Cried and Measured, by Karl Young; Tree Books, Berkeley, 1977; 8" x 10," 20 pp.
Should Sun Forever Shine, by Karl Young; Underwhich Editions, Toronto, 1980; 5" x 8," 88 pp.
BRINGING THE TEXT BACK HOME
By Karl Young
Introduction"Loss" is an enormous word. It can range from indicating triviality, as in the loss of a penny, to signifying 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, its loss 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. The translations are not simply works which transfer as much as possible from my text into target languages. Instead, the translators are the heirs of the cultures which produced the original texts. In one instance, the language into which my work has been translated evolved out of the language of my sources. Hence the translations fully participate in completing loops from my work to the cultures and heirs which evolved from the sources of my books during the last 2500 years. In this project, I began by exploring poetic possibilities of written fragments; that is, scraps of writing on the extreme cusp of being lost. I'd like to see the final project as a celebration of survival, renewal, and the possibilities of extension after 25 centuries of loss and destruction, creation and healing. Antiquarian studies have their values. My individual books, and the project as a whole, however, should not be seen as simple speculations and reconstructions of the dim recesses of now old cultures in their early stages, but of our abilities to overcome the nightmares of the last century and make something new out of the resources available to us, without becoming jaded or defeated.
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 innate 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
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.Spring. . . . . . .
Too long. . . . . . .
Gongula. . . . . . .
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, for me, 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 biography. 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. Yet 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 appear and sometimes move 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 when 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, even though I couldn't read the texts presented in such 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 high school, 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 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. For the purposes of this essay, I'm just going to briefly sketch my concerns with these discoveries. 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 with Concrete 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, and it deserved all the scorn, derision, ridicule, and contempt the overwhelming majority of readers have 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 poem of perhaps one to five words 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." A sign in such a place reading "SILENCE" may be minimal, but it is a long way from a John Cage score, and the sans serif type only makes it harsher.
Many of the best Concretists eschewed the combination of trivial brevity and brittle typography in favor of small units which accrued in modular clusters. It may be wise to set works of this sort aside from Concrete and to consider them part of the "Minimalist" movement which manifested itself in different ways in virtually all the arts of the period. First, it seems essential to distinguish minimalist poetry from other types of brief poem. The basic units of verse Minimalism should be distinguished from brief traditional works, such as haiku or quatrains, or from brief works in irregular forms, such as the poems of Cid Corman or John Martone. Part of the lineage of Minimalism comes from newspaper headlines and advertising. Even though they form a separate literary type, other miniatures descend from literary models such as the haiku and quatrains I just mentioned. In either miniatures or Minimalist poetry, however, there's no reason why units which stand alone can't form associations which could be read as longer sequences. A traditional precedent for miniatures can be found in Renku or the many varieties of African-based couplets used in contests. A difference between miniatures and minimalist works, however, comes from a tendency to create a stronger degree of self-containment in poems which make use of a sense of incompletion. Even when they are not based in fragments (as they usually are not), Minimalist works tend to prise and stress incompletion or even internal discontinuity.
Eugen Gomringer could go from constellations of small statements to the beautiful litany of one of my favorite poems of the era, "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 slightly in their order or position on the page. The real test of these poems is that they can be read and reread over decades with increased satisfaction. In my own move away from what became Classic Concrete, I continued to write 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 most important minimalist sequence, 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 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 by Close that may seem more similar to my work presented here. 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 the impact of typewriter characters on paper and in 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.
From Miniatures to Cried and Measured
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 from the Wine-Dark Sea. It's available on-line at Dan Waber's Logolalia site.
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 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 documents left under the floorboards of the homes 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. In addition, many 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 seemed to function as miniature poems. Each name 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 on 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 recorded pogrom. In terms of origins, the origins of the barbarity of 20th Century anti-Semitism lay not within that 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 the last century's atrocities. As a collection of origins, these fragments pushed anti-Semitism back as far as it could go.
Another level of significance 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 the organization 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, possibly the 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 [pp. 490-492] long before my own book was complete. Even the nature of the sequence's genre was in question 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 had the opportunity for a performance of several pages 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, in an odd way, after the initial frustration wore off. The public nature of the performance didn't seem to work right, apart from the gaffs from the unprepared performers. After this, the book as a model of writing for people who did not read aloud took precedence over other formal 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 presence of all three contributed to the final book.
Publisher of Cried and Measured
By the time I completed the book, I had worked out numerous means of reworking or combing smaller fragment texts. Generally, the fragments no longer felt like miniatures but units of varying size in a unified and purposeful 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 savagery in the 20th Century, the avant-garde impulse to find new origins should not be crushed, ignored, or belittled.
Transition to Should Sun Forever Shine
I wrote Cried and Measured at a time when I was exploring the nature of the book and of writing at full steam. This exploration took numerous themes and methods simultaneously. In books based in pre-Columbian Meso-American texts, I explored the related theme of the mutual interdependence of destruction and creation. In a cottage industry print shop, I turned out editions of books by a wide range of contemporary poets under my own imprint, and produced other books for alternative publishers partly to add to the pluralism of the flowering of small-scale offset printing of the day, and also to make money to support my own publishing efforts.
In making books, I explored book-objects as sculptures and as works of art in themselves, aside from vehicles for text. These included books made of materials ranging from cinder blocks to human hair, and books that could be used for such purposes as earrings and musical instruments.
In addition to the avant-garde works and the printing of books by other people, I tried to educate myself as well as possible in the history and art of mainstream book making. This included the study of the origins of the Roman alphabet that has endured until the present time.
