The poetics of the ostrakon

N. H. Pritchard's 'Mundus' at the Whitney Museum

Portion of ‘Sappho 2’ ostracon. Image adapted from a photo via Wikimedia Commons.

What is an ostrakon? And what does an ostrakon have to do with the work of N. H. Pritchard? Norman Henry Pritchard was a member of the Umbra poets in the Lower East Side in the 1960s and a self-avowed “transrealist” who blended visual and sound poetry in many of his poems, some of which might be termed quasisurrealist or quasi-imagistic. Several essays about Pritchard have appeared here in Jacket2, and he has received scattered, although usually excellent, scholarly attention.[1] However, very little is known about him or his work as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, which is when, for the most part, he stopped publishing his poems. This by no means meant that he stopped writing and planning projects, since archival material shows he was an active writer into the 1970s and ’80s. Now the Whitney Museum in New York has given us a valuable, if minute, glimpse of Pritchard’s unpublished works (as part of its biennial exhibition, Quiet as It’s Kept, on view from April to October 2022).[2] In what follows, I contextualize the works displayed at the Whitney, while staking an argument about a shift in Pritchard’s poetics in the direction of what I, following his own practices, label “a poetics of the ostrakon.”

Among the thirty-odd pages of Pritchard’s work on display at the Whitney, the last is a sheet of paper (on loan from a private collection) that the curators have labeled “Red Abstract/fragment, 1968–69,” roughly following Pritchard’s own signed label on the sheet.

N. H. Pritchard’s “Red Abstract/fragment, 1968–69.” Author’s photo, reproduced with permission from Pritchard Estate.

The sheet contains a poem, titled “Bridge,” that is to my knowledge unpublished. A typescript draft of this poem exists, with substantial line variants but equal length and stanza division, in a letter Pritchard wrote to Ishmael Reed, dated October 23, 1967.[3] That the piece has been reworked into a new piece is perhaps evident from Pritchard’s own signed label with a later date. Pritchard has surrounded the poem with drawings, including one of his recognizable circles (the symbol that he often used to enigmatically gloss his “transrealism”), and bits of handwritten text.

What interests me here is the handwritten text in the upper-left corner of the page. As if glossing his piece with an additional label, Pritchard wrote “entrance into the ostrakon.” We will see that the notion of an “ostrakon” informs not merely this piece, but also the unpublished novel Mundus, of which the Whitney has twenty-two sheets on display. Many more pages from Mundus exist in the Pritchard Estate, some three-odd pages were previously published as “The Vein” in 1968 in the East Village Other,[4] and he read from his work in progress as a character in Elaine Summer’s movie Another Pilgrim (1968). In letters to Reed from 1967 to 1972, Mundus is often mentioned as a work of some two or three hundred pages — having undergone a major revision after it was rejected for publication. This is a minimalist summary, merely to give you a picture of the complexity of the archive. For now, I want to focus on how “Red Abstract/fragment” leads us into an understanding of what a “poetics of the ostrakon” might entail, and how it operates in what may be the late or “revised” extracts from Mundus as displayed at the Whitney.[5

What is an ostrakon — or, ostracon?[6] Pritchard preferred the older spelling of the word, likely because it well reflects the Greek etymology of the word, from ὄστρακον, which basically means “an earthen vessel,” such as a clay pot or vase. More commonly, however, the word is used by scholars to refer to a recycled writing or drawing surface: a sherd of broken pottery, a discarded piece of papyrus, or really anything that can be used as a writing surface — whether with ink or pigment, or through inscription by a sharp object. The common English term “ostracism” is related to the word, deriving from a specific Athenian political practice in which a member of the community could be sent into political exile through a voting process in which ostraca were used as silent ballots.

Ostraca bearing the name of Themistocles from the Athenian Agora. Note that, although some fragments may have been more conveniently shaped, the shape is not essential to the function. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

But to what purpose does Pritchard turn to the ostrakon? Why emphasize he is working with ostraka alongside fragments? What are the operative differences?

