Ron Silliman


Of Theory, to Practice

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.
--Theodor Adorno

Lenin's comment that "Thought, rising from the concrete to the abstract, does not get farther away from the truth, but gets closer to it" stands in sharp contrast to the stated beliefs of many, perhaps most, 20th century American poets, expressed succinctly by Williams' "no ideas but in things." Such a self-containment would seem to preclude any "rising from the concrete to the abstract." Robert Creeley states the case for this confinement:

A poetry denies its end in any descriptive act, I mean any act which leaves its attention outside the poem. Our anger cannot exist usefully without its objects, but a description of them is also a perpetuation. There is that confusion-one wants the thing to act on, and yet hates it. Description does nothing, it includes the object--it neither hates nor loves.

He carries this to a logical conclusion, one that apparently manifests itself in the early poems of Clark Coolidge: "poems are not referential, or at least not importantly so."

Yet the work of both Creeley and Williams is actively concerned with theory. Words, Pieces and Spring & All explicitly address issues of writing without ceasing to be literature. Both poets have written reviews, theoretical essays and prefaces. Each has been associated with at least one semi-organized literary movement. If a contradiction is perceived between their practice and their discourse about it, this is due only to a misconception of the function of theory, and to the sort of degeneration which occurs when any idea is generalized through popular usage (such as that which has rendered "no ideas but in things" the battle cry of anti-intellectualism in verse).

The goal of poetry can never be the proof of theory, although it is inevitably a test of the poet's beliefs. Such beliefs are themselves the writer's perceptions of already-written poems (by others as well as oneself), combined with a sense of a desired direction: "this is where I want my poem to go."

Not surprisingly for a society based on capitalism and its ideology of individualism, these perceptions often consist of unorganized intuitions. Intuition is, for me, the critical term in this discussion. It is the raw material of what Lukacs terms "proletarian consciousness." In its unorganized state, it can only react "spontaneously" to the undigested phenomenological data of everyday life. Reaction, in this sense, is always the inverse of action: it is the kind of intuition that recognizes the objective existence of a large mass of permanently unemployed black males in this society, without perceiving why or how such a fact has come to be, thus apt to blame individuals for a lifestyle they were born and literally tracked into. Organized intuition would transfer one's anger to the appropriate causes of this condition. One rises from the concrete person to the abstract politics of labor.

This has everything to do with poetry, but not in the way of justifying propaganda. The writer cannot organize her desires for writing without some vision of the world toward which one hopes to work, and without having some concept of how literature might participate in such a future. Unorganized reactive intuition is incapable of achieving any vision beyond the current fact, although .it is quite able to psychologically block much of what makes the present unpleasant. Dozens of happy love poems are written every day.

As the organization of intuition and critical perception, theory functions in poetic practice through the selection of goals and strategies. This specifically implies the rejection of some in favor of others. To the degree that these methods differ visibly from those of the past (a shift which may rightly be interpreted as a rejection of the present), their result will be works of art which appear new. The production of novelty, of art objects that could not have been predicted, and cannot be accounted for, by previous critical theory, is the most problematic area in aesthetics. Like a record in sports, made only to be broken, a poetics is articulated in order to be transcended.

Yet there is something about American poetry in the 20th century which is generating an increasingly rapid evolution of form(s). The formal distance between Dryden and Yeats is less than between Pound and Watten. Just as Personae now reeks of an epoch from which it was once thought to be a radical break, any poet writing today is assured a future conventionality beyond their control. No doubt the pressure of this acceleration in literary historicity contributes to confusion, doubt and defensiveness on the part of poets and likewise sets the stage for works whose sole redeeming value is some vague commitment to Make It Different, if not new.

Heretofore, discussion of this "heating up" of forms has been in the terms of commodification, which seems generally correct, as far as it goes. But poetry is only partly a commodity in the strict sense of that term, in that to become a commodity a product must specifically be created with the purpose of exchange within a market. All books and magazines are commodities, but not all poems, a fact which complicates literature, creating numerous levels of bastard cases.

