Tag Archives: Language Poetry

“The Alphabet” by Ron Silliman (a review from ten years ago)

This review of Ron Silliman’s THE ALPHABET was published around ten years ago in Paul Vangelisti’s magazine, OR, which issued from the Otis College of Art and Design. My thanks to both Paul and Otis for their support over the years.

*. *. *. *. *. *. *

Efficient detail: an essay on assembling and re-assembling Ron Silliman’s
The Alphabet (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008, 1062 pages)

“what is a road but drainage, a city but an encrustation of debris, latching onto itself, growing, coral or guano?”
“Jones,” 137

“Velcro mind in a Teflon world.”
–“You” (part X), 911

If the publication of The Age of Huts (University of California Press, 2007) reinforces, yet once again, Ron Silliman’s crucial role as a poet, critic and anthologist in shaping and defining the various articulations of Language writing, the long-awaited arrival of The Alphabet provides a complementary chance to look back on the origins of Language writing, and assess the accumulating significance of Silliman’s life-long project.1 Although Silliman achieved very early success, publishing his work in the mid-1960s in well-established literary magazines such as Poetry Northwest, by the beginning of the 1970s, he had dedicated himself to reviving segments of the avant-garde in American poetry in a rigorous manner that linked up critical theory, cultural critique, and a poetics that gave precedence to marginal canonical figures such as the modernist prose poet, Gertrude Stein, and Objectivists such as Louis Zukofsky. Three decades later, clocking in at over 1,000 pages, Silliman’s The Alphabet establishes by the sheer magnitude of heft its eligibility to be compared with many shorter, but similarly daunting, long poems of the modernist and post-modernist period. The list is more substantial than the majority of critics of contemporary poetry suspect, and I intend to leave the comparisons of the merits of The Alphabet to proportionate projects by H.D., Pound, Williams, Crane, Olson, McGrath, etc., to their elucidation. My assignment in this essay is primarily limited to an examination of some of the structural features of The Alphabet and an initial chance to evaluate its efficiency as a long poem.2
Sometimes, faced with a monumentally sized project, the most feasible start is with an obvious, straightforward definition: An alphabet is a sequence of letters that can be combined in various ways to produce entities called words. In part, through his invocation of this armature, Silliman shares with several other progenitors of Language writing a desire to emphasize the description of this process as the central material feature of the social mediation that language entails. As the title of Silliman’s book suggests, this book-length poem is made up of sections that can be combined in multitudinous permutations, each of which would yield a distinct conjuncture. “Language poem: may require some assembly” is one of dozens of notations throughout The Alphabet that refer to what Silliman characterizes as an instantiating “moment” of avant-garde poetry, though its impact has lingered sufficiently for at least one critic to claim, mistakenly, that Language writing is the longest-lived movement of 20th century American poetry. Invoking the dreaded disclaimer attached to children’s toys about to be unwrapped on holidays, this quip would also remind alert readers that “assembly” is actually not an option when it comes to the purpose of Language writing, which always implies an audience whose “assembly,” in holding a mirror up to language, is a response to the “form and pressure of the age.” If Hamlet’s advice to the players about the purpose of playing implicitly addresses the audience, Silliman is even more acutely dedicated to reminding the reader of the contextual ramifications he embeds his writing within, and to destabilizing the reader’s perceptual experience of language: “The specificity of the avant-garde audience is sociological” (111). The sudden appearance of an italicized “of” may be one way in which Silliman is reminding his reader that the assembly of his audience will require at least as much effort and commitment as is needed to assemble the imbricated meaning of that apparently impetuous accenting of “of.” Or perhaps not. Enabling a reader to gauge her or his specific relationship to “the avant-garde audience” might well be one of the unintended side-events of Silliman’s The Alphabet. As one assembles the sentences in The Alphabet, how does one know if one’s assembly of the words is what Silliman intended?
“The cheap orange plastic of the road gang’s vest – they trudge along the tracks. Someone’s left a coffeecup atop the mailbox. This is about my emotions. Silhouettes of gulls backlit by the sun (bay invisible thru the polluted air. Motorcyclist on the sidewalk – how come, in the cold air, her breath doesn’t fog up her face shield?” (“Ink,” 103).
What I have just quoted seems to be a representative sample of Silliman’s pointillistic prosody. Details are palpably invoked amidst claims (“This is about my emotions.”) that come closer to being the kind of ironic disclaimers that fueled the antagonisms of the Language poets’ peers in the 1970s. All too often, I would argue, the opponents of Language writing let their emotions get in the way of comprehending not only the subtlety of Silliman’s imagery, but how efficiently the materiality of his ideas is compressed into vivid interrogations of referential consciousness.
