A World of Olson

Thank you for visiting CALL ME ISHMAEL (or “Olson to the Maximus,” as one of my grad students called it), what I hope is an exhilarating foray into the poetry, life and influence of Charles Olson, 1910-1970. What follows are the proceedings from my grad class, E505: Charles Olson and His Circle, Spring 2011. What seems abundantly clear is the vigor of his work, still, and the brilliance of my class in their attempts at unfurling the Quantity, Scale and Motion of this seminal figure of 20th (and 21st) century poetics.

Matthew Cooperman, Associate Professor of English, Colorado State University

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Another from Black Mountain

As we close the circle on our peregrinations with Charles Olson, I want to draw us back to near the beginning and dwell a bit with one of Olson’s Black Mountain contemporaries, looking for the threads that bind them.

Anni Albers was a founding faculty member at Black Mountain.  With her husband Josef Albers, she had been a student at the Bauhaus under the leadership of Gropius and then Mies van der Rose, first in Weimar and then in Dessau.  As Nazism began to arise in Depression-era Germany, the Bauhaus aligned itself with the Communist movement.  In 1931, the Nazis suceeded in closing the Dessau Bauhaus; after a brief period of struggle and soul searching (though a convert to Christianity, Anni was of Jewish descent, making their position even more precarious), the Albers suceeded in emigrating to the U.S., arriving in New York in 1933.  Shortly thereafter Josef was tapped to take the position of art director at Black Mountain College, and the Albers moved again, this time to North Carolina, where they would remain for sixteen years.

At the Bauhaus, women students had been forbidden from following the full course of study, which proceeded from elementary drawing to architecture.  Instead, they were diverted after the preliminary course into the weaving, ceramics, and bookbinding tracks.  During her tenure at the Dessau Bauhaus, Albers had turned this constraint into a generative practice, producing both complex art weavings and a series of innovative industrial textiles, using her technical skills to create work that had utilitarian and commercial value.

Once at Black Mountain, Albers established the weaving workshop, which would become a principle area of study for students.  She also continued her work in both creative and technical fields, producing astonishingly subtle and emotive weaving and designing revolutionary industrial textiles.  As a teacher, she was ingenuous and beloved, known for requiring her students to work with materials from outside “the arts,” found objects and artifacts of construction or domestic interiors.  She also wrote prolifically in English during her time at Black Mountain, developing an argument for the relevance of “craft” both to “art” and to the wider culture or human spirit.

We can see Albers’s connections to Olson particularly in her emphasis on the process of creative work, and on the transformation that material culture works upon art.  In an essay entitled “We Need the Crafts for Their Contact with Materials,” from her 1944 collection Design, she writes:

Art work deals with the problem of a piece of art, but more, it teaches the process of all creating, the shaping out of the shapeless . . . . Things take shape in material and in the process of working it, and no imagination is great enough to know before the works are done what they will be like.

This of course recalls Olson’s commitment to the archive, the walk, the literal materials that surrounded his process and became the stuff of his poetry.  Both were visibly commited in their work to contamination, the crossing of culturally enforced boundaries between art and not-art.

Finally, Albers recalls Olson in her belief in the transformative power of creative work, on both a personal and a cultural scale.  Emerging as she did from the sadistic disintegration of her culture of origin, her words in “One Aspect of Art Work” are particularly powerful:

Our world goes to pieces; we have to rebuild our world.  We investigate and worry and analyze and forget that the new comes about through exuberance and not through a defined deficiency.  We have to find our strength rather than our weakness.  Out of the chaos of collapse we can save the lasting…

In her insistence on exuberance, on strength, on art as a process of cultural triage and reconstruction, we can see echoes of Olson’s later committment to cultural renewal and heroic labor in the Maximus Poems.

Josef and Anni Albers left Black Mountain in 1949 (also the year of her solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art) after a period of disputes about the college’s direction—Olson, who had arrived the previous fall as a replacement writing instructor, was apparently sympathetic to their side of the schism.  By 1951, Olson occupied Josef’s place as rector of the college.

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Suzuki Method Acting

In light of Charles Olson’s love for dance and theatre, I was reminded of my time studying as an actor. As most of you are artist yourselves, more notably poets, you may understand the depth of practice that seems to be lost on the masses in your art because “well, as long as you can rhyme, you can write a poem, right?”. I guess. The is same notion is also held of acting and theatre ( no thanks to many, many terrible renditions of Grease at community theatres). There is a strict art and methodology behind the performance as an actor and as an ensemble.

