Friday, March 19, 2004

On Ron Silliman's Comments 3/17/04

Once again I am going to attempt to begin a conversation. I want to begin with a gesture distancing myself from name-calling and insulting. I don't participate in ad hominen attack or flaming unless I am intending to play. Ron is correct in poking fun at such critics, but he is all too ready and willing to beg questions and make false associations in his own arguments as suits him. On with it:

Ron says:
One is that a poem without a poet's name is, in some very real sense, incomplete – that, to my eye, is the problem with projects like Anon. A second one – one that I tapped into without fully realizing its implications, I think – is that we’re in a very specific moment in American literary history.

I only know Ron Silliman through his blog and a book that had his name on it, a name I didn't recognize ten years ago, so cared not to affiliate with any critical movement (The New Sentence.) I still don't know Ron, really, but he is consistent I have to admit. His words sound like the language and ideas I associate with the name. However, I need not expect that this Ron guy continue being consistent. I would be wrong to insist that Ron sound like the Ron I know because I associate Ron with Silliman's Blog and The New Sentence, among other texts and poems. Ron Silliman insists, on the contrary, that readers should in fact associate a writer with a kind of writing that is definable and that association is even more valuable when connected to a journal or text that consistently represents that writer by name.

A poem may be incomplete without a name. I find such a claim fishy but, who knows, deep down in the workings of poetry there may be something significant to such a claim; but it begs a question Ron isn't critically considering. Granted, he is knee-deep in response to the invective aimed at him; nevertheless, What is a complete poem, Ron? And I am genuinely interested in a conversation not a vinegar spitting affair. Not only does Ron's claims beg the question of what a complete poem is but he begs other questions about poetry that involve complex issues in translation, for example. A translated poem is not only a poem with more than one name, but it is a poem that assumes an entire network of names and institutions that are purposefully hidden within the artifice of the translation process.

A poem is only incomplete without a name within a specific context. The poem as an object within a market must have a name that carries a specific value that, once determined abstractly, will be used to sell it and its meaning-in-the-market (based within a mean distribution of meaning associated with all poem-objects given that name.) A poem without a name resists abstract trade and insists on its own being because, in many ways, it remains a concrete object refusing movement. It is staid--in a manner, dignified. It is what it is. Unlike a poem by Rilke, say, who most readers are referred to (though, many readers still stumble across him). But the reference to Rilke is not a reference to a name and a translator and a press but also refers back to the reader's relationship to the person who referred to Rilke. It is far from simply name recognition.

A poem with a name, a name that is recognized and able to be associated with an institution, is a poem that can be said to be historical because it can be and has been historicized, not by its author but by its reader(s).

I don't see the point to an un-named poem or poetics project other than to resist the colonization of public space. Ron is correct about names but incorrect at the same time. In the market, we demand names--consumers demand names, that is. Producers don't demand names, they sell them. Names don't mean anything to a producer; names are abstract representations of value.

The above, concerning names and poems, is merely one context for a reading approach to poetry. We must be willing to admit that there are folks who approach poetry regardless of names assigned to poems by the poets and their presses. Folks who are genuinely engaged with poetry outside of the profession.

I am going to restate a claim I made before I took a few days vacation from blogging: Limiting reading poetry to a reading in context of the name of an author, the history of an author's affiliations, and the place that such authorial intentions and affiliations puts a poem is a process that privatizes poetry as a scholarly pursuit. The process becomes, in fact, a culture industry in itself that is concerned with controlling its own cultural production. In this way, the names become more important than the poem.

But such significance is only relevant for the scholarly community that promotes it. Poetry, as a way to communicate, is easily sacrificed to formal scholarship by the majority of potential readers because poetry makes powerful demands on its readers. What is wrong with folks reading a poem in a way that is not authorized by scholarship? I'll tell you: Such an allowance would also require poets to give up much of their claims on language.

Poetry is language at work and reading poetry is working at language, as writing it is. Many honored poets in the community forget this fact: the author of a poem must be able to relinquish meaning of the poem because meaning in poetry is often worked out over the history of its many readings. So little of the importance of a poem is signified in its writing. Poets signify difference, but then a conversation opens into a discourse. So many great poems go unread probably because their authors are more concerned with the writing than what follows. Much tantalizing power in writing.

