The recent publication of Ron Silliman's monumental long poem in parts, The Alphabet [University of Alabama Press, 2008], prompts me to make some observations, in light of the kind of comment I see appearing about the work in the online journal Jacket's special feature on him, and elsewhere.
Silliman's methodology is fairly well documented. At a certain point in his career, after publishing a handful of pamphlets of his early lyrical work (in a style derivative of various trends current circa the late 1960's and early 1970's), he determined to create a new style for himself, one which could incorporate his ideas about form, language, political ideology, and perception. He came about this discovery through a process of reductive exclusion.
The new style would avoid completely any questions or misgivings about traditional poetic structures, by being written, essentially, in prose. Lyric or narrative poetries were passe, circa 1975, and no self-respecting, serious avant garde writer could afford to waste his or her time exploring different aspects of them. "Poems" might still be interesting, but only if they employed severe ellipsis and parataxis--only if, in effect, they made no initial "sense" to the common reader looking to find connected argument or a coherent statement about anything, in language which "ordinary" people could understand.
Nevertheless, many contemporary critics of The Alphabet point out that rather than being non-sequential and randomly ordered, the progressive built structures of the separate prose sections are actually quite connected, that they conduct an internal dialectic about form and the relationship between event, perception, and meaning, which are made more interesting, and significant, by being broken up into apparently scattered, reorganized, multi-contextual sequences.
An observation about something seen on the street may be followed by a flippant remark about literary form, and then by an expression of personal habit, followed by a bad pun, followed by...etc. The sense of non-sequitur is expanded to monumental proportions, in other words, so that in due course the reader sees that the poet's attempt to embrace several kinds of matter, simultaneously, is deliberately chaotic--not that the ordering of statements may be hermetic or truly accidental, but rather that whatever order may exist for the author, among the separate sentences, is purely gratuitous with respect to a reader's desire to make sense of what is being written. The reader becomes an active participant in the formation of possible meanings to be derived from the sequence of sentences presented for his amusement.
It is Silliman's belief that the human, mental desire to find simplification of meaning within any linguistic example, naturally causes readers to become frustrated with texts which do not satisfy this deep, phenomenological yearning. I would suggest that this is precisely what The Alphabet is intended to do--to frustrate any attempt by the reader to accumulate data or incremental apprehensions, out of which to build an argument or statement of ultimate meaning.
What are the implications of wanting to make a prose sequence in which the individual sentences do not relate, sequentially, to each other? What purpose, in other words, would there be in mixing multiple contexts of occasion, multiple levels of address, multiple vantages of voice, in the same prose sequence? Evidently, the world presents us with a plethora of data, indeed the mind is bombarded with conflicting and unrelated masses of sensory and mental activity all the time. We learn to integrate and organize this data at our earliest moments of existence, from the first impression of our mother's heart's-blood's-beat, to the complex multi-tasking of talking to a passenger while driving through a maze of highway interchanges while remembering six other things simultaneously.
James Joyce showed how a prose vehicle could communicate the multiple viewpoints of narrative consciousness within the mind of single individual. But poetry has never been used to convey the confusing mass of impressions and impulses which besiege our conscious and unconscious intellect. And, indeed, this isn't really what Silliman is attempting in The Alphabet. It isn't simultaneity which he's trying to create, but the building up of successive sentences, each discretely separated from the occasion of its neighbor sentences (or phrases), each insisting on its own integrity within the total mix of jumbled occasions of utterance.
One might make the case that all the sentences--(each one)--exist at the same starting point, and thus time--lasting only long enough to accommodate the duration of any individual sentence or phrase--is always returned to "1" or zero. If all the sentences in The Alphabet are parallel, or occur at the same instant in time, then they are all, in some sense, equivalent in value--at least at their starting point. Except that in order to make a sequence that is fixed, they must be ordered, and even if that order is random, or based on chance methods or on a method which resists explication, it still places the finished poem in a fixed relation to the time of its reading. Ordering creates a hierarchy of value, one which evolves out of the ordering if its constituent parts (or syntactic units). The consciousness behind The Alphabet does not insist upon the integrity of its separate parts, but only upon the unique occurrence of its structure. The level of detail is an exact measure of the experiential specificity of a single segment of lived time, with interruptions--both deliberate and "accidental"--impeding whatever narrative threads may be offered along the way. If the only meaning behind the sequence of sentences in The Alphabet is that these were the notations which one fairly perceptive, critical mind thought to record in a notebook, over, say, a two- or five-week stretch, then there is very little in the way of craft or lyric "inspiration" by which we might choose to measure its effective achievements.
