Ron Silliman


                                                             for Hannah

"Anthologies are not facts,"
but then they are.
When I composed the preface
to this volume 15 years ago,
concluding three years of labor,
reading, correspondence, too many hard decisions,
I failed to comprehend just how completely
an act such as a book
seals itself into a rapidly congealing facticity
while the reality of which it purports to give some account
proceeds exactly as it was—
shifting, negotiable, under constant reconstruction.

The idea of The Tree
as I came to think and talk of this project, was
to document to the extent possible
a debate then ongoing
in the work of slightly more than
three dozen poets.

Even the idea of a debate
conducted through poetry
       —through individual poems
       in which the debate itself
       was virtually never the point
demonstrates, to a degree
I don't think I fully appreciated at the time,
one fundamental assumption
many if not all these writers
make not just about their own poetry and prose
but of all writing:
that composition itself
           is a means of thinking,
an active process,
           not necessarily
           the sort of "organic" mimicry
                      of thought or of speech
     we associate with the Projective Verse of the 1950s
but sharing with that tradition
a recognition
of the poem's intimate entanglement
                                with consciousness as such.

This ineluctable involvement precisely
gives the work—
that finished published Thing —
the potential to engage a reader
not as consumer
but as a participant,
someone who in the most literal sense
struggles with the text.
This is an attitude for which
one could trace a lineage
extending not simply
beyond Duncan, Olson or Berrigan
through Pound, Joyce, Stein, Zukofsky,
Whitman, Melville, Dickinson
to at least Blake and Sterne if not further —
the idea of a text
not as a shared thought
but as shared thinking.

This it would appear
is the most dangerous thing in the world.
Or at least the anger
implicit in the published assaults on this writing
by Tom Clark, Stephen Schwartz, Andrei Codrescu et al
caused "language poetry"—
                      a term coined in part
           in an attack by Alan Soldofsky—
to carry some aura of the Outlaw
the writers themselves (ourselves) had never sought.
Controversy has its own audience
and The Tree appeared
at what might have been the height
of the tourist-reading season.

One impact of this artificial crisis of poetry
            (it was a "crisis" only to those
            who were unwilling or afraid
            to participate in a world of the poem
            that was not always already
            familiar to them)
was to sharpen a sense
of a divide between inner and outer.
Some of the writers whose work is included here
seemed to welcome the definition,
the heightened contrast,
while others, less comfortable with conflict,
decidedly did not.
Asked once by Lee Bartlett, "Do you
           with the so-called
Language poets?"
Michael Palmer took 800 words to respond.

A gulf
real or imagined
will alter anything.
Several poets whose work in the early 1980s
seemed in fact a sharp critique, even a rebuke
of much of the poetry included here
found themselves much closer
to this writing, at least in sympathy,
than to any nostalgic construction
of an aging "New American" poetry.
        (Thus, while it made sense
       in 1982 not to include in this volume
       the work, say, of Leslie Scalapino,
       Jerry Estrin or Bev Dahlen,
       any reading of the larger phenomenon,
       Language Poetry "so called"
       that fails to include their contributions
       can only prove incoherent.)

Another result of this charged
atmosphere is reflected
in The Tree
precisely through its absence—
for a group of writers
who were literally characterized in print
as Stalinist thugs,
there is precious little here
in the theoretical "Second Front"
            (that title alone
            suggests how harshly
            lines had been drawn)
that could be called Marxist analysis.
Only Watten's
"Method and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E"
truly presents itself
as having a political dimension
            (though Bernstein invokes Sartre
            and the collectively written
            "For Change"
            for sure suggests
            a practice radically different
            from immediate predecessors ).
But the selection
of my own writing in that section
as well as that of Bruce Andrews
reflects not merely an impulse
to avoid giving literary conservatives
yet another stick
with which to beat us,
but a desire also
not to misrepresent
the impulses, say, of a Grenier or Coolidge
as well as others
who had not once
(and for the most part still haven't)
suggested that they saw
a politics for their writing.

So this collection mutes
one debate then ongoing, not
between Marxism and its cognates,
but rather between engagement & alienation.

That much of this writing
understood its social being
is palpable just readings the texts
say, of Erica Hunt or Alan Davies,
Lyn Hejinian or Hannah Weiner—
            Steve Benson's "On Realism"
            in Second Front as well as
            Tom Mandel's "poem"
            show the artist considering
            the word's responsibility
            to the world—
but a muting of overt internal debate
was probably inescapable
in the face of external assault.

More important
in transforming the scene of
what students at Naropa
would soon characterize
in their unique Arapahoe briefspeak
as Langpo
was the dramatic emergence in the '80s
of a new generation of poets
from Laura Moriarty to Charles Alexander
to Harryette Mullen and Lee Ann Brown
for whom such phobic attacks
must have appeared as silly & beside-the-point
as Podhoretz's parallel attempt
25 years earlier
to abolish Kerouac & Co.

So the context has changed.
Some of the poets included here
may look back now—
           at least one has said so
           in explicit terms—
in horror at their "juvenilia"
returned to print.
Others have more complex relations to these works
the latest of which were completed by I believe 1982.
In this sense, these texts
remind me of some
in Donald Allen's New American Poetry
which catalyzed a generation's
understanding of a new possibility for the poem
but which was released
before Spicer wrote any of his great final books,
           before Duncan started Passages,
                      Creeley Pieces
                                              or Dorn 'Slinger,
when LeRoi Jones was LeRoi Jones,
& in Ashbery only the slightest hint
                       ("How much longer
                                  will I be able
                        to inhabit the divine
                                   sepulcher . . ."
                                              —that fabulous
           last tomb of a term)
of what is to become The Tennis Court Oath.
So while there are some—
                       Ferlinghetti, Lervertov—
whose finest works Allen prints,
what makes "the Allen" what it is
is its unique presentation of a moment in time,
how each of its readers, as if privately
for one's self alone
discovers the beauty of Borregaard's "Wapiti."
            It is in this spirit
            that I have refused here
            to correct my mistakes.

If this book has value going forward
it is not so much in the grace of its gears—
           "the first device to…etc."—
as in their grind,
                      the thrash betwixt texts.
I suggest that you read for the clatter.


18 February 2000
Paoli, Pennsylvania


Essay: The Desert Modernism


© 2002 Electronic Poetry Review