The transrealism of Norman Pritchard
Norman Pritchard may have been the most formally innovative visual poet in New York City in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and yet he largely vanished from the literary scene after publishing two exceptional books, and did not publish at all for the last two decades of his life. His work has enjoyed a recent revival, but much remains unknown about his life and work, and what follows here is only an introductory account of his late “transreal” writing, which is uniquely extreme in its ambitious attempt to transcend standard syntax, spelling, and discursive meaning.
Pritchard’s work, especially his later “transreal” writing, defies categorization: he is sometimes described as a concrete poet, but he could also be described as a sound poet, and he presented his poetry in conjunction with his own photography and even his own paintings. He was a member of the Umbra group, and after the group’s dissolution he was closely involved in the New York intermedia art, music, and film scenes in the late 1960s. He demonstrated a strong interest in spiritualism and theosophy, and he might also be described as a nature poet, as many of his poems are set in bucolic surroundings. Yet his work resists many of the associations we commonly have with nature poetry: the work is minimalist in its aesthetic on the page, and it is incantatory when read aloud. It is to be hoped that more recordings of Pritchard will surface or be made available to the public — in the meantime, readers new to Pritchard would be well advised to listen to his extraordinary rendition of “Gyre’s Galax” from the 1967 LP New Jazz Poets. As Lillian-Yvonne Bertram writes perceptively,
no attempt to “read” Pritchard’s texts can be fully satisfactory or representative without experiencing its sounds. While Pritchard does not write in what would have then been considered the African-American dialect or Black English that, at the height of the Black Arts Movement and Black Power, would have been in heavy circulation by a good number of African-American writers, there is a case to be made for Pritchard (like Chesnutt) graphically representing the words as they sound, as in his use of “thru,” “ajourn,” and “accuring.” […] My own experience of reading the text was agonizingly slow, a process of reading and sounding out that emphasized the differences between what you see and what you hear, and how you hear what you see. It is also a process that involves the reader in speaking into existence the very elements that are at play — the earth, or an ear, for example.
Bertram’s description of the sonic and visual complexity of Pritchard’s work suggests, in part, why his work has proven so resistant to criticism. Pritchard was fascinated by the “very elements” of perception and representation, and to an uninitiated reader his poetry can seem at one extreme radically simplistic and, at the other, radically hermetic.
Pritchard, who studied art history at NYU and Columbia, was keenly aware of the visual aspects of his work. His books must have been exceptionally challenging to design and publish in the predigital era, and Pritchard himself routinely hand-colored copies to give to friends and colleagues. One of the most unique visual characteristics of Pritchard’s books is the use of the entire space of the page, without any margins, often making the ink of the poems visible on the page edges. Many of Pritchard’s letterforms were hand drawn, and he often squeezed text even into the gutters of his books. In Pritchard’s second book, EECCHHOOEESS, nearly every aspect of the book is doubled or mirrored — from the letters in the title to the full pages of zeros and ones interspersed throughout. The book opens with the poem “FR / OG” (as its title is listed in the table of contents). For ten pages, “FR / OG” features a vertical column on each page, which consists of either “as” or “as a” and then intersperses other words to the right of each column (figure 1). In its seriality, the poem is onomatopoeic when read aloud, and it almost certainly recalls both the print version and the recording of Aram Saroyan’s single-column “crickets,” a poem that would have been nearly impossible for Pritchard not to have seen or heard. Frogs eat crickets, we might recall, even though Pritchard doesn’t ever directly mention Saroyan.
Figure 1. From EECCHOOEESS (Daniela Gioseffi copy, Poets House Library).