I first spotted Silliman’s writing in Michael Lally’s anthology, None of the Above, but did not find it especially intriguing work. His four-page poem, “Berkeley,” hardly seemed to compare in quality to the level of work being done by an elder poet such as Tim Reynolds, or sagacious Los Angeles poets such as Leland Hickman, Holly Prado, and Jim Krusoe, let alone poets whose work I regularly saw in the pages of Invisible City (Christine Zawadiwsky, Ray DiPalma, and Leslie Scalapino). Reading Ketjak, however, proved to be an entirely different experience. Written in 1974-1975 and published by Barrett Watten’s This Press in 1978, it still seems to be the best single piece of work Silliman has ever written, and it remains a tantalizing and invigorating poem, easily the equal of Spring & All, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and Holly Prado’s Feasts. “Poets to come, justify me,” Whitman pleaded, and Silliman has far more in common with Whitman than most readers suspect. In addition to framing their life-time projects as ever-expanding entities, both Silliman and Whitman challenge the boundary between poetry and prose, and both revel in seeking out and incorporating into their poems the most ordinary details of quotidian life.
Ketjak was followed by Tjanting an even longer book-length prose poem, which also forms a portion of the huge poem, “Ketjak,” of which The Alphabet is the culmination. Encompassing 26 different distinct movements, almost all of which have been published previously, The Alphabet required several decades to complete. Details in the poem have an uncanny relevance. Here’s a sentence from “Demo,” written between 1980 and 1981: “At Smith-Barney, we make money the old-fashioned way: we steal it.” I read that sentence on September 30, 2008 as I was listening on the radio to the so-called “bailout” proposals being foisted on the American public. The arrogance of capital, so perfectly captured in Silliman’s parody of an advertising line, seemed freshly palpable as banking institutions in this nation managed to up the ante, with an almost unfathomable amount of duplicity, in record-breaking time. It was nothing short of a hostile take-over of the public treasury. Another instance of Silliman’s commentary remaining relevant would be the way the recent release of the biopic, Milk, gives an extra edge of bereft sarcasm to his lines:
Oliver North
is the man
Dan White always wanted to be. (513)
Having been written over a period of almost 10,000 days and nights, The Alphabet registers both small and huge alterations in the social landscape:
Next to me on the airplane is a woman with a long pair of scissors, cutting coupons she’s torn out of old papers, trimming the edges with great exactness, placing them carefully in a box too small to have held shoes which she’s placed in the lap of her sleeping husband, while I wonder at the wisdom of sharp objects in a vehicle proceeding at 600 mph.
Other changes are at the nominal level and are not necessarily adhered to throughout The Alphabet: “What once were mudflats we now call the wetlands” (117). In the last section of The Alphabet, “Zyxt,” however, “mudflats” prove to be more contumacious than one might have anticipated (“shore birds still in the mudflats”) (973).
Throughout all these changes, however, The Alphabet more than occasionally provides an implicit simulacrum of hanging out with a witty acquaintance, a self-described “first generation / mallie” (“What,” 857) with whom you stop in front of a restaurant and glance at a Health Department warning posted near the entrance. “Eminent ptomaine,” he quips, and one smiles. But rarely does surprise, that all too neglected emotion, generate anything resembling sustained laughter. A “Spell Czech” (679) kind of wit happens with the regularity of California’s seismic turpitude. The needle on the Richter scale is always already jostling, and The Alphabet is a thousand pages of squiggles and abrupt shifts. Those who expect a culminating jolt will be disappointed. Very mild chuckles are outnumbered by barely audible titters. One yearns at a certain point for a good, sustained laugh, but a poetics in which “Verb tense and sentence length are all you need of narrative” (364) will have a tendency to career a little too often in the direction of amusing patter. Much of Silliman’s wit aligns itself with parody, and popular songs often provide the template: “My name is Captain Greysquirrel and I go which way the wind blows.” (“Paradise,” 421); “Tie / a yellow ribbon ‘round the hot crime scene.” (WHAT, 857); “This is the dawn / ing of the / age of / blanched asparagus” (VOG, 675), or “The yellow rose of praxis” (974). As Silliman observes, though, “the middle of the century seems a long time ago,” and I wonder how many readers will finish this poem without wishing they could have access to an annotated edition. To that extent, Silliman’s long poem is didactic in the way that Pound’s Cantos attempt to be.
