Monday, June 19, 2006

Never one to leave his bibliography to the end, Charles Olson uses the fifth of his nine pieces in Proprioception to a reading list. Or, more accurately, a list of names, date March 1961 “with / acknowledgements to / Gerrit Lansing.” The title of the piece is “Bridge-Work,” the bridge being

fr the Old Discourse to the New

Italicized by Olson, immediately characterized as “men worth anyone’s study,” and (with two exceptions) the names that follow are all boys. Some of these names are well enough known – cultural geographer & longtime Berkeley professor Carl O. Sauer, mystic Aleister Crowley (of whom Olson writes, “?: particularly his / book on the Tarot”), Pound’s favorite Fenollosa, Edward Carpenter (mentioned as being “Whitman’s friend” & then as “Eileen Garrett’s / teacher,” tho it is unlikely that many now will recognize the name of this once famed medium), and early linguists – post-Saussure, pre-Chomsky – Edward Sapir & B.L. Whorf.

Some of the names are less well known today: Andrew Lang was a collector of folk tales and early anthropologist, tho like Crowley & Garrett he was also a popular author on psychic phenomena. Olson notes, next to Lang’s name, “on hypnagogic vision, / as well as trans. of / Homer.” Hypnogogy is a term for the drowsy consciousness that often precedes sleep and one finds a many references to it on sleep disorder sites, but Olson here must be alluding to its use identifying trance states.

Lang is not the only translator of Homer on this list. Victor Bérard translated Ulysses into French as well as authoring other works on a wide range of subjects. An historian of antiquity around the turn of 20th century and an authority on ancient trade routes, Lenin is known to have read his Britain and Imperialism. Fenollosa was of course a translator as is Edward Hyams, who also wrote a work called Soil and Civilization that argues – in a proto-Jared Diamond sort of way – that some civilizations have been destroyed through poor soil management practices. G.R.S. Mead translated the Gnostic text, Pistis Sophia.

Cyrus Gordon was a Bible scholar, the first Jewish one to get a teaching job at a U.S. university, the lone contemporary of Olson’s on the list. But to call him a Bible scholar places him too narrowly. During his career, he taught Egyptology, Coptic, Hittite, Hurrian, Sumerian and classical Arabic. Another scholar of antiquities, L.A. Waddell, is the author of The British Edda, tracing Anglo myths back to their origins. Waddell has become something of an important figure in the reading of the White Aryan Brotherhood and other neo-Nazi groups in recent years.

At first glance, this seems like something of a bizarre list, mixing the history of antiquity with early anthropology and linguistics and mysticism. Pointedly absent are two names one often hears in Olson scholarship: Carl Jung & Alfred North Whitehead, each of whom proved to fit more comfortably in the academic canon than many of those on this list, with the possible exceptions of Mead, Sapir & Whorf. Sapir, it is worth noting, goes first in Olson’s list, followed by Carpenter, Sauer, Lang & Mead.

What are the threads that bind this roster of 14 names – 15 if we include Homer – together? One obviously is anthropology, a second ancient history, a third linguistics, the fourth the psychic dimension. My sense is that Olson is reasonably in touch with anthropology as it stood in the early 1950s, interested in that part of linguistics that could reasonably be expected to be of interest to poets, eclectic and not necessarily orthodox in his sense of history – it seems almost hit and miss there. And for this X-files dimension? Tarot, séances, trance states – there’s more than a little Fox Muldur in Olson.

