Reading Ron Silliman’s Link List (Dec 28 Initial Skim)

by Maggie Clark

It was likely a foolhardy idea to begin this process of close reading my own engagement with Silliman’s links during December, as the holidays do have their way of complicating even the best laid plans. However, January is very much its own cursed month, riddled with the stench of a million New Year’s resolutions left to moulder after, oh, the first week at best.

That said, I do regret not going back to do a second read of Silliman’s last link list, but such is the way of the internet! There are always new reading lists ready and waiting to supplant the old. So without further ado:

Ron Silliman, Link List, December 28, 2010:


1. I start my reading off right with the first link this week, a contemporary joining of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick with Emily Dickinson’s poetic form that embeds a different portion of Melville’s so-modified text into every pixel in the webpage space. The project, by Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland, is called The Sea and Spar Between, and more than tickles my academic sweet tooth. Though my intended thesis work would have greatly benefitted from a genuine historical example of inclusion between the work of these two American writers, the content of this webpage is still as delightful as it is daunting.

2. Silliman’s next link is a clever little ploy–who the heck wouldn’t click on a link entitled “Huh?”–that offers guidance to anyone immediately confounded by the first link on first read. Silliman groups many of his related links together, but sometimes the walls of separation and extended conversation between link blurbs are difficult to discern at first glance. If you’re still confused, the third link, a blog post by one of the above authors, should be eminently useful.

3. At the fourth link, I start to get the feeling this is going to be One of Those Lists, where there’s just too much good reading to get through the whole. Or is it just that this particular list seems to resonate with so many personal interests? In either case, I am about ready to give up on the rest of the links list, the example of collaboration embodied in Joe Rothenberg’s account of anthologizing Poems for the Millennium with Pierre Joris is so provocative to read. Will the tempo last?

4. Not quite. At link five my laziness finally takes hold, and my eyes begin to slide a bit down Silliman’s list. Perhaps I’ve simply seen Rae Armantrout’s name, and Versed, too often on these lists in the last few months to pay keen attention to anything new about either. If so, the same goes for George W. Bush–but the next five links are an entirely different kettle of fish: I’m again dismayed to identify a personal predisposition towards darting past the unknown and keeling towards more familiar territory. Recognizing this behaviour twice now, I could certainly force myself to go back and read the links associated with writers I don’t fully recognize, but this series of posts an account of my skimming process; as such, it would be cheating to allow the observer effect to so markedly alter my reading habits. Better to hang my shame in public and give these names a proper read-through on my second sweep of the list.

5. …Because, yes, I am drawn to the drama and the intrigue of Silliman’s link marked “Should Mary Oliver stop writing?” The link itself, to a review of Swan: Poems and Prose Poems by Don at Eleventh Stack, is a more nuanced affair with a few eloquent comments about the specific poetry therein, but the framing question reverberates: Should writers ever retire?

What an extraordinary nest of concepts is buried in those four simple words. Is there a difference between retiring and giving up? Does the question of retirement itself identify a further division between the life of a writer and the life of, say, a stock broker or an accountant? Is it like parenthood, I wonder–the way a parent must eventually allow their children full autonomy, taking a mostly hands-off instead of a hands-on approach to that labour of love, but never ceasing even then to be a parent?

Many deep thoughts are present here–and yet not all of them have to do with this question of retirement. One of my favourite observations is the following:

The how of this poem reminds me very much of one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets: James Wright. The poem is “A Blessing.” Each of these poems has a set scenario that is commented on in a final three-line coda that is most haiku-like.

There is an immense animosity in some circles towards Mary Oliver’s glorification of the simple in verse. In mixed-martial arts terminology, one would say Oliver regularly “telegraphs” her intent with certain key and repeating poetic structures and phrases, which make it easy to mock her joining of plain nature moments with short and revelatory pronouncements. But Don’s above comment paints a very different picture of the function performed in Western literature by poets like Oliver. Western haiku, as I mentioned last week, is a form stifled by irritatingly rigid rules via translation, but through Oliver Don seems to be suggesting a way out of that aesthetic dilemma–and on a cursory read, I like where his thoughts are taking mine.

6. In fact, I like them so much I double back to William Keckler’s evaluation of one of the poems in Armantrout’s Versed. After all, what’s good for the goose has to be good for the gander, doesn’t it? And if anyone would be poetic gander to Oliver’s goose, Armantrout is she. Same species of sparse, careful phrasing, but hugely different outcomes for poetic device, philosophy, and modality.

Keckler comes from a similar position as Don did, inasmuch as both are avid and long-time readers of their respective subjects, and sure enough this allows Keckler to engage with Armantrout both in the long and short view. I think Keckler beautifully rounds out an initial bafflement with early commentary on Armantrout as poet of “domesticity” through the following reversal:

This poem, like many in Versed, adopts a tone towards language that is martial but also oddly marital.

I wish Keckler had taken this thought further, it works so well with his earlier assertion that, with Armantrout, “the delight is often in the doubleness.” The thesis of Armantrout’s writing might well be that poetry–oft-described as always being “about love”–is instead itself a constant act of coupling and uncoupling. In any case, this link also carries with it a great amount of wrestling with simple surface forms and tremendously influential depths.