If anything surprises me about The Alphabet, it is Silliman’s comment in his “Notes” at the end of the book: “I suggest to new readers that they start with What, which was first published by The Figures press.” Why Silliman would direct a reader to “What” remains an utter puzzle to me, unless somehow he believes that “What” is more “accessible,” and that readers should be eased into an acquaintance with what might prove to be more daunting poems in The Alphabet. (“It’s not easy if your audience doesn’t identify as readers.” — “Albany,” 1). Perhaps, after decades and decades of hard work and public readings and talks, Silliman has finally grown weary: “O.K., folks, you want enlightenment, but you don’t want to work too hard. Start here.” Perhaps, behind Silliman’s suggestion, is the quiet sigh of a post-structuralist Boddisatva, which I have not detected. In any case, I see no reason whatsoever for new readers not to begin with the new version of “Ketjak” in The Alphabet. I put this “Ketjak” in quotation marks because at this point it is not a separate poem, as the prose poem Ketjak (1978) is. This “Ketjak” is an expanded version of the original poem, adding in words that are not in the original. In popular music terms, one could think of it as an expanded version of a song – the EP re-mix.
Yet if Silliman seems unable to gauge what might prove most interesting to a first-time reader, and errs on the side of accessibility, it might be because some of his readers have overheard rants about Language writing (“Language poetry is puke, sez Black Oak Books”), and Silliman’s poetry in particular, such as a review of Paradise that Silliman quotes towards the end of Non. “Paradise is too disjointed to work on any level. It is not a novel; there is no plot, no characters, no beginning, no middle, no end. There are, granted, recurring motifs, but they seem to be present only because the author’s pen ran dry, and he filled it back up with the first old phrase that came to mind. Perhaps it is intended to be one long, rambling prose poem, with images splashed across the image like a Jackson Pollack painting.” The irony of quoting a review so replete with overdetermined misapprehensions seems somewhat self-defeating, but it does enable me to puzzle ruefully over the obstacles many readers deliberately seem to set up between themselves and writing that engages in anything that resembles experimentation — an odd situation given that the centenary of the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses is just around the corner.3
So where is one to start, especially if one is a casual, or very young, reader of poetry? In his weblog, Silliman has written about his excitement in encountering William Carlos Williams as a young teenager, and I have no doubt that aspiring poets in the next couple of years will find in portions of The Alphabet the confirmation of her or his raw intuition that writing poetry (which is different from “being a poet”) is an endeavor worthy of the indignities that are certain to come. In addition to “Ketjak 2,” my favorite sections are “Lit,” “Manifest,” “Oz,” and “Under”; any of these would be a viable starting point for a reader who resists starting with “Albany.” But in terms of resolving the question of where to start, perhaps the answer is that, no matter where one starts, if one reads enough of The Alphabet, one will begin to notice recurrences of phrases and images. Often these citations are of the writing of philosophers or poets, such as Wittgenstein: “The world is whatever is the case.” Later on, that proposition is demolished, “The world is what is the vase,” which then is flung and shattered, only to resurrect eventually as, “The world is all that’s in your face” (“Non,” 350). In between, another variant serves to launch a passage that could be taken as representative of much of The Alphabet’s impetus:
“The word is all that is your face. Shit, boy, wipe yo’ mouth, you got chocolate smeared on your beard like dingleberries on a hairy ass. Sparrow’s shadow travels up stucco wall. Problem of drought etiquette: whether or not a friend’s house, to flush. The Nortonsville dead are for the most part Welsh, recruited to the Black Diamond coal fields of California, suffocating for low grade or in the 1870s, five towns no longer visible even in abandonment, house moved elsewhere (to Antioch or Concord), hawk in a low glide over the dry hills, tombstones chopped under a grove of cypress, tho from down the hill, facing north through the valley, you can see the Sacramento River right at the point where the delta ends. The quality of mercy is not strange. Foggy, pronounced “fodgy” – the purpose of intimate nonsense, babytalk among lovers, is to articulate a space apart. Your turn to have the car today. . . . Seamy ontics. Bright rug atop pale carpet. Parsley in a pot. Thin wire mesh of screen before fireplace. Ich bin ein Satz. The opposite field. Desperately seeking Godot. Well, I was hoping you were writing something about this delicious dinner I just cooked you. Digestion recollected in tranquility. Smoke spills from the holes of the barbecue’s lids. Dents on my car hood from where crack dealers sit on it during the day time. How do you spell agapantha? Trimmed tree, as hard-edged as the patio it lines. Unheated pool on a cool day. Mao cap with a logo – this one reads “Tsing Tao.” Young man carrying a bicycle up the flight of stairs. What does not charge is the will to charge. Marilyn Monroe had six toes on her left foot. A net sack for thistle seed, intended for finches, hanging empty, swinging in the soft breeze. Hum of motorscooter’s engine as it shifts down to climb the hill (“Non,” 345-346).

