Bob Grenier’s ‘CAMBRIDGE M’ASS’
Breadcrumbs would violate library rules, so I tore up notebook paper to leave my trail. I was in the Poetry Collection in the library of the University at Buffalo reading CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, a book-length poetry broadside, 49 by 40 ¾ inches, with about 275 poems by Robert Grenier scattered across it. A diligent scholar, wanting to read it through without getting lost, I needed a way to mark off each poem as read or not and to count them. Reading it this way was like going for a walk in the woods and trying to count each tree individually, marking each one off so as not to miss or repeat one.
That’s a foolishly obsessive way to go for a walk in the woods — or to read this work, shoehorning a work that demands a unique reading practice into familiar codex sequencing. In a codex’s predetermined sequence, each page seconds and builds rhetorically upon the page and the pages before it. In a codex collection of poems, someone has already laid a trail through the woods, and conventional reading practice is to follow that trail from the first beaten step to the last. 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” and as “the one-one-one, things-following-after-each-other in the enactment of the occasion.” 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.
Grenier has addressed that “problem of assembling the single things” several different ways. His 1978 book Series: Poems 1967–1971 includes some poems in Pieces-like bullet series (including one called “For Robert Creeley”), and the longest part of the book, “Fall/Winter Family Home,” consists of seventy-four unnumbered pages, two very short poems to a page. In A Day at the Beach (1984), he pushed that practice still further. The whole book lacks page numbers. The one word “MORNING” appears centered on the first page. A third of the way in, a page has only “MIDDAY,” and another third along, a page says, “AFTERNOON/EVENING.” On a watchless day at the beach, those would be the only rough temporal categories that matter, since there would be no necessary or scheduled time to do anything in particular. What time is it, and where are we? Not 3:14 pm or page 61, but just somewhere in the afternoon. All the other pages have three very short poems each. In a typical poetry collection, a page number creates a sense of location. Abstract numeration stretched across the whole book irrespective of content provides the poem’s place, a place within the numerical sequence of the book. In the numberless format of A Day at the Beach, however, a poem’s location has less to do with a place in the overall series (one cannot easily say that a poem is on page 42, but only that it’s — after some paging around to find it — “here”) than with its place on a particular six-poem page spread. Its place is not defined by some transcendent order beyond the page, but by what is right at hand.
The dedication on A Day at the Beach is “for the six directions,” presumably the possible movements in three-dimensional space: up, down, forward, back, right, and left. Such motion would be contiguous, into the immediate space in one of those directions. In abstract numerical space, all numbers have a noncontiguous arithmetic relation to all other numbers. If a poem on page 51 reminds a reader of a poem on page 17, that reader can leap back thirty-four pages and compare them. Where all the pages are alike and numberless, such a search is more difficult. The other poem is back there somewhere, and the reader needs to blaze the trail back to it afresh, scanning pages for landmarks in roughly the area it might be. The looked-for poem is like a ring dropped in the woods: one can’t say exactly where it is, but can retrace steps and scan the ground. Each short poem in the book is autonomous, of course, but it appears as part of a group of six that have a defined spatial relation with one another. These few linguistic incidents are directly at hand, all others vaguely somewhere before or after. Yet the groupings and the sequence of groupings have been given to the readers.
Photograph by Geof Huth.
A more extreme knot-cutting solution to the “problem of assembling the single things” is just to print them all up separately. In the 1970s, Grenier was writing hundreds of short poems, each with Pieces-like attention to the moment. Many of them caught bits of ordinary language. He typed them onto cards so that each poem is presented as a separate object, not as a leaf in a codex attached to and sequenced with other leaves, but as a distinct object of attention. Grenier reports that he displayed them in a room at Franconia College when he taught there in 1971 and ’72 — he claims, perhaps in self-deprecating hyperbole, that nobody ever saw it. A former student of his from Franconia, Allen Bramhall, offers a slightly different, fuller memory of the display:
I remember him hauling out his batch of cards and saying he didn’t know what to do with them. [S]ometime 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.
This “performance” prefigures both Sentences (individual poems on cards) and CAMBRIDGE M’ASS (wall display of a great number of poems all at once).
In 1978, Michael Waltuch published Sentences, a box with five hundred five-by-eight-inch cards, each with one short poem in the center (as well as a few paratextual cards: title, author, copyright, colophon). The sides of the box fold down to expose a stack of cards, so a reader does not have to dig them out or upend the box to get them out. The box unfolds into a bird shape, and the stack stands upon that bird-shaped base.
The poems are all in the IBM Selectric typewriter font in which Grenier wrote them. The evenly spaced typewriter font gave Grenier control over spacing and disposition of words and letters that, in those pre-PC days, he would otherwise have to cede to a typographer. And besides, is an “l” really so much less important than a “y” that the “l” should cede space to it? An example from the ongoing exchange between father and daughter scattered throughout Sentences:
As I type that on my computer right now, “could you” is longer than “stay here” even though they both have the same number of letters. In Sentences, on the other hand, those two lines are exactly the same width, a solid, stable little block of IBM Selectric typewriter font rather than the slightly top-heavy and leaning Times New Roman on my screen. The only imbalance in the Selectric text is the space between the words, inclined, as is the nature of a request, toward the one being asked something; in the last line, that space moves to center, the four-letter words balanced to either side, enacting the stability of “stay here.” Nor is the Selectic “AMY” such a large, urgent presence over the rest of the text.
Asked by Charles Bernstein, “What’s the relation of one card to another?,” Grenier replied, “None. But you can make one.” That’s superficially true in any collection, of course, with each poem in its own autonomous page-space, but rhetorically and materially bound to the others in a specific order. Sentences, however, offers a potential material form to that ambiguity. One could remove a card from the stack and isolate it. Somebody who owns a copy and finds a particular poem especially evocative could put it up somewhere on its own as a little broadside. Or a reader might arrange and rearrange the cards according to some personal or ephemeral rhetorical impulse, set up small stacks and sequences, or reshuffle the deck to experience novel juxtapositions. The arrangement, order, and juxtapositions can become the reader’s. Elsewhere, in discussing the break from ordinal rhetoric in Sentences, Grenier writes:
Meanwhile, the world was willed to chance, to change, by guaranteeing the separateness, but still finite (at large) possible relations among the communities of the different cards. “Necessary” alliances shewed to be structurally absurd by apparent abundance of actuality-in-possibility, “narrative” would be brought to a stop (but be seemingly infinitely jumping) by the (halt) (oxymoron) brought about by the author, arbitrarily, perhaps, but still in the service of — THAT that rules the waves.
It’s an exuberant & perhaps “youthful” aesthetic/athletic delighting in the actualization of any sequence as a “sentence” that appears to contribute to & record, that that happens — that did happen — over against the myriad things as sequence-structures in language that “might have been” & “weren’t” for that time, that were evident as articulately clattering nonetheless ghosts of possibility & figures from the past — formal resources vastly more potential, all that “didn’t” or “hadn’t” — were constantly struttering about, as possibles-in-actuality always almost before one’s nose?
More force to the democratization of syntax sequence! Demote the fixed! Totalitarian view of what looks like the “normal course of things” inevitably nowadays downfall toward depletion of given planet, begone! Faith in the miracle of the middle structure-world apparently needed/occurring in language, as its process reality (why this one rather than another one — or nothing — here?) — that’s “narrative” in Sentences.
All the possible arrangements and sequences that a codex foregoes, Sentences makes possible. The unbound cards imply all possible stacks and sequences as well as maximum rhetorical liberty for readers. There is no one way to read it, no authorial rhetoric beyond the humble arrangement of letters on each particular card.
And Grenier finds further amusement in the possibility that any given box of cards may be unique. When Waltuch had the cards printed up — five hundred poems for an edition of two hundred boxes — he had the daunting task of assembling 100,000 cards. John Batki (to whom, along with Anselm Hollo, CAMBRIDGE M’ASS is dedicated) offered Waltuch the students in his fiction-writing class at Harvard as a collating crew. Grenier raises the likelihood that a student may have occasionally missed or duplicated a card by mistake. Therefore, except for Grenier’s draft box in the Stanford University Library Special Collections Department, there may not even be a definitive set on which to run the permutations.
But readers do not always encounter Sentences as an object so radically manipulable. Even if the deck has been shuffled, one first encounters it in a particular order. Then, in the process of learning what is in the stack, one might begin to manipulate it. A reader on that first encounter does not, of course, have to read the cards in the order they are stacked, but might cut around in the deck. Flipping the next card or cutting the deck to a card deeper in the stack, one doesn’t know what is coming next any more than one does reading the cards one by one. It’s a blind movement on toward something else unknown (pretty much like life itself). Either way, card by card or in random cuts, a new reader experiences juxtapositions and sequences that neither the author nor the reader has chosen. But the very manipulability of the text means that there is no necessity to this order of the encounter, no authorial intention hanging over any particular sequence, which can be puzzling or even irritating for many readers. It could be in any order; it just happens to be in this one.
Even so, readers tend to respect the order of the stack. Waltuch writes, in an online exchange with Jessica Lowenthal, that he had not expected that sort of obsessive orderliness: “There’s no prescribed way to read the ‘boxed version.’ I do remember observing that most people were careful in their handling of the cards, although this surprised me. One can read the cards one at a time, stacking them back up on top of each other on a new stack, one can lay them out in groups of one’s own arrangement, one can shuffle them, one can pin them to a wall, etc.” In response, Lowenthal writes, “As to your surprise about how carefully readers manipulated the cards: I suspect that now the cards are handled with more care than ever before. I was afraid to touch the version I saw!” The copy of Sentences in the Poetry Collection of the University at Buffalo, for instance, shows precisely this sort of auratic respect. A look along the edge of the stack shows evidence of handling of the top cards (an ever so slight graying from the clean hands of scholars) that decreases to nothing toward the bottom. Obviously we scholars have respected the order and have been reading it as though it were a codex, the form we are most accustomed to.
Somebody who does not own a copy of Sentences (on sale in 1978 for $10 [Watten]) is likely to encounter it in a library’s rare books collection or in a private collection of rare modern poetry. Rarity creates aura. The unconventional form of the box (unfolding onto a plane from which the stack rises rather than untopping to reveal a cavity that contains the stack), the box’s cloth cover and faux-ivory clasps that hold it together, the heavy and broad cardstock of the text: these material details mark the work as something special — as does the lack of easy access to it except through special institutional or personal channels. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “The definition of the aura as a ‘unique phenomenon of a distance however close it may be’ represents nothing but the formulation of the cult value of the work of art in categories of space and time perception.” Sentences is, thus, a relic in the cult of modern poetry, untouchably distant for many readers even as they hold it in their hands, too precious to alter — such intimacy would seem irreverent. So though the form of Sentences suggests there is no necessary order, many readers end up treating some fortuitous order as sacred. Though Lowenthal “was afraid to touch the version [she] saw,” she goes on to write, “I watched as the owner of the box flipped randomly among the cards, producing a reading experience sort of like the online version (without the script), in that I read a set of cards randomized by an external hand.” The owner had a familiarity with the object that the scholar-pilgrim would not presume.
Lowenthal mentions the online version. Though Grenier liked the idea of making Sentences more widely and easily available, he was hesitant to allow it because he thought at first that it would permanently fix the order of poems, creating a canonical sequence. When he learned that Waltuch could write a program to shuffle the sequence for every site visit, he then approved the project. Through the Whale Cloth Press website, the text is no longer rare and difficult to access (though, of course, the box and cards still are). One reads the online version the way Lowenthal read the box someone else owned: “a set of cards randomized by an external hand.” Each access to the site generates a unique random sequence; a reader can go forwards and backwards within that sequence, but upon leaving and then reaccessing the site, repeating a sequence is astronomically unlikely. Nobody can establish any lasting order. When a juxtaposition creates some interesting effect, it is purely ephemeral. The one who delights in it can’t preserve it. Log off, and it’s gone. Having little in the way of temporal extension, those effects occur in a precious present. In a standard codex, I can turn back to a numbered-sequential page spread and resavor a delicious juxtaposition. In A Day at the Beach, I can page through till I find that combination-upon-a-page that I especially liked. If I owned a copy of Sentences, I could save out and set together a combination of cards. The material objects preserve meaning combinations across time and allow a reader to reaccess them.
Photograph by Geof Huth.
The online Sentences emphasizes more than anything else by Grenier the autonomy of each poem within the group. When I read a poem, I am, in the sequence of the reading experience, only here, an otherwise unmarked place within an unmarked expanse. It’s in no designated place that I can return to via a page number or bookmark, nor can I draw it out (abstract it) from the rest of the group and, like a card, give it its own place beyond the group. Because I don’t know where it is, I can’t return to it except by chance encounter. On a particular walk, I can’t place it except via direct contiguity with those next to it, and if I want to return to it, I can’t make a leap that abstracts from the text (no bird’s-eye view from above the woods such that I can see a shortcut), but only by following each poem (“one-one-one, things-following-after-each-other in the enactment of the occasion”) like a string of breadcrumbs back to the place I was looking for. Turn away, and the program eats all the breadcrumbs; finding one’s way back is a stumble through a freshly trackless wood.
That freshness with each reading is exhilarating. Reading the box with familiarity and intimacy (rather than with a sacred awe), a reader can manipulate the text, blaze a path on which to return, build meanings, and make connections that aren’t necessarily ephemeral. With “a set of cards randomized by an external hand,” it’s like reading a codex once again, with an order the readers have had no say in, even less say since readers cannot mark their own way around.
CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, on the other hand, has no obvious order, or even an obvious starting point — no first page, no top card. Without a grid, there is no easy way to follow from the top left corner across and down to the bottom right. That top corner, however, is actually an unlikely starting point.
Geof Huth nonetheless reports trying to read it that way:
As I read the book I read from the left across and then down, but I read in blocks, trying desperately to read every poem and not to read the same poem multiple times. The latter proved impossible, and I’m not sure I’ve read every poem on the poster, but I probably did. After a while, I began to use a ruler to mark my reading.
The work thus invites unconventional reading practices, alternatives to the grid.
Lyn Hejinian, whose Tuumba Press published CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, calls it a “field work,” more like a map, a “poster/map,” than like a conventional book. In such “works,” she writes, “the order of the reading is not imposed in advance. Any reading of these works is an improvisation; one moves through the work not in straight lines but in curves, swirls, and across intersections, to words that catch the eye or attract attention repeatedly.” On a map that lacks a latitude and longitude grid, sites have spatial relations with edges and with other sites on the map, but not with any external, abstract organization. Nothing is (unless with the external aid of Huth’s ruler) specifiably this far right and that far down.
The arrangement is too large and scattered for the eye to form an overall constellation. The large number and lack of any repeating cluster pattern means it is also not quite clear how many there are. (Michael Gottlieb’s 1980 review says there are “c. 265 poems” on the sheet. I counted 275 when I marked them off with paper scraps. But I counted only once, so I have no reason to believe my number is less approximate than his.) Like the number of trees in the woods, they are an imprecise many.
