The Great Poem Series: Ron Silliman’s “For Larry Eigner, Silent”

Born in Pasco, Washington in 1946, Ron Silliman is known for his post-avant poetry blog (which garnered an impressive 2 million views in 2009) and involvement in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement. Pursuing both a career as a computer market analyst and a generously lauded poet, he was the 1998 Pew Fellow in the Arts, and winner of the 1985 Poetry Chapter Book Award. His masterpiece, “For Larry Eigner, Silent,” first appeared in The Best American Poetry of 2002, and later was included in The Alphabet, a volume of poems published in 2008, under the section VOG, featuring poems written between 1985 and 1999.

Ron Silliman derives inspiration not only from the poetry of Larry Eigner, the dedicatee of this poem and an influential late 20th century poet, but also in his physical embodiment of “thinking” poetry, over “speech-based projectivist” poetics. Eigner loved to use fragments of stripped-down observations to portray a “democracy of details,” as stated by Charles Bernstein, and this naked style of literature led Silliman to explore parataxis, an investigation of the hidden value of a blank space within poetry. Additionally, Eigner dealt with cerebral palsy his entire life, never spoke a word until his thirties, and could barely type using his right index finger and thumb. His transcendence of these physical constraints served as inspiration for Silliman’s poem.

For Larry Eigner, Silent” delves into an exploration of the idea of intent in nature and the written word. The striking, hushed details employed by Silliman in the first section of verse drew my attention instantly to this poem, especially with the subtle moments of motion in each detail (the pigeons “blink with intention,” and a “pipe/drips quietly/into the waiting bucket”). Silliman takes the reader on a stroll down the street, and points out these minuscule signs of nature’s intent, which he deems as a “guise of will.” Although they appear to be a depiction of nature’s will, they are essentially effortless, preordained patterns, destined to occur.

The next two sections baffled me, but I believe that Silliman means to examine the pockets of silence in literature, of not always filling up a poem with a strict intention. When one is unconscious, Silliman claims, “all evidence of palsy disappears, you yawn freely.” Even when one loses his wits, “stripped of furnishings,” he still has the potential to follow the natural instinct, instead of hanging dearly onto intent as the only means to convey meaning. In my eyes, it seems that Silliman attempts to discount the emphasis placed on intent in poetry, and tries to value the fresh, instinctual, natural aspect of writing in which meaning evolves from a presentation of pure detail.

I’ve discovered that it’s difficult for me to find a tangible reason supporting my love for a poem. To say that it’s instinctual is closer to the truth. The most inviting aspect of Silliman’s poetry is the organic way in which his words seem to unfold in their masterful simplicity and vividness. I don’t receive a sense of panting effort behind each phrase, which I can easily pick up from other poets.

Risk is the one reason that poetry hasn’t remained entrenched in ballad, sonnet, and epic form for centuries, so I’ve always looked up to those who freely experiment with form, such as Silliman, who shifts from free verse to prose. Silliman is known for his dislike of structured forms, as he once mentioned, “form is passion, passion form. Given forms (whether the sonnet or the Pound-derived projectivist mode) disinterest me since they are usually ways of shoving the language in a work aside.” The free verse section reads to me as more of a collage or compilation of observations taken from a walk down the street, while the two paragraphs of prose poetry act as insight into someone’s thought processes. Silliman also practices masterful enjambment, which emphasizes certain phrases such as “day, when it arrives/if it arrives,” and “in the basement a pipe/drips quietly.”

As I tried to grasp a sense of meaning from this piece, I began to follow threads of continuing imagery, such as the train station and the gradual loss of senses. The “concrete train station” appears in the first stanza and makes a reappearance in the second prose paragraph, which implies a sense of movement, or a farewell. The feeling of letting go then ties to the loss of physical faculties that starts with speechlessness in the first prose paragraph, when “speech is not a given” and the “tongue is infected.” Then, the wits start to slip away, as the house is left empty, “an object, alien, a machine,” no longer the functioning organism it used to be. I always love to trace these slim threads of continuity in any text, as I’ve found they aid in the revelation of a main theme.

Lastly, the dedication of this poem to Larry Eigner, as I’ve discussed earlier, is the glue binding this poem together. Silliman writes this poem to revere not only Eigner’s achievements in sparse, detail-oriented poetry, but also the physical and mental obstacles he had to overcome in order to have his voice even heard. This brings an intimacy to the words that further sweetens the poem.

Although I’m always searching for various types of merit in poetry when flipping through an anthology, the one aspect of literature to which I’m especially vulnerable is beautiful language. Instead of a streetlamp casting light on the sidewalk, it “dampens color” and is “thick as any oatmeal,” as “words” (sometimes, “worlds”),” hurtle through the night sky.” Throughout this year, I’ve been trying to move away from focusing on pretty language, but sometimes, I think, it’s okay to breathe in the beauty of words, and recognize the talent of those who can derive such pleasure from an endless pool of words.

Silliman once claimed that “language poetry arises out of an ‘exploded self.’” Surely enough, Silliman has weaved the rawness of pure human thought, sight, and wit into this poem, bringing the reader from the heartbeat of a city sidewalk to the struggle of wordlessness, to a cold emptiness, a hollow rattling in the mind, and lastly, darkness. To say that someone “can/write in the dark” is one of the highest forms of praise, because no longer can the writer use the five senses as crutches – he’s left with only his mind, his own bare-stripped thoughts, and somehow, this poem seems to be a reflection of just that.

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