On The Chinese Notebook


Allen Davies

[During the mid-1970s Ron Silliman and I corresponded,, One focus of our thought and letters at that time was on the nature, the mechanisms and meanings, of what we saw to be a newly emergent sort of writing. We discussed this writing in many ways, among them its relations relative to referentiality. I suggested that we call this writing protoreferential. Ron suggested other terms. Some of the range of this discussion, or at least of Ron's sense of it, is reflected in his excellent essay on the New Sentence.

We also exchanged information about what we were writing, and new work as it was completed. One morning in 1975 or 1976 I received from Ron a lovely chinese notebook in which he had written The Chinese Notebook. I read the text enthusiastically. I was impressed by the number of interrogatives in the work. My own tendency had often been to suppress questions and, where they did occur, to end them with a period. I knew that I would make my most considered response to the text by answering each of the questions in it.]

NOTE: The italicized portions of this text are from The Chinese Notebook.

3.Chesterfield, sofa, divan, couch -- might these items refer to the same object? If so, are they separate conditions of a single word?

Chesterfield, sofa, divan, couch -- these are entirely different objects; they are related by the mistake we make in not having more words for more objects. They are conditions of the word 'name' used as a verb; even here we have made the same mistake.

4.My mother as a child would call a potholder a "boppo," the term becoming appropriated by the whole family, handed down now by my cousins to their own children. Is it a word? If it extends, eventually, into general usage, at what moment will it become one?

It is a word every time it is used. The rest of the time.

6. I wrote this sentence with a ballpoint pen. If I had used another would it have been a different sentence?

Written with a different pen, it would have been a sentence. Written after with a different pen, it would have been a different sentence. Absorbed in this question, we learn that the instruments of construction have their meanings. Time is an instrument of construction.

7.This is not philosophy, it's poetry. And if I say so, then it becomes painting, music or sculpture, judged as such. If there are variables to consider, they are at least partly economic -- the question of distribution, etc. Also differing critical traditions. Could this be good poetry, yet bad music? But yet I do not believe I would, except in jest, posit this as dance or urban planning.

It could be. A different person would make each judgment.

10. What of a poetry that lacks surprise? That lacks form, theme, development? Whose language rejects interest? That examines itself without curiosity? Will it survive?

Poetry lacks surprise, form, theme, development, interest, curiosity -- Always, somewhat. ... --Never, somewhat. It is how poetry drops between these two sentences that will survive.

13. That this form has a tradition other than the one I propose, wittgenstein, etc., I choose not to dispute. But what is its impact on the tradition proposed?

Propose the tradition, delineate it; then wait, for more of what you already have, in part, in this writing. Any proposal of the tradition is, implicitly, impact on it.

14. Is Wittgensteints contribution strictly formal?

Wittgenstein's contribution is strictly formal, but it is not only formal. He tells us about a topic, how to write for example, as Stein does. His contribution would not be strictly (sic) formal even if it were all in logical notation. His meditations, too.

16. If this were theory, not practice, would I know it?

If you said so.

18. I chose a Chinese notebook, its thin pages not to be cut, its six red-line columns which I turned 90 [degrees], the way they are closed by curves at both top and bottom, to see how it would alter the writing. Is it flatter, more airy? The words, as I write them, are larger, cover more surface on this two-dimensional picture plane. Shall I, therefore, tend toward shorter terms -- impact of page on vocabulary?

Already the writing has left its Chinese notebook.

20. Perhaps poetry is an activity and not a form at all. Would this definition satisfy Duncan?

This is not a definition. A proposition satisfies everyone; they notice it, even unwittingly and suddenly operate with the understanding that a proposition is its means of verification.

21. Poem in a notebook, manuscript, magazine, book, reprinted in an anthology. Scripts and contexts differ. How could it be the same poem?

There is no 'same poem'; we may only look through one text to its source, this activity then embodies a third poem, non-stop.

