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Ron Silliman Feature

Lytle Shaw

The Labor of Repetition:

Silliman’s “Quips” and the Politics of Intertextuality

[The poet] must be aware that the mind of Europe — the mind of his own country — a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind, is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route.

— T. S. Eliot [1]

Either way Pound comes out to be my grandmother four times.

— Ron Silliman [2]


It is difficult to conceive of a model of “the poet” more foreign to T. S. Eliot than Ron Silliman. But what if, for a moment, we were to imagine Silliman’s poem Tjanting — in which alternate paragraphs repeat and expand upon each previous alternate paragraph — as an excessively literal reading of Eliot? For Silliman, abandoning “nothing en route” might become a way to collapse Eliot’s hypostatized “mind” from within. Still, taking the accretion of sentences and references in Tjanting as an excess pointed at cognitive, universalist models of literary history and intertextuality would merely lead to more specific questions: how, for instance, does one read individual sentences within 213 pages of dense, polyreferential prose poetry? Do the frequent citations occupy a special position? Because Tjanting explicitly abandons a subjectivity whose “mind” could seem to link sentences, citations are firmly connected neither to fully autonomous agency, nor to a reassuring notion of an unconscious participation in “tradition.” As Tjanting works to subvert these conventions by which texts often secure their relation to “tradition,” the proliferation of details and citations becomes inseparable from the poem’s critique of subjectivity — both that of the autonomous individual and that of the larger anthropomorphized “European mind.”


Though in Tjanting Pound, Olson, Zukofsky, Ponge, Williams and O’Hara — among many other poets — all come up explicitly, Silliman’s references tend to deflate the high seriousness often associated with “literary” citation: “Do I dare shit a peach?” (118) [3] The reference to Eliot, perhaps the “father” of theories of intertextuality, is both mutated in itself and contextualized within a terrain of “non-literary” sentences, the next two being: “An old rowboat in the sand intended as a toy. Is that a bus coming?” Here the question of citationality becomes charged because the rendering absurd of Prufrock’s tone would no longer be an irony contained within Eliot’s poem. Instead, insofar as Tjanting develops its own implicit theory of intertextuality deeply critical of the model Eliot famously puts forth in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” shitting a peach might be taken as a figure for an anti-organicism, specifically pointed at Eliot. As a quotidian world infects the citation both internally and in the description that follows, sentence to sentence concatenation and citationality are caught up in a play of semantic power which is a function of textual politics.


Tjanting, one might say, explores how it is that “Some sentences carry literature within them” (52). Silliman’s interest in the particular political stakes of intertexts might be understood as part of what several critics have claimed (with respect both to Silliman specifically and to Language Writers in general) is a larger project of interrogating the institutional frameworks in which literature operates [4] According to George Hartley, for example, this interrogation takes place through inquires into the relation of what he calls “Structure (as in frame, context, horizon) and Force (as in anything which resists structure: desire, play, impulse).”[5] Eliot’s famous theorization of intertextuality constructs it as a threshold of knowledge and value that determines whether a writer can participate in a “tradition” of literature. This structural threshold — however much the individual who writes is “depersonalized” — is understood as a organic, benignly anthropomorphic entity immune to political questions about the nature of literary authority [6] Eliot writes:


The historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling for the whole of literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order (E38).


Knowing the “mind of Europe” or writing with all of Literature “in one’s bones” is an organic, neutral framework that allows the effect of modes of literary authority — that of the tradition, of master authors, of the collector of citations — to come into being.


Though structuralist theorists like Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes reconceive intertextuality more broadly as, in Jonathan Culler’s words, “the sum of knowledge that makes it possible for texts to have meaning” (C104), these formulations, though not necessarily opposed to a consideration of the power relations that inhere in moments of intertextuality, have most often been used, both by these writers themselves and by their followers, to consider more neutral questions of how texts becomes legible. Given this broader definition of the intertextual as a body of cultural knowledge, citationality would be only one version of a much wider set of intertextual practices and structures. Though I will begin by treating citations in Silliman, it will become clear as my reading progresses that specific citations are inseparable from wider questions about the nature of intertextuality. And it is precisely the neutral, given status of intertextual authority that Silliman questions.


In contrast both with Eliotic and structuralist ideas of the intertext as a neutral frame or horizon, Silliman’s repetitive, self-scrutinizing sentences begin to open up intertextuality to the dynamic political and cultural forces that are inherent both in the position from which a citation comes and that into which it is resituated. If in Tjanting intertexts speak back, adamantly resisting an organic transfer of meaning and authority, this is the case not simply because of the theatrical, irreverent type of referentiality I quote above, but more importantly, at a wider level of methodology, because Tjanting’s repetitive process systematically mutates references in ways that allow them to be understood not simply as kernels of stable, given “meaning” but as charged fragments caught up in the contingent power struggles associated with intertextual appropriation, caught in the dynamic process of meaning. By using internal mutation and shifts in contexts to question the self-evidence, the atomistic givenness of a citation, Tjanting reconstructs the intertextual moment not as a neutral semantic framework, but as the charged scene of textual production where importantly different versions of literary history, literary authority and interpretation come into being [7]


