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In a Ron Silliman essay from 1979, there’s an invitation or challenge to us as poetry readers. He is writing about perceived difficulty and how we get past it: “Once reading strategies catch up to those of writing, a lot of complexity is going to dissolve” (TNS 61). The time seems ripe, after the quarter-century of work that he began in that year has now come to fruition in the Alphabet, to take up the challenge and ask: Can we read his big book yet?
Silliman’s thoughts about “difficult or obscure” poetry and others’ assumptions about its relation to writing from theory are the focus of that essay. It was originally called “Notes on the Relation of Theory to Practice” but cleverly reduced to “Of Theory, To Practice” in The New Sentence in 1987. His closing example is amusing to someone who’s known him awhile. He suggests that all poetic modes manifest concepts present in the writer’s mind and are therefore theoretical. Then, the final sentence reads “It’s no more foolish to be conscious of them—and their implications extending into the daily life of the real world—than it is to actually have some idea how to drive before getting behind the wheel of a car.” The funny part is that at that time, as far as I remember, Ron Silliman didn’t drive. He did consciously use theory, though, and tried to express the quotidian “implications” of his poetic practices.
He borrowed a lot of thinking to do so. That relatively short essay makes references to T. W. Adorno, V. I. Lenin, W.C. Williams, Robert Creeley, Clark Coolidge, Gyorgy Lukács, John Dryden, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Barrett Watten, Laura Riding, Walter Benjamin, Lyn Hejinian, Bruce Andrews, John Ashbery, and Robert Grenier. Any of those writers could probably help us with our reading, but two of them actually warned us off of poetry. The essay uses one of these writers’ most challenging statements as an epigraph, Adorno’s famous Auschwitz sentence: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The other one who offered a challenge to poets that Silliman might have quoted is Laura Riding. The reference he makes to her ideas is about form and the labor it seems to require, rather than about her more interesting assertions concerning “the failure of poetry.” She actually quit writing it and spent many pages writing about what is wrong with the practice of it. Reading it well should perhaps require some consideration of her challenge and Adorno’s. We’ll leave all the rest of those writers aside and look at hers and his because of the way they fit with that glance forward to a future in Silliman’s sentence.
Their thinking would broaden his glance to take in a view of “the past” and “the on-going” and give us a fuller perspective on the challenge of reading “difficult” poetry. Those other elements actually form parts of “the present” in which we must do our reading. As Silliman tries to keep some sense of “history” in his writing, we should probably try to keep our sense of “history” at least that broad. Each moment, if you look at it, presently manifests a past and a participation in something on-going. Words are beautifully like that themselves, even with an eye to the future as if trying to make meaning. Poetry’s own history also works that way, and Laura Riding was looking closely at it and its impetus when she decided to get off the bus.
What occurred to her occurred slowly, even though her production of poems seemed to stop rather abruptly. Perhaps she never even stopped actually being a poet though she quit writing poetry. There is a last poem that she wrote in 1978, published with an explanation of its existence in a 1980 broadside; it is a poem about “How a Poem Comes to Be” and it ends with the idea of what she “would” do “were this not a poem” (Jackson/Nolan 241-3). Her theoretical concerns tended to define themselves negatively in terms of poetry, even as she tried to create an alternative positive practice of creative writing. She published a handful of statements about the failures of poetry that actually seem to have begun in the preface to her 1938 Collected Poems where she gives us her thoughts on reading “difficult” works. In her address “To the Reader,” Riding starts off: “The reasons for which poems are read ought not to be very different from the reasons for which they are written” (Jackson/Friedman 191). This gets very close to Ron Silliman’s statement about “catch-up” four decades later. Her second paragraph begins with a sentence that takes her even closer to Silliman’s considerations. “As a poet who has been persistently accused of ‘difficulty,’ I feel that there is due from me an explanation of the baffling effect that my poems apparently have for a large number of readers.” She goes on to call it “astonishing that the literary education of people gives them such a false account of the reasons of poems that they either do not read them at all or read them mostly for the wrong reasons” (192).
