Saturday, June 17, 2006


Thanks to everyone
who offered assistance
in our search
for a place to stay in the
East Bay

It appears to have worked out just fine.


Last Sunday’s comments stream
has taken on a life of its own.


Public access to federal research
is one idea whose time
is fast approaching


The trials of a deadline poet

Friday, June 16, 2006


Charles Olson, I noted a week ago Thursday, insists on being taken as a crank. The fourth section of Proprioception, a page and a half to sum up “Theory of Society,” underscores my point. It begins with this assertion, in parentheses & all in lower case:

(we already posses a
 sufficient theory of

Much of what follows can be read as an assault on one of the “hip” biases of the late 1950s & beyond (versions of which exist today, no doubt), that everything is interesting, at least potentially. Olson calls this “the greatest present danger / the area of pseudo-sensibility.” What follows the colon that ends that line sounds like a direct assault on, of all things, Oulipo, or perhaps Fluxus, movements that began coincidentally in 1960 & ’62 respectively, the exact period of Proprioception.




                (I Ching-

Olson decidedly is opposed to the idea that “anything goes or / all is interesting Or / nothing is.” Proprioception is the era of the Bay of Pigs & the Cuban missile crisis – the idea that such proto-hippy sentiments should constitute “the greatest present danger” is, at the very least, quaint. But this is a man who taught alongside John Cage at a college where Allan Kaprow was a student & where Bucky Fuller orchestrated an event that Kaprow, in particular, would later run with, the happening.

It’s interesting also to think of what Olson means by already possessing “a / sufficient theory of / psychology.” Olson is often treated as if his interest in the evolution of psychology in the 20th century were largely limited to Jung, though in fact he refers at different points to many of the major writers & will, literally on the next page, present us with a garbled version of Anna Freud’s concept of the stages of psychological development.

But if you look to Maximus, both the poem & the figure – one of two great instances of persona from the poets of the 1950s (John Berryman’s being the other) – you don’t see Olson interested in exploring the historic Maximus so much & certainly not his own motivations, but rather the idea of the self looking out into the world & acting thereon. “Society” here means, I think, exactly that.

So Olson is not, repeat not, interested in sitting still for 4’33” meditating on ambient noise & calling it music. Olson’s piano, where he to compose for such, would certainly be over prepared. Here he offers what he sees as the alternative to the “everything is groovy, dude” worldview:

instead of novelty (“God is the organ of

This is at least the third time in Proprioception that Olson has pointed to the new as the pivotal question confronting not just poets, but anyone who seeks to make sense of the world. What is it about the nature of the world that the new occurs? Why isn’t, say, the steady state that would apply if the so-called natural cycles didn’t lead to some kind of perfect equation of beings all in harmony, the food chain operating as smoothly as gears? What is it about the world that, always, N = N+1? And the corollary question: which one? Which is what I take Olson to mean when he says in the next three lines that “the true cast of / the sensible / probability.”

In the next stanza – Olson’s critical prose doesn’t quite get to paragraphs – Olson takes off against “kicks,” phoney (sic) disaffection – anticipating here the “turn on, tune in, drop out” messages of Mr. Leary just a few years down the line. The one-time Democratic party activist Olson takes what is almost a Frankfort School line against such an attitude, seeing dissociation from the political as “the elite among / the masses accomplishing / a lateral coup d’état.” Adorno couldn’t have put it more succinctly.

Olson’s straw man, here, never fully figured as such, comes close to Milan Kundera’s portraits of aesthetes in Eastern Europe during the bad old days of Actually Existing Stalinism, where people turn to any kind of hedonism, from sex to art to food, so as to develop a code of civilization that will buffer them from having to confront the depredations of the real.

