by Bob Grumman
In recent years, while the pop poems of poetry slams have been making the Sunday newspapers' magazine inserts, and the work of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets has become competitive with traditional poetry in most university literature departments, several other new kinds of poetries of equal merit have been evolving far from the notice of just about anybody but their makers. The Experioddicist, Alabama Dogshoe Moustache, Noosepapers, NRG, Kaldron, Score, and Missionary Stew are the names of just a few of the generally ephemeral, never widely-circulated periodicals examples of them can be found in. Perhaps the most appealing of the new poetries is a variety I call the minimalist strain because its aim is to get its job done in as few words as possible--generally but not always through the use of visual techniques. The term "minimalist" may cause some confusion because of its now common use throughout the arts, particularly in music, painting, and sculpture. In most such instances, the term has been employed so sloppily that it seems justifiable to give it a clearer, entirely literary focus here. Whatever name it goes by, though, the poetry I'm speaking of bristles with innovativeness. It is thus worth discussion both for its own sake and as a sample of current craft-extending poetry as a whole.
It is not clear when contemporary minimalist poetry began, or who "invented" it, but it's probable that one-word, one-phrase, and other very compressed poems were among the oddities thrown together by the dadaists in the twenties. At around the same time, imagism importantly emphasized the value of concision. A third important contribution to minimalist poetry was made by the concrete poetry movement of the 50's and 60's before it succumbed to narrowness of scope and various forms of parochialism. The flowering of the haiku in the West was a large influence, as well. To my mind, though, full-scale minimalist poetry didn't begin in this country and Canada until the one-word poems of Aram Saroyan and Richard Kostelanetz in the late sixties and early seventies. The movement, if it can be called that, was almost invisible until the mid-eighties when poets like Geof Huth, Jonathan Brannen, Karl Kempton and others joined it. It is still small, but large enough to make the following survey possible.
An especially accessible example of minimalist poetry by George Swede seems as good a place as any to start that survey:
M SS NGHere in just two words a thief's contraband is clearly and amusingly shown rather than verbally described. Similarly likable is Adam Gamble's
balloon! Hold on tight to yourMore ambitious are the mostly one-word visual poems of Richard Kostelanetz's sequence, "Genesis." Each of them represents one of the seven days of Creation in a different, page-filling typography. "LIGHT," the first, is printed in pedestrian stenciled lettering--but dazzles because (1) it arrives on a black page immediately after a white page; (2) its letters are boldly solid rather than diffidently outlined like the smaller letters of the sequence's title on the previous page; and (3) its letters are fused, which makes them seem not a recognizable word, but light itself--until they clarify as an appropriately fully-unified, over-flowing proto-word for . . . Everything.
The "heaven" that follows is also spelled out on a black background, but in stenciled fragments of lower-case letters that seem in context appropriately star-sized. That the fragments, like the sequence's title, are outlined adds to the effect by suggesting starlight's leaking into the dark of night rather than blazingly obliterating it. The remainder of Kostelanetz's sequence finishes his story in five comparably effective steps.
However spare the previous poems might seem, there have been sparer ones, John Byrum's "Utter," for one. To state its title is to describe it completely, for it comprises just the single, normal word, "utter," in capital letters on an otherwise blank page. I have much sympathy for anyone whose response to this is consternation. What in the world is the point of it?
Well, when I first saw it, I was much helped by my previous experience with works like Kostelanetz's "Genesis." I automatically thought of the opening of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word." "UTTER" thus seemed to me a command to express oneself, be an artist, climb into the grand creative power of utterance: UTTER! Such a command was particularly appropriate in the magazine where I first encountered it, a newsletter for a poets' association.
Then the idea of what "utter" means as an adjective occurred to me--and expanded into thoughts of how utterance relates to absoluteness, and how it is exclusively the act of uttering that can truly complete any part of reality, by naming it into full comprehensibility. The power of utter, the utter power of it!
Also in the poem for those who listen to it long enough are the pun, "udder," and auditory hints of "upper" and "under." For so short a work, the poem is thus extremely sensually and connotatively rich.
However brief "Utter" is, its brevity has nothing on the "m" with the extra leg shown above. Composed by Aram Saroyan in the seventies, it has actually garnered a bit of fame: it was cited in The Guinness Book of Records as the world's shortest poem! It might have competition, though: ten or fifteen years later jwcurry composed the one-letter poem shown next:
Neither poem, I contend, is merely a novelty. The curry piece charmingly turns a standard, thoroughly un-unique letter i into the very essence of individuality by giving it a thumbprint.
