Monday, June 05, 2006

In his address to the May 20 OlsonNow event at MIT, Ben Friedlander proposes that “Olson’s ideas were not static, but always in flux.” There is an important truth here, but. But. But it is worth noting that Olson begins his other great manifesto project, ”Proprioception,” in the exact same place he did “Projective Verse” some 12 years earlier, with the body. His body.

Physiology:     the surface (senses – the ‘skin’: of ‘Human
Universe’) the body itself – proper – one’s own
’corpus’: PROPRIOCEPTION the cavity of the body,
in which the organs are slung: the viscera, or
interoceptive, the old ‘psychology’ of feeling,
the heart; of desire, the liver; of sympathy, the
’bowels’: of courage – the kidney etc – gall.
(Stasis – or as in Chaucer only, spoofed)

         Today:     movement, at any cost. Kinesthesia: beat (nik)
the sense whose end organs lie in the muscles,
tendons, joints, and are stimulated by bodily
tensions (– or relations of same). Violence:
knives/anything, to get the body in.

To which

PROPIOCEPTION: the data of depth sensibility/the ‘body’ of us as
object which spontaneously or of its own order
produces experience of, ‘depth’ Viz


That passage is worth quoting at some length just because it does so position Olson: meat before mind. Olson starts from a phenomenological premise – that we can only know what our senses tell us (even as, in Maximus, what they so often tell us is about the historical record, the merest suggestion of connections). The animal – not yet even “I” – sees, hears, feels, smells, is aware but not yet conscious. If this wasn’t already apparent, Olson lays it out next, adding.

   ‘Psychology':   the surface: consciousness as ego and thus no flow
because the ‘senses’ of same are all that sd contact
area is valuable for, to report in to central. In

THE WORKING     spection, followed hard on heels by, judgment

   ‘OUT’ OF         (judicium, dotha: cry, if you must/all feeling may

‘PROJECTION’      flow, is all which can count, at sd point. Direction
outword is sorrow, or joy. Or participation: active
social life, like, for no other reason than that –
social life,. In the present. Wash the ego out, in its
own ‘bath’ (os).

That physiology and psychology both begin for Olson at the same place – the surface – can be no accident. Yes, it’s intimate division between self & other, here & there, fort & da, but it is also, or so Olson appears to be suggesting, something prior even to that.

Proprioception differs from “Projective Verse” in that it’s not an essay in any usual sense, but a book of notes – the sections quoted above are as normal as the prose writing gets here & several sections are simply beyond my ken with HTML to reproduce. Specifically, it’s a series of nine notes – what I’ve quoted thus far amounts to the first third of the initial one – all published in various journals (Kulchur, Yugen, Floating Bear) edited by the then-LeRoi Jones before being issued as a book in ’65 by Donald Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation. In the ten years that separate out “Projective Verse” from Proprioception, many things have happened to Olson: meeting Creeley (which he does right at the moment when he’s writing “Projective Verse”), the start of Maximus, his rectorship at Black Mountain College, the rise of New American Poetry generally, the dissolution of his marriage & subsequent partnership with Betty Kaiser, the publication of his first important books of poetry, the reissue of Call Me Ishmael (with an audience now assured for it), and the publication of The New American Poetry in May, 1960, where Olson’s position as the very first author seems absolutely intended as a signal that it is he, not Ginsberg, not O’Hara, not Duncan, not Creeley, but Olson who is the driving force behind the broad new aesthetics then rising up everywhere in American verse. It can be daunting to imagine the chutzpah of Olson writing “Projective Verse,” having at that point published just one book of poems, X & Y, and having just written a handful of the pre-Max poems (such as “The Kingfishers” and “The Praises”) after that. In 1960, Olson is unquestionably a central figure in American poetry.

Olson’s writing is different in 1960 as well. The propulsive, rapidly shifting movements that characterize both the early prose & early verse are in fact more calculated now. He still believes, as he writes, in “movement, at any cost,” but the writing is far less mimetic about it. If anything, that sentence fragment -- movement, at any cost – is a strikingly static way to put this. Or perhaps it is less anxious.

The other thing that immediately strikes me, reading Proprioception up against “Projective Verse” with some 40 years’ hindsight, is just how much more ambitious it is, as a program, than even that of its audacious forerunner. “Projective Verse” really had two primary moves, one to set out grounds for poetic practice, the second to frame that practice within the world. That Proprioception will go further is signaled here by an attempt, in the next small paragraph, to identify actively as a thing that which exists materially only as context, that space within our bodies between organs:

The ‘cavity’/cave: probably the ‘Unconscious’? That
is, the interior empty place filled with ‘organs’? for

This paragraph is atypical for Olson, precisely because it is so halting & open about its own uncertainty. He uses question marks, he cushions his claim with “probably.” Then, in the next paragraph – this on carries the sidebar title of “THE ‘PLACE’ / OF THE / ‘UNCONSCIOUS’” – Olson explains:

The advantage is to ‘place’ the thing, instead of
it wallowing around sort of outside, in the
universe, like, when the experience of it is intero-
ceptive: it is inside us/& at the same time does
not literally feel identical with our own physical or
mortal self (the part that can die). In this sense
likewise the heart, etc, the small intestine, etc, are
or can be felt as – and literally they can be –
transferred. Or substituted for. Etc. The organs.
Probably also why the old psychology was chiefly
visceral: neither dream, nor the unconscious, was
then known as such. Or allowably inside, like.

There is, I think, something very human – appealing to me in any event – in Olson’s desire to ‘place’ the thing, to render the Unconscious as an object, as such, that he might query it, study it as if it were yet another organ, rather than, in this folk physiology, the absence of organs as such. Again, Olson seems quite aware of just how much he is taking on here & repeatedly telegraphs cautions, that one not read this as too literal or fully baked – the use of etc, the reiterated Probably – and that almost Valley Girl final qualification, ending this assertion with the qualification like.