Tuesday, May 23, 2006


There is a hinge of sorts in Charles Olson’s argument in “Projective Verse,” and I’ve learned over time that one should pay close heed to these moments. When Olson, having laid out his three simplicities and his claim for the importance of breath, concludes

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.

Olson then moves, instanter as he would say, to this:

Let’s start from the smallest particle of all, the syllable. It is the king and pin of versification, what rules and holds together the lines, the larger forms, of a poem.

What Olson does not say here is that breath – that which flows in vowels & abrupts or grinds in every consonant – leads to, causes, or otherwise inscribes the syllable. Indeed, that isn’t where Olson is going in “Projective Verse” at all. In the final phrase of that previous paragraph – the acquisitions of his ear and the pressures of his breath – it is the ear to which Olson will pin the syllable, not the breath.

King and pin of versification: it is worth keeping in mind that Olson does not appear, here or elsewhere, to have seriously studied linguistics, for the syllable hardly is the “smallest particle of all,” but rather is a construction – one whose architecture is always evident – out of such truly smallest particles, phonemes. One-syllable words are themselves most often marvelous schemes of conjoined phonemes, so that it is rare to find one – I, oh, possibly you – that is coterminous with a lone phoneme. Be, after all, contains two.

Olson’s perception of the syllable has a historical dimension –

verse here and in England dropped this secret from the late Elizabethans to Ezra Pound, lost it, in the sweetness of meter and rime, in a honey-head. (The syllable is one way to distinguish the original success of blank verse, and its falling off, with Milton.)

– but it is not the historical that principally concerns Olson here, so much as the dynamics of the syllable in sounding the poem:

It would do no harm, as an act of correction to both prose and verse as now written, if both rime and meter, and, in the quantity of words, both sense and sound, were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable, if the syllable, that fine creature, were more allowed to lead the harmony on.

Leading the harmony on, because

In any given instance, because there is a choice of words, the choice, if a man is in there, will be, spontaneously, the obedience of his ear to the syllables. The fineness and the practice, lie here, at the minimum and source of speech.

This is an argument for melopoeia over logo- and phano-, Pound’s old troika, and worth considering, especially when one thinks of that branch of Olsonian post-Projectivists (Paul Metcalf, say) who envisioned The Big O as permission for a logopoetics of the archives. Again, tho, we note that return to the idea of syllable as “the minimum” and – this is new and troubling – “source of speech.”

But to those who would let the syllable lead the harmony on, Olson issues

this warning, to those who would try: to step back here to this place of the elements and minims of language, is to engage speech where it is least careless – and least logical.

The idea that the least careless should also, at the same moment, be the least logical is worth thinking about. Even as he clumsily wades through his homegrown linguistics, Olson here echoes Jack Spicer’s Martian radio, insisting on the importance – and formal inclusion – of some aspect of the irrational:

For from the root out, from all over the place, the syllable comes, the figures of, the dance:

After which colon, Olson inserts an unattributed quotation identifying etymological sources for common English one-syllable words that propose more weighty philosophic dimensions, such as “’Is’ comes from the Aryan root, as, to breathe.” From folk etymology, Olson moves very rapidly to folk physiology (the ellipses in what follows are Olson’s):

I say the syllable, king, and that it is spontaneous, this way: the ear, the ear which has collected, which has listened, the ear, which is so close to the mind that it is the mind’s, that it has the mind’s speed . . .

it is close, another way: the mind is brother to this sister and is, because it is so close, is the drying force, the incest, the sharpener . . .

it is from the union of the mind and ear that the syllable is born.

The mind chooses what the ear hears – that seems to be gist, that there should always be this privilege. But what is most fascinating here is the metaphoric family invoked by Olson in which the king is born of brother & sister. Which in turn makes me very curious about that list at the end of that second paragraph: the drying force, the incest, the sharpener . . . To my mind, that is perhaps the most mysterious single sequence in all of Olson’s writing. Trying to figure out not only how ear & mind are siblings & equals (having thus to resist my own instinct that what Olson calls the ear is always already a part of mind, just as is recognition of shapes & objects in sight – there are no innocent senses beyond the age of what? three?), but also how those three cognitive domains include one another or at least overlap.

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