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Introduction to Klaus Peter Dencker's
Visuelle Poesie, 1965 - 2005
by Karl Young

Klaus Peter Dencker belongs to the great tradition of visual poets whose approach includes an encyclopedic base. Internationally well known examples of this tradition in the 20th Century include Ian Hamilton Finlay and Tom Phillips. Underlying Finlay's opus is the practice of collaboration with artisans of all types, the study of artistic genres and movements, and the art of placing the finished collaborations in environments that hold dialogues with the pieces which they inspired, on which they comment, and with which they eventually form a unity. Thus Finlay's oeuvre consists of poems realized in virtually all media available, representing the skills of a complete spectrum of the most able workers, and thoroughly exploring the land, sea, and sky of the author's native Scotland. The center of Tom Phillips's opus is a single reworked book. This work systematically catalogues two dimensional styles of drawing and painting, running parallel to the author's exploration of several layers of fictitious characters. This exploration includes games played with the nature of reality and the changing force-fields of subject and object. Around this book, Phillips has marshaled legions of art forms, including photographic projects ranging from isolated stills, to stills in programmatic sequence, to films; musical compositions including an opera; translation, illumination, formally commissioned portraits, and event pieces.

Klaus Peter Dencker's most easily identifiable encyclopedic base is his life-long activity as an anthologist, editor, cataloguer, and collector. The four activities move in and out of each other, producing an important opus in themselves. But they also find their way into his poetry. Thus his poetry has constantly been enriched by the encyclopedias of visual poetry and related works and his practice as a poet constantly gives him fresh ideas and a deepened understanding of the arts which enhance his catalogues, archives, anthologies, and scholarly collections. His unpublished archives may identify as many late 20th Century visual poets as any in the world. (The collection of Ruth and Marvin Sackner is the only probable contender for equal range.) This kind of archive is particularly difficult for an art form that has primarily traveled through underground channels from patterns of barter to books and broadsides published in microscopic editions to the shifting and deliberately ephemeral Mail Art network.

The graphic elements in Dencker's poems recapitulate not only the imagery of Europe for several hundred years, but also reiterate the range of techniques used by artists and designers of all sorts. One of the great satisfactions for me in his work comes from the interaction of techniques collaged together. A simple aspect of this appears in different types of shading in the images, ranging from the cross- hatching, layering, and feathering of woodcuts and stone lithographs, to the tonal ranges produced by photographic methods for offset and rotogravure printing, to the gradations introduced by airbrushes and by the layering and transparencies of computer graphics programs. This confluence of techniques finds a match in Dencker's approach to letters. A page of Dencker's poetry will probably include half a dozen type faces, running through variations on Fraktur, Roman, sans serif, and handwriting like playing scales in different keys. In addition to its appearance, the lexical significance of the texts resolve themselves into three parts: The printed texts should be read something like traditional poetry. The handwriting, however, moves back and forth between autobiographical passages and theoretical statements and reflections on what he is doing. The different strands of handwritten self- commentary and biography tend to be color coded in simple colors. The lexical plane thus includes poetry, personal diary, and critical and theoretical analysis, created as the work is in progress.

Another level of presentation involves the interaction of basic types of image, which we can list as icons, diagrams, scores, idealizations, cartoons, and representations. Anthropologists, philosophers, and students of media arrange these in chronological or hieratic striations. They would see, for instance, icons as being more primitive than representations. In Dencker's poetry, we see all types of image simultaneously present. At times they reinforce the chronologies implied by graphic techniques; at times, they work against them. Often images take on multiple roles. The texture of the interaction and conjunction of image types can be as strong as the interplay between graphic modes. The way the multi-tiered lexical poem, the graphic and the presentational planes intersect gives the work a sense of volume, reminiscent of polyphonic music. It is essential to note that Dencker plays in a Dixieland band, a Jazz sub-genre with particularly strong emphasis on the harmonies and counterpoints of multiple melodic lines.

