This study argues that Ron Silliman’s Alphabet, an intricate series of book-length poems published during the last three decades, forces readers to analyze connections between form and content. While many contemporary critics have examined Silliman’s overall formal constructs, this study focuses on sentence construction—especially on the poet’s manipulation of grammar and syntax, his unique punctuation and spelling, and his reliance on indexing—in a number of The Alphabet’s early poems. These subversive formal practices constitute the textual practice of parataxis, which Silliman implicitly describes in his critical work The New Sentence as the underlying formal logic of “new sentence” poetry. I argue that Silliman’s employment of parataxis creates spaces from which readers may uncover and describe multiple narratives. These narratives reflect and expand Silliman’s concern with social issues.
The analytical movement in this study reflects its title: I document the formal innovations in the poems that constitute parataxis and open spaces for narratives, and then reach conclusions regarding the works’ suggested critiques of certain social and political practices in late-twentieth-century America. The poet, whose activism is well documented, implicitly asks readers to assume an active role in illustrating those critiques. The poems covered in this study—Albany, Blue, Carbon, Demo, Engines, Force, Garfield, Hidden, Ink, Jones, Lit, Manifest, Non, and ®—suggest critiques in several areas where the effects of these practices have been particularly damaging: the environment, technology and new media, academia and publishing, and education and politics. More fundamentally, these poems interrogate the use of language itself; language, after all, motors the social and political practices to which Silliman’s work responds. As the study’s final chapter argues, Silliman’s work is important—and fosters democracy—because it can create the conditions through which active readers can become active, questioning citizens. In responding to his poems, readers are given the platform to articulate social and political narratives. Their articulation comprises a central component of democracy.
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