Ron Silliman (1946 -)

Life and Works


Ron Silliman has had a long career as poet, editor and anthologist. He represents one of the constant features of American writing: the need to initiate and explore new alternatives to the established literary paradigm. His biography as a writer and as a person clearly expresses the conditions that locate him in modern-day thinking. His recurrent themes and unusual perception of the situations, people and objects that appear in his work serve to set the boundaries to his sphere of operations, but also incite us to go beyond them. To speak of his poetry requires frequent recourse to terms like revision, simultaneity, parataxis, composition struggling with de-composition, referentiality and fragmentation. I suspect that even for those of us still in the process of finding ourselves and understanding the instability of our contemporary reality, this poetry with its apparently formless universe leads us to the brink of hysteria or Lacanian anxiety. This is simply because we will never know for sure if it will be completed or not.

Photo: Ted Gabbay

Thus one of his aims is to interlock his literature with the crucial issues of the turn of the second millenium. Most of his poetry is aligned within what we could call a fiction conveying echoes of his own life, of everyday acts and events collected in his notebooks, or sensitive reflections on them that usually dissolve into abstractions. Reading him, even hearing him perform his work live does not produce a guided hypnosis but rather a lucid, alert awareness of the correspondences between language and the world. This is most visible in his essays, where he shows special interest in assembling the permanent delights and illusions of art with the more material aspects of rational thought.



To try and categorize Silliman's work or systematize his intentions is a task entails not only literary discussion but also the formulation of important ideological and social questions. Fundamentally, he attempts to more suitably define Euro-American intellectual discourse, while recognizing the need for its revision. He challenges power structures, and critically examines the relations of production and exchange in the social sphere and the way creative writing as such fits into it. In this sense, his numerous essays on the changing structure of capitalism and the role of the creative individual are essential to understanding his model of overcoming the frontier imposed by conventional codes or social paradigms, and to discerning the negotiation necessary between the diverse ideologies attempting to exert their power over us. This central problem serves as Silliman's starting point in proclaiming the need to travel on all possible new paths through the texts themselves, i.e. to experience the creative process while perceiving its difficulties and successes as relevant to one's own life. Here we should note that recurrence of the idea of "process" is nothing new in American poetry, since Robert Duncan and Charles Olson drew attention to Alfred N. Whitehead's Process and Reality. Although it is also true that while these poets set off from a certain metaphysics as a background from which to explain the relations between man and universe, Silliman decides on a process that aids in deciphering the power relationships inherent in the process itself. For this he adopts "parataxis" ("a politics of pure parataxis will never complete a thought") instead of "hypotaxis" ("a politics of pure hypotaxis can only succeed through the mass subordination of every element").

Ronald Glenn Silliman was born in Pasco, Washington, on May 8th, 1946. Soon his family moved to Albany, California, where he grew up and lived attempting to avoid everyday economic hardships. His book Under Albany (2004) summarizes those years in this consistent section title, "My father withheld child support, forcing my mother to live with her parents, my brother and I to be raised together in a small room." Literature was his most obsessive aspiration and he published his early poems in 1965. In this same year he married Rochelle Nameroff, and divorced in 1972. A second marriage to Krishna Evans in 1982 has lasted until now, having twin boys, Colin and Jesse. He was educated at Merritt College (1965, 1969-1972); San Francisco State University (1966-1969), and at the University of California, Berkeley, 1969-1971, though he never finished his university studies. Nevertheless, he has been lecturer at the San Francisco State University (1977-1978), visiting lecturer at the University of California, San Diego (1982,, writer-in-residence at the New College of California, San Francisco, and poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco (1983-1990). Always involved in community activities Silliman became the Director of Research and Education for the Committee for Prisoner Humanity and Justice in San Rafael, California, 1972-1976, Manager for the Tenderloin Ethnographic Research Project in San Francisco, 1977-1978, and Director of Outreach at the Central City Hospitality House, San Francisco, 1979-1981. Since 1989 he has worked for the computer industry, first as managing editor for Computer Land, and then as a market analyst. He lives in Paoli, Pennsylvania. He is the recipient of numerous awards, among them I should mention the Hart Crane and Alice Crane Williams award in 1968, the Joan Lee Yan award in 1970, and the Poetry Center book award in 1985. His biography has been persistently connected to literature, not only as a creator but also developing a successful career as editor of the first little magazine focused on language poetry, Tottel's (1970-1981), anthologist of the significant In the American Tree, and definitely a leading figure in foregrounding complexities and innovative modifications in contemporary poetry. To this, I should add Silliman's concern for young poets and his reformulation of poetry in a more challenging dialogue with many poets.

His early books, Moon in the Seventh House (1968), Three Syntactic Fictions for Dennis Schmitz (1969), Crow (1971), Mohawk (1973), and Nox (1974) served to establish what his poetry and poetics will turn out to be. His poetry evolved from influences clearly derived from William Carlos Williams from a continuous skirting of the question as regards the role of the author, the paradoxes and uncertainties of our fin de siècle society. His next complex book was Tjanting (1981), where sentences and paragraphs might be interpreted as comments or devices deriving from the sub-literary nature of his personality or from what he perceives In Tjanting, Silliman uses a Fibonacci series and begins with a few sentences that are propagated into the following paragraph and become mixed with others. We could almost speak of a spiral sentence arrangement, giving rise to a series of paragraphs, progressing: 1, 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 13, 21, 34... where each paragraph contains the sum of the sentences in the previous two. In this way, what began with only two sentences will end with extremely long paragraphs whose most obvious feature is the recovery of what has been noted before; playing with factors like memory and multi-relationships or the obvious fact that there are too many gaps between words.