Pritchard’s “Hoom, a short story” is a good place to begin to get a sense for the visual complexity of his work. The title page (figure 2) might at first appear on the page to read “WHOO” or by an optical illusion even to be “WHOOM.” One might “translate” or “recompress” the text of the right-hand page as:
what claim of will did defend its perch with eye sand skies to foster gain searching through the plains of mist remaining quiet lyre regaining might thee be if wat was said should spread of light if lifting grim to heights of bright brou brou brou brou brou brou brou brou brou brou brou brought back again the dirth of shall shall we come kind pilgrim put upon by some odd star and farther then strove oft to sing the quest of light the truth to bring
Any such transcription of Pritchard’s poem oversimplifies the original, and it could be argued that such a transcription is an entirely different poem. The exercise might help, however, to reveal the patterns of repetition and seriality that underlie much of Pritchard’s work. Many of Pritchard’s poems exist in two published versions — one conventionally spaced and another with elongated spacing. The irregular spacing of words and the splitting and fusing of words is common to Pritchard’s mature practice. In the case of the page just quoted, Pritchard published an alternate version in The Matrix titled “Harkening.” Although the two versions are similar semantically, the spacing of the two versions is very different, with words split in varying places. Some features such as capitalization, the use of numerals, and the variation of words — for instance, “da” in “The Harkening” in place of “the” in Hoom — might also suggest a nonnative speaker of English. Based on Pritchard’s own dating, “The Harkening” (figure 3) should be the earlier text (it is included in the 1965–67 section of The Matrix).
Figure 2. From “Hoom, a short story.”
Figure 3. “The Harkening,” The Matrix.
In the aggregate, Pritchard’s letter spacing is sublimely complex — and often mysterious. In one instance, the poem “Agon,” he even republished the poem upside down. There may be letters in Pritchard’s text that are redacted or letters that run into the gutter or margin, and it is almost impossible to know (unless more audio or video recordings surface) how this poem would have sounded when read aloud. The poem, in effect, stutters its way through a dozen iterations of “brou” before it comes to “brought.” The poem’s elevated diction becomes more apparent when the elongated spacing is removed, but the poem still seems to lack a narrative structure that would qualify it as the “short story” promised by its subtitle. In reworking the text, Pritchard may have changed little about the ostensible “content,” but he did frame the two versions differently, and added the “brou brou brou” stuttering effect, almost as if to indicate he was having difficulty updating and editing his own work.
Above the text of Hoom (figure 2) on the right is Pritchard’s signature motif: the circle or sphere. Kevin Young, in the earliest critical account of Pritchard’s work, observes that “throughout the text of The Matrix, the O’s have it. The zero-like and anti- and ante-mimetic ‘Wreath’ also doubles as the typographical representation of nothing (zerO) and the primal poetic mOan (‘oh’).” The first poem in The Matrix is, as Young notes, merely a circle with the title “Wreath.” The circle was the sign of the “transreal” for Pritchard, as he notes in a 1969 letter to Ishmael Reed: “Transreal is a word which visited me in the fall of 1967 while making initial probes into a book which I call Origins: A Contribution to the Monophysiticy of Form. My ‘definition’ is: Transrealism = O.” Given that Pritchard’s transreal is without singular definition, it may be the critic’s role merely to note some of the possible implications of the circle motif as it relates to the transreal. The circle is transcendental, as in Empedocles’s “God is a circle whose center is everywhere but whose circumference is nowhere.” The circle is also the emptiness of the void. It is the zero and the letter O, and possibly by extension the chemical symbol for oxygen. The “transreal” also seemed to signify radical collaboration for Pritchard, who throughout the early 1970s led a series of “transreal workshops,” as well as hosted “transreal awakenings.” In March 1972, for instance, an event called “The End of Intelligent Writing: A Transreal Awakening” was held in New York City featuring local luminaries such as Vito Acconci, W. Bliem Kern, Richard Kostelanetz, and even the satirist P. J. O’Rourke.
The title “Hoom” could refer to an archaic spelling of home, as in Chaucer’s General Prologue. Possibly the title could also refer to the two places Pritchard seemed to consider home — Martha’s Vineyard and New York City — which are listed as the places of composition at the end of “Hoom.” The word “hoom” is also likely a sort of neologism suggesting a kind of lost language or language that can only be partially understood through fragments of undifferentiated words. It might also allude to hoodoo and to hoodoo man, or could possibly suggest a contraction of hoodooism (Ishmael Reed mentions his term “neo-hoodooism” in the introduction to 19 Necromancers From Now). As his friend and fellow Umbra member Lorenzo Thomas wrote of his work, Pritchard “investigated the underpinnings of ‘Black English’ before most of us even understood the significance of the term. Pritchard’s early experiments, which were to lead to a ‘transrealism’ that resembles concrete poetry, resulted in poems written in tampered English in which the combination of sounds approximated vocal styles and tones of African languages.” Note here the syncretism of Standard English, Black English, and African languages, as well as how Pritchard uses both visual and sonic means to conjure ancestral and futuristic fragments of language.
