Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Lineation: Silliman’s New Sentence part one

The line only exists in relation to the before and after (Silliman, Tjanting 93)

Lines insert false time (Ibid. 86)

This is another sentence. Space is the same in all directions (Ibid. 82)

Margin types its own form. Each sentence is a test (Ibid. 82)

Earlier sentences, our old friend. (Ibid. 82)

The space was the last letter of the alphabet to be invented (Ibid. 90-1)


This flurry of comments on the nature of the relationship between line and space comes from Ron Sillimans long prose poem Tjanting (1981, re-issued Salt 2002). This work consists of a number of paragraphs each with a strictly limited number of sentences based on the Fibonacci sequence where the next number in a sequence is derived from the sum of the previous two numbers.

The poem is an example of what Silliman calls the new sentence, see his essay of the same name. The aims of the new sentence are a major challenge to the semiotics of lineation as I have been considering them over the last couple of months. The first aim is to make the sentence, not the line, the basic unit of the poem, which has the effect of dematerialising the poem, by which we mean it removes the semiotic materiality of the line-break so fundametnal to poetic practice.

In addition, it aims to limit and control the syllogistic process of prose which operates in the same way as the fibonacci sequence: you add together two propositions and from these attain a third which is conclusive of the other two. The only syllogistic movement allowed is between a sentence and its preceeding sentence, thus you are caught permanently in the horizontal seriality of this prose, ubale to step back and think in general. This last point limits the vertical movement brought about by line breaks, titles, and the poem end essential to poetics. Finally, the sentence is taken as a basic unit, primarily because it is the liminal space between the maximal unit of linguistic consideration, the phrase, and the minimal level of humanistic consideration, emotion or discourse. The sentence is too big for linguists and two small for the rest of us.

The new sentence aims to limit the scope of regard to two or three sentences at most, suggesting that “meaning” be resricted to this level and produce by torquing which means that equivalence comes not from the selection of words but from their combination, in other words meaning comes not from a decision made before the text, but from a spatial relationship established in the text. Sometimes I call this the hermenutic guarantee, that if you place two words or phrases together within a structure that presupposes relationship, for example close proximity, then relation and meaning will be generated. Silliman notes how the line break was the primary tool for torquing within poetry, and how in the new sentence it now exists between the full stop of one sentence and the next capital letter of the other.