I highly recommend a visit to Ron Silliman’s blog post today, in which you can savor his disordered thought process in all its glory. He starts off with a school-marmish sneer toward Curtis Faville for using parodize instead of the correct parody in the comments stream, while going on to note that there have been plenty of parodies of Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem, “tho I don’t recall linking to any.” You see, in Silliman’s world, “tho” is acceptable but “parodize” is not, undoubtedly because “tho” was sanctified by his Objectivist hero George Oppen. Had Oppen tossed the ersatz verb “parodize” around, Silliman would not have used it to skewer poor Curtis.
Of course, Faville is not Silliman’s real target. That would be the “quietists” who have been chosen to read their poems at inaugurations: Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, and the aforementioned Elizabeth Alexander. He spends mucho black pixels on Williams, whose awful inaugural poem Silliman presents as representative of “quietist” verse and links to the vast conservative power structure that controls trade publishing in our woeful nation. Oddly, he also attacks Miller because, Silliman says, he “has stuck with the same mid-tier college publishers he’s been with his entire career.” Mysteriously, Williams’s devoted “quietism” has not paid off.
Silliman notes that Maya Angelou’s equally awful inaugural poem was a public relations success for her, and yet—again, mysteriously—she has never received “the usual trade press” prizes—National Book Award, Pulitzer—for which she’s been dutifully nominated. Strange. Angelou should be the rock star of “quietists,” but can’t snag the usual forms of recognition the power structure, according to Silliman, typically provides. The conundrum doesn’t trouble him because he’s off to his next target while patting himself on the back.
“Within five days of the inauguration,” he writes, “I was able to post Elizabeth Alexander’s video from her appearance on the Colbert Report.” Am I alone in hearing a triumphalist note here? Such as one might hear from, oh, terrorism expert and journalist Peter Bergen: “I was able to obtain video of Osama Bin Laden cavorting with a yak.” No matter. What is clear is that Silliman wants to situate Alexander firmly in the “quietist” camp—you know, the one sustained by the conservative power structure. Which may be why he fails to mention that Alexander is published neither by one of those evil trade publishers (like the one that foisted his favorite bête noire, William Stafford, on the benighted American public) nor one of those namby-pamby “college publishers,” but by the independent Graywolf Press. Graywolf? Part of the conservative power structure?
At this point in his post, Silliman seems to sense that his paranoid fantasy of “quietist” hegemony hasn’t proved coherent in this context, so he shifts gears into a discussion of the impact of the Web on institutions that have been “complicit* with regards to the question of concentration of resources” (whatever the hell that means), that is: “trade publishers, bookstores, libraries, newspapers.” Let us give thanks that the Web is destroying these terrible entities that have been eating our brains for so long!
Finally, though (tho?), Silliman gets around to attacking Frost. His sly smear is buried in a sentence that purports to be focused on the power of the Web. “Just having access to every inaugural poem since Robert Frost shuffled his around & recited one that Kennedy had requested (and that Frost remembered) rather than the one he’d written ought to give future sacrificial poets pause for thought.” The implication here is that Frost bowed to the will of his patron; but as reported in the short article “Poetry and Power: Robert Frost’s Inaugural Reading“:
[O]n the drive to the Capitol on January 20, 1961, Frost worried that the piece [“Dedication,” the poem Frost had written as a preface to his recitation of “The Gift Outright“], typed on one of the hotel typewriters the night before, was difficult to read even in good light. When he stood to recite the poem, the wind and the bright reflection of sunlight off new fallen snow made reading the poem impossible. He was able, however, to recite “The Gift Outright” from memory.Kennedy had asked Frost to recite “The Gift Outright” and had suggested a change to the last line that in fact improved the poem. But Frost’s emendation and his decision not to read “Dedication,” a manifestly inferior poem, had nothing to do with his being a “sacrificial” poet (whatever that means). Silliman presumably knows this but chooses to disguise the reality because it doesn’t fit his “conservative power structure” thesis.
One wonders exactly what kind of poem Silliman would approve for an inauguration? Perhaps Bob Grenier intoning his poem which Silliman considers “effective”:
Assuming, of course, that the poet could find a way to pronounce it. Or maybe Aram Saroyan could inspire us all with this poem …
… which Silliman singles out in his post purporting to justify his choice of Saroyan’s Complete Minimal Poems to receive the Poetry Society of America’s 2008 William Carlos Williams Award.
I find myself wondering—regarding the attacks on Elizabeth Alexander and other inaugural poets by various critics, poets, journalists—just one thing: where the hell are their inaugural poems? Of course, they do not have them. My suggestion would be, if you can write a better one, please offer it up for comment on the all-seeing, power-structure-subverting Web for us all to admire. Or is this just another case of “those who can’t, kvetch?”
* Americans of a certain age may remember the fervor with which the word “complicit” used to be brandished by John Birchers and other emissaries from the paranoid Right. I suspect Silliman’s usage derives from a similar mindset.