Karl Young


Whose History of What World?

My sense of visual poetry bases itself on the premise that it makes up a basic form of communication, entwined with the development of speech from pre-human times to the present. Alphabetic writing came late in that development, and should be seen simply as one of its most successful modes. Since the time when alphabets came into dominant usage among the intelligentsia, other forms of visual communication have at times moved toward a reintegration. Writing systems outside alphabets, from Chinese characters to Central Mexican iconographs, have been more open to elements of reintegration. Alphabetic writing systems at times tend to move away from speech and from motivation. For me, models of literary style include oratory, and writing grows weak if it becomes divorced from speech. As oratory, public address need not move away from experiment. Martin Luther King, for instance, may have been the 20th Century's best practitioner of what the literati now call "found poetry." At the same time, I see writing tend to degenerate when it gets too far from its graphic base. The severity of this kind of alienation can be found among the contemporary fops who write about "the material text," as though a text could ever be anything but material. The only way anyone could come to write such nonsense is if they became so lost in theory they were blinded and desensitized to the books they'd held in their hands all their lives, and even to the computer screens from which they read more recently. At the same time, the nature of commodification tends to turn any manufactured item into an abstraction which, in the eye of the consumer, simply appears on the shelves of stores. In the last two centuries, confluences and experiments with alphabets have most often been conducted outside the consecrated arts. It's amusing for me to see people standing in awe of Mallarmé's one feeble attempt at something like visual poetry when the signs on coffee vendors' carts and workers' tattoos outside his windows showed considerably more variety, imagination, and vitality. This is not to dismiss more than one poem of his, since his poetry in other modes remains important in its own right and crucial to several lines of development in purely lexical poetry of the 20th Century. I remember the way that visual poets of the 1960s and 70s came into the area without knowing anything about him or virtually any other literary precedent, then looked for a pedigree for the work they were doing, often inspired more by the play of letters in cartoons, catalogues, and advertising. I should note here that these American pop sources stimulated the European art of the first half of the century, and continue to make a profound and lasting impact on the art of the rest of the world. Painters have generally shown more openness to visual experiment with words than have writers, and much of what I would consider visual poetry in the 20th Century remains stuck in the academicians' segregation of the arts. Paralleling my own thoughts, visual poet David Cole thought of his paintings with or without alphabets as forms of writing. Cole insisted that he was writing not only when he used alphabetic text, but also when he revisioned action painting in pieces created by such means as covering his feet with paint and dancing on canvas. d.a.levy could produce poetry by typing text into mimeo stencils and then obliterate it by massive applications of ink. During the first half of the last century, European avant-gardists did more experimentation and produced a wider range of work in what we would now call the area of visual poetry than did their North American counterparts. This changed dramatically after mid-century. During the first half of the century, American practitioners generally were devout outsiders, and much of their work remains elusive, and specific examples extremely difficult to find. My views on the subject remain anathema to many critics, and as much as I try to make my points as firmly as possible, I'm not playing Moses coming down from Sinai with the Tablets of the Law - I'll leave that role to the pundits. My views may simply come from personal idiosyncrasy and the nature of my own work. In this essay, I want to stick to more conventional views and see where that leads.

So, for the moment, let's leave the holistic approach and look at developments in visual poetry during the first half of the 20th Century, specifically done by North Americans, that could be seen as visual poetry by people who insist on alphabets and creators whose designation as poets goes unchallenged. Then as now, few visual poets wrote visual poetry exclusively, and rigidly segregating the two practices produces nothing but misunderstanding. The period that came into focus for American writers in the 1920s cries out for a chronicler such as Roger Shattuck, but such a chronicle has not come forth. Presumably one of reasons for this involves the personal eccentricities of the practitioners. But perhaps the main reason is the voluminous attention paid to developments in Europe of the period, in which most recognized American avant-gardists took part. Given the overkill of emphasis on Dada and Surrealism, much European work of the era has become tedious to me, and I assume that it will wear thin to many others if it has not done so already. This seems part of an inevitable process which comes about when avant-garde work enters the accepted canon, and that it takes a few generations before an equilibrium returns. At a time when I had access to good academic libraries, I was able to check out some of the forgotten work of the era, often reading magazines on microfilm. One such stint came about when Richard Kostelanetz suggested I write an essay on the development of experimental magazines in the 20th Century. I felt I could not do so given the volume of work produced and my sense that no matter how much I looked I could see not more than a few spilinters. Jerry Rothenberg sent me on a similar mission later. It is important to note that Richard and Jerry seem to be the only contemporaries who pay serious attention to such work in print. Since much of the important poetry remains difficult to find, many of the passages quoted below come from Rothenberg's Revolution of the Word anthology, where readers can check them in fuller context. Other forays came at times when I was doing research on specific writers, most of them, such as Ezra Pound, H.D., and Wyndham Lewis, not related to visual poetry. I no longer have such libraries easily available to me, and I doubt that I'd pursue it further at this time even if I did, but other people may. Thanks in part to Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Empire and the remaining obsession with Marxism as an academic discipline rather than a political practice, the enormous upsurge of experimental work done in Russia beginning in the late 19th Century and stretching for some 27 years into the 20th finally receives some of the attention it deserves. We may hope that work from other parts of Europe and the two distinct Americas may receive more attention in the next decades.