For instance, when Silliman quotes Frank O’Hara’s phrase — “Quips & players” and adds to it “diamonds in the blood” — he is less participating in a “tradition” than exploring how a particular citation might both affect its contingent, new context and in turn be affected by this context. Though it may at first seem a random point of departure, I want to follow this particular phrase from Frank O’Hara through its multiple incarnations in the text of Tjanting. Of course many phrases from other poets could be “tracked” through Tjanting just as fruitfully. I choose this particular line from O’Hara, then, because it will illustrate how puns, metonymic juxtaposition and anti-organic notions of literary history are central to the ways in which, in Tjanting, citationality questions its own rhetoric. At the same time, by considering what Silliman locates in the early O’Hara of “Second Avenue,” I want at least to suggest how some aspects of New York School experimentation can be better understood through the lenses made available by Language Writing. Though the main genealogical line of precedents for Language Writing is usually (and rightfully) traced though Zukofsky and Stein, I hope that considering Silliman’s project for citationality through O’Hara can point to a subversively useful way of reading New York School writers. Still, as I want to argue, focusing on any citational episode in Tjantingis also a matter of noticing how any citation ceases to be legible as a contained, discrete entity and begins to trail off into competing associative trains, revisions and new paths of thought. And so this discussion of O’Hara will circle back on the importance of the theoretical tensions between the pursuit of individual citations and the general, anti-originary principles of intertextuality as it is formulated by the structuralists in particular.


But before taking up O’Hara, it is necessary to say more about the compositional principles that play such a large role in Tjanting. The poem’s destabilization of authority at the level of the individual citation is only part of a wider question that Tjanting poses about how formal literary structures might relate to political forms. Given Silliman’s claim that his use of the Fibonacci number series (to determine the unevenly increasing number of sentences in a paragraph) is an attempt at a formal analogy for class struggle, should we read the entire work as intertextually related to the history of dialectical thought?[8] At what level, as a function of which intertextual connections, might this form be meaningful?


The Fibonacci number series is a sequence in mathematics in which a number is generated by adding the two previous numbers in the series. The sequence thus runs: 1,1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and 21 etc. Tjanting begins: “Not this.”//“What then?” Each of these sentences initiates a related but semi-independent sequence throughout the poem so that some form of “Not this” appears in all of the odd paragraphs, just as a form of “What then?” appears in all of the even ones [9] As it progresses, the text not only preserves some form of the two differently charged sentences in each succeeding alternative paragraph, but also in effect “re-reads,” reinterprets, and expands these earlier “moments” by adding new language from what is thematized as the writerly “now” of this complicated act of reading and writing. New insights from this “now,” the present paragraph, modify the prior moment [10] This happens in two principle ways: older sentences are recombined (their word order modified or latent sound allowed to generate new words); and entirely new sentences are added. In addition to “What then?,” for example, every even paragraph contains some version of all the sentences in the previous even paragraph along with the new ones created by the expanding total number dictated by the Fibonacci series. In dialectics, the term “sublation” designates precisely this process of negation and preservation of an element in a new, more complex context.


The analogy to dialectics is both real and incomplete. In the interview to which I alluded before, Silliman claims that Tjanting’s use of the Fibonacci Series is motivated by the question:


What would class struggle look like, viewed as a form? Would such a form be usable in writing? Given the pervasive and extraordinary force with which the constant competition between social classes helps to shape our lives, a form which could reproduce (however dimly) these dynamics would seem to offer an articulate vehicle through which to explore just this problem of ‘shaping,’ of how exterior events act upon and enter into subjectivity in order to create the Subject (B35).


However ambitious, Silliman is the first to question if any single form can act as an “articulate vehicle” for representing class struggle: “Any solution to a question like that is necessarily going to be both reductive and an analogy, and Tjanting pleads guilty on both counts”(B35) [11] One of the immediate ways in which the analogy does not quite work is that, though Hegelian Marxist dialectics would preserve everything within an act of sublation, it is clear that in Tjanting, part of the thematization of writerly “work” involves the sentences that never even make it into the pattern of general accumulation: sentences which the “Not this” condemns finally rather than preserving for reintroduction within a more complex context. “Recently words have been removed” (25) [12]


Such labor would be a structural principle that, in governing revision, both puns on the work of the dialectic, and suggests a particular, not properly dialectical process of erasure and loss within writing. At the same time, “labor” begins to operate as a thematic at the level of statement within the work: “Industrial accident orphan”(14). Thus, one of the interpretive dilemmas presented by this pursuit of semantically charged formal structures is the increasing difficulty of separating individual details, or statements, from the larger structural patterns in which they are articulated.


