Showing posts with label Robert Grenier. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Grenier. Show all posts

Thursday, May 23, 2013


at Southfirst in Brooklyn

Saturday, July 30, 2011

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.

Saturday, February 01, 2003

Robert Grenier’s Sentences, much discussed previously on this site, most recently January 24, are now up on the net at the Whale Cloth Press web site. There is also a link on the Grenier page at the Electronic Poetry Center that takes you directly to the cards themselves – but I think it makes more sense to head first over to publisher Michael Waltuch’s useful notes & it’s both fun & valuable to take a look at the images of the box itself. The electronic site comes very close to replicating the experience of the box itself. Each time you go through the stack, the cards will appear in a different order. I’ve gone through it at least a dozen times in the past couple of weeks, and I don’t tire of the process at all.


In New York City on February 8, Grenier will be reading/slide presentation at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in Chelsea, 535 W. 22nd Street, at 8 PM, 212-680-9889. In addition to the reading/slides, Grenier is, in the gallery’s words, “debuting 2 new suits of iris prints of his drawn poems, and a series of photographs from the notebooks.” These editions will be on view and for sale at the gallery. The gallery plans to keep the prints on display in its viewing room for the following week.


Small Press Distribution, incidentally, lists Sentences Towards Birds, the 1975 L Press selection, as still available at $15. This selection of about 50 cards differs from The Box in part also because of the typeface, a crisp Times Roman rather than the blocky Courier of Sentences. However, as only 100 copies of Sentences Towards Birds were printed & the SPD website characterizes it as a paperback when in fact it is a pack of cards in a specially printed manila envelope, I would call SPD directly before I ordered that item: 800-869-7553 (free phone call within the United States).

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?

Friday, January 17, 2003

After Berkeley, Robert Grenier taught at Tufts University, then moved on to Franconia College, an experimental school tucked in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The move, as well as Grenier’s departure from the masthead of This, put him further outside of the scene, as such. At the same time, however, Grenier’s writing was developing rapidly. Gradually world filtered west of new poems that were being written not on pages, as such, but on cards. At one point there was a show of such cards, either at or near Franconia.

Grenier was hardly the only poet to be showing cards in a gallery setting during that period – Yoko Ono & Jim Rosenberg both had occasions to attach words to heavyweight paper to wall (& in Ono’s case ceiling) – but Grenier’s focus on language had expanded so dramatically during this period that poems like “WINTRY” & “a long walk” seem positively literary, in the old-fashioned sense of that word, by comparison.

This published a sampling of 30 cards in its fourth issue in the Spring of ’73. But it wasn’t until Michael Waltuch’s Whale Cloth Press published “the box,” Sentences, five full years later, that the scale & scope of Grenier’s work really came into view. It’s a project that I would suspect has had a profound impact on every reader who ever gave it serious attention.

I’ve written in the past about both Grenier (in Verdure 3&4) & Sentences per se (a review in the American Book Review in 1979) in the past & don’t feel the need to rehearse those arguments here, other than to underscore the degree to which Grenier saw things that nobody prior to him had envisioned as literature. In some ways, it is the very plainest of these poems that are the most truly radical:

twelve to twelve to one

A text like the one above is not only “about” found language, but presents a dance of symmetry at the level of syntax & asymmetry at the level of letters that will never settle into a balanced, stable whole. Like an optical illusion – such as a Necker cube – the poem will never resolve. There is more going on in these five words than in many books by normative “mainstream” poets.

Even the publication in a box-of-cards format was designed to unsettle any presumptions the reader might, literally, bring to the table. Michael Davidson used to tell a story about assigning Sentences to students at UC San Diego who would dutifully head up to the rare book archive, set it down on a table on begin reading through, only to have Davidson show up, come over to their table & begin shuffling the cards as the students struggled with their impulse to become hysterical.

Now the cut-up, regardless of whether you trace it back to Brion Gyson, Bob Cobbing or just Allen Ginsberg straightening up the papers on Bill Burroughs’ floor in Tangiers, likewise predates Sentences by some time. Grenier’s genius lies in specifically asking the reader to take on the consequent role of ordering the units. As such, each card thus must float free.

yah gee
yah gee
yah gee
yah gee
yah gee
yah gee
yah gee
yah gee

is not building towards



the sky flurries

any more than it is toward

lakeshore spondee

or vice versa. By removing “before” & “after” from the book of poetry – or at least by rendering it visibly arbitrary – Grenier has in fact created “new sentences” in a way that had not been previously possible, let alone contemplated. Indeed, I’ve often felt as though I was given much more than my own share of credit for my talk, ”The New Sentence,” when something like Sentences demonstrates the degree to which I was merely stating the obvious, somewhat clumsily at that.

