prolific writer of poetry and criticism since the early 1970s, was one of the founding members of the San Francisco-based language poets. As a Language writer, Silliman's poetry resists what fellow Language writer Charles bernstein calls "official verse culture" (6) and instead is in the tradition of 20th-century American avant-garde poetry.
Born in Pasco, Washington, and raised in Albany, California, Silliman has spent most of his life on the West Coast, especially Berkeley, California. He received his B.A. from Merritt College and did graduate work at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to publishing more than 20 books of poetry and garnering many accolades, Silliman won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1979.
Like most Language poets, Silliman is concerned with linguistic problems of representation and reference. Focusing on the relationship between the signifier (the material word itself) and the signified (what the word refers to), Silliman creates writing that treats the materiality of the word, the signifier, as the heart of all meaning-making activity. Silliman claims that the signified has dominated conventional understanding of language, and he associates that dominance with capitalist oppression. He asserts that highlighting the signifier raises a reader's consciousness by illustrating a change in the mode of language production from a capitalist mode, which creates an illusion that language is transparent, to a materialist mode, which calls attention to the language production itself; this change is a form of opposition to capitalism.
To achieve these ends, in The New Sentence (1987), Silliman proposes a form of writing that treats the sentence as the fundamental unit of textual meaning. Consequently much of Silliman's creative work consists of mosaiclike prose poems without syntactic links between sentences.
For example, Tjanting (1981) is a book-length prose poem that contains one apparent non sequitur after another: "A plausibility. Analogy to 'quick' sand. Mute pleonasm. Nor that either. Planarians, trematodes." Although the reader might guess at associative meanings, there is no necessary meaning or narrative beyond the material words themselves, leaving the reader with an opaque, and problematic, relationship to the words on the page. Furthermore the poem's predetermined form (each paragraph has the number of sentences of the previous two paragraphs added together) constrains meaning and exposes the mode of poetic production. The question remains as to whether this difficult writing makes a difference politically; still Silliman's poetic application of the "new sentence" marks a significant innovation in late 20th-century poetics that has challenged the conventional ways that poems convey meaning to their readers.
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