I had been too busy with other projects immediately after completing Cried and Measured, and too satisfied with that book, to start another project based in fragments. One of the major features of the history of writing and book making, however, moved me on toward my next fragment-based project.
I had been aware that with the increase in standardization of print, universal education, and silent reading, poetry itself had a tendency to go silent. In the 1970s, there was still an active reading scene, and sound poetry and performance art were at their peak, I had put a great deal of effort into encouraging these through the co-founding of The Water Street Arts Center, and its heir, Woodland Pattern, but I was aware that most people didn't read poetry aloud when alone. I often read it silently myself. The history of silent reading from the first records of it by St. Augustine to the present seemed to march continuously. The main element that had defined poetry since time immemorial had been rhythm, often in the form of metrics, but the 20th Century had seen a marked decline in the sense of necessity for rhythm in verse, largely, and ironically, because of several approaches to visual relations of poetry. One was the concentration on "the image." This did not, in literary terms of the day, mean something readers actually saw on the page, but images they conjured up in their minds as they read. East Asian miniatures, such as haiku and Chinese quatrains, had generally become associated with instants of awareness rather than patterns of experience, and for many poets these instances of awareness took the place of rhythm. At the same time, forms of visual poetry had opened up the page to real images, images printed on the page once poetry had been given the option of moving away from meter. Between the extremes of Imagism and Visual Poetry, it would have been foolish for any theorist to talk so much about "the image" without expecting poets to create literal images.
As much as I appreciated different forms of rhythmic or metered verse, and even used variations of Old Norse metrics in my Milestones series, I didn't want to go along with the Neo-Formalist camp and adhere to the dogma that only poetry in traditional metrics was acceptable. I didn't even want to use traditional metrics myself in works like Milestones, but wanted to ring variations on them.
It seemed to me that one important approach to the problem was creating forms of rhythm for people who read silently.
Further, it seemed appropriate, indeed crucial, to explore rhythm in silent reading without letting go of what I had done with visual poetry. The two should interact with each other rather than form a dichotomy.
Beginning Should Sun Forever Shine
If I was going to explore this intersection between rhythm and silent reading, and traditional sound patterns with visual poetry, the place to do so should be at the origins of the Roman Alphabet which had made silent reading possible.
The natural place to start was thus virtually dictated for me. The fragments of Old Latin awaited just such treatment. Further, they gave me several different types of fragments to work with. A simple one was inscriptions on objects ranging from pottery to tomb stones. Another was quotations from otherwise lost works. Many of the works quoted by later sources provided the value-added benefit that they themselves were transpositions, as often as not translations, from Greek plays and other literary works. These models and sources formed a base for Latin literature.
In going back to the first uses of the Roman Alphabet I was going back to origins as fundamental as those of the Elephantine Fragments. If the origins of atrocity could be found in one set of fragments, the origins of literary creativity for the Western World could be found in another. In going from a Jewish to a Roman source, I was reaching back to the origins of the culture of the book that had provided the continuity and shape of the Western World, and I was also going back to the origins of the Roman Empire which had spread it and whose major tool, its writing system, I, like millions of other people, was still using.
It took me some time to work out a cohesive and meaningful form for a companion book to Cried and Measured. In doing so, I worked in units of up to half a dozen pages. Borrowing a usage from the Middle Ages, I printed out fascicles of the work in progress to pass around to friends. These I called pescia, a name given to sections of books which could be purchased separately in medieval universities by students who couldn't afford to buy complete books, but added signatures to their collections as the course of their study continued. This, again, underscored the role of the history of western literacy in the evolution of my book.
Outline, In Terms of Reading Patterns,
of Should Sun Forever Shine
In retrospect, the fact that I did not provide notes with the original book seems a misfortune and a mistake. The lack of notes is part of a much larger problem in the arts at the present time, particularly in visual poetry. The notion that readers can get their bearings in a sea of diversity, contradictory practices, and unrelated and often conflicting sources is, at present, a highly destructive fallacy. In the immense range of often unrelated practice that got lumped together under the rubric "visual poetry" by people working in visual modes in the 1970s who wanted to escape the growing revulsion against anthology Concrete, the lack of any indication of its diversity created new problems. The notion that you can simply look at a work and understand it reduces the complete range of visual poetries to a shallow art that mimics painting. Not only will it almost invariably come across as inferior to painting, drawing, and other purely graphic arts, it trivializes or annihilates the significance of text as text and the point of reading in the art. This can do as much damage to the works that leave text almost completely absent as work that is strongly textual. (Among my own works, my collaborations with Reid Wood over some 18 years provide an example of extended practice which contextualizes reading almost entirely outside language, and may seem to go in directions opposed to the text-based project discussed here. See this survey of a number of years, or the summary of the work we did in 2009.) How best to provide the reader with adequate context and background, I don't know. I do know that the lack of it has crippled visual poetry, as it has other arts, and trying to find an answer to the problem is one of the reasons for writing essays like this one, however small my contribution may be. Whatever the case, in the global world of information overload, the concept that "the work speaks for itself" can be no more than nostalgia for a simpler time with a unified and unchanging cultural background. In the broadest context, what has now become the superstition that avant-garde work can be appreciated without context denies and blocks the possibilities of cooperative construction and understanding in an environment that no individual has the ability to completely comprehend, but which requires cooperation to appreciate.
