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Retrospective on U.S. Poetry: Silliman

What’s the value of poetry? Ron Silliman said a prof at Berkley asked his students to go out and busk in any way they could until they raised $50. Some people could work they magic and be back in an hour. Others took a week, or so. He then sent the students back out with copies of the Berkley Bard and asked them to come back when they have sold $50 worth of copies, each at 25¢ each.

Ron Silliman in blogging workshop

Although sales need to put a dollar figure on it, poetry owes it life to the idea of potlatch, trade economy.

Which is not to say it doesn’t sell. There was a rush for the table when he said the words, print run of 200, only 8 left here. (I didn’t know poets could move that fast!)

Speaking of moving fast, rob has his notes from the Silliman talk here with a good side shot of crowd.

Poetry, Silliman was saying, owes its life to the risk of being present. Poetry where the poet is not present bores the reader. He said the most exciting area of poetry today is haiku. (There was a yippee and “I love you, Ron Sillman” from the audience in the exuberance of a haiku high moment). In that lean form, he explained, there is no where to hide sloppiness, inattention. It requires a presence in the work that should be in any scale of work, whether poetic treatise trilogy or further into minimalism than most haiku.

Where there’s verbiage and poetry that ebbs and flows, intensifies and steps back, there’s more place to hide. You can discern in a glance when there’s less material. Is there thru the whole 6 syllables symmetry, sound play, sensitivity to subject? You could appreciate it for many readings as with a long poem, but this thin slicing can go about quicker.


He gave a whirl-tour of early U.S, poetry, largely the males.

A book on the San Francisco Renaissance said, “In a very real sense, Ruth Witt-Diamant was the most powerful figure in the postwar poetry world of San Francisco” as she conceived the idea of their Poetry Centre and was an energizing and directing force. [source] The debate on what was going on there now often talks about the New American Poetry but her influence and the influences of some others have got mislaid. For example the zen-cowboy poets like Lew Welch and other beat poets who haven’t been canonized in the same way as some. They were creating magazines, readership and participating, some since the 1930s without attempting publishing routes. This makes them less visible in source but no less palpable in effect.

Silliman estimated that in the time of Ginsberg’s peak of the 1950s, there were about 100 English practicing, publishing poets. It was conceivable to be at least a nodding acquaintance with everyone and have read the work of everyone. You just had to know a couple dozen people to know all the major players. If you include doggerel dabblers and those writing for communist newsletters, the figure might come in around 500.

By the 1970s this has expanded to about 1000 poets. Currently, the active, publishing English poets (In the U.S. I believe) number somewhere around 20,000. This turns over or churns out more poetry collections published daily than used to come out yearly. The large presses make about 4000 titles a year and Silliman himself receives about 1000 review copies a year. Deep reads of 3 collections a day?

One naturally has to be discriminating on what will work for you. Do what you can and not worry about what you can’t.It’s no longer possible to even survey all the names let alone know the works. Poetry used to be local to a greater degree. International isn’t the marked form it once was.

Trane DeVore, grandson of Robert Creeley, reads more internationally than previous generations would have considered. Mark Young, although living down under publishers American writers. Ex-pats moved from or towards WWII to Italty and more from the Vietnam draft came North to Canada, I’d say international borders are more permeable for ideas than ever and the idea of nation is less of a fixed notion than it once was. This impacts how poetry moves, literally and figuratively.

Ron Silliman in blogging workshop

Communication isn’t what it was. 24 hours on the internet shows 2 million new blog posts being written and 864,000 hours of video getting uploaded to YouTube. Some people were in earlier and started building nodes, such as Laurable who has amassed over 475 poets and 2,500 poetry links, many audio. Her health has since derailed it developing more but it remains as an archive/resource.

There are more poets active than perhaps have ever existed. Blame literacy and access, population explosion, mechanization and the ideas economy. It’s a very different world. How can one raise a voice thru what amounts to white noise?

Earlier he said the challenge is

Differentiation – how do you stand out from the masses of what’s already being written? It’s probably easier to gain a small, dedicated audience for your work, but I think it’s much much harder to take that next step toward a broader audience.

He gave the example of Zoe Strauss who went her own route to distinguish herself. Rather than the galleries and agents, in 1972 she did one weekend a year where she scotch-taped photocopies of her art to the underside of an underpass. It wasn’t a random underpass. It was one close to the gallery strip of Philadelphia. The advantage of cities is that there can be enough like-minds to create a catalyst.

