January 2, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Searchers For The Fecund Minimum #3

When you read a short poem, does time speed up or go slower? Does the micro scale of a short poem make you concentrate on each word, making them seem larger and more loaded with meaning because of the excess of surrounding white space? Or does it make the poem a brief blip on the screen of the mind, almost a peripheral experience? Reading a short poem seems similar to trying to focus your eyes on a single star: at times it seems endlessly impressive in its ability to be both miniscule and luminous, but if you train your eye on it too intensely, it vanishes.

These questions come to my mind while reading Robert Grenier’s Oakland, which, like his Sentences which I discussed last time, is a longish sequence made up of smaller poems. Oakland was originally published by Tuumba Press in 1980, but is now available online here. The poem makes me think of the temporal effects of short poems because, at times, Oakland seems to be the record of a single day in Oakland, but, as is always the case with Grenier, he resists such a convenient reading. Each individual poem is very short, usually just a few words, and read as a collection of the images (or fragments of images) that, for a second (or fragment of a second), get caught in the web of our attention. Generally speaking, the opening of Oakland contains morning images. Here is a selection:


open the door Oakland


rusty clothesline

two clothespins

no diapers


after brain sleeps


teeth and

my gums

One sees the speaker wake, look out the window overlooking empty clotheslines and hedges, and brush his teeth. But such a literal sequence of events is disrupted by the poems that are woven in among these morning images:



green eyes


someone walking


the vehicle


turns it dock

Each of these poems could be assimilated into a wake-up scene: the image of eyes as rhymes of each other could have occurred to the speaker while looking in the mirror while brushing his teeth; the incredulity implicit in the extra syllable in the word WHAAT could have been overheard from the street while looking out the window; the moonlight image could be the moon receding from view over the docks of Oakland, etc. But the way the poems are arranged, and irregularities of language within some of the individual poems, make one question whether the opening of the poem does record a morning in the life of the speaker, or if something less structured is unfolding. Take a look at the MOONLIGHT poem again. There is something off: we are tempted to add an “s” to “it,” making it possessive. The image is not exactly clear, but at least there is something to see now: MOONLIGHT turns its dock. Moonlight has been our world’s dock all night long and is now turning away as daylight takes over. But of course that “s” is not there, leaving us with a fragment. If read aloud, the poem almost sounds like “MOONLIGHT turns it dark,” an image of losing light, a night image undermining a reading of the poem as occurring chronologically from morning to night. And such sonic playfulness is not uncharacteristic of Grenier.

It is at this point that I begin to question time once again. The poem, including the title, is four words long. Yet, because of the snag in the language caused by the indeterminate “it” in the middle of the poem, I have spent about fifteen minutes at my desk working out the different meanings. So at least in this case, the brevity of the poem has slowed me down, and has made me more aware of the individual words the poet chose.

But (referring to MOONLIGHT, not Oakland as a whole) how good is this poem? Or for that matter, how good can any four-word poem be? And why spend time teasing out the possible explications of minimal poems when the Divine Comedy is sitting on your shelf waiting to be read or re-read? I cannot make the argument that MOONLIGHT is a great poem, but I would argue that close-reading such poems is worthwhile for a couple of reasons. When poets try to make the most out of the least materials, it gives us a chance to see them operate when all is stripped away, and it is here where we can almost see the poet making decisions. This is obviously also true for longer poems, but when the scale is small, individual choices of words and word order are more exposed. Another reason to read such poems is that we get reminded of the individual parts of language itself. The difference “it” and “its” makes. How adding an extra “a” to “what” gives it an entirely new resonance. To take a short poem seriously is to be aware of the power of a letter.

Oakland is about dailiness, but it also interrupts itself with memories, overheard noises, and utter non-sequitors. Its overall structure makes the reader question how time plays out in the poem, while its individual parts dare us to take them lightly, ultimately challenging us to grapple with their alternating commonness and oddness.