Saturday, June 6, 2009

The New Sentence - Style or Method ?

I've been trying to understand what Ron Silliman means by "The New Sentence" and how his writing, since he declared this as the harbinger of an uniquely potent new prose technique, finds its possible fulfillment in his own published work(s). It may be unfair to expect the creative work of any serious critic to serve as an exemplar of primary principles of value, but Silliman has made it his special mission to explain, if not justify, the whole vast program of "Language Poetry" in its various manifestations, marshaling references and citations from linguistics, philosophy, literary criticism and literature itself. 

To telescope the presentation, one could say that Silliman's first principle is that Language "centered" writing employs the use of the decontexualized signifier uncoupled from the tyranny of the signified. Which means, at a very primitive level, that what words and sentences refer to, point to--mean, in effect--is less important than the possible extra- or non-referential expedient connotations which may be generated through alternative techniques of composition. 

Silliman has never resorted to fragmentation at the level of grammar in his work. With the exception of a few minor minimalist experiments early in his career, his work is grammatical, syntactically predictable and correct. Since the appearance of Ketjak [1978], his work has been marked by a continuity, a homogeneity of method and style which makes the writing at any point over the last 30 years essentially indistinguishable.
There has always been a question of historico-literary continuity--at least, for me--in discussing the sources of LangPo. Michael Palmer, and Clark Coolidge, for example, who together edited a short-run magazine, Joglars, way back in the early 1960's, and whose respective oeuvres have always been linked, in my mind, to the development of a kind of writing which has lately been claimed by the Watten-Silliman & Co. hegemony as their territory, eventually were "disassociated" by LangPo.  Not only these two figures, but a host of other "peripheral" figures (such as Eigner, Raworth, Greenwald)--one could make equally compelling arguments of these figures, for a disorganized, but nonetheless substantial "movement" of common concern, preoccupations and interests. Indeed, Coolidge's and Eigner's work were held up early on as a textual models by Watten in early issues of his magazine this. Though later tacitly disavowed, such allegiances and models clearly precede the critical theorizing (now referred to as "the turn to language") at 80 Langton, Grand Piano and after.    

In the work of Clark Coolidge, in many ways the original seminal figure of the language poetry movement, the traditional defined meaning of words is altered, in the interests of new constructions. After his early period of non-syntactical abstractions in Ing, Space, The Maintains and Polaroid in the 1960's and early 1970's, he turned to a style using sentences and sentence fragments (phrases) that have an ostensible grammatical logic, though using words in a way that deflects their common meaning, in favor of novel connotations and spins. De-coupling of signifier from signified occurs in a fairly predictable way; once you get used to Coolidge's later style, there isn't much challenge in its method, it's like a catalogue of possible changes given the potentials of his imagination, within that form. He's been very consistent with that. (This later style roughly parallels the period of Silliman's "new sentence" work (1978-present). Doubtless, Coolidge's independent development (as well as other surviving figures from the 1960's), without group affiliations, continues to present as an unaccommodated complication to an historical version of LangPo as an immaculate conception.)     

But Silliman's work has never been about such non-syntactical or novel significations. His structures are invariably built out of quotidian statements, drawn from a wide variety of contexts, their parallel, non-hierarchical flatness suggesting simultaneity and accidental relationships. Each sentence stands alone in a waste land of disconnection. The interest level of his sentences varies, but there is no priority we might assign to them, since they aren't constructed around "topics" or "themes" the way prose traditionally is. They don't "build."

If you spend any time around Ron, you immediately observe that what he notices, the phenomena that draws his attention, is how seemingly unconnected events or shapes or expressions intersect, or interact, creating ironic fill-ins in an immense matrix of data. It's a rather obsessive process of linking and borrowing, of accretion and transposition. Mountains of perceptions are heaped up, non-stop, overwhelming the text. The implication is that sensory overload is simply getting tuned-in, the generator of data (a rapid word machine) running at top speed, as we watch in amused consternation or delight. 

