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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

Andy Gricevich

The Residual Work:

Tjanting and the Poetics of Experience


More than three decades after its composition, Ron Silliman’s long poem Tjanting has lost none of its richness. The experience of an extended reading of the book is uniquely reflective, refreshing and illuminating. I want to describe, as directly as possible, what it’s like to read Tjanting. I’ll then discuss the relation of that experience to contemporary political contexts, indicating the potential it opens up for writers concerned about the social role of poetry. In a little afterword, I’ll say a bit about the method of reading Silliman’s book encourages, especially as it relates critically to some still-dominant ways of talking about art.

Tjanting: Salt cover


Tjanting[1] (first published by The Figures in 1981 and reprinted by Salt Publishing UK in 2002) is a 200-page poem written in (not necessarily complete) sentences, organized in paragraphs. Each paragraph contains more sentences than its predecessor; the number of sentences is determined by the Fibonacci series, in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers―so the first two paragraphs each contain one sentence, the third contains two, then three, five, eight, thirteen, and so on, up to the final paragraph’s 4,181 sentences. In addition, any odd (or even)-numbered paragraph contains all the sentences from the previous odd (even) paragraph, plus whatever number of new sentences is required to add up to the current Fibonacci number. A new paragraph alternates new with old sentences until the old ones run out, at which point there is an excess of new sentences left at the end (this overflow grows proportionally larger with each paragraph). Finally, the sentences that recur almost always do so with some alteration (the order of the words has shifted, the tense has changed, etc.). The result is a constant weaving of the familiar with the unfamiliar.


Silliman famously coined the term “the new sentence” to describe work like Tjanting. To understand that phrase, it’s crucial to keep in mind that there is no such thing as a “new sentence.” The term describes a set of conditions that obtain in a particular text, the most fundamental of which is that one part is not subordinated to another (or to an overarching theme, argument or meaning―in other words, the primary relation between parts is paratactic rather than hypotactic). One sentence does not follow developmentally from its predecessor or lead in a linear way to its successor. Stipulating this as a basic condition means that connection becomes an explicit dynamic for composition and reading. The space between sentences is treated as “the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet”―a site of meaning as important as the words themselves―and the semantic “size” of that space can vary. Once this foregrounding has been accomplished, the unusual case in which sentences do follow on one another appears as one among many possible kinds of connection.[2]


“Turning down” sentence-to-sentence movement also “turns up” other aspects of the writing’s language, like sound, rhythm, tense, pronoun reference, and length. In a Silliman text, an extraordinarily long sentence, emerging from a context of short, punctuated units, can have a powerful emotional effect―as if one has crested a hill to take in a vast and breathtaking landscape―based as much on the sentence’s expansive form as on its content. This kind of physiological response to a formal event might, elsewhere in the text, reappear as a content-based occurrence, a direct description of an experience of a shift in scale.


In Tjanting, the reader’s attempt to account for the significance of individual sentences is disrupted only to amplify it with regard to contextual significance. A sentence is initially conditioned by the sentences on either side of it (and that sentence, in turn, forms part of the context for the sentence after it and for the one before it). When the sentences in Tjanting recur, they do so between two sentences other than those in whose company they previously occurred. Each recurrent sentence is seen in a number of different lights, and many of Silliman’s sentences are engineered to absorb as many connotative and denotative shades of meaning as possible from whatever sentences they may find themselves beside. From this basic form (three-sentence clusters overlapping one another in a kind of chain), larger contexts are built, so that the meaning of sentences is determined by their position in paragraphs and, ultimately, in the entire work, as sentences refer to their past and future recurrences in new immediate contexts.


Tjanting’s sentences are enormously varied in kind. They are concretely descriptive, nonsensical, parodic, abstract, obscene, jargon-heavy, nonreferential, fragmentary or complete, grammatically complex or simple. The descriptive sentences alone refer to a wide range of phenomena; the scale of Tjanting’s reference is immense. This variety, in combination with the condition of parataxis, brings the “source contexts” of sentences to attention. A sentence might seem to come from a bureaucratic social sphere, or from working class speech, or from philosophy. It might seem more or less like poetry, or more or less like an argumentative assertion, charged with power dynamics from a situation external to the text. The contextualizing of a sentence by its neighbors is therefore also the event of a meeting between the “source contexts” of those three sentences, as if different orders of reality are coming together in friction or mutual amplification.[3]


Having set out the basic parameters of Tjanting, I want to examine the experience of reading the book in order to articulate its effects. Here are the first seven paragraphs:


Not this.

