Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Notes on Silliman and Poesis
(Where Language Poetry Came From)
‘The most political thing you can do is face the language.’
1. Anything, Everything, and Nothing
Paragraph 1: follows:
In a letter to Louise Colet of January 16, 1852, Gustave Flaubert wrote:
What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would hold up on its own by the internal strength of its style, just as the earth with no support, holds up in the air; a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible. The finest works are those that contain the least matter… I believe that the future of Art lies in this direction. I see it growing ever more ethereal.
‘One could propose, for example, the inclusion of anything’ (Ketjak [K] 42). Precisely, and thus it is possible to say — contra Flaubert but in the same general zone: What seems ‘beautiful’ to Silliman (is this an odd word?), what he ‘should like to write,’ is a book about anything and everything, the other side of the Flaubertian ‘nothing,’ but linked to it as presence to absence. He has pursued this in an interlocking set of four long works (several including smaller works) under the over-arching rubric of ‘a single poem’ also called Ketjak, this super-Ketjak being ‘a sort of Russian-doll structure that I seem to keep reinventing’ (‘Preface,’ Age of Huts).
This projection of mise-en-abymes in sets of series structures his oeuvre. Ketjak (w. 1974, pub. 1978), Silliman’s breakthrough work, is not a work in The Alphabet, his mega-book to date, written from 1979 to 2004. Yet there is a section in The Alphabet, in letter ‘K’ position, based on this 1974 work, but called ‘Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect.’ It appears, upon superficial glance, that the ‘K’ work, consisting of one gigantic section of many sentences, has been added as a kind of mirror text, imagined as coming (numerically) after the last paragraph of Ketjak . Some words are picked out in boldface in this new ‘paragraph’ — which is about 120 pages long. In the title, the word ‘caravan’ is striking (a citation from the second sentence of the original Fibonacci-based section of the first Ketjak); it indicates an organized array of things, people and animals traveling together toward a destination. The word ‘affects’ [emotions? feelings?] even more so. Could it be that the ‘shadow text’ that Ketjak2 represents includes the shadows of emotion deliberately excluded elsewhere? Something of the sort is hinted in the post hoc final sentence of Ketjak2: ‘What a long strange text it’s been’ (A, 223).
When I asked about the relationship of all the projects titled Ketjak, Silliman answered (email April 2010), ‘On K vs. K2, K2 is simply “the next paragraph” [in the count mandated by the Fibonacci number system] & the bold sections form what I think of as a shadow text within the work.’ However, this comment does not account for Ketjak , the over-arching title of everything, mainly because much of that is still to be written. One might simply say that for Silliman the word Ketjak is about as generative and talismanic as a word can be, inciting a life-long propulsion toward works on three different scales.
Silliman’s (projected) ‘super-Ketjak,’ and all its iterations along the way, hold up by what Flaubert called the ‘internal strength of its style’ which occurs by a continuous reprocessing of world into word. The result is not that Art (capital A) grows ‘ever more ethereal,’ as in Flaubert’s proposition but rather that it grows ever more matter-oriented and materialist. Incidentally, after myself starting with Flaubert here, I found that in ‘Negative Solidarity: Revisionism and “New American” Poetics,’ Silliman, too, starts with Flaubert, making a critique of his model of ‘a perfect prose’ in Madame Bovary, and especially rejecting Flaubert’s suggestion of ‘completeness’ (Sulfur 169).
Silliman wants ‘a return to awareness of the act of writing that disrupts any rhapsodic experience of projection into content, something to prevent the “surrender” of the reader to the “transparency” of the page’ (Quarry West, 19). Or, as he says in another context, ‘Poetry — I quit.’ We can gloss this as: ‘This was how we came to free ourselves of literature, that we might resume writing’ (T 48; T 43). In other words, identification with the speaking subject is frozen — or multiplied and repositioned to the point of overload. Poetic conventions of whatever sort (including, sometimes, the line itself) are ignored. In ‘Literature,’ each work concludes; in ‘writing,’ it mostly doesn’t, remains on-going. Expressivist claims are rebuffed (though not altogether rejected) as inadequately attuned to the fullness of the project — or as too limited for it. And all things tending toward ‘swoon’ will be subject to dissection — or rather to a cool but empathetic curiosity. Thus Silliman seems to resist anyone / any moment ‘devolv[ing] into an aesthetics of lusciousness,’ (GP 9: 84). That last is, incidentally, a difference between our long poem projects.
This anti-rhapsodic insistence — familiar now from Language writing and also from current conceptual writing – is not uncharacteristic of Flaubertian realism, defined by an implacable, diagnostic eye, a scalpel of style, and by putting aside ‘the ethereal’ claims of Art. (And, in Flaubert, defined by his dissecting the delusions / illusions of his characters.) This is why the raisonneur figures in realist novels are so often medical doctors — un-sentimental, pragmatic, anti-idealist, and capable of accurate diagnoses. Yet Silliman also resists the realist-naturalist term ‘experiment’ and instead charges writing with achieving changes in consciousness that would be socially situated and socially sustained. In the event, about the Grand Piano collective autobiography, he notes the word ‘with which I am least comfortable is experiment,’ which he feels is scientistic and affiliated with the militarist claims and connotations of the term ‘avant-garde’ (GP 5, 27, 28).
The many works of this super-Ketjak, among them The Alphabet, are, in their own ways, the equivalent of the novel series by Balzac or any nineteenth century realist working in a serial mode: a scanning across the whole of a society for its material conditions and forces. In Silliman, this means a chronicle, documentary, an account, a tallying and telling (linked to Robert Creeley’s work, especially Pieces and after). As in the question of his notebook writing: ‘In what sense is this a ledger?’ for a ledger has both an accounting in numbers and accounts in discursive prose (T 59). This sense of realism draws considerably on traditions of reportage and documentary (sometimes linked to a loosely ethnographic poetics: ‘One enters the form as into a village,’ T 46), but it is almost entirely without single narrative or interwoven plots to anchor the writing. Thus it is a series of findings, indexically laid out. The works of The Alphabet make the ultimate, or fundamental realist move: they are an indexical anatomy — both a display of erudition, catalogues, lists, enumerations, and a display of cutting up, dissection, analysis, minute examination (always keen on part-to-whole questions). This is a Benjaminian realism, linked to collection and enumeration, as in The Arcades Project, and even evoking a Wunderkammer — a cabinet of curiosities, but (pace Benjamin) not necessarily of precious objects. ‘… I am very much involved with the issues of representation, particularly with those aspects of daily life (gum wrappers in the gutter) that tend to be ignored. It is the invisible which tells us most clearly who we are’ (‘Statement for New Poetics colloquium’ (1985). Jimmy & Lucy’s House of ‘K’, #5 (1985), 19). Similarly, Benjamin evoked ‘the rags, the refuse’ — those uncanny, un-systematizable scraps and shards of debris (Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999, 460). In Silliman — we focus most often on his curiosity, not the curiousness of the object; both are mediated through language choices and modes of representation.
