To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, November 14, 2011

Karl Young: From “Bringing the Text Back Home” (first excerpt)

[Bringing the Text Back Home contains two books based in fragments of early Jewish and Latin writing. These are completed by translations into appropriate modern languages by distant descendents of the original writers. It has taken 36 years to get the basic cycle completed. The basic project includes notes, but will also gather spin-offs and adjuncts in further poems, essays, and translations by a number of participants. The first book is a Holocaust memorial and a tribute to survival. Both books explore means of creating rhythm for people who read silently, a logical and perhaps inevitable outcome of full alphabetic writing. As with the survival of the Jewish and Latin cultural lineages, an evolutionary dialectic of experiment and resistance to change has been necessary for the survival of the form of reading and writing we see as standard and basic. The passage reproduced in this blog is commentary and explanation of method and significance of the first book, Cried and Measured. ]


“Loss” is an enormous word. It can range from triviality, as in the loss of a penny, to the destruction of that which is most important in an individual life or that of a culture or race. It may come about as the result of the sort of chance that has no room for meaningful synchronicity to betrayal to the most severe forms of malice. That penny I just mentioned could be extremely important to a coin collector. Still, this is small in relation to the losses of the Holocaust, the Gulags, or the nuclear weapons used against Japan. My current project, “Bringing the Text Back Home” concludes a long cycle for me, with the translation of two books written in the 1970s. In this project, I explore poetic possibilities of written fragments; that is, scraps of writing on the extreme cusp of being lost.

Loss is different from natural recycling, the process by which things lose their current forms and become reintegrated into something new. Loss is the disappearance of something that could still have use and value, even if only for the way it perpetuated the grain of life as lived at a certain time and not otherwise recorded or retained.

When dealing with fragments, we are often also dealing with origins, or the closest we can come to origins. A fragmentary text could not have been the only text of a society and still be read. But it may contain the first hint or the first record of something whose complete origin is lost.

It seems a natural part of our psyches to try to reassemble fragments and to deduce as much as we can from them. This may in part come from our desire to know and commune with our origins. It may relate to a desire to preserve and to save. It may also include simple and basic curiosity, a sort of inbred desire to solve puzzles. Whatever the case, it seems to have an inherent poetic cast in many instances.

Ezra Pound, one of my strongest guides as a poet, worked extensively with fragments. One which acted as a starting point for my own interest in them was a fragment of a poem possibly written by Sappho, and presented as a poem itself, not as part of the elaborate structures Pound built from fragments as he found new uses for them. Its title is “PAPYRUS” and it reads

Spring. . . . . . .
Too long. . . . . . .
Gongula. . . . . . .

This poem echoed the interest in East Asian miniatures of Pound and his colleagues. In addition to its status as a few legible words at the cusp of being completely lost, it also suggests the experience of loss in one of its poignant forms: the loss of love. Unlike other fragments Pound worked with, this one not only functions on a small, close, intimate scale, its brevity also calls for greater attention to individual words. In this instance, the words are as plain as they can get, with the exception of the name of a possible student of Sappho. The name acquires extra force by its unusualness and the specificity which it has, perhaps ironically, returned to multi-directional ambiguity.

During the 1960s, I used fragments in a similar manner. Part of their function was their brevity and the potential of making rhythmic patterns not by stresses or other sonic devices, but by playing simple, dull words off of more complex ones. In some instances, I could expand a word into a miniature poem-within-a-poem. Thus I could render “heart” by describing it: “two sets; four ventricles.”


I published my first fragment-based poems using mimeo machines. These gave the letters a strong textural character, usually with rough edges. In the early 1970s, I began enlarging short poems to enhance the tactile quality of the letters. This came as part of an attempt at making patterns out of words, in the combined use of poetry and visual art which had been growing since childhood. 

The earliest graphic bases for my visual poetry, including fragment pieces, came less from literary models than from accidents of autobiography. My parents didn’t discover that I had intersecting visual problems, based on near sightedness, until I was 8 years old. Getting my first pair of glasses was one of the most important events in my early life.: I’ve already written about it extensively and probably will continue to do so. As a quick summary for the present purposes, I learned to read shortly after I became able to see the world further than a few inches from one eye as more than a blur of largely meaningless colors. This created multiple layers of euphoria and desire to make something of the new world that included reading and distinct images. I wanted to write and I wanted to paint. I could understand no good reason why I should separate them. I learned that the world in general thought the two activities should necessarily and always be divided, but never accepted this segregation. Besides, outside the accepted arts, the two often appeared together, particularly in advertising and packaging. Words could even stream across television screens. So why should I separate my writing and painting except for those occasions when I wanted to concentrate particularly on one of them or there seemed some special reason to do so? I found the supreme combination of word and image in the neon lights in the downtown area at night. Not only were these magic in their luminosity, they seemed much more free to play and experiment than any other disposition of letters. Running letters down instead of horizontally, from left to right, had the strongest impact on me, and I have yet to exhaust the suggestions of an advertising convention which probably originated simply in the need to conserve horizontal space, to get enough letters to make a bright and bold word or two in a space also used to display merchandise or support other texts and images. Such columns of letters could be surrounded by frames of lights or sport a star or other icon at their top, or be wired in such a way as to light up one letter at a time on their downward descent and perhaps flash on and off when the text had completely lit up.