The complex status of writerly labor — both structure and theme, linked intertextually to dialectical thought — might be elaborated as follows. Barrett Watten claims about Tjanting that “a criticism of the adequacy of statement is a basis for continuity in the work.”[13] Though Tjanting is filled with socially charged details from quotidian life, the text acknowledges and explores the gaps between individual statements and something like “social facts.” In this way, repetitive revision of statements (including citations) is not a “mere formal” device, but a continuing critical exploration that guides the progression of the writing. Thus, this “criticism of the adequacy of statement” (which uses literary citation as one of its primary devices) is characteristic of writerly labor as it is formulated in Tjanting — characteristic of the specific speculative enterprise that writing might take on. But this critique extends beyond the statements generated by the text itself and into those that originate in the discursive, intertextual space of writing: the space of citation. Extending the parameters of this criticism of the “adequacy of statement” to include literary intertextuality has two functions: first, in common with most theories of intertextuality, it works to situate authorial production not as the isolated act of an autonomous ego, but as a necessarily conditioned instance of writing that can only occur within a larger discursive space of literature. Second, and now markedly different from the common theories of intertextuality which I sketch above, Silliman’s practice works to question the intertextual statement’s common status as a self-evident mechanism of meaning and authority production.


Within Tjanting literary citation occupies no privileged location, no increased stability or truth value. Instead, Tjanting employs modes of internal repetition structured around puns and linguistic mutations to inscribe intertextual citation as only one kind of statement within a more general inquiry into the relation between a statement and its ground. “Ground” in Tjanting, then, might be understood variously as the subject position from which a statement might arise, the presuppositions involved in a statement’s linguistic terms, and the possibilities encoded in various linguistic recombinations. Tjanting, as it takes up literary citation in its broader criticism of the adequacy of statement, engages the framework in which literature operates both at the level of the sentence and at the more abstract “institutional” level of the ways in which intertextuality produces and distributes authority within regimes of meaning.


We are now ready to return to O’Hara. To do this I must trace the line “Quips & Players, or diamonds in the blood” to what is in effect its “prehistory” in the paragraphs that precede it, but out of which it will seem to emerge: these early paragraphs, because of their partial determination of everything that follows, deserve special attention. As I suggested before, it is precisely their partialness as statements (in both senses) that gives rise to an ever expanding revisionary process. Anticipating how the Fibonacci series would operate, Silliman remarks, “Each paragraph would repeat every sentence of its previous occurrence … However, the repeats would be rewritten so as to reveal their constructedness, their artificiality as elements of meaning, their otherness . . .” (B, 36)


Paragraph eleven includes: “Mastodons trip in the tar pits. These gestures generate letters. Industrial accident orphan” (14). Presenting partial thematic links and self-reflexive figures, these sentences are typical of the problems Tjanting creates for readers. The first link to notice is between writerly labor and the geological record. The mastodon’s tripping in a tar pit can be partially read as a figure for the poem’s process, its use of the Fibonacci series to generate perceptibly increasing numbers of sentences, “letters,” that envelop previous sentences, much as a tar pit would the fossilized remains of animals. Only implied, but just as important, is the thematization of a kind of “readerly” work which is necessary to read the three sentences as related. The “gap” between the first and second sentences — that “these gestures” doesn’t seem only to point to a mastodon — is characteristic of the way in which Tjanting foregrounds the interpretive impositions — the readerly work — necessary to turn contingent statements into unified thematic content [14] In Tjanting the “formal” process of denaturalizing the desire for interpretive unity is perhaps indistinguishable from a “thematic” project of historicizing (and thereby also denaturalizing) what is typically seen as the accidental. This device of denaturalizing can explain how the mastodon’s fall gets “updated” two sentences later as an industrial process, an historical moment that produces an “Industrial accident orphan.”[15] These sentences, then, also develop a link between writerly and industrial labor.


As the poem moves on, the original trauma of this industrial accident in paragraph eleven gets transformed in paragraph thirteen, cleansed by the enforced structure of the industrial work day into a routine whose violent origins no longer appear, becoming an “Industrial siren meaning lunch” — the very break, the illusion of freedom, that allows workers to continue at their jobs. This phrase is followed by the lines: “Quips & players, or diamonds in the blood. There are clues nearby. In each major city, the ugliest mansion was the French Consulate (19).”[16] Though the line “Quips & players” comes from Frank O’Hara’s poem “Second Avenue,” the reference to O’Hara within a section on lunch seems to be punning on his status as author of the famous Lunch Poems. But O’Hara’s Lunch Poems are more easily digestible than his early, difficult “Second Avenue,” which begins:


Quips and players, seeming to vend astringency off-hours,
celebrate diced excesses and sardonics, mixing pleasures,
as if proximity were staring at the margin of a plea . . [17]


