The Poetry Project

Forums of Ruined Will: N.H. Pritchard’s Reissues

Greg Nissan

N.H. Pritchard, who published two books in the 1970s in New York City where he lived as a writer and teacher, is one of the most radically warped poets of a period rich in experimentation. Pritchard’s collection The Matrix, Poems: 1960-1970 (Doubleday 1970) has approached the status of lost classic in the past years, thanks in part to a meticulous reissue from Ugly Duckling Presse and Primary Information in March. EECCHHOOEESS, originally published by NYU Press in 1971 and reissued by DABA this year, is heading in the same direction. Pritchard was a well-published poet in his day and a member of the legendary Umbra Poets’ Workshop, a fermentation of Black experimental literature with reverberations in the Black Arts Movement and jazz. But Pritchard’s phonetic mosaics disappeared from anthologies of Black poetry and would soon recede into the margins of minor literatures, according to Aldon Nielsen’s Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism, which traces critical befuddlement at Pritchard’s scatting poetics. The Matrix—this uncategorizable collection of concrete and sound poetry, where trance-like pastoral rhymes undergo extreme typographical dilation—is a reminder that we are still in many ways catching up to the past. The horizon of its linguistic transformation has yet to be pursued with such intensity.

I think of ways to describe reading Pritchard, and catch myself changing the medium. It’s like dragging a magnifying glass over a painting as you toggle its height, new environs hatching at different scales. Or the rhythmic muqarnas of free jazz, where a fractal pattern keeps recessing on itself. Pritchard himself understands his work across media. Recalling the Village of the early ’60s, where he would talk for hours with Allen Ginsberg, Willem de Kooning, and Ornette Coleman, Pritchard says in a 1978 interview, “I had to dip my nose in paint, hit those keys…I had to go after it myself.” That synesthetic impulse indicates how Pritchard treats writing: a set of audiovisual signs distinct from but pointing towards meaning, like the sky seen from the open exits of a crowded arena. Always a glimpse of two linked and divergent phenomena, combined and uneven development of the syllable, call it what you will—Norman Pritchard magnifies tensions in order to denaturalize textual perception. That is, to give it a historical shape.

Pritchard brings an improvisatory ear to bear on a long lineage of ecstasy in poetry. He cites progenitors as Sappho and Mallarmé, as well as his heroes, the haiku masters Basho and Buson. “Haiku is an explosion,” he says, “it’s like a match…it’s juxtaposing a yes and a no, and it comes up with something that’s certainly far better than even yes.” Juxtaposing a yes and a no, Pritchard rubs the sonic and visual components of language against each other as kindling that might torch the staid traditions of text-based arts. A phrase from EECCHHOOEESS is a helpful opening: “forums of ruined will.” In his dilatory spacing it reads “fxxxxoruxxxxmsofruxxxxxinedwixxxxll.” The word splits in two: as a cluster of letters, we can only recognize it as a sonic invention. But reading across the spaces, it’s a conceptual unit we intuit against the grain of its typical appearance, producing something like the shimmer of interference patterns. We can’t shake words, even when we shake them up. By rendering the ground of expression moving, particulate, dynamic—a mosaicized material that plays through our expression as our expression plays through it—the ruined will of Pritchard’s poems is not the frustration of lyric subjectivity, but a sparking of language’s material synapse, a hereditary we in the I’s complaint.

Consider “Harbor,” an early poem in The Matrix, a masterful fusion of form and content as it translates echoing waves and the rhythmic perpetuity of change and light. Pritchard magnifies his spacing, so that smaller words emerge from the dehiscence of larger ones. In “Harbor” a constellation of third person pronouns arranges through this disintegration: “e m p t y & we t”, “bexxneathxxxthe dxxxusxxxk.” The collective—the us and the we—is not the final image of a social order, but the fact of combination; it is language’s improvisatory social glue. (In a later poem Pritchard turns “SOLITUDE” into “De Tu and I”: of you and I). This radical spacing activates each line in different ways. On re-readings, even a simple phrase like “wxxxxitxxhxxgxxrowxxin g m oo n” starts to enchant sense, from scene-perfect rowing, to a double o howling sound’s semantic buoyancy at the moon, as new meanings open and close upon the water’s surface. What does poetry like this tell us? The ground moves. Literary experiment doesn’t evade the registers of daily life so much as potentiate and unravel their repetitions.