Olson then advances one of his pet theories, that people become identified with the point at which they “fall off” from keeping attuned to the new:

Some fell off at 5 etc some at
17 others 40, like No matter, they
are bombers (carrying forces) of the time
they fell off,
not what
they look like talk like
seem etc Or are
taken as

It is this that Olson contrasts with Anna Freud’s developmental phases (infancy, libidinal, oedipean, etc.), a world that was healthier because “rites / de passage existed.”

has replaced all such

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 15, 2006


A good friend is undergoing surgery today – ten hours plus – to remove a tumor that the doctors believe is cancerous from her adrenal gland. I feel completely distracted. I am completely distracted.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Donald Hall,
Poet Laureate


William Logan’s latest blast,
targeting Heaney, Gallagher,
Geoffrey Hill, Anne
(“the acceptable face of the avant-garde”)
Carson et al


Charles Olson in San Francisco
this Sunday


Locus Solus,
the musical


A writers’ conference in Nigeria


A bookstore for Toronto’s castle.


Diary of a literary judge.


Kandinksy & synaesthesia:
Paint by music.


Bill Zavatsky
American neglectorino


Who owns
James Joyce


Who owns
John Steinbeck


Schjeldahl’s Picasso


Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Word writing. Instead of ‘idea-writing’ (ideogram etc). That would seem to be it.

Thus begins “Logography,” the second essay, note or section of Proprioception. In the space of one page, Olson makes a couple of basic assertions – that the phoneticization of writing systems comes about from the need to accurately represent proper names & that for a long time after the arrival of phonetic writing, grammatical elements were not indicated. The implication – an important one for a poet whose later writing will often look like notes cast spatially across the page – is that phonetics precedes grammar, both historically & in terms of importance.

This is also unmistakably a shot at Ezra Pound, whose “collaboration” with the late Ernest Fenollosa on ideograms was generative for Pound’s poetry, but also managed to set forth all manner of linguistic myths into the literary culture, partly because Pound was no linguist & partly because Fenollosa wasn’t either.¹ Thus Olson’s concern with “abt the earliest business we can know anything abt, some Sumerian traders in cattle” is not with the detail, the economics of the exchange, but the actual sequence of sounds involved:



Try saying that fast three times. Just two firm consonants, r and k, around which vowels are placed in various sequences.

The third section or note of Proprioception is interesting on at least two dimensions. One is that as almost a footnote – its title is “Postscript to Proprioception & Logography” – this piece suggests that Olson has not, at this point anyway, sketched out the larger plan of this project & that the remaining six sections will be as much a surprise to him as to us.

The other is the pair of terms raised up here as foundational: Landscape – Olson italicizes it – and NOUN (O. puts it all in caps), which he terms “fundamentals of any new discourse.” Beyond these words, as such, it’s worth pausing to think about why, exactly, Olson feels the need for a “new discourse,” what that phrase conveys for him. It’s one thing, at the outset of his project in 1950, to be seeking a new discourse, but to be doing so 12 years later positions it differently, as more of a permanent desire, that discourse itself be subject to the old modernist dictum: make it new.

Landscape is space – a key term for Olson throughout his career – but space of a particular kind, that “which the eye / can comprehend in a single view.” In a sense, landscape would appear to be to space what proprioception would be to the self or soul, that which we can grasp intuitively, or as Olson phrases it, “know it / instantly.”

There is a spatial break midway down the page before Olson tells us:

The other knowing is NOUN, proper (proprius)
noun – that which belongs to the self

Proprius is a term we have already met here, rooted deep in proprioception. Thus Olson sets up that which is not the self, the landscape & the nouns that occupy that space.


¹ Realistically, no one was in any meaningful sense prior to the work of Saussure, whose course on general linguistics was first taught in 1906, just two years before Fenollosa died, and whose ideas didn’t become widely understood until after the 1960-62 timeframe in which Olson composed Proprioception. Thus Finnegans Wake, to pick one lurid example, proceeds from Joyce’s understanding of 19th century philology, a fatal starting point. Saussure’s notes, cobbled together by his students after his death in 1913, spread first to the Prague School of Linguistics & then more broadly into cultural theory through the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, who was introduced to the ideas while attending a course of Jacobson’s at the New School during World War 2, but whose own writing did not become popular in the U.S. until after Olson crafted Proprioception. Olson’s own conception of anthropology, never very far from the surface of his own poetics, is very much pre-structuralist in its assumptions & vocabulary. Olson must have known the work of the likes of Sherry Anderson & Margaret Mead & all the gentlemen Egyptologists who were plundering the pyramids, but hardly any of the authors who would make anthropology one of the great pop successes of the 1960’s academy. The ghosts that Olson is tackling here are all gone a decade later.