Written in 1953, the poem is a 478 line collage-like sequence in 11 parts whose methods of production, though less documented than those of Tjanting, are equally complex and baffling [18] Throughout, “Second Avenue” juxtaposes — even abrades — various strains of vocabulary (painters’ studio talk, languages of advertising, narration from popular fiction or autobiography, art criticism, cowboy novels) combining them into an over-charged whole that highlights the gaps and discontinuities between these modes, highlights the dissolution of a unitary “speaker” into an effect of various, competing vocabularies. In fact, one might claim that the “proximity” of these vocabularies, the effects achieved by their contiguous relations — the “diced excesses and sardonics, mixing pleasures” — is the operative mode of the poem, its argument or “plea.”[19]


Substantiating the sense in which proximity might be a “plea,” O’Hara’s poem engages the question of constitutive vocabulary not only at the wider level of discontinuous vocabulary patterns I sketch above, but in the first three words, those quoted by Silliman. These words present an asymmetry that the poem continues to explore throughout: a “quip” (a remark whose connotations extend from the purely clever through sarcasm to the outright disagreement of taunts or gibes) would relate more directly to a “play” (the verbal mechanism that would bring a quip into being) than to a “player” — perhaps the “I” of the quip, the one who “vends astringency off hours.” But that a “quip” is also positioned grammatically to be what, in addition to a “player,” vends such astringency, produces a sort of hiccup in the first line (the “er” of player) that initiates the poem’s thematic interest in the competing status of language and subjectivity as originary principles. Just as the phrase “quips and players” does not resolve into a consistent subject position, the poem proliferates both vocabularies and different systems designed to understand subjectivity:


I suffer accelerations that are vicarious and serene,
just as the lances of an army advance above the heat of the soldiery,
so does my I tremble before the getting-out-of-bedness
of that all-encompassing snake warned-off in pocket-books
as “him,” and subtitled elsewhere “couch,” “marvel” “ears,”
(OH, 140)


That an “I” should “suffer accelerations,” erotic and otherwise, poses the legibility of the self as a function of wider, intersubjective forces. As is typical in the poem, this quasi-narrative sequence about desire seems to search, unsatisfactorily, for a ground or interpretive framework within languages of philosophy — the Heideggerian or Sartrian “getting-out-of-bedness” — and psychoanalysis, the “couch” and “ears.”[20]


Silliman’s selection of this early, linguistically experimental work generally and the phrase “Quips and players” specifically suggest a connection in Tjanting both to the complication of a traditional priority of “speaker” to language and to the use of “quips” or puns as the engine of linguistic recombination [21] That some version of this reference to O’Hara (like all of the intertexts in Tjanting) continues to appear in every other paragraph (progressively less emphasized as the paragraphs expand) creates a particular kind of readerly expectation: one returns to the scene of a would-be repetition only to find the elements slightly transformed, the secondary implications of words causing the text to expand horizontally, contiguously rather than narratively. In paragraph 15 we get:


Industrial whistle meaning lunch. Is Ponge here? Diamonds in the quips, players in the blood. “Nixt” the teller hollers, meaning next. There are near clues by. A peculiar excitement is felt for summer rain. The ugliest mansion in each major city, French consulate (31).


The space of repetition between the sentence about industry and the reference to O’Hara now gets expanded, becoming no longer a proper repetition, by the entrance of the French poet Francis Ponge, whose fanatical technique of returning often for years to a single spot — a pine woods, a field — in order to revise his poetic description now becomes a point of reference for Silliman’s own version of repetition as revision. But it is exactly this sentence’s material presence as an intertextual hook to other experimental repetitive writing processes that keeps this section, like all of the others, from being a strict repetition. To follow out the other expansions, one can note that the original sequence of “sentence topics” — lunch, O’Hara, clues, French consulate — now also includes sentences about Ponge, communication and rain.


If the reference to Ponge works by expansion, that to O’Hara works by recombination: “Diamonds in the quips, and players in the blood.” Now it is the quip that takes on the incisive potential of a diamond, while the players become a quality of blood. As this example makes clear, “O’Hara” or “Second Avenue” is not a fixed point of reference, but a mobile linguistic source whose effects and connotations are multiple. As the lines get recombined, as they lose their hard, foreign surface — their quality of being a diamond — they progressively enter the already established thematic world of Silliman’s poem — a technique that highlights what is always at stake in an intertext in the first place: the play, as I mentioned above, between the contiguous world of associations of the reference within its “own” context and those within the new one. Through staging the intertextual reference in a process of progressive associative diversion, Tjanting highlights the ways in which poems struggle to appropriate literary reference, to digest them in a process of gradual deformation.


This picture of the progressive deformation of intertextual strands, however, is only one small part of how meaning accumulates through accretion within the text. The expanding number of sentences per paragraph quickly produces an irrecuperably wide set of references whose multiply articulated relations proliferate beyond a set of recognizable thematic links. As with the problem of “vocabularies” in O’Hara, to approach the seemingly endless registers of statements in Tjanting, one seems to need a theory of residue, of the trivial. In this vein — though one can cite multiple examples like the “industrial whistle” or the teller hollering — it is not enough to say that Tjantingrecuperates overlooked social, linguistic details in a critical collage: the poem does not value the overlooked detail from everyday life simply because it was previously repressed in capitalism or in a tradition of “Literature.” Instead, the very position from which notation or statement occurs, as I noted above, is radically destabilized through repetitive, transformative revision. It is finally the principles which motivate revision rather than the infinite spectrum of details revised that can give one a picture of how Tjanting works.