Indeed, the whole notion of an achieved unity, or organized structure of statements, seems irrelevant to The Alphabet. There is nothing about the way it works, or its structural segments, which would suggest that any of its separate statements lead to any particular deduction or intended conclusion. All of these sentences simply are; one thing happened, and then something else happened; then I thought about how putting those two events (sentences) in this poem might co-exist within the mind of a single observer, and thus comment, ironically, upon this accident of their occurrence. But there may be nothing accidental whatever about the unconscious ordering of the statements.
Duchamp showed how even the most seemingly passive, or unintentional impulses to action or choice were in fact doomed to be filed as inevitable instances of our fate. Even if we try to act in a way that is not predictive, or volitional, we can't avoid doing so. This determinism is consistent with a theory of the progression of historical trends which is so dear to post-Modern theorists. Our every act, every thought is descriptive, both in terms of the instrument of our physical, material selves--and in terms of the purpose to which we might think such thoughts might be put.
But these observations are exterior to the event, the act of, the performance of any kind of poetry. Our world is a continuous field of the spouting of impulse--both real (like a flower), and abstract (as a thought)--together with the decay (the gradual deconstruction) of those impulses. Critical pruning of the inspiration of any original sense of joy, or sadness, or revulsion, may result in the depletion of such inspiration.
There is something deeply onanistic, deeply frustrating about The Alphabet, which no amount of excuse-making can vacate, for me. In its refusal to summon any over-arching implication, to seize a meaning from experience, from the effort of writing itself--but only to offer the reader instead ever more tantalizing, titillating tidbits of distraction, of choice instances, fragments, snapshots, spins, echoes, etc.--it strikes me that it is only a placeholder for the delayed task or duty--so long now postponed--of commitment to some coherent vision of the world that takes full responsibility for that commitment.
If such a commitment seems pompous, or overly audacious, then it may be that the skeptical side of one's sense of the world has come to dominate one's nature. A lyric by Donne is so much more than a lyric by Thomas Wyatt. A lyric by Hopkins is so much more than a lyric by Wordsworth. This is because the possible reinterpretations of linguistic expression are many times more variable than the forms which may seem to contain them. And yet there may be no ultimate Progress--at least in the sense in which the 19th and 20th Century thinkers and writers imagined it.
How we respond to our present may be no more voluntary or deliberate than being falsely accused of the crime of existence. If we feel trapped inside time, one possible exit might seem to be to deny the sequential nature of time itself, which is, after all, one of the key functions all poems perform--a measure. Is it possible to get rid of time by refusing to make machines (organizations) of words which connect sequentially? Is it possible to escape the traps of a time-bound procedure by setting up strict notational markers, taking whatever comes, no matter the apparent irrelevancy? Does this notational tyranny answer the needs of history? Who can say?
Pound's Cantos, Zukofsky's A, and Olson's Maximus stand as major monuments of Modernist/post-Modernist efforts at extended, life-defining and measuring records of historical witness and commentary. Each explored widely varied kinds of lyrical modes, over several decades of time. In each case, the poems themselves withstood the sweeping changes in condition and viewpoint which occurred over the life of their respective authors, ultimately stretching and fracturing along assumed linkages or traces of formal expectation, to accommodate major personal, political, psychological and historical changes and watersheds of the century.
In Silliman's The Alphabet, there appears to be no such fluidity or flexibility, since both the content and the voicings (the style) are homogeneous throughout. That a poem written over this length of time--over 30 years--should show no change in attitude or theoretical approach--as measured by its minute stylistic increments and constituent pieces--may seem somewhat troubling. One could impute a static apprehension of the world, or of a still-born conception which was never sufficiently challenged to require any adjustments or self-doubting. This kind of certainty may be one reason for the poem's homogeneity and perceived flatness: If you are thoroughly confident of every assertion--or if, by extension, you never ask questions pertinent enough to require a crucial, telling answer--the work may seem airtight, admitting of no possible entree except as a percolating, mildly diverting light-show.
