On April 14, 2016, the Hammer Museum at UCLA held an event billed as “Poetry: The Kinetics—Black Mountain College’s Literary Descendants” in conjunction with a show on the arts at BMC called “Look before You Leap: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957.” The four poet/scholars designated to represent the literary descendants included Michael Palmer, Michel Davidson, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Duncan McNaughton. At the end of the event, the four participants gave talks on various aspects of the continuing significance of the culture and achievements of BMC to the contemporary situation, which included a discussion of one of its rectors, the poet Charles Olson. The first question from the audience, from Daniel Tiffany, was about so-called “vanguard formations” organized around sociological concerns – i.e. identity politics – and how they could relate to the “patriarchal” culture of the old “vanguard, as the questioner framed BMC. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis began to address the critique of patriarchy at BMC and in the work of Charles Olson, Duncan McNaughton interrupted the proceedings, and, after announcing his refusal to address the poets of his history and imagination as sociological phenomena, abruptly departed stage and the event. Benjamin Hollander’s open letter to Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Daniel Tiffany addresses these issues and events and their implications for poets today.
Dear Rachel and Daniel,
Good to see you, the two Michaels, and Duncan addressing Olson and Black Mountain, through my computer. It’s about time Black Mountain took the stage, and that the finest of our poet-scholars led the cast.
I wrote a brief version of this to you, Daniel. I assume it was you who was addressing the panel from the audience at the end of the talk. It was a fascinating evening, watching all of you and your various responses to Black Mountain and its literary descendants.
I would like to respond to you Rachel, but also to Daniel, to what you said or asked: what is the relation of Olson and Black Mountain as a vanguard movement to other vanguards today, many of which are based on identity formations—“whiteness, race, gender, sexuality”— since a lot of the vanguards today would see “Black Mountain as more of a center in its racist, patriarchal modes?”
Some opening points: First, I may not accept the premise that Black Mountain saw itself as “vanguard”, and perhaps that is your/our anachronistic perceptions. Second, I question the Hammer museum’s framing of the evening in terms of “literary descendants,” as the word “literary,” with all it entails about the disciplinary segregation and insularity of verse culture, limits the acts of “transformational gnosis,” as Mike Boughn calls it, which Olson and Black Mountain constituted and which some of the panelists addressed. I only want to present a little history which has not been fleshed out, and let people find their own on their own, which is how Olson saw history, as istorin
: “to discover for oneself.” I will respond to only a few points and their implications, but also to some omissions in the evening—which was to be expected, as all of you had brief time.
1)Though in your text you granted Olson his influence on you–his collage methods, his anarchist spirit, and so on–I feel that the evening got bogged down once you were given permission, by Daniel, to do what has always been done to Olson, as you called it, “a gender-oriented critique” which, earlier in your text, you laid the groundwork for by suggestively naming Duncan’s “anti-masculinist spirit” in silent assumption against Olson’s pro-masculine spirit, as if you had extended your hand to Olson only to withdraw it later during the discussion. We need a little history to imagine beyond these binary assumptions.
There is no arguing with what you said, Rachel, about women being framed mythologically and a-historically, and there is no argument that there are segments of The Maximus Poems which dismissively frame women exactly that way. However, your audience did not receive the history on how women poets have, and in our history, in our moment, responded to Olson—from di Prima to Waldman (whom you mentioned) to Alice Notley to Eileen Myles to Kathleen Fraser– not to excuse or justify “the patriarchal Olson” but to present his usefulness to them through very nuanced points of view on what he meant to them and how they saw him? As Ammiel Alcalay has suggested, these women poets’ perspectives on Olson are usually elided from current conversations, but they can be taken as a unified response to Marjorie Perloff’s dismissive take on Olson’s “gendered ideology” and also to her rhetorical suggestion that women have “steered clear” of Olson because of his sexism. Perloff has said:
how many women critics (or younger poets) have responded favorably to Olson? There’s Ann Charters, but she is writing primarily as a biographer. Who else? And if women have on the whole steered clear, doesn’t that tell us something?
