Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Return of Ron . . .

. . . to Poetry

Ron Silliman
(June 2010)
[cover image altered, natch, via PhotoShop]

Well, what do you know: this month, after an absence of 41 years, poet Ron Silliman’s work – in the form of a long excerpt from his poem Revelator – appears again Poetry magazine. Silliman’s previous and only other appearance in the ‘zine came in 1969, the year his first book was published.

No, nobody’s going to write an epic, a la Odysseus and Penelope, about this particular return. Nor is Silliman here some sort of poet Tommy Thevenow, the major leaguer whose first home run in 1926 was not followed by another until 1938, 12 seasons and 3,347 at-bats later (that’s the record); Ron’s had plenty of round-trippers over the decades. But still, this may be the record, or close, for most years between appearances in the grand dame of American poetry magazines.

Anyway, I wanna talk about “from Revelator,” the Silliman poetry that Poetry published. It’s ten excerpts, amounting to approximately 465 lines (each with exactly five words) and 14 printed pages in the hard copy ‘zine.

But first, permit me dear readers of the glade to opine a bit regarding the po(etry)litics – by which I mean the significance – of Silliman being published in Poetry after so many years. It’s come about, I think it fair to say, as a result of Poetry’s recent move towards a more catholic approach to the possibilities of today’s poetry. For a long time – some would say since Henry Rago was editor (he died in 1969) and at least the last approximately 20 years – Poetry, the work published in it, has been – with a few notable exceptions (e.g., John Ashbery) has been decidedly uncomtemporary (as Silliman himself implied three years ago) and (my term here) awfully dull.

But in the last three years or so Poetry has broadened what it publishes. Poets and poems that you wouldn’t (and couldn’t) find in it twenty, ten, or even five years ago now appear just about every month. Look who has turned up in the ‘zine since 2007 or thereabouts (these are examples): Rae Armantrout (in five different issues), Fanny Howe (a couple times), a bunch of Flarfers + Conceptualists (a special section), Charles Bernstein (thrice), Ange Mlinko (a dozen or so separate time, a laudable instance of editorial enthusiasm unleashed), Inger Christensen, Robert Hass (the longish + disjunctive “September Notebook: Stories”), Juliana Spahr (a manifesto), and a large number of vis-po work (another special section, edited by Geof Huth).

As such, this month’s – drumroll, please – Return of Ron continues the magazine’s attempt to become a forum for new work from poets who write in ways decidedly different than the quieter staid verse that it primarily and even entirely featured in far too many issues for far too many years.

For this most welcome change I credit senior editor Don Share (he began at the ‘zine in October 2007), his boss Christian Wiman (who seems to have given Share room to move), and associate editor Fred Sasaki (who no doubt does a lot of the work). But whoever has made it happen, I celebrate the move towards presenting writing of a kinds different than its own recent tradition, to take a course that might (or plainly will) cause concern among that part of Poetry’s subscriber or readership that’s too often been inured to the fuddy-duddy.

Yes, “inured to the fuddy-duddy.” That’s what I say about those who – to take just examples from readers’ letters published in Poetry so far this year – find an esoteric allusion “solipsis[tic],” deplore “gutter language and “naughty children,” consider themselves “average Joes,” believe that poetry now finds itself in a “lowly state,” or find ampersands and “Dickinsonian dashes” distracting.

Hello? Dear people inured to the fuddy-duddy: wake up, please, and smell the kaliedoscope as it tickles your proprioception!

Now don’t get me wrong. Poetry’s recent efforts to expand its variety is but a start. There are at least fifty other poets – and that’s just off the top of my head – that should be published there, before the ‘zine can righteously be considered to have approached the wondrous range of today’s out-there and with-it writing. I hope Poetry’s editors actively solicit wide and far, and that poets I’m thinking about give it a shot.

Poetry, let’s face it, is well-positioned to attract poets of all kinds, in that unlike many journals it pays, and pays relatively well. At its standard rate of ten dollars per line, Silliman for example presumably received close to $5,000 for “from Revelator.” That’s a nice chunk of cash (although given the length of the excerpts, and their placement at the front of the issue, I hope Poetry applied a generous multiplier to Silliman’s payment). The Poetry Foundation has the money, and if they can build a $25 million headquarters and a million dollar website they can kick down a little more to the poets. So, go Poetry: keep paying the poets, and please: less pap, more inventive and visionary.