A map-reader doesn’t count up all the towns on the state map, but looks for routes and spatial relations. Nor does the map-reader necessarily begin at the upper left: that area has no special status. One can begin anywhere. If I’m looking for a good route to Galesburg, I’ll begin where I am. I’ll begin in the upper left corner only if I happen to be starting from the Northwest. Otherwise, the starting point could be any place.
Two possible surfaces on which to lay out CAMBRIDGE M’ASS for reading: a wall or a table. Depending on how it is mounted on a wall as well as the height of the reader, different poems would land at eye level and would make for natural starting points. From there, as Hejinian wrote, reading would proceed “in curves, swirls, and across intersections.” As attention wanders out of eye-level range, the reading experience would engage more and more of the body, not just the hands and eyes as in conventional reading: a tippy-toe neck-crane to reach the high ones, a crouch for the low ones. On a table (as I read it), the low ones were the most immediately accessible, and so my reading began most easily at the bottom of the page. Once the reading extended far enough along, I stood up, leaned over, and walked around to the left and right.
Since there was always a decision to make (where to next?) and a repeated need to reposition my body — that is, without the conventionally passive and still acceptance of whatever comes next — the mental and physical aspects of the reading process were full of self-conscious breaks. There is no simply getting absorbed in the text, but always a consciousness of the reading process. This text is something one is doing and enacting rather than just receiving.
Once the reading has begun, where to next? Reading can proceed along many paths and principles, contiguity only the most familiar one. When I read a codex, I read poems in contiguous sequence. Here, without sequence, there is still contiguity, but without a conventional structure for deciding which one is next, the choice is the reader’s own arbitrary ramble. Affective chance selects this one next for its shape or length — a shorter one (perhaps one of the many one-line or one-word poems) because it will take only a moment or a longer one (maybe nine whole lines) because I’m ready, after some short ones, for the heave of attention — or a word that leaps to the eye, maybe a word that echoes something else recently read.
Clusters of connection form. For instance, this poem:
where is a name
stands to the right of
is the one beer to have when you’re having more than one in
and just below
in use long after I
Those title lines — “LAURA,” “KIT,” and “YOU” — seem to suggest these three are about or addressing specific people, but it would take some ingenuity to find a thematic connection between them in the rest of the text. The connection, such as it is, is tenuous, a link of attention rather than of rhetoric.
In Sentences, the texts are isolated in the center of broad cards, inches of white space around each one. One can, of course, as Grenier said, make a connection between them, but it isn’t necessary. So something like “l o i k e w o i s e” (spaces between the letters) appears in splendid isolation so that the reader can appreciate the oddness of the expression on its own. But when the same poem appears in CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, it stands in a small white rectangle, the margins, like those of all the other rectangles, trimmed to fit it. The expression is a response, part of a conversation, apparently a response to something else in the crowd of texts around it. One possible vector of connection begins with this poem:
unable to bear
of the trees
upward fall as
air to heaven
Then it proceeds downward to the right to another instance of natural beauty: “the roses from across the street.” And then to the right of that, an ironic comment on the shared romantic sensibility of those two poems: “l o i k e w o i s e.” Or it may be a comment on the poem above it and slightly to the right, a sort of ironic “yeah, me too” to this:
no pattern of self as
straight line or crooked
meanderings of history as
lived as example for me
“[T]o words that catch the eye or attract attention repeatedly.” A repeated word suggests a rhetorical connection: three poems widely spaced across the sheet begin with the title line “POPLARS,” and since that word is capitalized, the eye may break the contiguity rule to leap a gap between them. Such links create constellations across the sheet. For instance, in the upper right corner, a word picture (very Ian Hamilton Finlay here),
cemetery cove cemetery cove cemetery cove
It connects via “cemetery” with,
— depending on how one decides to punctuate it, either an invitation to another stroll or a bizarre command for those who happen to be standing up for a second. And it connects even more closely with the imagery in,
quarry road sleep
quarry pond sleep
And it links further across the sheet to another with shared imagery and title line:
Attention, therefore, might not always be forward-directed toward completing more of the reading, but backward toward something read before, read anew as part of a constellation rather than as an isolated point of attention. These movements would be nonrectilinear, like the gridless vectors and shapes of the natural world.
And a scholarly reading would, of course, want to be complete, backfilling an area covered by a leap of attention or rounding off the poems in a sector or on an edge before moving onward.
It was originally, of course, sold as a poster, not as an object of study but as something to tack up on a wall and live with. On nonarchival paper, it would, used that way, eventually fall apart. In daily use, on the wall of a home or office, reading would likely be far more casual, less obsessive. Since the poems are all short, it would be easy to take a moment to read one, then read another contiguous one or else another that visually rhymes with it or that in some other way catches the eye. Such casual attention is likely to begin at some arbitrary place and then shift and twist around in no systematic way, unbound by any prior order or transcendent Cartesian-grid pattern of organization — aimlessly free. A reader who lives with it may well return, out of habit, affection, or proximity to eye level, to the same ones each time, come to recognize new or (with different readings) shifting patterns of connections and constellations across the sheet. Without an analytic plan (no ruler, no paper scraps, no breadcrumbs), a reader who lives with it most intimately may never read them all.
Photograph by Geof Huth.
One of the paradoxes of broadsides is that once we put them on our walls, we don’t usually read them anymore. The visual design becomes an icon, a citation of the text, a right-brain gestalt that includes the text and communicates what we remember of it without regularly demanding the focused and detailed left-brain attention of literal reading.  CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, however, overcomes that tendency by promising that the left-brain demand will be small: just a few words or lines. Might as well pause and read one; there are always more, and it will take just a moment. Icon, yes, but one that invites further and deeper readings, one dip at a time, rather than seal it off, as most broadside designs do, as a completed experience.
Though reading might proceed without plan and by impulse, Grenier did have a rough system for the placement of the poems. The title could have been shuffled into the mix, another sarcastic little two-word poem. But since it is separated off by extra black space in the lower right along with a few unmistakably paratextual boxes (dedication, author’s name, press name, copyright), it seems instead to have that special status. It’s a rude good-bye to New England and to the academy — both of them, in his subjective geography, centered in Cambridge — as he moved permanently to a nonacademic life in Northern California. Expanding outward from there, he selected some poems from Sentences, but mostly other poems from his notebooks of around that time. (He has called CAMBRIDGE M’ASS an “outtake” from Sentences. He typed them up on cards in the same Selectric font he’d used for Sentences, and he pasted them on the largest sheet that Hejinian could arrange to have printed offset in San Francisco. Grenier recalls that he was thinking of it as a rough and subjective map of the Boston area, centered on Cambridge, spreading out in the topography of memory, a “bird’s-eye-view” rather than, necessarily, cartographic accuracy. The black of the right margin would be the Atlantic Ocean, and the middle of the black edge at the top Ipswich Bay, Cape Ann the upper right and Connecticut the lower left — a map of mental relations. He also says he may have been thinking of Charles Olson’s references to Samuel Champlain’s 1607 map of Gloucester Harbor.
So there is a Louis Zukofsky reference toward the lower left corner, presumably toward Zukofsky’s New York, “L.Z. // ‘history their figment of miracle’”; near the Cambridge area in the middle, “who walked home from downtown Boston you and I”; near the upper right Cape Ann area, “sound receding steady toward shore dome tower // same three back again flying their shadows”; and in the extreme upper left (in a sort of New-Yorker’s-view-of-North-America foreshortening), “WINNIPEG / an hour’s variance.” Since the poems are arranged along the vectors and arcs of Grenier’s own memory, however, the places where he had lived or spent a lot of time will bulk larger than other areas where he did not, so any attempt to plot meaning onto conventionally scaled cartography will be pointless. Only experienced relations matter.
