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Photo: Ron Silliman, photo Jeff Hurwitz 1998

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Ron Silliman Feature

Timothy Yu

Ron Silliman and the Ethnicization of the Avant-Garde


The elaborate formal structures of Ron Silliman’s work, from the repetitive doubling of Ketjak to Tjanting’s use of the Fibonacci sequence, have been read by Charles Bernstein as an “allegory for a society that is nonauthoritarian… and multicultural” (Content’s Dream 314). But the content of Silliman’s writing, as well as his correspondence with his colleagues in the “language” movement, suggests that Silliman’s avant-garde work has a greater particularity. In a political landscape increasingly aware of divisions of race, class, and gender, Silliman puts forth the tendentious argument that language writing is the form of avant-garde practice particular to politically progressive white men — a claim that allows him to see “language poet” as analogous to “woman poet” or “Asian American poet,” even as it has invited charges of racist and sexist exclusion. This “ethnicization” of the avant-garde — linking a particular poetic practice to a socially delimited group — has deeply troubled many of Silliman’s readers; but it also reflects a contemporary context in which the discourses of race and of the avant-garde increasingly intersect.


Silliman’s curious sense of language poetry as social identity — a sense shared, to varying degrees, by his peers in the movement [1] — can be understood not just as an effect of the political realities of the 1970s, but as a response to the crisis of avant-garde universality evident in Allen Ginsberg’s work of the 1960s. Silliman’s long poem of the 1970s, Ketjak, is a study of urban landscape and social structure that is marked as emanating from the perspective of a while male avant-gardist; but its use of the disruptive and paratactic techniques of the “new sentence” seeks to act as a check against the limits of that perspective, aiming to create a broad-based account of contemporary experience that achieves a modicum of objectivity.


As a political gesture, Silliman’s writing can thus be understood as a response to the disintegration of the coalitions — particularly interracial coalitions — that characterized the new left of the 1960s. While Ketjak does offer, through its form, an allegory of a new social order, it is rooted in social particularity. The coalitions imagined by post-1970 American avant-gardes, from language writers to Asian American poets, are based not on broad appeals to national values but on the means by which each avant-garde delineates its own status as social fact.


In 1974, Silliman began writing a new work in the pages of a square blue notebook. Made in China, the notebook’s pages were stamped with vertical red lines; to write in it, Silliman turned the book ninety degrees and wrote along these columns. This unusual format corresponded to an unusual style: Silliman’s work, later named “The Chinese Notebook” and published in The Age of Huts, consisted of 223 numbered propositions — some questions, some assertions — written loosely in the manner of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Yet Silliman insists throughout that his prose sentences be read not as philosophy but as poetry, laying the groundwork for his exploration of what he will call the “new sentence” in his long works Ketjak and Tjanting.


What may be most interesting about “The Chinese Notebook,” however, is the glimpse it gives into Silliman’s developing sense of the link between his poetry and politics, and into the historical moment from which that link emerges. In one late section from the notebook, Silliman stages a confrontation between himself and a skeptical interlocutor who doubts the value of Silliman’s practice:


192. A friend, a member of the Old Left, challenges my aesthetic. How, he asks, can one write so as not to “communicate”? I, in turn, challenge his definitions. It is a more crucial lesson, I argue, to learn how to experience language directly, to tune one’s senses to it, than to use it as a mere means to an end… [which] is, in bourgeois life, common to all things, even the way we “use” our friends… But language, so that it is experienced directly, moves beyond any such exercise in despair, an unalienated language. He wants an example. I give him [Robert] Grenier’s
pointing out how… it is a speech that only borders on language, how it illumines that space. He says, “I don’t understand.” (Huts 63)


Silliman’s incorporation into the text of a critique of his work — reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s inclusion of critical letters in Paterson — seems a risky gesture. Yet it serves quite neatly to position the work as political from the start. What seems like a straightforward aesthetic objection — Silliman’s friend simply does not understand Grenier’s or Silliman’s poetry — is attributed to a political cause: this friend is marked not as a fellow writer or critic, but only as “a member of the Old Left,” and it is this position, Silliman implies, that determines his response to Silliman’s work. By taking up a stance opposed to his friend’s, Silliman is able to take for granted the political valence of his aesthetic practice.


Silliman’s labeling of his critic as “Old Left” makes this aesthetic disagreement not only political but generational, implicitly allying Silliman with the “new left” that arose with the civil rights and student movements of the 1960s. Indeed, the debate Silliman stages can be read as a classic old/new left confrontation. The demand that a poem “communicate” something is linked by Silliman to the Old Left’s outdated model of political change, one which focuses on large-scale political and economic institutions and which sees culture as nothing more than a conduit for a political position. Instead of simply opposing this view, Silliman makes a “new left” move by questioning the very terms of discussion, attempting to move outside established understandings and institutions. But what may be most characteristically new left here is Silliman’s longing to “experience language directly,” for “an unalienated language.” Doug Rossinow’s The Politics of Authenticity is only the most recent history of the 1960s to argue that this condition of alienation, and the desire to overcome it, was the primary intellectual force of the era. “[T]he new left,” Rossinow writes, “came to argue that social and political arrangements caused inner alienation and that only radical social change would open the path to authenticity” (4). What Silliman wants is not simply a correct use of language, but an experience of language that is unmediated and unencumbered by instrumental demands — finding a meaning, to paraphrase the new left’s 1962 Port Huron manifesto, that is “personally authentic.”


This identification of the work of Silliman and his colleagues, which would come to be known as “language poetry,” with the new left has enjoyed a resurgence of late, most notably, as discussed above, in Barrett Watten’s “The Turn to Language and the 1960s.” But such identifications elide the apparently wide gap between writing such as Grenier’s or Silliman’s and the vast majority of new left cultural production. Silliman’s writing bears little resemblance to the work collected in Todd Gitlin’s anthology of “poetry from the movement,” Campfires of the Resistance, [2] and most language poets would draw the sharpest contrast between their own work and that of such prominent anti-war poets as Denise Levertov and Robert Bly. Indeed, Silliman has pointedly criticized Levertov, whom he encountered as a teacher at Berkeley in 1969, characterizing her in a 2000 interview as someone who had “sabotaged her writing and her political credibility simultaneously.” [3]


We can get a more precise sense of Silliman’s political and historical position if we realize that, although Silliman implicitly identifies himself with the new left, his key work emerges, like that of other language writers, not from a new left but rather from a post-new left moment. Born in 1946, Silliman was already politically active in high school and began attending college in 1965. He switched schools several times, however, and did not find himself in the political ferment of Berkeley until the 1969–1970 school year. [4] In fact, the first experience of higher education he mentions is his stint at San Francisco State, from which, according to an interview with Thomas C. Marshall and Thomas A. Vogler in Quarry West, he transferred after the “unsuccessful student strike in late 1968,” which left him “totally demoralized about the possibility of a meaningful education there” (10).


