Silliman and the School of Quietude

The more I read Ron Silliman's blog, and the more he talks about the School of Quietude, the more convinced I become that Silliman himself doesn't know which poets are SoQites and which aren't. Granted, I think I know who is and who isn't tenured at the School of Quietude—Saul Williams, Arther Sze, and Bill Knott are; Anselm Berrigan, Joseph Massey, and Anthony McCann are not—and could be very much wrong. But now Silliman is allowing for what he is calling "Elliptical" or "Third Way" poets (unless he's being very sarcastic and I'm missing something) including such SoQ luminaries, and obvious ones at that, as Jorie Graham and C.D. Wright; I don't know what to make of that.

If Jorie Graham isn't the Headmistress of The School of Quietude, then I don't know that such a school exists as Mr. Silliman constructs it. What I do know is that one construction of the School of Quietude is that it is "those poets who hold the purse strings and tend to promote work that is familiar rather than work that is good." I'm paraphrasing obviously, but the point remains that some of the crap Jorie Graham has pulled over the years, and which has been outed on, has been very much a purse strings issue. If it's true that the School of Quietude is a sort of Cabal of crap poets who collude to stifle the new, it's completely irrelevant that her poetry isn't very good, and that my co-editor Eric Rosenfield once heard her say something to the effect that "it's necessary to read all of her poetry to understand one of her poems," at a talk (qualifying her for an entirely different taxonomy having nothing to do with poetry whatever). [Clarification: What I remember her saying was that you have to read all of her poems up to the point of the poem that you're reading to understand that poem. -ER]

Now, that having been said, it could also be noted that Silliman's post-avants have only countered this issue by setting up a secondary club. Granted, their membership restrictions aren't quite so severe. Still, you often need an MFA to be taken seriously, and we all know what I think about Creative Writing MFAs.

Generally speaking, I think that Ron Silliman is about as authoritative a voice as one is likely to find as far as surveyors of the poetry landscape goes. At the same time, I sometimes wonder if Silliman has any friends whose poetry he doesn't like, as the only poet who isn't in the SoQ vein I've seen him say anything remotely negative about is Kenneth Goldsmith. That having been said, he's often complimentary about poets like Frank Stanford who by my definition at least is about as dull an example to be found of what Silliman describes elsewhere as 70's SoQ, alternately "what APR was doing in the seventies" or the almost unbelievably difficult to understand term "Naked Poetry."

I say this as a writer for whom reading Silliman's "The Chinese Notebook" was a formative experience as I think I've noted elsewhere. Indeed, I think a poet in the 21st Century would have a good idea of where to get started after reading just that poem along with some selections from Tender Buttons, Frank O'Hara's "Personism Manifesto" and Andre Breton's Arcanum 17. That's some fine company to be in, even it is only in the estimation of a lowly lit-blog critic like myself. In the end, though, I think that Silliman must be taken with a grain of salt when he makes his assignments. The idea of a School of Quietude is a useful one when talking about American poetry. The danger comes in actually saying who those people are at any given time. Is it Billy Collins? Probably. What about Ted Kooser and Robert Pinsky? Most likely. Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham, Dana Gioia, and Glynn Maxwell? Sure, absolutely. But what about Phil Levine? Nikki Giovanni? Dean Young? David Lehman? Jerome Rothenberg? Paul Hoover? Where is the dividing line? I think it is only in retrospect that we can look out on a period of literary history and say with certainty that such a poet was serving the nefarious interests of the School of Quietude. I suspect that when we look back at this period some surprising figures will be seen as stamping down the jackboots of fiscal restraint on the projects of the avant garde.