I’ve written with regard to the Objectivists that I’ve often thought that the poetry of the 1950s, from Ginsberg to Olson to the Ashbery of Tennis Court Oath, seemed much more revolutionary precisely because there had been a break in the historical record & that the moderating connection between the generation of Pound & Williams & these post-war poets was (temporarily) lost.* In something of a reverse dynamic, I sometimes think that language poetry has been integrated all too comfortably into the spectrum of post-New American poetries in part because its most revolutionary works, specifically Sentences, haven’t been more widely distributed. You cannot find it anywhere in, nor even Grenier’s 1979 oversized (40” by 48”) poster – or, to be accurate, book in the form of a poster – from Tuumba Press, CAMBRIDGE M’ASS. Functionally, an entire generation of poets have come along who have only had occasion to see these works either second hand – in a library or someone else’s home – or excerpted in formats that cancel out at least some of the elements of the work, as in the 28 pieces contained in In the American Tree, the book freezing the order in spite of all otherwise good intentions**. 

All of this hopefully is soon to change. What’s occasioned my thinking on Grenier this week has been a chance to beta test a still unannounced site that, when complete, will make Sentences available in a fully equivalent electronic version, a wonderful solution. At one level this approach seems “obvious,” albeit ironic insofar as Grenier – like Clark Coolidge – has been one of the last poets to resist the onset of computing.*** There are still some bugs to work through but, overall, I can already tell that the site is going to be wonderful – and accurate to the impulse of the work itself. For example, each time a reader proceeds through the deck, the cards will appear in a new & different order. When the site is fully up & running, I’ll be certain to make a note of it here. If you haven’t yet read Sentences, the opportunity will soon be at hand.

* Thus Oppen has been misread on occasion as being a far more conservative poet of the 1960s than ever was the case. In fact, he was a radical poet of the 1930s who was being viewed from a very different historical context. The more interesting (if unanswerable) question is whether Olson or Ginsberg could have been who they were in a world in which Objectivism had not been erased.

** This explains the otherwise awkward title, “A Sequence / 28 Separate Poems from Sentences,” used in the anthology.

*** The irony is compounded as even Grenier’s most recent “scrawl” texts have been most widely distributed via the web.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

If “a long walk” was not speech, Robert Grenier’s “WINTRY” certainly was:



Magnus massive

Dagny Dagny calling

call me call me


lazy prairie icy

streams, nicely

nicely nicely nicely Norwegians


vell I, well I

vell I, vell I

snowy vell I

vell I don’t know


oh vell I, oh well, I

well I don’t know

oh, vell, I don’t know


Ah yah

ah, yah


a sod hut


One can almost hear Frances McDormand in the 1996 film Fargo speaking these last three stanzas while chewing a hoagie, battling morning sickness & extracting a leg from a wood chipper. Like the Coen Brothers film, which I’ve sometimes thought of as being little more than an extension of this poem by Minnesota native Grenier, “WINTRY” is obsessed with the dialect of the American far north. After its opening stanza suggesting a shortwave radio operator’s attempt to connect to the Other & a second stanza that contextualizes what follows, the final three stanzas focus on the smallest imaginable distinctions of enunciation & pause. If Paul Blackburn had perhaps best articulated a process for the transcription of speech as such, he nonetheless still focused on that speech’s spectrum of reference. For Grenier here, the articulation is the reference.


In 1970, Grenier was quite clear in stating the revolutionary nature of his intentions toward literature. While his “I HATE SPEECH” comment from the first issue of This*, the journal that Grenier initially edited with Barrett Watten, has become iconic in its role initiating langpo, Grenier’s comment there was more typical of what he was telling anybody who would listen in those days. In the same first issue of that publication, Grenier declares, again all in caps (& adding boldface in the place of italics), that “’PROJECTIVE VERSE’ IS PIECES ON,” very neatly erasing twenty-plus years of labor on the part of Olson, Duncan, Blackburn et al. “WINTRY” first appeared in that same issue of This & is reprinted on the first page of In the American Tree.


While Grenier was not the only person doing interesting new work in 1970 that was clearly already outside of – or beyond, if you prefer – the New American framework – Bernadette Mayer, Clark Coolidge & Jackson Mac Low are all cases in point – he was the one person actively arguing for the position’s revolutionary potential. This is why, in retrospect, it has always been easy to identify the “origin” of language poetry. Grenier let everyone know early on that to investigate new alternatives required a break with a past, even as his “recuperation” of Pieces into a version of Projectivism demonstrated that this new model in his head was in fact insistently loyal at least to the abstract principles, as Grenier saw them, of one particular version of the New American perspective.


It would be hard to overestimate the impact Grenier’s poetry & perspective had on the writers around him. In the thirty years since it was first written, I doubt that there has been a week in which I did not find myself reciting “WINTRY,” all or in part. If there is an “Ur-poem” somewhere deep in my imagination, a mantra for what poetry might be, that poem is it.



* Green Apple Books in San Francisco is advertising a “complete run” of This, vol. 1 through 11 through Abebooks for $150. That’s a good price & the collection is said to include the samples of Grenier’s cards – “30 from Sentences” – slipped into This 4. But This published 12 issues, so this set is one item short.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Twenty five years ago, Whale Cloth Press published what at the time was the most radically innovative poetry project I’d ever seen, Robert Grenier’s Sentences. Rereading it today, Sentences still qualifies as the furthest anyone has pushed poetry & form in the investigation of the world:



The above is just one of 500 cards, 5 inches high, 8 inches wide, text typed (in “landscape” format) in Courier from an IBM Selectric typewriter, housed in a dark blue cloth covered folding box. You could shuffle the cards & there was a rumor that no two boxes had the works in the same order. This was, Whale Cloth & Grenier seemed to be insisting, a book.