The shift from “There are clues near by” to “There are near clues by” presents an example of how statements in Tjanting engage their own adequacy. In the first case, the status of a “clue” as a tool for attaining knowledge is not at stake, merely a clue’s position. The position of “by” at the end of the second sentence (clues by someone) suggests that the pursuit of clues often involves tracing an action to a now lost actor. At the same time, the sentence simply suspends this preposition at its end, not connecting it to its object, not finishing the recuperative work that clues demand. Even if one takes “by” in a different, non-personal, sense, the isolation of a preposition at the end of a sentence about clues works to highlight the distributional work, the work of the preposition, that is involved in the pursuit of clues. Though this is in many ways a mundane example, the grammatical rearrangement here, the quip, is typical of the ways in which the status of statements, the status of a “clue” for example, undergoes progressive scrutiny — a scrutiny linked to writerly labor — through the repetitive stanzaic form. Tjanting seeks to create this progressive scrutiny as the goal of writerly work, a goal that can be achieved in fact only through an attention to just such “mundane” and otherwise seemingly neutral linguistic occurrences.


The expansions in paragraph 17 add several new elements:


The scrape of a fork — man eats alone. Ponge is aqui. The total logic of fog. Industrial lunch meaning whistle. The body’s inertia on a cold day. Blood in the quips, players in the diamonds. Demand each sentence be written. The next teller hollers meaning next. First she pens paragraphs, then removes sentences from them. By are there near clues. Mesmer. Peculiar rain is felt for summer excitement. Some eyes are windows, others curtains. The ugliest French mansion in every major consulate city (63–64).


Now Ponge has been transformed into the context of Spanish. His being “aqui” is a homonym for his also being “a key,” the answer to a clue. Sound play also seems to generate the movement from “diamonds” to “Demand.” “Quips” here get connected to the bodily world of “blood” just as the word “players” moves away from the connotation of word play and into the monetary world of “diamonds,” suggesting one whose play is controlled by money, or one who speculates in diamonds. The ongoing scrutiny into basic communicative processes (the teller performing her function by now simply “hollering” rather than mispronouncing next as “nixt,” which puns back to “not this”) occurs at at least two competing levels: first, in this revision, the “actual” whistle does not signal lunch; instead the phrase “industrial lunch” seems to call to mind the whistle that might precede it. Next, the very notion of revision circles back on the writing process itself so that now a “she” is the writing subject, the one who “pens paragraphs, then removes sentences from them.” Such a removal is of course also an echo of the fundamental “Not this” from the poem’s first sentence.


In the above example in which an “industrial lunch” comes to “mean” whistle, one might ask whether Tjanting’s exploration of statement is finally a question of logic (a question of causal sequence involving a whistle and lunch) or one of consciousness (the subjective associations that could allow for such a revision of meaning). That is, what does the poem make of the difference between “consciousness” and “the world”? Initially, it is tempting to claim that Tjanting “maps” quotidian life. After all, the poem “deals with” eating, shitting, riding the bus, drinking beer, scabs, the atmosphere of an apartment (its sounds, smells over time) and of course thinking and writing, even the writing of the poem. But the relationship between “the world” and “consciousness” is at least reciprocal, so that, in addition to the subject seeming to master the world through “language,” consciousness’s inundation in language would present a counter-movement whereby “the world” would work to colonize consciousness, to produce usable forms of subjectivity.


One can certainly read many of the poem’s individual sentences — “‘Nixt’ the teller hollers, meaning next” — as daily residues of phraseology, advertising or overheard conversation by which consciousness is shaped and which, in turn, it shapes. This process — in which, as the poem proceeds, such kernels are typically broken down and recombined as semantic or grammatical units — could be seen to play not merely on the revisionary work consciousness might perform as it “chews on” linguistic debris, but also on the work such linguistic units might perform on consciousness. Thus mapping, like making “statements,” becomes a two way project, interrogating its own subject through the poem’s seriality. Writing, an activity not separable from life in this matrix, is the thematized process that holds this two-way inquiry in place. It is in this sense that Silliman can be seen to engage, now from a position more explicitly concerned with the social than was consciously available to O’Hara, the ways in which vocabulary, or language more generally, might be seen as a generative political category that would precede the category of “speaker.”


