Friday, July 11, 2003


Mary Burger, with whom I’m reading at 21 Grand on Sunday evening, is a personal favorite & has been ever since I first ran into her work at Naropa nine years ago. In theory, she was a student, since she took my workshop there. But reading her poetry even then reminded me of Robert Duncan’s comments about first coming upon Helen Adam & Michael McClure – that there are some people who aren’t doing what everybody else is, but who do their own thing with such intensity & skill that you simply have to stand back & give it room. Mary Burger’s writing has just that kind of edge.


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This week my blog had its 60,000th hit. When I first thought about doing this last August in Nova Scotia, I was thinking 30 hits a day would be good.


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I took Jim Behrle’s “which poetry blogger are you most like?” quiz and it told me I was Ron Silliman. Whew!


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I’m going to be in the San Francisco area for the next two weeks and the only computer I’m taking is my Palm Pilot (which I have pointedly not configured for email access). I might blog from a public access PC at an Oakland library, or some such, but I won’t promise it. In the meantime, you be good. If you’re in Northern California, I hope to see you at the gallery 21 Grand on Sunday, July 13.


While I’m gone, let me point you to Ed Lu’s blog – he is literally the first blogger from outer space.


I’ll be back in the faux forest suburbs of Philadelphia’s Main Line on July 27. Bye for now.

Thursday, July 10, 2003



This coming Sunday


Reading in Oakland, CA

Sunday, July 13

7-9 PM


Mary Burger

Ron Silliman


at the gallery

21 Grand

449B 23rd Street

(between Broadway & Telegraph)

$4 Cover



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Wednesday, July 09, 2003


I’ve thought about responding in detail to Brian Kim Stefans’ screed over the first half of my Lowell commentary, but found (find) it impossible, at least personally, to untangle his thinking from the ad hominem attacks that he loads into it. Of greater value & interest are Kasey Mohammad’s & Michael Magee’s discussion of the same issue. Though, frankly, Brian’s second approach on the same subject seems less over-the-top & thus more thoughtful. Alas, he slides back into the ad hominem mode for his third commentary.


I do want to reiterate that anyone who lived through the 1960s will remember that, in politics, the “third way” strategy advocated by Stefans – Walter Mondale was its apotheosis – invariably came out as road kill. While the intentions of a rapprochement may always be noble, in the world of American letters it requires amnesia to imagine it possible. If you’re anywhere on the post-avant spectrum – as Brian clearly is – the idea of rapprochement is virtually a death wish. Kasey, on the other hand, is exactly on target when he suggests that a “17th way” will be possible before a “third one” is.


Daniel Nester offers a more cogent criticism concerning my comments in his email below:


Mr. Silliman:


Some quick comments on your otherwise spot-on assessment of all this Lowellmania of late.


When you say that when Time "could have focused on the aftermath & implications of the first Harlem riots of the decade, it chose instead to feature Lowell on its cover," I think it misses many points. 


To wit: Time could have had another poet, not from his clan, on the cover — Ginsberg, perhaps, an obvious choice, but perhaps a feature on "The New American Poetry."  Granted, that last proposed feature would have been four years late — not so unhip for mainstream media — but my point is by saying Time should have focused on the Harlem riots, you're implying that


n       any poet beside Lowell couldn't have competed with him for a Time cover — indeed, if we are to believe poets of your generation (Larry Fagin's asinine bloviating comes to mind), this was a glorious time for poetry, filled with cheap rents, great pot, and hot chicks;

n       Lowell and his lot didn't care about the Harlem riots — they probably did, they being of the aristopoet, armchair purply liberal pedigree;

n       poetry is less important than the Harlem riots — it is not, and to imply it is demonstrates that in the absence of good ideas all we have is moral indignation;


Granted, your comparison goes for cheap points, and does point out Time's oversight of engaging with the real world, just as Lowell, in his diction and topics, avoided the real world as well.  But by saying non-pedigreed poets, by right of Time magazine's exclusion, are "down" with Harlem riot concerns suggests alternapoets of the early 60s were political heroes, and the pedigreed ones weren't.  I'm afraid neither is the case.


I just don't think you need to invoke the Harlem riots to point out the iniquity of the poetry world back then.  Is all I'm saying.


Best, D



Daniel Nester

editor, Unpleasant Event Schedule

author, God Save My Queen


Nester is absolutely right in some of his points. I wasn’t trying to suggest that Lowell or his immediate circle were in any way involved in the decision to cover poetry over social eruption on the cover of Time. There is no reason to believe that Lowell didn’t feel some sympathy for the rioters, although frankly at that early moment most of the Left didn’t know how exactly how to react to that event.