Andrew Epstein has also analyzed Ketjak both as Silliman’s account of the quotidian, and as a self-reflexive theoretical reflection on the representation of ‘everyday life,’ including the aesthetic and political shifts of value that are entailed. In ‘“There Is No Content Here, Only Dailiness”: Poetry as Critique of Everyday Life in Ron Silliman’s Ketjak’ (Contemporary Literature 51. 4 : 736-777), Epstein emphasizes Silliman’s rejection of the aesthetic function of ‘transcendence,’ pointing both to his ‘politicized cultural critique of late-twentieth century consumer capitalism,’ and to his creation of an ‘allegory of everyday life,’ under the rubric of a re-conceptualized realism (740). The only point of writing, as Silliman states, is to give access to ‘actually existing life,’ and, alluding to Wittgenstein, ‘to all the world that is the case’ (GP 6: 20).
Realism is emphatically his crucial poetics, we also see from Silliman’s blog, November 28, 2006: ‘I’ve written on numerous occasions, starting indeed with the foreword to the anthology In the American Tree, ‘Language, Realism, Poetry,’ that language poetry has always been deeply involved with realism in the arts, a term that to my mind resonates with echoes of both Objectivism in American poetics & a perspective that is perhaps most clearly articulated previously in mid-century Italian cinema. Not only do almost all of language poetry’s literary devices function to strip away the social wrappings that come between the reader and the materials of the poem itself, but even when the poetry steps into a consciously referential mode, its default position often seems to be reportage. You can see this in my work, in Steve Benson’s writing, in Bruce Andrews’ ensembles of social expression & in Hannah Weiner’s journals, although otherwise we are all very different in our ways of practice.’ (Silliman’s blog, 28 Nov. 28 06)
My evocation of Walter Benjamin, alluding to an observation that I have repeatedly cited, reveals that my reason for writing this set of notes is only apparently to describe or to analyze some of Silliman’s poetics and oeuvre. My reason is also personally invested: to investigate another long poem practitioner, to try to ask of his work what I would ask of my own — why did he do this? Why write a long poem? Why does any writer of a long poem begin, continue, and possibly complete (or fold up) this impossible project? When all is said and done, there may be no fully satisfactory answer.
2. The Work as [spiritual] [meditative] praxis
Reading Silliman, one is very often aware of the labor of writing — its implements, the hand, the pen, the page, the notebook, the intransigence of the material and the places the author is sitting while writing. This sense of writing as actual work in an actual time and specific place, on a particular kind of page, with a specific pen (see GP 6: 18) transfers the compositional platform (a notebook) into the genre. It doesn’t suggest there is no transformation; it does suggest the ‘recording angel’ persona and the work of noticing-and-writing as a constant project are a non-transcendent spiritual practice. The on-going commitment to notebook composition has its analogues in practicing meditation. In fact, Silliman analyzes how reading and writing [‘language comprehension’] interplay in ‘multiple portions of the brain’ and in ‘multiple reactions across time’; the passage occurs precisely when he discusses the play of mind in meditation (GP 5: 22-23).
Silliman’s is also an example of work in a writing ‘factory’ where he is at once worker, owner, and labor organizer. All poetry is work, a strange kind of work with a rarely valued product and one with only the oddest mimicry of commodity form – of which it is also suspicious. Silliman strips product to production. This is one of his ways of being free of writing ‘literature’ (as product — although in his oeuvre there is truly a lot of product!) and, not incidentally free of the romantic myth of ‘inspiration.’ Instead, with an homage to William Carlos Williams as forerunner, he makes ‘writing’ a mode of practice and loosely a genre, emphasizing continuous commitment to a production process. One key feature of his oeuvre is Silliman’s pertinacious commitment to individually declared projects, one after another — as if he had made a bargain about accumulation with himself. The final pages of The Alphabet detail the nature of some of the projects as they inhabit time — writing one section per week across a year, in the case of one work (A1062). Other such indicators are ‘Every day for a year I looked at the ground’ and ‘Every day for one year I looked at the sky & noted what I saw’ [A 1058, 1060]) Accumulation and deliberate projects assiduously carried out have built this oeuvre, one sentence at a time.
Sometimes the calculus of intention within the labor of writing is at one and the same time very comic and very serious: ‘Today I wrote eight pages’ (T161) or ‘This sentence has five words’ (K 29) (there are many such examples). As part of figuring the activities of writing, Silliman makes allusions to the colors of the notebooks, to changing notebooks, always with the on-going writing functioning as bridge: ‘A sentence begun on the green page is completed on the yellow’ (K 73). (This could allude either to covers of notebooks or to those amusing school-time notebooks with sections of pink, yellow, green and blue pages). Or stating just a bit later, ‘Write this down in a green notebook’-–that is, reverting to the prior notebook because the insight fits there better (K 75-76). The actual material container is eulogized for its future form, not for its present appearance — here with some pride: ‘No, I say to the man who asks, “Is that your diary?” it’s a book’ (T 130).
A good deal of emotion, if muted, is ascribed to the relationship between this man and his writing, in this example marking the process toward closure of one text. As in: ‘I sense grief at the impending finish’ (T 200); ‘Painfully, I inscribe this book to you’ (T 201); ‘I am rapidly running out of lines’ (T 201); ‘I’m filld with artificial closures’ (T 211) – this an unusual acknowledgment of the ideologies of Literature that have been rejected; ‘Are you frightened of finishing?’ (T 212). And the last word: ‘What then?’ (T 213). Of course this final two-word phrase has also opened the text: Silliman feels keenly that a ‘sense of closure is one of the defining problems of modernism’ (Quarry West 15). His solution is to commit to anti-closural endlessness even when individual iterations of the project close. I did not say ‘finish’ or ‘end.’ The simultaneity of modern long poems attempting totality (such as Pound, Olson, and even in his own, luckily uneven way, Williams; Silliman adds Joyce and Crane) and the growth and flourishing of Grand Theory in other fields — sociology, science — the claim that a Unified Field will explain everything — are more than a coincidence. However, people attempting the long poem now are writing after the collapse of unified, totalizing theories and their modernist literary avatars. It is an interesting situation to be creating a monumental work while resisting both the apparent benefits and the problematics of monumentality.
Hence the last words of Tjanting (“what then?”) echo the Marxist challenge “what is to be done?” as well as the political / aesthetic challenges of beginning again. If this is not it (and the words just before had been about suburbia — the lawn presenting ‘a false surface’), then what is? ‘What then?’ (at least T 11 and T 213). The door is open.
3. ‘Quant au livre’ = it’s not a diary, ‘It’s a book’
Of course I am fond — perhaps Silliman is also — of the scandalous and fascinating claim made by Stéphane Mallarmé, declaring an attitude to the book, a statement absolutely germane to the long poems of modernity. The titles of the overarching text, and then the essay variously translated are: ‘Quant au Livre,’ meaning ‘On the question of the book’; ‘Concerning the book’; ‘We were talking about the book, were we? or ‘To think about the book.’ Or all of them with capitals on The and Book. And then, the essay ‘Le livre. instrument spirituel,’ meaning ‘The book as a spiritual instrument’; ‘The book, spiritual probe’; ‘The book, tool of the spirit.’ But what is the force of spiritual?
