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In early 1966, following a New Years’ gig by his folk-rock band, the Fugs, the poet Ed Sanders woke up to find that his Peace Eye Bookstore, then on East 10th Street, had been raided by the NYPD. Sanders was taken to the Ninth Precinct, booked on obscenity charges and stripped of his pants so cops could inspect his private parts in search of a purported tattoo depicting “the first 53 hieroglyphs of Ak-eb-Aten’s Hymn to the Sun Disk.”
The episode — one of many chronicled in his picaresque memoir Fug You (DaCapo, 2011) — plays like a scene out of Kafka. But it captures the constant risks Sanders faced as a leading figure in overlapping counter-cultural movements centered on the Lower East Side of New York City in the early 1960s. Sanders, himself a young Beat poet, had been cooperating with figures from The Catholic Worker to spearhead the anti-nuclear movement.
As the 1960s progressed, he joined forces with the anti-Vietnam War groundswell, took part in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and the Festival of Life outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. He was also an early advocate for legalizing marijuana. And much like the denizens of Judith Malina’s anarchic Living Theater, Sanders’ Peace Eye Bookshop and its small press were important East Coast centers for the cause of free speech, a liberation advanced by his editorship of the avant-garde literary project with the title Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.
Seeking the Glyph: An Exhibition of the Glyphic Works of Edward Sanders at Poets House turns to a quieter, largely unfamiliar side of his career — the poet’s pictographic verse illustrated by doodles, icons, and ideograms inspired by Egyptian art and hieroglyphics.
The show is curated by poet and archivist Ammiel Alcalay and Kendra Sullivan of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. To mount this exhibition, Alcalay and Sullivan visited Sanders’ home in Woodstock and selected from boxes filled with hundreds of his glyphic art and poetry-drawings, almost all of which were never intended for public display.
Coinciding with the recent publication of Sanders’ A Book of Glyphs (Granary Books, 2014), the exhibition invites us into the poet’s trippy, beatific imagination where original writings, notes and occasional translations of ancient poets reverberate among Sanders’ quirky, elaborate illustrations. During a brief tour of the work at the Poet’s House opening in late March, Sanders described these glyph drawings and the accompanying poetic writings as a daily practice he has maintained every day for about fifty years. He describes these as drawings “charged with literary, emotional, historical or mythic and poetic intensity.”
Born in Missouri in 1939, Sanders’ formal education, along with his pacifist temperament, guided him toward this hybrid practice of meditative drawings and writings. Arriving in New York in 1958, Sanders studied Greek and Latin at New York University. While writing poetry under the influence of ancients like Hesiod and Sappho and contemporaries like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson, Sanders enrolled in a course on Egyptian hieroglyphics at The New School in the fall of 1961, an experience that transformed his ideas about what he came to call his “investigative poetry” – an all-embracing poetics that integrates traditional practices with present urgencies.
The high-water mark in this new form of poetry might be Sanders’ 1968: A History in Verse (Black Sparrow Press 1997), a text that blends memoir, politics, protest, song, drawings and projective verse.
In the mid-1970s, Sanders defined such “investigative poetry” as a style “adequate to discharge from its verse-grids the undefiled high energy purely-distilled verse-frags, using every bardic skill and meter and method of the last 5 or 6 generations, in order to describe every aspect (no more secret governments!) of the historical present, while aiding the future, even placing bard-babble once again into a role as shaper of the future.”
These glyphic works fulfill those grand objectives through modest means and simple tools. Sanders’ visual and textual dictions are borrowings from the alphabets and emblems of ancient civilizations. His unassuming colored-pencil drawings engage the viewer-reader directly in the personal, present moment of their creation.
Their varied arrangements of symbols, signs and icons seem to hold out perplexing vatic messages or meanings. The images are as enigmatic as they are condensed and neatly organized, executed with crisp outlining and careful spacing. Sanders has somehow created the illusion of some magnetic field that draws the imagery toward the center of the page even as it radiates in competing directions
Sanders’ neat penmanship has a hypnotic, soothing effect. The overall feel of the exhibition is one of enchanting tranquility. Rather than operating as an alternative language consisting of definitive signs, the glyphs serve as what he calls “visual pathways.” These compact works fall somewhere between William Blake’s dream visions and Keith Haring’s humorous silhouettes.
In fact Blake’s work is often the subject of Sanders’ glyphic art. “In Terms of Knowledge” (2009) is a kind of round three-legged tabernacle suspended above a cascade of long, green, stem-like lines that terminate in heart shapes, illustrating Sander’s verse, itself written in colored pencils, reading, “So/much to seek/in terms of knowledge/from Blake’s/Jerusalem.”
Many of these glyphic works contain no writing at all. “Number 29” (2013) is a constellation of small signs and forms – zigzags that symbolize water or lightening, Neolithic spirals that suggest contemplation and cyclical time, small spheres and circles, and thin, serpentine figures that unfurl diagonally, horizontally and vertically.
Sanders’ older glyphic works, housed in a room of vitrines, are dense with literary and classical references while the more recent ones project tenderness and immediacy. One such recent work is “The Sad Ache” (2013), a poem of regret couched within a curtain of beautifully drawn blue lines. As the poem’s language unfolds down the page, Sanders has interleaved arrows and spirals that point upward, downward and westward. Its combination of easy grace and melancholy exemplifies many of the works.
“The Time to Hold Together” (2013) ruminates on how the present moment appears even as it vanishes. The poet’s combination of textual-visual characters perform this paradox. The images and words seem drawn into some sort of astrological harmony as the words from the poem – part Ecclesiastics and part Zen — punctuate the assorted drawings: “The/time/to/hold together/to/scatter.” The drawn forms radiate inwardly and outwardly from these words, enacting the simultaneous appearance and scattering of the present.
The exhibition serves as an affectionate late chapter in Sanders’ storied multifaceted career and it shows the poet still at the peak of his creativity.
Absorbing these colorful mantras and their soothing visual codes, I was struck by the capacity of such an unassuming personal routine to stir up universal meanings. The Revolution in which Sanders was enmeshed was, in fact, quite public, often televised, and has been nostalgically repackaged and crudely caricatured for so many decades that it’s easy to forget what was –- is — at stake: the attainment of maximum creative freedom for the individual.
Freedom from what? Well, that list populates and animates Sanders’ poetry and art, serving as a pantheon of anti-muses — American militarism, napalm, smart bombs and nuclear weapons; herd-like consumerism and groupthink; racism and sexism repressing daily life through police state strategies and permanent surveillance; and the puritanical timidity of mainstream culture.
Sanders seems to have been a droll and steadfastly calm presence within these confrontations, both in his work and in his life. While the opposition remains ugly, the optimism projected by his output, delightfully displayed in these glyphic works and in their brief poems and notations, reveals the upbeat, imaginative achievements gained by such resistance.
Sanders, the elder statesman-poet and retired musician who once penned a study of the Manson family and credits himself with having coined the term “punk rock” in a 1970 interview in the Chicago Tribune, seems to have lived out the principles behind the Beat-and-hippie eras’ common credo of peace and love. As co-curator Ammiel Alcalay put it when introducing Sanders at Poet’s House, the poet and his work demonstrate “a light heart in a heavy world.”
Seeking the Glyph: An Exhibition of the Glyphic Works of Edward Sanders continues at Poets House (10 River Terrace, Battery Park City, Manhattan) through May 23.