As an editor, my experience tells me that a “poetry cover” on Time is what you choose for a week of little or no news of great topical importance. In the face of the first modern urban uprising, to have missed that was a major editorial comment on Time’s part. It’s not that poetry is “less important,” but rather that its importance functions on a very different dimension.


However, it’s a comment more on the school of quietude’s (SoQ’s) integration into the social milieu of the publishing industry, as such, that Time would think to put Lowell, rather than Ginsberg, on its cover – the latter would almost certainly have sold more copies in 1964. It reminds me of the degree to which many of the quietude poets don’t even know how that world represents their own small press scene. As one Pulitzer-winning SoQ said to me a couple of years back, “It must be hard to come out of college without a book contract.” Yeah. Right.  


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Tuesday, July 08, 2003


My comment on a single allusion to David Bowie in Louis Cabri’s “Salon, salon” in the new Kiosk 2, evoked a response from Louis that has “Big Post Error” inscribed all over it. Jim Behrle, my personal P.R. agent, tells me that Blogger is claiming to have solved that irritating quirk.


I admit, reading what follows, it took me a couple of passes through Louis’ text to realize that retrochic should be understood & pronounced retro-chic & was not related to trochees.


The crux of your question about allusion, for me, is: When does one decide to go “up,” when “down” in interpreting and making allusion? Somewhat simplistic down/up metaphor, but: one can go “down” (or sideways) into allusions to specific details (intertexts) of form and history. Allusion can then be differentiated from quotation (Diepeveen), textual present (i.e. reading) from historical text (i.e. allusions), and so on, at a formal level. One can also go “up” into textual allusions to a general idea or concept, e.g. materiality.


Example, from criticism, where both directions for allusion might intersect under the rubric of white studies [1]: Bob Perelman’s reading of Bruce Andrews’s violence in I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism) goes “up” – into Kantian concepts of aesthetic disinterestedness and autonomy. “When Andrews writes, ‘sink the boat people’, he doesn’t mean it – and thus finally could be said to write under the aegis of Kantian disinterestedness, even though that leads to a liberal poetics of free play” (107). The violence that concerns Perelman in Andrews’s work is too conflicted to get a specific reading as this or that, even though there is an insistent and concerted effort to get into its details, for instance, with the line: “Where’s a battered woman – I want to beat her up?” (Don’t Have Any 193). Perelman writes:


How much credence are we supposed to put in that question mark? The rhetoric is indecisive. It’s not “I want to beat up a battered woman” (which would be like Baudelaire’s “Let’s Beat Up the Poor”), but neither is it “Can we possibly understand the twisted feelings of someone who wants to beat up a battered woman?” It’s hard to imagine Andrews is condoning abusive men, but what, besides triggering a conflicted response, does such a sentence do? (Marginalization 106)


This passage offers two interpretive scenarios, one negative, one positive. The first, a negative scenario, proposes a formal and historical allusion for the line to Baudelaire’s penultimate prose poem in Paris Spleen (1869), which, while by no means excusing, would nevertheless underscore that Andrews’s offending line has literary precedence. The second scenario foregoes allusion and tries to put the sentence into other words by introducing empathy and the question of empathy’s limits – a positive scenario.


Perelman’s ethico-aesthetic dilemma is that while his essay’s principle focus is political in the modernist sense of asking how words translate into action, Perelman emphatically does not want to “endorse a retreat to more normative genres and content” (108).


But I want to focus on the social, not the political,[2] evaluation of violence in Shut Up that to me is what makes Perelman’s reading so compellingly connect to the question of allusion. I’ve only just figured this out. Why has Perelman “decided” (this word in quotation marks, because I want to suggest a deconstruction of sorts) to go “up” into Kantian concepts instead of “down” into details? Because, going “up” into Kantian concepts preserves the ethical judgment upon “conflicted response,” upon aestheticizing violence (with all its dire modernist connotations). One unintended consequence however is that going “up” like this relieves the reader of having to deal with any historical mediation between his/her experience of textual violence and the text itself. This despite the caveat that “we should remember the situation in which he [Andrews] is writing. […] Andrews is publishing in small-press books and magazines: what prestige they have is literary.” I venture that a retreat into the aesthetic as the ultimate apologist’s safe-haven for violent expression (along the lines: poets can write whatever they want) would be unacceptable to Andrews and Perelman. If we wanted to remember the situation in which Andrews is writing, then wouldn’t we want to discover allusions going “down” into, sideways through the text? Doing so would problematize the ethical judgment, however, in the following way.