Everyone remembers that Mallarmé said that ‘everything in the world exists to end up in a book’ – ‘tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre.’ And was that the goal of one single book, or of a book, one among many? It creates a big difference, the choice of how a person translates that little word, ‘un.’ In his essay-meditation called The Books to Come, Alan Loney enumerates suggestively different translations of this sentence. For example does the last bit get translated as ‘in order to end up as a book’ or ‘in a book’; this in itself is a major difference. Loney prefers an interpretation that deemphasizes the absolutism of Mallarmé’s remark, favoring the translation of ‘aboutir’ as ‘to lead to a book,’ rather than ‘end up in a book,’ and thus making process trump finality. (Victoria, TX: Cuneiform Press, 2010, 131).
Everyone remembers that Mallarmé said this because the rest of that meditation attenuates and becomes so singularly hermetic (perhaps until the virginal book gets cut open with the paper knife) that it can’t be paraphrased, only experienced as a quick breeze whose direction shifts and barely settles. The sexual metaphor of deflowering, beloved by Mallarmé, occurs because of the physical quires of the French books of that time retained their [labial?] folds and had to be carefully cut along certain edges by the reader to open the hidden pages. At least that would begin an explanation; let’s leave it at that.
People blame me or praise me for saying this (says Mallarmé). For saying what? ‘que tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre’? That’s the point of everything in the world – its goal, and its object? The whole existence of ‘the world’ — is not to reproduce (a biologistic, material baseline) or to be metamorphosed / transformed (a political baseline, perhaps), but to be in a book? It all exists to end up in a book? Outrageous. Privileged. And tempting. Useful to have had someone say this. Even if one recognizes the political and social shock of this statement, its displacement of established religion, its scientific ridiculousness, its reductive superiority — writers of the long poem can, probably, understand this claim. What, after all, is the long poem doing if not attempting this, flirting with it? Therefore with all resistance burnt off, what would the long poem have as a goal if all the world (or everything in the world) were not intended to end up in a book? where would The Maximus Poems be, where would Anne Waldman’s Iovis be? and where would The Alphabet?
4. The ‘Hero’
Who is the ‘hero’ (in quotation marks) of Silliman’s work? Already a mooted question — for those old words hero, epic, narrative certainly don’t apply here; however, they remain residual metaphors for this kind of large project (taking ‘epic’ as an adjective, not a genre). Who is the ‘hero’? It is not a ‘who.’ It is the will to write — the laboring will. It is the will to record ‘it,’ as anything, the whole world, everything in the world goes by or occurs, inside or out, the desire to capture a world-range of insight in language at this moment now. Now-time and the aura of now-time are incredibly important to Silliman, as to Walter Benjamin, even if Silliman (unlike Benjamin) makes an effort not in any way to romanticize aura. (This is sometimes a loss, one that is perhaps being rectified in Universe to date.) He hardly produces sentences that record sequential time as it actually occurred, but discrete observational summaries of something that occurred, either in the world, or in the language about the world, or in the mind making up that language. Sometimes the hero is even the hand that wants to write, the lips that might speak (as in Tjanting), for both body parts begin that work hurt — they are wounded heroes! A rare touch. And hardly whimsy. It is a facing of the materiality of it all — including the body of the maker. Everything is tender, blocked, blistered, sore (T 11). The writer casts off alternatives, rejecting and rejecting (‘not this,’ ‘nor that either,’ ‘not not not-this’), resisting, and qualifying, yet finding, in that process that ‘I’d begun’ (T 12 and other early pages). With the intense repetition, tenses, tensions and variations of ‘beginning’ at the commencement of Tjanting (recurrences occurring from the formal mechanism of counting and sometimes repeating sentences), something has happened that is as important as finding, from the direction of the flowing stream at the watershed in Wordsworth’s The Prelude, that we’d crossed the Alps (T 11-14).
And on that point, see The Chinese Notebook (now in Age of Huts), incidentally the first work by Silliman that I read. His proposition 76 reads: ‘If I am correct that this is poetry, where is its family resemblance to, say, The Prelude? Crossing the Alps’ (Age of Huts, 158). That last phrase is the answer to the question of resemblance: some watershed of definition has been achieved.
Note that the hero is not the writer, who is rather neutral, disinterested in himself as a special self, interested only in himself as instance, one instance among many. This is true even although you could argue, as Hank Lazer does, that Silliman is a civic ethnographer of language, and ethnographer means the investigator who lives among a ‘foreign’ society, set apart in trying to describe, explain and analyze its mores (Lazer’s major article in Quarry West: 68-97). This work not a romantic exploration of difference but something that tests out how many ways the nuances of the real can be observed, proposed, represented, and enjoyed. Every sentence, every phrase is ‘a citizen’ in a democratic vista — this is Lazer’s trope, and it is quite just. But not an intact bounded citizen, rather this person is also opening out, and letting others in, intervening in and receiving from. Yet paradoxically these others are not individuated, not constructed as ‘characters,’ not named, and only rarely – hardly ever – given their own voices and observations.
‘This to me is tmesis’ is the poetics of structure, stated with punning wit — but this also will turn out to be a serious political statement (T 20). What is ‘tmesis’? It can be best defined by example: ‘far fucking out.’ And ‘Jesus H. Christ.’ That is, tmesis is the insertion of an extra (emphatic) element between words of the expected phrase. The dictionary: ‘the separation of the parts of a compound word by one or more intervening words.’ In other words the rhetorical process in which sentences are built upon each other involves ‘tmesis’: separation, insertion, rejoining. This suggests that the ‘hero’ is the process of invention.
If each sentence is a citizen, as Lazer argues, it is also jostled, uncomfortable, murky in further import, unclear in direction, interrupted, opening out, having things impinge. It is a ‘tmetic’ citizen intercut with other intersections of others. This means the ‘hero’ (I am still working out that residual metaphor) could indeed be the world as such — the network, residue and surplus of individual instances. Each item stands individually: there is no particular emphasis on drawing links. This move mightily frustrates known conventions of reading, plotting and its satisfactions, expository argument, but offers rather an emphasis on assembling the array of all things that exist as such, that is, all things that can be written at the same general socio-historical time, crossing each other in the same space.
For those readers whose patience with unsorted parataxis becomes frayed, Silliman is ready with a somewhat pert rejoinder: ‘That this is not readable misses the point’ (T 28). And also a somewhat high-toned one: ‘What I am writing is writing’ (T 20). As in Stein (who exaggerates this trait to the utmost), in Silliman there isn’t a large emphasis on memory or background, or prolepsis, or foreshadowing. An event or a statement comes almost absolutized, without much before or after given within the writing. Every statement simply is.
