Ron Silliman, 2009

“Can you curl your tongue?” from “Force”

In this 2009 publication celebration of the Alphabet, Ron Silliman reads 48 minutes of selections from across the book.

Ron Silliman
The Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, February 17, 2009
Introduction by Jessica Lowenthal
Recorded statement by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Silliman’s Alphabet and Poesis” (an excerpt is played at the celebration)
Introduction by Charles Bernstein
Introduction by Bob Perelman
Reading (from the Alphabet, 2008):

  • “Albany” (1979-80; pp. 1-2)
  • “Force” (1979-80; pp. 43-48)
  • from “Non” (1987-89; “In Gargoyle 32/33, Dan Beaver writes…,” pp. 356-357)
  • from “Paradise” (1984; first section, pp. 410-411; last two sections, pp. 425-431)
  • from “VOG” (circa 1985-99): “For Larry Eigner, Silent” (pp. 607-609)

The celebration begins with a deluxe set of introductions. Jessica Lowenthal notes that “Ron Silliman’s Alphabet has been in the making for three decades,” with its composition beginning in 1979 with “Force.” Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues counter-intuitively that “writing a long poem for Silliman was not a decision about length or grandeur or the sublime. It was a way of solving certain problems. The length is extraneous. Working out a problem—sentences for Silliman—was the trigger. Some length is needed to make the point.” She subordinates the phenomenon of its length to its engagement with time: “Length is a way of wagering: waging against and inside time in the medium of language [….] Silliman has done so by inventing a method in which writing equals recording minute by minute: this double sense of time, doing extensive writing and living in real time, is almost made simultaneous. It is a remarkable illusion. The now denies time’s ongoingness and losses. That is, time in this work is only now-time. There is a right here, right now, including the time of memory, as it too happens now.” Charles Bernstein observes Silliman’s work as “marked by one of the most uncanny senses of perception of what’s going on and the ability to mark and be attentive to that which comes into his gaze every day in the everyday, but also to take each of those observations and put them in conjunction with unexpected but related other observations, reflections, thoughts, and create a work that constantly moves, that constantly creates new constellations, new modes of attention, and especially new ways of seeing what the relationship of one thing is to another thing to another thing to another thing.” Bob Perelman complements this by observing that “Ron Silliman has written something not only longer than The Cantos but something wiser and more useful, something more in touch with the present and the future, something that will provide more readers with more stimulus and more pleasure [….] Freshness, honesty, passion, sly wit, faith in constructive form, and openness to the moment of writing fill these thousand plus pages exactly to the brim without spilling a letter.”

Silliman “start[s] at what appears to be the beginning, ‘Albany’  [….] [It] actually wasn’t the first section I wrote of the Alphabet, although because it was called ‘Albany’ I knew it would go first.” Its first sentence poses the relation between writing’s utility and “the world” that the book will variously investigate: “If the function of writing is to ‘express the world.’” “Albany”’s answer adopts “[t]he idea that each sentence should be both political and personal” (“Notes” to the Alphabet; hereafter cited as “Notes”) with the constraint of 100 sentences. The sentences examine cultural symptoms of the milieu of Albany, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, especially domestic (“My father withheld child support” “Becoming prepared to live with less space”), in activist politics (“They circled the seafood restaurant, singing ‘We shall not be moved’” “There were bayonets on campus”), and in the repressive state apparatus (“Far across the calm bay stood a complex of long yellow buildings, a prison” “The cops wear shields that serve as masks”). Silliman remarks about the sentence “Net income is down 13%” that the “last time I read [‘Albany’], I remember thinking to myself that [that sentence] really placed the work in the 1980s in very clear terms, that people wouldn’t understand today—but suddenly!” Affirming Perelman’s suggestion about the Alphabet’s “useful[ness], something more in touch with the present and the future,” Silliman’s constructivist constellation of Albany strongly resembles and reveals to me the relations of San Francisco Bay Area that I live in and know presently, especially in the present economic depression. The cultural sedimentation from 1979 to the present in late capitalism generally is graspable by the representation of local specificity expressed through capacious constructivist form.

