Bob Cobbing obituary (Robert Sheppard, Guardian, Mon 7 Oct 2002)
Bob Cobbing, who has died aged 82, was the major exponent of concrete,
visual and sound poetry in Britain. Long after its international heyday in
the 1960s, he continued to produce visual texts that were also scores for
performance, many of them published as booklets by his Writers' Forum press,
and launched at its associated workshop, which has been meeting in private
houses and rooms above pubs since 1954. His work appears in many
Born in Enfield, Cobbing was brought up within that close religious group,
the Plymouth Brethren. His family ran a sign-writing business. It is
tempting to see this as presaging his later work, but it was probably the
Brethren's work ethic and single-mindedness that left a lasting impact.
During the second world war he was a conscientious objector.
Educated at Enfield Grammar School, he trained as an accountant, and then as
a schoolteacher at Bognor Training College. He began his life-long
engagement with arts organising in the mid-1950s, with Group H and And
magazine in Hendon, which grew into Writers Forum. After leaving teaching in
the early 1960s, he managed the famous underground shop Better Books in
London's Charing Cross Road, venue of many readings and happenings of the
"bomb culture", as his colleague and early Writers Forum poet Jeff Nuttall
called those heady days.
He was a founding member and vice president of the Association of Little
Presses, a self-help organisation for poet-publishers like himself. In the
1970s, he convened Poets Conference, which campaigned for the modernisation
of the post of Laureate. He served on the council of the Poetry Society,
during a turbulent period in its history marked by poetry wars between the
mainstream and experimentalists like himself. Cobbing was awarded a Civil
List pension, a fact he never publicised, and which might be a surprise to
both of the warring factions.
Between 1963 and 2002 Writers' Forum published more than 1,000 pamphlets and
books, many of them his own work, but he was also generous as a publisher to
younger writers, such as Lee Harwood and Maggie O'Sullivan. He issued texts
by John Cage and Allen Ginsberg, and by fellow concrete poets, such as the
Frenchman Pierre Garnier and the Italian Arrigo Lora-Totino, both of whom
were guests at the workshop in the 1990s.
Cobbing's entry into the world of concrete poetry came in 1964, with the
writing of his alphabetical sequence ABC In Sound. Although he claimed the
texts derived from auditory hallucinations during a bout of 'flu, its use of
puns, foreign languages, palindromes and technical jargon suggests elaborate
craftsmanship. The text beginning: "Tan tandinanan tandinane/Tanan tandina
tandinane" already suggests a chanting performance, which it received when
Cobbing was given access to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop with its battery of
Owning the means of production (the office duplicator, the photocopier)
meant that Cobbing could conflate the processes of writing, design and
printing. Performing regularly meant that he could heal the split in
concrete poetry between those who presented silent icons, most famously Ian
Hamilton Finlay, and those who developed the art of pure sound, such as
Henri Chopin. Cobbing's anagrammatic title Sonic Icons was emblematic.
As his texts became progressively freer, any mark - whether letter-shape,
lip imprint, or inkblot - was readable as a sign on the page. Shape and
texture suggested vocalisation and sound to Cobbing and the performers he
increasingly worked with during the 1970s, such as musicians Paul Burwell
and David Toop, and poets Paula Claire and Bill Griffiths.
Moaning, sighing, shouting, even sneezing, became as common as words or
phonetics. In recent years, new collaborators became crucial to his work:
the anarchic thrash noise ensemble of Bird Yak (Hugh Metcalfe on guitar and
amplified gas mask, veteran improviser Lol Coxhill on saxophone, and his
wife Jennifer, dancing); or the extraordinary series of 300 booklets written
with Lawrence Upton, Domestic Ambient Noise, across which the two writers
processed and re-arranged the other's work.
Aesthetically uncompromising, and repellent to some, Cobbing's language
experiments could also be fun - as his work with schoolchildren testified.
He remained alert to the weird linguistic detritus he found everywhere. A
late text plays changes upon Liz Lockhead's contention that "A good fuck
makes me feel like custard". Who could resist Cobbing's rejoinders that "a
good screw makes me feel like wet blancmange" or "a little lechery makes me
feel like spotted dick"?
From his hospital bed, he was still issuing instructions about the latest
edition of And. There are plans to continue the press and the workshop. He
is survived by his wife, Jennifer Pike, and three sons and two daughters
from previous marriages.
Bob Cobbing, poet and publisher, born July 30 1920; died September 29 2002.