What then?

I started over & over. Not this.

Last week I wrote “the muscles in my palm so sore from halving the rump roast I cld barely grip the pen.” What then? This morning my lip is blisterd.

Of about to within which. Again & again I began. The gray light of day fills the yellow room in a way wch is somber. Not this. Hot grease had spilled on the stove top.

Nor that either. Last week I wrote “the muscle at thumb’s root so taut from carving that beef I thought it wld cramp.” Not so. What then? Wld I begin? This morning my lip is tender, disfigurd. I sat in an old chair out behind the anise. I cld have gone about this some other way.

Wld it be different with a different pen? Of about to within which what. Poppies grew out of the pile of old broken-up cement. I began again & again. These clouds are not apt to burn off. The yellow room has a sober hue. Each sentence accounts for its place. Not this. Old chairs in the back yard rotting from winter. Grease on the stove top sizzled and spat. It’s the same, only different. Ammonia’s odor hangs in the air. Not not this. (15)[4]


The first sentence is “not this.” Not this sentence; not this immediate present and presence. Tjanting is a text that teaches you how to read it, and this is its first instruction: don’t look for a thesis, or even an introduction. Don’t look for a central meaning in an individual sentence; at any moment, the current sentence is the center, the present: “each sentence accounts for all the rest” (16). “Not this” can also be read as already pointing outside the text itself, to the reader as the location where (as in everyday language) meaning is synthesized in the experience of juxtaposed parts.


As “not this” recurs throughout the book, it takes on different roles. Between two sentences, it points outwards toward them, linking them together by negating itself. Then the instruction is: focus on the connections, on the shifting fabric of relations between particulars (a fabric constituted by the specificity of those particulars). In its permutations, such as “not not this” and later “not (not-not) nor not-not not this this” (30), its switching between positive and negative becomes a figure for the flickering back and forth of any sentence between center and context.


At the opening of the text, of course, what it calls for is the next sentence, “what then?”. If “not this,” through its self-negation, sets the back-and-forth movement of the relation of parts into motion, “what then?” is its positive cousin, also pointing outside itself but always forward into the progressive accumulation of new sentences (it appears at least once as “what next?"). While “not this” sees the text as a constellation of simultaneous parts, “what then” sees it as temporal and developmental. In contrast to the pure (anti-) present of “not this,” its “then” introduces a past or future tense, an as-yet-abstract temporality that will split into the various ways Tjanting sculpts time.[5]


“I started over and over” can be read as a past-tense response to “what then” (as in “what happened next?”), after which we return to the pure present of “not this.” The tenses in the fourth paragraph then seem to present a chronological progression to the concrete present of “this morning my lip is blisterd.” The string of prepositions that opens paragraph five introduces a non-temporal dimension of pure referentiality that complicates “not this” (like that sentence, prepositions also refer outside themselves, to at least two other terms), after which the shifting of tenses continues to develop through “wld I begin?”. “Not so” changes the text’s initial statement into an assertion about (un)truth, raising the question of the validity of these sentences.[6] A complex fabric begins to emerge.


Reading Tjanting can be initially frustrating and baffling, its complexity coming off as a lack of any place to find a footing. Though the sentences themselves are rarely difficult to understand, they’re connected only by tenuous links, and any tentative coherence is repeatedly broken as new sentences are introduced. While the recurrence of sentences gives the reader something to hang on to, it can also seem like predictable repetition of disconnected parts that shows no sign of stopping over the next two hundred pages. By the time the paragraphs pass a certain threshold of length, however, one loses the ability to remember and keep track of every sentence (this might start happening around the eleventh or twelfth paragraph, just a few pages into the poem). With the regular addition of new sentences, expansion replaces the discomfort of repetition with an unpredictable variety.