Along the way, it also suggests much about the mix of the human and the abstract (flesh and geometry) that comprises the artistic process, and about how fleetingly our writings smudge our flamelike identities onto paper. As for Saroyan's four-legged m, it snaps us visually into the center of an alphabet just starting to form, between its m and n. And it brings to mind the way a doubled u becomes a w. The poem also comes across as a pun for the word, "am," to suggest some kind of superior, or perhaps gross, state of being--an "am" times one-and-a-half.
The Saroyan poem reminds me of the more directly alphabet- related poem, by Karl Kempton, that follows:
Here, instead of two letters' being jammed together, two letters are turned into op art--to jerk a one-dimensional series of commonplace symbols into something 3-D, and blinkingly in motion! And we suddenly recall the large-scale real world that the abstract alphabet, and technical devices like it, too often march us in a tastefully, orderly fashion "beyond."
More difficult than any of the preceding is the following minimalist poem by Geof Huth:
When I first encountered this, I tried my best to like it, Huth being a close friend of mine. But . . . why "choice?" Why not . . . well, "people?" E PEOPL E? That sorta suggested "E Plurabus Unum." Indeed, any word treated the way Huth treated "choice" would do something slightly interesting. T RIGH T? I go into detail about this adversarial attitude of mine because it is so typical of me--and, I think, of almost everyone who comes across a poem like Huth's and doesn't at once connect to it. No doubt such an attitude is at times justified, but not this time.
Or so I decided when I finally noticed the "ECHO" that was in the poem. Why it took me so long to notice I'll never know, but it made all the difference. I immediately saw and felt the echoing of the E's, and the C's, and of the two instances of "E CHOIC E." I also started hearing and being intrigued by the sound of CH in "ECHO" versus its sound in "CHOICE," and by the similar jitter of "E" between the sound of "eh" and silence. The hint of music -- and the dance -- in "CHOIC" ("choir," "choreography," etc.) appealed to me as well. And the sardonic notion of choice-as-echo, as in too many American Republicratic elections, flickered into my reflections.
Then, as it occurred to me how opposed to each other "ECHO" and "CHOICE" are, I realized how powerfully the poem summed up not only all that exists in the tension between choosing and copying, but between black and white, up and down, left and right: its subject was Dichotomy, it was a celebration of the perpetually closingopening cycle of blackwhite samedifferent updown yesno that the universe is!
Infra-Verbal Minimalist Poetry
By now it should be clear that there is more than one kind of minimalist poem. Just about all the ones I'm familiar with are members of one or the other of two major classes of contemporary poetry that I've dubbed infra-verbal and pluraesthetic poetry. By "infra-verbal" I mean poems like the one preceding by Huth, whose main focus is textual elements smaller than words, such as letters, numerals, and even spaces. So far I've distinguished five kinds of such poems: fissional, fusional, mutational, microherent and alphaconceptual. There no doubt are others.
In fissional poetry spaces are used to "disconceal" words within words as in LeRoy Gorman's, "t rain s top spar row," and Kostelanetz's "the rapist." Thus, in the first of these, two words are multiplied into a whole country scene, with hints of ships, and in the second a broken word makes a satirical comment on what a psychotherapist can sometimes seem to be. Another specimen of fissional poetry is Huth's "E CHOIC E."
In fusional poems words are combined as in Jonathan Brannen's, "splace," to create implicit metaphors, in this case the splash/ splice of a space's becoming a place (like a house becoming a home). Then there's the following poem by George Swede:
graveyarduskilldeerHere three words are spelled together not only to produce the richly resonant "double-haiku," graveyard/ dusk/ killdeer// graveyard/ us/ killdeer, but strikingly to suggest the enclosure (like letters by a word) of two or more people (a couple--or, perhaps, all of us) by an evening -- or some greater darkening.
