Monday, May 21, 2007

 

Of my reluctance in 1970 to include Bob Grenier in the “15 New Poets of the San Francisco Bay Area” feature that David Melnick & I edited for the Chicago Review, an old acquaintance & longtime editor writes that

there was really no need in late 1970 to be afraid of bob grenier's minimalism: aram saroyan was already there

It was, of course, impossible not to know about Aram Saroyan circa 1970. Random House had published his eponymous volume, Aram Saroyan, (in which the poem above appears) in 1968, Pages one year later. How many other experimental poets were getting books published & widely distributed by New York trade presses back then? Clark Coolidge’s Space, published by Harper & Row in 1970¹, was really the only other one. If you knew about the New York School, you knew about Aram Saroyan. Ditto if you paid attention to the conceptual poetics that seemed to be emerging from 0 – 9, the journal co-edited by Vito Acconci & Bernadette Mayer, tho that was, at the time, a much more fugitive endeavor. And, of course, when Saroyan got a grant from the NEA, some congressman read some of his work, perhaps “Blod” (a one-word poem, if, that is, Blod’s a word) into the Congressional Record with all the rhetorical froth we would expect today from Bill O’Reilly. Finally, the name Aram Saroyan inevitably rang bells simply because, for my generation & at least in California, William Saroyan’s My Name is Aram was as predictably a part of the high school curriculum as Things Fall Apart or Beloved are today. That the title character’s name in the book is not Saroyan, or that the poet was born three years after My Name is Aram’s initial publication, were just details.

But, as I replied, I was pretty sure that, in 1970, I wouldn’t have included Aram Saroyan in that grouping either. His conceptual poetics were perceived, I think, as a satire on publishing and poetry itself, witty & fun perhaps, but decidedly & willfully outré. And outré was not what Chicago Review was about in that era. While it published some experimental fiction, thanks to editor Eugene Wildman, in poetry the journal struck Melnick & I as being anxious about its status as a “major” college-based publication, which meant in practice that they were not looking for Aram Saroyan but the next Sylvia Plath.

Besides which, what Saroyan & Grenier were doing at that time were not exactly identical, a distinction that might have been lost because both used exceptionally short forms & were often paired in the minds of readers & editors with Clark Coolidge. Grenier’s best known work from this period is Sentences, published originally by Whale Cloth Press in an edition of 500 cards delivered in a box, but now online at the Whale Cloth site. Saroyan’s work has been online also, principally at the Eclipse website, but now is available in a fat & sumptuous edition from Ugly Duckling Presse under the title Complete Minimal Poems. At 275 pages, it’s just slightly over half the size of Sentences.

Saroyan’s work often seems to come out of the same conceptualism that drove Acconci’s work of that period. One poem in Aram Saroyan, the first of Saroyan’s minimal books, is a page of nothing but radio call letters. Another reads:

STEAK

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQURSTUVWXYZ

A third contains the word crickets repeatedly typed, one word to a line, down an entire page. This is a type of poem almost entirely absent from Grenier’s work, which shows almost no interest in conceptualism. The closest Grenier gets to this mode is an occasional poem that functions at the metacomment level:

TWELVE VOWELS

breakfast

the sky flurries

A second Saroyan type that comes closer to Grenier entails poems that utilize the graphic elements of language – the poem at the top of this note is a famous instance of this. As it does there, this kind of poem works when there is some intelligible connection – it doesn’t have to be articulatable – between what is going on the page and denotative & connotative dimensions of the word at hand. Thus

eyeye

strikes me as effective precisely for the way it calls up the double-image element involved in stereoscopic vision, why humans see in 3D, whereas

lighght

just sits there on the page doing not much of anything.