Consider the punk band Battered Wives that was, so far as its willfully-obnoxious title goes, representative of a stylistic tendency (in art, music, film, etc) in the late 70s/early 80s that Lucy Lippard calls “retrochic” – as in, stylistically chic to invoke racist, sexist, classist, etc., language and imagery, when cloaked in a retro allusion:


It was only in its last three years or so that the [‘70s] decade got it together to pinpoint an esthetic of its own, and this it did with a lot of help from its friends in the rock music scene, not to mention S&M fashion photography, TV and movie culture, and a lot of ‘60s art ideas conveniently forgotten, thus now eligible for parole. As we verge on the ‘80s [Lippard is writing in 1981], ‘retrochic’ – a reactionary wolf in countercultural sheep’s clothing – has caught up with life and focuses increasingly on sexist, heterosexist, classist and racist violence, mirroring, perhaps unwittingly, the national economic backlash…. (“Hot” 40-1)


Like the attempted allusion to Baudelaire’s poem “Let’s Beat Up the Poor,” to admit that this punk band is an apt allusion for Andrews’s line is not to condone the aestheticized violence in Shut Up. But it certainly opens the reading of a line such as “Where’s a battered woman – I want to beat her up?” to a cultural moment and (however ephemeral) style (and as a reading of that cultural moment, as in: is that what the Battered Wives mean by their title and album graphic of a lipsticked fist?). Moreover, it objectively locates ethical judgment within that moment rather than within author and reader as if there were no broader social context in which each finds him or herself as individuals. Going “down” into an allusion historically mediating the text resituates Perelman’s ethical judgment upon Shut Up’s “hot spots” (i.e., lines like the sentence in question here) at another social level. The ethical judgment is dialectically transformed, as Jameson would say (117), from a binary between good and evil in the individual mind of reader/writer, towards socio-historical contradiction.[3] In a 1979 Village Voice article whose title itself (“Retrochic: Looking Back in Anger”) performs an allusion – a testy one, to John Osborne’s 1956 “angry young man” play, Look Back In Anger, as moments (together with the young James Dean) of retrochic – Lippard differentiates between two kinds of punk: one practicing Brechtian distancing, the other playing with allusion in a retrochic way that fails to take responsibility for or give direction to the negative cultural baggage of the codes it revives: “[P]unk comes in two guises – this harsh social commentary retaining an echo of Brechtian irony and of the original British music movement’s working class political force; and retrochic, which sees the audience as ‘parents’ – authorities to be done in” (“Retrochic” 69). Another example that Lippard gives of retrochic are 70s Super-8 punk films such as Black Box that one reviewer characterized as “space age social realism” (Hoberman).


Perelman’s rhetorical question, “what, besides triggering a conflicted response, does such a sentence do?” is precisely Lippard’s dilemma, faced with retrochic’s senseless violence that in its aestheticization seems fascistic but doesn’t acknowledge itself as so. What the sentence in question does is trigger a conflicted response as an allusion to retrochic. But it is also, itself, a retrochic allusion – which Shut Up, on every level (text, work, publisher, etc), attempts to mediate.


In an irony to this question of allusion, Baudelaire’s prose poem begins with the narrator closing himself off in his room for fifteen days to read cultural ephemera (“I am speaking of books that treat of the art of making people happy, wise, and rich in twenty-four hours” [101]). The “lesson” he absorbs from his mass-media infusion is to enact upon a homeless person the sort of violence that retrochic, minus self-understanding, broadly embodies.


Which suggests that perhaps capitalism’s continuous cultural “background radiation” is retrochic. Allusions to it in the last few years might include: the Big Allis 8 [4] black-and-white cover photo of a vulnerably-young boy’s face, cropped so that we see only the barest hint of a hairline (the man he will grow into), but most of his chin line (with a few droplets of water on it, the boy that he is), suggesting the raw social material potentially of, at worst, a skinhead (the effect is created by cropping only a detail from a larger photographic work by Roni Horn); the early paintings of Attila Richard Lukacs (especially his “True North” series, presenting Doc Marten boots à la mode); Clint Burnham’s short-story collection Airborne Photo (retrochic might be an apt allusion for the entire axis of Burnham’s poetic and critical work); and even the revived success (in various contexts) of Alfred Jarry’s King/Father Ubu character; among other works. A stunningly paradoxical assertion by Lippard, with interesting implications, is that retrochic’s source is Italian futurism (“Hot” 41). However, Baudelaire’s moment, particularly his prose poems, facing as they are Georges Haussman’s thirty-year plan for Paris under Napoleon III (urban planning rationalized to carry the automobile future) is also key, since linked to the idea of the ephemeral, retrochic ultimately may be modernity’s symptom, and the modern – one important articulation of it anyway – begins with Baudelaire’s prose poems and his famous fashion essay on newspaper illustrator and painter (of bourgeois life and of the Crimean war) Constantin Guys.


