Charles Olson and
Finding One’s Place
A lecture given at the Gloucester Writers’ Center, June 1, 2016 (slightly modified for print)
‘I’m a cosmopolitan,’ said my friend Jerry Rothenberg, when I told him the title of this lecture: ‘I’m not sure I want to find my place.’ I remember talking about the etymology of that word with Ed Dorn one day, its superiority to ‘metropolitan,’ the long view rather than the local. On the other hand, I’ve been reading Peter Anastas’ novel Decline of Fishes while I’ve been here, which deals with the mostly unsuccessful struggles of the local fishing industry in Gloucester to preserve itself against encroaching gentrification, and yesterday had my first look at the Man at the Wheel Statue at the Fishermen’s Memorial: ‘no difference,’ though, as Olson wrote, ‘when men come back.’
And that’s the story, isn’t it? The local vs. the cosmos… or, as the writer we’re talking about tonight had it, the local as the cosmos. But I’ve lived a lot of different places, from Oklahoma City to Czechoslovakia to Encinitas, and my wife and I will be moving out of So Cal as soon as I retire in a few years. So I’m an unlikely candidate to tell anyone about finding one’s place, unless I can usefully complicate our understanding of that word… which I’ll try to do, and then simplify things again. Because my real thesis is a line of Dr. Williams from Paterson that most of us know, but forget every now and then: ‘The writing is nothing, the being / in a position to write (that’s / where they get you)’ (113). That is, finding one’s place, for me, is being in a position to write. Or as Jack Hirschman had it in the recent Letters to Olson (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016, ed. Ben Hollander), Olson ‘is the one who most brightly shows the mind and heart how to / Begin. / The key word: Begin. / The essence of what poetry is’ (181).
you don’t have a place just because you barge in on it as a literal physical reality, or want it to prosper because you live there. Instead go see the Grand Canyon, that’s what it was made for. Place, you have to have a man bring it to you. You are casual. This is a really serious business, and not to be tampered with. (Dorn 31)
Written and published in 1960, ‘What I See in The Maximus Poems’ has been called the first important critical evaluation of Olson’s epic poem. It’s an argument, in one sense, for place not being local, at least not in the sense of parochial:
I am certain, without ever having been there, I would be bored to sickness walking through Gloucester. Buildings as such are not important. The wash of the sea is not interesting in itself, that is luxuria, a degrading thing, people as they stand, must be created, it doesn’t matter at all they have reflexes of their own, they are casual… (Dorn 34)
Dorn would always try to relativize simple location, most obviously in Slinger but also in his Olson Memorial Lecture (1981) published by Ammiel Alcalay in his Lost & Found series: ‘[R]ealism precludes the occult, except on the coast. And the reason for that is that the coast is not the West, being infested with Orientalism’. There are some funny shots about gods with eight arms and three faces in the ‘Maximus’ essay; the thing about Ed was that his disdain was awe-inspiring, and to the extent that I got any spiritual instruction in Boulder, it wasn’t from the Buddhists but from sitting around his dining room table with his wife Jenny and other friends who were passing through. It was great to hear his voice again in that lecture, because it reminded me that to truly understand him, you have to hear his intensely ironic, sarcastic, deadpan tone of voice. And it was Ed who got me on to the 18th century, about which more in a moment.
Anyway, here’s some backup for his idea about east and west from an unlikely source, Deleuze and Guattari, who wrote in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’:
But there is the rhizomatic West, with its Indians without ancestry, its ever-receding limit, its shifting and displaced frontiers. There is a whole American ‘map’ in the West, where even the trees form rhizomes. America reversed the directions: it put its Orient in the West, as if it were precisely in America that the earth came full circle; its West is the edge of the East’ (19).
I was reading the New York Times today about the NBA Playoffs and there was a note about Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors: ‘he thinks of the game as a process, describing himself as a “continuous player.” Rather than dwell on individual possessions — the makes, the misses — he searches for his place within the game’s broader rhythms.’ There’s a zen-like saying about basketball that I like: let the game come to you. All this seems to be an argument for place being relative, and just to include another local comment about the limitations of the local, the Boston NPR station this morning was interviewing a woman named Amy Cuddy, who said that — despite her recommendation that we assume ‘power poses’ — people will never attain presence completely: ‘You can’t “Be Here Now” all the time.’ Speaking of spiritual instruction, I was glad to hear a reference in that interview to Ram Dass, one of my early influences.