At a certain point, though, the degree of variation among sentences threatens to become too constant, a form of sameness. It’s when we’re hopefully or desperately anticipating a break from this constancy that Silliman begins to broaden the palette of his sentences, widening the internal variety of their tone, form and content.[7] For example, we get instances of humor, as when “three friends with stiff necks” returns as “friends with three stiff necks,” and later “friendly stiffs with three necks.” We start to care more about the individual sentences, to pick favorites, retaining them pleasurably in memory. One might structure much of one’s reading for a time around the anticipation of the next variation on “the elf in lederhosen returned to the stomach of the clock.” The expectation of regularity has become an anticipation of change. Not only are the sentences themselves altered in their reappearances; a sentence may mean something quite different in a new context (for example, it may go from seeming literal to seeming like a metaphor for whatever is next to it). The accumulation of a variety of anticipated changes over different lengths of time enriches the experience of retention and expectation (coming to resemble the temporal experience of listening to music).


Along with this developing rhythm of anticipations, the reader also begins to form categories based on thematic or functional tropes common to some range of the sentences. The motifs of writing and domesticity are introduced at the beginning of the text.[8] One also finds groups of sentences that are tender, attentive observations of inanimate objects (often discarded tools),[9] sentences about the body, and instances of pure, objectless referentiality. Self-reference (as in “nothing discrete,” in its transformation through “no thing discrete,” “no thingdis crete,” “no thid gnis crete,” and so on) stands out as a distinct category when compared to sentences about sex, or to those in the second person.[10] The initial frustration of the reader’s desire to find continuities is transformed into an active and aware organization of phenomena into groups, and the formation of one group always occurs in contrast to the formation of another, so that the categories develop in shifting, interdependent relations.


The “body” category plays a unique role in the development of Tjanting’s multiple temporalities, adding a series of narrative developments. The lip that is blistered at the beginning of the book gradually heals. Moving in an opposing physiological direction, the iterations of the “hand cramping up” sentence get more and more constricted, leading to three-word versions, the form of the sentence imitating its content. The work layers different kinds and scales of time atop one another as it progresses, some of them operating only within the text itself, some within the time of the reading, and now these sentences that seem to refer to an “outside world” time, perhaps the time of the writing of the poem.


Temporality takes on a different kind of significance when, after forty pages of mostly present-tense sentences (or, as is usual with Silliman, sentences in which the copula has been elided entirely) we get:


Cauliflower & consternation. A bird with a toy whistle. My cat stares me in the eye & wonders. It was a type of music. But to each note a psychology clung. Mornings were no easier with the memory lessend. Suddenly, as the sky turned a deep blue, the lowest clouds took on a golden glow. Letters were easier then. But it was like being around grandmother, waiting for the anger to reveal itself. It was entropy’s hour. In the distance, the homey strings of firecrackers. Each dog identifiable as to location and pitch. Neighbors dragging garbage cans out into the street. This would be the last time they ate together. It was as tho the sky “was afire.” Cats liked to wander about the rooftops. It is always nearly over. It is a sentiment with which to disagree [… ] Also cats walk along fencetops. Birds are closer cousins than you think. This was a series of disengagements called poetry. (48)


This dramatic passage almost seems like a unified occurrence of memory, as if we’re scanning spatially and temporally around the scene of a particular evening in the past. This unity is achieved both through the simple contrast between a sustained past tense and the usual present and by small-scale “tricks:” the use of words like “but” and “then” that directly imply a sentence-to-sentence connection, the repetition of “easier,” and the transformation of firecrackers into full-fledged fireworks implied in “It was as tho the sky ‘was afire.’”[11] The moment of this passage leaves a resonance in the text, carving out a border between past and present tense sentences that, while it had contributed to the level of variety, hadn’t previously been a major object of attention. Silliman accentuates this large formal event by reintroduceing a newly complicated present (“it is always nearly over”) and via the two ‘cat’ sentences with their contrasting tenses and degrees of involvement.


The passage, of course, isn’t quite unified (by this point in the text we’re likely to see any extended unity as exceptional and temporary anyway). While the past tense emerges here as a strong category, it’s not a smooth one. The continued bumpiness of the transitions suggests the immediate division of the new category into subcategories, defined by different referential functions of the past tense. Some of the sentences seem like very personal memories, while others could be mere relatings of events, and the final sentence quoted seems like a reference to the text preceding it, rather than to a ‘past’ outside the text.


