Thursday, August 03, 2006


Of all the major language poets, the one whose work is the hardest to get a sense of in its entirety almost certainly is Robert Grenier, who turns 65 tomorrow. You have to know the man personally & to have been following his writing pretty much since his days as a protégé of Robert Lowell (see his first book, Dusk Road Games) to have a chance. His most important early publication, Sentences, isn’t a book at all, but a box of 500 four-by-six cards with text printed on one side of each card housed in an elaborate one-piece “Chinese box.” When, after decades out of print, a version of the box was made available on the web via Whale Cloth, the box’s original publisher, a catastrophic server crash took the site down. For reasons I will never understand, there appears to have been no back-up. Another of Grenier’s “books,” CAMBRIDGE M’ASS (Tuumba, 1979) is in fact a collection of 265 poems printed on one side of a single 40-by-48 inch piece of paper, a book literally in the form of a poster. Sometime in the 1980s, some miscreant made off with my copy & I’ve never been able to replace it. Even the more traditional book, Oakland, also printed by Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, is something of a challenge. You can find virtual versions on Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse project. I use the plural there, since the site offers two alternatives: a series of photographed pages in high-res JPEGs & a “reading copy” in a PDF format. I highly recommend looking at the former & reading the latter. In some ways, absent the complete Sentences (excerpted in places like In the American Tree), Oakland gives the best sense of this stage of Grenier’s work that someone coming to his writing from outside the circle of language poets can get right now.

For Grenier, the greatest drama in literature occurs not at the level of the referential, but far earlier, in the very process of a reader’s letter & word recognition – most readers acknowledge or “get” most words after reading just a few letters, so that the actual process of reading entails micro-moments of concentration at the start of every word, interspersed with other lapses of concentration toward the end of longer words, such as interspersed or concentration. If the work is holographic, there is a second level of recognition occurring, as the mind gradually sorts out which words these might be:

When you make out a word – house in blue is probably the simplest here – it feels like an amazing accomplishment. While these graphic poems – they’re not quite vispo & certainly not your usual visual art, in that Grenier is focused here not on the visual so much as he is utilizing that dimension to explore a linguistic one – have appeared on the internet and in galleries, reproduced in startlingly beautiful large photographs whose production Grenier supervises, they’re really pages from those black hardback sized sketch books you can readily find in the notebook & journal section of any Barnes & Noble. You can see, for example, the binding in the center of the example above. Grenier notes that he has resisted using an easel or canvases for this work, since it is primarily writing & thus eminently a portable activity (viz. Kerouac’s sketches). The library at Stanford has acquired several of these one-of-a-kind literary products but with the recent retirement both of the librarian responsible for those acquisitions & Al Gelpi from the literature program there, it’s not clear if the library will continue to do so, or what plans it may have to make this unique collection available to more than the interested scholar who is willing to travel to Palo Alto to look firsthand.

One important new publication that has just come out, this time in French & English simultaneously, is 100 Sentences / 100 Phrases, “traduit de l’américain” by Martin Richet “avec l’auteur.” Richet & Grenier have taken one fifth of the original Sentences, translated them into French and then published them in a box format, this time using the sort of container one normally associates with a box of bon-bons. As with the original Sentences (and the short-lived virtual edition), this version uses the same courier typeface one associates – or did once – with the typewritten.

It’s ironic, to say the least, that the best way to get Sentences in English right now is to order the bilingual French edition. The translations themselves often work in ways very close to the spirit of the originals. For example





it’s you


c’est toi

But sometimes the language itself doesn’t fully cooperate. For the example the hard consonants in the last word of

obtain from the brook

are essential to the effect of the poem. But in French, that is lost:

obtiens du ruisseau

If anything, one could argue that the French is a study in contrasts while the English is a one of cohesion & sonic carry-through. Overall, tho, this is a fascinating project. Partly because of the sheer size of these poems – miniatures are projects not of reduction but of magnification – each translation is quite recognizable (even to someone with only the smallest smattering of French, such as yours truly) as a reading of the original, an interpretation, comment or critique.

That last link suggests that 100 Sentences / 100 Phrases is available for 19,50 €, not much more than $20. I’ve heard concerns that the edition may already out of print (there were only 150 copies to start with), or at least very hard to come by. I suggest that you write directly to the publisher: Cuisines de l’immédiat, 249, rue Sainte-Catherine – 33000 Bordeaux, France or

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