“Agon” finds bohemian abjection and houselessness in Cooper Square. Men, “alcoved in agonies,”

s p raw  l  t  heir  lives
in  war d l  y
up on an  out  war  d
w  or  l d

Like a throat singer droning one note and changing the mouth’s shape to produce different overtones, Pritchard plays emphatic harmonics through the primary words: raw, heir, war, war, or. As “inwardly” becomes “in warxxdly,” the supposedly private locus of suffering splits until the state of conflict is relocated in the social, as war in an outward world. I can’t help but read the “or” in world towards his project of denaturalization: rejecting words as second nature and revealing words as manipulable human activity. What other reality might be found through disintegration and recombination? Learning to read twice, it’s like forgetting how to ride a bike, it’s harder than it seems. But you discover the machine. “Dreams… r unable to pass through doorways,” though—the hazy plumes of description cannot transgress problems of property, but only fume about their tyranny.

Pritchard supplies the material for a plenitude of interpretation, reading in excess of what’s on the page, and that’s to his credit. He embeds these nested words and ricocheted meanings in the contingencies of language and its fragmentation, as if we discover along with Pritchard the polygamy of sound and its tendency towards meaning even under stress. It’s a free jazz kind of mastery. As he finds points of resistance to let a word or phoneme wail its own abundance in what was there before the I got to it, Pritchard returns to point to his disappearance. His own artistic decisions come up against the larger ground of a collective material—language!—in poetry’s duplicative spark.

The Matrix and EECCHHOOEESS are, among other things, compendia of invented forms. Pritchard is working in two perceptual modes at once, linguistic and visual. In “Aurora,” one sentence reads “There / are / only / pebbles,” except pebbles has about 100 b’s. In fact, the glitching letter wraps around to the next pages where it continues to the far margin. This kind of experiment embeds synchronic visual representations of multiplicity within the diachronic passage of writing. There is something that can be read but also scanned as an image. The friction between these different forms of representation kindles new forms of textual perception: in “Terrace Figment,” the letters of the word “leaves” are scrambled across the page, though they never appear together in complete spelling. The title is placed in the center, a slab of imaginary terrace that organizes appearances. The letters themselves mimic the scattered distribution of foliage in a visual field. Pritchard’s bucolic image combines with conceptual poetic strategies to produce semantic dispersal and visual analogy in synesthetic confluence.

Throughout these forms I return to the dictum “forums of ruined will.” In that same 1978 interview he professes his taste for the Pre-Socratics like Heraclitus and Parmenides, when philosophy, science, and poetry were one in “natural sciences” where “the mind was always a transcendent mind.” In Pritchard’s reissues, the transcendence of language is not the individual mind reaching up to the heavens but re-asserting the collective ground from which the heights are clamored to. It’s a radical thought—that transcendence is the basis and not the summit. “I am not sufficiently satisfied with a poetic revolution,” he says in 1978. “I am concerned with a revolution that involves the transformation of the book itself.” As he goes on to explain what he means by the book, he locates two “problems of poetry” in America which are in fact two problems of America: racism and reaction. But he’s speaking not just about poetry as individual creation, rather the fraught ground of individuation itself. “The nation was not only founded on a race war, but the most horrific race war of all time” he says of Columbus. Pritchard’s heady pointillism and joyful percolation point to and from the problems of transcendence in a blocked world.

Why the book? In his denaturalizing experiments, chafing different senses of language against one another to produce some quick friction, Pritchard asserts that linguistic sense is not ineluctably as it is. The book is the form of literature’s history for Pritchard, who cites Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy. And Pritchard’s books are like prepared pianos, even their silences strike a clear note against the wall of tradition. “All too often the same thing is going on; there is no change,” he claims. “This is why Hitler can come along and burn these things.” The form knowledge takes must pass through prismic invention and engender new histories, or else it becomes just another false origin, air that forgets it’s pollution. In this regard Pritchard’s iconoclastic books are no easy targets for destruction. How can you burn a flame?

#266 — Fall 2021