25. How can I show that the intentions of this work and poetry are identical?

You show it in that question.

29. Mallard, drake -- if the words change, does the bird remain?

Ask the bird.

30. How is it possible that I imagine I can put that chair into language? There it sits, mute. It knows nothing of syntax. How can I put it into something it doesn't inherently possess?

That you can imagine it answers how you can imagine it. Put the chair in a room, in an ocean, a sentence, an automobile, a thought, a word, a box.

31. "Terminate with extreme prejudice." That meant kill. Or "we had to destroy the village in order to save it." Special conditions create special languages. If we remain at a distance, their irrationality seems apparent,- but, if we came closer, would it?

A language is rational when viewed from its inside. That is part of the meaning of 'inside' in this grammar.

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?

Languages are patricidal: there is no return from one to a former. Therapy, for instance, is designed to ease us from a held language, through (to) the choosing of another. This is one humane reason for regarding language at work. . . .

117. Paris is in France. Also, Paris has five letters. So does France. But so do Ghana, China, Spain. How should I answer "Why is Paris Paris?"

Go to Paris.

118. The question within the question. To which does the question mark refer? If one question mark is lost, where does its meaning go? How is it possible for punctuation to have multiple or non-specific references?

Punctuation is usually part of a configuration; it shares its meaning. When a punctuation mark is "lost", nothing is really lost, there is no less than before; the meaning of the configuration shifts. Signs are not as separate as they appear to be when we examine them singly. Each sign contributes. A sign, before it contributes, is a possibility; it is that which makes us speak of it as pure, its state before it involves.

119. In what way is this like prose? In what way is this unlike it?

The Chinese Notebook is like prose in all respects.

123. What is the creative role of confusion in any work?

Confusion ignites work.

130. Content is only an excuse, something to permit the writing to occur, to trigger it. Would a historian looking for information about Massachusetts fishing colonies have much use for Maximus? To say yes is to concede that in order to like, say, Pound, you'd have to agree with him, no?.

A historian will not have much use for Maximus as long as he has its sources; he will speak, differently, as an equal. It was the availability of Pound's sources, the books and ideas and experiences, things which he wanted available, that led and permitted so many to disagree with him.

132. But if one denies the possibility of referentiality, how does sad is faction differ from satisfaction? How do we know this?

Anyone denying the possibility of referentiality is quitting the writing game. Sounds do not so much differ in type, as they provide a substance for recognizing meaning(s), which do,

141. Why is this work a poem?

The Chinese Notebook is not a poem; though it does question itself, though it is obsessive, though its mechanics produce and procure a partly vertical structure, though it is sometimes aware of itself as a poem and lets the reader know it, though it

142. One answer: because certain information is suppressed due to what its position in the sequence would be.
143. But is it simply a question of leaving out?

Its personality is marked by what is left out because so much has been left in.

149. What is it that allows me to identify this as a poem, Wittgenstein to identify his work as technical philosophy, Brockman's Afterwords to be seen as Esalen-oriented metaphysics, and Kenner's piece on Zukofsky literary criticism?

'Poem', 'philosophy', 'metaphysics', 'criticism': nouns, These are among the states we leave when we write.

150. But is it a distortion of poetry to speak of it like this? How might I define poetry so as to be able to identify such distortions?

The definition of poetry is not distorted because you want it to include its contemplation. Each word (an integer with a hidden radical) already does that for itself; there is nothing to distort where distortion is wonderfully part of the function.

151. Can one even say, as have Wellek and Warren, that literature (not even here to be so specific as to identify the poem to the exclusion of other modes) is first of all words in a sequence? One can point to the concretist tradition as a partial refutation, or one can point to the great works of Grenier, A Day at the Beach and Sentences, where literature occurs within individual words.

Literature is not limited to sequences or words.

153. But how, if it does not state it, does a work make a formal assertion? Certain structural characteristics such as line, stanza, etc. are not always present. Here is where one gets into Davenport's position regarding Ronald Johnson, to say that one is a poet who has written no poems, per se.