I had been cautious in the use of alternate reading patterns in Cried and Measured. Should Sun Forever Shine used alternate reading patterns as its main formal dynamic. Given the difficulties of such unusual letter disposition, an outline of the work seems appropriate and I hope it proves useful. It may be most useful to those who read it along with the text, and not as interesting for those who read this essay simply as an essay. The reader can flip back and forth between the poem and the following analysis by opening two windows and going back and forth between the notes and the poem. This can be done more easily on the web than holding the book and a sheaf of papers, or two books, or any other way I can imagine. Readers who don't do so and don't find the following section interesting or useful should probably simply skip it and resume reading at the next heading.
A sequence of stoic questions and answers frames Part I of the book. Between most of the questions and answers, other texts emerge as a succession of variables, moving between unsettling, stoic, and comic statements. In the following Parts, II through IV, the unsettling theme becomes harsher, and the stoic theme digs in its heals more firmly, but the comedy persists, largely overtaking the other themes in Parts VI and VIII. VIII ends with affirmations. The last part, Part IX, restates the preceding themes: The first, third, and fifth pages pick up some of the call and response character of the questions and answers in I. The second and forth pages could be taken as unsettling and comic, but, like the call and response pages, stand more firmly than their predecessors. The resolution of the final pages leads to a strong affirmation in the concluding page.You can read the book as the progress of an implied character or persona, a single Roman citizen, moving in stream of consciousness manner, through a difficult period. In this manner, the character follows a "programme" with a narrative of states of mind rather than a sequence of external events. Or you can leave the programme out and simply follow the tonalities of stoicism, stress, and amusement. However you read it, I think you're missing something important if you see it only as an experiment in unusual letter and word sequences or if you see the experiment only as a secondary set of devices. A number of people who were initially put off by the book responded favorably to my reading it aloud to them in an explanatory manner. I might call this the "final music" of the text, even if one is only hearing it in monaural rather than stereo or live performance. Live performance was something different: I did work out a voice and an additional form of pacing for performances of the text, and read the book or parts of it to a number of people, though I never performed it in a public or formal setting.
Part I can be read as an overture. Everything that follows is implied in it. The implications include manner and method of reading. The letters of the texts of the questions and answers proceed in the conventional order, from left to right. The texts in between, however, proceed from top to bottom of each vertical line. This is not the most difficult reading order, and the first word disposed in this manner, "LIGHT," makes up a clear line, undisturbed by the elision of succeeding words, or the tug to the right in wide ranges of short columns. Parts II through IV proceed in conventional order. In V, however, not only do the letters dispose themselves in all possible orders, even the sequence of words can move from right to left or from the bottom to the top of the page. In composing this Part, I tried to mimic a broad, flat brush filling in a rectangle with strokes moving in all four vertical and horizontal directions. A patient reader can apprehend the rhythms in this part using the paint brush analogy as guide. Though this Part can feel downright fluid once you have mastered it, its difficulties respond to the tight mesh and internal strain of stoic, unsettling, and comic phrase clusters.
Parts VI and VIII take a different approach to reading. Here the text reads continuously from left to right, but with no blank space or other device to separate words and phrases. Generally this is a relatively easy reading order; certainly much more so than the difficult pages of Part V. unlike the paintbrush pattern of Part V, in Parts VI and VIII, reading takes on a circular pattern. To find where to break words, the reader often has to go back to the beginning of the preceding or beginning of the current word to formulate its precise ending. That is, one has to reread phrases to parse and understand them. Going forward requires rereading the words you've already found rather than continuously moving to the right. At times, tripping over an incorrect word can produce a difficult or comic result in addition to the comedy or difficulty in the phrases. In any case,
reads differently from
"Her children she abandoned, hence they survived." You've earned a heartier laugh in the former, where you struggle along with the children.
Part VII takes a step back in letter disposition. Here the images formed by the letters on the page take different patterns, but the letters always move down the page and the words all move from left to right. In this Part, the letters move from a placement in which all words start at a line flush at the top, to a position in mid page, and finally to a position where each word ends on a line flush at the bottom. Again, the pages fill in rectangles.
Should Sun Forever Shine and Thoughts of a Next Step
bpNichol had been particularly interested in the pescia of Should Sun Forever Shine as the work developed, and published it through Underwhich Editions in 1980 almost as a matter of course.
bpNichol publisher of Should Sun Forever Shine
The book's post-publication adventures make up a body of stories which run from slap-stick to profound. Perhaps I'll chart more of them in another essay. For the moment, however, a few seem particularly important and immediately related to the current project.
I had evolved the process of writing essays on the "homework" I did along with study of historical sources and essays on them. The most important of these was Notation and the Art of Reading. This has become my most widely circulated essay. It was commissioned by bp for Open Letter magazine, and includes all sorts of connections with Should Sun. Among other features, it included part of the homework for the evolution of the Roman alphabet, but integrated with other writing systems, ancient and modern. Despite the fact that several of its sections dealt with Roman letters, it seemed to call for an auxiliary "chapter" on that alphabet's origins. The essay that came from "Notation" and from Should Sun, The Roman Alphabet In Its Original Context was also commissioned by bp. At the time of its publication in Open Letter bp had plans for publishing Clouds Over Fortjade. This may have been my only work comparable to Cried and Measured by the early 1980s. I was unable to finish the work, and bp had died before I knew I would not be able to finish it. I acknowledge bp's ability to commission some of my best work in each reprinting of "Notation" with the note that he had the ability to bring out the best in people. As events unfolded, "The Roman Alphabet In Its Original Context" was the last work of mine bp commissioned before his death. It should be seen as a companion piece to Should Sun on many levels, from those related to content to the personal context of publication.