The word “hoom” also appears once in the poem “PASSAGE” from The Matrix (figure 4). The most striking aspect of “PASSAGE” is its use of the book’s gutter to allude to the Middle Passage. The poem can’t help but be read in juxtaposition with the facing page “SILHOUETTE.” The two poems are densely laden with half-rhymes (“condemns” / “amend” / “shame” / “disdain”) and internal rhymes (“ravaged” / “scavaged”), and their emotional register is violent in the extreme. The unnamed collective protagonists of the poems are “held fast to each shore.” As “PASSAGE” progresses, they seem to become resigned to the “shame” and “rage” that they feel toward those who “taunted them with treacherous eyes.” The poem ends ambiguously with the line “though bowed them they to hoom passed,” and it is difficult again to know specifically what “hoom” refers to in this context. The bowing would seem to indicate supplication and resignation, but the “though” would seem to suggest a contrast. One way to read the poem might be to think of it in terms of a master-slave dialectic. The Middle Passage altered the worlds of both those who enslaved and those who were enslaved. The passage, once being made, is impossible to reverse — the ambiguous pronouns of the poems suggest that all parties are debased, even if all are not complicit.
Figure 4. “Silhouette,” The Matrix.
The title page of “Hoom, a short story” is immediately followed by a complete page of only the letters s and h (figure 5). One way to read the page would be as a continuation from the first page: “WHOO … sh …” Another possibility would be to take the entire page of sh’s to signify a kind of silencing that nonetheless remains vaguely audible. Or it would be possible to read the page as a sound poem. How might Pritchard have read a line of forty h’s in a row? Unless a recording of Pritchard reading the poem miraculously appears, we may never know. It may be that this page is impossible to read aloud; it might also be the case that the page is simply an onomatopoeic representation of the sound of the ocean. Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur attempts similarly to employ sh sounds in order to approximate the sound of the ocean:
[…] The sea is We —
Parle, parle, boom the
earth — Arree — Shaw,
Sho, Shoosh, flut
ravad, tapavada pow,
coof, loof, roof, —
Oh ya, ya, ya, yo, yair —
Like Kerouac’s, Pritchard’s beachside sojourn seems to have been a fraught one. The long poem “N OCTUR N” also features coastal settings, and Anthony Reed plausibly suggests that the poem “evokes both alcoholism and the Middle Passage.” The summer of 1969, we might recall, was an eventful one, particularly on Martha’s Vineyard. On July 18, Senator Ted Kennedy drove off the bridge connecting Edgartown (where Pritchard was living) to the town of Chappaquiddick, killing his companion Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy was silent about the accident for ten hours. Two days later, on July 20, Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
Figure 5. From “Hoom, a short story.”
It is difficult to say to what extent “Hoom” is a short story or in what sense it was intended to be narrative fiction. Letters to Ishmael Reed during this period reveal that Pritchard was under the impression that the collection 19 Necromancers from Now would only contain fiction, and Pritchard seems to have largely put Hoom together by rewriting previously published material. Ultimately, the genre distinction probably meant little to Pritchard, since for him the “transreal” seems to have transcended genre. Compiling materials for a transreal anthology that was never realized, Pritchard wrote to Reed in 1970 that “The forms of the contributions include poetry, prose poetry, prose, plays, dances and transrealist texts, which are usually rendered in the form of an oracular diagram.” Pritchard was unable to find a publisher for his novel Mundus (likely completed in 1967), and he grew increasingly frustrated with editors and readers who were unsympathetic to his work. In 1968, Pritchard wrote to Reed:
Oddly seem to be getting away from a literary outlook on life seem to be tending more toward a type of theosophical inquiry which of course began to manifest itself in Mundus but now appears to be pervading my being. Literature in and of itself doesn’t seem to have a broad enough scope for me anymore, can’t take criticism very seriously for I feel it to be a sort of bastardized philosophy written for the most part by people who would have better invested their time in advertising or street cleaning or some such activity of the shoulders.
