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  • Poetics, Polemic, and the Question of Intelligibility
  • Benjamin Friedlander

Why does a poet write a statement of poetics? What can readers learn from reading such statements? Rather than answer directly, I would like to turn my attention to “Wild Form”1 by Ron Silliman, a brief essay (1200 words) currently available on-line at SUNY-Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center.

Silliman’s title comes from a letter Jack Kerouac wrote to John Clellon Holmes, cited by Michael Davidson in The San Francisco Renaissance. A portion of this letter stands as the epigraph to Silliman’s essay:

What I’m beginning to discover now is something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story... into realms of revealed Picture... wild form, man, wild form. Wild form’s the only form holds what I have to say—my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory.... I have an irrational lust to set down everything I know.

Strangely, while Silliman does discuss, briefly, Kerouac’s phrase “revealed Picture,” he never again refers to the term “Wild Form.” Instead, shearing away the ragged word “Wild,” he focuses on “form as such,” beginning his account with the following statement:

Form is of interest only to the extent that it empowers liberation.

There are thus two openings to the essay—the epigraph from Kerouac (which gives a basis for the title), and Silliman’s own definition (which narrows the focus from “wild form” to “form as such”). In what follows, I want to address the connection between these two openings, in order to show how writers demonstrate as well as state their aims—in order to show, that is, the important role formal pattern and characteristic gestures play in the writing of poetics.

Silliman’s first paragraph, a single sentence, is direct and clear:

Form is of interest only to the extent that it empowers liberation.

Later statements elaborate on this notion. “Form is social,” we read, and also, “The purpose of the poem... is to change the world.” To some extent, these ideas echo Kerouac, who expresses a desire to escape “the arbitrary confines of the story.” Kerouac’s interest in form, like Silliman’s, is liberation, “an irrational lust to set down everything I know.” For Kerouac, however, at least as quoted in the epigraph, liberation occurs through the practice of writing—is aesthetic liberation. Silliman, though he never says so directly, appears to mean political liberation. Playing on a famous phrase of Marx, he enjoins poetry “to change the world.”2 Focusing on form as a social rather than an aesthetic phenomenon, he defines the poet as an agent of social change—a definition made plainer in Silliman’s 1989 response to Jean Baudrillard, “What Do Cyborgs Want?”:

The question confronting poetry is not what is the best poem, nor even the best poetry, but what are the social roles of the poem and how can these be raised to the level of consciousness so that the power relations upon which poetry itself is constituted become perceptible and vulnerable to challenge.


As a consequence of these intimations, the undefined connection between Silliman’s epigraph and first sentence partly resolves into an unspoken connection between two forms of liberation—one centered on writing as aesthetic object, the other on writing as socio-political act.

Adapting Silliman’s later comment on Louis Zukofsky, we might say that he begins the essay by offering two distinct interpretations of the meaning of the word liberation—liberation as “suggestion of possibility” (art), and liberation as “horizon or limit” (politics). Of course, in adapting this distinction between “suggestion of possibility” and “horizon or limit” to the opening of Silliman’s essay, I’ve overturned the priority Silliman himself assigns these terms. For Silliman, “suggestion of possibility” is clearly preferable to “horizon or limit,” at least as regards the work of Louis Zukofsky. As we shall see, however, this overturning of received hierarchies of value is one of Silliman’s most characteristic rhetorical effects. Indeed, more than a mere effect, this process of transformation is itself a value—perhaps the one underlying value of Silliman’s work.

For Kerouac, “form” is...

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