Sunday, January 22, 2006

JONATHAN SKINNER/CHARLES OLSON AND THE QUESTION OF BOUNDARIES: THE "POET-SCHOLAR"

Murat's reference to "scholars or academicians interested in research projects generated by Olson," at last month's highly stimulating Olson Now Symposium at St. Mark's Poetry Project, sent me back to the unconsidered sense in which I felt the terms "poet" and "academic" were being used during the symposium, in relation to Olson. (Including, as one attendee suggested at the end of the discussion, a call to "get Olson out of the curriculum.") Yes, clearly Olson is not academic--yet what does that mean nowadays? Olson nearly completed a Ph.D., directed a "school" for poetry, and constantly advocated boundary work, pioneering and inhabiting fields available neither in academia nor in the poetry scene.

One might even argue that, with Duncan and Zukofsky (and the help of an "academic" like Donald Allen), Olson secured that "other" field--opened by the likes of Pound, Williams and Stein, amongst others--out of which poet-scholar movements such as "language" writing would later emerge.

To be a scholar poet, or even just a scholar of poetry, as Susan Howe put it so eloquently, demands all the resources of poetry, plus something. Many poets nowadays take academic jobs, not just to put bread on the table, but to cultivate such resources, and perhaps to shift the boundaries between critical and creative work. A research project generated by Olson could be the beginning of a poetic work--probably should be, if it be true to its origins.

I think some of us who ended up at SUNY Buffalo to do scholarship rightly blame (or thank) Olson for our inability to be content with the MFA or the poetry scene more generally, which certainly sustains us in other ways. Or some scholar poets probably blame Olson for drawing them out of academia--where they found him making Hesiod new in exciting, "ungrammatical" ways, etc.

The fact that, as it seems to me, Call Me Ishmael gets more recognition than The Maximus Poems, testifies to this ambiguity, and to the boundary-crossing nature of any widespread interest in Olson. Olson *was* a scholar--and he could have been an academic; certainly, many poets find him "too intellectual"--he just wanted his prose to jump into poetry. And he wanted poetry to engage prose. The feat is rare.

And, yes, as Howe also noted, poetry scholarship is nearly impossible within the academy. (Too often the academic work of poets with academic jobs is just "bread-and-butter" work, not of a piece with their work as poets--a situation Olson rightly found intolerable.) But it's also difficult in a poetry scene often ready to dismiss learned reference as "academic."

What does it take to be a "whole" poet--or, to borrow the motto of Sulfur Magazine, a poet of the "whole art," a scholar poet? Though far from taking the only viable approach, many poets nowadays choose to negotiate this position with one foot in poetry and one in academia. It's less than ideal, but so is the view from either side of what is, after all, a shifting boundary. More than ever it's important to be deliberate about how we define or enact this limit.

Of course, the fact that Olson waged unrelenting war on the logocentric underpinnings of Western academic discourse might have something to do with his intractability in the academy! A lot more than just jumping from prose into poetry kept (and keeps) Olson out. But he knew his enemy. How much interest is there in that kind of deep-ranging knowledge amongst today's poets? A thinker first credited with using the term "postmodern" would be both intrigued by and aghast at the highly specialized practices that work under that rubric nowadays.

I don't think we can get very far if we try to separate out the poet from the scholar in Olson, or divide up Olson's reception into "academic" and "poetic" interests. Olson asked more of the poet, and more of the intellectual, in a way that drawing quick boundaries between "academic" and "poetic" just won't help us to understand, let alone do the real work of the limits "any of us are inside of."

JS

2 comments:

karen said...

Hi there, great site and thought provoking. I was pointed in this direction by a fellow MFAer who correctly identified my affinity for Olson, though I am a mere fetus in understanding his work.
As an MFA candidate (at USF in CA), I am acutely aware of the push-pull of the degree, its relevancy, its controversy. This was the subject of my application essay. I worried about it too, until after I'd searched for like-minded individuals and could find none. It's hard to feel adrift. Especially since the program has offered nothing but support and stimulation, not the oft-derided alleged stifling.
So what do these divisions and categories mean? Academic vs. Non-academic, Prose vs. Poetry? I approach it anthropologically and Buddhistically...they mean nothing. They have power only insomuch as we give it to them. The argument about Olson strikes me as absurd, he was a brilliant writer who worked in the service of the word, whether that meant through his own writing or teaching in a revolutionary school. These boundaries we impose upon ourselves can only hinder us. It is in denying them presence and shedding them that we experience what is possible in our own writing. I just cannot continue to defend my "academic" choice, it is simply part of my path. Anytime we choose to study poetry, whether within or without academia, it's a vote of confidence in our craft. (Also important for me, lest I think I've re-invented the wheel...) Millions of people write poetry, but far fewer read it, which is a sure formula for extinction. I think Olson would be horrified at that aspect, as we all should be. However we choose to prevent it from happening can only serve to fortify this artform we all love.
Sorry if I'm ranting...Thanks for the fantastic resource, I'll continue to check it out and I'll dig into the archives as well.
--Karen Boyden Phelps

Washington Poets Association said...

I, too, am doing graduate work. Mine is through Leslie University in Cambridge and it is Independent Study.

My study plan is at: http://globalvoicesradio.org/studyplan12.22.05.html

and two recent Olson essays are at: http://globalvoicesradio.org/Dualism_and_Olsonian.htm

and

http://globalvoicesradio.org/The_Sound_of_the_Field_(1.19.06).htm

I started out after a nine year study of Projective Verse, the essay and the practice. (Even before it was suggested by Michael McClure that I read PV, I was writing spontaneously.) I wanted to see why the Projective practice led to a deepening of one's consciousness. My studies of Whitman and Williams, who were likely projective poets before Olson coined the term preceded my study of Olson and led me to his connection with Whitehead and this is one of the most critical developments in 20th century poetry. This is what Olson meant regarding his "Stance Toward Reality."

I'd welcome feedback on these essays and on anything else in my area of interest outlined above.

Thanks,

Paul Nelson
Slaughter, WA