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book cover: photo of Huidobro by Arp

Book cover: photo of Huidobro by Arp

Jason Harmon

Looking from A to A:

«Altazor» and «the Alphabet»


Perhaps surprisingly, Vicente Huidobro and Ron Silliman are connected. What connection can Language have with the literal embodiment of creacionismo prior to WWII? The inescapable influence of both poets for the avant–garde in their respective milieus is considerable, achieved with intrepid facilitation & delicacy, an influence founded on experiment, risk and prodigious production. Both changed the language. Huidobro and Silliman were fascinated with the limits of language and emphasized the integral role of the eye in their poetry. Looking points the way to their development and choices. Each poet relentlessly asks, what do we see, why is it important, and how is this examined? Can what we see be represented in language? What would be necessary in order to do so? Will new methods be required? Assuredly. To trace looking in Silliman and Huidobro, comparing the Alphabet and Altazor, or A, voyage in a parachute could occupy years, but a few draughts are here hazarded.

Ron Silliman, photo by Jeff Hurwitz

Ron Silliman, photo by Jeff Hurwitz


Before cracking the spine, notice both titles use non–standard capitalization to emphasize the A. Huidobro includes Z in the nomenclature. Allusions are made to Zarathustra within Altazor, and can this be surprising from a poet who believes god must be created (in order to exist at all)? Silliman crafts the Alphabet, nearly a life’s work, in the abecedarian. the Alphabet is comprised of 26 books with titles from A to Z, ranging from the very short to the relatively long, the entire project weighing in at 1062 pages from Albany to Zyxt. It is not hard to immediately recognize that both have an abiding interest in concrete and vispo, which applies to language by way of the alphabet. This is one entry point to consideration of the eye and how it deciphers the world.



Huidobro and Silliman both have an interest in the physicality of text. Although visual design may not be a primary element, their work is informed by it, for example, by an association with Geoff Huth for Silliman, and Apollinaire for Huidobro. José Quiroga mentions the “early calligrammes” of Huidobro where “words and text are concrete objects.” Silliman’s choice of Huth’s work for the cover of the Alphabet is not coincidental. Daniel Balderston confirms that although Huidobro “did not proceed much beyond Apollinaire in his use of visual elements in poetry … [he] once exhibited versions of his poems written in several colors of ink in an art gallery.” Later exposition of the technical and strategic variations within Silliman’s work will be an aid to show that he is very interested in visual concerns and how to challenge and explore what they eye perceives.


“Eye” appears 25 times on two pages of Altazor (83, 85). That is, if you don’t count iris, see, retinas, etc. This does not appear to be accidental language play, although it is ecstatic. Eye mirrors the “ai” in the preverbal end of the last Canto. Also perhaps the I — does this translate — the vowels certainly do, the actual sounds: ojo, eye, I, ai — are vowel full. It is hard to overemphasize how crucial and in the variety of ways eye is used:


maddened eye (55)
The fire that burns my inner coals and the alcohol of my eyes (33)
The sun rises in my right eye and sets in my left (35)


Huidobro places creation into an inverted religion that creates god, and does so with vision, vision that must depart, must move in and around what’s real and spill it out. There is no one else who could or would have done it, or at least it might be safe to believe Huidobro would not disagree.


Silliman dwells in joy and diversion, the escape into and out of the tension between image, eye and world, inner and outer. Description and still life are his continual renewal.


Language is . . . / polis is . . . eyes (the Alphabet 979)
gasping and blinking the water from their eyes (978)


Silliman asks, or I do reading the Alphabet: poetry of image? How many kinds could there be? Is this infinite interiority, or the swirling basis that is or may be thought; is image cosmos, Meta, or under layer? Do we see science of logic or philosophy or love? Any of these may or may not be linguistic, & if they convey image, void flutters into or out of our way. Huidobro reaches into his bag of tricks to speak to Silliman more than half a century later: “All is fickle in plain sight” (Altazor 113).


