A Mostly Empty Interpretive Wonderland: Reading Robert Grenier’s Sentences

Adapted from a talk I gave in January 2021 at the graduate student colloquium of the Book History and Print Culture Colloquium (University of Toronto). The colloquium, held online, was called “The Book Out of Order: Structure, Inversion, Dissent.”


Web version of Robert Grenier’s Sentences (Whale Cloth Press).

Images of the physical book (Granary Books).

Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure” (Poetry Foundation).

Charles Bernstein and Robert Grenier in conversation (PennSound).

Robert Grenier, “On Speech” (Eclipse Archive).

This one invites you in

Migraine, salmonella, I gotta say, been a crappy week off. Too, though, a sunny Sunday morning, I sit here on the couch sipping tea and eating a few berries, my gut don’t hurt too much of the moment & my cat’s basking in the sun, and so.

The week of serious concerted poem-making I pictured has not happened. (Nor have the coincident weeks of serious gardening or concerted bill paying.) But did come one I’d love to show you.

It began with a glimpse just of a picture poem by Robert Grenier on Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse archive –

– and in particular the overlaying of words: I and my, am and heart, a and is, (something) and beating.

I’ve been working for a while on a script got by writing something over twice – as I’ve written about here. What, I then wondered, if the overtext weren’t just the undertext, shifted. What if a good deal more difference were let in.

As it turned out, I worked with just one phrase, this one that popped up in earlier work on Overject

89R scrap 2 upI inscribed the phrase over and over, following a protocol dictated by the digits of π, and when that felt done I stopped, and then I started filling in some of the spaces created by the intersections of overlapping letterforms. After a while I got to this.

This one invites ...Don’t honestly know if it’s any good. But it’s, at least, a new method I’m curious of. Click on it maybe to see how the details go. Thoughts?

Exercises – Working it (out) (of order)

A pair of exercises that come right of our encounter with Robert Grenier’s Sentences, which I’ve written about elsewhere.

A first –

Write five micro-poems on five 3 x 5 index cards. No longer than the longer poems in Sentences. Take note – this exercise is easy to do and hard to do well.

And a second –

Compose a text that can be read in several different orders. Web-based texts are welcome. If you can write HTML – awesome, go to work. Or you can sign up for an account at wikispaces.com and create a small network of wiki pages, interestingly linked to each other. Alternatively, a bag full of scraps of paper can work nicely.

My vis po kids did some way cool work in answer to the second. Not, unfortunately, easily reproducible on this blog, mostly, so I made a bullet list. Then I made the list a paragraph. Then, in the spirit of compost, I took out most of the punctuation, and got this prose po.

An orange construction paper buckyball inscribed with US states and states of feeling they induced a prescription bottle on each of whose curled up paper slips (pills, slips) was writ a glaring bit of clickbaitery a shirt box made proscenium in whose shallows cards hung mystical amid thin thick strips of pink tissue paper oh so many scraps of different size thickness mode of inscription containment scrapitude an assemblage that altogether beat my meagre imagination down and included, let’s see, a CD case a rubik’s cube a tape measure an invented alphabet and other various and sundry also a monkey I think but amn’t sure he was hero.

One only admits of posting, an homage to Grenier hisself, and you might check them out side by side, compare. As Pliny the Elder said to the fire eating his air – Interesting!

It’s here.

Grenier - STB

Robert Grenier’s Sentences

A digital version of Robert Grenier’s seminal Sentences. My students have a great time with it and the questions it raises—what’s part and what’s whole? what’s the function in a poem of silence and empty space? how does dispersal of the poem as a digital edition affect its prior existence as a pricey handmade edition? when he writes “bird,” does he mean a bird, or does he mean “bird”?—keep us happy and hopping a long time.

Whalecloth’s home page, with a bit of context for the poem.

Robert Grenier’s Sentences