Monday, September 01, 2003

I’ve been mulling the idea for the past several days of whether or not to add these two last items to my list of “essential titles” for Peter Davis & I woke up this morning with a sense of certainty that they should be included.


Charles Olson, Proprioception & Henri Lefebvre, Dialectical Materialism

The first of these two volumes is the most schematic of Charles Olson’s critical writing, the second a translation of an early (1940, but written in ‘36) book by the French philosopher of everyday life. The first appeared originally as a chapbook in Donald Allen’s Writing series from Four Seasons Foundation, the second in the same Nathaniel Tarn-edited Cape Grossman series that first published Zukofsky’s “A” 22 & 23. The Lefebvre was not translated into English until 1968, Olson composed his series of notes in 1961 & ’62. Olson may have read or heard of Lefebvre, possibly through Tarn, but it’s certainly not a given.


I’ve joined these two books because it was their conjunction, rather than either one individually, that puts them on this list. I found myself reading the two of them more or less at the same time, scratching my head at Olson’s insistence that thinking takes place within the body, following Lefebvre’s attempt to rescue Marx for a western Marxism that was only then starting to emerge when it became clear to me, utterly & completely, that these two books were making, with different vocabularies & working out of radically different traditions, the same argument.


It’s an argument about the nature of knowledge & knowing, that the first can never be present without the second being simultaneously active, so that knowledge itself can never be decontextualized & certainly can never be static. As Olson puts it, “that movement or action is ‘home.’”


It is within Proprioception that Olson, so often characterized as the poet of voice & breath, offers his note on “Logography”:


Word writing. Instead of ‘idea writing’ (ideogram etc). That would seem to be it.


Olson goes on to situate the origin of phonetics in the function of naming. Whether or not this is good historical linguistics I couldn’t tell you, but what to me is the most fascinating side of this extraordinary process is the degree to which it reveals Olson as willing to pursue the consequences of his ideas even when it turns the poet on his head, right side up. There is an ambition within Olson’s critical writing that is never more overt than here, a confidence that the simplest focus on a particular, any given detail, how for example a word is sounded, can, if you just follow it out, take you anywhere, & that nothing in turn can be the restricted domain of the expert.


Similarly for Lefebvre, identifying a Marx that is the furthest thing from the static intellectual dictator than Stalinism sought to turn him into, a Marx that in the 1960s & ‘70s will become visible to those who begin not with Capital or The Communist Manifesto, but with the Grundrisse, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte & The German Ideology, transforms the role of theory within the political.


Finally, this leaves me with the question of what about all the other books, all the other titles that have similarly had a profound impact on me both as person & writer. Here, simply to acknowledge some, are a few that I have found very nearly as defining as any I’ve listed thus far: Rae Armantrout, Extremities; Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero; Walter Benjamin, Illuminations; Charles Bernstein, Controlling Interests; David Bromige, My Poetry; Clark Coolidge, Polaroid & The Maintains; Robert Duncan, Roots and Branches & Bending the Bow; Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited & Blonde on Blonde; William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying & Sound and the Fury; Lyn Hejinian, My Life; Roman Jakobson, Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning; James Joyce, Ulysses; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques; David Melnick, Eclogs, PCOET, & Men in Aïda; Herman Melville, Moby Dick; George Oppen, Discrete Series, This in Which & Of Being Numerous; Bob Perelman, 7 Works; Ezra Pound, The Cantos; Thomas Pynchon, V & Gravity’s Rainbow; Jerome Rothenberg (ed.),.Revolution of the Word; Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics; Gertrude Stein, Stanzas in Meditation & Tender Buttons; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus & Philosophical Investigations.