Wednesday, January 12, 2005
These would appear to be examples of pwoermds, a term – if not a genre – coined by Geof Huth back in 1987, an interweaving of the plural of poem & word. The samples above come from my own book, nox, published in 1974 by Burning Deck, representing maybe half of the one word poems in the book. There are some additional pwoermds in In the American Tree, tho not by me:
s o m e o l d g u y s w i t h s c y t h e s
The first three of these are by Robert Grenier, the last two by David Melnick. None of the poems I’ve quoted thus far, as it turns out, appear in Geof Huth’s &²: an/thology of pwoermds, published in 2004 by Bob Grumman’s Runaway Spoon Press. Therein, I suspect, lies a tale. Huth – that’s his visage at the head of this note – if you read his work or his website, is the most serious theorist of visual poetry I’ve ever seen. He is, in a sense, exactly what the genre needs, a systematic thinker & a goad, someone who will – by example if nothing else – prod others to try harder, do better. His collection is something anyone who has an interest in literary minimalism will want (will need) to own.
&² is not a big book. Tho it has a ten-page bibliography at the end, it lacks page numbers & a table of contents. Read that table, after all, & you will have read the book. Many of the poets included here, as it turns out, should be familiar to readers of this blog: Miekal And, Jonathan Brannen, John Byrum, Grumman, Crag Hill, Karl Kempton, Richard Kostelanetz, Mark Lamoureux, bpNichol, Aram Saroyan, Karl Young & Huth himself, among quite a few others. My favorites, probably not surprisingly, are Saroyan’s famous
& especially John Byrum’s
Too often, tho, the poems here are ponies that perform the same trick over & over – the same one, in fact, that both lighf & my own trickler do – add a letter to give the poem a recognizable twist. That, if anything, seems to be the primary move in the pwoermds. Saroyan’s poem above offers a biological variation while Nichols’ reverses the move, which only serves to confirm its importance. So it’s Byrum’s adamant insistence on the role of immanence in the work of art that really captures my heart. UTTER is the point exactly.
Huth’s introduction is, as we might expect, erudite & informative – it is, in fact, better in some ways than the collection that follows. He argues that the pwoermds functions like any other poem – a point I made just the other day vis-à-vis Mark Truscott’s leaf. But some of the works here demonstrate that making it a poem doesn’t make it a good or interesting one. It is not news that Richard Kostelanetz is incapable of subtlety.
Subtlety is in fact a particularly important dimension in poems on this scale. Like all forms of minimalism, pwoermds are not about making things small, but rather just the opposite – magnifying the most minute details of the language to bring them to our attention. So the poems that work best are generally those that use the mode to explore some dimension of language itself. Which means that the weakness of &² lies in its concentration around poets primarily known for their work in & around vispo, as such. Indeed, save for a couple of pieces that use disruptive marks of punctuation (‘I’m’, voice(s), glim/mer(e), mag((((net))))ic, etc.), and some others that space letters rather like the longest of Grenier’s pieces above, hardly any of these poems have a visual component as such, which seems odd given how many of the poets here are at their very strongest when exploring language’s relationship to the written system that represents it. Huth's orientation is never more evident than in coining a neologism for the genre that cannot be reasonably pronounced.
I departed minimalism as quickly as I moved into it in the early 1970s, in good part because I found that I could incorporate those same moves I was interested in exploring into works built around the new sentence. What seems obvious to me now was that I was intrigued especially by the latter portions of words & the collapsing of possible syllables. But I wanted a writing that would encompass that degree of focus & engage the world beyond words as well – and for that inserting such moments into larger structures was the better solution.
Grenier on the other hand has remained a minimalist, but has tended to focus mostly on phrase level works, engaging not just a word but also its angle into & out of syntax, a dimension lacking in this anthology entirely. Indeed, a comprehensive anthology of literary minimalism – from the one-letter poems of Joyce Holland’s Alphabet Anthology up to, say, haiku – would generally reveal pwoermds to be the weakest mode therein.
I have no idea what &² might cost, but if you’re interested, I recommend writing to Runaway Spoon Press at