Showing posts with label Minimalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Minimalism. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why would a poet who writes 1,000-page poems read haiku? Or pay heed to any manner of minimalism, for that matter? That’s a legitimate question, and one that I asked myself for at least a year before I felt that I fully understood my own personal answer. It’s because the questions of attention are so very similar. There is, in the minimalist poem generally, nowhere to hide. The poet’s attention – and hopefully the reader’s as well, though that’s a different discussion altogether – has to be utterly present. Every detail has to be attended. Individual letters & phonemes are revealed to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In poems of ten or fourteen or thirty lines, of five pages or fifty, there are many opportunities for the poet’s mind to wander. Not that it needs to – what separates out, say, Frank O’Hara from Robert Lowell is not simply that the latter reads like the former under the influence of Quaaludes, but that O’Hara in his best poems is always fully present. The same is true for Robert Creeley or Philip Whalen or Allen Ginsberg or even Ezra Pound. At their best, they are fully present in the text. A poet like Lowell is far too often concerned about getting from point A to point B, formally or narratively, a concern that functions almost as a film of distraction over the writer’s capacity to observe & react. What drives me crazy about so much poetry, especially of the Quietist tradition, is just how damn slow it is, how long it takes to say or do anything. So when I come upon a poet who wastes nothing – Larry Eigner, Rae Armantrout, Ted Pearson, Joseph Massey, Mark Truscott – I feel more than just thrilled, I feel rescued. In contrast, I can’t even imagine staying awake for the time it takes to slog through many a half-page text by Seamus Heaney. If he’s not fully present in his own poem, why should I be?

Friday, January 13, 2012

A gathering in New Jersey for the journal Others in 1916.
Alfred Kreymborg, front row, second from the left, in front of Marcel Duchamp & left of WCW (holding cat).
Duchamp has his arm looped with Walter Conrad Arensberg, Man Ray folding his arms,
Maxwell Bodenheim on the far right.

One day last year, I was driving in the rain through southern Chester County when I happened to pass Baldwin’s Book Barn, one of the quirkier book establishments hereabouts. While Baldwin’s is on the web these days, it appears in situ to have largely managed not only to have ignored the digital age, but even the world after the Second World War, when paperbacks took over publishing.¹ The Book Barn claims to have 200,000 books somewhat anarchically shelved in its rambling establishment, perhaps 99% of which are hard cover. I always need the map they hand out at the counter to find my way to the poetry section & this time returned with a signed copy of Alfred Kreymborg’s The Little World: 1914 and After, published by Coward McCann in 1932 for the price of a paperback.

In 1932, Kreymborg would have been 49, publishing for over 20 years & widely known as an editor with some serious (if waning) avant-garde cred. The first literary figure to become a regular at Alfred Stieglitz’ 291 gallery, Kreymborg and Man Ray brought out a magazine called The Glebe in 1913 & ’14, the fifth issue of which was Ezra Pound’s anthology of Des Imagistes. While the younger Man Ray (the imaginatively reinvented Emmanuel Radnitzky of New Jersey) went on to establish himself primarily as a visual artist in Paris, Kreymborg stayed literary, editing a series of magazines and anthologies. Two years prior to The Little World, Coward McCann had published Kreymborg’s Lyric America: An Anthology of American Poetry (1630 – 1930), which, while aimed at the general reader, included not one, but three sections of its final age cohort of poets, those born from the mid-1880s & after, one large one focused on modernists (Amy Lowell, Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Lola Ridge, Pound, H.D., Williams, Walter Conrad Arensberg, Stevens, Loy, Moore, Hartley, Cummings, Eliot & even Haniel Long among others now forgotten), the second focused on formalists (DuBose Heyward, Aiken, Ransom, Allen Tate, Merrill Moore, Robert Penn Warren & George Dillon, but also Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Fenton Johnson, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes & Countee Cullen²) & finally a third group of more eclectic or relaxed quietists³ (MacLeish, Tristram Coffin, Dorothy Parker, Mark Van Doren, Robert Silliman Hillyer, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Stephen Vincent Benét, Babette Deutsch, Louise Bogan, Kenneth Fearing, Horace Gregory, Stanley Kunitz, Stanley Burnshaw &, last but not least, Hart Crane), hybridism avant la lettre.