In a society that praises efficient approaches to language and over-rationalized approaches to daily life, people find it practical to ignore poetry. Practical ignorance in the market is fostered by a poetry community that prides itself on its own self-referentiality as the complex relationship to its own work. Consequently, a poem needs a spectacular name in order to function properly within the conversation and marketplace of poetry.

Most readers approach poetry as poems not as poets. Reading poetry doesn't insist on my relationship to the poet but to the poem itself. If I study poetry, then I learn about the poets of course. That most poets cannot handle their own insignificance in the regard of language and the relationship readers have to language without a poet's presence is an issue for individual poets to work out but not important to poetics proper. It is a side-bar, significant only because poets enjoy cultivating a cult of personality.

I heard this one the other day:
"Gary, I really like Green Integer." We were talking about small presses and chapbooks. I expected my colleague to go into the kind of texts they publish; we were also addressing Dalkey Archive.

To my astonishment, his admiration for Green Integer is not so much the texts, but that they promote the author. "They place the author's photo on front of each edition and many pose. I think it is great because it is their work, why not put their face on it?"

Bullshit. It is my work when I buy it because I have to read it. And therefore, it is our work together. Your face may help me picture you, but it is a face-less face, meaningless in spite of its gesture of representation. In fact, such a photo is less than vanity, it isn't even narcissistic, it inverts a key aspect of photography. A photograph, as Stanley Cavell and others have argued, is of the world. But these staged author photos are so cropped and flat that they deconstruct the worldliness of photography and descend to text. They are literal signs.

We may write with an ideal reader or readers in mind, but we cannot invent the manner in which readers read a poem. We affect, sure, but we don't demand. Inference need not be a bitter confrontation for authors. Inference continuously opens an infinite number of possible networks and directions for discourse(s) because it introduces contingency into any poetics. Authors like to claim that their name produces an association and that's all. But their wish is really a demand for a specific association to a pre-determined and always intended reading of their work as well as to a specific writing community.

Therefore, Ron claims quite reasonably, though he suggests an imperative:
When you see a poem in journal by a poet whose name you don’t know, the only instant association you can make is predicated on the journal itself.

The imperative: You (shall/should) only associate poems with a poet's name or a specific journal.

First, this is a false statement that begs the reader to accept a truth based merely upon association. Whereas a reader may know the intent of the producers of a journal, the reader need not heed the producers' wishes. Inference is not necessarily contingent upon the speaker or the promotion of the speech. The market, the value of the product, is not determined by the producers but the consumers. Market influences are more complex than the ideal relationship between a consumer/reader and producer/editor and author based on demand and supply respectively. Nevertheless, the majority of readers do not align themselves with the aesthetics the editors wish upon their journal. Readers, thankfully, are much more likely to go where they are likely to go.

The concept that names and institutional affiliations are important for folks not involved in academia is false: wishful thinking at best, snobbery at worst. While I will always claim that a person cannot approach a poem without knowledge of what is being approached and that knowledge need be nothing more than personal experience with language, I refuse to invest in any ideological apparatus that insists readers must be affiliated with the name(s) and intent(s) of the work(s) they read. Such an ideological stance is a purchase into mass marketing principles that utterly de-emphasize the need for a poetics to exist outside of the market. In other words, if readers approach poetry only through publicized names and successful journals and texts, then poetry is not an aspect of language we use like a tool to express ourselves, but it becomes merely a use of language in the market. No wonder many folks leave poetry to Academia; many poets and academics are requiring pre-knowledge of poetics that the majority of readers don't have everyday access to because of the demands put on them just to earn a living. Such demands allow the majority of readers to excuse themselves from participation in poetry, which suits Academics just fine because it makes the competition less intense. And on, and on.

But such specialization is a big problem for the cultivation of poetry and the implementation and utilization of a vital poetics because it participates in the principles of mass marketing. Folks don't buy a Stephen King work because of its intellectualism, its aesthetics, even its author's name, they buy his books because they know what is inside. They know what they will get and how it will be given to them, just like they know what the chicken fried steak at any Black-Eyed Pea Restaurant is going to taste like before they order it. Many writers are marketed this way: TS Eliot, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few. All poetry is popularly marketed this way. But to associate these authors and their practices to their names and institutional affiliations is to purposefully misrepresent their work.

Second, the other kind of "instant association" Ron may be addressing is the kind of association we make, instantly, as we look at some thing. But such an association obliterates the name of the author for the pleasure of the reader. Therefore, I think it is safe to say that Ron is not purposefully addressing such seeing when talking about poetry.

