[Wgcp-whc] WGCP--Olson session minutes

richard.deming at yale.edu richard.deming at yale.edu
Sun Feb 26 23:15:25 EST 2006


On Friday, February 17, the group gathered to discuss the work of Charles Olson
(1910-1970).  Olson was a major figure in Post War American poetry, standing as
he did at the center of the Black Mountain School, where he taught and
served--after Josef Albers?s tenure?as the college?s rector from 1951-56.
 Olson was also featured as the central poet in the extremely influential
anthology The New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen (published in 1960),
a collection which marked and mapped the inheritors of a Pound/Williams
genealogy of avant-garde poetics.

We had decided to focus on key poems outside of his major project, The Maximus
Poems, saving the latter for a subsequent meeting.  We instead looked at poems
collected either in Allen?s anthology or in The Distances (Olson?s second
collection, published in 1960), which included two of his most important poems,
?The Kingfishers? and ?In Cold Hell, In Thicket.? However, the group
began its discussion by looking at Olson?s essay, ?Projective Verse,? an
essay he had written in order to provide context for his poem ?The
Kingfishers? and to will into being the aesthetic propositions of a Post war
poetry that furthered the aims of such Modernists as Pound, Williams, and H.D.
The essay, which first appeared in Poetry New York in 1950, was Olson?s
didactic statement of poetics that argued for ?open verse? that was set
against the ?closed verse? of formal, traditional poetries, whose textures
were shaped by print rather than by sound, according to Olson.  Thus, in
projective verse a line was determined by a poet?s breath rather than by some
predetermined (or overdetermined) received or inherited formula.  The breath,
then, would allow for the incorporation of the poet?s natural, idiosyncratic,
and spontaneous rhythms into the line of verse. Olson writes: ?And the line
comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes,
at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the
WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment,
the line its metric and its ending--where its breathing, shall come to,
termination.?  This leads to his idea of the composition by field idea, which
holds as its central principle the claim ?form is never more than an extension
of content.?  In Olson?s view, a poem is a field of energies ?transferred
from where the poet got it? to the reader? and thus his poetics attempts to
foreground the kinetics of composition or how that field gets its charge as well
as how it discharges it. This energy is built by way of recognizing the
centrality of breath?and thus making the body part of the poetics?and by
giving perception rather than rhetorical apparatus (vide the sonnet) primacy. 
As Olson declares ?One perception must immediately and directly lead to a
further perception.?  Because of this, a poem need not pursue one idea to its
logical conclusion but could move associatively or via juxtaposition to the
confluence of mean ideas.  This also then provides a claim against narrative as
a dominant feature.

In any event, in the field of a poem each of its elements is set in relation to
the other elements and that is how its tension (and by this it might be taken
to mean the poem?s?each poem?s?own logic and mechanics, its own
dynamics) is created and manipulated rather than placing the poems tension
solely in relation to a classical rubric. In this way, the larger traditions of
poetry were seen not as recurring exercises of form, but as heritage of
perceptions that the projectivist poet could draw from but not have to defer to
in order to legitimate and/or authorize his or her idea of the measure of verse.
 But because there was a poetics beneath all of this, however self-determining
it might be, the verse wasn?t free verse either.  Olson inherited the
self-consciousness and defensive felt by poets such as William Carlos Williams
about the mechanisms of legitimacy for poetry that broke from the past without
casting it off wholesale.  Indeed, one might see a corollary between Olson?s
poetics and the aesthetics of fellow Black Mountaineer, Robert Rauschenberg

Hopefully, this gives some sense of the complex and often problematic nature of
Olson?s essay, an essay of which Williams thought so highly he excerpted
several pages and wove them into his own autobiography, with no real
explanation of clarification.  The group discussed for some time whether or not
Olson?s own poetry actually provided evidence of his poetics.  That is, the
group wondered if his poems were indeed projectivist.

Some argued that Olson?s essay puts forward performativity as a poem?s
central feature and the ?breath? and the focus on sound and energy seemed
to argue for a poem such as Ginsberg?s ?Howl,? which was intense,
incantatory, had the semblance of spontaneity, and was conceived in large part
as primarily oral.  Others asked if one could then look at Olson?s poems and
essentially ?recreate? his breath.  We noticed the varying lengths of lines
and some suggested that the line and punctuation might be seen to suggest that
and so we listened via laptop to Olson reading ?In Cold Hell, In Thicket?
(available here
 This also led to interesting sidelight about poets who or do not follow the
"score? of the poem, respecting line breaks and the like, or whether they
change the reading irrespective of what is on the page.  This was not an issue
that we could come to resolution but the issue of what authority the printed
poem has over the oral delivery of the poet himself or herself.