Dencker sometimes divides a page into zones, each assigned a contrasting subject. One zone, for instance, may involve work and another play. Both graphically and semantically, the major elements in a page function like the clauses in a sentence, and the pages in a section work much like a paragraph. Thus the phrases and sentences in his work not only carry their own significance, but each contributes to a larger linguistic construct. The semantics of image display on pages and through sequences of pages may or may not relate to the significance of the text in letters, and may instead form a syntax more related to patterns of intuitive connections which extend our perception and understanding beyond the range of habit and the restrictions of the linear nature of language. One of Dencker's activities has been the production of films. His vita includes over a hundred films produced for German television. He sees the sequencing of his extended works as drawing on film. The eye can track multiple lines and layers simultaneously. Reading a page or sequence of Dencker's poetry can thus draw on some of the same capacities used in listening to polyphonic music, as well as those employed in the reading of linear text.

"Wort Koepfe" gives us a good place to see these characteristics work together. This is a poem on the nature of the mind, the intellect, the rational facilities, and the sensorium - all concepts that see the human being in frameworks similar to its graphic representations and artistic techniques. Since this work centers on the head, we see heads presented as icons, diagrams, scores (in the form of text and musical notation), idealizations, cartoons, and portraits. Each type can be rendered in any of the available encyclopedia of techniques made available by millennia of artists. But neither the image types nor the techniques stay in their chronological place: combinations constantly change relations in such a way as to suggest a dance in which all Western times and places intermingle. This could suggest a sort of Carnivale or Mardi Gras, but one held in an Apollonian state of mind, not the ur-Dada or proto-Surrealist milieux of New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro. An essential component of Dencker's art can be expressed as degree of gradation, fine tuned as color. In his exploration of color, he has tended to retain a white ground. I'd like to think that this was a conscious decision, based on his study of negative space in Japanese art, though it probably comes from a broader sense of clarity. In many places, the white ground allows images to stand out more distinctly, and for their image type and their technique to keep from blurring, no matter how much they combine. Dencker's use of multiple techniques and image types looks graceful on his pages, but is not easy to achieve. Two pages from "Wort Koepfe" suggest what Dencker can do with color gradations. The first I'd like to point out is page 4 of part 3. In this page we have strong contrasts between the black and white of the drawing and the color of the photograph. Both the lines of the skull and the shades of skin on the woman become more clearly visible in conjunction with each other. The composite can be read as an archetype or a recension of Memento Mori sermons or Death and the Maiden motifs. The skull's teeth could be read as sinister, though the lines of the jaw and the shape of the eye sockets suggest something more like amusement. If the sense of vegetable matter growing around the skull make a reader's skin crawl, that may make the sensuality of the woman all the stronger. At the same time, the branches around the skull, positioned so as to unit the woman with the brain stem, can just as strongly suggest the Biblical Tree of Life theme, with its powerful evocation of the interdependence of life and death. The position of the woman's arms and legs suggests, first, sleep and repose; second, sensuality, expressed primarily through the curves of the stomach and hips. In this image, flesh and bone, sensuality and structure form a quiet but eternal dialogue. The darkness of the woman comes close to black, and the lightness of the skull comes close to white. They are, however, modulated into a different realm of color which makes the light and dark contrast more luminous and more striking than they could if pushed to their extremes. If this piece avoids sermons and guffaws, it also shows how rich a contrast can become if handled in the gradations of reason rather than the extremes of irrationality and dogma.

In part 4, page 6, the largest form is the outline of a head as if cut out from the white paper of the poem. Inside it we see clouds in the area of the face, devolving into storm clouds toward the top of the head. Punctuating the storm is a commercial logo. This round shape suggests an eye for the cut-out figure by its position and echoes the curved shape of the heads on the page. Deeper into the head, we see a detailed diagram of the head and shoulders of a figure with no individual identity. This "Everyman" has lost his skin in an imaginary world of diagrams for the purposes of understanding anatomy. None the less, the impersonal figure looks defiantly heroic and individualistic in stance as he as he lifts up his head and eye sockets toward the stormy sky. His color is the faded white of old textbooks. In front of him a photo of two people's heads and shoulders is true portraiture. They are a man and woman, perhaps partners, as suggested by their proximity - though not two people whose minds are in the same place, judging from their expressions and the different directions in which they are looking. The man looks through binoculars at a part of the sky away from the storm. The dark purple clothing of these figures ties them into the stormy sky on the other side of the anatomical diagram figure. A white cloud creates a path between the faded lightness of the diagram figure and the bright white of the page ground. In this page, multiple heads in multiple presentations and technical forms look in different directions, though away from each other. Though the blues and purples dominate the "positive" space of the page, this simple segment of the spectrum seems lush in color and is rich in significance.

