Saturday, May 27, 2006


In 1965, at the Berkeley Poetry Conference, Charles Olson told the crowd assembled for his reading that he felt as though he were addressing a convention. He hugged the lectern and spoke without notes beyond the endurance of most members of his audience like a nineteenth-century politician. This was not an unprovoked stance. On the first day of the conference Jack Spicer had lumped Olson together with Lyndon Johnson and JFK. Pressed later to clarify what he meant, Spicer—with an understandable mixture of hostility and respect—called Olson a “power figure,” someone occupying “the same position in poetry as Johnson…in politics.” Then again, perhaps Spicer’s comment was also provoked. Who knows what stories he heard from Olson’s students, many of whom made the trip to Berkeley by car. Fred Wah, for example, recalls Olson pounding on a table in Buffalo during a heated argument about Vietnam, shouting, “What we have to do now, is nuke the chinks!” Since Olson left the U.S. government in part over the issue of Asia—he was shocked by Hiroshima and foresaw the eastern designs of postwar foreign policy—it seems quite likely that he was acting out a role. He was amongst other things an incredible mimic of political rhetoric, witness his hilarious send-up of presidential press conferences in “Rufus Woodpecker,” written during the Eisenhower administration.

Be all that as it may, if Olson puts us—by bullying gesture or imagination—in the offices of power, I am more than happy to play my own role as a minor functionary. Here, then, in the spirit of the modern presidency, are a series of talking points arranged into four categories: Olson’s legacy, his present use for poets, what the scholars should be doing, and what needs to be set aside if we are going to accomplish anything at all:

If we look beyond his specific interests and stylistic habits, if we overlook his missteps and limitations, to see what is unique and still unappreciated about Olson’s practice, we find:

A. That Olson was not literary in orientation; that is, he was not interested in making finished, free-standing works of art, objects to be appreciated or consumed as ends in themselves. He was, instead, engaged in writing as an activity subservient to the production of knowledge;

B. That Olson’s ultimate subject was experience, which led him to attend as closely as possible to his own experience as a writer. Language, for Olson, was not a tool for acquiring knowledge, but one of the sites where knowledge is acquired. Knowledge, then, is located (in language, in history, on the earth), and methodological rigor requires that one attend to this location;

C. That Olson’s ideas were not static, but always in flux, as befits a practice grounded in writing as activity; and

D. That Olson produced texts as a way of sharing his findings and participating in a community of writers and researchers, but that the larger shape of his practice is only discernible in his total output, which is not a matter of books alone. In his final years, Olson abandoned the book as ultimate horizon and worked instead to produce an archive. Poems and essays, yes, but also notes, notebooks, correspondence, marginalia in books, the books themselves, files of articles, maps, and recordings of readings, lectures, and interviews.
In addressing Olson’s present use as a model for writers, I want to focus on the last point just made, that Olson abandoned the book as ultimate horizon and worked instead to produce an archive. This has long been described as a matter of dissipation or letting go, but in the age of the internet—of the automatically archived blog, with its comment streams and embedded links to listserv discussions, sound and video files, and online texts and websites—we are, perhaps, better situated to appreciate this turn in Olson’s practice as an achievement. One of the characteristics of an archive is that it exists beyond the control of any one person. An author can control the production of a book, as Olson himself did early on in his career, but archives are essentially collaborative. Letters are sent out into the world and the disposition of papers is entrusted to posterity. What might happen to our sense of poetry, then, if we came to think of books as but one term in a larger field of production and of writing as an activity that is essentially collaborative?
A. The scholars should be reading the archive! There is an enormous amount of unpublished writing, of uncollected correspondence, and of unexamined source texts that Olson himself accumulated. This all needs to be assimilated, not only because of its inherent interest, but because it is only by taking the measure of this material that we can recover a description of Olson’s practice, which is only partially discernible from his discrete works.

B. The scholars must revise their understanding of key concepts and find new ways to articulate key aspects of Olson’s production so as to avoid misrepresenting these concepts and aspects as static terms of analysis. “Projective Verse,” for example, may be an essential essay in the history of poetry, but the concept of Projective Verse undergoes sustained rethinking and should not be equated with the essay alone. The distinction between Maximus and non-Maximus poems, or between poems and essays, likewise undergoes rethinking. Working through this rethinking in detail, one might well conclude that “Maximus” loses all force as an organizing principle, and that the frame of the Maximus poems should be set aside altogether.