Speaking of Stein, in 1999, while discussing his work during one of my Temple University courses on the long poem, Silliman stated: ‘Stein died 9 days before I was born’ . The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away was the implication. There are many more, and even more telling links than that mot. Here’s another: ‘You could start almost anywhere and find anything’ (K 45). Corollary: you could start almost anywhere and continue pretty much anywhere else. Encyclopedism — getting everything in – is a commitment of Silliman’s Steinian poetics.
Silliman’s work is poetically saturated in one key instruction from ‘Composition as Explanation’: use everything. ‘This too & all this’ is the interior climax of ‘Not this. What then?’ (T 150). That leitmotiv begins on the first page and involves a general relationship to space (as William Carlos Williams insisted, here is everywhere; the local is the universal), but more particularly a relationship to time (T 11). The writing continuously scans the multiple coordinates of Now. Whatever is happening at this minute. ‘Everything.’ This tallying is the tick of a clock. The theme is the daily observation (‘observance’ people might now say…both wrongly and rightly) of events in the mind and outside. There are an enormous number of events in consciousness and outside of personal consciousness. Silliman is not convinced he will in fact tally ‘all of the world in a book,’ but he is committed to this, convinced that he will try.
5. The NOW
The ‘now’ denies time’s propulsion. I mean it controls for the sensation of time’s on-goingness (temporality), and resists time perceived conventionally as linkages / interruptions, causes and effects, logical connections, norms of sequencing, remembering and reflecting, nostalgia, build-up to an insight, or hypotactic hierarchies of emphasis. Silliman writes mainly in and of now-time. No past, no future is talked about particularly; these concepts, at any rate, do not organize the work and have no higher status than the now. Time markers like specific dates and hours are relatively rare; there is much ‘time’ and senses of the weight and fullness of any moment, but few explicit event markers, though at times one might infer historical events from the residue that Silliman records. The work constructs a right here, right now. The clock ticks and another sentence or phrase occurs. Similarly, there is little sense of foreground and background as conventionally positioned; rather, everything is foreground. There are specific exceptions to this general observation. Although the ‘Y’-section titled ‘You’ in The Alphabet emphasizes now-time, it is also an accretion of writing, across a one-year period, that speaks of moving from the U.S. West Coast to the East, and that contains clear notations about the loneliness of a new blank house, the frustrations of learning new routes and commuter streets, the curiosity of getting used to new fauna (particularly birds and insects) and to new weather (including the notorious humidity of a Philadelphia summer).
Reading any of Silliman is a serious and sometimes overwhelming experience in the ‘now,’ because the stubbornness of this writer’s radical impulse persists even amid the self-doubt (and despite the unevenness of the reader’s competence). The reader senses a lot of small but palpable, additive transitions being made through the accretion of perception about the world, and is saturated in that rain of — or mist of – perceptions and detail of seeing and registering, second by second. Together these construct an unusually compelling experience — but one that demands slow, non-extractive attention. So it is also strangely frustrating and odd. The reader is (re-) trained not to ask for Grand Narrative, Grand Theory, despite the scale of the book. The double sense of writing time (doing stints of writing and living in real time) is paralleled by reading time – the slowing down of one’s pace in reading while the reader is also living. The work creates a fantastic zone in which one is (as if) experientially inside the life of another. You as reader become a citizen of another universe.
In this, Silliman does something to time that is characteristic, I feel, of the time given to, that is, chosen by, the writer of a long poem. The writer of a long poem doubles time. Silliman doubles the time given to him by writing down the details and syntaxes of apprehension within it. Something similar is said by Nathaniel Mackey in an interview conducted by Jeanne Heuving. ‘I mean that [in the long poem] life creates an accompaniment to itself, a second take or a double take, something like a sound track to a movie. There’s a particular resonance and dimension it gets from and gives itself through poetry…’ (Contemporary Literature 53. 2 (Summer 2012: 207-236. Citation on 212).
This doubling (I won’t linger on this point — although it is also vital for Drafts) corresponds to the notions of shadow text — as in Ketjak2, and a kind of faceting or mirroring effect when one is inside the works, works that twinkle of transformed statements, refracting, reflecting prior statements, and reflecting on each other. It’s as if all the sentences in his pieces stand in a group and look at each other, questioning and observing the hinge between them.
Silliman pokes continually at the mechanisms through which language means what it does — as if he almost can’t believe what he is finding and will have to do it again and again. Some of Silliman’s writing tells different narratives in different arrangements of words. In this way, language trumps story. ‘Sip water, smoke cigar’ becomes ‘sip cigar, smoke water’ — (T 16), and ‘sip smoke, water cigars’ (T 25). Hence language (particularly the pressures and binding properties of syntax) is the medium of narration, and the thing narrated — its constructive powers, its powers to bring into existence are a source of considerable wonder and amusement. When Silliman deliberately exchanges the same noun as subject and object, or shifts a verb position, he makes a political point about agency. ‘All I sequence is the determine’ is a particularly pertinent example of a playful reversal (T 189). When he shifts placement of adjectives, he creates the ‘same’ but ‘different’ description — like a palimpsest made of slightly different arrangements of pixels. When he changes word order, the conventions of normal language are confronted with a charming shock. For instance, in the evocation of three friends with stiff necks, only one of the verbal ordering arrangements (precisely three friends with stiff necks) can be naturalized (too much yoga? sitting in a cold draft?) or can be called “real” in our conventions, unlike ‘3 stiff friends with necks’ (T 13, 15) That’s plausible, of course, but also silly, their stiffness an abstract observation about social ease, quite different from the fact of their having necks. We move all the way to ‘Friends neck with three stiffs’ (perhaps a scene in the ultimate buddy / horror movie? T 86). Silliman enjoys writing sentences that make bumper-car crashes against our assumptions. The little crashes won’t hurt you, but the game of language and its rules of engagement are made quite plain. Laying bare the device is done over and over. “What begins as perception transforms itself into language” is one motto for the work (T 76). This process takes shape with every word written, attended to with great panache and assiduousness.
6. ‘thinking’ and ‘things.’
[My subtitle right here is a key phrase of Zukofskian poetics that has the following words in it: ‘thinking’ and ‘things.’ You can look it up.]
Given its commitment to the everyday, Silliman’s work is liminal between public and private. It notes ‘the slightest pubic hair’ (a frank, possibly intimate detail) next to a citation from a notable swing lyric cueing tap dancing, incidentally written by a woman – Fran Landesman (‘Feet, do your stuff’) or a fact (‘Frying yellow squash in a wok’ amid other vegetables), or a fact about Bedlingtons, a breed of working dogs, or a simple but (to me) unmotivated phrase — ‘Slag iron’ (K 5-6, and 7, 11) or a statement of what one is ‘doing’ at this moment along with summaries of poetics (‘One wants a place to locate events of the mind,’ K 12). A one-word summary of both the poesis and the noun that it produces is “Jots” (T 41). Basically this work is not about emotional response to things — but observation, description, without emphatic judgment — just a kind of observational wonder: that this is, and that that is. Most of the emotional energy is put into lucid endless noticing and rendering. All of Silliman’s work is based on a practice of naming what is there, the things existing, to the self and therefore to the page with a maximum of temporal engagement, a practice of formulating, in quite deliberate and careful language what is in front of you, or looking over your dizzy, witty language transformations in order to pursue their potential for more transformations. So several moments that are for me, summaries of poetics become questions about the politics of value as ‘who will write of shoelaces?’ (T 204). Of course, since many of the phrases repeat in another context, or are varied (‘Tmesis to me is this,’ T 35), what goes around comes around, and the fascination of poesis is compounded by the experience of intermittent reader-memory.