Silliman refers to the strike led by the Black Students Union and the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State from November 1968 to March 1969, which led to the establishment of black and ethnic studies programs at the college and helped spark similar movements elsewhere. That Silliman labels this strike a failure may simply acknowledge that all the strikers’ demands were not immediately met. But it may also suggest a view of the strike as a sign of the new left’s disintegration into what has been called “identity politics” — the splintering of a once-unified and interracial movement into competing factions and interest groups often defined by race and gender.


This narrative of the new left’s decline and fragmentation is a feature of nearly every history of the 1960s — or at least those written from a white activist point of view. Rossinow provides a neat summary of this narrative:


In the early and middle 1960s, a grand alliance for progress made great strides, especially concerning civil rights. Depending on who tells the story, either African Americans, under the influence of black power doctrine, first abandoned the coalition, or else they were pushed out by white liberals… Then women, infected with the separatist virus, departed as well. “On the model of black demands came those of feminists, Chicanos, American Indians, gays, lesbians.” Soon the right began its easy domination of a divided opposition. (343) [5]


The remains of the white student left itself split into increasingly polarized factions; the turn to violence by the Weathermen and other splinter groups marks, for Todd Gitlin and other commentators, the end of the new left vision.


In “The Chinese Notebook,” Silliman considers the fate of two groups who seem to represent the perversion of new left ideals:


32. The Manson family, the SLA. What if a group began to define the perceived world according to a complex, internally consistent, and precise (tho inaccurate) language? Might not the syntax itself propel their reality to such a point that to our own they could not return? Isn’t that what happened to Hitler? (Huts 46)


Silliman refers here to Charles Manson and his followers, who murdered eight people in 1969 in an ostensible attempt to ignite a race war, and to the Symbionese Liberation Army, which mounted a series of robberies and killings (along with the kidnapping of Patty Hearst) in 1973 and 1974 in the name of “revolutionary war.” [6] The SLA would likely have had particular resonance for Silliman, since the SLA’s core members met through the California prison reform movement, of which Silliman was an active leader in the early 1970s. [7] In “Under Albany,” Silliman recalls that in the 1970s he “was still wary of any organizations with a specific ideological line,” finding them “manipulative in their use of people and issues almost invariably counterproductive to the building of a larger Left coalition” (Under Albany 333–4). To new leftists like Silliman, the SLA must have seemed like a combination of farce and nightmare: propelled by racial politics (the group was nominally headed by two black men, though nearly all its members where white radicals), adopting an incoherent mix of socialist and Third World rhetorics, and willing to turn the language of revolution into a violent reality.


What’s distinctive about Silliman’s diagnosis of new left fragmentation is his emphasis on the failure of leftist language. The madness of the SLA, Silliman suggests, lay not in its ideology or its identity politics, but in its development of a language that had lost touch with reality. But most striking is Silliman’s assertion that such a language’s own logic, “the syntax itself,” might determine the group’s action. Nor would such a phenomenon be limited to a tiny group: as Silliman’s reference to Hitler suggests, a government or an entire society might find itself propelled toward atrocity by language.


Silliman’s thirty-first proposition provides two Vietnam-era American examples, quoting phrases widely attributed to the U.S. military: “‘Terminate with extreme prejudice.’ That meant kill. Or ‘we had to destroy the village in order to save it’” (46). Such formulations, like the official political speech Allen Ginsberg rails against in “Wichita Vortex Sutra” (“McNamara made a ‘bad guess’”), not only hide the truth, but can themselves serve to justify further violence, dehumanizing the enemy and blithely contradicting themselves. But while Ginsberg attempts to supplant official language with his own authentic language, Silliman — writing not in 1967 but 1974 — displays a post-new left skepticism about these kinds of substitutions, arguing that the left, as the SLA shows, is just as capable of creating destructive language as its opponents.


By the time he began work on “The Chinese Notebook” and Ketjak, Silliman had already published three books of poetry: Crow (1971), Mohawk (1973), and Nox (1974). Silliman seems largely to regard the first two books as juvenilia. In the Marshall-Vogler interview, he describes his writing during the period of Crow as “post-Williams, post-Creeley, post-Olson kind of lyrics,” while registering the strong influence of Robert Grenier’s minimalist writing, and he remarks that Mohawk “reads like [Clark] Coolidgeana to me now” (11–12). The pieces in Nox do not, on the surface, read that much differently from the Grenier-influenced poems in Crow. Silliman’s innovation in this text is not verbal but structural: each page is divided into four quadrants, separated by lines, with a poem in each quadrant. For Charles Bernstein, this is “a highly schematic prototype of the work to come” in Silliman’s oeuvre: “By not homogenizing the text into a single voice or syntax, the separate elements are able to interconnect with each other through the readers’ mediation” (Bernstein Dream 314).


Ketjak, composed from June to November 1974, continues this concern with large-scale structure, but its breakthrough move is its turn to prose, and specifically to the style of what Silliman will come to call “the new sentence”:


To keep warm burn the news. The type of old man who wears his white hair in a crewcut and keeps small, fat dogs. Terms imply domains. Art as a habit merges with the renewal of solutions which constitute it. It was only when the trash bag crashed into the middle of the kitchen that we realized it bore the weight of ants. (Ketjak 27)


In her essay “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject,” Marjorie Perloff provides a pithy summary of the theory of the new sentence: “The ‘new sentence’ is conceived as an independent unit, neither causally nor temporally related to the sentences that precede and follow it. Like a line in poetry, its length is operative, and its meaning depends on the larger paragraph as an organizing system” (414–5). Bob Perelman writes in The Marginalization of Poetry that “A new sentence is more or less ordinary itself, but gains its effect by being placed next to another sentence to which it has tangential relevance… Parataxis is crucial: the autonomous meaning of a sentence is heightened, questioned, and changed by the degree of separation or connection that the reader perceives with regard to the surrounding sentences” (61).


In his own 1979 talk on the concept, reprinted in The New Sentence, Silliman asserts that unlike a conventional paragraph, a paragraph in a new-sentence work has “no specific referential focus. The paragraph here is a unit of measure,” like a stanza (Sentence 89). What has happened, Silliman argues, is that “poetic form has moved into the interiors of prose… the torquing which is normally triggered by linebreaks, the function of which is to enhance ambiguity and polysemy, has moved directly into the grammar of the sentence” (90). One of the most important effects of this method is, according to Silliman, the disruption of the “syllogistic” function of sentences, the logical chains by which sentences form linear arguments or coherent descriptions.


