Sunday, May 20, 2007

Ron Silliman/Donald Davie/Do You Like My Drawing?

The mechanics of the "New Sentence" are as follows:

1) The paragraph [rather than the stanza] organizes the sentences;
2) The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument;
3) Sentence length [rather than the line] is a unit of measure;
4) Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity;
5) Syllogistic movement is (a) limited (b) controlled;
6) Primary syllogistic movement is toward the paragraph as a whole, or the total work;
7) Secondary syllogistic movement is toward the paragraph as a whole, or the total work;
8) The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader's attention at or very close to the level of language, the sentence level or below.

First of all, when Silliman asserts a desire to "control" the reader in order to keep their focus on the language, he takes for granted a certain kind of reader. Silliman's reader would navigate through a New Sentence labyrinth created by the poet's control of what Silliman calls "syllogistic movement."

Davie's imagined reader, on the other hand, is looking for something to "please" them. And if we argue--and we are arguing--that the nearest syntax to the New Sentence is Davie's "syntax like music," then Davie's imagined reader would be pleased by the New Sentence's "fidelity in which it follows a 'form of thought' through the poet's mind, but without defining that thought." But Davie discusses the "thought" as the "experience" of the poem. And, as I read it, the "experience" Davie talks about has to do with the complete thought of the poem, rather than the complete thought of the sentence. And a New Sentence poem, Silliman says, requires the sentence to bear the weight of any "experience" the reader might have since the paragraph is a unit of quantity and not of logic or argument. However, Silliman seems eager to dismiss the fact that when a reader sees a paragraph-shaped amount of writing, he immediately recognizes it as an argument. I don't think Silliman is out of line by asking for a smart reader who can set aside their preconceived notions of paragraphs, nor do I think Davie is out of line by asserting that a poem exists to give the reader "pleasure." However, Silliman does seem to require a lot from his imagined reader. Silliman expects the reader to bring tools to his poetry in order to withstand the "torque" of the poems.

This is a diagram of how I think the torque of a poem works, and what, exactly, the reader needs (click for larger image):

A "syntactic fulcrum" is what allows the reader to form "relationships" on the level of syntax rather than simply on the level of syllogism. The fulcrum is basically the analytical reader's awareness of how sentences are formed, and how grammar works in general. With a conscious awareness of these, the reader can then maneuver through the poem not only by contextualizing the signifiers in the poem, but also by contextualizing the various sentence structures in the poem. This dual-navigation of a New Sentence poem is only possible if the poet is just as fastidious as the reader. And this is what Silliman believes anyone who wants to write New Sentence poems should do.

Poems with "syntax like music" do not require this level of attentiveness from the reader, since the reader approaches the poem with the expectation that this kind of poem is arranged to form some kind of argument or logic. The reader only needs to be able to navigate the poem solely on the basis of its signifiers, because this kind of poem creates its own context.


Alex said...

this totally makes sense.

i love your drawing of torque.

K. Silem Mohammad said...

Out of all Davie's categories, "syntax like math" seems to me to be the one most parallel to the model of syntax appealed to in Silliman's account of the New Sentence. Rather than "following a form of thought" for the duration of the paragraph or paragraphs, New Sentence syntax introduces a different form of thought with each new sentence, and the pattern that is created thereby in the text as a whole is just that--a pattern rather than an argument. To the extent that the text superficially resembles an argument simply by virtue of being structured as a paragraph (and thus being associated with expository prose), one might say that it uses a syntax like music; but, to the extent that it continually blocks any movement toward apprehension of a coherent argument, it draws the reader's attention instead toward a repeated gestural cadence: the math-like iteration of the torquing of a discourse. The emphasis is thus on abstract design over emotive consistency.

K. Silem Mohammad said...

That passage from Silliman is totally misquoted (not your fault, but the web page you copied it from). Point 6 should read: "Primary syllogistic movement is toward the preceding and following sentences." Whoever transcribed it accidentally typed in the last part of point 7 twice, making it very confusing and self-contradictory.

Bryan Coffelt said...

Shit. That's what I get for blindly copying and pasting

K. Silem Mohammad said...

I almost made the exact same mistake tonight in preparing tomorrow's post for my online course. I cut and pasted it out of that same "Sentences in Space" review you must have got it from too, noticed the error at the last second, and then came across your post while searching for a correct version of the quote.