During my time studying acting in my undergraduate years, I was enrolled in a Body Movement class. The purpose of this class was to help connect the actor to their body and break the actor’s notion of self so that the voice and body of the character could come through. Easy, yes? No. In fact, this may be one of the hardest and most trying (emotionally and physically) practices I have yet encountered in my life. In this class, I was introduced to the art of Suzuki method acting. I will attach a video that shows this taking place in practice, but I will also attempt to explain it.

First you have an instructor who uses a rod to strike the ground, making a large jolting noise. Each time this is done, the actors involved must change their body and throw their energies in a different direction. After a series of movements, the instructor determines whether the actors are ready to recite a memorized monologue. The purpose is to let go of your idea of self, let your character emerge, and throw your energy to either the audience or the actors you are working with. Mind you, this all happens at once, instantaneously.

The reason I mention this, is because it reminds me of Olson’s ideas of how energy is transferred from the author to the reader. In “Projective Verse”, Olson determines how this energy is to flow between the author and the reader. Keeping this in mind, what I think is also remnant of the teaching found in Suzuki is echoed in Projective verse when Olson talks about Objectivism. He says:

“Objectivism is getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that particular presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For man is himself an object, whatever he may take to be his advantages, more likely to recognize himself as greater than his advantages, particularly at that moment that he achieves an humilias sufficient to make him of use”(Olson 247).

I am struck by this idea of achieving “humilias” and that his will finally make the author/person useful. I find this notion echoed in Suzuki method and think that this is exactly what this method hopes to achieve; A means to break down the ego of the individual so that they can return to a more natural state and therefore project other notions of humanity that are not interjected by their own ideas of accomplishment.

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The body and Charles Olson; some thoughts.

In trying to tie up my thoughts on Olson, I keep coming back to the idea of the body. Olson, as we all know, is immensely interested in the idea of the body, in the proprioceptive ability, in the “little brains in the fingertips.” I keep coming back to his account we read in Mayan letters about being touched by a stranger (in a non creepy way) and how this opened a new sense of the world to him. This is something I can relate to, as I’m sure anyone else can. I greatly value my ability to sense the world, the control over my physical body, and the way in which I can get up out of bed and go for walk or run first thing without needing to think about it.

With that said, I am wondering how people who do not have this relationship with the body would react to Olson. Once again, to turn it into a me show, I feel there is a disconnect that can occur when a particular sense is not “there” or “the body” is “disabled” in some sense. Personally, I have worn some form of eye wear since the age of seven. I do not know what it is like to see the world without a lens to view it. Currently, I wear contacts and this gives me an ability to view the world in peripheral ways, ways that were previously disallowed by my poor eyesight. However, I am at various times through the day, consistently aware of the lenses that suction to my “disabled” eyeballs. While pictures of the man Charles Olson tell us that he shared this same “lack” (and yes I am using quotations in a very characteristic fashion), I have tried to imagine what it would be for someone reading his poems that is deaf. “The HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE” can take on a whole new meaning when the ear can not make out sounds. To take it even further, I wonder how people who are missing their ability to walk would react to Olsons proprioceptive notions? I had an aunt who died of Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gherig’s disease, back in 2005 and watching her lose her ability to walk, grasp things, and hold her head up, brings this whole bodily idea of Olson’s poetics to the forefront and into a new light.

I don’t really have any concrete ideas on this, I haven’t read much in the way of disability or body studies, but it’s one more way Olson and his poetics has come into my personal view and makes him an important figure in my future research, at least potentially.

Since we are talking about poetics here, here is a link to a website featuring some poetry either written by disabled individuals or about disabilities. You can read it at this location.

-Dan

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Still Wondering Howe: An Origin of Departure

(This is actually the title of my final project introduction, and this blog post turned into the intro’s first page or so–the fuel for further pondering).

Looking toward my final project, back at my presentation, even in some of my own poetry lately, I’ve become rather obsessed with documenting, mapping (especially), repeating and collecting – basically exhausting the thing or concern until it’s no longer singular, until it multiplies and splits.  And then I pull the threads, let the superfluous “noise” unravel and disappear.

As reflection on our Susan Howe discussion, I wanted to further profess and explore some musings, notes, questions.  While reading Souls of the Labadie Tract, I apparently circled, underlined, starred, drew seventh-grade-style sun rays emanating from one quote I jotted in my notebook: “Quiet articulates poetry” (14). I read this a couple nights ago, and naturally, I had no idea why I wrote this down, what I was hoping to say/ask about this quote in class the night we discuss Howe’s work.

