First Impressions of Kitasono Katue
by Dan Waber


“No one can put a style on me. I’ve learned from many people. I change all the time. I experiment to keep up with what is going on, to hear what everybody else is doing. I even keep a little ahead of them, like a mirror that shows what will happen next.”—Mary Lou Williams, jazz pianist and composer.

When I received my copy of Oceans Beyond Monotonous Space, Selected Poems of Kitasono Katue (Translated by John Solt, Edited by Karl Young and John Solt, Introduction by Karl Young), shortly after Bastille Day, 2007, I didn’t know anything about Kitasono Katue or his work. It no longer surprises me that there are rich veins of important work out there that I don’t know anything about. When I was first recognizing in myself the joys that working with words brings to me I had the naïve idea that poetry was an attractive subset of literature to pursue because it was small enough that in a lifetime of immersion a person could reasonably expect to become familiar with all of the work worth reading. I stopped thinking that the year I discovered the world outside mainstream poetry publishing.

The moment I realized that there was more work out there worth reading than I could possibly take in in one lifetime I realized the efficiency savings of finding reference points whose sensibilities aligned with my own. If there was a person, or a school of thought, or a swath of praxis that I could trust as a secondary source, as a content aggregater, it could save me a lot of time locating the things that I wanted to be learning. If I used that time saved locating for learning, I’d be learning ahead. This is not to say these secondary sources were trusted over original sources, or even trusted without question, only that a board of readers committed to the same set of editorial guidelines can work through a lot more unsolicited manuscripts than a single editor can.

Somewhere I no longer recall I read the suggestion that a person would do well to read poetry by as many poets as possible, while at the same time reading everything ever written by one single poet. The idea being that the former would give one the sense of the breadth of what poetry was capable of, and the latter would give one the sense of the depth of what one poet could do. I decided to start with the breadth, since I didn’t have a particular passion for any single poet that I felt would sustain me through reading everything they’d written. I figured in the process of reading widely, I’d find one who interested me enough to want to read everything. Of course, I forgot the whole plan formulation during the course of a decade of reading, writing, and just generally living. It wasn’t until I was waist deep in what turned out to be a sea of one person’s work that I realized I’d long since found the one poet I wanted to learn in depth.

One unexpected change which resulted from this shift in my focus was that my reading become less of a happy-go-lucky bounce from this to that to the other and more of a series of expeditions down lines of influence or out spirals of confluence and back again. In one of the earliest of those expeditions I came in contact with Karl Young, and he has proved to be, for me, what the Indie record label Anti Records is for my friend Jim Warner. Aside from being a talented poet, Jim is a music superfreak. Jim said of Anti Records that, at this point, he just buys everything they release. As far as he’s concerned they’re batting 1.000 and that has freed him up from the need to look into whether or not he’ll like any given release. This is how recommendations from Karl Young are for me. If he thinks I should read it, he’s been right every single time so far. This book is no exception.

Enough preamble, here are my first impressions of Kitasono Katue, and of Oceans Beyond Monotonous Space.

I’ve been through this book three times now. Once when I first got it, once a couple weeks after that, and once more in preparation for writing this. The first time through the book I wasn’t really all that impressed. It was a quick, surface read, and I thought, “Meh, not seeing much that’s new in this.” The second time through I looked at the dates on the poems, and remembered the first time I watched Citizen Kane. I was about 15, and Citizen Kane was always on the top of all kinds of Best Movies of All Time lists, so I figured I better watch it. So many cliches, I thought. The film is just riddled with rip-offs of things I’ve seen in all sorts of other movies. It took me years of movie watching to finally realize that Citizen Kane couldn’t possibly have been ripping off all the movies that were made after it. I confused my experiential chronology with the reality of when the films were actually made. Kitasono was finished with Concrete before the famed international movement began—before even Kenneth Patchen— he was rupturing the relationship between signifier and signified and breaking out of the linearity of language before postmodernism had been spanked into taking its first breath, and he was writing Fluxus event scores 30 years before the term (in both prose and poem form).

