Saturday, August 23, 2003
The third (of four, I think) installment in my chronology of “essential texts.”
Louis Zukofsky, “A” 22 & 23
the single finest volume of poetry in the 20th century? At least in the
Late later and much later
surge sea erupts boiling molten
lava island from ice, land
seen into color thru day
and night: voiced, once unheard
earth beginning idola of years
that love well forget late.
The five-word line offers a substantial range of metric & syntactic possibilities & Zukofsky takes advantage of every one as this single sentence demonstrates. The text moves between lucid exposition & material opacity almost phrase by phrase, idola (false images) precisely to the degree that we imagine words as transparent, as access to things. Tale & tone are open to anything here, from this creation myth to the most moving poetry written on the death of JFK to Zukofsky’s signature obsession with all matters domestic, ”A”-23 concluding literally with an alphabet that leads to the street on which the poet’s son, violinist Paul Zukofsky, then lived: arbutus. I think of these two works – each roughly 30 pages in this small format – as twin poems & today can see how they not only bring the great longpoem to closure but further connect “A” to 80 Flowers, Zukofsky’s final sequence of dense lyrics (and itself a greatly underrated masterpiece).
Like several of the works in my list, it is virtually impossible now to find “A”22 & 23 in its original format. In each instance, however, that format was an important contributor to the overall power of the reading experience. For the next item, any other format strikes me as unthinkable.
Robert Grenier, Sentences
Grenier came to the
filled up notebook after notebook, it seemed unclear how these notes, some of
them just verbatim transcriptions of snatches of conversation, might eventually
be transformed into poetry. Indeed, with the exception of what we would now
call language poetry journals, like This or Tottel’s, Grenier’s own publications of
poetry were relatively few until, following a show in a gallery setting at
More important than the presentation was the content. One example:
One could hardly find, or even imagine, a simpler text, yet it undermines everything people know or, worse, have learned, about titles, repetition, rhyme, naming, immanence. If we read it as challenging the status of the title, then on a second level it is the most completely rhymed poem conceivable. & vice versa. As language, this is actually quite beautiful in a plainspoken manner, the two words hovering without ever resolving into a static balance, never fully title & text, nor call & response, neither the hierarchy of naming nor parataxis of rhyme.
There were, of course, other, earlier works that focused on the micropoem, such as Aram Saroyan’s books in the 1960s. Where Grenier differed was in his persistent focus, insisting that that the poem’s responsibility first of all was to the language through which it came into being. So where Saroyan had one or two poems per book that actually expanded what poetry might do, Sentences had hundreds.
Sentences was originally published in an edition of only a few hundred copies. Today an electronic edition is available from the Whale Cloth website (www.whalecloth.org), but otherwise this seminal work has never been reprinted. I keep my copy literally next to the OED.
Friday, August 22, 2003
More entries for Peter Davis’ Barnwood Press anthology on “Essential Titles” in contemporary poetry. Again the order is chronological in terms of when these books had their impact on me as a reader & in this instance the anomaly of Williams is significant.
Jack Spicer, Book of Magazine Verse and Language
discovered the work of Jack Spicer when Shakespeare & Co. Books in
Language, first published in 1964, was a book that at first felt impossible within the world of the New American poet. To begin with, it insisted on a concept of language for the poem that was not ignorant of linguistics. This meant that all the claims that Olson in particular & the projectivists in general were making about the ear & breath suddenly sounded quaint, romantic, even mystical. Yet in its arms-open-wide embrace of loss & despair, Spicer sounded a completely different note, one that demanded a larger emotional palette for the poem than was being used by the New Americans. In Book of Magazine Verse, published right after his death, Spicer made explicit the degree to which he understood his poetry as an active intervention of the literary scene, figuring the book as a book of “typical” (sometimes comically so) poems that might appear in various periodicals, ranging from The Nation to Downbeat to The St. Louis Sporting News to Poetry Chicago. Book of Magazine Verse is the forerunner of all the critical poetries now being written, from the work of Bruce Andrews to that of Brian Kim Stefans.
creative writing program at
I & my friends should have seen it coming. Already, Creeley’s previous book, Words, had moved away from the romantic neo-Beat lyrics of For Love towards a poetic that was more formal & looking directly to Zukofsky in its sense as to what form might mean for the poem. But the poems in Words still basically looked like poems, or close enough to what we knew as poetry, to fool us into seeing continuities rather than development & departures. With Pieces, however, you could not make the same mistake:
As early as the 1950s, Creeley had written on the question of referentiality, but it was not until Pieces that his work began to demonstrate what a post-referential work might mean.
