Poetry News

A Great Essay on Robert Grenier's CAMBRIDGE M’ASS

By Harriet Staff


We're big fans of Robert Grenier, and were even lucky enough to see him speak about his work at Woodland Pattern last year, so strike us even more fortunate that this Jacket2 piece, written by James D. Sullivan, has just gone up. The piece focuses on Grenier's CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, a book-length poetry broadside, 49 by 40 ¾ inches, with about 275 poems. Sullivan likens reading the work to going for a walk in the woods, "shoehorning a work that demands a unique reading practice into familiar codex sequencing." And he relates it, first off, to Robert Creeley's Pieces:

Robert Creeley’s 1968 Pieces impressed Grenier with its ambivalent structure: each part an autonomous moment of attention, each part a cumulative contribution to the series. He has described that formal shimmer in Pieces as “parts are wholes / parts of a whole”[3] and as “the one-one-one, things-following-after-each-other in the enactment of the occasion.”[4] Rather than sharing poems out one to a page in standard publishing practice, it ran groups of lines and stanzas together with sometimes one, sometimes three bullets between them. The bullets either divided off individual poems or linked items in a series. (There’s a theory of time involved here: each moment is distinct, yet each follows directly from the one before it and proceeds into the next — autonomy and contiguity.) The precise function of the bullets is ambiguous, as rhetorically multifunctional as a line break — a level of punctuation stronger than the strophe, but not quite so strong as that next level up, the page-gutter breaks between poems.

Pieces made explicit a neglected aspect of standard reading practice. Each poem in a typical poetry collection is autonomous, but we read it in an arranged sequence. Poems follow one another — “follow” in the sense of both spatial/temporal priority and rhetorical build. As a sequence of images in a poem or a sequence of paragraphs in an essay has its rhetorical/ordinal place, arranged for the sake of some effect, so also does a sequence of poems in a collection have its rhetorical order, each poem its spacio-temporal and rhetorically determined place.

The next step of formal innovation, as Grenier saw it, was to break the sequence apart, to find a way to publish a group of poems such that there was no sense of predetermined order, no sense that any individual poem is building upon or toward any other particular poem in some cumulative rhetoric or even that they have to be read in any particular order. (Sure, one can flip around in any book, but page numbers indicate a prior arrangement that the flipper flouts.) He said in an interview:

So anyway, I thought that Pieces had so much accomplished the serial form, opened up the one-one-one, things-following-after-each-other in the enactment of the occasion, that somehow the only thing to do was to “stop it” and look at separate pieces, because, actually Pieces invites that, invites that possible “development,” and so it’s just a common history of the form, which wouldn’t be interesting except to writers. And so out of that came the desire to reassemble things in sentences for other persons with a tolerance of the difference between one sentence and another. They wouldn’t have to “follow,” but you could build up some kind of continuum which wasn’t a series but was some kind of made juxtaposition of separate elements. But I’ve never actually been interested in build-up of the more-than-one. I always liked the oneness of whatever something is, in itself. I’ve been puzzled by the problem of assembling the single things, which have their own integrity, if you look at them — and after all, it keeps you from being devoured by the onrush of “multi-tasking” responsibilities. I like to look at things singly, and think about them multiply. I don’t like to pile too much stuff up on top of each other, because I get dizzy and actually I can’t think anymore.

There's so much more. Read it all here.