The spatial organization of CAMBRIDGE M’ASS reflects a sense of space Grenier says he found in New England. He has discussed how he found the sense of space there different from the sense of space he grew up with in Minneapolis. Two-dimensional Midwestern space, generally uninterrupted by hills and stretching across broad plains between its rivers, is generally laid out in grids, as is much of Minneapolis, including the neighborhood of Grenier’s childhood. In grid space, the relation between two addresses is easily calculable as an abstract and rational mathematical function. New England, however, was not laid out in arbitrary grids, but according to the contours of the land. Roads did not necessarily follow straight lines, meet at right angles, or respect the compass directions. The sense of space would spread out irregularly from a focal point. Routes would ray out from roundabouts along nonperpendicular vectors, and a journey might twist and shift from one roundabout focal point to another, vector leading to vector, from town to town toward a destination. Unlike a Midwestern grid, where distance is always easily calculable (so far west and so far north, say, along a grid of urban rectilinear blocks or rural mile-apart roads), New England distances and directions are more felt than calculated, more a matter of lived aesthetic awareness tied to the topographic contingencies of this specific place than a matter of abstract and generalized mathematical reasoning. To go from, for example, Cambridge to Gloucester, therefore, is to move along a series of twists and shifting vectors rather than smooth arcs and straight longitudinal lines. The layout of CAMBRIDGE M’ASS was to reflect that sense of space, where irregular contingencies have not been bulldozed away.
The boxed version of Sentences has the potential — for a reader willing to use it with intimacy and familiarity rather than with awed respect — to break standard sequentiality, to leave each poem standing in relation to the whole rather than to a rhetorical sequence or cluster arranged by an “external hand.” But as for CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, there is no way to read it in rhetorical sequence. Any ordering will be by the reader’s own arbitrary decision or impulse. Each autonomous poem always stands in relation to the whole work because the whole work stands within the reader-viewer’s field of vision — never hidden on other pages or deeper in the stack.
According to Grenier, copies were sold or given to friends, and as for the rest, some were rolled into shipping tubes, and some lay on the floor in stacks for years in the little room where Hejinian kept her hand press and her back stock. There was little interest in the work, and sales were negligible. Eventually, because she needed the room, she threw the remainder away.
2. Deep thanks are due to Robert Grenier for sharing with me his memories of how this broadside was composed and published, also to James Maynard of the Poetry Collection in the Special Collections Library of the University at Buffalo for his invaluable assistance and expertise.
3. Robert Grenier, Attention: Seven Narratives, A Curriculum of the Soul, 28 (Canton, NY: Institute for Further Studies, 1985), 12.
7. “Grenier in Conversation with Charles Bernstein,” Program 2, Close Listening, PennSound, University of Pennsylvania, 20 Oct. 2006, mp3.
8. Ron Silliman, Silliman’s Blog, Jan. 24, 2003.
9. Grenier, Sentences (Cambridge, MA: Whale Cloth, 1978), np.
10. “Grenier in Conversation.”
11. Grenier, Attention, 13–14.
12. “Interview and Discussion on 1964–1970s with Grenier, Al Filreis, Charles Bernstein, and Michael Waltuch in New York City, on March 19, 2010,” interview part 2, PennSound, University of Pennsylvania, mp3.
13. Silliman, Silliman’s Blog, March 12, 2003.
16. Silliman, Silliman’s Blog, March 12, 2003.
18. Geof Huth, “SCHENECTADY, M’ASS,” dbqp: visualizing poetics (blog), Feb. 9, 2010.
24. Nonetheless, Grenier provided a list of places he had lived in New England that he considers relevant to the organization of CAMBRIDGE M’ASS. Along with each address is the length of time he lived there — perhaps a suggestion of the magnitude of each place in memory and, thus, the relative area it governs on the poster. Here is the list:
Weld Hall, Harvard Yard 9 months
Fall 1959–Spring 1960
… Ellery Street (rooming house) 6 months
c. Nov. 1960–April 1961
57 West Cedar Street 2 months
Boston, MA (cellar on Beacon Hill)
… Putnam Avenue; 598, & later 429 Franklin St. 28 months
c. Nov. 1962–June 1965 (minus 5 summer months in Intervale, NH)
6 Duley Street 12 months
Gloucester (Lanesville), MA
Sept. 1970–August 1971
21A Washington Avenue 25 months
June 1976–July 1978
+ of course visits to various other spots around & about (e.g. 2 apts of my wife’s parents on Crafts Street in Newtonville, MA). (Grenier, email message to author, August 7, 2010.)
Also relevant is an interview in which Grenier discusses where he lived and what those places meant to him during his college years and early twenties in New England. “Interview and Discussion of 1959–1964 with Grenier, Al Filreis, Ron Silliman, and Bob Perelman at the Kelly Writers House, on October 27, 2009,” PennSound, University of Pennsylvania, mp3.
26. And still more radical are Grenier’s drawing poems, written in four colors and published on cards. The cards are photoreproductions of the notebook pages in which he writes them, including on the flat card, the image of the notebook’s page gutter. The lines of the letters and words overlap one another, and the orthography is highly unconventional, so the reading process involves figuring out what the letters are, as well as how those letters arrange into words and the words into an overall text. These minimalist poems bring the reader back to that long-ago moment when reading was a new skill and the process of mentally assembling and interpreting lines and loops of ink was an intentional process, not the second nature it’s become. So the reader becomes conscious not only of the mental work of sequencing, but also of the basic literacy work of decipherment. Some examples of this series include the box of cards What I Believe transpiration/transpiring Minnesota (Oakland, CA: O Books, 1991) and the online set Penn Scans, Whale Cloth Press, 2009. See also his comment on that series, “Penn Scans Note,” Whale Cloth Press, January 3, 2010.
Listening to ‘The Sea-Elephant’
Williams has remained a foundational poet for me for decades: the exuberance, variety, and transparency of his formal experimentation; the surprising eloquence amid his sometimes bumptious democratic stylistic affirmations; the complexity of the political-formal negotiations throughout Paterson; his unflagging honesty — there are many ways his writing remains of the greatest interest. However, during the decades I’ve been reading and rereading his work, there have always been the lesser moments in poems I value very highly, the not particularly notable pieces, and even some downright clunkers like “Tract”: “I will teach you my townspeople / how to conduct a funeral —” My intuition is that the problems are quite closely bound up with the strengths.
“The Sea-Elephant” has moved from somewhere in clunker/not-interesting territory to become a poem I find quite fascinating. This is not due to any perspicacious reading on my part; rather, it’s because I listened to Williams reading it.
This experience has split “The Sea-Elephant” into different objects. As a poem on the page, its quatrains enact the typical Williams tussle between syntax, prosody, and lineation. The four-line boxes display a visual metric that has little relation to the sound, at least as Williams himself voiced it in the recordings we have:
the strangeness of the sea —
a kind of
Ladies and Gentlemen!
sea-monster ever exhibited
Here, as throughout much of Williams’s verse, we can see (i.e., read) his polemic, as he uses democratic American materials to attack that doubleheaded ogre of his poetics, England, an opponent that was both passé (sonnets, iambic pentameter) and more fashionably advanced than Williams’s own work (think The Waste Land). After decades of Williams’s quasi-hegemonic influence on American poetry, such quatrains may look normative to us, but line breaks such as “a kind of / heaven” and “exhibited / alive” were unfathomable for many readers at first.
