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(Sketch for a chapter of Leaf Mosaic)

by Karl Young

Certain types of statement ask for participation. A question may be the most common and provocative example of this. Questions can form the basis of many types of poetry, and I've pursued some of them as far as I could. Statements that seem patently false or rigidly dogmatic or infectiously funny can prove as effective in bringing the hearer or reader into debate, though their approach is less direct. Words and phrases in isolation or in states of incompletion can also seem to demand a response. This is so much so that phrases such as "fill in the blanks" have become common place.

During my teens, advertisers used such isolated words and phrases more aggressively than ever before. At times they could supercharge them by incorporating them into other tropes. "Wouldn't you really rather drive a Buick?" seems a classic example, pulling into itself a rhythm that suggested a tune, a vagueness that left a range of possibilities open, and a question that could act either as a reinforcement of any of those imaginary possibilities or as a challenge. Isolated words and short phrases became inescapably entwined with just about every environment an urban youth could encounter during the 1950s and 60s. Signs appeared everywhere, even along country roads; clothes included labels, as did just about anything you carried in your pocket; simply by walkinf you could pick up pieces of paper wrappers with the bottom of your shoes and notice them later, when sitting in a field or in a room without signs. The most immediately apparent and demanding presented themselves as lights - some neon, some rows of incandescents, some back-lit. Many signs and labels simply faded into the background, becoming as much a part of the texture of the world as leaves or blades of grass in another dispensation. But some seemed to carry messages or rest in a magic aura, and seemed to reform the world around them. This was a time when universal literacy manifested itself not simply in individual ability but also in projections onto nearly every surface you might encounter.

As a kid who wrote poetry, this juggernaut of the word suggested all sorts of possibilities to me. The one I want to discuss here comes from a type of further participation that rose out of a further stage of the life of signs and labels: what happened when parts of them wore out, became destroyed, or otherwise disappeared. This moved participation into another dimension. The easiest stage came from noticing what happened when a letter or group of letters dropped out. A little mud could turn a STOP sign into a TOP sign; snow could turn SHELL into HELL. A sign reading BEER could lose its final letter, becoming BEE, or, better, could lose its last two letters, and, could command or question you, in blinking lights, to explore what it meant to BE. Once you became accustomed to such phenomena occurring around you, it became only natural to start creating such lapses yourself. You could, for instance, paint the letter J over the C in a COKE sign. On a bit more sophisticated level, you could pry two letters off a car hood, turning a DODGE into a DO G. The Concrete poetry of the 1960s wore this practice so thoroughly into the ground that I used it only sparingly, and with a great deal of caution, as soon as I became aware of a literary genre that had grown out of it. It seems a comic parody of academe, however, to note all the savants who seek to trace this process to Kabbalism, Carmina Figurata, Mallarmé, or some other consecrated source, when its base in the broader culture was so immediate and cogent.

Such phenomena weren't limited to images. Radios, televisions, public address systems and all sorts of electronic devices produced a constant background of spoken words, often resolving layers into collages as you moved through the world. This could include chance felicities similar to the break up of printed words, though usually on a larger scale. As with letters, the audio environment lead into deliberate manipulation. We called this "playing click." This worked best with car radios with buttons set to separate channels and tv sets with stations next to each other. To create audio collages, all you had to do was push a button on the radio or click the tv's knob. After playing a little, it became apparent that you could get more out of it by your agility in seeing where phrases were going and clicking at the best places. The easiest, and often most amusing, came from phrases such as "I really want" [click] or "I love you so much I need" [click] or "In this time of crisis it is essential for all Americans to" [click]. Skill in knowing when to click could keep a car full of young people laughing for hours. In a less public venue, a poetically inclined kid could move into subtler shifts. Other forms of interaction could prove stranger, and perhaps more discouraging. Arguing out loud with an indifferent speaker on television could prove comic to watch, but could leave you feeling empty when you did it yourself.

As interesting and as much fun as discovering or creating fragmented language could be, it seemed to need a filter to move into something more meaningful. In my late teens and early twenties, I wanted to do something more than a literary version of playing click or acting as a connoisseur of gum wrappers and department store signs, particularly since the environment was so completely rich to the point of overflowing in possibilities which seemed sufficient unto themselves.

The major opening for what I came to think of as fragment pieces came from a source that seems in itself to have been playing click between tv and poems read to me by an older cousin while he suffered from a serious illness. What came from his station was Ezra Pound. The irony of the conjunction of playing click with the dementia of Pound's radio broadcasts was something I was completely unaware of at the time, since no Pound fans wanted to say anything about the broadcasts except to claim that Pound had been misunderstood and taken out of context.