Sometimes categories are combined, as in the following fissional/ fusional (or compound infra-verbal) poem by Karl Kempton:
ANTIQUE QUESTIONIt is vital to read this poem both as words and letters, and to watch as well as read it. In such a reading, and watching, the poem should make almost tangible the idea of a question's congealing into a serenity beyond irritable answer-seeking. And the subsequent parallel drawing together of "a we" (or group of individuals associating to the degree of we-ness but not any transcendentally further) into "awe," or some higher Oneness, should have an even more electrically almost-tangible impact. (Listen, too, to the sound of "a we" become the sound of "awe!") How a poem could better celebrate that sense of achieving Final Sharedness than this one, I don't know.
anti quest ion
"Mutational" is my term for infra-verbal poems that deviate only mildly from normal spelling. Crag Hill's comic impression of lack of confidence:
cant'is a good example, as is Huth's
ccoommiittee.When a poem's words are so "poorly" spelled as to be close to 100% "wrong", I term the result "microherent." An example is the following by Michael Basinski:
It has no title that I know of. Perhaps it isn't even poetry but pure music; I consider it suggestive enough of proper words like "oak," "eon" and "ode" to count as poetry, however--superior poetry, in fact, because of its over-all capture of the struggle to commence of both Nature and language.Ook OKG Oon eOa dOK
An only slightly less strange microherent poem is John M. Bennett's "Budabud," which has been circulated on a little card picturing a tiny statue of a Buddha whose head is also a die (with five showing). On top of the die a tiny tiny chair is shown in the act of tipping. The poem's nearly illegibly-scrawled text is made up of what looks to be six attempts to spell "a Buddha" that manage to suggest all kinds of other things. One attempt mixes up letters and tilts the letter u so that it looks like the letter c to result in "aABcD," thus hinting of an alphabet awkwardly begun. Another rendering is so far off as to properly spell an entirely different word, "ABODE!" The poem in this manner ends expressing the stumble of humanity after spiritual truth with an amazing combination of reverence and comedy.
As for alphaconceptual minimalist poems, they might use any of the tricks so far mentioned but go beyond other infra-verbal poems into letter-related conceptual concerns as in Ed Conti's "galaxyz." From one point of view, this is just a mutational poem -- but its whimsical but deep use of the concept of alphabetical order with "xyz" to imply Final Terminality, makes it more than that.
A longer example of alphaconceptuality is Kempton's "caged/ age":
caged age surrounded bii c d propositionzThis doesn't seem very unconventional, aside from Kempton's characteristically idiosyncratic spelling of certain words (about which I am sympathetic although I spel thingz right, myselph). A key to it, of course, is the amusing but ever-appropriate pun that "c d" makes with "seedy." I say "of course," but I have to admit that I missed it myself--until Kempton drew my attention to it in a letter he wrote me. Occasionally I'm more than a little slow. My excuse this time, though, is that I forgot to listen to the two letters in my visual delight with the cage they form around "age"--and in my alphaconceptual admiration for the subtlety of their identity as consecutive letters of the alphabet--or as an Alphabetically-Regular Presence narrowing the text of life.
In the second section of a poetry sequence called, "Birth, Copulation and Death," Jonathan Brannen carries out several infra- verbal operations:
bentranceThe first two poems are fusional. The copulation-related analogies that their spellings bring to the fore should be clear. The third poem seems at first mutational, "knowledge" being misspelled to suggest fertilization's being a ledge to Now; at the same time, however, it alphaconceptually suggests fertilization's being only a silent letter distant from Knowledge! It is through such subtleties that alphaconceptual poetry most excitingly proves its value.
One final alphaconceptual minimalist poem worth mentioning here is "poema cocci." A composition of C.L. Champion's, it reveals an almost mystic conceptual relationship between the word "cloud" and fragments of the word "cloud." It consists of four scattered rectangles. "Cloud" occupies the middle of one; in another is a "c"; and "clod" is in a third. The fourth is empty. Sky, sea and earth . . . and mystery.
Pluraesthetic Minimalist Poetry
"Pluraesthetic" is a term I've coined to describe poems that use more than one expressive modality to convey their aesthetic effect. The Kostelanetz poems of "Genesis" are good examples, as are the one-letter works of curry and Saroyan, and the op-art alphabet of Kempton. Each of these uses visual as much as verbal expression to make its point.