Let’s get back to the blurb on the flyer for this lecture for a minute:
So to start, it’s one’s literal place — the ground — that we’re talking about, as Shakespeare wrote about his lover: ‘My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.’ But that place can also be inhabited in other ways, and has been by Olson and other writers like Geoffrey Chaucer — a place without hierarchy that exists without ‘displacing’ other places — possible with ‘the attention, and / the care,’ even when ‘so few / have the polis / in their eye.’ That’s the project.
Or at least, that was the project, because to be honest, I had no idea what ‘finding one’s place’ meant when I proposed the title to Henry Ferrini a few months ago. Of course, Olson’s place was here, Gloucester, the city of Maximus, where the Maud/Olson library will open in a few weeks down the street. What else needs to be said? Well, perhaps that ‘such a precise location, as isolated as it is, now seems almost a luxury.’ Ammiel Alcalay asks, in his remarkable a little history (re:public/Upset Press, ed. Fred Dewey, 2013):
Has not the velocity of change and consumption, through some law of diminishing returns linked to depletion of the planet’s life sustaining resources, overtaken our ability to stay in one place and allow ourselves the idleness local knowledge demands? (144-145)
Similarly, Michael Davidson, in an essay about Ed Dorn and his relation to Olson, writes that ‘‘place,’ as a strictly geographical term, no longer exists; it has been so totally mediated by entrepreneurial capital that one locale is the same as any other’ (123). So the ground might be here, but the only way we can make that ground an actual occasion, as Whitehead had it, or ‘the whole of the condition of space,’ as Jeremy Prynne had it, is if the lecture becomes a circular curve, ‘the condition of the cosmos where the cosmos becomes myth.’ (By the way, that’s a quote from a letter he sent to Dorn that Ed read in his Olson lectures.)
So to that end, I’ll announce tonight a new sub-title, namely, ‘My Special View of History.’ And that’s because of what Olson wrote when he was preparing the materials for his own: ‘a man’s life is an act of giving form to the condition or state of reality at the exact moment of his birth – So therefore error or truth in the execution of that imperative is the whole shot!’ (11)
As it happens, I was born on April 4, 1953, which turns out to be the exact day Olson, at Black Mountain, received in the mail Vincent Ferrini’s magazine Four Winds, later the occasion for Maximus Letter 5; indeed, that week in 1953, a run of Maximus poems were started (thanks to the scholarship of Tom Clark and George Butterick here) including Letter 6, from which the quotes to the flyer Henry made were taken. In context:
or in every human head I’ve known is
the attention, and
however much each of us
chooses our own
and a few lines later
have the polis
in their eye (32)
So these are the poems by Olson that were written the week I was born, which is slightly mind-boggling, at least for me! But as for the actual content of ‘Letter 5,’ I have to go back to Ammiel’s a little history, in which he makes clear that Olson depended on Vincent and his wife Mary as ‘the one brother and sister that I have’ and that the so-called ‘slam’ against Ferrini and Four Winds has been taken out of context:
One of the things that Olson is trying to say here is — if you’re going to have an independent society, which is this magazine — an independent community — then it has to be as good as any other endeavor. I think at some point he compares it to a fishing vessel where everybody on your crew would have to be tested, you wouldn’t want to have somebody on that boat, on your crew, just because you heard they were good. That could be very dangerous. So Olson engages Ferrini. (103-04)
I’ll always be grateful that I was engaged in that way in my education, first by Norman O. Brown at UC Santa Cruz and then at the University of Colorado with Ed, in very much the same form as Robert Duncan says, when he talked about ‘the force of Charles and his use of the school’:
He saw education as spiritual attack. On the first level we can take it as to attack a subject. There also was a kind of spiritual attack, it seems to me, on students frequently. He wanted things to happen in them. I don’t mean he wanted things to happen in his classes. He wanted things to happen in them spiritually.… Charles wanted to produce a new and redeemed man. This is actually Charles’ alchemy. (qtd. in Charters 11)
In a way, this lecture started three weeks ago, when I picked up a few books about Olson at the Encinitas library (Encinitas is the town I live in in Southern California, my current ‘place,’ at least geographically, which I’ve written about in my book Coastal Zone).
