Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Minimalism X: Isolation & Concentricity - On a Poem of Robert Grenier

At an extremity of tenderness and awe, I've spent the better part of my adult life in astonished regard of an early mentor whom I encountered at the threshold of my sense of myself as a writer and thinker about literature. After an intense year and a half as a student in his writing class at UC Berkeley in the late 1960's, I maintained but sporadic contact with him through the succeeding decades, until we reunited in the shared labor of editing Larry Eigner's Collected Poems [Stanford University Press, 2010], a task of some seven long years.

Life is often a series of disagreements or misapprehensions, and the resolution of them, often in doubt, may lead to revelation, or confusion. But as regards an objective standard--my appreciation and fascination with Bob's work--there has never been any wavering of my devotion. I often think that I am usually about 5-7 years behind Bob's progress, in terms of how fast his mind moves forward in time. I think it probably takes that long for me to become comfortable with, and to appreciate, just what he is doing at any particular moment. I recall the first time I encountered his S C R A W L works. Although I've never actually seen him "write" one, I watched as he collaborated in the imaging of them by a photographer whom he had contracted to document the work in chrome positives, using a 35 millimeter camera. This was a laborious process, but one which Bob was certain he needed to do, since there seemed no better medium available to preserve the work, which consisted of hand-drawn "visual" poems on facing pages of small art notebooks, in multi-colored inks. Each notebook contains/ed unique works, which cannot be "translated" into other media (such as print) without disturbing the character of the image, which is everything.

Meanwhile, an earlier poem, from his collection Series [this press, 1978], stretches the limits of traditional poetry, at a point in time in which it was/would have been well beyond the known bounds of anything critics or writers of that time would have thought of as "literature." It was so far ahead of its time that it eclipsed possible existing definitions of "poem" to achieve a surreal presence, eerie in its contrast. Here is the poem in its entirety:


Take a moment to consider. Don't rush. Listen to your feelings. In typing the poem, I'm at a loss to know quite how to present it. Does the poem exist on a typed page, or on the face of a rock? How big are the letters, and where "in space" does it exist? What does it mean? If it's the evidence of some intention, what is that intention, and in what sense is it an "expression" of something, by someone, at a moment "in time"? Since it is not buttressed with any grammatical referents, but exists alone, separated from all other language (words), its isolation implies a regard which magnifies or reduces its possible significance as a "fragment" of speech.

The word, a noun, suggests that it points to, or stands for, the object to which it refers; but that referentiality is without qualification. Does the word jar stand for all jars, or just one particular jar? In a philosophical sense, all jars are jars, and nothing else. But not all jars are alike, and the generic jar may be elaborated into varieties of types and shapes and styles of jar(s). But the word jar, by itself, can't have all those meanings, or conversely, it can incorporate all the senses of (or versions of) jar, inside itself. Call it the set of all possible jars which exist in the universe.

In an earlier post on Wallace Stevens's poem Anecdote of the Jar (A'Jar, January 2, 2010), I discussed how that earlier work sets up a "classical Metaphysical dichotomy between Nature and Man-made Form, and asks us to imagine what the effect the existence of a man-made object might imply within the context of a "wild" landscape." That kind of dialectic, Aristotelian in its efficiency, requires the construction of an Hegelian triad, placing the speaker (and reader) in an objective position as viewer or observer; the relationship between the poem and its possible audience is fixed: The poem is a transference of linguistic data from a speaker who proposes, and a reader who responds. Its occasion is as print on a page, in a book, its parameters set out and enclosed within the terms of its form: Sentence, breath, page, letters, hand and eye. Stevens would not have thought to isolate any term of his proposition as an isolated instance of visual fact, insisting (as I'm sure one would agree) that words isolated from their grammatical contexts cease to "mean" anything beyond their generic, referential sense. And the presumption of gratuitous non-agency would also doubtless be leveled against such usage.

In what sense, then, is Grenier's "word" really a poem? How does isolating it in space "communicate" anything about anything? Does the word, thus, "belong" to anyone? In what sense is it even Grenier's poem, and not anyone else's? If it's not a "poem" then what is it?

Think about the word itself, sans any probable intentions one might impute. Composed of a single syllable, two consonants separated by a vowel. Sound it out: JAR. "Jarrrrrrrrrrrrr." In one sense, you don't even really need the vowel. We pronounce the letter r as "are" even though it isn't preceded by a vowel. Every letter has a name, and a word which might stand for its "sound." The letter j is pronounced "jay" even though there is no "ay" at the end of the letter. Could the word be spelled JR and still "sound" (be sounded) as it is when written out JAR? Or would we think it referred to a character in a television mini-series? Or a novel by William Gaddis. And why, while we're at it, are all the letters in capitals?