William Carlos Williams, Spring & All
In 1970, Harvey Brown’s Frontier Press published what may have been a pirate edition of William Carlos Williams’ 1923 book, Spring and All, a work that embeds some of Williams’ most famous early poems, including “red wheel barrow” and “The pure products of America,” within a booklength theoretical manifesto, one that defines poetry as “new form dealt with as a reality in itself.” That remains, 80 years after its initial publication, the most concise & accurate definition of the poem I have ever read. The book reveals Williams to have been more than equal to the critical challenges of modernism & shows him to be operating on a level at which among his peers only Pound or Stein could even hope to aspire.
Yet in 1970, Spring & All had been out of print for more than 40 years, having barely received any distribution or notice at the time of its original publication. Its reissue literally stunned the community of poets in the San Francisco Bay Area. Overnight, Olson’s theoretical writing no longer seemed the latest thinking. But it was especially appalling to discover that somebody had gone beyond Projective Verse decades before Olson had written it. More than any other volume, this book convinced many poets in my generation that we had to go back & look at the early modernists all over again and that we couldn’t trust the general wisdom.
Thursday, August 21, 2003
Davis, who is editing a collection for Barnwood Press, a
collective from Ball State University in Indiana that has been operating with
surprisingly little fanfare for 25 years, recently asked me if I would
contribute to a forthcoming anthology by listing “5-10 ‘Essential titles,’ plus
a brief commentary.” That’s the sort of query guaranteed to raise all sorts of
questions, not the least of which is how – 37 years after post-structuralism
first reared its head in the U.S. at “The Languages of Criticism and the
Sciences of Man” conference at Johns Hopkins – anybody can use a phrase like
“Essential titles” without giggling. To make matters even more problematic,
As of today, I’ve come up with a list of titles that were for me “essential” in that, in each instance, the work forced me to rethink & redefine what I was doing as a poet, artist & person. This does not necessarily mean that these books were “the best” or “most important” from the perspective of a broader literary history, although each is a superb work in & of itself. Nor are these books necessarily my favorite writing, even by these authors. Rather, these are the books that changed me & in so doing helped to shape who I have become. This may have as much to do with when I read them as anything else. Always, it has to do with what each taught me. Here are the first couple of titles, more or less in chronological order – the chronology of my reading, that is.
William Carlos Williams, The Desert Music
I have written about this book before. It was through The Desert Music, and especially its title poem, that I first truly discovered poetry & understood that I would some day be a poet. I came upon this volume quite by chance in the Albany Public Library when I was a junior in high school, spending a weekend morning reading, avoiding the chaos of a household with a mentally ill adult. It was, I swear, the oddity of a hardback with pale yellow binding that first drew me to the book.
I’d been writing fiction for six years and was beginning to recognize that I would be a writer, although only with the foggiest & most grandiose notion of what that might mean. I’d been unhappy with my fiction as well because what I was interested in most in my own writing seemed to have little if anything to do with elements of character or plot. But what I could not see was how I might at get at this thing – I wouldn’t have called it the sensuality of language because I simply didn’t have the vocabulary for that then.
Suddenly, reading Williams’ words aloud, I realized that I didn’t have to struggle for this unnamed object of desire because here it was, absolutely clear, utterly present. Williams depicts a figure asleep on the bridge between El Paso & Juarez and asks:
How shall we get said what must be said?
Only the poem.
Only the counted poem, to an exact measure:
to imitate, not to copy nature, not
to copy nature
NOT, prostrate, to copy nature
but a dance! to dance
two and two with him –
sequestered there asleep,
right end up!
Ironically, it was Williams’ most narrative poem that led me to see a possibility for writing that extended well beyond vulgar narrative. But I wasn’t seeing a lot of what was going on in this poem when I first read it – including that playful allusion to Karl Marx in the last line.
This is the first of two Williams’ titles on my list & it is worth noting that neither was a New Directions book.
I attended –
more as a teen party crasher than a serious writer – the Berkeley Poetry
Conference in 1965 & spent the rest of that year & all of 1966 getting
to know the poetry that was included in
because it sold over 100,000 copies, the Allen’s imperfections have had lives
of their own. The volume’s single most audacious move, which was to divide its
44 poets into five ”divisions” or “groups” – Allen uses both words in his
preface – has proven as troubled as it was inspired. One of the group’s is a
hodge-podge, a second – the so-called
Wednesday, August 20, 2003
This is the best breakdown of California's gubernatorial sweepstakes I've seen. Except that I'd treat Audie Brock as a serious politician.
Thursday we wanted to express solidarity with our neighbors to the north stuck
in the blackout, so we decided also to spend the evening in the dark & thus
went to the movies. Dirty Pretty Things is an interesting,
if imperfect, film, because it’s built around three primary narrative frames.
On one hand, this portrait of a Nigerian cabbie who also works the graveyard
shift at the desk in a second-tier hotel is a neorealist account of the lives
of illegal & quasi-legal immigrants in
One could argue,
I suppose, that there is a fourth one as well, a romance, particularly as the
film’s marketing has paid so much attention to the presence of Audrey Tautou,
the current It Girl of French cinema following her breakthrough title role in
the comedy Amélie.
