Poetics’ bodies – some poetry wars, 1913-1990
When Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, hit the book stores in 1960, it became the focus of an unprecedented wave of excitement about poetry across North America, not to mention England and parts of Europe. That moment has been visited and revisited numerous times in the intervening years, and the anthology minutely examined for its errors and exclusions, as much as its accomplishments. But whatever criticisms hindsight has granted, no amount of revision can undermine the fact of the enthusiasm that met its publication. And although the excitement was equally over the rhetorical explosion of Allen Ginsberg and the brilliant understatement of Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson stood at the centre of it, a fact that was not of his making, but for which he was to be subject of increasingly shrill criticism in the years that followed. Apart from the new poetry, the major contribution Allen made was to include in his anthology a section on poetics, the principles of the making of the poem. It was unprecedented in the aesthetic climate of the 1950s, and, as a number of people have pointed out, distinguished Allen’s anthology from its competitor, The New Poets of England and America.
Allen led off the poetics section with Olson’s essay, “Projective Verse,” which had been first published as a chapbook in 1959 by then LeRoi Jones’ (later Amiri Baraka) Totem Press. In the year that followed the essay generated a significant buzz, significant enough that Frank O’Hara, when pushed by Allen to write his own statement of poetics, would see fit to lampoon it in “Personism,” typically wry, humorous, and sassy. Still, Olson’s essay seemed to strike many people the way Emerson describes genius in the opening of “Self-Reliance,” as the recognition of their “own rejected thoughts.” Its brilliance resonated loudly, both in its recovery of the body as the source of poetry, and in its extension of that thinking into a radical proposition about the fundamental shift in the nature of the “real” that such poetry engages.
As O’Hara’s response indicated, resistance to the essay, or at least to the enthusiasm that it provoked, was almost as quick to develop as the enthusiasm itself, and while initially focussed on Olson, quickly found its target in those who were caught up for many different reasons in the enthusiasm. The reasons for the resistance are as manifold as the reasons for the enthusiasm. Some people did not recognize themselves in Olson’s energetic prose and claimed to find it dogmatic and bullying. Others, committed to the conservative poetics of the New Criticism, found it meaningless and anarchic, and perhaps a little threatening. Still others, felt that the enthusiasm was indicative of a kind of servile adoration and that Olson fostered that, or at least thrived on it.
The word “Olsonite,” which was originally adopted as a positive identity by poets in the Tish group in Vancouver (while simultaneously identifying it with toilet seats), gradually became part of a pejorative vocabulary that included “cult,” “disciple,” “guru,” “devotee,” “follower,” “true believer,” and other terms that were current in 60s and 70s as negative descriptors of various religious and fringe political sects run by powerful individuals who exploited weaker followers. It came to embody an anxiety about the loss of “autonomy” in the face of manipulative power, as if no other network of authority and relation were possible, as if “individualism” was both natural and innately admirable. The anthropologist Victor Turner called it “the clichés associated with status incumbency and role playing.”
The resistance to Olson grew during the 60s, 70s, and into the 80s, when certain events in Buffalo sealed his diminution and eventual “falling out of favor” as Susan Howe put it in a 2011 interview. The public attacks on him and his work were often articulated in terms of continuing accusations of his cult-like status as a “High Priest,” as well as the increasing authority of a sociological critique that dismissed him and his magnum opus, the epic Maximus Poems, as manifestations of patriarchal oppression and control. The poem, and indeed the whole project of writing an epic that he had taken up from Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, was represented as a “totalizing” attempt to control the world through language in the interests of patriarchy. But while this was the public face of the assault on Olson’s diminishing reputation and influence, arguably the deeper issue was poetics.
Olson’s determining statement on poetics, “Projective Verse,” had fired the imaginations of countless people through its insistence on returning poetry to the reality of the mind/body, liberating it from the intricate aesthetic rules of the schoolmen poets and opening it to the emergence of unprecedented knowledge. His insistence on head, heart, ear, and breath were a rethinking of the poem as emerging out of the body’s deep, ancient, rhythmic sense. Poetics, as Olson developed them, was a quest, a transformative gnosis that opened the poet to certain energies informing the world and that Olson made evident in the dynamic irregularities and energetic push of his prose. This difference in thinking poetics played a crucial role in establishing his authority, and later in dismissing it.
The word “poetics” has been around for a while, though its meaning changes. Aristotle’s Poetics was primarily a set of genre definitions (tragedy, epic, and comedy), desired effects (fear, pity, wonder), their result (catharsis), and the rules and methods necessary to create them. Milton refers to poetics as the “laws of a true Epic poem.” Purely technical in the sense of addressing poetry (and drama) as governed by laws external to and formative of its composition, poetics became identified (and discussed) as prosody and aesthetics in later thinking. The only question facing the poet is whether or not he or she knows the rules and is able to master them well.
The very definition of poetics has been a site of contest and a major source of poetry wars since at least 1913, if not 1789 when Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads. They didn’t call it poetics. Mostly they wrote about diction, content, and prosody as the sites of their technical adventure and its democratic implications. Writing about an old leech gatherer in composed language that approached the common speech of ordinary people while staying other than that was a critical move in recognizing the cosmological earthquake then taking place and its reordering of discriminations of meaning. By 1913, Wordsworth’s breakthrough mostly had been reabsorbed into a verse regime characterized by sentiment, nostalgia, and iterative forms.