Yet it is equally important that the arrangement of sentences not be random. Crucial to the new sentence is its use of “methods for enabling secondarysyllogistic movement to create or convey an overall impression of unity, without which the systematic blocking of the integration of sentences to one another through primary syllogistic movement… would be trivial, without tension” (92). Ketjak itself employs such a method: its first paragraph contains one sentence; its second paragraph contains that first sentence plus another; its third paragraph contains both lines of the second paragraph plus two more; and so on, doubling each time and repeating the entirety of the previous paragraph (with important variations) each time:


Revolving door.
Revolving door. A sequence of objects which to him appears to be a caravan of fellaheen, a circus, begins a slow migration to the right vanishing point on the horizon line.
Revolving door. Fountains of the financial district. Houseboats beached at the point of low tide, only to float again when the sunset is reflected in the water. A sequence of objects which to him appears to be a caravan of fellaheen, a circus, camels pulling wagons of bear cages, tamed ostriches in toy hats, begins a slow migration to the right vanishing point on the horizon line. (3)


The theory of the new sentence has been further elaborated by others, but for the moment I wish to focus on the argument that Silliman and other language writers make for the political significance of this aesthetic device. Why is it important, at this historical moment, to insist on a “blocking of the integration of sentences… through primary syllogistic movement”? Silliman’s justification in “The New Sentence” is largely theoretical, beginning from the claim that linguists and philosophers have failed to generate a coherent theory of the sentence. Silliman argues that the failure to find the boundaries of the sentence, related to a failure to distinguish between speech and writing, results in a failure to recognize the way language actually operates. By disrupting the usual syllogistic logic of sentences, the new sentence brings us toward “the recognition of language” and its workings, because it “limits the reader’s ability to get away from the language itself” (82–3) — an echo of the desire to “experience language directly” in “The Chinese Notebook.” This foregrounding of the aesthetic device is traced by several language poets to Russian formalism, and is claimed elsewhere in The New Sentence as a means of resisting the commodification of language in late capitalism. [8]


The new sentence, however, also has a more specific political function for Silliman: its “increased sensitivity to syllogistic movement endows works of the new sentence with a much greater capacity to incorporate ordinary sentences of the material world” (90). Since a new sentence on its own need have no particular “poetic” value, but gains its significance in its ambiguous relations to the sentences that surround it, new-sentence writing can be “realistic” in ways conventional poems cannot be. Silliman’s writing includes overheard phrases, advertising copy, recipes, and found text that would usually be rejected as too banal to be included in an artwork. Ultimately, Silliman argues, the new sentence is a comprehensive and integrative form, “the first method capable of incorporating all the levels of language” (93). Bob Perelman is even more direct in extrapolating the political implications of this method: the new sentence represents an “egalitarian politics” in which apparently insignificant observations coexist with grand theoretical statements. Silliman’s work is, Perelman suggests, a real and material depiction of our social world, “an exemplary guide to contemporary urban life” (67). Yet it also refuses to present a single view of this world: “Its shifts break up attempts at the natural reading of universal, authentic statements; instead they encourage attention to the act of writing and to the writer’s multiple and mediated positions within larger social frames” (65).


Perelman’s last remark begins to move us from the abstract politics of language writing to a consideration of how that politics is located in a historical moment. Silliman, Perelman, and other language writers have constructed genealogies that give language poetry an aesthetic history, from Russian formalism and Gertrude Stein to Louis Zukofsky and Clark Coolidge. But what were the more immediate and local concerns that shaped the politics of Silliman’s writing? As I have already suggested, Silliman’s work emerges in the context of the fragmentation of the new left and the subsequent rise of groups based on ethnic, gender, and sexual identity, many of which produced new literary formations. In fact, Silliman’s essays, in their justification of the politics of language writing, often display a tension between the universal and the particular — a tension, as I have argued, central to the avant-garde project itself. Is the new sentence simply a historically necessary development, born from the contradictions of language under late capitalism? Or is it to be understood as the writing of a particular community, one defined not only as an aesthetic group (the “language poets”) but often as white and male?


We can see suggestions of this latter perspective in the Quarry West interview, when Silliman describes the genesis of the lecture series organized by Bob Perelman and later collected in the volume Writing/Talks: “For awhile, there were ‘men’s group’ sessions at our [Silliman’s and Barrett Watten’s] flat that were vague prototypes of what would, under Bob’s hand, turn out to be talks. We consumed enormous amounts of whiskey and thought very hard about just how to conduct a revolution in poetry” (13). Although there is some self-mockery here, the “men’s group” was a real feature of the 1970s, as the rise of the women’s movement and its “consciousness-raising” groups led men, uncertain of their own position in a politically gendered landscape, to form their own groups in response. Indeed, labeling language poetry as a “men’s group” would not surprise the many women experimental poets who, as Ann Vickery has meticulously shown, felt excluded from the male-dominated discourse of language poetry. [9]


A more explicit discussion of this issue appears in Silliman’s essay “The Political Economy of Poetry,” collected in The New Sentence, which takes the question of audience as primary to the politics of poetry:


What can be communicated through a literary production depends on which codes are shared with its audience… .The social composition of its audience is the primary context of any writing. Context determines (and is determined by) both the motives of the readers and their experience, their history, i.e. their particular set of possible codes. Context determines the actual, real-life consumption of the literary product, without which communication of a message (formal, substantive, ideological) cannot occur. (25)


The political value of a poem, then, “lies not in its explicit content, political though that may be, but in the attitude toward receptionit demands of the reader” (31). Reading elsewhere in Silliman’s essays, we can conclude that language poetry answers this demand by increasing the reader’s awareness of the work of reception, by making the “attitude toward reception” an explicit element of the composition. But if the “social composition” of an audience determines the reception of a poem, two questions arise. First, what is the social composition of the audience to which language poetry speaks? Second, how is it possible to construct a poem that escapes such determination, that generates an awareness of the ideological constraints of reception?


To approach these issues, Silliman provides a quote from a talk given by writer Robert Glück at 80 Langton Street, a leading San Francisco space for avant-garde writing and art at which many language writers gave readings and lectures. Glück was thus, to some degree, part of the same larger San Francisco writing community that Silliman was. [10] Silliman quotes Glück’s account of the different reactions to his work from different audiences:


At several movement readings I was interested to see members of the audience come up afterwards and say where the writer had got it right (yes, that’s my life) and where the writer had got it wrong. I want to contrast this with the audience that admires writing as if it were a piece of Georgian silver, goods to be consumed. Of course this depends on an identification with a community, a shared ideology. For example, I read a story at a gay reading about being “queer-bashed.” The audience responded throughout with shouts of encouragement and acknowledgement. Afterwards people told me I got it right. I read the same story to an appreciative and polite university audience, and afterwards people told me they admired my transitions. To a certain extent, my story registered only in terms of form. (Silliman Sentence 24) [11]


Silliman takes Glück’s observations, to some degree, as evidence for his own point about the determining force of audiences and shared codes. In fact, Silliman takes the point far beyond Glück, making the case for an almost total balkanization of audiences: “The work of Clark Coolidge, for example, might seem opaque and forbidding at a gay reading, for the same reason that a Japanese speaker cannot communicate with an Italian: no codes are shared from which to translate word to meaning” (25). This essentializing view — gays and academics as different nationalities speaking mutually incomprehensible languages — can be read as yet another expression of anxiety over left fragmentation, with identity-based political groups seen as radically separatist.