The concept of the fragment has a long and tired history in poetry from the last two centuries, occupying an especially pronounced position in the Romantic imaginary and in modernist poetics. It is no coincidence that the fate of the fragment as a poetic tool coincides roughly with the period of expanding philological interest in the collection and publication of ancient works — whether scattered but known, like some of the works of Greek poets, or recently excavated and even more recently deciphered, such as works from Mesopotamia. It would be easy to locate ostraca within this second set of historical paradigms as a subset of the contact between archaeology and textual criticism: ostraca are, after all, from an extractivist perspective, just another surface from which previously lost poems might be recovered, edited, and squared away in a critical edition or translation.[7] But in essentializing textuality in this way, abstracting it from the material into which it is mounted and through which it is transmitted, a lot is lost. In particular, the people who took time and effort to keep texts circulating, and their motives for doing so, become illegible. 

Studying Pritchard made me realize that an ostracon stands in a peculiar ontological contrast to a fragment, particularly when it comes to the affective background of preservation, transmission, and what we might term “textual care.” It is this opposition, which I will now explore, that I take Pritchard to be activating in his work. A fragment is, by definition, a remainder or a spuriously contingent survival. By way of an example, fragments of Sappho’s poems survive as scraps of papyri — sometimes so small as to only include mere words, or just a few letters. Even when a fragment is preserved by an ancient author, say in an ancient encyclopedic work or as quoted in a story or speech, its survival into the present is colored by the agenda of the second writer’s specific use of the given words — rather than through an overt desire to preserve the original work on its own terms. (Many fragments of Greek poetry survive, for instance, in Athenaeus’s Banquet because they happen to contain the names of certain fish.) In contrast, the creation of an ostracon implies the purposeful recycling of a preexisting material fragment that comes to be spontaneously redefined as a private writing surface. In contrast, a papyrus roll — definitionally a writing surface — becomes a fragment when it comes apart and a scrap of it survives in/through/from an Egyptian trash heap or in the unraveling of a mummy’s cartonnage. Whereas a fragment may be defined by the compromising of a meaningful whole, an ostracon begins its life as a piece of refuse and gains new value as writing surface that may stand the test of time. 

The transformation of a broken pottery sherd into a private writing surface further implies the specific intent of preserving or producing a text (or a picture). That which is preserved is a meaningful “whole,” rather than a fragmentary remainder (how the person writing on the ostracon may define the “wholeness” of their text is another matter). In brief, the ostracon is closer to an entry in a commonplace book. There is an ostracon of a poem of Sappho, for instance, on which nearly an entire poem has been preserved thanks to the work of an unknown person. We can only speculate as to the reason behind its preservation. But it was certainly no mechanical act of scribal reproduction (as in the copying out of papyri onto fresh scrolls for safekeeping in an archive). It may be that someone particularly enjoyed the poem we now know as “Sappho 2,” written on what is now called the Florentine ostracon (because it is housed in Florence’s Biblioteca Laurenziana) in order to take it home and to read it again. More akin to notes taken on scrap paper than a fragment, an ostracon invites us into an unknowable and yet private or intimate realm of textual enjoyment, care, and preservation. Sometimes the context is less inscrutable, such as in the case of school exercises on ostraca — one student, for instance, seems to have practiced writing in Greek letters by copying the first line of the Iliad over and over; another practiced writing out the alphabet (unsuccessfully) several times. By emphasizing his interest in the ostracon as a device of transmission, Pritchard invites us to consider these aspects of material literary transmission — gently challenging and expanding upon the already common obsession with fragments. 

It is another matter that an ostracon can, with the passing of time, become a fragment. Such was the case for the Florentine ostracon, the top right corner of which cracked off and was lost. But I think Pritchard was aware of this possibility, as well as the poetically productive aspects of this dynamic ontology of an ostracon as it becomes his “ostrakon.” Returning to the top left corner of “Red Abstract/fragment,” we see a tessellated rendering of the words “was deeply aged,” corresponding to the handwritten corrections made to the poem’s fourth verse. These boxes that segment words, I submit, might be understood as ostraka. As if extracting new words and new meanings from his own poem, Pritchard is clearly experimenting in “Red Abstract/fragment.” We see him work differently, with forward slashes, to segment words or pairs of words in the beginning of the second stanza. On first looking at these marks, it may seem that Pritchard is working to create an outline for sonically oriented scansions, not unlike Alice Notley’s quotation marks in The Descent of Alette. But the strategy that is repeated in his later works are the boxes, which produce an effect closer to (but hardly identical with) Ian Hamilton Finlay’s rearrangeable stone inscription blocks. The blocks arrest plain, linear reading in more ways than one; they both impede regular eye movements and then invite us to play with unusually formulated units of meaning. 

The possible effects of this poetics of the ostrakon are most clearly visible in the first sheet of Mundus (excluding the title page) on display at the Whitney.

