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'Language poetry'? It's all words

Since the '70s, Ron Silliman has been writing a monumental cycle of poems called Ketjak. The title may or may not derive from the name of a ritualistic monkey dance in Bali, one often used in exorcism ceremonies. Make of that what you will. Ketjak, when o

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

By Ron Silliman

University of Alabama Press. 1,062 pp. $39.95.

Reviewed by Andrew Ervin

Since the '70s, Ron Silliman has been writing a monumental cycle of poems called


. The title may or may not derive from the name of a ritualistic monkey dance in Bali, one often used in exorcism ceremonies. Make of that what you will.


, when or if it's finally complete, will contain four book-length parts. The first three have already appeared in print:



The Age of Huts (compleat)

, and now,

The Alphabet

. (A fourth volume,

The Universe

, is still forthcoming, or so we hope.)

Silliman is frequently credited (and, it should be said, criticized in some circles) for being a founding force in the "language poetry" movement. His prodigious output over the last decades, however, cannot and should not be crammed into any of the neat pigeonholes we use to define literary trends and, more important, to decide where to shelve it at the local book depository for easy consumption.

If the language poets teach us anything, it's to look past those crude definitions. And Silliman's poetry certainly resists simple classification. Generally speaking, language poetry tries to disrupt our usual ways of reading. For such poets, the physical shapes of the words on the page and the sounds they make in our heads are just as important as any accumulated narrative or meaning. Silliman's words continually call attention to the fact that they're only that - words.

Please understand that any distillation of Silliman's mammoth project into a book-review summary is bound to fail. Let it suffice to say that the 26 sections of this book correspond with the letters of the English alphabet, and so they bear titles from "Albany" to "Zyxt," and in between you'll find "Garfield" and "Oz" and "Toner." A short section of notes at the end explains the origins of these wildly divergent texts. The human attention span being what it is, some of the sections will interest you more than others.

"Jones" dates back to 1987. About it, Silliman tells us, "Every day for a year I looked at the ground. Jones is a street in San Francisco's Tenderloin that was then favored by transvestite prostitutes." One section of it begins:

Repetition flogs the theme

the intent thickens

as the cement hardens

heel and ankle rise

toes form a base

with the ball of the


two seagulls pull apart

abandoned box of

Kentucky Fried

Sky orange-brown with fire

Ash settles into the mulch

Squirrel upright,

frozen with alertness

I caught myself spending the most time with "Paradise," which Silliman began at age 37 and wrote between New Year's Day and New Year's Eve of 1984. That was the year, you may recall, of Big Brother, of Reagan's reelection, and of the landmark anthology

The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book

. Edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, it attempted, perhaps ironically, to codify the parameters of language poetry.

"Paradise" reads, in part: "The most beautiful of all the carpenter's tools is the level. Becoming identified with an inaccurate but provocative name enabled the Language Poets to rapidly deepen market penetration and increase market share. I turn the muffins over. Dot matrix." And: "In Hinduism the point is to get beyond language. Shaved legs are an abomination. Your perfectly typical Silliman sentence. Stanza conceived as a sitting. Narrative implies progress. No tree mourns a leaf."

Narrative implies progress, indeed. With a book like

The Alphabet

, as with, say,

Finnegans Wake

, the point isn't to get somewhere, to complete - or in some way consume - the text, but rather to revel in the journey it provides. To enjoy the ride. While any thousand-plus-page book may at first appear daunting, reading these 26 poems will require little more concentration than staring out the window of the SEPTA R3 local on your way to work, watching the stations roll past: Wallingford, Swarthmore, Morton, Secane.

However you want to define the still-vital language poetry movement, if you insist on defining it at all, Silliman has already made an indelible mark on contemporary letters. A subsequent generation of post-language poets have benefited in various ways from the freedom and creative license he continues to forge. Titles that come to mind include Daniel Bouchard's

Diminutive Revolutions



by Laura Mullen, and Gabriel Gudding's

Rhode Island Notebook

, among countless others.

The Alphabet

will further cement Silliman's reputation as one of our greatest innovators of the mundane. We're lucky to have such an artist in our midst.