Declaring war on that literary formation, Ezra Pound and H.D. invented Imagism and returned poetics to a front line of the battle over poetry’s particular value. The crisis of representation that was raging in Europe and North America at that time left no ground for the Real and no external, transcendent zone of rules. The quality of the poem became determined by the poet’s imaginative relation to form (Williams) or the attempt to reiterate and revivify a relation to the rules (Eliot). For the first time, poetics was identified, not with rules, but with what might be called a mode of being, the poet’s existential implication with the world. And that mode of being increasingly was identified with the fundamental transformations of history, the emergence of new forms of life, new “bodies”, in a newly emerging world. Poets became what Pound called “antennae.”
Hilda Doolittle, a friend of Pound’s at the University of Pennsylvania, had relocated to London in 1911 at his urging. Together with Richard Aldington and a number of his acquaintances, she spent time at the British Museum Reading Room translating and reworking Greek poems while using their particular energies and forms to inform her own. She was 27 years old and about to change the course of literary history. Three of her poems had appeared in the January 1914 issue of an influential new magazine in the U.S., Poetry Chicago. Of the three—“Priapus,” “Epigram,” and “Hermes of the Ways”—the first two were her reworked translations of poems from the Greek Anthology and were signed “H.D.”. The third was “original” and was signed “H.D. Imagiste.” And so her name – or, even better, her initials – was identified with the new poetry.
H.D.’s work became, at least momentarily and somewhat ironically, exemplary modernist poetry by embodying the restrained form of ancient Greek verse charged with an energy that Robert Duncan called hierophantic, an opening of the poem to further forces beyond or within – in relation to, in any case – the immediate occasion. This “archaic-innovation” disrupted perceptual automatism and opened the poem’s field to powers and energies from “outside.” She was informed by intensities of being (in other times referred to as “angels” or “gods”) that she made known in unprecedented language events, transforming an imagination of that spare classical Greek beauty into the ultimate form of modernity: simple, common, intense, a state Charles Olson referred to elsewhere as “a secularization that loses nothing of the divine.”
Ezra Pound, who organized or produced most of the promotional activities that launched the imagist group as an international phenomenon, had particular targets in mind for his often inflammatory pronouncements on poetics. The Georgians, poets associated with an annual anthology of the same name, considered themselves representatives of the “modern” development of poetry, but were still heavily under the influence of Tennyson and the lingering forms of late Romanticism. For Pound, their romantic spirit and often antique “poetic” diction and constructions (“We are thine, O Love, being in thee and made of thee . . .”) were the height – or depth – of genteel banality. In his drive to clearly distinguish between the new sound and look of his “modern” and the sentimentalized Romanticism of the Georgian’s “modern,” Pound wrote a series of manifesto/essays on the nature of Imagism that introduced poetics into the argument in an unprecedented way.
“Poetics” at that time were determined by sets of rules such as George Saintsbury’s Historical Manual of English Prosody. Saintsbury, having written a definitive, three volume work on the history of English prosody, a word that took the place of “poetics” in pre-twentieth century discourses on the techniques of poetry, decided to produce a book that summarized the rules of verse. It became the authoritative text on poetic technique. As late as 2007, critics still acknowledged the importance of Saintsbury’s work because “until fairly recently [it] dominated much prosodic thinking.” And, as Ammiel Alacalay points out, “if a student wants to actually learn something about the classical/traditional ear, that’s where i send them. also, i would say that saint’s prosodic ear/sense would align much more with what’s familiar to us than the bad eliot imitation new critical official verse line.”
That said, Saintsbury did propose prosody as a genteel collection of historical rules governing the writing of genteel poetry for a genteel class of writers. The manual implicitly located the poet as a man of good taste and accomplishment who had mastered the rules of verse. Not surprisingly, those rules were based on mastering set rhythmic forms. “[L]ines,” Saintsbury wrote, “possess a definite rhythm based on what is called double and triple time; that these integers (the lines) are made up of corresponding or proportionate fractions to which it has been usual to give the name ‘feet’ . . ..” It was a vision of specifically English poetry, and, Saintsbury argued, the order of the form reinforced English culture, aka, Civilization-as-we-know-it. Meredith Martin identifies his sense of prosody as an aspect of what she calls his desperation “to preserve not only the classics as a discipline but his understanding of the classical English gentleman, with an education that set him apart from others.”
For the Georgian poets, Sainsbury’s prosodics offered the perfect justification for their own poetic processes, including a stage of “conception.” A purely mental response to external stimuli, conception, the idea of the poem, precedes any involvement with language: “the inspiration of some imaginative experience completely establishes itself in the poet’s mind, as an affair of clear imagery, vivid importance, and delightful excitement: also as a focus of varied and perhaps only just suggested associations and allusions; but above all as a single inclusive harmony, however complex, of all that it contains.” Myron Simon goes on to point out that “[v]erbal art has no place in it. . . . As soon as the poet is perfectly aware of his own experience – of all that can be seen and felt in it – then, as far as he is concerned, expression is complete . . .. But if a poem is to come of this, what happened in the poet’s mind must somehow be made to happen in other minds: the image and its meaning must be conveyed to us. . . . So now begins the stage of technique.” This poet represents what Ahab in Moby-Dick called the perfect man, an embodiment of the ideal features of the human (English male version) determined in the matrix of modernism: a self-contained, autonomous, self-aware individual in control of complex information which he is able to convey to others because of his mastery of certain techniques.