C. The scholars should take Olson, as he took himself, as an object lesson, and examine his ideas, assumptions, and experience with a critical eye. He is not, God help us, a hero to be defended against all combatants.
This brings me to the last category:

This is, perhaps, the most important point of all. To continue Olson’s work, as distinct from merely reproducing it, we must set aside the tendency, in reading Olson, to become ourselves “Olsonian.” Mimicking his stylistic habits or taking up his particular interests or attitudes or concepts is not the best of even a proper sign of homage. Whatever we take from him must be examined carefully and reconsidered, made fit to serve our own location, historically, on earth, and in language. Meeting as we are now, democratically, to discuss our reading and share our ideas without a predetermined agenda and without submitting to a single dominating voice, is already a hopeful sign that Olson after Olson need not be merely Olson. “This is the morning, after the dispersion, and the work of the morning is methodology: how to use oneself, and on what.”
I yield the floor.

Benjamin Friedlander
Cambridge, MA
20 May 2006


Kevin Marzahl said...

I would first of all like to thank the OlsonNow organizers for extending the event into the web, as the coast is not easily accessible to everyone. Since the floor is open, I would like to follow up on Benjamin Friedlander's welcoming and witty remarks with a few questions (not rhetorical) and observations.

I think it was Don Byrd who wrote that for those who embark on a study of Maximus it is easy to feel that one is falling under the influence of a "cult leader." I gather that this is more or less identical to the concern about charismatic authoritanianism expressed above (also: has Olson's "whiteness" been examined carefully? in a later interview he speaks of "my palearctic people"..., etc.), and I wonder if it doesn't point to a dilemma implicit in the outlined categories. Can one follow Olson's example (collaborative archiving, etc.) while also navigating one's way through Olson's own archive? Does one need to re-read Olson's library in order to read Olson in order to follow his example? Doesn't each of these projects demand more time in its own right than any one of "us" has? But why split the work of "poets" from the work of "scholars" given Olson's own example?

My own tentative answer would be that for the (w)holistically or transdisciplinary minded
(I count myself among them), specialization seems anathema, and I think that Olson's "curriculum for the soul" has much to recommend it. But Olson recommended studying cybernetics, which allows us to see the necessity (for a modern society, at any rate) of what a systems-theoretical sociology calls "functional differentiation." Perhaps one only sees the big picture by focusing on the smallest detail--the human cell, for instance, which furnishes the model (or figure, if you prefer) of autopoiesis which Luhmann adapts from Varela (Olson, according to the Last Lectures, also looked closely at the processes of "evagination" and "mytosis" [sic]).

Let me put this another way: what does it mean to specialize--as either poet or scholar--in a syncretic, holistic cosmology?

For what it's worth, my own sense of Olson for some time has been that he was the Derrida that America never produced--an astute critic of logocentrism (so much "trash of discourse") who didn't extend that critique to phallogocentrism. I'm less certain of that now (as witness the above reference to "evagination" --something more and other than postwar male avantgarde annexing); in any case, I remain open to other arguments and it doesn't mean that I value Olson any less. His distinction in "Projective Verse" between the "pressures of the breath" and the "acquisitions of the ear" bears for me an uncanny resemblance to Bakhtin's theory of the clash of inner and outer speech, for instance, and there seems to me an at least proto-ecological ethos legible in Maximus Volume III (the most interesting part of that project, to my mind).

Thanks again to all who make this project possible. I look forward to future events.

Kevin Marzahl
Bloomington, IN
30 May 2006

Ron said...

I have to agree with Kevin that this site is becoming a marvelous tool for any of us interested in Olson & his work.

The comment that Ben mentions, Spicer comparing Olson with Johnson & JFK, reminds me that like Olson, LBJ was quite tall, 6'5" or so. The one time I saw him in person, dedicating the federal office building on Golden Gate Avenue in SF, in 1964, LBJ was a full head taller than any of his secret service agents. Given the events of the previous autumn, I think everyone in the crowd was aware that there was no way those agents could have protected LBJ from a head shot.

Anonymous said...

Cool guestbook, interesting information... Keep it UP
Side effects ambien Recipe blackberry liqueur fujitsu siemens 256 mb sd memory card s26391f2486l300 animated card christmas flash free new york license plate frames manufacturers Flat screen displays reports uk Florida gator backpacks Evga e-geforce fx 5200 video card T-shirts funny Unresanable behavier divorce pittion mulitplication+flash+cards+printable Fuse coat Tiniest swimsuits a peek at sexy legs sdram Blackberry margarita mix Home bookkeeping service cheap calls from usa mobile