Tangibility of the Word


by Daniel Green

The sheer bulk of Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet, as well as its apparently arbitrary structural principle, could initially leave the impression it deliberately defies reading. The same could be said of the larger project, the “life work” in progress and of which The Alphabet is a part, that promises when complete to be gargantuan in size and scope. And to a significant extent Silliman does want readers to be intimidated before a work like The Alphabet, uncertain enough about how to proceed to abandon preconceptions about both books and poetry and willing to learn how to read differently.

I think readers who are so willing will ultimately find their fortitude and patience is rewarded, but one of the first lessons to be learned is that The Alphabet can’t really be read discreetly as a book, a process we usually consider as self-enclosed and sequential, a task to be completed before moving on to the next book. Indeed, I found it better to read the poems separately, over a few days or even a few weeks (some of the poems are a few pages long, but most are 20 pages long or more, and one, “VOG” is over 100), and then perhaps putting the book aside for a while. Such a reading strategy acknowledges the occasional and highly fragmented nature of these poems, and even more time could be allowed to some of the poems–“Skies,” for example, in which each section of the poem corresponds to the calendar day on which it was written over the course of a year. To really experience the full effect of the poem, we might duplicate the process, reading a section a day for a year.

Certainly the poet doesn’t quite expect we will approach such a poem in this way, but The Alphabet in its very excess persistently challenges us to ask just why a poem shouldn’t be read like that, or be written like this, or why a book can’t be held together, to the extent that it is, by the fact that each of its poems corresponds to a letter of the alphabet, presented in, well, alphabetical order. Those already long familiar with Silliman’s work, both through his poetry and his critical writing, will of course not find it surprising that this book poses these questions, although now that the individual poems included have finally been gathered to form the book, the latter does provide a new setting for and potentially a new experience of the poems. The challenge will be most acute for readers encountering Silliman’s poetry for the first time or who have had only a casual acquaintance with it, but arguably The Alphabet could provide the most enlightening reading experience for precisely such readers.

Silliman’s most significant contribution to the aesthetics of poetry, however, is to be found not at the global level of the book, but at the most fundamental level of the poem’s existence as “verse.” While the equation of “poetry” and “verse” was questioned prior to Silliman in the development of “prose poetry,” Silliman has further undermined the association of “verse,” whether free or metrical, with poetry as such in his focus on the “sentence” as the fundamental unit of poetry. While on the one hand Silliman substitute sentences for “lines” in his poems, the “sentence” is reconceived so that it no longer fulfills the function it is assigned in ordinary discourse. This allows it to remain an aesthetically plausible basis for “poetry,” but it also forces the reader to read sentences in a new way, the failure to do so causing probably the most serious impediment to engaging with Silliman’s work, finding it instead “difficult” or unsatisfying.

Silliman wants us to consider his sentences not as instances of “hypotaxis,” the discursive process in which elements of the sentence, and sentences themselves, maintain a subordinate relationship as parts of a developing thought, the connected parts of a larger rhetorical whole, but as self-sufficient “parataxis,” by which the sentence stands autonomously as a unit of sense, connected to previous and following sentences only by the thinnest, implicit “and.” It is essentially Silliman’s poetry, or perhaps most importantly, his critical writing about it and the work of other like-minded poets, that gave rise to the concept of “Language Poetry” to designate the practice among American poets of using parataxis to minimize connections among images and statements and calling attention to those images and statements, the sentences, as language, free of the obligation to cohere into transparent “meaning.”

Silliman’s initial formulation of the hypotaxis/parataxis distinction as applied to poetry was essentially part of a Marxist critique, by which poetry demonstrates that hypotaxis is a kind of capitalist conspiracy. “What happens when a language moves toward and passes into a capitalist stage of development,” he writes in “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” is “an anaesthetic transformation of the perceived tangibility of the word, with corresponding increases in its expository, descriptive, and narrative capacities, preconditions for the invention of ‘realism,’ the illusion of reality in capitalist thought.” Since it seems to me that when language passes into any stage of development–through the development of “society” and “culture,” however rudimentary–the “tangibility of the word” will be sacrificed for expository and descriptive power, to emphasize the culpability of capitalism is only to affirm you especially don’t like its kind of anaesthesia.The argument that poetry is fundamentally an effort to counter the anesthesia of language in general is certainly credible enough, but Silliman’s version simply subsumes poetry to a larger ideological project, however much it purports to “unmask” ideology.

Ultimately, however, much of what Silliman has to say in essays like “The New Sentence” can stand, lightened of its Marxist baggage, as a perfectly coherent defense of a “poetics” anchored in parataxis and organized around sentences and paragraphs replacing, for the most part, lines and stanzas. As I wrote in a prior post, “The New Sentence” in particular is “first of all a relatively straightforward and learned history of ideas about the sentence in both linguistics and literary criticism that demonstrates the potential of the sentence as an autonomous unit of language has not really been appreciated.” Although Silliman makes exaggerated claims for both the revolutionary potential of the new sentence and the unprecedented nature of its appeal to language over sense, the kind of poetry Silliman’s explication of it makes possible seems entirely plausible.