Ezra Pound’s imagiste was a whole other kettle of fish. “A few don’ts by an Imagiste,” first published with H.D.’s poems in Poetry Chicago in 1914, proposed not just a new kind of poetry, but implied a new kind of person who created that poetry. It was not just a question of replacing one set of rules with another, although Pound certainly did something like that with his various injunctions regarding composition. More importantly, he challenged the prescriptive manual by implying an identity rather than an instrumentality between the poet and her poetics. Pound presented the poetics of imagism as more than the mechanics of the poem, and the poet as more than the master of technique. If the poesis in “poetics” has to do with the making of the poem, it no less has to do with the stance of the poet, the making of the maker. The poet is an imagiste, the difference being a shift toward a reclamation of the whole person/poet as bodymind in process rather than a mind mastering and implementing the idea of formal means toward an aesthetic experience.
Much of the difference arose from Pound’s sense that poetry was capable of initiating states of consciousness that escaped the banal mental traps and automatism of early twentieth century consumer society. If the traps were forms of life determined by the secular grind of a world depleted of all value beyond the dollar, Pound’s imagiste was extraordinary in so far as she was the embodiment of “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” an eruption of value/meaning into the wasteland of contemporary life. She could compose words into rhythmic forms that delivered that complex (rather than represented it). She could think through cadence; her music was in her body rather than in abstracted forms. She could see/tell “the truth”—“its force will lie in its truth, its interpretative power (of course, poetic force does always rest there).” Her intensity of being was identical to the intensity of her words. And the stake was the body: “Let us consider the body,” Pound wrote in “Psychology and the Troubadours,” “as pure mechanism. Our kinship to the ox we have constantly thrust upon us; but beneath this is our kinship to the vital universe, to the tree, and the living rock . . ..” He went on to contrast the consciousness of poets whose minds “are like soap bubbles” to those whose “thoughts are in them as the thought of the tree is in the seed, or in the grass, or the grain, or the blossom.” Pound would call this thinking pagan in contrast to the humanism that historically overwhelmed it.
Although T. S. Eliot supported Pound’s campaign to replace a faded Romanticism with an intense modernism, his own sense of image as what he called “objective correlative” had a different cast to it, a different meaning. Eliot’s objective correlative centred, as he put it, on creating a “set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” It relied on the governing schema that defined modernity, dividing the world between an active subject and the object it acts on. In Eliot’s formulation of that relation, the writer creates an image of the object(ive) which creates a subjective (emotional) response. It is a closed economy, Descartes’ cogito in relation to the alienated world of its making.
H.D.’s image was “hierophantic,” a form of information about other registers of the world without and within the particular incident of its invocation. It was a transformative gnosis. To achieve the knowledge that is the poem the poet transforms herself even as the knowledge transforms the poem – a knot of knowing and transforming. Its intensity had nothing to do with intentionally arousing emotions and everything to do with creating a language event that resonated in multiple dimensions. Poetics was not some technical system for organizing language into a specific form called “a poem,” but a matter of orientation toward and within “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”
H.D.’s poetics were rooted in a thinking of what Pound calls “freedom,” where freedom was liberation from the bounds of a secular, wholly material world (the object of Eliot’s objective correlative) shackled to the space/time dichotomy of Newtonian physics. “It is the presentation of such a ‘complex’ instantaneously,” Pound says in his manifesto, “which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” This experience constituted a new knowledge that was an old knowledge, a transforming knowledge, just as H.D.’s poems constituted an experience at once radically old and radically new. Although the argument was not yet articulated, the lines were being drawn, and they had to do with the thinking of “the body” and its relationship to the rhythmic knowledge of the poem.
The excitement generated by imagisme led to the inevitable iterations based on copying forms. Form forged out of the dynamism of the transfigured body, the transformative gnosis, became a shell filled with banalities in the shape of pictures and too many words. Pound called it Amygism, dismissing Amy Lowell’s “imagism” as the work of a “democratic beer-garden.” His alternative, Vorticism, while renewing his sense of Imagism’s relation to energetic form, also drew on Allen Upward’s proposition in The New World that the nature of the real needed to be rethought. Upward rejected the dualist notion of energy and matter (and subject and object) as separate ontological categories and imagined instead what he called the “whirl-swirl” of creation, the network of infinite relations of interpenetrating and interdependent forces. Process, as Whitehead would later have it, became the fundamental reality, and the poem was the event of that “whirl-swirl,” a vortex.
Eliot’s poetry, with its regulating ghosts haunting the arras, its contemporary ironies, and its deep nostalgia for the imagined order of the past (preferably white, straight male, and Christian) dominated the official, University approved definition of poetry for many years. The image, rather than being what Robert Duncan called the “nexus of an experience,” became a rhetorical figure useful for “expression.” Eliot’s poetry and criticism found its perfect audience in a group of scholarly poets at Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee. Committed to the reactionary plantation culture of the ante-bellum Southern U.S. as a counter force to the alienating pressures of urbanism and industrialism, first the Fugitives, and then their offspring, the Agrarians, dominated the production and criticism of poetry from the late 20s through the 50s. Their texts (Understanding Poetry, The Well-Wrought Urn, “The Intentional Fallacy,” etc.) delineated the poem as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object without reference to the poet, the poet’s specific political world, and especially without an uncontrolled process. Its perfections were exemplary of the cultural achievements of the world lost to Sherman’s marauders and carpetbagger predations and resonated with Eliot’s sense of Christian culture.