Elsewhere in the letter he wrote: “I seem to be becoming even more of a hermit …” Pritchard’s growing distance from the literary scene seemed to compound his difficulties in finding an audience, but he seems to have been ambivalent about fame and recognition all along. As Reed was to write in his bio for 19 Necromancers from Now: “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.”
Pritchard’s deep spiritualism, about which much remains unknown, has proven particularly difficult for readers and critics to access. Lorenzo Thomas, Anthony Reed, Aldon Nielsen, and Lilliane-Yvonne Bertram are entirely correct to suggest that Pritchard’s poetics have much to do with a black poetics of “broken witness,” but critics have had little to say about Pritchard’s theosophical and philosophical inquiries. Anthony Reed’s analysis is indicative of this difficulty: “If Pritchard’s work does uncover and deploy African retentions, it does so without a key, making his obscure signifying practice essentially self-canceling. That sense of unsolvable enigma and antitranscendence is central to Pritchard’s poetics of unsaying, through which he refigures the possibilities of poetry as an expressive act.” Pritchard would, I think, be sympathetic to Reed’s account, except perhaps for the notion that his work is antitranscendent. In a rare unpublished video from 1981, Pritchard states forcefully: “I feel that there’s only one reality, and that reality is God. Everything else is actual — or what I call ‘transreal.’ In other words, everything is transreal except God. Trans meaning through, across, within, into within — transreality I can also say another definition is an equation.” Reed undertakes, with justification, to describe Pritchard’s poetics in terms of “ironic materiality,” and notes, “At the limit, Pritchard’s self-undermining poems ask us whether poetry needs words at all.” Pritchard seems to have been profoundly and earnestly committed to a poetics of revelation as much as he was to a nonreferential self-cancelling poetics — and perhaps those two versions of nonsignification are not at odds with one another.
Pritchard’s use of the codex as a platform for experimenting with the transcendental is particularly evident in his longer poem sequences, such as “VIA” (figure 6), the concluding section of EECCHHOOEESS. By eliminating every repeated word, the twenty-nine pages of “VIA” could be transcribed (or decompressed) as
Glistening blinks the dusk descending forums of ruined will echoing lits arkening the hush of ancient hill spilling crowds loudly acclaiming the wane like some strorm without name listlessly diminished by a sea proclaiming that empty B
Such a transcription mangles the poem, and it would be pointless to attempt to “correct” the spelling of words like “arkening” or “strorm,” which are likely fragmentary by design. “VIA” echoes itself visually and sonically, as can be seen in the hand-drawn mirrored V and A of its title, which are divided by a horizontal capital I that at first looks more like a minus sign. To be reductive in the extreme, “VIA” is a sunset poem. But it is also much more, thanks to Pritchard’s remarkable use of the page and the codex as a unit. An entire page filled simply with the word “crowds” is indicative of his ingenuity: as both noun and verb, “crowds” fills the entire space of the page — enacting the very crowding of which it speaks (figure 7).
Figure 6. “VIA,” EECCHHOOEESS.
Figure 7: “VIA,” EECCHHOOEESS.
Two more examples of Pritchard’s “transreal” poems reveal the trajectory of his practice as he gradually left behind semantic representation. The poem titled only “@” (in the book’s table of contents) can be read as “atom” or “@Om,” as in the sacred sound and spiritual icon of the Hindu religion (figure 8). In a 1971 letter to Reed, Pritchard mentions that he is working on a third book titled <em">Spheres, which would have been a fitting tribute to his fascination with the cosmological significance of the circle. In this context, his use of the @ sign was prophetic. The @ sign had originally stood for “at a rate of,” but in 1971 Ray Tomlinson was to introduce the @ sign as a universal locator for all email addresses. In a manner of speaking, all humans are @ earth, and all matter is composed of atoms. The small “m” in “@” — which is slightly below the center of the circle — seems to suggest this microcosm/macrocosm interplay and would also seem to mirror the small “a” at the center of the @ sign. The poem could also render the very structure of a hydrogen atom, with the “m” as a single proton and the “@” being the one valence electron that has been excited beyond the shell.