Allusion is one way to socially saturate [5] a text, raising complex questions for contemporary poetry that is apparently notoriously allusive. I’m only feeling my way here (I don’t know the literature on allusion that well), but maybe it’s useful to think of contemporary allusion divided not only up and down but into at least three kinds: wild, studied, illusive. Most allusion is studied [6]. An extraordinary recent example would be Harryette Mullen’s “privileging the codes of the oppressed” (interview, n.p.) in Muse & Drudge by utilizing Library of Congress slave recordings, Clarence Major’s From Juba to Jive, blues language, and colloquial expressions. Allusion exists wild [7] in Andrews’s texts, and in the texts of numerous others in varied ways and degrees (these categories exist of course only as far as they are useful) – and in certain respects perhaps he might stand tokenized here as a return to allusion. There is a third kind that mimics the gesture of allusion, producing, instead of a specific allusion, the rhetorical gesture of alluding (allusion does not require that the referential function of language predominate, but Perloff’s effect of indeterminacy of referent from Rimbaud to Cage relates [8]).


*   *   *


[1] For an introduction to key problems and issues of bridging Andrews’s work and white studies, see Juliana Spahr.


[2] The result of de-linking poetry and politics, which Perelman concludes is a condition of the times (“The political impossibilities of the present are impossible to escape” [108]”), is that, for example, “lyric” and “anti-lyric” poetries are then equally perceived as having an identical grasp on the social, as if the social were a homogeneous substance (like substance itself, in Spinoza), since all poetry is equally aesthetic and since, following Adorno, the aesthetic, however lyrical, is inextricably tied to the society that produces it. This is meant I believe to open to a benign vision of a future beyond antagonistic differences. But at the same time, this way of concluding from Adorno, who is arguing that there is no escape from the social (from society), by extension not even Spicer’s radio (Andrews makes this point), fails to acknowledge different kinds of social, that is, specific effects within specific texts, both received and produced. (The social is both received and produced, just as consumption and production of capitalism are linked yet distinct, i.e. the social in poetry is not reducible to either being made or received.)


Elsewhere I’ve distinguished between the social and the political (even as they join) in an aesthetic work, drawing from a difference between social command and commission, as Mayakovsky and Osip Brik suggest.


[3] Ethical criticism constitutes, for Jameson, “the predominant code in terms of which the question ‘What does it mean?’ tends to be answered” (59), but “lives by exclusion and predicates certain types of Otherness or evil” (60). In the context of words’ relation to action, Perelman’s political question for Andrews might be put as follows: Is the relation going to be like Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s influence on the anti-slavery movement, or like Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s on fascist-flamed anti-semitisim? Thus Perelman’s ethical judgment is a form of “social praxis” (Jameson 117), and my intent is by no means to dismiss its value. Perelman’s incisive review of The Political Unconscious has a similar focus as his Andrews essay, concluding that while Jameson discovers this vast intellectual zone of the political unconscious, there is little that seems to be politically conscious in the literary works he examines. A similar comment could be made, from Perelman’s perspective, about Shut Up and, in relation to this work, allusion “down” into history. This to me only demonstrates how social consciousness is uneven in culture (retrochic as proof). Jameson’s treatment of ethics via Nietzsche is impressed on me thanks to a paper by Nicole Markotić on the subject.


[4] I am indebted to Sianne Ngai for raising my interest to a disturbance in the Big Allis cover, though can’t be sure whether she would agree with my interpretation of it.


[5] Tom Orange suggested in an email saturation as metaphor for thinking about the social text.


[6] The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics describes six kinds of allusion (Miner).

[7] Cf. Andrews’s notion of “a writing that is itself a ‘wild reading’” 
(Paradise 54, cited by Spahr) and your “Wild Form” 
(“For Kerouac, 
the signified is a template, not to be reproduced but 
entered into, much as a 
musician might move through an improvisation with others” [n.p.]).


[8] One might say from Rimbaud to, for example, Flarf, because Flarf practices illusive allusion, too. Gary Sullivan writes on his Elsewhere blog about “one of [the] things flarf – especially Google-assisted flarf – does best: It strips specific language acts from prior context, the result being a language of almost ‘pure’ elsewhere.”