Any category potentially opens up others within itself. In Tjanting, these subcategories rarely have a strict identity; their boundaries are blurred. A new sentence may seem to fall under a preestablished heading, but with a slight problem, so that the definition of the category requires revision. A sentence may seem to belong to more than one category at once, or to belong in a different category in one occurrence than in another. These are not rigid categories; they’re temporary regions of coherence into which sentences can enter and exit, spaces constituted by those entrances and exits themselves.


As paragraph length continues to expand, all these dynamics of the reading get more complex and extended. Categories become increasingly contradictory as more sentences appear to problematize them. One gains practice in forming and dismantling areas of coherence in accordance with what arrives. The anticipation of recurrence and change starts to cover longer and longer spans of the text, while continuing to work with shorter-term expectations. One knows that sentence E from paragraph seven will not be too far from that paragraph’s sentence F when it occurs in the fifteenth paragraph, but one can no longer predict just when F will occur. The next occurrence of E is even less determinable; it will not appear again until the seventeenth paragraph, some twenty-five pages later. Through the buildup of many of these expectations working on different scales simultaneously, the experience of reading gradually starts to take on the character of everyday life.


I expect that I, as usual, I will get on the bus tomorrow and ride to work (and that I’ll get to the bus stop at about the same time as I did today, though the bus may be late or early). I will occasionally look up from my reading (which will be different on any given day), observing the city, trees, birds, weather, and my fellow passengers (and, of course, thinking about other places, and with reference to varied times and spans of time). Things that stood out on a previous day may form part of today’s background. I anticipate some changes in what I see on the bus route, but don’t usually expect drastic ones; when they do happen, they retain my attention, and I watch for their next occurrence. Throughout the day, and throughout my life, I am constituted partly by this web of anticipations of recurrence and change, the layerings of distinct spans of time, and the ways in which different arrangements of the familiar and the new change my sense of my world. The cognitive and interpretative activities involved in reading Tjanting start to resemble the habitual ways in which we organize our experience, with the significant difference that they are no longer habitual. They have become active modes of the production of meaning in social existence.[12]


The text’s final paragraph ends with 987 unfamiliar sentences. During the time of reading those last twenty-five pages, I continue the reading-operation that anticipates recurrence and change, but now those recurrences and changes can only happen outside the text, after its final sentence. The text slowly edges one back out into the world. “Not this” has come to mean “not this text, but the world it’s in,” and its final “what then?” becomes a “keep going,” calling for the continuation of the attentive mode of reading in extra-textual experience.


Tjanting leaves a residue that can last for some time after finishing the text (or after any extended immersion in it). One has become practiced at letting objects and language in the world stand out in their distinctness and their interconnection, freed from the subordination to a central meaning that ordinarily subsumes them in the smoothness of habitual experience. Contexts and categories are perceived as temporary fields of coherence and significance constituted by the juxtaposition of their members. One’s experiential habits have been explicitly relearned through the mediation of the text, and one can now attend to those habits and possibly change them. Tjanting encourages an engagement with the emergence of meaning that takes the concreteness of things and experience into account, an awakening of the reader as an attentive social subject. The poem’s resonance is palpable.


One important thing to note about this effect is that it works precisely because Tjanting is a bordered artwork, distinct from everyday life. Were one instead to experience the perfect virtual reality device, a presentation of a fully convincing experiential world, then no habits of perception and comprehension would be likely to come to explicit attention. Tjanting employs a highly artificial structure precisely in order to interfere with these habits, to bring them to consciousness and activate them intensely.


Though it’s tempting to invoke the metaphor of a purely linguistic consciousness in describing the work, Silliman reminds us that “this is not thought” (54). Tjanting’s structure is analogous to, not imitative of, that of conscious experience. In some important ways it behaves like consciousness without it being possible to mistake it for consciousness.[13] This difference keeps a space open between the reader and the work, and makes it possible for the work to duplicate that difference and place it between the reader and the world, so that the processes of perception and synthesis that connect the latter become visible as phenomena in their own right. It’s exactly in that connective space that our social being, our fully immersed existence in the world, is constituted, and the text estranges us from it to illuminate what happens there.


