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Ron Silliman, photo Jeff Hurwitz 1998

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Photo: Ron Silliman, photo Jeff Hurwitz 1998

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Ron Silliman Feature

Dale Smith

Close Readers


In a note to a verse-and-prose section composed in 1984–5, “Oz,” now presented in The Alphabet (University of Alabama Press, 2008), along with twenty-five other pieces published by small presses during the past three decades, Ron Silliman observes the following: “Close readers will recognize the presence of Fibonacci (who also makes a brief appearance in Lit and is a character in Zyxt).” This tiny acknowledgment has taunted me every time I open this mighty volume, for much as I try, it is difficult to reconcile the literary expectation of a “close reading” with the physical presence of The Alphabet. Including notes, the book surpasses the 1000-page mark. Extraordinary persistence is evident as the works here move between short verse lines, longer prose passages, and Whitmanesque expansions into language that clearly seek inclusion in an American writing tradition. The true progenitor of Silliman’s opus, at least on the surface, is William Carlos Williams, particularly his spectacularly brilliant Spring & All, and other prosimetrics of the 1920s. Silliman’s work, unlike Williams, does not grope into the dark, hoping to discover hitherto undisclosed possibilities: instead Silliman constructs factories, large quads, methodically-planned condo-plexes of productive text. And yet, despite this massive tribute to literary form in a messy American tradition, I cannot help but trip over this note, this acknowledgment of “close readers.” Let me explain.


I first encountered Silliman’s work in the early 1990s while working at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. While I had moved there with my B. A. in English, solidly read in the great literary works of the European and American past, I was fucking dazzled by Ketjak (1978). I had no place for it, no way of categorizing it in relation to the literary education I had received in Texas. What I most liked as a young writer desperately cutting my teeth, however, was that Silliman validated the experience of the mundane, and it opened possibilities in prose that helped me look more completely at the world without the tremendous structural difficulties of plot, or the ethical complexities one might encounter in the creation of characters. Instead, an engagement with language as its own material (in contrast to the world around me), became a primary inspiration in Silliman’s work. I find that same excitement in The Alphabet. Silliman’s ear, which is formed by a close attention to sound and rhythm, and reminds me very much of all that is great about the New Americans, produces exciting movements that attend the world in an array of phenomenal detail. Without doubt, The Alphabet, almost anywhere you turn, retains vivid relations in language to a rich and intriguing sense of cultural experience, as well as to literary history. A quick sample from “Toner,” for instance, reveals phenomenal details through a crisp, and exciting movement of lines, along with pop and literary references. Silliman writes:


Mosquitoes crackle
                       up against the bug light,
           dawn of a hot day.
Secret softness
at the heart of the Fat Boys
marks them “not threatening”
versus the Beasties suburban terror.

— -             — -            — -

Tall, young, very professional.
meet my macro.
Clothespins on an empty line,
wood frame of an unfinished house.
                        Found language
in a candidates speech.

Alphabet seen
           not as a line
but a cycle,
or torso and spine
merely as where limbs run together,
skulls in infinite variety,
this a melon, that a flower,

And this something stepped upon.
Let us jog then
           you and I
through the fluorocarbons in the sky
whose particles will get you ghi
until your prose
           becomes unstable

      Imitating modes of speech
each to each.
Small boy puffs his cheeks out wide (520–1).


While this passage moves rapidly with references to hip hop, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and phenomenal relations of “fluorocarbons” to buttery “ghi,” it generates also internal claims to the efficacy of his project, an effort “[i]mitating modes of speech.” A “close reader,” perhaps someone who is familiar with The New Sentence, will discern the argument about language, a shared resource that can be “found” by poet (or “Robopoet”) as well as politicians. Here, in a kind of deliberately jagged style, Silliman reveals the formal engine of his writing, a writing that takes Language as primary mode, as speech-based form that changes in scripted contexts, a la Derrida. He is a Language Poet for a reason; the term is absolutely accurate. Language produces the occasions that Silliman reorients against speech and mind, in pursuit of complex associations of experience morphed by a methodical grammar of the written word.