Her question is presented in Alcalay’s book, a little history
, in a piece called “What to Whom,” which I’m sure you know is all about descendants and correspondents but which was not mentioned on stage—an unintended omission, no doubt–and in which we read that it is precisely those women poets –di Prima to Waldman to Kathleen Fraser to Alice Notley to Eileen Myles —who do NOT steer clear (among others) (http://dispatchespoetry.com/articles/documents#109
Alcalay’s “purpose” – and this is pertinent to how descendants of Black Mountain (and Olson) represent that movement in our own vanguard moments –
is to bring attention to how cases are made and how histories can unfold in a public way, revealing parallels between the ways power and control over our experience get administered and distributed, and what happens to the representation of our encounters with the world….
What happens, then, is this: certain encounters are privileged over others. Others, for example, like Diane di Prima’s memories of Olson, in her Olson Memorial Lecture, published by Lost and Found under Alcalay’s General Editorship:
I remember pointing out to Charles that it was likely that I wasn’t really a writer: compared with the men I knew. This was weighing heavily on my mind right then…. Charles never replied directly to this notion—he simply treated me as if I was a serious artist…. [He] had my back.
In an email correspondence with me, Alcalay has articulated a conundrum related to how anecdotes can work to further a patriarchal view of Olson by repeating stories of Olson’s condescending relationships with women. Not that some are not true, but that there are other tales as well, and this is what happens when we remember anecdotally and certain stories are told more often than others and reinforced in an audience’s consciousness as the way “things” were. But, historically, what also was “the kinetics of the thing?” As Alcalay writes:
there are always these several examples of a woman that O asked to leave the class – several points: were there men whom he also asked to leave? Yes, as far as I know – & where are the anecdotal stories of the women he HELPED at Black Mountain (Cynthia Hohlmeyer, now in her late 80s in New Mexico, she was going to hitchhike to Florida to work as a waitress because she was broke & O asked her what she needed to stay & she said a typewriter so O gave her his typewriter. Or my mother, who brought the few poems she wrote in Italian to O & he looked at them carefully, talked to her about them, validated her…
If anything looks like it has descended from Black Mountain, it’s this kind of occulted poetics and politics which Alcalay outlines in depth in a little history. As I said: a notable omission from the evening’s discussion.
2) As, relatedly, was any mention of former Beyond Baroque literary arts director Fred Dewey (grandson of John Dewey), who edited Alcalay’s book and who himself has written The School of Public Life which, as pedagogy, is a direct heir to Black Mountain’s philosophy.
3) The omission of and significance of the presence of Jack Clarke as descendant—we know Buffalo was not uniquely Creeley–was bizarre: we’re talking about the figure who followed Olson and who put together the Olson memorial lectures and the curriculum of the soul series of books. Very bizarre omission.
4) Also, it was not articulated, but how would current “vanguards based on identity formations,” as you, Daniel, called them, respond today to the homosexuality of Duncan, Wieners and Rumaker in light of the patriarchal Olson, and why have these vanguards not responded? How could it at all be possible for some so called contemporary “vanguards based on identity formations” NOT to relate to and explore those relationships, particularly in how that beautiful “infidelity” could possibly function (or not) in the midst of the so-called man’s man Olson and the repressive era of which he was a part? This, also, was missing from the evening’s discussion.
5) Furthermore, Rumaker, Wieners, and Dorn (and Olson) were all from working class backgrounds, and this is partly why Olson was drawn to them. With very different ways of “poetic speaking,” they understood what Gary Lenhart writes in The Stamp of Class: Reflections on Poetry and Social Class, that “literacy can alienate you from your loved ones and even yourself.” In the age of “Jim” Crowe Ransom (Michael Palmer’s pointedly accurate designation) and Thomas Stearns Eliot, where poetry was severely segregated from that class, here is another identity formation which might get some traction today, if it were known. For some reason, it has been abandoned off road and ignored. As has any mention, in this context, of Olson’s father: an activist for The Postal Workers Union, but also an immigrant who Olson wrote about in The Post Office, a piece which some coalitions and “vanguards based on identity formations” might find useful in relation to Olson’s pained take on the conditions of immigrant lives as reflected in his father’s circumstances at the frontera, as laborer and immigrant. It is a singular piece of prose which frames what it means to be an alien worker in the polis versus in America.
