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
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.