Saturday, September 14, 2002
A thoughtful response to my comments on Chain from Juliana Spahr:
i like to think of magazines not as arguments but just as conversations or as possibilities. i think the job of the editor is to put forward and stand back at the same time. and i think this is the big difference between what you say and what i think. we started chain b/c there were too many arguments being made. we started it in the climate of apex and o-blek. there were arguments already and we needed other sorts of conversations to happen. this felt crucial to us. we needed to make a place for us to think about things in our way--a more sideways way or a less declaratory way. now, perhaps, we/poetry community need arguments again. it is sad that apex and o-blek are gone and really haven't been replaced. and somehow for some reason that i'm not sure i know yet, we keep doing chain. but i'm not the person to do this sort of editing. i'm just not interested in doing it (although i always like to read apex and o-blek).
i think this is not a thwarting of political efficacy. i just think it might be something different than you are used to seeing. similarly, with the "writers a journal brings forward" issue. i think there are writers to which chain as been especially committed. or writers that i really feel are important and worked hard to make sure they got into the journal, bugged them a lot, etc. but i've always hated that idea that editors "make" writers. i would feel weird making a claim on any we've published.
i do think that the one argument that chain is making loudly is that poetry has a lot of various uses and positions and a lot of connections that are often overlooked. i've been editing from the middle of the pacific for six years now. and i've thought a lot about the sort of work chain can do/attempts to do from this place because it isn't all that evident everyday here (susan schultz is our only regular subscriber in the Pacific). one thing chain does for me here is it keeps me reading writing from over there (continent). which is good for me but that isn't enough finally. from here, however, it has felt crucial to include more international work (which we have done to the best of our abilities), to be more devoted to cross talk among things that don't cross everyday, to more clearly address poetry's cultural role, to support poetry as a genre of subcultures with ties to various locals/locales, to put writing in both idiolects and in dialects together in the hope that a larger and more complicated critique of standard English would happen in both sorts of poetry, to make room for work about identity and nationalism (those things the avant garde seems to spend too much time seeing as reductive) and yet not to sacrifice the work that gets done in more avant garde forms at the same time, to support both works written from the local and works written against the global, etc.
Friday, September 13, 2002
Of course Allen Curnow and
Gary Snyder are not precisely generational equivalents. Snyder’s first
publication, in the
The largest exception is Robert
Duncan, who in fact first started publishing at the end of the 1930s
(precocious teenager that he was). The two other major movers of literary form
who were born during that decade between 1910 and 20 – Charles Olson and the
novelist William Burroughs – were both late bloomers. Glancing over Hayden
Carruth’s The Voice That is Great Within Us, a surprisingly decent anthology of the first
60 years of the 20th century that organizes its poets by birth date
– now there’s a narrative! – you can’t help but notice that between the first
poet born in that decade (Olson) and the last (May Swenson), the poets who
predominate in that period – Schwartz, Berryman, Jarrell, Kees,
Certainly, the Second World
War created a great schism in
Five poets who are interesting to look at in this regard are David Ignatow and Harvey Shapiro on the one hand – Shapiro is slightly younger, having been born in 1924 – and, on the other, Swenson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Muriel Rukeyser.
The first two have often
been paired, and I admit to reading them as though they were examples of what
the Williams influence would have led to had Objectivism not shown its
potential for greater breadth, depth and evolution. When the New Americans came
along, Ignatow and Shapiro could easily have recognized the shared sympathies
for Williams, but seem instead to have been isolated by the sudden appearance
of all this new writing. Except for Shapiro’s first book The Eye, published by Alan Swallow (as far from the
The three women poets have
often been claimed by the conservative literary tradition and to some degree at
least they must have needed to relate to that world simply to get their work
into print, not unlike Williams. But it is worth noting how all three can
easily be read quite differently: Swenson (who worked at New Directions) as
another Williams-influenced writer of innovative forms, Bishop for her visible
influence on some of the
Labels: Other traditions
Thursday, September 12, 2002
Thinking more about the role
of narrative – literally the unfolding of meaning over time – one of the fascinating
aspects of the late great
So many collected or selected editions take just the opposite tack – inevitably treating the work as a journey through one’s life with all the predictable stations along the way. It’s a modestly useful approach, although often the poor reader has to slog through unrepresentative (and relatively unrewarding) juvenilia before the writer begins to arrive at his or her mature work (think of all those Keatsian concoctions at the start of William Carlos Williams’ career – the doctor didn’t start to write the poems for which we remember and value him until his was in his late 30s). Writers whose careers contain one extraordinary project amid much work that is far less focused (think of Merwin’s Lice or Tomlinson’s American Scenes) also aren’t served by a narrative of time as an organizing principle for their works.
