Showing posts with label Charles Olson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Olson. Show all posts

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sunday, October 05, 2014

introduction by Robert Duncan


This “reading” is longer than The Godfather

Thursday, January 30, 2014

in Gloucester
October 2013
Plus reading his own poetry

Thanks to Ferrini Productions

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sunday, July 01, 2012

An oral history of
Charles Olson
Ammiel Alcalay
Peter Anastas
Charles Stein
Michael Rumaker
Ingeborg Lauterstein
Edward Sanders

with thanks to
the Woodberry Poetry Room @ Harvard & PennSound

(Photo by Charles Stein)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ed Sanders reads/sings
Charles Olson' "Maximus from Dogtown I"
thanks to Pierre Joris

Friday, November 02, 2007

If Polis is This: Charles Olson and The Persistence of Place isn’t the best motion picture ever made about an American poet – a claim attributed to Bill Corbett on the film’s website – it’s mostly because What Happened to Kerouac? the 1986 documentary made by Richard Lerner & Lewis Mac Adams (with major post-production editorial work from co-producer Nathaniel Dorsky) set the bar so very high. But perhaps because Kerouac in death as in life has long been an icon in the American popular imagination, while Olson remains primarily of interest to other poets, the task of these two films is fundamentally different.

In fact, one of the best sequences in Polis comes early on with the filmmaker wandering around Gloucester, Massachusetts, asking the locals what they recall of Olson, who died, mind you, more than three decades before. A surprising number remember “the big guy,” a reasonable way to characterize a poet 6’8” tall – one of them is able to cite the passage where he and his buddies can be found in Maximus. This film is full of such small, fine touches, while offering a narrative of Olson’s life and an exposition of his main ideas, particularly his appropriation of Robert Creeley’s “form is never more than an extension of content” (explained here by Creeley himself with assistance from NFL film footage!). Another absolutely amazing moment is Pete Seeger’s explanation of how Charles Olson caused Woody Guthrie to write Bound for Glory. That by itself is worth the price of admission.

Most of the limits of the film are the consequence of attempting to pack so much into a one-hour time slot. Polis hardly touches the last decade of Olson’s life – particularly odd given his status as a late-starter & his death at 59 – which also means that the question of alcohol is never addressed. Nor the ways in which the death of his wife Betty in an auto accident in 1964 set him emotionally adrift. And there are themes within his work, places literally, that the film could have detailed far better for the reader who has not (yet) wandered the streets of Gloucester with Maximus as their map. The Cut, for one, Dogtown for another. Dogtown once was a town itself, an alternate Gloucester that sprang up before residents understood just how dependent on the proximity of the sea the community would become. As people moved east to the shore, the houses left behind were given to the inevitable widows left by shipwrecks, etc. Finally the neighborhood was abandoned & reverted to the brambles of “open space,” tho you can still find the foundations of the old houses there. It’s so overgrown today that visitors are warned to take compasses and let friends know they’ve gone in. To be “from Dogtown,” like Olson’s alter ego, is to be from the wild, abandoned, tragic past. This is not Russell Crowe’s Maximus, but the Creature from the Black Lagoon as oversized, absent-minded professor. If this be persona, it is the most complex, fascinating example of such in American literature.

Perhaps the film’s main weakness, tho, is one that it shares with What Happened to Kerouac? The scarcity of women & women’s voices. There are just a handful, notably Susan Thackery, Anne Waldman & Diane DiPrima. The most glaring omission turns out to be Frances Boldereff, Olson’s mistress during the period in which he formulated “Projective Verse” and Maximus both. Even if it’s overblown to set Boldereff up as Olson’s muse, the “secret sauce” that makes possible these epoch-changing projects, her impact was nonetheless profound. Her absence, even if it was a condition of the family’s cooperation, doesn’t serve Olson well.

But the larger problem isn’t so much the erasure of Boldereff – whose existence wasn’t widely known even to Olson’s friends at the time – as it is the whole question of the New American Poetry’s way of relating to women. The Allen anthology includes just four females among its 44 contributors: Denise Levertov, Barbara Guest, Madeline Gleason and Helen Adam. Only Levertov, who died in 1997, would have made sense in the context of this film, tho she never was a student at Black Mountain and largely abandoned her New American roots after 1970. (Three of the four, it’s worth noting, were personal friends of Robert Duncan’s, who did teach briefly at the North Carolina college, but whose relationship to women as a gay male differed from Olson’s machismo.) One wonders if future conferences & panels concerning male New American poets generally won’t end up having the same unspoken requirement that conferences do today regarding Ezra Pound’s politics, where either a panel or, at the least, a speaker is compelled to address the problems of fascism & anti-semitism. We may just need an extended series of “Olson & Women,” “Creeley & Women,” “O’Hara & Women,” “Blackburn & Women,” “Duncan & Women,” "Eigner & Women," “Baraka & Women” events.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The ninth and final work in Proprioception is in some ways the strangest precisely because it isn’t. Composed for the most part in – for Olson – relatively straightforward prose paragraphs, Olson argues for a history of letters that, as I read him, divides roughly into three periods: from the Second Millennium BC backwards perhaps as far as the Sixth, this being the time of the gods; the two millennia after that; the two millennia that lead up to our own time. It’s not as clean as that, though, since for Olson the central figure reporting on that first period is the poet Hesiod, who lived around 700 BC. At the very least, Hesiod is nearly as far from the end of the Second Millennium as we are from, say, Anne Bradstreet. At the other extreme, Hesiod is as far from its start as we are from 700 AD, which is to say well before the English had English, let alone writing. Roughly as far as the Battle of Tours, where Charles Martel in 732 turned back the Islamic army that sought to expand its European empire beyond Spain northward.

Olson states his motivation forthrightly:

Immediately my purpose is only to wake up the time spans and materials lying behind Hesiod, so that they can seem freer than they have; but essentially I’m sure a line drawn through Hesiod himself will already demark the difference the materials and times behind him will yield.

The Second Millennium is key, according to Olson, because the wars of the gods were all concluded & this was the time of “the general overthrow of the ancient settled world, which was neither East nor West.” Considering just how attentive Olson is to agency and case in language, his wording is almost startling: “Around about 1800 things shook up.” But the gist is unmistakable:

This [Zeus’ victory over the Titans “322 years before the siege of Troy”] then can be taken to be the line of the end of God-Father change and or transmission, as well as a good controlling date for the emergency of the Mycenean (sic) or Aegean Greek governance of the Mediterranean: 1505 BC.

Olson sees this correction as necessary, because

With that one can then begin to work Hesiod back – as well for that matter as the Iliad – and at the same time come forward toward Homer and Hesiod’s day (850-800 BC) from a ‘true’ origin of much which they include, the thousand years of writing some of which is now known which precedes them by a term of time as long as 1000 years. In other words Indo-Europeans and Semites had, for that long before Homer and Hesiod, power and governed an earlier literary and historical tradition which itself preceded them by two full millennia, the 3rd and the 4th.

The implication as I read it is that to get “from the old discourse to the new,” one must in fact identify the oldest discourse of all, the alleged “’true’ origin.”

If one were to align Olson’s nine pieces in Proprioception according to their focus on time, one would see that we are proceeding backwards. We start with the self, a present fact, before it can even identify itself & we end with the origins of writing, the founding of cities & the emergence of civilization out of Paleolithic man’s bigger “brain-case, like the present / porpoise’s” & the implications hidden in primitive art, “the so-called ‘Venuses’.”

As I read here, Olson’s desires are two: first, to understand how the new occurs; second, to carry into the present all of the knowledge of the past. In a sense, Olson is proceeding as though he thinks the first sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus cannot be true. If the world indeed is all that is the case, as Wittgenstein postulates, then it is complete. There is no way in that equation for the new to occur. Olson’s strategy here – and elsewhere in his work – is to focus on the tectonic shifts in culture & see what arose where & if possible how, an anthropological refutation of positivism. Second, Olson is trying mightily here – it is his most postmodern impulse – to break free of the myth of progress. Where a generation before people would have seen only gain in the arrival of the new – think of how Williams uses the term in Spring & All – Olson marks it always as a site of forgetting & of loss. But it’s not that he doesn’t want to engage it. Rather, he wants to understand the process & to recognize it always as two-sided.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The single longest section in Charles Olson’s Proprioception is the seventh, “GRAMMAR – a ‘book’,” checking in at five pages, six sections. It’s the one you’ll never see printed in native HTML, at least not the first two sections – passages appear at different angles, lines go from A to B connecting different terms, at least once traveling through some other text to get there. Olson also shifts here from italics, with a notable exception, to underlining for emphasis. This is true in both the Four Seasons Foundation and UC Press editions of the text.

Olson begins with a typically curious claim:

why (“adv.”!) instrumental case of hwā, hwaet. See WHO

WHO,” all in caps, is underlined three times, an effect I can’t duplicate here. The instrumental is a case that was already beginning to fade from existence in Old English, where, in the words of one online source of Old English cases, it was

only distinct from the dative case for a few pronouns and for strong adjectives. It is used to indicate the thing or person by means of which the action of the verb is accomplished.

A diagonal line at a 50º angle juts down from the period after hwaet to a line that reads “Goth hvas (Skt kas).” The idea that untangling the origins of a given term will tell you some essential feature thereof is the linguistic equivalent of justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito & Roberts claiming that the original intent of the writers of the Constitution is what determines a phrase’s meaning today. Yet a phrase like “all men are created equal,” was created in a time when all did not mean all, when men meant some men and no women, and when equal did not mean equal. Language itself is infinitely malleable & the social circumstances of one utterance to the next can and do change dramatically, altering content with every turn. Originationism is a vestige of 19th century historical linguistics, known then as philology, and though Olson understands that this is not the whole of language, this process is for him still a very powerful mode of proceeding. Looking up historic precedence is what Olson means by research. Yet one thing he doesn’t note, tho one might think he would had he known it, is that hwaet is itself the first word of Beowulf, & thus in some sense, the first word of English poetry as such.

The page at this point divides roughly into three columns, only the rightmost of which is printed in approximately the standard orientation to horizontal & vertical axes (approximately, but not in fact entirely!). This column traces the history of the word that, which interests Olson apparently because it serves both as a pronoun & a connective. The center passage, which starts at roughly the left margin & then moves downward in a very tight column no more than eight characters wide, appears at first to trace the relationship of the word how with who, what, & again why, then, as it moves downward seems to alternate from annotating the discussion of that to its right to ending up on who.

The left-hand column, boxed in by a border on three sides & tilted so that its bottom crowds the center of the page considers the term quantum, “neuter of quantus (cf. page 192” tho there be no closed parenthesis, nor even an allusion to suggest which book’s page 192 might be in mind. It’s the assertions that occur beneath this that, I think, pull this term into what otherwise appears to be a discussion of the syntactic potential of pronouns:

the process is not continuous

but takes place by steps,
each step being the emission
or absorption of an amt. of
energy called the quantum

Math. distinguished fr. a

Phil. the char. of a thing
by virtue of which measure
or number is applicable to
or it can be determined
as more or less than some

Olson proceeds to give us similar considerations of other pronouns: like, an, another, who, while on the next page, proceeding to argue quantus as pronoun & adjective, which we are told is “Relat. correl. with tantus, / of what size, / how much.” This leads eventually to:

absence of any such a word in English,
fr tantus? Result, or confusion over
? Therefore not understanding
quantus is the neuter case of pronoun,
not an adjective???

Hidden here, tho not very, is Olson’s application of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, the central tenet of any linguistic determinism, the implication that if there is not a single word in English to ask how many, how much, there is some gap in our understanding of the world.

The second section of “GRAMMAR – a ‘book’” is devoted to the middle voice – the middle, so to speak, between active and passive. This is the distinction between The fox ate the chicken, which is active, The chicken was eaten by the fox, which is passive and The chicken cooked in the oven, which is in the middle voice in that the subject of the sentence is in fact the object of the action. The second section, labeled “’Case’” – the inner quotation marks are Olson’s – is not, theoretically or linguistically, his finest critical writing, but what Olson is after is precisely that hybrid phenomenon. This is why, midway down the page, Olson will draw a line from ”future perfect” to “middle” – because it invariably combines some form of will have with a past participle. This is followed by a passage on the “indicative middle,” a phrase inserted with a ۸ between the words Middle and voice. The indicative middle, although Olson doesn’t note this, is a case one finds most often in Classic Greek or Old Iranian. Further, Olson’s notes here appear to be cribbed almost directly from William Hersey Davis’ Beginner’s Grammar of the New Greek Testament, published in 1923, an author Olson does not cite.

The third section of ”GRAMMAR” is entitled “The Indo-Europeans Anyway,” describing their migrations around 1800 BC and the impact this had on the language. Olson’s second (of two) paragraphs is almost entirely a quotation from Edward Sapir:

The first [of the three drifts of major importance at work in the language] is the familiar tendency to level the distinction between the subjective and the objective, itself but a late chapter in the steady reduction of the old Indo-European system of syntactic cases…. The distinction between the nominative and accusative was nibbled away by phonetic processes and morphological levelings until only certain pronouns retained distinctive subjective and objective forms. (Bracketed language, ellipsis and italics all Olson’s)

The fourth section, entitled “Syntax (‘ordering’),” is entirely a quotation of Sapir, arguing that language invariably begins as concrete – Sapir’s example is the origin of of, as it appears in the English phrase, “law of the land,” a pronoun that began as “an adverb of considerable concreteness of meaning, ‘away, moving from, ’and that the syntactic relation was originally expressed by the case form [ablative] of the second noun.” (Bracketed insert Olson’s). Thus:

An interesting thesis results: – All of the actual content of speech, its clusters of vocalic and consonantal sounds, is in origin limited to the concrete; relations were originally not expressed in outward form but were merely implied and articulated with the help of order and rhythm.

Section five, entitled “Concord, in Bantu and Chinook,” again quotes Sapir at length, presenting “an alternative to syntrax [at least as we have understood it] altogether." Olson’s point would appear to be the inner logic is radically different – again, the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis.

The sixth and final section is “Number,” specifically the singular, since it can be nominative whereas plurals necessarily distribute. This passage, read in the context of the whole of Proprioception feels less like the end of book on grammar & more a staging for the next section, entitled, in all of Olson’s quirky uses of capitalization & speech:

A Plausible ‘Entry’ for, like, man

This, as it turns out, is a time line from Paleolithic man to Eric the Red, 1025 years ago. A long horizontal line divides the page in the middle, with HOMER, all in caps, above it and below the date “450, Athens” and the note “logos invented (universalism possible” tho Heraclitus had been dead for 25 years by then.

The most important date in more recent years, to Olson, would appear to be 732 AD, the “date Martel turned back Moslems at Tours, one has to see a ‘Europe’ – and new “West” – arising.” Europe, thus, is relatively recent as a possibility. This is followed by a list of dates, Names and prepositional phrases:

771    Charlemagne
790    Irish monks to Iceland
823    Norse, to Dublin
862    Swedes to Novogrod
871    Alfred
981    Eric the Red, to Greenland

Monday, June 19, 2006

Never one to leave his bibliography to the end, Charles Olson uses the fifth of his nine pieces in Proprioception to a reading list. Or, more accurately, a list of names, date March 1961 “with / acknowledgements to / Gerrit Lansing.” The title of the piece is “Bridge-Work,” the bridge being

fr the Old Discourse to the New

Italicized by Olson, immediately characterized as “men worth anyone’s study,” and (with two exceptions) the names that follow are all boys. Some of these names are well enough known – cultural geographer & longtime Berkeley professor Carl O. Sauer, mystic Aleister Crowley (of whom Olson writes, “?: particularly his / book on the Tarot”), Pound’s favorite Fenollosa, Edward Carpenter (mentioned as being “Whitman’s friend” & then as “Eileen Garrett’s / teacher,” tho it is unlikely that many now will recognize the name of this once famed medium), and early linguists – post-Saussure, pre-Chomsky – Edward Sapir & B.L. Whorf.

Some of the names are less well known today: Andrew Lang was a collector of folk tales and early anthropologist, tho like Crowley & Garrett he was also a popular author on psychic phenomena. Olson notes, next to Lang’s name, “on hypnagogic vision, / as well as trans. of / Homer.” Hypnogogy is a term for the drowsy consciousness that often precedes sleep and one finds a many references to it on sleep disorder sites, but Olson here must be alluding to its use identifying trance states.

Lang is not the only translator of Homer on this list. Victor Bérard translated Ulysses into French as well as authoring other works on a wide range of subjects. An historian of antiquity around the turn of 20th century and an authority on ancient trade routes, Lenin is known to have read his Britain and Imperialism. Fenollosa was of course a translator as is Edward Hyams, who also wrote a work called Soil and Civilization that argues – in a proto-Jared Diamond sort of way – that some civilizations have been destroyed through poor soil management practices. G.R.S. Mead translated the Gnostic text, Pistis Sophia.

Cyrus Gordon was a Bible scholar, the first Jewish one to get a teaching job at a U.S. university, the lone contemporary of Olson’s on the list. But to call him a Bible scholar places him too narrowly. During his career, he taught Egyptology, Coptic, Hittite, Hurrian, Sumerian and classical Arabic. Another scholar of antiquities, L.A. Waddell, is the author of The British Edda, tracing Anglo myths back to their origins. Waddell has become something of an important figure in the reading of the White Aryan Brotherhood and other neo-Nazi groups in recent years.

At first glance, this seems like something of a bizarre list, mixing the history of antiquity with early anthropology and linguistics and mysticism. Pointedly absent are two names one often hears in Olson scholarship: Carl Jung & Alfred North Whitehead, each of whom proved to fit more comfortably in the academic canon than many of those on this list, with the possible exceptions of Mead, Sapir & Whorf. Sapir, it is worth noting, goes first in Olson’s list, followed by Carpenter, Sauer, Lang & Mead.

What are the threads that bind this roster of 14 names – 15 if we include Homer – together? One obviously is anthropology, a second ancient history, a third linguistics, the fourth the psychic dimension. My sense is that Olson is reasonably in touch with anthropology as it stood in the early 1950s, interested in that part of linguistics that could reasonably be expected to be of interest to poets, eclectic and not necessarily orthodox in his sense of history – it seems almost hit and miss there. And for this X-files dimension? Tarot, séances, trance states – there’s more than a little Fox Muldur in Olson.

I’ve noted here before that Olson’s own death in 1970, combined with Robert Duncan’s 15-year hiatus from publishing books, a self-enforced silence that began in 1968, precipitated a major shift in American poetics, one that I think is most visible looking at some of the publications of the time, such as George Quasha’s Active Anthology, which came out in 1974 – still recent enough to have previous unpublished pieces in from both Olson & Paul Blackburn. In addition to the Olson’s own work, many of the pieces here have or touch on aspects of this same spectrum of alternative reality. Armand Schwerner dedicates his “Bacchae Sonnets” to Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche “with love.” Ted Enslin’s excerpt from Ranger touches on the teachings of Don Juan, on Popocatapetl and Ixtaccihuatl. Chuck Stein offers a poem entitled “Vajra – Guru – Padma – Did – She.” Editor Quasha offers “The Sufi Singer” as well as some sections from his Somapoetics. Anselm Hollo & Jonathan Greene both have poems with the word dream in their titles. Nathaniel Tarn has his Lyrics for the Bride of God. David Meltzer has poems that he terms “amulets.” Richard Grossinger presents an excerpt from The Slag of Creation, Frank Samperi an excerpt from The Kingdom, Ed Sanders offers a “Prayer for the Unity of the Eye,” dedicated to ”my friend Horus.” Robert Hellman & Spencer Holst both offer works with the word Magician in the title. Even John Giorno chimes into the theme here with an excerpt from Suicide Sutra. Indeed, Buddhist scholar Rick Fields has a poem entitled “Realm of the Gods.” And Chögyam Trungpa himself has four poems in this one-short anthology. None of this may seem exceptional if we take each piece by itself, each contributor by him- or herself. But across a field of 65 contributors – 55 men, 10 women¹ – the impact is unmistakable. Olson was just one key part in a broader field of poetics that was deeply spiritual, but not at all within the orthodox Judeo-Christian frame.

This disappears in the 1970s almost completely. And my test of this is to look at the poetry of Robert Kelly, in particular, from the 1960s and the same poems from that era that he chooses now to include in various contemporary selected works. It’s not that he’s rejected his worldview, I think, so much as he may feel that the more secular poems travel better across time.

I’ve also written that I that what took the place of mysticism and the wisdom traditions in American poetry in the 1970s was theory, specifically continental theory of the structural & especially post-structural kind.

But Olson’s death & Duncan’s hiatus are, I think, the hinge events in that transition – as they were the two people who really could have made that larger dimension cohere. The one other poet of like mind & similar stature, Gary Snyder, was far too much of an isolato to have the same effect. Allen Ginsberg was too caught up in too many other things to focus on just this one.

This I think makes a section like “Bridge-Work” particularly difficult for a younger reader today to grasp. What may at first glance appear completely daft in Olson’s interest in séances & Tarot was by no means exceptional at the time he wrote this.

And it’s interesting to see, in the sixth section of Proprioception, the seven “hinges” Olson proposes, specifically “of civilization to be put back on the door,” where Olson addresses questions of the secular & divine fairly directly. It is precisely this balance point I see at work in these “Hinges.” The first is a reconsideration of the dating of what Olson calls “original ‘town-man,’” which Olson wants to push back; the second, Indo-European, where Olson wants to connect the Bible to Hittite, Sumerian & Canaanite texts of the period, as well as

roots:                     the linguistic values of Indo-
          European languages, the
          original minting of words
          & syntax

Throughout, Olson is trying to connect these “hinges” not to our time (or at least his), but precisely in the opposite direction:

[as in other hinges of the direct line, there
is an advantage to the leaping outside as
well as connecting backward: for example
American Indian languages offer useful
freshening of syntax to go alongside

This same backward motion appears again in the third Hinge: “to turn the 5th Century / BC back toward the 6th” – to the right of which runs a vertical list: “Heraclitus / Buddha / Pythagoras / Confucius.” It’s not that Olson wants us to proceed backwards through history, but rather an insistence that whatever is new not displace the old, thus (Hinge # 6):

the 17th [Century], seen as the brilliant secular it /
was, without the loss of alchemy etc
it unseated

leading finally to “the 20th, release fr / both the 18th . . . & 19th, the new progress of / Marxism,” to which Olson concludes by appending the most straightforward statement in all of Proprioception:

otherwise the present will lose what America is the inheritor of: a secularization which not only loses nothing of the divine but by seeing process in reality redeems all idealism fr theocracy or mobocracy, whether it is rational or superstitious, whether it is democratic or socialism.

A secularization which ... loses nothing of the divine. Not an either/or, but a both/and. This would seem to be where Olson has been aiming all along.


¹ It’s interesting to see this 6.5-to-1 ratio in 1974, a moment when langpo elsewhere already had brought the difference down to 4-to-1, a distinct – if still too short – step toward the parity we have routinely 30 years later.