Thursday, May 14, 2009
I was sorry to miss Ron Silliman on his visit to the UK. Unfortunately, my time is mostly not my own, and I rarely get to readings and festivals. It's a shame because one of my current projects is reading Silliman's 'The Alphabet'. I say project because it's no ordinary reading task. The book is an impressive physical object, a heavy block of over 1,000 pages. The physicality is, perhaps part of the what the book conveys - that it's an object in its own right, apart from the world, in line with LANGUAGE poetry's notion that language is a closed system. Some of the pages are laid out as verse, but large tracts are closely-space prose layout. The book is a record of day-to-day sensations and impressions, including an impression of the bombardment our brains receive from language in all its forms. It's not light reading. I find I have to set aside a block of time - say, thirty minutes - and force myself to stick to it. Why bother? Well, that focussed act of attention is rewarding for its own sake - strangely relaxing. And the book is actually a pleasurable read - well-selected, witty and humorous in parts, invigorating, though sometimes - not often - it lapses into dullness. But overall, I think it's very well done. The sheer size of the text means you don't sit back and enjoy choice phrasing - there's too much to get through; you absorb so much at a single sitting, that you don't remember it; there's no narrative. As a consequence, the process of reading is foregrounded - you only truly engage with the work during the act of reading it, you don't recollect it in tranquillity. Similarly, through it's size and physicality, the book as text is emphasised, and therefore, by implication, the process of producing it - 'process' being another important tenet of LANGUAGE poetry. 'The Alphabet' may seem the polar opposite of work by other poets that I like, say, George Oppen or Basil Bunting; yet the physical presence of the text has its parallel in the physicality of those two poets, albeit, in their case, expressed by verbal texture and the foregrounding of text through compression and economy.