As if constructing the verbal equivalent of Watts Towers, Silliman folds popular culture (Desperately Seeking Susan) with the elusive titular figure of Becklett’s existential classic, labor history, quirky trivia, a baseball term, and a hidden haiku (subtract “intended for finches”). One also notices, of course, Silliman’s alteration of “the will to change.” He makes constant use of well-known lines by other (mostly male) poets, ranging from Robert Duncan (“Often I am permitted to return to a method” is Silliman’s variant) to Charles Olson, Lew Welch, Ezra Pound, Cesar Vallejo, and William Stafford. William Carlos Williams is a frequent source, both in what is almost immediate juxtaposition —
The dissent beckons
as the assent beckoned (514)

The dissent bickers
As the assent battered

Is a kind of
Deceivement. (515)

as well as what is quarreled with (“the pure products of America”) at considerable distance (pages 32 and 951). In addition to quotations, similar situations repeat themselves in the course of The Alphabet, though it is difficult to tell if they are distinct instances, or merely the same situation being described in more detail the second time. “Two deaf persons signaling to one another simultaneously” make a cameo appearance in “Ink” (107), but the final sentence of “Of Grammatology” in Vog could be taken as an elaboration: “At first I notice only that the two young men are speaking to one another in sign language, so only gradually do I begin to notice that they’re also flirting” (595). While parallels and resemblances impel the assembly of The Alphabet, the re-assembly of the poem is the genuine task of pleasure, especially as one begins to notice how certain words revolve through the poem. In part two of one of the shorter poems, “Skies,” for instance, Silliman braids together the verbal equivalent of a sculptural environment by James Turrell through a semi-anaphoric, barn-dance dosey-do reiteration, each pairing responded to with hemispheres of grace notes.
Blood & glass:
Muscle & blood:
Root & muscle:
Stem & root:
Base & Stem:
Mound & base:
Level & mound:
Bent & level:
Weary & bent:
Wild & weary:
Young & wild:
Sturdy & young:
Flowering & sturdy:
The stitching and counter-stitch proceeds through a list that includes plants, domestic objects, conveyances, and minerals. The sequence concludes by circling back to the beginning, with glass, window, and curtain completing the turn:
Glare & glass:
Steam & glare:
Mortar & steel:
Shingle & mortar:
Porch & shingle:
Drainpipe & porch:
Clothesline & drainpipe:
Window & clothesline:
Curtain & window:
Shadow & curtain:

“ Gradually, the poem begins to circle itself,” Silliman notes, but this gliding vortex becomes more visible when one takes note of the end words in the short poem that makes up “Quindecagon”: bench, black, boy, chairs, fog, friends, harmony, pose, round, screen, stone, sun, table, weighted, will. If one integrates this round into the above list, this congregation of keywords, in alphabetical order, would read: “air, angled, babytears, base, bench, bent, black, blood, bows, boy, brazen, brassy, brooms, buckets, bunches, canes, carrots, chairs, caught, conceived, considered, cosmos, crips, culture, curtain, drainpipes, dry, dump, dust, elevators, flakes, flaming, flickering, flowering, fog, friends, frosted, garden, glare, glass, gifted, glistening, harmony, heads, high, iron, jasper, level, mildew, mortar, mound, mulch, muscle, overturned, overwrought, pints, porch, pose, quartz, rhodochrosite, root, roped, rot, round, screen, shadow, shady, shingle, sifted, silver, slush, soot, spotted, snow, soot, sought, staked, steam, stem, stone, strained, striped, sturdy, sun, system, table, tourmaline, umbrellas, vests, walkers, weary, weighted, whisks, white, wild, will, window, young, yellow.” Reading through this list, I’m reminded of Michael McClure’s “Personal Universe Deck,” a method of selecting a list of words with intimate imaginative associations. If not directly influenced by McClure, who taught workshops about this deck during the early 1970s, in setting up a rotating field of invocations, Silliman in his youth seems to have absorbed some portion of this practice. Whatever the case might be, the words cited in the above list appear far more frequently throughout The Alphabet than their normal reoccurrence in written or spoken language. Although Silliman cautions that “there is no privilege in an end” (NON, 329), the above list of words modulates the incremental shifts of detail in that they tend to appear, at the very least, towards the end of a poem, or at a turning point. In “Garfield,” for instance, which consists of 21 paragraphs of 21 sentences each, here is a passage almost exactly at its mid-point:
The air is cool, discounting rain. Such difficult constructions serve to put me off balance. High-pitched tight farts vs. feigned cough. The cactus’ despair. I took the names out. Thick patch of babytears in the damp behind the tree. Slice the rind away from the meat. Take a bunch of vitamin C. Marketing the Cube with using the name. Because a balance is struck in this decentered freedom a soft black dog can sleep on the porch. The separateness of the lines in stanza.”

A reader of this review, at this point, can look back at the first sustained passage I quoted (the one beginning: “The cheap orange plastic…”), and perhaps experience the same quiet shock transforming into discreet elation as I did back when I was revising an early draft of this review. I couldn’t believe that a passage, which I had picked more or less at random, also turned out to have several of these “keywords” (air, sun, vest). Once this circularity is noticed, a line such as, “Stalk to me. Sunflower bends, weary of its own weight,” which appears four lines from the end of “Oz,” takes on an exponential tensile strength, acting much like a cable on a suspension bridge. “Words without which every other word feels trapped,” Silliman comments, and in repeating – as if it were an elaborately syncopated chant – certain words, Silliman expands the “single point of contact” (953) that each word in the text “represents” and amplifies the context without which, he argues, the use of anything, including words, simply ends up concealing power and the meanings it accrues to its hierarchical predications. The choice of “angle” to be one of the “single point(s) of contact” in The Alphabet’s final line (“The angle of my pen as it brushes this page”) reminds the reader of the materiality of writing as an emancipation project, and nudges the reader to consider the angle of the eye and page.
One additional set of repetitions involves personal tensions that might well be autobiographical. Silliman’s continuously pulsating juxtapositions generate a sensation of an internal control group at work that is moderating a very polite panel of talking heads. On one hand, The Alphabet takes note of melancholy social stratification: “At what point do you realize that you will rent for the rest of your life?” On the other hand, The Alphabet contains propositions that prove difficult for the poem as a whole to substantiate. “Emotion is only an ideological commitment stated (felt) irrationally – irrational because overdetermined (there’s a conflict)” (Demo, 30). While one could mount an argument in support of that proposition (and the early days of Language writing seemed to emphasize a deliberate elimination of emotion from the writing, except whatever fondness one might possess for grammar, evident in “Silliman for Lieutenant Grammarian”), details that seem to refer to the author’s life point to a persistent emotional struggle.

When I’m mad at you (as,
at this moment, I would seem
to be) it is not (directly)
your actions to which I
react, but how, rather,
I am put back in touch with
this old permanent storm
(“Oz,” 401-402)
The frequency with which Silliman mentions his father, who abandoned his mother at a very early point in Silliman’s childhood, would lead most readers to suspect a link between “this old permanent storm” (Oz,” 402) and the father’s callous dereliction of his first family. “Against this quiet, all the anger I feel still at never having had a father. Now that I have lived 5 days longer than he ever did” (“Oz,” 384). His father, of whom Silliman says he has not a single photo, was killed in a horrific industrial accident: “blown by the explosion four storeys into the air, third degree burns over eighty percent of his body” (“Ink,” 106). Knowledge alone proves to be an enduring trauma. “Our emotions tint / The filtered world,” Silliman argues, but what does the filtering: description? ideology? emotions themselves? Silliman points to a crucial emotion, trust, in articulating the relationship involved in the verbal composition of imagined consciousness:

Hot sun glares down over the slow traffic.
Thighs ache for muscle’s sake. A word in the hand
speaks to the bush. Shells of sunflower seed
litter the gutter. Between writing and speech
lies the process of translation. Advantage
is like a sigh but with a purpose,
a party held in your honor. Everyone
at the reading knows one another
but you. Flavored seltzer. Mind
over batter. The fist is but
a fetal position for the hand. Gladiolas
on a long stem. The social contract
between writer and reader demands trust:
distance not absorption, is the intended effect.
(“What,” 858)
One will note in this passage the recurrence of words from the core list (sun, glare, muscle, stem) prior to the qualification that Silliman imposes on the connotations of “trust,” which he asserts can only be maintained by distance. Since trust frequently engenders some measure of intimacy, the question of how to avoid absorption as an unintended side effect remains unanswered. By writing, “I am not interested in description, but detail, transforming…” (“Oz,” 474), Silliman seems to suggest, through the non-stop refocusing of attention, that a reader might find, in the undulating liminality of transformation, the trust needed to sustain attention. Again and again, like an indefatigable detective, Silliman returns to the primal stomping grounds of the hemidemisemiquaver of the instant before appetite can identify its target (“We bend / web end” – “Zyxt, ” 992).
In addition to an overoptimistic estimate of an audience’s generous patience, Silliman’s trust in the most ordinary instances of human perception is both a source of immense strength and more than occasional weakness. In reading The Alphabet, I am reminded of Jean Epstein’s cinematic goal: “I want films in which not so much nothing happens as nothing very much happens. Have no fear, misunderstandings will not arise. The humblest detail sounds the note of drama that is latent.” 3 The Alphabet contains many passages of vigorous language and memorable detail, but all too often, especially in the final 400 pages, one feels that one is having one’s attention called to something that is not worth noticing, or at least that the language used to call attention to the perception is not worth one’s devotion. “At the service / station / a man in a brown / jumpsuit / slowly waves / a customer into / the proper bay.” A certain kind of monotony sets in, rather like someone having the same kind of pancakes every morning, 365 days a year. At a certain point, latent drama does not have to become blatant, but Silliman’s preference for minor details finally wears out my welcome.
Perhaps Silliman does not care if a reader decides that an old joke is one too many (“I pick up the paper to read the latest lies”) and puts his poem aside. I can’t say that I would scold anyone who did not finish this poem. “Whoever lives by the aphorism dies by the cliché” appears on the same page as, “Returning in the rain from the old brick bank to the car, I realize that I forgot to feed the meter, had scurried right past it in my hurry to stay dry, only to have gotten by without a ticket, little gift of fate.” Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg were equally self-indulgent in presenting extracts from their diaries, and while their audiences tolerated it with good humor in public, I wonder how long they actually leaned and loafed on their living room floors, mulling over the pertinacity of such an anecdote to the imperatives of their circumstances?
Ezra Pound observed that “the general reader(‘s) job is to enjoy what he reads and to read what he enjoys.”5 I would argue that this chiastic rule of thumb has nothing to do with the so-called difficulty of the writing. One can enjoy a difficult poem; in fact, it could well be the process of untangling the difficulties that makes the reading enjoyable. As The Alphabet concludes, I don’t find myself wishing it were longer. Details confine their choreography to the trampoline of redundancy, and while they may not stop transforming altogether, they all too often mumble to themselves in a variant of post-modernist self-hypnosis. At those points, and they become more plentiful as the poem gets longer, The Alphabet stalls and runs the risk of appealing primarily to what Pound called “a specialist’s interests.” Even as a specialist, with some demonstrated interest in the avant-garde, I need more bounce for my buck.
Silliman has announced an even longer poem, The Universe, as the follow-up to The Alphabet. He has repeatedly demonstrated that he is one of the hardest working writers around, and I have no doubt he is capable of writing a longer poem than The Alphabet. “Marooned on a planet of slackers” was his recent rejoinder on his blog to an inquiry about how he manages to accomplish so much. To make this new long poem more enjoyable, I would urge him to make the difficulties more playful. What exactly is the role of the subjunctive in his imagination? I would prefer more metaphor and fewer puns. The proportion of compelling metaphors to clever puns is weighted heavily on the latter’s side in The Alphabet. One reasonable question, of course, involves whether there is actually a need for another long poem by Ron Silliman. If so, it would have to be radically different in content to make it worth the trek. It’s possible that he has at least one major new question to ask that can only be delineated in a poem that is 1,500 or 2,000 pages long. Writing a poem that long simply to find out if one can discover such a question, however, is perhaps a less than auspicious equation.
In the past, Silliman has proven to be an exceptionally articulate and provocative theorist, and his new project might be best served by an essay or two in which he discusses what urgent surprise is missing in The Alphabet that so desperately requires its enunciation in The Universe. Perhaps a set of playful alternative autobiographies (a concept hinted at in The Alphabet) interspersed with biographical research might yield the chorography of a labyrinth that rewards its spelunkers in proportion to the effort. “Can I trust this poet?” each reader has a right to ask, and she deserves a sincere answer. In general, the avant-garde is the province of the young, and it is not exactly blessed with a reputation for appreciating sincerity or trust. Perhaps Silliman could continue to change that reputation. How much of a contribution his next long poem could make, in terms of intermingling ineluctable form and innovative content, to the avant-garde will depend on how much he is able to redefine “trust” so that it re-organizes every point of contact with the distant intimacy that has marked his writing up to this point.

