Thursday, August 16, 2007

Mid-trip Report and a Few Notes on Ron the Silliman

A relaxed and uneventful ride to Winnipeg. Other than a brief excursion for food, I've just been sitting in my hotel room, writing a book review and watching the Jays fail to sweep a series against the Angels. No TV at home, so a nice treat to watch a game instead of listening on the radio.

It would seem that Ron Silliman is piqued about being unknown to a mainstream journalist.

The truly difficult poets--my friends, for example, not to mention that good-looking guy in the mirror--are so far beyond the horizon that Carroll doesn't know he's left them (us) out.

I have to say, I don't get it, but maybe I'm just not "attuned" to his argument... Seems to me that a mainstream journalist is going to recommend poetry that a broad audience will respond to. Makes sense, right? It's kinda the job description of a columnist: write about what your audience wants to read about. And Silliman is saying that the sort of poetry he and his buds are into writing is the sort of poetry that only other poets read--a fraction of other poets at that, since he tends to dismiss everything else as being glorified light verse, tuneless pop music, imitation-British or otherwise "School of Quietude" (a vague term he is increasingly unable to define, as he seems to keep expanding its broad net to catch just about everything he's against, including most poetry that gets more "mainstream" recognition than his). Why one would want to be read exclusively by poets, I don't understand--unless of course one is an aesthetic snob--but then I'm sure he'd think there's a lot I don't understand about his brand. Hey, that rhymes! Bad poet! Regardless, that's clearly what he does want, so what's the freakin' problem, eh? Wouldn't his appearance in a newspaper column destroy every shred of the "artistic credibility" he clings to so doggedly? Wouldn't that represent his descent to the nether world of Billy Collinsesque shlock? Isn't it, like, way cooler to be on the fringes fighting evil? Silliman, like so many others, wants badly to be cutting-edge and avant-garde, but also wants the love and recognition afforded to people like Collins. The difference is, Collins doesn't overtly despise and contemn the people doing the recognizing. Silliman should scoop the cake out of his gob if he wants to hang on to it so badly.

It's a nice, comforting story--an us-n-them narrative all-too-familiar--for Silliman to say that he and his crew are "beyond the horizon" of ignorant rubes like Jon Carroll. I think what Silliman is most loathe to confront--or is oblivious of--is the fact that most of the sort of poetry he champions, on the rare occasions that it is encountered by "ordinary readers," does not cause rage, or perplexity, or reactionary screeds, but indifference. If students get mad at profs for making them read it, it's the same reason I was mad at the prof who made me read Middlemarch: the fucking thing bored me to tears. Unlike George Eliot's fiction, however, this sort of "poetry" is forgotten almost as soon as it's encountered, because, verbal Teflon that it is, it can't get any purchase on the imagination of those unindoctrinated in its intricacies, or unconvinced of the earth-shattering claims made for it by its high priests. People don't find it hostile, they find it boring. So often, I hear grumblings about how "behind the other arts" poetry is (it comes up, predictably, in the comments to the Silliman post), because in visual art and music, radically disjunctive non-representative techniques are widely accepted. This to me says more about the grumblers' misapprehension of the medium than it does about the puerility or stupidity of its hidebound audience. Language, unlike shape, colour and sound, is fundamentally, organically representational. Every word is already a metaphor, a poem in miniature (a point made eloquently by Robert Bringhurst in The Tree of Meaning). Words don't exist independent of human culture, whereas colour (at least as light waves if not in what we know as "green" or "red"), shape and sound do. You can warp and stretch language and break it into its component parts, but the result is rarely successful unless you keep intact some recognizable structures of grammar and syntax (and for that matter, an analogous case can be made for painting and jazz--unpatterned, unstructured chaos is simply uninteresting, probably because most things in nature have some kind of formal patterning or other). Because of language's basic recursiveness, the possible combinations of words, within the organic, internal rules of grammar and syntax, are literally infinite--so it's bogus to say that these rules are in any way confining or oppressive.

Developments in psycholinguistics indicate that language is not an invention, so much as an instinct human beings are born with. Failed attempts to invent rational languages like Esperanto tend to reinforce this idea. You can't impose language on people. Pomo theorists and their acolytes would have us believe that we are victims of language, but language is in fact too radically plastic in the human mind--not to mention too fundamentally ambiguous, a fact much exploited by poets since time immemorial, as identified by Empson--for it to control the way we think. Or for us to do it permanent damage.

Far from being ahead of their time, Silliman et al are starting to look like crusty relics of linguistic theories badly compromised by superstition and error. Far from radical, they've become the new reactionaries.

1 comment:

nathan said...

It's the poetic equivalent of avant-garde prose writers who sniff at the very idea of mimesis - dismissing as facile and obsolete what is fiction's most challenging and endlessly surprising trick, the magical core of the whole enterprise.

It's not just about building miniature ships in bottles, but about creating a nexus between life and language.

So much avant-garde work seems to operate on a binary principle of comprehension: you either get it or you don't. There are no other levels of understanding, except for very degraded and trivial ones that have to do with cultural context - "this stuff is avant-garde because that stuff isn't." And so the work must get trickier and trickier, so as to frustrate or delay comprehension, like progressively harder levels in a video game.

Plus, as you say, it's usually pretty boring. And banal, too, which is ironic, given all the claims made for it - a lot of high-concept verbal trickery and acrobatics to once again teach the lesson that "this is not a pipe."