Silliman proceeds to read “Force,” “[t]he first section [of the Alphabet] to be started” (“Notes”), “dedicated to Bob Perelman,” and according to a recording of Silliman reading “Force” at the Segue Series at the Ear Inn, New York City, April 7, 1984, “was originally intended as a review of Bob Perelman’s Primer.” Silliman describes “Force”’s form’s “movement back and forth between lines and prose […] and in general, there are more syntactic shifts going on in the meaning in the prose and more argumentation going on when I’m reading in the lines, which sort of follows my personal bias, which is that left brain : poetry, right brain : prose.” These tendencies “in general,” as opposed to a rigid separation, complement “Force”’s high linguistic density and kineticism, in contrast to “Albany”’s more stately sentences, for intense surprise in its deployment of elements. For instance, “Force”’s opening sentence in lines:

“The audients of politics
in the –torium sounds
eye is for fours
is thus tragedy first
then farce, majestic speech
muttered under morning’s breath
while brushing.”

The form kinetically enacts a public political event in an auditorium, a self-reflexive gesture to the poem’s form (“eye is for fours”; the constraint of four words to the lines), and Karl Marx’s famous words that begin The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” muttered during the banal activity of brushing teeth. The form’s kineticism constructs a melee of their blurred conceptualizations in experience, both that of the conceivable subject in the poem and for readers and listeners. Out of “Force”’s kinetic landscape, correspondent concerns with the contemporaneous “Albany” arise, such as about the police (“what any cop thinks to see a young man in blue jeans and a Levi shirt”) and radical politics (“Lenin was wrong”), again affirming the Alphabet’s “useful[ness],” as historically contemplating the critique of Leninism within “Force”’s saturated cultural structure is useful for the present contemplation of Leninism, especially in the recent resurgence of interest in Leninist thought, such as by Slavoj Žižek.

Silliman proceeds to read “a short bit from ‘Non’ just to give voice to sort of the other pole.” Silliman’s excerpt is from a negative review of Paradise’s discrete edition in the journal Gargoyle incorporated into the poem. Having the review preceded “Paradise” in the Alphabet foregrounds the Alphabet’s non-chronological sequence and how literary works sediment into the cultural landscape. Secondary writings contribute to their objects’ social characters. Silliman’s “[giving] voice […] to the other pole” by framing it is a shrewd critical tactic foregrounding the review’s crudity in its own words. The exemplary unthoughtful review predicates itself on an unattainable fantasmatic “solution” “hidden in the author’s mind” to the poem, which fails for the reviewer because it does not satisfy a pre-constituted recipe being “too disjointed” with no “[consistent]” images. Despite itself, the review symptomatically makes seizably useful points when it actually observes the text: “There are moments, however, of insight, when the sentences almost form a complete thought. For instance: ‘What is morning/ A cat. Fed. Curls up on a kitchen chair. Sedative sunlight. Gauzy room. All the books written to be read on the way to work.’ The key to the style of Paradise seems to be embodied in a sentence that falls near the end. ‘If I revised, this wouldn’t be here.’”

Silliman proceeds “to read the first section and then the last two sections of ‘Paradise’ [...] for David Melnick.” “Paradise” was “literally begun on New Year’s Day, completed on New Year’s Eve. Every paragraph was one sitting [….] Winner of the Poetry Center Book Award for 1985” (“Notes”) and consists of twelve sections. I speculate that each section may represent a month, based on “Paradise”’s constraint of one year. Silliman’s selection from “Paradise” is his largest selection in the reading and thoroughly demonstrates Perelman’s descriptions of the Alphabet in his introduction: “oceanic flows of language, pithy explosions of wit, lettristic play, righteous polemic, both political and literary; taut paragraphing, an endless supply of puns—most of them very good—lyric descriptions of weather set side by side to a strange description, the high art of intelligent surprise.” “Paradise” is a strong demonstration of Silliman’s mutually enabling “faith in constructive form and openness to the moment of writing”: Silliman’s methodological discipline of “Every paragraph was one sitting” sustained across a year produces such “taut paragraphing” “[open] to the moment of writing” as:

“          Standing on the chair, screwing in the lightbulb. The way the muscles of the anus can grip the cock. A chill day. Standing at the busstop on her way to work, hair still soaking wet. Rosenquist’s objects, says the sign on the museum wall, must be seen as ‘nonreferential.’ Before I even feel it, the first froth of sperm starts to spill from your mouth.” (complete paragraph)

and enhances the profound implications of the longest paragraph in “Paradise,” the final paragraph, glimpsed in the form in “Non”’s review’s weak description as “sentences [that] almost form a complete thought.” Silliman’s methodological discipline is the rigor that augments “Paradise”’s poetics enabling variety, in contrast to the poetics that locates its rigor in the practice of excisionary revision (“If I revised, this wouldn’t be here”). “Paradise” is a powerful realization of one of Silliman’s most significant theorizations in his essay “The New Sentence” (1977): “The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument.” Meaning is not dependent on dominating logic or argument but is produced forth from every quantitative unit and its relations: a liberating conception of form that applies to the Alphabet as a whole as well.

Silliman concludes with “For Larry Eigner, Silent” from “VOG,” “an attempt to actually write a series of ‘normal poems,’” and “note[s] that Larry did not learn to speak […] until he was in his thirties, even though he was publishing books before then and even though the books he was publishing align him with people like Robert Creeley and Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, for whom, you know, the text on the page was a score for speech. He was writing these scores for speech in fact before he had some surgery that allowed him to participate.” The second line of the poem, “The poem is a field of action,” is an allusion to William Carlos Williams’ essay “The Poem as a Field of Action” (1948), but operates as an allusion in a tighter production of meaning in the poem’s specificity of details about Eigner than how allusions operate more antically in the oceanic assembly line of “Paradise.” Williams’ “The Poem as a Field of Action” is another iteration of his frequent polemics against tradition, represented here by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, with the prescription for a new measure, symptomatically speech-normative in its argumentation but before speech was overtly valorized in “Projective Verse.” Drawing these gestures into relation with the biography and work of Eigner recuperates these gestures consonantly with Silliman’s poetics challenging tradition and speech-centered poetics. The poem closes with a quote, “Oh yeah / you’re // one of the ones // who can write in the dark,” which also appears attributed to Eigner in Tjanting. Silliman’s selection of this poem in the Alphabet reading corresponds to the importance of Eigner in Silliman’s work, such as the dedication to Eigner in In the American Tree.

Silliman’s selections in the constraint of 48 minutes from the massivity of the Alphabet are illuminating to understanding its details. In his subsequent readings, he appears to have moved on to reading from his new long project, Universe. It would be extremely illuminating to learn what selections he would choose under different constraints: for instance, a reading of equal length with different selections and understood to be a complement to this one. For me, taking the number of pages read in this reading as my measure (22 pages), a logical complement would consist of:

  • from “Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect” (1988-1993; pp. 139-143)
  • from “Lit” (1981-82; section I, pp. 225-227)
  • “Quindecagon” (1993; pp. 433-440)
  • from “Zyxt” (1998-2004; last three sections, pp. 1050-1054)
  • Postscript (2008; p. 1055)

“Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect”’s “[incorporation of] material from Ketjak” (“Notes”) corresponds to that work, “Lit”’s use of the Fibonacci Sequence corresponds to Silliman’s Tjanting, “Quindecagon”’s radical formalist expression of New Orleans represents the development of the Alphabet’s milieu shift away from its centricity in the San Francisco Bay Area, and “Zyxt” and the postscript (“alphabet ends            universe begins”) close the work and gesture toward Universe. The selections sample from across the Alphabet’s compositional history and gesture to the total context of Silliman’s conception of his life poem, Ketjak: The Age of Huts, Tjanting, the Alphabet, Universe. I invite Silliman to provide reflections about new selections from the Alphabet as valuable illuminations to the work, and also invite readers to reflect on selections on their own platforms.

Next commentary: Short Range Poetic Device: Poetry and Poetics Streaming Against the Totality hosted by Stephen Collis and Roger Farr, Vancouver, British Columbia, February 16-17 and 23-24, 2010.