Much the same polemic can be detected in the oral performance, but in that medium “The Sea-Elephant” takes up the battle quite differently, dramatizing Williams’s American (anti-Eliotic) poetic principle in a suite of voices, with what I call a ‘poetic’ voice recurring amid interruptions from a circus carny, the sea-elephant, a fussy woman, and ending with the poet breaking out in a sarcastic parody, halfway to a falsetto [MP3].
It takes only the briefest introspection to be reminded of the foundational difference between listening to a poem and reading it. To bracket the complexities memory would bring in, let’s make it a poem read or heard for the first time. I will bypass the complexities of neurological processing and speculations about the tangled relations of sight and sound. I am concerned here with the middle ground of human perception.
Reading is voluntary, whereas with listening there’s a basic passivity. While I can listen carelessly or even with hostility and thus I have some control over how the sense is being made, nevertheless, this control is secondary: the speaker’s words, affect, timbre, timing, volume, pitch-contour, and intonation are inescapably primary physical facts. But with reading nothing happens unless my eyes activate the poem, and any instant that desire flags, reading ceases. On a bad day, with a poem I’m not interested in, my reading-motor may stop every few seconds. It’s not exemplary behavior, I grant. But whether it stutters or not, reading provides a more capacious temporal vantage than listening. While construing the clumps of letters at the focal center (i.e., reading words), my eyes simultaneously receive a sense of the words and spaces on the rest of the page or screen. It’s an unfocused sense, but it means that in a bare way to read is to see a bit into the near future (and, symmetrically, the near past). When listening I’m more confined to the present, though there is some sense that holds the sound from the near past together while syntax and semantics are being construed. (Again, I’m ignoring the case of re-hearing a piece where I can sense a future vantage as I anticipate certain passages I know will be arriving next.)
Beyond such simple facts of sensory processing, in my experience there’s been a most basic difference: my emotional set toward what I read is critical, hard to please, while much of what I hear I tend to like or accept. Am I home to two distinct sensory beings? Or does reading push in the direction of privacy (autonomy, solipsism) while listening is irreducibly social?
It’s tempting to dramatize this difference. William James writes that the separation of one mind from another is absolute: “Neither contemporaneity, not proximity in space, nor similarity of quality and content are able to fuse thoughts together which are sundered by this barrier of belonging to different personal minds. The breaches between such thoughts are the most absolute breaches in nature.” Can James’s dramatic, eschatological language apply to a more intimate, counterintuitive breach: the breach within a single mind between the eye and ear, reading and listening? Perhaps so; but then again it’s a breach that is constantly traversed in commonsense discussion. As we listen to the poet read the written poem, we can attend to slips and surprising emphases, but these are simply matters of performing a score; any distance between reading and hearing is continually normalized by the fact that we’re forced by the language we use to say “The Sea-Elephant” is the same sequence of words whether it’s read or heard, i.e., the same poem. Still, it will be more interesting here to explore the different territories of listening and reading than to map the two onto one another.
Listening has fundamentally changed my judgment of the poem, not only adding qualities I had simply missed in reading it but eliminating an irritating fuzziness that only existed on the page. Reading (at the “high end” at least) is in the service of exact reproduction. Take two quite different examples from both the arts that can be perceived by reading, music and poetry: there is Olson’s familiar claim that the projective poet is to use the typewriter to make the page a score, thus unifying the written and spoken poem; and there is the antique anecdote I picked up in my days of reading record jackets that has Brahms being asked if he’s going to the concert and him replying, no, he’s just read the score and heard a perfect performance of the symphony in his head; it would only get botched in the concert hall. Brahms and Olson are quite distinct, I’m sure we all agree, but both are asserting that reading is an exact activity. The guarantors of this exactitude are the poem on the page and the musical score, both of which insist on perfect, reproducible performance.
My initial reading experience of “The Sea-Elephant,” as I try to reconstruct it, was hardly perfect. But its imperfection supports my sense that reading aims at exactitude. As far as I can remember, I never would actually finish reading the poem. My reading eye would always bump off it, noticing only the quatrains, mostly two- or three-word lines with single-word lines appearing unsystematically, reinforcing my sense that Williams’s line breaks were always a seat-of-the-pants operation. The only specific that stands out in memory is an irritant: “Blouaugh!”
I had never liked reading Williams’s nonlexical moments. Poem XX of Spring and All: “The sea that encloses her young body / ula lu la lu”; the 10/30 entry from The Descent of Winter: “To freight cars in the air / … / pah, pah, pah / pah, pah, pah, pah, pah”; “The Trees”; and “For a Low Voice,” among others. And of course not to forget the locus classicus from Paterson: “And, derivatively, for the Great Falls, / PISS-AGH, the giant lets fly! good Muncie, too.”
These moments were all downers, but “Blouaugh!” seemed especially annoying. Some non- or quasi-linguistic sounds are more favorable to transcription than others. “Ula lu” and “pah” at least look precise — one knows what they’re supposed to sound like. But how is “Blouaugh!” pronounced? One syllable or two? Was it “Blow” + “augh!” or was it more like a stretched-out “Blog!”? Not being able to tell instantly (and “Blouaugh!” appears three times in the poem) would always push me on to some other poem.
But listening to the “The Sea-Elephant” changes that. “Blouaugh!” is no longer an ungainly phonetic blur to vex the exacting lone reader: its differing manifestations are key parts of the oral narrative of the poem. “The Sea-Elephant” is a publicly performed tragicomedy of poetics.
It’s as if the technologies of sound reproduction have reversed the moment of Pisistratus (the tyrant of Athens who, the lore has it, instigated whatever process it was that got Homer written down, transforming the Iliad and Odyssey from variable oral poems into fixed texts). But now, the fixed letters of the text can be performed variously as the following versions of “Blouaugh!” [MP3].
Just as the three instances of “Blouaugh!” differ, one performance of the poem can differ greatly from another. The one I will be focusing on is from an MP3 (1:52) made from a Williams reading at Princeton in 1952, followed by Williams’s comment (1:39) that is at least as interesting as the poem, if not more so [MP3].
Here, I will be a phonological docent for this performance, one that, as I say, completely changed my idea of the poem, making it into a specific event, more capacious and less self-similar than the printed poem.
Typical of many an oral performance, Williams makes a mistake in the reading, dropping the “too-” from “too-heavy,” but that fact is of little note. Much more significant are the social, sonic, and rhetorical dimensions clearly dramatized by the soundscript. A second performance of the poem is available on PennSound, from a reading in 1955 at UCLA where Williams sounds much more damaged, still a trouper, but forcing the sequence of social tones and dramatic turns through a voice that can’t pronounce or modulate all that well. Nor does it sound like he’s seeing the page very clearly [MP3]. This less felicitous version makes clear how much one performance may differ from another, but it also reveals Williams performing the same soundscript (i.e., the same sequence of voices and the same schema of accentuation in the phrasing). The second version takes longer: 2:15, and is tough sledding, especially if you go on to listen to the long comment (7:40) where Williams slowly discusses the variable foot and his invention of the stairstep line (which “The Sea-Elephant” does not use) then rambles on about the need for American poets to overcome iambic pentameter, which he tries to define but gets wrong [MP3]. It’s interesting evidence (if any more were needed) about how central an obsession metrics were for him from pre-WWI Imagism to the end of his life, although listening to the earlier reading (i.e., turning back to the 1952 recording) must remind us of the crucial fact that his practice would often, as it does here, far outstrip his theory.