The codification of this Methodist critical address and its necessary object, what came to be called The New Criticism, found a welcoming home in University English Departments hungry for a legitimizing “science” of literary study that moved beyond notions of appreciation and edification. The theorists and practitioners of the New Criticism – John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, René Welleck, Robert Penn Warren, W.K. Wimsatt, Monroe Beardsley, and so on – used their authority and university resources to establish prestigious journals including The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and The Sewanee Review which then became the gateway to literary recognition, establishing both the value of Literature and the site of its presentation while promoting poetry that adhered to a poetics grounded in the differentiation of form and content and the achievement of formal aesthetic “excellence.” Literary excellence, rather than transformative gnosis, became poetry’s motive.
Meanwhile, Pound’s poetics found adherents in two young poets who resisted the Methodist takeover of the Poetry Plantation: one was Olson and the other, six years senior to him, was Louis Zukofsky. Zukofsky was on it first, writing to Pound in 1927 and visiting him in Rapallo in 1933. Olson, who worked for the Roosevelt Administration during World War II, didn’t come to Pound until after the war when he visited him at St. Elizabeth’s. Both came to Pound for poetics, but each found a different range of thinking at stake. Louis Zukofsky came for the discipline of Pound’s sounded knowledge, the dynamic balance of what Pound called melopoeia, logopoeia, and phanopoeia. Born an outsider in a Yiddish speaking household of Jewish immigrants, Zukofsky’s ear was astonishing in the range of its precise discriminations which played as subtly on the intellect as on the ear. His continuous intellectual struggle with Marxism provided a shifting ground of unresolvable political vision engaged with the thinking of justice.
Olson, also from a family of immigrants, though a generation removed, was born into a New England still full of the thought of the American revolution and its potential to unleash a new world. Olson participated in that “American dream,” an immigrant’s kid who was able to get an education in the finest schools in the U.S.. America was central to his thinking, from his high school commencement on Emerson’s “The American Scholar” to his pre-war Melville studies at Wesleyan and Harvard and its fruit, Call Me Ismael, to his writing of the Maximus Poems. America was both a radical potential, a projective possibility, and ultimately a catastrophic failure. Determined to write an American epic, he went to Pound to find a way to bring history into the poem as part of an active conversation rather than a range of reference, a sublated presence rather than a past. Like Zukofsky, he based his poetics on Pound’s three-fold discrimination, but he took Pound’s sense of sound and pushed it toward what he called action, and later, projective.
Zukofsky’s and Olson’s difference is probably most evident there. In keeping with his musical thinking, Zukofsky approached the poem as structure. His poetics had to do as much with his sense of Bach as it did with Pound. The statement on “objectivism” he published in 1930 is characterized by a language of charged stasis. He calls it “rested totality” which he relates to “apprehension satisfied completely.” These are aesthetic terms that he links to his idea of sincerity. Although he doesn’t make the connection explicit, Pound’s observation that the Chinese character for sincerity was “pictorially the sun’s lance coming to rest on the precise spot verbally” surely resonates here. These minor units of sincerity, Zukofsky proposed, could be arranged and resolved into a “structure” of one apprehended unit, art form as an object. In that sense, Zukofsky was intent on locating himself in a specific tradition of artists whose work achieved a recognizable level of aesthetic complexity and intensity modulated in the case of poetry, as he said, from lower level speech to upper level music.
Olson’s vocabulary always focussed on the active and dynamic as opposed to the structural. “Projective Verse” is divided into two sections. The first addresses the poem’s relation to the body, and the second expounds the philosophical implications of that relation to Olson’s thinking of postmodernity. Olson zeroed in on Pound’s sense of poetics as transformative gnosis, and returned it to the “body” as poetry’s source. Heart, breath, head, and ear are the ground of the poem. His poetics with its emphasis on the poem as kinetic event, what he calls “projective,” couldn’t be more different from Zukofsky’s rested totality. If Zukofsky’s poetics demanded an intense intellectual/sonal construction, Olson’s demanded a dynamic “body” to project the energy of the event. It was not modernity’s body with its necessary divisions, exclusions, repressions, and hierarchies. He rethought its orders in terms of a single invaginated and evaginated, folded and unfolded, complexity of surface beyond modernity’s compulsive dualisms.
Olson’s poetics were explicitly entangled with his philosophical/historical thinking of postmodernity. Part of his projective thinking of the world beyond the inherited structures of authority that im-press us as they order the minutiae of our lives, poetry was a mode of knowledge that opened the world to unanticipated form and meaning, just as polis, he said, was compelling the world backward to open space for new form and meaning. Olson’s push removes poetics from Literary discourse which it reveals as a limitation of modernity, part of a mental world in which something called the “self” inhabits a “body” and works a “mind” in order to measure the “objective” world for its use, say, as objective correlative. The self is autonomous, rational, and subject to meaningful affect. The same self expresses those structures of minute authorities as identity and turns the poem into a revelation of self, what Olson called “the private-soul-at-any-public-wall.” The pressure from the weight of the inherited world forces itself on the poem and the poet and can only be countered through transformative gnosis entangled with the unfolding energies of history, or, say, creation, or reality, and the poet’s pushback, her compelling of the world back. In “Projective Verse” Olson calls that counter force stance, which is to say relational refiguration of the dynamic forms of creation, the emerging of the world. Another name for it is further in Emerson’ sense of the self as always further. Olson’s poetics, in other words, were cosmological rather than aesthetic. This figured in another crucial difference between him and Zukofsky – the relation to the Literary.
