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Curtis Faville reviews
Complete Minimalist Poems
by Aram Saroyan
New York: Ugly Duckling Presse (see below), Lost Literature Series. 2007. Glossy wrappers, paperback original.
----- and -----
100 Sentences / 100 Phrases by Robert Grenier
Translated from English into French by Martin Richet with the Author. Bordeaux-Bastide, France: Editions de l’Attente, 2005. Unbound card printed on both sides in box.

This review is about 18 printed pages long. It is copyright © Curtis Faville and Jacket magazine 2007.

Stone Cutting All The Way


An uninitiated or uninformed reader in 1968 and 1969 might have been forgiven for deducing, upon first looking into Aram Saroyan [Random House, 1968] or Pages [Random House, 1969], that someone connected had pulled a few strings in the publishing world to get these most unusual and superficially pretentious-looking books — all white space and black typewriter face — into print. I must confess to not knowing any of the details of how this did in fact come about, but I mention it to establish a context in which these minimalist, experimental works tended to be regarded at the time. It would not be an exaggeration to speculate, as many no doubt did then, that the son of a famous prize-winning American novelist, short-story writer and playwright was being indulged in what some critics — if indeed they took it seriously enough to have a relevant opinion — regarded as a public embarrassment, a piece of fluff. Indeed, the odd combination of fame and audacity which the books embodied practically insured that their contents would not be taken with anything like the kind of seriousness with which the poems they contained had been composed.


And yet this impression couldn’t have been further from the literary intention that produced them. Aram Saroyan had immersed himself in the New York underground poetry scene throughout the 1960’s, as the editor of the mimeograph poetry magazine Lines [1963-1965], and his minimalist works — or, to be more precise, his “concrete” poetry works, as they were then called (and characterized) — were only one aspect of his writing efforts during those years. Aside from “Concrete Poetry”, Saroyan had been influenced by Louis Zukofsky, Robert Creeley, and other post-Modernist figures; had in fact also been working as a serious photographer under the influence of Richard Avedon and Hiro. The two Random House books might even be said to have distorted the public’s sense of exactly who Aram Saroyan the man was, as well as what kind of a writer he was, and would become over time.


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This new collection, Complete Minimal Poems, gathers together the work from those two Random House collections, as well as the work in Electric Poems [the anthology All Stars, Grossman, 1972], The Rest [Telegraph Books, 1971], along with other poems from the same period, not previously collected (Short Poems). This “minimal” (and shouldn’t that be “minimalist” as denoting the formal meaning of the style, instead of the adjectival, implying derogation?) demarcation sets these works apart from his longer poems, particularly those written after he moved to Bolinas in the 1970’s: After 1972, he abandoned minimalism, at least publicly, ceased to publish it, and presumably to write it, after that date, instead devoting himself to prose, both fiction and memoirs, in addition to more discursive, relaxed, longer poems.


Saroyan’s preoccupation with minimalist works parallels similar contemporary experiments both in the work of Zukofsky (in the second volume of All: Poems 1956-1964, W.W. Norton, 1966) and that of Robert Creeley (Pieces, Scribner’s, 1969), as well as so-called “Concrete Poetry,” a movement which begins in the 1950s, and whose manifesto, written by an early pioneer of the style, reads, in part


“Concrete poetry begins by assuming a total responsibility before language: accepting the premise of the historical idiom as the indispensable nucleus of communication, it refuses to absorb words as mere indifferent vehicles, without life, without personality without history - taboo-tombs in which convention insists on burying the idea”


 — and provides a frame of reference within which Saroyan’s “concrete poems” were first assumed then to belong, as a part of that tradition, or world movement, with strong branches in South America and Europe, as well as in America.



In an early statement accompanying this early work — not reproduced in this book — Saroyan said:


  “I write on a typewriter, almost never in hand (I can hardly handwrite, I tend to
  draw words), and my machine — an obsolete red-top Royal Portable — is the biggest
  influence on my work. This red hood holds the mood, keeps my eye happy. The
  type-face is a standard pica; if it were another style I’d write (subtly) different
  poems. And when a ribbon gets dull my poems I’m sure change.”