In paragraph 19, a direct reference to O’Hara precedes the line with diamonds: “Who will write of shoelaces? Even before the accident FOH had grown silent” (204). Here, Silliman is referring to O’Hara’s slowed production before his death in 1966. In the context of the poem, though, the industrial accident has now partly become the dune buggy accident that killed O’Hara. With his death established, Tjanting goes on to comment on the ways in which dead poets are easier to deal with than living ones, easier to reduce into a narrative, an intertextual progression:


We prefer to read the dead, because their lives point towards our own, lending the comfortable air of a false inevitability. Diamonds in the blood, embolisms. 4001. Stitching. Composition vs. Construction. A fell swoop. “Meow,” screams the child into the face of the cat (209).


This passage undermines two aspects of the work of intertextuality as it is traditionally conceived: first, the citation as the evidence by which a reader would establish the “inevitable” link between poets separated temporally, here pointed out as “false”; and second, the melding of authority through this same act of citation (from the “blood” of one text to that of another), here disrupted by the infectious, recalcitrant alterity of an embolism. An “embolism” — an air bubble, blood clot, or a mass of bacteria that obstructs a blood vessel — comes to be a figure for how citations like the line from O’Hara might be seen, rather than as unproblematic evidence of participation in the “mind” or “bones” of Eliot’s version of “tradition,” instead as points of anti-organic resistance within a model of how one text “incorporates” another. If such references to O’Hara remain “diamonds in the blood,” they can be understood as self-consciously staged, “unsuccessful” attempts to internalize literary value through a would-be organic decomposition of the citation. Though citations certainly break into constituent parts within Tjanting, as the O’Hara example makes clear, this process asks to be seen not as neutral participation within an organic intertextual world, but as part of an inquiry into the charged mechanics of citational authority and the adequacy of citational statement.


Emerging from the scene of the mastodon tripping in a tar pit (latter figured as an “industrial accident”), the phrase — “quips and players & diamonds in the blood” — encodes, as it transforms itself throughout the text, what might be taken as a synecdochic overview of the ways that Tjanting works to rewrite literary intertextuality. O’Hara, then, becomes not a “source” for the poem so much as what one might call a “principle,” one that Tjanting at once pursues and undermines: pursues insofar as we take the line “quips & players” to get at the complication of the distinction between vocabulary and speaker, a complication which in Silliman gets politically charged through being linked to the processes of inquiry into the “adequacy of statement” through repetitive, mutating scrutiny. To make this claim, however, is not to suggest that Silliman finds in O’Hara a fixed unit of meaning, but instead to witness how Silliman’s rewriting of O’Hara’s line highlights the ways in which a writer’s authority is open to a spectrum of appropriations. At the same time, the poem undermines “O’Hara” insofar as the quote gives rise to the set of associative trajectories I have been describing, all of which stage the failed spectacle of literary inheritance or authority being passed from one writer to the other. Though reworked in multiple ways, “O’Hara” (like the other modern poets whose names come up throughout the text) cannot be dissolved, digested or incorporated seamlessly into Tjanting. Instead, as an “embolism,” the quote remains a “diamond in the blood,” a unit of intertextual authority that, refusing to dissolve, continues to demonstrate the “false inevitability” of trying to make writers lead teleologically from one to the next. It is this question of authority that makes Silliman’s version of intertextuality a critical and significant engagement with existing theories of the intertextual.


Structuralist theorists like Julia Kristeva have tended to posit the intertextual world as a boundless, anti-originary discursive space. While Kristeva does not deny referentiality, she inscribes it, for good reason, within a potentially infinite subset. Predictably, however, this move has led to problems when theorists have attempted to read individual texts. Speaking of Kristeva’s particular intertextual readings, Jonathan Culler notes, “a situation in which one can track down sources with such precision cannot serve as the paradigm for a description of intertextuality, if intertextuality is the general discursive space that makes a text intelligible” (C, 106–7). In Culler’s account, this contradiction is less an individual failing than a basic question that structures all attempts to place texts within cultures: “Intertextuality thus becomes less a name for a work’s relation to particular prior texts than a designation of its participation in the discursive space of culture” (C, 103) [22] But precisely how can one “designate” if all designations work to call into question the infinite basis of potential connections? Though the structuralists were absolutely right to preserve some level of inexhaustibility in any theory of the relation between a text and the discursive space of culture out of which it becomes legible, it seems to me that a text like Tjanting productively takes such theorization to another level of specificity.


Few texts highlight the gap between the boundlessness of referentiality and the importance of reference better than Tjanting. In reading the text, one notices the ways in which the “boundless space of culture” that makes a text legible is at once a space structured not merely by coded linguistic practices, but by authority producing mechanisms which govern how one understands the ways in which one text references another. In Tjanting’s “critique of the adequacy of statement,” the intertextual, “literary” statement undergoes the same progressive unraveling and repositioning as seemingly “objective” notations. This is the process, structured according to the Fibonacci number series, by which Tjanting both critically engages the distinction between “Literary” and quotidian language and reimagines references to other texts not simply as secure kernels of meaning, secure markers of participation in a “tradition,” but as loaded, polyvalent statements caught in the process of meaning. O’Hara’s line “quips and players,” then, in its crucial blurring of the distinction between subjectivity and language as generative principles, can be understood as a mise en scène of Tjanting’s process — one which Silliman seems to engage explicitly, since it is linked to the image of the mastodon in the tar pits. At the same time, it is precisely “quips” and “plays,” the use of puns, that allows Tjanting to engage in an extended consideration of sentences, rendering intertextual repetition a form of critical writerly labor.


