Bob Perelman smkotjak.jpg (62491 bytes)My focus will be "the new sentence," a term that is both descriptive of a writing procedure and, at times, a sign of literary-political proselytizing....The term was coined by Ron Silliman....A new sentence is more or less ordinary itself, but gains its effect by being placed next to another sentence to which it has tangential relevance: new sentences are not subordinated to a larger narrative frame nor are they thrown together at random. Parataxis is crucial: the autonomous meaning of a sentence is heightened, questioned, and changed by the degree of separation or connection that the reader perceives with regard to the surrounding sentences. This is on the immediate formal level. From a larger perspective, the new sentence arises out of an attempt to redefine genres; the tension between parataxis and narrative is basic. . . . One device that is crucial to his initial work with the new sentence is a highly developed structure of repetition. Ketjak is written in series of expanding paragraphs where the sentences of one paragraph are repeated in order in subsequent paragraphs with additional sentences inserted between them, recontextualizing them. As the paragraphs double, the space between the reoccurrence of the sentences doubles and the context from which they reemerge grows thicker. In this, they have reminded some in the language movement of characters in a novel. But the narrative effect is more peculiar as the sentences keep reappearing against different sentences. E.g.: "Look at that room filled with fleshy babies, incubating. We ate them." In the next paragraph: "Look at that room filled with fleshy babies. A tall glass of tawny port. We ate them." Next paragraph: "Look at that room filled with fleshy babies, incubating. Points of transfer. A tall glass of tawny port. The shadows between the houses leave the earth cool and damp. A slick gaggle of ambassadors. We ate them." The new sentence questions anaphora, so that reference is not guaranteed to extend beyond sentence boundaries. Thus "We ate," not babies, not port, not ambassadors, but only "them." On the other hand, Silliman is clearly enjoying the juxtapositions on his verbal or virtual smorgasbord. In moments like these, he seems to be playing a kind of fort-da game with readers' expectations for continuity. New sentences imply continuity and discontinuity simultaneously, an effect that becomes clearer when they are read over longer stretches. In the following juxtaposition--"Fountains of the financial district spout soft water in a hard wind. She was a unit in a bum space, she was a damaged child"--we have switched subjects between the sentences: the child and the fountains need not be imagined in a single tableau. This effect of calling forth a new context after each period goes directly against the structural impatience that creates narrative. It's as if a film were cut into separate frames. But in a larger sense, girl and fountain are in the same social space. Throughout the book, Silliman insists on such connections as the one between the girl and the wider economic realities implied by the corporate fountains. The damage that has been done to her has to be read in a larger economic context. But we don't focus on the girl: she is one facet of a complex situation; she is not singled out for novelistic treatment. There's a dimension of tact involved: she's not representative of the wrongs done to children, but she's not given the brushoff either. The degree of attention Silliman accords her can be read as analogous to the way one recognizes individuals in a crowd (as well as perceptions in a crowded urban setting), giving each a finite but focused moment of attention. This can be favorably compared to the generalized responses of Eliot and Wordsworth to London: phobia in the case of Eliot--"I had not thought death had undone so many"--and despairing scorn in the case of Wordsworth, for whom urbanization resulted in minds "reduced to an almost savage torpor." Of course, to compare Silliman to Eliot and Wordsworth can seem ill-proportioned to some; but if we can lay aside absolutist ideas of literary quality, then Silliman's writing can be read as an exemplary guide to contemporary urban life. The absence of an explicit plot serves it well in this capacity. The new sentence, on the other hand, is defiantly unpoetic. Its shifts break up attempts at the natural reading of universal, authentic statements; instead they encourage attention to the act of writing and to the writer's multiple and mediated positions within larger social frames. The following is a small excerpt from Silliman's book-length poem, Ketjak: Those curtains which I like above the kitchen sink. Imagined lives we posit in the bungalows, passing, counting, with another part of the mind, the phone poles. Stood there broke and rapidly becoming hungry, staring at the nickels and pennies in the bottom of the fountain. Dear Quine, sentences are not synonymous when they mean the same proposition. How the heel rises and ankle bends to carry the body from one stair to the next. This page is slower. Making the sentence the basic unit of composition separates the writer from three widely held positions. First, it is arbitrary, driving a wedge between any expressive identity of form and content. What Silliman is doing goes directly against the grain of the poetics of "Projective Verse," where Olson gives primary place to Creeley's statement "FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT." In Silliman's case, form is clearly primary. But, secondly, to avoid a self-expressive stance does not then throw the writer into the arms of a trans-individual language. Foucault's statement may apply to some positions in language writing, but not to Silliman's: "The philosopher is aware . . . [that he] does not inhabit the whole of his language like a secret and perfectly fluent god. Next to himself, he discovers the existence of another language that also speaks and that he is unable to dominate, one that strives, fails, and falls silent and that he cannot manipulate." Generating one sentence after another is, on the contrary, a sign of confident manipulation. A third distinction: to use the sentence as basic unit rather than the line is to orient the writing toward ordinary language use. . . . Far from being fragments, his sentences derive from a coherent, wide-ranging political analysis. . . .Many of the sentences are themselves brief narratives, but more important is the overall frame. . .the Marxist master-narrative that sees commodification as a necessary stage that history must pass through. This master-narrative links what would otherwise be the very different levels of the sentences. . . .Silliman's sense of the broken integers produced by capitalism is inseparable from his commitment to the emergence of a transformed, materialist society.

Ian B. Gordon: On "For a Coming Extinction"

In the remarkable poem, "For a Coming Extinction," addressed to a gray whale, Merwin speaks of the relationship between poetic utterance and history, notably the absence that they both share’

I write as though you could understand And I could say it One must always pretend something Among the dying When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks Empty of you Tell him that we were made On another day

Although the poem commences with a simple request for the beast to forgive those responsible for its destruction, the narrator quickly finds himself in deeper philosophical waters than those transversed by the animal. He asks forgiveness while simultaneously realizing that very notion of forgiveness is a human projection: "we who follow you invented forgiveness / And forgive nothing." The juxtaposition of "follow" and "forgiveness" is charged with significance. We can forgive only by recognizing a transgression that occurred in the past. To invent forgiveness is also to invent history, to invent the idea of one event following another by a reconstitution of the past. Succession, history, inheritance—in short, the thematic concerns of the poem—exist only as part of our need to invent a field for our collective grief. Man is doomed because he must seek history only in order that he might escape it more easily. Forgiveness has no real object; as part of historical association, it is a form of the engineering of recovery posing as charity. The poem itself moves from the natural world (the whale), to its departure

Leaving behind it the future Dead And ours

and thence finally, to a "black garden" and its court—clearly a reference to some new home in a natural science museum. There it joins other extinct creatures, "the Great Auk the gorillas / The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless." The whale has entered the realm of words and hence of history symbolized by the museum replete with white labels showing forth lineage (and hence history) as the juxtaposition of genus and species: gray whale.

From "The Dwelling of Disappearance in W. S. Merwin’s The Lice." Modern Poetry Studies 3.3 (1972)


Vernon Shetley: On "Daffy Duck in Hollywood"

…This style of chaotic juxtaposition produces an effect of agitation and urgency, which in turn is continually undercut by the humor generated in the collision of elevated language with the mundane. Daffy Duck’s voice seems consistent in its cycle of inflation by allusion to chivalric romance, followed by farcical deflation, while at the same time these contrasts seem far too great to subsume under any notion of a coherent speaker. The title, "Daffy Duck in Hollywood," in its specification of speaker and situation, promises a dramatic monologue, but what the poem delivers cannot be brought together within [Cleanth] Brooks and [Robert Penn] Warren’s notions of "fundamental character and situation" [as outlined in Understanding Poetry, the fundamental textbook of New Critical reading].

The poem’s contrasts reflect those of its source, which is not so much Tex Avery’s 1938 cartoon "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" as Chuck Jones’s celebrated "Duck Amuck" of 1953. In "Duck Amuck," Daffy swashbuckles onto the screen wielding a rapier, as if to reprise his 1950 role, "The Scarlet Pumpernickel." The setting, without Daffy’s noticing it first, shifts to a barnyard, where, after an ineffectual attempt to apprise the cartoonist of the problem, Daffy chooses to switch rather than fight, changes to overalls, and throws a hoe over his shoulder. Throughout, the scene keeps shifting in this fashion, with Daffy always a step behind. … Ashbery’s character is at the mercy of disconcertingly rapid changes of scene which leave the speaker disoriented and strange to himself, unable to face his own "reflection." Yet, at about its middle, the frenetic motion of the poem gives way to a moment of syntactical calm:

I have


Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live


Which is like thinking in another language.

If the poem, to this point, has embodied the predicament of the mind assaulted by the chaos of discourses that compete for priority in our culture, here it stands back to reflect on that predicament. … While … marginalization seems potentially liberating, a way to "step free" of the concerns of the self, … it is shaded with some of the pathos generated by the most extremely marginalized character in English poetry, Milton’s Satan, as Daffy continues:

While I


Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek


Deliverance for us all, think in that language …

On first thought Daffy seems to get the worst of the comparison these lines propose. But if the distance between the earlier and the contemporary culture hero allows us to measure the diminishment of our own civilization in comparison to Milton’s, it also invests with a certain grandeur the duck’s struggle to prevail against the shocks and indignities inflicted by an unseen tormentor, a tormentor who is in fact his creator as well. It’s by no means certain whether the joke here is on him or on us.

… [Shetley cites from the last six lines of the poem.] This closing section sports a number of inversions (e. g., "bivouac we") reminiscent of the verbal habits of the Daffy Duck voice, yet this ending seems very different in tone from the broadly ironic opening. How has this voice entered the poem? I propose that the often highly conventional-seeming endings of Ashbery’s poems are enabled by the fracturing and displacement of voice – of which "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" is a particularly baroque example; Ashbery is able to employ highly traditional forms of lyric closure because the play of voices in the poems prevents these passages from being read directly as expressive utterances by the poet – saves them, that is, from sentimentality.

Again and again, even the most discontinuously organized of Ashbery’s poems arrive at some traditional form of elegiac terminus: a phrase or image that seems to sum up the poem as a whole, a natural image, an epigrammatic reflection, or a gesture that suggests a return to beginnings: [Shetley cites here, among other passages, the concluding 4 lines to "Hop o’ My Thumb."]


From Vernon Shetley, "John Ashbery’s Difficulty" in After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham: Duke U P, 1993), 124-125, 127.