I found more text and art interlaced as I moved through school. This came almost entirely from the field cordoned off as visual art, but words appeared in paintings none the less. Moreover, there were copious examples of writing systems which explored calligraphy as thoroughly as Abstract Expressionism explored non-representational design, as wildly divergent styles as smooth Islamic interlaces and brush-revealing free-stroke Chinese characters. The latter often blended into painted images, giving me my first desire to decipher the texts. In highschool, I encountered a good deal of poetry, from that of Ezra Pound to e.e.cummings, which approached typographic design on the page with a more satisfying and at least partially comprehensible text.

I’m not sure which of the next steps came first, or whether they came together, but Concrete Poetry, Projective Verse, and mimeo printing were important next steps. I’m just going to sketch my concerns with these discoveries for the purposes of this paper. I’ve written more on them, and will probably continue to go into more detail elsewhere. Mimeo, the simplest, initially gave me a sense of the potential expressive qualities of rough edged letters. Projective Verse gave a rationale to the disposition of letters on the page in terms of performance and formed a much-needed and much-desired bridge to sound. When I first learned to see and to read, I would have liked to have incorporated sound into my paintings along with the letters of words, though I didn’t know how, and let the idea go. As much as I liked the idea of a system of notating sound properties, I tended to see Projectivism as less precise than I would like. In this period, I first started thinking about ways of pushing the grid of the typewriter into a more expressive and perhaps even more precise set of techniques. It seemed to work well enough in the poetry of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, but seemed to need a push for a next generation. That push would come, in part, later, in Performance Art and Sound Poetry scores.

Concrete Poetry in the mid and even later 1960s was much more fluid than it became in the 1970s and thereafter. I could feel more or less at home with minimalist pieces in visual idioms as long as the genre didn’t restrict itself to just that. Following the Emmett Williams and Mary Ellen Solt anthologies that fixed the genre and took the fluidity out of it, I became uneasy with Concrete. So did the overwhelming majority of readers who rejected it more vehemently than any other major genre of the century. One of the problems was in the nature of its brevity. The brevity tended to move away from suggestiveness to a sort of iron trap. Once it sprang shut, there was nothing else it could do. Some commentators have called this the “aha moment,” and I think this did more harm to the genre than anything else. A perfect example is the German poem made almost entirely of the word “apfel,” (apple,) with one inconspicuous intrusion of the word “wurm,” (worm.) Once you’ve found the gimmick, there’s nothing else the poem will ever yield to you. This might be something you could print on children’s pajamas, but it’s not poetry by any standard I’d apply to it, and it deserved all the scorn, derision, ridicule, and contempt readers heaped on it. Unfortunately, there were all sorts of other brief poems in visual idiom that said something, that could continue to yield satisfaction after you’d found what was happening in it. I usually find it impossible to say precisely what it is that makes a miniscule poem keep renewing itself reading after reading, year after year, even decade after decade. To me the supreme master of this type of minimalism was the Japanese poet, Seiichi Niikuni, though other Japanese poets, particularly Kitasono Katue, could also turn out miniature masterpieces. It took me several decades before I found another poet as good at this; to the great good fortune of the present project, that poet was Márton Koppány. Other characteristics worked to the misfortune of the movement. One of the strongest was the brittle sans serif types which became hallmarks, and moved from their original clean and crisp qualities to a kind of presence suggesting dogmas — from Stalinist to what you might find in the minimalist signs in any bureaucracy: “Stay in line with your papers in order.” Many of the best Concretists eschewed the combination of trivial brevity and brittle type in favor of small units which accrued in modular clusters. Eugen Gomringer could go from constellations of small statements to the beautiful litany of one of my favorite poems, “Snow.” Robert Lax, the supreme master of the minimalist sequence could keep a text going beyond anything a reader could expect with only a few words varied, and produce poems that could be read and reread over decades with increased satisfaction. In my own move away from what became Classic Concrete, I continued both visual poems and minimalist poems, but increasingly separated them. Minimalist poems, whether they be a few words long or contain long strains with small variations or miniscule lines surrounded by a lot of space, I composed using standard typography. This is the case with my major minimalist poem, meditations on the Word. Though I couldn’t resist making short poems in visual idiom altogether, as I moved away from Classic Concrete, poems which carried strong visual impact became longer and more complex. My original fragment poems had been brief and in high impact visual form. I was ready to start working fragments into longer sequences on the eve of the composition of Cried and Measured, but hadn’t yet found the right way to work with aggregates of fragmentary texts.

On a more advanced and subtle level, painting played significant roles in the fragment pieces from the beginning, growing out of the painting I did in my teens, through internalized earlier models to work current in the early 1970s. Paul Klee hovered in the deep background of most of my visual poetry. The gestalts of Abstract Expressionism seemed to ask for redaction in type instead of paint. I don’t think it should be too surprising that Franz Kline should be the main precursor for my use of large, bold, black gesture-graphs on the field of the printed page. A significant though tricky precursor for the extended fragment work by the time of Cried and Measured was the early work of Chuck Close. Here I must emphasize “tricky” and “early,” carefully distinguishing the portraits that I had in mind from later work that may seem more similar. The works of his I had seen at this time were the large, monochrome, photo-mimetic pieces, not the later colored and more obviously grid-built work. Just as important was the photographic base of Close’s work and my photo-offset printing. I was going for the grit of photographic detail as it manifested itself in the printing practices of the time, as well as their history in typewriter impact and stencil cutting for mimeo reproduction. A distinct hair in a Close portrait could find a parallel in the rough edge of one of my printed letters. It’s a bit disconcerting to see how near I was coming to some of his conception and use of grids without being aware of it.

[To be continued]

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