The visual page is quiet. At least it begins quiet. Clearly, words don’t always equate to poetry. But if poetry is what lives in the quiet, if the quiet between language is the actual poetry, then I find Projective Verse, even Proprioception, to have a more profound impact on my own processes as a writer and on the aesthetic interests I take in others’ work.  The quiet/space/field of the page is the speech of the poem, and while I could tolerate twenty years without hearing this again, I’ll use it one last time as an Olson hurrah: “Form is never more than an extension of content.”  I keep coming back to an idea of mapping action, the dictation of both sound and breath.  In a map, the lines between towns (roads/paths/routes) denote the movement, denote the traveling and necessity for records.  So, too, might the space denote the necessity for the poem. On the subject of the archive, Stephen Collis writes, “Documentation itself is the point—that the writer is embodied in it, that what an author ultimately leaves to the future is an archive” (70).  So the poem as a whole—its formal life—might then be the documentation of the traveled page, the sounded space.

I hesitate to utilize the class motto of every graduating class in the ‘90s, but poetry asks one (in my own approach) to, “focus on the journey” more than destination.  And perhaps this is how one approaches something like Maximus, something like the Collected Poems, as more of a continual (and elusive) mapping, skipping, and experiential reading than a surge toward a definitive place of rest.  Pierre Joris, referring to Carolee Schneeman’s work in weaving contemporary space with Olson’s era, notes a mapping in:

…creating a proprioceptive space where the artist, suspended in a rope harness, floats through space and her extended hands draw on the walls she pushes off against, creating a dense web of strokes and markings on the walls, a map of sorts of the virtual markings her body’s movement through space make and erase in the movement itself. (11)

Collis writes of both Howe’s and Olson’s quotations/writing in a manner similar to that in which towns populate a map.  He claims, “Howe places quotation beside quotation and largely leaves it to the reader to make what she will of their relationship.  Both Howe and Olson also deploy disorienting and anomalous structural tactics which once again force readers to account for form before content, the visual page before its discursive meanings” (64). The form (the distance/space/obstacles) between towns/text/quotes serves as the formal investigation of the content, the exploration of how one travels between these.

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A Delayed Sensation of Gestalt

There is comfort in knowing my presentation topic revolves around the mind’s ability to recognize wholeness amongst disparate pieces. Tonight, I’ll be presenting Gestalt therapy, founded by Fritz and Laura Perls and Paul Goodman, and how we might begin to see its principles at work or in conversation with Olson’s oeuvre.

There is much, too much, to be said about Gestalt psychology. Though it’s important to mention its distinction from Gestalt therapy, its founding psychologists (Kurt Koffka, Max Wertheimer, and Wolfgang Köhler) might lend some foundations of perception where we can begin.

In Bruce E. Goldstein’s Sensation and Perception (the textbook used in my own undergraduate Psychology of Perception course), he discusses Max Wertheimer’s initial interest in perception that defies sensation. This query began when he bought a stroboscope (some kind of toy) on a train platform in Frankfurt. This toy creates “an illusion of movement by rapidly alternating two slightly different pictures.” Wertheimer deemed this phenomenon “apparent movement” because no stimuli actually caused movement in these individual static images. The “sensation” was (falsely) perceived rather than experienced. The author uses the example of scrolling marquees to illustrate a modern application of apparent movement. We perceive words “moving” through space though the actual stimuli consist of individual lights flickering in a patterned configuration. Wertheimer then questioned the organizing constructs of the mind.

(This might be a concept we could consider or, in my opinion, contrast to the Brakhage films Tim shared with us. “Movement” seems to be a less accurate term there than primitive sensation. Rather than a continuity emerging from the flickered images/frames, his work seems to resist the connective impulse – the “apparent movement” – implicit in the mind.) We’ll look briefly at Gestalt psychology tonight, but here are some of its (very loosely summarized) principles, which I imagine if you search for images of these principles, you’ll recognize most of those that appear:

Emergence: Perception of the immediate whole rather than the parts.

Reification: Perceived shape/construction is more complex/spatially refined than actual stimuli.

Multistability: The ability to “flip” between two perceptions of one stimulus. (M.C. Escher!)

Invariance: Recognition of shapes/objects despite manipulations of scale, rotation, placement.

Grouping Laws (or Prägnanz): Closure, Similarity, Proximity, Symmetry, Continuity, Common Fate

From this “apparent movement” and the consequent definitions of Gestalt’s principles, I’m reminded of Notes on Poetics (toward Projective Verse II), specifically how we could apply the perceived object, the perceived sensation, as the poem. And perhaps not only the poem, but its impetus, its field, and the projective:

For example, the physical. One is able today to mark where sensations are qualitative and that feelings are not so, they are the 4/5ths which lie under, they are – what ‘physical’ won’t say – geometric. By that I mean structures as things are to the heart of themselves, and connected with each other, not simply impinging by rubbing on distance of surface from one another (where so much of imagery stays, as love or affrightment of superficies, reaching arms, etc., branches) when we are drawn driven torn thrown by forces of grab and refusal as strong & blind as what shakes the heart of the sun. One can call these things by name, strictly place them, offer them as sources of substance & act in poems. (29)

Perhaps in naming Olson acknowledges the whole, the composition that surpasses its quantities, the Gestalt. Perhaps in the spatial arrangement of “any smallest part of a word” with its other words, the poet produces a wholeness.