Figure 8. “@,” The Matrix.
Other late “transreal” poems are even more enigmatic. It is even difficult to say if the transreal poem by Pritchard in figure 9 has a title other than “:” We could call the poem “colon” if we were to give it a semantic title. The centering of the title colon would seem to indicate a kind of equivalence of left and right. But a colon also suggests that some sort of explanation or enumeration will follow. Rectangular in shape, the body of the poem is composed of small dots. These dots might be periods, but their spacing would seem to indicate that they are not colons. The dots, when looked at closely, are revealed to be hand-drawn. The body of the poem might resemble a stylized dot-matrix letter O, or it could resemble a zero. The poem is eighteen lines long and thirty dots wide with twelve dots missing in the center — for a total of 528 dots (or 530 including the two dots of the title). The poem doesn’t just “square the circle”; it is a square made of circles, at the center of which is a void. This symmetrical square of dots at first may look like a sonnet-like poem, but it would seem to be absolutely nonlinguistic — a message aimed at the beyond perhaps. The point of all these points of ink might not be to make sense of this poem, but to leave sense behind, and to follow the poet into an infinite ellipsis of meaning that leads nowhere and everywhere.
In conclusion, transreal = O
Figure 9. “:,” Dices or Black Bones: Black Voices of the Seventies.
1. Pritchard was perhaps closer to those in the intermedia/film scene than he was to those in the poetry scene in the late ’60s. He was friends with the filmmaker Aldo Tambellini, and participated with Ishmael Reed in multimedia performances (in March and June of 1965) of two of Tambellini’s films. Pritchard is also featured prominently in Al Carmines’s 1968 film Another Pilgrim, in which he reads from Mundus. He also was close friends with Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the Living Theater, and collaborated briefly with the minimalist composer James Tenney. For a general overview of the Lower East Side Art Scene in the early ’60s, see Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965, ed. Melissa Rachleff (New York: Prestel, 2017). For more on the Umbra group in general, see Aldon Nielson, Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 78–170.
4. Compare, for instance, “Metagnomy,” in The New Black Poetry, ed. Clarence Major (New York: International Publishers), 100–102, and the version printed in The Matrix, 40–42; or also compare the multiple versions of “ASWELAY” in Dices or Black Bones, 64, and The Matrix, 14–17.
5. The precise dating of the poems is difficult to establish, in part because “Hoom” and The Matrix were both published in the same year by the same publisher, Doubleday, and thus the two books may have overlapped in production.
8. Norman Pritchard to Ishmael Reed, July 8, 1969, box 49, folder 131, Ishmael Reed Papers, University of Delaware Special Collections. The first sentence of this definition is quoted verbatim in Yardbird Reader, vol. 1, ed. Ishmael Reed (Berkeley, CA: Yardbird Publishing, 1972), 183.
9. The circle was an important enough motif to Pritchard to be repeated ten times in The Matrix. In the form of the lumagram, or a slide exposed to direct sunlight that captures the shape of the sun, the circle was also key to the early Black films of Aldo Tambellini, who ran The Gate Theater, one of the first avant-garde theaters in New York City, and later The Black Gate. Tambellini made experimental films without the use of the camera. In common with his friends the filmmaker Otto Piene and the painter Ben Morea, Tambellini was obsessed with solar and circular imagery.
10. Friday, March 17, 1972, advertisement (newspaper unknown), box 48, folder 132, Ishmael Reed Papers, University of Delaware Special Collections. Held at Bliem Kern’s loft space Supernova, the “transreal awakening” was a kind of Happening event, where writers and artists would spontaneously interact and perform.