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Searchers for the Fecund Minimum #2

This post is the work of current Stegner Fellow Andrew Grace.???TM

One of the ways in which the American short poem has broken away from Imagism is that a number of poets have experimented with the possibilities for narrative structure. At least part of the project of Imagism, as inherited from haiku, was to distill a landscape or a concept into a single image. Writing on his “In a Station of the Metro” Pound describes a poetry that has no “secondary application,” that is, the image and the meaning occur simultaneously. He goes on: “In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.” So we could say that what the image-based short poem is trying to do is capture a raw transformative moment, without ornamentation or explication. In other words, the image is the narrative.

Some contemporary poets have explored other possibilities for narrative in the short poem. One tactic that a few poets have tried is to create a narrative structure across a series of linked short poems. Charles Wright’s China Trace is an example this kind of project. The book contains no poem longer than 16 lines, and loosely creates a spiritual biography of the speaker. It is hard to argue that a poet of Wright’s stature has had his work overlooked in any way, but I still hold China Trace as one of the most underrated single volumes by any living poet. Sure, he has won every award under the sun, but primarily for his more expansive, dropped-line poems (basically from The Southern Cross to the present). China Trace is all compression, and Wright’s imagery has never been better, nor his patented spiritual yearning more passionately expressed.

At the opposite side of the tonal spectrum, but still using a roughly similar narrative technique, is Robert Grenier’s Sentences. Sentences is unlike any poem ever written, and has particularly benefited from being put on the internet. Sentences is a series of 500 very short poems, which originally were published in 1978 as a box of index cards, each card containing one poem. The cards were unnumbered, the idea being that one could rearrange the order of the poems, thus creating a unique reading experience each time you engage the text. In 2003, Whale Cloth Press made the poem available in an online format, in which the poems, one at a time, are presented in random order each time you press next. Therefore the narrative of the poem has an immense range, depending on what order the individual poems are configured. For example, here is my reading of the first 6 poems as they appeared in my visit to the poem this morning. I number them for convenience’s sake, but no numbers appear on the poems themselves. I’ll put my commentary in italics.

#1

walking down Washington Avenue

Okay, sets up a physical setting

#2

mole

market

fair

forever

wheaten

oat

howd

This adds possible elements to the scene. “Market” and “fair” suggest some outdoor shopping area. “Wheaten” and “oat” also suggest a farmer’s market, but there are three more words to account for. “Mole” perhaps implies a subterranean feeling, such as one might feel when moving along with, or even more so, against a crowd people. “Forever” is the hinge word among the seven, meaning that the experience of this semi-blind walk among a flow of people and voices carries over into all parts of life for the speaker. “Howd” is a fragment of “Howdy” (possibly a greeting by one of the market vendors) that for some reason has the last vowel sound clipped off. Because of an interruption?

#3

oh
my nose is
so
red
Obediah
dear

A song, either overheard or remembered. Either way, it draws his attention enough to not hear the “y” in “howdy.” Sounds like some kind of folk song or fragment of a limerick.

#4

A — that
looks like
it’s fun

B — it
is
fun

A — lookin
at
it

A bit of dialogue, perhaps also overheard, but I think not. Grenier has many poems in which his daughter Amy, “A,” appears. The “B” is “Bob” Grenier himself. So there are two walking down Washington Avenue, daughter and father. This poem is charming in its capturing of the child’s voice, but it also is an interesting commentary on the act of viewing vs. action. “that looks like it’s fun” implies that the viewer wants to participate in whatever is being observed. The adult voice confirms that “it” is fun, meaning he has experienced it himself. The child, finishing/revising his sentence, reminds us that sometimes the act of looking itself is just as enjoyable as action.

#5

LOOKING AT FIRE

ashes to ashes

looking at the fire

at has been added

By pure coincidence, another poem about the act of looking. The first line is a familiar phrase, but with the first word underlined, which could be telling us that the specific ashes created by the viewed fire are joining other ashes and becoming part of the general history of ash. Or the fact that the first ashes are underlined could by Grenier’s way of divorcing these ashes from the metaphoric meaning that this phrase carries (that the body will eventually become dust, etc.) and saying that these are real, actual ashes. The second line seems simple enough, but the third line complicates it. “at has been added” seems to refer to line 2, meaning that the line originally was “looking the fire” but “at” was added later, and further up, that “at” has also been added to the title. Which makes one wonder what “looking the fire” means, if that indeed was the original line. Looking like fire? Or viewing the world in a way that is fire-like? And who added “at”?

#6

SNOW

see through a day to a day

Again by coincidence, an interesting juxtaposition of fire and snow. And also another poem about vision. The poem seems to be a metaphor: seeing something through snow, that is, seeing something while it is snowing, with the snow creating a veil between you and the object, is like seeing “through a day to a day,” which is when we are in the present and can picture a future day, or perhaps just an alternative day to the one we are having.

So it’s clear that the connections between the poems in Sentences are sometimes difficult to draw, yet at other times are quite clear in how they associate with each other. The passages I looked at begin to set up a physical place, a dialogue between two speakers, which segues into a meditation on different types of vision. In this way, one could conduct a coherent reading of all 500 poems linked together (depending on how adventurous you are in your explication), but once done, you could go back to the beginning and create an entirely new reading depending on the sequencing of the parts. The poem is inexhaustible. The very concept of the sequence is disrupted, in that the intentionality of the author is taken out of the equation. I think Sentences is a fascinating work, a sort of epic by inches.

It can be found here.

Next time I want to look at a less re-arrangable long poem by Grenier called Oakland.

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The Kenyon Review Associates Program provides Kenyon students with valuable experience in literary editing, publishing, and programming. KR Associates work closely with Kenyon Review staff, gaining valuable experience in a number of editing, publishing, and programming areas including manuscript evaluation, publicity and marketing, copy editing, developing web site and social media content, outreach programming, event planning and promotion, and other creative and editorial projects

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