As of the present, the gatekeeper phenomenon continues to play a crucial role in what gets remembered and what gets forgotten. I'm sure that a lot of what has been largely forgotten remains unknown to me, and perhaps unknowable due to the caprices of time that certainly obliterated work by significant figures, and perhaps entirely erased the work of some who may have been major figures had their work been recognized and/or survived. Checking out such publications as New York Dada, Rongwrong, Others, 391, and Transition suggests that a fair number of Americans ventured into visual poetry at least once. Most avant-garde movements in Europe, from Zaum to the two Futurisms to Dada, included visual poetry, and Marcel Duchamp, a co-resident of Paris and New York, produced work that included or suggested directions in visual poetry that followed, and encouraged a number of people to work in similar modes. The largest number of those encouraged by Duchamp seem to be among what we would now call performance artists and painters. Though such divisions seem meaningless to me in a general sense, in this essay I'm playing along with the division. The 1915 Armory show opened visual poetry, among many other things, to painters, but that's been discussed over and over and over, and I don't see much point in rehashing it now. Some figures stand out to those who look carefully, and I will mention some of the most prominent. As usual, enigmatic figures emerge whose work we do not know.

Of writers who came of age in the early years of the century, Joe Gould may provide the quintessential enigma. He graduated cum laude from Harvard in the same class with e.e. cummings, and the two retained an unstable association through their lives. After a number of years spent studying Native American physiology and other esoterica, Gould drifted into alcoholism at about the time he began writing his History of the World. Although he wandered into complete vagrancy, cadging drinks by reciting classic Greek poetry backwards or dancing naked on bars, a number of the writers and artists of the period seem to have had a respect for him that went beyond simple fondness or sympathy for an eccentric. Given his academic achievements and other measures of intelligence, he was a genius in the literal sense of the word. Ezra Pound published a few pages of the History in The Little Review, but virtually nothing else remains. Some conjecture that the work may never have been longer than a few dozen pages, and that Gould's elaborate schemes of stashing parcels supposedly containing parts of it in friends' studios, bars, farmhouses, etc. may have been no more than a game of hide and seek played between himself and an opus that formulated in his mind but never translated to ink on paper. One of Gould's working hypotheses was that a history of the world should not base itself on accounts of kings and battles, but on the speech of people throughout society, and to this end he transcribed or claimed to have transcribed, the speech of people around him. Did the History contain brilliant passages? The pages published by Pound don't suggest it, and the work as more than a few miscellaneous jottings may never have existed. We simply don't know. Any conjecture depends on romanticism (including such superstitions as literary Darwinism and the perenial hope for the discvery of buried treasure) or a taste for debunking or psychobabble. What we actually have is poems addressed to him and stories about him, people who remembered him as a genius and people who remembered him as a pestilential or haunting or picturesque bum. However, if no more than a few pages of the History got written, this might place Gould's opus at the extreme of what we now call "conceptual art." Does this put him on a plane equivalent to Duchamp's exultation? cummings referred to him as the last of the true Bohemians, but he was certainly not the world's last Bohemian enigma.

During the era before World War II, virtually all avant-gardists felt they had to expatriate or at least make extended stays in Europe, and we probably should see Paris as sharing the status of artistic capitol of the North American art world with New York. Some visits to France began with military service in World War I. Such was the case with e.e. cummings and Harry Crosby, among others. Most of the visual poets in this era present some sort of personal enigma, but the major conundrums come not from them as much as their neglect in succeeding periods.

