Robert Grenier's "Always / Only /A / Plenum": A Reaction and A Response
by Tim Wood
(click image for larger view)
"Always/Only/A/Plenum" by Robert Grenier.
I wrote the following essay on Robert Grenier’s “Always/Only/A/Plenum” in the Spring of 2001 when I was a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley. I was first introduced to Grenier’s poetry a couple years before while studying with Lyn Hejinian at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Lyn brought an oversized box of color Xeroxes into our workshop. Behind a typed introduction by Leslie Scalapino, colored copies of poems handwritten in red, green, and blue Sharpies radiated from the pages. Their initial illegibility made me feel like an atavistic archivist deciphering hieroglyphs. But as my eyes adjusted and I got used to looking at Grenier’s writing, I started to wonder why more books of poetry weren’t handwritten like this. I thought of O’Hara’s “Why I’m Not a Painter” and of Cy Twombly’s calligraphic graffiti paintings. I thought of Roland Barthes. Typing poems suddenly seemed like an anesthetizing, impersonal, embarrassingly affected way to disseminate writing. It also seemed to be limited, since it became obvious looking at Grenier’s poems that handwriting availed itself of so many other possible ways of expressing words on a page. At some point, I gave the book back to Lyn and kept typing my poems.
There was already a lot of enthusiasm for experimental poetry when I arrived at Berkeley. But because it was graduate school, there was also a general sort of academic quantifying that went on. To me, the discourse felt too inflexible to account for the serendipity and playfulness that brought so much vitality to experimental movements. So when I was asked to write a paper on a poet for a class on contemporary poetry, I immediately thought of Robert Grenier. I thought his poetry could palliate the necessary strictures of this academic professionalizing, since the poems represented something difficult to codify in critical terms. Even though the poems seem to comment on the act of poem making, their intimacy and fun disorient a critical response. I wrote the paper and would have left it there—that “no there there” place where graduate papers go to decompose –but for a copy I sent on to Lyn who, in turn, sent it off to Bob who, in turn, turned my exercise in close reading into in instantaneous and unplanned collaboration.
After seeing Grenier’s comments on my essay, I realized that the unraveling of the drawn and the written that I worry over in the essay was more of a Gordian knot for me than for him. In a note that accompanied his critical annotations on the essay, he offered his own laconic—and probably more appropriate—interpretation of his poem:
ALWAYSà many/enough (time)
> singular/’local’ one
His aptly terse interpretation made the visual element to his poems seem as invisible and inevitable as typing. It appears no more than a necessary medium for transmitting the words. The writing isn’t contrived as it might at first appear but a means of making you self-conscious. When reading a Grenier poem, you enter the privacy that limns the poem and become very aware of your own effort to make sense before your attempt make meaning. Reading a Grenier poem is like trying to remember the words to a song that suddenly pops into your head.
Although I’m at times embarrassed by the overzealous pretentions in my prose, what I love about the fact that Grenier’s critical performance happens on the essay itself is that it forbids me to revise. He has headed me off at the pas(s/t) and taken over. Like his poems, the essay now exists somewhere in between him and me—reader turned writer and writer turned reader (turned writer). He would probably respond to such a statement in green ink: “ALWAYS IS!” And it is true that all poems—all writing—involve an interaction between writer and reader. But what is interesting about a Grenier poem is that the apparently inert line between writer and reader (like the line between drawing and writing) becomes restless. Unlike ancillary editorial commentary, which tends to reify the position of the author, Grenier’s participatory response, what Grenier refers to as “criticism-on-criticism,” alchemizes the essay and transforms it. Like a game of freeze tag, Grenier fossilizes the essay at the point of interaction, at the point of contact.
Whether or not Grenier himself takes the writing of his poems for granted, the written-ness of his poetry has become even more peculiar and more important for me as poetry negotiates its relationship to the internet and begs questions of technological production. Even though it is written, Grenier’s poetry isn’t nostalgic nor is it the work of a luddite. Produced as color Xeroxes, Grenier’s poetry proleptically embraces recent technological advances, anticipating a future that has now arrived. In fact, the poems were online long before blogs and poetry sites had become a fashionable mainstay. The poems were always already better suited to the internet than traditional book publication (that is why you find this essay here: all attempts to have it published in magazines were thwarted by concerns over legibility and cost). Moreover, the poems are conducive to internet production for the very reason that they take complete advantage of the visual as well as denotative aspects of words.
This axis where handwriting meets the internet makes Grenier’s work into a sort of paradox. I think of sites like this one but also of Anne Bradstreet as she writes about the tears streaking the pages of the poems that she wants to leave behind for her children. Grenier’s poems speak to technological advances as well as to the primordial impulse of writing as physical trace. They lend themselves to the dematerialization of publishing even as they insist on writing’s materiality. They exist as a remnant of a written act and yet are quite self-evident and raucously self-contained. Ultimately, this dialectic makes me suspicious of my own contentions about writing and illegibility—to the degree that the poems are illegible—I remember him telling me once somewhat indignantly that he never had a problem reading his poems. And whether I can “read” them or not, the poems continue to show me the poignancy and impact of a few well-written words: this is just to say, Grenier’s poems are “always only a plenum.” meaning.
Click here to see Wood's critical response, marked up by Grenier.