Wednesday, June 07, 2006

One of the interesting – problematic may be a better word – aspects of reading not just Charles Olson, but any poet of the last century on subjects that move even a little away from the realm of the close inspection of poetic texts, as such, is positioning – framing may be the better word – their arguments within the broader landscape of contemporary intellectual discourse. Read Ezra Pound after Marx, or even after a few issues of the Monthly Review, and you realize that Pound’s initial impulses weren’t so bad, but that addressing problems of justice through monetary policy requires a theoretical infrastructure so vast – precisely because you are so far from root causes – that the opportunity to go astray is huge. And Pound is sort of the test case to demonstrate just how far astray one might wander. There’s a viciousness in his radio broadcasts that registers just how maddening – I’m choosing my words carefully – it must have been to see his vision of the future coming asunder. And it’s no accident that his very best writing occurs next, at the moment when, living in a wire cage in a prisoner of war camp, waiting to be sent back to the U.S. for trial or possibly just taken out & shot, Pound is stripped of all his books & intellectual trappings, penning the Pisan Cantos literally on scraps of paper.

Similarly, I wonder how Olson’s Proprioception, specifically the title essay, three page outline that it is, might have proceeded had Olson ever read Althusser. Or, at the least, extracted from Althusser the concept of ideology as it is expressed in the essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)”. The question is bogus, at least partly, simply because Olson wrote Proprioception between 1960 & ’62, while Althusser first published his essay in La Pensée in 1970, very much as a reformulation of theory in the wake of the failed French revolution of 1968. Olson lived just two weeks beyond his 59th birthday, dying on the tenth of January 1970 – he never lived to read Lenin and Philosophy, really to absorb any of the material that would begin to flow forth in great quantity in the U.S. after the height of the anti-Vietnam war movement peaked in 1970 with the murder of students at Kent and Jackson State Universities. Olson may have, almost inadvertently, been among the first to coin the phrase post-modern to characterize the epoch then coming into existence, but if, for example, he knew of the “Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” conference held at Johns Hopkins in October, 1966, the iconic tipping point between the structuralism of the 1950s & the new world of Post-everything that this conference announced, I haven’t seen evidence.¹ Although the conference, whose speakers included Derrida, Lacan, Todorov & Roland Barthes (presenting “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?”), occurred just 16 months after the Berkeley Poetry Conference in which Olson gave his infamous lights-out marathon talk, by 1966 his critical writing is already largely behind him. My own impression, based I must say largely on my reading of Tom Clark’s gothic bio of Olson, is that his drinking ramped up significantly after Betty’s death in an auto accident in 1964. Beyond sketching out “A Plan for the Curriculum of the Soul” in early 1968, Olson will make no more major theoretical statements in his life. The productive core of his life – from the first poems in the late 1940s until the work begins to trail off in the late ‘60s, is just twenty years. Longer perhaps than the careers of Jack Spicer or Frank O’Hara, perhaps, but not very long.

Ironically, soul is exactly the word I wish Olson had had the opportunity to interpenetrate with Althusser’s conception of ideology. It is the third term in Olson’s dialectic, between physiology & the unconscious, and it’s the focus of the second half of Proprioception’s title essay. The sidebar to the next full paragraph beyond the one I ended Monday’s note with is: the soul is / proprioceptive. And is worth quoting further:

the ‘body’ itself as, by movement of its own tis-
sues, giving the data of, depth. Here, then wld be
what is left out? Or what is physiologically even
the ‘hard’ (solid, palpable), that one’s life is
informed from and by one’s own literal body –

What obsesses Olson here, the point if you will, of Proprioception, is that

which is what gets ‘buried,’ like, the
flesh? bones, muscles, ligaments, etc., what one
uses, literally, to get about etc

that this is ‘central,’ that is – in
this ½ of the picture – what they call the SOUL,
the intermediary, the intervening thing, the inter-
ruptor, the resistor. The self.

This key passage of Olson’s sounds like nothing so much to me as this:

ideology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it recruits subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or it ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: “Hey, you there!”

Which is the key paragraph in Althusser’s essay. In each instance, the intervening/interrupting thing at home in our identity is being defined as X, whether X is ideology or X is Soul.

This does not mean that I think what Olson is describing here necessarily is ideology, whether in the broad Althusserian sense (ideology is that which defines us) or the more narrow daily meaning (ideology as a political label). For one thing Althusser’s ideas themselves – like those of any of the major structuralist theorists of the past half century – are themselves deeply problematic, flamboyantly so in the instance of the French philosopher who later murdered his own wife and was at least as psychiatrically challenged as Pound, let alone Olson. But it would be of extraordinary use, I think, if we could read these twin conceptions – ideology/Soul – as partaking of one another, seeing what each might then tell us further about the other.

It is clear, to my eye at least, that Olson’s goal in identifying the Soul is construct a dialectic, as he literally says in the next paragraph, that the “gain” is

to have a third term, so that movement or action
is ‘home.’ Neither the Unconscious nor Projection
(here used to remove the false opposition of
‘Conscious’; ‘consciousness’ is self) have a home
unless the DEPTH implicit in physical being –
built-in space-time specifics, and moving (by
movement of ‘its own’)   – is asserted, or found-
out as such. Thus, the advantage of the value
As such.

Althusser himself has gotten to his essay on ideology immediately after one on dialectics in Lenin, quoting Lenin on Hegel as follows:

Thought proceeding from the concrete to the abstract . . . does not get way from the truth but comes closer to it. The abstraction of matter, of a law of nature, the abstraction of value, etc., in short all scientific (correct, serious, not absurd) abstractions reflect nature more deeply, truly and completely. From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice – such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality.

Olson rejects the unbodied presence of categories – his fascination with the details of historical record is just the surface of a deeply anti-Platonic nature, although it is interesting to see where in his system he puts this:

the three terms wld be:
surface (senses) projection
cavity (organs – here read ‘archetypes’)
unconscious the body itself – consciousness:
implicit accuracy, from its own energy as a state of
implicit motion

Identity,        therefore (the universe is one) is supplied; and the
abstract-primitive character of the real (asserted)
is ‘placed’: projection is discrimination (of the
object from the subject) and the unconscious is the
universe flowing-in, inside.

At one level, one could read Olson here as being part of a long chain – stretching out beyond Althusser or Henri Lefebvre & Lenin or Hegel, all the way back to Socratic method.² Yet these are largely disconnected discourses – even more so now than in 1970 in fact. If the rise of theory, specifically the rise of the continental tradition of the human sciences, so called, in the wake of the collapse of the left in the west after 1970, was part of a flow back into the academy of a generation of intellectuals who now used this thinking not just to try & understand what had so profoundly not worked in the late 1960s, but eventually also as an emerging professional language, focused not on understanding the world & changing it so much as on the more pedestrian goals of academic professional life, the long-term transformative potential of theory in the west was doomed from the start.

But if the banalization & bureaucratization of theory was in the cards as soon as the activists of 1968 began to realize that they needed tenure if they were going to raise families & have personal lives of their own, Olson’s own Curriculum of the Soul was never aimed in the same direction. He’d already lived the experience of Black Mountain College, which was – at once, as it only could have been – it proved both the most successful educational experiment in the history of the arts in America and a complete & utter disaster administratively & financially.

What would a Curriculum of the Soul for a post-theoretical age look like?


¹ The one poet I know who did attend the Johns Hopkins event was Bruce Andrews, still a teenager at the time.

² It is, after all, Engels who first discusses dialectics in terms of its (partial) roots in Buddhist practice, where it was a already a descendant of earlier Vedic thinking.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

I was asked to come & teach this summer at Naropa, specifically to talk about “dialectical materialism” as part of a weeklong unit on philosophy & poetry, an interesting proposition, and this is what took me back to Charles Olson. Years before, at a time when I’d been part of a study group in San Francisco on the general topic of Marxism & modernism, I had been reading Henri Lefebvre’s great Dialectical Materialism, a work written right on the cusp of the Second World War – the first publication was by Presses Universitaires de France in 1940 – and, quite by chance, happened to be reading Proprioception at the same time. At some point during those readings, it occurred to me that I was not reading two books nearly so much as I reading two instances of the same argument. "Proprioception," the title piece, is (or at least can be read as) dialectics for poetry. So when I got the invitation to go to Naropa this year – I’m there the last week of this month & first couple of days of July – my immediate instinct was to turn back to Proprioception & see how it stood up now, roughly two decades after I’d had that initial reaction.

The relationship of Proprioception – and Olson’s project on an even broader scale – to the question of dialectics makes an intuitive sense. First, the Lefebvre volume, written decades before the French philosopher became the critic of everyday life who inspired the students on the barricades of 1968, was published in English translation by Cape/Grossman in the very same series edited by Nathaniel Tarn that included the republication of Olson’s Call Me Ishmael & the initial release of The Mayan Letters. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the first four volumes in that series overall were Claude Lévi-Strauss’ The Scope of Anthropology, Call Me Ishmael, and two volumes by Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology, followed immediately with volumes by William Carlos Williams, Václav Havel & Nazim Hikmet (at a time when the latter two were almost entirely unknown in the West).