Poetry it seems to me is trying to become a kind of monthly big-tent three-ring verse-circus (and don’t forget the prose-poets, please). This is not a bad goal, it sounds fun as hell, but whether this can work or not in practice, I’m still not sure. Sometimes it’s really, really weird. Next month’s (July/August 2010) issue, whose table of contents and one essay are already available on-line, shows what I mean. It includes among other things two poems by the fresh, neo-surrealist, and riveting Sandra Simonds, to which I say yes!, and a poem by Anthony Madrid titled “In Hell the Units Are the Gallon and the Fuck” that I’ll wager will be a very lively read.

But next month’s Poetry will also include a portfolio of work by Robert Pinsky about which, sorry, I’m betting will strike me as populist doggerel [note: on 6/14, I learned via a blog post by Poetry editor Don Share that it’ll be a libretto, not poems by Pinsky]. Even worse, Poetry will feature an essay – I call it a stink-pile – on poetry by John Wooden, the just-dead ultra-conformist college hoops coach. The essay is already on-line (click here, but I warn you), and in it Wooden explicates a view of poetry as interesting and useful as a deflated basketball. Hallmark greeting cards are better than the verse quoted by Wooden in the essay. Crap like this shouldn’t be allowed in any tent, no matter how big and no matter how much inventive and experimental work is included.

But let’s get back to Silliman’s “from Revelator.”


The 14 pages of excerpts from Silliman’s Revelator in the June 2010 Poetry amount to about 25% of the completed poem, according to information Ron kindly provided in response to an e-mail query. An interesting question, to me at least, is why were the particular poem-segments printed in the issue – and again, there are ten – chosen?

There’s little doubt that the excerpts were carefully selected. They are taken from different parts of the poem, and are not simply consecutive to one another (as can be deduced by listening to a reading by Silliman from earlier this year). Further, the excerpts vary in length. The longest is 84 lines (three others have more than 50), five have between 30 and 45, but one is but seven lines long. That short one got me started here – why those lines, and only those?, I asked myself – and from there the same but broader question: of everything in the poem, why these particular excerpts?

My answer is but a guess, a speculative assertion. However, I think it’s a good guess, and besides, by offering my two cents the poem, that which is at its core, can be focused on, which should be the main point here.

So here’s what I think: Revelator is a great poem, and the excerpts in Poetry were chosen
both because they are representative samples and include enough of Silliman’s core poetic / aesthetic / philosophical precepts (embedded in the lines) such that those new to his work – including that segment of Poetry readers that I call fuddy-duddies – might learn and see (assuming they give it a good honest read) what he’s up to as a poet, and might have their eyes and minds opened to its power and importance. The excerpts, in short, serve as a not quite but sort of a primer and/or prolegomenon to Silliman’s poetry, something that might be instructive to readers not yet familiar with it.

It’s “not quite but sort of” a primer because the principles presented even when overt are embedded in the lines, and sometimes presented as object lessons. But pointers about and examples illustrating what’s going on are there, and readers who don’t know Ron’s writing, who might be used to more explicitly narrative or bow-tied poems, are given plenty of signposts.

At the core of Silliman poetry – more accurately, the Silliman I’ve read over the years – is an intense focus on the present, the now. It’s something he learned first while working with prisoners in the early 1970s (see the note at the back of Circle “R” (Drogue Press, 1995), written in the third person but clearly Silliman’s own, and the section appended at the bottom of this post). For those doing time, yesterday and tomorrow aren’t nearly as relevant – to say the least – as today (this convict-view in Silliman deserves greater exploration, and someday I may well do so). The point though, is the NOW, and keeping the mind attuned to it.

And so in the first excerpt from Revelator in Poetry, a few lines into it, there’s a mention of a movie, about which Silliman writes:
              . . . plot too
dense to follow, unless (unless!)
mind’s eye gives attention . . .
And there it is, the importance of attention, a pretty dang direct mention at that, and emphasized too, via the repetition and exclamation-pointing of the qualifier-conjunction.

