About Ron Silliman


Exceprts from a Ron Silliman Interview (1985)

diff.jpg (36885 bytes)Ron, I find it interesting that you frequently seem to write using very specific procedures of text generation. Can you speak to your use of these procedures and of their value to you?

My sense of what you rightly call procedure has changed enormously over time. At first, such structures (devices, strategies) were something I resorted to out of necessity. The problem which confronts any writer, once they have broken with the received tradition of a writing that presumes and imposes a stable "voice," is how literally to proceed. .Without persona, narrative or argument (however implicit or associational), what motivates the next line, the next sentence, the next paragraph or stanza? Without syntax, what justifies the existence of even the next word?

Yet all poetry is procedure. The tangible rule-governed behavior of the sonnet is no more constructed than the work whose devices efface such governance in the name of a "voice," or of "realism." The debate which characterized American poetry at the point when I, and others, were first struggling with this issue, failed on both sides to make itself articulate at this level. The closed forms of the Academics (so-called) admitted their self-constructedness, but were non-generative, capable only of the repetition of the past in the face of the present. The open forms of the New Americans (so-called) concealed their "made-ness," but for a time offered a more fully generative response to daily life. Once, however, the creative euphoria of sketching out what the false model of a (non-constructed because "natural") speech-imitating poetics would look like was complete, the same limiting claustrophobia set in.

All poetry is formalist, the intervention of forms into the real, the transformation of the real into forms. But the real is social, discontinuous, unstable and opaque. Against that, any fixed poetics (any valorized, codified set of procedures) is necessarily a falsification. It is the moment at which the real generates new forms that the real itself becomes visible. The problem of procedures is how to keep the problem manifest.

If I trace the movement toward such devices in my own writing what I find is a recognition, gained in stages over a period of years, that what was truly subversive, in the literal and best sense, about Jackson Mac Low's chance methodology was not the use of chance, the value of which Jackson seems to have overstated, but the turn toward method itself. Not that you cannot find writing which is equally procedural, in both its generative and constructed qualities, in the work of Creeley or Zukofsky. But it took the artificial surface texture of the chance-composed text, with all its rigid awkwardness, to make that turn to method apparent.

For me, then, the question of procedure is not one of seeking a "correct," or valorized device (e.g., the "new sentence"), but of taking a stance toward language, the activity of composition, and reality, which will call forth strategies and structures that are both generative and unconcealing of their constructedness. In practice, this places the decision over any given procedure in advance of the "actual writing." With Tjanting, it took me more than eight months to go from my first rough sketches of what a piece built on the concept of the Fibonacci number series might look like to the composition of a two-word first sentence, "Not this."

What factors enter into a decision to use a given procedure?

The potential is the main thing, the potential which I sense a particular method will have to enable me to get at whatever I want to investigate or work on at the point of composition. So the factors change radically from work to work. It's content-dependent, though not in a story-board sort of way. Content-centered.

. . . .

Rereading Jack Spicer's first Vancouver lecture recently, I was struck by his insistance that the key to maturity as a poet was eliminating the Self of the writer from the work. Coming from a poet, who next to Creeley perhaps, may have had the most "intimate voice" of his generation, that position sounds strange at first. According to Spicer, the materials of his love affairs, of baseball, even of language itself, were simply that which the poem used to create itself. These materials are, to use his terminology, simply the furniture of the poem. Which is to say that the ostensible topics of his short pieces are not in any real sense what the poems are "about."

Regardless of how this position is explained -- and Spicer goes so far at times as to name that which invades the work in the place of the Self, using all this furniture to write the text, as "the martians" --, it is a stance which recognizes the autonomy of the poem. It is also importantly a stance which allows for the relationships within the poem to be as complex, as mediated, as contradictory, as disjointed, as indirect and as over-determined as they are in life. Perversely, this enables the work to much more accurately document the realities of the universe that any so-called unified text, any writing organized under the hierarchical principles of narrative or exposition. That which restricts itself to what reason can comprehend of the real is necessarily going to be exclusionary and narrow, linear instead of polymorphic. A writing which is never "about" anything is never limited as to what can enter in. The furniture is endless. In a funny way, that is what David Antin was getting at when he compared "language poetry" to a stroll through Sears. All those shiny sentences stacked in a row. But, of course, retail layout is a hierarchical structure; it's a narrative with a conclusion "you buy." That is why the impulse items are by the register.