Surprisingly, though, Silliman’s primary move is to criticize Glück for the way he “dismisses” the academic audience and insists on the “correctness” of gay readers’ interpretation. Even if this were not a divergence from what Glück actually seems to be saying, the idea that only gay readers “correctly” read the codes of Glück’s story would seem to be consonant with Silliman’s earlier, deterministic claims. But Silliman’s goal seems actually to be to defend the formalist response of the “academic” audience. He rejects Glück’s characterization of such readers as “consumers,” arguing instead that “consumption for further production is a moment of production itself — it is action. It is through the question of transitions, for example, that the ‘seamlessness’… of perceived reality… might be revealed as the affect [sic] of a partisan ideological construct” (31). Such an insight is, of course, precisely the kind that is meant to be generated by the new sentence, and it does not take much effort to recognize that Silliman is identifying himself and other language writers with these formalist, academic readers.


What, then, is the social composition of this formalist audience? Silliman provides a remarkable answer that seeks to locate language writing as a social formation with respect to other social and political groupings:


It is… a major characteristic of the social codes of just those formations most often apt to attend a college reading not to know or speak their own name… This self-invisibility has parallels throughout contemporary life. It has only been through the struggle of non-whites, of women and of gays that the white male heterosexual has come into recognition of his own, pervasive presence. In poetry, there continues to be a radical break between those networks and scenes which are organized by and around the codes of oppressed peoples, and those other “purely aesthetic” schools. In fact, the aesthetics of those latter schools is a direct result of ideological struggle… It is characteristic of the class situation of those schools that this struggle is carried on in other (aesthetic) terms. (30–1)


The “social codes” that guide the reception of language writing, then, would seem to be those of the white male heterosexual: for he is the one excluded from the codes of “oppressed peoples,” who have developed a language all their own. This formulation, which appears numerous times in Silliman’s work, can be and has been interpreted in at least two ways: as an honest, descriptive assessment of the historical and personal forces that seem to have given rise to language writing (which is how Silliman likely intends it), or as an exclusionary, prescriptive formula that suggests women and minorities do not or cannot engage in experimental writing. But there can be no doubt that Silliman is making an analogy between such categories as “women’s writing,” “black writing,” and “language writing” — understood as “white male heterosexual writing.”


There is, of course, one absolutely crucial difference between these categories. Silliman deems experimental writing utterly opaque to, for example, a gay audience. Yet he defends the right of straight white male readers to give a formalist reading to the work of a gay writer. This is the inevitable effect of declaring that the ideological struggle of experimental writers is conducted “in other (aesthetic) terms”: such writers are granted access to, and indeed a monopoly over, the universalizing category of “the aesthetic,” while women, minority, and gay writers are excluded from that category. And this is, finally, one of the more powerful, and unsettling, aspects of Silliman’s claim that the new sentence is “capable of incorporating all the levels of language.” Language poetry now appears as the re-integrative force that brings together the shattered discourses of the new left. It arrogates to itself the ability to provide a total view of society and culture, while limiting the work of “oppressed peoples” to communication within the codes of a circumscribed community. Silliman claims his own position as particular and universal, capable of registering class, race, gender, and sexuality while simultaneously transcending their limits.


It is this subjectivity that Silliman strives to develop in Ketjak, his first major work using the new sentence. Through its foregrounding of its formal devices, Ketjak works to critique the general structures of contemporary narrative and language, resisting the transparent representation of social reality. Yet Ketjak’s content — ostensibly made irrelevant by its focus on form — marks it as emanating from a particular historical and political moment and location. How do we understand the authorial subjectivity of this text? Does it succeed in its integrative goals, or does it remain circumscribed, marked indelibly as a “white male heterosexual” work? And how does it register the presence of those other discourses, the “struggle of non-whites, of women and of gays,” in its apparent politics of form?


A remarkable context for these concerns can be found in Silliman’s extensive correspondence of the 1970s and 1980s, held at the Archive for New Poetry at the University of California, San Diego. A 1977 exchange of letters between Silliman, Bernstein, and Bruce Andrews around the founding of the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E reveals sharp debates over whether to create special issues centered around race, gender, or sexuality, and whether such themes could be pursued without compromising the journal’s aesthetic goals. All three poets express discomfort with the explicit use of identity categories, but Silliman is most insistent about the need to include what he calls “progressive writing” from a range of different writers. In Silliman’s account, language writing is not opposed to the work of women or minority writers, but parallel to it. As what Silliman calls “the progressive writing of the industrialized tradition,” language writing would thus seem to be as strongly associated with its social origin (primarily in the work of white male writers) as the writing of women or African Americans. A decade later, Silliman would make the same point in more explosive form, in a 1986 letter to New Directions protesting against the title of the forthcoming anthology “Language” Poetries. The label “language poet,” Silliman asserted, was equivalent to a racist or sexist slur — a striking “ethnicization” of his own writing position. [12]


If, after developing this context, we return to Ketjak, we can now see that the driving force behind the text is less an abstract formal principle than the very problem of locating the social identity of the language poet. In part this may simply mean that with the fading of language writing’s original polemical impact, its historical and social context and origin is becoming more visible. As Marjorie Perloff observes in “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject,” since some of language poetry’s more general critiques — the “demise of the transcendental ego, of the authentic self, of the poet as a lonely genius, of a unique artistic style” — are now “taken as something of a given” (409), the “differences among the various poets now strike us as more significant than similarities or group labels” (410). Perloff takes Silliman’s “Albany” as a case in point, arguing that Silliman’s individual style is immediately recognizable and cataloging the particularities of Silliman’s position:


There is… not the slightest doubt that “Albany” is a man’s poem, a man aware of the sexual needs of the women in his life but centrally caught up in the political… these “casual” sentences point to an author who is matter-of-fact, streetwise, and largely self-educated; his is the discourse of a working-class man… .Pain, violence, and injustice are the facts of his life… .Yet… his “voice” emerges as sprightly, engaged, curious, fun-loving, energetic… (416–7)


Such a reading locates Silliman in a “working-class male” subject position, one which might seem analogous to the position of those “oppressed peoples” from whose writing Silliman distinguishes language poetry. Silliman’s style, in short, has not allowed him to escape class and gender. Perloff reinforces this point through a comparison to Leslie Scalapino, who describes a woman on a bus as having a “snout”: “Silliman would never describe a woman as having a snout; indeed, his eyes would barely take in her person and quickly, impatiently, move on to something else — a memory, perhaps, of what he did with her, or a description of a boarding house, or an amusing pun that occurs to him” (419).