There is a spatial element in any smallest part of a word as well as a temporal element: you measure its ‘time’ (as accent/pitch/speed in relationship – or, ‘rest’) but it matters how you cut, even cut the syllable, you have the particle of it as such, as particle, measurable quantum. They ‘weigh’ in time (duration); they also occupy (occur) as any thing they are felt, as they are heard. (31)

Moving from these founding principles into Perls’ (and Goodman’s) Gestalt therapy, we might find a way to think about the I, the perceiver, the sensate affect of Olson’s work.

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Interpretative Timeline of Projective Verse

* Here is an rough sketch of my reading with Projective Verse.
I. Provides scope of essay
a. Will define what Projective Verse IS and what it is NOT
i. OPEN VS. CLOSED VERSE
b. Show open verse in act of composition
i. how it is accomplished
c. Suggest what stance of reality brings us to this poetic—beyond the technical.
II. What Projective Verse is:
a. COMPOSITION BY FIELD: The work of and in open verse—as opposed to inherited line, stanza, over-all form—closed.
i. (1) the kinetics of a thing—The poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct AND, at all points, an energy-discharge.
1. How does a poem hold the energy that caused it? How does a poem discharge this energy into a reader?
ii. (2) is the principle—the law which presides over such composition, and the reason why a projective poem can come into being: law: FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.
iii. (3) the process of a thing—how the principle can shape the energies—ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.
III. Machinery of Projective Verse
a. Breath—The Projective Verse will only do in which a poet manages to register both in the acquisitions of ear and the pressures of his breath.
i. Pressures of breath: SYLLABLE—glory of the breath and sound. Poetry must leave the “rime” and meter to enter the spontaneity of syllable composition.
1. The LINE: these two, the syllable and the line, make the poem. The line comes from the breath.
b. the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE
ii. I am dogmatic—the head is in the syllable. The dance of the intellect is there. Consider the best minds you know: where does the head show, is it no, precise, here, in the swift currents of the syllable? … Is not the PLAY of a mind we are after, is not that that shows whether a mind is there at all?
IV. Managing the Machinery of Projective Verse
a. “Simile is only one bird who comes down, too easily.” Descriptive/rhetorical functions have to be watched, their easiness drains the energy of composition by field—distraction from the hand that the poem is laying out.
b. We now enter the FIELD, where the syllables and lines must be managed in their relations to each other.
c. Poem seen as a FIELD of OBJECTS, kinetics, what they are, how they got there. Every element of the poem—the syllable, the line, as well as the image, the sound, the SENSE) must be taken as participants in the kinetics of a poem.
i. Treat objects in poem as if objects in reality—their tensions and confusions.
ii. Tenses, syntax, grammar must be kicked around, in order for time and the space-tensions to be composed in open field without the inherited rules.
1. LAW OF THE LINE—which Projective Verse creates, must be obeyed and conventional logic/syntax must be broken open.
d. All parts of speech are fresh for both sound and percussive use.
V. Crisis/ Solution
a. We have suffered from manuscript, press, the removal of verse from its producer and its reproducer, the voice.
i. Irony—machine steal, machine brings gain.
1. TYPEWRITER- it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases.
a. Poet now has the stave and the bar a musician has had. He can, without convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work.
b. Examples of Voice Indication—
i. Poem as script for vocalization—poet leaves a space as long as the phrase before it, he means that space to be held, by the breath, an equal length of time. If he suspends a word or syllable at the end of a line he means that time to pass that it takes the eye. The typewriter provides a slight pause in time (/), indentation controls, etc. etc.etc.
VI. Stance towards Reality/ Outside and Inside Poem
a. The projective purpose of the act of verse is recognized, the content does—it will—change.
b. Objectivism vs. Subjectivism—Objectivism is getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego.
i. The use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence.
ii. For a man’s problem, the moment he takes speech up in all its fullness, is to give his work his seriousness, a seriousness sufficient to cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature.
c. Ability of breath—breath is man’s special qualification as an animal. Sound is a dimension he has extended. Language is one of his proudest acts… they are in himself (in his physiology, if you like, but the life in him, for all that) then he, if he chooses to speak from these roots, works in that area where nature has given him size, projective size.

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