Response to Should Sun was hardly voluminous, but what I did get ranged from highly enthusiastic to strongly negative. The most unfortunate of the "negative" responses might not be considered a response to the book at all. A respected friend had written one of the enthusiastic responses to me upon receiving the book, and followed it up in conversation. He even agreed to review it. Yet the article that was billed as a review of the book only hinted at the book itself in two sentences. The rest was a screed against "Concrete Poetry." This is a situation outsiders and minorities encounter often enough. Someone from a larger group likes them or what they do and has no hesitancy about saying so to the individual. Yet when his own majority group is watching, he needs to denounce the outsider to save face with the majority group. This became paradigmatic for me of responses to visual poetry. Even when people actually liked work published during the decades after the Concrete fad of the 1960s, they wouldn't say so in public. I found other examples of closet fans: people who put visual poetry up on their walls, for instance, but wouldn't acknowledge it as a legitimate literary or artistic mode. In the instances of the use of Should Sun as a target for revulsion toward visual poetry, even a work that only superficially resembles the Concrete of the anthologies (but does include strong affinities with the reviewer's use of historical sources) can bear the stigma of the most despised and rejected of 20th Century literary modes.
Another extreme was George Myers, Jr.'s most ambitious and complex book, The News, published by Cumberland Journal Books in 1985. Myers wrote in his introduction, "Selected letters are from Karl Young's Should Sun Forever Shine (Underwhich Editions, 1980). . . These reworked letters are in homage to Young, one of the premier makers of the modern illuminated manuscript." This is a rare example of someone being quoted not by the sentence or phrase or even the individual word, but by individual letters. Others saw Should Sun as one of the most important explorations of the nature of writing of the era.
To me, the most interesting development of poetry in the new century has been Slow Poetry. Instead of forming a new movement or ideology, Slow Poetry is more of an approach that cuts across movements, ideologies, and dogmas, and returns more control to the reader than any of the coteries and tendencies which have claimed to do that in recent decades. I pointed "Notation" out to Dale Smith while he was editing a feature on Slow Po for Big Bridge magazine. The essay became something like a prelude to the feature, without getting in the way of the more recent work Smith and his colleagues focused on. I'd like to think that Should Sun would be useful for people following the Slow Poetry tendency. It does quite literally use slowing down reading speed as a formal method. I don't think anyone following the Slow Poetry lines of thought would see it as a prelude or forecast of what they have done, but I am glad to see that they have picked up similar ideas from other sources and made good use of them.
I don't see Should Sun as a model for wide-spread practice. However, the last several decades have been full of babble about "interrogating the text" and "transgressing the boundaries of language." I'm sometimes amused by the implications of these tropes and their underlying suggestions. I can imagine,for instance, the people who spout this nonsense as people in trench coats on sinister film noir movie sets, taking texts into basements, strapping them to chairs, and beating them with rubber hoses. Saddly, the tropes suggest that the critics don't like to read or see their interaction with reading on a more cooperative basis. In Should Sun, I've tried to see a more basic challenge to the nature of what we take for granted in reading and writing practice. Anyone who takes the violent rhetoric of transgression and interrogation seriously should at least be able to go as far as seeking new possibilities of word and letter sequencing, in exploration of the nature of writing. It's hard for me to take them seriously if they don't. For a musician of virtually any type, playing a melody backwards is one of the basic forms of development. Experimenting with alternate reading orders should seem as simple and as a basic means of exploring forms of composition and of understanding the material of writing.
I'm not sure when I first started thinking about finding translators for the pair of fragment books. It was in the decade of the 1990s, I believe, that I began seriously thinking about the importance of returning the books to the contemporary heirs of those who created the fragments on which I based my work. There were a number of reasons for my desire to do this. One of them was as a means of emphasizing the importance of origins in the project. Another was to emphasize that the languages and cultures of the originals had survived, though they had gone through a process of evolution which was important in itself. As important as origins of culture and language may be, they have a life of their own, and that life should be seen as a living, changing dynamic rather than a static entity. Perhaps the most serious reason, though, was to emphasize that using historical sources and seeking origins seems pointless unless it acts in the present and avoids history for history's sake. I had not stated this very emphatically in my notes for Cried and Measured, and had been woefully inadequate in not providing notes for Should Sun. Hence the works had been seen too much as antiquarian studies rather than part of the fabric and dynamism of our own time. Ideally, a pair of books dealing with cornerstones of the modern word should not simply be the expression of one man, but at least to some extent a collective project involving people from several of the cultures which had remained close to the center of the evolution of the sources.
I didn't have any immediate ideas for translators or even how to go about finding them. I assumed that circumstances would sooner or later provide opportunities. I didn't have any idea how fortunate I would be in the translators who finally appeared. Uncannily but appropriately, they came with a new medium which seemed completely appropriate to this kind of project. Certainly more so than the Mail Art Network and any other sources I had in mind. (I also contemplated finding translators for works based on Meso-American sources, without any coming forth. I don't expect this kind of luck to happen twice.)
My Collaborators: 1. Márton Koppány
Photo by Karl Young
at Kenosha train station
on visit to U.S. shortly after completion of
Bringing the Text back Home
Simple archeology and history, without relevance to the present, seems a trivial type of parlor game to me. Making links between origins, developments, and the present, however, is one of the most important functions of reading. If we simply stick to what we've got at the present moment, we never get beyond it. In finding a translator for the Cried and Measured phase of Bringing the Text Back Home, I would not simply want to find a Jewish translator to render the work into Modern Hebrew. That would be wonderful as a separate project, but not appropriate for this one. The Elephantine Jews lived in exile, and spoke and wrote in Aramaic. Their modern counterparts should also live in exile and speak and write in a language not their own. The ideal translator should have lost considerable family in the Holocaust, and should have endured other layers of insult and abuse as a stranger in a strange land.