Somewhat analogous to the Homeric situation, where you could hear a sketch (a barebones narrative with basic ornamentation [epithets to fill out the meter]) or you could order the full-dress elaborated performance (I wonder if they charged by the simile?), I’m proposing, tongue not totally in cheek, that we consider the performance here (poem + comment) as a more complete version than the printed poem. While this is an homage to a favorite performance moment, the temporality of the situation is multilayered. The poem was written in 1929; Williams is reading and commenting in 1952, post-WWII, post-stroke, and post-heart attack; and we are retrieving his voice via twenty-first-century technology. To my ear, this version resolves some of the awkwardness of the poem, redeeming its touching openness from the bumpy satire it keeps falling into.
To underline my interest in the comment, I’ll print it at the end of this piece, lineated to mime the printed poem. The transcribed comment contains almost exactly the same number of words, so my lineation works nicely until the last quatrain. Embedded in the playfulness of my gesture is a serious proposition concerning Williams: I want to dramatize the distance in his work between text and voice. The two frames are not opposed, but they are doing very different things.
In giving my sense of the 1952 performance, I will be counting in the bits of audience participation that are audible; for instance, the satisfied surprise and shock of the listeners dissolving into screams and laughter as they re-hear the second, louder and louder, “Blouaugh!,” Williams and the audience both expressing wants and fears via the lower half of the phonological apparatus without much syllabic fuss at all from tongue, teeth, and lips. Their instantaneous oral negotiation is audible: a sturdy play-contract has been established, on the fly: it’s as if the poet has said, I’ve scared you again, but you’ll recognize that there’s nothing scary, I’m not a sea-elephant, you’re not a fish, you’re not a victim of the raging appetite whose crudity I’ve forced you to hear again. The audience laughs and screams like kids at Halloween, shocked into a skittish glee by the unpredictable irruption of the now-recognizable monster [MP3].
To one whose knowledge is produced and ratified by reading, the sonic medium is elementary and vague: [MP3]. In the sound universe we no longer read Williams for line breaks with all the (scholastic) drama of those decisions: quarrels over metrics are replaced by social agons. Nor are poems machines made of words as Williams’s oft-repeated claim has it; rather than the word, the phrase becomes the unit, with contestatory foregrounding of various social voices, some pushed more toward quoted presentation: [MP3], some more thoroughly caricatured: [MP3]. We no longer hear Williams railing against he once called the medieval masterbeat, iambic pentameter. In the history of Anglo American modernism, to iamb or not to iamb was a charged matter — “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave” — but in the sonic universe of “The Sea Elephant” such battles cease. [MP3] is a particularly well-balanced floating stretch of regular beats, which could be a snatch of iambs, or trochees, indifferently.
In the naive, echoey world of sound, what does it matter if we hear TRUN dled / FROM the / STRANGE ness / OF the / SEA — catalectic trochees (final syllable missing) — or TRUN / dled FROM / the STRANGE / ness OF / the SEA — acephalous iambs (first syllable missing)? Either way, [MP3] is a symmetrical stretch of stressed/unstressed syllables enclosed by stresses, which is then followed by its inverse, [MP3], a symmetrical stretch of stressed/unstressed syllables enclosed by non-stresses. What could sound more sea-like, womb-like (trundle bed, bundle of joy), than the sum of these two phrases with their syntax withholding the subject of the sentence and thus reinforcing the sense of unending suspension? [MP3]
The subject of the sentence then bursts upon us, fulfilling, in some technical sense, the syntactic contract. The sentence-construing listener is owed one subject (something is trundled from the sea, but what?), which is then provided. What the ear hears, though, is not syntactic completion but the brash interruption of a different intonation. At least, that’s what’s in the soundscript: Williams himself doesn’t initially realize he’s inhabiting a different speaker until he’s halfway through the phrase.
No more saline, womb-like undifferentiation; we are now gendered beings, and are addressed as such: either ladies or gentlemen, fractions shied through Life’s gate, as Melville had it. And the fractures don’t stop there; we’re customers, we’re classed (we’re at the circus), and we’re regional (as the Bronx/Jersey nasality informs us). Via accent and denotation, the carny’s voice has made it clear that the greatest sea-monster ever exhibited alive, the gigantic sea-elephant! [MP3] is, precisely, not Moby Dick.
But the poet cedes no ground. He grabs the mic back (so to speak) and using a slightly lower pitch and a non-nasal seriousness pronounces the fact that although the poem has just quoted commercial speech it nevertheless it has serious designs on articulating the poetic sublime.
The carny-voice was using the American commercial vocative: the address to the customer. In reaction from this, Williams’s poet-voice addresses the sublime using the Latin vocative [MP3] (and there’s a real argument to be made that “O” in that construction is not English, but Latin). But once we take the part of the sea-elephant (something the vocative suggests that we do), how do we feel about what the voice is saying to us? The tone seems concerned, but we hear, first thing: [MP3] — that’s not a compliment. But then again, no, it turns out that a solicitous question is being asked: [MP3]. But no, again, without warning another insult: [MP3].
Throughout the poet’s speech the rhythmic emphasis is earnest, as is the tone and the speed of assertion: everything hinges on the series of stressed words the poet punches out, fraught with insistence. An odd sequence when they’re listed in print: WALLOW FLESH FISH APPETITE STUPIDITY SICK SMALLNESS LEAVES LIEF ENORMOUS SEA SPEAK! Note the dying falls, not just on APPETITE or SMALLNESS, but the monosyllables, too: SICK, LIEF.
In one way, the poet and carny are saying similar things: for both the sea-elephant is monstrous. But where the carny offers mastery for just a quarter, the poet is making complex, not to say contradictory, demands:
A lot is being asked of the sea-elephant here. On the one hand, he’s a sublime wallow of carnality, Pig Cupid’s big brother. He’s an ally in the fight against The Waste Land; a monster to use against some genteel April which often seemed to Williams to have Eliot’s copyright on it. Eliot’s well-known “April is the cruellest month” is, of course ironic, but Williams seems to have disregarded this to give vent to his annoyance here and in poems such as “April Is the Saddest Month,” which depicts the aftermath of dogs mating.
Beneath his undeniable cynicism Williams shows himself (here as so often) capable of being jejune, smitten with spring, Keats-ish. Via a sonic pirouette (leaves = lief), what were the trite symbols of spring, [MP3], become a site of his own desire as he insists that [MP3]. “Lief” is a word, though not one the ear hears much at all, an odd, rusty adjective, adverb, even an obsolete noun (= dear, sweetheart), but mostly used in “I had as lief …” Here and elsewhere Williams uses it as his own idiosyncratic noun to indicate some sort of utopian leafy permission. In “Asphodel” he writes: “A thousand tropics / in an apple blossom. / The generous earth itself / gave us lief. / The whole world / became my garden!”
But if the battle is to rescue modern poetry from old-fashioned docility (descriptive seasonality), the cry [MP3] is an odd-sounding call to arms. If the goal is to bring poetry and the present into closer alignment, then wouldn’t the carny be more contemporary than the poet? Perhaps the would-be modern poet, tangled up in disgust and desire by long e’s in [MP3] had better turn the mic over to the sea-elephant:
Does one hear this as rebuke, release, self-satire, or affirmation? If we imagine a scale of earnestness stretching from the religious awfulness of the Eliotic Thunder’s DA to a bad boy pretending to puke on the marble floors of culture, just how solemn-sarcastic is [MP3]? The primary aggression could be directed at the carny (O blasphemous venality of the commercial world, [MP3]), or Eliot (O pedantic smallness of poetic ambition, [MP3]), or himself (O overblown poet commanding the enormous sea to speak, [MP3]). Each alternative sounds plausible:
The poetic voice’s subsequent elaboration will not resolve any ambiguities. It begins in the first person as if the poet were ventriloquizing the sea-elephant, but quickly switches perspective to the poet observing the sea-elephant.