It strikes me there are crucial distinctions, however. Flarf intentionalizes an aesthetics of indeterminacy, whereas Cage or Mac Low, for example, renders indeterminate what was once perceived as intentional. Flarf recuperates dispersal; Mac Low (e.g.) disperses recuperation (recuperation as including, say, the modernist classic).


It’s not just a mirroring reversal of syntax, but a paradigmatic difference. Flarf aestheticizes a second time what it already aestheticizes a first time as indeterminate (by evoking that line [sorry for that word, Brian!] “from Rimbaud to Cage or Mac Low”). Mac Low, by contrast, is not aestheticizing once again what he has already aestheticized as indeterminate (in part because of the differential social refraction within each kind of illusive-allusional practice, which to go into would take me far afield a footnote).


*   *   *


Andrews, Bruce. I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism). L.A.: Sun & Moon, 1992.

___. Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern UP, 1996.

Battered Wives. The Canadian Music Encyclopedia. <> June 30, 2003.

Baudelaire, Charles. Paris Spleen. Trans. Louise Varèse. NY: New Directions, 1970.

___. “The Painter of Modern Life.” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Ed. Jonathan Mayne. Phaidon Press Inc., 1995. 1-41.

Big Allis 8. Eds. Deirdre Kovacs, Melanie Neilson, Fiona Templeton. Brooklyn, NY. 1998.

Burnham, Clint. Airborne Photo: Stories. Vancouver: Anvil Press, 1999.

___. Be Labour Reading. Toronto: ECW Press, 1997.

___. Buddyland. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000.

___. The Jamesonian Unconscious: The Aesthetics of Marxist Theory. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Diepeveen, Leonard. Changing Voices: The Modern Quoting Poem. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Hoberman, J. “No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground.” The Village Voice (May 21, 1979).

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981.

Lippard, Lucy. “Hot Potatoes: Art and Politics in 1980.” Re-Visions: New Perspectives of Art Criticism. Howard Smagula, ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991. 35-49.

___. “Retrochic: Looking Back in Anger.” The Village Voice (Dec. 10, 1979): 67-9. Lukacs, Attila Richard. “True North.” Diane Farris Gallery. <>. July 5, 2003.

Markotić, Nicole. Decentring the Whole: Women and Subjectivity.” Unpublished. 1995.

Miner, Earl. “Allusion.” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Eds. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993. 38-40.

Mullen, Harryette. Muse & Drudge. Philadelphia, PA: Singing Horse Press, 1995.

___. “Harryette Mullen in Calgary, Alberta.” Interview compiled and edited by Louis Cabri (featuring Louis Cabri, Jeff Derksen, Nicole Markotić, Steve McCaffery, Victor Ramraj, Sheryl Teelucksingh, Fred Wah). BOO 7 (July 1996). Vancouver, BC. n.p.

Orange, Tom. “the social word.” Private email. November 1, 2002.

Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996.

___. “Exchangeable Frames.” Poetics Journal 5. Berkeley, CA, 168-176.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1981.

Silliman, Ron. “Wild Form.” Electronic Poetry Center. <>. July 4, 2003.

Spahr, Julia. “‘I’m Dracula’: Bruce Andrews and White Studies.” Electronic Poetry Center. <>. July 4, 2003.

Sullivan, Gary. “Quick Digression.” June 27, 2003. Elsewhere. <>. July 5, 2003.

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Monday, July 07, 2003


An especially delightful project is Spidertangle: the_book, a collection that is, regardless of its title, more website than not. Spidertangle is mute on its editorial board &/or function, though if you ferret around the website long enough, you will get to a Yahoo groups list that has the ubiquitous experimentalist Miekal And as its moderator. The simplest description I can give of Spidertangle is that it appears to be a collection of visual works, vizpo I suppose, by a mostly well-known group of practitioners, evidenced by this table of contributors:


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·         mIEKAL aND & camille bacos

·         william james austin

·         william james austin & igor satanovsky

·         michael basinski

·         john m. bennett

·         maria damon

·         david daniels

·         k.s.ernst

·         ficus strangulensis

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·         peter ganick

·         jesse glass

·         bob grumman

·         scott helmes

·         crag hill

·         joe keenan

·         bill keith

·         richard kostelanetz

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·         jim leftwich

·         jim leftwich & andrew topel

·         joel lipman

·         carlos luis

·         mike magazinnik

·         malok

·         lewis lacook

·         sheila murphy

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·         lanny quarles

·         marilyn r. rosenberg

·         igor satanovsky

·         nico vassilakis

·         irving weiss

·         karl young

·         []

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