7. And with my brain so charged… I skip a couple links again–but wouldn’t you, to discover your own first post made it to the very links list you’ve set yourself to reviewing? I thought the internet was supposed to be an information wasteland! I’m startled that last post got picked up so fast–and flattered, and truly hoping I can keep this going, now that so many people have viewed the first iteration.

As an aside, I received a response to the first post this morning that I look forward to responding to the first free moment I get, but one part of it especially caught my eye: a remark about the vacuum left in the wake of Silliman closing his commenting system. That was truly a loss for readers of his links list, and I hope other efforts will arise down the line to help fill the discursive void. These links lists are just too extensive, and too daunting, to let alone without comment!

8. So let’s get back to it, shall we? The post about San Francisco being the poetry capital of the U.S. just makes me miss the West coast (for some reason, Canadian West coast and American West coast cities both harbour excellent reputations for literature), so I don’t spend long on it. The next link, about subway poetry and prose dying out in New York, saddens me, but there is just too much on this links list of interest for me to linger long. A link on prison libraries brings to bear all manner of questions about punishment versus rehabilitation; a link on the changing/diminishing role of traditional print publishers makes me more indecisive than ever about what path I should be taking, as an emerging writer myself; and a link on Jean Toomer raises provocative questions about the role of race in both the formation and evaluation of literary canon. And I’m not even close to halfway through the list yet! A more militant, cut-throat approach is definitely required if I’m to get through the list even once before my time runs out.

9. … I don’t get very far. A link about how the “detritus” of our digital era will impact future literary scholarship has me salivating. It seems to be good reading, but I have to skim it, note it, and move on. I’m less impressed with a less than comprehensive inquiry into why writers write at night (Silliman’s terse note about The Guardian failing to spell Ginsberg’s name correctly is also my own), but it still takes tremendous will-power to pointedly ignore all the subsequent links about DFW and other monolithic personalities of contemporary literary culture. When I realize I don’t have time to read the Solzhenitsyn piece about “The Relentless Cult of Novelty” with the freedom I prefer when engaging any of his works, I am near to weeping (and keep the tab open, hoping for a change in fortune soon). This looks like one of those three-reads list weeks, at least!

10. I am, however, too struck to turn away from a piece in the Contemporary Poetry Review attempting to typify the kinds of problems afflicting modern Polish poetry translation. Though later items in this list puzzle me in their presentation as being issues unique to Polish poetry translation, the first problem listed is a compelling one. Marit MacArthur writes: “1) We have loved Polish poets for their moral glamour more than we have appreciated the poetry itself.” I’m stunned by this line. Is our love for the poetry of Tadeusz Rozewicz really equivocal to the love lavished by Oprah-viewing audiences on Mattie T. J. Stepanek? Is there an authority question afoot? Could “In the Middle of Life” have been written by anyone who wasn’t present as a victim of World War II? And if it couldn’t, whither arises this “problem” of “moral glamour”? Is it not just as much a contextual conceit to re-assert that old, New Criticism modality of Text above Audience, Author, and World?

11. Sometimes I think I hop to the simpler links just to shake off daunting questions like the ones above–which might explain my interest and subsequent amusement with a link mocking the literary style of the average undergraduate male. Why male, though, I wonder? No one really thinks the “average undergraduate female” doesn’t pad their own writing, too, do they? I have an equally easy, refreshing time going through a P&W’s piece about the history of online submissions systems. I’ve personally fallen in love with them, and despite dutifully sending off hard-copy submissions for years, it’s come to the point where I’ll put off applying to markets that don’t have online submissions systems until I’ve pushed my work to no avail through all that do.

12. Holy bejeebers, the next link is a doozy. Silliman identifies 27 volumes from a list of book reviews, but I know I don’t have time for them all. Guiltily, I slink past. More reviews follow, and the accursed Best Of 2010 lists with which I am still not quite ready to inundate myself. Those, too, always carry with them as much guilt as they do intrigue, and I don’t have as much time to read the books they boast about as I once did. Better, for at least a little while, to scroll past.

13. Indeed, by now exhaustion is starting to set in, and I skim an article on the history of film titles, scoff at one attempting to glorify the Star Wars pre-quels, then finally gape at the seemingly impossible: an end to this list is in sight!

14. In fact, to heck with it, I think: Time to go out with one truly great link. Silliman’s blurb, “Academic capitalism & the siege of the British university,” looks promising, and indeed it delivers. In a calm, collected manner, author Simon Head outlines the history and consequences of a shift to corporate control over British academic output. Just as this list began by piquing my interest in themes related to my intended thesis work, so does it end with a grim reminder of the complex world in which all disciplines aspiring to less-than-immediately-quantifiable outcomes are exceedingly winnowed down to a point. And yet the journey has left many roads not taken, so with a few spare moments remaining before sunrise, I turn back to the open tab filled with words by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn on The Relentless Cult of Novelty. I can think of no better way to start my day.