Silliman, Ron(ald Glenn)

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SILLIMAN, Ron(ald Glenn)

Nationality: American. Born: Pasco, Washington, 5 August 1946. Education: Merritt College, 1965, 1969–72; San Francisco State College (now University), 1966–69; University of California, Berkeley, 1969–71. Family: Married 1) Rochelle Nameroff in 1965 (divorced 1972); 2) Krishna Evans in 1986; two sons. Career: Editorial assistant, Mecca Publications, San Francisco, 1972; director of research and education, Committee for Prisoner Humanity and Justice, San Rafael, California, 1972–76; project manager, Tenderloin Ethnographic Research Project, San Francisco, 1977–78; director of outreach, Central City Hospitality House, San Francisco, 1979–81; lecturer, San Francisco State University, 1981; visiting lecturer, University of California, San Diego, 1982; writer-in-residence, New College of California, San Francisco, 1982; director of public relations and development, 1982–86, and poet-in-residence, 1983–90, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco; executive director, Center for Social Research, Berkeley, California, 1986–89; service marketing specialist, Computer Land Corporation, Pleasanton, California, 1989–94. Since 1994 service products marketing manager, Vanstar Corporation. Editor, Tottel's, Oakland and San Francisco, 1970–81; executive editor, 1986–89, and later member of the editorial collective, Socialist Review, Berkeley. Awards: Hart Crane and Alice Crane Williams award, 1968; Joan Lee Yang award, 1970, 1971; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1979; California Arts Council grant, 1979, 1980; Poetry Center book award, 1985. Address: 262 Orchard Road, Paoli, Pennsylvania 19301–1116, U.S.A.



Moon in the Seventh House. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Gunrunner Press, 1968.

Three Syntactic Fictions for Dennis Schmitz. N.p., Blood books, 1969.

Crow. Ithaca, New York, Ithaca House, 1971.

Mohawk. Bowling Green, Ohio, Doones Press, 1973.

Nox. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck Press, 1974.

Sitting Up, Standing Up, Taking Steps. Berkeley, California, Tuumba Press, 1978.

Ketjak. San Francisco, This, 1978.

Tjanting. Berkeley, California, Figures, 1981.

Bart. Hartford, Connecticut, Potes and Poets Press, 1982.

ABC. Berkeley, California, Tuumba Press, 1983.

Paradise. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck Press, 1985.

The Age of Huts. New York, Roof, 1986.

Lit. Elmwood, Connecticut, Potes and Poets Press, 1987.

What. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Figures, 1988.

Manifest. Tenerife, Canary Islands, Zasterle Press, 1990.

Toner. Hartford, Connecticut, Potes and Poets Press, 1992.

Demo to Ink. Tucson, Arizona, Chax Press, 1992.

Jones. N.p, Generator Press, 1993.

N/O. New York, Roof, 1994.

Xing. N.p., Meow Press, 1996.


Screenplay: Beyond Prisons, 1973.


The New Sentence. New York, Roof, 1987.

Leningrad/American Writers in the Soviet Union, with others. N.p., Mercury House, 1991.

Editor, A Symposium on Clark Coolidge. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Membrane Press, 1978.

Editor, In the American Tree. Orono, Maine, National Poetry Foundation, 1986.

Editor, Unfinished Business: Twenty Years of Socialist Review. N.p., Verso Press, 1991.


Manuscript Collection: University of California, San Diego.

Critical Studies: "After Sentence, Sentence" by Michael Davidson, in American Book Review (New York), September-October 1982; "The Crisis at Present: Talk Poems and the New Poet's Prose," in Poet's Prose: The Crisis in American Verse, by Stephen Fredman, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983; "The Word As Such" by Marjorie Perloff, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 13 (3), May-June 1984; "From the Language Poets" by Robert Creeley, in San Francisco Chronicle, 28 September 1986; "Ron Silliman" by Rae Armantrout, in Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide, edited by Larry McCaffery, New York, Greenwood Press, 1986; "Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes" by Jerome J. McGann, in Critical Inquiry (Chicago), 13 (3), spring 1987; "Ron Silliman: Non-Hierarchical Perception," in Open Form and the Feminine Imagination, by Stephen-Paul Martin, Washington, D.C., Maisonneuve Press, 1988; "A Paradigm Lost: Ron Silliman's Paradise & the Archaeology of Language" by Stephen-Paul Martin, in Sagetrieb (Orono, Maine), 8 (1–2), spring-fall 1989; "Contemporary American Poetry and the Pseudo Avant-Garde" by Keith Tuma, in Chicago Review (Chicago), 36 (3–4), 1989; "The Alphabet, Spelt from Silliman's Leaves" by Anne Mack and J.J. Rome, in South Atlantic Quarterly (Durham, North Carolina), 89 (4), fall 1990; "Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice" by Bob Perelman, in American Literature (Durham, North Carolina), 65 (2), June 1993; "A Taxable Matter" by C.D. Wright, in A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, edited by Stuart Friebert, David Walker, and David Young, Oberlin, Ohio, Oberlin College, 1997; "Poetics, Polemic, and the Question of Intelligibility" by Benjamin Friedlander, in Postmodern Culture (Charlottesville, Virginia), 9 (1), September 1998.

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During the 1980s Ron Silliman earned recognition as perhaps the foremost among the West Coast language poets, both on the strength of his role as a crusader for the cause and for the scale and mastery of his own poetry. Silliman has energetically championed his colleagues, assembling the definitive anthology, In the American Tree. Furthermore, he has repeatedly taken every public opportunity to draw attention to other poets' work. Some of these notices are collected in The New Sentence, which also contains Silliman's key theoretical writings. It is important to emphasize the demeanor with which Silliman has involved himself in the American poetry scene, for his own work is conspicuously guided by egalitarian principles committed to poetry as a collaboration between the writer and reader. Whereas some of his compatriots share this belief, they nevertheless produce unyielding hermetic poetry. Silliman, by contrast, is not only the most accessible poet of the language school but also one of the most approachable poets writing in North America.

Silliman is a poet of the quotidian, writing in the tradition of Whitman, Williams, and Ginsberg. The milieu is recognizably that of the San Francisco Bay, its buses and streets, work sites, galleries, cafés, and lofts. Silliman has long been active as a political organizer in San Francisco, and his writing displays an ease of reference and meticulousness of detail that reflect this. (Appropriately, Silliman celebrated the publication of his long book Tjanting by reading it aloud on a San Francisco street corner during the busiest hours of the workday.) Silliman's observationally precise style aspires to the "film-eye" chronicles of early Bolshevism, as in Dziga Vertov's 1928 film The Man with a Movie Camera, but the man behind the tripod, superimposed on the urban flux, now becomes the poet with a pocket notebook, with the page as the fulcrum between the inner thought and outer view. Consider, for instance, these lines from What:

Chewing gum disrupts
the rhythm of the writing.
The way legs jut up
when the chair's too short.
Place where I bit
the inside of my lip.
Sometimes, wearing my reading glasses,
the outer world a soft, amiable fuzz,
I'm quite alone. Times Square
is not a square at all. Say "scalding"
with a long a. Incest
amid Siamese twins. Dystopia
for vacant skies, for amber weights
of blame. Fur burdened fountain's travesties
above the routed veins. And then
went down on the snips
of old lines parodied. CHiPs
in a row at an officer's funeral
hot under the midday valley sun.
Old Miz Johnson, whose lawn I mowed,
'62–63, kept a flag in a box
back in her bedroom closet
which she referred to as
"my son." Woman strives to appear stylish
in light pink pantsuit and neckbrace.
Tilting his VFW cap jauntily forward
he begs for spare change. Three teens sit parked
in a large pink Caddy, passing a doobie
between them. Fresh clipped nails
feel like fuzzy fingers. Why
am I telling you this?

Silliman's work deviates from the utopian propensities of a Whitman or a Ginsberg insofar as he politicizes the paratactic function of random or unmotivated juxtapositions. Connections between sentences are generally connotative rather than syllogistic, so that the persons and situations are not specifically framed as illustrations subordinate to a theme. Instead, the formal structure mirrors a public space, which is a blend of motivated relations (couples, families, workers, organized groups) and strictly aleatory aggregates (passengers on a given bus, pedestrians crossing a street, customers in line in a store). In the cited passage, for instance, the notion of citizenship is clearly invoked by the presence of law enforcement officers, the veteran, and the mother of a soldier killed in action. Each is presented objectively, dispassionately, yet taken together they are instances of the "dystopia" referred to in a parody of the American song "Oh beautiful for spacious skies and amber waves of grain …" This in turn yields a pastiche of the opening of Pound's The Cantos (itself celebrated for being an English version of a Latin rendering of a Greek text), "And then went down to the sea in ships" becoming in Silliman's hands "down on the snips / of old lines parodied." The implication is that citizenship is no substitute for community, and that state-administered consumer capitalism sanctions individualization only in parodic forms, clichés within a grand cliché.

Another characteristic of Silliman's work in the above passage is the poet's inclusion of himself as one among many figures in the poem, reflecting on his bodily disposition and his compositional strategies but not otherwise invested with special authority. He even implies that his own poetic praxis is not immune to the pressures of dominant ideology. Consequently his overtures to the creative intervention of the reader constitute an ongoing plea that is not so much interpersonal as transpersonal.

Silliman's work may be read as a grand refusal of the chronic strategies of authorial domination. This is not to imply that the work is disordered but rather that Silliman has elected to abide with one of the most daring propositions of "open," or "processual," poeticsnamely, that form and content are mutually implicated at all points of the text, as in a hologram. Silliman has frequently relied on the mathematical Fibonacci sequence for compositional organization. This device is explicit and inescapably part of the reader's experience in the books Ketjak and Tjanting, but in later works like Lit the Fibonacci sequence is operative but unintrusive. One might conclude that Silliman's original tendency to formalist experimentalism has been attenuated by more explicit thematic concerns. The prominence of these concerns in What and Paradise can be retrospectively gleaned, however, in even the earliest pieces in The Age of Huts, which displays flamboyantly experimental texts such as "Sunset Debris," a bravura piece consisting entirely of questions that resolve seamlessly into the formalist strategy but that also make the kind of sense we look to content for: "What if each word has a purpose? What is a construct? How do our lives absorb stress? When is an act complete?" The patient sagacity of such questions, which are sustained for thirty pages, continues to echo throughout Silliman's work, making his poetry one of the most user-friendly literary utopias.

—Jed Rasula