Recently, Ron Silliman was asked by the Poetry Society of America (PSA) to judge the William Carlos Williams (an award given out to a trade press published collection of poems).
Of course, even though having Ron Silliman judge was a good idea in retrospect, the ending result was absurd. Silliman, whose blog is the most popular source for contemporary poetics, is a great choice because of his popularity and willingness to select a work that one might consider “on the fringe” or “outside the box” (or whatever cliche for the unconventional could be employed here).
Well that is certainly what the PSA received. Silliman chose Aram Saroyan’s “Complete Minimal Poems”, most of which was written and published in the 60’s.
Saroyan is most known for poems that I wouldn’t even consider poems; they are more or less visual experiences (which is interesting in its own right, but how far can one take this? Hasn’t Saroyan taken it as far as it could go?). Now when I say “visual experiences” I’m not talking about Saroyan in the same way one might talk about ee cummings or Tristan Tzara’s work (both of which drew some kind of influence from Cubism). Saroyan’s most talked about work (though one can assume not many people would know anything about him if it weren’t for Silliman’s blog) is the poem:
Now this is certainly cool to look at and impossible to say. Conceptually it’s great, because between the “li” and “t” is the unsayable “gh” phoneme, not once, but twice. The poem is abysmal and that’s what makes it so interesting.
Back to the PSA’s WCW award. The absurd thing about this (and I’m drawing from Bill Knott’s blog on this same subject http://billknott.typepad.com/billknott/2008/04/20/index.html ) is that Saroyan wrote most of these back in the 60’s and is now receiving help from Ron Silliman to have them brought to attention. Poor Ron Silliman. For all his talk about the School of Quietude and the post-avant, he has succumb to the same power process he claims to rebel against. [For those that don’t know, the idea that an author selects a work for a prize based on merit alone and not for any other reason].
I don’t want to go so extreme and say Saroyan is entirely undeserving of this award, his poems do get us to think about poetry in a new way (certainly different from other “visual poets” like cummings or Tzara). The problem with Saroyan’s work is it is only going to be understood by a select few and thus it becomes just as inclusive as anything Silliman might attribute to the School of Quietude.
Also, on a note so unrelated note; if we take Silliman’s judgment seriously this allows us to see that Silliman is subverting the concept of the general “literary prize”; in a way Silliman’s judgment is more beneficial than what Zadie Smith pulled a few months ago denying an award to any of the work sent in for her to judge.