Thursday, May 22, 2008

STL #66: "Image, therefore, is vector" (on Charles Olson)

My fascination with the big American poet Charles Olson (1910-1970) began with a line break. As an undergraduate with some time between Fall and Winter quarters, I read through the whole anthology I had used in my Intro to Poetry class, and I came across a poem headed "Maximus, To Himself" which begins with the two lines, "I have had to learn the simplest things / last. Which made for difficulties." That sequence "simplest things / last" instantly became a sort of motto, both for the truth of the notion (it speaks to my habit of struggling with complexities at length to eventually step back and say "oh, I see") and for the energy inherent in the lines, energy that derives from that line break. The meaning of that first sentence hinges on the last word, and starting the line with it relays it with astonishing power. (And no small verbal irony, in that the last becomes first.) There's much to admire just in the very beginning of the poem: the temporal precision of the verb tense (present perfect, which "suggests the process is not complete and more actions are possible") and the pattern of declarative ("I have had to learn...") and parenthetical elaboration ("Which made for difficulties"--truncated but poignant). (Olson uses parenthesis (often nested and/or unclosed) to open new lines of energy

"New lines of energy..." What does that mean? I mentioned "energy" twice in that paragraph, in part because in Olson's own poetics, energy plays a defining role. In "Projective Verse" (1950), he argues that that a poem is a "high energy-construct” and so reading and writing is a matter of transmitting and receiving that energy by means of breath and eye, syllable and line. In a sense, Olson is the father of modern poetics, as I alluded to in my previous note. In his work, theory and practice are nearly indistinguishable. Likewise, work and life are identical too. Personal letters (famously and lengthily to Creeley, but in NAP to Elaine Feinstein) serve as public statements of practice. Olson's "Letter to Elaine Feinstein" follows his more well-known essay in the anthology, and although it is less well-known than the former, it is explicitly a continuation of "Projective Verse." There's a special focus on the image (actually "Image") I want to focus on. It depends on a special definition of "image," which he never articulates. Common ideas of visual and auditory images aren't useful to him: Poetry's truth is not accessible by description. The Image has to be taken by a double (the reader)=its seems to be the conduit by which energy in transferred. "Image, therefore, is a vector," meaning that it is a magnitude (of force) coupled with a direction (to a reader). (This thinking is actually very close to the constructivist pedagogy I'm getting into via John Dewey: An idea can't be given to someone, it merely takes the form of an accepted fact. To be an idea, the learner needs to enact the thinking that leads to it. Teaching as creating a vector. Olson said that "what you find out yourself ('istorion) keeps all accompanying circumstance.")

Okay, I think we need to stop and figure out what "Image" means. Olson, despite his decidedly liberal politics, is closely identified with Pound in matters of technique, and rightly so. With the help of Hugh Kenner's astounding The Pound Era, we can hear the influence of EP on Olson's idea of Image. Pound calls the poetic image "...a radian node or cluster... a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing." Upon which quote Kenner elaborates: "A patterned integrity [knot] accessible to the mind." From his early days as Imagiste to his last poems, we can see in EP's work the intention that "An 'Image' is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." The Pound/Olson poetic is essentially fractal (no doubt chaotic) in that an image is an irregular piece of larger whole that reflects that irregular whole.

There are only one or two traditional "images" in "Maximus, to Himself." The second verse paragraph reads

It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet

The assymetry of the 1st/2nd stanzas strikes me as powerful: it implies this short passage has the commensurate energy of the first one. This image, then, ought to be a vector (the magnitude of the sea does stretch out from his feet) or a radiant node through which his ideas rush. And in fact, the longer first stanza resonates in every word of this one: he has received his mission or "business" from his insight, (the simplest thing he has learned is that "we grow up many / And the single / is not easily / known") the sea, which was not his trade, lies before him, immense but conquerable. This is a vector that points to the future, to a newly defined reality.

I haven't begun to dig into the magnitude of “Maximus, To Himself." There are layers of linguistics and history, all realized on the level of the syllable. I finally discovered, while thinking about Olson these past few weeks, what he meant by identifying the poetic line with the poet's ear and the syllable with the mind when the opposite would seem to be true.
Cory Greenspan’s 1972 article "Charles Olson: Language, Time and Person" ends with an Appendix of “Words Governing ‘Maximus, to Himself” that lists entomological touchstones that Olson used in constructing this poem. (To Feinstein, Olson wrote of "the line of force" one can discover by "tracking any word... to Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, and out to Sanskrit.") The morphem "reg" means “moving in a straight line”; “to direct to rule” in Greek (oregein) and Old English (gerecenia) and is heard in the poem in “arrogance” “sharpness” and “stretching out” Furhtermore, with Old English and Sanskrit relatives reccan and raga therefore are subsidiary meanings, through various languags, of rain, to put in order, to dye red.

You can effectively parse my motto "simplest things / last") this way too.
“Simple” relates back to Old Norse “Soemr” making one, or reconciling ; “things” relates to German and Old English words for throw, mark, and teach (Olson has found "what pleasures / doceat allows and Greenspan notes the relation to "tokens"); while last is governed by “leis,” to learn. Leis also means "footprint" which links the first sentence of the poem with the final image of the sea at Olson's feet.

I've become fascinated by Olson's life and work. I've read much of his prose, and read his lengthy Maximus Poems Though his writing is can be chaotic and convoluted, it promises a generative cosmos of meaning. Some how it's larger than a cosmos=it's a supercosmos in which you can invent your own universe. "Supercosmos." That's the perfect note to end on for a note on Olson-- a freshly coined term, halfway between poignacy and embarrassment, and far away from where I began.

Further reading: short poems (esp in Archaeologist of Morning and The Distances) and his prose The Special View of History another time through Maximus and A.N. Whitehead, an important influence.