Karl Young Introduction to Karl Kempton "Rune"

Reading the Waves
An Introduction to Karl Kempton's
Rune: A Survey

by Karl Young

A casual glance at Karl Kempton's typoglifs reveals several important characteristics. They are carefully designed and impeccably rendered. They suggest virtuoso command of a typewriter. They tend to be elegant, graceful, and symmetrical. Nonetheless, they sometimes produce kinetic effects such as figure/ground reversal or changes in perspective or other suggestions of depth that give them a lively, vibrant quality. They are sometimes based in visual pun, paradox, and example. Some are humorous or satirical. Some use words; many do not. Many could be understood by people who don't read English, or could be understood by them with the gloss of a word or two. Many suggest archetypes, but, at the same time, most call forth all sorts of associations from the viewer's subconscious that are highly individualized.

If the above completely summarized Kempton's work, it would be enough to credit him as a skilled and inventive decorative artist. He is more than that. He is a poet whose work is as complete, as moving, as complex, and as integrated with his life as any you're likely to find in North America today. That he is not recognized as such bears witness to the massive prejudice against visual poetry in this corner of the world. The present volume is a survey of Rune, Kempton's major work, now some 328 pages long and seventeen years in the making. It is unfortunate that this cannot be an edition of the whole work, perhaps with an ancillary volume annotating sources, circumstances, and references. Since that's not possible, this survey is the next best thing. Our criteria in the selection process were to use pieces we thought were Kempton's best and most representative. We were particularly concerned with presenting the work in such a way that facing pages would work together. We wanted to present one sequence in its entirety. The sequence we decided upon was THE ALLAH SERIES, which brings the glifs in this collection up to the book's coda, "sipapu." A chart showing where each piece fits into the overall scheme of Rune appears at the end of the book.

During a conversation in which the topic of body surfing occured, Kempton remarked, just in passing but with some vehemence, that he couldn't stand most representations of waves in contemporary visual art and poetry. I've been checking this against work by others, including myself, and so far I haven't been able to find a contemporary poet or artist who understands waves as well as he does. Kempton knows his waves from riding them along the California coast near his home. He also knows waves as physical and spiritual phenomena moving through many different media. You can see some of this in the waves from his EON PULSE series (pages 12 through 16) and FABELZ AND KRITTERS OFF THE MOTHER'S TUNG (pages 38 and 39). The possibilities of waves are vast. We perceive light and sound by waves. You see this page through waves. According to Kempton's belief, the sound waves of the word OM created the world. You'll see transcriptions of that word, OM, on the covers of this book. These were the first two pieces Kempton created in Rune. Right from the start, you can see Kempton going past pleasant decorations all the way to cosmology.

The last page of EON PULSE charts the pattern of a nova's expansion. Several years after composing this piece, Kempton found the same pattern in the weaving of the Chumash Indians who once had a village on the cite of his present home, and this same pattern found its way quite naturally into another piece, INDIAN WEDDING. Weaving, both by human effort and through natural processes, has been central to Kempton's work from the beginning. On the simplest level, the weaver's x-y grid gave Kempton his method of constructing images. First he makes rough sketches on blank paper. He then translates them to grid paper. He types the page using the grid as guide. This is a method that has allowed him to build extremely complex patterns out of a few rudimentary units. It is also the technical, symbolic, and spiritual center of his work. Weaving is at the heart of the matriarchal society that Kempton sees as the basis of human development, most compatible with the environment and farthest from the psychologically and physically toxic world in which history has left us. Patterns along x-y grids have given him access to many human designs, stretching from the knot patterns of The Book of Kells to Native American weaving to Kabbalistic Sephiroth to diagrams of molecular structures to Dravidian mandalas to isometric machine drawings to Arabic calligraphy to the layouts of electronic circuit boards. In all these cases, Kempton is following his models in the x-y logic of their own construction, something he would not be doing if he were writing lyric poetry, or the kind of prose I'm writing now. That this x-y logic has been worked out in so many ways under so many circumstances suggests that alternatives to the syntax of language can be found in two dimensional placement.

Kempton's sources extend into natural and chance patterns: he uses patterns found in knotted seaweed and scrap metal with as much facility as the Native American weavings and Celtic knots that have so often been his points of departure. Kempton can work in a cooperative spirit, starting with other people's designs. To me, his most moving collaborations are pieces based on doodles his wife makes while talking on the telephone.

Kempton avoids overstriking and techniques that would blur the characters he types. If he needs to create lighter or darker areas, he does so by using more or less dense characters (a group of L's, for instance, is lighter than a group of E's). Every component part has its own integrity, its own identity, its own space; nothing is allowed to soften them or to create hazy impressions. Kempton can make images of waves without introducing any of the romanticism often associated with them. He can bring clarity to the most overused, abused, misunderstood, confused, and distorted images. From a general aesthetic view point, perhaps we can see in this the clarity of untempered scales in many types of music from around the world and renewed in Harry Partch's use of just intonation, or the ceremonial measures in the Yaqui Indian practice of dancing in tightly defined personal/sacred spaces, avoiding the aggressive and imperial gymnastics of ballet and other European dance forms.

But for Kempton (and for most of us) this clarity is most important when used to present themes such as environmental action, sense of self or loss of same, natural communion, openness to spiritual revelation, the need for personal and communal responsibility. These are all things that have become confused and degraded in recent years. Few poets or artists have done as good a job of re-presenting these ideas, freed from cliche and cleaned of the junk that has accumulated around them, presenting them in the clearest, most honest, and most appropriate manner. Going back to my example, let me suggest that in Rune we may see the first clean waves in the poetry of the second half of the twentieth century.

Kempton has been a dedicated environmentalist for over two decades, often putting himself at serious personal risk in his efforts. His environmental activism is a mark of his literary as well as personal integrity. A lot of poets bellow and whine about ecology but do nothing in practical terms -- I've seen my share who don't want to use recycled paper because it costs more than virgin pulp stock or because the colors available don't suit them. But in Kempton's case, a commitment to the environment in verse demands a commitment to the environment on all levels. This is the case with his other concerns: they lead directly from his work into the way he conducts his life and back into the work again.

Kempton's glifs can be read on a number of levels. For most people, the first, and perhaps most important, is free association. People to whom I've shown one of his previous books, Fire + Water have seen aerial views of cities, Kachina dolls, space ships and stations (children and teenagers have launched into expansive explications of space images), bead-work clothing, frameworks of skyscrapers, mandalas, video games, charts of railroad tracks, sketches for gardens, and so on. The people who have suggested these things to me have had some fun in doing so, as well as in discovering things on the page. Interestingly enough, most of these are personalized versions of what Kempton had in mind. In Rune everything has purpose and significance and a good deal of observation and study behind it. But that doesn't mean that any of the pieces are dogmatic or pedantic. One of the most important features of Kempton's work is the freedom it affords its readers: the invitation to find themselves in the work is one of its major premises. The comedy or spirituality or clarity or familiarity or reverence or commitment may create parameters for response, but do not interfere with the creativity of the reader. One of Kempton's favorite leisure activities is dancing. This is an activity in which a musical framework can provide opportunity for creativity among the dancers. Perhaps Kempton's glifs are visual renditions of the same thing.

Copyright 1992 by Karl Young

Rune: A Survey is available from Light and Dust Books.


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