The statement stands as a kind of manifesto about the importance to be placed on the technological limit and inspiration of the production of text. To read it today, is to realize how crucial that apprehension was in the historical progression of printing technology, preceding the appearance and availability of computer technics by at least a decade. It put Saroyan, at that specific moment, on the threshold of a new concept of writing, the implications of which are still being elaborated today. His sensitivity to these implications is what made this work interesting, and makes it important to the development of poetic form since the mid-Sixties.



We may divide Saroyan’s primary areas of investigation in this early work into three major spheres:


1. Concept of the page
2. Structure of the poem
3. The relations between sound, space and our apprehension of these concepts


The works in Complete Minimal Poems function primarily in three ways:


1. As traditional “poetic constructions” whose character bears comparison with the work of the Objectivists (Zukofsky, Oppen, and Niedecker), and to the work of Creeley:


                       what energy pops
                                                    flops her
                          on her back
                                       in the water





      Coupons are the brightest yellowest
      Reddest headiest delights on the face of the earth!


— both of which function as traditional Modernist poems whose essential method is the transmission of meaning through descriptive language, ingenuity, and wit; albeit, in the second instance through a parody of ad-speak.


2. Through the graphic representation of spatial — not symbolic — relationships of word-arrangements on the two-dimensional space of the page:


          wind    oil    to
          blows   out    sea




                             near &
                             far birds

           a fly very


— both of which use the tensions created through the frustration of — and creative rearrangement of — standard reading progression (inertia) and word placement to mimic sensory apprehension of phenomena.


3. Through the minute investigation of effects produced at the level of the individual phrase, word, or letter, as in:





















Ironically, the above poem was composed in equivalent spacing, which requires that one revert to the older technology (as on a typewriter) — by setting it in Courier, a traditional equivalent space designed for the typewriter — in order to preserve the rectangular shape of the poem as it was conceived. In other words, typewriter technology made it possible, and in order to reconstruct it, one must use equivalent space through adjustment of “kerning” to mimic the original — a perfect demonstration of the “subtlety” and “influence” of typewriter technology referred to in the statement quoted above. Interestingly enough, this new book itself is set in distributed (or variable) type face, necessitating the custom setting of several poems in the book which derive from the (old fashioned, obsolete) equivalent typewriter matrix, as below.




It should be obvious at this point that Saroyan’s concrete approach was based specifically on the typewriter as medium. As anyone knows, the manual typewriter is based on equivalent spacing of letters, each letter occupying a space equal to every other letter, including punctuation marks. This allows for letter and word constructions based on that regularity. In the example above, the poem printed in equivalent space results in a perfectly symmetrical block of type. The word “crickets” undergoes a stepped transformation in which the susurrant s’s replace the other letters of the word in a visual wave, the s’s mimicking the sound of cricket sounds, and visually creating a “flow” of pure sound across the block of type. The representation is mechanical and inexorable, and suggests an opportunistic symbiosis between nature (insects making sounds at night) and the ear of the listener who perceives this, creating a graphic representation of that sound. This characterizes the unity that is concrete poetry’s particular focus (uniting meaning with image). Thus the use of the page as a projection of the spatial dimension:


      night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night


which is printed on two parallel facing pages: The horizon line of type is a visual metaphor for the horizon line of the earth. Or, the continuous line of type (in darkness) flowing across the gutter of the binding, linking, or mirroring the two pages as facts of the literal reality of “dark” enclosed when the book is shut? Or, in the velocity of travel implied in:


                  fences     /     finished


the passage of visual repetition through regularly or irregularly occurring fence-posts as one sees them from a moving vehicle. The slash signifies both duration (passage) and velocity, and divides the line equally between continuity and completion. The rhythmic continuity is implied or signified by the slash, its slant suggesting movement, the formal trochaic balance between the two words creating the staccato passage of fixed intervals, the progression of the eye across this symbolic “fence” a metaphor for the movement of the eye through space when passing by, the repetition of posts or boards creating a rhythm with duration.


