If a language is going to support a highly literate culture, rhetoric scholar Richard Lanham has argued, then the language itself must be made of simple parts. That is, the characters that are the building blocks of language must be easy to comprehend and the caligraphy unobtrusive. This is because a reader must be able to internalize an alphabet and effectively look “through” the characters to the meanings they convey. For example, when reading a book, one is often not aware of looking at marks of ink on paper. One is much more aware of the ideas that live under the surface of the words.

This typographical philosophy—simplicity, clarity, transparency—has dominated print culture since the advent of the printing press, Lanham argues. But the twentieth century saw several movements in art and poetry that called this philosophy into question, using typography itself as a medium for meaning, preventing people from looking “through” words and forcing readers to look “at” them.

The Italian Futurists, for example, led by F. T. Marinetti’s 1909 manifesto, began to reject traditional expressions of art and literature as “second-hand clothes.” Among their many targets was the book itself, which Marinetti called “stale” and “oppressive,“ a symbol of the old guard that the Futurists were working against. “In a literate culture,” Lanham wrote in The Electronic Word, “our concept of meaning itself...depends on this radical act of typographical simplification. No pictures; no color; strict order of left to right then down one line; no type changes; no interaction; no revision. In attacking this convention, Marinetti attacks the entire literate conception of humankind.” Marinetti began experimenting with unusual typography, creating poems that were simultaneously textual and visual, such as the 1919 work “SCRABrrRrraaNNG.”

Around the same time, Dada was gaining strength as a coherent artistic movement in Europe. Also a rebellion against traditional art forms, Dadaists were concerned with spontaneity, automatic writing, and chance operations. Collage became an important element in both art and poetry, as did typography. Dadaist Tristan Tzara urged poets to cut words out of newspapers, while artist Kurt Schwitters designed poems with anthropomorphic letters—the character “B” with feet and arms, for example. Dadaists were also interested in poems that were ephemeral and erasable, such as poems written in sand or on a blackboard.

Poetic interest in typography returned in the 1950s and 1960s in the form of Concrete Poetry. These were poems that took certain shapes and could only be grasped when seen on a page. Poet Reinhard Döhl, for example, wrote a concrete poem in the shape of an apple made up entirely of the word “apple” and one instance of the word “worm.” Or Eugen Gomringer’s 1954 poem “Schweigen,” which consists of iterations of the word “schweigen,” a German word relating to silence, which surround an empty, silent space in the third line:

schweigen schweigen schweigen
schweigen schweigen schweigen
schweigen                schweigen
schweigen schweigen schweigen
schweigen schweigen schweigen

The silent space in the third line is the crux of the poem, wrote scholar Roberto Simanowski in the essay “Concrete Poetry in Digital Media,” because, “strictly speaking, silence can only be articulated by the absence of any words.”

Concrete poems continued the typographic experimentation begun by the Futurists, requiring readers to look both “at” and “through” language simultaneously. Thus, as Simanowski wrote, “concrete poetry deals with the relation between the visible form and the intellectual substance of words. It is visual...because it adds the optical gesture of the word to its semantic meaning.”