Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Moore, Formalism & Post Avant [Part Three]

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 [1978], 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. 

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.   


Ed Baker said...

as you posit

it is not so much that "it has no content"

but rather

the absence of any narrative however tight the thread is

that exactly becomes a bore (cross) to bear(bare)?




and, do check-out Ted Enslin's

The Weather Within

Curtis Faville said...

Stein very deliberately vanquished straight narrative from her writing. The Making of Americans is almost a ritualistic exorcism of plot, in favor of nested repetition(s).

This is not to say that Stein's writing fails some limit; on the contrary, it succeeds. The Yale volumes, particularly, are fully realized poetic experiments.

It may seem odd to put Moore's and Stein's work side by side, but the dissimilarity is telling.

I'm interested in how Silliman's work is related to both Stein and Moore in ways that might not seem obvious at first.

Anonymous said...

the problem with silliman and any of the other language poets is that they are directly related to stein, as in, they are not original. hence, they are boring. and get boring very quickly because of the inherent meaninglessness. and they stay boring, as in, james joyces joke on academics everywhere, aka finnegans wake. joyces best stuff is dubliners. after that, it's pretty much shite. i have no interest in reading bad copiers. kind of like listening to bad finger. who actually does that?

Curtis Faville said...

Actually I disagree here.

Silliman and other "Language Poets" (self-identified, though there are others who may be more "language" than the presumed "Language Poets" are!) are all different. Stein has a significant influence on most of them. That's like saying they're all influenced by Eliot and Pound and Williams and Stevens, which is also true.

Would a poetry which superficially "looked like" any of those usual antecedents please you more than that which was superficially "like" Gertrude Stein?

Everybody is influenced by everything. I don't see anyone as "copying" Stein--who'd want to?

Anonymous said...

reading a silliman commentary on bernstein last night i noticed how elaborately silliman explained it. but if parsed, it was just subject-less phrases/sentences. and i simply rolled my eyes and laughed. "oh here we go again with the 'subject' being questioned..."

somerset maugham, i think, said something to the effect of "doesn't anyone just tell a story anymore?"

when virtuosity leaves art it is just style and cliques. language poetry is equivalent to steve vai: guitar music about the guitar and not the music. though i will concede that i greatly admire much of bernstein's work, though i disagree with the philosophy. it seems like silliman advocates a hyper-modernism opposed to anything else, goldsmith's weak aesthetic is deformed modernism as well. objectification or objectivism is precisely the problem with capitalism and not the "subject." oh these guys are boring fellas aren't they?

Curtis Faville said...

The critical theories of any movement may, or may not, explain or justify or defend the actual works themselves. Language Poetry, as a movement, has been very keen on providing a historical and aesthetic description of itself. This may or may not be effective. I tend of think of it as part of the process itself, as feeding into the interrogation of life and literature which is Langpo's primary motive.

You can like or not the works themselves. I would, however, try to separate the works from the critical and biographical stuff first, before rendering verdicts.

Anonymous said...

yes, sure, everybody is influenced by everything, but not everybody looks so blatantly obvious about it, and some are capable of successfully ripping off their predecessors in a way that makes their new work seem like something new. however, language poets generally fail at this. and miserably. because their main influence, stein, is barely read, let alone enjoyed. therefore, they have elected to be strongly influenced by the wrong predecessor. whereas poets like tate and simic are much better off because they selected surrealism as their primary influence. who doesn't at least enjoy a little bit of surrealism?

Curtis Faville said...

Tate, after his first three or so books, became a doctrinaire surrealist (with a slapstick manner). This is like Thomas Lux, too, or Bill Knott. Bores me to tears.

Simic is a little different. I think he's better. His poems don't seem to be "about" surrealism, but to be a literal description of extraordinary relationships and images. I find it compelling. It may just be a matter of taste.

I dislike glib, hardy-har, surrealistic description. It's so repetitive.

Anonymous said...

Curtis, have you read the poems of Robyn Schiff? You should, especially the final poem in her second book (Revolver) "Project Paper-clip." It's a rush of intensely complex syllabics, including syllabic stanzas.


Anonymous said...

hey I'm (so far's I can see) w
that other "anonymous"...

as frequently:

everything that
comes my way
strikes me

(sent that on a post card to the author ( of

IOVIS both 1 and 2) after skipping around in't

just dropped my likes and dislikes and "went along for the ride"...for the "Bahng" of it

speaking of surreal

what that cowardly lion (Burt Lahr said stands"

"ain't that the truth"

first three books of Neighbor / again speaking of The Surreal and "me"?

at bottom of this page

we open with a Breton quote

"the imaginary is what tends to become real"

actually we 'open' with Giacometti AND Rilke then Breton...

for what it's worth.

eddie watkins said...

"Would it be possible to have an abstract dialectic of sentences in which narrative is NOT irrelevant? Perhaps this is what Perec was doing."

Raymond Roussel also, maybe even more so.

Curtis Faville said...

I haven't read Roussel.

Obviously, I can't get into the manifold complexities of all the kinds of writing which influence Silliman's work, I'm just making stray connections here.

Ed Baker said...


which abstract dialectic not narrative system/meaning should/could "we" agree upon
and "share" ?

maybe jus' drop the conditional as being useless drivel?

and begin again
make sense?

Curtis Faville said...


Not sure what you mean by "conditional" here.

...not following you.

Ed Baker said...

I frequently have a difficult time

much less my self.

well conditional...

any statement that is signaled by





well no need to nail your
writing/thinking hand/head (heart) to the out-house wall..

in his introduction to Dogen's Shobogenzo Cleary offers up (page 12/13:

""[...]. The monk asked, "Do you have any other particular directions?"
Gyozan said,

"To say there is something particular or not would not be accurate. Based on your view, you only get one mystery. You get the seat and wear the robe - after this, see on your own.""

here "would not" is used as past (tense) of "will"

not to make any verb conditional///