But it really started earlier than that, when Robert Duncan, in a panel discussion in Vancouver in 1963 — where Olson read his poem ‘Place; & Name’ — also used the words of the blurb on the flyer: ‘Someone here asked a question about care and attention. And we did get that the only place you have any care or attention is right where you are, right where you are in the poem or right where you are in the event’ (4).[See Fred Wah’s account of the 1963 Vancouver conference here.
a place as term in the order of creation
& thus useful as a function of that equation
example, that the ‘Place Where the Horse-Sacrificers Go’
of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is worth more than
a metropolis — or, for that matter, any moral
concept, even a metaphysical one (‘Place; & Names’)
Robert Creeley was quoted in Ann Charters’ introduction to The Special View that Olson was ‘trying to break the habit of history as some discrete ordering apart from what energies or active forces were the case,’ and that ‘the only place they [the materials of history] could obviously be was where you were, if they were to be there at all’ (6). So bearing in mind Slinger’s caution that ‘All is transhistorical, functions / Have no date,’ let me throw out a few other dates that make up my particular special view: I’ve already mentioned 1960 and 1981 and 1953: then there are 1390, 1742, 1847, and, again, this week.
And by the way, it’s not a literary inheritance I’m tracing — it has more to do with orality and visuality than literacy — but I do want to bring in other writers who have inhabited this ground, and talk about how they got there, most of them not usually mentioned in the same breath as Olson: I’m thinking of Geoffrey Chaucer and Henry Fielding. That’s partly because I’ve been teaching British Literature over the last four months while I’ve been writing and not writing this lecture, and the two activities sometimes became confused, but it’s also because the nature of that confusion is very much what ‘finding one’s place’ is all about for me. So here are the next parts of this lecture:
- 1390-1399: Chaucer gives up his court duties
and composes The Canterbury Tales
- 1742: Henry Fielding publishes Joseph Andrews
- 1847: Emily Dickinson writes a letter
Gerrit [Lansing] took us to see Jack Hammond’s medieval castle yesterday, where he used to live, and one of the things I found out while teaching this Brit Lit class was my special connection with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; that is, I told you that my birthday is on April 4, and that’s, it turns out, when the poem begins: ‘and the Yonge sonne / Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne’… that is, when the sun is halfway through Aires. Anyway, the first tale had been told by the noble if somewhat inarticulate Knight, and the narrator wants a monk to go next, following the order of the medieval social hierarchy. But the drunken Miller interrupts and insists that he be the next to tell his:
Now telleth ye, sire Monk, if that ye conne,
Somwhat to quite with the Knightes tale.’
The Millere, that for drunken was al pale,
So that unnethe upon his hors he sat,
He tolde avalen neither hood ne hat,
Ne abiden no man for his curteisye,
But in Pilates vois he gan to crye,
And swoor, ‘By armes and by blood and bones,
I can a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knightes tale.’
Oure Hoste sawgh that he was dronke of ale,
And saide, ‘Abide, Robin, leve brother,
Som better man shal telle us first another.
Abide, and lat us werken thriftily.’
‘By Goddes soule,’ quod he, ‘that wol nat I,
For I wol speke or ells go my way.’
Oure Host answered, ‘Tel on, a devele way!
Thou art a fool; thy wit is overcome.’ (10-27)
In other words, ‘There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass, there are only / eyes in all heads, / to be looked out of’ (‘Letter 6’). The Miller then goes on to deliver an obscene parody of the impossibly romantic and mostly mangled Knight’s Tale, and if you’ve read it, you know its comic pleasures. Of course, this isn’t the only time in the history of poetry when a large man under the influence of alcohol has assumed the stage and held forth to an audience, some of whom found his lecture unwelcome:
‘Now herneth,’ quod the Miller, ‘alle and some!
But first I make a protestacioun
That I am dronke, I knowe it by my soun.
And therefor, if that I misspoke or seye,
Wyte it to the ale of Southwerk, I you pray.’ (28-32)
But the point, or one of them, is this: when Chaucer is introducing the various characters in the Prologue, the last group includes the so-called untrustworthy servants, including the Miller, but also ‘A somnour, and a pardoner also, / A maunciple, and myself — there were namo.’ In other words, he includes himself among the rogues, and by so doing, makes a pretty funny reference to the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy, when Dante meets the famous poets of Limbo and includes himself among them. And he does so not because he’s a thief or some kind of untrustworthy servant himself. Rather,
by beginning The Canterbury Tales with the Knight and Miller, Chaucer makes a clear statement that he is writing no longer from within the world in which he had for all his life served. On the contrary, he is now standing outside that world as an independent, and by no means uncritical, observer. He is not an untrustworthy servant — like the Miller, Reeve, Manciple, Summoner, and Pardoner. But his position is even more radical: he is a servant no more. (Patterson 14)
As Olson with the Democratic Party, so Chaucer with the court of Richard II. The radical act, the break between this and his earlier ‘commissioned’ poetry, should be recognized: finding one’s place is to move from slavery to freedom.
