I must admit that before taking Al’s Fellows seminar, I had never read anything by Ron Silliman. Now, I feel like I’ve known him for years. Besides the fact that I’ve been reading and thinking about little else but Ron Silliman for over a month, his critical and poetic works connect me to the thinkers I’ve been studying throughout my college career: Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan, whose theories of language Mr. Silliman has breathtakingly absorbed and surpassed in his own writing.
Until reading Ron Silliman, I viewed creative writing and literary theory as two camps of thought. One was innovative, the other critical, and the two met occasionally but never intersected. But Mr. Silliman has changed my approach - and dare I say my entire academic outlook - completely. I realized: It’s one thing to write about lit theory, but to enact it as Ron Silliman does is a feat of creative genius. For me, his poetry is theory in motion. In his sentences, I saw the layered mythologies of Barthes, the mirrors of Lacan, and the linguistic signs of Saussure. For example, in his poem “BART,” Mr. Silliman writes: “Description implies a relation,” and later, “My writing is a scrawl, an act of description.”
When I first read “BART,” I was dumbfounded. As a Brooklyn girl, I am not unfamiliar with public transportation. When I was younger, my mother used to urge me to take a cab home, but, unbeknown to her, I always opted for the subway. The look of the sunset from a dirty window of the Q train crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is the closest I’ve ever come to a beatific vision. Ron Silliman combines my two great loves in “BART”: lit theory and gritty public transportation. I had always craved this dailiness in theory; it had always felt so unanchored from the everyday. Before encountering Silliman in this seminar, I was starting to feel detached from the everyday in my theoretical studies at Penn. Having my head in the books was causing me to lose my connection to the urban. But Ron Silliman finds the philosophical in the quotidian, showing me that I can have my Barthes and my Brooklyn, that the two are not dissimilar. Mr. Silliman can convey in one line what others take a whole book to do - this being the inability of language to render life through realism. So, for example, when I say, “It is March 19, 2012, and I, Rivky Mondal, am not only sharing breathing space with Ron Silliman, but am also introducing him” it doesn’t come close to the real. "Because we think we can represent the world in language,” writes Mr. Silliman in The New Sentence, “we tend to imagine that the universe itself performs as one. Yet, if we look to that part of the world which is the poem...we find instead only metaphors, translations, tropes...[E]ach paradigm is aware of itself as a translation of the real, inaccurate and incomplete."
I love Ron Silliman’s poetry, but man, am I a geek for his critical writing. This rejection of conventional narrative proved difficult to swallow for a Fellows seminar of mostly English and History majors. We first read “Albany,” a Language poem of apparently disconnected moments, states, and revelations from Mr. Silliman’s life. Besides its socio-political message, the class recognized that the poem could be seen as abstract. And to be fair, Ron Silliman’s work can appear abstract or even opaque to readers who are not willing to do the work, because Ron Silliman wants his readers to be proactive and informed. The Fellows class leapt at this call to action, and after deciphering the Fibonacci sequences, searching for key repetitions, and following the torques, we were rewarded with meaning. And as a reader who cannot finish a book without underlining every other sentence, commenting in the margins, and dog-earing the pages, I have to say: Thank you, Ron Silliman. Thank you for giving me a space to interpret your work, for demanding that I labor for its import. Thank you for encouraging my obsessive habits, for making them seem not only reasonable, but necessary. You've wowed me with your lyrical sentences and critical linguistic observations, but you've also let me find my own meaning in your form. And thank you for not making me any false promises, because you do not presume to capture reality in three easy steps of set-up, conflict, resolution. I am astounded by your reformation of language, because for someone who theoretically distrusts conventional language, you are a master of it. And you’ve even inspired me to write some Language poetry of my own, and for someone who has internalized the traditional academic writing of thesis-body-conclusion, that’s unbelievable.
Yet what I admire most about your work is your refusal to settle - to settle for writing within the literary canon, to settle for a critical discourse confined to academic circles, to settle for creative immersion that is anything less than absolute. You were dissatisfied with the old sentence, so you created a new one. You’ve shown me that theory is poetic, that knowledge goes beyond the syllabus and that meaning doesn’t end with the sentence.
It’s my great pleasure to introduce the second Kelly Writers House Fellow of 2012, Ron Silliman