6) In terms of “race,” as Michael Palmer mentioned, there are strong links between Olson and Baraka and, I would add, the Black Arts movement, a link which is bound by a lineage of persons and magazines, from Black Mountain Review to Yugen and Floating Bear, to more recently, Nathaniel Mackey, both to his poetry and poetics and to his editing of Hambone. Also, see his recent reference to Olson among others in his talk at Buffalo. As Mike Boughn has written:
Mackey talked about breath. It’s all about breath, he said. He began by mentioning Creeley’s artificial breath patterns as a sign of distress during the Cold War. He then moved on to Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” with its radical claims for a poetry of physicality measured by the breath. He pointed out that breath was not a “natural” measure, but was organized (artificial, he called it) as a way of invoking specific states of being. From there he went on to a marvelously detailed exposition of jazz and breath (filling the auditorium with the sounds of Ben Webster, John Coltrane, and other musicians) and to the ways breathing variously signifies what he called precarity in relation to black lives and the violence they are subjected to in US American society. Pointing out that the breath rhythms of jazz reflect that violence (lynching, choke holds – violent interruptions of breath) he went on to propose that “respiration is what matters. Even if at risk. Especially if at risk,” and that “Black is the color of precarity itself.” It was a brilliant lecture. At the end of the talk he read a stunning poem about America and violence and spirit. (See Dispatch from Buffalo, 7 April 2016: http://dispatchespoetry.com/articles/dispatches#11)
Throw in other of Olson’s descendants, like Wieners, and we have Wieners’ magazine, Measure, publishing Stephen Jonas’ “Word-on Measure.” (not to mention that it was Jonas who talked to Wieners about attending Black Mountain College). I should add that Jonas’s “identity” reflected, quite literally in skin color, what goes unsaid in this reduction to identity formations as either/or, black or white, gay or straight, and so on….He reflects Baldwin’s beautiful proposition: “Shades cannot be fixed; [and] color is, eternally, at the mercy of the light.” So, I ask: what would today’s “vanguards based on identity formations” say, if they knew, about the forms these intersections and correspondences took among the content of very different racial and sexual and class identities in the presence of Olson (and Black Mountain, considering of course, that this was North Carolina in the 40’s and 50’s, let alone North Carolina in 2016)? And do we also need to hear that Olson was good for the Jews?
7) Also, if we think of Olson’s politics, what privilege did he, Olson, give up when he could have had a very comfortable political life: this is something so called vanguard groups today, those formed by self-professed political identities (e.g. Commune Editions), might learn something from, if they studied the history of a worker/community poetics and politics in Olson’s writings, in his letters to the poet and union organizer Vincent Ferrini and as reflected in Ferrini’s magazine, Four Winds, as well as in his community activism (e.g. his campaigns to save the wetlands) and correspondence with The Gloucester Times (see http://www.thing.net/~grist/ld/anastas/MAXIMUS.HTM “the letters are an attempt to call the people’s attention to a number of pressing issues, from the city’s seeming amnesia regarding her greatest painter, Fitz Hugh Lane (now Fitz Henry Lane), to the consequences of the razing of precious buildings, by urban renewal, or what Olson referred to as ‘renewing without reviewing.’”) Sounds like a little history which some poets who are linked to Occupy folks would want to investigate, but, alas, I have not seen much of it.