While Zukofsky, according to Mark Scroggins, felt some resentment for being ignored by the literary establishment, for Olson, the Literary was always just another disciplinary apparatus of the modern cosmology, a stricture on the imagination. Its structures of reward and punishment impose limits on the artist. The idea of “literary excellence,” for instance, while seeming “natural,” rewards an effort recognizable within certain approved bounds as “art.” The prizes, the grants, the positions are inducements to stay within the limits, or, if you have to go outside, to do it tastefully and in a manner that does not fundamentally challenge the order of authorities. Olson’s sense of poetry existed outside those structures since its goal was not prizes or acknowledgement but knowledge, knowledge of the world beyond the operative categories of constraint administered and enforced by the authorized purveyor of Knowledge, the University.
The differences between Zukofky and Olson never led to war. It was more a mild skirmish. Zukofsky dismissed Olson’s epic poem, finding only a few “lyrical bits” of interest. He complained that “Projective Verse” was derivative of his own poetics as articulated in “Sincerity and Objectifcation,” and that Olson’s “objectism” was a direct theft of his own proposal in 1931 that “A poem. A poem as object. . . . Perfect rest.” As Olson’s fame and influence grew, Zukofsky expressed distaste for what he considered Olson’s “didacticism” and he joined certain circles in criticising Olson for his so-called disciples, finding the excitement Olson generated to be unbecoming and hucksterish. For his part, Olson invited Zukofsky to teach at Black Mountain College, which Zukofsky couldn’t afford to do, but otherwise had little to say about him. At the Berkeley Poetry Conference, Olson at one point challenged Zukofsky’s authority: “The Ides of March, yeah, where it turns out Catullus, who was a wealthy cat, even if his grandfather still spoke Irish. Er—that—and that ain’t unusual, right? I mean, like, have we got an instance of Catullus? Did Louis Zukofky’s translation become President? (LAUGHTER.)” His dismissal of “objectivism” in “Projective Verse” perhaps spoke silent volumes about his assessment of Zukofsky’s ‘perfect rest.’ But although the two poets never engaged in hostilities over their differences, those differences lingered and later found expression in another poetry war.
Olson’s greatest performance of contempt for Literature and demonstration of his commitment to a further, unclassified knowledge was his “reading” at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, a 4-hour marathon dismissal of the institution’s forms and expectations and an uncontained spiritual revelation, a ta’wil in the Avicennan tradition. His success can be measured by the howls of protest it provoked and its continuing mischaracterization as a “drunken rant,” and “an absolute travesty.” His biographer refers to it as “swaggering” and “confused,” and brings in an apparently distraught Robert Creeley as a kind of Greek chorus to ask, “Is this the Charles Olson we all know and love?” as if Olson had been possessed or had revealed some previously hidden perversion. And in one sense, the answer was, no. This was an Olson Creeley didn’t know, or didn’t want to acknowledge, an Olson venturing outside the preserve of Literature, challenging his peers to follow him into the uncharted territory of a Nation of nothing but poetry.
They weren’t, for the most part, interested. There were reputations still to be made and bolstered. Prizes to win. Lifetime achievement awards to receive. Possibly even the Nobel. And so they turned their collective back on his appeal to turn away from literature and create a nation of nothing but poetry. Worse, although Olson had located himself outside the recognizable and defining authorities of modernity, all his actions and relations became measured against the norms of bourgeois modernity, refiguring them as failures. It was a major counter-attack on a poetics based on a move beyond modernity’s relational forms of authority and the enactment of the projective as transformative gnosis, as post-modern flesh in action, an activity that by its nature is common since the individual has lost its quiddity.
This question of the common, or communal as the ground of poetry and scholarship was explicit in Olson’s notion of polis. Following Jean-Luc Nancy here, Olson’ polis can be seen in the light of recent thinking as what “happens to us—question, waiting, even imperative—in the wake of society,” what appears to us as “neither a work to be produced, nor a lost communion, but rather as space itself, and the spacing of the experience of the outside, of the outside-of-self.” One of the ways Olson’s poetics as enacted in the Berkeley reading is antithetical to the literary (in both the senses given here) is in their insistence that such a discharge of energies arises from the circulation and generation of those energies within just such a space as Nancy identifies, and that that process is the act in which community reveals itself to itself. But recast in the light of modernity’s “norm,” they are made to signify failed individualism and are caricatured as power inequities and abuses and defined in mostly religious terms mobilized in the Enlightenment to attack the old regime: acolyte, disciple, devotee, follower, believer, on the one side, and high priest, guru, etc. on the other.
Olson’s polis, if limited to a field of “historical geography,” becomes a utopian fantasy and, eventually, a lament for its failure. But Olson’s polis was not limited to a critique of US American consumer culture and imperial politics, or to some limited, materialist historical geography of Gloucester, although it included those. It was a program, a plan of action, a fractal process that resonated on multiple levels but always began as local. The idea of a community of scholar/poets working together in some new, active sense of relation was realized most notably in the Magazine of Further Studies, a publication of the Institute of Further Studies, a group of Olson’s students and scholars and poets dedicated to a projective engagement with thinking that emerged in relation with Olson. Unique in its concept of the space of the magazine, the Magazine of Further Studies ran to six issues between 1965 and 1969. Writers in the loose community Olson was a significant part of contributed poems, reviews, essays, and sui generis material, often in conversation with each other within and across issues, enacting relational energetics and undoing any sense of separate minds. The poetics of the “body” extended into this common body of thinking where further was an opening into an autonomous zone of new thinking emerging in the process of relational exchange and provocation. In music it is identified as call and response and was central to the development of bebop and post bebop small group improvisation.