Crosby sums up a lot of the era, and presents his share of personal enigmas, some of which may lead beyond voyeurism and curious anecdote, and seem to set a pattern for a number of other neglected poets of his time and milieu, as well as more who came later. The time and milieu of the post-war era tell us a great deal about the poets' orientations and disorientations. This was an era of alcoholic excess, spurred on by Prohibition in the U.S., and for some, like Crosby, of massive drug use. In a time of exaggerated ups and downs, artists simultaneously exulted the new age of the machine and new discoveries in archeology and anthropology. African sources for Cubism and other movements were sought and understood more fully, and anthropological research boomed, in part as a means of recovering what seemed to be prehistory. Simultaneously, poets and sculptors found themselves in awe of every kind of industrial device, some worshipping machines as shamans. The discovery of Tutankahmen's tomb, and the resulting Tut-mania coincided with a time when women bound their breasts flat to look as streamlined as airplanes, and the standard flapper hat resembled a pilot's. With global navigation and the capacity for global travel came the sense that not only were all places accessible, but that all times were simultaneous.The love of electronic gadgets could become almost literal: during the 20s the "personal vibrator" ranked fifth in quantities sold among electronic household items in the U.S.. There's really no way to recapture the euphoria over airplanes in their early days, when, as everyone liked to say, "the sky's the limit," not only expressing the optimism of progress, but also setting the sky's limits as a new set of challenges, just as Arctic explorers and mountain climbers enthusiastically thrust themselves into the most desolate parts of the earth's surface. Crosby was among the crowd that watched Lindbergh land in Paris, and recorded the crowd's hysterics as well as his own as the plane landed and the throng rushed forward hoping to pull it apart so they could horde its pieces as holy relics. It seems important to note that Crosby, Huidobro, and Marinetti, all of whom produced visual poetry, would all use flight as extended metaphor in different ways, and that both Crosby and Huidobro saw descent rather than ascent as its essence, Huidobro in terms of parachute jumps, Crosby in terms of the ultimate free fall into the self and into destruction.

A victim of what they called "shell shock" during World War I, Crosby felt for a time that he had actually died in the war, particularly during an incident in which the truck he drove was caught in the middle of a caravan under heavy fire from which he could not escape. This seems to be the point at which he began the process of picking the time and circumstances of his death. As his plan evolved, he decided to accomplish it by jumping out of an airplane that he assumed his wife would be glad to pilot. We should see in this a prototype and extreme of performance art which a later epoch could not surpass. Some of his acquaintances said that talking to him was like talking to a dead man, while others referred to him as a firebird, dying and being reborn in his sense of speed as something like a deity. His poetry relies on astronomy, and he became increasingly obsessed with the simultaneously new and ancient practice of sun worship. But as much as he idolized speed, it seemed to overtake him, and instead of going through with his plan to die an ecstatic death in accelerating descent, he shot one of his girlfriends while the two were in bed, then shot himself. This occurred, as a typical bit of Crosbyesque synchronicity, almost simultaneously with the stock market crash that ended the euphoria of the decade. Characteristically, his sometime pal cummings wrote a sardonic epitaph for him.

In addition to a quasi-autobiographical novel and a collection of minor poems, he published four important books of poetry in minuscule editions under his Black Sun imprint, a press that published a number of other poets of the time who became well known later, or should have enjoyed that status. Stuart Gilbert, Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, and D.H. Lawrence wrote the introductions to the four volumes, all four brimming with enthusiasm. This was not uncharacteristic of Lawrence's capacity for hype, particularly since Crosby published one of Lawrence's books; nor was it out of character with Pound's perpetual need to celebrate and seek an audience for any work that he thought held promise or might aid other poets to "MAKE IT NEW". The Pound introduction, however, goes considerably beyond his usual enthusiasm, as Gilbert's and Elliot's go beyond their usual restraint. The tirades in some of the poems could be seriously considered alongside those of the drama of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, though, of course, streamlined in ways that Marlow or Webster would not have found altogether congenial. The visual poems among the tirades and hymns to the sun include strategies worked out later by other poets. The most celebrated of them consists of a block made up of the word "black," set in bold type to emphasize its blackness, and repeated over and over with the word "SUN" in upper case letters, printed only once in the center of the block. Other typographic renderings don't do it justice. This could be considered the American starting point of what Dick Higgins later called "the pattern poem," a form worked more thoroughly into complete deadness in the second half of the century than Crosby's bullets or projected fall could have killed him. In the mid twenties, it was something entirely new. There may be a paradox, intentional or not, in the fact that some of Crosby's most intense visual poems appeared in static blocks. He was also capable of running poems in confusion throughout the page or using them to suggest one of his favorite solar phenomena, the transit of Venus. Found poetry, including tickets, racing charts, and stock reports, worked its way into his poems. At times he could unite conventions from these genres, foreshadowing later schematic poetry. Here is the beginning of one such poem, combining incantation, found poem, exploration of numerology, panegyric to destruction, and paean to technology:



Mad Queen Aeronautical Corporation  Cyclone 3030 
Mad Queen Chemical Corporation  Gunpowder 3328 
Mad Queen Company for the Manufacture of Hand Grenades  Gunpowder 8878 
Mad Queen Drug Store of Tonics and Stimulants  Detonator 8808 
Mad Queen Dynamiting and Blasting Company  Rackarock 4196 
Mad Queen Express Elevators Speedway 7898 

George Quasha and I spent some time discussing reprints of these books, but this was something we were unable to bring to completion, and the books remain deeply out of print. Excerpts from Crosby's diaries appeared in the 1970s, and appealed to many voyeurs and drug enthusiasts. Despite the prurient interests, they do include formal invention in places. Perhaps Crosby's work has been sacrificed to his legend, as would later be the case with d.a.levy and others. That in his death he took another man's wife with him, even though the evidence suggests a suicide pact, may have made his friends want to keep their distance from his memory. As with other poets, people who followed directions he charted may have had an interest in not drawing attention to his work, since it could seem to detract from the originality of their own. Still, the impact of these small books on the relatively small group of American visual poets of the day can't be overestimated, nor should the books remain out of print.

Else von Freytag-Loringhoven may pose some personal paradoxes to those interested in curios, but it might be better to consider her in relation to other women writers and artists in a strongly male-dominated environment. Perhaps she represents a basic type of eccentric who finds an antecedent in Gertrude Stein, and whose later manifestations include Rochelle Owens, Carolee Schneeman, and so forth -- trivially, Judy Chicago; perhaps most profoundly, Hannah Weiner. We could divide her work as artist and poet into two tendencies, one pertaining to the greater tradition of visual poetry, the other to the smaller one which focuses on typography and the simple manipulation of letters on standard printed pages. The first gained her more attention, though it seems less understood. Freytag-Loringhoven dressed and undressed audaciously. Often shaving her head and painting her face, she wore clothes made primarily of mass produced industrial products, including, most prominently, endless varieties of tin cans, but also featuring everything from spoons to coal shovels, many of these objects held in place or suspended by chains or industrial wire. This created a truly public form of publication as she parraded through the streets of New York. Her contemporaries viewed her in widely different ways: Hemmingway was fascinated, and perhaps a bit intimidated by her; some of cummings's contempt for her may have come from his misogynic streak, but probably also involved his sense of poise, harmony, and balance. G. Hugnet described her as "a Dadaist whimsy, a woman whose whole life was Dada." On a psychological level, Djuna Barnes's comments [Transition, # 11, Feb., 1928] may be the most perceptive, though they also project Barnes's own preoccupations on her. The commentators I've so far encountered, however, seem to miss several important points. However heavily dressed Freytag-Loringhoven may have been in metals, flowing robes, and other unusual materials, she tended to leave part of her body (particularly the breasts, hips, and lower abdomen) naked, and the contrast between metal and flesh, the world of the primitive goddess and the mechanical robot, the tribal earth mother and the princess from outer space, went through perpetually changing permutations. In an age, like all ages of experiment, when artists extended their reach as far as possible into a mythic past and a speculative future, how many others achieved such a fusion of tribal and mechanical modes with the same completeness and intensity, and on such a range of scales? It may be instructive to compare her dress with that of the composer, astrologer, and mystic, Moondog, who soujourned through the streets of New York in Viking-Druid garb several decades later - and to Marcus Garvey, who rode through Harlem as an African knight in European armour during Freytag-Loringhoven's day. Symbolism in all three instances goes considerably beyond exhibitionism and eccentricity - initialy interested in social issues, Garvey was also in the early stages of founding a religion which continues today as Rastafarianism. Some of the assemblages in which Freytag-Loringhoven dressed herself included painted or collaged texts, and if we had a better record of this dimension of her art, we might see her as belonging thoroughly to the great tradition of visual poetry. No one else among the North American poets of the era that I know of extended visual poetry so far, yet we have little record of it outside anecdote. Perhaps ironically, her dress would probably not draw too much attention at a KISS or Nine Inch Nails concert, though how much a crowd of Punk Rock fans would have noticed its poetic implications remains problematic.

Freytag-Loringhoven's printed work explores some of the same ideas. Throughout, she employed English from different eras, and a few words of German which had Modern English cognates with different meanings. With or without historic-linguistic strata, the intersection of organic and mechanical continues through permutations of such tropes as wheels growing out of roses. Punctuation depends largely on m-dashes, with some assistance from question marks and exclamation points, creating strong paratactic disjunctures or rhythmic repetitions. Some of her printed work includes headings, typeface changes, and other characteristics of the newspapers of the day. As with photos of assemblages, it's difficult to know how much of this was determined by Freytag-Loringhoven and how much by the printer. Changes in case and type size, however, remain her own. Here's a brief sample:


As with most of the clearly identifiable visual poets of the day, much of her work for the page acts as score for vocalization as well as visual cueing for emphases of various sorts. In both assemblages and poems, her work suggests the influence of Kurt Schwitters, Germany's Kenneth Patchen, but given the lack of available information, it would be rash to draw conclusions. Again, her persona as a "picturesque character" persists in arty folklore, without much attention paid to her as poet and artist. Why later feminists didn't include her in their canon remains a puzzle.

