SILLIMAN NOTES 3
Silliman’s answer to a question regarding “just why was the sentence the primary unit of interest” (Poetics list, 22 October 1998):
Olson’s poetics, based on the equation of line & breath, had been the most rigorous fomulation of the previous decade or two, and one could read a wide range of material (from O’Hara to Ginsberg) with such in mind [ignoring , apparently, Olson’s “facts to be dealt with . . . / . . . they must / be played by, said he, coldly, the / ear!” or O’Hara’s ambivalence toward Olson, calling him both a “great spirit”—which “one” could translate as “full of hot air”—and noting how “he’s extremely conscious . . . of saying the important utterance, which one cannot always summon up and indeed is not particularly desirable most of the time”] . . . But there were obvious flaws with this equation, especially with Olson’s superimposition of Place on top of the whole, so that the prospect of writing in this tradition began to appear to be a “fill in the blank” completion of an already implicit literary geography (as in “he breaks his lines just like someone from Ukiah”) Each succeeding poem would thus be a less significant formal act. [Um, this is incoherency masquerading as argument. Line based on breath determined by place is a “rigorous formulation”? Place, in a society as mobile that of the U.S., is a rigorous nothing . . .]
Sentences and paragraphs were one way out of that. It’s worth noting that the “miniaturist” tendency—Saroyan, the Grenier of Sentences—turns up first. Sentences and paragraphs also had the advantage of raising some international(ist) issues vis à vis surrealism, European poetry in general, that the excessive jingoism of Olson . . . never really addresses . . . [Mention of Williams’s Kora, Stein, Harvey Brown’s edition of Spring and All, Coolidge’s “first long poems,” Ashbery’s Three Poems, and Creeley’s Mabel and A Day Book.] . . . there was just a lot of stuff in the air. It suddenly seemed to be an area in which there was an enormous amount of work that could be done without already being weighed down by too much prior stuff.”
Coleridge lecture notes (circa 1808), quoted in Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Darker Reflections: Imagination: power of modifying one image or feeling by the precedent or following one . . .” (cf. Silliman’s “syllogistic movement”?)
Kenner, again, in The Poetry of Ezra Pound: “Ideogram, at least as a poetic principle, is not a Sinophile fad. It inheres in Aristotle on metaphor.” And: “On a page of poetry there are set in motion the intelligible species of things. words are solid, they are not ghosts or pointers. The poet connects, arranges, defines, things . . .
Silliman: “The sole precedent I can find for the new sentence is Kora In Hell: Improvisations and that one far-fetched.
I am going to make an argument, that there is such a thing as a new sentence and that it occurs thus far more or less exclusively in the prose poems of the Bay Area.” (“The New Sentence,” in Talks (Hills 6/7)
Silliman, in a post title’d “Three tests for poetry” to Poetryetc, dated 26 February 1999: “I tend to ask three level-setting questions of a poet when I get to know her / his work:
Would they write this way (whether traditionally or not) if it did not already exist as an established genre? . . . When you see somebody who writes like nobody who ever came before—Judy Grahn’s early work or Kathy Acker or, more recently, Mary Burger, or Hejinian’s My Life—there is an immediate jolt you get from the recognition of this element . . .
Do they then do what they set out to with the poem with any sort of interest and elegance and grace? . . .
. . . there are a lot of poets who can do this, but fail my first test . . . A fair amount of technically good avant-garde writing has this problem. [What is “technically good avant-garde writing” but a wild oxymoron under such conditions of recognition.]
3) Does their work change my sense of what the poem is and can be? That really for me is the test of a poem and poet.
For those for whom I would grant all three of these tests, I’ll read them forever. Raworth, Creeley, Grenier, Armantrout, Perelman, Hejinian, Kit Robinson, Zukofsky, Langston Hughes, Stein, Spicer, Williams—the list is far too small, even if that’s just a part of it.”
[Which makes it appear, alarmingly, that there are far more poets who’ve changed “one’s” “sense of what the poem is and can be” than any other kind . . .]
“To transcribe the real creates, by the same act, an unreality, something besides the real which is its transcription, since the writing is one thing, what it transcribes another, the writing a fiction, necessarily and always so. The only real in writing is writing itself.” (Williams, The Embodiment of Knowledge)
And: “The province of letters is that realm of the intelligence in which words and their configurations are real and all ideas and facts with which they deal are secondary. . . . Its function is to re-enkindle language, to break it away from its enforcements, its prostitutions under all other categories. For language that is used as a means to an end foreign to itself is language used as an expedient—something that cannot be scientifically or philosophically sanctioned—impurely. This is “symbolism.” It is a union of expediency which tends to crumble apart as the words shift in meaning or become dead . . . By taking language as real and employing it with a full breadth and sweep, letters frees it from encroachments and makes it operative again. [The name of the province of letters is “the alphabet”?]
