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Robert Grenier's Illuminated Poems On-Line
by Karl Young

The first hand written poems of Robert Grenier's I saw came from the author in black and white photocopies. Several areas of interest for me involved dimensions that Grenier avoided. His point of departure bore no relation to traditional calligraphy, and it seemed to show no evidence of familiarity with visual poetry. In conversation, Grenier confirmed that his knowledge of visual poetry went no further than a casual glance at the anthology concrete of the late 60s, without familiarity with Zaum or Lettrisme or Signalism or any number of other cognate movements and individual practitioners. This indicated that Grenier was coming into the area with fresh eyes, starting from scratch with virtually no preconceptions. Beginning from a new and personal base, Grenier's poems included presentation of multiple words simultaneously, elision and interlacing of words and lines, meaningful variations on letter forms, a move away from the rigidity and uniformity of type, exploration of the greater semantic complexity and depth that can come from a reworking and rethinking of basic elements of writing systems, and other characteristics of calligraphy and visual poetry that interested me in the work of other people or bore relation to things I had done myself. Approaching the poems from a purely lexical angle, the work moved beyond what Grenier had done in such books as A Day at the Beach, taking earlier ideas and working them into greater complexity and depth.

As much as I liked these poems, some of their potential seemed unrealized. Later pieces in color moved into areas of potential suggested by the earlier poems. Many of the shifts into the new work defy precise definition, but several seem clear enough. Grenier avoids the use of color as decoration and seldom engages in color symbolism. One of the main functions of color comes from its capacity to carry greater lexical weight and to allow superimposition and interweaving without losing the individuality of discrete components. Another comes from color's capacity to produce rhythm and variety which can create currents and counter- currents through both the graphic layout of the page and the logopoea of the text. Use of black type on white paper has taken on an odd character during the last two centuries. As reading moves more toward data transference, black and white lose their character as colors, becoming simple abstractions that make them virtually invisible. In this context Grenier's white paper grounds move from an unimportant, characerless, and passive vehicle to integral parts of the poems that can not be altered without altering the significance of the work as a whole. Freer forms of visual poetry have also worked against the tendency toward data transference. Both Grenier's use of color and hand lettering serve similar functions, insisting that the text be seen instead of merely assimilated.

The new works also showed a stronger sense of proportion. Some pages could bring forward extremely dense text, while others could leave lexical elements at a small scale, a word or two per page in some instances, occasionally moving into non-verbal gestalt. At the same time, letter forms moved into greater nonconformity and Grenier's modulations from clarity to difficulty showed great skill.

Although Grenier initially called these pieces "scrawls," he became dissatisfied with the term. I didn't have an adequate one either, and use "illuminations" for several reasons. The white pages with lines drawn in bright, simple colors (those most readily found in pens available at stationary and drug stores) have a luminous quality not found in the earlier hand written pieces, and not found in pages of conventional type. At the same time, these poems remind me of root similarities to Rimbaud's Illuminations. Both poets had solid backgrounds in traditional literature, but went for something more basic, something that may at first appear crude but remains necessary in rebuilding an art from the ground up. Perhaps more important, both deal in stubborn, intransigent knots of ideas that cannot be reduced, but that branch out in a number of directions, not all of which may be comprehended by a single reader, and many of which demand active participation and extension on the part of the audience. Finally, there are interesting, and sometimes comic, parallels between Grenier and medieval book makers. Among the curious or comic parallels, the majority of medieval scriptoria were no more than closets where writing materials were kept. The actual writing or copying of books was done outdoors, taking full advantage of natural light. Grenier does much of his writing outdoors. The plant-like bowls and stems of many medieval and early Renaissance hands suggest the influence not only of writing outdoors, but of the agrarian labor of monks; though Grenier does not engage in planting and harvesting crops or pruning trees or vines, his letters draw on natural forms, of which he is an astute observer. Like grenier's hand written poems, most medieval manuscripts were and remain difficult to read. Writing illuminated poems has become a discipline for Grenier, often practiced in solitude. No one could mistake a Grenier poem for The Lindisfarne Gospels or the Tres Riches Heures, but nonetheless both Grenier and the medieval scribes created holistic art forms; if your definition of "book" doesn't depend on codex bindings, you could see Grenier and his predecessors as book artists working along parallel lines. Since the differences between Grenier and Rimbaud and medieval calligraphers are great, the jolt in the analogy may help break gestalts that could enclose Grenier in a constricting context. These works no longer present scribbles, but a mature, though highly personal, craftsmanship, and should be understood as such.

