Thursday, November 19, 2009

Silliman's Fork

It would be hard to overstate Ron Silliman's contribution to the legitimizing of poetic diversity. He combines a  precise and finely tuned ear in close readings of particular poems, with a sweeping revisionist history of American poetry.

No one can do everything, and there's no disrespect in noting the limitations of a project as large as the one he's laid out. While I think he may overstate the case in claiming that Silliman 'demonizes' Quietist poetry--unless largely ignoring it is to demonize it--I think Curtis Faville, in a comment on Silliman's Blog, makes some good points.
The question isn't whether Ron needs to update himself, but whether his first vision (Quietism versus Avant) was true or not, and if it was, what that implied about action and taste.

He can't say he's moving on, as if that closed the door on the subject. That door is still open, and people are milling about from room to room, exploring alternatives. May all the doors stay open forever.

... I think my point was/is that the debate that Ron started--Quietism versus Avant--hasn't simply been "won" by declaring it a draw, or by leaving off the debate, arbitrarily, at a fixed point. His argument all along has been that there is a fork in the road, and his choices of the writers he admires and encourages, going forward, are based on the assumption of his partisanship in that argument.

Ron largely demonizes all the writing he characterizes as "quietist"--ignoring and excluding--while only reviewing and discussing work which proves his point. There's a political pragmatism in focusing on what might otherwise be ignored by the establishment--concentrating on what you believe in makes a certain sense--but you have to address "everything else" directly, not simply by exclusion. That's part of what makes the Grand Piano problematic: It doesn't consider what it doesn't see; it's inverted and ingrown, a jealous attempt to separate itself from East Coast "Language" school--and all other off-shoots.

 Faville has touched on a similar point in his post, Poetry & Friendship--Connectedness & Originality , where he overstates his own case in suggesting Silliman's praise of Armantrout's work is too obviously partisan, and her work, 'secondary.' Silliman is careful to build his arguments on close readings that deserve examination apart from their alleged partisan context.
Silliman appears to accept the a priori idea of a corrupted marketplace of ideas, in which the insistence upon a contrarian claim--no matter how genuine or valid--constitutes a responsible function in the historical dialectic of competing interests, which may in part account for the absurdity and extremity of some of his assertions. Readers of his blog might feel more inclined to believe his high praise of Armantrout, for instance, if he hadn't overpraised the work of an imagined compatriot in the interests of a political correctness in the lit'ry wars. Each of us, no matter what our reputation, only has so much literary "capital" to spend. Better to save your praise for those who really merit it, than throw it away on secondary work simply because you think it has its heart on the correct side of the chest cavity.

Of course it's more complicated than that; it always is. In an April 2009 post, Silliman describes what he sees as the basic condition of the School of Quietude... a term that carries invisible scare quotes, as it is precisely the refusal of Quietism (I wonder at this implication of agency to what is essentially a ghost) to name or define what it is is about:  a power play, as Silliman has it, to claim Mainstrteam status.

The School of Quietude, as I’ve noted before, is simply a placeholder for that other poetry tradition which tries so very hard to be the unmarked case. I won’t call it Mainstream, because it is not. I don’t think it qualifies as Official Verse Culture either, although that often is how it seems to present itself. In the past couple of decades only the New Formalists have had the courage and wit to stand up for their work within that frame, but in fact I would argue at Quietism is no less rich with subcategories and differentiations (and contradictions) than post-avant poetics, but it remains foggy precisely because it refuses to name itself. That refusal is a power move – nothing more, nothing less. (You might say that my naming it is likewise, and you would be right.) From the perspective of its poetics, I think the denial of self-identification is a mistake. I think the School of Q would be infinitely richer, more robust & more rigorous if its different clusters would begin to discuss what they were doing and why. Why are the new formalists not like soft surrealism? And what is it about surrealism that permits softness to uproot it from its avant-garde heritage? Scoping out the territory of this fundamentally anti-modernist poetics that I call Quietude really represents a huge opportunity.
To answer Faville, as to why he has largely restricted himself to disucssions of the post-avant, Silliman fairly lays the burden of that task at the feet of those poets whose writing represents the several competing and sometimes contradictory threads of the SoQ.
I’ve called the term Quietude a placeholder because I think that, as an outsider (mostly), I can’t really do that work, plus it’s ultimately not my responsibility. I’ve hoped that the term I’ve chosen would prove just irksome enough to goad a young Donald Hall or Louise Glück to take up the challenge and to begin to fill out the map and provide a better name.

Not only could such a poet-critic map this space, they could answer some important questions, such as why become the poetry without a name? Why is it so important not to acknowledge the existence of other kinds of poetry? Or why do so many Quietists trace their roots back to various avants of decades past (the appropriation of Whitman & Dickinson being the most obvious), rather than to “mainstream” poetics from those same periods? Why is Frost the first Quietist they tend to acknowledge? Why is there so little attention paid to their own heritage that relatively major Quietists (Roethke, Jarrell, Berryman, James Dickey) become footnotes at best the instant they die? Or explain the patent jingoism that permits only poets of color to deviate from normative quietist writing strategies?

There are enough critical challenges defining (let alone defending) the pathologies of

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