Saturday, November 12, 2005


This question threw me off, as I have so habitually resorted to Olson as a location, his work a where rather than a where is. Nonetheless, it’s an appropriate question to ask, given Olson’s insistent focus on location.

Olson is in the syllabus for a course I’m teaching, called Imagining Open Spaces. It’s an interdisciplinary seminar exploring the multiple dimensions of urban open space (aesthetic, political, sociological, ecological). A seminar of three, intensely dedicated students—interdisciplinarity is not “popular,” these days. Nor is Olson (though Digital Dissertations does turn up eight dissertations addressing Olson in the past five years).

In this course, largely dedicated to study of Frederick Law Olmsted’s writings on landscape, their genetic and historical resonance, with injections from Robert Smithson (amongst others), we begin with a reading of Call Me Ishmael, and Olson’s declaring SPACE first fact.

It’s a particularly American fact, at that. I’m not sure about the claims for cross-cultural interest, on Olson’s part—or for the relevance of his work to postcolonial reflection or anti-imperialist discourses—though he certainly pushes the limits of what can be done within a Western framework. The Mayan Letters, for instance, one of his most potent texts, still, like his Melville, chases after firstness and immediacy, engaging the Mayans as creatures of supple stone and skin rather than of language. Olson’s informant, like Pound’s Brzeska, is a genius of direct sight rather than of dialogue.

Olson, nevertheless, is in translation. A very partial list of translated titles that I could locate online:

Appelez-moi Ismael, Call Me Ishmael translated into French by M.Beerblock, Gallimard (1962)
Maximus amant du monde, selections from the Maximus Poems, translated into French by Jean-Paul Auxeméry, Ulysse fin de siècle (1990)
Commencements, selected poetry and prose translated into French by V. Dussol, H. Dye, E. Giraud, P. Poyet, B. Rival et B. Vilgrain, 106 pp., Theatre Typographique (2000)
Vers projectifs et Martins Pêcheurs, French translations of Projective Verse and of the Kingfishers (translator unkown), Virgile-Ulysse-Fin de siècle (17 novembre 2005)
“‘The maximus poems’ de Charles Olson et la tradition épique américaine,” dissertation by Violaine Perreau, for the University of Nantes (2005)
Una antología de la poesía norteamericana desde 1950, ed. Eliot Weinberger (contains Olson selections that introduced Latin American readers to his work), Ediciones del Equilibrista (1992)
Charles Olson: Poemas, translated by Ernesto Livon-Grosman, Tres Haches (1997)

And where is the Italian Olson, the Chinese Olson, the Portuguese Olson, the German Olson, the Swedish Olson, the Russian Olson, the Arabic Olson, the Yoruba Olson? Someone needs to do a comprehensive bibliography of Olson in translation.

Olson is in the arts. Olson helps keep space open as location for thought, in ways that would be explored largely by plastic artists in the second half of the twentieth century. Whether or not it be a particularly American gesture, what Olson called the push of geography colors American postmodernism more than the over-theorized time of machinery. Be it with the smooth “no space” of the American “desert” produced by postmodern geographies, or the geological and biological recasting of cultural history, in the “compost library,” American makers habitually disrupt post-Darwinian expectations with spatial experiment. Still, even since 1968 space has had to struggle for an overt place in the discourse. Olson was unabashed in his declarations for SPACE, and this has kept him at the margins of the critical map—in spite of the fact that his spatial poetics make powerful contributions to the study of history.

My own work on space, after Olson, thanks to promptings from Susan Howe, keeps leading me back to land art, earthworks, and a range of practices in landscape, from the ephemeral to the monumental—instances we currently are studying in my course. It’s significant that the post-1968 literary avant-garde (Howe’s work being a notable exception) did not take up the large questions of space. While a certain materialism of the word, and a penchant for long projects, perhaps inspired by West Coast expansiveness, did lend itself to what might be called “spatial” works, the “language” writers turned to time-based models of Marxist analysis, in a structuralism whose only spatial dimension does not significantly probe what the twentieth-century’s greatest analyst of space, Henri Lefebvre, calls the “production of space.” As always, with a bold and accelerated development of sculpture in the “expanded field,” the plastic arts appeared to be out in front. The return to Smithson, with the recent MOCA retrospective, and a profusion of new critical studies (from Gilles Tiberghien to Jennifer Roberts to Ron Graziani to Richard Sieburth to Lytle Shaw), might herald an opportunity for the literary arts to do some catching up—a convergence that also warrants returning to Olson’s still-unmined work in space, work that surely influenced Smithson. (Though there is no record of books by Olson in the list of holdings in Smithson’s library, printed at the back of the catalog for the recent retrospective, the compiler does note a copy of Donald Allen’s 1960 New American Poetry anthology. We can be reasonably sure, then, that Smithson had read at least “The Kingfishers” and “Projective Verse.”)