Author’s photo, reproduced with permission from Pritchard Estate.

The opening words “in moments of” are segmented into “[in][m][omen][ts o][f” (I represent Pritchard’s bubble-like ostraka with square brackets for the purposes of graphic transcription). Above these words, Pritchard has handwritten (in the same pen with which he drew his ostraka) “in m omen,” emphasizing how the segmentation reveals the word “omen,” hidden in plain sight in the word “moment.” Not every segmentation straightforwardly reveals known words — indeed, only a small number of them do. But the opening of the piece as presented here teaches its readers how to navigate its segmented poetics, composed out of innovative rhythmic and semantic units that are effectively rescued from the original piece. It is worth recalling here, as has been discussed elsewhere in Jacket2, that Mundus was for Pritchard an exercise in writing a poetic novel that went beyond his previous experiments in concrete poetry and visual arrangement.[8] He wrote to Reed that Mundus was “an allegorical romance, a poem in prose form.”[9] These statements, and what we have seen about Pritchard’s method in composing Mundus, should be paired with a note on the author that Reed prepared to accompany several excerpts of Pritchard’s earlier work in the collection 19 Necromancers from Now (1970) — as this collection was prepared, Pritchard was writing consistently to Reed about Mundus, after all: 

N. H. Pritchard startled the audience during the question-and-answer period at an Ambassador’s literary party when he described an aging American poet’s work as being “tangential to thought.” When asked his own definition of poetry, N. H. Pritchard uttered guttural, bestial, primitive grunts and groans. Through his intuitive, visionary work, N. H. Pritchard attempts to put together fragments of a lost primordial poetry.[10] 

The poetics of the ostrakon is perhaps one realization of Pritchard’s vision, and it is, in my mind, no coincidence that on another page of Mundus the label “ostrakon” reappears, although blocking out a larger unit of text.

Author’s photo, reproduced with permission from Pritchard Estate.

Incidentally, here we also have evidence that lends itself to my suspicion that the pages on display at the Whitney represent a revision of Mundus, following its rejection by publishers. Several passages are labeled “omit,” in what appears to be an editorial process. At the same time, the pages at the Whitney more broadly attest to Pritchard’s dizzying use of colors, arrows, drawings, and other markings that are applied to the typescript — chief of which are the boxes I have argued we can interpret as ostraka. That the overlapping, concerted use of markings produces a poem that can be iteratively resegmented and reread, breaking down the linearity of the poetic prose and the schemas through which words are arranged on the page, emphasizes the proliferative aspect of the poetics that Pritchard adopted for this phase of his already expressly experimental career. His emphasis on “masks” and “roots” may point to his broader interest in recovering aspects of African poetics, as he understood it, but that is a topic that must be tackled elsewhere.

One final aspect of Mundus that is likely to be imbricated in the formulation of a poetics of the ostrakon is its title. Below, I quote Pritchard’s explanation of the title, as can be found in a letter he wrote to the trustees of the Harper-Saxton Fellowship:

There have been sundried definitions of the word mundus throughout the history of both literature and philosophy, including that of Mircea Eliade who regards it as a link between the center of the earth and the earth’s surface. I prefer to regard it as the name given a supra-consciousness of unity. A unity not unlike that which is described by Heraclitus’ “opposition unites,” which I use as an introductory quotation to the book.[11

There are several threads to pull apart here. The Latin mundus is most simply a word that can refer to “the world” and can also refer to “the sky, heavens.” It could be applied to any of the divisions between realms (underworld, world, heavens). More specifically, and in the sense that it is most often discussed by Eliade, the mundus is a sort of channel or hole in the ground that permits communication between the realm of the dead and the realm of the living.[12] It is a rarely mentioned aspect of Roman religious thought, and Eliade’s interest in it betrays his own obsessions concerning the concept of an axis mundi — an obsession tied into his politically fraught project of developing a unified conception of the sacred shared across all the world’s traditions. It is worth criticizing Pritchard’s investment in this scholarship because his own recourse to notions of primitivism or primordial language betrays a problematic essentialism — a tendency toward the indiscriminate fetishization of the unknowably deep past and its peoples. Poets working from the 1950s into the 1990s often resisted the homologizing attitude of Eliade’s work, which lent itself to certain far-right theorizations of the history of the world’s religions. But the reactions against essentialism often betray a basic agreement about the importance of origins, even if such origins came to be geographically and temporally displaced, away from the Greco-Roman or Indo-European canons, as they were in the work of the ethnopoets and the Black Mountain poets. We ought to therefore maintain a degree of skepticism when we identify certain turns to the “primordial” in Pritchard, also reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s commitment to J. G. Frazer’s Golden Bough, although the political underpinnings of his own poetic project could not be more different. 