For the Bringing the Text back Home Project, a Jewish translator for Cried and Measured wouldn't seem impossible to find. Finding the best translator imaginable would, however. Despite the odds against finding such a translator, that's precisely what I got. It still amazes me on how many levels Márton Koppány fits the task. On the simplest levels, he, like many European Jews roughly my age, lost most of his family to the Nazi extermination machine. He speaks and writes Hungarian, and that's the language into which he translates the book for this project.
Hungary's history, my personal history, Márton's abilities as a poet, his relation to the history of the post WWII era, accidents and coincidences of our biographies, and his relation to me all seem too good to be true.
During most of the Nazi era, Hungarian Jews were subjected to less savage persecution than those of other Axis nations. This was, in part, because the Hungarian Regime agreed with and supported the German central command strongly and enthusiastically, though anti-Semitism was not as intense a part of their programme. In the final phases of the war, however, the situation reversed itself. In the final push to eliminate Jews from Europe, Nazis united to move extermination at a feverish pace, in part to make up for lost time and opportunity at earlier stages in places like Hungary. What had seemed a relatively safe place turned into one of the most frantic and deadly. Márton's father was among those who rode a cattle car to the extermination camps, though he survived. His mother owed her survival to forged papers. Both parents survived the post-war period, during which the horsemen of the Apocalypse in Christian mythology seemed to stage a dress rehearsal and Frat Party throughout Central Europe. Márton's parents changed their name to Koppány, a camouflage name which is almost stereotypically Hungarian. The name Márton, however, was given their only son in memory of his grandfather, who had perished in the camps. Márton's name thus acts as something like a minimalist poem — perhaps similar to the names of the Elephantines I had worked with in Cried and Measured.
After the war, the Hungarian Communist Party and the military successes of the Red Army left the country firmly entrenched in the Warsaw Pact. Márton was born into this society. Despite the initial satisfaction of Hungarian Communists, Hungary made the first massive and concerted attempt to break away from Soviet domination in 1956. Russian and Warsaw pact tanks quickly moved to crush the rebellion. This was done with such brutality that it seems to have surprised many in the Soviet world itself. The U.S. had done everything in its power to encourage the Hungarians to revolt. Yet when the Soviets invaded the country, America did nothing to aid the Hungarians, but simply left the relatively small nation to fight or at least defend itself against the super-power alone.
My father, Carl J. Young, had been a chaplain in the U.S. Army during WWII. Among other parts of his tour of duty, probably the most haunting was as part of a support program for survivors in the concentration camp at Dachau. For a number of reasons related to his experience in the war, my father took a job teaching on an American Army base in Germany starting at the time the Hungarian rebellion was being crushed. The base was Baumholder. Rommel had trained his tank corps there, and the U.S. Army found it an ideal place to train tanks itself during the occupation. We first lived in a German village, where virtually all the men had been in the German Army during the war. We later moved into an apartment on the Army base itself, when my mother had had enough of my father's combination of therapy, preparation for a difficult job back in America, proof that he could forgive his enemies, and demonstration that even people who had once committed themselves to the Nazi party could not only change but rebuild a perverse society along admirable lines.
In Germany, I learned lessons of a different sort. The Germans in the village weren't much different, at base, from people back in America. This seemed particularly surprising to me, even as a child, since Germany was still rebuilding itself, many of the German kids I knew had suffered from malnutirition and disease during infancy, and the apparently sincere guilt and certainly real traumas of both the war and the post-war nightmare were not completely healed for the Germans themselves. On a trip to Berlin, I saw, first from the train window, then from the other side of the Brandenberg Gate, that the East wasn't anywhere near rebuilt. The Rhineland, where we lived, was considerably better of, but impoverished by U.S. standards none the less, and, on the most obvious level, there were enough buildings left in ruins. Yet for reasons that I could not fathom some of the adults in the village had certainly supported the Nazi regime which had killed six million people — for what? perhaps for going to church on the wrong day.
Some of the men in the village had been partisans; they were proud of it, but formed a tight-knit group of their own. None of the adults in the village showed any hostility toward my parents or toward me. The adult population showed significant gender imbalance, with women outnumbering men, and single-mother families were much more common than they were in America at the time due to war losses. After a bit of initial caution, kids my own age treated me pretty much the same way as kids back in the U.S.: I formed close friendships with a couple, got along well enough with most, and though there was a bit of inexplicable antipathy between me and a few, this didn't seem to have anything to do with my being American. The teenagers were an exception. This may have had more to do with universal conflicts between members of different age groups. I believe, however, that some of the hostility related to memories of American bombs and the universal brutality of the immediate post-war era. As in many chaotic situations, Germans may have preyed on each other more savagely than they had been abused by American troops. Whatever the case, the Americans troops made up the Army or Occupation, and, in hindisght, I wouldn't blame any children who saw the ones with the guns and uniforms as those responsible for everything from beatings to food shortages. What their fathers and particularly their mothers and sisters might have done for the basic post-war currency, cartons of American cigarettes may have left permanent and understandable resentments. The black market was still in operation when I was there, and although I'm sure it was much tamer, still involved prostitution and graft — practices I first began to comprehend in the village.