A voice that brings sight to the attentive blind
The blind hidden in the basements of houses
As if at the bottom of their selves (49)


Then, “the sailboat that sets out” keeps the motion going the rapid continuation of misdirection, not in the sense of going elsewhere, but reformulation, transformation “transformed into birds,” visualization, and imagery. The exposition of linguistic exploration into the heights, into what we can see, into what we can figure — “Everything turns into an omen.”


The exaltation of dragging the heavens down to the tongue (all 49)


This procedure ties mysteriously to a still life backbone. We may find some variations on the effects of description, in the technique, in the basis of the visual as such, but the departures are as eloquent as the eyes.



This seems an interesting point to transition to the inevitable verbal exploits of these visually, weirdly obsessed artists of language.


Here begins the unexplored territory
Round on account of the eyes that behold it (Altazor 101)


We find with Huidobro in Canto III, long sequences of verbal play, a fine example of which concludes with an “etc.” — after continuing for roughly a page. A traditional poet might continue with the sequential technique of identifiable pattern for a couple lines then cleverly look away and return for balance with an echo later (like an abstract painter working with a dominant shape might put a little hint elsewhere in the composition). This is soup–can–upon–soup–can. A bold announcement announces the creation and the creator. Huidobro seems to ask, “Who else could do this beautifully?” Here is the pattern: Verb–nounA–like–nounB, Verb–nounB–like–nounC, Verb–nounC–like–nounD:


Play a heliotrope like music
Empty music like a sack
Decapitate a sack like a penguin
Cultivate penguins like vineyards… (71)


Huidobro explores verse with couplets, prose, free verse, preverbal clamor, song, myriad formal experiments, pages of exemplification & derivation of kind of mills (190 or so sequentially), long flowing stanzas of falling, flying, swimming, loving, delving, and battling. Canto III displays a general tightening of form beginning with couplets, physically near the middle of the work, after language has had his way with him and vice versa. Canto III is a shorter Canto.


For everything is as it is in every eye
Glances will be rivers (69)


I get tired (almost) of all the eye references. But a sequence like this wakes all but the most somnolent.


When I light a cigarette
What happens to the other cigarettes that came on the boat? (83)


All of this play in Canto III binds to Silliman, who thrives on audacity, with perpetuation of what would be dropped, long after anyone in his right mind would have let it go. The continual inventiveness of staying with it, the shot that doesn’t cut, the long take — if say for an hour in poetry time in terms of Huidobro, more like 24 hours for Silliman. Didn’t Warhol leave a shot of the Empire State Building that ran for 8 hours straight, which of course leads one to think of Monet’s experiments with light, which leads to other things, what it leads to is surely different (deferent) for every reader — this is how they tie, the beginning of how they tie together, Silliman and Huidobro.


This may perhaps be said of both, but certainly, one valid way to read Silliman is @ random. By way of exposition, here’s a chunk:


blank slate of drive–in screen
in dry weedy field

           tiny flags on hill
simulate poppies
as possible art piece
             offshore, by context
hidden in the head (496)


The section is composed of somewhat traditional non–punctuated stanzas with the possible exception of indentation (to open up white space), piled up visual observation, with non–connecting visual fragmentation that doesn’t cohere (ever), a smooth even, discrete comprehensible accumulation, that is contrapuntal by way of different “types” of statements. A flow certainly, but not one that adds. Please note: each part is not inaccessible. The double negative serves because Silliman can, like all experimentalists, be a little unsettling at first, until one can sit down, perhaps over time, and give the work a real chance. Then, the Alphabet becomes surprisingly reachable.


any rhythm defi(n)es sentiment
               when will this pen
come to life

transit’s glory is another story
white sun shimmers in the solid sky (497)


How can such avant–garde work be so grounded, accessible and demanding all at once? It looks around and sticks to its guns formally, but is not so critically difficult as to loop out of intelligibility. Is this also creacionismo? Language coming to life must needs doing so as language? It would be interesting to compare the natural world of the two.