But the possibilities of complexity and plenitude are there. Which is why a writing which renounces "aboutness" can be so rich at precisely the level of content. . . .

When writing is organized hierarchically, content is not only restricted, but much more easily subjected to a wide range of possible social conventions, internal as well as external censorship. There is, for instance, a conscious literature of the workplace, which ranges from the writing of the Canadian Tom Wayman to the sort of filler that decorates the tabloids of certain Leninist sects. Because the conventions which surround that literature extend so far beyond the mere issue of content and so often include a prescriptive, limiting and poorly thought out aesthetics, many poets cringe at the thought of becoming identified with a genre which violates not only their sense of the integrity of the poem, but even of the experience of labor. And if their writing is hierarchical, if it is organized by narrative and exposition, if it proposes a unified whole, then the difficulties of making use of this content are just that much more difficult. . . .

I don't want this to sound like "my kind" of poetry is the "correct" or only way to approach the question of content, or even to suggest that "my kind" is itself one way. . . .

From The Difficulties, (1985).


Charles Bernstein

Which brings us to Ron Silliman (this is an article about Ron Silliman), whose work accounts for narration by showing how the sequencing of sentences engenders meaning and how the world accomodates--is made particular by--the ingenuity of narrative shapes.

Or again: Silliman writes tales, a word whose Anglo-Saxon derivations include both the word for narrative (talu) and number (tael). By adding number (numerical structural programs) to narrative, Silliman tells the tale of ourselves; or, better, has awakened such tales from the deep slumber of chronology, causality, and false unity (totalization).

Hypnotized by false unity, that is a theme Silliman's work returns to again and again: the desire to read-in a unity even where none exists. And so, in his own texts, detail is cast upon detail, minute particular upon minute particular, adding up to an impossibility of commensurable narrative. With every new sentence a new embarkation: not only is the angle changed, and it's become a close-up, but the subject is switched. Yet maybe the sound's the same, carries it through. Or like an inter-locking chain: A has a relation to B and B to C, but A and C have nothing in common (series not essence).

Breaking the hold of rationalized narrative is not new with Ron Silliman. One only needs to look at the opening of Blake's The Four Zoas: "Four Mighty ones are in every Man; / a Perfect Unity Cannot Exist." And if the indulgence of the juxtaposition is not incomensurable enough, let me compound the problem by substituting Silliman's

toward the suppression of multiplicity into unity, a drive which we have seen is overwhelmingly strong in Newton . . . . Thus what Blake's Four Zoas narrative constructs is, from the point of view of Newtonian narrative, an impossibility: a series of eccentric, mutually incommensurable universes which intersect precisely at their lacunae. (Ault, "Incommensurability", p.299)

Rationalized narrative, in its presuppositions, is "A specific ontology hushed, search(ing) for the world", as Silliman points out in "The Four Protozoas". In contrast, Silliman has produced a writing in which that search is replaced by a material engagement.

From "Narrating Narration: The Shapes of Ron Silliman's Work." In The Difficulties (1985).


James Sherry

Ron Silliman proposes that meanings are found in the connections between words and between sentences. The simplicity of his writings' forms makes those connections more visible and helps him to position his work so that the issues raised by each sentence are overshadowed by formal considerations. He takes this posture in order to illuminate the particulars of content and the reader determines the nature and meaning of their relations. This happens on the large and small scales.

The shapes of Ketjak and Tjanting are especially easy to see when the sentences begin to repeat. "Sunset Debris" is fifty pages of questions connected by the reader's answers or expectation of answers.