But there’s more: ‘[Chaucer] shows us a world in which our view of hierarchy depends on our own position in the world, not on an absolute standpoint’ (Mann 26). The pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales are grouped on how they work and what they do, not on ideas of chivalry or any other ideal conception. Written in then still-rare vernacular English, his is a purely comic and narrative art, a fierce respect for things as they are: a ‘cherles tale’ in which ‘harlotrie’ is ‘tolden’ — or to use the French word, a fabliau. Anyway, the Miller’s Tale ‘finds the physical world enough — its plenitude, its charm, its energy, its rules… an idea of order sufficient to man’s needs… a world temporarily — by an act of imaginative exclusion — unshadowed by Last Things’ (Kolve 92)
Characters in such stories live, for the most part, as though no moral imperatives existed beyond those intrinsic to the moment. They inhabit a world of cause and effect, pragmatic error and pragmatic punishment, that admits no goals beyond self-gratification, revenge or social laughter. (70)
To be secular is to exist in a place where no moral qualifiers are allowed to exist: ‘an animal world in which instinct takes the place that reason holds for man, a world in which instinct and necessity are one’ (79). Or in other words, ‘the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.’ ‘It’s the secular I don’t think is going to go out of our bones yet,’ wrote Olson in ‘Bill Snow,’ who later in that essay has a rather startling prediction of the War on Terror:
by which courage is suddenly a new word in the dictionary, that we are surrounded by enemies and must stay fit. It sounds like athleticism to me, and when all that is is only demonstrated by self-consciousness of that it is, games are being played. I’d go straight from Nature to the World. If form ever did lie in tales and on short stretches of distance between personally known towns already the Collector of Port Duties on Wool in the city of London in 1390 had had it. (352)
Another time Olson refers to Chaucer is at the beginning of ‘Proprioception,’ after detailing the old ‘psychology’ of feeling, desire, sympathy and courage being linked to the heart, liver, bowels and kidneys, which he calls ‘(Stasis — or as in Chaucer only, spoofed). Today: movement, at any cost’ (181).
So let’s move on to 1742, when another comic writer, Henry Fielding, is trying to make a case for his novel Joseph Andrews; as it was one of the first novels in English, he’s having a hard time trying to classify it: ‘it may not be improper to premise a few Words concerning this kind of Writing, which I do not remember to have seen hitherto attempted in our Language’ (3). One of the great things about the 18th century novel in England was that people were just making it up as they went along, because there wasn’t a tradition of fictional prose and there were no conventions to follow — think of Tristram Shandy a few years later — so he settles on ‘a comic Epic-poem in prose.’
It is very funny — I’ll read you an example — but comedy, as we saw with Chaucer, also involves social realism. ‘And perhaps there is one Reason,’ Fielding writes in the Preface, ‘why a Comic Writer should of all others be the least excused for deviating from Nature, since it may not be always so easy for a serious Poet to meet with the Great and the Admirable; but Life every where furnishes an accurate Observer with the Ridiculous’ (5).
This was actually Fielding’s second attempt to respond to the success of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded two years earlier, a novel of an innocent young girl who’s rewarded for her chastity by a marriage proposal from the Squire who had been trying to seduce her: Fielding couldn’t believe that such a story had gotten popular. So he first tried to undermine its success with a novella called Shamela in 1741, where Pamela is re-imagined as a very different character — duplicitous and carnal — and then decided to write a much longer novel in which Joseph Andrews is Pamela’s brother, a male version of Richardson’s character, a virtuous and innocent young lad. Besides putting other fictional characters in his story, he also puts in real people and establishments: ‘within four Hours, he reached a famous House of Hospitality well known to the Western Traveler. It presents you a Lion on the Sign-Post: and the Master, who was christened Timotheus, is commonly called plain Tim’ (53). That was an actual place outside London: as Olson says in the Special View, ‘the dimension of fact’ was the story: there was no separation between fact and fancy, the real and the imagined.