The echo of our contemporary concerns continues as she complains about the way in which “the stirring up of the poetic faculties has been a greater pre-occupation than their use” in “poem writing and poem-reading” (193). It is because they do not “admit all the reasons of poetry,” she says, that readers find “obscurity” in her work. She says that her “poems are indications of the full scope of poetry” and to say so “is to define what any single poem is by itself.” She asserts that “the study of the scope of poetry is poetry, and requires all the reasons of poetry for its pursuit” (194). What cuts people off from this is their relation to the figure of the poet. Here she finds another great problem: “The trouble is that as poets have transferred the compulsion of poetry to forces outside themselves,” (philosophy, religion, myth, or politicking), “so readers have been encouraged to transfer their compulsion to the poet” with the result that “readers become mere instruments on whom the poet plays his fine tunes … instead of being equal companions in poetry” (196). This brings her back to the big problem: “Go for reasons other than those of poetry to any poem written for the reasons of poetry, and you will be unable to read it” (197).
This is a compelling first take on the failures of poetry. Much like the practice and theory of Ron Silliman and some others in our time, this 1938 address to the reader demands a reading that goes beyond what people have made themselves historically used to. Later on, though, instead of opening up or catching up, Laura Riding would seem to want us to give up our poetry habit and wake up to a new kind of reading writing. She moved her practice toward writing for our reading in a way that she thought was more “to” us in a direct address. She called it “telling” and named a book of it The Telling (Jackson/Friedman 335-368). It presents her attempt to do clear thinking in clear writing about the topics most dear to her and to her times.
Around the time of its publications in the Sixties and Seventies, she publicly elaborated the reasoning behind her decision to leave the poetry practice that had stopped short never to run again for her. She saw trying to revive it as futile. In 1962, she stated objections to poetry’s claims of being a “spiritual exercise” in being ”a mode of expressing what would be otherwise inexpressible” (Jackson/Nolan 25). In 1964, she expanded her complaint to the focus on the “sacred status” granted poetry when its “rudimentary concern with the physical potencies of words” gets extended into “a mystical preoccupation with their powers of truth” (Jackson/Friedman 208). She began then to critique poetry as keeping truth at a distance in the very practice of its craft. She saw poets as “morally pledged to work to bring to human experience the finalities of goodness stored in the truth-potential of words, yet obliged to make it their immediate care to ply the pleasure-potential of words.” This leads to a situation “where the shadow of truth, cast from a visionary distance, is professionally sufficient” and to an oblique approach where “a stylized failure-of-expression is the verbal heart of poetry’s sacrosanctity” (211). In 1965, Riding developed the essay on “The Failure of Poetry” in which she focused on the conflation of “craft and creed” in this grandiosity. “Creed” was “the belief that there is an ideal condition … realizable in poems as nowhere else” and that this is “a peculiar state of being in which there is a suspension of the pettier life-values.” Because of that “a grand sense of things, a sense of a grand scope of existence, suffuses the being, and moves the understanding” (Jackson/Nolan, 32). Riding chides us for believing in this and thereby giving the poet power to use it to keep us suspended in it, in thrall.
On Tuesday, January 18, 1972, Riding had occasion to record a reading of her poetry and thoughts about poetry for the Lamont Library at Harvard. Part III of the reading was a little essay that has been entitled by her literary executors “The Otherwise of Words.” It is there that she gave her critique of our collusion in the “closed-circuit” in which poetry “returns to itself” as “it plays the part of both address and audience” because of the “identification” that it calls for. As opposed to this “drawing inwards” into “the perfection of a pattern” provided by another, she proposes a “laboring outwards” that is “a speaking that sends words out, not to stop till they reach another.” She calls this “the otherwise of words” and recognizes poetry as that which stops just short of it in “the perfection of all spoken as if all might be hidden within it” (Jackson/Nolan 100-102).
One big question for our reading now is whether we have yet gotten over this trick of identification and shadowing. There are certainly ways in which poets have deflected it over the years, but there are ways in which whole careers have been built upon it. Riding’s alternative isn’t perfect either. There are strategies in Riding’s “telling” that get a bit grandiose. She envisioned a future when and where there would be “no where in which, no when at which, to tell other-than-true, and no one to tell it” (368). History ain’t there yet, but it’s part of the picture of us as the makers and users of language that can be compelling if we don’t leave it to poets to achieve for us.
Adorno reminds us of the other end of history––its backside, so to speak.