And so too, in one of the later excerpts (I’ve added italics here is underscore my reference):
                  . . .young man
alone in Chipotle, chewing thoughtfully
his large burrito, not talking
taking it all in, eyes
absorbing all, could have been
had this taqueria been there
then, myself in 1964 . . .
I like the repetition of “all” in this excerpt, in that it again emphasizes the goal, the approach of the poet, and the fact that the principle set forth – Silliman’s thinking about what’s going on, his projection of self into the observed – is embedded in a detail (the guy with burrito), an instance of exactly the kind of particular that results from the focus on the now, and a detail and principle that – because it is presented in six concise and carefully constructed but almost nested-in-one-another clauses – requires from the reader the precise kind of attention that Silliman enacts and champions!

The “from Revelator” excerpts in Poetry also include lines and phrases in which Silliman comments about his process or approach, which also give the reader an orientation to his work. There is, for example:
                  . . . what’s near
is past too soon to
grasp fully the consequence, dawn
threatens a new day constantly
which seems to set forth the constant challenge of focusing on the now, and (this from the excerpt that’s but seven lines long):
              . . . —there’s an art
to it intuited before thought
thinks— . . .
which says something about how Silliman deals with the challenge of the cascade of moments. And then there’s this statement, the last example I’ll present (read the excerpts in Poetry, available on-line, to find more!), in which Silliman explains that his poetic adventure will never be finished and at the same time directly tells what he’s doing, as he does it (note the effect of the line break after “stretch”):
               . . . one project
I’ll not complete, that’s not
it’s point, but to stretch
even just a little, shape
& dimension, time & dominion,

“After [his] early books [Crow], nox and Mohawk, Silliman began to understand the most important lesson of his work with prisoners – that there is no time other than the present – and began to apply it to prose in a poem called Ketjak. This lesson and that project have subsequently extended into a life work, in which each poem is at once distinct and always also part of a much larger process.”
– from the editorial material near the rear of Silliman’s
Circle “R”
(Drogue Press, 1995)

“Tomorrow’s a dream
Yesterday’s a memory
Both a passing of a cloud”
– from “No Beauty In Cell Bars”
a poem by Spoon Jackson
About Time III:
A Third Anthology of California Prison Writing
(Prison Arts Project, 1987)



Curtis Faville said...

The most troubling aspect of Ron's work over the last 30 years is its dogged sameness.

Here's a man who taught himself all the finer points of verse, tried them all out for size, and then wholeheartedly rejected all of them in favor of a poly-contextual prose style that no one without a degree in advanced literary criticism is likely to fully appreciate.


The new work in Poetry is exactly like all the rest of the work in The Alphabet. I can understand wanting to be consistent and being comfortable enough inside a familiar style to want to keep using it, but for someone with as perspicacious a mind as Ron possesses, it's really astonishing to me that he never strays from the narrow path.

It's almost as if he's now become shy of writing in any other form, for fear that someone might accuse him of capitulating to a tired formality. It's like a program of avoidance.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Well said, Curtis

My thoughts exactly. I'm always a little suspicious of a poetics whose core principles its chief exponent refuses to satisfactorily elucidate (aside from some very arcane & unapproachable writings on LangPo)

I like the man, and have enjoyed the "the Alphabet" (though I discovered Silliman about 5 years ago through Bernstein): and there is certainly (from my own necessarily limited Canadian perspective) no greater promoter of American lit today that I can see.

Steven Fama said...

Dear Curtis, and Conrad,

Thanks for your interest, and taking the time to comment.

The editorial material from Circle R quoted in the post alludes to it, and Silliman himself -- at the start of his reading from Revelator earlier this year (you can listen here) -- says it himself (and I quote him, from that, here):

"I've been writing the same poem all my life . . . ."

It's exactly what he's doing.

Curtis: are you troubled by the "sameness" in the work of the photographers you write (blog) about?

Does the sameness of Dickinson and Whitman or Stevens or [insert hundreds of other names here] bother you too?

And really, how can you be so unable to to answer the "Why?" question you pose, save for your silly suggestion that it's some stubborn vanity of Silliman's.

