Karl Kempton: Visual Poetry: A Brief Overview Of Ancestors And Traditions To The Present (W/Bibliography)

An expressed intent of this anthology is introducing visual poetry to a new audience. In the spirit of this purpose, the following overview is addressed to individuals with no or little exposure to the historical streams leading to the contemporary expression named visual poetry. To master an art form, knowing its history is common sense; not knowing, one is condemned to repetition.

After many exchanges over 30 years with leading figures in visual poetry, the following definition is the result. A visual poem may be defined simply as a poem composed or designed to be consciously seen.

The contemporary visual poem is generally composed with assembled and/or disassembled language material. This stuff of language includes word, text, note, code, petroglyph, letter or other phonic character, type, cipher, symbol, pictograph, sentence, number, hieroglyph, rhythm, iconograph, grammar, cluster, stroke, ideogram, density, pattern, diagram, logogram, accent, line, color, measure, etc.

The minimalist poet composes with fissioned language material to create new and free particles, and/or sonic patterns, clusters, densities, and/or textures. Generally, today’s minimalist visual poet maintains the post World War Two tradition of Concrete Poetry, begun in Northwest Europe, Brasil and Japan around 1951. Others in Northeast USA followed later.

Ideally, the visual poet composes with these freed particles and generally weds or fuses them to one or more art forms. By doing so, by crossing art form boundaries, the visual poet composes in a field of multimedia or borderblur or intermedia with unrestricted horizons.

The contemporary visual poem is a form reinvented by various twentieth century avant-garde movements and influenced by abstract, surrealist, minimalist, photo realistic . . . art and photography. It is the contemporary expression of the pre-1900 visual poem handed down through millennia under a host of forms such as acrostics, anagrams, colored or illuminated text, emblems, labyrinths, pattern and shaped poems which in turn evolved from other forms back to the earliest ancestor, rock art.

Rock art’s symbolic representation associated with image, either adjacent to each other or woven together, has now been dated as far back as 75,000 years in the Blombos Cave, South Africa. Some of the rock art of the Blombos Cave was portable. Perhaps these were part of a long tradition of the charm and amulet that in more recent periods are known to have written on or carved into them spells, chants, prayers, and mantras in patterns suggesting a repetitive oral chant. Modern humankind was in Bharat (India) by this time.

While nearly all old portable carved and painted works have been lost, use of painted objects has been dated 150,000 years ago, again in South Africa. The recent announcement of tools found at several distinct locations on Crete dating back about 175,000 years or older implies use of symbols that may predate modern mankind. Modern humankind (known at this moment) remained south of the Sahara until about 110,000 years ago. Our pre modern human ancestors were sea going and coastal dwellers. There are rock art cupule sites in Bharat dating 700,00 years ago.

Then there are myths about the invention of writing that illuminate a sourcing of patterns and forms from the natural world:

China: 1) Tortoise shells were tossed into fires; the cracks were read as oracles — a suggested foreshadowing of ideograms; 2) after looking at star patterns (particularly those of the lunar zodiac), marks on turtle backs and bird prints, Ts’ang-chieh invented the first ideograms.

Bharat: 1) The goddess Samjna, whose name means image, invented the first alphabets, pictograms, mandalas, and other magical signs; 2) Kali, goddess of life and death, invented Sanskrit from the cracks in human skulls. She is usually rendered wearing a necklace of 56 skulls, each with its own letter. 3) Vac means the word or the exchange of knowledge. She is the mother of all communication, and thus gives intelligence to those who love her. She is the mother of the Vedas. Vac in another form is Saraswati. Vac is the word, the word OM. She thereby is and contains the manifested creation.

An aside — A vast and long lost civilization, the Saraswati – Indus Civilization is slowly being recovered. It stretches south of Mumbai to northern Afghanistan. Eastern boundaries remain undefined. Dates of two of its more recognized cities, Harappa and Mohenjodaro, begin around 5,100 years ago. Approximately 3500 terra-cotta seals found in Harappa, Mohenjodaro, various smaller sites in the Indus Valley and in Western Asia across the Arabian Sea have been dated between 3100 and 1900 BCE. The seals consist of imagery of an as yet to be fully deciphered script. Deeper layers of this civilization have been dated at least 3000 years older than Harappa and Mohenjodaro suggesting that they were contemporaneous with the Vinca culture. There was no Aryan invasion. The destruction was tectonically induced by the rise of the Himalayas diverting river water eastward into the Ganges.

