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  • "There Is No Content Here, Only Dailiness":Poetry as Critique of Everyday Life in Ron Silliman's Ketjak
  • Andrew Epstein (bio)

In the midst of his 1978 prose poem Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps, Ron Silliman offers the following passage:

Tuesday, a.m. What, alarm, ceiling, clock, dull light, urine, toothpaste, blue shirt, jeans, water for coffee, bacon, eggs, soy toast, phony earth shoes, bus, another bus, typewriter, telephone, co-workers, salad, ice tea, more co-workers, bus, ambulance on freeway, another bus, a beer, chicken, rice and squash, today's mail, feces, TV, glass of Chablis, darkness.

(Age 298)

This appears to be a record of a relatively uneventful day: it moves, from the moment when the buzz of an alarm clock first stirs consciousness, through a litany of daily activities, such as brushing one's teeth, commuting on the bus to and from work, eating meals, using the bathroom, and going to sleep. Because the piece also happens to be an experiment in writing a poem completely devoid of verbs, it narrates the day's story solely through nouns, which results in a kind of list of things, objects, and small-scale events. The passage contains little one might think of as "poetic" or "beautiful"; the details of daily life remain rather defiantly untransformed, neither aestheticized nor turned into metaphor or symbol. The passage does not seem to be "about" anything, either, other than the day itself in all its dailiness.

Although it feels like a straightforward catalogue of what happens in the course of a day, the sentence also hints at some knotty aesthetic and philosophical issues that arise when a poet pays [End Page 736] this sort of attention to the daily. Reading this sentence, one might wonder if this is even "art." Is it heightened, transformed, or crafted enough to be considered as such? Can an experience so undramatic and banal be appropriate subject matter for art or poetry in the first place? If so, how should it be represented? Do the features of this particular experiment—reducing a day to a string of key nouns—actually provide us with a full record or representation of the day itself? What does this account necessarily leave out? Would a different form of representation offer a different or better version of it? Furthermore, the passage raises the question of what the most significant components of a so-called ordinary day actually are. Does this slice of everyday life have any meaning, and if so, of what sort? Could a close examination of these details tell us anything about what it is like to be alive in late twentieth-century American culture, or about the economic, social, and political structures that underlie it? Is there something "universal" about the kind of experience the passage describes? Or do different people in various times and places experience the everyday so differently that it is misleading to imagine it as a universally shared experience?

Since the 1970s, Ron Silliman has been consistently and memorably asking these kinds of questions at the heart of a body of poetry that has rightly been called an "epic of everyday life."1 Overflowing with images like "[t]he squeal in the tone of a clothesline pulley" (Age 29), "Ritz crackers topped with cream cheese and, beside them, Crayolas" (293), "[g]reen tint to the shit" (11), and "[a]bandoned industrial trackside cafeteria amid dill-weed stalks" (294), Silliman's writing returns again and again to "[w]hat is to be taken as no information, decisions we make each time we cross the street" (12). Convinced that we too often dismiss such aspects of the world as insignificant, as "no information," Silliman would seem to concur with the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, who argues that "everyday life" is "in a sense residual, defined by 'what is left over' after all distinct, [End Page 737] superior, specialized, structured activities have been singled out by analysis" (Critique 97).

Lavishing fresh attention on that which is "left over" is one of the primary motives of Silliman's writing. "I want to tell you the tales of lint," Silliman writes at one point in his long poem Ketjak, warning us...