Sunday, July 22, 2012

Minimalism XIV: Grenier's Sentences Towards Birds

By 1975, I had published five issues of my little magazine, entitled, simply L. There had been a feeling of finality about that. I had begun working for the government in San Francisco the year before, and the idea of participating in a literary "scene" in the Bay Area seemed more and more illusory. I realized I could go on publishing issues of the magazine, but the effect such an enterprise might have, to define my taste and to broadcast it into a vague and undefined "audience" felt less and less compelling. Books of poems, however, had more material impact, and could make a more unified literary statement. Magazines might be formally cohesive, but individual voices could have a power and purpose beyond mere style.

During this period, little magazines were ubiquitous. Federal and state monies were available, and a lot of people were "making their own scene" regionally, especially in big cities. The split between the official verse culture maintained by the publishing, academic and critical media and the "outlaw" literary world of younger writers who were following the trends initiated by the early Modernists, was becoming marked.

As a junior English major at UC Berkeley, I wanted to take a poetry writing class. I had been writing verse since my sophomore year in high school. I was haunting used bookstores, and finding all kinds of obscure but fascinating work, but it seemed a chaotic scene without definition. Denise Levertov, who had been hired to teach that year, had been delayed in her arrival by the legal difficulties of her husband Mitch Goodman who had been convicted for conspiring to counsel youths to disobey the military draft. Her delay led to two "replacements" being hired in her stead--Richard Tillinghast and Robert Grenier. Both Tillinghast and Grenier were former students of Robert Lowell at Harvard, though in Grenier's case the placement had been a result of the recommendation of William Alfred (another Harvard teacher of Grenier's). In any case, when I came to submit work for placement in a poetry writing class, Grenier's was the one I made contact with.

Bob had recently graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and spent a year abroad in England on an Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship. His first book, Dusk Road Games (Pym-Randall Press) had recently appeared, and (as I would later learn) his second collection, Water Farmer, had been rejected by New Directions. An early apprentice of the work of Robert Creeley, Bob had nevertheless a wide reading and appreciation of different kinds of writing, both traditional and experimental, and could speak authoritatively about dozens of poets, and the competing literary movements in the national scene. In many ways, Grenier was the perfect teacher for a young aspiring writer, because he read closely, and wasn't afraid to show you his taste. It was an honesty and concentration that would move my own writing very quickly into the central preoccupations of contemporary poetry. Within six months, I could see where I might fit into that world, and by my senior year (and second round of "workshop" classes) I was writing well enough that I was encouraged to apply for acceptance to Iowa myself as a graduate writing student.

I would eventually go the Iowa, and in the immediate years following, would expend a good deal of effort to produce work, and to move into the literary scene by getting myself published and to disseminate the work of those I admired with my magazine, still later by publishing books. The first project that occurred to me was a collection of short works by Grenier. Bob had been working on a long collection of short poems called A Day at the Beach--a much altered and pruned version of which appeared years later (from Roof Books, 1984). But he'd either abandoned that, or had set it aside to concentrate on a new form of expression which would in due course be called "Sentences"--short poems conceived as unbound cards, unsequenced, neither chronological nor organized according to any ordered priority. I suggested to Bob then, that, given the significant dimensions of this new work, it might be useful to make a modest selection as a dry run, to try out the form he had been meditating, and to initiate my publishing venture with a novel new form. It would help him to think through the meaning of this form. Bob agreed and made a short selection. Recalling the cover design of the Pym-Randall book, I went on a search for "period" postcards which would echo the earlier jacket design illustration. I found a postcard which I thought perfectly caught the spirit of the earlier photo of a car driving down an old tree-lined street. Grenier had grown up in Minnesota, where the winters tend to be long and hard. Bob himself had a kind of "wintry" side to his nature, which was expressed through the hard clarity of his poetic vision. There was also the sentimental, nostalgic quality of a lost childhood, which had formed a crucial part of his earliest work.

