The Point Is to Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present

By Jerome McGann | Go to book overview

3
The Alphabet, Spelt from Silliman’s Leaves

At the limits of reflection, the value of knowledge, it seems, de-
pends upon its ability to make any conclusive image of the uni-
verse impossible. Knowledge destroys fixed notions and this con-
tinuing destruction is its greatness, or more precisely, its truth.…

Truth starts with conversations, shared laughter, friendship and
sex, and it only happens going from one person to another.

—Georges Bataille, Le Coupable

Footnote (FN): But when someone says that poetry is best taken as a certain kind of writing process (rather than a certain kind of writing product), we have to be very clear about what is meant by the term “process.” Ron Silliman’s importance as a poet of “the American longpoem” is closely connected to his extended meditations on the history of poetry, especially poetry in English, and on the theory of language and the (possible) structures of communication.1

Printer’s Devil (PD): Is he thinking of Bakhtin when he says that “literature [is] a total social process”?2 His word “process” indicates a dialectic by which a scene of writing undergoes various “reading” transformations. “What can be communicated through any literary production depends on which codes are shared with its audience. The potential contents of the text are only actualized according to their reception.”3 By such an account, language is rhetorical, and writing is reading.

FN: Yes, which means that every text is potentially open to an indefinite number of “readings.” So Silliman writes, in Oz: “Meanings diverge / for different readers, as well / they should.”4 And: “Perhaps poetry is an activity and not a form at all.” The latter remark, from a poem called “The Chinese Notebook,” enacts his thought in the text itself—I mean, by its gesture of selfquestioning and its implicit invitation to the reader to think about the question.5

PD: And about Silliman’s own views on the question.

-44-

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