His reason for us to turn away from poetry and its grandiosities is very concrete in its imagery. Anyone who has seen images of Auschwitz will feel they know what the word “barbaric” means in the Auschwitz sentence. Another truth, though, is that this was a term in a dialectical opposition that Adorno observed in modern history. He made his famous statement near the end of an essay about “Cultural Criticism and Society” in a discussion of the undermining of society’s traditional cultural efforts by the collusion of all forces in a seemingly seamless world market. Up the page a ways, he says that in “the open-air prison which the world is becoming, it is no longer important to know what depends on what” and that this is because of a totalizing mass culture of “materialistic transparency.” “By relinquishing its own particularity, culture has also relinquished the salt of truth, which once consisted in its opposition to other particularities,” he writes. “To call it to account before a responsibility which it denies,” he goes on, “is only to confirm cultural pomposity.” The element taken away by the mass market is particularity. “The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own.” In this context “extreme consciousness of doom” can equal “idle chatter.” This is “the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism,” he asserts just before concretizing the thought in the well-known image: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
The next sentence in today’s commonly used English translation would also seem to put him on Laura Riding’s side, against poetic practice. It says that “this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today” (Prisms 34). The version we read in English may separate Adorno’s coordinated thoughts too much. In the original German, it is all one sentence from the recognition of the final stage to the impossibility of poetry and our corroded knowledge about it. Adorno returned to that corrosion in at least three more sentences in his essays of later years. A couple of them simply suggest second thoughts, saying the Auschwitz sentence “may have been wrong” or “is not valid unconditionally.” The most interesting comes in a book still untranslated called Ohne Leitbild, “without model or image or orientation,” and subtitled in Latin parva aesthetica, “little aesthetic bits.” There he says (in my translation worked out with my son, Kevin Hoffman, and our friend Dr. Klaus Neumann): “Although the situation we are in no longer truly permits Art – the assertion that poetry after Auschwitz is impossible targets this idea – it yet needs it.” That kind of paradox is typical in Adorno’s dialectical thinking and expression. “For, without image-model orientation,” he goes on, describing our historical point, “our reality has become the complete opposite of the kind of state of being without an image-model in which art would waste away and utopia be fulfilled (as is encrypted in every work of art)” (452-3). That’s a heck of a mouthful, but it includes concepts that take the use of the image of Auschwitz well beyond where the segment of a sentence puts it for most readers.
Adorno asks us to see a paradox in our situation, accentuated by that image and the weight history now has for us in what may be a kind of collective survivor guilt. In a nearly finished late book called Aesthetic Theory, he discusses another famous dictum. This one he himself “mistranslates” in a paraphrase from Benjamin’s Schriften (edited by Adorno and his wife): “the paradox of an artwork is that it appears.” The point that Adorno goes on to make abut this perception is that “every artwork is in fact an oxymoron” in the way that “its own reality is for it unreal.” The very realness of Auschwitz, of the experience of our situation as an “open-air prison” where “materialistic transparency” surrounds us, and of our own subjectivity, makes for a paradoxical impossibility in the need for a counter-balancing in art. The further paradox is that this paradox provides the counterweight itself. “An artwork is real only to the extent that, as an artwork, it is unreal, self-sufficient, and differentiated from the empirical world, of which it nevertheless remains a part.” The way art answers back to the oppressive reality is “by becoming a reality sui generis. Art protests against reality by its own becoming an object” (279). This paradox is not just fancy philosophicalization. It is the second nature of art, poetry included, even after the holocaust.
This second nature makes poetry itself bigger and stronger than any interpretation, but yet our reading must go on and Adorno sees a special opening for it. “No matter where an interpreter enters his text, he (sic) always encounters a boundless profusion of desiderata that he must fulfill, although it is impossible to fulfill any one of them without causing another to suffer,” Adorno advises. His ideal interpreter still always “runs up against the incompatibility of what the works themselves want in their own terms, and what they want of him.” He is forced into compromise, as we must be in trying to read the Alphabet. Adorno reminds us that “the compromises that result … are detrimental because of the indifference inherent in indecision.” Reading, though, he says, gives writing an advantage here over the requirements of any art that asks to be performed. With a nod to Locke, Adorno asserts that “reading tolerates the coexistence of opposites because it is at once sensuous and non-sensuous intuition” (279). Lest that begin to seem non-sens-ical, let’s try reading.
I’ve chosen somewhere to start by using a few arbitrary guidelines. VOG is a book in The Alphabet that Silliman says is made up of “ordinary” poems (1061). One of them mentions a dear friend of mine by name. It occurred to me that I could gain by following Silliman’s example in Under Albany where he has underwritten the reading of Albany, the first and shortest book in the Alphabet. Entering the Alphabet like that, through one line in “Trouble Ticket” in VOG, seems as good an idea as any. After all Adorno says we will “encounter a boundless profusion of desiderata” wherever we enter (AT 279). From that entry point, we can go on to bigger things. There will be bigger and bigger things to look at, like the whole question of form, as we radiate out from that one sentence. Its perspective should help with all levels of this work because of poetry’s standards regarding everything from detail on up to how form rests on its concatenation of smaller units.
