Monday, May 22, 2006


Breathe, say all manner of meditators. Tho he was obviously interested in the work of Carl Jung, it’s hard – impossible – to envision Charles Olson, all chain smoking, chain drinking six-foot-nine of him, sitting Zazen. Olson is nothing if not the antithesis of the stereotype of the mellow Zen acolyte dressed in natural fibers, nibbling tofu with chopsticks or else engulfed in the presentness of inhaling, then exhaling, with no further agenda than being here now.

Yet no other poet of his generation – or any other, for that matter – has so directly connected poetry to the physiological process of breathing itself. Listen to him, in 1950, writing in his most famous essay, ”Projective Verse”:

If I hammer, if I recall in, and keep calling in, the breath, the breathing as distinguished from the hearing, it is for cause, it is to insist upon a part that breath plays in verse which has not (due, I think, to the smothering of the power of the line by too set a concept of foot) has not been sufficiently observed or practiced, but which has to be if verse is to advance to its proper force and place in the day, now, and head. I take it that PROJECTIVE VERSE teaches, is, this lesson, that that verse will only do in which a poet manages to register both the acquisitions of his ear and the pressures of his breath.

It’s worth keeping in mind where precisely this fits into the logic of Olson’s poetics. He’s concerned here with defining what he alternately calls Projective or Open verse or Composition by Field, “as opposed to inherited line, stanza, over-all form, what is the ‘old’ base of the non-projective.” Which is to say that Olson is very much proposing this as a poetics of all that is alternative to the School of Quietude, a claim that both empowers and limits his argument, ultimately (e.g. Olson will thus write prose poetry out of his picture, regardless that it is equally opposed to “inherited line, stanza, over-all form”).

From which foundational claim – this will account for all that is anti-SoQ – Olson then proceeds to stake out what he calls “simplicities that a man learns” – his language is hopelessly sexist – “if he works in OPEN,” this phrase never to join up with an ultimate noun. The “simplicities” are, as I read them, three underlying dynamics, true of all poetry (or so he claims), the second being the most famous, Creeley’s dictum: “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.” But the first, what Olson calls “the kinetics of the thing,” includes an actual definition of the poem:

A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself, must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy discharge.

This is one of the most overlooked claims in the recent history of poetry, given just how much attention has gone to other parts of Olson’s project, and to all the work by others (not just Creeley & Duncan, say, but virtually everyone who came in contact with any of the three Projectivist musketeers). The most important single word here, I swear, is the simplest: Okay. Olson’s prose, not unlike his verse, perpetually twists & turns, rushing propulsively forward, often sounding quite breathless in the process. This one word interjection is exactly not that. It’s a pause, a punctuation, an emphasis. He wants us to take that claim in: A poem is energy transferred.

What does he mean? Why must the poem, at all points, be an energy discharge? This is a far cry, actually, from Pound’s dichtung = condensare. Until you consider that condensare just might be a necessary compacting process required to amp up the voltage so that energy is maximized through pressure. Olson very carefully declines to define this energy – we know only that it will have some several causations – nor to tell us, here at least, how this pseudo-electrical current gets from writer to reader.

Then, after Creeley’s dictum, comes the third “simplicity,”

And I think it can be boiled down to one statement (first pounded into my head by Edward Dahlberg): ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.

This, it is important to note, is antithetical to the traditional rules of exposition. Olson is not only arguing for a particular mode of writing, but against another, in this instance the sort of thing that could be crafted into an outline, converted into a series of topic sentences, then laid out in an orderly, but definitely hierarchical structure. Olson’s argument is the absolute opposite of such hierarchy. The only moment to consider is neither the proposition at the start of the argument, nor the conclusion at its end, but rather now. In this way, Olson again anticipates the present-centered strategy of a whole host of Eastern practices, even tho, the advice he then gives, as consequence & example, sound about as unholistic as one might get:

get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split-second acts, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen.

That sense of constant & frenetic motion is a characteristic of Olson’s writing, even as, with that articulation of the third simplicity, the adverbial phrase IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY keep Olson’s key verb phrase from immediately & directly completing itself. One might think of this, as David Saffo suggests in the latest issue of H_NGM_N, as a rhetoric for phenomenologists.

It is impossible, to my ear at least, to see that term, simplicities, without hearing Olson’s words elsewhere, in “Maximus, to himself”:

I have had to learn the simplest things
last. Which made for difficulties.

Olson actually calls his “simplicities,” “the dogma.” This is the set up for the first of his claims “inside the machinery, now, 1950, of how projective verse is made,” which leads us directly to Olson’s claim for breath.


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