So there’s humor — constant improvisations and spinnings and intrusions into his own novel — but this is also a novel that charts a period before the stratification of social classes, when rich and poor mingle throughout in what today would be called a revolutionary social democracy: like Chaucer in his Tales, he includes all the characters of his society and has them clash verbally with each other. And that decision to represent revolutionary society — one of absolute equity — necessitates revolutionary form:
She [Lady Booby] resolved to preserve all the Dignity of the Woman of Fashion to her Servant, and to indulge herself in her last View of Joseph (for that she was most certainly resolved it should be) at his own Expence, by first insulting, and then discarding him.
O Love, what monstrous Tricks does thou play with thy Votaries of both Sexes! How dost thou deceive them, and make them deceive themselves! Their Follies are thy Delight. Their Sighs make thee laugh, and their Pangs are thy Merriment!… Thou puttest out our Eyes, stoppest up our Ears, and takest away the power of our Nostrils; so that we can neither see the largest Object, hear the loudest Noise, nor smell the most poignant Perfume.… If there be any one who doubts all this, let him read the next Chapter. (41)
That’s from a chapter called ‘Sayings of wise Men. A Dialogue between the Lady and her Maid; and a Panegyric, or rather Satire on the Passion of Love, in the sublime Style’; the next chapter is called ‘In which, after some very fine Writing, the History goes on.’ It’s also probably relevant to say that this was a novel that was published in stages, so that there was always a sense of beginning again, as if for the first time.
But let’s get back to the social realism and the politics of the situation:
Traditionally, there is a tendency to see literature and the other arts as having a tenuous connection to politics at most. The aesthetic, the argument goes, is above the political, meaning not only ‘better than’ but ‘beyond’ and having little to do with the political. In this model, the critic tends to look at the organization and appeal of the formal attributes of the poem, often pointing to its representation of universal themes. (Morrissey 249)
I don’t have to point out the silliness of this argument to anyone here tonight, but would point out that this is still very much the model in academia, despite our so-called liberation from the new critics, the new new critics and most college and university literature programs. But it’s not just literature and politics that were melded together in this writing, it was all branches of knowledge:
Today, literature has come to be associated generally with the ‘literary’ or the aesthetic use of words, and it is often thought to be separate from many other fields. During the Restoration and the 18th century, however, literature was a very capacious field, and could include drama, history, natural philosophy (which we would today call ‘science’), political philosophy and poetry. (Morrissey 246)
This reminds me a lot of Olson’s attempts to re-make the curriculum at Black Mountain and of Jack Clarke’s Curriculum of the Soul. And while we can find this capaciousness in Dryden and Swift and Pope — and certainly in Milton, perhaps the most politically radical of all English poets and whose most famous works were written in this time period — where we find it most is the 18th century novel. And it’s an international world: that is, ‘cosmopolitan.’ Just as Chaucer traveled to France and Italy as a diplomat and absorbed the work of Dante and Boccacio, ‘the major 18th century novels are often engaged globally, rather than domestically,’ writes Morrissey, who contrasts them with the more familiar and domestic 19th century novels:
[T]he most famous 18th century novels are populated by world explorers such as Robinson Crusoe and Lemuel Gulliver.… the landscape of the Restoration and 18th-century novel is the terra incognita of colonial locations, the New World that Britain was increasingly engaging. (255)
Of course, ‘the New World that Britain was increasingly engaging’ also included the colonies, as the plaque at Stage Fort Park we saw yesterday testifies. Interestingly enough, it was Ed Dorn who got me interested in the 18th century; as an undergraduate, I had leaned, naturally enough, to the Romantics, and thought that Pope and Dryden were a little too arch and contentious. And Ed, as he did every once in a while, told me I was full of it: ‘They’re us!’ One of his favorite books at the time was Samuel Johnson’s The Life of Richard Savage, and I’m here to tell you that it’s an amazing piece of work.