This, of course, stands in opposition in many ways to the New American Poetry, and the aggressive stance against the New Americans is evident most recently in a “collaborative autobiography,” The Grand Piano, to which Silliman contributes. Despite the attention to the details of sound and rhythm, wonderful juxtapositions and sharp, methodical jumps of attention in his writing, the point of separation from the New Americans can be defined by the larger motives of The Alphabet. By contrast, another very large book, published a few months prior to Silliman’s tome, reveals great sympathies in language, and also shows tremendous chasms of separation. Philip Whalen’s collected poems present a similarly challenging engagement between reader and text. That book is large, with long poems built on lines of varying lengths that burst with prosaic and lyric beauty. It moves with a similar mutating sense of voice, phenomenal attention to details, and sonic cuts, jumps, and humorous outbursts and cultural references that you will see in Silliman’s work. But both Whalen and Silliman are at service to different goals. Whalen, the isolated reader, engages literature and physical space through movements of mind. The complex trajectories of feeling and thinking shape the intelligence of poems like “Sourdough Mountain Look-Out” or “Self-Portrait, from Another Direction.” That “self” does not imitate modes of language; it participates in a fluctuating materiality of forms that leaves marks upon each competing perspective. There is an organic density in Whalen’s poems that let them stand out with a kind of viney overgrowth. Silliman, by contrast, shapes the language with more specificity — more deliberate intent: where Whalen is a master of self-introspection and dispersal, Silliman is a master of self-control.


Since I discovered Whalen’s writing several months after Silliman’s, my poetic vocabulary was assembled in a rather awkward literary order. In those days I could read them both with great interest, though now, I listen to what I can trust, feel, or even (especially) laugh through. I am not sure a close reading is required of either Whalen or Silliman, though such grammatical inquiries are possible, and doubtless will fuel a few dissertations into the future. Whalen can be enjoyed, however, through many different kinds of approaches. There are stories, introspective moments, literary rants, and outbursts: there are occasions where he foments and then decries phenomenal intrusions into his world, forming a protected space of great rumblings and productive force. He persists in an effort to address motives that lie beyond language, too. Silliman, by contrast, reduces the symbolic potential in language to a kind of veneer. Language alone without its motivating circumstances performs a kind of husk-like task of enclosure. Through Silliman’s work in The Alphabet a close reader observes the sheer variety and exquisitely translucent nature of that husk, and yet, language, at the service of its own disclosure, if this is even possible, remains so obscure, so distant, I wonder how such intent serves a reader, and what might invite closer inspection.


Of course, too, this is an era of unreadable books, books smithied up in service to conceptual possibilities rather than actual experiences of reading. And The Alphabet certainly, by its sheer size, could be evaluated as yet another unreadable tome, as its sheer size resists the dogged efforts of a potential “close reader.” I may be a bit hard here, taking this offhand remark in a footnote so seriously, but I wonder why anyone should have to perform a close reading on such a book at a moment in our technocultural history. There are more books than ever, more blogs, and online sources of text and visual imagery. What about The Alphabet deserves such close literary inspection when we can hardly remain situated in rapidly increasing (you might say “tweetery”) circulation of discourse? Must a reader “get” each reference? Silliman’s claims about language could be reduced to less than 100 pages, so why endure his methodical proofs for another 950? I read Silliman quickly, diving in and getting out, because there are enjoyable moments. I like how it feels, and there are occasions of playful forgetfulness where the poet in him emerges to remind readers of the inconsequential relations of self to the vast inventory of language. But there is a literary presence, too, a sharp eye to tradition and his place in it that would seem to contradict the claims his work makes for Language. That his writing must continue unabated for so long, and that it must so persistently perform its claims, burdens a close reader.


There are moments, however, like in “Spiderduck,” where Silliman almost, momentarily, overcomes the The Alphabet’s dogmatic engine, pushing forward into a kind of Deleuzian stance against memory and archive (this is antithetical, however, to the Ron of the Blogosphere). He writes:


The logout
as the login

is a kind of
is a mustard

(eat your tree)
Mime field
Days outstanding
Bert and Ernie:
don’t ask,

don’t tell
Geese demand
their favorite poet
Bronk Bronk
False tart,

scone head
Often I am permitted
to return to a method
as if to a mind: mine
A blind man talks (616)


I sympathize with the feeling of moving out from under the crushing weight of archival clutter, and why it is essential to forge a path for one’s self without the burden of the past upon it. Bronk, the literary hero for Silliman, is named in this context with honor, while the title of a well-known New American poem is recast to make the methodical point of Silliman’s poetics. But the substitution of “method” for “mind,” performed here in a reference to Robert Duncan, perhaps the poet par excellence of “mind,” reveals Silliman’s dogmatic intent at its most severe. Obsessed over literary heritage, Silliman’s work rests on a New American poetics that perturbs him greatly. Why on earth it comes down to a tension of mind and method eludes me, when both, together, are so useful. Such simplifications generate a weak sense of the stakes involved in an American tradition just as the weight of the present volume surpasses the depth of its literary claims.


And yet, Silliman is a product of a particular cultural moment, one that is as disposable as plastic. The Alphabet is a vast, asphalt parking lot, and genuinely American in that sense. In his attempt to rival Whitman, the Moderns, and the New Americans, Silliman’s edifice will certainly preserve all he’s learned and moved against to become a contemporary presence in poetry.

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