As I moved my publishing efforts onto the world wide web, and the web developed more sophisticated means for reproducing graphics, I had the opportunity to present the first three of an ongoing series of works by Grenier on- line. Most important to me, and to Grenier, was the web's ability to break out of the economic restraints on publishing works in color. Several small editions of short pieces had been published using color photocopiers, and Grenier presents some of them using slide projectors, but these could not reach a wide audience. In addition, publication on the web had personal advantages for me in that it allowed me to enter into a more engaged reading of the poems. I will discuss these three sets in terms of web publication as part of that reading. You can find the work to which I refer at Light and Dust (see links at the end of this page).


I wanted to explore a number of means of presentation on the web, and this small group seemed a good place to start. In this instance, I formatted the pages at a larger size than could be seen on most computer screens so that pages can't be viewed complete without scrolling vertically and horizontally. On one level, this scale accurately reproduces the varying pressure of the author's hand as it moves slowly, steadily, quickly, cautiously, or insistently. Just as important, in this version, line can't be lost in abstraction. This form of presentation insists on detail, putting generalization aside. I think this makes an important part of the nature of the illuminated poems clearer. These works are not pictures, nor do they bear much affinity with painting or drawing; Grenier's art makes little sense when detached from the act of writing itself. The poems are participatory, asking for active and engaged reading on the part of the audience. This goes much farther than tinkering with syntax or lexical sequencing. In these poems the reader must virtually retrace individual letters to make any sense out of them. That many pages remain ambiguous or incomplete alternately asks readers to complete them on their own terms or to let go of the need for a definitive reading. A number of Grenier's colleagues write theoretical essays on the need for readers to take such active part in creating the text, yet oddly back away from it in practice. Some can pontificate endlessly on the virtues of "opacity," yet mutter in confusion when presented with non-standard letter forms that offer varying degrees of resistance. Insisting on the quality and significance of line in the work seemed an appropriate and necessary beginning. Above all, these poems begin with a writer's hand recreating and exploring the alphabet and related signs.

This set opens with a Zaum-like figure bearing no lexical content. The page supports two sets of zigzag lines in blue and green. The varying pressures and speeds of hand movement in writing become more apparent without a text as such to distract from it. The eighth page of the set demonstrates some of Grenier's practice to good advantage. A possible typographic rendition of lexical content could go like this: "always / only / a / plenum." Each word is written in a different color, yet all intersect with at least one other word. The word "A" is huge, running through the center of all other words and pulling them together into a tighter unit. All words are underlined, with three close strokes at the bottom of the page underscoring the whole composition. The angles of the "A" give the page balance, at the same time as its rapidly and decisively drawn crossbar continues the horizontal scores that contribute considerably to the page's dynamics. This is indeed a kind of plenum, a full page, defined by a lattice of bright, thin lines.



The next work I put on-line is completely different in character, and would call for different treatment even if I hadn't planned on using alternate modes of presentation. I'd made my point as well as I could in regard to insisting on the importance of the quality of line in the first installment. An extended elegy of this sort seemed to call for the formality of conventional gallery presentation. Working at a smaller scale with more complex pages, I couldn't reproduce the detail of lines quite as well, but could enhance contrasts more and explore other graphic characteristics. Grenier proceeds in serial fashion, producing one page after another, but doesn't want his finished work to form a rigid sequence. He often lays pages out on a table or floor in blocks that may be read vertically, horizontally, diagonally, or in any other manner that seems appropriate or interesting to the viewer. To accommodate variant reading orders, I put hypertext links to all pages at the bottom of each screen, so readers could move through the work in any way that seemed right to them.