Although I didn't know what The Cantos added up to, I sensed almost immediately that Pound had raised something like playing click to an art form that went considerably beyond what I heard while scooping the loop or driving along country roads. The magic seemed to come in part from the nature of structures and recurrences in transitions, and the nature of the significance of junctures. Coming to some sort of understanding of how this worked took many years, and could not become complete. But in my teens a key to this seemed to come from "Papyrus," a tiny poem in Personae. This purportedly consisted of four words rendered from a Greek papyrus fragment attributed to Sappho. Tears in papyrus seemed to evoke signs made of letters disposed down panels. It had become apparent to me that for an expanded literacy and a fusion of poetry with visual modes, that alternate reading patterns provided an important strategy. Initial interest in Chinese poetry, supported not only by Pound but also by Rexroth and Waley, suggested that poetry need not be written from left to write, and that a precedent existed for a different order of reading. Altered reading orders had also suggested a means of reinventing or reinforcing rhythms that didn't rely on standard metrics.

What I think of as my first successful poem in alternate modes looks like this:

If this poem does indeed work, you should be able to hear the sound of the loom when reading it aloud. The poem comes from the sonic implications of a name, and the way it reinforces and defines a myth. Encountering Chaos Theory would come about several decades later, but one of its tenets seemed implicit in Pound: that if you break something down into seemingly meaningless parts, those parts will create a new order, at times defining the one from which it came. Thus Arachne's story could be heard in her name. This poem was meant for mimeo reproduction. The mimeo of the day introduced visual qualities not characteristic of other kinds of print and more closely related to painting. The rough edges and uneven impression gave it a painterly, tactile character that related it to my painting of the time, forming one of many bridges between what seemed to me unnaturally segregated arts.

I wrote the first draft of this poem in 1965. In succeeding years, it pulled different ideas and tonalities into its orbit. In the myth, Arachne works hurriedly, seeking to free herself from her human limitations and in the process becoming more tightly bound by them. When read quickly, it sounds like Arachne is slamming the bar of her loom to the right with each pass of the shuttle. In one version, I inserted the word "Anger" at the beginning, and later titled it "War's Loom," tying it more tightly to the Vietnam war, and perhaps in the process trashing its lyricism and changing the nature of the story - Arachne as a female version of Prometheus gets lost in the war machine.

By 1967, poems like the Arachne lyric and Pound's "Papyrus" had been cooking in my mind for several years, and its first synthesis came forth in the following version of one of Sappho's fragments:



Poems based in fragments tend to carry an elegiac tone. They come, after all, from something that has been partially lost. But they lend themselves to a great deal more. In this case, I'd like to think that the reader would also get a sense of longing and of resignation from the poem, and see it coming to a close in a temporary decisiveness that would form part of a cycle of recurring desire and stasis. Other poems grew out of these two - fragments' need to multiply, as well as to join themselves with other elements, much the way imbalanced groupings of electrons in molecules seek to bond with other elements to act as the building blocks of the world. Chemists call the ability of molecules to bond with others their valence, and different kinds of fragments seemed to combine in different manners with different affinities. The Sappho fragment drew other fragments to it, and the Arachne lyric wove its way through other poems running more or less parallel to the poem based on Sappho. Some fragments seemed to imply satisfaction, others came closer to screams and curses. Poems more closely related to the Arachne piece took on more speculative, at times down right spacy, qualities.

Click here to go to poems based of fragments by Bacchylides and Alcaeus

In the early 1970s, I moved from mimeo to offset printing. This allowed me to enlarge the typewriter faces I had used in mimeo production. Some of the tactile quality of mimeo came through in the enlargement, and I found a number of ways of increasing this dimension of the poems. The series grew through a good deal of the 70s. As I printed new pages, I used them as stationery, writing letters to people on the other sides as Mail Art. These pieces came out one page at a time, without much thought of how they might form a book, though as time went on they took on patterns due to the way some of them took material from previous pages. I started thinking of them as a book under such titles as "Classical Leaves" and "Echoes of the Wine Dark Sea," but such a book did not finalize itself and make its way into an edition. Recently, I have combined a few of them with workings based on Chinese sources in a ms. with the working title Echoes from the Wine Dark Sea and the Middle Kingdom, and with luck, it will be published this year as part of a larger work, Renewable Resources. Several early pieces based in Chinese sources worked their way into the ms. early, and it seems important now that the two sources should work together, and should take additional significance in the context of other work. The valence of fragments continues.