The work I’d seen of Kreymborg’s earlier anthologies, mostly compilations of poetry published in his journal Others, had led me to pigeonhole him as a later, lesser imagist, although already by the 1930 anthology Kreymborg’s selection of his work own suggests a gradual move away from the modernist group – where he positioned his work in Lyric America – toward the third tendency. By the end of his career, Kreymborg was giving readings accompanying himself on the mandolute, a larger version of the mandolin, anticipating by a few decades Robert Bly’s similarly folksy performance style. I wasn’t prepared for the work that forms the dominant strain of The Little World, political doggerel – think of deadline poet Calvin Trillin – presented in imagist format.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Of my reluctance in 1970 to include Bob Grenier in the “15 New Poets of the San Francisco Bay Area” feature that David Melnick & I edited for the Chicago Review, an old acquaintance & longtime editor writes that

there was really no need in late 1970 to be afraid of bob grenier's minimalism: aram saroyan was already there

It was, of course, impossible not to know about Aram Saroyan circa 1970. Random House had published his eponymous volume, Aram Saroyan, (in which the poem above appears) in 1968, Pages one year later. How many other experimental poets were getting books published & widely distributed by New York trade presses back then? Clark Coolidge’s Space, published by Harper & Row in 1970¹, was really the only other one. If you knew about the New York School, you knew about Aram Saroyan. Ditto if you paid attention to the conceptual poetics that seemed to be emerging from 0 – 9, the journal co-edited by Vito Acconci & Bernadette Mayer, tho that was, at the time, a much more fugitive endeavor. And, of course, when Saroyan got a grant from the NEA, some congressman read some of his work, perhaps “Blod” (a one-word poem, if, that is, Blod’s a word) into the Congressional Record with all the rhetorical froth we would expect today from Bill O’Reilly. Finally, the name Aram Saroyan inevitably rang bells simply because, for my generation & at least in California, William Saroyan’s My Name is Aram was as predictably a part of the high school curriculum as Things Fall Apart or Beloved are today. That the title character’s name in the book is not Saroyan, or that the poet was born three years after My Name is Aram’s initial publication, were just details.

But, as I replied, I was pretty sure that, in 1970, I wouldn’t have included Aram Saroyan in that grouping either. His conceptual poetics were perceived, I think, as a satire on publishing and poetry itself, witty & fun perhaps, but decidedly & willfully outré. And outré was not what Chicago Review was about in that era. While it published some experimental fiction, thanks to editor Eugene Wildman, in poetry the journal struck Melnick & I as being anxious about its status as a “major” college-based publication, which meant in practice that they were not looking for Aram Saroyan but the next Sylvia Plath.

Besides which, what Saroyan & Grenier were doing at that time were not exactly identical, a distinction that might have been lost because both used exceptionally short forms & were often paired in the minds of readers & editors with Clark Coolidge. Grenier’s best known work from this period is Sentences, published originally by Whale Cloth Press in an edition of 500 cards delivered in a box, but now online at the Whale Cloth site. Saroyan’s work has been online also, principally at the Eclipse website, but now is available in a fat & sumptuous edition from Ugly Duckling Presse under the title Complete Minimal Poems. At 275 pages, it’s just slightly over half the size of Sentences.

Saroyan’s work often seems to come out of the same conceptualism that drove Acconci’s work of that period. One poem in Aram Saroyan, the first of Saroyan’s minimal books, is a page of nothing but radio call letters. Another reads:



A third contains the word crickets repeatedly typed, one word to a line, down an entire page. This is a type of poem almost entirely absent from Grenier’s work, which shows almost no interest in conceptualism. The closest Grenier gets to this mode is an occasional poem that functions at the metacomment level:



the sky flurries

A second Saroyan type that comes closer to Grenier entails poems that utilize the graphic elements of language – the poem at the top of this note is a famous instance of this. As it does there, this kind of poem works when there is some intelligible connection – it doesn’t have to be articulatable – between what is going on the page and denotative & connotative dimensions of the word at hand. Thus


strikes me as effective precisely for the way it calls up the double-image element involved in stereoscopic vision, why humans see in 3D, whereas


just sits there on the page doing not much of anything.

Grenier likewise has works in Sentences that depend on their graphic presentation, such as this poem, which builds on a device – the s t r e t c h e d word – first developed by Paul Blackburn::

s o m e o l d g u y s w i t h s c y t h e s

At one level, this is a poem about the blank space, what Hugh Kenner liked to call the 27th letter of the alphabet (and certainly the last one “invented”) and how it cuts (or scythes) discrete words from the flow of speech – it a prerequisite for the existence of words at all. Yet there is a richness both of sound and image here that gives Grenier’s poem dimensions that simply aren’t active in Saroyan’s work. This is characteristic of Grenier, whose most common mode of micropoetics in Sentences is a snatch of language that begins & ends in atypical places, e.g.,

yawns at solid


or the starlight on the porch since when

Grenier’s use of the graphic dimension of language doesn’t really occur until much later, when he moves into his “scrawl” works. In those pieces, tho, what seems to interest Grenier most is the making explicit of the “coming to recognition” process of reading. He is really fascinated at the idea of identifying the instant a word “pops” into consciousness & poem after poem functions to locate precisely this moment. I’ve often that Grenier comes closest to what I would call a cognitive formalism – using form to explore cognition, the mind as such. There are of course limits to this – one can explore that instant in which words appear, for example, but it would far harder to identify a gap that occurs, for example, when one can’t think of a term, even tho it is every bit as palpable.