Dencker's conflation of historical strata might be seen as part of the Post Modernist rejection of history. It seems, however, that Dencker's historical strata work as part of two dynamics outside this range. The first is simply the progress of history itself. In "Dero Abecedarius," we see an image suggesting catastrophe at the World Trade Center towers in New York City. This piece was done before the September 11, 2001 attack on them. Some might see this as prophetic. This intersection, however, dramatically shows how much a part of continuing history the work, its sources, the media employed, and the arts of visual poetry are part of ongoing history itself; and, like the components of past eras Dencker employs, the significance of his work will change with changing events and changing media.

History and changing media have been essential to the formation of Dencker's art, and it seems essential to look at his work in precisely these terms. Audiences at the present time tend to look at Visual Poetry as an outgrowth or next step after Concrete. I see Concrete as a short-lived fad, largely based on the appearance and cultural significance of newspaper headlines conjoined with the sensibility of Haiku. The Concrete movement itself lost credibility because the overwhelming majority of readers saw it as trivial, gimmicky, and irrelevant. And so much of it was. Interestingly and appropriately, newspapers started moving toward irrelevance as Concrete fell out of favor. Dencker's work has based itself on photographs, magazines, video, and other, fuller modes of graphic presentation. These modes allowed him to recapitulate and revive images from the complete European past, not just the era of narrow Ideologies intimately entwined with newspapers. This reach backward has characterized many North Atlantic arts in the second half of the 20th Century. Fluxus, for instance, reinvented confluent arts under the banner of "multimedia." At the time of Fluxus's greatest strength, you could still find churches throughout the world holding an older form of polyartistic event in the Mass, just as easily as you could see most political movements recasting their ceremonies along the lines of the spectacles of Monarchy, and cinema developing Technicolor to try to capture imaginary versions of the visual richness of such events. By the time Concrete began to crack, color television moved from the realm of a few wealthy people to a universal and ubiquitous entity. Near the end of the millennium, the media of the century joined forces: television and typewriters united in the personal computer; the personal computer joined the telephone creating the internet; at the present time the computer is joining the radio, creating wireless. A decade from now, most people in the West may be constantly connected via the growth of what we now call cellular telephones. At home, they may spend a good deal of time interacting with holograms. Communication may never flow only in one direction again. The concept of the "consumer" may disappear as contributions to the electronic network become decentralized, and speech and image will once more become inseparable as we look at people, take pictures, and experience our news with the computers we may wear on our wrists like watches or carry in our pockets like billfolds. As society becomes saturated with vibrant images, some people will find it increasingly desirable to escape into a simpler environment. As this happens, the masterpieces of Concrete by poets such as Eugen Gomringer and Seiichi Niikuni may actually regain the currency they have lost, and contemporary masters of black and white minimalism such as Márton Koppány, may find an audience through a more eclectic environment. Given the lack of expense in reproducing color images electronically, black and white has already become a deliberate choice rather than an economic expedient or a habit or a state of mind.

Klaus Peter Dencker's encyclopedias seem harbingers of the poetry of the future - and perhaps a prescriptive example of what should be done in it. Given the graphic possibilities and imperatives of the internet, it seems unlikely that word and image will exist in segregation as they did during the age of print domination. In the last decade, there has been a rapid expansion of visual poetry throughout the world. Some of this may remain part of a discrete Visual Poetry genre; but even if it does, the other literary arts will probably be strongly influenced by, and in many places joined with, graphics. If the importance of keyboards recedes, and we begin talking to the computers on our desks, our living room walls, and our wrists, while language comes to us in conjunction with images, we may find ourselves in an internal world closer to that of classical Greece or the Roman Empire than the North Atlantic culture of the 19th and 20th Centuries. If history works out along these lines, we will probably not loose printed books as we will certainly lose newspapers. An example of the retention of books in the last decade comes from the Harry Potter novels. These ridiculously long volumes, primarily written for children and teenagers, achieved record sales at precisely the time when pundits were most shrilly announcing the death of print. Distribution of the books depended on electronics, and their popularity was strongly reinforced by e-mail, internet chat rooms, and listservs, but the fact remains that children and young people, unspoiled by theory, overwhelmingly voted with their allowances to keep books along with their computers. One of the reasons for this is that they were not put in an either/or, black and white position. Given freedom to make up their own minds, they opted not to exclude either medium. These are young people who have developed in a multi-tasking environment, not unlike the world of polyphonic music, or an encyclopedic mode of Visual Poetry.