In addition to learning a good deal about poetry from Larry Eigner, Grenier acted as his caretaker for many years, writing this elegy just before the end of Eigner's life. Like all Grenier's mature work, it opens itself to multiple interpretations. I read it as a final gift and, in part, a celebration that opens just as Eigner's life was closing. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this comes from a motif that runs through the book. A comet passed near the earth while Eigner went through his final stay in the hospital. A number of pages contain nothing but a multicolored asterisk-like clusters of crossed lines and a set of several curves. A standard interpretation of this shows Eigner turning into a star, leaving one plane for another. If this were the only possible reading of these pages, they might seem corny, but the openness of the work circumvents this problem while leaving the trope intact. This is carefully balanced against passages that contain no metaphores at all, such as the quote from one of the nurses that Eigner "was making good urine" and a reference to a fish hawk with its prey in its mouth. Eigner's eyes run through the elegy, and sight and darkness frame the poem. A somewhat augmented typographic version of the first page could go like this "Larry could get around in [the] dark." Grenier says that Eigner was indeed good at this, and that he had strong reasons for doing so. On the simplest level, he was frugal and tended not to leave the lights on when he didn't absolutely need them. But this went beyond simple frugality: Eigner had a firm belief in personal responsibility, and felt that wasting electricity was environmentally unsound. The depth of this commitment may seem surprising in one so severely handicapped, yet the themes of natural preservation run through Eigner's poetry, and this practice confirms it on an immediate scale. Eigner could type in the dark, and this lends extra meaning to one of Grenier's pages in what we may consider the middle of the book. I'll render it in type as follows: "for Larry quiet an instrument." Grenier intended a significant ambiguity in the use of the word "quiet." It may also be read as "quite," and suggests the typos that came not only from physical handicap but also from typing in the dark. At the same time, the sound of typing in darkness could make the quietness of the room more apparent. Beyond that, Grenier contemplated the time when the typewriter would become silent after Eigner's death. At the end of the book, what in most readings would make up the last two pages could be summarized as "mother continues to play / by heart in the dark." Grenier's mother played another keyboard, that of a piano, in the dark, and sometimes did so to relieve tensions or to celebrate her competence or simply to feel closer to the music. Eigner's work in darkness lead to illuminations that transcended his limitations, as did the piano playing of Grenier's mother. Here the luminous white pages with bright thin lines play an important role. Although the poem's lexical configuration is framed in darkness, the pages remain radiant, taking the hostility out of the darkness in much the same way as did the keyboard renditions of Eigner and Grenier's mother.



Grenier wrote these two poems relatively quickly in a single, small sized notebook. Several words in the poems come from the text printed on the book's cover by the manufacturer. Bound in a book, the poems form linear sequences not characteristic of most of Grenier's illuminated work. GREETING makes up a sort of round or canon, a clear exposition of some of the more subtle recurrences in larger works. POND I reflects some of the quietist tendency in Grenier's poetry, based in contemplation of natural processes such as wind and rain, and the trees and water on which they act. In this poem, runs of several openings often carry the verbal density of a single page done on larger sheets of paper. The round or canon in this poem insists on the sky and the pond that locate Grenier in his environment. The center of the poem moves into areas of speculation played out in more complexly written characters. As often in the illuminated poems, letters in some words have been left out or elided with others or take on resemblance to other letters or to natural forms or to personal gestalts. In this book, Grenier sometimes omits vowels, or replaces them with consonants. The title of this poem is POND I: it is not an isolated work, but the beginning of a series. Even if other installments don't appear, the title suggests its potential for continuation by the reader if not the author. At the same time "I" can be read as the first personal singular pronoun, emphasizing Grenier's affinities with the pond.