The kinds of sentences he uses make apparent their similarity, usually by their shortness and often by what the sentences imply - a common misapprehension expressed by the speaker, a social creature pictured through her rhetoric. Since each sentence is presented as a unit with stress on the skeletal relation to the next sentence, he points to the formal (imposed) nature of the sentence.

In "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World" (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Supplement #3), Silliman describes how the focus of capitalist inspired writing moved away from the words themselves toward the Gestalt of the writing. (Silliman's syntheses go beyond even that Gestalt. He is trying to bring focus to the entire world of writing by emphasizing connections.) Silliman's text elucidates the problem he examines in the phrase "the effaced r in Jonah". The reference is to the r in "your". By using "r in Jonah", he makes the reader look again at the word Jonah and not finding r there, reach back three paragraphs to "your". The reader reviews the Gestalt of the text or what the text signifies and looks at the word Jonah again to see in the physical characteristics of the word the meaning of the text and the "gestural nature of language". Since Silliman proposes that the gestural nature of language constitutes a meaning in sense and nonsense syllables, so the gestural nature of Silliman's stances in his critical writing and to a lesser extent in the forms of his prose constitute meaning in structure.

These units--forms, sentences, phrases--are linked by prosody, by their social context, and by social theory propounded by Silliman (and others). So although these sentence units are discrete entities, the reader tends to see them as one thing--as facets of existence (work), as Silliman's work, as the reader's own thought and life--a unified piece of writing.

As his work is broad and inclusive, its synthetic approach includes more general definitions of common prosodic elements. Syntax means accurately the arrangement of words, although Silliman rarely uses all the possibilities allowed to him. The definition is closer to the dictionary than to the common literary and grammatical one. Narrative is more than the literary story, rather a recounting that might be of temporal or prosodic events. These definitions do not attempt to purge the more common, literature uses, but to absorb them into a general case in order that the old can exist within the new.

Silliman's most famous definition is "The New Sentence" (Hills Talks, #6, 7) where focusing on the space between sentences highlights the artifactual nature of sentences. Emphasizing space or distance between sentences, extracts from the prose canon one formal issue, elevating it to the status of an icon. The space and the period are equated.

Not only does this diminish the importance of and in Silliman's case flatten the context of each sentence, it modularizes the sentences and makes them more accessible to manipulation by the numbers (prose, a poetry). It also makes his writing architectonic, monumental (Le style est l'homme mÍme) and examplable in definition and form.

He achieves these stances in his critical writing, the nature of the formal elements there being central to understanding the context in which he is composing, although this may simply point to his obfuscation of the distinction between criticism and poetry. In Ketjak, for example, while the numerical series by which he orders the sentences have an odd relationship to the field of meanings of the sentences themselves, that John is sentence #142 is apparently an accident of position or a choice. However in a critical piece such as "Rewriting Marx" (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E #13) the most apparent aspect is the substitution of writing vocabulary for the political economy in Marx's original.

The result of this grafting process raises questions. First, wouldn't a grammar and structure consistent with the aims and conclusions of Silliman's ideas be more convincing than the given "capitalist" prosody. No, Silliman is not speaking about mental constructs but to a person in the world. The political economic framework, applied to writing, makes us focus on writing as praxis.

Second, there are a host of objections to the individual statements that are created by his grafting. For example, "Objects of reading become books only because they are the products of the writing of private individuals who work independently of each other" is quite superficially false. One is left in a rage or muddle, but but. Wouldn't it be true therefore. . . , doesn't that mean. . . , isn't that tending toward the conclusion that. . . .

It does, however, result in Silliman's pushing the reader to examine the issues within the reader's own criteria of objectivity. By setting up the conditions in his critical writing, Silliman gets the reader to temper its raw edge with her own discoveries. But simplicity of form only gives the reader access to the concerns of his work. The breadth of reference requires close analysis, because the large blocks of form and meaning he manages can be construed as fitting many ways. And the value of the work to the reader is limited more by her ability and knowledge than by Silliman's talent.

From "Taking a Stand," in The Difficulties (1985).


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