It creates a specific duration, a specific distance, a recurrent repeating interval through the visual occurrence of the poem itself. In other words, it enacts what it describes. For the most part, poems, as we usually think of them, do not do this. It is an original way of thinking about the relationship between words, order and time.


One could have written the poem this way:


              fences  / / / / / / / /  finished


but then the symbolic power of the single slash would have been reduced to a visual pun on leaning fenceposts, a suggestion which it already carries. Without the slash, the poem still functions, but without the typographical pointer to give it the proper balance:


                  fences            finished


The slash is an integral part of the visual, verbal, oral and symbolic meaning of the poem; we are at the substantive level of the structure of lines in space, of the elemental structure of letters themselves: A symbolic construct which engages the literal and the connotative qualities simultaneously, without the intermediate step of metaphor or simile.



In addition to the above effects, Saroyon explores the single “line” conceptually —


      whistling in the street a car turning in the room ticking


— which proposes the line as a continuous thread turning back upon itself (as a circle) or in which the line connects the activity both inside and outside “the room” on a mental thread or tape. Or again —


      the noises of the garden among the noises of the room


a dichotomy, which, due to its formal balance, implies (infinite) repetition. An additional dimension of mystery occurs here —


      something moving in the garden a cat


in which the static participial anticipation is closed with the hard endstop of the predatory cat — an imaginary garden, perhaps, with a real toad [cat] in it. This element of the “hidden” object (or noun) concealed within the line occurs here —


      The scissors was on the newspaper where who would ever see it.


in which the use of the singular verb “was” isolates and camouflages the “missing” scissors on the newspaper background. The colloquial enjambment “where/who/would/ever” balances the unexpectedness of “scissors/was.” Also, the sentence balances precariously between statement and interrogation: It was there and not there, visible/invisible. This sense of the line as a continuum challenges the syntactical basis for sentences as structures of literal intent; places the writer in an ambiguous relation to text. The phrases are discretely alienated from habitual use; while still preserving presence through humor and colloquial speech. This alienation from abstraction in sound is characterized in the following —


                        a voice only

                        someone speaks


The “sound” is undefined, and therefore disembodied, until it is realized through the nature of its syntax, that is, recognized as valid “speech.” Language (Spanish) only is real within the context of its meanings, though ironically expressed “in English.”



The range of variation from ingenious syntactic constructions, to visual punning, to the symbolic qualities of separate or rearranged (sometimes even non-syntactic) letters, suggests that Saroyan, at this juncture in his career, tended to regard each poem as a separate act, each composition as a “test” of the limits of the medium (page, type, ink, impression). By resisting, and questioning the assumptions behind the medium, he was able to exploit certain conditions and opportunities. Each of the poems in this collection says something specific, about the relationship between events in the world and the setting of words (or letters) on a page, about the relationship of the eye to the page (and to the word), about the relationships between competing or exotic loci in language, about the effect of the simultaneity of sensory events as expressed through language, etc. These kinds of explorations were not unique, since “concrete” poetic experiments had been conducted before; but Saroyan’s discrete, sophisticated formality pushed into areas which would find their elaboration and development in the decades after 1970.


Complete Minimal Poems may be only one dimension of Saroyan’s explorations and performances as a writer, one that he apparently ceased pursuing early in his career. One might wonder about this precipitous abandonment, especially since he had managed to get the work into print at a large New York publisher. Judging from the direction his career took, it seems likely that he wished to explore other aspects of writing, in particular autobiographical prose; and it also seems fair to say that he had exhausted the possibilities of minimalism, had come to an end of that interest. Superficially, one might assume that it did not have much influence outside its immediate milieu, or to have affected later trends.



