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 “f
xxxxoru xxxxmsofru xxxxxinedwi xxxxll.” 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”, “be
xxneath xxxthe d xxxus xxxk.” 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 “w xxxxit xxh xxg xxrow xxin 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,”