*. *. *. *. *. *

Ron Silliman was born in 1946 and educated at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author or editor of several dozen books, including The Alphabet (University of Alabama Press, 2008). His most recent book of poetry is a bilingual edition, English & Italian, Il quaderno cinese / The Chinese Notebook, translated by Massimiliano Manganelli, from Tiellici Editrice’s Benway Series in Colorno, Italy. Last year also saw the publication of The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Letters: Selected 1970s Correspondence of Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, and Ron Silliman, edited by Matthew Hofer & Michael Golston, from the University of New Mexico Press in Albuquerque, plus two chaplets, Five Poems I Did Not Write and Season of the Which from Happy Monks Press in Wilmington, NC. Among Silliman’s other literary projects is the anthology, IN THE AMERICAN TREE. Silliman teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and shelters in place south of Valley Forge.

For a brief overview of his work, see:


The Papa Bach T-shirt Jaunt

July 2, 2017


At some point between late 1971 and 1980, I bought a Papa Bach t-shirt and wore it to readings and while I was teaching in the Poets-in-the-Schools programs. In the summer of 1981, I drove up to Eureka, California with Cathay Gleeson to visit an old friend of hers, Karin. It was my first jaunt that far north in California, and details of that trip appeared in a long poem I was working on at the time, “Your Move.” It wasn’t the first long poem I had attempted. In 1973, I had worked on a long poem entitled “The Resurrection,” parts of which had been published in The Lamp in the Spine (edited by Jim Moore and Patricia Hampl) and Intermedia (edited by Harley Lond). “Your Move” was influenced by my reading at the start of that decade of poets such as Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Barrett Watten. It quickly went beyond just reading of their work. Conversations with Ron when he came down to Los Angeles and a talk and reading at Beyond Baroque continued once we had left that venue, for he stayed over on that trip at my apartment in Ocean Park.


Cathay and I spent a week up in the Eureka-Arcata area, and I commissioned Karin’s friend, Jim McVicker, to paint a portrait of me, for which I chose to wear the Papa Bach t-shirt, the same one I was wearing when I was photographed teaching a poetry class in Lone Pine, California. This particular classroom photograph brings back a set of contradictory memories, since working with CPITS was a problematic enterprise. The time spent in Lone Pine, however, remains one of my fondest occasions of working with other poets. Kit Robinson was there, too, and he mentions the gathering in the Grand Piano volumes as one in which he felt out of place. He probably didn’t realize how many of us didn’t feel quite at ease with each other, but our devotion to inspiring the students superseded the disparities in our poetics. I remain grateful to Eva Poole-Gibson for all she did to orchestrate two consecutive years in which poets from all over the state gathered in Inyo County to celebrate the joy of language surprising us when we least expect it.

CPITS Brochure - PB