When I read this poem, something peculiar happens. I say it, over and over, and it begins to echo or yawn out into a kind of shape. Call it parabolic, like "yar" or "far" or "afar." The r sound begins to stretch and spread out into space, giving a graphic logarithm of its oscillation through a given atmosphere. Words "mean" their sound as well as their "sense." So that when we read a word, we hear it at the same time, though the degree to which we fully experience this sounded quality may be limited by training and the layering of presupposition in context.

Any word isolated from the rest of language (all other words) draws attention to itself for what it is, as opposed to what "use" can be made of it, as a part of the universe of words. This allows us to experience it as a discrete phenomenon, as an isolated instance of something. Letters thus become the defining blocks of how we "read" anything as a separate "piece" of speech. This can occur in different ways. Someone saying the word "jar" is not the same as "reading" the word "jar" displayed on a piece of paper. Language is enunciated or "silent" in these two senses. If the occasion is as here, on a metaphorical "page" displayed in a "window" on a computer screen, we have the choice to read it aloud, or to read it "silently" "in our mind(s)."

Think of the poem as a self-enunciating entity, its sound a continuous vibration which we "hear" whenever we focus on it. Its characteristic oscillation in the imaginary space in which it floats (detached) may exist separately, then, from its visual shape and density in flat, two-dimensional representation (the "page"). So that when we "see" the letters JAR, what we are seeing is the literal symbol of a vibrating entity, the buzz of the pitch of a voiced pronunciation (voicing) of the ideal sound jar. And, of course, that sound is linked to, or connotative of, all the other "ar" sounds in the language (or in all the languages the reader/speaker may have experience of). The word "echoes" across the spectrum of all possible cognitive referents in the mind/minds of the reader/readers.

For me, the poem sounds as a visual parabolic wave which arcs upward and towards the right hand side (in space), gradually diminishing as the sound disappears into emptiness. The letter r replicates itself as a continuous vocable: rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. The letter J is odd; its curling descender like a hook in space, it's a joker and a jackanape. Like g (G), its sound pinched between the tongue and the roof of the mouth (fricative). Any word is an echo in the mouth and throat of the speaker. Any word is an echo in the mind of the reader.

If a word is isolated, is it then also lonely? Do words want other words, to be whole? Can words have their own agency, apart from our use of them? Can words be? The rhetorical redundancy of such interrogatives implies a shifting relationship between words as things, and words as a part of a system of signs--letters, words, grammars, contexts. In what position is the "author" of a poem like this? The author might say, as Grenier has said, "I made that," the phrase neatly encapsulating the philosophical connection between himself as agent, the active process of production ("made") and the object ("that"). That is a jar. In my sense, the words "a jar" join to make the word "ajar"--and I think of the phrase as a wedge in space through which meaning is glimpsed.

Language exists in time, but when a word, especially a one syllable word, is isolated in space, time seems to be removed from the equation between the reader/speaker and the "text." If a word is isolated both in space and time, it may cease to function literally as anything more than a fragment of something proposed, rather like a meteorite found in a field. Letters may coddle or thwart our apprehension of sense by departing from the possible universe of familiar meaning, or we may be persuaded to see, for the first time, what Gertrude Stein meant when she said of her line "A rose is a rose is a rose" that "in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years." Is it possible to "recover" the sense of words in their original power and evocative meaning through some manipulation? Obviously it is.

But a restoration isn't the main thrust of Grenier's agenda, though it might well be a byproduct of his approach to language. What happened when man first made written words? Before then, he had used sounds to stand for things, and to communicate about the world through those sounds. Writing those sounds down was both a visual, and a referential systematic, process. It may be that this is what Grenier wants to "recover" in his S C R A W L S. The transitional poems contained in Series, ask us to consider the given set of words, in their traditional alphabetical sense, as possible isolate instances, as interrogatives to the categorical flattening of potential which occurs through "reading." Making words stand up and speak for themselves is one step towards a re-acquaintance with the original process of verbal invention, one which could take us all the way back 18,000 years to the cave drawings.

What happened to enable man to make "letters" (or "writing") instead of "pictures"? This was obviously a "moment" in the history of humankind which was transformative and revolutionary. Certainly many times more significant than the "invention" of moveable type. The original feeling for language which animates many of the best kinds of poetry--both traditional and experimental (in our time)--owes its power to this quality of apprehension of words. It may seem hopelessly reductive to focus on such minute particles of what has become a vast counting-house of data (language), but it is at this level that the actual building blocks of our understanding of language can be accurately recorded and speculated.


Perezoso said...

What does it mean?

una pregunta buena.

Tho' no poet Im of the opinion words by themselves mean little or nothing, except as "connotation generators," which is to say--it could mean nearly anything. For one, is it a noun "jar",as in jar of moonshine, or izz it the verb "jar", as in making a harsh noise? Meaning depends on syntax, really, apart from the bare basic dictionary/thesaurus definitions. --interestingly enough (see online etym. dict) the noun "jar" supposedly comes from like spanish jarrah, which derives from...arabic. That is, it might. They're not sure.