It was as if nobody had ever taken the time before Grenier to just simply look at the language. When his work first began to telescope down from the mid-level lyrics that he was composing as this one-time Robert Lowell protégé left Iowa City for a teaching job at Berkeley – a job obtained in good part on the recommendation of James Tate & Richard Tillinghast – it occurred in a climate in which the most radical book anyone had ever seen or even imagined was Robert Creeley’s Pieces (Scribners, 1969). At the time, I recall poetry students around San Francisco State being utterly stunned by the Creeley book – “how dare he call that poetry?” But within less than two years, Grenier was starting to write works in Berkeley that made Creeley look as mainstream New England as Robert Frost.

I first met Grenier when I transferred to UC Berkeley for the Spring term in 1970. I had dropped out of San Francisco State after the debilitating student strike that then-governor Reagan had consciously used as a model testing ground for ways of defeating student activism. Every single teacher of any true value I had had at State either was fired or quit. One professor I knew was so freaked out by the presence of cops on horseback on campus that he was carrying a pistol at all times. The new university president, S. I. Hayakawa, was a linguistics professor whose class I’d sat in on a few times until it became apparent that he hadn’t read a book in perhaps 15 years. It was obvious he was little more than a puppet for the governor, who originally hoped to use SF State to help get his secretary of education Max Rafferty elected to the U.S. Senate over incumbent Democrat Alan Cranston (Charles Olson’s one-time boss). The only thing that the student strikers did intelligently that entire fall had been to wait until late on Election Day itself to go out on strike, thwarting Reagan’s original plan. But from that point on, it was a debacle as the state showed that it was willing to use whatever force was necessary to break the strike.

Because I didn’t have enough units to transfer as a junior to Berkeley right away, I detoured briefly to Merritt College, which in those days was still in the flatlands of North Oakland, the “bad” neighborhood in which my grandfather had grown up. I took as many of the my breadth courses as I could get out of the way, working as a TA for an anthropology class (the one time I ever held such a role in college), then moved to Berkeley in January 1970 where several people I knew, including David Bromige, David Melnick & my wife at the time, Rochelle Nameroff, were already students. I arrived just as students were preparing to submit manuscripts for a series of undergraduate writing contests. I dutifully gathered my work into a couple of different clusters and asked around what people thought about sending different groups to the different contests. Although the judges for each contest were announced at the outset, I was so new that I didn’t know any of the faculty to speak of, with the lone exception of Robin Magowan.

One of my clusters was a group of short, Williams-esque poems, the core it would later turn out of my first book Crow. Both Melnick & Nameroff suggested that I should I submit that group to the Joan Yee Lang Award contest, whose judge was Robert Grenier, somebody I’d never heard of before. “He likes short poems,” Melnick insisted. This turned out to be excellent advice, as I won the award before ever having met the judge. One day later that Spring, however, Grenier introduced himself to me at Serendipity Books, in those days a great poetry bookshop on Shattuck in North Berkeley. “I thought you were Arthur Sze,” he told me.

I didn’t really get to know Grenier well until the following fall when I attempted to do a special study course on Louis Zukofsky only to discover that almost nobody at Berkeley had ever even heard of the Brooklyn Objectivist. James E.B. Breslin, whom I’d asked first, sort of knew the work but was clearly intimidated by it & wasn’t sure he could help me. He not only recommended Grenier, but – as it happened – gave me some excellent advice about getting the class approved by my advisor, arguing for Zukofsky’s relevance in terms of his association with Williams, whom professors in the department had heard of before. Grenier agreed & the Williams ploy worked. It was only a matter of weeks before I became a full-fledged member of the Cult of Grenier.

In 1970, it was evident to any of the young writers around Grenier that he was rethinking poetry from the ground up. If Creeley’s Pieces offered poetry as it might descend from Louis Zukofsky’s short poems by way of Ted Berrigan, Grenier was adding Stein into the mix as well as the Williams of Spring & All, which Harvey Brown had just published, suddenly demonstrating the good doctor not only to be the epitome of a speech-based poetics that everyone had recognized for the previous 20 years, but also the most consciously radical critic of poetry of the first half of the 20th century – which came as a total surprise of many. On top of this, Grenier wasn’t merely mixing influences in a new way – although he was doing that also – he was gradually insisting that anything, anything, looked at closely enough could become poetry. His works from that period – which make up the first two pages of In the American Tree, were working themselves down toward a new level of minimalism not seen before in American poetry:

a long walk
a long
walk a long
walk a long
walk along

To poets raised on the writings of Duncan, Spicer, Olson, Creeley & Zukofsky – which is exactly where I was coming from – the sheer gait of this poem, with its deliberately limping prosody, was like an explosion in the face of everything I’d ever known. This was not speech.