Ron Silliman was born in Pasco, Washington, in 1946, and raised in Albany, California, north of Berkeley. He attended San Francisco State University, Merritt College, and the University of California at Berkeley between 1965 and 1970, but left in his senior year during the Vietnam War to perform alternate service as a conscientious objector to the draft.
While still in college, Silliman had poems accepted by many of the more traditional journals of the 1960s, including Poetry, TriQuarterly, Poetry Northwest and Southern Review. By the time he published his first book, Crow, in 1971, however, he had become part of a group of Bay Area poets that later became known as the founders of Language Poetry. Others in the group included Robert Grenier, Barrett Watten, Rae Armantrout, David Melnick and, as the decade progressed, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, and Bob Perelman.
Silliman's anthology, In the American Tree (1986), remains a primary resource for readers interested in this literary movement. His book of talks and essays, The New Sentence (1987), is reflective of Language Poetry's interest in critical self-examination. The book's title essay became synonymous with a resurgence of the prose poem, especially in longer formats.
Throughout the 1970s, Silliman worked in activist positions in non-profit organizations working with prisoners and inner city low-income neighborhoods. After teaching at San Francisco State University, the University of California at San Diego, and New College of California, Silliman became the director of development for the California Institute of Integral Studies, a position he held for several years before taking over as executive editor of The Socialist Review, one of the leading activist journals that emerged in the 1960s.
Since 1974, Silliman has been working on a single poem, entitled Ketjak. The title is taken from a Balinese chant performed by a circle of over one hundred men that reenacts a battle from ancient Sanskrit epic the Ramayana. Silliman's Ketjak project is composed of four works: The Age of Huts, Tjanting, The Alphabet, and Universe. With the exception of the book-length poem Tjanting (1981), each of the other projects is also a compilation of texts. Ketjak is also the title of his book-length prose poem published in 1978, which serves as the first section of The Age of Huts, and marked Silliman's emergence as a force in post-avant poetics.
Among his over twenty books of poetry are Crow (1971); ABC (1983); Paradise (1985), which received the Poetry Center Book Award from San Francisco State University; What (1988); Xing (1996); and Woundwood (Cuneiform Press, 2004). He is also the author of a memoir, Under Albany (2004), which was named a book of the year by Small Press Traffic. About Under Albany, the poet Charles Bernstein has said: "This constructivist memoir provides an exquisitely rich exploration of the relation of context to reference, subtext to meaning, back story to presented experience, and composition to poetics. All of Silliman's work unravels and reforms in this exemplary and exhilarating act of attention, recollection, and reflection."
In 2002, Silliman's interest in critical discourse by and for poets led him to create one of the earliest weblogs on the subject of poetry. Within three years, Silliman's Blog had received over 500,000 visitors for its daily examination of poetry, the arts, and contemporary society. Silliman is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, and the Pew Fellowship in the Arts. He has received a Pushcart Prize and been included twice in the Best American Poetry anthology series. Today, Silliman is a principal analyst with Gartner, Inc., the largest IT research organization in the industry. Since 1995, he and his family have resided in Chester County, Pennsylvania.