It’s funny what makes it into the canon and what doesn’t. I don’t mean funny as in haha, I mean funny as in something smells funny. This is not the first time I’ve noticed a bias against artists whose output won’t sit still long enough to be pinned to the display tray. It seems possible to re-invent oneself, to stop doing what one did and start doing something new, and not get kicked off the island, but it seems a lot more difficult to do several-many things well at once, or to be devoted to no style but inventiveness and exploration. You can be inventive, or exploratory, but then you need to stop when you get somewhere interesting and keep performing your one-trick-pony act until you die. You’re not supposed to walk out into fields declared barren and throw the rubies and emeralds and sapphires you find over your shoulder while shouting out “too small!” The canon doesn’t like that. Even if you do correspond with Pound, and are published by Creeley to the adulation of Olson, Williams, Patchen, Rexroth, and Laughlin.

“What is important is method.”—Kitasono Katue

In his richly re-readable introduction Karl Young says:

After White Album, Kitasono kept a complete coincidence between pattern and book. He did not issue books of diverse poems at intervals when opportunities presented themselves, but used each book as a framework for a new pattern. We could thus see each book as a basic unit of composition. In the two books following White Album, we can see Kitasono clearly and purposefully moving into specific patterns and shifting away from others between one book and the next.

and this theme of patterns and the working through of patterns repeats itself throughout the introduction in Young’s words, Kitasono’s words, and the words of others.

Two examples of this come to mind, one on the micro level, and one on the macro level, both involving the graph which graces the cover of the book, the “no” graph, which is “a weak and general possessive, a particle that could be translated ‘of’ or as the apostrophe s.”

In the poem “Monotonous Solid” Kitasono relentlessly worries the skin off of the peanut of meaning where later, less deft, poets would proudly pound meaning into a skin-flecked crunchy style butter. The stanza that acts as the pivot point of the poem reads “imagination’s / face’s / curved line’s / dark / jaw’s / hard loneliness” and performs a slow spin there at the point after the cast has landed and before the reeling-in has begun.

Kitasono is quoted saying:

I have published as many as twenty books since then, but all the “patterns” of my poetry are in White Album. In that sense, White Album is an unfinished volume of many patterns gathered in a jumble...When I get in a slump, I always take out White Album and, like a hunter stalking prey, my eyes wander in the jungle of words where I discover a forgotten pattern, sweep away the dust, and extend it in a new way.

The almost purely chronological (with the exception of the Plastic Poems near the end of the book being grouped together) organization of the book means that the reader gets to watch Kitasono’s use of the “no” graph throughout his entire published career. He works it through variation after variation, and elaborates patterns with a meticulous thoroughness that approaches (but never gets bogged down in) permutational precision.

After reading “Collection of White Poems,” 1927, I wrote a series of notes to myself. The first was a reference to Paul Dutton’s Mouth Pieces series of sound poems. When I listen to those pieces it feels like Dutton has described the circumference of the furthest limits of the sounds possible for the human mouth to make. “Collection of White Poems” has no verbs, but the richness and variety of its constructions are such that it goes unnoticed through multiple readings. The second note was a shorthand reference to one of my pet theories about Net Art/Web Art. Much of it seems to lack the depth I want art to possess, and my theory is that it’s because the bells and whistles and levers and buttons that are available for the artist to exploit are so numerous to begin with and are so quick to be upgraded that it’s all a serious practitioner can do to demonstrate familiarity with the tools—there’s no time for mastery. I see a method demonstrated, and I want to watch it be extended and elaborated upon and explored through a series that would comprise a body of work, not just a single piece. “Collection of White Poems,” like many of the pieces in this collection, simultaneously postulates and exhausts its methods.

These are hard poems, but they reward the effort they ask. Kitasono is clearly doing something with these poems, even the most difficult of them reveal an intentionality that coaxes the reader to continue. I never once felt that beating-my-head-against-a-meaningless-wall feeling I get from a lot of postmodern poetry. In Magic and Showmanship, A Handbook for Conjurers, Henning Nelms says:

Interest depends entirely on meaning. The degree of interest that spectators take in any performance is in direct proportion to its meaning for them. The more meaning you can pack into a presentation, the more interest it will excite. An illusion creates interest because the conjurer gives it meaning by proposing to demonstrate some remarkable power. A typical trick has no meaning beyond the fact that it presents a puzzle and challenges the audience to find a solution.

Many people find puzzles dull. Even the enthusiast is bored by some types of puzzles. Conjuring puzzles are not likely to fascinate anyone who is not a conjuring-puzzles addict.