Monday, June 12, 2006


Sometime toward the end of the previous millennium, back when Google sculpting was but a rumor & flarf but a glimmer in Mr. Sullivan’s eye, Mark Peters used the venerable “do no evil”¹ search engine to look up the word men, from which he crafted a long, booklength work, a dark, brooding, obsessive thing as I recall, tho only portions of the larger project ever snuck into print (see here & here & here) before a chapbook that was a too-modest slice appeared.

The shadow of that project hovers, never very far off & yet never exactly directly overhead, just offshore from Lisa Robertson’s new & wonderful The Men, from out from BookThug in Toronto. Contra Peters, The Men is subtitled A Lyric Book, which is absolutely accurate. It’s one of those texts where you know, within its very first lines, that you have come upon something very special indeed:

Men deft men mental men of loving men all men
Vile men virtuous men same men from which men
Sweet and men of mercy men such making men said
Has each man that sees it
Cray as men to the men sensate
And their poverty speaking to the men
Is about timeliness men is about
Previous palpability from which
The problematic politics adorable
And humble especially
Young men of sheepish privilege becoming
Sweet new style

These are lines that call up, instantly, everything from Paul Celan’sTodesfugue” to Lorca’sVerde que te quiero verde. / Verde viento. Verdes ramas.” It’s built around the ear – I have a correspondent who is going to positively flip at the alliteration of p sounds in the eighth & ninth lines (but will he notice that the run begins, in fact, in line six?) – but not solely the ear. Here is the first stanza on the second page – consider the use of rhyme that is so central to the eighth & ninth lines of this 17th-line structure:

Each man – I could write
His poem. He needs no voice.
But what would I take from it. Our facades are so
Minor. What would I begin to say
If his words were
My poem. I am preoccupied with grace
And have started to speak expensively – as in
Have joys
Which look like choice
Ill-matched to its consequence
As laughter to a fall – bad memory
Poorly researched life
The men’s
And their faces
As we do so
Fall upwards.

As joys / choice still echo, the final sound of the next line – quence – calls our attention to the fact that the s sounds above are, in fact, different. But what really echoes – the key to this sequence sonically – is the rhyme back with voice from line two. It is precisely the chance of sound to thread themes that raises the issue right as Robertson herself suggests the opposite of necessity – He needs no voice.

This is the second, social dimension of Robertson’s lyric – to make use of men the way poets have, for centuries, displayed & deployed women. Men are reducible to faces & penises. There are other texts resonating here – Kenneth Koch’s “Sleeping with Women” certainly, but I hear also the more fugitive voice of Lenore Kandel & The Love Book, that 1960’s icon to female lust.

Robertson is gathering & gathering here, for as it turns out The Men may be A Lyric Book, but that does not necessarily make it a book of lyrics, as such. Rather it is an investigation of lyric as that crux where self & voice & song cohabitate & pretend just for a moment to be one. Rather The Men is a booklength investigation, a serial poem longer & more complex than anything Spicer ever wrote, save possibly for Language, as political as it is personal – and personable as well. The Men is a thoroughly likeable book, even when, in the final section, Robertson investigates the differences between men & that other mass category, people.

It’s a complicated project & almost impossible to convey here second hand, the ways it invokes men as desire and as violence. She says, in fact, very little about the latter, letting it seep up instead through the text. Whereas Mark Peters sort of rubs our noses in just what violent clods men as a category can be, Robertson comes through much more powerfully by hinting around the edges, letting our knowledge of the categories do the heavy lifting.

I’ve said before that Lisa Robertson has emerged as one of the master poets of the new century & everything she’s writing these days has all the features to make it an instant classic. The Men is a great book as well as a haunting one.


¹ Offer void in China.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


If you post your poems, songs
or work of any sort
to MySpace,
the copyright to your work
now belongs to Rupert Murdoch.

So sayeth Billy Bragg.


Robert Pinsky asks
What is bad poetry?


Counting book sales


The artistic hub
that is


The second greatest
living British writer
is Terry Pratchett…?


Walter de la Mare
has been dead for 50 years
& his Collected Poems
out of print for 20

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