Apollinaire’s “new spirit”: “A freedom of unimaginable opulence . . . an encyclopedic liberty . . . [in] what constitutes the material and manner of art.” “Simultanism.” A poetry of juxtapositions, “without connectives.”
“Psychologically it is of no importance that this visible image be composed of fragments of spoken language, for the bond between these fragments is no longer the logic of grammar but an ideographic logic culminating in an order of spatial disposition totally opposed to discursive juxtaposition. . . . It is the opposite of narration; narration is of all literary forms the one which requires discursive logic.” (In Joris & Rothenberg’s Poems for the Millenium.
Silliman, in “The New Sentence”: “Literary criticism ought to serve as a corrective.”
The notion of “sentence” is a vagary (as is—maybe moreso—“syllogistic movement,” though I suppose it’s the old formula of deriving the general out of particulars, rehash’d). Note the summarizing footnote to the abridgement of “The New Sentences” as it appears—decapitated—in Claims for Poetry: “Earlier, looking at modern linguistics (Chomsky, Saussure, Ivic, Ries, Voloshinov, Potter, Moskowitz, Hjelmslev, Bloomfield) and philosophy (Derrida, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Quine) Silliman finds no consensus as to the definition of the sentence.”
Whatever makes one attend to the prose of Hejinian’s My Life or Harryman’s Under the Bridge pieces (or Silliman’s work) is not prosiness or the “sentence” as “unit” (something not differing dramatically from “image” as “unit” or “line” as “unit,” provided that the under-throb, the support-structure, is in each case that same old same old notion of the next to, the juxtaposed).
Except that in the case of the “sentence” as “unit,” one’s lost the vector’d push that goes with lineation, sentence breaking against line . . . What makes one attend—makes one alert to possibilities for the new ain’t the size (or nature) of the “unit,” but the mastery in its employ, its “positioning.” The putting of things—they are things—next to one another in ways out of which new relations, dispersals, consequences appear. Picasso’s bicycle seat and handlebars equal bull. The precedents for that activity—Pound’s “ply on ply”—come out of Aristotle, out of Coleridge, out of Flaubert, out of everywhere. Either we are still modern, ’ve always been modern, or we never were.
Valéry talking about a “type of attention [that] makes the structure of expressions more felt and more interesting that their significance or value. Properties of transformations are worthier the mind’s attention than what they transform . . .” [A recipe for lengthy arrangements of inconsequential particulars, consequence inhering in th’arrangement?]
“Ford and Conrad talked too much about Flaubert but did not waste time playing hide-and-seek with the precise word. They surrounded their meaning with successive approximations instead, and so repeated in the texture of prose the pattern by which their narrative captured their theme. It is a circuitous technique, prodigal of paper. For sure, Flaubert would not have recognized it: yet nebulosities and imprecisions are much of our landscape without or within, and worth reproducing . . . There are explorations that can never end in discovery, only in willingness to rest content with an unsure glimpse through mists, and uncertain sound of becks we shall never taste: approximations. To this Ford’s rhythm and diction in these poems tend steadily; to this their matter is organized with great skill.” (Basil Bunting, editor of Ford Madox Ford’s Selected Poems)
Silliman, in “®”: “The impulse of the sentence is to extend, never to close off.” And in “Skies”: “(I am not interested in description, but detail, transition, all the nameless, half-known tones reducible to blue)”
“. . . one of the provisions in the contract between poet and reader. The reader undertakes not to tear a word from its context and scrutinize it in isolation . . . What is the contextual unit? If we say . . . “in the context of the whole poem”, then we are faced with Ezra Pound’s Cantos, a poem of enormous length which has appeared in snatches during the past twenty-five years and is still incomplete . . . (Donald Davie, in Articulate Energy: An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry, 1955
Adorno: “Gaps.—The injunction to practise intellectual honest usually amounts to sabotage of thought. The writer is urged to show explicitly all the steps that have led him to his conclusion, so enabling every reader to follow the process through and, where possible . . . to duplicate it. This demand not only invokes the liberal fiction of the universal communicability of each and every thought and so inhibits their objectively appropriate expression, but is also wrong in itself as a principle of representation. For the value of a thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar . . . Texts which anxiously undertake to record every step without omission inevitably succumb to banality . . . Every thought which is not idle . . . bears branded on it the impossibility of its full legitimation . . . (Minima Moralia, 50)
Full shiny-faced moon bashful as a schoolboy in the tree-lined east. Big off to school morning “on the morrow.” First day back excitement. I trot my regular trapline with the C-dog, appraisingly, and retire.
Moon and me, we~
Hob-knob’d lots of yore—
And nod not now nor
Stop to plot or talk, or moan.