The multiple meanings of words are at play, accidents of sound, accidents of letters colliding, in the eye ?




Also surrealism — the juxtaposition:


under that flesh / the one with the jolly center (498)


Imagine — a script adaptation! Could it be watched sequentially, doubtful… more like a music video channel, come back to it on the commercial, see if it’s something you like, stick with it until the microwave bleeps. The text is so slowly panoramic the effect verges on static, “gasping and blinking the water from their eyes” (978).


For formal variation take a quick flip through the Alphabet. Find lines with no stanza breaks, free stanzas, formally rigid stanzas (in sets of 12 lines), prose with no breaks, paragraphs in sentences of 12, couplets, poetry of looking at the sky and describing it, poetry of looking at the ground and describing it, bolded words perhaps meant to be read as separate poems within the poems that contain them, but a remarkable commonality — the sensibility of the sentence holds together.
For Huidobro it is the line.


All the languages are dead
We must revive the languages…
with circuit breakers in the sentences (75)


No punctuation, signified & signifier seems to have their own wild life, “Astral gymnastics for the numb tongues.” How does Huidobro zor, or soar, Altazor perhaps translating as high, or soaring, hawk? Translation is interesting, Huidobro seems to say; we play formally. What could be more worthwhile: “And cataclysm in the grammar” (75). Also how do the interior drifts invite the reader to play and still surprise & depart to disjointed associations?


Huidobro’s LINE: each is more or less complete, very little enjambment; tight structure makes punctuation superfluous except where needed for meaning. Are these breaths? Into surrealism — liberation of words to wherever they sound best, who knows exactly why.


Burst in the mouth of motorcycle diamonds
In the drunkenness of its fireflies (75)


For Huidobro, research and randomness informed by verbal play “from sign to sign” with anaphora “The tomb opens:”


The tomb opens and in its depths we see a line of icebergs
That sparkle in the searchlights of the storm…
The tomb opens and in its depths we see the bubbling nebula blinking on and off…
The tomb opens and a bouquet of flowers in a hairshirt leaps out (111)


Huidobro is looking, and looking into, more Romantic than Silliman. But he holds with Romanticism that skews to fusion of the vanguard movements of the early 20th century (Dunshee). It is not hard to notice verticalism, surrealism, collage, and cubism. Silliman and Huidobro both oddly juxtapose — linguistic, personal, and confrontational. They explode & expose what they touch, what they see.


Ana Pizarro paraphrases an early manifesto of Huidobro:


a) We must break with the “poetry of reproduction” of nature …
b) to create an independent work that has a distinctive architecture.


“And since we must not kill ourselves (Altazor 75),” what then? This has been thought through: “The simple sport of words (75).” Is this A. or H.? Is this explanation or continuation? Do we read it as detective or hedonist? Do these little asides bring us back in?


Total severance of voice and flesh at last (76)



Silliman recommends What ( the W of the Alphabet) as a place to start reading his work:


… Politics
of the lyric, absent
individual, absent voice.
Shadow of a gull passes
over the green stucco wall. (764)


Notice punctuated short lines carried by the sentence, which carries itself:


A crow large as a gull
glides to its landing
at the center of
the apartment complex lot. (764)


Who is being spoken to? The eye? The I? The you? What is between the I and the you? Who doesn’t see the effect this sentence creates? Who hasn’t felt it? But then who writes this (kind of thing) down? What narrative is being carried? How does it loop back and connect? Is there any syllogistic structure, any arc possible in discrete, observant statements? If no, what does this imply? Certainly, the method is formal; “A short line / makes for anxious music. Not breath / but civilization.” or “We’re just in it for the honey.” “At each transfer point, glimpse how lives / weave past. A woman with an interesting book / in her purse which I pretend not to see.” (747)


Sentence after sentence after sentence without a single stanza break through the whole length of What. The sentences carry from 749 to 860, again, as a single left–justified stanza. The lines vary in length, some as short as two letters, and there are two indentations, which does vary the white space, so that is like: clouds rolling, or perhaps days, the aging process? I am not sure I would ever sit down and read it through, but who knows? A more extreme example by far would be Day by Kenneth Goldsmith (and others), so perhaps this would be light in comparison. However, the joy of the Alphabet, taking it as it is, opening it up where the page falls, is exquisite.


