from    Translating the Unspeakable
Visual Poetics, as Projected through Olson's "Field" into Current Female Writing Practice

      . . . It was Olson's declared move away from the narcissistically probing, psychological defining of self - so seductively explored by Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell in the early and mid-1960s, and by their avid followers for at least a generation after - that provided a major alternative ethic of writing for women poets. While seriously committed to gender consciousness, a number of us carried an increasing scepticism towards any fixed rhetoric of the poem, implied or intoned. We resisted the prescription of authorship as an exclusively unitary proposition - the essential "I" positioned as central to the depiction of reflectivity. As antidote to a mainstream poetics that enthusiastically embraced those first dramatic "confessional" poems, Olson (in "PROJECTIVE VERSE") had already proposed:

      . The excitement and insistence of Olson's spatial, historical and ethical margins, while clearly speaking from male imperatives, nevertheless helped to stake out an arena whose initial usefulness to the poem began to be inventively explored by American women - in some cases drastically reconceived, beginning with work in the 1960s and 1970s by such poets as Barbara Guest, Susan Howe and Hannah Weiner and continuing forward to very recent poetry by women just beginning to publish.

      . It is useful to compare several of Olson's graphic "signatures" with a sampling of pages wherein women poets have claimed that spatial and typographic mandate for entirely different uses and meanings - notations mapped directly out of the very lives Olson tended to discredit by his act of non-address. The occasion of the empty page became, for them, an open canvas; a grave of memory; the template above a door of hidden resolve; another kind of use value; a "forehead" on which to scrawl a new language; the recovery of lost grammars of women written over; a slate on which to collage and draw and reconfigure the lessons of "the master" teacher; even a topos of silence and emptiness, a briefest hint or suggested nuance; a record of temporality - its continuously broken surfaces, its day-by-day graphs of interruption and careening (the speed and intermingling of the brainís bits and layers), perhaps less deeply tatooíd with marks of ownership than historically endorsed formal models. These new pages have often been claimed as the location where an entirely "inappropriate" or "inessential" content might be approached or seized, by fact of the poetís very redefining of margin as edge: four margins, four edges - PAGE in place of the dictated rigor and predictable pull of the straight, the dominant Flush Left.

      . I donít believe that a single woman poet who entered this "field" knew, ahead of time, precisely how or what she would project into/onto its emptiness, nor how that field would assist in producing these works - writings projected from immense necessity to make as well as to express - with their infinite grids, mathematical strategies, random patterns and ciphers. In this sense, it was Olsonís urgency to expand graphically into that open space (further enabled by Robert Duncanís lyric extension of "the field") which so importantly provided many contemporary women with a major invitation and set of gestures to help expand poetryís topography, syllable by syllable.

      . But, there was a second visual source at work here: in parallel time with Olson, certain women painters variously associated with New York abstract and expressionist movements were helping to shape and advance the 1950s/1960s graphic imagination. I refer to the innovative paintings produced by Helen Frankenthaler, Nell Blaine, Elain DeKooning, Grace Hartigan, Agnes Martin, Jane Freilicher and Joan Mitchell. In this context, one cannot help but rethink those first delicate grids of Agnes Martinís, pencilled over space. One is further reminded of Joan Mitchellís series called "Champs" (or "Fields") which seem to be composed of pure energy, the brush strokes laden with luscious color, applied again and again, often with many layers of underpainting; or her "Between" series (worked on, between the larger canvases of the "Champs" sequence), small pictures in which each initially empty canvas isolated and captured a detail up-close - as in a lens marking arbitrarily boundaries within which a small part of a larger, perhaps more complex and amorphous landscape can be looked at in blown-up detail. These ideas continue to nourish and to illuminate the making of those language constructs we link to field composition. It is this parallel affinity - this set of screens, grids and underpaintings - that located itself in the poetry (and, later, in the novel Seeking Air) of Barbara Guest, the most painterly of the vanguard first generation of poets gathered under the umbrella of The New York School.



reprinted with permission from Moving Borders: Three Decades
of Innovative Writing by Women
, ed. Mary Margaret Sloan