A culture of dynamic tensions, polis is present in the mutual pushback of finitudes in active relation that unleashes what’s always more than the appearance of the relations. Describing his relation with Olson, Michael Anania wrote about quarreling: “There was, more than anything in Charles, a sense of common purpose among poets. In that first year we quarreled and haggled over gestures that initially at least seem too sweeping too broad. He would listen–“I hear you,” he would say, leaning toward you–then move you back, not to evidence or argument, but consequence.” The principle of selection for admission to the conversation had less to do with extraneous factors, say, gender, than it did with the ability to push back. Olson didn’t want observers hanging around the polis when there was work to be done. Like the call and response dynamic of jazz that it resembled, the dynamic of polis as being-in-common required active engagement and constant exposure.
It was confusing for those entangled in a bourgeois writing culture based on individual reward, ideas of autonomy and originality, and a separate, regulated zone called Literature in which one can accumulate prestige and power. While they could recognize Olson’s polis as a possible physical geography, as specifically, say, Gloucester, Massachusetts with a documented history, they couldn’t follow him in his late journeys into modes of entangled reception of sense that in-formed that geography and history. They especially couldn’t see the ways Olson developed and nurtured that sense of polis as active relation in actual circumstances. From their perspective, Olson’s actual on-the-ground polis as local practice was only comprehensible as the abandonment of “individual autonomy” and was defined in pejorative terms of relation reduced to power inequities rather than relational dynamic and exchange. The vocabulary establishes the targeted practice as tainted, as not-Literary, as a violation of the integrity of bourgeois individualism, even as the loss of sanity, of going ga-ga, as Robert Creeley put it, and therefore, to be held in contempt.
The real problem was even deeper and had to do with cosmology. Recognizing that meaning had to be rethought in the context of a world that had lost its orientation in the onslaught of modernity’s culture of general equivalence, Olson argued in Proprioception for a “secularization that loses nothing of the divine,” pushing to overwhelm the binary division between secular and divine with a sense of a further unmapped plenitude. Like Emerson, who gave up the pulpit for the lectern and the sermon for the lecture, Olson worked through his poetry to find a new, postmodern stance that moved beyond both the religiosity that turned the world over to some other authority, and the secularism of modernity that left the world dead, meaningless, and at the mercy of insatiable human hunger. Like Whitehead’s “god function,” Olson’s secularization that loses nothing of the divine is a radical gesture of conservation, neither and both at the same time, a difficult move beyond compulsive dualisms into a world without previous articulation. To find some articulation in his search among stones, Olson turned to sources as diverse as Jung, Henry Corbin, Maria Sabina, and Hesiod. Shamanism, myth, Avicennan angelology, all circulate through Olson’s orders of thinking, extend the world, opening it beyond the closures of modernity. That is what he meant by postmodern.
Olson and his poetics were the focus of immense attention in the 1960s. One story of the poetry wars of the 60s and 70s pits the “outlaw” poets of The New American Poetry 1945-1960 led by Olson against the “establishment” poets of The New Poets of England and America and the New Critics. Robert Lowell called the different poetries “raw” and “cooked,” indicating a question of finesse or décor, but ignoring the question of the meaning, of form and form’s relation to poetics. Olson never led anything, but his thinking on form and movement and body, a new body, caused a lot of excitement that generated a lot of poetry and a lot of thinking. It was projective and many people found it moved them to some further dynamic of relation at work. Criticism of Olson came both from a conservative poetry establishment and from academia, states which frequently overlapped. If his poetry was sloppy and careless, his criticism/scholarship was even worse, lacking all standards of thoroughness and rigour. At Buffalo, after his death, a dismissive attitude toward his work and his, say, relational networks, continued to grow among poets and academics, even as various post-Marxist poets and critics began to attack him from the sociological high ground for his “patriarchal obsessions” and his “male chauvinism.”
At the same time a far more destructive war on Olson’s poetics began to brew in unexpected quarters. Open hostilities began in earnest almost as soon as Olson’s body was in the ground. In 1973, Marjorie Perloff published an essay in ELH called “Charles Olson and the “Inferior Predecessors”: “Projective Verse” Revisited.” In it, she dismissed Olson’s poetics as derivative, accused William Carlos Williams of advancing Olson’s poetics only because it promoted his own ideas, and ended up accusing Olson of both plagiarism and hypocrisy. Over the following years, “Projective Verse” was dismissed as just another manifesto, as a phallocentric diatribe, and as the delusion of presence, among other things. In 1996, Charles Bernstein, then the Gray Chair Fellow at the State University of New York at Buffalo and founding member of the English Department’s Poetics Program, published a parody of Olson’s essay called “Introjective Verse.” He began by mocking Olson’s use of open parentheses, a typographical innovation Olson used to indicate the projective kinetic outwards. Bernstein turned them inward, and while the device was meant to undo the authority of Olson’s stance, it ended up revealing the difference between Olson’s poetics and Bernstein’s as grounded in different relations to the body, and especially to Olson’s sense of the “seculardivine” dynamism of the postmodern bodymind.