Other examples of experimentalism in Silliman's wide ranging poetic career can be found in Ketjak (1978), or The Age of Huts ((1986), where he transforms the sentence into paragraphs; the vocabulary of one sentence is superimposed on to the syntax of another, producing aphorisms, reflections, small conclusions, statements of his individual experience. The final impression after reading a conglomerate of sections like "2197" in The Age of Huts is that we have recontextualized the possible meanings; perhaps, most important, that we have been paying attention to the writing process and by extension to the role performed by us as individuals with respect to the text and the Other, i.e. to the social world.


In his book of essays, The New Sentence (1987), Silliman speaks about prose in essays like "New Prose, New Prose Poem," "Towards Prose," "The New Sentence," "I Wanted To Write Sentences," not only suggesting a form of discourse that adheres to narrative, but that he always tries to get over or erase that threshold set by literary genres, favoring a "prose poem [which] merely reconstellates, redistributes, interiorizes those features by which we know poetry when we see it." What is more, Silliman warns in "The New Sentence" about the difficulty of defining the sentence, because areas like linguistics, philosophy and literary criticism have all made incursions into this without reaching consensus.


The references in Silliman are quite varied and dispersed through time, beginning with William C. Williams and continuing with Milka Ivic, Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield, Noam Chomsky, Valentin Volosinov, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Willard Quine, Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, Pierre Machery, Tzvetan Todorov, Roland Barthes, Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, and Gertrude Stein. By means of post-referentiality, Silliman returns to his obsession with demonstrating that poetry, like any other text, has an ideological role in production and appears as an indicator of our social assumptions regarding language. By ordering some of its characteristics (rhyme, meter, sound) in a particular way poetry manipulates our perception of the relation between objects and words. For example, Silliman refers several times to how the descriptive and narrative capacity of the word/signifier is one of the preconditions set by the capitalist system so that the text appears true to its "reality. "In the sixty-seven pages of Toner, stanzas with seven lines each follow one another, and where a 23 page section with stanzas in capital letters is inserted between two sections with stanzas in lower-case letters. This fixed structuring together with the movement of sentences, which cut into each other either produces an enjoyable hypnotic effect on taking in the meaning of his immediate view of the world, or its very monotony overcomes our efforts to attend to so much information.

Along with other language poets, he playsence also have their possible contextualization. His book Paradise (1985) challenges the reader to end the contextualization of space and time that the poet is sharing with some widows who do not take part in politics. The general context is given by the title of the book, to be taken as an irony of a significant social situation that normally passes unnoticed.



We should not forget that a variation in form greatly used by Silliman is the long series poem, which connects appropriately with plenty of examples in the American literary tradition. We could mention a few, ranging from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass to Robert Duncan's "Passages" or "Structures of Rime," without forgetting Ezra Pound's Cantos, Paterson by William C. Williams, Louis Zukofsky's A, or Charles Olson's The Maximus Poems. Silliman contributes to this tradition with his series generically titled "The Alphabet" containing books published dispersedly (normally by small presses), where the first letter of each title is part of an alphabet still being assembled. Titles like ABC (1983), Paradise (1985), Lit (1987), What (1988), Manifest (1990), Demo to Ink (1992), Toner (1992), Jones (1993), N/O (1994), or Xing (1996) have been published until now. The reader's attitude to this kind of poems has always raised several questions, for instance in the case of many earlier authors the series was truncated by the author's death and therefore left unfinished. Secondly, their writing corresponded to a whole life and reflects a clarifying of interests and directions taken. Also however, metaphorically, the final impression is that the poem can be completed and will continue to be written by others, thus it is still present with us. Silliman is sure the total series will complete the twenty-six letters.



Ron Silliman does not acknowledge himself to be a "l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poet," preferring the term "language poet" but there is no doubt that his literary biography is intimately linked to this tendency since the seventies. The use of both terms is significant in understanding the polemical role of this current within the recent American poetic scene. If the first is used, the title of the journal immediately comes to mind and therefore one tends to think the group was born with its first issue being published in February 1978. However, the truth is that the tendency arose earlier, with wider interests than those of the magazine L=a=n=g=u=a=g=e itself. "Language poet" is also a problematic term since with the passing of time it has acquired an exclusive character, implying that authors like Silliman, Barrett Watten or Lyn Hejinian are separate from the rest of American poetry. Silliman himself confessed to me (perhaps maliciously) in personal correspondence, that it is sometimes used by those who do not like language poetry. In any case, in an interview with Ron Tanner and Valerie Ross he himself acknowledges that "language poetry" was first used around 1977 by Alan Soldofsky and Steve Abbott in a couple of articles published in the San Francisco magazine Poetry Flash. It is also true that the atmosphere generating change had already been fostered through small press publications. The same name was popularized once and for all by the magazine under that title edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews, in which Silliman appears frequently as one of the solidest and most perceptive contributors in the development of a new poetics.