In the first full sentence on page 697 in a two-page prose poem called “Trouble Ticket,” we find my dead friend: “Barry Cox, sent to the crematorium in his tie-dye t-shirt.” Barry was given that shirt by his colleagues at BBDO, the publicity firm where he was I.S. Director in his forties. He was also a poet and a great reader of poetry who corresponded with many of the poets he read and admired. You’ll find letters and cards from him in the Ron Silliman archive at UCSD, dated 1981-83. The shirt was done in tones of blue, a color Barry couldn’t see but knew looked good on him. He looked good in his Brooks Brothers shirts and suit jackets too, which he often wore to the office or the opera with jeans. He had not been a wearer of tie-dye much around the time it was given to him, though I seem to remember a swirly orange-and-yellow raggedy shirt he relaxed and read in maybe in earlier years. He did love the Grateful Dead for a while but mostly near the end of his life listened to opera and Coltrane. He died of cancer on Coltrane’s birthday, September 23, 1997, after taking me for an imaginary airplane ride piloted from his sickbed the day before. With a pillow propped on his raised knees for a steering device, he turned and asked me, “Ready to go?” All that stuff is probably just deep proof of the possibility that the pathetic fallacy may be the one thing that can make you cry in a Ron Silliman poem. I did cry the first time I read that line, and it still chokes me up. But what do you do when you read a line like that?
I hope you apply the age-old standards. They are in your head if you’ve studied poetry at all. They are in all the handbooks by Mary Oliver and everyone else. They are mostly just expectations in a few aspects: rhythm, rhyme, diction, voice, image, juxtaposition, figure, meaning, and form. Or something like that. Genre really is nothing more than instructions on how to read, basically, shifting a little with the times. Poetry asks you to read it this way, and a poem tells you how to read itself if you can hold the standards loosely enough. Let’s give it a try, starting here in the midst of “Trouble Ticket”––ominous as that sounds.
“Barry Cox”—a person even if you didn’t know all of the above. Then, “sent”––by someone else’s agency gone. Where? “to the crematorium”; he’s dead and gone and about to be reduced to those pearly grey and white “ashes” and smoke. And then the image, “in his tie-dye t-shirt.” By which you might see a lot of different colors and patterns and/or a cultural reference to hippies or yuppie Deadheads maybe.
Rhythm? A poem is supposed to use a sense of rhythm, regularized or “natural.” In the Alphabet, we have sentence and phrase rhythms either laid out prose-flat or torqued around linebreaks. The line, a strong signifier of poetic form, is part of rhythm. It is used in the Alphabet, and particularly in VOG, in an instructive variety of ways: long lines, short lines or grammar-torqued prose sentences to provide the sense of momentum or pausing or lingering hesitations. The field of the page is also used as a rhythmic device, spacing lines apart in ways that signify motion—or not. Barry’s sentence has a flat prose rhythm in itself, but it ends with a beat Mickey Hart could be proud of—“tie-dye t-shirt,” a double spondee I’d call it, though some might hear as a couple of trochees. Even if you can’t hear it my way, listen and you will hear that this is just the barest minimum example of rhythms offered in Silliman’s works and of what the works ask of us as we listen to our reading.
Rhyme? Poetry supposes conscious use of sound patterning like rhyme and assonance and alliteration. No clear rhyme is internal to this line, but there is alliteration here in those tees. Silliman often uses rhyme or half-rhyme in substitutive punning such as “Let them eat tech” in Ketjak 2 on page 146 of the Alphabet. Oddly enough, this twist seems to guide another one on page 708 in “Dogs Love Trucks,” a poem in VOG. There we read “Let them browse cake,” which uses a tech word that’s also an eating word. But that’s not rhyme; that’s diction.
Diction? Poems choose the best and fewest words for what they do, they say. This one may seem to go all over the place in its ways of saying things, but each word and phrase is “to effect” as much as any mot juste may be. The variance in tone is inclusive and plays a part in creating the other standard effects of “Trouble Ticket.” Barry’s sentence seems very written, seemingly because of lacking “was,” and in this it follows the standard and echoes the American poetic turn (through Asian models mostly) away from the “is.” The absence of the “was” leaves this sentence whole but not “complete”; could that be that a reference to his life cut short at 46 and a half years? The diction here is not the way we speak, usually; this sentence is written like a caption to whatever you see in your head.
