Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Rob Stanton has some follow-up questions.

Dear Ron,

Huge thanks for your thorough and thoughtful blog-response to my query about Engines. I think I was hoping that you might say something more about collaboration in general, just as you did - the proliferation of poet/poet and poet/artist collaborations in the current poetic climate is something I find particularly fascinating (just thinking about examples you mention, I recently read - and loved - Leningrad, and the idea behind The Grand Piano seems both interesting in itself and strangely inevitable). I was intrigued that you picked "A"-24 as a possible precedent - I too feel distinctly ambivalent about whether it really does 'cap' "A" (and whether that sort of 'terminal' idea was tenable in the first place). In a sort of sentimental way, I think it does - making semi-actual the scene envisioned in "A"-11: music, words and performance. Apart from that, the nature of the collaboration in "A"-24 seems particularly complicated: firstly, there is Celia Zukofsky's work in setting Zukofsky's words to music, then there is the actual presence of Handel's music (suggesting a Handel/Zukofsky interaction, mediated by Celia), and then there's the question of whether the four 'voices' of Zukofsky presented actual represent a unified 'whole' (one of the joys of that Factory School site is the recording of the 'live' version organised by Barrett Watten*).

Given your point about how collaboration provides an opportunity to sidestep and/or interrogate the 'raging control freak' aspect inherent in an individual 'style', I was also interested in your mention of 'the metabolism of one's own processes'. I'm not sure to what degree you intended the biological inference, but this immediately put me in mind of Olson's repeated emphasis on the physicality of the poet/m. I've always felt that his talk about the individual 'breath' of the poet was strangely close to mainstream whitterings about the necessity of 'individual voice' etc., despite the very different poetic 'ends' advocated. Is 'self' inevitable in poetry? Does the inevitable communality of collaboration offer a real alternative, or does it simply place the problem at one remove (I hate to admit it, but despite the efforts toward some kind of group expression in Leningrad , I found it hard not to 'see' differing styles in the separate passages)? Or, to put it another way, if the problem with most mainstream poetry is the foregrounding of 'unified self' as end rather than mean, is all poetry simply somewhere along a sliding style of degrees-of-leaning-on-personal-experience? (I've been reading The Prelude recently and have been intrigued by the incredibly arbitrary and piecemeal nature of the Wordsworthian 'epiphany' on a larger canvas.) You've written of 'the abstract lyric' before in your blog in relation to the work of Barbara Guest, but is such a thing 100% possible?

Anyway, this has been a horribly rambling email. Apologies in advance, and thanks again.

All the best,

Rob Stanton

The question of the person, in Olson or in collaboration, is invariably a difficult topic, precisely because works are written by individuals, either singly or in groups, & yet we know that “the individual” itself is a complex & internally contradictory construction. If we follow the cognitive scientists and neurobiologists, one of the first things we will discover is that, even within the human being, there is no “monad,” no single site of thought or language. Rather, different portions of the brain work in conjunction to apprehend our world & build responses to it – many of these occur below the level of consciousness & outside of our waking life.

When Olson first began to produce the poems for which we remember him today in the late 1940s, he actually appears to have been almost the only poet in the United States to demonstrate any awareness – more anticipation than knowledge, really – of these issues. In his “Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn,” first written in 1955, one year ahead of Ginsberg’s Howl, Olson notes that “millennia . . .  & . . . person”

are not the same as either
time as history or as the
individual as single

The first three pages of “Proprioception,” written six years later & easily Olson’s most ambitious & successful critical project, show O working through this problem, this question, at great length. He is so concerned with place that he is driven to find such, somewhere. Proprioception itself, kinesthesia, one’s awareness of the actual physical rubbing together of one’s inner organs, the growl of the stomach & peristaltic pulse of the bowels, is for Olson a key, an awareness that precedes any other mode of knowing – “I am I because my little gut knows me.” The body for Olson is the place of the unconscious. The “soul,” an entity with which Olson was much obsessed, proved to be profoundly physical. Projection – the meat of his practice as a writer, a (literally) Projectivist poet –

is discrimination (of the object from the subject) and the unconscious is the universe flowing-in, inside.

Maximus, this great comic persona that both is & is not Olson – and most certainly is not Russell Crowe – represents O’s attempt to have it all ways. And while Olson is most certainly not the only poet among the New Americans to push the person beyond its traditional boundaries & unveil the constructedness of such “natural” categories – think of Kerouac’s “Imitation of the Tape” in Visions of Cody, Burroughs’ use of cut-ups in Naked Lunch & The Ticket that Exploded, Spicer’s theory of Martian radio – Olson appears to have been the only one to have had a critical understanding of the question, as such.

So, sure, there is a fair amount of persona floating about Maximus that is not so terribly different in its own way from the imaginary blue-collar worker Phil Levine posits in his “I.” The self in such poetry is largely a type, & I always think of the stereotypical signals thereof worn by the ‘70s rock group The Village People: you can tell which one Levine would have been, though I fear that may be Olson under the feathered headdress. Bly’s serape, Blackburn’s cowboy hat & Duncan’s purple cape were hardly more subtle. Yet it’s Olson, among all of these, who understands not only that it’s funny, but that there are issues here, & as such worth exploring.

That “worth exploring” is, I think, the answer to the question of whether or not “self” is finally inescapable. It will always be, like “the social,” one possible horizon among several, regardless of how nuanced our understanding of its composition might become. After all, how far have we advanced in this regard from Shakespeare’s Lear, responding with a quartet of words that operate like a series of concentric circles, moving from the outer inward: Edgar I nothing am? The same response – worth exploring – is, I suspect, also the underlying principle beneath the continued attraction of the abstract lyric, even if I personally find the issue less compelling. The answer to Stanton’s question’s isn’t ultimately so much why as it is why not?

 * For some reason, the Factory School site fails to credit Bob Perelman, though my understanding is that it was Bob who initiated this collective process in the first place as well as substituting his piano for Handel’s harpsichord. In my video copy of the November 15, 1978 San Francisco State performance, it is Perelman whom Poetry Center director Tom Mandel has introduce the event in addition to his performance therein.