Sunday, April 25, 2010

Some Remarks on Silliman's The Alphabet

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?     


J said...


S-mans' writing hardly reaches to the degree of, say, Finnegan's wake obtuseness--where one labyrinthine paragraph might require a day or two to unravel (or it might prove ...unravelable, often with obscure sanskrit or gaelic or latinate references).

He arranges some interesting images......

"""So the book of numbers turns out to be a record of baseball pitching and playing statistics. Even after dark, the perfect weather keeps us outdoors. If it does not fit, you must acquit.

Giant spider intends a solid object. The pen crackles with electricity, blue sparks arc from tip of each letter as it emerges (burnt smell of the word itself). Iron butterfly. Sweep.""""

Better scrapbook than many,tho' at times the writing of the "language" types resembles something a like Monty Python skit--one of the boys shrieks some bizarre non-sensical words--WANKEL ROTARY ENGINE!--and the rest giggle and roll their eyes, why yes wankle rotary engine. nudge nudge


Ian Keenan said...

Curtis, What you're advocating is a poem that neither represents the world nor opens up the question of the representational function of the poem.

Curtis Faville said...


Thanks for responding, but I'm unclear on why you think I'm advocating something here. My post is a criticism of some aspects of Silliman's work. It isn't intended as a manifesto on what kinds of poems are preferred, or what kinds of poems I think Silliman should write. It's a criticism of what he has just published.

This is a work written over a period of over 30 years. An amazing unity and consistency and homogeneity of voice and style prevails over the total work of over 1000 pages. This suggests a mono-maniacal insistence which I find astonishing. It's a feat, but not one I would tend to credit, as a sustenance of spirit or intent.

I can't think of anyone now writing whose work is as interesting, or ingenious, or inventive as Donne's. Does that mean that the forms that Donne worked in are dated, or should not be explored, or that they can't be improved upon?

The Alphabet is a delightful work, filled to brimming with incredible detail, brilliant analytical wit, and overpowering formal command. And yet, somehow, it manages not to say anything specific. That's almost mysterious.

Ian Keenan said...

"Everyone on earth that could read John Donne was now dead" Jack in Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner

Curtis Faville said...



Zukofsky believed in the possibility of a grand epic, but he wrote dozens of wonderful lyrics, too.

What's wrong with this picture?

J said...

The fragmentation fetish...

really, didn't schoolmarmies always instruct us to not write in fragments??

not to sound...philistinish,

but as soon as one allows the fragmented sentence (ie, not a complete sentence with subject/predicate) about anything goes...the poet authentic has a command over verb structure. the beat-decorator...doesn't

reading Pound's cantos one notes that EP rarely just strings fragments together, or indulges in the hyper-assemblage or Joycean obscurity (at least of Wake, which EP did not care for...).

Steven Fama said...

Catching up after being away.

"[The Alphabet] manages not to say anything specific," you say?

Hmmm. You read the book and found or came to nothing in particular about life, the perceiving of it?

On the other hand, let's say you are correct. Could you point to the commandment that requires such a thing?

I find the (two year old) book, which of course mostly was published via the installment plan for a couple decades now, a grand collage in which its well-made parade of be here now particulars among other things brighten the eyes and mind, as well as document Silliman's and to to that extent our world. And there are plenty of "specific things said" that pop up or slip into the parade . . . to say nothing of those that I myself make from what's presented and that all readers should make for themselves -- unless those readers bring a flatness of approach to the book, expecting the poet to do the work of laying it all out.

Curtis Faville said...


I agree 110%.

The Alphabet is a wonderful work, filled with delightful observation, a brilliantly stated kind of poetic self-awareness (consciousness), but formally, and in the particulars of its style, it's almost empty. You could take any part of it, break it up into almost any arbitrary lineation or stanzaic alignment, and the effect would be exactly the same. Is this a strength, or a weakness in the writing? Does it show control and certainty, or a lack of imagination? Other people I've talked with have much the same reaction to it: "Ron's stream of consciousness can be overwhelming, but there seems to be no overall formal compulsion--it just goes on and on and on. Starts and stops arbitrarily...."

Ketjak is a masterpiece, but what is the implication of its structure?

What is Ron's "message"? That there is NO message? Perhaps that's what you mean. If it's true, then, I think--for 30 years of labor--that's not enough.

Steven Fama said...


"The message" -- is hermetic -- a secret -- that only initiates are allowed to see.

Well not really. But I do believe you gotta do some time, or know in your mind and heart what that's like, what that means for time, for today, for tomorrow, for what's seen and why, to understand what Silliman's writing "says." But I don't think I can say more.

Curtis Faville said...


Perhaps I've been somewhat disingenuous. There are a number of things one might deduce from Silliman's writing--but my primary complaint isn't to do with that per se. For the life of this long poem, his style has remained static, never deviating from the sequential structure he established with Ketjak. Ketjak is sort of like Berrigan's Sonnets: A single, methodological breakthrough. Berrigan was never able to get beyond that triumph, and his work didn't improve. Ron's been stuck in this groove for a very long time. The Alphabet doesn't demonstrate much in the way of formal innovation--the sections just employ the same "sentence" sequence, almost literally "poured" into various line-arrangements.

What the style implies is a call to attention, literally: An imprecation to the reader to pay closer heed to what actually is happening in one's life, a refusal to ignore the quotidian zeitgeist as it passes before us. For Ron, the observational data recorder is always running, while his critical faculty is running alongside. It's like wanting to keep five or six little machines going simultaneously.

Updike was reported to have, I think, four or five separate desks at his writing office, one for each kind of genre: Short story, novel, poem, essay, autobiography. In a feat of dexterity, he'd move from desk to desk, form to form, knocking out pages in whatever came to hand. In a way, Silliman tries to put these "desks" together in a single work, in which personal detail and theory and punning and so forth are all clamoring for inclusion.

The world looks various and tremendously fascinating to his writing self. When you talk to Ron in person, this turns into a kind of gossipy patter--he can talk, with considerable authority, on several subjects at the drop of a hat.

My problem is with the consistency. Why keep repeating the success of Ketjak? I think there's a responsibility to try new things, to get beyond a single innovation. Perhaps he never will. Perhaps he'll keep writing Ketjak over and over until he dies. There are worse things in life than consistency.

As I explained in my previous posts about Silliman and Watten and Marianne Moore, the formal prescriptions seem anterior to the compositional act, and thus quite arbitrary. It's formally quite rigid, in solving the single most challenging problem before the poem's even begun. It's like writing sonnets, only with other arbitrations of form.

graywyvern said...

i understand your abhorrence at a style that does not change: this to me (for example) separates painters of the first tier, from the second--whatever their individual excellences.

but to say it means nothing? meaning, above all, is cumulative. even in works of utmost linearity. it's not the narrative line that produces it, but the increasing interconnectivity (managed or not) between the parts that remain in memory, & the parts that have just now been perceived.

also, you could say that the final aim of this work (not unlike other monuments of modernism) is to teach one to read it.

but it's fine without saying so.


Curtis Faville said...


You raise an interesting question, and I'm going to answer it as an addendum to my post--since it will take more space.