Friday, January 24, 2003

My blogs on the work of Robert Grenier generated several responses. Allen Bramhall wrote with a first-hand account of Grenier’s cards at Franconia College (ellipsis in the original):

Dear Ron,

mention of Robert Grenier makes me jump up. Robert arrived at Franconia the second of my two years there. he has influenced me greatly, even tho I have not stayed in touch with him since leaving school. his curiosity and openness remain lessons to me as a reader and writer. I remember him hauling out his batch of cards and saying he didn't know what to do with them. sometime after that he filled a hallway, that was normally given over to displays of photographs and prints, to a... well I want to say a performance of his cards. he pinned them in neat rows and columns on the corkboard. I remember seeing him at it, and there was something of a graffiti artist's earnestness about where he was doing this. the hallway was rather dark but with the white cards notably brighter. I did not expect the visceral effect of seeing so many of his pieces on display. there was and is a neat feeling to holding a pile of his poems on your lap or spreading them across a table or the floor, but the hallway display was of a different order. I remember waiting for those poems to appear in some published form, because he had said he wanted to bring them out somehow. his poster Oakland* is one attempt to make a display of his works. the Franconia hallway was much more spacious, of course, and whether or not he was satisfied with how the poster worked, it was different from filling a hallway. I remember sticking a poem on the wall, a quiet homage I think, not to horn in but because it felt right. the display seemed to ask for response, as in an addition of voice or something such. no one else saw fit to chime in, but as I said, the hallway display bore at least a little of the sense of graffiti. anyway, I was quite ignorant about poetry at the time, and the year with Robert threw all sorts of mysteries at me, Olson, Stein, Coolidge, Ashbery, Saroyan. he got Coolidge, Ashbery, and even Larry Eigner to read at Franconia, no small feat considering the school's proximity to nowhere. it pleases me that you speak of him.

yours sincerely,

Allen Bramhall

Barrett Watten notes that This published the selection entitled “30 from Sentences” with (not in) This 5, not no. 4, which places the publication date in the Winter of 1974, rather than the Spring of the previous year, as I’d indicated. I also suggested that the selection was 30 cards, but in fact the cards are printed on both sides – unlike the 200 copy Whale Cloth Press box edition – which, with a card set aside for the title, made it just 16 cards. Watten also reminded me of Sentences from Birds, another selection of the cards that was published by Curtis Faville’s L Press in 1975. I know I had that at one time & I’ve never sold a Grenier item in my life, but like the poster, it seems to have wandered off on its own. According to Faville, only 100 copies were published to “little or no feedback.”

Bob Grumman posted a dissent to the Poetics List that said, in part:

Ron also opines that Grenier's “Sentences still qualifies as the furthest anyone has pushed poetry & form in the investigation of the world.”  I AM enough of a literary historian to know that this is certainly not true.  It may be possible reasonably to claim that Grenier pushed poetry and form as far as anyone, but further?  It's extremely hard to make comparisons (because of the apples/pears problem, among other things) but it seems to me Ron is overlooking Stein, Pound, Cummings and Aram Saroyan, for a start--and all of visual poetry and later pluraesthetic works.  I would add that in some respects, Sentences is pretty straightforward minimalism that's been around quite a while. 

Grumman is on target in that I did not make myself very intelligible with that statement, since that assertion could be taken to mean almost anything. His alternative suggestions illustrate the point nicely. All four writers Grumman cites were interested in various extensions of poetic form – Stein & Pound making profound contributions in that area, cummings & Saroyan more modest ones. What Grenier did was to focus on what linguists still call parole, the language as she is spoke by them what speak it. Neither Stein, Pound, cummings nor Saroyan focus on that particular dimension, although Stein comes closest & has a sense of grammar & discourse as developed as anyone has ever had. However, like Joyce, she has a 19th century-centric sense of language as infinitely plastic & malleable that language itself does not bear out (hence the failure of Finnegans Wake). Unlike Joyce, Stein seems to have had a stronger sense of self-confidence in her own analytical skills with regards to the language – she never is in thrall to the 19th century concept of language as historic philology, which bedevils both Joyce & Pound (&, I dare say, Kenner). Where Stein & Grenier diverge most strongly is that Stein’s interest lies principally in the compositional possibilities of language, whereas Grenier is most focused on, as the famous “On Speech” flatly states, “

the word way back in the head that is the thought or feeling forming out of the ‘vast’ silence / noise of consciousness experience world all the time, as waking/dreaming, words occurring and these are the words of the poem . . . . (boldface in the original)

This is, it seems to me, as true of the scrawl works of today as it was of Sentences. One might say that Stein & Grenier were on parallel tracks, headed however in opposite directions.

There are of course antecedents for Grenier’s minimalism – really a mode of gigantism, in that he is literally putting elements of language under a microscope: Stein’s Tender Buttons, Creeley’s Pieces, many short poems by Zukofsky & even Aram Saroyan’s brief foray into innovative poetics in the 1960s. & if one examines a book such as Saroyan’s Pages (Random House, 1969), you can find a few pieces that are reminiscent of Sentences:

incomprehensible birds



Or even


But these works merely put the proverbial toe in the water compared with Grenier’s exploration of the whole ocean.** A good part of what make Sentences such a profound experience is its scale – 500 poems with no set order. I find that reading the work over & over – the forthcoming website underscores this aspect of the experience, especially since the cards are shuffled each time one begins again – is when I start to get, literally, “into the work.” A single poem, or even the selections published by Watten, Faville or to found in In the American Tree, don’t begin to approach this project. It is a classic instance of a text that resists excerpting or editing.

Grumman’s other alternatives – “all of visual poetry and later pluraesthetic works” – reinforces the point. Such poetries, which can be both delightful & dazzling (no argument there, I hope), tend to move towards the graphic or whatever other media pluralizes them & thus even further from any focus on parole. They may at times be grammatological, in the sense of invoking the written system of a language, but they’re seldom truly linguistic. Part of what makes Grenier’s recent scrawl writing so fascinating is that he has taken on both the linguistic & grammatological dimensions simultaneously. The scrawl works are virtually the only intermedia writing I can think of that isn’t déjà toujours “poetry &” – as in “poetry & dance,” “poetry & painting,” “poetry & music,” “poetry & anime,” “poetry & programming,” “poetry & laundry.” Those ampersands invariably seem fatal.

* The poster is, in fact, CAMBRIDGE M’ASS. Oakland was a chapbook. Both were published by Tuumba Press, the poster in 1979, the chapbook in 1980.

** There is a good doctoral dissertation to be had in figuring out why Saroyan, for all purposes, abandoned poetry while Grenier, in the face of little early recognition, persisted & took his project so much further. Why & how do artists make such choices?