How could someone as intelligent, as erudite about form and the possible ways of making poems as Silliman is, produce a work with such little variability of manner and content as The Alphabet? Thirty + years of the same line, the same poem, the same voice. Silliman often complains of the lack of variety and responsiveness to change in the works of the Quietist tradition. But dogged dedication to a single, relatively simple style could be just as suspect.
Addendum to Post [5/4/10] -
There seems to be misunderstanding about what my criticism of The Alphabet suggests about my taste, and my appreciation of what the poem's value might be. There is nothing about my discussion of the poem which should lead anyone to think that I find it uninteresting, or insincere. It is a very deliberate poem, completely in control of its means, and it accomplishes exactly what its author sets out to do. These things, alone, would make it an impressive work, even if it weren't filled with fascinating, delightful, brilliant observations. Poets generally get judged to a standard that their work itself sets. Since Ron has such authoritative command of his poem(s), it is fair to ask, for instance, what his readers might deduce from the style he has employed.
What most troubles me is the degree to which the poem itself doesn't function for most readers as a self-sufficient, fully integral event. Nonsense poetry, or pure music, need only create the delight of sound or suggestive apprehensions in the reader/listener. A good cartoon--especially one not in need of any captions--may inspire a chuckle, or give one pause. But in poetry, it's how one fits the raw data of observation, thought, and the impulse to shape things that matters. Readers can be affected by a poem's message, the manner of its saying (eloquence), or by a combination of these. But deliberately denying a reader a way into the argument of a poem defeats what most people come to poetry to find. Few readers of poetry would be able to, or would be interested in, explicating exactly how a poem functions for them--that's an appreciation mostly restricted to poets themselves, and some critics.
People used to complain that Eliot's The Waste Land couldn't stand alone, that the "Notes" weren't sufficient to fill in the gaps in understanding, that it (in effect) required a critical introduction and glosses for any average intelligent reader to comprehend what the poem was doing, and what it meant; and that's probably still true, as it is for The Cantos, or Olson's Maximus, or Zukofsky's A. In the case of The Alphabet, the work's apparent accessibility--which derives from its wealth of casual, daily observation and immediate sensory data--is no less opaque than those earlier epic poems. It has no plot in the usual sense, it has no expedient occasion for its utterances. It is not music; it is not narrative; it is not lyric, or elegy, or ode. The common reader may then ask what it is that he needs to know about it that it doesn't already furnish in the way of content. Does it come with batteries, an instruction booklet or a blueprint?
In other words, it is a poem in a tradition of long works which really require a critical exoneration of some kind, an exegesis that warrants our indulgence and interest, beyond whatever initial pleasure the poem may afford. The necessity of such a critical function strikes me as a potential weakness of the poem, in that it suggests that there is a correct, and an incorrect way of interpreting the poem's meaning. In other words, it's possible to be completely at sea with respect to what the whole poem means, while participating in any one of its constituent parts or sections. Unless one is given the key--as to Finnegans Wake or The Waste Land or Pale Fire--one is not granted access to its hermetic, underlying significance.
The critical writing of Silliman, Watten, Bernstein and others in The Language School movement suggests that the act of writing, and the act of reading, are subservient to the external objectification of any work; that the critical web we weave around the meaning of any work (or any work imagined) is potentially greater than the work itself, and that these two functions (the writing of a work and the reading of a work) are co-dependent: Neither one is sufficient to stand on its own. This symbiotic, synthetic view of the phenomenon of literature is a poetics that I find problematic, in that it excludes the casual reader.
By mixing the contexts of sentences broadly across the expanse of a long work, the author dilutes the potential reduction of its parts to a fixed meaning. By denying the common reader this fixed meaning, the reader's commitment and attention are diluted, and ultimately frustrated. In its refusal to commit either to a form, or a coherent argument, The Alphabet suppresses the ordinary human tendency to conclude, to summarize, to unify. What is it that experience and thought teaches? Experience and thought happens. One after the other, in an endless stream of consciousness which it is neither our place nor our desire to organize or prioritize.
Aside from questions about overall unity, one must wonder at the apparent monotony of the style itself. Since it is intentional, and not accidental, and not some kind of oracular possession, we have every right to ask why a poem of this length, or this proportion, should all be written in a homogeneous style. Is the fact of its consistency somehow to be regarded as an argument in its favor? And if so, what is it about this style that it should be so privileged? As a repudiation of all possible prosodic alternatives, does it bid fair to replace them all? Are its strengths and advantages sufficient to meet the needs of a 1000 page work?