Among the Americans, the John Wayne types on the army base abused their wives and children in ways that would have been unthinkable and inexcusable in the German village. They took their tanks on maneuvers and drank at the officers' club. Yet they didn't lift a finger to help the Hungarians. This seemed particularly perverse, since the U.S. had done everything to push the Hungarians into the conflict before deserting them. The Soviets were supposed to be building an ideal "people's society." That's hardly what the photos and stories in The Stars and Stripes, the American Army's newspaper, showed. According to stories, some of which may have been enhanced for propaganda purposes, the Soviet kangaroo courts executed children as young as age 12. One explanation for this was that the Soviets were saying to potential future rebels: "You want to be a big heroic freedom fighter? Willing to risk being a classic martyr? Well, watch this: we're not going to let you have that. You pull a stunt like this again, and we won't give you your glorious sacrifice. We'll just kill your kids and make you watch. Your own death will come slowly and painfully, where no one sees it." Okay. So where was Uncle Sam in all this, and what were huge tank bases like Baumholder for? And why was it a confiscated Nazi training base? Uncle Sam apparently didn't care for anything but rhetoric. John Wayne was too busy bragging, drinking, and beating up his wife and kids to help anybody. I couldn't get better lessons in distrust for ideologies than I got in a German village and an American tank base in the wake of the Hungarian uprising.
In an environment such as this, whom do you trust? Despite my father's unshakable desire to believe in virtue and redemption, could those cheerful and friendly Germans revert to what they had been? How much different was that from the American racists my father opposed? After spending your life, however short it may have been, indoctrinated with patriotic propaganda, you really going to trust the glorious U.S.A. after it sells out those it encourages to fight? When a movement claims to be creating a people's paradise and hangs children to accomplish it, how many Utopias are you going to believe in? In Germany, I began a life-long, and I believe healthy, distrust for mass movements, higherarchies, conformity, and authority not based in something that could be demonstrated. My views remained largely the same despite the still-growing sense of how much more complex the international situation was than I could appreciate as a child. That's saying a lot.
Life in Hungary was not easy for Márton as he grew up. There were times when the government eased travel restrictions as a safety valve. Thus he not only got his predictable school trip to Moscow, but also several visits to Paris. He studied French avidly, often concentrating on the classics. Among other drolleries in his reading, he was introduced to Zen Buddhism not from a fashionable Beat source, but in a state-published book ridiculing it. The ridicule didn't stick, but Koans and related paradoxes became important to him. Perhaps in ways more profound than they could have if he had grown up in New York or California.
Some of Márton's friends in the U.S. see his minimalism as merely fashionable or playful. Having lived in the shadows of the most ruthless forms of totalitarianism, and even giving pieces titles such as "Vicious Circles in Infinity," suggests a world in which you have to be cautious about every move you make. Understanding this helped me take Márton seriously when I first began reading him. However, reducing his work to a response to potential persecution or assigning it excess socio-political significance can be as misleading as seeing his poems only as light-hearted bits of cleverness. One of the aspects of Márton's minimalism that makes it important is its breadth, from nightmare to beneficence. To the extent that I can describe what makes a minimalist like him or Niikuni great, or why he is an ideal translator for a book that includes jokes as well as mention of the first pogrom, the breadth of handling detail stands out distinctly and sharply from most minimalists.
In the early 1990s, Márton and I got in touch with each other through a clumbsy set of attempts. This was by mail but, I'm not sure if this was through the post office or via e-mail. Initially, as far as I can remember it, the conversation was simply a pleasant exchange, nothing particularly unusual. The first important stage, and probably still the most important of all, came with samples of Márton's poems. Some seemed brilliant to me, though being in Minimalist mode, I had to wait a while to see if the manipulation of tiny detail could wear thin with the passage of time. It did not. I became convinced that Márton was the best at the genre since Seiichi Niikuni, and its best living practitioner. In our correspondence, we explored the work of other Minimalists, particularly Robert Lax. My respect for Márton's understanding of the genre grew as the discussion continued.
I put up some of Márton's poems on the web. We also began a site for his publishing venture, "The Institute for Broken and Reduced Languages." This consisted of an anthology of English language poetry and commentary with Hungarian translations. Despite the difficulties in handling Hungarian in html code, we had a good time putting up the site. Márton had hoped that this web presentation would help him reduce his isolation and put him in contact with other writers. It did not do so immediately, to his initial disappointment, but it helped considerably later on. There were some tricky elements in setting up The Institute's site. I would have liked it if Márton had assisted me with an attempt I made in setting up a site for Hungarian visual poets. This Márton did not want to do. His reasons are complex and at times highly personal. He has a great respect for early Hungarian Modernists, some of whom influenced his work. In fact, he says he drew on some of these in in his translation of Cried and Measured. But it is important to realize that he feels profoundly alienated from the majority of current Hungarian writers and it would be impossible and useless to try to make him see his own position differently. This becomes stranger given my own desire for global interconnectivity and exchange, and my sincere and abiding curiosity about Hungarian avant-garde poetry, particularly its strong ties with Lettrisme. There are no simple remedies for Márton's estrangement. The only way to assist in the full growth of his abilities is not to try to push my notions onto him but to take his word for his condition and work with it on his terms instead of mine.
History has marched on since 1991. The Soviet Empire has fallen, but that hasn't been an unalloyed benefit to Márton. Resurgent Neo-Nazism may be stronger in Hungary than anywhere else in Central Europe. Márton's status as a stranger in a strange land has not diminished. He has taken part in anti-Nazi activities, but much of his time in recent years was occupied in caring for his terminally ill mother. There was a relatively short but highly optimistic period when it seemed I could have returned to my home in Milwaukee. My exile, however, continues. During some phases, the correspondence with Márton has been more sustaining than with people who don't really know what any kind of exile or other forms of intricate loss means. Mutual consolation has often taken indirect paths: we have not complained to each other as much as discussed French stalwarts from Corneille and Beaumarchais to Ionesco and Isou, and the serene worlds of Robert Lax and Eugen Gomringer as a form of therapy and as a means of improving the art we practice.
