(on Olson, for 3 December 2005)
When you walked through the door into his house, he wanted to know who and what you were. Who means where you came from.
Our first fight was when I refused to discuss my family background – huge, urban, undistinguished – preferring only to offer the me I supposed myself to have made up by myself. I was a spiritual Darwinian at him, I grew from what I supposed.
He wanted to know who: the family, the grace of such society as made you.
He wanted, more, to know what you are. And what, for him, it seems to me now, meant: what do you know. And what can you say of what you know. And where did you get it.
Telling an idea or a fact (God help me) to Olson was like selling some heirloom to an honest jeweler – you had to prove where it came from, where you got it.
Provenience is all, said that King Lear.
And it is just this calling us back to personal history, our own investigations, historein, into our own lives’ circumstance, that speaks so urgently now. To pull us from the theory of theory into the theory of seeing with our own eyes, as our beloved Herodotus both saw and heard men do, see and remember, see and recount – as we must do in the day of personal narrative triumphant, the endless television feigned presences of desire and despair which are talked, that tell-tale word, talked at us before the cameras. Because this is just the wrong way human testimony should work, I’m sensing Olson would have judged, it, the self-disclosure of nothing but the self, which he already detested in the confessional poets of his day, and now would have to endure every day on tv, stripped even of the merciful veil of verse.
That was the Olson Paradox: he was interested only in such knowledge of the world as a man could or did learn through his own efforts of search, research, sustained awareness – yet he was not interested in that man himself. The lyric ego he contemned vividly, the ego with which and for which most poets of modern times have worked. That left him contemptuous of most poetry – and to hear him pronounce some poem ‘literature’ was a chilling thing. So man’s self was to make its way through the world as an objective, a lens. Judgment, not description seemed the rule. This is Jeremiah stuff, not Keats, this is changing the world one shout at a time. He was fond of calling his young poets (Ed Sanders, Ed Dorn, LeRoi Jones, and he was kind enough to put me in that company) his ‘politicians’ -- who were to go out and bring about the Last Judgment of society through the clean adversities of languages. And to this day I do believe the asperities.
Olson was such a forecaster to our times, and a guide in it. He proposed a project for writing that was beyond the amenity of the pleased reader. Like any good experimentalist, he hated the reader – keeping his true love for ‘you, whoever you are’ secret, as Whitman did, naming it only the Republic. For the good of the commonwealth, the reader was to be exposed to the registration of a cognitive experiment – and by that alone would be guided through an ever-widening dance of the mute, alert, perceiving, self-perceiving self (proprioception) with the graspable world (the koinonia, history) – in a way Charles had laid it all out long ago at Black Mountain, in the lucid arrogance of the great undanceable dance play Apollonius of Tyana. To whose own arcane researches Olson made his way in the last throes of Maximus.
I wish I could be at St Marx today to say this.