The Alphabet certainly confirms the plausibility of such a poetry, but in doing so it also illustrates that an artistic practice inspired by a non-artistic agenda can hold up as an artistic practice, especially over such an enormous canvas, only if it is aesthetically justified quite apart from whatever other motives brought it into being. The Alphabet does withstand aesthetic judgment, in my opinion–indeed, any reader could read any or all of this book with no knowledge of Silliman’s ideological commitments and be able to appreciate his poems (or not) solely for their contribution to the “art” of poetry. It is admittedly not art of the musical, imagistic, or strongly figurative variety associated with what Silliman labels the “school of quietude” in poetry, but whatever long-term value The Alphabet will prove to have can only come not just from its status as part of Silliman’s challenge to school of quietude poetics but as a successful collection of poems manifesting an alternative poetics that is no less aesthetically compelling.

That the first poem in the book, “Albany,” is quite brief, a single arranged paragraph of hypotactic sentences, gives an uninitiated reader the opportunity to get an immediate purchase on Silliman’s aesthetic strategy, an opportunity Silliman enhanced by the previous publication of Under Albany, in which he gives an account of the circumstances behind (under) the composition of the poem, line by line. Through Under Albany the reader can get a sense of what the poet believed himself to be doing and of how the poem emerges from actual experience after all, however much it might seem at first to be just a series of disconnected declarations. While this may seem an overly onerous way to begin a book, such a reading strategy not only makes it more likely the reader will continue with the other poems but begins to indicate the way in which reading The Alphabet will not be like the experience of reading a conventional book.

For readers who still find the dissociated density of “Albany” intimidating, moving on more quickly to the second poem, “Blue,” might be productive. Still a reasonably short poem, “Blue” is structured as a series of short paragraphs which manifest Silliman’s “new sentence” poetics but perhaps in more approachable portions:

Rust designs that old truck door. The number of objects is limited. Some leaves on the fern are more yellow. Sooner or later you will have to get up to change the record. That buzz is the dryer.

If we turn to the brief notes for each of the poems that Silliman provides at the back of The Alphabet, we learn that “Blue” was “occasioned by a long walk through the Lower East Side.” From this paragraph we get one sentence, the first, that must surely be a detail from this walk, but the other sentences seem to have little, or at least very obscure, relationship to this initial detail. At least one, the last, seems to be in deliberate contrast to the details of the walk, as if a moment from the poet’s own more comfortable life intrudes on the immediate, tawdry scene. Otherwise, the sentences might seem randomly arranged into a “paragraph” the exists mainly to store these seemingly discrete sentences.

Such a paragraph can stand as a model of what Silliman has in mind in the use of parataxis. The construction of the paragraphs, as well as the unfolding of the paragraphs as a “poem,” provoke us to meld these sentences into an ongoing discourse or chain of images, but the relationship among them is not as a progression but as a simple juxtaposition. Thus at first such a poem as “Blue” frustrates our desire to make it yield sense or meaning, yet the reader who again spends some time with it might find it actually yields more meaning when the possibilities of a paratactic juxtaposition gradually reveal themselves. That the sentences considered as a forward-directed chain do not willingly release their meaning does not preclude us from finding meanings by reading them in a different way.

In a way Silliman makes the task of reading a poem like “Blue” easier by framing it as a narrative, although obliquely so:

The Marchioness went out at five o’clock. The sky was blue yet tinged with pink over the white spires which broke up the east horizon. The smell of the afternoon’s brief shower was still evident and small pools of clear water collected in the tilt of the gutters, leaves and tiny curling scraps of paper drifting in the miniature tides which nonetheless caught and reflected the swollen sun, giving the boulevard its jeweled expression.

The first line is an allusion to Paul Valery’s asservation that he could never write novels because he would be compelled to write sentences like this one. The rest of the paragraph humorously completes the first paragraph of Valery’s unwritten novel, while also establishing “Blue” as a narrative of sorts without explicitly identifying it as a first-person narrative related by the speaker. In effect, this first paragraph invites us to consider the poem unified through a loose narrative structure (completed by the final paragraph, in which the Marchioness arrives at her destination), and thus perhaps the poem can be read as an account of a walk through the Lower East Side, as Silliman’s note informs us, but we should not expect it to tell us its story through hypotaxis or outright signs of narrative development.

In fact we are free to make connections among sentences in a way that arguably enhances the narrative beyond literal events and perceptions:

If challenged, its first response is to spit. This took place at the museum. Wires slope from the pole to the house, where they gather, entering a narrow pipe along its side. This conveys motion. I am writing in shadows. Don’t you worry about accessibility too?