Perloff does not explicitly label this a “sexist” or “male” gaze, but that a language poet might be anxious about such an interpretation is evident from Perelman’s oddly genteel reading, in The Marginalization of Poetry, of a line in Ketjak, “She was a unit in a bum space, she was a damaged child”: “But we don’t focus on the girl… she is not singled out for novelistic treatment. There’s a dimension of tact involved: she’s not representative of the wrongs done to children, but she’s not given the brushoff either” (67). Since “tact” is a term that hardly seems applicable to Silliman’s writing — either to his polemical essays or to the pointed artifices of his poetry — I think we can read Perelman’s gloss as an attempt to deflect an analysis of the gendering of Silliman’s gaze.


Ketjak is, in fact, culturally marked from the outset by its name, which refers to a form of Balinese dance. The ketjak, as Thomas C. Marshall writes, “incorporates both a recitative of formalized textual narrative and a texture of repeated phrasings emptied nearly to the point of pure gesture by chanting recitation” (58). Ketjak is thus one of several Silliman works given an Asian label — from the contemporaneous “Chinese Notebook” to the 1981 work Tjanting, named for an instrument used in Javanese batik work. In a blog entry of September 20, 2003, Silliman describes his discovery of the ketjak and its influence on his work:


I first discovered [the ketjak] on a recording made by David Lewiston entitled Golden Rain, first released by Nonesuch Records in 1969. I’d bought the album for its gamelan music… I’d discovered that for me at least gamelan — the Balinese word for orchestra — was more than just another mode of music.
But it was the oral chant of Golden Rain’s “B” side, 200 men participating in what Lewiston’s notes characterized as the Ramayana Monkey Chant, that mesmerized me. At 22:08 minutes, it was – still is – the most amazing oral performance I have ever heard. In Ketjak… the effects of accumulation, reiteration & collaboration are instantly available to any ear. It was those aspects that I had in mind when I chose to name my evolving non-narrative prose poem Ketjak. (Silliman “Blog”)


While Silliman does not seem to have explicitly modeled the text on the structure of the ketjak, he does note in his blog entry that the title “gave me permission in terms of my following a structure that had more to do with music than exposition or narrative.” In “Under Albany,” Silliman reports that it was, in fact, another musical work that inspired the formal structure of Ketjak; it was at a performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming, Silliman writes, that “I began to sense, for the first time, exactly what the formal structure of Ketjak would be” (332). But these influences are actually not so far apart. Reich, like other minimalist composers, drew on Asian music and rhythms as an alternative to the Western classical tradition; like Silliman, Reich found in Balinese gamelan a particularly rich inspiration.


Indeed, it could be argued that minimalist music offers a particularly apt parallel to the structures of Silliman’s work. [13] As practiced by Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and others in the 1960s and 1970s, minimalism employed a radically reduced musical palette, often using repetitive patterns to emphasize music as process rather than as expressive medium. Reich’s Drumming, which suggested to Silliman a formal model for his poem, employs multiple percussionists engaging in what Reich calls “rhythmic construction”: starting with a single beat per measure and gradually replacing rests with beats as the measure is repeated, musicians create complex patterns that overlap and move in and out of phase with each other. The result is a work in which the individual voice is decentered in favor of the textures and patterns inherent in the work’s formal structures. We can certainly see a parallel here to the form of Ketjak, with its repetition and doubling of lines, and to the way in which Silliman’s work seeks to decenter the author’s own social position.


This decentering takes place within a cultural sphere strongly marked by Asian and other non-Western influences. In his Writings on Music, Reich notes that he composed Drumming shortly after returning from studying African drumming in Ghana, and he later engaged in intensive study of Balinese gamelan (69). While he resisted incorporating merely “exotic” sounds into his work, he sought to compose “in the light of one’s knowledge of non-Western structures” (71), seeking not “to sound Balinese” but “to think Balinese” (148).


Minimalist music was hardly the only aspect of American culture of the period to reflect Asian influence. In the 1960s and 1970s, Asian culture held a particular pull for Americans, particularly those who identified with the new left or the counterculture; while this interest in Asian culture is certainly familiar from the Beats in the 1950s, in the 1960s it took on a political edge with American involvement in Vietnam. As Todd Gitlin notes in The Sixties, opposition to the American war in Vietnam often had as its corollary an identification with the Vietnamese revolutionaries, and with the Chinese Cultural Revolution the ideas of Mao gained ascendance among American leftists seeking an alternative to Soviet communism. Language writing was no exception: while the representative status of Bob Perelman’s poem “China” is due largely to Fredric Jameson’s somewhat notorious discussion of it in Postmodernism, it is hardly an anomaly. Just as Silliman’s “Chinese” notebook represented a ninety-degree “turn” from American writing and culture, naming Ketjak after a Balinese dance allows the white American writer to move outside his own subject position, to a critical location outside white America. [14]


Indeed, that sense of being outside is crucial to Ketjak, for this is above all a poem of observation, of documentation and detail. Around this time, Silliman began writing regularly while riding public transportation; he notes in “Under Albany” that significant parts of Ketjak were written while riding transit, while “The Chinese Notebook” was written entirely on Golden Gate Transit buses (312). In this context, Silliman’s prose poems can come to seem like field notes — glimpses of individuals and interactions, overheard conversations, news and advertising — but with a keen awareness of the juxtaposition of social markers that occurs on a crowded bus or train, as Silliman remarks in the Quarry Westinterview:


Public transportation is… a form of tremendous theater in our society. It is one of the few places where different people stand or sit literally touching one another… Riding public transportation was and is also a profoundly classed (and thus for me class conscious) experience. Who sits where, how people interact, who’s missing — all are heavily predetermined by those socioeconomic codes that constrain us all as actors… A lot of what occurs in my writing in transit is close to pure description, but with the class codes turned up to level of maximum sensitivity… (26)


Silliman’s notion of a “pure description” of travel is reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s tape poems, in that both seek to provide a highly accurate recording of experience. But Ginsberg seeks a transcription of his own consciousness, one which is constantly receiving visual and auditory inputs and producing a linear stream of speech. His poetry is written from the perspective of the automobile — of an individual traveling in isolation through a degraded landscape. Silliman’s writing, in contrast, attempts to reproduce the experience of public, collectivetransportation by declining to provide a coherent perspective; it’s worth noting that while Ketjak contains many descriptions of people, it contains very few descriptions of things that one might see out the window.


