Friday, February 13, 2009

A Shout-Out for the 2/17 KWH Silliman Celebration

“These Are a Few of My Favorite Things”
(in the Alphabet)

Living as I do about 2,800 miles from the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House (KWH), I’m not going to make the celebration for Ron Silliman and his the Alphabet that’s happening there this coming Tuesday, February 17th. But I (and so too can you!) will be watching on live streaming video, via the KWH site (click here), starting that day at 6:30 p.m Eastern (3:30 Pacific).

I say let’s get the party started now! I put the Alphabet on my list of 20 great poetry books published in 2008, and have also previously written about the puns in the book, particularly in the poem titled Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect. But there’s plenty more to be said, as one should expect with a lifework (almost 30 years in the writing) that has 26 separate poems that collectively run for more than 1,000 pages.

Here then, in the words of the classic Rogers and Hammerstein tune – and inspired by the driven melody of Coltrane’s take on that song – are a few of my favorite things in the Alphabet:

Words Gone Wild!
(the first section of LIT, pages 225-227)

I’ve previously described the Alphabet, and I think fairly, as a parade of superbly done “be here now” particulars. I’ll add that most of the particulars seem to have – or can be imagined as having – arisen from a specific place-time locus. Silliman’s Under Albany (Salt Publishing, 2004), in which he provides the “back-story” (my term) to each of the dozens of sentences in Albany, the Alphabet’s first poem, certainly shows that actual events underlie those words. I believe Silliman could provide a similar narrative backdrop for just about every sentence or line in the Alphabet’s 1,000 plus pages.

Except I don’t think he could do that for the first section of LIT. The words and sentences of that section seem mostly entirely unhinged and unleashed from references to actual events, unleashed from the written parade of particulars that is so much of (and so wonderful in) the Alphabet. Check this out:
Tattoo ducktails (entire stock must go) river the ferny glade’s ionic duplicates, hand-sewn or virginal as a Chinese jacket, to the tonsorial rhodochrosite splendor, capital M, marketing vacation nights. New model of transfer point sarcasm between aspects of aerial geology autism and neo-heliocentric gestalt, 3 ring punch, hollow shallow pillow, a bird in the sandwich, a dog in the rocket, my hair fading like a morning shadow, is more than you can sip through that straw in your nose, the carbon overdue and those chimes bleating.
That’s but two of numerous similar sentences in first section of LIT. The sentences of that section (some are but a word or a few, some lengthy, as above) strike me as a type of free-jazz-jam prose-poetry, with facets of surrealism, nonsense, the baroque and who knows what. Such writing ain’t the mainline of Silliman’s work, far from it, but it’s great and perhaps especially memorable precisely because it’s so different.


The Fart Dream
(a paragraph in Zyxt, page 961)

Yeah, I know: I write “fart dream” and suddenly it’s an episode of the TV cartoon South Park, an inane Howard Stern stunt, or some idle memory from sophomore year gym class. Yet the fart has a long and almost noble literary history, what with Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” and numerous appearances in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, among others.

Silliman’s contribution to the literary history of the fart comes in a long, amazing paragraph near the beginning of the Alphabet’s final poem. In that paragraph, Silliman sets out a stunning – and insanely detailed – dream that begins with our fair poet bathing “in a large tub in an even larger ballroom in the middle of some reception, everybody dressed to the nines . . . .” There’s no way to convey here the hilarious shameful horror that ensues. Suffice it to say that the dream ends with “the room entirely blue in a dense fog” with only the poet “left to tell the tale”.

This fart-dream, I insist, is not just hilarious and well-told, but central to Silliman’s poetics. Yes, you read me right: the fart-dream is central to Silliman’s poetics. In a 1985 compilation of “Poetics Statements” for a Vancouver colloquium, Silliman wrote (note: emphasis added):
I know that I distrust lyricism, and am wary of irony. Both strike me as critical stances, but ones that enable a poet to evade taking any alternative positions affirmatively. I much prefer mistakes, just as I do a poetry which is capable of stumbling in public and letting out farts. What is more deadly than a poem which seeks to be told it’s beautiful. Yet nothing irritates me more with my peers than how many tin ears seem to keep banging at the piano. Oh, and how few responsible readers there really are.
The fart-dream of Zyxt, I assert, is an object-lesson par excellence of Silliman’s embrace of mistakes, transgressive approach, and rejection of beauty as the ultimate value in poetry.


The Street Trash of San Francisco
(Jones, pages 113-137)

I’m pretty sure I could write a blog post a day for a month about the various poems that evoke – engrave in the mind through words – the landscape of Northern and Central California. There’s Robinson Jeffers’ renderings of Big Sur, Pt. Lobos, and Carmel, William Everson’s poems about the ground-hugging winter tule fog in the Central Valley and drought and fire in the Santa Cruz mountains. There’s also Kenneth Rexroth’s many poems set in the High Sierra, or those of his set in the Devil’s Gulch side canyon in Marin County’s Samuel P. Taylor Park, and Robert Duncan’s poem with the lines about a storm pouring into Stinson Beach from the Pacific. Etc. etc. etc.

Silliman’s place in this Northern California poetic landscape history is of a different character than those mentioned above, but just as important. Silliman in Jones – a poem named after a street in San Francisco’s rough-and-tumble Tenderloin district – goes after and gets not the natural world, but the true human urban scape.

Silliman wrote Jones by (in his words, from an endnote) “looking at the ground for a year.” What Silliman saw, and put in his poem, is as much a part of San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, and the summer fog, though not usually celebrated and in fact most often ignored:
Loose fluffs of cat fur, gray-white in the parsley, suggest an old fight – on the walk, a scrap of roofing shingle, through which sticks a rusted nail. Headlights’ reflections stretch out atop the rain-slick asphalt – illumined nightworld in mid-morning. Pale brown tip of a crushed cigarette butt – blind fibers (mashed) jut out.
That’s three sentences out of 25 pages filled with similar observations. Silliman brings us pigeons, “smashed and flattened” styrofoam burger boxes, oil stains, empty bottles, crumpled paper, and much, much more. In these accretions of observed and conveyed details, Jones transmutes diurnal detritus. It’s an awesome example of how attention paid pays off poetically. And as I said, it rightly belongs in any discussion of California poetry of place.


No comments: