Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Silliman takes his terms too far

The other day, Ron Silliman suggested that what the "School of Quietude" (as he dubs it) needs is someone who will "take on the responsibility for describing with much greater accuracy its mand sub-tendencies and internal points of contention."

Fair enough. But he later goes on to say that this "conservative tradition ... extends back not to Dickinson & Whitman, but to Jones Very, James Russell Lowell, Sidney Lanier & their peers. One of the great questions for the School of Quietude is why does it let its history languish so?"

This is nonsense. The poets Silliman derides as quietists did not grow up reading Very, Lowell, and Lanier. Among American predecessors, they read Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson, as well as the same Modernist poets that Silliman presumably read. In fact, the Modernists themselves were the last generation of poets to grow up reading Very, Lowell, and Lanier; the success of the Modernist overthrow of such poets was so great that both "the School of Quietude" and "the Post-Avant" (or as Bill Knott puts it, "the School of Noisiness") derive from the Modernists.

It's not completely persuasive to argue that there are two fundamentally opposed strains of work in contemporary American poetry; it is utterly ahistorical to project that opposition back onto the history of American poetry.


Archambeau said...

Yeah. I'm not sure why Ron clings to this distinction, which doesn't describe the present very well, and certainly doesn't describe the past. I suppose the idea of a two-camp poetry world, and of two ancient, feuding traditions served as an enabling myth for him when he was coming of age as a poet. But if this is the case he really should admit the dichotomy doesn't describe the world of poetry so much as it reflects Ron's personal need for a simple, manichean universe. Which is sort of a lame view of things, really. And disappointing given how sharp and erudite Ron can be.

Anonymous said...

Excellent points, Andrew. Silliman's fundamental elitism is showing up in some pretty strange ways. My grandmother, in her dotage, conceived the fantasy that our family were all related to Elvis (on her side, of course). Hey—maybe she was an early post-avant!?

Matt Merritt said...

Excellent post, Andrew. There's been a lot of discussion of this around the forums, but that sums it up better than any I've seen yet.

Andrew Shields said...

After some more thought, I've decided that one has to give Silliman credit for highlighting the fact that the "mainstream" is not the "neutral" form of "poetry," but just one form among many. But the mistake he can't get past is to suggest that it is one form among TWO.

Thanks for the comments, guys. It's always nice to feel read!

Anonymous said...

Andrew, very well done! Thanks for the comment on mine, it's interesting that we took two different bits of what he wrote to discuss.

I couldn't enter into the thing in the way you have, because I had no idea who Very and Lanier were. Also, I think that because I left so very young, I am just outside it - I may be an "American poet" but I'm SO outside that whole American scene sensibility, it is GREEK to me. All these opposing factions. I grew up reading the Beats and Blake and Shelley and Millay and Pound and Eliot and the Russians and Brodsky and Plath and (I hate to say it now) Giovanni - it never occurred to me that you couldn't just find it all meaningful.

How do you define the mainstream then? I mean, anything that includes Frost, Stevens, Adrienne Rich, B Collins - well, so many people really - how do you define it?

I love that, the School of Noisiness.

Sean Bonney said...

Yes, but Silliman isn't saying that contemporary 'quietude' (or whatever) poets grew up reading Very, Lowell, Lanier etc, but that the presence of distinct tendencies in poetry can be traced back at least that far. His main point is that there are very different approaches to poetry, and so the idea that it is all can simply be called 'poetry', as if all poets and poetry readers were after the same things, is mistaken. Isn't that a fair point? You can argue about his choice of labels all you want (I think they're pretty lame) but it doesn't alter the fact that there are very different and probably incompatible ideas about aesthetics and politics within the different poetic factions.

I don't really see why its a problem. Other art forms have these divisions: do you think a free jazz player and a member of U2, say, have much to say to each other? They are working in completely different aesthetic universes. And the same is true of poetry. If you want to argue with Sillman, perhaps it would be better to question why he thinks there are only two factions. I can think of at least fifty, and I haven't even had my coffee yet.

Mark Granier said...

"How do you define the mainstream then?"

You don't. Too many tributaries. Maybe rename it the Main Estuary.

"I love that, the School of Noisiness."

Or (if you prefer the rhyming term) 'School of Noisy, dude!'

Bill Knott is the only poet I know who publicly (though ironically, I think) embraces the term SoQ as a label for his own work.

Andrew Shields said...

Thanks for the comment, Sean, but I beg to differ.

To pursue your metaphor: Brad Mehldau and Radiohead would have a huge amount to say to each other. And Ornette Coleman sat in with the Grateful Dead. And Branford Marsalis played with the Dead and Sting. And Yo-Yo Ma has played with everyone from Itzhak Perlman (as we saw yesterday) to bluegrass greats like Mark O'Connor.

