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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

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


As important as brief pieces, some fragments, produced in enlarged type may have been, their minimalism became more of a limitation than an opportunity. My first solution to this problem was to build sequences out of miniatures, some based on fragments, some as free lyrics. My favorite from the early 1970s took the name Echoes of the Wine-Dark Sea. Part of it is available on-line at
<a href= "">Dan Waber’s Logolalia site.</a>

Still, I wanted to expand beyond slow-building compounds such as this. The first and most important solution came from an unexpected source, and I didn’t realize what I was doing with it until I had made significant progress.

In I believe 1975, Jerry Rothenberg suggested that I try working some of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments in a manner similar to those I had been doing. If they worked out well enough, he offered to use them in his block-buster anthology, A Big Jewish Book. I tried checking out the Dead Sea Scrolls, but found nothing I could use. The search, however, lead me to related Judaica, most importantly the Elephantine Fragments. These are the remains of a colony of Jewish exiles living in Egypt during the first Diaspora. I make some comments on their nature in my Introduction to Cried and Measured, most of which I won’t repeat here. These initially lent themselves to treatment as fragment poems by their suggestiveness and incompleteness. Many of the fragments were the remnants of papyrus scrolls, and their condition came about as a result of the way time had treated the writing surface. Others contained compressed texts which suggested fragments within fragments. The Elephantine Jews kept lists of their names. We don’t know the purpose of these lists, but the names themselves were miniature poems. Each condensed one of the Biblical Psalms which was, in turn, associated with the bearer for some now lost reason. Still, I could make poems of the names themselves by transcribing or expanding the Psalms. The names were in patronymic form: X, son of Y. Virtually all names thus suggested lineage and the hopes of continuity into the future in a patrilinear society.

The fragments included any number of firsts. The first description of a Passover observation, for instance; interestingly and appropriately enough, taking place back in Egypt. But perhaps the most important of the texts dealt with the first pogrom. In terms of origins, the origins of the barbarity of the 20th Century lay not within the current century, but in the fifth Century B.C.E. One of the functions the fragments suggested was a Holocaust memorial, placed outside the familiar lists of my own century’s atrocities. As a collection of origins, these fragments pushed anti-Semitism back as far as it could go.

Another level emerged from the fragments: Many of the papyri had apparently been used for inventories. These included lists of utilitarian items, completely unrelated to the lists of names. They suggested the work-a-day world of the colony. The keeping of accounts from grain to cups was a feature of daily life which had not been left out of the sources. Hence the word Measured in the title, along with the word Cried which suggested everything from the pogrom to the cries of women in childbirth, a possible source of the Psalms in the names of Elephantine’s residents.

It took some time before work on individual-fragment-poems for a book to evolve from them. Jerry had three for A Big Jewish Book long before my own book was complete. Even the nature of the sequence’s purpose was questionable for some time. During part of the process, I thought of the work as a multi-voice performance piece. This worked out well enough with ad hoc performers in Jerry’s living room. I set up a public performance at The Body Politic in Chicago. Two of the readers didn’t get there in time to rehearse. The performance was a farce. It seemed a fortunate one, though. The public nature of the performance didn’t seem to work right, despite the gaffs from the unprepared performers. And the book as a model of writing for people who did not read aloud took precedence over other purposes.

I had been thinking of the layout of the book as a means of determining speed and rhythm that went beyond Projective Verse methods. From the time of the reading in Chicago, this became my main objective in imaging the text.

The completion of the book was filled with delightful accidents and good omens. Jerry introduced me to Harris Lenowitz, a scholar who studied ancient Semitic languages as well as a contemporary poet. He had an ideal set-up at the University of Utah. This included a telephone with an 800 number, so I could call him with questions or just to talk over what I was doing. David Meltzer took an interest in the project, watched most of it evolve, and even agreed to publish it through his Tree Books before I had completed the last pages. The people who had worked with me on the book, from Jerry to David, were an ideal group for such a project, and the participation of all three contributed to the final book.

By the time I completed the book, I had worked out numerous means of reworking or combing smaller fragment texts. Generally, they no longer felt like miniatures but poems in sequence. Although I had not produced a score for live performance, I had worked out a new rhythmic pattern on virtually every page. Some of the rhythms came from unexpected breaks in the text, others from almost incantatory lists, some simply from size of texts in relation to the negative space around them, some from tensions and conflicts in the nature of clusters of patterns on the page. A fair number of pages used downward reading direction as a method of changing reading speed, one read up the page, and several contrasted vertical and horizontal lineation.

In addition to marking the first example of what many consider the worst crime of the 20th Century, I had also proposed alternate reading patterns, previously unexplored by any poet with whose work I was familiar. The contrast between atrocity and a new means of reading wasn’t meant to suggest that the two were of equal importance, but I did want to suggest that something completely new could squeak out from under the origins of genocide and that the creative mind should keep working in spite of atrocity: that is, that no matter how vicious the evil, or how weak the creative gain, the active and artistic mind should not be paralyzed by ultimate evil, and should continue to seek sources of renewal even in the face of the most monumental of catastrophes. In a book of the names of fathers and sons, the spirit of new generation should stay alive and active. If the Elephantine pogrom marked the origin of a type of historical barbarity that reached its greatest stage in my time, the avant-garde impulse to find new origins should not be crushed.

. . . . . . .


If “loss” is an enormous word, so is “origins.” It may be ironic that the closer we get to origins the more we touch on loss. As with creation and destruction, both are bound in what seems an inescapable and unavoidable dance. In my two essential fragment books, I tried to point out and tentatively explore two of the most important aspects of the world in which we live from as close to their point of origin as fragments would allow. Our world may still be framed in part by the prospects of annihilation and by the community of written language.

My observations, and those of the translators who joined me in this last part of the project, come from their own unique sets of losses and origins. We are the heirs of those who survived or created the concentration camps, the gulags, the human world which, for the first time, had the power to annihilate itself. We are also among the first to use writing that has been moved into an electronic form that can be universally shared and that, in itself, can involve immense loss or act as a point of origin for a completely reconfigured society. I write these notes at a time when virtually every aspect of society is in a greater state of uncertainty than it was at he time I wrote the two fragment-based books, or even when I asked Marton and Anny to extend my work beyond anything I could do with it on my own. I’d like to think that literary experimentation is one of the forms of not only attempting to touch basic origins but also to extend what it means to begin.

[NOTE.  A full version of the text, with illustrations, can be found at]


Γιώργος Κυρπιγιάν said...

I like the visions suggested here. Thanks for posting. But to me, such work is a reminder not just to antisemitism and it's historical course of attrocities. But to mankind's everlasting ritual of hate that always needs a victim to oppress. Yesterday it was the Jew, today. to some extent (not trying to compare) the Muslim, tomorrow... who knows? Even the society of those Diaspora Hebrews in the scrolls, bares the marks of oppression, as the patrilinear list of names clearly shows. Again, great work.

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