But it’s really Chiwetel
Ejiofor who is at the heart of this actor-centered film, a London-raised
performer with Nigerian parents best known in the
This is rather a lot to expect from a film whose writer is best known for having created Who Wants to be a Millionaire? And it’s risky, in that someone who is attracted to neorealism or noir is not necessarily the obvious audience for a fairy tale. Some of the reviews have faulted the film for stepping back from the horrific conclusion toward which the thriller appears to be headed. Yet anyone who remembers director Stephen Frears’ early films, My Beautiful Laundrette or Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, will realize that it is the fairy tale that Frears set out tell in the first place.
is interesting not because
I think of Zukofsky’s dictum that love is to reason as eyes are to the mind and wonder how that fits into this equation. “Eyes” is in fact the privileged term in Zukofsky’s long critical work Bottom: On Shakespeare, so much so that the index of the Ark Press edition* lists it thus:
eye(s), passim, 9-443
And Zukofsky, it should be remembered, also published a suite of shorter poems under the title I’s (pronounced eyes). If I follow Zukofsky here, sight plays a unique role among the senses, an odd assertion for the poet who did more than anyone in the 20th century to reassert the role of sound in verse to be making. It’s as if the three dimensions of the poem were not those of the physical realm but rather time, figured (literally!) through sound, thought articulated through words &, most mysterious of all, sight through which imagination transforms language into action, character, color, the world.
* Bottom is being reissued as volumes III & IV of the Wesleyan Centennial Edition of the Complete Critical Writings of Louis Zukofsky, although vol. IV is Celia Zukofsky’s musical arrangement of Shakespeare’s Pericles. The first two volumes are A Useful Art & Le Style Apollinaire.
Tuesday, August 19, 2003
Here is Craig Allen Conrad’s report on The Philly Sound weekend.
Dear Ron Silliman,
there's something about you that really made The Philly Sound sound right Friday night. maybe it's the edges you flex in your lines, those very Philly-feeling edges. must be what you're made of, but man you gave it to us Friday night. gave it to us beautifully through the smoke, yeah. and anyone who wasn't completely absorbed with Jena Osman simply wasn't listening to her! it was a night of poetry we'll never forget.
however, it's really impossible for me to
give you Saturday back. sorry you couldn't make it.
"I wasn't bullshitting earlier when I said that
i wonder, if you were to be given
Saturday back, to listen, if you could actually say that you have ever had a
day of poetry to compare? it was a bold day,
showcasing what the Philly Sound has been working toward. All
of us working very hard.
it was clear that many of the visiting poets were unprepared for the sustained levels of excitement. one just doesn't prepare for such things when a schedule of 50 poets is facing you. a couple of poets i've known for years said that they hadn't realized what has been quietly brewing here. and after such a long day, you just can't believe that you want to go home and write and write and want to never stop writing.
has Philly been ignored? well, if it has been, that's about to stop!
must admit that my live 9for9 panel
wasn't as well attended as the rest of the day, but it's the early morning hour
that can be blamed. when
the 9 poets on the panel were anything but shy, which was nothing short of compelling, but you'll have to wait for the written version to come out to understand what i'm saying here.
a couple of the questions annoyed some of the audience, like, "L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry arrives at your door in the form of a gift, what does it look like?" there's quite a bit of space in there, i think, to say just about anything that you really WANT to say.
funny HOW MANY poets over the years (mostly well educated poets) who say the silliest, wrong things about L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry. i'm not mentioning names (gossip is a waste of time), but i've had poets tell me they are "not into L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, you know, like Alice Notley." ALICE NOTLEY!? AND YOU HAVE A PHD IN POETRY!? mark that degree RETURN TO SENDER i'd say!
but i'm curious about this ability to talk about a school of poetry with NO real knowledge about its rather well documented history, and so i created a question to literally get some pictures for us. not that i suspected any of the 9 on the panel didn't know, but it was interesting to SEE their feelings. well, actually, one poet didn't know anything about L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, but she said she didn't know.
by the way, the few poets who confronted me about the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E question at the 9for9, claimed that i was attempting to create negative responses. saying that i was continuing to use L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry as a scapegoat. when i looked at the question with them, i hope i made it clear they were not paying attention to the space in the question, the room for discovery. there's SO MANY on the defense, why oh why? i also pointed out that they didn't know me well enough to make such a judgment, that they were inventing a history between us, which was falsely uncovering how i do or do not feel about such matters.
what is even funnier in some ways, is how, since i do not, and probably will never, write anything quite like the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E set, i'm not expected to want to study or read it. what the hell!? it's such an old conversation for you, i'm sure, but since i'm writing outside this created space, it's kind of always news to me that i won't like it, even though i've been reading it and been liking it for years now. is it really ONLY those who are writing it, or, in this case writing like it, who are EXPECTED to appreciate it?