Sumer: 1) The goddess Nidaba, the scribe of heaven, invented clay tablets and writing; 2) the goddess Belit Sheri was the scribe who recorded the deeds of the dead upon the leaves of the Tree of Life.

Egypt: 1) The goddess Sef Chet played the same role as Belit Sheri and was the goddess of writing; 2) her husband, Toth, he with the ibis head (a bird sacred to the Goddess), was credited later with the invention of writing as well as the calendar.

Old Europe: Among the oldest known script signs or proto-writing symbols are associated with the matricentered Vinca culture. The earliest attempts or finds, dated from the mid 4th millennium (BCE), are connected with religious sculpture and ceramic images of the Goddess. The signs may have derived from naturalistic forms which evolved into stylized marks. Bird footprint patterns were one consideration. Marija Gimbutas and Milton McChesney thought they discovered in the archaeological records of rock art ancestors of the symbols, codes, patterns, and images found in the later European prehistorical and historical art and literary records. They concluded that there was a continuation of extremely ancient traditions from the matricentered Old European symbolic systems. Others continuing this research use the term Danube Script to describe this proto-writing or writing set of symbols and date it circa 5000 BCE. A recent article in the February 17, 2010 Science issue seems to support these findings and implies wider and older symbolic use in rock art around the world.

Greece: 1) The three fates wrote human’s destinies on the three leaves of the past, present, and future; 2) Hermes is later credited, after seeing a flight of cranes (sacred bird of the Goddess), with the invention of the Greek alphabet.

Northern Europe: 1) The runic script was invented by Wotan after looking at ash twigs (the great ash Ydgdrasill, the Tree of Life, was taken over by Wotan from the Triple Goddess, known as the three Norns in Scandinavia, who administered justice beneath the tree); 2) The druids’ alphabet of trees was a calendar, fortune telling device, mathematical system based on pi (22/7, ratio of letters to vowels), and more. (The Keltic term rune has many meanings — poem, part of a poem, magic poem, spell, charm, amulet, and song. Today, what is called mythology, cosmology, calendar or day and year count, astronomy, geometry, measuring systems, alphabets, etc., were all interwoven and part of the poetic and symbolic systems that probably can be traced deep into the paleolithic.)

Valley of Mexico (north of Mayan regions): Quetzalcoatl, patron of rational design and intent, invented writing and the calendar. He also is known as god of intelligence and self-reflection.

Scripts evolved from various arrays, patterns and complex symbols into minimal abstract symbols or signs forming alphabets and or ideograms or hieroglyphs. The artistic tendencies of those so inclined extended and expanded standardized forms by brush stroking into beauty a wide variety of calligraphy forms and styles. Some cultures, like the Chinese and later the Japanese, gave birth to hundreds of styles and forms. Others contributed only a few or a handful. Again, worldwide, the roots of many of these characters are found among earliest pictograph and petroglyph rock art. Undoubtedly, they were also carried on portable and wearable objects and perhaps even as body paint and or tattoos.

Forms and patterns were later transferred onto ceramics. Perhaps the earliest currently dated pottery was recently uncovered in China, 18,000 BCE. The area of China, the Jamon culture of Japan (before rising ocean levels formed the Sea of Japan) and Siberia is now considered the birth place of fired pottery. Much later, the Vinca culture used bellows technology raising fired pottery temperatures to 1000 degrees fahrenheit. That led to the first known smelting of ores. The history of metallurgy is too extensive to cover as well as the development and spread of paper beginning in China, 741 CE its secrets revealed to the spreading Islamic culture nourishing the bloom of its calligraphy and eventually into Europe in the 13th Century. Relevant to this discussion is when metal kissed paper in the European printing presses. By altering book making from limited to mass access, it gave rise to the numbers of the literate and the decline in the importance of hand illuminated manuscripts and calligraphy. Over time, image was reduced from books, until it was compartmentalized as map or other visual aid, or as nonessential illustration. This left the regimented left to right down the page framework. Calligraphy in Europe became so specialized that few people have seen the continuing art, and mistake it for its purely decorative offshoots. Forgotten except by scholars, librarians, and antiquarians were illuminated books and manuscripts containing image and text that were woven together as an integrated whole. Within such historical works one can find where the word was freed from the linear presentation. The freeing of the word or ideogram was not unusual in the various calligraphies found east of Europe throughout the Middle East and Asia.

