Archive of: Kempton, Karl

VISUAL POETRY: A Brief History of Ancestral Roots and Modern Traditions, by Karl Kempton

It started when I asked Karl Kempton a question about the context of a quotation, and evolved, over the course of several months, into an essay so crucial to a full understanding of visual poetry as to be, from this date forward, required reading for anyone who wishes to enter into a serious dialog about the art.

an Introduction by Karl Young:

"In surfing the web today, you have probably passed through at least a dozen examples of word and image working together. Stated another way, you have been observing the results of prophecies and examples from the earliest petroglyphs to the visual poets who distributed their work through the mail art network when other avenues of publication were closed to them. Given changes in communications technology, it seems unlikely that visual poets will ever again be shoved back into the position of the Haitian boat people of American poetry. At the present moment, the interaction of graphics and text is so pervasive in society that you can find it in everything from warehouse tracking systems to the most sophisticated medical diagnostic techniques. Given the now ubiquitous interrelation of word and image, it would be absurd to imagine that a new generation of poets could be kept from exploring this interface of media. And it would be tragic if their predecessors would continue to be excluded from serious consideration.

"Karl Kempton published Kaldron magazine on paper between the years 1976 and 1990. This was the world’s first regularly published magazine that strove to include all modes of visual poetry. It included some of the minimalist Concrete that had produced a fad and a backlash against it in the U.S., but only in proportion to the many other modes of interchange going on in the rest of the world, and living a ghostly life in this country via the Mail Art Network. The Mail Art Network carried magnificent work by poets in the U.S., but the only people who got to see it were those who took part in the network. Outside the U.S., particularly in France and Japan, Concrete had never been dominant, and other modes of visual poetry flourished. Further, virtually every movement in art and poetry in the 20th Century had a visual poetry component, if only during its formative years. Even poets as radically aural as the Beats had visual poets such as Kenneth Patchen and Wallace Berman as primary figures.

"Karl Kempton’s “VISUAL POETRY: A Brief History of Ancestral Roots and Modern Traditions” provides a balanced and coherent overview of about as much of the genre as a single person can comprehend. As editor, Kempton set himself several tasks simultaneously: to provide a regular, international forum for the publication of visual poetry at the time when it was most completely ignored in the U.S.; to bring together all the wildly divergent types of visual poetry being produced at the time along with examples from previous epochs; and to free visual poetry from necessary dependency on other movements in poetry and the arts. Coming from a long-time observer and a figure who changed the nature of perception of visual poetry in this country, this is not an essay to pass over lightly. For those with expertise in the subject, Kempton views the whole art from a singular vantage point. It may help younger writers avoid reinventing the wheel over and over and from repeating the failure of Concrete. If it does neither, it will at least give them a sense of options when they crash into the walls they create or which were created by their elders. For those who think they know what visual poetry is from glancing at a few old anthologies, it should be an eye opener. For everyone writing in the era of electronic communication, it should provide at least a foundation in what has been done in the many side streets and grand boulevards where words and images have met, and will continue to meet.

"It’s particularly important that this essay should appear in Dan Waber’s “Minimalist Concrete” site. The Concrete Minimalists of the 1960s would not have tolerated anything like it. Yet the greater scope of visual poetry may be precisely what is needed to save them and the contemporary poets working in similar modes from the junk yard to which their narrowness consigned them. "--Karl Young

We would like to see this essay generate some discussion around the ground it covers and the points it raises. In recognition of the fact that different people are comfortable in different types of conversations, I would like to invite readers to communicate via the comments to this entry, and/or via email to me at dwaber at logolalia dot com, and/or to the spidertangle list. If questions or comments arise which would benefit from an in-depth response from Karl Kempton, I'll work together with him to share them here, as well.

Now, I am pleased to present to you, VISUAL POETRY: A Brief History of Ancestral Roots and Modern Traditions (182K .pdf), by Karl Kempton. (please note, in the default configuration of most recent versions of Adobe Acrobat Reader the URLs in the footnotes should clickable, though not blue or underlined)

7 by Karl Kempton

If you're just doing some skimming, some surfing, some I'm-bored-entertain-me driving around, bookmark the permalink to this and come back later. I mean it. Scram!

Come back when you're in the right frame of mind to be saturated to your cells with poetry.

I'm not talking about just poems, here, although there are poems here. I'm talking about poetry that you live, not just read. Note, I did not say poetry that you watch someone else live, no, it's not going to be that simple.

This is about poetry that is alive because it has been lived and is being lived and which charges you--yes, you, I can see you there, I watch my server logs in real time, I know who is actually reading and who is just rummaging for eye candy--poetry which charges you with making it your life.

And to those of you who would read on, I bid you come and die.

To assist me in putting this together, Karl sent me an abridged vita and the essay "Rune Maker" (which was written to serve as the Introduction to his section in the anthology Writing To Be Seen (for more on this anthology, see the series of entries at Bob Grumman's Comproetica blog (beginning December 31st of 2005 and running through January of 2006).

The idea was that I'd cherry-pick from the vita and the essay to round out a profile. But two things happened as I looked at these documents.

First, when I saw "abridged" and then opened the file and saw it was 6 pages the first thing I did was laugh, because I thought it was tongue in cheek. You know, "haha, abridged!". But then I realized, oh. Oh. It really IS abridged. It's a profound paradigm shift that ensues when that realization sinks in. It makes me, as a reader, think, "This is how to be serious about it. I want to do that."

Second, Rune Maker reads like a roadmap to enlightenment through poetry, and vice versa. I don't think this was intentional (or at least not obviously intentional or intentionally obvious) on his part. Nevertheless, it has the effect of supplying to someone interested in discovering their own Way an accurate skeleton of all Ways.

I feel strongly that these three aspects (abridged vita, Rune Maker essay, and the poems themselves) form a kind of tripod that leads the interested to a walk around the whole. After you see the vita you'll want to see the poems, after you see the poems you'll want to know the Rune Maker, after you read the Rune Maker and you'll want to see the results of these influences and theories applied.

So I ended up not cherry-picking at all, but including all of this information here, for your perusal.

You will find below three distinct ways to enter the poetry of Karl Kempton. All are equally valid entry points. There is no exit point. Once you've seen what it means to be a poet, you keep the gift as long as you live it.

  • Begin with his abridged vita if you want to see how Karl affects the world.
  • Begin with the essay Rune Maker if you want to know how the world affects Karl.
  • Begin with the poems if you want to know how the nexus point of those affections takes shape today.

But, please, don't look at any of these if you're not prepared to share the time to absorb them all. If you do not have the Macromedia Flash Player installed in your browser, now's a good time to get with the program.

Abridged Vita, (48KB 6 page .pdf)

Rune Maker, (61KB 9 page .pdf)

Some Poems:

Part of the completed amber sands series.
Verticle Music, (195KB 10 page .pdf)

Recent poems belonging to the GOLDEN FIELDS series.

Pond, (13KB 8 page .pdf)
Pond, (8KB Shockwave Flash animation)

More Famous?, (628KB Shockwave Flash animation)

The Light Wait, (483KB 9 page .pdf)
The Light Wait, (276KB Shockwave Flash animation)

Dream Image, (276KB Shockwave Flash animation)

Karl Kempton can be contacted at nrview at thegrid dot net.