"A sentence in the evening. Today the boxscores are green. Tonight the boxcars are growing in the railyard, The indexical items are not coreferential. Hollywood caenfidential. You made Cheerios number one.

Mock snow: white petals from the plum tree swirl in the wind. I was working on a different poem. The dark patches to the clouds' glare are all we have of depths to this sky. The shudder of the laundry down in the basement. A small table in one corner of the kitchen. White petals from the plum tree twirl in the wind. I slip in a pair of diskettes...." [from Paradise, pp17-18, Burning Deck, 1985]

Etc. At one level, there's a fairly off-handed wit going on, simple puns or casual linguistic relationships are set up, but without much resignation. They're just flying by, odd figments of diversion in the flow of daily stuff.  

In his essay The New Sentence, reprinted in an essay collection of that title, [The New Sentence, Roof Books, 1987], Silliman lays out the groundwork for an understanding of his concept of this new compositional style. It begins by noting the failure of traditional linguistics to furnish an adequate definition of the sentence as a unit of language, leaving that function, therefore, open to possible elaboration or appropriation (by writers). Modern criticism, which is based on the apprehension of literature as read, can't serve as a basis for a model of writing as practice. The New Critics de-limit the field of discussion of poetry as frames of referentiality (image, metaphor, symbol, myth). Silliman's key proposition is here:

"...the modes of integration which carry words into phrases and phrases into sentences are not fundamentally different from those by which an individual sentence integrates itself into a larger work." 

Silliman's use of the word "carry" is an interesting diversion. Inside it one might place all the functions of grammer, in addition to all the non-rational and mental versions of sense and expression to which human apprehension may be subject. This is a heavy burden for a definition this broad to bear.  As an impertinent objection, one might observe that words outside of sentences, isn't the same as sentences outside paragraphs, or whole works.

It goes without saying that traditional conservative critical definitions of the word, and the sentence, have been inadequate to describe the key literary works which form the basis of the Language Poetry movement, particularly Stein's experiments, whose de-mythologizing of words for use in(side) non-narrative, non-referential structures is the primary foundation of LangPo. Silliman's oft-repeated reference to Grenier's canonical exclamation "I HATE SPEECH!" may be seen, then, as defining the primary division between a literature of reference, and one in which words (and sentences) are freed from their obligation to traditional formal (integrated) meaning. 

The systematic undermining of the foundation of language as story, song, explanation, description, argument, leaves only gratuitous mediations as residue. In an earthquake, firebombing, or other natural or "artificial" disaster, all that is left standing is the rubble of previous edifices. Brick, wood, girders, bolts, nails, plaster, insulation--lie in heaps. But the fundamental laws governing the construction of objects in space, on the planet--to extend the metaphor--still involves the manipulation of requisite masses and forces, following the inherent laws that apply:  Gravity, tensile strength, light, conductivity, balance, and the amount of energy and tools needed to manipulate them.

"The sentence is a unit of writing. Yet the utterance exists as a unit of speech prior to the acquisition of writing." This inescapable fact belies any philosophical or linguistic evaluation that might be applied to the sentence. And that would include all literary critical assertions which fail to include or acknowledge it.

The possibility of a prose which would replace the strictures of dictated poetic form (preconception) and still retain the density and interest common to poems, developed in the 19th Century, notably in France (not in England, or America). Prose seized the initiative relinquished by poets. In the late 19th Century, and early 20th, the breakdown of narrative prose begins with James, proceeds with Stein and Ford Madox Ford and Hemingway, and continues in Joyce. The importance of Finnegans Wake [1939] lies in its obdurate opacity to apprehension, tangled up in a sea of sung reference. In this respect, it is so much like Stein's The Making of Americans, though in a different guise. Both works use language in a way that resists the time-line of narrative.

If Stein is the measure by which the "new sentence" is to be defined, then we must look to her work, not to her pronouncements about it. Silliman quotes Stein that "sentences" are not emotional wholes whereas paragraphs are. Despite the fact that Stein does not--cannot--speak accurately or intelligently about how grammar operates, or what it is that she actually does, except in the most generalized and non-specific way, in her own work, Silliman chooses to employ her definition of prose (the sentence) as the cornerstone of his theoretical definition of his new sentence.