The mention of Heraclitus pushes us in several other, perhaps more fruitful directions. In Pritchard’s own words, later in the same letter cited above, we learn that Heraclitus’s notorious notions of flux and transformation informed Mundus

The dynamism of our age is best engaged by the continuing probe into the realm of change, revolution, flux, etc., with the abiding knowledge that simultaniety [sic] is at the very center of life. In some of it’s [sic] most interesting aspects The Mundus is an exploded haiku and has as it’s [sic] root the unwavering conviction of this easter form that there is no, I repeat no logical connection between premiss [sic] and conclusion. In The Mundus I am unequivically [sic] concerned with the logic of the illogical the consistency of the inconsistent. […] In order to permit this freedom of language I have chosen to abandon the use of grammar.[13

Pritchard goes on to describe the incessant circularity of the work, comparing his own writing to that of Beckett and Joyce, and to Schopenhauer’s “definition of the artistic procedure as ‘the contemplation of the world independently of reason’” (12). While the recourse to Heraclitean notions is not necessarily surprising, given that Pritchard entrenches his own practices in the tradition of high modernism, there is one aspect that does not square up to scrutiny. It may be that this letter is partly performative, since its design was to secure him a prize or publication, and that his assessment of his own genealogy was written with a specific audience in mind (however, it does generally correspond to material in the Reed-Pritchard letters). It is useful to compare his claims to what aspects of Heraclitus interested him to what he actually cites. In the earlier passage, quoted above, he made reference to the notion of the coincidence of opposites. In the second passage, to the notion of flux. Yet, while I have not seen the epigraph on an extant page of the extended typescript (if it was ever composed), the evidence we do have shows us that Pritchard also took his interests in Heraclitus in another direction. 

The epigraph to the extract of Mundus published as “The Vein” is actually a lesser-known fragment of Heraclitus: “Time is a child moving counters in a game; the royal power is a child’s.”[14] This is not the space to enter into a debate about the fragment’s meaning, which — on one very basic reading — insinuates that the order of the universe is not rational.[15] Rather, what interests me are the aural qualities of this fragment, which have been noted by scholars before, and that may have piqued Pritchard’s careful ear. Note, for instance, the assonance of /ai/, consonance of /p/ and closely related /b/, and eventual assonance of /ē/: αἰὼν παῖς ἐστι παίζων, πεσσεύων· παιδὸς ἡ βασιληίη / aiо̄n pais esti paisdо̄n pesseuо̄n paidos ē basilēiē /. Beyond the fragment’s enigmatic meaning, an aural semiotics emerges that complements the riddle-like quality of the utterance while also operating independently as wordplay, a sonic scaffolding for an indeterminate edifice of meaning. The ludic aural quality of the fragment practically prefigures the segmented poetics of the later Mundus, with its play on the meanings of words and their constitutive phonemic units, as well as Pritchard’s definition of poetry in terms of grunts and inarticulate sounds. Further, it is hard not to see the child moving counters in a game, perhaps akin to checkers, as the poet at work with his ostraka — seeking out the logics of the illogical, letting them emerge playfully. 

The narrative that emerges from Mundus as it is available at the Whitney is perhaps impossible to summarize. Partly, because only a portion of the known extant pages are on display. More saliently, because the work — like Heraclitus’s fragment — operates on at least two levels of meaning. The text that the ostraka interrupts, resegments, and throws into sonic disarray is already an impressionistic, Joycean stream of consciousness or something reminiscent of Beckett’s late prose works (these comparisons were, as we saw, offered by Pritchard himself). One thing that came to mind when reading and rereading Mundus at the Whitney was its peculiar similarity to Giorgio de Chirico’s surreal, phantasmagoric Hebdomeros, in which the impression of an underlying narrative persists alongside concerted efforts to entirely delocalize the narrative voice. In the early portion of Mundus published as “The Vein” (i.e., the text presented as poetic prose likely before ostraka were introduced into the work), some people who appear to be stuck in one world (an underworld?) are eager to move up and into another — they are caught in thickets, their paths are marked by uncanny symbols, their own identities caught between poles of the mundus. But to offer a paraphrase is always to overinterpret and to overlook that the clearest journey is a sonic one, which winds in measured paces through words known and unknown, invented and reinvented. A sample passage, retaining the magazine’s likely arbitrary columniation:

brooding crept we through a dimsle trees began
their winds took leave scepting morsels rought we
damsle givance curves it’s cleavaged weenings bit
the scape filled vault of airing flung the askage
in a bidding who could wonder widest balanced burnt-
ing uttered water thickly we run through tree green[16]

