Dear Dispatches: Perhaps it is my own perverse optimism, but your latest dispatch got me thinking about Prynne’s comments and Olson and Black Mountain in a far different way. Being outside of it all, I can avoid being offended (I don’t know enough about any of it, any of them to lay claim to an opinion), and still pull something out of what he said, and what you said.  I’m an old scavenger—always trying to make something useful out of what I’ve got, fashion something out of trash, discards, whatever might be there in front of me…)

First, about Black Mountain as a “team”—perhaps this is a slight from Prynne, such a solitary intellect. Getting past the initial question of what he might have meant by that, and also recognizing as an undeniable fact of the enormity of the individual cultural achievements of the many members of that group (Artists, musicians, dancers and others, as well as poets), we can think about what the team-work of Black Mountain was, and how unique and powerful that coming together was, for those in it, as well as those of us left to view its legacy.

As a “casual scholar” of literary and intellectual history, I’ve always been fascinated by the interactions between and among great minds—Michelangelo among Medici’s humanists, the Wordsworths and Coleridge walking and talking in the Lake Country; Yeats and his séance circles of poets and actors and others—the examples could fill volumes. The biographies of most famous writers and artists (I make little distinction between the two in this respect) are fascinating, largely because they are social—histories of the communities, intentional and otherwise which became the creative centers of so many great makers.

I confess I know far too little about the world of Black Mountain, and I’m trying to learn, but even in my scant understanding of the situation, I see Black Mountain, as a college and as a movement as an intentional community, consciously a team, both outwardly as an institution of learning and inwardly as a community of artists. Black Mountain stands out in my imagination as a conscious decision on the part of some of the most powerful minds of that generation to live and work and teach together, and to allow all three of those aspects of their life influence one another—the teaching, and the work, and the living together all become products of the other two. The only other example I can think of like it is Brook Farm, but even that was more about the community and left the work of the individual members as independent (such as it might have been) in the minds of those members. I think that, at Black Mountain, people began to invite the question about what effect the membership in the group should and could have on the creative act.

I feel that we know too little of this aspect of the Black Mountain experiment, that it is lost in the unraveling of the individual stories of its members. Perhaps the anxiety of influence is not always in the mind of the poet, but also exists retroactively in the viewpoint of the historian. As for scholarship, I imagine Olson’s scholarship, as well as Creeley’s to be less “casual” than idiosyncratic, or iconoclastic, even. If we take the basic construct of the scholar’s task, and express it mathematically, as you have, it looks something like this:

text + scholar = scholarship

though that seems not entirely accurate, as scholarship adds value to both the text and the scholar:

text + scholar = scholarship + textv + scholar v

with v being the value of the scholarship in relation to them. In the world of academic (professional, not casual) scholarship, scholars gain a measure of value through the scholarship they do, and texts gain value by having been the subjects of academic scrutiny. This system is cumulative, with the value of scholars, texts and scholarship all increasing with each act of “scholarship.” The number of permutations of how each of the variables influences the value of the others is complex and frustrating. The discussion of how much the “value” of a text influences the “value” of scholarship surrounding it is itself alone too much to even think about.

So, that’s professional (non-casual) scholarship—a cycle, a circle, a spiral perpetrating itself (a gyre?). To be cynical, one might say that the main purpose of scholarship is not to instruct, not to inform, (where is the student in the equation?) not to know anything, but to increase the value of its variables, the text, the scholar and the scholarship. The system is closed.

So, what then, was Olson doing, with his “casual” (non-professional?) scholarship? I can’t say, I know too little about it, but in my ignorance, I can throw out a guess:

text + poet = scholarship + poem

Scholarship, here, in the hands of a generative personality, is the byproduct of production, as coke is a byproduct of coal processing, or what becomes dog food in the processing of meat. Here, scholarship is a path to the poem—to the creation of new texts. Prynne calls it casual—perhaps characterizing the situation and motives of its origin—something cooked up in discussion, a game, perhaps, played by restless minds looking for something to do, something taken up, like a hobby, something worn without the heavy mantle of deadly seriousness.

Casual as a pejorative creates a strange cognate on the other side of its binary—it only implies an inaccurate mate. The usual words for scholarship are rigorous, formal, professional and all of these describe differing aspects of the act of scholarship: the first, attests to its intensity, or perhaps its difficulty; the second to its form, its context; and the last to its outcome, the value I spoke of earlier. To describe scholarship as casual impugns none of these directly, as casual implies more about a scholar’s attitude towards it, especially in how the scholar comes to the task.

There’s something else in the word casual that undermines the judgement that you see in it— there’s something cool about it, organic and freewheeling and almost pure. The casual scholar is a renegade, a free agent, not beholden to the process, or the “professional” outcomes (v expressed in academic posts, tenure, “reputation”) Casual scholarship is something that does not reify the scholar; instead, it creates something new— in doing so, the letters of the word float around and become something new: causal.

Knowing things, the process of discovery, the living inside of ideas—all of this is “casual scholarship.” And unlike its opposite, the casual scholar can leave it, leave the world of others behind and do something else. A scholar without scholarship is a non-entity, trapped in the role of never-ending interpretation. (The scholar is not the scholar until there is scholarship, no? Perhaps the opposite relation of casual is married—permanently committed?) Olson points us elsewhere, encouraging a scholarship that is deep, rigorous, but without the self-reflexive payoff of the value-added scholar. Olson’s scholarship is casual because it is intended to be causal—that it is not the end itself, but the means of entering into the place in the mind where new things become possible. (I like to think that the casual scholar even invites the possibility of inaccuracy, when something like a misreading leads to a whole new set of ideas, which is in line with a lot of stuff I do myself.)

Ultimately, I think that both of these things are related—teamwork and scholarship. In some ways they may be the same thing. At Black Mountain, we have a team, a collection of individuals who were deeply engaged in their own art, working together, in and out of conflict, discussing, influencing and being influenced by each other, through proximity, discussion, collaboration and even competition. One imagines that it was a collective conversation that required the highest levels of engagement and knowledge. Scholarship, approached casually/causally can be the same kind of thing, entering into a grand conversation with great minds, with ideas themselves, putting aside the difficulties of time and place through some combination of dedication and imagination, and not undermined by the exigencies of professional considerations. Perhaps it can be best expressed like this:

(scholar + text + imagination) – professionalism = poet

Thanks,  John