A work makes a formal assertion as soon as it is.

155. Why did I write "As always, the intention of the creator defines the state in which the work is most wholly itself"? Because it is here and here only where one can "fix" a work into a given state (idea, projective process, text, affective process, impression), an act which is required, absolutely, before one can place the work in relation to others, only after which can one make judgments.

You wrote "As always, the intention of the creator defines the state in which the work is most wholly itself" because you wanted to build up a great deal of certainty, some certainties which you hoped to link by their proximity, to make it be true.

156. What if I told you I did not really believe this to be a poem? What if I told you I did?

Whatever you question, you have said.

159. If, at this point, I was to insert 120 rhymed couplets, would it cause definitions to change?

Definitions would continue to be changing all over the place.

160. Lippard (Changing, p. 206) argues against a need for a "humanistic" visual arts, but makes an exception for literature, which "as a verbal medium, demands a verbal response." One wonders what, precisely, is meant by that? Is it simply a question of referentiality posed in vague terms? Or, does it mean, as I suspect she intended it to, that language, like photography, is an ultimately captive medium? If so, is the assertion correct? It is not.

A medium does not "demand" anything, unless it be the furtherance of its mode. . . .

211. Absolutely normal people. Would their writing be any different?

It would be infinitely rare.

218. Buildup, resolution. What have these to do with the writing?

Like 'before' and 'after', the words 'buildup' and 'resolution' seem to fix points of an experience (reading) in time. Each point of the reading experience is only present, whether or not it is experienced as containing memory or expectation.

219. Just as doubt presumes a concept of certainty, non-referentiality presumes knowledge of the referential. Is this a proof?

Words such as opposites are especially paired, seem to support each other. This is a statement about human nature. . . .

From "for Ron Silliman and for The Chinese Notebook." From Difficulties, (1985).


George Hartley

Silliman’s work often reveals his concern with the social motivation of frames. While the form of much of his work resembles the propositional mode of the conceptualists, as we shall see, he nevertheless insistently extends the focus of those propositions to a more consciously political level than many conceptualists would have. Silliman's The Chinese Notebook . . . for instance, provides a useful counter to Sol LeWitt's "Sentences on Conceptual Art" (1968), which begins as follows:

1) Conceptual Artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.

2) Rational judgments repeat rational judgments.

3) Illogical judgments lead to new experience.

4) Formal art is essentially rational.

5) Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically,

While the matter-of-fact, axiomatic mode of statement, the self-referring content, the numbering of passages, and the sentence-by-sentence progression of LeWitt's "Sentences" all influence the format of Silliman's The Chinese Notebook, their content is quite different. Whereas Silliman will echo a statement of LeWitt's such as "17) All ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art," he will counter other claims such as "24) Perception is subjective."

Silliman's first proposition reveals his attention to and expansion of conceptualist claims:

1. Wayward, we weigh words. Nouns reward objects for meaning. The chair in the air is covered with hair. No part is in touch with the planet.

His attention to the materiality of words--in that only the words on the page can help one to distinguish between "wayward" and "weigh word"--immediately complicates the conceptualist claim to have finally got beyond the material by turning to language. The sentences that follow, furthermore, bring up the question of reference (which the conceptualists tended to ignore) while also mimicking the conceptualist work which can only exist in the mind. In proposition two, however, Silliman complicates the latter point as well:

2. Each time I pass the garage of a certain yellow house, I am greeted with barking. The first time this occurred, an instinctive fear seemed to run through me. I have never been attacked. Yet I firmly believe that if I opened the door to the garage I should confront a dog.

A perfect example of the conceptualist technique--we "conceive" of the dog which not only has never been seen behind the door but also never appears in this proposition until the final word. But unlike the conceptualist declaration, this proposition carries consequences should there in fact be a dog ready to attack from behind the door. Silliman seems to imply the practical need for being able to conceive of the dog even though in other situations (as in race discrimination) the dependence on categories may be socially harmful--not all conceptions carry the same implications.