After our readings in Smithson (“A Brief Tour of the Monuments of Passaic,” “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape”), we returned to Olson to read his “Projective Verse” essay and selected pages from The Maximus Poems. To spiral back on Olson this way has us reading him in a light less darkened by questions of legacy or by the often ponderous interests in the archaic that have tended to grip Olson studies. What Olson does with space offers a method—more than a history or a body of knowledge, per se—for breaking the literary-professional shackles (the author, the book, the reading, the reviews, the disciples, the legacy) that continue to constrain our most “avant-garde” poets. Olson’s projective trajectory is mirrored in Smithson’s non-site, a construction that aimed to bust artworks from the four walls of the gallery, or from the four sides of the photograph, while retaining a dialectical relation to the use of those productions.

Olson is in my dissertation. I have devoted part of a chapter to Olson and Smithson, “Sites of Writing: From Frederick Law Olmsted to Robert Smithson,” where I look at the question of the where of writing, in particular at possible relations between writing, as practice, and the practices of walking, landscape architecture and sculpture, in the context of urban open spaces. The chapter is framed by a discussion of Olmsted’s Buffalo parks and their role in my own writing, with an account of the walks during which I meditated the dissertation. I discuss William Carlos Williams’s pastoral excursion in the “Sunday in the Park” section of Paterson. I go on to look at Olson’s on-foot writings, in particular at a poem from The Maximus Poems, OCEANIA, written on check stubs during the night of 5-6 June, 1966. (I am fascinated by the fact that Olson didn’t seem to use a desk, in his last years, and did a lot of writing on the move, including the use of a “writing stand” nailed to a tree-trunk in Dogtown.)

Considerations of Olson’s stance as a walking writer (“I come from the last walking period of man,” he writes, late in Volume III of The Maximus Poems) lead me to look at another break from typewriter-based “projectivism,” in the instance of Olson’s handwriting. In particular, I consider the “difficult texts” from Butterick’s Editing the Maximus Poems, the poem beginning “I have been an ability—a machine . . .” that ends with the nautilus tail of “What is the heart, turning . . . ,” and the spiraling “My beloved Father . . . ,” as well as the curling rose of “Migration in fact . . .” (The latter is printed in facsimile in The Maximus Poems, the former are diplomatically transcribed, except for three pages that apparently resisted transcription—leaving their trace in the ellipses at the end of “My beloved Father . . .”) Olson’s spirals lead me, of course, to Smithson’s spirals and, finally, to a consideration of other makers who have taken writing off the page and into the landscape. A pdf of this section of the dissertation (about 14 pages) is posted with the documents for Olson Now.

Olson is in Dogtown. Flying over the coast a few weeks ago, at night, I was struck by the darkness of the land just north of Gloucester—Dogtown. Apparently undeveloped to this day. Many of the strongest sections of The Maximus Poems come from Olson’s Dogtown wanderings—where, one might argue Olson retreated and where one might also argue he most significantly advanced his “mappemude.” I understand Olson’s attraction to neglected (“wild” or “protogonic”) open space, as a place of creative and compositional fertility. In this sense—and not just because he pioneered “composition by field” and “open form”—Olson may rank among our greatest poets of open spaces, in a lineage that passes through Whitman. (Patrick Barron has done useful work here, in a chapter on “Spaces of Representation in The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson,” in his 2004 dissertation, The construction of place-based spatial knowledge in destructive poetics: An analysis of the work of Charles Olson, Andrea Zanzotto, Edward Dorn, and Gianni Celati based on the thought of Henri Lefebvre.) As I continue to discover in discussions with my students, Olson is everywhere that our increasingly contested (and threatened) open spaces come under scrutiny. If you have a Dogtown, where you reach the “watered rock” of your own person and process, wherever and whatever it be, you walk with Olson under that open air.

Philadelphia, 11 November, 2005

1 comment:

Pierre Joris said...

Just to add a bit of info re Olson in French:

* the first publication I am aware of is, of all places, in TEL QUEL, # 19 (autumn 1963) which OPENS with a translation and notes by Marcelin Pleynet of the PROJECTIVE VERSE essay.

* In 1972 I proposed to Dominique De Roux, then director of Cahiers de l'Herne, to do a large Cahier on Olson/Duncan/Creeley. (He had just published such a one on Burroughs/Kaufman/Pélieu). He agreed & I sat to work, in fact editing the English-language version -- but when De Roux wouldn't financially support the labor of translating what was some 400 pages of complex material, the project ground to a halt. How I would have loved to complete that project!

* There is a French edition of MAYAN LETTERS (Lettres Mayas) translated by Vincent Dussol published by Trois Cailloux (Collection in'hui), in 1990.