Just as it is not easy to tell if [MP3] was a cry of ejection or incorporation, desire and disgust are not disentangled here. Is this eating or spitting up? Authoritative, kingly appetite or childish puking? This equivocation extends even to the idiosyncratic verb “gulching back”: the sea-elephant’s gullet is an insatiable gulf that vomits fish back out.
As if to comment on such gorging messiness, another voice is heard:
On the page, the enclosing parentheses, “(In // a practical voice),” is meant as a stage direction for voicing. Awkward though it may seem on the page, it demonstrates that Williams was thinking of the poem as a soundscript, to use my earlier term. For the listener, however, the phrase is simply redundant. Here, the sarcasm of Williams’s tone is dominant, and it’s hard not to assimilate this woman to a stereotype of the anticorporeal matron (second cousin to Loy’s English Rose, say, in “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose”). This sense is quickly reinforced by repetition, as we soon hear the woman again, a little bit more emphatic in dismissing the historical mysteries of the sea-elephant, the old gender-bending mermaid.
Having set up this woman as a satirical target, Williams then uses the full volume of the sea-elephant against her. There is no ambiguity here: this is the sea-elephant as emblem for Williams’s rejection of domesticity.
As if the sea-elephant had just spoken for him, the poet uses the beast’s undifferentiated massiveness to dismiss all craft and cleverness. The immediate referent for the following would seem to be trained seals (Williams wrote “The Sea-Elephant” after a visit to the circus in 1929); but on the page these lines seem emblematic of Williams’s lifelong struggle with line breaks.
Swing — ride
on wires — toss balls
contort yourselves —
Rather than engage in such prosodic cleverness, why not just bellow one’s own presence? You other trained, contorted poets may worry over the damn line breaks, but for me it’s all desire, all the time. At least, that’s what poet-as-sea-elephant is saying. In fact, the actual line breaks are an excellent species of Williams’s own prosodic contortions.
As I mentioned earlier, here Williams ventriloquizes the sea-elephant as Aphrodite, rising from the sea.
But if the sea-elephant is the poet’s democratic love-goddess of insatiable appetite, then the third “Blouaugh!” becomes the approved cry of triumph, appetite asserting its priority:
Positivity is harder to pronounce. Sea-elephants can interrupt poems, but they don’t seem to do as well in writing them. Williams tries to make the sea-elephant emblematic of his own poetic enterprise, indulging in a small fantasia of hetero carnal bliss:
But the bounty of such triumphant identification proves ephemeral and the poem suddenly switches without warning back to literary polemic. The target is some vague bolus of Pound (whose catchy but ultimately nondescript satire is quoted: “Winter is icummen in”), Eliot, and ye-olde Britishness. The poem ends with finicky, aggressive sarcasm:
This makes the audience laugh (of course, the “Blouaugh!”s, the carny, and the woman had softened them up). Throughout the reading, Williams seems to have had a strong hold on the listeners. (This will become even clearer in the comment.) It’s not that much of a stretch to compare Williams’s repertoire of vocals manners in the poem to the carny’s behavior: both are examples of “aggressive outreach,” call it. The product the carny is urging on the public is a sighting of the sea-elephant; with Williams, the product that is recommended so sharply is his poetry. And if we remember the context of Williams’s career at the time of the writing, this final sarcastic turn can sound rather sour, a grumpy realization of his secondary position. Rather than an omnipotent male disporting in the sea, the poet is a married man in New Jersey, probably taking the kids to the circus. Aggrieved masculinity chafes within petty rituals of renewal. It’s 1929, and poets still have to write about Spring.
Listening to the poem, this intense deformation of the poet’s voice at the end makes an odd conclusion. The emotional level — what old-fashioned terms the sonic universe seems to bring to mind! — seems not far from grade school sarcasm. Perhaps some of Williams’s polemic is directed toward his own practice as a poet: he is conflicted about his own partially repressed Keatianism, but is the aggressive inarticulation of the sea-elephant any way forward?
Before I turn to the comment, I want to reflect on the temporal issues of my procedure. “The Sea-Elephant” was written in 1929 in the midst of Williams’s polemic over the place of his vision of poetry in America and Europe. He had, at that time, only equivocal evidence that he wasn’t losing that fight. By the time he read the poem and commented on it in 1952, he was a few years into the physical battering (strokes, heart attacks, bouts of depression) that would unravel him, but he had also begun to live the life of the acclaimed poet, reading at universities, being listened to, etc. And here I am, belatedly realizing that new technologies make for new ways of writing and reading. Still, I find the comment quite a concentrated example of the qualities that seem to remain most useful for poetry.
The way the audience picks up the vulgar suggestion in Williams’s nearly whispered rumination shows how closely they’re listening:
This was not an isolated trope for Williams. Discussing another reading (NYU, 1949) where “he had read one or two confessional pieces that had not intended to read, he told the friend who had arranged the reading that he felt like he had been ‘talking into a felt mattress.’ Confessing in public felt as if you have pulled ‘back your foreskin (if you have one) in public.’”
But the moral here, to my ear at least, is not that Williams was an unreconstructed phallic monster. “The Sea-Elephant” can certainly be read as a phallic attack on femininity/feminization. But in the comment Williams finds his wife’s remark informative, and it leads him to a complex perspective on his own aggressivity. To be “rough” is, finally, to display one’s “timidity”:
Semantically, what follows is a non-sequitur: [MP3]. Logically, this explanatory “Because” is puzzling. The intertwining of masculine display/fear is caused by arguments over poetic decorum? But on the emotional level, such sudden leaps into the arena of modernist authority have been occurring throughout the poem.
In what follows, Williams begins with an earnest attempt at decorous discussion:
The key word here is “belittle.” Williams is not (ostensibly) belittling them; but they, as we will hear in a moment, have already belittled him. Meanwhile, as he warms to the rage he’s about to vocalize, he shouts out his most paradoxical poetic credo:
I find this very moving, if endlessly complicated. One can take this as another version of the real language of people, but that doesn’t account for much of the substance of the poem, not to mention the framing. The audience is the poetry, but needs the poet (apparently in a superior position) to sublate them. I won’t attempt to untangle the complications of this. Again, my intuition (the same faculty that saw Williams’s strengths and flaws as a baggy unity at the beginning of the essay) suggests that this may be an unresolvable knot.
The poet may be in a superior position, lifting the audience up, but, typical of Williams’s sudden reversals, his next position is low indeed:
The audience’s loud laughter is ultimately as impossible to parse as “Blouaugh!” But it strikes me as entirely plausible that one element animating their explosion of pleasure is some sense of the kinship of the sea-elephant and the worm. Both fit easily into the tragicomedy of phallic authority we’ve been hearing. Whether or not one grants this connection, the audience’s pleasure is a palpable fact and fleshes out Williams’s insistence that the audience is the poetry.
Ladies and Gentlemen!
there fish enough for
Flesh has lief of you
to let them glide down
a practical voice) They
is that woman’s
Swing — ride
contort yourselves —
hates to expose
more sensitive … feelings you
rough. At least it’s a
one as I am, at
belittle them — such as
an aura that
This project is an experiment in critical address for which I owe great thanks to Louis Cabri, guest editor of ESC, where a version of this piece appeared; and to Michael Hennessey, who started, and to Sarah Arkebauer, who completed, the process turning segments of the Williams MP3 into clickable sound-quotes. And that such MP3 files are available thanks are owed Charles Bernstein for assembling PennSound.