[1] “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt, 1975), 39. Future references to the text will be to this edition and listed parenthetically by an “E.”

[2] Ron Silliman, Tjanting (Berkeley: The Figures, 1981), 30. All subsequent references will be to this text and listed parenthetically.

[3] Charting Silliman’s precise relations to the tradition of humorous, self-conscious citation that would include Rabelais, Swift and Joyce is beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, because of the experimentalism of Silliman’s writing and its open questioning of the theory/practice distinction, I hope to make his contributions clear by positioning him against theorists of intertextuality: on the one hand, Eliot’s canonical literary model of the intertextual and on the other, a broader structuralist model of the intertextual as a function of cultural legibility.

[4] Since this paper is primarily on Ron Silliman, I will not engage the terminology and membership debates that surround what is various called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E or Language Poetry. I choose “Language Writing” because the term both avoids the suggestion that the writers included find their point of origin in the magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and gets at the theory/practice relationship pursued by the writers themselves. Similarly, I will engage the broader debates about the “value” and efficacy of Language Writing only through my specific proposals about Tjanting’s relation to the politics of intertextuality and not through attempts to generalize about the practices of Language Writers, which in 1997 (though already also in 1981, when Tjanting was published) seem increasingly disparate.

[5] Textual Politics and the Language Poets (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1989), 96.

[6] Though European structuralist models of intertextuality share with Eliot the assumption that intertextuality is a function of a neutral system that allows for effects, these models present what I take to be three major advances: first, by formulating intertextuality as the “general space of culture” which allows literary objects to be legible, they link reading to cultural analyses in ways Eliot famously discourages; second, the notion of a shared referentiality that makes a text legible (a minimal condition of relatedness usually formulated in terms of interpretive conventions) tends to be descriptive rather than prescriptive and thus opens itself up to a less canonical and centralizing model of literary authority than one finds in Eliot; finally, the continued focus on how conventions allow for legibility has lead critics to notice the ways in which many texts begin to produce their own legibility through an internal form of intertextuality that Jonathan Culler calls “presupposition.” (See his essay, “Presupposition and Intertextuality” in The Pursuit of Signs [Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981], hereafter referred to parenthetically as "C").

[7] The use of proper names in Pound and Eliot as self-evident citations provides a useful contrast: for example, “Baudelaire” in Eliot’s “The Wasteland” comes to “mean” a particular kind of alienation or Sigismundo Malatesta in Pound’s The Cantos becomes an unproblematic synecdoche for a valued anti-Vatican militancy.

[8] Silliman makes this claim in an interview with Tom Beckett in The Difficulties (1985, 2:2), 35. Hereafter referred to parenthetically as “B.”

[9] The negation, “Not this,” is of course also the crucial early moment in The Phenomenology in which Hegel calls “sense-certainty” into question. What’s more, for Hegel as for Silliman, it is this initial negation that gives rise to an increasingly long and complicated explication of what follows a negation — the string of ‘What then?” moments punctuated and rendered increasingly complex by negation in the familiar movement of the dialectic.

[10] In this way Silliman’s poem itself does what Eliot says the tradition does. Thus, one could read this procedure, like the attack on a hypostatized “mind,” as a subversively literal enactment of Eliot, who writes: “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for the order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is the conformity between the old and the new” (E38–39).

[11] Silliman adds: “the most important aspect of the Fibonacci series turned out not to be those gorgeous internal relationships, but the fact that it begins with two ones. That not only permitted the parallel articulation of two sequences of paragraphs, but also determined that their development would be uneven, punning back to the general theory of class struggle” (B35).

[12] Another way to conceptualize this problem would be to consider post-structuralist critiques of Hegel. For Gilles Deleuze, in Difference and Repetition (Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia UP, 1994) Hegelian sublation becomes impossible because repetition ceases to be legible as repetition of the same, involving instead singularity. Deleuze’s attention to radical singularity amid apparent repetition is a useful, if general, approach to many Language Writers. A different approach to Hegel can be found in Jacques Derrida’s essay, “From Restricted to General Economy” (Writing and Difference Trans. Alan Bass [Chicago: Chicago UP, 1978]) in which Derrida, following Bataille, focuses on elements of expenditure or loss that would complicate the Hegelian notion of complete preservation within sublation.

[13] “Total Syntax: The Work in the World” in his Total Syntax (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1985), 110. Contrasting Silliman’s use of “unartistic” details as a form of political writing with W.C. Williams similar practice in “Proletarian Portrait,” Watten suggests that while Williams levels such details as “facts,” “There is no such professional distance in Silliman but rather a relation of complicity between the writer and the facts” (Ibid.).

