Inventing Literature
Comedy and Literature

The New Sentence (Ron Silliman)

Ron Silliman begins The New Sentence (1987) with this unimpeachable claim:

. . .if we look to that part of the world which is the poem, tracing the historical record of each critical attempt to articulate a poetics, a discursive account of what poetry might be, we find instead only metaphors, translations, tropes. That these models have a use should not be doubted--the relationships they bring to light, even when only casting shadows, can help guide our way through this terrain. Yet their value stands in direct relation to their provisionality, to the degree to which each paradigm is aware of itself as a translation of the real, inaccurate and incomplete.

Such a pragmatic perspective on the utility of "poetics" (of literary criticism in general) seems to me the most efficacious way of encouraging open-ended debate about all questions relating to a subject so thoroughly contingent as what properly constitutes the "literary" qualities of literature. (I especially like Silliman's reference to "that part of the world which is the poem," which correctly emphasizes that a poem is a phenomenon in the world, not a reflection on or of the world that somehow transcends or detours around the merely real. A text is an element of reality, not just an opportunity to discourse about it.) It is admirable that Silliman's first words warn against taking his own poetics as the last words on the subject, but as a critic he has firmly-held positions nonetheless and they are positions that, in my view, cast all those who would disagree with them not just as mistaken but as fundamentally bad people.

Silliman next locates his approach as a critic by identifying himself with other poet-critics such as Pound, Olson, and Creeley, who were themselves situated "warily midway between the New Critics" and the "anti-intellectualism" that New Criticism provoked among "other sectors of 'New American' poetry." Although it seems to me that Silliman's criticism, both in this book and on his blog, has much in common with the close reading of the New Criticism, he is very harsh here in his comments about it, characterizing it as a "positivist" approach encompassing "an empiricist claim to transcendent (and trans-historical) truth." But the New Critics did not view poems as "empirical" evidence (the text) that would lead to a claim to "transcendent" truth (the critic's interpretation.) This is, in fact, a wholly mistaken representation of the New Critics' project: New Criticism was "empirical" only in that it insisted readers attend to the perceptible structure and actual language of the text, and the only "transcendent truth" it implied was that reading a poem was not a search for transcendent truth. Indeed, the burden of New Criticism was exactly to convince readers to read rather than interrogate poems for their unitary "meaning."

Silliman makes his disdain for New Criticism (or at least the conception of "literature" he thinks it represents) even more blatant by comparing it to Stalinism:

Necessarily. . .a poetics must be concerned with the process by which writing is organized politically into literature. It is particularly disturbing when, under the New Critics as well as Stalin, this transformation is posed and explained as though it were objective and not related directly to ongoing and fluid social struggles.

Certainly the New Critics were attempting an "objective" form of reading in that they believed a poem could be approached as a work of art with discernible features that could be identified by paying close attention--"dispassionate" is perhaps the term that might justifiably be used to characterize the attitude of the New Critics' ideal reader. And they surely did not have any interest in "ongoing and fluid social struggles" (at least where the analysis of literature is concerned) and would never have accepted that "a poetics must be concerned with the process by which writing is organized politically into literature." Silliman, of course, believes they were a part of such organizing nevertheless (a retrograde part), and in the first several essays in The New Sentence he undertakes to establish that indeed poetics is finally about politics, poetry "a form of action," presumably on behalf of those "social struggles."

These first few essays are aggressively Marxist in their declarations about the place of poetry. In "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World," we are told that the transparency of language we encounter in much ordinary communication is part of "a greater transformation which has occurred over the past several centuries: the subjection of writing (and, through writing, language) to the social dynamics of capitalism."

Words not only find themselves attached to commodities, they become commodities and, as such, take on the "mystical" and "mysterious character" Marx identified as the commodity fetish: torn from any tangible connection to their human makers, they appear instead as independent objects active in a universe of similar entities, a universe prior to, and outside, any agency by a perceiving Subject. A world whose inevitability invites acquiescence. Thus capitalism passes on its preferred reality through language itself to individual speakers. . . .

Because poetry "is not only the point of origin for all the language and narrative arts" but "returns us to the very social function of art as such," it is in the best position to combat this commodification. Indeed, "perhaps only due to its historical standing as the first of the language arts, poetry has yielded less to (and resisted more) this process of capitalist transformation." But it hasn't resisted enough. According to Silliman, "The social role of the poem places it in an important position to carry the class struggle for consciousness to the level of consciousness."

By recognizing itself as the philosophy of practice in language, poetry can work to search out the preconditions of a liberated language within the existing social fact.

