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Olson & Others: Some Orts for the Sports
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Olson & Others:
Some Orts for the Sports

Where writing will go to, what comes next, or the answers to any of those profoundly speculative questions bred of Saturday afternoons in comfortable surroundings—god alone knows. Where it's all come from is another question, and a few sentences may serve as well to answer it as any more documented or descriptive account. For example, in 1950 Cid Corman, the subsequent editor of Origin , had a radio program in Boston called This Is Poetry , which by a fluke of air waves I heard one night in Littleton, N.H. The guest was Richard Wilbur, who read with such graceful accents I was filled with envious ambition to read also, although I had none of his qualifications; and some weeks later, after correspondence with Cid which that night began, I convinced him I was good enough, or he was tolerant enough, and so I read one Saturday night while I was in Boston showing chickens at the Boston Poultry Show. Literary history is like that, and this event would be altogether unnotable, were it not that a magazine which I then tried to start (with much the same motives), but could not get printed, was absorbed in the first two issues of Cid's Origin —and that among the contacts so contributed were Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn, and Denise Levertov.

Charles Olson is central to any description of literary 'climate' dated 1960. I don't think any of those involved knew, at the time, he had written Call Me Ishmael; and I remember my own dumb-founded reception of that book—from a man I had assumed to be

Big Table , no. 4, 1960.


sharing my own position of unpublished hopefulness. The Olson I knew, and wrote to daily if possible, was the one whose Y & X had been published by Caresse Crosby's Black Sun Press, who had among other poems in manuscript a long one called "The Kingfishers," and whose own letters were of such energy and calculation that they constituted a practical 'college' of stimulus and information. Some of this last can be seen in an article he published at that time, partly derived from letters as it happens, which he called "Projective Verse" (Poetry New York , No. 3, 1950; reprinted with addenda, New York: Totem Press, 1959). He outlines there the premise of "composition by field" (the value of which William Carlos Williams was to emphasize by reprinting it in part in his own Autobiography ); and defines a basis for structure in the poem in terms of its 'kinetics ' ("the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy discharge"), the 'principle ' of its writing ("form is never more than an extension of content"), and the 'process ' ("ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION"). Olson equally distinguishes between breathing and hearing, as these relate to the line: "And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at that moment that he writes. . . ."

Some distinctions are now possible. Verse practice today splits in point of several emphases, and this is reasonable enough. Most familiar are those poets who have looked at a re-informing of traditional structures, at times with great ability. It is not at all a question of falling back into the same old sofa, etc., but to manage a use of that which those back of you have given in such fashion that you will both honor them and those differences which the nature of time seems to insist upon. There are also others, most definitive in the thirties, who extend to their writing of verse concerns which haunt them, again reasonably enough, in the other areas of their living.[1] They are in this way poets of 'content,' and their poems argue images of living to which the contents of their poems point. They argue the poem as a means to recognition, a signboard as it were, not


in itself a structure of 'recognition' or—better—cognition itself. Some, then, would not only not hear what Olson was saying, but would even deny, I think, the relevance of his concerns. The great preoccupation with symbology and levels of image in poetry insisted upon by contemporary criticism has also meant a further bias for this not-hearing, since Olson's emphasis is put upon prosody, not interpretation.

Those who were sympathetic, who felt as Dr. Williams did ("it is as if the whole area lifted . . ."), were those equally concerned with prosody. "Prosody," said Pound, "is the articulation of the total sound of a poem." This is an obviously difficult and painstaking requirement; and, again, a division of method appears between those who make use of traditional forms, either for discipline or solution, and those who, as Olson, go "by ear," by, in effect, the complexly determined response to work literally in hand. Robert Duncan's discussion precludes mine; I refer you to that ("Notes on Poetics Regarding Olson's Maximus," Black Mountain Review , No. 6, 1956). But, to suggest its relevance here, Duncan writes, using the image of "The coming into life of the child . . .":

 . . . that the breath-blood circulation be gaind, an interjection! the levels of the passions and inspiration in phrases; second, that focus be gaind, a substantive , the level of vision; and third, the complex of muscular gains that are included in taking hold and balancing, verbs , but more, the movement of language , the level of the ear, the hand, the foot. All these incorporated in measure .[2]

At this point it becomes necessary to read, which is, after all, what we are here for. The following books are, at best, a partial list of materials—yet serve to indicate others, so that much is served:

(1) Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems 1–10, 11–22 (1953, 1957). Olson's handling of the poems as an 'open field,' using a variable measure as concerns of content, and the emotional or informational character thereof, indicate, show what range can be managed.

(2) Louis Zukofsky, Some Time (1956), Barely and Widely (1953), and "A " (1960). Zukofsky teaches prosody —and these are only three of the books which might be cited. One should also see his A Test of Poetry: "The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection. . . ." By a complex of juxtaposed


examples (following Pound's ideogrammic method), "a means for judging the values of poetic writing is established by the examples themselves. . . ."

(3) Robert Duncan, Letters (1958), and Selected Poems (1959). The second book includes The Venice Poem —again a study in formal solutions, for those who will read it with attention. Duncan's other books are also valuable—Fragments of a Disordered Devotion (1952) and Caesar's Gate (1955). His notes and articles should be searched out as well.

Etc. Because the list continues, happily: to books like Denise Levertov's Overland to the Islands and Here and Now; to Paul Blackburn's Proensa and The Dissolving Fabric; to Allen Ginsberg's Howl;[3] to first books like Joel Oppenheimer's The Dutiful Son , and the as yet uncollected poems of Edward Dorn. All of these relate to the same areas of technical concern, surely. Otherwise, 'content' in every man is singular; which fact is a happy one.

Meeting Christopher Logue in Paris in 1956—an English poet who looked so Englishly like that illustration of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland —his first question, hoarsely yelled at me because the cafe whereto I had been brought by his friend Alex Trocchi, was so noisy, etc., was: "Tell me about Olson." Later we went to Logue's room where he showed me his Pound books (which are as much a currency in some areas as dollar bills in others) and gave me, as I left, a carbon he had made of Pound's Cavalcanti translations. He will be amused to know that I am still trying to 'explain.' Logue knew as much about American writing as I did, or, better, he knew the problems shared in common—because such things are only secondarily national these days.

You must read, then, to know what is happening. All poets seem to suffer certain things in common, as certainly all must: difficulties of self-support, or, if a family is involved, some means of sufficiencies in common, and the dignity any man has right to claim, granted it has never been his purpose to ask for it. We all of us live in an increasingly pinched world, pinched emotionally, pinched referen-


tially—despite the fact that the moon comes closer. "How shall I love you? Let me count the ways" is too often a proposed calculus of possibilities; and that, alone, is no good. In despite, relationships, here as elsewhere, continue, serving a common need for survival and growth. The issue is the poem, a single event—to which, as to the Battle of Gettysburg, or the Pan American Highway, many men may well contribute—"aperiens tibi animum . . . ." Like, you dig the 85th Canto? Like—that's all.


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