8) Finally, it behooves us–although I never like to horse around in eloquent circles and use that word, “behooves,” (nor “alas”)–to find the voice that will speak to the whole of Olson. We should remember how Olson did not dismiss Pound when so many were, but adopted the voice of uprising in Yeats to praise Pound’s so-called treasonous insights about America in relation to Pound’s other crazy theories: this in Olson’s “This Is Yeats’ Speaking.” Would that not be miraculous—someone assuming a nuanced, contemporary voice in order to re-write Olson’s This is Yeats Speaking, but this time about Olson
9) Still, the important thing here is not a defense of Olson—simply put, his work, like Pound’s will speak for itself– but to offer some history for poets today who have been so captivated by so-called “vanguards based on identity formations” that they lose sight of knowing the details about Olson’s life and work and his multiple descendants. In the service of ideology, have poets become satisfied with caricatures of Olson, and can they not see how multiple poetic and personal and political identities trace back to his teachings?
As you know, these “vanguards based on identity formations” can be seen played out in the politically corrected defenses of one contemporary poet’s skewed view of an imperialistic Olson (Heriberto Yépez’s book on Olson), where seductive theorizing fills up the Olson space with something
that stands for history, but is not: neither history nor memory, for which Yépez has confessed he has no use and which might be the definition of revisionism: “Memory is chimera….Memory and History are identical. They are the very impossibility of control,” Yépez has written. And so this “theory”—“a theory-world” which Yépez writes “has no consequences–” philosophically and psychologically cuts out or, yes, castrates the real political and poetic and personal facts and relationships of Olson’s life and, by extension, Black Mountain, and thus does have real consequences (This, by the way, comes from a poet and scholar, Yépez, who has done brilliant fabulous critiques called crítica ficciónes
, as well as, most recently a spot-on evaluation of The Berkeley Poetry Conference of 2015, in which he wonders why, in the words of the organizers, they emphasize inviting poets of color of national reputation….in order to enlarge the national paradigms for reading and writing .” Why, he asks—and I would agree—among so-called avant poets of color and no color, is the focus “on the National, the National, the National…, which wards off the foreign, the alien, the unwelcomed, the transnational.”)
On the other hand, he is also the editor and one of the translators of Charles Bernstein’s L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E ¡CONTRAATACA! Poéticas selectas (1975-2011), the collaborative act of which is problematic on another level and could be seen as replete with all sorts of North American poetics agendas to flatten Olson, now crossing borders to Mexico through Bernstein who, like the image of Olson spoofed on the cover of Yépez’s book, has already parodied Olson’s “Projective Verse” (see C.B’s “Introjective Verse”), which is fine, an innocent enough joke in itself perhaps, but which takes on a much different cast when it is revealed that Bernstein himself has subjected Olson’s body of work to a Yepez-like critique, many years before, in a piece called “Undone Business.” In this essay, Bernstein, according to Kaplan Harris, “charges Olson with a nationalist agenda that is politically and ethically suspect.” Bernstein writes that Olson’s “Maximus…falls prey to the impulse to justify America by the appropriation and overlaying of privileged texts (such as the Hesiodic myths, so specifically rooted in their own geographical .and historical context) that are ingeniously contorted to appear relevant but are only relevant within the wildest leap of the Gnostic imagination.”
As with Yépez, here again is a reading of Olson as the Father-Nationalist-North American appropriator of “native” texts and cultures, a tone which curiously echoes Marjorie Perloff’s dismissal of Olson’s poetry and Projective Verse as patriarchal and phallocentric, the same Perloff, we should remember, who once opened the academic gates to champion Bernstein and Lang Po (and later legitimized Con-Po). What could this strange alliance of people and events and so-called readings of Olson—from Bernstein, Yépez, and Perloff—suggest, if anything?
Perhaps nothing. Perhaps they are random and disconnected. However, they do have in common a converging administration of knowledge about Olson, putting the poet of place in his place, so to speak, marking that place on the margins. They illuminate, for example, how Bernstein and Yépez —allies in translating Bernstein’s work and running it south of the border—have composed a theoretically distorted, parodic nationalistically inspired perspective on Olson which betrays the facts about Olson’s relationship to America. In the process, they repress knowledge of the diversity of correspondents and descendants whose works and lives can be traced back to his poetics and his place at Black Mountain.