Tjanting is a social text in its capacity for a wide range of content (especially in its frequent treatment of specifically communal situations), but even more because its kind of distancing and refreshed involvement gives it a scale that is, in a sense, larger than that of the world―as if the experience of having a world is seen from a distance. It is a social text because it is a “residual text,” one that exceeds its spatial boundaries and outlasts its temporal limits. This capacity of a work to resonate, to keep doing its work for some period beyond the time of the reader’s (or viewer’s, or listener’s) direct experience of it, may be one of the most promising fields of possibility opened by the art of the last half-century. Tjanting’s opening of this possibility is achieved partly through its formal refusal of a central meaning for the total work.[14] It’s astonishing that a poem that isn’t “about” anything can be about so much. Since it is, as a whole, a poem about “aboutness,” about our daily production of a world, and since it projects its work out into the world through its reader, its range of possible content is limitless.


The poem makes a pretty good political analogy; Tjanting is an exemplary anti-totalitarian text. A totalitarian system can be defined as one into which no new element can enter without being translated into the terms of that system. Anything alien is either subordinated to a central guarantor of meaning (as in religious, military or political authoritarianism) or treated as one of countless interchangeable and therefore inconsequential choices (as in commodity capitalism). Tjanting’s relation of part and whole is progressive, rejecting both subordination and leveling. In its system, contexts arise out of the specificity of their juxtaposed elements and in turn alter their significance. It matters what the particulars are. The appearance of a new particular can make a difference that resonates at all levels, changing long-established categories and thus altering the global form. The whole is never complete, since the form of the poem points to its potentially infinite continuation beyond the end of its last paragraph. All this happens via the poem’s deployment of an arbitrary, programmatic structure that recedes from attention (the numbers matter less and less) in favor of the increasing variety of possibilities it brings to light.[15]


Of course, we are not sentences, and Tjanting would be a less significant work if it merely amounted to a metaphor for a political order. The more substantial social value of the text lies in its phenomenological work, in which reading becomes an experiential investigation of the ways things reveal themselves to us in the shifting context of a world we make in collaboration with the other beings that inhabit it. Tjanting is an aesthetic occasion for the development of a daily way of being, a mode of engagement with the world. Our increasing interest in individual sentences parallels a broader care for particular things and an attention to their contexts. This kind of concern seems particularly valuable in a cultural milieu where attention is often truncated to the point of near-disappearance.


Tjanting offers us the opportunity to become experts at paratactic thinking, the experience of significance in the bare juxtaposition of parts, and this might be exactly what we need when confronted by an overwhelming mass of facts and opinions. Tjanting’s approach to parataxis offers new ways to think about “distance” and “proximity” as precise cognitive, semantic and cultural variables―a worthy undertaking when real, geographic distance has famously been collapsed by ease of travel and (especially) communication. If we want “global culture” to mean a real meeting with the Outside, rather than the global dominance of western consumer culture, then paratactic thinking might be a critical tool. It might allow us to look at the ways “here” and “elsewhere” (both in terms of global distance and of the distances in our daily life-world) illuminate each other, avoiding the translation of “elsewhere” into our familiar, habitual modes of understanding.[16]


A work of art may be new in either of two ways. It may relate “horizontally” to its time, its novelty resulting from its scandalous nature, or from its radical difference from preceding or contemporary work. This novelty ages with the forward motion of an oft-fetishized innovation. In contrast, the “vertical” newness of a work consists in a disruption of the foundation of its medium. Our experience of any medium (the linguistic, the visible, the audible) is an experience whose scale is exactly that of our world (all we can say, see, or hear), and so a rift opened in the ground of that medium is a transformation of our world in its entirety. The moment of the “rift” is what continues to throw existence into question in works many centuries old. I do not mean to imply that there is a “timeless” dimension to art. However, the speed of changes in the fundamental conditions of reading is very different from that of changes in mores, generic expectations, the status of novelty, etc.


A mere thirty years after its publication, the effects of Silliman’s book continue to radiate from the cracks it opens in the foundation of synthetic experience. In terms of its (hopefully) more transitory historical context, Tjanting exemplifies the potential for art to play a role in keeping us awake as global social beings. For poets, its radical formalism, the scope of its examination of grammar, syntax, context and reference, and its way of extending its effects beyond the time of reading all present opportunities for new work that are far from exhausted. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also funny, generous, continually surprising and full of memorable sentences and insights. Rereading it, I still feel the thrill of the truly new, the unique awareness of possibility left open by Tjanting’s final question.