Voice? That would make it the voice of a book, but I happen to know that there’s a person in there. Ron loved Barry too. And Barry’s widow must have sent in 1997 a card or e-mail that would have told Ron this fact about his trip to the crem. Did she leave it for Ron to picture, as he has for us? Did she supply the part about blue and color-blindness for him to leave out? Is this Ron’s translation of Tish’s note: I sent him, etc.? Much is left to us and whatever happens with a sentence like that in our heads. This is part of Silliman’s strategy with “voice.” We are left to our own devices as we speak it in our reading heads, and also hold the nonsensuous opposite of that in making sense of it. Voice has it both ways here: concrete and personal, abstract and coming from the poem.
Image? The imagery expected of a poem is concrete, detailed, and “sensuous.” Here it has those qualities in the usual visual field, and it has a “non-sensuous” thought-provoking quality as well. Each of us pictures a “tie-dye t-shirt” to put on a “Barry Cox” like Tish did, or we don’t. Maybe we just put the idea of one on a someone. Still, we envision, and our “envisionment” begins in how we make sense of things. An essay in The New Sentence called “Migratory Meaning” quotes linguists Charles Fillmore and Paul Kay as having defined this term thus: “some coherent ‘image’ or understanding of the states of affairs that exist in the possible worlds compatible with the text” (112). The image of the dead Barry on his way to or at the crem is assembled out of Ron’s words and our experience and expectations. This is the beginning of meaning, and writing has depended upon this so much through the centuries that we couldn’t hardly read without it. Whether you look at it within the sentence or “above” that level, you picture making sense of it from what you know. As Silliman puts it: “Meaning is built on all levels upon expectation, and that on experience” (112). What will become of this sentence at higher levels depends on our reading according to other linguistic concepts discussed in that essay: schema, frame, and “the Parsimony Principle”—the local picture, the big picture, and the urge to fit them together as tightly as possible. So, the image is adjustable. Such linguistic concepts are things we use as we listen to our friends’ conversation and try to picture the dream they’re recounting or the lady they saw at the Post Office, but Ron Silliman writes with them too.
Juxtapositioning got thrust into our consciousness through the absorption of Japanese and Chinese techniques in the poetry of Ezra Pound and his friend “HD, imagiste.” This is the next higher level, and it asks us to look at at least the sentences before and after Barry’s. The next sentence is “What then?” Perhaps it asks us to supply the burning. I have seen it done, and I have seen its results; I can do that. Even you who might have only a Lockean concept of cremation can do that too. This is “the Parsimony Principle” at work. “What then?” does not tell us what what it means; we supply it, probably from what we’ve just done with Barry. The sentence previous to Barry’s may have conditioned our reading if we came to it naturally in sequence, so we might look back at it too. It ends with “the unmistakable ritual of a drug deal.” This is itself a parsimonious rendering of what the speaker has observed. It is passed to us, and we pay out our own sense of what would be unmistakable about such a scene. I could say “in the unmistakable ritual of reading.” To fit this in with Barry’s shirt might mean something about hippies, I suppose. But here we may be asked to think about what “unmistakable” means, and even about its place in the public reading called “profiling.”
Art, according to Adorno and a few others, is supposed to challenge the oppressive sense of “reality” that is bound into such things as profiling. The way it does this depends on its own devices. Silliman insists in “Migratory Meaning” that a theory of devices is needed and then sets out two axioms for it that play the game of paradox: “Each device is determined by its relationship to the whole” and “there is no such thing as a whole.” These together remind us of our situation in the paradox of reading. “The reader is always at some point with regard to the reading.” Silliman takes this toward the idea that “coherence” may be “only an effect” (122). Adorno devoted a whole section of Aesthetic Theory to “Coherence and Meaning” so that in it he could critique “the blunt primacy of a planned whole over the details and their interconnection in the microstructure.” He works through a dialectical analysis of developments in modern art that lead to a different coherence. Adorno shows us a new coherence based on “the impossibility of any subjectively established objectivity of meaning,” such as thinking that the sentences of a poem represent “the stream of lived experience.” This new possibility appears in the way that modern art “has abjured the semblance of a continuum grounded in the unity of subjective experience.” Such is, he says, the goal of a technique like montage’s “sudden, discontinuous juxtaposition of sequences” that seeks to reveal “the untruth of aesthetic semblance” in a protest against “the superiority of the reified prosaic world over the living subject.” In this way, as “negation of synthesis becomes a principle of form,” art uses such juxtaposition in an “inner-aesthetic capitulation to what stands heterogeneously opposed to it”; this is the formal form of the Adorno-an form of real unreal protest against “late-capitalist totality” and a way “to initiate its abrogation.” Our reading need not pile it so high and deep, but we can see easily enough that juxtaposition is not just a position of assembling all the impressions of a subjectivity. “Subjectivity,” along with the ease of reading easily, “is made to pay the price for the production of the untruth of aesthetic semblance” (155-157).