Many English language composers of visual poetry point to William Blake and the shaped poems of Lewis Caroll as isolated forerunners. Most who see the Concrete Poetry movement as the only important form of visual poetry recognize Mallarmé as its virtual inventor, at the moment when free verse was gaining strength among the lexical poets. They consider Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés of 1896 as the first example of the modern visual poem. His heir apparent for the next step in its development they consider to be Apollinaire, composer of Calligrammes. Leaving Mallarmé out, Apollinaire becomes a father not a son in the birth of the modern visual poem. For American English, E. E. Cummings seems to be the third or second step followed by the composers of the post World War Two concrete poets.

While this may appear a logical aesthetic lineage for the freeing of the word, the actual modern process of freeing the word began among cubist painters quickly followed by freed words in the collage. Within the same time frame, Marinetti wrote the Futurist Manifesto in which he called for the freeing of the word from the format of free verse. This was the founding moment of the Italian Futurists, a group that significantly influenced the visual poem at that time. The Russian Futurists had an equal impact. By studying Fauvism, Cubism, Collage, Italian Futurism, Russian Futurism, Imagism, Orphism, Vorticism, Constructivism, Dada, De Stijl, Surrealism, Bauhaus, various Japanese avant-garde movements of the 1920s, Lettrism, Kinetic, Concrete Poetry, Fluxus, Pop, Op, Visual Poetry, Correspondence/Mail Art, Russian Transfurism, Minimalism, Conceptualism, and Book Art one can find considerable numbers of works classified as visual poetry. While incomplete, this is an outline of movements and or groupings to follow the evolution of the visual poem.

American visual poetry between the late 1950’s and mid 1970’s was dominated and influenced by Concrete Poetry. This group was dominated by the North Atlantic Fluxists. They were allied with the Brasilian Noigandres who were essentially hostile to the calligramme or pictograph composition demanding a purity of the mechanical typographical poem. When a history was presented by the Concrete Movement, many American forerunners were either consciously excluded or forgotten: Mexico born Marius de Zayas, Agnes Meyer, Katharine N. Rhoades, J. B. Kerfoot, Adon Lacroix, Harry Crosby, Wallace Berman, Paul Reps, Kenneth Patchen and others.

Visual Poetry, as a self-conscious and self-identified genre, deliberately separated itself from American Concrete in the early 1970’s and found refuge from the backlash against the perceived triviality of Concrete by joining the international egalitarian Correspondence Art movement. This generated several magazines and hundreds of international exhibitions until the early 1990’s. During this twenty year span, visual poets and mail artists interacted on an unprecedented international scale. This period may be as important as the years between 1910 and 1930.

With the demise of the mail art network, American Visual Poetry in general reverted and retrograded into a neo concrete. A major factor in this was a dogmatic and hegemonic push among some of the language poets in their attempt to dominate and control the poetry scene in general. Although many language poets included elements of visual poetry in their early work, virtually all eliminated these elements in the 1980s. There was a call and demand for less image and more textual content instituting a throw back to a ‘pure’ language based visual poetry, that is to say, Concrete. Moreover, a convoluted nihilistic misrepresentation of Buddhism injected the notion that the past does not matter, only the present and the future. The creators of calligraphy and other two and three dimensional artists removed themselves from participation in visual poetry having no patience with an art form that dropped seriousness and discipline.

While computers and the internet have allowed for tremendous leaps forward in the composition of visual poetry and enhanced communication among groups and individuals, it also has had a negative aspect. While creating and publishing compositions that take hours instead of days or weeks or months, it has also generated a lack of respect for discipline and seriousness leading to wide spread creation of insignificant works. Further, the skills of editing and publishing have been tossed aside. Many of these insignificant works have been published rather than left behind the closed doors of the experimental laboratory filed away as failed attempts. This creates substantial resistance from other artists to join this expression as well as restricting its audience. This follows the law of money: bad chases away good.

