Monday, July 14, 2003

21 Grand Reading Report (part 2)

I heard Ron Silliman read at Stanford a few years ago, and what I remember most was his reading the first line of Ketjak--"Revolving door"--and throwing his whole body into the gesture, swinging his torso in a circle each time he read the line.

That level of physical presence was on display last night as well--Silliman proved brilliant at phrasing and punctuating, marking one sentence from the next not with an artifical obtrusiveness but enough to maintain the discreteness of thought, to allow you to think. (If there's one thing I would want people to do at poetry readings it would be to slow down--not lugubriously but deliberately.)

Silliman didn't look anything like his scary author picture, with its magnified eyes and the rest of the head fading to black. Instead he was a genial presence--tenor rather than bass--with his two young sons in tow, delighted every time a poem referenced their antics.

Silliman read from VOG--the latest installment in his ongoing project, The Alphabet (with the alphabet's end approaching, I'm beginning to wonder what he'll do for an encore). VOG, Silliman told us, is TV lingo for a voice-over--literally, "Voice Of God." I wondered if that would strike some critics of Silliman's blog as utterly appropriate. But it also made me realize that what Silliman's poetry does is precisely to break up those totalizing tendencies some have found in his prose--it registers and weights each perspective, each angle of critique, but never dwells on it long enough to ossify. (Poetry as escape from personality?)

Stephanie was struck by Silliman's remark that he was reading "ordinary poems," which he hadn't written in years. I assumed this to mean discrete, lineated pieces of verse, with titles and beginnings and ends, rather than the prose expansions that comprise so much of his major work. But it did raise the question of what it meant to return to the "ordinary" poem at this point in his career. Listening, I didn't hear that much of a difference in the movement of thought--the pattern of observations intercut with snippets of the corporate and political and media discourse that surrounds us at all times, often artfully deformed--but perhaps what was "ordinary," and new for Silliman, was the sense of beginning and end, the movement toward closure. Not in the epiphanic sense, but simply as a place to stop before the next thought.

Silliman's lost none of his talent for the clever pun--"Viagra Falls," "Planet of the Apps," "Poet Be Like Cod" (this one with a knowing wink at Kevin Killian in the front row). I'm not one to criticize someone for a weakness for puns--it was said of Shakespeare too--and this wordplay was a great way of engaging the crowd, producing nods, smiles, and laughter. But I've wondered at times just what the critical power of a pun really is. Couldn't it simply be one more iteration from the ad machine? Would we be so surprised if a software company dubbed itself "Planet of the Apps"? Maybe this is the risk Silliman hinted at in ending one poem with the line, "This is CNN"--the risk that when we try to digest the media, it may end up digesting us.

Maybe that kind of modesty was what was a work in one line that made Kasey and me both sit up: "How will I know when I don't make a mistake." Having recently been reading Ketjak, I knew this was a reference to a line there--"How will I know when I make a mistake"--that drew attention to Silliman's method of composition (copying lines from previous paragraphs into subsequent ones, introducing the possibility of error). Silliman's updating of the line suggested that maybe the first question was the wrong one to ask--it implies that there could be a perfect copy, a right way to go forward. At this point in Silliman's project, perhaps the question to ask is how one knows if one is ever on the "right" track, even at the same time that one has to keep going forward heedless of the answer.

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