Non-Written and Binary Poems

By Ladislav Nebeský



Ladislav Nebeský was born in 1937, at Jilemnice, a small town about 100 km north-east of Prague. Begining in 1939, his father was a member of the underground anti-Nazi movement. In 1940, he was arrested by the Gestapo; in 1942, he was killed in Berlin. Ladislav Nebeský spent his first 18 years in Jilemnice. In the period 1955 - 1960 , he studied mathematics at Charles University in Prague. In 1962, he began working as a researcher at Charles University. This lead to full-time teaching at that school, where he became an Associate Professor in mathematics. The present academic year will be his last year there. He lives with his wife in Prague. They have one son, David.

The development of his poetry falls into two major periods: 1964 - 1972 and 1995 - ... (Beginning in the seventies, he pursued mathematics more intensively). In the first period, he was a member of a free group of Czech authors of experimental poetry; he had many contacts with other poets. In the second period, the contacts with other writers became rather rare. In the earlier period, one of the high points for him and several other Czech poets was inclusion in the exhibition Poesía Concreta International in Mexico City, 1966. Another high point was the Konkrete Poesie exhibition, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1970. Some of his early poetry was published in international magazines, and he is particularly pleased with one published in Ovum 10, Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1970.

A few weeks before the end of 1965, he discovered so called binary poems. Very simply stated, a binary poem is a constelation of artificial words, words formed by "signs" O and I; these arteficial words are derived from words of a natural language in such a way that the letters used in "natural" words are binary encoded. When he discovered binary poems he did not know that some members of Noigandres constructed artificial constelations. But they encoded whole words as units; Nebeský encoded letters as units. Binary poems and poems relative to them became the main tendency in his poetry in the years 1966 - 1972.

In Wagon III-IV/07, you can find a triple binary poems written a year ago. III-IV of the magazine included a collection of 16 "non-written" poems. The title of the group could be translated "Filling the Emptiness." "light - dust" below was written in December, 2007.

light - dust

The following set of "Non-Written" poems includes an introduction to the process of creating this type of poetry:

Non-Written Poems

Nebeský wonders if his early binary poems were ahead of their time. Certainly many circumstances of his life and in the world during the period after the creative upsurge of the 1960s were not conducive to their full development. The invasion of Chechoslovakia in 1968 suppressed some of the artistic flowering of the mid 1960s, but it's not wise to see declines in creativity solely in political or other simplistic terms.

The world of the present may be more cordial, and Nebeský's personal circumstances greatly improved. The world, after all, now depends completely on binary mediation, and much of society would collapse without the digital infrastructure that has grown since the 1960s. It is a pleasant irony to put binary poems on the world wide web, which is brought to you by binary systems. The dictatorships of the left and the right in the 1960s and 70s saw art forms such as Nebeský's as self-indulgent, an affront to the "people" and a decadent waste of time and energy by aesthetes. At present, binary communication is not only highly practical and engrained in the fabric of daily life for a large portion of the world's population, the technology seems poised on the edge of bringing about a revolution that could empower many people or could become a tool of oppression. If it does the latter, the best way to resist it would include understanding it and finding it familiar.

Nebeský plans to return to binary poems more intensively in the future. But before that, he finds himself too deeply engaged in his "Non-Written" poetry projects, and wishes to conclude them before making an extensive shift back to his binary poems. His most important recent book, Bílá místa ("White Places"), Dybbuk, Prague, 2006, is based in Czech words and may not be translatable. The work presented at this site, however, does not represent translation, but work originally created using English

- Ladislav Nebeský and Karl Young

The preceding poems and introduction went online on New Year's Day 2008. The following additional sequence went up precisely one year later, on the first day of 2009, Nicely bracketing 2008, and looking forward to a new year:

Non-Written Poems - 2

Nebesky retired this September. A new book, Za hranice stránek, was published by Dybbuk, in a beautiful edition, as the year wound down. As a bit of serendipity for me, and for my efforts in presenting Nebesky's work on the web, I received my copy on the last day of 2008.

- Karl Young

5 Binary Poems

Due to many distractions, I wasn't able to carry on much of a correspondence with Nebeský during 2009. In a bit of pleasant serendipity, however, Nebesky sent me these poems on Thanksgiving Day. His notes on that day included a remembrance of my father who had been acting as an Army chaplain in Czechoslovakia at the end of WW II. (C.f. Carl J. Young Memorial web site) Our exchanges included two other important historical intersections for me. Nebeský had been prophetic in the use of binary and digital poetry long before computers became ubiquitous and dominant forces in the world, including the medium by which I published his poems. During 2009, I had several occasions to mention how impressed I was in my early 20s by the flowering of Czech arts in the 1960s, the way the Czech pavilion had "stolen the show" artistically at the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal, and how that had influenced some of my sense of possibilities at an important time in my development. In the correspondence during the last days of 2009, Nebeský put me in touch with a young Czech visual poet, who had introduced herself to him during the year. The three years during which new work by Nebeský has appeared at this site on successive New Year's Days have been not only satisfying for the virtues of the poems themselves, but a vote of confidence in the region that produced 20th Century essentials from Kafka to the artistic flourishing of the 1960s. Without forgetting the misfortunes of 1968 for Czechoslovakia, the smaller scale difficulties for the world of 2009, and the catastrophes possible at any point in time, the first glimpse of work by a younger poet seems a confirmation of my linking of Nebeský with the hopes for a new year.

— Karl Young

For New Year's Day, 2011, Nebeský contributed 8 Planer Binary Poems. These poems contain two kinds of elements: small white squares and small black squares. A letter in a Planar Binary Poem is coded by a line of elements (read left to right) or by a column of elements (read from top to bottom). It has been interesting and delightful in these New Year's presentations to see what new inventions Nebeský has developed during the year. In what seems an unfortunate year for many people in the world, the continuity of invention may add some season's cheer and an indirect hope for a better year to come.

— Karl Young

For New Year's Day, 2013, Nebeský contibuted Collage, a five part series which suggests extra spacial dimensions to me. You just might see a hint of three dimensonl space in these alphabetical squares, built of smaller, patterned, binary, empty-or-full rectangles. It's easy to argue that collage was a dominant mode of the 20th Century. In the 21st, a synthetic form of parataxis seems to be gaining more currency than the combinations of riped, cut, or broken parts of the collages of the last century. Nebeský seems to have been joining synthetic and fractured composites for a long time, and, as usual, being ahead of the curve in ways that may take his readers a while to discover.

— Karl Young

For those more familiar with Czech culture and language, please see in-depth entries for Ladislav Nebeský and other Czech writers at and Wagon: Literáni almanach, major on-line sources for literature from the Czech Republic.


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