Bernstein, in an adroit display of textual manipulation that continually undercuts the text’s propositions as a demonstration, presumably, of some indeterminate poststructuralist alternative to Olson’s postmodern dynamics, winds up arguing, in debt to Zukofsky’s “perfect rest,” for stasis: “The introjective poet staggers from the failings of her own boasts to that syntaxophony where language digs in, where sound echoes, where utterances concatenate, where, inevitably, all acts stall.” That “stall,” echoing with Zukofsky’s stasis, is the essence of an alternative poetics, though the word “poetics” once again comes under the stress of a torsion that shifts its meaning away from any relation to “body” or transformative gnosis, toward “structure” or, where the Poetics Program located it, “theory.” In any case, Bernstein divorces poetry from any effective energetic outcome: “I take it that INTROJECTIVE VERSE teaches nothing, that that verse will never do what the poet intends either by the tones of her voice or theater of her breath.” Like all parody, the destructive aggression of “Introjective Verse” toward the original is masked by a veneer of laughter.
After Olson’s death, the gradual institutionalization of the poets and theories promoted by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, a magazine edited by Bernstein and Bruce Andrews which ran between 1978 and 1981, began to undermine Olson’s poetics while claiming to be its heirs. Although the group that came together in the magazine was diverse, many of the poets shared a lingering Marxist materialism, an interest in the theories of the Frankfurt School, and a commitment to formalist theories of poetry. For those like Robert Creeley who were critical of what they caricatured as the “worship” of Olson by “acolytes,” and who dismissed readings of Olson’s spiritual adventures, so-called Language poetry offered a materialist, secular option. In 1990, Bernstein, through Creeley’s active intervention, replaced Creeley as the Grey Chair of Poetry at SUNY Buffalo. Buffalo, once the site of Olson’s teaching, and later a centre of Olson studies and home to an active part of his legacy in the form of The Charles Olson Memorial Lectures, became a battleground in the poetry war over the nature of Olson’s work and the legacy of his poetics
Between 1988 and 1990 a series of events took place in Buffalo that effectively displaced Olson as a significant figure in the development of a visionary, projective postmodern poetics, and replaced him with the portrait of a disreputable, male chauvinist, alcoholic poet of historical geography whose main contribution to poetics was developing a certain technique of using documents and scholarship in the poem. During this period, Robert Creeley, who had held the Grey Chair in Poetry for many years, was quietly looking for a replacement. He was also quietly pushing to get Susan Howe, who was desperately in need of a job, hired by the English Department. Bernstein and Howe had both been to Buffalo numerous times to give talks and readings sponsored by Creeley.
In April, 1988, The Grey Chair and the English Department at SUNY Buffalo held a conference called “Radical Poetries/Critical Address.” Marjorie Perloff, a major academic advocate of Charles Bernstein and “Language” poetry, was invited to give the Keynote Address to the conference, and also, according to John Clarke’s correspondence, to respond to the panel on Charles Olson made up of Clarke and Don Byrd. Clarke, a poet, Blakean scholar, musician, a professor who considered himself Olson’s “student” was central to the Institute of Further Studies, a group that continued to work in the field of thinking opened by Olson. Byrd was a professor at SUNY Albany, a poet, and author of a respected book on the Maximus Poems.
Before the panel occurred a switch was made and Susan Howe was given the respondent’s job. Having been given the papers before the panel, Howe proceeded to ignore them both and to use her “response” to excoriate Olson as an unreconstructed sexist, a monster whose poem enacts violent brutality against a generic “her.” Rhetorically, the polemic located Howe as “balanced” between two unresolvable relations to Olson. One was the recognition of his genius and her debt to that. The other was horrified outrage generated through the violent, paratactic manipulation of images and language. Balanced or not, the emotional weight of the address was focussed on the outrage.
Howe infused an appeal to a sociological judgement of Olson’s poetry with Calvinist moral outrage as a way of reducing Olson, whose size, she admitted, she hated (“I get tired of hearing that Charles Olson was six foot seven.”). She began by citing Olson’s use of the words “cunt” and “tit” in two poems, but without any explanatory analysis of why, other than their mere presence, they are evidence of sexism. She went on to quote a passage from Olson’s poem, “Tyrian Business.” The passage, which begins, “or one so far back she craves to be scalped, / and dragged over the ground” is part of an address to dance. The section that precedes this is the well-known “how to dance / sitting down” passage which connected Olson’s sense of the grace of movement with a mode of being. The following section critically describes the dancer Martha Graham and what Olson judged to be the brutality of her movements, a brutality in contrast to the grace of the previous section. Ignoring the context, Howe consciously misrepresents the passage as an example of the brutality of Olson’s “masculine imaginary,” as if it were a fantasy of his desire rather than his negative critique of Graham’s choreography.
Perhaps just as important as Howe’s presentation of Olson was her dismissal of the work of Clarke and Byrd, which, by implication, extended to the whole world of Olson scholarship. Implying that there was no dialog between “sons” and “daughters,” Howe absolved herself of responding to the men’s work because it was “patronymic discourse” unworthy of address. In doing so she announced her allegiance to the critics of Olson’s poetics and to the sociological cosmology of academic culture. Her attack garnered praise in the English Department, and shortly after she was offered first a Visiting Professorship and then a permanent position in the Buffalo English Department where she participated in the formation of the Poetics Program. “I am glad to hear things with Jack get more open,” Creeley wrote to her on March 24, 1989. “It was such a sad impasse.”