That you can't answer "why?" suggests an unfortunate lack of appreciation, or maybe understanding, of how creative impulses or convictions can be.

Can you not possibly imagine that Ron Silliman believes his way of perceiving and putting into words his experience MUST be the way he writes?

That perhaps Silliman believes -- maybe even has a hard-wired brain necessity compelling the conclusion -- that the best way to make his ode to the Grecian urn that is life is to write exactly as he does?

That it is his way of seeing of loving of teaching the world about him?

You don't have to like his poetry. But to criticize because it isn't something else is awful. It's disrespectful to the creative that I think is in everyone, and disrespectful to the creative that some must bring forth in words.

Curtis Faville said...


I think there are several things you need to get over, with respect to the relation between criticism and its literary models.

You seem to need to believe in a kind of innate necessity in the style of any particular writer. This isn't born out in practice. Writers choose to write in certain ways, for certain reasons. Much of it begins in imitation, and continues indefinitely in a stuck mode. That's one of the problems of trying to "teach" poetry to people (i.e., workshops). What do you teach but the (successful) examples from the past?

But an innovation, in and of itself, doesn't preclude further innovation. There is great originality in Whitman, and the several things he does with it. But it's a flexible medium, and he uses it in various ways. Leaves of Grass has a certain epic continuity which is appropriate to its form.

Ron's poem The Alphabet was begun over 30 years ago, planned in detail, and executed doggedly to fulfill a master-plan.

Ask yourself how certain you were at the age of, say, 30 about how the world worked, and how you might best go about describing it in terms that reflect your particular vision and way of thinking. Might you have been just a little audacious--perhaps even vain--to think that the task you could set for yourself over the subsequent three decades could be pre-visioned and pre-ordained in this rigid way?

Is the style that Ron "discovered" or found to use in Ketjak, flexible and useful enough to say all the things a man might think to say in the prime three decades of his life?

Do you find in his style a potential for profound personal (individual) expression, for a formal definition of the world which incorporates all its variety and unexpectedness and change?

Pound and Williams and Olson and Kelly and Zukofsky--or Browning and Tennyson and Swinburne--all began ambitious epic works and found that they were unable to sustain a consistent approach, or found that the work had to change in order to accommodate changes in their lives, in the world, and in their perception of how poetry works, and what they were progressively capable to achieving. That's most evident in Maximus I, II and III. Maximus III is so much more, so much more penetrating and clean and delightful, than the rhetorical posturing of Maximus I. And yet Olson's poem was written over a period of less than 20 years.

It's this consistency--which is not in itself a commentary on the success or failure of Ron's style per se--which is most disquieting to me. That style served him very well in Ketjak, somewhat less well in Tjanting. In The Alphabet--in a poem of some thousand pages--there's a unrelieved quality which overwhelms the events in his life, and progress of his consciousness through time. The enormous insistence on this one way of expressing event and thought--which he discovered in Ketjak, is employed over and over, endlessly.

You react to my criticism as if I were putting the poem itself down, and with it, the style it employs. But this is only half the point. I just think the decision to write a poem of this length, in a single, inflexible style, is a little demonic.

Curtis Faville said...

Part II of above:

Criticism isn't an offense against the author, it's an enterprise in support of the process of communication between the individual mind, and an audience. What does Ron's poem SAY to the casual, "ideal" or "common" reader? An onslaught of sensation and ideation with no apparent inner connectivity except the implication of the relation between overlapping contexts. It's possible to read Ron's work as a kind of recreation, but recreation alone isn't what literature has traditionally been about. Does any such reader come away from Ron's work with an enlarged sense of the world and of the possibility of literature as a formal response to life? Or does it require a buttressing of critical and textual explanation or reference--to allow the uninformed, untutored reader to participate in its multiple dialectics?

Curtis Faville said...

You mention my posts on photographers.

My biggest criticism of Jock Sturges, for instance, is the brutal insistence on a single subject, seen in a narrow way, which defines the limitation of his vision.

The best photographers aren't limited to just a single subject, or a single way of seeing the world. Think of Callahan--at least 10 different kinds of separate channels of image-making. He really allowed himself to change, and let his art change, to reflect his expanding awareness of his medium.