The Cape/Grossman series itself was as erratic as it was inventive – as I understand it, Cape Editions published in the U.K. volumes chosen by Tarn & those that were not already being marketed in the U.S. (like the Barthes’ volumes) got the “/Grossman” slip jacket added for import here, at least until, at some point after 1970, Viking Compass took over that side of the operation (which is how Viking came to publish Zukofsky’s “A” 22-23). Dialectical Materialism, no. 27 in the series, comes roughly midway between Mayan Letters (no. 17) and Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems (no. 38). Some of the other volumes that occurred during that particular stretch included Julian Huxley’s The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe & Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Francis Ponge’s Soap & Fidel Castro’s History Will Absolve Me, plus volumes by Alfred Jarry, Nicanor Parra, Louis Zukofsky, André Breton, Yves Bonnefoy, Georg Trakl, a volume by Lucien Goldmann, another volume by Lévi-Strauss, A Critique of Pure Tolerance by Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore Jr & Herbert Marcuse, and a second volume by Václav Havel. Nor was it any accident that when Harvey Brown published the Frontier Press edition of Williams’ Spring & All, the book was designed to mimic the pocket-sized Cape volumes. More important that who or what got published in the series is the degree to which it reflects one of the most important features of the decade, which is the miscegenation of ideas from different – often conflicting – discursive & professional fields. Just as both Marxism & Freudian analysis proved far more pervasive throughout a wide range of disciplines because neither had a “home church” in any given college department – Freudian analysis evaded the psych department by training its practitioners outside of the university system altogether – the range of possible codes that could be brought to bear on any given subject seemed at least potentially limitless.

One can hear the degree to which Olson himself internalizes this in how he describes the nominal subject of his epic poem. Far from being Russell Crowe in Gladiator, the historic Maximus of Tyre was, to use Olson’s own term for it, “a 2nd Century dialectician.” In a talk that he gave at Goddard College right at the end-point of composing Proprioception, Olson describes Maximus this way:

I mean this creature Maximus addresses himself to, to a city, which in the instance is, is Gloucester, which, then in turn, happens to be Massachusetts. That is Gloucester, Massachusetts. I’m not at all under the impression that it is necessarily more to Gloucester, Massachusetts, in any more meaningful sense than the creature is, either me, or whom he originally was intended as, which was a, was Maximus of Tyre, a 2nd Century, uh, dialectician. At least on the record, what he wrote, was Dialethae which I guess we have in the word “dialectic” meaning intellectual essence, or essays on an intellectual subject, and uh, he mostly wandered around the Mediterranean world from the center, from the, from the old capital of Tyre, talking about one thing — Homer’s Odyssey. I don’t have much more of an impression of him than that. I’ve tried to read his, dialethae and found them not as interesting as I expected. But he represents to me some sort of a figure, that centers, much more than, much more than the 2nd Century A.D. In fact, as far as I feel it like, he’s like the neighbor of the world, and uh, in saying that I’m not being poetic or loose, uh. We come from a whole line of life which makes Delphi that center. I guess, I guess I, can say that amongst you and still be heard. And this I think must be the kind of a theory that can at least be disturbed.

So Maximus means – or at least conveys at some level – dialectics, although as one wades through Proprioception, it is worth keeping in mind Olson’s other, rather off-the-cuff definition of dialectics: intellectual essence, or essays on an intellectual subject.

I’m not at all sure just how he might have dealt with the vagaries & limitations of HTML, but I am certain of this. Olson himself would have been a great blogger.

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.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Today this weblog will register its 750,000th visit. The readership here has been stable for roughly a year now, suggesting that it will reach the one million mark next February. I had not anticipated this when I started this venture, but I’ve been pleased at the result. Even more so by the quality of discourse about poetry and poetics that is taking place throughout the blogosphere on any given day. Poets using all of their critical faculties as well as all of their other senses position themselves to do their very best work, and it’s especially fortuitous when those same critical faculties don’t get sidetracked into the administrivia of university life. The great majority of poets don’t teach & aren’t students, although it’s a phase we almost all seem to go through, and one with major advantages for a time if only we don’t confuse it with the bigger picture. I know that I do my best work – writing and thinking – when challenged to do more, whatever that more might be. And I know that this weblog – raucous comments stream & all – has challenged me in ways I had not imagined when first I started it. Thank you for that.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Zoe Strauss: Detail I-95 (Camden Mattresses)


You only have until June 11
to catch the work of Zoe Strauss,
Philly’s hottest artist
in this year’s Whitney Biennale
in NYC,

But you can hear her on Sunday
discuss her work at
the Institute for Contemporary Art
1:00 PM

Though you’ve already missed
her annual one-woman show
held each year under the I-95 Freeway
at Front & Mifflin Streets.

She has a blog too
& received
a Pew Fellowship last year.

Zoe Strauss gives art a good name.


The 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize
has been awarded to
Sylvia Legris
for Nerve Squall


Pinoy penman visits Oz

This article deserves an award
for how well it contextualizes
two languages at once.


Carl Rakosi’s oral history
(PDF format)
is 244 pages long!


The new online issue of Action Yes
has an “Idaho Special” feature
well worth reading,

especially Catherine Wagner


See also Barbara Jane Reyes
in that same issue

& I love the way you can toggle
between translation & original
in Jen Hofer’s
rendering of Dolores Dorantes


Or go to VH-1
where you can watch all four of
Jim Berhle’s episodes
from the TV series
Can’t Get a Date.


Robin Kemp
tries to get my goat.



I have some new work
in the latest issue
of mark(s)
which goes live

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

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.