How does Silliman’s method of description work? Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Silliman’s recording of observations is that no observation will appear just once, as it would in a conventional narrative or stream of consciousness. Instead, because of the form of Ketjak, any sentence that appears in a given paragraph should be repeated in every subsequent paragraph, occupying a shifting place in a gradually accumulating structure. Moreover, many of these sentences are varied or expanded as they are repeated. One example, which most explicitly registers the bus as a location of writing, first appears in the fifth paragraph and is gradually expanded in succeeding paragraphs:


The nurse, by a subtle shift of weight, moves in front of the student to more rapidly board the bus. (4)
The nurse, by a subtle redistribution of weight, shift of gravity’s center, moves in front of the student of oriental porcelain in order to more rapidly board the bus. (5)
The young nurse in sunglasses, by a subtle redistribution of weight, shift of gravity’s center, moves in front of the black student of oriental porcelain in order to more rapidly board the bus home, before all the seats are taken. (6)
The young nurse in blue sunglasses, by a subtle redistribution of weight, shift of gravity’s center, moves in front of the black lanky graduate student of oriental porcelain in order to more rapidly board the bus, before all of the seats are taken. (8)
[repeated identically in several sections]
The young nurse in sunglasses, by a subtle redistribution of weight, gravity’s center, moves in front of the Black student of oriental porcelain in order to more rapidly board the bus home, before all the seats are taken. (63)


These multiple versions of a single, banal event bring us a long way from Ginsberg’s assertion in “Howl”: “this actually happened.” Given Silliman’s compositional method, it is likely that the sentence’s first appearance represents an actual observation at the time of writing. But in subsequent sections Silliman is presumably not re-experiencing this moment; instead, he is quite literally turning back to an earlier section of his notebook and copying out his previous sentence. Memory, if we can call it that, is textualized and formalized; the observation recurs not because it plays a role in a conventional reminiscence (which would then be tied to some current thought of the author’s), but because its recurrence is prescribed by an impersonal pattern.


What, then, do we make of the variations? For while we might expect the details of a memory to fade with time, in this textual recurrence Silliman actually adds information with each iteration. The process that Silliman seems to enact here is the layering of social markers that characterizes any social interaction; the addition of markers of occupation, age, and race give precisely the “subtle shift of weight” that shifts the meaning of this encounter. The event is viewed through an increasingly complex social matrix that cannot be merely personal: while a casual observer could certainly know the race and approximate age of the individuals, he could not know for certain that one was a student of “oriental porcelain” or that the other was trying to get home. These are hypotheses, possible explanations for what we might sense as the social valence of an encounter. Is it simply an instance of a tired worker doing what’s necessary to get a seat? Does this incident have racial overtones?


But any sense that Silliman is building to a definitive social analysis is dispelled by the final iteration of this incident, which actually reduces the amount of information provided: the adjectives “blue” and “lanky” are dropped, as is the phrase “shift of.” To be sure, this is in part an inevitable result of Ketjak’s form. As Silliman puts it at one point: “How will I know when I make a mistake” (5). The labor of copying, and of keeping track of which sentences have and have not been repeated, is arduous, particularly in the later sections, which include hundreds of sentences; it seems that in the final section Silliman may have copied the shorter version of this sentence that appears in the third paragraph. In the overall arc of the text, however, this reduction of information suggests that our social perceptions may not always be stable and are always subject to revision; it may even cast doubt on the idea that we can truly know the social actors who surround us in the public spaces we move through every day.


It is the structure of public space that is, I believe, the largest theme of Ketjak, and in particular how that space is structured by capitalism. The first phrase of Ketjak, “Revolving door,” gives us an image of controlled public space, compartmentalizing and separating individuals. Silliman notes in “Under Albany” that the door in question was at the San Francisco headquarters of the Bank of America (332), and the text is filled with similar images, from financial power — “Fountains of the financial district” (3) — to government authority: “The bear flag in the plaza” (4). But Silliman’s approach is not simply to catalog the contents of such public spaces, as Ginsberg does in his cross-country travels. Instead, Silliman’s sentences often juxtapose public and private spaces, and the progress of the sequence continually reconfigures the relations between the two. Public and private interpenetrate in surprising and subversive ways, illustrating the classic new left maxim “The personal is the political” while showing that this relation operates in both directions. Take, for example, the following section from early in Ketjak:


Portrait of the best worker in auto plant 7. Fountains of the financial district spout soft water in a hard wind. Repeating on paper that stanza one hundred times, each with a new pen, watching how the width of the ink’s path shifted the weight and intention of reference, penumbra of signification, from act to act. Little moons of my thumbnail grow. I see that young woman each morning as she jogs in a blue sweatsuit, trailed by her four small dogs. In a far room of the apartment I can hear music and a hammer. The asymmetry in any face. Grey clouds to give the sky weight. Layers of bandage about the ankle. The bear flag in the black marble plaza. Roundness is an ideal embodied in the nostril. A white bowl of split pea soup is set upon the table. It’s cold. Rapid transit information. Doors open, footsteps, faucets, people are waking up. Those curtains which I like above the kitchen sink. Stood there broke and rapidly becoming hungry, staring at nickels and pennies at the bottom of the fountain. (10)


We can identify various levels of language at work here. There are observations of public, often administered, space, as in the first two sentences. Individuals in these settings are types — the “portrait of the best worker” is gestured to but never revealed — and observation is impersonal. Then there are observations of private, domestic space, as in “Those curtains which I like above the kitchen sink”; these often feature an observing subject, an “I.” But then there are a number of other kinds of remarks: bodily observations, often focused on a particular body part (“bandage about the ankle,” “embodied in the nostril”); found text (“Rapid transit information”); and perhaps most strikingly, self-reflexive statements about writing, which appear throughout the text and which often seem to be reflections on Ketjakitself: “Repeating on paper that stanza one hundred times… ” Does it make sense to think of these as “public” or “private” spaces? What kinds of connections does Silliman’s method make between these realms?


It might seem at first that Silliman makes no connections at all between his observations, but it would be more accurate to say that he makes no suggestion of natural or narrative connections. If Ketjak is, as Silliman puts it, “only dailiness” (48), Silliman declines to give his account of a day a conventional structure. We can certainly recognize elements of such a structure: waking up in the morning (“Doors open, footsteps, faucets”), going to work (the financial district, the auto plant), returning home and making dinner (the split pea soup, the kitchen sink), perhaps even doing some writing (“Repeating on paper… ”). But such a narrative arc — beginning from the private, going out into the public, and returning to the private — allows public and private to remain as radically divorced from each other as they seem to be in real life, while allowing the private sphere to remain the telos of everyday living. Silliman denies this division by shoving the public and private up against one another, like passengers on a bus, forcing the reader to see public and private as part of a larger system mediated by language. The “worker-of-the-month” picture and the financial-district fountain, which might be seen as attempts to humanize the workplace, are shown up by their juxtaposition as ineffectual and absurd, “soft water in a hard wind.” The remarkable and rapid cross-cutting between bodily images and visual observations (“The asymmetry in any face. Grey clouds to give the sky weight. Layers of bandage about the ankle. The bear flag on the black marble plaza. Roundness is an ideal embodied in the nostril”) makes even the body, that most private of sites, a public and general construction. Indeed, the repetitive and accumulative structures of Ketjak itself are likened to a bodily process: “Little moons of my thumbnail grow.” And finally, the cozy domestic scene of soup and curtains is rudely juxtaposed with a scene of poverty, of a bereft public space that ironically echoes the “soft” fountains of the second line.