There’s one more thing I want to say, though, about Fielding’s narrative style, constantly correcting itself and elaborating on previous points, as in ‘Letter 15’: ‘It goes to show you. It was not the ‘Eppie Sawyer.’’ And ‘You go all around the subject.’ And I sd, ‘I didn’t know it was a subject.’’ This is from Curtis White’s book called The Middle Mind:
Art is most itself, is ‘true’ art, when it makes itself not through the conventions of the universal… but, as Adorno thought, ‘by virtue of its own elaborations, through its own immanent process.’ Lawrence Sterne understood this… as the only true law of the novel: the novel is ‘the art of digression.’ This is why, ultimately, craft has little to do with whether or not a work is a successful piece of art. The most powerful and sinister gambit of what Adorno calls ‘administered society’ is to promise the freedom of individuality while simultaneously prohibiting it… Art is a response to this repression. (52-53)
And here’s where Deleuze and Guattari come in again:
Unlike the graphic arts, drawing, or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight.(10)
Mapping the ground we walk: ‘On First Looking Through Juan de la Cosa’s Eyes.’ It’s what the AWP, in its all-consuming ambition to institutionalize poetry, never does. And it’s what comparison and classification don’t do, in their attempt to mute the active displays of knowledge, what’s said and what’s seen.
Creeley introduced the panel discussion at the Vancouver Poetry Conference:
I would like to center on the question of context, i.e., in what context does language operate, in terms of what is the ground that you walk on, in no metaphoric sense, but actually. Because I think the first day we were here the poems were still isolated from quote ‘actual events’ unquote, and I’d like to take it not so much into the whole business of what you can do with a poem, where you can put it or hang it on the wall, but where — what is ‘’history’? (1)
So the last thing I’d like to mention is that other word that follows from the polis — not Donald Trump, whom I still believe will self-destruct any day now — but, for example, Peter Anastas’ Decline of Fishes, an example of Gloucester politics. And again, Ammiel’s book, on which I’ve leaned so heavily:
It’s unimaginable but extremely valuable for our understanding to grasp dissent and opposition, what assertiveness can mean and how these can be, and have been, tied to thinking, research, action, and placing the body, as well as our public activities, literally, on the line. These are crucial to imagination, the imaginative faculties, to narrative, to poetics. To think about such things enables us to see how constrained we are, how constrained things have become, and to experience an opening that is not limited to the present. (79)
I mentioned that Gerrit had given us a tour of Gloucester yesterday; after we’d dropped him back at his place, my wife Sara and I followed a mail truck to make sure to get our mail-in ballots posted on time for next week’s California primary (because, you know, our two votes are going to put Bernie over the top). And I remembered our book club in Bolinas in the late 80s — Sara, Bob Grenier, Shao Thorpe, Joanne Kyger, others — reading Maximus III and wondering whether Olson would note Kennedy’s assassination, since the poems were mostly arranged in chronological order around that time. At Vancouver that year Olson said that we have to get back to the etymology of history and politics: ‘Otherwise we’re simply getting caught in the event either of the society, which is one form of what’s boringly called history, or the event of ourselves, which is also that damn boring thing called personal history’ (1). Last week I saw this old letter from another Massachusetts poet: ‘Wont you please tell me when you answer my letter who the candidate for President is?’ she wrote her brother Austin in the fall of 1847, when she was sixteen.
I have been trying to find out ever since I came here & have not yet succeeded… Has the Mexican war terminated yet & how? Are we beat? Do you know of any nation about to besiege South Hadley? If so, do inform me of it, for I would be glad of a chance to escape, if we are to be stormed. I suppose Miss Lyon would furnish us all with daggers & order us to fight for our lives, in case such perils should befall us.
Olson took national politics a bit more seriously than Emily Dickinson — at least for awhile — but there was a time when he gave it all up, to find a more central place in which to construct a republic, in gloom or otherwise: ‘a place as term in the order of creation.’ So I think it’s instructive to compare him with possibly the most apolitical poet we have. This is from a reprint of a New York Review of Books article by Christopher Benfey (1999):
Scholars have combed her verse and prose for mention of the Civil War, which coincided with her greatest outpouring of verse. But her inspiration during those years seems to have been resistance to high rhetoric.… Edmund Wilson may well be right in claiming that she never referred to the Civil War in her poetry. Her father’s commitment to the Whig values of compromise — he had served a term in Congress and campaigned for Zachary Taylor and Henry Clay — may have tempered her response. While Julia Ward Howe was writing her saber-rattling ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ and Whitman his ‘Drum-Taps,’ Dickinson was quietly demolishing myths of heroic pomposity:
Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for the ‘Golden Fleece’
Fourth, no Discovery—
Fifth, no Crew—
Finally, no Golden Fleece—
Jason, sham, too—
I think that’s just an amazing poem, and I’d never seen it before. Benfey goes on:‘Dickinson’s language, oblique and sharply objective, can be seen as one response to the degraded verbiage of the Civil War era, and the Gilded Age pieties that followed… a voice raised against the pompous posturing of both sides. She once mentioned to Higginson her adamant resolution to ‘never try to lift the words which I cannot hold.’’