Olson, however, by and large respected the score of his poem.  The conversation
did swing around to the observation that much of Olson?s poetics is directed
towards composition of the poem ad the process of establishing and transferring
the energy, to use the poet?s own terms.  Thus, it isn?t about the oral
performance of the text (or seeing its performance as the text).  Although
Olson invokes the orality so important to non-Western and ancient culture he
does not give up he written text or the page itself.  Rather, we discussed, he
brings back these considerations into contemporary poetry that had lost sight
of sound (leading to one of his most famous lines, ?By ear, he sd?).  We
briefly contrasted the work of Olson?s confrere Robert Creeley and noted the
despite their important camaraderie and shared genealogical investments,
Creeley?s lyric is far more personal and his line often self-conscious and
stammering, the act of a mind finding a tenuous articulation of the present
tense.  In Olson, one notes an expansiveness that reaches for the oratorical.

We noted in the poems that we looked at Olson?s inconsistency.  In his
strongest poems ?Kingfishers,? ?In Cold Hell, In Thicket,? and ?The
Moon Is the Number 18?) there is a reach and sober intensity whereas the
weaker poems (?Letter to the Melville Society? or ?ABCs?) never get
beyond the idea that seems to precede the poem itself, remaining a vehicle for
polemics and didacticism.  We noted also that the strongest poems work against
a narrative and conflate different strains of perception from the personal to
the mythopoetic.  Because of this, the poems resist the intelligence in ways
that make the work compelling and intriguing and impossible to paraphrase. 
Thus, Olson?s poems are fragmented and fragmenting despite their large
canvas, working against the predispositions and expectations of the reader will
cohering to make such claims as ?What does not change / is the will to
change,?  the line that gave Adrienne Rich the title for her 1971 collection.
But it is in the evocative, resonant language where various steams of thought
and feeling come together that Olson?s remains a complex and commanding

Despite the discrepancy (an ocean  courage  age)
This is also true: if I have any taste
It is only because I have interested myself
In what was slain in the sun

	I pose you your question:
Shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?

	I hunt among stones

*  *  *

I have done some research and answered two lingering questions.  The first was,
given Olson?s attacks on ?academic poetry,? how much of an academic was
he?  Although he began studying towards his PhD in American studies, he never
finished.  He taught but only at Black Mountain College (which is not exactly
the academy), University of Buffalo from 1963-65 and then very briefly at
University of Connecticut before his death.
The second question regarded the publication of some of his poems.  ?ABCs?(#
for Rimbaud)? was written about the same time as ?Kingfishers? and ?In
Cold Hell.?

Lastly I include here a passage from Joseph Riddel?s important essay on Olson
and Pound:

The project of an ?American? poetics, if one can condense a history that
does not exist, has been to invent a machine of its own origins?to invent or
reinvent ?language,? and ?Image,? where the fiction of Being can be
entertained, not as that which has been lost and can be recuperated, but as
that which has been invented as a pure fiction so that it can be destroyed, or
deconstructed, in the ?beginning again.??It is am poetry of uprootedness,
of radical innocence, of the radical origin, of the radical as origin?the
?decentered? ?Image.?

The group will not meet again until March 24th (spring break begin the reason
for the gap).  Next time we will read work in support of upcoming visit from
French poet Jean-Marie Gleize, who will be giving a reading for the French
department and who will meet the group during a special session during the
first week of April.  More on that special session and an exact date for his
reading in the very near future.  The reading packet is being assembled from
various sources.  As soon as it is available I will send a note to the list. 
In the meantime I will paste below a bio note and interview taken form the
online journal Double Change?an extremely important bilingual journal of
poetry and poetics that everyone on this list would?one imagines?find of
marked interest.  The original source is here

Until the next installment, then.

Call me,
Richard Deming, group secretary and sub-sublibrarian

Conducted on April 25, 2002 by Lionel Cuillé and Benoît Auclerc

Born in 1946, Jean-Marie Gleize is a professor of French literature at the
École Normale Supérieure of Letters and Social Sciences. Writer, Series
Director ("Niok,? Al Dante), Founder and Director of the review Nioque, from
Al Dante Editions, he has published many books of poetry, including Etats de la
main mémoire (1979), Donnant lieu (Lettres de casse, 1982), Instances
(Collodion, 1985), Léman, Le principe de nudité intégrale, and Les chiens
noirs de la prose (Seuil, ?Fiction et Cie,? 1990, 1995 and 1999
respectively). He is also the author of several essays, including Poésie et
Figuration (Seuil, 1983) and A noir: Poésie et littéralité (Seuil, 1992).

