together 29 concrete poems, published without any introduction or explanatory note; This is ground zero for Concrete Poetry and Experimentalism in Portugal (although it is possible to trace a prehistory of visuality in Portuguese poetry in the Mannerist and Baroque era, a theme studied by Ana Hatherly in The experience of the prodigy: theoretical bases and anthology of Portuguese visual texts from the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, and also in scattered compositions by Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Mário Cesariny, Jaime Salazar Sampaio or Alexandre O'Neill).

The strategy adopted by Melo e Castro in this collection of poems establishes a clear consonance between graphic-spatial arrangement and referent: thus, in the poem Pendulum, letters and syllables are distributed on the page in order to suggest a pendular movement (Figure 1); in Building, the letters that make up the poem are inserted in vertical and horizontal lines, simulating the contours of a building; in Rhythm, the graphic variation of the text indicates the alternation of strong and weak beats of the musical measure, in addition to visually reinforcing the ambiguity relations between the words rhythm and laughter.

Figure 1

The visual representation of the poem's signifier, in Ideograms de Melo e Castro, recalls the experiences of Guillaume Apollinaire in the calligrams (1918), as for example in the play it is raining (Figure 2), in which the verses, arranged in vertical and inclined lines, simulate the rain itself – an experience that may have inspired the composition rainwater / river, by Augusto de Campos (Figure 3), with a clear methodological difference: while Apollinaire preserves verse and linear syntactic discourse within the new semantic architecture, Augusto de Campos breaks with versification and grammatical thinking, building his poem with just two words.

Figure 2

In this regard, Haroldo de Campos writes: “It is quite true that Apollinaire's 'handwriting' is lost in pictography, external, imposed (in the poem in the form of objects, in the artificial figuration of the composition); but its theoretical formulation (…) is fruitful and prophetic” (in: Campos, Pignatari, Campos, 1975: 97).

The mimetic relationship background / form, however, is only the most superficial aspect in the appropriation of the principle of the ideogram by concrete poets, who valued, above all, the juxtaposition or montage technique of Chinese and Japanese ideographic poetry. “In this process of composition” – say Fenollosa and Pound – “two things combined do not produce a third, but suggest some fundamental relationship between both” (Campos, Pignatari, Campos, 1975: 96). "In the corners, by EP, the ideogram is the structural principle presiding over the interaction of blocks of ideas, which criticize, reiterate and illuminate each other” (idem), writes Haroldo de Campos in the text Aspects of Concrete Poetry. The Brazilian poet and essayist continues: “The isolation of thematic nuclei in chains of essences and medulla imposes an awareness of the graphic space as a factor for organizing the body of the poem (see, in this sense, especially, the Pisan chants and the section rock drill, last published, 1955)” (idem).

Figure 3

The poetry of Melo e Castro, despite the obvious approximations that can be made with the ideogram – in terms of conciseness, visuality, rupture with syntax and with linear discourse, replaced by the agglutination of semantic particles in graphic-spatial structures –, does little to use of the analogical juxtaposition of signs that characterizes the ideogram; in most of the compositions in his book, as is the case with Pendulum and Rainbow, the iconic figurativism of Apollinaire predominates, or even kinetic experiences that dialogue with the visual poetry of the Portuguese baroque, as is the case of Tontura (Figure 4), composed of a single word, which is fragmented into different sequences of letters, arranged in circles concentric. The poem requests a new reading dynamic to reproduce, through playful movement, the effect desired by the composition. In this poem, as well as in other works by Ideograms, of course the use of combination, permutation, anagram and labyrinthine reading techniques that allow for a multiplicity of routes of interpretation and construction of meaning, a theme studied by Umberto Eco in his classic book Open Work, from 1962 (preceded by an article by Haroldo de Campos, published in 1955 in the newspaper Diário de São Paulo).