Gil Ott was the first poet who ever let me have an intelligent observation on the matter, and pointed me to your IN THE AMERICAN TREE. i didn't like the book, at first, because i wasn't yet capable of looking outside of what i was writing, or, rather, wasn't yet WILLING to look outside of what i was writing. it wasn't until i studied THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CENTURY anthology a few years later (Jonathan Williams had suggested i check it out) that i was able to go back to IN THE AMERICAN TREE with a clearer eye.
in the end, those who are threatened probably should be, and frankly, it wouldn't be too bad, if it gets them over into a wider read of all that's going on, been going on. there's power in being stupid and realizing it, and getting over it. i of course know this to be true, from experience.
what a meandering fucking e-mail this has become.
p.s. last updated
8/05/03CAConrad's Poetry Page
and check out the 9for9 project: http://poets9for9.blogspot.com/
and check out BANJO: Poets Talking
click here: http://banjopoets.blogspot.com/
THOSE WHO GIVE UP ESSENTIAL
TO PURCHASE A LITTLE LIBERTY
TEMPORARY SAFETY DESERVE NEITHER
NOR SAFETY.--Benjamin Franklin
Monday, August 18, 2003
my characterization of
Over and over
in the know
over the real
world and over
thumb the mind’s
green nerves —
This is as fine an example of what Robert Duncan used to characterize as the tone-leading of vowels as I’ve read in years. My ears govern mind’s response, a sign that Biglieri has got it right. The O sounds of the first two stanzas – be sure to hear not only the variation between now & know but also its softness in world – followed by the positionality of U in the third stanza leading past the E tones of the fourth stanza as they give way finally in this sentence to I. Indeed the I sounds are foreshadowed in the third stanza intermixed with the U tones, not just with mind’s but (best yet) eyes, the Y captured as well in this sentence that runs the sequence of vowels the way a champion pool hustler might “run the table.” This is form on steroids.
A part of what makes this work so brilliantly to my ear is the redaction of the article from the eighth line, which serves to heighten the stress on numbs in the line before. I’m conscious that not everyone concurs with Ginsberg’s dictum to strike the article when possible, but here Biglieri demonstrates exactly the sort of occasion that fully warrants the device.
One might argue that this is all well & good, but didn’t Creeley, Olson, Zukofsky demonstrate the value of enjambment & potential of a linebreak? And it is true that the poem here could not possibly be as ambitious as, say, Biglieri’s El Egg, a booklength work that brings the spirit of Spring & All to the discourse of the post-theory generation, from Agamben to Žižek. Yet, in fact, Biglieri’s project is fundamentally different from that of Zukofsky or the New Americans. The distinction I would draw perhaps will be clearer if I draw a parallel to the history of dance. Creeley, Olson & Zukofsky all strike me as being major choreographers of a particularly fecund period of creative growth – think Balanchine, Cunningham & Graham – where Biglieri’s role in something like Reading Keats to Sleep more closely approximates what Baryshnikov has been doing, especially during his period with the now-disbanded White Oak Dance Project. Baryshnikov is a dancer rather than a choreographer, but with White Oak, he performed an intervention as profound as that of any choreographer, demonstrating that the work, say, of the Judson Church generation, people like Simone Forti or Lucinda Childs, was as physically demanding & amazing as anything in the classic or high modern repertoire.
lacks Baryshnikov’s cultural capital, perhaps, but Reading Keats has some of the same feel, that of someone
demonstrating just exactly how terrific this approach to the language can be,
exulting in the process. To work at all – and this is the risk the poem takes
on – the process itself has to be at
least as good as its masters. This is not unlike the challenge George
Stanley confronts with his great early poem “Pompeii”
– taking on
Sunday, August 17, 2003
Bureau reported that between 1995 & 2000, more people moved from
Ш Ш Ш
I was interviewed by the BBC on Friday. What did they want to talk about? Flarf!
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of the blog, or more specifically of Squawkbox, is a pair of comments I
received about the zoo. They show up in Squawkbox when I go to its management
tool, but I can’t find them anywhere on the blog site. They’re about the zoo in
Ш Ш Ш
Ш Ш Ш
People who know me can tell that Jim Behrle & I haven’t met just by how much hair he gives me in his cartoons. He’s right about Star Trek: TNG, though, but not about roller coasters. I’m terrified of heights.
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Other people who know me remember that there was a time when I smoked.
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III: The Alphabet
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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 2015, Silliman taught at
Haverford College & the
University of Pennsylvania
& was writer in residence
at the Gloucester Writers Center.