Lionel Cuillé and Benoît Auclerc: Your work is often referred to in terms of
its privileged expressions: ?the bay-trees are cut,? ?the poetry, not.?
Do you worry that these expressions might conceal the inspiration behind them?

Jean-Marie Gleize: The risk is only at the level of reception, that the
reception might stop evolving with the expression itself. For me, these
expressions are only springboards to other expressions: they are conduits or
ties. There are also simply more of them than the expressions we?re used to
remembering, those whose meanings are relatively transparent and whose status
as metapoetic slogans is immediately recognizable. Some of the expressions have
core meanings that are still developing and could easily explode and scatter in
thousands of directions. For example: ?I ate a fish from the spring?
[J?ai mangé un poisson de source]. It?s considerably more enigmatic and
indecipherable than some, but I consider it to be just as obvious and

This phenomenon affects all writers. In the tetralogy of Claude Royet-Journoud,
why does everyone always quote, ?Will we escape the analogy?? as if it were
the key to the whole text? ?Poetry is inadmissible? worked that way for
Denis Roche, and he never denied it, ultimately giving this title to his
complete works.

The work of many writers may consist of trying to evoke such constructs?but
there are many constructs, and they are not all alike. Some seem immediately
intelligible, whereas others are much more enigmatic, so much so that they are
completely irreducible. This is the biggest concern for the writer who uses and
manipulates them.

L.C and B.A: In Instances, you mention a hand that brought ?formulas to bear
on each individual object.? Does this sense of the ?formula? come
directly from Rimbaud?

J-M. G: Yes. Even if I do not know exactly what ?the place? or ?the
formula? means, or if there is a connection between the two. If either is
ever found, do we stop, or do we go on?

In any case, these words have considerable importance for me. Place has always
been crucial to my work.

L.C and B.A: Indeed. Your first book is entitled, Donnant lieu. Might you be
referring to Mallarmé here?

J-M. G: Lieu is a double reference: it refers back to Mallarmé and also to
Rimbaud. But personally, I have always felt much closer to Rimbaud. Mallarmé
remains, in spite of everything, much more abstract. Rimbaud has a more
immediate sensitivity to things and is more inspiring.

L.C and B.A: But what of the polemical aspect of these constructs? Your books
are hauntingly invested with a sense of ?place,? but at the same time, they
always return to ?s?évaluer-situer? (Poésie et Figuration).

J-M. G: Ah, yes, the old idea of situation?but not in the Sartrian sense, even
if political self-situation interests me.

Quite simply, in life, I have this feeling about myself, as many of us have: I
think I have no sense of direction. I never really know where I am. I take a
very long time to get my bearings when I?m in a building or city. I don?t
know how it all works. For me, writing is intimately linked to questions of
orientation. I always consider myself a little lost?from this comes the idea
of ?being situated.? ?To be situated,? in a social context, is also to
be situated politically, poetically. I always thought of literature as a more
or less violent assertion, a perpetually inappropriate proposal. This proposal
must be asserted. Within the framework of art, to propose is to impose. Both
constructively and as a means of counteraction. To my mind, any artistic
project is megalomaniacal: it is exorbitantly ambitious to believe that one can
propose something wholly individual and singular. Regardless of this, every
artist thinks that his work decisively cancels or completes all that came
before it. How ludicrous it is to assume that daring to do something
persistently is to act in opposition to all other gestures. There is an
inherent element of opposition, of imposition, in the act of attempting

As far as polemics are concerned, I was raised at the beginning of the last
avant-garde movement of the seventies and was given the impression that
literature was a battlefield. Afterwards, considering literary history?be it
the Romantic or Surrealist period?I saw that literary modes or theories
always clash. The writer, who is crucially alone, is also part of a group. He
must work to create a space for his own work, wherein lie alliances, conflicts,
wars, and strategies for occupation of territory. All of that is deeply
polemical; that?s the way I see it, and that?s how I experience it in my
daily life. In the constructs we mentioned before, I claim that there can be a
polemical dimension of assertion. The ?phrase? is a productive core for the
writing, deeply poetic. At the same time, it is directed outward, it is
polemical, it excludes certain things and presupposes others, etc.

L.C. and B.A: You have used the word ?riot? [émeute]. In one of your first
pieces, you write, ?Each line its own riot ... ?