In poetry, we expect that figurative language will broaden semblance. Barry’s “presence” in the poem seems quite literal, but it could actually carry some sense of any one of several figures of speech. We have only to ask ourselves a few standard questions to see these. Is Barry’s t-shirt synecdochal for hippie-ism? Or does it stand for his way of wearing the casual into formal situations? Is he a metaphor for anyone who might be sent by death to the other shore and its nearer station at the crem? Is he a figure in a theme? For that we need a larger framework, not just a schema for his sentence.
We got to those other contiguous sentences before; now, let’s go wider and look at more of “Trouble Ticket” to find a thematic framework that might serve this figuration. There are other dead people in this poem. These figures include Princess Di, a young girl who appears in a dream, and the speaker’s father. There is also an image of deadly danger to one of the speaker’s “five-year-olds” in another dream “on the edge of waking.” There are images of aging halted by a dream or a photo, perhaps denying death. There is talk of being seriously missed. From all this and more, we could get the impression of death as a framework in this poem. We could thereby understand the title “Trouble Ticket” itself as a metaphor. On the website <searchcrm.techtarget.com>, we find the definition: “A trouble ticket (sometimes called a trouble report) is a mechanism used in an organization to track the detection, reporting, and resolution of some type of problem.” We are told that “it is usually classified as a certain type of issue, which in turn determines the skillset and expertise level of the agent(s) the ticket is assigned to.” Or the poet’s techniques and devices to be used. “Until the issue is resolved, the ‘open ticket’ for the problem remains in the work queue, with issues of highest priority taking precedence in terms of work flow.” The issue I’m raising for this poem is “the death of the father” and living with it, especially as a father.
And there we have moved into meaning. A poem is supposed to be “meaningful”, to rise above the quotidian to a “non-sensuous” higher meaning. This is thought of as the guiding force in the poem, but poetry in English has been learning more and more about a broader inclusiveness at least since Whitman or maybe even Kit Smart. The meaning of “Trouble Ticket” comes from and is adjusted by elements included in all the other standards, as is now standard with poetry. It doesn’t leave the quotidian behind, but that has been a tendency in poetry that has gotten stronger throughout the twentieth century. Following attention to a wide variety of details, this poem has guided us toward its thematic thread of death and fathers. It shows reflections of a trip not taken “33 years” before (when the speaker’s father was apparently alive), taken “32 years after the fact” south down the “Eastern Shore” on a “commuter jet” to visit “Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, where,” he says, “my father rests.” This focus is informed by the presences of Barry and those other dead, by images of the experiences of “Clint, ” of other images that might seem arbitrary were it not for this focus and our parsimony, and by observations like the ones that sting with old-time irony: “If you live long enough, you’ll outlast everyone you ever loved” (696) and “Jesse’s simpler refrain: ‘Dad, when are you coming home?’” (697).
That sense of meaning might come at sentence level and all levels above it, but there are also sentences that point to meaning at the word level, too. “Hi, goofball” sounds in the kind of voice that fathers and sons might use to teach each other about affection and distance. “Dirt alert” with its rhyme does too, with bathtime in the background maybe. These are kept from sentimentality by their placement in a paratactical metonymic organization, instead of hypotactical discourse. They are also accompanied by a sentence that discusses “the word” and comes between them. “Disintermediation of the word (a word is worth a thousand words)” is a delightful sentence to read and an instruction in the poem’s construction that can inform the reading of it. It is saved from intellectual sentimentality by that goofball word “disintermediation.” It would seem to mean “to stop the go-between,” that does go with the joke of substitution in the parenthetical phrase. You know the old saying, but you see that here “word” replaces “picture,” so the disintermediation of pictures and the word that represents them takes place. A word may help you picture something, just as a picture may, but what’s worthwhile is the way you get the picture even maybe from “Hi, goofball.” What you get is what you get.