The reaction against Olson and his legacy continued to develop at SUNY Buffalo over the next few years, culminating in the canc3ellation of the Charles Olson Memorial Lectures. For ten years the university had been home to the Lectures. Initiated in 1980 by Robert Creeley at Clarke’s urging, they were intended to honour Olson by providing an opportunity to engage and further his thinking. The inaugural lecture was by Robert Duncan. Michael McClure, Ed Sanders, Joel Oppenheimer, Diane di Prima, Philip Whalen, Tom Clark, Robin Blaser, Allen Ginsberg, and Duncan McNaughton followed. The choice of speaker was negotiated between Creeley and Clarke. The initial lectures by Duncan, McClure, Sanders, and di Prima seriously engaged with Olson and his legacy. Later, however, Creeley began to use the lectures as a way to fund certain cash-strapped poets, regardless of their relation to Olson. While admirable in terms of its generosity to the needy, Creeley’s choices undermined the intellectual reputation of the lectures. In 1985, he offered them to Philip Whalen, and when Whalen protested that he knew nothing about Olson, Creeley assured him that didn’t matter. All he had to do was talk for three hours. The same situation recurred in 1988 with Allen Ginsberg who had nothing to say about Olson, and used the lectures to repeat his well-worn “first thought best thought” presentation. The reputation of the lectures disintegrated, along with Olson’s reputation. Duncan McNaughton’s performance in 1988 was the nail in the coffin.
Creeley was away in Finland during what witnesses agree was the disaster of the 10th Annual Charles Olson Memorial Lecture. Olson’s diminishing reputation in the SUNY Buffalo English Department sank further. Once back in Buffalo, Creeley cancelled the lectures. Whether this was the result of a specific performance or had been decided previously was never made clear. Later, Jack Clarke wrote to Tom Clark of that moment: “ . . . next thing was the Olson Memorial by “that minister of Berkeley” (RC), which Bob cancelled – and the whole issue is over the “spiritual” (the Curriculum as you know is of the Soul) – . . . Creeley & I have always “parted company” on this issue, but it wasn’t openly stated because there was no occasion – till now); now, finally, this “groundswell of resentment and possessiveness” (RC) has become the occasion, the occasion of the public exposure of different “frames” (Bob’s word) of Olson by people who knew him at different “times” in his life. And any “special view” of Olson might be called possessive of him, but I think what has “spooked” Bob (his word) is this what he regards as religious contexting of Olson.”
The push was then on to transform Olson and his poetics into just another poet of nothing further. Robert Creeley’s introduction to the second edition of the Clark biography takes the lead in limiting Olson’s work to some materialist sense of “historical geography,” “a tracking of the earth in time” as Creeley puts it. Susan Howe, in acknowledging a debt to Olson, limits it to making her aware that the poem could contain documents and scholarship. For Olson, however, documents and scholarship and the earth in time were always further, projective, transformed, as Kent Circle becomes Kunt Circle, the site of mythic creative outpouring where Olson’s first poems were written, or Dogtown, arising out of Oceanos, becomes the site of Merry’s mythological sacrifice. The entire landscape of Gloucester, in fact, is alive with meaning, with eruptions of mythic resonance. Without the mythic geography that informs it, so-called “historical” geography becomes an excuse for sociology and for the very thing Olson so wanted to escape, to leave behind – the use of history as document that turns the poem into a site of moralist judgment.
In any case, the elimination of the Olson Memorial Lectures also eliminated one last remnant of Olson’s influence in Buffalo, and in fact, of Olson’s importance as a radical thinker worthy of attention. The final blow to Olson’s reputation was the publication in 1991 of Tom Clarke’s biography of Olson, The Allegory of a Poets Life. Its portrait of a narcissistic, bullying drunk perfectly fleshed out the image of Olson as a patriarchal, sexist monster and became fodder for reviewers who used it to dismiss Olson’s work as a fraud. The book caused an explosion of argument and counter-argument over its value with Creeley leading the defense and Ralph Maud, a somewhat obsessive Olson scholar (but what scholar[s] isn’t a little obsessive?) minutely detailing every error in the book which Clark ignored.
In 1990, Charles Bernstein, through Creeley’s agency, was appointed Grey Chair Fellow, over the objection of other senior poets in the Buffalo English Department who felt the Chair should represent other modes of poetry. The same year, Susan Howe was appointed to a fulltime professorship. They then founded, along with Robert Creeley, Dennis Tedlock, and Raymond Federman, the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo, formalizing the end of Olson’s influence, replacing him in the obligatory story of poetic origin with Louis Zukofsky as the mediator between them and Pound. Poetics, as their program states, is “the sum of the theoretical languages that define and inform the term poesis as construction and making.” Gnosis and the transformational knowledge were replaced by “theory.” The knowledge that Olson sought was abandoned to the ontological narcissism of “construction.” Official poetics in the United States were then determined either by the technique of creative writing classes or the theory of the UB Poetics Program (where you could get a PhD in Poetics). Olson’s radical rupture had been capped and buried. In a 2011 interview, Susan Howe publicly regretted the loss of the older poet’s work. “Olson has currently fallen out of favor and it’s too bad,” she said. “I remember the thrill of first encountering the Maximus Poems IV, V, and VI in The Cape Goliard Press, 1968 edition.” The ground was cleared for the neo-liberal grotesqueries of the 90s to spread through every corner of the world of poetry.