One result of Silliman’s method, then, is to produce a map of social space that is not solely grounded in the private, which does not simply proceed from the perspective of a single consciousness. But what kind of subjectivity, then, is represented? Ketjak cannot be characterized as a polyvocal text in the same way that, say, Pound’s Cantos or Eliot’s Waste Landmight be. Although the perspective and location of the different observations may shift, nearly every statement in the text with an identifiable speaker can be usefully read as emanating from Silliman’s authorial position. The four first-person statements that appear in the quote above can easily be attributed to the same male apartment-dwelling urbanite, and the text is peppered with autobiographical details, many of which appear again in “Under Albany.” While quoted material does appear in the text, it is usually clearly quoted from a written source — it simply does not sound like the rest of the text. [15] Silliman never allows his consciousness to cohere into a single voice or narrative, and constantly breaks up and rearranges his perspectives. But they are unquestionably, even flamboyantly, all his perspectives.


This is nowhere more evident than when the text turns its attention to women — which often means, to sex. A taste for sexual innuendo, often of an aggressive nature, is evident throughout Silliman’s work, giving what might seem like formal exercises a visceral edge. “Sunset Debris,” composed shortly after Ketjak and published in The Age of Huts, consists entirely of questions, most of which are double entendres: “Can you feel it? Does it hurt? Is this too soft? Do you like it? Do you like this? Is this how you like it? Is it alright? Is he there? Is he breathing? Is it him? Is it near? Is it hard?” (11) One might easily respond to this with a line from Ketjak: “You use, she said, rising up from the bed angry, sex as a weapon” (83). Observations of women in Ketjak can seem at times to be a case study in the male gaze and in male-dominated sexuality:


She had only the slightest pubic hair. (6)
She threw her legs back, up, over my shoulders, and with my ass I shoved in. (19)
Watching her hand to see if there is a ring amid long, thin fingers. (11)
How, between tongue and lips, she took my foreskin, licking. (68)
She liked to lower herself on top of him. (76)
In the middle of a blow job, she puked. (84)
Wiggled two fingers deep in her cunt. (86)
She loves to give head. (91)


When the male body is represented, it is with an almost parodic focus on the phallus and phallic anxiety:


Then we found the testes in the scrotal sac. (14)
A procedure by which they stick a metal device up one’s prick. (19)
Sperm count. (30)
Bruised cock. (80)
The tenor sax is a toy (7); The tenor sax is a weapon (73); The tenor sax is a phallus or cross. (92)


The very crudeness of some of these images might be read as an embattled masculinity struggling to reassert itself in the face of changing gender roles: “That he was not brutal enough for her confused him” (18). And in fragments scattered through the text, Silliman gives us glimpses of the origins and traumas of his own male working-class identifications, suggesting an interest in exploring the roots of masculinity later fleshed out in “Under Albany”:


Men eating burgers in silence, at a drugstore counter, wearing t-shirts and short hair, staring at their food. (20)
The boys play at war atop washers, amid dryers. (28)
He stood over them, alternately shouting and drinking from a bottle of bourbon. (29)
Hotels for old single men. (31)
Grandfather robed in white, horizontal in grey-green shadows of Intensive Care, would not look up, tubes in nose, waiting. (47)
Early memory of sensation, being picked up by father, first recognition of height, absorbed later into dreams where I just float off of earth’s surface, slow, uncontrollable, weightless flight. (67)


Collecting these passages together gives us a very different Ketjak, one which seems to correspond more closely to the discourse of the “men’s group.” Silliman puts on display an aggressive masculinity, while also delving into the biographical and class origins of that position. Yet read this way, Ketjak hardly seems like a progressive political poem; it seems all too trapped with the perspective of the white male (albeit working-class) writer.


But the sentences gathered together here are actually scattered throughout the text, constantly recontextualized through Silliman’s repetitions. They retain some of their elemental charge, but can never accumulate together to the level of a “masculine” structure of feeling. (“Ideological basis of sleep. She loves to give head. A pleasure and discomfort in the knowledge of having become, by the fact of your absence, the focal point” [91].) The method of Ketjak may be a way of “opening” the poem to the world, but not to other consciousnesses; rather, it is a way for Silliman to provide a buffer against his own consciousness in order that its structures — of gender, of sexuality — not come to rule the piece. Indeed, Silliman seems to hope that the poem’s public spaces will allow an erosion of those social roles that can be oppressive even to those whom they benefit, a blurring of the gender opposition that lurks in the work: “The feminine way men fold their hands when, say, they ride the bus” (31).


It is Silliman’s hope that the method of the new sentence deployed in Ketjak will provide a realistic and documentary language that manages to escape the boundaries of his own (straight white male) perspective, with all its limits. Although all the elements of this masculinist perspective are present within Ketjak, they are dismantled and scattered; they are made public through their interweaving with a wide range of materials; and they are governed not by a submerged psyche but by an artificial, impersonal, foregrounded structure. But can the products of Silliman’s gaze be redeemed by simple rearrangement? Does Ketjakearn its status as a total poem, incorporating all levels of language and social experience? Silliman’s utopian gamble, and the gamble of all language writing, is that experimental techniques can render the language poem both particular and universal — much like the utopian vision of Ginsberg’s Howl, albeit with a much stronger and perhaps more realistic sense of the force of social divisions. Language poetry, in Silliman’s imagination, is both a delimited community and an aesthetic through which social markers might be transcended: “On a warm night, browsing from bookstore to bookstore, wandering from café to tavern to café, the conversation of women and men was the life I’d imagined” (80).


If Silliman’s essays and letters describe a social landscape rigidly divided by lines of race, gender, sexuality, and class, his poetry can be read as a utopian attempt to transgress these divisions. Yet we cannot read this as a simple desire for transcendence, which would seek to subsume social differences in the beauties of lyric poetry. Instead, the techniques of the new sentence — ideally — allow social identities to retain their integrity while allowing none to gain dominance. Silliman’s identity as a straight white man from a working-class background — and its concomitant perspectives and prejudices — is everywhere in evidence in Ketjak, often in observations that may disturb or offend. But the technique of parataxis, of following one sentence with another that is apparently unrelated, refuses to allow that perspective to cohere — serving, in essence, as the author’s bulwark against himself.


The techniques of Ketjak allow Silliman to extend Ginsberg’s vision of a documentary poetry, one which attempts a comprehensive recording of social data, while guarding against the excess of subjectivity that threatens to make Ginsberg’s poetry a mirror image of the powers it opposes. With the fragmentation of the left in the 1970s, Silliman’s desire for this kind of “realism” is threatened not only by the limits of individual subjectivity, but that of group subjectivity — the new awareness of how perspectives can be limited by boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality.


Silliman adapts to this new social landscape by ethnicizing the avant-garde, positing language writing not simply as an aesthetic movement but as a social identity. By the 1980s, “language writing” can thus become a category equivalent to “black writing” or “women’s writing,” and potentially as restrictive. At the same time, Silliman wants to retain the idea of language writing as an aesthetic category, one capable of achieving a comprehensive view of the social landscape — an aesthetic evident in Ketjak. This tension is apparent not only in Silliman’s own writings but in the more ambivalent pronouncements of Silliman’s peers.