Figure 4

A curious composition of the volume, which approaches the principle of analogical montage of the ideogram, is the poem (untitled) that associates the antithetical terms yes and no to the verbs to read, see, have and be, aligned in vertical columns and arranged in different sequences (Figure 5). The visual formatting of the piece, close to abstractionism, obeys a structural and rhythmic logic that dispenses with the mimetic relationship between background and form. The reader is invited to go through the poem through several labyrinthine trails, building multiple reading possibilities: we can think, in this case, of the “ideogram as a relational process, as a structural metaphor”.

Figure 5

in rehearsal ideogram, anagram, diagram, Haroldo de Campos states that, in Chinese thought, “opposites are not excluded, but integrated into a dynamic, mutually complementary interrelationship” (Campos, 2000: 84). This means that, instead of the “logic of identity” typical of Western logic, a “logic of correlation” prevails in the Chinese system of ideas, where the interest is “in the interrelationship of signs (characters), not in substance” ( ditto, 84-85). To the syllogism of Greek origin, based on the “logic of identity”, Chinese thought prefers analogy.

Melo e Castro's poem, which between “yes” and “no” profiles four verbs in the infinitive, without a subject (even hidden), offers the reader all possibilities of analogy and, therefore, of construction of meanings. The Portuguese poet, by the way, was unaware, in the mid-1960s, of Chinese or Japanese poetry, and became aware of the principle of the ideogram through Brazilian concrete poets, who in turn absorbed the reflections of Fenollosa, Ezra Pound and Eisenstein on ideographic writing.

Differently from the experiences carried out by Ana Hatherly in the same period, with Mapas da Imaginação e da Memória (Lisboa: Moraes Editores, 1973), which dialogue with the materiality of Chinese writing and its calligraphic character, Melo e Castro practiced an approach more conceptual of the ideogram, with the filter of resources from baroque visual poetry and from the avant-garde poetry of the first decades of the XNUMXth century.

Melo e Castro's visual work goes beyond iconic mimicry and approaches a new geometry of composition in later works, such as the second collection of Ideograms (1966), the kinetics (also from 1966) and above all the infopoems (1998), the latter performed with computer programs. The untitled poem that opens the notebook of the new Ideograms is made up of seven intersecting words (heart / breath / inspiration / expiration / space / arm / hug), with the letters in different bodies and fonts, arranged in a set without discernible contours: figurativism gives way to abstraction and reading becomes the terrain of combination, permutation and ambiguity (Figure 6):

Figure 6

In another piece of the cycle, the words Mon, woman, name e love are dismembered and the letters, repeated and recombined in different anagrammatic sequences, forming purely abstract images and sounds (Figure 7) – experience radicalized in another piece, composed by the repetition of only two letters, sez, combined and merged until the deformation and stain (Figure 8):

Figure 7
Figure 8

The series of poems entitled kinetics, as its name implies, is a set of visual poems that simulate movement: different versions of each graphic image (composed of geometric designs and eventually also words, syllables or letters) are arranged in sequences that recall the language of cinema. The piece dedicated to silence, made up of five rectangles, two colors (white / black) and a single word (silence) is the one that comes closest to the principle of the ideogram, as understood by Fenollosa: the meaning of the composition is constructed by the relationship between the images, in a visual representation of the sound that turns into silence.

Figure 9

We infopoems, it is worth highlighting the pieces of the sequence entitled Transfilm, in which the letters are deformed and converted into points, lines, stains and purely abstract figures, devoid of any semantic value or possibility of reading (Figure 9). In these compositions, which dissolve the boundaries between literature, painting, technology and graphics, Melo e Castro obtains expressive plastic results, comparable to the graphic noises of his illustrious ancestors, the master Japanese calligraphers:

Figure 10

Explicit dialogue with Japanese poetry will be realized in the series Erotic Haiku, a set of 14 poems that make up the volume Between rigor and excess: a bone, published in 1994. Contrary to the triplet adopted in most Western attempts to adapt this poetic genre, Melo e Castro adopts the quartet (let us remember that the traditional Japanese haiku could be written in one, two, three or four lines, with the quartet the form adopted by Wenceslau de Moraes in his pioneering transpositions of haiku into Portuguese), without fixed metric measures, although the lines, in general, are close to Portuguese roundels.

