Experimentalism as Reciprocal Communication in Contemporary American Poetry

John Ashbery, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman

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The poems of John Ashbery, Lyn Hejinian and Ron Silliman may seem to offer endless small details of expression, observation, thought and narrative which fail to hang together even from one line to the next. But as Elina Siltanen shows here, this extraordinary flow of uncoordinated detail can stimulate readers to join the poets in a delightful exploration of ordinary language. When readers take a poem in this spirit, they actually begin to read as members of a community: the community not only of themselves and other readers, but also including the poet and other poets, plus all the speakers of the language in which the poem is written. For all these different parties, that language is indeed a shared resource, and the way for readers to get started is simply by recalling or imagining some of the numerous kinds of context in which the given poem’s words-phrases-sentences could, or could not, be successfully used. The rewards for such proactive readers are on the one hand a heightened sense of the subtle interweavings of language and life, and on the other hand a freshly empowered self-confidence. The point being that, within the community of contemporary experimental poetry, poets have no more authority than readers. Rejecting older cultural hierarchies, they present themselves as teasing out the idiomatic serendipities of their own poems together with their readers.

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