Friday, June 09, 2006

Is it possible to produce a quality anthology of poetry on a single theme? More dreadful collections of poetry have been organized around the idea of the thematic than anything else, it would seem. Weddings, cancer, jazz, baseball, relationships with our mothers, relationships with our daughters, cats – a quick search on Amazon turns up six different anthologies of poems for or about cats, tho none that I could see by them. If it’s a noun, chances are it has an anthology of poems dedicated to it. Don’t even get me started on anthologies about Iraq, migration, nuclear disarmament or African debt – any anthology of the thematic is really a book about cats.
Mark Lamoureux knows this & has decided to up the ante some by requiring his new collection fit into the space of a chapbook, one generously filled with illustrations at that. And the noun he has chosen is decidedly at an angle also, as the title underscores in its wording: My Spaceship. The illustrations come from a black-and-white coloring book Lamoureux had as a kid – apparently he never colored it in!
My Spaceship is both a thematic anthology, as a result, and a send-up of the form. Precisely because Lamoureux isn’t the sort of guy to do anthologies on Corgies or faeries or childhood illnesses, the work herein is, shall we say, different:
When Mars Was A Candy Bar

I saw Captain Video
Scale the heights of Pluto,
But it was Al Hodge
Crawling across the studio floor.
Tree people, ray guns, machines
Arriving on God’s celestial shores.
I saw Flash Gordon,
The swimmer Buster Crabbe,
Battle Ming the Merciless
Space ships the size of light bulbs
Filmed in shoeboxes.
Sputnik soared over the Danbury Fair
I met Gus Grissom’s girlfriend
My name rhymes with orbit
I write in the name of my brother
Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.
Thus Bill Corbett. There are some really great works throughout this tiny collection: Jill Magi, Eileen Tabios, Catherine Meng, Noah Falck & Jon Leon all have terrific pieces here. I’d never heard of Magi or Falck before, so that is real plus. And if I don’t quite hear Christopher Rizzo’s piece, if Maureen Thorson’s couplets go limp after the third one (with 11 more yet to go!) or Scott Glassman only proves that what Bruce Andrews does is really much harder than it looks, that’s just the price you pay for organizing around a theme, even here.
My real quibbles – and I have some – have to do with design. The header typeface is Imazeng & mostly demonstrates why you should not buy your fonts from somebody who calls himself Pizza Dude – it is semi-legible at best & only the “cheat” of a table of contents in Zia Gera permits me to know that Steven Roberts really has work in this issue. That is, however, more than I can say about Nathan Pritts, whose name is left off the table of contents altogether.
So this pamphlet isn’t a home run, but it does make for a tasty palette cleanser (yeah, yeah, mixed metaphors, tsk) after all the dense Olson I’ve been wading through of late & I’m totally happy to have it in hand. Think of it as a paper airplane.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Suzanne posted a comment to Monday’s note that’s worth repeating:

is the true sixth sense
not defined as Olson does it
but as the perception of the body;
of its parts in relation to its whole
it is about balance
or lack thereof
it is how we walk
without tripping or falling
it is the knowledge built into the parts
of the placement
and location
of the other parts

In fact, the concept of kinesthesia, which the Wikipedia discussion under the link above characterizes as “another term that is often used interchangeably with proprioception,” is integral to Olson’s definition also: movement, at any cost, kinesthesia: beat (nik) starts the second paragraph of Olson’s initial definition, the one labeled Today. Olson’s name, by the way, pops up in the external links to the Wikipedia definition, as one of the sources for Charles Wolfe’s essay by the same name. Also invoked are dance, yoga and Alexander Technique, a 19th century mode of body work. It’s not that Olson’s conception of proprioception is wrong per se, but rather that he is using a broader term to try to focus in on a particular subset of the experience, that sense of absence, of between-ness, that exists inside our own bodies, a sense specifically of the body as manifesting many surfaces, interior as well as exterior. The iconic gesture of proprioception, touching your nose with your eyes closed, isn’t possible without a sense of your nose having a surface & some general idea where that might be.

But the point raises the question of the nature of knowledge & its value within a poem. If I were, to use Suzanne’s example, a sufferer of peripheral neuropathy, I wouldn’t be turning to the poems of Charles Olson for medical help. Nor even those of William Carlos Williams, Gael Turnbull or C. Dale Young, poet-physicians at least insofar as each practices (or practiced) both professions. I’m not at all certain that I would turn to Olson, even, if I were researching a history of the village of Gloucester, except as an example of his own role there. Or for any questions concerning Sumeria, Greek mythology, the Maya or whatever. At least no more than I would turn to Ezra Pound for information on economics.

What then is the value of all this research that is so much a part of Olson’s poetic practice, a dimension that he directly takes from Pound in fact, the poet as istorin, the ancient mariner of the archives who emerges from deep in the library’s stacks to address his city? How is this information the same or different from, say, the data you pick up in a Frank O’Hara lunch poem or Ed Sanders’ investigative poetics or Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson?

