The basis of art is change in the universe. That which is still has changeless form. Moving things have change, and because we cannot put a stop to time, it continues unarrested. To stop something would be to half a sight or sound in our heart. Cherry blossoms whirl, leaves fall, and both flit along the ground. We cannot arrest with seeing or hearing what lies in such things. Were we to gain mastery over things, we would find that the life of each thing itself had vanished without a trace.
The writing of Charles Olson embodies aesthetic and ethical insights ignored and disparaged in our contemporary world’s corporatism and rush to war as the solution to problems. The social pressures that push people out of their jobs, the competition to articulate and rearticulate relations between valued and devalued concepts and languages in circulation in a pluralistic culture, speaks to what only appears opposite, the endless complexity of personal destinies and aims. For Olson, it is the life-and-death matter of awareness. The body of the poem as subject and the subject body—both the individual elements of a poem that have lineated/poetical and political connotations, and the way those elements are organized together in compassionate meditations on place. Olson, for example, did not just complain he tried to convince his opponents with the best means at his disposal. These means frequently differed from standard professional procedures. The working poor live in the wealthiest cities in the world. There’s no metaphor of escape.
At the center of Charles Olson’s work and teaching is the question of ‘identity,’ an awareness of that tissue perceived as inextricably linked to ‘politics’. In these imaginary zones, there is not first a permanent subject, then an experience it is adding to the storehouse of its past, nor a permanent substantial thing being experienced by an equally enduring self. Consequently, the possibility of anyone living out a private existence is an egocentric illusion. As a writer involved in how writing is written, and how ideas are produced, disseminated, shared, dispersed, mutilated, or controlled and suppressed, Olson’s interest is in the generation of feelings and ideas between writer and reader in as open an exchange as possible, sensitive to the distances that separate (sometimes insensitive as well). He gives us a dialogue rather than the ‘teaching’ of ‘facts,’ or the repetition of established interpretations, the “applied” knowledge of professionals. Having no idea what we are, everything is a set of relationships reaching out to other things.
Thinking does not bring knowledge as do the sciences. Thinking does not produce useable practical wisdom. Who will call the meaning in a song? Of each word, which is analytic, who can see the structure of a verse unfold? No one has been able to isolate the link between the act of composition and the artifact that it produces. Thinking does not solve the riddles of the universe. Writing does not endow us directly with the power to act. Charles Olson understood something many never have – the local is the only possible place of peace. Its mosaic of multileveled interrelationships presents a potential incomprehensibility; its ferment is not comparable to an invasion.
Olson’s verse mirrors the difference that exists between ‘normative’ modes of representing the world, and the actual way people live and experience it. In 1926 Kandinsky noted that it’s “Not the attitude of looking out at the street through the hard, unyielding—if nevertheless fragile—barrier of the window, but rather the capacity to go-out-into-the-street. An open eye and an attentive ear transform the smallest sensations into profound experiences. Voices flood in from all sides and the world echoes with song.” An argument then, for a generative intuitive and social process as against what many have decried as the masculinization of the world—handling things badly and turning them into “objects” of commercial exchange.
Knowledge exists in the cohabitation of different systems of thought, with any number of unique discourses. Not your eligibility for shelter certified by the Personnel Director at the corporate headquarters, nearby Savings & Loan, or the Credit Profile Report generated god-knows-where, or by whom. A cleric’s consensus (the euphemistic “intelligence report” in the media’s “war on terrorism”) isn’t wanted. To create is not to know, and poetry, an art of writing, depends only indirectly on knowledge. A philosophical stance or a constellation of ideas can guide and accompany the writer; such knowledge is not for Olson simply ideas, but ideas that are immediately attached to forms, and these forms follow one another according to relationships that are, above all, quantitative and formal. Rather than seeing ideas as giving rise to forms, he recognizes that they color them, that they surround them without ever creating them.
Americans have a reputation for superficialness–the individual against the world. Olson wanted to hold on, weighted by materials wrote and counted yet to speak of a living space. An amiable person changes his bed. Criticism, the most fetishistic of all arts, readily employs something stronger in its shaping of an information that leads (dis)continually to new and intimate territory, or “knowledge” of moving particles, traditions, distinctions and assured reactions; which many critics bottle and sell to a public manipulated by instability and an appreciable loss of intelligence and reason, its critical mass, over brief periods of time. Meritocracies or elaborate rituals? The Best Poetry of Blah-Blah Blah. In these “debates of production” everything is washed out – the old stable stuff of the universe is no more. Olson wrote something that will never secure our leisure and it will find all the employment it wants.
Hard work, persistence of the human mind, isolates seasonable environments alongside that increasingly bastardized “eligibility” represented by matrixes of gummy reference knitted into environs inadequately equipped for our lives as partisans. Extremity passes by the office window in a raccoon coat. Is there nothing really and completely in charge? Olson is sometimes ineloquent but never complacent, he bothers to feel and think. Something the majority never sees.
“Where have you seen yourself mirrored completely?” Olson drew homologies between the social process of exclusion and the process of selection by which some are designated important, others not, and that of a more backward telegraphic availability of what was once an area of privacy protected inside the external traditional relation (a persistence of catastrophe) but now traced into the interior of the human body. Communities of all kinds possess an inherent drive toward closure, completion. Meant literally, you subscribe and submit to be disseminated (CD-ROM) as commercial speech. Apparently, with massive investment in wars and petroleum confidence in political apathy seems the right way to go. We could look only for what we really do value. There are birds singing deterrence walking down the drain and laughing. George Oppen thought value a knowledge which is hard to hold, “a meaning grasped again on re-reading.” Charles Olson’s logos and tongue is incapable of explaining the mess we’re in. Ironically, it works.
Andrew Levy, NYC