The place where Saroyan and Grenier completely overlap, not surprisingly, are in the poems that call up the relationship to what they’re doing as poets and the larger tradition of poetry, as such, especially the short poems of Louis Zukofsky & the Robert Creeley of Pieces:



Or this, entitled “Placitas” and dedicated to L.Z.:

The trees’
noise of
the sea

Or this, entitled “POEM”:

One two
three there
are three are
never seen

These three all are the work of Saroyan.

A word that turns out to be important to both poets is crickets. Not only does Saroyan have a couple of poems that allude not just to the critter, but to the great summer drone of insects, one of Grenier’s best known essays explores the ways in which Keats’ own use of the term – “hedge-crickets sing” – milk

words of all possible letter/phonemic qualities without really challenging notion of English word/morpheme as basic unit of ‘meaning.

My favorite of Saroyan’s several cricket poems is one that falls into the neo-Zukofsian category:

Not a

ticks a

But when Saroyan moves away from this one area that he shares with Grenier, he goes back toward either a conceptual poetics and/or a New York School one. These two poems appear on facing pages in Pages:



Ted Ted Ted Ted

The first depends entirely on scale of referents for its impact, something I can’t imagine Grenier ever doing, the second may be a parody of the NY School’s (esp. Gen 2) penchant for name dropping. Or it might be the most NY School poem ever written.

Grenier’s default mode, in sharp contrast, tends toward documentation:

of life days like


a port to a green


rain drops the first of many


repetitive bird and black

Each of these four one-line poems can be read both as an instance of language-in-the-world and as a study in form. It requires an almost obsession focus on the language itself. With Saroyan, not so much:


the atelier

ate her.

It’s not that Grenier does the micropoem better, whatever that means, than Saroyan. Nor is it that Saroyan is the original, Grenier the copy. Rather, what each was seeking to find & explore was ultimately something different about language & the poem. Which suggests that even one-line poems can (are) so thoroughly stylized that one can discuss their relationship to different literary movements. This makes me wonder what a new formalist one-line poem would look like – not a couplet, not a haiku, but a real single-line work of art. How would it then enact its values? What would it be able to look, see, do in the world of poetry? Or is it simply the case that new formalism, so called, is by definition incapable of writing so focused? I’d love to see someone try.



¹ As part of Fran McCullough’s attempt to bring the second generation New York School out broadly through Harper. Other books published by Harper during that period included Tom Clark’s Stones (1969), his volume Air, Dick Gallup’s Where I Hang My Hat and Lewis Mac Adams’ The Poetry Room (all 1970). Then it stopped. Once Robert Duncan & Robert Creeley left Scribner’s for New Directions, the publication of post-avant poets by the New York Trades largely came to an end, save for later collected editions of already canonic poets. The School of Quietude had successfully defended what it saw as its turf.

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?

Thursday, September 19, 2002

In his statement for Michael Lally’s 1976 anthology, None of the Above, the late Jim Gustafson admonished, “Suggest that one strives to read something more than the books that come in the mail.” It’s not bad advice, but doesn’t account for the unexpected delights that once in a rare while do turn up. Joseph Massey’s Minima St. (Range Press, 2002) is just such a treat.

In actuality, Minima St. (a self-published limited edition chapbook with a press run of just 50 copies) wasn’t a total surprise. Rae Armantrout, who had received the book in her mail ahead of me, had written to say that I would like the work. The poems are, as the title wryly implies, minimalist:

by the ticking

not the alarm.

Such close attention to detail demands both precision and a sense of balance – the stanza break prior to the last line is the poem’s most important moment. As a whole, Minima St. manages both values well. I vacillate between a preference for poems like the one above, which focus on an individual element, and other pieces that are less completely descriptive, where the text pushes the reader some to make the connections:

            Gulls –



The off-rhyme pulls together the imponderables: how songs might collapse, the weight of sun, what any of this has to do with gulls.

Minima St. fits into a long tradition of self-published first books mailed out to potentially sympathetic readers that can be traced back at least far as Whitman’s initial edition of Leaves of Grass. In its use of short forms, hard-edged lines, commitment to precision, and especially its fondness for the strategically placed em dash, the most obvious predecessor to Massey’s volume might be George Oppen’s Discrete Series.

Interested readers might be able to obtain copies by emailing