While investigative poetics does seem to have a direct relationship back to Olson’s practice – substitute the poet as reporter for Maximus’ istorin – all poems use data from the external world simply by employing language, a medium that exists (unlike paint or sound) only in pre-existing social tokens called words. Michael Magee’s use of an appropriated linguistic source for his project is, ultimately, no better or worse than Pound wandering through Van Buren’s written record or Jackson Mac Low’s reading through insurance texts in Stanzas for Iris Lezak, or Frank O’Hara recounting what he saw as he walked into the department store to type out a poem on one of the typewriter display’s store models. It’s a source of material, which can be used inventively or not (the Van Buren Cantos would actually represent the lower end of creativity here), to the uses of the poem, which really are what the poem does with whatever it has at hand. Clark Coolidge’s use of the dictionary as a source for The Maintains does not depend on the reader recognizing the source, nor the source’s truth function in the world (“this definition is accurate”), nor even the metaphysics of dictionaries as such, a linguistic and social phenomenon all their own. It’s what Coolidge does with this that makes The Maintains one of the great books of the 1970s.

But what then of the neighboring category, the use of terms in a poet’s critical or theoretical prose, which is where we find Proprioception? More than any other poet of his generation, Olson produced a large quantity of such texts, for which the Collected Prose is but the tip of an iceberg. There is, for example, an as yet still unpublished book on Shakespeare written in 1954, according to the chronology of his life and work at the remarkable Looking for Oneself: Contributions to the Study of Charles Olson website. There are, among others, The Mayan Letters (a distinct publication from the Cape/Grossman series extracted from the voluminous correspondence with Bob Creeley), The Special View of History (reconstructed notes from a class given at Black Mountain), two volumes of Muthologos, which collects talks & interviews, plus volumes of correspondence, and fugitive enough fare, like his reading & talk at Goddard College in 1962, which Slought has up on its website both as a sound file & transcript.

This is not, I think, the same level of work as a New York School poet, whether of the New American generation or thereafter, who does double duty as an art critic – tho the fields are different, that seems to me a lot closer to the poet-physician model – nor is it only Olson working, as did Creeley, Sorrentino, Baraka, Spicer or Duncan – as a poet discussing poetry. Although I think it can be read as that, and may well have its greatest value there.

Olson wants, I believe, very much to be what Antonio Gramsci described as an organic intellectual. This is quite distinct from a “professional” intellectual, such as a tenured history or philosophy professor at West Chester University, but rather fits quite close to Olson’s conception of Maximus of Tyre

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.

The wandering scholar fits Olson’s own critical project, although with the notable difference between & his doppelganger that Olson talks about many things, depending almost on the wind & the whim. He is a perfect bricoleur.

This lines Olson up alongside some other interesting characters:

Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose relationship to his chair at Cambridge could best be described as fitful.

Walter Benjamin, one part philosopher, one part literary critic, one part mystic.

Paul Erdos, the homeless mathematician

The key to Olson’s work here – and it’s not so far from Benjamin’s arcades project or Wittgenstein banning students from his classes who intended to become philosophy professors – is its commitment to amateurism. Or, to be even more clear, its adamant opposition to professionalism. As an ism. The mode of address, in the poems & Olson’s critical prose as well, is almost invariably that of the letter to the editor, not the report of the hired consultant brought (and bought) in by the authorities.

Olson insists on being taken as a crank. And being taken seriously. There is nothing in any way professional driving his investigations, nor what he learns, nor what he thinks you should know. Thus a poem in the form of “Letter for Melville 1951” which carries the note betwixt title & text:

written to be read AWAY FROM the Melville Society’s “One Hundredth Birthday Party” for MOBY-DICK at Williams College, Labor Day Weekend, Sept. 2-4, 1951

Because of the nature of his particular project, there is less of a gulf between Olson’s critical prose & his poetry, perhaps – during the Goddard sessions, he is challenged on what makes his work poetry – but perhaps the deeper question ought to be the other way around: what makes his critical writing not poetry? Certainly Charles Bernstein & others since 1970 have shown the ways in which both critical writing can be streaked with the poetic & verse can be conversely critical.

Which means that I do take Proprioception completely seriously – it is not, to my mind (as one correspondent this week put it) “the rantings of a drunken seventeen-year-old Philosophy sophomore at a rave party,” but in fact, word-by-word as densely written as anything produced by Derrida. Or – to use a more direct comparison – the prose in Williams’ Spring & All. But when I do read it or any of Olson’s prose, my concern is not whether his definition of a given term will get you through a med school exam, but rather to examine the play of the mind as covers issues of interest, I should think, to many a poet.

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.