Quotations by William Carlos Williams are from The Collected Poems: Volume I, 1909-1939, copyright ©1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
A version of this essay appeared previously in ESC: English Studies in Canada 33, no. 4 (2007): 37–53, as part of a special issue on poetry and sound edited by Louis Cabri and Peter Quartermain.
4. See Jay Bochner, “Mina Loy and W. C. Williams, the modern poetic line and the gendered city,” for a great account of the initial shock of Williams’s lines. In Bochner, An American Lens: Scenes from Alfred Stieglitz’s New York Secession (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 162–181.
6. Of course, one can read faces, paintings, skies, etc. And parole in liberta, calligrammes, the vast variousness of lettrist writing require quite other notions of reading. But for this discussion, I’m intending a plain denotative sense of reading: sequential processing of marks on paper.
7. The actual practice of Western music loosens or even attacks this precision: think of Cage and post-Cage procedures. This turning away from exactitude can be traced back to the sprechstimme of Cage’s teacher, Schoenberg. And prior to that there are the traditions of cadenza improvisation (Mozart, Beethoven) filling in figured basses (Bach).
13. See Eric Havelock, The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982) and Alfred Lord, The Singer of Tales, ed. Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).
16. Pig Cupid is from Mina Loy, “Songs to Johannes” in The Last Lunar Baedeker, sel. and ed. Roger L. Conover (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 53. Williams’s sea-elephant is mostly male, though the gender story is tangled. Halfway through Williams mentions a beard (and that could be ambiguous); he next ventriloquizes the sea-elephant as female (if you accept the low-key allusion to Aphrodite rising from the sea); and then near the end the sea-elephant is triumphantly depicted as disporting with his harem, while always remembering to eat.
19. This is another Keatsian facet of Williams, who was never shy about hosting other consciousnesses: cf. one of Keats’s less famous sound bites on negative capability: “if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel,” from John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, ed. Maurice Buxton Forman, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931), 74.
June 29, 1965
I was so glad to get your letter. We never did meet at Weequahic Park for lunch but they’ll be other times for that. I used to go to the park every day and write. Each day I’d write a few lines of what I thought was a complete poem. Then I put them all together and called it The Green Lake Is Awake.
Anita is crying now. Paul is sleeping and Rosemary is getting ready for bed. She has it pretty rough being with them all day long. We seldom get out. Sunday we went to the movies of 8th St. N.Y. and saw The Red Desert by Antonioni. It’s a beautiful film about a woman or women in general, and how they are so confused in this world or the anti-nature world that man trys [sic] to make for himself. Sometimes it’s such an unnatural world where none of his real feelings come through. On the way out of the movie we met Ted Berrigan going in. He is publishing my long poem and it will probably be out next month. Rosemary made a beautiful cover for it. It’s called FITS OF DAWN. I’m starting to get nervous and excited about it.
I read your poems a number of times. Of the three little ones I liked “What do you say, bank named for a cripple” etc. best. Of the long one part I I liked better than part II. In fact I found something nice in all of them but sometimes a line or word brought me down and I couldn’t get with the reality that you must have felt. What I mean is at the sacrifice of making it a sure poem, you may have taken something from it. What I felt most was Part I.
I think I’m obsessed with reality, I don’t mean realism but that sense of reality, like “I’m really here and I feel it” even though I can’t explain it. Something like that. Which everyone feels and you recognize it when you see it in a poem.
As for my own poetry, I haven’t been writing much at all. Maybe it’s working inside me but who knows. Sometimes I think maybe I’ve done the best I could and everything [cut off in photocopy] through my head. I go to the clinic at 9:00 pm on tuesday night and talk to my psychiatrist for an hour. Many unsettled things. Who wants to transmit my neurosis to my children? or hold back love to my wife? I’ve had needed to go for a long time and finally I’ve done it.
I just can’t wait for my vacation. We are going down the shore. The Jersey shore is so beautiful. We went to North Wildwood last year and that water and sand and us playing in the sand is on my brain.
Tell me about where you are. Is Julie with you? I hope she’s all right. That was a pretty big experience she went through; and you too.
A Music & art form. It sounds great. Or is it — not as good as it sounds. That word I obliterated was “boring.” I didn’t want to give you any ideas. But I can’t really imagine it.
1. Newark reservoirs are very low. Everyone is walking around dirty.
2. Paul is always dirty but gets a bath every night and a shower.
3. Every time the weather is really hot the fish in the lake keep jumping out and you think you saw something but it was real.
4. Rosemary is almost finished with therapy. Her husband is just starting.
5. No amount of wisdom or learning can make a person live in the present. He just has to live.
6. The west does not understand the east.
7. Nor does the east “ the west.
8. They are both the same — naked.
9. Poetry is a flock of geese flying out of formation being in formation.
10. This news is bullshit. But it was real?
Regards to Julie. Love from Rosemary.
Sending you some poems. They are in John Perreault’s new magazine called Elephant. I’ll ask John to send you a copy when I see him. If I had an envelope I’d send you my copy but I want to get this letter off early in the morning.
*Send me more poems. If you don’t want criticism just write “NO CRITICISM” just like “HANDLE WITH CARE.” Besides, criticism can be boring and I like to read poems more than I like to criticize them.
Joe Ceravolo’s poems are like the old lady who helps a boy scout across the busy street. They are also like the truck driver who stops his truck to let them cross safely, toots his horn and waves. They are also like the nickel in the boy scout’s pocket that was not bent by being run over by the truck.
Previously published in Kulchur 5, no. 18 (Summer 1965): 105.
I wrote this little appreciation in 1976 for the Poetry Project magazine The World. I’m pretty sure it was the second piece of prose about poetry I had ever done. This was a special issue (#30) of The World devoted to reviews, interviews, etc. For all the poetry written and published around The Project from the late ’60s through the mid-'70s, there was little interest in criticism or poetics, both of which smacked of the Establishment. I know that I absolutely loved the poems of Joe’s that I had seen, the three early collections plus a few in magazines like Locus Solus, Art and Literature, and Big Sky, and I remember wanting to do a lot of quoting.
To me, Joe had a miraculous decade when he was one of the most original poets writing; Fits of Dawn (C Editions, 1965), Wild Flowers Out of Gas (Tibor de Nagy, 1967), and Spring in This World of Poor Mutts (Columbia U. Press, 1968) still belong with the best poetry of the past fifty years. I didn’t get to know Joe till the 1970s, but it’s clear that in the ’60s poems burst out of him, torn up and beautiful in Fits of Dawn, a little more connected (though by no means coherent) and beautiful in the others. I happened upon the Tibor de Nagy chapbook first and it bowled me over. When a couple of years later someone xeroxed Fits of Dawn for me, its explosions of language, feeling, meaning, and non-meaning (I’ve always suspected that a fair amount of the book was generated by fake translation), bowled me over anew.
When six of us got together twenty years ago to put together a Selected Ceravolo for Coffee House (Larry Fagin, Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, David Shapiro, Paul Violi and I), I remember how exciting and inspiring it was — not just batting things back and forth but reading the poems and hearing them read aloud. Unsurprisingly to me, we wound up choosing almost all poems from the ’60s. Clearly Joe did extraordinary work after that too, and some of his later poems — though I would argue, more often parts of poems — are up there with the early ones, more of which saw the light of day with the publication of Transmigration Solo (Toothpaste, 1979). I remember going through a whole bunch of Joe’s very short poems that same year with Paul and choosing things for INRI (Swollen Magpie) beginning with “O moon / How ghost you are,” which is as magical as anything Joe ever wrote.