But what, if anything, would the agenda be here? For a lens on how and why an ideological levelling of Olson might have evolved—see Mike Boughn’s tightly argued essay, “Poetics’ bodies – Charles Olson and some poetry wars, 1913-1990, (http://dispatchespoetry.com/articles/commentary.#55
) which traces how the academic agendas being shaped at The University of Buffalo abandoned to the shadows the focus on Olson’s (and Clarke’s) visionary “project” in order to cast the light more clearly on the, “secular” materialistic “poetics” of Creeley and then on the theories of the Language Poets, institutionalized through Bernstein, who succeeded Creeley as the David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at Buffalo in the Fall of 1990.
Back to Yépez: well, not really, but to his North American supporters and justifiers, young and old, who may make up the vanguards based on identity formations and who resist seeing beyond or before his work and its descendants. Can these poets not be aware of Olson’s correspondents and descendants who, as a whole, would be hard pressed to be associated with an imperialist, racist, sexist– think Ferrini, Rukeyser, di Prima, Baraka, Hirschman, among others mentioned in this letter?
For people to buy into and continually reinforce a revisionist theorized view of Olson—which suggests Projective Verse is the big man’s phallic, militaristic, imperialistic proposition, no doubt a comic revelation to the small imperialist Amiri Baraka who first published it– reveals an ignorance of so much of the evidence of Olson’s company and work at Black Mountain and after.
When certain people know these facts (e.g. Duncan McNaughton) and feel close to the company they shared with the figures around and the heirs to Black Mountain, well, their frustration and bewilderment present as passion and anger (as it did during the evening) at how so-called knowledgeable poets and academics let their unguarded tolerance for these (distorted) theories buy into this revisionism and be schooled by it. What a museum audience sees, what an audience watching online witnesses, is that someone got angry. Why did he get angry? Why can’t he control himself? Is he an angry man? Why can’t he be reasonable? And the anger is especially noticed when the “angry one” hears in dulcet, measured tones the received echoes of agreement about Olson as Plath’s bastard daddy, as if the tones of reasonableness in themselves make the description reasonable, even when many of the facts of the poetry and poetics and life do not support these airbrushed sketches. It could make someone scream or walk off stage.
Again, this is not about defending Olson (or, by extension, Yépez’s critique of Olson) but of informing multiple generations of poets of other stories and histories and crossings, some of which are laid out in Alcalay’s book, which has received almost no attention. Perhaps, if people knew these facts, then opinions about Olson would change. Or, maybe not: perhaps, as Alcalay has written me, “knowing some facts in this case would not help —since people grounded in a certain ideological agenda either need to simply be defeated or shamed into silence…the facts are just the first stage of ‘negritude,’ where you convince the white colonizer that we, too, had a civilization.”
Unfortunately, if one can only frame questions in the reductive poetic currency of the day—how “vanguards based on identity formations” address or can’t reconcile themselves to the self-proclaimed infidel, unaccredited Black Mountain College of Olson, which was patriarchal and racist—then one does NOT want to address how complicated Olson and Black Mountain and its descendants really were. They can only be un- complicated and thus undone if these poets and academics feel threatened and have some academic territory to defend and so remain willfully blind to the evidence in order to promote an agenda which purposefully voids a comprehensive imagination about Olson or Duncan and their multiple descendants and correspondents.
And I would leave it there, except in the spirit of an Olson-poet breathing out to us, I just received these beautiful words from the poet Susan Thackrey, which I wish were mine:
Any poet (she, he, they) has to work by the means of their own peculiar fate. If that fate has obscured, and it has, by definition, always obscured, the truth of their origins (whether that fate is structured by genome, history, culture, society or other beliefs) and thus of their possible truths, then poetry is a way into that obscurity. Olson’s own poetic imagination did move mythically, in regard to himself most primarily, but it didn’t refuge in myth; it breathed out. If Olson-poet is incomplete, strained, or seemingly obdurate, to any poet seeking a mentor or precursor, and if any poet has to turn and look at what they have stumbled over in the dark, then that can be poetry. In King Lear, Gloucester, blind, says “Might I but live to see thee in my touch.” (quoted in Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, p. 50)
Benjamin Hollander, San Francisco, April 18, 2016