The poetics – -go anywhere, everywhere, as directly and frankly as possible brings Silliman into some taboo places, ones that strike some readers with a shock. What is the difference between the light pubic hair and the young man with long eyelashes? (T 11). How about the explicit, non-pornographic (and discontinuous) but intense snapshots of sex? – the ‘entering her’ moments that recur. Is Silliman’s work best described as emanating from the ‘male gaze’?
The effect of a removed observer in Silliman is exaggerated by the implacable, de-personalized tone. (As in ‘I long for the end of the individual in the act of writing,’ T 136.) This is compounded by the fact, already noted, that other people represented or alluded to almost never have names and characteristics, although they do have social locations and traits. This gets complicated when any given ‘she’ is evoked in a sexual encounter. Silliman treats the self, any self, including his own as e pluribus pluribum. (I hope that’s reasonably correct Latin.) He means to make himself, and all others, just one among many people, whether they are getting on a bus, having dental work, cooking dinner, or experiencing fellation. Yet the latter, of course, is more (potentially) personal, rather more gender specific, and often sticks out to readers more (so to speak); plus it is not treated via any conventions proper to the occasion — as if we know what these are. No matter what happens, no matter what is observed, the response tends to be clinical, as in observational, not overtly seeking the conventionally emotional. Yet these sexual moments are also very intimate, and the observations-in-writing are thoroughly invested in an even-handed, often compassionate but sometimes flat curiosity that also has the effect of ‘letting be’ — a descriptive moment made by suspending conventional moral evaluation or emotional frisson. That is a very interesting Verfremdungseffekt, to get all Brechtian for a moment, and is in fact filled with critique of what writing generally is, how writing is generally used, and why writing is generally consumed. It is not ‘the male gaze’ if it also looks at the writing / speaking subjectivity with that same even-handed curiosity and flat non-judgmental affect that is accorded to everyone. Here is a sentence doomed to startle, and of high interest in this context of the gaze: ‘Enough smegma under the foreskin for an oreo’ (T 89). This pile-up of frankness and cultural allusion is dizzying in part because of a quite personal depersonalization.
However, my remarks on the gaze and its implacability are also incomplete and may be over-compensating. This is because the carefully observational and informational are already gender-coded in culture (whether accurately or not), and because sex observed as an occasion for analytic description tends to be seen as ‘unemotional’ — a fact also gender-coded, quite inaccurately but conventionally. For the paradox is that such a statement of fact in a voice coming from a male-bodied person is often ipso facto read / heard as a statement of power, because power comes with that territory. You can’t get any part of that chicken before that egg; and the intertwining is as much a statement about a reader’s learned conventions for consuming as about a writer’s production conventions or convictions. (This is an interesting ethical and aesthetic problem for male writers, to say the least.) Silliman is troubling both sets of conventions, but both trouble him, and trouble the reader. Would the reader have him censor anything? No. Would the reader like some sentimentality about sexual manifestations or events? To say ‘hardly’ might be to be too accepting of one way of looking at these kinds of things. This paradox may be unresolvable. However, the so-called ‘male gaze’ implies ego and possession and superiority via looking, and even a kind of overview mastery of a scene, as wrapped in gender, as well as a fetishization of female ‘lack.’ This is not the general effect of Silliman’s writing. There is little ego (except the pride of poesis — nothing wrong with that!), and as for possession — the experience is more like coping with saturation inside everything by producing titrated pulses of that saturation by taking one thing at a time. The risk of this writing is palpable: the risk is seeming to re-inscribe that which one wants to critique.
7. Root mode: the sestina
What is the notion of form here — repetition, torsion (spiraling, interlinking, twisting), a writing that returns again and again to the same (words, phrases, sentences) but re-contextualized, varied, become different. Without being too reductive or flat-footed – for these works are not only not lyric, but their ‘lyrical’ is one blip on a much vaster screen, I would note that the mode of practice called the sestina contributes much to the dynamic of such conceptual works as Silliman’s, as to My Life by Lyn Hejinian, as well as to Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets.
Louis Zukofsky’s ‘Mantis’ is the contemporary poem that explains and explores the a-lyric use of the sestina — the crabbed, gnarled, wrenched, ‘battle of diverse thoughts’ or ‘thoughts’ torsion’ (I am citing here from Dante – as is Zukofsky) condensed to the point of implosion (in part I) and then played out, self-analyzed, annotated, self-examined, self-conscious, and incompletely glossed in part 2, ‘“Mantis,” An Interpretation’ (Zukofsky, Complete Short Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, 68).
In a remarkable close reading accompanied by his pretty good translation of Dante’s ‘Al poco giorno…,’ Leslie Fiedler (in the zone of Kenneth Burke’s criticism) proposes that the essential emotion of the sestina is obsession. This becomes its ideology of form, or in Fiedler’s words, ‘the metaphysical implications of the form itself.’ It is a ‘dialogue of freedom and necessity,’ and in the case of Dante, ‘loaded heavily on the side of necessity’ (Fiedler 24). It is the obsessive nature of the sestina, its fixations, the sense of fate, the machinery that makes it so pertinent to the worship of the idealized female figure, with both genders trapped in a stylized drama. Where the love lyric part of the sestina is often about entrapment (in that particular poem of Dante, the desire to ‘lock’ a female figure in a landscape, to hold her there), the obsession in Silliman is far more general. It might be something like (if this sounds grandiose, so be it) to name every detail of the world in language, every one, no matter how minimal, taboo, apparently excrescent, shameful, cast off, unnoticeable and non-literary. Thus feeding the cats, describing passersby, noting bowel movements, observing bus passengers, itemizing dental crises, recalling work relationships, connecting with friends — it’s an encyclopedism (sometimes of abjection in Julia Kristeva’s terms — noting the taboo, cast-off substances) where the small accretive shifts of verbal repetition, and observational repetition create the flux of the world. The question of repetition links Silliman (again) to Stein, and so to a possible cubist realism. Whatever is looked at (hot grease on stove, old chair behind anise plants) is looked at in a variety of ways from a multipoint perspective. There is no master narrative. The figure called ‘I’ has become the figure ‘it.’ First-person is third-person.
The obsession in Silliman differs mightily from the exemplary sestina that Fiedler describes insofar as it is not love-linked — in any event does not memorialize a hopeless (stage-y) infatuation in which the mastery of the poem substitutes for the mastery of the evasive, unavailable female figure. However the topos of obsession — along with the repetitive, spiraling form in which obsession is carried out — is similar. The obsession in Silliman is naming, seeing, elaborating, describing, discovering, investigating — in any order, and with the object being world or word and the endlessly interesting seam that one can make between them. ‘Crazy to do this’ (T 22) means both insane and desirous.
