Monday, August 22, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.11 (Charles Olson)

Olson, Charles
Olson: The Journal of the Charles Olson Archives, Number 10

Click here for details on my acquisition of this set.

Well, this is the last number in the Olson Set. I guess it was the last issue. I don't really know much about the history of this journal. Feel free to fill me in in the comment section if you know why it only went for ten issues. That said, we are a LONG way from the end of the Olson section!

I am trying to think back to what it was like when I first started reading Olson. He was definitely not in fashion in the late 90's, having been sidelined by a multitude of attacks, mostly impugning his character, his didacticism, his attitude towards women, and so on. There never seemed to be any talk about the poetry or the ideas in his writings.

I decided to investigate him after hearing Jackson Mac Low talk about Pound in Charles Bernstein's seminar. In it, he talked about his lifelong struggle with Pound, whose poetry and poetics were foundational to Mac Low's own, yet whose politics were so execrable as to make him question the value of the poetry. The point of Mac Low's talk was that for him, it was the STRUGGLE with the material that was important, not the decisive choice between the politics and the poetics.

I think the same is true with Olson. His attitudes towards women, in his writing, but also the way he often excluded them from his seminars in Buffalo, ARE execrable. But then there IS the poetry and the thought, which are foundational to pretty much all American poetry written since the Second World War -- including that written by women. I basically spent the rest of my years in grad school struggling with Olson.

It wasn't always simply a struggle, though. It was also an intellectual adventure. The first thing you realize in reading Olson is how little you have read of anything. A major challenge Olson posed for me was that I felt I had to familiarize myself with some of the history and politics and philosophy that grounded his work.

But where to begin?

I think I started with Melville. One summer I read all of Melville's work, then returned to read Call Me Ishmael. Then I think Olson's reading of Melville, which emphasizes his Shakespearean roots, led me to read through Shakespeare. And then back to Call Me Ishmael.

My reading of Olson has always operated in this manner. I start to read something by Olson, which then opens up into something else. I go read that, then return to Olson, which again pushes me outward in some other direction. Then back again.

I can think of few other poets I read this way. Most poets of the post-war era are self-contained in their expression. While the poems might be allusive, the point in, say, Creeley or O'Hara, is being there, being in it, feeling it in all its intensity.

With Olson, there's is this powerful rush of intellectual intensity that, while not without sentiment, has force because it is impersonal. It pushes against the outside world and spills over into it. Just as importantly, the world spills back into the poems. The old in and out, as they say.

I think this is probably one reason people are hesitant about Olson -- because there is something impersonal about his poetry. His poems ask you to push outside them, not remain inside. It's a difficult task.

Hmmm...I think I have more to say about this. But not today.

1 comment:

capatosta said...

nice clockwork orange reference
his ins and outs can be abrupt

he's one with his skin he says
+ this + this

an intimidating poet and fellow who pushes

why not push back?