A typographic transcription of GREETING seems simple enough: "hello / to you / too hello / to you / hello to / you hello" The basic sonic dimension of this poem comes from an owl that lives near the pond where Grenier often writes. You can hear the sounds of the owl's hooting through the words. It would have been easy enough for Grenier to set this up in a more symmetrical and tidy manner, but he's too good a poet for that. Each opening remains essentially incomplete, waiting for the next. The "to you" in the second opening could easily seem to come to a close, but in the next opening, "too" moves it forward, and also opens another round of hellos.

After this greeting, which both briefly and expansively plays out vowel sounds, the quietism of POND I seems appropriately minimal in its use of these vocally central phonemes. Much of its lexical dimension simply iterates the elements in the vicinity of the pond, going through such runs as (converted to type), "pages / open / to sky /sky / pond / ground / wind." It seems appropriate that "pages" moves toward illegibility while the other words do not. In the round and canon form carried over from GREETING, the word "ground" goes through more changes than do such words as "sky" and "wind." After establishing the poem's repetitive base, Grenier makes two major disjunctures. The first occurs in the following run: "Martine / walking / to pond" sets the reader up for a surprise with the next opening of the book which reads "death." The next pages work away from this in a series of shifts in significance: "plunge / into life." The poem moves to its close with a shift initially suggested by morphing the word "me" into "minnows" and then moving from these tiny inhabitants of the pond to nature in a broader sense. Here is a translation into type of the final run: "sense / of / all / life / me / minnows / reeds / coyote / lion / pond / sky." Grenier had read a magazine article positing that life did not begin in the ocean as such, but in small pools at the boundary between sea and land. The pond, not far from the ocean, surrounded by heavy reeds beginning on shore and extending out into the water, held primordial echoes for Grenier which rhyme nicely with even more basic elements such as water and sky.

I set up the first on-line presentation of Grenier's illuminated poems in such a way as to insist on the importance of line in the work, the immediacy of the writer's hand, with its varying pressures, speeds, and other responses to the paper, as opposed to the generalizing tendency of gallery style presentation. With the present poems, I worked from slides that literally show Grenier's hands holding the notebook. The hands themselves could be read in a number of ways: primarily they perform a gesture of offering, forefronting a pervasive assumption in Grenier's illuminated poems. But they can suggest many other things, some of which Grenier didn't have in mind. He has mentioned their prayer-like aspect, but was surprised when I told him that early Christians prayed with open hands, and only adopted the closed hand gesture, betokening captivity, in the middle ages. Variants of the practice of praying with open hands have a long history in the Greek church, persisting to the present. The open hands may suggest Mudras in Hindu and similar dance forms, particularly to people more familiar with them than I. To me there's a strong reminiscence of the open hands in the murals at Teotihuacan, which I consider the largely untapped water table of poetry and art in the Americas, in which patrons of rain and sun pour out gifts. Gestures of offering suggest receptiveness as well. However you read the hands, they provide what to me is an important context in much of Grenier's work, the world around the page. In the web presentation, the format shifts from details of pages in R H Y M M S, to complete pages in FOR LARRY EIGNER, to two-page spreads in GREETING and POND I. You can see complete openings, not in isolation, but in the context of the hands and bits of the natural environment where Grenier does some of his writing. This points out that the gallery for these poems isn't a cordoned off zone of exclusion, but the world itself. I worked from the wonderfully luminous slides taken by Ken Botto, who has photographed a number of Grenier's poems. These photos catch the warm glow of late afternoon light, and Botto's long collaboration with Grenier suggest another dimension of the participatory nature of Grenier's poetry.

In working from the slides, I had to retrace letters on a pixel by pixel basis, decide how much of the bleed through a given page should be reduced without falsifying the image, and make other graphic adjustments. I'm not sure where I'll go from here in this project. I have another set of slides that could combine some of the methods used in presenting FOR LARRY EIGNER and GREETING and POND I. This may require more than the web's capacities allow at the present time. I'm also considering means of reproducing some of Grenier's illuminated poems in affordable print. However I proceed, I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to move into this level of engaged reading. There are other means of serious engagement with Grenier's poems, and I'm sure other people will explore them more fully. That's what they're there for, and from whence comes their radiance.


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