Form is the more “sensuous” side of a guiding shape for the poem, toward which all parts tend and can contribute. It comes after meaning in these considerations because it serves as a conductor of meaning but also a sort of safeguard for it in standard expectations. Form is that which gives sensible wholeness to the poem and gives each part reason for being as it is. It has its social and cultural counterparts. With social forms working to maintain relations with the socius as they are, art forms must protest, as Adorno said, by turning the sense of safeguard on its dialectical head. They can show an opposite to those objectionable relations. Riding warned us severely, and by example, that poetry that carries us through mood or identification is not fully or freely worthwhile. A newly conscious form can work to slow us down into understanding instead. She says that poetry can be deadly if it leads us into the trap of letting form be pleasing pattern or even the patterning that people in her time were coming to prize as “natural.” Any seduction into this collusion could lead you away from reading your own way bit by bit on into your own facing the words in an understanding. Unfortunately, even L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry can repeat this pattern; we now have generations 1.5 and 2.0 to prove it.
Ron Silliman, though, has continued to use standards of form to push reading into closer focus according to its basic units. The mode of the “new sentence” allowed patterning to exist without the level of form subsuming our attention. But even that can become a form to imitate, and the return to a practice of line and stanza become necessary to “brake” it. A broad range of practices of form informs the Alphabet, and they each give us what Riding called “occasions for exercising” our “poetic faculties” rather than just giving a poet a chance at “stirring up” a “poetic mood” (Jackson/Friedman 193). They also follow Adorno in helping to break up the accepted sense of totality implied by, and implicated in, “late-capitalist” marketing in and beyond the “culture industry.” “Reality becomes its own ideology through the spell cast by its faithful duplication,” insists Adorno in defining “The Schema of Mass Culture” (TCI 6). The myth of the All, perpetrated even by Riding in The Telling, is difficult to resist as we poetry readers go for “meaning”—especially if the form of the poetry can be taken as a totalizing “reality.” The localization of attention resists this, and it can through the use of several different poetic modes. The conscious use of parataxis is but one. Spicer, for instance, broke through the grand pattern with hyper-logic and a serial sense of narrative. We may like the truly progressive social logic in the dictum “Think globally; act locally,” but that thought can be used by global marketing as well. Somewhere, in his style of pointed joking response, Silliman may have already written the sentence “Shrink globality; enact localities.”
The paratactic mode of his works is strategic. Even a relatively short poem like “Trouble Ticket” uses this style in a form developed decades before. We might as well call it “the paratactic prose poem” to distinguish it from and link it with the more discursive little story prose poems that run from Paris Spleen to Morton Marcus. In it an author or “speaker” may be assumed, but discursive sense is interrupted at each full stop. “Between sentences,” Silliman writes in another VOG poem called “Seven Sad Forests,” “something hides. I’m trying to pry it into the open” (720). This pair of sentences, moving away from the procedure and meanwhile sort of ratting on it, is a true confession about this approach. It’s us readers and our reading hiding in there. “Trouble Ticket” tells us, by its paratactic prose poem form, through the old standard for form, to see this space and the action in it as key to what he is “trying” to do. Through Silliman’s work coupled with our own guided efforts, this attention gets distributed across the poem. When those dead folks in different sentences appear, they connect with each other in this space we hold open; it’s that connection in our space that gives meaning to it all. The many other bits that have “nothing to do with” death or fathers keep the poem open to a world, the one in which we read and take other action to relieve our “sufferation” as living subjects. We deal with trouble tickets all the time, not just in poetically focused ways.
Time is an essential element here, as it is in any reading. A Silliman poem has a “triangularity” (as he put it in “Migratory Meaning”) of “text, time, reader’s experience,” all three adjusting each other in reorganization by reading. A text goes through a time process each time it is read. Each reader fills it with stuff from their head. The text has its own devices, familiar or not, that use the familiarities of genre to enact the writer’s plot. There is “an everpresent and never stable temporality” at work as the readers weave their way (122). What they bring with them has time in it too.