What, exactly, does this theorizing about "the sentence" tell us about Silliman's technique? The Alphabet, his long, dense poem of some 1026 pages, has just been published by the Uinversity of Alabama Press.  

The Alphabet is not "poetry." It's a collection of prose sections. Essentially without variation, the technique consists of successive "sentences" of varying lengths, recording daily event and observation interspersed with meditation, queries, speculations, etc. Its general mood is upbeat, percolating with humor, curiosity, ironic asides, and unusual insights. Rather than striving for firm convictions or elegant designs, it's satisfied with surprising notation, dogged attention to detail, and constantly changing perspectives. 

Sentences of varying length follow each other with no apparent logic or narrative sequence. This is the same style employed by Barrett Watten in Progress. It would appear that there is no difference between one form and another; the only requirement of a Language Poem is that the structure be determined in advance, that its sequential series of statements not be organized into an apparent argument. Sentences (statements) bear only loosely tangential relationships to each other. 

Silliman's formal statement (indeed, his manifesto) consists of eight descriptive definitions:

1) The paragraph organizes the sentences;
2) The paragraph is a unity of quantity, not logic or argument;
3) Sentence length is a unit of measure;
4) Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity;
5) Syllogistic movement is (a) limited; (b) controlled;
6) Primary syllogistic movement is between the preceding and following sentences;
7) Secondary syllogistic movement is toward the paragraph as a whole, or the total work;
8) The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader's attention at or very close to the level of language, that is, most often at the sentence level or below.
Beside such a program, one might put the following:

1) The sentence is composed of words;
2) Grammar is the defined relationship of the usage of words;
3) The sentence is a unit consisting of words in grammatical order; whose length is not infinite, but dictated by spans of attention and grammatical perfection;
4) The paragraph is an arbitrary set (number) of sentences, organized towards a specific topic;
5)  Paragraphs may be composed of sentences which are not organized towards a specific topic to create interest; 
6) Sentence structure (grammar) may be altered (violated) to create interest;
7) Adjacent sentences relate to each other; paragraphs relate to the work as a whole;
8) Language as subject is never far from view.
This is another way of saying that you can make grammatical, or ungrammatical sentences, place them in any order you like, without respect to their contextual or logical relationships to each other, and call the result an aesthetic object. There need be no underlying organizing principle except as stipulated arbitrarily beforehand. All other formal intention or design is arbitrary--i.e., there is no inherent relationship between the assigned structure and the "content" of the words. 

This permits the construction of prose sequences with multiple contexts. Subject-matter, in the traditional sense, is external to, or irrelevant to, such constructions. It simply does not apply. A text, therefore, is not about anything, but is at least partly a/the subject of its own duration. 

It would be interesting to suggest possible examples of this kind of composition. Certainly all of Stein's abstract work, after The Making of Americans, would qualify. Ashbery's Tennis-Court Oath. Coolidge's later prose works. Berrigan's Sonnets. As well as many works by the putative members of LangPo, specifically Silliman's The Alphabet
In this, Silliman's version of the history of avant garde writing, poetry, at least as far as we might think of it pre-1978, has passed into history. Writing organized according to musical segments of duration, or size and dimension of line (or page), or based upon metaphors of voice, body, attention or sense (logic) are all now extinct. The "poem" may survive as a curiosity, perhaps as recreation, or a "minor league" preparation for "the Show" but it has no viability as serious literature, any more.           


Ed Baker said...

especially appreciate your last paragraph...
what I was experimenting with in 1966-1972 I called "blown language" Points (the second link to Fact-Simile Press seems to work

I not only abandoned this I don't know "concrete poetry" form

right after this but abandoned all writing/reading poetry

for 25 + years..

Dear Readers-

It is with great pleasure that I write to announce the release of Ed Baker's Points/Counterpoints, our very first Fact-Simile Editions E-Book! An innovative text originally penned over four decades past, it is now available free-of-charge online ( or as a downloadable PDF.