The first line of this paragraph is perhaps a direct reference to a cat or some other animal encountered on the walk, perhaps just a general reference to such an animal. “This” tempts us to link back to the spitting animal, but of course such an encounter would not take place in a museum. Or would it? Line three seems to bring us back to the walk, a sentence of pure description, but the setting of course contrasts greatly with the (memory of?) the museum, although the contrast may be exactly what Silliman is after. (Still, what the poet is after in a poem like this both can’t really be determined and is probably irrelevant–if making  “purpose” clear was a priority, the “new sentence” approach would be self-defeating, to say the least.) “This conveys motion” might in this instance actually refer to the wires, but our previous encounter with the demonstrative pronoun suggests caution in making the connection. The last two lines apparently bring us out of the immediate scene of the walk into the scene of the composition of the poem (something Silliman does frequently in many of his poems). What are “the shadows” in which the poet writes? Literally the shadows forming the environment in which the poet was writing this line? (Probably.) The figurative shadows cast by the environment of the Lower East Side as the poet composes his poem? (Possibly as well.) To whom is the question in the final line asked? Another poet? Silliman, by another poet? The reader? All three are plausible, and a different layer of connotation is added depending on which auditor you choose and what answer to the posed question they give.

While the kinds of sequential paragraphs featured in “Blue” or the following poem, “Carbon,” are more or less the central device of Silliman’s poetics, there is variety of form in The Alphabet. “Demo” is essentially a sequence of single sentences (or combinations of clauses punctuated as a sentence), “Force” seems structured as a medium-length verse poem (although with an occasional paragraph embedded therein), but the lines unfold in recognizable new sentences, part of “Jones” is composed in what seem like quatrains, “Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect” is one 84-page paragraph, etc. “Non” employs stanzas of various lengths, “Quindecagon” is a series of 15-line stanzas the final words of each of which are repeated throughout the poem (in different orders, end of first line in one stanza going to the bottom in the next), somewhat in the mode of a sestina, while Silliman himself calls “VOG” a “collection of “ordinary” poems.”

In other words, the reader will find a great deal of manipulation of form in The Alphabet, even if the result is “form” of a type not really found before. As also revealed in the Notes, form in many of the poems is derived from Oulipo-like restraints, especially mathematical, as in “Lit,” in which “every section is predicated on the number 12,” or in Silliman’s use of the Fibonacci series, which structured Silliman’s previous “Tjanting” and which in The Alphabet appears in modified version in “Ink,” “Lit,” and “Oz.” However much Silliman at some level was motivated as a poet by political beliefs about the commodification of language, his poems are a formalist’s delight, at least if formalism is defined as an interest in the malleability of form, and the extent to which Silliman’s work, as exemplified in The Alphabet, attracts future readers unschooled in the origins of Language Poetry will greatly depend, it seems to me, on the interest its considerable formal achievements continues to provoke and ultimately to satisfy.

Although the formal experiments of Silliman’s poetry are their most conspicuous aesthetic attribute, they also offer other, more immediate rewards. While many of the sentences are ordinary declaratives and descriptions, some are quite striking in themselves: “A shift not in light, but to light, as day’s first illumination floods the room so that colors exist, however muted. . .Mockingbird gargles a whole new song.” If most of Silliman’s paragraphs and stanzas work through disjunction and discontinuity, sometimes they have an evocative if obscure cohesion of their own:

Before dawn, a kitchen light casts its full glare out over the snow. Sense of panic in a dream. In the bank, a large woman hands me my money stapled together in an envelope. I’m pulling my children through the streets on a sled, waiting for the street lights to come on. I wave and realize I’m alone in my bed, then see her asleep wrapped in some blankets on the floor. “Brittany,” he shouts when I ask him what breed his dogs are. More snow begins to fall. (“VOG”)

Perhaps the most consistent pleasure the poems in The Alphabetprovide is their humor, in particular Silliman’s inveterate punning:

When in the course of cumin events. . .The unbearable whiteness of being. . .Thirteen ways of scratching at a blackboard. . .Note to the typesetter: you can’t always get what you font. . .Rhyme and punishment. . . .

That each of these puns is taken from a poem, “Under,” that contains some of the most obvious “political” discourse in The Alphabet (much of it is composed during and is a running commentary on the first Iraq war), and that they to a significant degree undercut the seriousness of this commentary, indicates to me Silliman’s ultimate allegiance after all is to poetry, and to the verbal play that is its most fundamental characteristic, not to external political goals. Even if the “tangibility of the word” to be found in such puns, as well as other kinds of wordplay found in, for example,”Lit,” does call attention to the “transparency” of ordinary discourse, that is because poetry (good poetry) always call attention to the inadequacies of ordinary discourse.

However imposing The Alphabet might at first seem to the casual reader, it is accessible given time and the alternative reading strategies I have mentioned. It could even be read sequentially, provided the reader can be tolerant of inevitable obscurities and confusions, which are best left for later when the alternative strategies don’t apply. Eventually the poems teach the determined reader how to read them. Speaking for myself, I found the later poems much more satisfying for the effort, although I now recognize my appreciation of the earlier ones was incomplete. All the more reason to read them again.

Piece crossposted with The Reading Experience