J-M. G: The word ?riot? [émeute] has a subversive and revolutionary
dimension. It embodies the emotion, the moment, and the fact that the construct
intends to disrupt order, make things move, break them apart, make them burst,
cause them to rearrange themselves differently. There is a ?riotous?
dimension in all writing.

L.C and B.A: How do you see the progression from Donnant lieu (1982) to Non (Al
Dante, 1990)? How do you see these works, looking back on them?

J-M. G: I do not see them. I never re-read my books. I do not wish to re-read

I forget the past, thus allowing another kind of memory, one that sanctions a
certain number of repetitions or reprises with slightly shifted meanings,
because a particular question has not been sufficiently answered. What I do is
fairly simple: I work outward from cores of incomprehension, enigmas, dark
nodes. The word ?enigma,? which I don?t use often, is as significant for
me as the word ?riot.?

You could examine or reconsider these nodes forever: I write the same book over
and over again, each time taking different paths, changing its form, bringing
different sides of the experiment into play. But I often return to the same
initial experiments. They remain unelucidated, unsettling, and always likely to
be reworked by the writing itself.

L.C. and B.A: If the repetitions and reprises are visible to the reader, there
is also, notably in the triptych (Léman, Le Principe de nudité intégrale,
Les chiens noirs de la prose), a sort of path. This path was seen in Les chiens
noirs: the body put to sleep, the body exposed, the body that burns.

J-M. G: Part of what I write about is how life is a succession of losses. If
life is a succession of such losses, there is a certain positioning, a moment
when you have nothing left to lose because you have exhausted the capacity to
lose anything. Then you arrive at the final loss. From Léman to Les chiens
noirs de la prose, this dynamic of loss is implicit in the work. There is
something in the work that we cannot see and cannot identify, the concept of
slowing down, ce ralenti c?est la guerre. This works within us and will have
the last word.

That?s the reason I chose this title: Quelque chose contraint quelqu?un (Al
Dante, 2000). The writing is linked to constraint; it has nothing to do with
the work of OULIPO or with the journal Formules?that has no relevance for me.
By contrast, an indefinable but extremely present constraint weighs on my
writing. This obliges me to write one thing and not another. And this quelqu?
un signifies that in terms of constraint, the subject can no longer define
himself in a stable or simple manner. In fact, he barely knows himself.

For example: in Léman, a character has progressive paralysis. It attacks
someone close to me. I do not know then that the disease has settled in his
body. In the years that follow, this disease works upon him, showing itself
only slightly at first but gradually more aggressively. This process takes a
long time, proceeding as if in slow motion. I was a party to something,
invisible at first and unnamed for many years. But once named, the problem did
not become clearer, nor did its progress become any more predictable. This is
what I mean by an invisible constraint.

Another example: Ce ralenti c?est la guerre. I?m referring to the war of
1940. It has personal significance for me because my father was a prisoner. He
was married right before the war and then spent five years in a prison camp. He
returned five years later, completely transformed, almost mute, a different man.
He had two children very soon thereafter. These children obviously carried
within them ?the Bavarian night,? which found its way into their bodies
without their knowing, shrouded in silence. The father did not speak, and then
he left, and then he died. Although it took him a long time to die, he had
already died in his heart before his children were born. Death?s work is, in
a sense, anticipatory. Prior, interior and invisible, it is transmitted,

The last example is that of ?the square? on which I continue to work
obsessively. This square is the garden (the screen). In this square lies the
axis of time. Nobody sees it; it escapes time but can be simultaneously
reconceived by the last person there, who is often the youngest person. Three
generations coexist here: at the right bottom corner lies ?the father?s
father, motionless and reading,? then there is the father, who is painting,
and his son, in the center of the garden. Only a synthetic square remains, with
the child in the middle of the garden, staring into the darkness under the

Something passes invisibly, silently, slowly, from the ?father?s father?
to the father to the son, and beyond the son the axis continues. In fact, the
?father?s father? reads the Bible, which is essential for his religious
nature. He passes on this text effortlessly; he passes on this word, the Word,
to those after him who are unaware that he is giving it to them. The father
does not become a priest, against the wishes of his father. The son is even
more atheistic, even more distant from the text read by the ?father?s
father,? which is a type of Urtext. But perhaps the child?s son, separated
from the square, finds this text a long time afterwards, as if text and belief
had passed invisibly through this Bavarian night. Something invisible happens
as the Rhône passes under Léman to reappear on the other side: the river runs
within the seemingly motionless lake.

Translated by Lisa Lubasch and Max Winter

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