To end on a more positive note, as the visual poets around the world expand the availability of their works on the web, I feel confident visual poetry in this country will recover. Works of value equal to what is now found elsewhere and those of value ignored here will come forth composed with the much lost accent of awe. How long will this take? I have no idea.

Oceano, California

Full Moon

March 2010

Special thanks for Karl Young being the critical reader of my essay drafts and making important observational comments.


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Alfred Stieglitz, STIEGLITZ. Alfred, editor 291. Sims Books contents <http://books.simsreed.com/find_books.php?stk=26241> Nov 2005.
391 dada. <http://www.391.org/> Nov 2005.
Jo Anne Van Tilburg, ANCIENT IMAGES ON STONE: ROCK ART OF THE CALIFORNIAS. The Rock Art Archive, The Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, 1983.
Peter Tompkins, SECRETS OF THE GREAT PYRAMID. Harper & Row, New York, NY., 1971
— MYSTERIES OF THE MEXICAN PYRAMIDS. Harper & Row, New York, NY, 1976.
Barbara G. Walker, THE WOMAN’S DICTIONARY OF SYMBOLS AND SACRED OBJECTS. Harper & Row, San Francisco, CA, 1988.
Eugene Wildman, Editor, THE CHICAGO REVIEW ANTHOLOGY OF CONCRETE POETRY. Swallow Press Chicago, IL, 1967.

— ANTHOLOGY OF CONCRETISM. 2d Edition, Swallow Press, Chicago, IL, 1969.
Emmett Williams, AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONCRETE POETRY. Something Else Press, New York, NY, 1967.
Ray A. Williamson, ed., ARCHAEOASTRONOMY IN THE AMERICAS. Ballena Press, Los Altos, CA., and Center for Archaeoastronomy, University of Maryland, College Park, MD. 1981.
— LIVING THE SKY, THE COSMOS OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK. 1987.
Benjamin Worf, LANGUAGE THOUGHT AND REALITY. Technology Press, M.I.T., Cambridge, MA. 1956.
Karl Young, ONLY AS PAINTED IMAGES IN YOUR BOOKSHAVE WE COME TO BE ALIVE IN THIS PLACE. Chax Press, 101 West Stone, #4, Tucson, AZ 85701. Book One of this multi-volume work, OF MAKING MANY BOOKS THERE IS NO END, is scheduled for publication in the spring of 2006. Many references above found in published and manuscript chapters of the entire set.
— Notation And The Art Of Reading. <http://www.thing.net/~grist/ld/young/notation/notate.htm> Nov 2005.
— APPROACHES TO CODEX VINDOBONENSIS. <http://www.thing.net/~grist/ld/vind/vind.htm> Nov 2005.
— THE CONTINUUM OF LIFE IN CODEX BORBONICUS. <http://www.thing.net/~grist/ld/bot/ky-ab.htm> Nov 2005.
— Human and Animal Stages in the Aztec Continuum of Life. <http://www.thing.net/~grist/ld/bot/ky-anm.htm> Nov 2005.
— Hassan Massoudy A Survey. <http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/massoudy.htm> Nov 05.
— Whose History of What World?
— Kenneth Patchen Survey. <http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/kpint.htm> Nov 2005.<http://www.jackmagazine.com/issue5/renhistkyoung.html> Nov 2005.
Karl Young and Karl Kempton, Lettriste Pages. <http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/lettrist/lettrist.htm> Nov 2005.
Marius de Zayas, Agnes Meyer. Eye Contact: Modern American Portrait Drawins from the National Gallery, <http://www.npg.si.edu/cexh/eye/html/l_meyer.htm> Nov 2005.
— Picabia. Between Music and the Machine: Francis Picabia and the End of Abstraction, <http://toutfait.com/issues/volume2/issue_4/articles/rothman/rothman4.html> fig 28 mathematical formulas. Nov 2005.
Marius de Zayas and Francis Picabia, FEMME! <http://www.ieeff.org/dadanydezaypicabelle1915.jpg> Nov 2005.

ideograms & shell cracks