As with Olson’s cautions against ‘hypostasizing’ in ‘Special View’ and in Maximus V. III.11:
I am a ward
Man myself and hate
It only feeds into a class of deteriorated
Personal lives anyway, giving them
What they can buy, a cheap
Belief. The corner magazine store
(O’Connell’s, at Prospect and Washington)
has more essential room in it than
About three weeks ago, Sara offered to read a draft of the lecture while I was writing it, and I said it was still in a nascent state. We argued — as we do, occasionally — about the pronunciation of that word, but the next day I realized that the lecture had to end in a nascent state as well (and I’m not referring to the ‘nascent capitalism’ of Maximus 23).
That is, ‘finding one’s place’ is finding a place where one can move freely — can act — without any restraints but those self-imposed, as limits are what any one of us are inside of. ‘Every place, according to Olson, is an opening place,’ writes Shahar Bram, who wrote a book on Olson and Whitehead, ‘and can serve as a gate inward that can be used to return outward, after further growth.’ We don’t exist until we act: it’s the kinesis of the thing. ‘that no event // is not penetrated, in intersection or collision with, an eternal / event’ (‘A Later Note on Letter #15’). Or, rather, the local contains the eternal: ‘finding one’s place’ is a constant action, a means of travel without necessarily going anywhere, because ‘one’s place’ is always being invented, and might be another’s as well, plus the space between. Just find a place to make your stand, and take it easy. This is eternity: this now. ‘The writing is nothing / the being in a position to write / that’s where they get you’
In Lieu of a Bibliography
A podcast of the live lecture can be heard at http://gloucesterwriters.org/podcast/6795/. Thanks to Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, in which a first version of the transcript was published.
Ed Dorn’s ‘Olson Memorial Lecture’ can be heard at https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Dorn/Dorn-Edward_Complete-Recording-1_Olson-Lectures_03-19-81.mp3 (The quote here is about 25 minutes in.)
The interview with Amy Cuddy can be heard at http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2016/05/30/power-posing-amy-cuddy
Michael Davidson’s essay ‘Archaeologist of Morning’ is a chapter in his book On the Outskirts of Form: Practicing Cultural Poetics (Wesleyan, 2011).
Olson’s poems are from The Maximus Poems (University of California, ed. George Butterick, 1983); his essays are in Collected Prose (University of California, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, 1997).
Duncan and Creeley’s quotes are from ‘On History,’ a transcription of a panel discussion at the Vancouver Poetry Conference, 1963, printed in Muthologos Volume 1 (Four Seasons Foundation, ed. George Butterick 1978)
One of many good recitations of ‘The Miller’s Prologue’ from The Canterbury Tales is Leofwin2010’s version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGVDeafmsco (the quote here is about 40 seconds in)
Lee Patterson’s essay is his introduction to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: A Casebook (Oxford, ed. Lee Patterson, 2007); Jill Mann’s essay ‘The General Prologue and Estates Literature’ and V. A. Kolve’s ‘Nature, Youth, and Nowell’s Flood’ are from that same volume.
I used the Longman Cultural Edition of Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (Pearson, ed. Adam Potkay, 2008)
Lee Morrissey’s quotes are from his extended essay on the Restoration in English Literature in Context (Cambridge, ed. Paul Poplawski, 2008)
Curtis White’s The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves was published by Harper/Collins in 2003, and if you haven’t read it, you should.
If I had world enough and time, I would have incorporated these extra morsels from three of the main sources for this lecture.
from Charles Olson’s The Special View of History (Oyez, ed. Ann Charters, 1970):
from Ed Dorn’s ‘What I See in The Maximus Poems’ (Four Seasons Foundation, ed. Donald Allen, 1980):
But when the Place is brought forward fully in form conceived entirely by the activation of a man who is under its spell it is a resurrection for us and the investigation even is not extractable. And it is then the only real thing. (32, 34)
from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, tr. Brian Massumi)