This already clear departure from straightforward diegesis is then complicated, as we see in the first page of Mundus at the Whitney (image given above), where we can read a second draft, manipulated by the ostraka:

[b][ro][odin][g crep][t][we t][h][rough][a d][imsle le][ave][s][bega][n][t][heir][st][eepe][r] 

Just from this one line emerges, perhaps casually, perhaps intentionally, a range of recognizable semantic vectors: “odin,” “wet,” “rough,” “heir,” perhaps even “ave” and “bega” (for “have” and “begger,” but “ave” as it stands may carry its own religious overtones); each cluster combined, in an anagrammatic and suasive poetics, with a series of interstitial grunts and consonantal stops. 

In sum, the works on display at the Whitney invite us to consider a side of Pritchard’s poetics, particularly his engagement with several concepts drawn from antiquity or from the study of ancient texts that are otherwise not available to his readers. While it is common to think back on Pritchard as a writer whose salience in the 1960s is already underappreciated in surveys of twentieth-century poetics, it is also the case that his unpublished late experiments attest to an invigorating extension of earlier experiments in transrealism and concrete poetry. The new directions he explored are beginning to have their moment, and they represent both a radical departure from and an implicit critique of the modernist foundations of his work.

1. See inter alia Craig Dworkin’s Radium of the Word: A Poetics of Materiality (2020), David Grundy’s A Black Arts Poetry Machine: Amiri Baraka and the Umbra Poets (2019), and Aldon Lynn Nielsen’s Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism (1997).

2. For a work-in-progress catalog of Pritchard’s known works, see “A Field Guide to N. H. Pritchard’s Works.”

3. N. H. Pritchard to Ishmael Reed, October 23, 1967, folder 129, Ishmael Reed Papers, University of Delaware Library Special Collections.

4. N. H. Pritchard, “The Vein,” East Village Other 3, no. 7 (January 19–25, 1968): 10­–13.

5. For a catalog of Pritchard’s known works, published and unpublished, see my work-in-progress “Field Guide.” Feedback and comments welcome.

6. For the purposes of this article, the spelling “ostrakon” is used to designate Pritchard’s conceptualization of “ostraca” as a poetic device.

7. Clementina Caputo and Julia Lougovaya, eds., Using Ostraca in the Ancient World: New Discoveries and Methodologies (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2020). Seminal studies of the importance of ostraca, challenging their earlier banalizations in many different ways, can be found in this volume. 

8. See “David Grundy: ‘mistish liftings,’” on N. H. Pritchard’s manuscript notes; “N. H. Pritchard: 1978 interview,” excerpted on Charles Bernstein’s commentary page; and “The Transrealism of N. H. Pritchard” by Paul Stevens.

9. N. H. Pritchard to Reed, October 23, 1967, Ishmael Reed Papers.

10. Ishmael Reed, introduction to Hoom, by N.H. Pritchard, in 19 Necromancers From Now: An Anthology of Original American Writing For the 1970s, ed. Ishmael Reed (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970).

11. N. H. Pritchard to trustees of the Harper-Saxon Fellowship, June 13, 1967, N. H. Pritchard Estate.

12. For an engaging discussion of the history of the word mundus, also in relation to the Greek term cosmos, see Jaan Puhvel’s “The Origins of the Greek Kosmos and the Latin Mundus,” The American Journal of Philology 97, no. 2 (Summer 1976): 154.

13. N. H. Pritchard to trustees, June 13, 1967, Pritchard Estate.

14. N. H. Pritchard, “The Vein,” 10­.

15. A cogent reading, from which I draw below, is offered in Glenn Most’s “Heraclitus Fragment B 52 DK (on OF 242),” in Tracing Orpheus: Studies of Orphic Fragments, ed. Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal, Eugenio R. Luján Martínez, et al. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011).

16. N. H. Pritchard, “The Vein,” 10­–13.