And to just speak of myself: I can talk to poets like Susana Gardner and Nicholas Manning, and the poets I have translated from the German are mostly more "post-avant" than "quiet", and my own poetry is surely something that Silliman would call SoQ poetry. It would be absurd, for example, to call Dieter M. Gräf anything but "post-avant" (if the term is at all applicable beyond the U.S.).

Finally, if Silliman is claiming that there is a tradition that does not involve which earlier poets later poets actually have read, then he is moving out of the realm of objectively describable stuff and into the realm of mysticism.

Mark, I would embrace the term "school of quietude" if it were not the fact that I love Poe's story "The Tell-Tale Heart" (the rejection of which by an editor led Poe to use the term "quietude" and later led Silliman to come up with his term).

Sean Bonney said...

But the musicians you talk about, Andrew, are working within fairly similar areas albeit within different genres. Its not really that surprising that Ornette has played with the Grateful Dead - it would be, though, if he played with the Stereophonics or Oasis, don't you think?

Also, I wasn't saying the distinctions between different tendencies are absolutely rigid and unbridgeable. But that doesn't mean they aren't there, and thats not to say there aren't some areas that are highly unlikely to mix. I wouldn't have thought there's too many Kipling readers who dig Tristan Tzara, say, however much they would both be readers of 'poetry'.

Sean Bonney said...

And as far as 'tradition' goes (sorry, I don't mean to clog up yr comment box), I don't think somebody working in a particular tradition has to have read everything within it going back to year dot. I usually think of myself as working in a more-or-less Marxist tradition, but the fact that I haven't read Gerard Winstanley doesn't make me a mystic. There are different traditions within human thought, and they can be traced. Thats not being ahistoric, its being scholarly.

Andrew Shields said...

Don't worry about clogging up my box, Sean; I'm happy to have such thoughtful comments!

True, as I mentioned Ornette and The Dead, I did think: "Well, they aren't that far apart." There is the case of Ornette playing with Joe Henry, but then the very fact of them playing together makes them close to each other, in a sense. But that makes everything a bit circular.

Your comments about how tradition works remind me of Borges's essay/story "Kafka and His Precursors," in which Kafka's precursors are not the writers he read but the writers, from all over the world and all through the ages, whose commonalities only become visible because of Kafka.

There are many reasons why that is interesting (it is an essay I am utterly fascinated by and always return to), but I would never claim that the "history" Borges identifies has anything to do with the kind of literary history that it seems to me Silliman is calling for.

As for Kipling and Tzara, I don't particularly like either, but I like Longfellow and Jandl! :-)

Unknown said...

Nicely put. This topic and the very phrase "School of Quietude" make me run screaming from the room, in general, but I got through your post without freaking out and was glad I did.

Anonymous said...

Here's my version of musical analogy: Eminem & Elton John performing "Stan" together at the Grammys in 2001. That was man-bites-dog news.

But Eminem & Elton John playing together received attention less because the two musicians come from different areas of popdom than because their social positions are so different. Of course it can get more complicated: Eminem is something of an outsider, racially, amongst his musical cohort, while Elton John is something of an outsider, sexually, in his.

I think that all these issues are also at stake in understanding the sociology and aesthetics of contemporary American poetry, and in the overlap between sociology and aesthetics in contemporary American poetry. But--and here's the important part--I didn't have any inkling of the complexity of such networks until I started reading Silliman's blog regularly.

That's not to say that I agree with everything he says (I don't think anyone--even Silliman himself--agrees with everything on that blog). For one thing, I think his analysis of the so-called SoQ's dominance of American poetry could use some updating, especially in light of the gains that Language writing, post-Language writing, and the so-called post-avant have made because of such analysis. I also think that a more international perspective could be useful, if much more challenging. But while I see a lot of readers and Silliman-satellite bloggers bristling at his terms and their supposed rigidity, I also see Silliman offering pretty flexible, layered descriptions of his terms. I guess it's up to the Silliman-satellite bloggers critical of his terms to decide: are these critiques responsible for his increased flexibility, or has he been set up as a straw man? Should the attacks continue, or should they desist so his blog can be read with more generosity?

Andrew Shields said...

I read Silliman's blog regularly (I'm a follower), and I do so precisely because he is full of insight (and because of his links). I've learned, as it were, to ignore his eternally recurring comments about SoQ and P-A for the most part, as something that helps him get to his insights. But I don't think the opposition is a necessary part of his insights, and in this case, the opposition led to remarks that I simply found absurd.

brian (baj) salchert said...

Not sure when, but I've read poems by Jones Very, James Russell Lowell, and Sidney Lanier. However, they were not formative. Can't even say the styles of poets I did attempt to imitate were formative.