Ron continues:
So Larry’s dream of the unpolluted text is exactly that, a myth. I can post poems anonymously on my blog, but it’s still my blog. Or your blog. Or it’s Larry bringing you a sheaf of poems he typed up & copied. There’s always a context.

The unpolluted text is a dream. But not because of a name or an affiliation to other names or to a place a text should have in history because a specific school insists upon its place. The unpolluted text is a dream because a text is always contingent upon a reader. If we are to get it: The reader's name is a big other and a powerfully loud utterance that often overpowers, at least dampens, the ability to hear the author's name spoken by the author. Or, to step out of the ideal: The market silences all names and references to other names in affiliation overdubbing in place its own brand that needs no voice. Brand names are mute abstractions.

"Oh, you were in Fence." The silence of the fallacy in association. What can an author say to such a simplistic, such a dumb, recognition.

But that dumb statement is inverted into a positive claim that strives impotently for radicality:
"I would never publish in a University Press."
"I only publish with small presses."
"If it is written after the nineteenth century, I don't look at it."
"I am into high-modernism; I read Stevens."

All dumb statements that say nothing. All sound and fury...

Names may be the simplest shorthand we have for so many of the diverse external pressures on the poem.

Once again, yes: but in reference to the self only. Your claim is reasonable when we consider our own relationship to our own work. Otherwise the claim begs too many questions about what names truly refer to for the hearer.

Ron gets to the crux, here, takes on his critics:
That, in fact, is why Silliman’s Blog isn’t called something terminally cute, like so many other weblogs. Who, for pity’s sake, is sodaddictionary? Whether he’s a poet I love or hate – and I do presume it’s a he, based on internal textual details – there is nothing about that blognym that will ever cause me to pick up one of his books, simply because I wouldn’t know how to associate it.

I sympathize, Ron, but disagree. If you are purchasing books only by authors whose names you recognize as names, then what are you actually cultivating with your purchases? My claim or rebuttal: you accomplish valuing work based on name recognition alone and encourage the practice you claim to dismiss. So, a self-fulfilling prophecy, then.

Many of us attempt to write a poem and participate in a poetics that refuses to colonize public space. If and when we do, we must be prepared to de-emphasize our names. We must act rather than point. Names are referential, and always aim to close discourse like nailing a coffin shut kind of closing; names perform as placeholders for potential interpretations based on any number of relevant explications, implications or inferences. Whoever has the control of publication gets to represent, first, meaning, then the reader, then the author. I would hope we can try to work our way out of a poetics based on a teleological power structure.

Saying to your peers and to the younger authors entering your community that you wouldn't read anything without a recognizable name attached to it is a confession that you only read the well-heard, those tagged with signification by a market the purpose of which is to prohibit access from the majority of writers.

Yours may be a crass admission in light of your aesthetics because such a claim limits any access to "the new" to those folks already writing "the old". In other words, an author must repeatedly utter his or her name consistently in a consistent venue in order to for you to begin to care. Unless you are willing to admit that names aren't meaningful in any way other than to mark a past historical affiliation that may or may not mean anything significant for the present moment.

I have a problem with your claim because I have heard more than once in the last two years of my doctoral work from authors, who claim to be politically radical or at least claim a desire to embrace radical being through writing, that they would only publish with specific presses because of the association such publication would bring them to others. Such self-limitations refuse to admit, apparently, that the practice of niche publishing purposefully limits readership to a narrowly and conservatively defined audience (I claim this is an empty wish) and limits the interpretation and valuation of the writing to a pre-determined set of aesthetic goals that resists growth because they are part of a mission statement that promises subscribers similar product with each subsequent volume. Reading poems becomes like ordering value-meals.

Many of my peers complain about journals that don't put out consistent work. They are also my peers who complain of the limitations of the market. To quote Fugazi, they are living "puzzles all wrapped-up in solutions."

I have yet to be honestly engaged by Ron or other literati concerning this topic. I know why, too: this is all tongue-in-cheek self-referentiality--vanity talk--for the writer with a name. I have a name yet associated; therefore, through practice, I have no right to access. My name isn't associated with a sparkly idea yet. Too bad; or not.

As I mentioned in my critique of poetry as a gift-economy: Good writing need not associate itself with a resistance to for or against a name or names. Poetry is participation in language--it is always unnamable.

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