It is in the work Robert Grenier has done in the decades since 1970, that shows the most direct use of the discoveries and possibilities of this existential approach to the text. Reflecting on the possibilities available to him circa 1970, Grenier had determined that if he were to escape the formal limitations of “verse” in which line lengths were based on breath and page width, he would have to negotiate a new relationship to the page. As he moved steadily towards an increasingly bare, stripped down style, he also began to explore the roots of speech formation at the level of phrase. Moving steadily away from a poetics of rhetoric (“I Hate Speech!”) he embarked on an investigation of the kinds of immediate, instantaneous effects he could achieve with just a few words at a time. The result was Sentences [Whale Cloth, 1978], a landmark collection of 500 unbound poem/card/pages in a folding Chinese box. Sentences stands today as a canonical work of the Language School of writing. Employing an IBM Selectric Typewriter — with equivalent spacing — Grenier codified the apprehension of language as the impulse to enact phenomena “way at the back of the head” where “thought originates/speech is born.”


Robert Grenier’s 100 Sentences / 100 Phrases (Bordeaux-Bastide, France: Edition de l’Attente) reiterates a selection of poems from Sentences (1978) , limited to just 150 copies (the whole edition), presented in French and English (printed on opposite sides of each card (poem)), translated into French by Martin Richet with the Author. This beautiful boxed set is suggestive of nothing so much as a Hersey chocolate candy-bar box, a sensual apprehension by no means out of keeping with the immediate quality of Grenier’s work(s). Chronologically, then, Grenier’s Sentences follows Saroyan’s published collections by some eight to nine years. (For the purposes of this discussion, I must sidestep the issue of the relative success or failure of Grenier’s work in translation, since I do not have adequate French to judge their effectiveness, and will concentrate instead upon the English texts, as extracts from the main body of work in Sentences [1978], as the occasion for a comparison between two related but separate kinds of composition).

Grenier 100 a
Grenier 100 b
Grenier 100 c


Sentences engages language at the level of the impulse of phrase: At that point in which the pre- or non-verbal impulse “finds” or “initiates” the mental referent for the feeling with which it is linked in the mind. The poems are not “about” anything except the intuitive apprehension of how we actually “feel” language at the point of impulse. The poems are not constructs or masses of language built-up into structured edifices (or arguments), but fleeting glimpses into the kinetic activity of thought-in-language. Superficially, they are “minimalist” within the context of this discussion, but they have a different quality entirely from those by Saroyan.





                  I shouldn’t of slept with my shirt on


                   rain drops the first of many


(Note these are separate poems.)


These notations are demonstrably NOT about the relationship of print/page to another class of phenomena. Though they refer obliquely to real objects and events, they are not ABOUT those events and objects (though they may be superficially a kind of witty commentary upon them). In addition, they are not THINGS themselves, but hermetic clues (or pointers) to the psychological qualities of the mind which perceived them. One could almost call them “psychic” in that sense, riddles of meaning made out of intuitive autonomy. Their effect is immediate: What one sees or hears is the secret connection behind the pattern, or the emotional/physical resonance underneath the manifestation.



                   I put ashes on my own floor


                   I drink rice


                   repetitive bird and black


The technique is to remove every aspect of the condition or occasion to which the initial fragment refers, leaving only that crucial part that stands out. This has the effect of revealing the relationship between qualities that was invisible before, or (conversely) of hiding the connections which made quotidian sense out of them in the first place. We know from cognitive research that what the mind receives from the five senses is largely unorganized data; that the mind “interprets” this incoming data to fit an established, always-growing picture of “reality.” In the same way, verbal events and memories in the mind are themselves a kind of phenomena on an equal footing with “external” experience. Thus, the imagination may discover mysterious connections between “saved” referents, and reality, which were not apparent under normal syntactical practice. The ability to be tuned to this concealed music, contained inside our apprehension of language, may involve qualities of awareness which have been noted in Eastern mysticism as exemplified in Zen-koans, or haiku. It is this “sixth sense” which Sentences explores, and exploits.