Though less flamboyant, Bob Brown drifted through his share of mainstream oddities, from stock market speculator to inventor. Much of his literary opus includes more or less conventional lyrics, though even these show a sort of breezy casualness common enough at the time. He also composed visual poems, including found pieces and texts worked out in freehand drawings. "Eyes on the Half Shell," originally published in Duchamp's The Blind Man, and reprinted by Harry Crosby, seems his most frequently reproduced work in this vein. Jonathan Williams reprinted a volume including some poems of this type, and although it's probably out of print, it should be relatively easy to find among used book searches. I won't go into much detail here, other than to point out Brown's use of hand written poems integrated with what some people might call drawings. Brown had tried his hand at mainstream publishing, but by 1931, he was ready for something that included his penchant for mechanical inventions. This came forth as Readies for Bob Brown's Machine, with contributions such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Eugene Jolas, Charles Henri Ford, William Carlos Williams, and Abraham Lincoln Gillespie whom I'll mention below. It's not altogether clear to me to what extent Brown used the machine, and in this respect it may resemble Joe Gould's History of the World. Brown partially described its function and purpose, in a poem written to be displayed through it, like this "Without any whirr or spluttering writing will be readable at the speed of the day--1929--not 1450 ; it will run on forever before the eye without having to be chopped up into columns, pars & etc. ; not risking the waiting for a single finger to turn a clumbsy page. . ." Brown goes on to talk about the history of print, the need for incantation, the need for speed, etc. at times introducing chants as well as chance, the changing nature of the role of the reader and the writer, and other subjects that preoccupied the literati half a century later. Again, the twin reach, toward a distant past and a fast-paced future acts as a major theme and technique. As with Freytag-Loringhoven, Brown punctuates minimally, the m-dash acting as the main punctuation mark. Presumably the reader could set or adjust the speed at which the machine ran, possibly to the point of drastically altering the work read. Brown's machine vies with Freytag-Loringhoven's wearable poems as the most radical form of visual poetry of the era, and, at least in concept, little at present exceeds it in terms of invention. Its participatory nature foreshadows much work done in the second half of the century, and if current trends in book art meant much, the reading machine would hold a prominent place in its discussion.

Abraham Lincoln Gillespie seems to have taken the most advantage of the potentials of Brown's machine. His "READIE SOUNDPIECE FOR BOB BROWN'S MACHINE" makes full use of graphic techniques for scoring. The text as such includes rapid paratactic shifts, puns, neologisms, abstract sounds, etc. Much of the same properties fill his poetry not written for the machine. But in "READIE," instructions for intonation, accompanied by a spectrum of typographic devices ranging from dingbats such as arrows to unusual position of text on the page, make up at least as much of the work as the text proper. The similarities between Gillespie's score and those that became widely used in the 1960s and 70s can't be stressed enough. Scoring for vocalization and performance makes up one of the main strands of later visual poetry, as it presumably did with such ancient examples as early cave painting.

Although at this point, painters would still be excluded from visual poetry by most critics, some painters also wrote poetry to be set in type, and many of the era did a certain amount of experimenting with standard typography. (e.e. cummings painted as well as wrote poetry, though he kept the arts distinct from each other.) Perhaps Marsden Hartley would take foremost place in this group. Still remembered as a painter, a reprint of some of his poetry appeared in the 1990s, presumably aided by his reputation as a painter. His associations in Europe included not only Gertrude Stein, prominent Cubists and Dadaists, but also Kandinsky, whose work may or may not have suggested spatial dispositions of letters to him. It seems likely that Kandisky helped nourish some of the spirituality Hartley associated with Dada. Much of Hartley's poetry is insufferably cute, at times making greeting card jingles look good in comparison, but he could move into other modes, just as his painting could shuffle between large scale abstraction and rather traditional landscape. The two modes of painting he managed to resolve better than he resolved the problems in his poetry, but the better poems can still stand on their own. Some of the main characteristics associated with visual poetry in his work on paper include rapid shifts in case, placing emphasis on words within words or acting as cues for vocalization, and shifts in fonts, most often between plain Roman and Italic in a manner that indicates unusual patterns of emphasis, interacting both with and against the paratactic collaging of text and the use of abstract sound configurations. As with a number of other poets of the time, m-dashes appear as the major element of punctuation. Hartley also played with unusual deployment of other punctuation marks. Perhaps most immediately noticeable in some of his poems is the swinging about of the position of line beginnings, at times removing the sense of a left hand margin and suggesting a rhythmic dance or abstract composit figure rather than a regular progression of lines.