Silliman's propositions in contrast to LeWitt's carry an explicitly political charge. According to proposition five: "Language is, first of all, a political question." Silliman is not merely looking for a way to purify poetic language; even the metalanguage of the declaration carries political implications:

7. This is not philosophy, it's poetry. And if I say so, then it becomes painting, music or sculpture, judged as such. If there are variables to consider, they are at least partly economic--the question of distribution, etc. Also differing critical traditions....

No declaration, Silliman implies, exists outside of social frames such as economic structures and critical traditions; the declaration is marked by those conditions even when hoping to transcend them.

The awareness of context, in other words, takes place within a particular context. Even so, that awareness of context is indispensable, a perpetual reflexiveness to guard against the following:

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 not accurate) language? Might not the syntax itself propel reality to such a point that to our own they could not return? Isn't that what happened to Hitler?

As a counter to Hitler's atrocities Silliman seeks a constant attention to the necessity for, yet arbitrariness of, ideological frames.

From Textual Politics and the Language Poets. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Copyright 1989 by George Hartley.


Marjorie Perloff

In his manifesto-essay "The New Sentence," Ron Silliman envisions a paragraph that might organize sentences even as a stanza organizes lines: it would function as "a unity of quantity, not logic or argument," the sentences within its "frame" relating to one another not by normal continuity but by a complex system of polysemic and syllogistic relationships (91). In this scheme of things, individual units (at the sentence or phrase level) that seem to make no sense may take on meaning by contiguity And Silliman quotes Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations ("New Sentence" 70):

498. When I say that the orders "Bring me sugar" and "Bring me milk" make sense, but not the combination "Milk me sugar," that does not mean that the utterance of this combination has no effect. And if its effect is that the other person stares at me and gapes, I don't on that account call it the order to stare and gape, even if that was precisely the effect I wanted to produce.

499. To say "This combination of words makes no sense" excludes it from the sphere of language and thereby bounds the domain of language. But when one draws a boundary it may be for various kinds of reasons. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may shew where the property of one man ends and that of another begins and so on. So if I draw a boundary line that is not yet to say what it is for.

It is not surprising that this passage appeals to Silliman, whose own poetry, whether in verse or prose, has been committed to testing the boundary between the "sense" of "Bring me sugar" and the "nonsense" of "Milk me sugar." "The Chinese Notebook," which appears in The Age of Huts (1986), is a sequence of 223 aphorisms, most of them on questions of language and poetics, that sometimes echo, sometimes gently spoof the Philosophical Investigations. For example:

29. Mallard, drake--if the words change, does the bird remain?

35. What now? What new? All these words turning in on themselves like the concentric layers of an onion.

60. Is it language that creates categories? As if each apple were a proposed definition of a certain term.

94. What makes me think that form exists?

And so on. The poet Alan Davies, who is a friend of Silliman's, recalls that "one morning . . . I received from Ron a lovely chinese notebook. . . . I read the text enthusiastically. I was impressed by the number of interrogatives in the work. My own tendency has often been to suppress questions and, where they did occur, to end them with a period. I knew that I would make my most considered response to the text by answering each of the questions in it" ("?s" 77). Here are Davies's responses, appearing in the text "?s to .s: for Ron Silliman and for The Chinese Notebook," in Signage (1987):

29. Ask the bird.

35. Unpeel the onion a layer at a time; at center, the still point.

60. Categories create categories; language gets used, again, again.

94. Having the thought that form exists, you have the fact that it does.

This operation, seeming to prove itself, supports itself.

The question-answer format (unanticipated by Silliman when he wrote "The Chinese Notebook") generates a witty homage to Wittgenstein, Davies's text depending on Silliman's even as Silliman's is most effective when read against Wittgenstein's.

 from Contemporary Literature 33.2 (Summer 1992)


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