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.
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.)
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:
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.
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.