Thursday, June 01, 2006

Charles Olson between
Robert Duncan &
Ruth Witt Diamant
San Francisco State
, 1958

Of the slightly more than 4,500 words that make up “Projective Verse,” 1,198 – just over one-quarter – appear in part II. Whereas the first part was devoted, both strategically & tactically, to poetics, II is concerned with the status of the poem in the world, as object & as knowledge:

Which gets us to what I promised, the degree to which the projective involves a stance toward reality outside a poem as well as a new stance toward reality of a poem itself. It is a matter of content, the content of Homer or of Euripides or of Seami¹ as distinct from that which I might call the more “literary” masters. From the moment the projective purpose of the act of verse is recognized, the content does — it will — change. If the beginning and the end is breath, voice in its largest sense, then the material of verse shifts. It has to. It starts with the composer. The dimension of his line itself changes, not to speak of the change in his conceiving, of the matter he will turn to, of the scale in which he imagines that matter’s use.

I myself would pose the difference by physical image.

It sounds as if Olson is about to head into Williams’ machine-made-of-words territory, but, even tho what he will say eventually leads to the idea, first voiced in Spring & All, that poems are objects as additions to nature, this isn’t the path Olson will take to get there. Instead, Olson makes what is decidedly the oddest detour in this essay, distinguishing – or trying to – what he’s after from an Objectivism that he patently seems not to understand or know. 1950, it is worth remembering, is the absolute nadir of Objectivism, 19 years after Louis Zukofsky coined the term to justify his gathering of the younger poets of the Pound-Williams tradition into Poetry. Late modernists who were, for the most part, Marxists or fellow travelers, the Objectivists were at odds with the vulgar poetics of the so-called New York Intellectuals (who would, in fact, be morphing soon enough from their lightly held Trotskyism into becoming the base for the first wave of the neoconservative political movement). And the Objectivists were – with the notable exception of Basil Bunting (a notable exception on many counts, working as a British spy in Persia) – quite apart from the expat culture of the high modernists in Europe. During the 1940s, virtually all had stopped publishing. Some had stopped writing. In an age where books were far harder to come by than they are today, when the idea of Googling a source wasn’t even fathomable, Olson’s characterization of Objectivism as opposed to a simplistic School of Quietude confessionalism that had, in his terms, “excellently done itself to death, even though we are all caught in its dying,” is understandable, tho hardly accurate & more interesting for what it projects onto Zukofsky et al than as an analysis of that poetry.

After the better part of two paragraphs on the topic, Olson finally turns toward his point:

For a man is himself an object, whatever he may take to be his advantages, the more likely to recognize himself as such the greater his advantages, particularly at that moment that he achieves an humilitas sufficient to make him of use. It comes to this: the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence. If he sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself, and shall sing, nature has such paradoxical ways, by way of artificial forms outside of himself. But if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share.

It isn’t the poem as object that Olson here is after, but the poet. Olson is very much proposing an ecological vision of human activity, just one species among many. And his argument is not that it will be good for the planet, but rather good for the poems, because the poet will be closer to a world of species & artifacts, each of which has, as Pound might have put it, its virtue. There is more to this than just the idea that your dust bunnies are keeping secrets from you, or that animations like Toy Story are right, at least in spirit. And this is where he begins to sound very much like the William Carlos Williams of 1923:

And by an inverse law his shapes will make their own way. It is in this sense that the projective act, which is the artist’s act in the larger field of objects, leads to dimensions larger than the man. For a man’s problems, the moment he takes speech up in all its fullness, is to give his work his seriousness, a seriousness sufficient to cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature.

To give his work … a seriousness sufficient to cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature. This is almost Spring & All verbatim.

But Olson’s ultimate goal – and this is worth thinking about in a man who stood at 6’9” & must have weighed somewhere in the vicinity of 300 pounds – is size:

But breath is man’s special qualification as animal. Sound is a dimension he has extended. Language is one of his proudest acts. And when a poet rests in these as they are in his proudest acts. And when a poet rests in these as they are in himself (in his physiology, if you like, but the life in him, for all that) then he, if he chooses to speak from these roots, works in that area where nature has given him size, projective size.

It is projective size that the play, The Trojan Women, possesses,

Olson reiterates, ticking off his three examples – the other two are Homer & Zeimi’s Nōh play, Hagoromo, all of which bear the notable stamp of Ezra Pound.

Nor do I think it accident that, at this end point of the argument, I should use, for examples, two dramatists and an epic poet. For I would hazard to guess that, if projective verse is practiced long enough, is driven ahead hard enough along the course I think it dictates, verse again can carry much larger material than it has carried in our language since the Elizabethans.

This is a man who has, in 1950, not yet come to know the work of Robert Creeley, who would seem to me absolute proof that scale is not the issue, regardless of what Olson would do with Maximus, a project that Olson began this same year, or what Duncan might do a 15 years or so hence with Passages.

But Olson cannot stop here – he has to turn in yet another direction to pick a last fight, with the plays specifically of the poet then known best for writing works of drama: T.S. Eliot.

Eliot is, in fact, a proof of a present danger, of “too easy” a going on in the practice of verse as it has been, rather than as it must be, practiced.

Olson concedes that he likes Eliot’s line, especially in early works like ”Prufrock.” But,

it could be argued that it is because Eliot has stayed inside the non-projective that he fails as a dramatist — that his root is mind alone, and a scholastic mind at that (no high intelletto despite his apparent clarities) — and that, in his listenings he has stayed there where the ear and the mind are, has only gone from his fine ear outward rather than, as I say a projective poet will, down through the workings of his own throat to that place where breath comes from, where breath has its beginnings, where drama has come from, where, the coincidence is, all act springs.

That is, I think, an interesting, even curious, place to end such a piece as this manifesto. It shows Olson the neurotic as well as Olson the theorist. Had he in fact had more the courage of his convictions, he might instead have turned his attention elsewhere, skating, as Wayne Gretzky puts it, to where the puck will be, rather than where it seemed at rest mid-century. As powerful as Eliot was as an organizing figure, especially for the School of Quietude in this country, in 1950, his reputation had virtually nowhere to go but down, and that’s a slide that has been almost entirely uninterrupted now for more than a half century. Far from being the central figure whom one has to position in order to have a theory that proposes to accommodate the whole landscape, he now is a footnote, someone who produced some raw footage that Pound edited down into something akin to a fine flarf fugue.

It is too soon to consider, in 1950, what the New Americans might produce. For all purposes, they hadn’t at that point. But if only Olson had known the Objectivists, had thought more historically about their absence at that moment in history, and actually read the work, “Projective Verse” might well have had a much more interesting end. Admittedly, Olson’s disinterest in Zukofsky, even 15 to 20 years later, appears to have been match only by Zukofsky’s disinterest in Olson. But there has to be more to it than the fact that one was the most anal retentive poet in existence & the other his absolute polar opposite. For, tho Zukofsky does not rely on Olson’s folk physiology, what work at mid-century better poses itself as the test case of Olson’s thesis than “A”?


¹ Olson is referring to Zeami Motokiyo, 14th & 15th century Nōh master, one of whose works, Hagoromo, or Robe of Feathers, was translated by Ezra Pound & Ernest Fenellosa, Jo Kondo’s recent opera for which was recorded in 2002 by the London Sinfonietta, Paul Zukofsky conducting.