[14] Silliman discusses this elsewhere as “the parsimony principle.” See his essay “Migratory Meaning” in The New Sentence. New York: Roof, 1989. For an account of Silliman’s subversive relation to narration, see Charles Bernstein’s “Narrating Narration: The Shapes of Ron Silliman’s Work” in Content’s Dream (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1986).

[15] In a later book, Demo, from his series “The Alphabet,” Silliman writes, “Father was an absence a post-structuralist might have use for, music piped into the aquarium” (Demo to Ink [Chax: Tucson, 1992]), 24.

[16] If one were to continue to read this small section under the sign of O’Hara and the New York School more broadly, the “French Consulate” might be taken as a reference to the ways in which New York poets in the 1950s became, to a degree, “ambassadors” for French poetry in America, translating and disseminating modern French poets, many of whom were largely unknown in America. For an account of John Ashbery’s multiple translations — which included Breton, Eluard, Char, Reverdy — see John Shoptaw On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994), 42–73.

[17] The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (New York: Knopf, 1971), 139. References to O’Hara will subsequently be listed parenthetically as “OH” and will be to this edition.

[18] In his “[Notes on Second Avenue]” (OH, 495–497), O’Hara glosses a few of the many references and discusses some influences and goals without specifically describing his working procedures. In the interview mentioned before, Silliman, on the other hand, discusses in great detail the constrictive procedures he used to create Tjanting.

[19] One could claim that O’Hara and Silliman both “celebrate diced excesses” by employing what Roman Jakobson (in “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic disturbances” Language and Literature [Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987]) calls the metonymic axis of combination rather than the metaphoric axis of selection. But as both Jakobson and Roland Barthes (for whom metonymy is also very important) recognized, no aspect of a poem is purely paradigmatic or syntagmatic, metonymic or metaphoric at all possible interpretive levels. Still, these distinctions retain force both as methods of specification and as the groundwork for tracking a significant shift away from metaphor in recent poetry. An account of the various and often subversive roles metonymic association has been called upon to perform within recent experimental poetry, however, is beyond the scope of this essay.

[20] That Silliman focuses on the “early” O’Hara of this poem, the writer usually considered by critics to be still too thoroughly under the spell of French literature, is itself a significant fact. In an influential essay, James Breslin writes “O’Hara’s early experiments with surrealism, in ‘Oranges,’ ‘Easter,’ and ‘Second Avenue,’ juxtapose the beautiful and the obscene, the natural and the mechanical, in ways that are more contrived than revelatory, as if bombastic French language games were a sufficient substitute for the current ‘academic parlor game.’ The linguistic difficulties posed by ‘In Memory of My Feelings,’ however, are generated by complex emotional substance and a dazzling stylistic variety” ("Frank O’Hara” in From Modern to Contemporary. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1983), 242. Similarly, Marjorie Perloff writes, “By late 1953, then, all the necessary ingredients were present . . . But after Second Avenue O’Hara learns to relate individual elements more intricately, to forge them into a coherent whole. And he now begins to put the ‘straight Surrealism’ behind him” (Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters [Austin: Texas UP, 1977]), 74. If O’Hara’s cultivation of “manner” as an important kind of content calls this distinction into question, there is nonetheless something extreme about the early work. Even John Ashbery, who was deeply impressed by O’Hara from the start, suggested that increasing incorporation of vernacular language worked “to ventilate the concentrated Surrealist imagery of poems like ‘Hatred,’ ‘Easter’ and ‘Second Avenue’” (OH, X). In a sense, “ventilation” is precisely what Silliman’s use of the tiny fragment achieves.

[21] O’Hara was himself caught up in debates about the potential values of the type of overstuffed, claustrophobic vocabularies he employs in poems like “Second Avenue.” In defense of Kenneth Koch, O’Hara quotes a critical attack, seeking to turn its charge into an asset: “Mr. Koch, its seems, has a rare combination of words rattling about in his skull, but it is difficult to call any of his word combinations the bric-a-brac of poetry.” O’Hara continues: “It is amusing to think of the number of gifted (even great!) poets my epigraph applies to. Though I am in total disagreement with the rest of Mr. Roskolenko’s review of Poems by Kenneth Koch . . . he has hit on something here; these very original poems have little to do with the restful and pleasant bric-a-brac he seems to prefer” (“Another Word on Kenneth Koch” in Standing Still and Walking in New York [San Francisco: Grey Fox, 1983]), 59. In the “restful and pleasant bric-a-brac,” the familiar world of 1950s poetry, the concept of a “a speaker” would certainly precede that of a vocabulary.

[22] Culler continues, “Kristeva’s procedure is instructive because it illustrates the way in which the concept of intertextuality leads the critic who wishes to work with it to concentrate on cases that put in question the general theory” (C, 106–107).

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