On N. H. Pritchard, from 'Dark Horses: Poets on Lost Poems' (2004)

My note on N. H. Pritchard was originally published in Dark Horses: Poets on Lost Poems, ed. Joy Katz and  Kevin Prufer (University of Illinois Press, 2004), along with a  poem by Pritchard. Eclipse has now added to its full text versions of both of Pritchard’s books a selection of his periodical and anthology publications. These are also linked at the EPC Digital Library. It is good to see so much more attention to Pritchard’s work than was the case a decade ago. So much of the poetry that captures today's attention is, to use of phrase of Pritchard, quoted by Ishmael Reed, “tangential to thought. His is not.

Poets can be more or less overlooked: known but not well known, like Willy Loman on a pipefitter’s holiday; known in their day but lost to us now; recovered or, if not, recovering. For every emerging poet a couple of others begin to fade; we even begin to fade to ourselves, if the truth be told. We know of the poet’s poet and even hear from time to time of the poet’s poet’s poet, repeating, more in relief than disappointment, John Ashbery’s famous quip that a famous poet is not famous. But poetry’s “disappeared,” as Ron Silliman  once called them, haunt us, less from a fear for ourselves than a dread that the context that imparts meaning to our work is so fragile.  I is not an other but many others, our fellow travelers among the dead, near dead, and just about alive.

I found N. H. (Norman) Pritchard’s The Matrix: Poems 1960-1970 just a few years ago at the Ark, a used book store on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It is an elegant clothbound book with a large photo of Pritchard, featuring his elegant handlebar moustache – he looks a bit like a soulful Salvador Dali – staring, eerily, from the front cover (or is it from the great beyond?). The book was published by Doubleday in 1970 but the only sustained references I know to Pritchard’s work are A. L. Nielsen’s immensely useful discussion in his 1997 Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism and a much earlier essay by Lorenzo Thomas, “The Shadow World: New York's Umbra Workshop & Origins of the Black Arts Movement,” published in Callaloo in 1978. (Nielsen mentions a 1992 essay by Kevin Young, “Signs of Repression: N. H. Pritchard’s The Matrix”.)

The Matrix is a strikingly designed volume, composed of 71 poems in three parts, mostly visual or “concrete” poems, which are at the same time “sound” poems. It is one of the most interesting works of its kind from this period of American poetry. Nielsen mentions the connection to scat, a jazz vocalist’s style of intoning “vocables” (vocal sounds not immediately processed as words), while Thomas notes the connection with the “vocal styles and tones” of African languages. Pritchard hops, skips, and jumps with his syncopated words, creating spaces inside words in a way that makes one word many. It’s a rhythmic concatenation that relies on multiplicity and ambiguity. When I first read these poems I realized Pritchard was a perfect example of the “ideolectical,” about which I write in “The Poetics of the Americas” in My Way: Speeches and Poems. The ideolectical is meant to suggest a synthesis of dialect and idiolect, centering on the use of nonstandard words and syntax – whether invented or based on the vernacular.

The opening page of The Matrix gives virtually all the information I know about Pritchard: Born in New York City in 1939, graduated from NYU, published in Umbra (a crucial magazine of the Black Arts movement), The New Black Poetry, as well as The East Village Other. He also performs his poetry on the 1967 Broadside album, compiled by Walter Lowenfels, New Jazz Poets. The bio ends with a notice that he teaches a workshop at the New School and is Poet-in-Residence at Friends Seminary.

Subsequently, I found a copy of his second book, Eecchhooeess, published by NYU Press in 1971. The book continues the complex, often letter-for-letter linguistic, visual, and sound play of The Matrix. Taken together, Pritchard’s two books anticipate several of the formally inventive techniques that would gain greater circulation in the U.S. later in the 70s, though his work is almost never referenced in these contexts because, within a few years of these two books, the work seemed to disappear from the poetry horizon. (I recognize the circular reasoning here: lack of reference erases, the erased are not well enough known to reference; after all, the work was out there to find.)

Other traces of Pritchard: a magnificent, very short piece on a 1999 album by Bill Dixon, playing with Tony Oxley, entitled “Quadro Di N.H. Pritchard”; I am listening to it now – and the majestic space between each note seems to open up a universe inside the one we so often think we are living in. The album is called Papyrus and it reminds me about what is not yet lost in our vast trove of paper and digital archives: if only we know were to look or how to read what we find.

Over time, in which we are all lost, some words, or almost words, jolt us, jam us, join us, as this from EECCHHOOEESS: 

              junt

 mool  oio  clash  brodge

cense  anis  oio

mek  me  isto  plawe

 


 The first paragraph was excerpted in “How Empty Is My Bread Pudding” in Recalculating. The poem I selected to be included in Dark Horses was Epilogue,” pp. 75-67 from The Matrix: Poems 1960-1970 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970).