It doesn’t make much sense to interpret a work like Tjanting. The poem clearly has no central meaning; it “says” nothing, and even begins in self-negation. Silliman’s work calls for something like a descriptive phenomenology of aesthetic experience, of art as something that happens in the event of the work’s work, in its encounter with the world. Where interpretation asks what a work means, an empirical and reflective description asks what it does.


I’d like to suggest that such phenomenological description displace the primacy of interpretation in general. This is not to deny the value of reading in terms of social, cultural and historical contexts, or even of symbolism or authorial intention. Interpretation, however, easily becomes reductive. It courts the danger of treating the work in its particular peculiarity as a mere container for “meanings” hidden somewhere “behind” the work, to be brought out via specialized methods of decoding. Interpretation tends to privilege preestablished modes of understanding over aspects of the work that exceed the capacity of those modes―or, indeed, of any general method.[17] To avoid this, I suggest an engagement with a kind of “close reading” expanded to include a direct observation, not only of a work’s material and formal specificities, but also of the observation of one’s own observing, as the living medium in which the work takes place.


A work’s details build a cumulative understanding as I notice them―or they undermine such progress and call for regular backtracking as some events show their predecessors in a very different light. The ongoing revision of my sense of the work might change my experience of its temporality as a whole from a primarily sequential one into one in which simultaneity of its parts seems primary. Meaning might seem to happen on certain levels and not others, and that might change in various ways (things that seemed literal and distinct from one another might suddenly seem like part of a symbolic code or allegory once the right ingredient appears, for example). I might get a sense of the form of the whole work that changes my perception of the details―or the sense of the form may come first, and part of the drama of encountering the work may be seeing how the details change the meaning of the form.


These are relatively abstract examples of the kinds of dynamics that might come to attention in a direct description of one’s encounter with a work of art. An implicit assertion here is that works teach us, to a significant extent, how to experience them, and that the way a piece of art does this is an essential aspect of the way the work works. Therefore, the kind of description I’m advocating as the basis for aesthetic comprehension is the description of a process of learning. This includes critically differentiating the “merely subjective” aspects of that process from the aspects that are proper to the determinate work itself (just as, in standard interpretation, one learns to avoid “reading too much into things”). One begins where one begins, moving from there into more precise observations of the objective characteristics of the work and the ways in which those observations transform or contradict those beginnings.


Description has the added advantage of potentially removing the intimidating character of innovative art. While standard interpretation is the occupation of trained experts, anyone can learn to pay attention to the work at hand and articulate the experience of encountering it. A descriptive method can also have a positive relation to the strangeness that characterizes the best (and least commodified) aesthetic experience. Instead of being seen as a sign of one’s own ignorance―one’s lack of authority to say anything about the work―strangeness becomes part of what is there to be observed. Any work has its own particular strangeness, its way of being different from the world. In drawing a border around itself, the work makes something possible inside that frame that can then be projected out into the world. Strangeness is not to be explained away as an undesirable layer of opacity, and certainly not as a reflection on the preparedness of the experiencing subject; it’s the sign of the work’s intervention in reality, its radical expansion of the possibilities of meaning.


Ron Silliman anticipates these dynamics of encounter in the ways he tweaks and juxtaposes his sentences. He sees reading as fundamentally temporal―as the enactment of the event of the work that can only take place between reader and text―and sculpts the reading in a way that makes its own structure an explicit issue. The aesthetic politics of Tjanting are individualistic in the best sense, while always emphasizing meaning as something produced socially, in the meeting of collaborators in all their specific difference. I hope that this essay has maintained something of the freshness of experience that mode of reading offers.


[1] A tjanting is a pen-like instrument used to apply wax designs in batik work.

[2] In Tjanting, this kind of direct connection rarely occurs. By now, Silliman has become expert enough at the manipulation of the dynamics under investigation in his early work that he can allow for much smoother transitions between sentences without sacrificing the reader’s attention to those dynamics.

[3] Degree of “source context” is another variable. A sentence like “not this” doesn’t seem to bring much in with it. It seems to come “from nowhere.” Its context specifically within the text can seem much “louder” than any context it might have in the outside world.