Clearly, Visual Poetry is poised to move out of the ghetto in which it has languished. At this transition time, it seems important that the age of electronic multimedia have guidance from its encyclopedists available to it, rather than be left to the dogmas of technological absolutists. If so, the poetry of Klaus Peter Dencker seems to be a good model. Unlike many collagists, he avoids violence, the desire to shock, and the exultation of incompetence. Avoiding classic Psychoanalysis and its artistic wing in Surrealism, this is a poetry that celebrates the rational mind and the powers of intuition that belong to it. Although this is a poetry that depends heavily on intuition and association, it allows these faculties to function in a world of nuances and modulations, not the harsh world of impulsiveness or reflex. Dencker's view tends to favor a sense of humor, but one that does not mock or ridicule or find glee in other people's humiliation. In his poetry, Dencker wears his erudition lightly: his catalogues seem offered up as sources rather than conclusions.

A single encyclopedist could be dangerous, just as the electronic world we are moving into may be our worst nightmare if it is controlled by a single entity - whether that entity be a traditional police state or a private information totalitarian such as Google. This is where Dencker's poetry comes full circle to his activity in collecting the work of other Visual Poets. It seems particularly important to me that he has published several anthologies of Japanese Visual Poetry. These bring the East and West into closer contact with each other. In Japan, several types of Visual Poetry have existed side by side for some time, seldom paying much attention to each other, but creating their own rich genres. It may take outsiders such as Dencker to bring these groups together, just as it might take a non-Westerner to make anything like a truce among the much more hostile and actively feuding movements of the West. Dencker studied Japanese at University. It is important to note that in the 20th Century very few Western poets did this; those interested in Asian language at all did not look to contemporary Asian poetry, and in the Sino-Japanese sphere, they made up bizarre explanations of the Kanji writing system as little sets of pictures. Perhaps in part to distance himself from such practice, Dencker avoids the orientalisms that find their way into much of the art and poetry of the West in the 20th Century. He has nonetheless learned a great deal from his Japanese colleagues. Not least of these has been the ability to cooperate across significant cultural divisions.

As much as Concrete has dominated exclusive spheres of influence in the West itself, it is absolutely essential to understand Western alternatives. Of these, Lettrisme and its offshoots are certainly the most important, even though the central movement may not long outlive the now impending death of its founder, Isidore Isou. It is instructive to follow the vigorous and at times relentless historical analysis of Lettrisme as pursued by its founders; but it is equally important to see its continuation in such movements as Signalism and Inismo, as well as its impact on unaligned individuals living in places as far from Paris as Russia and Argentina. It is just as important to understand encyclopedists outside of movements, such as Karl Kempton who has patiently worked his way through the world's spiritual symbol graphs; to understand the work of individual perfectionists, such as Joel Lipman, who has completely explored the possible uses of rubber stamps; to understand tireless innovators, such as Kitasono Katue whose working life included the invention of multiple forms of lexical poetry and three unprecedented genres of visual poetry - the last of them, a form of graphic language whose implications are only beginning to become apparent half way through the first decade of the 21st Century. Although not as prominent during the last decades as other movements and individuals, Visual Poetry has been growing at an accelerating rate that doesn't suggest that it is about to slow down soon.

If Klaus Peter Dencker is one of the great encyclopedists of the turn of the millennium, one of his most important functions may be to show us how essential - and how much fun - encyclopedias can be.

- Karl Young

This hard bound volume measures 9" x 11 1/2" and contains 318 pages of coated stock. The color printing is exquisite. Given publication subsidies in German speaking countries, the book's price, 34 Euros (U.S. $43) is almost comically inexpensive in comparison to comparable productions in the U.S. Postage, however, is postage the world over. For copies sent to the U.S., plain rate is $23 and faster shipping is $30.

Shipping to other countries:

France/England = 12 EU
Benelux/Denmark = 9 EU
Germany = 7 EU
Rest of Europe = 14 EU

The book is also available in a special edition, limited to 100 copies, with a Dencker original laid in. 99 EU / $124 + shipping costs, same as above.

Available from

Bibliothek der Provinz
Grosswolfgers 29
A-3970 Weitra

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