Another analysis of the ideology of form in the sestina points to its numerology. Marianne Shapiro’s Hieroglyph of Time evokes medieval number symbolism, numerological oddities of odd-even triads and dyads, multipliers, factors, and products to understand the closural force of the sestina in its six 6-line stanzas, its woven repetition of end-words, its three-line envoi or tornada. From the perspective of numerology, one appreciates the instability of number in anything based on the even number 6: there is no center in any six-line stanza, and among six strophes, none can be center. The counts that happen in Silliman are now fairly well-known: his work features structuring and oft-repeated uses of specific numerologies as formal pattern. He yearns to deploy generative strategies that are number based. Most of these involve modes of exponential growth: something gigantic and enormous starting from a very small seed (like compound interest). The magic of numbers becomes a formal principle of counting in most — even all — of these long works.
The Fibonacci number series, an organic progression, is an endless, infinite series consisting of 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144… with each subsequent number found by addition of the previous two numbers. This is quite unlike the closed-system numerologies of prior poetic concepts like the sestina. The Fibonacci system is the basis of Tjanting, counting each sentence, no matter its length, as an integer. A work like Lit, based on multiple sets and factors of the number 12 takes another tack. Ketjak has a different system (as Silliman remarked to me in an email): ‘The game in Ketjak is the old one of doubling the pennies on each square [there are 64] of the chessboard. Start with a penny & you will need more than a million dollars to cover that last square. So that sequence should be 1, 2, 4, 8, 14, 28, 56, 112, 224, 448, 896, etc.’ (9-10 April 2010). ‘You’ is based on writing one section for every one of fifty-two weeks of the year.
What does this kind of obsessive, repetition / variation-based form allow? What is the effect of reading it? For people who are made uncomfortable by this mode, reading Silliman exaggerates the effects: claustrophobia, a boring into one spot, a sense of stasis, sometimes even anxiety. (These are effects acknowledged by Fiedler, too, in his discussion of the sestina.) For people who admire it or who can enter into its premises, Silliman offers a sense of exploration, a sense of satiation or plenitude, the plethora of what language can do, in matching — or even outpacing — what the world can do. A sense of largeness with variation — and so a way of exploring all kinds of difference. A productive, satisfying comprehensiveness.
8. Long poems and the meanings of length
This said, I am going to go back over some of this from another entry point: sheer length, sheer bulk, the longness of the long poem. How did such a practice get initiated? How was it allowed to continue? These are gigantic questions, perhaps even unresolvable ones. Yet Ron Silliman’s quasi-autobiographical, pragmatic narrative from 1992 called ‘I Wanted to Write Sentences: Decision Making in the American Longpoem’ proposed that his choice to write a long poem was not a decision about length (or grandeur or the sublime); it was, he states, simply a way of solving certain problems. The length is ‘extraneous.’ Working out a problem (‘the sentence’ is what Silliman indicates) was the trigger; some length is needed to make the point. Thus length is a simple measure of and statement of ambition in relation to a problem. It’s a kind of scientific experiment – according to him.
To treat the length of the long poem as epiphenomenal or a side product is quite a counter-intuitive, not to say a challenging finding. It is counter-intuitive because the length of these books is the most obvious feature that one sees and faces as a reader of Silliman’s work. The Alphabet is a gigantic book, over one thousand pages long (1062, to be exact). And The Alphabet is only one of a linked set of projects that Silliman has undertaken and is still engaged on. But why was the path to this enormous length called simply a way of working out problems called ‘sentences’? The disproportion of explanation to result is striking.
There are certainly a number of ways to answer this: I will offer several. But these comments do not claim completeness or finality. First of all, by making sentences (items which are definitionally of prose and in prose), by downplaying linebreaks (though some are employed sometimes), Silliman has one straightforward way of resisting poetry, the poetic tradition, and all the rhetorical baggage of writing a poem. Prose as a mode is simply and efficiently a way of avoiding or circumventing all this baggage. The new sentence may be, as he argues, ‘analogous’ to the line in poetry, but it’s not the same as the line (‘New Sentence’ 90).
Another answer would be simply to point to the ‘sententia’ or sententiousness of sentences — their claim to embody official knowledge and wisdom. Silliman’s oeuvre is seriously engaged with rhetorical critique and the critique of convention; thus the aphoristic declarative is resisted in its extractive, rule-bearing, socially normative meanings. Instead, the works are made of a continuous stream of propositions in perpetual metamorphosis when put together, although each is solid and ‘verifiable’ individually. Making enough ‘sentences’ of this sort answers back to normal or normative ideologies of prose.
A third explanation is well covered already — we know this, in large measure from Silliman and his claims in ‘The New Sentence’: that sentences function as a strong alternative to the breath-line, the line based on the organic (and, by cultural default, often the male) body of the New American poets, a line leading to a page space and a performance claim authorized by an organic choice, somehow valid by being ‘natural’ (whatever that means — it is a category of ideology) not procedural. Of course any given sentence is not a non-speech practice; many (though not all) of the sentences in Silliman could be stated out loud in conversation or in interior conversation with oneself. However, their speech potential is not emphasized nor is there an emphasis on dialogue or much citation of ‘real’ language as spoken; their qualities as reportage of possible and actualized sentences are what is at stake. And further, what is vital becomes sentences’ potential to have a meaningful gap or tension between them — something that restates, on another scale and for another function, the juxtapositional poetics of the Image or of the Eisensteinian jump-cut (‘New Sentence’ 92).
A fourth reason to choose sentences emerges from Silliman’s mix of Steve Reich and Gertrude Stein. It is set forth in his own aphorism: ‘I realized that accumulation itself could be used to suggest direction’ (‘I Wanted,’ 13). Paraphrase: if there is enough of something, a weight of ‘evidence’ for its tendency has occurred. This argument may be circular, but it is not the less compelling for that. Eastern music – what Reich has drawn upon – has an all-over repeated design, made of micro-tonal shifts with a de-emphasis of a pure or tempered note in favor of a wobbling, “out of tune” tone. Western music is built on narratives of tension and release, alternation of rhythmic motifs, conventionalized key changes, and contrasts of loudness and softness. Given these possibilities, the all-over non-climactic, non-contrastive and a-harmonic design is chosen repeatedly by Silliman.
And a fifth reason for the sentence, more like a corollary, is that ‘repetition [of sentences could] undercut hypotaxis’ (‘I Wanted’ 13). Curiously and interestingly, a repetition even of hypotactic, subordinating sentences will, by virtue of that repetition, produce paratactic sequences, particularly when narrative or plot has been avoided. (One can see this effect in certain of Ashbery’s works.) Silliman’s preference for parataxis (one he shared with a whole generation) has something to do with equalizing the various elements, treating them as non-subordinated entities ‘similar if not identical in form, but without arguing for or pointing toward some deferred or higher meaning’ (‘I Wanted’ 16). Here is part of the buried current of emotional intensity in this work — it is the social emotion of living in a city, of riding a bus, of being ‘among’ (in George Oppen’s words) and thus of generally resisting the fact (within literature) that we are keener producers of [bourgeois individualist] emotion than of social emotions.