[4] All citations refer to Silliman, Ron, Tjanting, Salt 2002.

[5] Silliman amplifies and diversifies the effects of these sentences by “cheating,” introducing them as “new” sentences into paragraphs in which they’ve already occurred.

[6] Silliman’s work very often encourages the reader to question the truth of its sentences.

[7] Throughout his work, Silliman is ingenious at timing this kind of change.

[8] They don’t seem like categories initially. The congealing of one set of sentences into a group occurs only in response to the congealing of a contrasting group. Categorization is viral; once two categories are formed, other sentences seem to be looking for headings to fall under.

[9] An instance of a pair of major motifs that recur throughout Silliman’s work: (1) the introduction and obsolescence of technologies, and (2) attention to discarded things―to junk and garbage―representing his texts’ ongoing consideration of poverty and also working as a metaphor for the sentences themselves, as “materials lying around,” often likely to be forgotten or to remain present in a decaying state.

[10] The combination of the latter two in Silliman’s writing frequently implies that the address is to the reader, involved in these sexual acts.

[11] This last-mentioned intersentential link is a particularly tightly-bound instance of the kind of paratactic connection at work all over the text, and can also work as a metaphor for the blossoming of the “homey” string of sentences into the spectacular expanse of the book.

[12] My loose definition of “experience” for the purposes of this essay is: the synthesis of simultaneous and successive phenomena into a whole undergoing constant alteration. “Meaning” is the part of this synthesis that is the experience of connections between phenomena―the web of possible and actualized significance that makes up a “world.”

[13] This kind of mimetic behavior (without the illusion of perfect imitation) links a text like Tjanting with musical compositions of comparable scale (using “scale” not just in the sense of the work’s physical and temporal dimensions, but even more in terms of its capacity with regard to the world). Mahler’s symphonies, for example, achieve their ability to incorporate and represent the smallest and the largest natural, social and historical phenomena not (for example) by fooling us into thinking there’s a real bird in the orchestra, but by the way in which a clarinet melody might act like a startled bird in its frantic interruptiveness. By bringing the phenomena of their worlds into a clearer light than they ever find outside the artwork, Silliman’s text and Mahler’s music say more about the world than it can say about itself (than we could say through direct description or perfect reproduction). They rupture the boundaries of that world by bringing it to meet itself in the medium of the work of art. They can only do this because of the distance built into their mimesis―their unmistakable separation from the world. This is important for aesthetics: one can’t translate elements of the work into what they resemble without closing that distance and collapsing the scale of the work. Parataxis plays a role in holding the distance open. In Mahler, the “bird” melody will not appear in a context of other imitative music; instead, it will be juxtaposed with, say, a “pure” melody, played on the strings, with a drastically different rhythmic character and a different kind of relation to other musical elements.

[14] Such a meaning would “trap” the work’s effects within its boundaries by making it complete.

[15] In fact, it’s the arbitrariness of the numerical structure―the fact that it has little to do with the actual materials of the work―that allows it to recede in this way, to cede its influence to the subtleties of more varied local and global instances of form.

[16] The paratactic encounter maximizes the value of difference. The particulars make their context out of what’s most unique to them, rather than that uniqueness taking a back seat to what’s similar. Parataxis preserves the mutuality of encounters between different perspectives.

[17] This problem mars countless discussions of contemporary art―take some ubiquitous misinterpretations of “Language Poetry” as an example. Insisting on a central meaning and finding it lacking in the text, interpretation fills the gap by declaring the poem a mere exemplification of theoretical assertions external to the work (say, the ascribed claim that “meaning is indeterminate” or “reference is impossible”). Alternatively, the poem is seen as an imitation or intentional symptom of a fragmented postmodern culture, its meaning in crisis. Because of its restricted concept of “meaning,” interpretation can only view the poem as a negation, and so misses its rich positive value, the variety of kinds of meaning it makes possible. The same goes for the statement that “the reader collaborates in producing meaning.” Instead of seeing the poem as foregrounding the activity that occurs whenever a reader (with hir cultural world of possible meanings) meets with a text concrete and fully determinate in its materials, interpretation takes the statement as an admission that the poem really “means nothing,” or means whatever the reader wants it to mean. I doubt that any writer of the “Language School” would subscribe to such a parodic notion of textual “freedom.”

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