So in a sense, "jar" in this instance might mean...the product of a wealthy belle-lettrist who had enough shekels to indulge in minimalistic writing. :] Alas, ee cummings-Co doesn't really do much for many of us. And play... el abogado del Diablo por uno minuto...what would a Coleridge say?? I don't really know but I can't imagine a Coleridge-like scribe, fluent in a few languages, reading ancient greek and latin history,metaphysics, science et al would have approved of the minimal agenda.

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Perezoso:

All your points are valid. I don't dispute them.

There is a qualitative difference between writers who practice a minimalist strategy successfully, and those who don't. In Grenier's case, he was an admired and skilled poet in the traditional mode, long before he segued into untrammeled territory.

Efforts like his involve risk. There are those who will denigrate you for fobbing off simplicity and expecting the critical reader to "supply" the unwritten sub-text.

Nevertheless, Grenier is recognized as an important post-Modern minimalist poet. Before saying more about his work, you probably should sample it more fully. Go to Whale Cloth Press's online file of Grenier's Sentences, and read it (500 pages). It will only take you about 45 minutes.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Faville,

I strongly disagree with your opinion that the poem consisting of the single word -- JAR -- which you say was included in a book published in 1978 -- was written/published at (to quote you exactly) "a point in time in which it was/would have been well beyond the known bounds of anything critics or writers of that time would have thought of as 'literature'" and that the poems "was so far ahead of its time that it eclipsed possible existing definitions of literature."

By the time Grenier's poem appeared in 1978, Aram Saroyan had been publishing similar work for more than a decade. Also, van den Heuvel had a one-worder in 1963.

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Anon:

Why be anonymous? It's so much nicer to deal with real people, instead of faceless entities.

With respect to the reception of work, I make no assumptions about the character and composition of my audience. If, for instance, 10 or 100 people in the world are "aware" or "understand" something in time, I don't think it's appropriate to "assume" that this constitutes anything like a plurality or meaningful segment of the possible WWW "audience", not to speak of the the world (culture).

It is indeed true that Saroyan's work had been "out there" for at least a decade when Grenier's Series [1978] appeared, but the effective audience for that work was relatively small; and, it's safe to say, of that group, very few had a clear perception of the metaphysical implications of what it meant. Creeley published Pieces in 1969. Grenier was very aware of both these influences, but he had a completely different vision and feeling for minimalism (as we now refer to it). Series is a transitional work, a bridge between the Dusk Road Games period, and the later S C R A W L works; there were other things, too--A Day at the Beach, and Phantom Anthems--but stylistically, Series falls into his "middle period" in terms of development.

It's not enough simply to say "people had published one word poems" by 1978. Of course they had. Part of the point of my post--the latest in a series devoted to Minimalism--is to point out the extent to which Grenier's focus on the potentials of minimalism was so much more intense and profound than what had been attempted before. There are those, for instance, who associate minimalism with concrete poetry or "visual poetry" but those comparisons are vague, weak, and not very useful in describing what the best practitioners are capable of.

My posts are directed at the whole audience (not just "literary"). It's perfectly valid to say that the vast majority of that audience not only is unfamiliar with minimalism as such, but also of figures such as Grenier. The numbers of critics, poets, or other serious students of writing "aware" of what Bob was "doing" in 1978 would have been quite small, by anyone's standards. In addition, depending upon anyone, in 1978, to respect and respond seriously to a poem like this one AT THAT TIME, would have required a degree of faith, shall we say? Were you aware of Grenier in 1978?

Anyway, thanks for the comment.

Perezoso said...

That kind of dialectic, Aristotelian in its efficiency, requires the construction of an Hegelian triad, placing the speaker (and reader) in an objective position as viewer or observer; the relationship between the poem and its possible audience is fixed: The poem is a transference of linguistic data from a speaker who proposes, and a reader who responds.

Poetry itself seems rather non-Hegelian--and that's egregiously so with imagists and minimalists. NO history, no human struggles, no war, politics, death, romance--just a few obscure images . At times perhaps there is beauty--like a few pleasant seconds in Chopin or something. But ...sublimity there is not--the dialectic if there be one, is like reader/work, not say....Russia vs France. Here's a minima-du jour: SKULL.

Few if any poets will compete with a Crime and Punishment. Moby Dick. Or Cien anos de soledad. Heart of Darkness. Or many other great novels and stories--e.g., Hemingway's In our Time. That doesn't stop them from trying to cheat their way into greatness--and again, Coleridge isn't their model anyway. Creeleys or haikus are. Why bother with Cien Anos ... when Cien Secondas will generally suffice at Cafe Beatnik.