Ron Silliman published his first poetry collection, Moon in the Seventh House, in 1968. During the mid-1960’s, he attended Merritt College, San Francisco State College, and the University of California at Berkeley without earning a degree from any. Silliman did not follow the traditional route of a poet and find himself a teaching position at an institution of higher learning. Over the years, he has worked as a lobbyist, an ethnographer, a lecturer, a writer-in-residence, and a political organizer. Since the mid-1990’s, he has worked in the computer industry as a market analyst. By the mid-1970’s, Silliman was recognized as one of the most exciting language poets of the West Coast. He has been grouped with such other language poets as Robert Grenier, Kit Robinson, and Bob Perelman. Silliman also has been considered as a poet who has followed in the tradition of such boldly adventurous poets as Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg. Language poetry believes in blurring the lines between writing genres. It has been stated that it “seeks actively collaborative relationships between reader and writer.”
In 1978, Silliman published Ketjak. For this volume, the poet experimented with prose poetry. He employed a radical form where he expanded paragraphs by repeating the sentence from the previous paragraph. The first paragraph consisted of one sentence, while the second paragraph would include that same sentence from the first paragraph in addition to a new sentence. The third paragraph would include the two sentences from the second paragraph along with two new sentences. Within this repetition, there would be relief through “Silliman’s creation and insertion of new sentences that place the repeated sentences in new contexts.” It has been observed that language poetry emphasizes how words can bend human reality as much if not more than humans have control over words. The Age of Huts can be described as a part of a greater whole that Silliman has been working on for many decades. Silliman named this massive poetic project “Ketjak.” When complete, it will include four parts; one of the parts will include The Age of Huts, as well as the long poem Tjanting (which was published on its own in 1981), and the poetry cycles “The Alphabet” and “Universe.” To make matters more confusing, the current collection includes a cycle of four poems (Ketjak, Sunset Debris, The Chinese Notebook, and 2197) as well as what Silliman calls “Satellite Texts.” All of these various parts constitute a massive poetic architecture that Silliman continues to construct. It may never be finished, and it may never have been intended to be complete. Indeed, the idea of “incompleteness” is at the heart of language poetry. Nothing can be complete on its own: Each sentence, paragraph, and poem needs both a writer and a reader. A reader’s interpretation of any of these parts goes a long way to making them whole, making them make sense. Silliman has no desire to play it safe, to play the traditional role of poet. He refuses to clarify life for any reader, to presume that that is his role. Unfortunately, many readers do want an easy way out, wanting poetry to be like a trail of bread crumbs to wisdom.
In 1986, Silliman published his first version of The Age of Huts, which included Sunset Debris, The Chinese Notebook, and 2197. Silliman has stated that “I consider what I write to be prose poems but not fiction, partly for formal reasons and partly because I’m not interested in ‘making things up.’” The prose poem has a long tradition dating back to the nineteenth century. For Silliman, it is necessary to expand the poetic genre. Over the years, he has made it a point to needle the world of mainstream poetry. Silliman has gone so far as to label mainstream poets as being part of the “School of Quietude.” Having worked as a political organizer, the poet has been more than willing to use his training in this field in order to shake up the world of poetry. On many occasions, Silliman has played the role of advocate for the poets who he believes deserve recognition and played the role of adversary to any poet who merely adheres to traditional forms.
In addition to being a leading practitioner of the language style, Silliman is a “crusader for the cause.” While at first glance his poetry may seem too...
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