Karl Kempton’s ‘Kaldron’ & Katue’s ‘Plastic Poetry

The notion of the lived poem (that transfuses through the bones, hops the brain-blood barrier and instigates a transcendent or visceral contact with an alternative way of being) is an ancient one. It’s practitioners tend to be committed to the poem as autonomous, free to escape the rigid confines of discourse or the narrow cage of pure discipline. Karl Kempton exemplifies that form of mind. Kempton published Kaldron on paper from 1976-1990 (in 1997 it moved online:  here). It is (according to its masthead): “North America’s Longest Running Visual Poetry Magazine”. As such it is significant archive of experimentation with fusions of word and image, mail-art, concrete and other sundry items of literary marginalia.

As Kempton describes in an extensive essay (hosted on Dan Waber’s LogoLalia site ) VISUAL POETRY: A Brief History of Ancestral Roots and Modern Traditions

“A visual poem may be defined simply as a poem composed or designed to be consciously seen. The modern visual poem is generally composed with disassembled language material. This stuff of language includes word, text, note, code, petroglyph, letter, phonic character, type, cipher, symbol, pictograph, sentence, number, hieroglyph, rhythm, iconograph, grammar, cluster, stroke, ideogram, density, pattern, diagram, logogram, accent, line, color, measure, etc. Today’s minimalist visual poet, or the post World War Two term, concrete poet, generally composes with fissioned language material to create new and free particles, and/or sonic patterns, clusters, densities, and/or textures. 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.

The multimedia or intermedia blur between borders is continued (perhaps compounded) in digital poetry, the ephemeral trace of ink or paint is replaced by unsituated knots of bits of data that exert momentary transitions on integrated circuits. Touch is abstracted thru keyboards. The blur gets even deeper when one considers the impulses of mysticism, sexuality, emotion, dreams and hallucinations that must co-exist (in a digital poem that aspires to profoundity) with Bauhausian design principles which emphasize clarity, functionality and efficiency. This is the bipolar state that must be navigated if the full richness of digital poetry is to emerge.

Kempton refers to this divide (in his terms, at his time) as being a split between the Orphic and Concrete movements, between the rune (meditation) and poem (mental states).  “The polarity remains with us today between the head and heart, the materialist and the mystic” (p.4). The Orphic movement was founded by Apollinaire, it’s focus was on raw transcendence, passion, the pure instant; in Kempton’s words, it was  “dedicated to a purity of lyrical abstraction” (p.16). The Concrete movement focalized around formalized theorems and structural ideas of what constituted a real concrete poem; their concerns were in protecting a didactic lineage.

In Kempton’s extraordinarily rich essay (which has all the qualities of an ode or epic threnody), he depicts a lineage of Orphic poets (who were also visual poets) exiled from the canon of Concrete poetry anthologies: among them  indigenous artists (petroglyphs…), Kenneth Patchen and  Paul Reps.

Personally, I have been astounded that Patchen’s work is not at the core of every major literary university curriculum. His works introduce formal innovations in poetic-prose (visual poems, words crossing multiple pages) combined with a primordial ethical fury. His neglect can only be a symptom of how reluctant society is to embrace a visionary whose diagnosis of contemporary malaise was so utterly scathing.

“What I have come to call the Orphic lineage in visual poetry endured after Cummings and Patchen. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the line continued in the works of David Cole, Doris Cross, Kathy Ernst, William Fox, d.a. levy, Joel Lipman, Marilyn Rosenberg, Karl Young and others in America and bpNichol and others in Canada. Tom Phillips in England” (Kempton. p.28)

In a 2007 essay on the opening page of Kaldron by Karl Young (himself an accomplished visual poet who has created physical book-poem-sculptural works and is –I think– Kaldron‘s co-editor) Introduction to Oceans Beyond Monotonous Space: Selected Poems of Kitasono Katue, Young describes how a resistance or backlash against the Concrete poetry movement created a situation where mail-art was the one of the few venues for exchange or exhibition of visual poetry for decades. Young suggests that by “the mid 1980s, visual poetry was at its nadir in the U.S. in terms of exclusion from publication.” These historical contexts frame a description of Kitasono Katue’s practise of Plastic Poetry.

“In his initial statement on Plastic Poetry, Kitasono said that it was time for poets to put down their pens and brushes and make the leap to photography as a means of writing. … Kitasono literally sculpted his poems before photographing them.”

For Young, mail-art and Kitasono Katue are precursors to today’s visual culture on distributed networks. For myself, Katue’s hybrid osmosis from poetry into sculpture and photography anticipates (by 30 odd years) my own similar migrations (away from the pure word-on-page paradigm) into photography, video, programming and crude 3D sculptural typography. Katue’s lively manifesto-tone and simple-yet-clear imagery reverberates and resonates for contemporary digital practice in visual-poetry:

Kitasono Katue (1966): “I will create poetry through the viewfinder of my camera, out of pieces of paper scraps, boards, glasses, etc. This is the birth of new poetry.”

As the tools change, artistic motivation remains consistent: to develop traces and representations of inner states that communicate and expand the domain of human awareness. So, to paraphrase Katue, “I will create poetry through the GPU of my computer, out of morsels of dust, 3D models, stray events collected on video, etc. This is the birth of new poetry.

With every technology there is the birth of a new poetry. Each machine is a new baby.

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