I have to thank Ron Silliman for his latest blog post, which for the first time has illuminated the chief reasons why his views on poetry get my hackles up.
But let me start with what he gets right. It’s in the first paragraph: “The history of poetry […] is not a procession of its ‘best works.'” Yes! In fact, history itself is not a procession at all, but a backward look in which, as Silliman notes, “the rough edges of any given tendency” are “smoothed out.” One might hope that he would stand on this firm foundation to talk about the largely unappreciated efforts of poets whose work builds the intellectual soil into which other, greater poets sink roots and from which they flourish.
But no. Silliman immediately betrays his initial insight, arguing that there not only are “best works,” but that they are produced by “first-generation” geniuses who engender subsequent generations of vitiated imitators. So William Carlos Williams engendered Ron Loewinsohn, Jack Spicer engendered Ross Feld, etc.—and thus “the saddened armies pass.” Oddly enough, though, Silliman wants us to recognize Loewinsohn for his 1965 chapbook Yet Against the Silences to Come because it “arguably is the best work ever written ‘in the Williams mode’ of stepped free verse.” Then he adds, “Who (but me) celebrates that?” And here we brush up against the throbbing nub of Silliman’s ego. He puts forward Loewinsohn’s name not because of the man’s accomplishments as a poet, but because Captain Ron, thanks to his incomparable brilliance, knows exactly where poor Loewinsohn fits into the history poetry. Oh, too bad. Not “first-generation,” dear chap. And your failure to publish anything new since 1976—well now, that seals the issue, doesn’t it?
The rest of Silliman’s post wanders off into his favorite patch of weeds, but he’s already tipped his hand. Captain Ron doesn’t really care about poetry. “As I’ve written here more than once,” he points out, “there is no such thing as poetry, only kinds of poetry.” And who better to control the assignment of “kinds” than a prissy archivist who can “celebrate” Lowinsohn’s slender collection of Williams imitations while, almost in the same breath, trashing this all-but-forgotten poet for failing to persevere? After all, Lowinsohns only exist so that Captain Ron can adjudicate their position in the history of the art.
Now, Silliman’s preference for librarianship over living, breathing poets and their works is not in itself intellectually dishonest. He does descend to the level of cant, however, when he tries to plaster over the cracks in his very cracked theoretical system.
“Some people have been complaining about the use of labels in this discussion,” he notes—referring to the “kinds” of poetry he most likes to discuss: “School of Quietude,” “post-avant,” “conceptual,” “flarf,” and most recently “slow poetry.” (Oh, yes. And in the Middle Ages theologians debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.) But Captain Ron opines, pointing to the gold braid on his costume jacket, “I think these complainers are misreading the use of all these terms. Rather than representing constraints, such labels as flarf or slow poetry or uncreative writing are really statements of positionality.” Ah, we might nod: he is invoking Helmuth Plessner’s concept of positionality; but no: he is invoking MapQuest. “Each term organizes how we see the entire field of poetic practice,” he explains (without explaining anything). “In a sense, they’re aesthetic markers that might be as clear as saying Amherst, Iowa City, San Francisco, the Lower East Side.” In other words, the labels/terms are constraints, since one can’t be both in San Francisco and Iowa City at the same time. The overriding point is that Captain Ron decides what your aesthetic ship’s home port is.
There go my hackles again. Because the truth is that there is no such thing as any of the “kinds of poetry” Silliman describes, except as practitioners claim it for themselves. And a further truth is that only a tiny minority of poets care to chain up their poems in the hold of any given ship. Most poets, great and small, write what their nature and their talent and their moment in history gives them to write. The vast majority will turn out to be minor figures, and most of these will be utterly, blessedly forgotten. Such is the life of poetry.
But Captain Ron insists that poetry, as such, doesn’t matter. What matters, what we should all care about, is “the question of What Comes Next” (boldface and capitals in Silliman’s original). “There are so many poets still thoroughly, even comfortably, ensconced in the aesthetics of the 19th, let alone 20th, century,” he asserts with a sneer (but without evidence). “Why not? There are plenty of people to read you now. Do you even care what readers think 40 years after you’re gone?”
You may wish to read that again, because the implication should not escape your attention: Captain Ron believes that the really awesome poets, the innovators who really mattered in the history of poetry, wrote with a future audience in mind.
Now, in our fantasies we all imagine a poem of ours being read aloud with pleasure by some future reader, but that egoistic indulgence isn’t what Captain Ron has in mind. No, he actually seems to believe that poets write in order to become part of “what comes next,” and that (he assures us) will not be poetry, but “the history of change in poetry, an account not of best works, but of shifts in direction, new devices, new forms.” (Silliman’s root contention is undermined by the example of one of his heroes, Robert Creeley. As Reginald Shepherd—an infinitely more reliable and subtle guide to the new news in American poetry—points out in a recent blog post, “Robert Creeley […] was almost purely concerned with the lyric notation of the moment-to-moment movements of his mind, emotions, and sensibilities. As he wrote in the preface to For Love: Poems 1950-1960, ‘Not more, say, to live than what there is, to live. I want the poem as close to this fact as I can bring it; or it me’….” However interested Creeley may have been in what would come next in poetry, his concern had very little effect on his poetic practice.) The subtext, of course, is that no one understands “the history of change in poetry” more completely than Captain Ron—that gold-braided navigator who knows better than you just what and why you should bother to read and write. How benighted you are if you undertake either activity to discover yourself in the here and now! The goal is to discover yourself in the future, where avant souls like Ron Silliman spend their time.
How very American this obsession with the future! When all any good poem needs to provide is a deeper awareness of ourselves and our world in the moments during which we read it. If it happens to provide that to some future reader—and if it happens to provide something more—you can be sure it will have nothing to do with theorists (theocrats?) like Captain Ron.