Curnow’s strategy insists on his present relevance to the scene of writing. Contrast this with the bizarrely posthumous avant-la-lettre Gary Snyder Reader (Counterpoint, 2000), in which Snyder’s poetry does not begin until page 399. If there is a message to the Reader’s narrative, it is a statement about the “man of wisdom” for whom the poem is an appropriate but ultimately secondary expression. The book seems designed to barricade Snyder from any consideration of his poetry as pertinent to what writing is now, which is perpetually in a state of “becoming.”
Because Curnow’s approach is just the opposite, the experience of reading Early Days Yet is the inverse of a biological narrative. It is very nearly archaeological: each succeeding section peels away the present to reveal its sources.
Wednesday, September 11, 2002
The new issue of Chain is out and continues the
magazine’s run as the premier American literary journal. No other publication
in the past decade has envisioned the breadth of American literature (defined here
as more than just U.S. writing) with the reach, complexity, completeness and
nuance of this publication co-edited originally by
So why am I unable to look at an issue of Chain without thinking about a question that Jena Osman put to me several years ago at a Writers House event?
I had mentioned the disproportionate hoopla that had greeted a little journal called Apex of the M, edited by Lew Daley, Alan Gilbert, Kristin Prevallet & Pam Rehm*. To oversimplify only slightly, Apex took a confrontational view of literature, arguing that the language poets had largely been a rationalist movement, excluding mysticism in general and especially Gnostic views of Christianity. Ignoring all evidence to the contrary (such as the poetry of Susan Howe, one of the journal’s advisory editors), Apex presented a range of American postmodernist work that could be read as an inconsistent critique of langpo – John Taggart, Will Alexander, Elizabeth Robinson, Ed Dorn and Gustaf Sobin were among the contributors in its first two issues.
Identifying the boundaries of langpo, as Apex seems rather effectively to have done, is not the same as identifying an alternative, let alone an anti- (or post-) langpo movement, particularly given the famously isolative nature of several of the writers listed above. Apex came and went rather quickly in the larger scheme of things, but continued to be discussed for several years after. “So why is it,” Jena asked (I’m paraphrasing here from a mediocre memory), “that Chain, which was begun at the same time in the same city, which has a much broader and more democratic view of the possibilities of literature, receives so much less attention?” [It is worth noting, of course, that in the long run, this is certainly not the case. If it were a contest of which publication best manifested lasting literary value, Chain won hands down. But the question as I understood it had more to do with the proportionality of response.]
Part of the answer, of course, was that Chain lacks Apex’s hyperactive & self-important presentation. Apex led off its issues with fiery editorials proclaiming its revolutionary (or counter-revolutionary, depending on your perspective here) world view. Apex offered the charm of the quixotic. Chain, on the other hand, was from the beginning inherently inclusive and its impulses democratic. Language poetry was presented as though it were only one of several sources every young writer would want to think about. Apex by contrast put langpo on a pedestal only in order to take better aim as it attempted to knock it off.
But having said all this, there was – and still is – an inherent muting within Chain’s editorial position, one that has limited its impact and runs oddly contrary to the extraordinary intellectual ambition that otherwise informs every issue. And that is its use of alphabetical order to present content.
I obviously am not one to speak ill of the alphabet as an organizing principle, but in writing my own poem of that name, I know that I’ve had to take special to deal with the narrative needs of the poem. Narrative in this sense means literally the unfolding of meaning over time. This isn’t possible when the elements of the ordering are the surnames of authors.