And the same is true of poets. Perhaps a writer doesn't live long enough to experience the necessary development that evolves from an open apprehension of the world. Would James Wright have become a different kind of poet, had he lived another 20 years? Almost certainly.

A rolling stone....

Steven: you seem to write from a position neither AS creative, nor critical, but as a fan. There's a danger in trying to define AS a critic would, or to define critical viewpoints as a responsible act of the literary dialectic, IF your primary interest is direct appreciation. Blogging presents a tantalizing alternative which carries both kinds of potential, while seldom fulfilling either. We're all guilty of it, myself included.

The best place to start to appreciate a work seriously, and responsibly, is how it feels to you in the beginning. But that's only the starting point. That's not where you want to end up, just liking or not liking. Like, as Creeley says somewhere, "so what, man?"

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Curtis, for the dialogue.

True enough, the necessity to make certain things in certain ways, the creative necessity, is not universal. Commercial art, for example, proceeds from motivations entirely different. And most hacks don't have it, or go in other directions, for other reasons.

But creative necessity exists. I've seen it, plenty. Your inferred claim that Silliman's poetry is some constructed deliberated planned strategic tactic forgets creative necessity.

As is true of many great photographers, Silliman's writig looks at many, many different things. But just as you can always know from the fist look that a Weston is a Weston, whether it's a green pepper, a sand dune, or a nude, you know a Silliman poem from just about the very start.

It's the approach -- regardless of the object on which the creative intelligence and spirit focuses -- that remains the same.

Jerry Garcia played bluegrass, and he played the spaciest psychedelia. He played the blues, he played kid's songs. He covered Dylan and he covered Irving Berlin. And it all, the music, even sans vocals, -- the guitar, the strumming-style, the dropped in triplets, etc. -- is instantly hear-able as Jerry.

The master-plan of The Alphabet, and now of Universe seem to me structures created in which to encourage and present the never-to-be-finished life-poem that -- as Silliman says -- has been and will always be the same.

In other words, the systems of 26 parts (and now 360 parts) are the big wheel that keeps on turnin' so that Proud Mary keeps on burnin'."

Roll it. Roll it. Roll it on the river.

That's John Fogerty, natch.


"Rave on, it's a crazy feeling."
That's Sonny West from 1958.

I tried to be very clear in the post about what the poem "says" to readers.

What, by the way, do the portraits of Francis Bacon "say" to those who see them in a museum?

Or, what does Bruce Conner's movie (the short or long version) LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS "say" to those who watch it?

Or any thousands of other examples.

Peace out and let's go read some poetry!

P.S. I write as a reader. I reject all other labels in that regard but insist that all you said -- the creative, the critical, the fan-dom -- are a part of it. As are my glasses, the bookmarks I tend to tear from the pages of magazines or improvise from piles of Monopoly money, and about seventeen other things too. But it's a sunny morning, and Father's Day, so once again, peace out and let's read some poetry!

Don Share said...

I'm surprised that Curtis finds a "dogged sameness" in Ron's new work. (And I'm not defending it because we published it, honest!) For me, it's quite different from what's in The Alphabet. The structure of the five-word lines, tipping his hat to Zuk, for instance; and what seems to me a big-hearted, panoramic look back at the figures and landscapes of his life and work. When I saw "Revelator" - and as Steven has rightly pointed out, it's a far longer work than we ran in June - my eyes just lit up. For me, at least, it represents quite a development in Ron's work, even as much as it's continuous with what came before. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Steven Fama said...

Hi Don,

Dang good point. The Alphabet does have a variety of forms, but the five-word lines of Revelator are a constraint that probably is the most challenging to write in, for Ron.

There's not a lot of room to wiggle with five words. And I can point to many instances in the Revelator excerpts in Poetry in which the enjambment really zoom-zooms the words and substance.

I focused in the post on what I believe is an over-arching energy in all the works, one that Ron S. I think must think is there also, as indicated by his comments that he's engaged in writing the "same poem."

[P.S. Sorry for the slight delay posting your comment. To combat the spam-bots, I'm set up to require moderation on posts that have been up more than a week or two.]