The use of word compounds and fractures plays a significant role in the current conception of visual poetry. The poets discussed above all engaged in it to a greater or lesser degree. In the era that came into focus in the 1920s, this practice extended to a much broader range of poets who did little if anything in regards to innovative typography or placement on the page. Two major but neglected figures serve as good examples of this practice. Walter Conrad Arensberg, adherent of Dada at one time, worked through linguistic analysis similar to the language poetry that came into vogue at the end of the century. I'll present brief excerpts that suggest both the fracturing of words and the examination of the nature of language:

Ing? Is it possible to mean ing?
             for the termination in g
                                                    a disoriented
             of the simple fractures
in sleep.
             has accordingly a value for soap
so present to
sew pieces.
And suppose the i
                             to be the big in ing
                             as Beginning
                                          Then Ing is to ing
as aloud
        accompanied by times
and the meaning is a possibility
of ralsis

Most people at the time and those who have paid attention since would agree that Eugene Jolas's greatest contribution to the era was his editorship of Transition, a magazine that published many of the most inventive poets of the period, and endured through a longer life-span than most alternative poetry magazines. His own poetry tends to plod rather stiffly. But in it we can see his kinship to Joyce, Pound, and others who wrote multilingual works, developing into a polyglot that could act as a hybrid of European languages, and at times move beyond that into complete abstraction.

I would like to conclude this sketch with some notes on several figures from the period whom I have discussed at greater length elsewhere. e.e. cummings remains the survivor of the era. I can refer to him at several points in this essay not because he was necessarily its most careful or perceptive observer, but because his work remains available. He survived not primarily for his radicalism or his inovativeness, but for his ability to synthesize works of different eras and, most importantly, because his approach to poetry was inherently conservative, and his traditional lyricism made him palatable to a broad audience. If he deserves credit as an innovator, we will not truly know that without greater availability of other work from the period. All the technical "innovations" attributed to him can be found among his contemporaries. To what extent he originated them remains an open question, particularly in the pat textbook attributions that ring so hopelessly phony--the received opinion of those who accept the judgement of the gatekeepers who consecrated him while eliminating the work of his contemporaries. Should it turn out, after a real analysis of the period, that he invented nothing, it should not diminish his stature as a poet. He was able to reach people, and to produce a body of work that remains vital today. Whether his formal ideas originated with him or not, they suggested new possibilities to generations to come. At the same time, as with other historical figures, he should definitely not be seen as influential to every successive practitioner of visual poetry or related arts. Their sources remain too diverse to follow a single line of development.

Three key figures of the next move, the San Francisco Renaissance, when visual poetry came into its own in North America in a way more or less acceptable to traditionalists, deserve some attention here though I deal with them at greater length elsewhere. Kenneth Rexroth's main opus goes in a different direction, but some of his early work truly belongs to the era and suggests some of the activities prevalent at the time. Born in 1905, he had accomplished the remarkable feat of writing a still viable longpoem "The Homestead Called Damascus," while still in his teens. This overlaps with his Cubist period, when he employed experimental techniques of the time. Most of the work of others along similar lines remains deeply out of print or completely lost, though you can catch glimpses of it in magazines of the era. Though Rexroth chose not to reprint most of his cubist work of the 20s and early 30s, he didn't jettison all of it, and you can still find hints of what was going on among other poets at the time these poems were written. Here is an example from The Collected Shorter Poems, a book that remains in print and easy to find:

ing                       ev
   dras                                   pRoG

. . . . .

origin of vector
description of vectors
the personal pronoun

Most of Rexroth's fans don't like this poetry very much, though a Canadian scholar is working on a book on Rexroth's Cubist poetry in the context of the period. It may include some of the Cubist poems not reprinted in Collected Shorter Poems.

Though European influences remained strong, the San Francisco Renaissance over which Rexroth presided dropped the previous requirement of prolonged stays in Europe, looked to Asia, Native America, and Afro-America for new sources. As part of its move to reintegrate the arts (most often discussed in terms of reading poetry to jazz accompaniment) it included a fair number of painters who worked text into their paintings. At this point it becomes difficult for the academicians to keep the two arts segregated. The San Francisco Renaissance provided an appropriate milieu for Kenneth Patchen, who had read the earlier modernist work with populist eyes and an ability to synthesize comparable to that of cummings. Like cummings, he could find bases for lyric poetry in the European tradition, but picked up where the Romantics left off, as differentiated from cummings's pre-Rafaelite point of departure. With Rexroth, he was one of the first poets to read to jazz accompaniment. In works like Panels for the Walls of Heaven, he could not only pull together the visual poetry of Europe in the first decades of the century, but extend it as far as it could go. Virtually all forms of visual poetry found in the Concrete anthologies of the 1960s can also be found in Patchen's first phases as a visual poet. This was one of several reasons why he had to be censored out of a group that claimed originality over a decade and a half later. Patchen would not stop there. Going in one direction, he brought his visual poetry into his novels, whose texts sometimes foreshadow lexical works that emerged 20 years later. Going in another direction, he also pursued visual poetry as a painter of unified images and texts. A fair number of visual poets of my generation see him as the great pivotal figure in American visual poetry, not only by the importance of the work itself, but also as a model of inclusiveness and its concomitant implication that virtually any source is worth checking out for possible reinvigoration. Again, however, I'd like to caution against seeing him as the point of origin of everything that followed. Perhaps when the dust and ashes of the century have cleared, he will emerge as a major figure in all phases of North American poetry. Or perhaps he won't. The gatekeepers seem busier than ever.

Wallace Berman was born in 1926, when the American Modernists were in full swing. By 1947, he was writing blues lyrics with Jimmy Witherspoon. By the mid 50s, he had moved to San Francisco and shortly afterwards to Topanga Canyon. William S. Burroughs called him "the poet-maker," and despite the hyperbole, his influence on poets ranging from Robert Duncan to David Meltzer remains indelible. In addition to such literary activities as translating Herman Hesse, one of his major roles was ad hoc librarian, passing books on to poets at the time when he felt they needed them most. Apparently his judgment in this was impeccable. On the west coast, his emphasis had shifted to painting, but he continued to incorporate text into most of his work. Much of it used the nature of the surface on which he painted as an integral part of the work itself. Surfaces included rocks that could be arranged to make different combinations of words along with Hebrew characters related to Kabbalistic mysticism, as well as poems as parts of collages and assemblages. A fair amount of text was in Hebrew, often more as graphic design and as exploration of Kabbalistic possibilities than for any sort of lexical content. Public walls served as major grounds, and at times he worked over previous layers of paint and graffiti. He used skills acquired in a job as a woodworker to make sculptures that included texts. He published tiny editions of a magazine, Semina, which included hand-painted pages, some of them folded as a form of sculpture, some including anything but paper. Fascinated by the mails, he developed an elaborate network of correspondents, and sometimes sent unwrapped work through the postal system to see how the transit would alter the work. In this he foreshadowed mail art which Ray Johnson was busy developing from his base in New York at the time. An odd use of surface and situation comes from perhaps the most comic arrest on obscenity charges of the day. At his first major one-man show, a citizen had seen pornography in the corner of one of Berman's assemblages, and informed the police. They searched the gallery and couldn't find anything to seize or any way of charging Berman. The gallery director, not wanting to miss an opportunity for scandal, handed them a copy of Semina which included pornography in one of its assemblages. At his arraignment, Berman wrote on the blackboard in the courtroom, "there is no justice; only vengeance." This foreshadowed later performance art and guerrilla theater, just as you can see echoes of Berman's approach to text, image, and found object running through endless permutations of visual poetry produced during succeeding decades. Acutely aware of the nature of icons, Berman not only worked with and against many found in sources ranging from traditional art through pop culture, he also invented new icons. Perhaps the most prominent among these is a hand holding a transistor radio, the face of which served as a framework for images and texts that ran through something like an icon-based equivalent of Kabbalistic letter permutations. The thumb of the icon seems to change the radio's channel, and channel surfing seems basic to Berman's sense of constantly shifting messages. He reiterated this frame through literally hundreds of variations and recombinations. He made one film using methods and approaches so close to those of the French Lettrists that it remains a puzzle whether his web of connections reached to France or whether this is an instance of simultaneous invention. In many ways, Berman seems to have intuited or anticipated the iconographic base of computer technology. Despite his interest in audiences for art, Berman preferred brief, small scale shows and a distribution system that relied on barter and community exchange rather than sale or any other impersonal manner of making work public. Since his death, retrospective catalogues have appeared and disappeared. The most useful introduction to his work, Support the Revolution, can be obtained through used book dealers. The easiest place to catch at least a glimpse of his work is on the covers of books by poets who came of age with him. Whether wider recognition of his efforts comes or not, he remains central not only to the Beat scene but also to the great flowering of interrelated word and image of the 60s ¾ nearly all of that flowering was exclude from the Concrete anthologies.