There is, however, a second factor, one first noted by Laura Riding, contributing to this disease of newness in poetics, related to the poem as product, not commodity. This is a shift in perception of the role of form in modern life, specifically as an index of labor. The more any product looks like its predecessors, the less work appears to have gone into it.

This is true for many cases. The less modification one must make from one generation of a product to the next, the less capital an owner, corporate or otherwise, must expend in design and "modernization" of manufacturing equipment. The capitalist is thus permitted to either carry these unexpended costs forward in the price of the product as pure surplus value, or else to amortize them over a longer period of time, lowering the price in order to expand the potential market. Consider the history of the Volkswagen "bug."

An object's life as product is fused with its career as commodity. The origin of style, as Riding sensed and Walter Benjamin stated explicitly, is the transference of the perception of the labor : form relation away from structure towards packaging. Most automobiles just look new. So too the poem.

It is a loaded question whether less labor need be put into a sonnet than into the prosoid works of contemporary poets. Certainly the disjuncture between the regularities of the sonnet form and the discordances of contemporary life render any good one a monument of productive work. But in the case of the loosely written, speech-like free verse dramatic monolog concerning the small travails of daily existence--in short most poems now being written--the conclusion is painfully evident. Half of the graduate students in any creative writing program can turn these out with no more effort than it takes to bake bread.

But is labor a value in itself for poetry? Among the several social functions of poetry is that of posing a model of unalienated work: it stands in relation to the rest of society both as utopian possibility and constant reminder of just how bad things are. But here too the situation of the poem is undergoing change. Once this template of useful activity was predicated upon the image of the i poem as individual craft of the artisan type, while now the collective literature of the community, an ensemble of "scenes," is gradually emerging as more vital than the production of single authors. In either situation, maximum productivity is going to be a critical, quality of labor. In the poem this means a maximum of effort.

This does not mean that good poetry should, prima facie, be difficult or obscure. Modernism has been no less immune to the shift in emphasis from production to consumption than other domains of life, and much literature can be reduced to the consumption of effort, in which the opposite of difficulty is thought to be trash. Spring & All, "A" 9 and Pieces might have cured us of that, but obviously they haven't. Once reading strategies catch up to those of writing, a lot of complexity is going to dissolve. Ease awes. For good reason.

All these issues have crucial analogs at the level of writing, itself. For example, the recognition that the very presence of the line is the predominant current signifier of The Poetic will cause some poets to discard, at least for a time, its use, This, in turn, requires a new organizational strategy constructed around a different primary unit. Two alternative candidates have recent: been proposed: (1) prose works built around investigations of the sentence (although Watten and Hejinian's approach to paragraph and stanza are interesting variations); (2) the page itself as spatial unit filled with "desyntaxed" words or phrases, as in the work of Bruce Andrews. Either road is going to determine the kinds of language which the resulting poem can incorporate and that means restricting to some degree the domains of life which can be presented.

In the sentence-centered poem, a major problematic surrounds the use of long sentences. U nless one is specifically seeking the ironic tonality of an Ashbery, long hypotactic sentences cannot be strung together so as to hold a reader's attention without highly convoluted internal syntax to break them down into phrase clusters. Even more difficult is the long sentence taken from a class-specific professional jargon with a minimal use of clear "technical" terms. The special, oppressive meanings of these words (an important area of language to investigate) tend to disappear when removed from originating contexts.

Andrews' page-as-field presents different problems. The polysemic quality of words at the bottom or top of the paper is lost when a work is presented on two (or more) pages. Print alters the invariant em of the typewriter. Syntax, that lineating element, also has a habit of reinserting itself in even the smallest of phrases. As Robert Grenier has shown, the organization of letters into a single word already presumes the presence of a line.

Are these examples of poetry made subservient to (or, in Creeley's words, "describing") theory? No more than the sonnet. Every mode of poem is the manifestation of some set of assumptions. It's no more foolish to be conscious of them--and their implications extending into the daily life of the real world--than it is to actually have some idea how to drive before getting behind the wheel of a car.


(Ron Silliman. "Of Theory, to Practice." The New Sentence. New York: Roof, 1987. 58-62.)