I’ve noted here before that Olson’s own death in 1970, combined with Robert Duncan’s 15-year hiatus from publishing books, a self-enforced silence that began in 1968, precipitated a major shift in American poetics, one that I think is most visible looking at some of the publications of the time, such as George Quasha’s Active Anthology, which came out in 1974 – still recent enough to have previous unpublished pieces in from both Olson & Paul Blackburn. In addition to the Olson’s own work, many of the pieces here have or touch on aspects of this same spectrum of alternative reality. Armand Schwerner dedicates his “Bacchae Sonnets” to Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche “with love.” Ted Enslin’s excerpt from Ranger touches on the teachings of Don Juan, on Popocatapetl and Ixtaccihuatl. Chuck Stein offers a poem entitled “Vajra – Guru – Padma – Did – She.” Editor Quasha offers “The Sufi Singer” as well as some sections from his Somapoetics. Anselm Hollo & Jonathan Greene both have poems with the word dream in their titles. Nathaniel Tarn has his Lyrics for the Bride of God. David Meltzer has poems that he terms “amulets.” Richard Grossinger presents an excerpt from The Slag of Creation, Frank Samperi an excerpt from The Kingdom, Ed Sanders offers a “Prayer for the Unity of the Eye,” dedicated to ”my friend Horus.” Robert Hellman & Spencer Holst both offer works with the word Magician in the title. Even John Giorno chimes into the theme here with an excerpt from Suicide Sutra. Indeed, Buddhist scholar Rick Fields has a poem entitled “Realm of the Gods.” And Chögyam Trungpa himself has four poems in this one-short anthology. None of this may seem exceptional if we take each piece by itself, each contributor by him- or herself. But across a field of 65 contributors – 55 men, 10 women¹ – the impact is unmistakable. Olson was just one key part in a broader field of poetics that was deeply spiritual, but not at all within the orthodox Judeo-Christian frame.

This disappears in the 1970s almost completely. And my test of this is to look at the poetry of Robert Kelly, in particular, from the 1960s and the same poems from that era that he chooses now to include in various contemporary selected works. It’s not that he’s rejected his worldview, I think, so much as he may feel that the more secular poems travel better across time.

I’ve also written that I that what took the place of mysticism and the wisdom traditions in American poetry in the 1970s was theory, specifically continental theory of the structural & especially post-structural kind.

But Olson’s death & Duncan’s hiatus are, I think, the hinge events in that transition – as they were the two people who really could have made that larger dimension cohere. The one other poet of like mind & similar stature, Gary Snyder, was far too much of an isolato to have the same effect. Allen Ginsberg was too caught up in too many other things to focus on just this one.

This I think makes a section like “Bridge-Work” particularly difficult for a younger reader today to grasp. What may at first glance appear completely daft in Olson’s interest in séances & Tarot was by no means exceptional at the time he wrote this.

And it’s interesting to see, in the sixth section of Proprioception, the seven “hinges” Olson proposes, specifically “of civilization to be put back on the door,” where Olson addresses questions of the secular & divine fairly directly. It is precisely this balance point I see at work in these “Hinges.” The first is a reconsideration of the dating of what Olson calls “original ‘town-man,’” which Olson wants to push back; the second, Indo-European, where Olson wants to connect the Bible to Hittite, Sumerian & Canaanite texts of the period, as well as

roots:                     the linguistic values of Indo-
          European languages, the
          original minting of words
          & syntax

Throughout, Olson is trying to connect these “hinges” not to our time (or at least his), but precisely in the opposite direction:

[as in other hinges of the direct line, there
is an advantage to the leaping outside as
well as connecting backward: for example
American Indian languages offer useful
freshening of syntax to go alongside

This same backward motion appears again in the third Hinge: “to turn the 5th Century / BC back toward the 6th” – to the right of which runs a vertical list: “Heraclitus / Buddha / Pythagoras / Confucius.” It’s not that Olson wants us to proceed backwards through history, but rather an insistence that whatever is new not displace the old, thus (Hinge # 6):

the 17th [Century], seen as the brilliant secular it /
was, without the loss of alchemy etc
it unseated

leading finally to “the 20th, release fr / both the 18th . . . & 19th, the new progress of / Marxism,” to which Olson concludes by appending the most straightforward statement in all of Proprioception:

otherwise the present will lose what America is the inheritor of: a secularization which not only loses nothing of the divine but by seeing process in reality redeems all idealism fr theocracy or mobocracy, whether it is rational or superstitious, whether it is democratic or socialism.

A secularization which ... loses nothing of the divine. Not an either/or, but a both/and. This would seem to be where Olson has been aiming all along.


¹ It’s interesting to see this 6.5-to-1 ratio in 1974, a moment when langpo elsewhere already had brought the difference down to 4-to-1, a distinct – if still too short – step toward the parity we have routinely 30 years later.