On Ron Silliman’s Against Conceptual Poetry

. . . The name of
things is very important. The naming
of human intellectual work and our
entire intellectual record is possibly the
most important thing…. (20)

Ron Silliman’s Against Conceptual Poetry (Denver, CO: Counterpath, 2014) transcribes, into the reified form of expressive linebreaks, an oral interview that the former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, conducted with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2011. Schmidt and company wanted to interview Assange for The New Digital Age, which Assange went on to review in the New York Times, calling it “an expertly banalized version” of “the inexorable spread of American consumer technology over the surface of the earth” and a “blueprint for technocratic imperialism.”

What Assange says about The New Digital Age — “this isn’t a book designed to be read” — Kenneth Goldsmith has said about some conceptual poetry. Assange adds, “It [Schmidt’s book] is a major declaration designed to foster alliances.” To compare alliances today (those between conceptual poets, those between global technocrats) is to miss the point that there’s currently a split between the formal and the social both in poetry (as aspects of poetry) and between poetry’s formalism and the other social discourses. It takes a poet formed in 1960s revolt to want to reflexively mend that split.

Against Conceptual Poetry is one big wikileak into poetryworld. A must read, the “must” here is an ethical must. Silliman’s selected source text addresses the Internet not for its playground but for its politics. Assange is concerned with how the human historical record can be made to disappear on the Internet. By an act of disclosure (the Assange interview is disclosed as a poem), Silliman recalls one of the originating radical gestures of expressive politics transforming 20C poetry: D.H. Lawrence’s analogy of the painted church ceiling ripped asunder to disclose the chaos of the cosmos in infinite space – except here it’s not natural but social machinations revealed. Goldsmith, too, has noted that if as poet or artist you’re not present on the Internet then “you don’t exist.” But can poetry only mimic the present situation where the formal and social aspects of the poem are split, or can poetry change or at least reflexively address this situation?

Is Against Conceptual Poetry against conceptual poetry? Rather, the book urges us, as did Pound a century ago, to read beyond the literary field (the rough-cut quality and speed of thinking displayed in the interview would have appealed to Pound and signalled its overlooked importance). If we’re only arriving at Assange through poetryworld (i.e., through the book Against Conceptual Poetry), then we’re symptoms of the split and not diagnosing it.

Yet as with any conceptual poem that appropriates and repurposes source text, one may read Against Conceptual Poetry aslant, for what it says about and adds to poetry. A key question the interview raises is how to preserve, from online tampering, the integrity of the name – from domain name to proper name – and the “human intellectual content” intrinsically attached to it. In this context, Assange evokes for a reader the modernists’ desire for the thing: substitute his example of the name “tomato” for Pound’s example of “red” (in ABC of Reading) and Assange morphs into Fenollosa and Agassiz. Due to Silliman’s re-mediation of the interview – from an MP3 audiofile on the WikiLeaks digital archive to a poem published in print by Denver Colorado’s Counterpath Press – one sees Pound’s ideogrammic method as a parallel invention to Assange’s algorithm invented to digitally preserve the name’s intrinsic attachment to its content.

Of all the poets to emerge from the San Francisco poetry scenes of This magazine and the Grand Piano reading and talks series, Silliman is perhaps most sensitive to the ethics of the name as name of a thing in the world. A great tension in the Alphabet holds between word and thing, formal language and social world. Evoked at a foundational level, history’s records, the name’s integrity must be defended from false simulacra, because “as / soon as you have a nice / naming system, some arsehole is going / to come along and register every / short name themselves” (49). “Short names” range from the phrase “the US first amendment” to “Ron Silliman.”



This piece originally appeared in Issue 3.24 (Fall 2014).

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