Friday, June 02, 2006

When I read the sexist language in Olson’s “Projective Verse,” my instinct is to see Olson as a not-too-atypical male of his generation, chronologically positioned midway between my grandfather’s generation born in the late 1890s & my father who was born in 1927. He sounds like a case of testosterone poisoning & is no doubt the person intended by the rubric given to the macho side of the New American Poetics as the Wounded Buffalo School. Yet dismissing that language as a sign of generational ignorance – Zukofsky & Pound & Eliot all had their visibly patriarchal sides – and keeping in mind that the Allen anthology has just four women among its 44 contributors – is not too unlike dismissing the equally unmistakable anti-Semitism in Pound, Cummings, Stevens or Eliot. You do it at some risk.
You could also take exactly the other tack, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis did about ten years back in an issue of Diacritics, in an essay called “Manifests” that likewise close reads “Projective Verse,” but as a sexual text rather than merely one on poetics whose arteries are clogged with the prejudices of the time. It’s a fascinating alternate path into the work, informed externally by the discovery of Tom Clark’s – the real literary coup of his Olson bio – that Olson’s primary mentor in the post-War years before he met up with the chicken farmer from New Hampshire named Creeley was a book designer, Frances Motz Boldereff, with whom he had an intense & informing affair that he subsequently kept secret from very nearly everyone, so that it came as news two decades after his death. Reading Olson through the Boldereff correspondence, now quite thoroughly in print, reminds one of nothing so much as Olson’s own way of reading Shakespeare into Melville, the informing thesis of Call Me Ishmael. The cover of the Wesleyan University Press edition shows photos of Olson & Boldereff from the 1940s – his (from the same shoot as the photo I used on May 23, wearing dark shirt & tie) above the title, hers below. So far as I know, no photo of the two together was ever taken.
In that wonderful way she has in her poetry as well as her criticism of looking at an issue from all perspectives, DuPlessis doesn’t just dismiss the replete sexism with a sigh, nor throw Olson overboard for it, but uses it to interrogate Allen Grossman’s critical work, Summa Lyrica, which, in DuPlessis’ words “announces the force of poetics as ideology.” Nor does she stop there, but rather proceeds to read the text through the works of other recent theorists, including Deleuze and Guattari (there is that question of incest to deal with, after all, and, following Grossman, the whole oedipal ball o’ wax), Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous. But then DuPlessis does this both ways, reading them through Olson & Grossman. It’s a process that eventually will lead you to understand what DuPlessis means when she claims that “I don’t write ‘poetry,’” a tricky position to hold if you’re one of the best poets going, which she is.
Nor does DuPlessis let Boldereff off the hook. What does it mean for a woman to be a muse, to choose that role rather than put her own work forward for what it is? The answers aren’t simple, and they may not even be answers, certainly not in the “settled argument” sense of that term.
You can get DuPlessis’ essay from Diacritics if your library belongs to the appropriately named (for this discussion at least) Project Muse, a service whose sole function is to keep critical writing out of the hands of independent scholars and general readers, so as to maintain the two-tier (or more) system of authorities by which the tenured speak only to the tenured & tenured-to-be (they hope). Or you can wait until Blue Studios comes forth as a book, which I am told it shall, very soon, from the University of Alabama