This "essay in language" explores the intricate space that runs through and around our words. Composed partially in the projective tradition of Olson and combined with unmistakable elements of the American Concrete movement, Mr. Baker has manifested a superb text, kept too long from the public light of day. So, without further ado, we give you Ed Baker’s Points/Counterpoints:

Best Regards,

Travis & JenMarie
Fact-Simile Editions

I still have no clue what "Langpo" is

or care for explanations OR definitions or models to imitate ad nawseum

as PETY GREENE once said:

"don't give me no signifying"

Kirby Olson said...

The Language poets were a far-flung province of the "linguistic turn" which took place in philosophy in the 70s. There was an attempt to examine language. This is now being replaced by thinking that focuses instead on Darwinian paradigms: why do some poems survive, while others vanish?

Few still read language poetry. Silliman himself has finally and reluctantly admitted that geography exists, for instance, and that it has a bearing on poetry. He is somewhat bioregional in his thinking abou thte various tribes of American poetry (this came out particularly in his piece about South Texas poets a few years back).

Silliman is always about ten to twenty years behind the most recent developments. what's interesting about him is that he is very enthusiastic if un-clear about the distinctions he tries to make.

Which poems survive probably does have something to do with language. That much is clear. It's also clear that at this point no language poet has ever found a popular audience, and the dwindling pool of readers they possess are likely to dwindle even further, since they got off on the wrong foot, conceptually, putting all their fortunes onto a now abandoned philosophical theory.

Will any writers from language survive their shrinking habitat and actually make it into the canon as perpetually fresh poets?

No. They are exactly as extinct as Lamarck, and for precisely the same reasons. Lamarck posited that characteristics could be developed by a group and passed to their offspring (large muscles, for instance). We now know this to be untrue.

In the same way, you can fuss with lines of demarcation about gender, race, etc., but differences remain, stubborn and hardy, and somehow ineradicable. Thinking through Darwin, not Marx, is the future for literary studies.

jh said...

i claim complete or almost complete ignorance
i appreciate
having scanned and pondered
at least
that part of silliman's project
is basically in line with what you are saying here
and i admire the fianl pronouncement of the deadended nature of it
but then think
maybe that was by design it was ll supposed to deadend at some point like people who die with no obituary to follow

again i claim literary ignorance
but i came across max jacob earlier this year
and looked into his prose poems
and saw that he at least had the intent of establishing the paragraph even while leaving the reader befuddled as to the purpose or meaning of the appeared to me to be nonsense with a deliberate and serious affect...not unlike the music of satie

the play on phrases the skewing of meaning around with gramamtic re-arrangement i find somewhat intriguing in the poets i've learned about since discovering the odd world of silliman et al

there does appear to be some sort of denial going on
the denial that the poet has a responsibilty not simply to guide a reader through a series of photoshots of the quotidian cosmos but to somehow speak of the insight gained
and maybe the whole thing about insight is presumptuous
perhaps comedy is just as important
thus the "mock snow" affect

but then is poetry to become a medium to be likened to modern radio...babble and commercials and bowing down to dabble once more

it is one thing to say life and the observations of it fulfill the "simply is" aspect of human perception but the reflective aspect of the soul it would seem to me goes a bit further in saying
"and this is how it disturbs me" and "this is what it was like"

i have gotten the sense in reading the langpo world that there is this combative attitude with the world of media...something like tv radio pictures billboards films all have hit me this and this way and this is how i react...the images from electronic mass media hit the mind this way and this is the way to respond to these images
and indeed now all the world around

in some of the works of duplessis and armantrout i have noted that the "surprise - wisdom" correlation suggested by frost is to some extent inverted to the interior of the a way of creatively subverting notions of beginning and ending

reading levertov again i get something of such a completely different soul...she seems so often engaged rather erotically with everything every possibility including god...maybe more like donne dante

thanks for this overview
it is like a very good lecture
i sit humbly