One aspect of Silliman's work which has bothered me for quite a while, is its abandonment of traditional lyricism, in favor of a prosaic style (basically prose without a musical setting). Ketjak , from my perspective, seems to have been the initial part of this phase. The Alphabet, effectively a collected poems since the late-1970's, is a remarkably homogeneous mass of work, all of it made out of the same material, presented with minor formal variants.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Moore, Formalism & Post Avant [Part Three]
Why does Silliman abandon the short lyric poem near the beginning of his career, in favor of prose? Was it because he could see that it was a tradition that had run out of gas? Was it an attempt to define himself against the backdrop of traditional "Quietist" verse formalities? Or was it an attempt to incorporate his thinking and habitual notational manner into works of larger purpose and impact? Was the burden of what he had to say, and report, too great to convey within the confines of occasional lyric performance pieces, or even (as with Duncan, or Spicer) into open-ended serial works? Probably all of these, and more.
All of his work since the mid-1970's might be seen as an illustration of what he had called "The New Sentence." Prosody is not usually thought of as a description of grammar per se, certainly not only of "sentences." Frost had called his work, at its best, as poems made out of "the sound of sentences" but that obviously is quite different from what Silliman was talking about. Silliman had said that sentences might organize themselves into paragraphs the same way that stanzas are used to organize traditional poems--but in ways that lie outside the usual methodology of argument or logic.
This is an enormous subject, and not one that I can meaningfully address here. However, it is useful to note that among the High Modernists, except for some of Stein's later experiments (collected in the Yale volumes), the primary documents are in prose (Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and The Waves, Cummings's The Enormous Room and EIMI, Williams's Kora in Hell, Faulkner's early novels, Hemingway's early stories, etc.). Seen within the context of an abandonment of a constricted lyric line (which was Eliot's and Pound's and Stevens's and Williams's and H.D.'s preoccupation) Silliman's decision to explore form as a sequence of prose statements constitutes a repudiation of nearly the whole history of lyric poetry.
Since the "invention" (or re-invention) of the modern novel as an epistolary dialectic in the 18th Century, and its subsequent disintegration in the early 20th, into psychological or etymological or metaphysical "tapestries", the avatars of formal inquiry have nearly all tended to coalesce around the potentials of prose. Burroughs, Mac Low, Gaddis, Pynchon, Gass, Durrell, Barth, Barthelme, Beckett, Kerouac, Nabokov, Calvino, etc. Contemporary and/or Post-Modern Poetry has no comparable body of work of the range and depth of formal innovation taking place among writers of prose.
Is Silliman's work, beginning with Ketjak, an attempt to privilege the possibility of a writing--neither poetry, nor narrative prose--as an inquiry uniting philosophy, political science, image and observation, art criticism, history, even bland quotidian experience into fragmented, linear sequences along a flatline of continuous (or arbitrarily dissected) extent, percolating with poly-con-textual relationships?
What are the closest antecedents one might posit for such a program? Joyce's Ulysses? Except that in Silliman, there are no "characters"--only the one individual consciousness. Woolf's Mrs Dalloway? Except that in Silliman, there is no "portrait" of an individual within a timed social context, no development. Beckett's fictions? Except that Silliman's work is expansive, eclectic, symphonic, and not reductive, despairing and dry.
The over-riding impression I derive from The Alphabet, which is a part of the larger life-work he calls Ketjak [1974- ], is of a single voice, essentially unchanged, almost without any variation or adaptation, arbitrarily segmented into blocs of time and dimension. Any part of it could, with minor augmentation, be substituted for any other part. This homogeneity, or interchangeability, troubles me. One of Modernism's strengths, was its appropriation of form to content, allowing the form to embody (or BE the expression OF) what was being said. Olson and Creeley may have thought they were explicitly describing poetry, but the terms of their mutual definition could as well be applied to prose.
We could dismiss the discussion of formality as it is expressed in Silliman's work as merely a stylistic approach to critical thinking about verbal forms. Is Post-Modernism (or Post-Avant), then, the appropriation of large arbitrary shapes to superficially undifferentiated masses of disorganized data and observation?
In Ashbery, or Merrill, this tendency devalues content, offering seductive routines of performance, none of which is of greater, or lesser, value, either to reader or writer. By disengaging necessary content from the occasion of its writing, even making this relationship superfluous, the Author risks irrelevancy.
One reason Stein's work is so little read is that it has no content, or no content that might place it within a context meaningful to the reader. It has all the characteristics of a fully worked out experiment in language, except a subject. This was obviously a deliberate attempt to flatten out the narrative in order to address the grammar, both of language and of thought.
Would it be possible to have an abstract dialectic of sentences in which narrative is NOT irrelevant? Perhaps this is what Perec was doing.
In any event, Moore's habit of employing an arbitrary formal pattern, a priori, looks very much like the application of a dictionary as metaphor. If sentences can be parsed and rearranged and clustered and layered and scrambled, perhaps grammar itself may be susceptible to dissection. A poetry built out of the materials of language, i.e., letters and sounds, ought to carry all of the content of words, without sacrificing their power to stand alone as examples of what they are. The alienation of writers from language may be a metaphor for the alienation of man from the political, religious and social institutions which we inherit from the machine of culture. The work of Barrett Watten offers one example of what this alienation looks like.