Despite the dogmatic tone of these passages, the underlying analysis of public language vs. literary language seems pretty cogent to me. Extending the analysis to fiction, Silliman notes that "the most complete expression" of the "invisibility" of language "is perhaps in the genre of fictional realism, although it is hardly less pervasive in the presumed objectivity of daily journalism or the hypotactic logic of normative expository style." Further, "it is the disappearance of the word that lies at the heart of the invention of the illusion of realism and the breakdown of gestural poetic form." That calls for simplicity of style and an emphasis on narrative--both in fiction and journalism--reflect an impatience with language as medium and the dominance of "message" is undoubtedly true, and the proposition that poetry especially represents an opportunity to "liberate" language from these constraints is one I can easily accept. But I fail to see why it is necessary to lay the blame for the crudity of public language specifically on capitalism, as opposed to the general human reluctance to pay attention to subtlety and nuance and willingness to accept the "preferred reality" of authority. Capitalism will get no propping up from me, but I can't see that it has uniquely invoked these human limitations.

Much of the logic of Silliman's poetics (as well as, ultimately, his own poetry) depends on the assumptions he brings about the "role of the reader in the determination of a poem's ideological content" ("The Political Economy of Poetry"). Silliman contends there is no "genuine" version of a poem, only those versions experienced by a particular audience at a particular time:

What can be communicated through any literary production depends on which codes are shared with its audience. The potential contents of the text are only actualized according to their reception, which depends on the social composition of the receivers.

Again this is a defensible position, but again I fail to see that asserting reception is determined by "social composition" is to say anything very significant. At best it establishes that audiences and readers bring to the reception of poetry their life experiences and circumstances, but to make "social composition" into the kind of essentialized, metaphysical entity Marxists want it to be doesn't convert a mere sociological fact into a revelation. Similarly, to say that "context determines the actual, real-life consumption of the literary product, without which communication of a message (formal, substantive, ideological) cannot occur" seems to me little more than a truism, and belies the question whether "communication of a message" is the goal a poet ought to be setting for him/herself. It is the goal that Silliman is setting, although in his practice as a poet he does concentrate on the "formal" message, through which the substantive and ideological are finally expressed.

If in essays such as "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World" and "The Political Economy of Poetry" Silliman contends that New Criticism (presumably Silliman wants New Criticism to stand in for other varieties of formalism as well) puts too much emphasis on author and text in determining the "potential content" of the work, in my opinion he compensates for this failing by in turn giving over too much of the opportunity to "actualize" content to individual readers. Silliman is right to insist that the reading experience must include the reader as part of the process--the reader must be up to the task of apprehending the aesthetic qualities of the text--but in his determination to make poetry the servant of Marxist social reform, Silliman, at least in these theoretical essays, wants the reader's attention so thoroughly directed at the "meaning" a poem might provide that whatever aesthetic effects might accompany it are at best an afterthought, at worst regressive cultural baggage that must be discarded.

Silliman is not advocating for a crudely propagandistic kind of poetry, reducible to polemic and explicit "statements." Indeed, the meaning he wants readers to get from poetry is conveyed indirectly, through its material formal and syntactic procedures. Silliman believes (or at least this is what the Silliman of these essays, written twenty-five years and more ago, believed) that by frustrating the reader's ability to ready "hypotactically" (via transparent language and explicit connections made between parts of a discourse), the reader could be made aware of the way in which capitalist culture maintains its dominance through hypotactic communication. Thus both Silliman's poetry and that which generally came to be called "Language Poetry" employed instead a "paratactic" strategy, by which language refuses transparency and connections are denied (the former achieved mainly by the latter). The notion that parataxis might work to produce worthwhile poetry is far from outlandish (more on this in a later post on Silliman's The Alphabet), but while the disruption of expectations implied by Silliman's poetics could easily enough lead readers to a reconsideration of the assumptions behind conventional definitions of poetry, that this would in turn necessarily lead to increased skepticism about the machinations of capitalism is not a step in logic I can follow.

Silliman's most important exposition of his call for paratactic poetry, "The New Sentence," is largely free of Marxist rhetoric, and offers an account of what such a poetry might be like that even an apologist for New Criticism could take seriously. It is first of all a relatively straightforward and learned history of ideas about the sentence in both linguistics and literary criticism that demonstrates the potential of the sentence as an autonomous unit of language has not really been appreciated. Silliman also discusses a few precursor poets, such as the French symbolists as well as Gertrude Stein, who point to this potential but don't finally fully realize it.