          silence aggressive


          yawns at solid




          her face


          they are naturally hostile to getting picked off


This last piece was originally written as “baserunners are naturally hostile to getting picked off”; but in order to be “emptied” as much as possible of its programmatic content, the redundancy of “baseball” was removed, and the phrase left to stand on its own as the literal evidence of the active principle, since it works even without the strict reference to the pastime.


          the unreality of cattle


Who can say what the relationship is between the vowel progression in “un-reALity of CAT-tle”? Certainly, on a rational level, setting up an a priori proposition that anything which is by definition “unreal” sets in motion a set of assumptions that are well-nigh irreversible. Since cattle are by definition only “cattle” when domesticated — there are no “wild” cattle — there is a sense in which their verbal identity (name) as animals “tamed” by culture renders them artificial, and therefore no longer “real.” But the simplicity of statement, the naked proposition, is not a moral example or even an “image.” It wants only to be a demonstration of how it originated at a specific level of apprehension, perhaps subliminally. The response to such an estranged fragment is astonishment, or amusement, depending on what your humours are. They can catch you napping —


          the watering of the yard water


          searchlight distributes sky light it administers



          package of matches


Which may suggest that the speed with which the mind erases such senses and forgets them is a measure of the degree to which one is able to “rationalize” experience, to insulate oneself from the qualities that so animate us in childhood, before we have been taught to put enough language between ourselves and experience, that we’re no longer alert to the vivid experience of words and things in the world. Thus Grenier arrives, with Sentences, at a juncture of development in which there are no longer “poems” as such, but a coded short-hand for the cognitive verbal processes underneath the layers of habitual practice and daily presumption. Perhaps even a regression to a level of preoccupation with primitive apprehension: A rejection of systematic rationality common to certain kinds of depression or paranoia, implying a suspicion with, and a rejection of all formal syntactic or quotidian practice.


The logical next step, for an explorer at the verge of a complete rejection of habitual verbal practice, is to dismantle the means of projection, to deconstruct, or to engage written language, at the level of the individual word, indeed, even the individual letter. For the last two decades, Grenier has devoted himself to an exploration of a new formality, the production of hand-drawn color line designs of three and four word poems in notebooks. Visually, they exploit the two dimensional rectangular frame in much the same way a painter would, yet they are not paintings, but abstract arrangements of individual letters, twisting, bending, and undergoing various distortions controlled by the feeling and thinking of the moment of composition. Each is unique, and cannot be reproduced/”translated” easily into traditional typeface, and in any case, the “sense” of the poem is not its significance. Nor can they be read in the usual sense, since they cannot be deciphered quickly enough to be enunciated.

Grenier, plum



Grenier, elbow




The struggle — the thrust of intention from head through hand is kinetic, immediate, and irrevocable. There is no intermediate “translation” into “print” as each letter is expressed through the effort of its formation. The distortion which occurs is a precise template of the two dimensional form of its written expression. In order to be read, such works require minute attention to the eccentric form of each letter. How such letters/words/sequences are perceived and apprehended determines how they will be felt, understood. We are returned to an original state of composition akin to the earliest processes of verbal practice, to a synthetic state of aesthetic innocence never before explored.


By re-thinking the habitual apprehension of the printed, or the written word, Grenier has attempted to lay bare the essential, original qualities of things IN words, and IN raw experience, without submitting to, or contributing to, the manipulation and connotations of shading and subtlety which characterize elaboration and argument. Olson’s “muthologos” (“what is said of what is said”) provides a convenient starting point for any discussion of Grenier’s “Scrawls.” The post-Modernist investigation into language at the minute level of alphabet, the intuitive apprehension of language comprehension (of lyric one bar at a time), and the symbolic enactment of phenomena IN words — has defined one area of emphasis, from Saroyan’s earliest typographic typewriter inventions from the mid-Sixties, through Grenier’s rejection of type in favor of “drawn” poems which enact process and seek to trump “translation” of experience. From cave paintings to the technology of rapid reproduction of text, and back again. Stone-cutting all the way.

 — Curtis Faville
      July 2007

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