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  • "Really 'Reading In'":A Media-Archival History of Robert Grenier's Sentences
  • Paul Stephens (bio)

I certainly don't think of myself as a Minimalist Poet, whatever that means. I'd just like the things to stand on their own, without assumption of necessary content, or even of one person's voice or authority/ authoring. . . I'd really like the reader to really participate in the work, such that both make an experience. Not many poems admit of really "reading in," really finding something which is both there, in the words, & given to the words by the state of mind & feelings, the intelligence of the reader. . . .

Robert Grenier, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, 19 October 1976

So wrote Robert Grenier to a publisher as he was nearing the completion of his 1978 Sentences. A work with a uniquely complex composition and publication history, Sentences poses a number of methodological challenges for the literary historian. Although Sentences is usually categorized as an inaugural work of the Language writing movement, it also exhibits features of minimalism and conceptualism (although Grenier, as quoted above, typically eschews such labels). Sentences marks a distinctive turn toward Gertrude Stein within postwar US poetry, and like Stein's writing, Sentences foregrounds processes of perception and cognition, and tests the limits of referential ambiguity. Abandoning the codex format, the uniquely ambitious poem-in-a-box was structured to be read in any order. Following standard practice, I refer to Sentences [End Page 278] in the singular, but as Bob Perelman notes, "its title is problematic—is it a singular or plural noun?" (46). In its fullest form, Sentences, which took seven years to complete, was published in an edition of 200 as a box of 500 5" x 8" index cards produced on an IBM Selectric typewriter (Figures 1 and 2). Sentences is composed of discrete lyric poems, but it is also a work of visual art that explores fundamental phenomena of how we read, recognize, and remember poetry, either aloud, in the mind, or on the page or screen. Sentences, in other words, can be read as a complex set of interactive experiments in how poetry is mediated and experienced.1

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Fig. 1.

Sentences box (1978), closed.

Used with permission from Robert Grenier. Image taken by the author of an item in his own personal collection.

To an unusual degree, Sentences requires active participation from readers, not only to arrange its contents (sequentially or spatially), but also to provide background for poems that often have little, if any, context or explicit connection to other poems. In Roland Barthes's terms, Sentences is radically "writerly," making the "reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of a text" (4). As Grenier continues in the same letter, "I'd like the context brought to a poem by a reader, just as particular words somehow passing through my mind at times seem significant to me. I write [poems] down, to look at them anew. The 'good' ones [are] like friends you keep coming back to, that corny." The poet imagines himself here as reader to the extent that his own poems surprise him when they reappear. Moreover, the poems form a kind of community, and the poet is not ashamed if the poems, like friends, are sometimes "corny." The poems of Sentences [End Page 279] are indeed often humorous in their fragmentariness. As one card that characterizes my experience of reading Sentences puts it, " I've been reading to this & laughing." If this poem worked as (presumably) intended—that is, if you got the joke—it would be what J. L. Austin would term a "performative utterance" or "performative sentence" (6). The "reading to this" construction is key here, and the poem would be very different if a proper name were specified (that is, I've been reading Gertrude Stein and laughing). The indexical this in the sentence could refer to anything that it is possible to read (or possibly to read along to), but in the context of the Sentences box, the this can't help referring self-reflexively either to the card or to the box as a whole. Many readers of...


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pp. 278-303
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