If she had stayed, say, 100 miles from a cultural hub, she might have taped her art to a post and remained anonymous to an indifferent audience indefinitely. She guerilla marketed in a key place, on a set date annually for a decade. She created a buzz and crowd gradually gathered.

One thing that struck me is the notion of people who are not on the radar as a participant in a school of poetry. Poets who participate for decades, engaged in reading, conversation, guiding, but don’t play the publishing game so from formal channels are invisible but in real ways, are pivotal.

People used to take a geographical barrier, quite psychologically, as if the blanked out part of the map where Canada is, for U.S. maps, or where the U.S. is, in Canadian maps, was literal. There wasn’t a cross-fertilization. When George Stanley of the Black Mountain School hopped over the to Kootenays, he fell off the edge of the American map. We are all subject to our times, and geographies and Louis Dudek and Robert Duncan were writing in parallel on their respective sides of the 49th parallel.

Does geography impact as much as it used to?


He related that Mayakovsky said a poem is made by people waking around with notebooks and that blogging can be understood as an extension of that sensibility.

The English writing poetry community wasn’t that large in the 1950s and 60s, and it was dispersed. There weren’t yet blogs. The listservs were not yet there. If you’d already had the soft contacts of luck and could meet up with poets in person or could carry on letter conversations, great, but what about the rest of the people? In San Francisco Poetry Talk series started. (Last year a digital archive released, going back to the “San Francisco renaissance, archiving 4000 hours of poets.)

The San Francisco Talks started out with people talking off the top of their head of what they were thinking about poetry. Each had a stack of books to lift and pull from, excerpts from say, Stein and WCW. By round two, people were getting more prepared. It was streamlined so quotes were in the body of a talk that had form and outlines. By the third round people had written formal papers that they then presented. In all cases it was filling a void for people wanting to talk shop. People would gather in seats and some pacing at the back or holding up the walls. It was more of an event to meet at a meeting of minds. Even with the increased formality it has the spirit of a free for all. “No one could steer the ship because no one knew where the front was.” It was an exploratory era of people throwing ideas onto the table about the direction and possibilities of poetry.

In a way that sounds like it’s been transferred by impact of large number of participants into a comparable thing. How, flying in a flock, can you tell which way the flock tends? And yet culturally there are these motions, the slowest movement towards the edge and most tight wheeling towards the centre.

Looking back more recently Silliman said that when he started his blog in 2002, he had the ambitious goal of getting 30 hits per post, the equivalent of the size of a good poetry reading turnout, anywhere in the world. He got 140 his first day. It peaked at 1500 readers per day. It is now steady at 700 readers daily with 3 1/2 million visitors overall. In August it will be 10 years old.

(For comparison, I started Humanyms about 6 months after that and this poetics one at Livejournal in August, 2005. I didn’t have stats on Humanyms until late 2006; since then, a quarter million hits have come in. I didn’t put stats on pesbo until 2010 but it’s around 8000 hits/year.)

He said twitter is ideal for pointing towards larger chunks of info. It and Facebook and LinkedIn can point to the packages of ideas elsewhere. Blogging is ideal for medium-length materials.


Amanda was good enough to ask about the term “School of Quietude”. It’s a term borrowed by Edgar A. Poe, as a response to a rejection letter who asked him to make his writing more quiet. It’s a worldview of poetry where the value is on outbritishing the british, present “timeless values” in literature as one might have from the lifestyle of a mansion in delaware.

A “kept poem” doesn’t challenge its world. It speaks of its own fridge perhaps. It reinforces the status quo. This resonated well 50 years ago. Poets were fewer and many funneled thru the sensibility of Robert Lowell and John Barryman, the next generation of students of Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin and Robert Bly passing on the culture, making their own adjustments but it got grandfathered into status with it being 10% of U.S. writing but half of the grants and most of the teaching positions. Napa, Dodge, Key West all have such safe honoured mellifluous poetry as esteemed. In that environment Wallace Stevens is avant garde.

Privilege and entitlement beget themselves. There’s a place for poetry that comforts but poetry that defines itself as Poetry and excludes other forms and voices?

West Chester University Poetry Conference he says, hopped to another poetry lineage of aesthetics.

He said much more, but that probably assures you that the half I didn’t catch or pursue here, you sure missed a lot. Silliman gave 2 talks and a reading while he was in town and talked to someone over 100 people, which is good for any reading, or blog post.

There were chats after the A B Series readings. I kept gadding about, chatting away and twice I was told from a few people simultaneously of a photo-op happening, but by time I recovered the camera or the right lens, it disappeared again.

Did catch this tho, of jw, John Steffler and Silliman.

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