This said — and I am still glossing ‘I Wanted to Write Sentences,’ a most remarkable statement occurs, one that I have mulled variously and one which is particularly compelling not only in thinking about Silliman but also in thinking about the inception of any long poem. Indeed, the following admission is, in its own way, one of my favorite sentences in his oeuvre. With this set of findings and claims about sentences made, Silliman states: ‘I was very quickly — and I mean literally a matter of hours, in the midst of composing a longpoem, a poem that I am in fact still writing’ (‘I Wanted’ 14). He also notes the importance of the ‘recognition that one has begun to write such a work’ (‘I Wanted’ 14). Blazes of a shifting paradigm. Both statements are true to my own experience with Drafts. The neologism ‘longpoem’ (no space) designates a category: works in multiple books taking the better part of a lifetime to write, decades’ long works, in distinction to works (sometimes of significant length and seriousness) written as single book-length entities.
Silliman then talks of the double place of something called Ketjak  in this array, both as the ‘entrance into’ or portal poem (‘I Wanted’ 14), simply a ‘long poem,’ (an adjective describing a noun) yet to become the totally overarching title for an enormous project, a ‘longpoem.’ There is an immediate ‘doubling’ (pick other multiples — also plausible) and layering of projects. However: here is his central ‘recognition’ — that ‘length’ is ‘extraneous’; the issue is a problem that compels you first to begin and then to continue (‘I Wanted’ 14). As I have already said, he declares that he ‘found myself writing a long poem’ for reasons he insists are ‘extraneous’ to length (“I Wanted,” 14). Yet nothing precisely in his essay hints of a problem of the dimension and magnitude that compels such a level of longpoem activity that for Silliman has now taken the better part of forty years. I would say, speaking in part in my own voice, it’s not really sentences (which is the recognition of method – yes, this is important): it is the staggering recognition of the energy of beginning and of continuing that enables the practice.
In this essay, Silliman has written a serious autobiography of a practice; this move does not demand logic, only honesty. However, the comic-touching thing in terms of logic is that the writing of sentences does not necessitate the longpoem on the face of it. The justification is ‘accumulation itself could be used to suggest direction’ (‘I wanted’ 13). But couldn’t less accumulation than such a long work also serve? Why not stop at the 60 pages of, say, Ketjak, or even at the 213 pages of Tjanting, and the 311 pages with a variety of works in The Age of Huts? Why go on to 1000 plus pages? What demanded an unfinished, unfinishable lifework not content with more than a thousand pages? What demanded such an enviable title (now occurring / now being written) as Universe — which means, etymologically, the whole, or all ‘turned into one’ and suggests one ultimate verse?
While poetics is, of course, very compelling, it is hard to credit that a person does this much work only for a debate in poetics, to prove a point by writing sentences contra others, who write in lines, or who have made claims for breath or speech. This question why recurs for me — possibly because of its tremendous power and the puzzle of it. (I hover here repeatedly because this slippage away from why to how is something I feel in my own work.) So while honest and interesting, Silliman’s explanation is not fully convincing to some fundamental bedrock of the existence of this oeuvre. I am hardly doubting what Silliman says (it is both deft and thoroughly generative); I am doubting its completeness.
In a comment on a draft of this analysis for which I am quite grateful, Silliman wrote (e-mail, May 30, 2011): ‘My sense at the time was one of being “inside” a work in a way that I had not experienced in a poem before – and I think the Ketjak form, the work of Steve Reich & example of gamelan were all templates I was conscious of. How does one write “from the inside”? That was the leap I had made in a matter of a few paragraphs. It was a qualitatively difference experience than one of “writing poems,” and to my mind infinitely preferable.’ The sense of being beyond the writing of more normal ‘poems (remember ‘Poetry — I quit’) offers a clue.
Well, what were the problems to work out that the sentence first and as a consequence the long poem demanded? Why, in my terms, did the energies of beginning and continuing take shape as they did – and when they did? These problems or energies are bigger than the long poem, but that poem, is indeed a mechanism for confronting them. A short poem, Silliman has argued, is too ‘innocent’ because it can be consumed a-historically, a-temporally, as if society and personality were trans-historical absolutes. Why does length then becomes an issue? A long poem may be able to make another kind of intervention. ‘Self-conscious of its own difference, the longpoem is thus always the poem designed against innocence’ (‘“As to Violin Music”’ Jacket 27). Instead of the overflow of feelings (to muddle Wordsworth for a second), the long poem makes ‘its own always visible calculations of both time and of position’ (‘“As to Violin Music”’ Jacket). It has a sextant mechanism; it does not pretend to be artless. The stakes in content demanded this mode of praxis. Form is not an extension of content exactly, or solely. Not form, but praxis itself (ongoing practice in time, never stopping, never ceasing, committed to activity) was demanded by content and by the critique of the ways that content had previously been used or rendered in writing.
The context from which this work comes is, thus, the radical critique of narrative, or poetry, or literature, the critique of the literary and of the construction of ideology by and in language, a critique that was prominent — and not only in language poetry circles — from the late 1960s through the mid-70s and beyond. This kind of critique — sweeping, dynamic, and even intransigent, was the motivation — the passion really — of 68ers — those touched by that proto-revolutionary political, social and cultural moment in its many manifestations.
This preference for the longpoem organized by radical parataxis has something to do with equalizing the various elements, treating them as non-subordinated entities ‘similar if not identical in form, but without arguing for or pointing toward some deferred or higher meaning’ (‘I Wanted’ 16). One might well see this politically, with a kind of Adorno-esque twist or antithetical reading. One could postulate the importance of parataxis, the equalizing of elements, in an era of a great deal of subordination to authorities that already had their neo-liberal ‘sentence’ prepared — often for the young men of that generation with low draft numbers. The more powerless one feels, the more parataxis one might use — to claim the democratic array of multiplicity, of a standing with others. Parataxis as demonstration: ‘accumulation itself could be used to suggest direction.’ If this is politically just a little naïve about struggle, it is nonetheless compelling if only because it manifests hope.