Two more examples are the ones that follow by Karl Young, both of them found poems:
I can't pin it down, but there's something awfully funny about the sudden intrusion of figures from Graeco-Roman mythology as formidable as Medusa and Atlas into the everyday of tires and cement, fore and aft. Since both Medusa and Atlas were turned to stone by Perseus, they evoke a touch of pathos, too, and a sense of the final large silences we are all traveling between. More untaintedly positive is the idea of an ark (as a chest of sacred texts) in one's ear that centers Young's other poem. When I described this poem in a letter to poet Dave Chirot, he was immediately reminded, he said, of a torn scrap of paper on which the phrase, "Mother Earth," had been reduced to, "other Ear."
A somewhat gnostic example of a minimalistic visual poem is the one below by John Martone that makes use, like curry's, of a fingerprint. I haven't fully figured it out, but the fingerprint reminds me of meteorological maps, and "sea" and "breath" make me think of the sea as the ultimate (and stormily de-stabilizing!) source of life.
The Englishman, Ian Hamilton Finlay, is one of several visual poets who has taken the form into color, minimalistically, most notably in a piece called "King" in which the words, "KING," "ohne/titel," "sans/ title" and "without/ a head" are printed in white down a scarlet page--to rivetingly macabre effect.
Another Britisher, Betty Radin, is among those (including Finlay) who have made visual poetry three-dimensional--as in her 1972 poem, "Narcissus" (below), a bitter/comic study of the submergence, or outright drowning, in self-love of a narcissistic personality's potential for "us-ness" (See Kempton); or is it a contrast of glamorous but superficial self-involvement to unglamorous but deeply descending liberation from egocentricity? Both interpretations, and others, are possible--as is the case in most of the best poems.
Needless to say, there are other kinds of pluraesthetic minimalist poetry besides the visual. One is mathematical poetry. Among its leading practitioners is LeRoy Gorman, whose works in the form include one called "the birth of tragedy":
Or: tragedy equals a blur of exclamations and questions multiplying against each other.
Another of Gorman's mathematical minimalistic poems is called "the day":
un + s = up; up - s = un.This seems an apparently minor joke, but I love the thought of night as an "un," and the beauty of the combination the sun, the world's centralmost concrete, makes in Gorman's first equation with the fundamental abstraction, "up." Then, since (according to Gorman) "un" plus s equals p, "up" minus s must equal "un," as he has it in his second equation. Straight elementary algebra--but also something magical if, in it, one can feel the sun slipping out of the day like a mathematical quantity being subtracted from a larger mathematical quantity, and turning the day with an abstract grace beyond clumsy actual astronomical processes into something that is pure night, and greater.
Another mathematical poem that operates a good deal like Gorman's is my own "Mathmaku #2":
Here I'm trying to suggest that the effect of winter on the natural world, as represented by meadows, is similar to the effect of a period on a sentence: it stops it. Hence, if "March" multiplies the quantity, "meadows." by the fraction, ":/." as shown, the result will be "meadows:"--or meadows that are no longer stopped but in a state of readiness for something to follow. I'm merely picturing the change of winter to spring, but suggesting that it has the inevitability and cleanness of mathematics (in slow motion).
- March =
A third variety of pluraesthetic poetry that lends itself to minimalism is sound poetry, or poetry that makes significantly more expressive use of sound than conventional poetry, despite the latter's great dependence on such sound effects as rhythm and rhyme. It was John M. Bennett who introduced me to this form of poetry with a text made up of nothing but the phrases, "the shirt," and "the sheet," repeated over and over--and over and over and over and over. Monotonous? Well, as orally presented by Bennett, it did seem that at first to me. A shirt? Okay. A sheet? Okay, what else? A shirt? A sheet? Bennett seemed to promise a poem, and begin a scene, then renege on his promise.
After some initial irritation, I began to like "The Shirt, the Sheet," however, for it soon became evident that Bennett was using the sh**t-form of his two main words primarily as a kind of wind-instrument to do interesting things to vowels with. And so his chant blurred down to timbres, temperatures, sizes, colors--at one point doing nothing but hiss. His sh**t-form had become a conduit--a chute, if you will--into the elemental myriad-shaped animality that lurks beneath all language (and which is a cardinal destination of Bennett's poetry as a whole).
Then Bennett's words began gradually, hypnotically, to reassert themselves as words--but now wobbling out of themselves into other words: "dessert, deceit," for instance, and "berserk." Bennett was repeating his original text into seldom attended extra resonances. Of course, such a swirl of semi-arbitrary associations aren't enough to hold one for long. But more was there for me. The shirt and the sheet started feeling like antitheses--natural symbols, at length, of . . . Life and Death.