I ask colleagues I trust to act as initial readers and commentators on all prose I publish. This has often included at least 5 participants in the peer revue, and one of my requirements was for one of them to speak English as a second language. My first requests for Márton as a test reader were partly because English was not his native language. I came to realize, however, that in addition to picking up on things that non-native-speakers might miss, his ability with detail and general wisdom and good sense made him a more important reader. As time passed, he became the most important of my test readers, and there's very little I've written in years which he did not read before publication.
In an odd twist, I had him in mind as a potential translator for the Bringing the Text Back Home project early on, but didn't ask. He, however, without knowing anything about the project, proposed translating part of Cried and Measured for the Hungarian magazine, Kalligram. Some of those translations appear here unchanged. Although my work in this book goes in the opposite direction from his minimal approach to visual poetry, he remains in my eyes the ideal translator for it. Some of the reasons have to do with biography and coincidence. That he fits the criteria of a Jewish stranger in a strange land goes more or less without saying. But one of the most important aspects of his work as a translator is his ability to understand and work with detail. Despite the readerly nature of the book, detail is at least as important in my work as it is in any form of minimalism — perhaps even more so in that details in Cried and Measured never resolve themselves into simple tricks, but take part in a web of significance.
In the final stages of translating and imaging the Hungarian version of Cried and Measured, we had more than a decade and a half of shared effort and carefully built up trust to work with. Combining that with such accidents as the role Hungary had performed in shaping my worldview, and Márton's abilities as a poet, made him an ideal translator for this phase of the Bringing the Text Back Home project.
My Collaborators: 2. Anny Ballardini
It may be difficult to find a contemporary poet who makes fuller or more singular use of the World Wide Web than Anny Ballardini. She has a blog, of course, and participates in numerous discussion groups, but more important is her labyrinthine anthology. Although the collection is international in scope, the majority of poets represented in her collection are Americans. I think of her anthology as both a hands-on record of her reading of contemporary poetry, and also a reflection of its specifically American content as something which could only come from a dedicated, sharp-witted observer, living in another country.
Anny's sense of her international orientation is tricky, goes deep, and cannot be easily summarized. Her family has a trans-Atlantic history. Her father had lived in the U.S. since childhood, and was drafted by the American Army, barely 18, to fight in WWII. A combatant in the early Battle of the Bulge who avoided firing on the enemy, he acquired frost bite to his feet, and walked over a good deal of Northern Europe evading American Army doctors whose response to frost bite was amputation. At present, in severely ill health, his feet still give him a great deal of trouble. Among the endless and appropriate coincidences in the evolution of this story, my father was a U.S. Army chaplain in the Battle of the Bulge. Anny was born in Italy during s brief sabbatical, but spent her first 10 years in Greenwich Village, and has spent other periods, lasting as long as seven years, in New Orleans and other U.S. cities. She carries both U.S. and Italian passports and although she teaches English in Italy and will likely continue to do so into the foreseeable future, she thinks of herself as an American.
The complexities of her identity give Anny multiple advantages. She has been familiar with both English and Italian since childhood. She has never fallen into the lazy habit of unthoughtful America- or Italy- bashing. Despite her affinities with American poets, she has never become part of the clique warfare and willful ignorance of American poetry since the 1960s. She thus approaches her reading of American poetry without biases, allegiances, prejudices, or preconceptions. The work she reads and includes in her anthology comes to her primarily via the internet. Rather than restricting her, this seems to filter out enough work to keep its volume manageable. Instead of confirming preconceptions, her reading is much more of a wide-eyed exploration than any other I know. Largely free from clique and fashion biases, her anthology may be the most eclectic the web has to offer, and certainly a better place to begin than those supporting or generated by specific coteries. The energy involved in her activities is amazing, and seems to be encouraged and enhanced by what she discovers.
Since Anny took to the net like a fish to water, I attempted to write an essay about her using properties of the web itself. She was mentioned in several blogs, and in the comment section of each, I put a paragraph of what would be the final essay. When it was complete, I had hoped to unify, from one site, all the paragraphs spread around the web. That the paragraphs appeared with comments by other people amplified and diversified what I had to say. Some diverged from or contradicted mine, but this was part of the nature of the web, and I liked the pluralism built into the response. Unfortunately, the main blogger took my comments down several months after I put them up, and I'm looking for opportunities to start the project again. I may, however, simply give up and write a more conventional essay: as bland a as that may make the project, the tribute to Anny is more important than finding the most appropriate use of her chosen medium in which to do it.
Our initial exchanges of mail tended to be chatty and often enough to deal with non-literary subjects and concerns. We evolved Swedish and American nick names, often while discussing problems ranging from nasty neighbors to financial difficulties. In addition to the pleasantness of the correspondence, its friendly nature allowed us to test how well we might work together on an extremely difficult project.
Even by the standards of contemporary American avant-garde poetry, Should Sun Forever Shine presents extreme difficulties for a translator. If I were to imagine and list abilities of the translator, they would include flexibility, an encyclopedic knowledge of forms, approaches, and techniques in current practice, familiarity with extremely unusual and often language-specific difficulties and challenges, the ability to understand procedures that were out of any other mode of practice going on at the time, the ability to sustain a difficult project over an extended and difficult period, and an even temper during rough spots. Anny possessed all these in abundance. Since I have avoided allegiance to the partisan politics of the American literary scene, there is a definite advantage in finding a translator who also remains outside of them while still being aware of their practices.