The "new sentence," for Silliman, is one that "has an interior poetic structure in addition to interior ordinary grammatical structure." The "poetic structure" of the poem derives from the poetic structure of the sentences, arranged into paragraphs, a device that "organizes the sentences" but is "a unit of quantity, not logic or argument." In combination, this approach "keeps the reader's attention at or very close to the level of language, that is, most often at the sentence level or below."

Thus the notion of "language poetry," which in effect forces the reader to attend to the poem's language as it comes, not in relation to the "syllogistic movement" we ordinarily expect between sentences and through the poem as a whole. It is ultimately a kind of prose poetry, and, according to Silliman "the new sentence is the first prose technique to identify the signifier [language itself]. . .as the locus of literary meaning. As such, it reverses the dynamics which have so long been associated with the tyranny of the signified [that to which the language refers], and is the first method capable of incorporating all the levels of language, both below the horizon of the sentence and above. . . ."

Unless by "prose technique" Silliman means specifically techniques used in prose poetry, I really can't accept the assertion that the new sentence is "the first prose technique" to call attention to the signifier as an end in itself. Metafiction, anyone? However, the radical break with the inherited presumptions about what makes for "good poetry" is real enough. Still, as far as I can tell, there is nothing in Silliman's poetics that should alienate the most recalcitrant formalist (even a backsliding New Critic). One could easily conclude after reading "The New Sentence" that poets without the slightest interest in Marxist theory could adopt the new sentence as credo and produce potentially interesting poetry, a challenge to convention and ordinary ways of reading, yes, but not necessarily a challenge to poetry as an ongoing tradition. (Or to Western capitalism, although one could also imagine some readers making the connection between the two kinds of challenges that Silliman would like, pursuing the extra-literary implications of the strategy after engaging with it on a purely aesthetic level--in my opinion an appropriate reversal of Silliman's priorities that more suitably preserves the integrity of the literary text.)

Silliman's animus toward New Criticism is additionally unfortunate in that his own close readings of particular writers and their work are surely New Critical in spirit if not in fact. In The New Sentence, his essay on Jack Spicer, "Spicer's Language," is a very precise and ultimately very evocative analysis of one relatively brief Spicer poem (as well as, along the way, Ezra Pound's 84th Canto and a few additional Spicer passages). Granted, the burden of the essay is to show Spicer as an important influence on the new sentence, but I found it to be the best piece of commentary on Spicer's work I've read, typified by this sort of careful exposition:

Spicer's poem is composed in one stanza, written in what are ostensibly sentences, with a surface conventionality that extends to the capitalization of the letters at the lefthand margin. We have already seen the amount of tension which is set up in the first line ["This ocean, humiliating in its disguises"] by the irreducibility of the subject and its modifying clause to any single, simple envisionment. The leap to the second sentence is made before a verb occurs in the first. In being suppressed, this verb ("is"?) becomes yet another moment of an absent presence. And there are no less than five positions in the sentence which it could have taken, so that its absence (i.e., its presence) is not perceived at a single point, but instead floats freely, a syntactic equivalent of anxiety. Far more jolting to the reader, however, is that the two sentences to a degree that is nowhere possible in the Pound passage, appear to come from entirely different discourses.

The combination of detailed description and critical insight ("a syntactic equivalent of anxiety") is very satisfying, and here, as in similar readings posted on his blog, Silliman seems to me to exemplify a particularly scrupulous (and therefore all too rare) kind of literary criticism. While The New Sentence elucidates a poetics that affirms the active part played by the reader in locating the "potential content" of the poem, his critical readings nevertheless implicitly assert the importance of informed criticism, the existence of some readers who through skill with the "codes" always associated with attentive reading can help other readers overcome the limitations of their inherited codes and approach poetry in a more rewarding way.

It is indeed true there is no "universal" mode of poetry--no "normal poetry" from which anything else is an aberration--and it is also true that much conventional poetry, with its "normative syntax, classical metrics, and a deliberately recessive linebreak" requires "at the level of the reader's experience" only "passivity." (Although I can't accept the further complaint that this passivity means the reader "can only observe, incapable of action": observation is not what happens in our interaction with a text, only reading, which is itself a form of action.) Silliman's challenge to the universalist and passive conception of poetry is entirely well-justified and should not be dismissed. But it is literary criticism embodying universal intelligence that keeps the multifarious practices of poets from devolving into chaos, and Silliman's criticism participates in this stabilizing process. It is, after all, in critical writing such as The New Sentence and on his weblog that Silliman convincingly makes his case against universalist assumptions and passive reading. Yet the cogency of this case depends upon a reader willing to defer to a critic speaking in what can't be denied is a critical "voice" of manifest authority.

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