More exactly, I associated the shirt with waking activities, activities one gets dressed for: work, principally; the sheet, of course, represented sleep, both the ordinary kind, and the kind that winding sheets are part of. (Note well, incidentally, the similarity of the way the words for work and sleep sound to "shirt" and "sheet.") So: Bennett was using his four words to portray, in black and white, wail and song, semantics and growling, the whole great round of work, sleep, work, sleep that our existence is. How could a poem do more?
Later I happened on a minimalist sound poem by Robert Lax (with an appreciation by Mary Ellen Solt which is responsible for nearly all the ideas about the poem that follow). Lax's poem works in a different way from Bennett's--and on paper! It consists of four different words only: "the," "stone," "sea" and "water." These he has arranged in four vertical columns, each composed of seven stanzas of two one-syllable lines each. The poem begins with four appearances of "the/ stone"; then "the/ sea" appears three times. The second column duplicates the first, but each of the last two columns consists of:
The repetitions most obviously reduce a shorescape to the final essences of stone and sea--not only by simply focusing entirely on those two things but also by dulling the text down to something barely heard, barely attended to as communication (whether heard as speech or heard from a page)--so that the words for stone and sea are no more than a breeze when compared with the substance of what they name. That in each of the first two columns the stone is named in two couplets, and the sea in a single triplet ever so slightly accentuates the quicker pace of the latter (as does the easier pronounceation of "sea.") I said that each line in the poem consisted of one syllable, but in the second pair of columns, three lines are blank. They still consist of one syllable as far as I'm concerned, but that syllable is unpronounced (and counts as a pause). Either viewed or spoken, then, "stone" is in effect given a period; as a result, its weight increases substantially, particularly after the construction preceding it of water's unponderous image. That "stone," unlike "water," lacks an unaccented second syllable contributes to the effect, too.
The first two columns help set up this contrast of lithe, mobile water and stolid, enduring stone by their iambic repetition. Indeed, one can almost literally feel the water suddenly spill out of "the sea" when, as "WAter," it is first chanted "downward," STRONG BEAT/weak beat, after so many "upward" weak beat/STRONG BEATS. And note, too, the way the poem shifts semantically (and rhythmically) from the sea and the stone to what is in those things: water and . . . stone, thus releasing the idea of two extremely different kinds of contained fluids.
Appropriately, the poem ends with "stone"--nature's ultimate earthly matter. And it is with only one appearance of "stone" that it ends--whereas all the other words or phrases in the poem had been immediately repeated (except, just once before, the word, "stone," itself). Thus, with just the right amount of foreshadowing, the last "stone" occurs with a terrific jolt of finality, of everything's having truly come to a halt. And so we grow aware beyond mere first-hand experience of the weight of stone, and the litheness of water, and of the eternal jar of the sea against the land. In such a manner does Lax consciously pattern of his sounds to build expectations he can then defeat to expressive advantage in an entirely musical way.
For my last piece of evidence for the high value of minimalistic poetry, I am going to turn to my all-time favorite minimalist poem, which is probably my all-time favorite poem of any kind, as well, Aram Saroyan's:
lighghtThis is quite a famous, or notorious, poem. Every few years somebody comes out in print against it. A few years ago, for instance, the nationally syndicated columnist, William Rusher, was bemused that the government once (in the seventies) gave an award to so poor a work of art. I, on the other hand, can still scarcely believe that the government once gave an award to so wonderful an artwork. Most people tend to echo Rusher's view of it, even when they encounter it properly, at the center of an otherwise blank page--to emphasize its deserving a full page's worth of attention (as an expression of light, and only light). Merely glancing at it, they judge its key element, the extra "gh," a petty eccentricity designed to shock, or a hoax calculated to win the esteem that obscurity-for-obscurity's-sake too often receives from academics. They are seriously wrong: the extra "gh" is neither trivial nor obscure. By putting it into his word, Saroyan brings us face-to-face with the ineffability of light, a mysterious substance whose components are somehow there but absent, as "ghgh" is there (and delicately shimmering) but unpronounced in the word, "lighght." And he leaves us with intimations of his single syllable of light's expanding, silently and weightlessly, "gh" by "gh," into . . . Final Illumination.
Copyright © 1997 by Bob Grumman
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