Grenier likewise has works in Sentences that depend on their graphic presentation, such as this poem, which builds on a device – the s t r e t c h e d word – first developed by Paul Blackburn::

s o m e o l d g u y s w i t h s c y t h e s

At one level, this is a poem about the blank space, what Hugh Kenner liked to call the 27th letter of the alphabet (and certainly the last one “invented”) and how it cuts (or scythes) discrete words from the flow of speech – it a prerequisite for the existence of words at all. Yet there is a richness both of sound and image here that gives Grenier’s poem dimensions that simply aren’t active in Saroyan’s work. This is characteristic of Grenier, whose most common mode of micropoetics in Sentences is a snatch of language that begins & ends in atypical places, e.g.,

yawns at solid

or

or the starlight on the porch since when

Grenier’s use of the graphic dimension of language doesn’t really occur until much later, when he moves into his “scrawl” works. In those pieces, tho, what seems to interest Grenier most is the making explicit of the “coming to recognition” process of reading. He is really fascinated at the idea of identifying the instant a word “pops” into consciousness & poem after poem functions to locate precisely this moment. I’ve often that Grenier comes closest to what I would call a cognitive formalism – using form to explore cognition, the mind as such. There are of course limits to this – one can explore that instant in which words appear, for example, but it would far harder to identify a gap that occurs, for example, when one can’t think of a term, even tho it is every bit as palpable.

The place where Saroyan and Grenier completely overlap, not surprisingly, are in the poems that call up the relationship to what they’re doing as poets and the larger tradition of poetry, as such, especially the short poems of Louis Zukofsky & the Robert Creeley of Pieces:

LOUIS

Noisy
“Zukofsky”

Or this, entitled “Placitas” and dedicated to L.Z.:

The trees’
noise of
the sea

Or this, entitled “POEM”:

One two
three there
are three are
never seen
again.

These three all are the work of Saroyan.

A word that turns out to be important to both poets is crickets. Not only does Saroyan have a couple of poems that allude not just to the critter, but to the great summer drone of insects, one of Grenier’s best known essays explores the ways in which Keats’ own use of the term – “hedge-crickets sing” – milk

words of all possible letter/phonemic qualities without really challenging notion of English word/morpheme as basic unit of ‘meaning.

My favorite of Saroyan’s several cricket poems is one that falls into the neo-Zukofsian category:

Not a
cricket

ticks a
clock

But when Saroyan moves away from this one area that he shares with Grenier, he goes back toward either a conceptual poetics and/or a New York School one. These two poems appear on facing pages in Pages:

cat
book
city

And

Ted Ted Ted Ted
Ted

The first depends entirely on scale of referents for its impact, something I can’t imagine Grenier ever doing, the second may be a parody of the NY School’s (esp. Gen 2) penchant for name dropping. Or it might be the most NY School poem ever written.

Grenier’s default mode, in sharp contrast, tends toward documentation:

of life days like

*

a port to a green

*

rain drops the first of many

*

repetitive bird and black

Each of these four one-line poems can be read both as an instance of language-in-the-world and as a study in form. It requires an almost obsession focus on the language itself. With Saroyan, not so much:

Later

the atelier

ate her.

It’s not that Grenier does the micropoem better, whatever that means, than Saroyan. Nor is it that Saroyan is the original, Grenier the copy. Rather, what each was seeking to find & explore was ultimately something different about language & the poem. Which suggests that even one-line poems can (are) so thoroughly stylized that one can discuss their relationship to different literary movements. This makes me wonder what a new formalist one-line poem would look like – not a couplet, not a haiku, but a real single-line work of art. How would it then enact its values? What would it be able to look, see, do in the world of poetry? Or is it simply the case that new formalism, so called, is by definition incapable of writing so focused? I’d love to see someone try.

 

 

¹ As part of Fran McCullough’s attempt to bring the second generation New York School out broadly through Harper. Other books published by Harper during that period included Tom Clark’s Stones (1969), his volume Air, Dick Gallup’s Where I Hang My Hat and Lewis Mac Adams’ The Poetry Room (all 1970). Then it stopped. Once Robert Duncan & Robert Creeley left Scribner’s for New Directions, the publication of post-avant poets by the New York Trades largely came to an end, save for later collected editions of already canonic poets. The School of Quietude had successfully defended what it saw as its turf.

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