Even when Kitasono is most clearly engaging in the (almost mechanical) separation of referrer from referent the reader never feels abandoned by the poet, his presence is there in the method, in the patterns, and in this way even when the surface of meaning begins to shift and spin there is still a hand-hold in meta-meaning to stand against vertigo.

The book itself is well-designed (clean, simple), well-built (glossy cover, perfect-bound), and looks like a book you’d find on the shelves of any bookstore with only a couple of exceptions. There’s no ISBN, bar code, or price printed anywhere, and the page numbers are in the lower right corner of every page, even the left-hand pages, an unusual convention. A couple of typos leapt out at me, but, beyond lamenting the fact that I find typos in books at a far higher frequency since the advent of digital typesetting in general, even (perhaps especially) in mass market books, I can’t get too worked up over it.

Karl Young’s introduction, at 26 pages, does an impressive job of contextualizing Kitasono’s efforts. In the same way that I can’t read Eco without a dictionary under my left hand, whenever I read one of Karl’s introductions, I keep a pen and paper handy for jotting down notes to myself on pathways I know I need to peek or plunge down later.

The additional “Notes on the Introduction, Editing, and Organization of this Book” was also something I found value in, and appreciated. Translation presents a vast set of problems which is multiplied when translating poetry, and multiplied again when translating into a different writing system, and multiplied yet again when that writing is visually innovative. An understanding of how this complex of compromises was approached by the editors helped me, as a reader, to remain aware the process, and to, at times, get a better sense of the poem as it was intended by the author, particularly the visual poems.

“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.”—Kitasono Katue

The Plastic Poems are photographs of composed arrangements of objects, most but not all include some element of text, though that element may, at times, be serving a design role rather than a lexical role (meaning, the content of the text is less significant than the fact of the text). The finished piece is the photograph itself, not the objects photographed. There is a fragility or precariousness to many of the compositional elements: string, wire, hand torn paper, crumpled paper, roundish solids on flat surfaces, loose letters. They are all without title, so readers must orient themselves, and accept that multiple readings are possible.

The presentation of the Plastic Poems as a single group, exceptional to the otherwise chronological progression of the selections, makes sense, but without the benefit of dates, there’s no way for the reader to know how these poems fit within the whole of Kitasono’s work. Were they produced throughout his career? Did they begin or end at any significant point? Are the Plastic Poems we are shown ordered in any fashion? Was he making Plastic Poems alongside other visual poems, and/or other lexical poems? We are told in the additional “Notes on the Introduction”:

Kitasono titled few of his Plastic Poems. Sometimes he assigned them numbers, but even these became confusing because Kitasono was not consistent, and some writers have referred to page numbers of different editions. We present the Plastics without title or reference to editions.

But this is not enough for the reader to be able to properly contextualize them, and they are such an important component to a complete understanding of Kitasono’s work that the absence of this information is felt as a loss.

Notes by the editors appear in several places, were never intrusive, and often sparked my interest to seek more information on my own. The note regarding “Kappa” leaps to mind. My reading of these poems would have been completely different (and completely wrong) without the explanatory note. The note was detailed enough to make me want to learn more about Kappa for my own knowledge, not just to inform my reading of a few poems. Throughout my readings of the book I consistently felt that I was being walked through an exhibit with a friend at my side who had a passion for the work, and never like I’d been pushed out in traffic to see if I got hit.

I particularly liked the poems that showed me the work as it was published. I recognize that it’s not always possible to present books of translation with every original side-by-side with the translation, but, as a poet with a strong appreciation for the visual aspects of the art, I always want to see the original layout.

Eyes closed, fingers on the keyboard, the parts of this book that still pulse with interest in my mind are the Plastic Poems, every one of them; “Electrical Enunciation,” for having appeared in 1925; “Human Dismantlement Poems,” for making me wonder if bpNichol knew them when he wrote his “Selected Organs”; the excerpt from “Magic” which is a halfone reproduction of two pages of type; the poem “Monotonous Space”; the line from the poem “Black Church” which reads “white sand / for / a / red glass // was / only / itself”; the post-war poems of Black Fire; and the four diagrammatics.

I will close by saying that I will be seeking out more of the work of Kitasono Katue as a result of my reading this collection. I know of no higher praise for a book of selected poems.