Born one year after Wallace Berman, Ray Johnson became one of the most enigmatic of the latter day Bohemians. An alumnus of Black Mountain College, his early work foreshadowed, and perhaps influenced or inspired, that of such celebrities as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Johnson took the union of word and image as a given. He often found this union as integral parts of standard icons, such as the circle and name in the Lucky Strike cigarette logo. Many of the instalments in his large Lucky Strike series used the words in the name in different ways. Outside the works that formed the precursor of Pop Art, he integrated layer on layer of hand-drawn and printed texts and icons. By the early 1950s, he rejected his earlier easle paintings, usually cutting them up and including pieces of them in small assemblages he could send through the mail. He disliked the idea of selling art, and his correspondents claimed that works by Johnson couldn't be bought, only received. He avoided consistency in sales as in all else. When selling work, he demanded a strict protocol from the purchaser. This usually included such rituals as meeting him at a predesignated spot on the New Jersey Turnpike, where he showed the work offered in a precise sequence. If the potential purchaser distured the sequence, he usually packed up his kit, got into his car, and drove away without completing the sale. In some instances, he made work for specific buyers as long as they didn't commission it. When the work was complete, he instructed an agent to offer it to the intended recipient. If the recipient declined to buy it, the work could no longer be sold. In such instances, the choice of recipients followed something like a program of pop celebrities. We should probably see these projects as performance art rather than genuine attempts at sales, in which the non-sale became the object of the performance. At a time when "happenings" were fashionable, Johnson called his exhibitions, many of which he canceled at the last minute, "nothings." Some people speak of him sabotaging his career. Actually, what he seems to have been doing is staging a non-career as a work of art. Needless to say, the cogent nature of the works that critics and buyers might catch a glimpse of set the stage for this nullification of a career. Mark Bloch, an artist with strong affinities to Johnson, began going to the kind of social events the reclusive Johnson avoided, passing himself off as Johnson. When Johnson found out about this, he was delighted and started arranging appearances for Bloch to make as his impersonator. Andy Warhol comes across as an impersonator of Johnson throughout his career. However, the two seemed to share an odd synchronicty. On the day when Valerie Solanis shot Warhol, three men mugged Johnson at knife-point. Even in this, Johnson connects with the world at large, while Warhol simply takes part in a bit of courtly intrigue. On January 13, 1995, at the age of 67, Johnson checked into Room 247 of a motel on Long Island. From the motel he proceded to the Sag Harbor bridge, and at precisely 7:15, jumped into the icy water. Johnson had a fixation on the number 13. January 13 fell on a Friday in 1995. January could be considered the 13th month of 1994. Check the other numbers: the digit clusters 67, 247, and 7:15 - each adds up to 13. Johnson had played games with other sets of numbers as parts of performance pieces before this. Police officers who pulled Johnson's body out of the water report that he was floating face up with his hands folded on his chest, and they said he looked "peaceful."

Though Johnson cultivated an image of personal insrcutability, his main effort consisted in revisioning the games that Duchamp, Picasso, Schwitters and others near the beginning of the century played by sending art to each other through the mail. Removing the process from its earlier elitist context, he conceived of it as a participatory system that could include literally thousands of people in exchanges of art. The webs of connection Johnson pioneered grew into the mail art network, which served as the main distribution system for visual poetry after the Concrete bubble collapsed under its minimalist contradictions. Visual poets with strong affinities to Berman made extensive use of it, and for many it was a major factor in keeping them from total discouragement and abandonment of the art. Many visual poets concur with Joel Lipman's observation that "mail art ended when the Berlin Wall came down." Whether this proves true or not, Johnson's networks foreshadowed the interconnectivity of the internet, which may provide an equally viable means of artistic exchange. Johnson himself remains an enigma not completely unlike Joe Gould. Perhaps the mail art network turned out to be something like the completely inclusive speech Gould claimed made up the world's history. And perhaps most of the work that traveled through it will get as thoroughly lost as Gould's History, or as ignored as the work of the visual poets at the beginning of the century. Time will tell, as they say ¾ but we're not the ones who'll hear what it tells. Whatever it says, it should be noted that the visual poets who accompanied the classic Modernists and later the Beats have endured a neglect they did not want. People following Ray Johnson's lead into the mail art network found that marginalization provided them with a kind of freedom writers and artists had never before experienced.


 home welcome feature essays poetry fiction eco-watch tea-party the path
road trips reviews politics renaissances credits/bios submissions links archives e-mail