Or, as my distilled reading of Canto IV in Altazor replies to Silliman on our behalf, “What is this but language?” “scooping”, “souping”, “seeping”, “sleeping”, “swoop” & “wallow” (& variations on), “horizon”, “monochronic”, word blur, neologism, appropriation of (its) sounds to form others that cohere, dazzle, drift and envelope through timing, rhythm, “swallowing (89)” — Huidobro & Silliman answer each other, they riff, they have a nice dialogue and agree to meet again later but never do.


“Cosmically outrageous… greet me Bees rats… Rivers and forests ask me / What’s new how are you?” “It will be through my voice that they speak to man” “Lord god if you exist you owe it all to me”


Antipoet (35)

The seismographs register my passage through the world (33) *


* See later work by Raúl Zurita which is literally poetry on seismographs. The emphasis on the jagged visual seems to stretch between the heights that Altazor drifts from very aptly.

If one were to start


If one were to launch a paper on Silliman, his influence is so widespread as to be hard to describe:


blog + Language + American Tree + sentence + the Alphabet + readings + spokesperson


Intimidating, but also inviting. Perhaps best in little doses over time. Tone: formal analytical experimental thoughtful funny. How is he funny? This what ties all to any, a way in, also a way out.


Let’s not think too hard about this. Weave in and out a few pages where it counts and structure holds. Does every sentence have its own turn? Silliman uses a mechanical term, torque. That works. Not even a before and after or exterior but built in. Yet the placements are propitious. Don’t get so serious.


Huidobro is the only extant poet of creacionismo — trilingual — connected — rambunctious. Perhaps the relative lack of influence in America speaks more harshly of us than it does of him. I wonder if he would have cared.


Each writer has the feasibility of opening @ any point, like a video running in an art museum, interesting, beautiful, and rarely does one have the slightest intention of “finishing.” Does finishing really seem plausible in these works? The overall artistic “aim” seems to be incapable of fulfillment (at least linguistically, in the sense that quest, experiment, innovation, seeks an unknown form from a formal place), at least to state: this isn’t a detriment. Join me here for a while, the work says. Literally flip around. Doesn’t the eye do this with an inverted image on the retina? For each poet, why string these observations in this way? I wouldn’t counsel answering the question right away. Huidobro has beauty of thought and association through language, a master who forgot the rules but is kind enough to mention a few in passing and is human enough to hang onto those he can’t let go of and doesn’t want to.


For one last tribute to the connection between these two immanent figures, Eliot Weinberger, Altazor’s translator, gets explicit mention in the Alphabet:


                                    if only Eliot Weinberger
                                    had married Carl Andre

                       How do you say “asshole” in Dutch? (348)

Works Cited

Balderston, Daniel. “Huidobro and the Notion of Translatability.” Fragmentos. 1 (1990)

Dunshee, Adam. “Vicente Huidobro’s Creacionismo.” Fall 2001

Huidobro, Vicente. Altazor, or A, voyage in a parachute. Trans. Eliot Weinberger. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

Pizaro, Ana. “Creationism VICENTE HUIDOBRO And its origins.” Mapocho. V, 18 (1969)

Quiroga, José. “Vicente Huidobro and the Kingdom of Paper.” Latin American Literary Review 39 (1992): 36–52

Silliman, Ron. the Alphabet. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2008.

–—–. “Monday, March 05, 2007.” Silliman’s Blog.–always–found–critical–writing–to–be.html

Jason Harmon

Jason Harmon

Jason Harmon has previously published or has poems forthcoming in Can We Have Our BallBack?, Jacket, The Argotist Online, BlazeVox, and The Bathroom. He attends Spalding University MFA program and works as a Systems Analyst.

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