I have never been fond of the use of themes to organize literary journals – it feels to me far more stifling than generative, causing many publications to include second-rate work that “fits” while ignoring far better writing that doesn’t. Chain, which has used themes from its initial issue, has avoided, or perhaps transcended, the usual limitations of the thematic by envisioning each of them so broadly, and so creatively. There is a sequence in Chain 8, on comics, that moves from Leslie Scalapino (whose conception of genre is itself worthy of a doctoral dissertation), through Lytle Shaw to Sally Silvers, that is worth the price of the 300-page journal.**
But such moments are fortuitous and accidental. What if Lytle Shaw had been named Bruce Andrews or Al Young? The problem is that, editorially, magazines are always arguments: their mode is exposition. What comes first and who goes where matters. Nobody understood this better than Clayton Eshleman with his journals Caterpillar and Sulfur. Eshleman’s issues were composed almost musically. Thus, for example, Sulfur 3, published in 1982, begins with one of Robert Duncan’s last Passages and closes its literature section (Eshleman’s journals followed the editorial mode set by Harriet Monroe with Poetry, placing reviews at the “back of the book”) with selections from the correspondence between Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg. In between, works were positioned primarily for the sake of contrast.
Like Apex, Eshleman’s Sulfur’s influence among writers, especially in its early years, far outstripped its distribution. But each issue was always making an argument about value in writing. It is precisely that argumentation by editorial placement that disappears into the arbitrariness of alphabeticism in Chain. At best, one can intuit one by the range of inclusion, but this is a second order of editorial exposition.
Clearly, the use of the alphabet corresponds to Chain’s democratic impulses. Nobody gets to go first but by the accident of their father’s last name. But argued thus – or perhaps not argued thus – it’s a bureaucratic democracy at best, and one that carries within it the not so dim echoes of patriarchy in the use of surnames.
In one sense, this editorial
muteness may make Chain an even truer
representative of contemporary literary culture, which in the past 15 years has
tended to be both progressive and yet firmly committed to thwarting its own
political efficacy***. It’s a curious position, ultimately, and one that seems
very much at odds with the journal’s own ambition, as
though it were ambition itself with which Chain
might be at odds. In the long view of history, the test of a journal is
best gauged by the writers whom it brings forward to broader audiences. Thus,
in addition to their editors, one associates Origin with Olson,
*This was the order as presented in Apex’s masthead, very much a “boys first” vision of literature.
** At $12 for issues that typically weigh in at over 300 pages, Chain is also one of the great bargains in literature.
***Not unlike the way the Green Party helped to put George W., Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Ashcroft into their current positions.
Tuesday, September 10, 2002
John Latta and James Sherry both wrote to note that Our Nuclear Heritage was published by Sun and Moon, not Roof. Alas, it’s not listed on either the Sun and Moon site, or through Small Press Distribution. So, I stand corrected, but the problem remains.
The best book I’ve read on the world
after September 11 was published in 1991 – two years before the initial bombing of the
When it was first published, James Sherry’s Our Nuclear Heritage (Roof), did not receive a lot of comment and I suspect that many readers didn’t know how to take this dense and dour volume that comes with not one but four appendices. Much of the work here is pitched carefully halfway between irony and ambivalence – a deadpan stance that underscores the horror of recognition at the heart of this book. Nuclear Heritage is not currently listed on the Roof Books site (http://roofbooks.com/Catalog/) and may well be out of print. To make matters worse, abebooks.com (http://abebooks.com/) doesn’t show any copies available through its network of used and rare book dealers. But in 2002, Our Nuclear Heritage is an absolutely a must-read book. Try your small-press-friendly university library.
Sherry hasn’t published a lot of poetry since Heritage, spending much of the past decade producing an equally long and dense work on the environment, tentatively titled Sorry. There’s new work in the latest issue of Chain (http://www.temple.edu/chain/9_toc.htm) on Sherry’s own horrific experiences on September 11 of last year – his office is just two blocks from Ground Zero – and on the implications of globalism and its cognates on postmodernity and the religions of the book alike.