Reading the paratactic text is not an act of setting up a static parallel, even one of a very active world. History captures each effort of art and teaches it to us as a model. The early-twentieth-century effects of montage or cubist perspective have by now been re-aligned as wholes. They can be marketed by professors and crooks as organized by a perspective of singular objectivity, backed up by claims like “Well, Picasso could draw; you know” or “The story of the Potemkin has many angles.” What resists this is the “dialogue of moments” that give the reader not a big-screen reflection of a totality but a recognition that moments rise into their own and speak to each other across our reading. This is not a “stream of lived experience” but a temporary formation of small wholes with small wholes in them in a larger whole that isn’t totally a whole. Physicists and people with lives should recognize this as the not-whole whole we call “the world we live in.” To say a Silliman poem or a Silliman book or the big book is “like life” is to miss the point. To say it’s set up so we might do with it what we could do with the world we live in, instead of going along with the money’s cover story, might be more like it. Barry’s gone; every one of my sentences won’t put him back together again. Ron Silliman is not trying to put anything back together again either, as he composes a poem or a book by compiling sentences in the paratactic mode. It takes quite a compilation, and none of these poems has been very short; they require some space to get time into their reading. The reader’s experience of time in the text is a component, along with the sentences and the space between them, that serves the composition of reading. At one level, “Trouble Ticket” uses techniques that actually remind me of haiku; an essay could explicate it that way by focusing on image and juxtaposition and reference to season and the common themes of life with humor and detachment and floating syllables (goofball, ya!). But the big picture of “everpresent and never-stable temporality” would be missing.
The kind of not-whole whole we’re talking about is not a new apotheosis of reality. It supplants the old only partially and strategically, but maybe by historical necessity. We’re talking about what’s required in dialectical response to the totalization of world or poem by our political economy or culture. Silliman’s angle on this idea is explained in “Benjamin’s Aura” when he asks us to recognize the concept of “a trailing, out-moded understanding” that appears in the individual reader as the one through whom “tradition and upbringing” enter public expectations. Silliman says that such tastes are “constituted by the past through education” (37). We can see all around us that they are also constituted by the rote forms of the arts. For Adorno, actually in reply to Benjamin, art gets impelled toward forms that can’t be captured in the old understanding, simply because its dialectical historical job is such “protest” (AT 279). This conflict with public taste and educational standards constitutes the difficulty about “clarity.” Parataxis as a formal mode is simply called for as one relief to standard hypotaxis; there are others. The paratactical poem or book or big book teaches us how to read itself in not-quite-spite but respectful protest of recently more dominant expectations. It exercises what Adorno calls “not an absence of clarity but rather negated clarity” (295) as another clarity. It helps shape meaning in a fresh form of clarity because it informs its parts in “everpresent never stable” alignments. This challenge to the whole paradigm occurs as the form itself is formed by the parts in our reading, using what Riding called way back when “all the reasons of poetry” and even all the standards.
Adorno, T. W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. (of Asthetische Theorie, 1970) Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1997.
———. “Ohne Leitbild” in Gesammelte Schriften vol. 10a. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1967.
———. Prisms. Trans. (of Prismen, 1955) Samuel & Shierry Weber. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1983 paperback rpt. of 1967 book.
———. The Culture Industry (selected essays from various times and translators). Ed. J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 1991.
Bernstein, Charles, ed. The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. NY: Roof, 1990.
Jackson, Laura (Riding). The Failure of Poetry, The Promise of Language. Ed. John Nolan. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2007.
———. The Laura (Riding) Jackson Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Friedman. NY: Persea, 2005.
Silliman, Ron. “Benjamin’s Aura” in The New Sentence, 32-54.
———. “Migratory Meaning” in The New Sentence, 109-124.
———. “Notes on the Relation of Theory to Practice.” Paper Air: Vol. 2, No. 2, 1979, Blue Bell, PA: 6-13. Rept. as “Of Theory, To Practice” in The New Sentence, 58-62.
———. the Alphabet. Tuscaloosa: U Alabama P, 2008.
———. The New Sentence. NY: Roof, 1987.
———. “Trouble Ticket.” Electronic Poetry Review #5, Feb 2003. http://www.epoetry.org/issues/issue5/text/poems/rs2.htm and in the Alphabet, 696-697.
———. Under Albany. Cambridge: Salt, 2004.
T.C. Marshall, AKA “Rev Doc”, AKA “Grampa Tom”, enjoys life in the California mountain village of Felton where he reads and writes and walks and talks much as he has ever since Norman O. Brown first dragged him up that hill as a nature guide and conversational foil once upon a time a long long time ago.