As I remember this, from my own perspective and working in a different community on a different coast from Silliman, the feeling of that time was straightforward, if not simple. We felt — we knew — that ideology was deeply embedded in familiar mechanisms of language, particularly narrative. That’s why early women’s movement critiques were so fixed on changing narratives, telling another ‘side’ of ‘the’ story, and attacking fundamental gender representations like those in advertising and children’s books: all taken as toxic bearers of sexist ideology. There were many political flash points for those who lived during those times; anyone could enumerate his or her own. The complicity of some U.S. state and local governments with anti-civil rights terrorism (like the Klan or the White Citizens Council) offered striking instances of malfeasance. The accidental killing of 6000 sheep near the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah in 1968 – leading to the revelation that the Army was testing chemical and biological weapons such as nerve gas – was another particular flash point. My Lai, Vietnam, in March 1968, was yet another — the massacre of nearly 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians by a unit of the U.S. Army, the cover-ups and revelations. The level of innocence of many (not all) U.S. civilians as to the actual logics and tendencies of war had been airbrushed: one might compare that to mass hypnosis of the home front. The inch-by-inch denials and push-backs that characterized the discussion of the War in Vietnam, the verbal play of official “porte-paroles” (Press Secretaries), the shilly-shallying between ‘advisers’ and actual ‘soldiers,’ the fact (possibly well known to some, but a wake-up call for those more innocent) that you could not trust what our government said (that is, the words, definitions and narratives it used were literally unbelievable, unfactual, untrue) – all this should make it clear why words, statements, narratives, the packaging of information, the construction of text became the site of contestation, debate, curiosity, analysis, and resistance. So wake-up was continuous – and it continues. During the very late 1950s (cf. Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’) but with an accelerated urgency after 1963, any mechanisms of identification with power were undermined, regarded with suspicion, viewed as spin, lies, and (dis)information production and management. There was a lot of rage and shock on these points; in addition, this moment was characterized by the particular kind of shattering outrage produced by an innocence betrayed: many people had actually believed what our government was saying. This rage was political, social and personal, and it had an array of cultural implications.
I just used the French term ‘porte-parole’ because officialdom was literally ‘carrying words’ that the general public was meant to consume. The refusals therefore — not exclusively, but therefore — entered the realm of words, texts, rhetorics, and thereby, for some, entered the arena of artistic production. I myself was (and am) quite indebted to the framing of ideology done by Raymond Williams. He clarified that ideology was saturating but contradictory, not something that could be peeled off to reveal a self underneath purer of such investments. He maintained a dynamic picture of contradictions and their workings among dominant / hegemonic, residual, and emergent social and cultural forms.
At this particular historical juncture multiple contradictions became acute between what was clear, visible, real and what was announced (generally smoke and mirrors) in a number of realms — social, cultural, political, personal. Further, there was enough awareness and debate about these so that the fissures as felt inside people, in their praxis, in their emotions, in their choices, inside every day life become activated as a response and in turn were further activated by the growing atmosphere / arena of questioning and critique, in a truly accelerating dialectic. Many people felt proto-revolutionary. This sense of one’s inside emotion being political, politicized, being expressive of social urgency and political desire should be remembered now when people talk flatly about the ‘anti-expressivist’ part of this poetics. In many ways this poetics of critique was meta-expressivist — the feeling inside an individual was as if a political upsurge, not felt as a solely personalized response. These socio-political feelings must be factored in to any (excuse the expression) ‘literary criticism.’
Therefore there were many people who felt directly and straightforwardly that culture and society had to be rebuilt, reauthorized from the bottom up, in every detail. This is a feeling that cannot be faked. It is not a fashion statement about writing. It is a conviction. This conviction animates Silliman’s work with enumeration, and it marks the socio-political context out of which Ron Silliman emerged. This is also the context out of which others emerged — other Language Poets, others critical of political regimes and regimes of language, and others (feminists, Black radicals, gay and lesbian activists) working to achieve an adequate resistance and critique. Among U.S. long poem and longpoem writers these would be Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Beverly Dahlen, Nathaniel Mackey, myself – and Ron Silliman.
The ethical stakes were crucial; the desire for some kind of engorging, visceral transformation of life in general — of all institutions and practices was consuming. Any writing that was adequate to this moment, could only, and almost inevitably, be constituted and consume as a critique of dominant ideologies. For Silliman the forms, the rhetorics, the desire to write, and the obsession to carry out these elaborate plans for anti-innocent longpoems have their source in the desire to construct an ideological counterforce against the society we knew, the politics we knew, and the literature we knew.
That is, for Silliman as for others of that time, the critique of the literary, the transformation of literature, acts in and within texts, radical shifts of how to write were part of activity on a wider political and cultural front. That’s why any analyses of this (and presumably of other) poetic moments and choices need to be re-contextualized. The literary is never only literary. The literary is not only at the service of literature — indeed, it is sometimes motivated precisely and exactly in a turn from that institution and a rejection of it. In short, literature and the literary as ideology, the sentence as imprisoning, the containment or caging of understanding by powerful assumptions and beliefs — all these were situations that made literature itself one of the sites of struggle. And in this context, from this context comes the epigraph I have chosen from Tjanting, which, if over-generalized, is nonetheless telling: ‘The most political thing you could do is face the language’ (T127).
Work by Ron Silliman is cited from the following editions:
The Alphabet, Tuscaloosa: the University of Alabama Press, 2008, a compilation including many shorter books and chapbooks; in text as A.
‘“As to Violin Music”: Time in the Longpoem.’ Jacket Magazine 27 (April 2005). http: / / www.jacketmagazine.com / 27 / silliman.html
‘E-mail Interview with Ron Silliman, conducted by Thomas C. Marshall and Thomas A. Vogler, 1995-1998.’ Special Issue: ‘Ron Silliman and The Alphabet.’ Quarry West 34 (1998): 10-44.
Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography [edited by Barrett Watten]. Detroit: Mode A. Ten volumes over the years from 2006 to 2010. In text as GP.
‘I Wanted to Write Sentences: Decision Making in the American Longpoem.’ Sagetrieb 11. 1 & 2 (Spring & Fall 1992): 11-20. In text as ‘I Wanted.’
Ketjak . Age of Huts (compleat). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007; in text as K.
‘Negative Solidarity: Revisionism and “New American” Poetics.’ Sulfur 22 (Spring 1988): 169-176.
‘The New Sentence.’ In The New Sentence. New York: Roof Books, 1987. In text as ‘New Sentence.’
‘Statement for New Poetics Colloquium’ (held in Vancouver, B.C., 1985). Jimmy & Lucy’s House of ‘K’, #5 (November 1985): 17-19.
Tjanting . Great Barrington: MA: The Figures, 1986; in text as T.
All other works cited are given in full in my footnotes or in text.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis (born 1941, in Brooklyn, New York) is an American poet and essayist, known as a feminist critic and scholar with a special interest in modernist and contemporary poetry. DuPlessis teaches English and Creative Writing at Temple University and is the author of Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (1985), H.D.: The Career of that Struggle (1986), both from Indiana University Press; The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (Routledge, 1990) and Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934 (ISBN 0-521-48335-2, Cambridge University Press, 2001) DuPlessis earned her PhD in 1970 from Columbia University and her dissertation was titled “The Endless Poem: “Paterson” of William Carlos Williams and “The Pisan Cantos” of Ezra Pound. Among some of her honors, she has received the Roy Harvey Pearce / Archive for New Poetry Prize (2002) as a scholar poet. In 2002 she was awarded a Pew Fellowship for Artists. (Wikipedia)