All of the pieces in the series are written in lowercase, without punctuation, with rare internal rhymes (“on the wave anda”, “black blonde”, “beijo axis”), in a style close to that of other experimental compositions by the poet (such as the poems most concise of the volume of radiant bodies, from 1982). The Portuguese author disregards the classic conventions of the genre, such as the presence of the sign of the season of the year (the kigo), the reference to the place where the poem was written and, above all, the action, the sudden movement that makes the connection between the sky (eternity), man and earth (world of phenomena).

Melo e Castro does not intend to Japaneseize his lyric, in an easy acclimatization of lotus flowers, cherry trees, silent temples, samurai and other elements repeated with certain frequency by western poets who try to reproduce what they imagine to be Japan, haiku and zen- Buddhism. The Portuguese poet chose to work the Japanese way without giving up his cultural repertoire, his European training; he does not want to convince the reader that his sensibility is close to that of Bashô and his disciples, nor to pretend a simplicity that contradicts his voluntary refinement. Renouncing the cliché, Melo e Castro performs a microlyric of extreme originality, starting with the erotic theme, absent in the traditional Japanese haiku. His language is fragmentary, elliptical, and the lines follow one another quickly, as in a video clip: “nipples islands / from the elastic sea / flowers / on the skin of the chest” (idem, 177). The transformation of the human body into a map where they are scattered

islands, seas and flowers is a metaphorical resource close to baroque preciosity; in another composition, of apparent simplicity, the figure used is metonymy: “deep and clear / the obscure flow / corner of the open eye” (idem). The (almost) absence of rhymes is compensated, in most of the pieces, by sound games of an alliterative nature (“the saliva knows”, “vulva / vacant volume”, “null of nothing”) or even by assonances (“do sol o touch", "flight in rhythm", "of the double wings"). In all the micropoems in the series, the touchstone is the representation of the erotic act based on associations with elements of nature, which materialize love in its animal dimension; as an unexpected climax (anticlimax?), the last third annuls the rules of the game, in a deliberately abstract figuration of ecstasy: “total orgasm / void of nothing / light / on enlightenment”, lines that recover words from the Zen-Buddhist vocabulary, but reconfigured in another field of references: in Melo e Castro's poetic erotography, meaning comes from the body.

* Claudio Alexandre de Barros Teixeira He holds a PhD in Portuguese Literature from the University of São Paulo (USP).

Originally published in the magazine Via Atlantica, No. 27, June 2015.



AKIKO, Yosano. disheveled. Brasília: University of Brasília Publishing House, 2007. Translation: Donatella Natili and Álvaro Faleiros.

CAMPOS, Haroldo de. Ideogram. Sao Paulo, Edusp, 2000.

CAMPOS, Augusto and Haroldo de and PIGNATARI, Décio. Concrete poetry theory. São Paulo: Two Cities, 1975.

DANIEL, Claudio. The aesthetics of the labyrinth: baroque and modernity in Ana Hatherly. Bauru: Lumme Editor, 2010.

FALEIROS, Álvaro. Translation and significance in Apollinaire's calligrams: graphic space, meter and phonic texture (São Paulo: EDUSP, 2003).

HATHERLY, Anna. Maps of imagination and memory. Lisbon: Moraes Editores, 1973.

__________. The experience of the prodigy — theoretical bases and anthology of Portuguese visual texts from the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. Lisbon. National Press – Mint, 1983.

__________ and MELO E CASTRO, IN PO.EX — Theorists and documents of Portuguese experimental poetry (with EM de Melo e Castro). Lisbon: Moraes Editores, 1981.

MELO E CASTRO, IN ephemeral anthology. Rio de Janeiro: Lacerda editors, 2000.



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