So I published Sentences Towards Birds, printed at the West Coast Print Center, with typesetting by Barry Watten. Barry had invited me to meet him at the Center, to pick up the cards, which had been printed on larger sheets to be trimmed later to size. When I arrived, Barry accompanied me down to the printing shop, and we carried the huge stack of printed card-stock sheets over to the big paper-cutting machine. Barry carefully checked the measurement of the sheets, set the trim dimension, and then pulled down hard on the big armature lever. The blade sliced convincingly through the stack, and we pulled the trim block away from the guillotine. Barry raised up the top few sheets, but exclaimed in agony (!)--the stack had not been in order, the top sheet laid at 90 degrees to those underneath. The whole stack had been trimmed on the wrong side and four of the cards had been sliced right through the middle! Since about half of the cards had already been trimmed, it wasn't a complete disaster, but the total number of copies for publication had suddenly been reduced from approximately 160 to about 120.* I located an envelope size which perfectly fit the dimensions of the original post-card design, and sealed each copy with a big red adhesive dot. All in all, I was very pleased with the way it turned out. When Bob's very much larger work, Sentences (Whale Cloth Press, 1978)** appeared, the earlier selection proved to be an important item in Bob's bibliography, and extant copies of it now go for around $100 or more apiece! But Sentences Towards Birds was the first official separate publication of Sentences (though Bob would include a small packet of them as an enclosure to this #5 [1974] (16 index cards with 30 poems printed one to a side held with a rubber band)), and I feel privileged to have husbanded that selection into print as early as I did.

In any case, Sentences Towards Birds was published, though not without another editorial contretemps. Bob had apparently originally intended that the title should be Sentences Toward Birds, leaving off the "s" in toward. When the envelope of cards was published, Bob was adamant that he'd wanted it to be "Sentences Toward Birds," and we had a friendly argument about whether toward or towards was 1) the proper grammatical form, and 2) more accurate to the meaning, or more aesthetically pleasing. The hard "d" sound has a kind of aural quality that is perhaps more "like" Bob's intent, but towards implies the more "British" prepositional sense of the fitness of a comparison, and not limited to the dictionary sense of "at-" or "more at." Grammar, in its strictness sense, prescribes no preference. If I were to publish a second edition of the work, I would probably consider changing the title to Sentences Toward Birds, but for the time being, posterity will have to live with the error--if indeed it is one.

There have been, and there will be more, critical discussions and analyses of Sentences, in the future, about its possible meanings, and the implications of its unique form. It can function as a collection of comic short hits, or can be meditated at length as a complex, witty conception whose dimensions are vast. The choice to refuse elaboration or development, in favor of mysterious fragments of phrase and reconstructed speech units, has many possible meanings. I've explored some of the separate poems which pre-date Sentences in my previous blog posts on Grenier's work, notably in Minimalism X and XIII--each devoted to separate poems from his book Series: Poems 1967-1971 (this press, 1978) which readers may wish to refer to. A great deal can be discovered and explored through the consideration of individual pieces, but the meaning of the Sentences (the whole work--its range and breadth) has yet to be fully considered, in my opinion, by the literary community. My continuing series on Minimalism is one effort to increase awareness of Bob's work, particularly that written between his departure from tradition "poems" in the early 'Seventies, and his abandonment of traditional text composition in the 1990's (the S C R A W L S).

Grenier's minimalism in Sentences is different, for instance, from that of Saroyan. For Saroyan, the letters and words of the poem establish the parameters of its apprehension. Aram's poems are deductive, creating incrementally the limits of their own definition, dominating the range of possible interpretations (readings). A Saroyan poem may literally set up a horizon-line, or a row of fence-posts, but in Grenier's work, this visualizing materiality is a minor element, seldom present. Rather, the larger implication of a metaphysical SPACE--in the way that space, as the defining set of coordinates for the positionality of the poet (proprioception) in the universe--is the point of intersection/decision-making, is an all-encompassing FACT throughout the poems in Sentences.