In addition to the wide spread of divergences in contemporary poetry, Anny shared a strong anchor with me. She lives in the Tyrol, on the hill next to the one occupied by Mary de Rachewiltz, Ezra Pound's daughter, and perhaps Italy's foremost translator of English language modernists. De Rachewiltz watches Anny's projects develop and wrote a blurb for one of her books. Discussions of Pound made up an important part of our exchange of mail, and we even discussed joining each other in a program co-sponsored by Mary de Rachewiltz and the University of New Orleans in Pound studies. Anny referred me to de Rachewiltz and we had an interesting exchange of correspondence. This included photos of a table designed by her father which I built as a paper cutter stand and used to bind thousands of books. Current diversity of practice should have been enough for the Italian translation of Should Sun Forever Shine, but a firm base in Pound's poetics, and even his family, meant that Anny understood or at least had worked with some of the most basic assumptions and propositions of my work with fragments. Of the many ironies Pound's psychoses and their associations with politics, my Bringing the Text Back Home project adds several new items to the list. On another level, I edited and wrote an introduction for John Solt's translations of Selected Poems of Kitasono Katue while Anny and I exchanged mail regarding the translation. Kitasono had not only been an essential friend of Pound's, but he had published Mary de Rachewiltz's first work — a school composition she had written at age 12, and which Kitasono translated and published in a Japanese magazine.
Partial view of table designed by Ezra Pound
and constructed by Karl young.
Stored after use in binding over 10,000 books.
It took Anny perhaps 8 months to do the basic translation of the book, with frequent consultation on everything from idioms to the reading order of letters. I made many suggestions as to ways we could make the text easier to translate, even to the point of leaving out or rewriting passages. Anny would not do anything like this, which she said did not "respect" the original work, no matter how much more difficult that made the work for her. It remains remarkable to me how patient Anny remained through the difficulties of the translation itself, and through the circumstances surrounding us. We seemed near the end of our efforts when my father went into his final illness and I could no longer work on the project. The confusions and trials following my father's death set us back by more than three years. When we finished the final translation, Anny's father was in serious ill health, and work on the translation must have been considerably more difficult for her. Perhaps in a project so thoroughly based in lineage, it was appropriate that our fathers' life transitions should play a role.
As with Márton's Jewish heritage, it was essential to this project for Should Sun to be translated into Modern Italian, the language into which Old Latin had evolved, by a modern Italian. Other translations would have been welcome, and another tranlator had even begun translating the work into another modern language. But specifically for Bringing the Text Back Home, I needed an heir to those who wrote the initial texts. Given the heavy emphasis on patriarchy in the societies of the source texts, a female translator was ideal and extended the roles of heritage, evolution, survival despite opression, and the nature of the world in which we now live. (An added bit of felicity comes from the significant possibility that Christopher Columbus may have been a descendent of converted Jews; but this, like Anny's stays in America is value-added, not an essential part of the project.)
Anny's role in the progression from papyrus scrolls and Semitic alphabet also depended on the technologies of changing alphabets, the growth from exiles from a clan-based kingdom to a global empire, and the evolution of bookforms. As one of the most active and creative users of the internet, it would be difficult to find a better partner in this regard. Two and a half millennia after her distant Italian cultural forebears invented the Roman alphabet, she made bold and unique use of that alphabet as it made its first steps into cyberspace. Her position as a netizen may make her a stranger in a strange land, as Márton and I are, and as the Jews in Elephantine had been. The uniqueness of her anthology and its mediation between literary cultures give it qualities similar to the translations and to the references to adapted Greek writing from whence come many of the fragments used in Should Sun Forever Shine. She was perfect in advancing my exploration of the nature of reading by the Roman alphabet's first users and of the conventions which have evolved as it has grown into the type you're reading now.
I accidentally picked up some characteristics of Hungarian in work with Márton's Institute, but don't understand the language, or even the details I've picked up. In his translation of Cried and Measured we built up trust through a long process of small steps. I do read some Italian and had some idea of what Anny was doing with Should Sun Forever Shine as the translation unfolded. Still, this project also relied on acquisition of trust and confidence built up over years of working together, often on projects other than the translations. Of the many elements that make Márton and Anny ideal translators, watching them work on multiple levels and in different types of situations (of which editing was not the least important) played a major role. For a project in which translation has primary significance, and does not simply involve transferring as much as possible from one language to another, it's impossible to overstate the importance of trust, camaraderie, and breadth of cooperative action.
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 time, writing, and fragments would allow. Little has done more to shape Western history than Judaism and its offshots, particularly those amplified by the Roman Empire; and you could make the case that nothing has done more to act as a thread of continuity from their cultural, religious, and political origins than an evolving system of writing based in phonetic transcription. Our world may still be framed in part by the prospects of annihilation and by the community of written language. In fact, these tendencies may have defined the last two and a half millennia, as they have framed the last century. We cannot responsibly deny or avoid the importance of the former. Nor can we responsibly hope to make anything important out of the global interconnection currently going on faster than we can comprehend if we don't try to make the most of the latter.
Despite the long arcs of this project, my observations and those of the translators who joined me in this last part of it, come from our own unique sets of losses and origins as well as those of a collective and historical nature. We are the heirs of those who survived or created the concentration camps, the gulags, the Cold War, 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. We seem to be the last generation to begin writing in an environment where the tools for writing included no electronics. I write these notes at a time when virtually every aspect of society is in a greater state of uncertainty than it was at the time I wrote the two fragment-based books, or even when I asked Márton 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 an extension of what it means to begin.