Monday, September 09, 2002
Most of the time, when I read poetry – by anyone, even Billy Collins – I read it aloud. The prosody of the text is for me always an essential aspect and I’m often dismayed at younger poets who seem to take to the genre solely for its conceptual potentials (substantial as they may be). Not too surprisingly, one of the greatest pleasures for me is hearing the authors read their own works aloud.
Three superb resources for modern poetry sound files:
Joel Kuszai’s growing collection of sound files in Real Audio. The only problem with the
Laurable has put together the best index of poetry sound files on the web that I’ve encountered, including all the
Ilya Kutik and Andrew Wachtel’s site for Russian poetry is called From the Ends to the Beginning. The text is in both Russian and English (although I have not been able to get the Cyrillic to work on my XP system, which is slightly maddening). If you want to hear Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak or Esenin read their own poetry aloud, this is the place. There are also some poems of Mayakovsky’s read by his lover, Lilly Brik.
Sunday, September 08, 2002
One of the most interesting inclusions in the ridiculously named The Best American Poetry 2002 (Scribner), guest edited by Robert Creeley, is a series of twenty-six fragments written by the late George Oppen, “scrawled on envelopes and other small pieces of paper – posted to the walls of George Oppen’s study and gathered after his death.” One in fact was written in pencil directly on the wall itself.
One that I find most haunting is the second:
I find I am forgetting
all the spoken of
and the numbers (i.e.
how to form them
also the numbers
George Oppen died of
Alzheimer’s disease, the debilitating degenerative condition against which he
struggled for many years. This fragment appears to directly address that
condition and, in doing so, recalls the furor that met the exhibition of Willem
de Kooning’s last paintings, also created by an artist well into the
irreversible dementia of the disease. Were the sweeping and majestic spaces of his
last canvases – more akin to a Diebenkorn (albeit one with no straight lines)
than to the intense and misogynistic paintings of de Kooning’s signature work –
the sign of an artist who had arrive at a new (and theoretically more peaceful)
stage in his evolution or an index of the degeneration of one of the great
minds in painting? Because poetry depends precisely on language and is so
intimately entangled with consciousness itself, Oppen’s last fragments
inevitably raise the same issues. I’ve heard at least one person wonder aloud
as to the
I’m persuaded by the
Oppen seems quite clear, if not about words & numbers as such, about the importance of tracking his own consciousness against this greatest of challenges, its own ineluctable decomposition. These fragments, many of which repeat themselves, stalking the same terrain over & over, articulate a mind working through some of the most elemental facts of poetry and life with an absolute sense of just how little time remains.
* Oppen was an attentive reader. I had the fortune of being present when Mark Linenthal first introduced Oppen to Robert Duncan. Oppen’s first words were, “I want to talk with you about your use of open vowels.”
- Wharf Hypothesis
- Under Albany
- The Grand Piano
- The New Sentence
- In The American Tree
- In Memoriam
- Recent Links
- Recently Received
- silliman AT gmail DOT com
Support Silliman's Blog
Scotland's International Poetry Festival
St. Andrews, Scotland
March 5-9, 2014
III: The Alphabet
I: The Age of Huts
Other Books in Print
Memoirs & Collaborations
Ron Silliman was born in Pasco,
Washington, although his
parents stayed there just
long enough for his mother
to learn that one could
step on field mice while
walking barefoot through the
snow to the outhouse, and
for his father to walk away
from a plane crash while
smuggling alcohol into
a dry county. Silliman
has written and edited over 30 books,
most recently Revelator from BookThug,
and had his poetry
and criticism translated into 14
languages. Silliman was a 2012
Kelly Writers House Fellow
at the University of Pennsylvania, and
the 2010 recipient of the
Levinson Prize, from the
Poetry Foundation. His sculpture
Poetry (Bury Neon) is permanently
on display in the
transit center of Bury, Lancashire,
and he has a plaque in the walk
dedicated to poetry in his home
town of Berkeley, although
he now lives in Chester County, PA. In 2014,
Silliman will publish two
new volumes of poetry from
Universe,: Northern Soul from Shearsman in
the UK, and Against Conceptual Poetry
from Counterpath in the US.