That space, sometimes from his memory, is Midwestern (Minnesota), bordered by the prairie or the plains; and sometimes New Englandish (woodsy and rustic); and still other times Pacific (boundless and Whitmanic). This symbolic space, which surrounds his poems, stands for (is) a forcefield of energies, at all times in flux, consuming. It is empty limitless American ponderable hunger, consuming, lost. Threatening at any point to render (any) man's efforts and dreams irrelevant through decay, entropy, death.

Unlike Creeley, Grenier's words in Sentences aren't intensely felt and motivated towards some ulterior extremity of pain, or affection, or remorse, or other emotional condition. They have a similar brand of self-consciousness, but not the willful, deliberate, pressured orality, which characterizes For Love, Words, Pieces or A Daybook. Though Creeley's work is a starting-point for Grenier's own liberation as a writer, and Bob continued to follow BC's development throughout the elder's life, his own work soon veered off in a different direction.

In Sentences, the "poem" becomes the scene of a discovery or realization of some fact heretofore unnoticed or unexampled in language, becomes a wholly objectified presence outside the realm of the individual bodied speaking voice. The separate cards become specimens whose unique occasion is set adrift from the narrative of argument, from social conditions, and "they see us" as detached phenomena. They may describe something in our lives or the life of the speaker, but there is no dialectic set up between concerned speaker and "audience." They do not describe, or enact a speech act moment, but exist apart. The poems strive towards a condition of released appraisal of phenomenon, so that language is listening to itself, watching itself, toying with the generative switches of impulse, of pre-emptive command--is emancipated from ordinary discourse.

What did I think of the dematerialization of text--of book--which the loose'n'd unbound cards implied? I woke up with (the) cards somewhere nearby. Remembered to. Separate parts chasing each other. In a single head these separate occasions might co-exist as unlinked events each of which had an integrity of its own, unrepeatable and self-effacing. How to stop time in order to savor the experience the moment allows. Each one alone, untethered.

If birds could talk, a robin hopping might be thinking in rhythm of the number of chirps to describe what it means to cross the distance between two trees. A bird might be undecided about that. Did Charlie Parker riff a familiar lyric? Bird-head bobbing or dipping down. Thinking in that motion as an imitation of wild song. Do birds think musically?

An erection of monumental proportion. Land grants depth perception. Words perch on lines.

I thought to speak before I spoke. Getting to a point beyond the city limits me. Allowed me space to appreciate the sound of my own phrasing. Making fun sound serious on vacation. That's my parole.

The hum of the external world is a pleasant pastime for the mind grid. The human impulse to respond to sound is imitation all the way. The sound is merely a by-product of another set of priorities. Getting you from one place to another. When a flea jumps, it doesn't know where it's going to land--the leap is both an escape, and an adventure into possibility. Leaping is a survival mechanism.

Other voices. The familiar become unfamiliar, as if overheard in a shared dream under the Milky Way. This is still a "poem" like a single flower in a field of weeds. It wants to.

For me, publishing Sentences Towards Birds was both an homage and an appropriation of an exploration, the parameters of which were--at that point--still in the process of formation. Coherence. The universe in which it functions hadn't yet been described, but there was enough space set aside to include everything necessary, whole unto itself. Sentences can be seen from this perspective (now) as an intermediary step between the Concrete works of Series--and the physical enactments of the S C R A W L S.

What's next?


*Later, as I would learn, reviewing Grenier's correspondence file at the Green Library at Stanford University in 2004, Barry would write a letter to Bob a few weeks later (in 1975), complaining that I was "stashing" unsold copies of the edition in my "closet,"--though it wasn't at all clear, then, or now, why I would have been doing such a thing. Maybe Barry believed that this would be a way of covering up his error by claiming that the small number of copies available for distribution was a result of my hoarding, instead of his carelessness.
**If there are any readers who are still unaware of it, Grenier's Sentences can be read in an online version provided by Michael Waltuch's Whalecloth website (just click on the online version link). It's constructed to be displayed in a different order each time it's read, an interesting and apt take on the randomness principle inherent in the unbound nature of the cards.

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