It might be argued, then, that Silliman’s ostensibly progressive project has a reactionary element to it, responding to the threat posed by the growing moral and political authority ascribed to the writing of women and minorities in the wake of the 1960s. If white new leftists ultimately felt compelled to cede moral authority to racial minorities, Silliman attempts to reclaim it through a corollary exploration of the social identity of the avant-garde, positioning his own writing as just as “marginal,” and hence politically oppositional, as any other. At the same time he hopes his writing will serve a universalizing and integrative function lost with the collapse of the new left. The unease with which Silliman’s colleagues have greeted such pronouncements, and the critiques by those who have called Silliman’s formulations exclusionary, are a sign of how difficult it has been to breach this barrier between the aesthetic and the social. [16] Perhaps the best way to understand Ketjak is to see it as a testament to this struggle: it is both a convincing but decentered map of our contemporary social landscape and an often uncomfortable exploration of white male consciousness — a sensibility, as Silliman puts it elsewhere, awkwardly aware of its own “pervasive presence.”

Adapted from Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965, by Timothy Yu. Copyright © 2009 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. Used with permission of Stanford University Press,

Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984. 1st ed. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1986.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Mackey, Nathaniel. Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2000.

Marshall, Thomas C. “‘Nevermore’ Than: Form, Content, and Gesture in Ketjak.” Quarry West 34 (1998): 52–67.

Messerli, Douglas, ed. “Language” Poetries: An Anthology. New York: New Directions, 1987.

Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject: Ron Silliman’s Albany, Susan Howe’s Buffalo.” Critical Inquiry 25.3 (1999): 405–34.

Reich, Steve. Writings on Music, 1965–2000. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.

Rossinow, Doug. The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.

Silliman, Ron. 2003. Silliman’s Blog. (20 September 2003). <>.

———, ed. In the American Tree. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1986.

———. Interview with Thomas C. Marshall and Thomas A. Vogler. Quarry West 34(1998): 10–46.

———. Ketjak. San Francisco: This, 1978.

———. The Age of Huts. New York: Roof, 1986.

———. “The Dwelling Place: 9 Poets.” Alcheringa ns 1.2 (1975): 104–20.

———. The New Sentence. New York: Roof, 1987.

———. “Under Albany.” Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. Ed. Joyce Nakamura. Vol. 29. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. 309–52.

Watten, Barrett. “The Turn to Language and the 1960s.” Critical Inquiry 29 (2002): 139–83.


[1] In “The Turn to Language and the 1960s,” Barrett Watten observes that “There have been frequent, if teasing, ascriptions of ‘Language poet’ as an identity politics” (139).

[2] Silliman’s and Grenier’s work are, on the surface at least, devoid of the explicit political content, imagery, and rhetoric characteristic of the work in Gitlin’s anthology. Take, for example, the opening of Marge Piercy’s “Address to the Players”: “The Sphynx of the Pentagon squats on the Arlington shore. / What walks on men in the morning, / wades in corpses at noon, / flies over ashes at night?” (221) Or, more directly, Dick Lourie’s “Civics I: Nothing Fancy”: “the President is a piece of shit. / I said the President is a piece of shit. / He started out that way if you think back. / There hasn’t really been any development” (198). Todd Gitlin, ed., Campfires of the Resistance: Poetry from the Movement (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971).

[3] In the interview, conducted by Gary Sullivan, Silliman says: “[Levertov] came to teach at Berkeley in 1969 already one of the first poets of her generation to take a serious stand on the war. But she proved a terrible listener and unbelievably rigid in some of her thinking about poetry — she would say that a semicolon had twice the value of a line break, exactly, as though this was written in stone somewhere… .[David] Bromige, Lyn Strongin and I visited her class as guest lecturers one day… and David and I immediately quarreled with Levertov. From my own perspective, it was more important that things didn’t add up rather than any particular sum I derived from these events. Here was somebody who’d truly grown up within the Projectivist framework and who took politics seriously, and it had not improved anything — she’d sabotaged her writing and her political credibility simultaneously.” Ron Silliman, Interview with Gary Sullivan, Readme 3 (Summer 2000), 21 November 2004 <>. Watten also offers a critique of Levertov in “The Turn to Language and the 1960s.”

[4] Most of the other language poets are a few years younger than Silliman and would not have begun college until 1968 or later.

[5] Rossinow notes that “There is truth, as well as exaggeration and diversion” in this narrative of the new left’s decline, adding that “the continuity between the new left and identity politics is notable” (343–4).

[6] For an overview of the SLA’s short history, see Vin McLellan and Paul Avery, The Voices of Guns (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977).

[7] After registering as a conscientious objector to service in Vietnam in the late 1960s, Silliman worked at the Committee for Prisoner Humanity and Justice until 1977.

[8] Silliman writes: “What happens when a language moves toward and passes into a capitalist stage of development is an anaesthetic transformation of the perceived tangibility of the word… preconditions for the invention of ‘realism,’ the illusion of reality in capitalist thought. These developments are tied directly to the function of reference in language, which under capitalism is transformed, narrowed into referentiality” (10). Language writing, like all other avant-garde movements, can be seen, according to Silliman, as “an attempt to get beyond the repressing elements of capitalist reality, toward a whole language art” (15).

[9] Ann Vickery, Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing (Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 2000). Gender has been a vexed question throughout the history of language poetry; although a number of women, including Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, and Rae Armantrout, were often grouped under the language writing umbrella, the domination of the group by men was pronounced enough that Charles Bernstein asked Armantrout to write an essay on the question, “Why Don’t Women Do Language-Oriented Writing?” — later reprinted in Silliman’s anthology In the American Tree.

[10] Indeed, a talk by Glück opens Writing/Talks (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1985), the seminal anthology of lectures edited by Perelman that includes many central figures of language writing.

[11] Although Silliman cites Glück’s talk as unpublished, a copy of the talk can be found in Silliman’s papers (Box 8, Folder 20).

[12] I discuss these letters in greater detail in the second chapter of my book Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 (Stanford UP), from which this essay is adapted.

[13] I am indebted to Stephen Fredman for suggesting this connection.

[14] In fact, in the Quarry West interview Silliman even describes himself as a “Buddha-atheist,” although he suggests that in California he encountered Buddhism “not as an exotic other, but rather as a very practical and varied mode of being in the world” (16).

[15] For example: “We cannot in conscience blame these varied sources of modality on the notion of analycity” (80).

[16] Many of these critiques have focused on Silliman’s essentialized notions of the differences between white male writing and that of women and minorities. Perelman notes in Marginalization that Leslie Scalapino accused Silliman of “defining innovation as the repository of white men who are supposedly free of connection” (172–3). In Discrepant Engagement, Nathaniel Mackey writes: “Failures or refusals to acknowledge complexity among writers from socially marginalized groups, no matter how ‘well-intentioned,’ condescend to the work and to the writers and thus… are part of the problem” (18).


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