Ron Silliman’s Blog is Back!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019


Ron Silliman has posted three times since New Year’s Day, 2019, and while it might be far too early to say whether he intends to keep this pace up, it is heartening to see him in critical action again. How he ever managed to produce so much writing about contemporary poetry, finish his magnificent long poem “The Alphabet,” and meet the responsibilities of a full-time/with overtime job in addition to raising a family is beyond my capacity to imagine, and I wouldn’t fault him in the least if he never posted a blog entry again.

He does, after all, have other projects to work on, now that he has retired from the computer workforce. My recollection is that he has said that working on “The Alphabet” prepared him to write a long poem, “Universe,” which is now underway and might be finished many, many decades from now. For those who want to read one of the best long articles about Silliman’s The Alphabet, I recommend that you dig up my 4,000 word effort, ” ‘I want to describe description’: Ron Silliman’s Alphabet,” which appeared in issue No. 3 of Paul Vangelisti’s “OR” magazine (publication date, October 10, 2009).

Given my general enthusiasm for Silliman’s work, I do have a few questions about some of his remarks in the post of January 7th, however.

“what gave birth to the New American Poetry was a hiatus occasioned by World War 2 when the number of books being published in the US was curtailed by the cost of paper and ink, and the absence of males from the continent. As it was, the number of books of poetry published in the US shrank from around 100 to just half that until well after the war.”

Silliman is certainly correct about the impact of material supplies on publication during World War II. After a total of three printings and guess how many total copies (4500!), Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury went out of print during that cataclysm, However, when exactly does the rebound take place. If poetry publishing was a “bear market,” at what point “well after the war” did a uptick begin to gain substantial momentum? In addition, it does seem as if a phrase is missing in that proposed statistic:
Shouldn’t it read: “the number of books of poetry published per year in the US shrank from around 100 to just half that until well after the war”?

Silliman lists nearly a score of people who might well have appeared in his anthology IN THE AMERICAN TREE, if he had edited it close to the actual publication date (Curtis Faville, David Gitin, Abigail Child, Beverly Dahlen, Leslie Scalapino, Darrell Gray, Andrei Codrescu, Norman Fischer, CD Wright, Joan Retallack, Doug Lang, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Joseph Ceravolo, Judy Grahn, Michael Lally, Lorenzo Thomas, Jim Brody, Simon Ortiz, and Nathaniel Mackey). One wonders how Paul Vangelisti does not make this list. Vangelisti was included in a list of poets who should be included in an imaginary, massive anthology of post-modern poets that Silliman wrote about back in the 2013. “Life is messy,” Silliman concedes, and it would seem that part of that messiness is how an extraordinarily fine poet such as Paul Vangelisti complicates the Langpo metanarrative. For those of you who want to begin to discover why Vangelisti will have to be included in any anthology that aspires to address avant-garde poetry after 1970 in the United States, I urge you to dig up the Summer 2005 issue of the Chicago Review (“Likelihood: Paul Vangelisti’s Avant-Garde Poetry,” a review of Paul Vangelisti’s Embarrassment of Survival: Selected Poems (1970-2000); pages 277-284). Equally puzzling is the absence of any mention of Douglas Messerli, who ranks as one of the most important poet-editor-publishers of the baby boom generation. Perhaps the answer can be found at the Archives for New Poetry, which are located at UCSD, although I note that the on-line catalogue states that Ron Silliman’s “(c)orrespondence with Douglas Messerli in Box 12, folder 20 may not be quoted or published without prior written permission from Ron Silliman.”

“The question of articulating any movement of poetry in a world in which there exist some 50,000 publishing ones is one hell of a lot harder than it was when the number was 2,000 or so just 30-plus years ago.”

I have no idea of where Ron is getting these figures. Thirty years would place us in the late 1980s, when Codrescu’s UP LATE anthology appeared, a collection that among many other things reflected the impact that my anthology POETRY LOVES POETRY had in terms of providing some visibility to a significant number of younger L.A. poets. Is “thirty-plus years” meant to expand the temporal suburbs of what appears to be a very subjective census to 1980? If so, is Ron truly suggesting that somehow all of the mainstream publishing as well as the extraordinary outpouring of small press activity in the 1970s was being generated by a total of 2,000 poets???? Bean counter alert!

On the other hand, I see no reason to doubt his 50,000 publishing poets figure as we head towards the end of this decade. The point at which the there is a “population” of 2,000 publishing poets, however, would more likely be the case in 1968, before the Baby Boom generation came along to the ranks quite rapidly.

The central tension in this post by Silliman appears to be the oscillations generated by “movement” versus “moment.” Indeed, how does one finalize the “beat movement” when three of its best-known figures are still alive? It’s not just those figures who should matter in making this statement, though. What about women beats who are just now emerging from the patriarchal repression of their work? Eileen Aronson Ireland, praised by Stuart Perkoff and cited by John Thomas in the first poem of his first book in 1972, is finally getting her first book of poetry published this year, a book that will include new poems and not just the work she wrote while being part of the Venice West scene. The beat movement is still ongoing, and the post-Beat (towards which I have made a few very minor contributions) is more lively than ever.

Being committed to avant-garde poetics, Ron Silliman has little use for a dialectical synthesis. The point of an avant-garde is to sweep the previous version into a “dustbin,” where it should languish in the disdain of everyone who now is “hip.” I prefer to think of that process as being more beneficial if it is regarded as more akin to a garden, and mulching.

Finally, I would suggest that Ron Silliman provide a short list of the best blog articles he has written in the past on the subject of this post. For instance, his entry on February 15, 2013 is probably the best single commentary I know of on the most recent edition of Paul Hoover’s anthology of post-modern poetry (and it should be noted that Paul Vangelisti does appear in one of Silliman’s lists in that article). Young poets who are beginning to publish could use a guide to find the blog entries by Silliman that address the themes he has reiterated at the start of 2019.