In the process of interaction, these poems formed a base for another work that I would not have been able to predict. In 1975, while he was editing A Big Jewish Book, Jerry Rothenberg suggested that I try a similar approach with Jewish texts for possible inclusion in the anthology. The search for sources lead me to the Elephantine Fragments, remains of texts left under the floors of the homes of a colony of Jews exiled in Egypt during the First Diaspora. Several poems fell into place quickly, but hinted at areas that seemed beyond my abilities. Fortunately, Harris Lenowitz, a poet and scholar of Semitic languages, took an interest in the work and gave me the best assistance I could have found anywhere. Many of the fragments were simply lists of names. Most of the names were of the "theophorous," or "god-bearing" type. These included the name of God, then spelt [YHW], and each referred to a passage in the Book of Psalms, a part of the Bible I had grown up with. These names may have come from prayers uttered by or for mothers during childbirth; or they may have born a talismanic value, not heeded much during normal circumstances, but carrying strong significance during ceremony or adversity. Although Jerry only wanted three for the anthology, the fragmentary written records of this colony which kept its identity while cast adrift and persecuted in an alien, desert land, clinging to names which carried the father's pride and the mother's pain, the community's beliefs and the individual's trials, called for a book. The neat, square-based letters of the Hebrew alphabet seemed perfect for the kind of treatment I had used in the pieces cited above. My first working was a score for multiple voice performance. Such performances worked fine with friends in my living room and in Jerry's, but turned ludicrous on stage. Still, I hope the reader gets a sense of play between communal and individual voices in reading the work. As with most of my books, I worked this one out in two page openings. Variations on the lists of names govern the book's structural patterns. As in the Arachne lyric, names charted lives. In the Hebrew Bible, Adam and Eve gave names to the animals, and part of this magical process defined who they were and how they could see the world.

David Meltzer took an interest in the work and offered to publish it through his Tree Book series while I was still in the process of writing. Cried and Measured appeared under David's imprint in 1977.

Click here to go to on-line excerpts from Cried and Measured

In the autumn of 1977, I suffered from a nasty case of hepatitis. The nature of the disorder puzzled my doctors, but aside from other factors, excessive use of alcohol was definitely part of the picture. Beginning a regime of strict sobriety made the difficulty of the time worse. Initially, the illnesses made me unable to do much but fret, sleep, and jaundice. As I recovered, I looked for a project to work on. Contemplating the square nature of letters in Cried and Measured, I decided to explore the nature of movement within tightly defined squares. Fragments of Old Latin seemed ideal for this, particularly given the boastful and imperialistic regime from which they came. This dispensation sought to impose a rigid order on the world around it, but remained claustrophobic and anxiety-ridden at its core. Some of the fragments came from quotations of otherwise lost works, some from inscriptions on bottles, tombs, and other objects. The miscellaneous inscriptions echoed the words in public and commercial signs that formed one of the roots of the work on fragments.

In the opening shown here, reading of the verso begins at the lower right and moves up the page letter by letter, and lines progress from right to left. Reading on the recto follows the left to right, top to bottom order we have come to see as normal. In these sequences, the rectangle never reaches completion but ends in a broken edge. Poems in sequences such as this moved like brush strokes, each starting at a different side of the square. Solid blocks of type, without breaks between words, sets that explored other rectangles, and break-away sequences radiating out from a center alternate through the work. Most people become so acustomed to standard reading order that they lose all sense of motion in the process. When the reading order changes, the sense of motion returns, and the work becomes gestural, acquiring a body language. No matter how quickly or slowly you normally read, you can see marked differences in reading speeds between the two pages presented here. In addition to the significances and gestalts created by the progression of letters, the difference in dispositions of letters from one page to the next create rhythms even in silent reading. The book begins with stoic utterances, threats, and scherzi. Though these continue throughout, the book moves toward acceptance and affirmations. Even if the book were transcribed into normal order and read aloud, the auditor should be able to hear the way rhythms begin in jagged clusters and move toward a dynamic celebration.

In early stages, I printed individual pages as Mail Art stationary. As the work came together, I assembled passages into small, stapled fascicles and sent them along with my correspondences. I called these "Pescia," the name used for signatures of books distributed separately and unbound to university students during the Middle Ages. Like those students, I was exploring remnants of Latin texts while moving toward something new - acquiring a new literacy. Before beginning the work, I had discussed possibilities for new reading sequences in relation to rhythm with bpNichol. I began the work during a dark passage, and bp showed his usual generosity and capacity for encouragement during this phase. By the time the book was finished, I had emerged into one of the happiest and most productive periods in my life. In something like a festive mood, an extension of the sound poetry, performance art, and other events that brought us together at least once a year, bp published the book through Underwhich Editions as Should Sun Forever Shine in 1980.

Some of the basic principles at work in the fragment pieces found other manifestation in (1) what I came to call vocabularies, fractals, and semi-conductors, (2) poems based in Chinese sources, (3) poems with affinities to Lettrism.

Some critics see collage as the basic art form of the 20th Century. One means of placing objects next to each other without connective tissue comes from the breaking up of images, words, ideas. This depends on one process of fragmentation or another. Some writers see the use of such material as indicative of the destructive nature of the century. In some instances, this is true. But when it is, as much as when it isn't, the emphasis of this argument seems inadequate. The creative impulses that rush in toward that which is broken and that which is incomplete seem among the most basic of human drives.

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