Friday, December 02, 2005
REFLECTIONS ON CHARLES OLSON'S PROJECTIVE VERSE
An excerpt from my reply to the letter in the previous post (this was dated June 7, 2004):
The best American anthology I have is the old 1960 Grove Press THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY edited by Donald M. Allen. Have been reading it lately -- Olson, Duncan, Ginsburg, etc. Love those statements on poetics. Has there been any real groundbreaker in that area since Olson's PROJECTIVE VERSE? (i.e. linelengths = breathlengths, the page as field...) It seems to me that pretty well all the formal possibilities within the static typewriter/typeface world of Olson's day (and pretty much our day) were outlined there. As we become digitalized, of course, we have juxtapositional possibilities of words and image or even wallpaper background that you could only dream of as you evolved your scissors-and-tape TV (text-visual) series a decade or two ago. Not to forget accompanying soundbites, as poetry enters the domain of multimedia. Even within the restrictive realm of print, variety of fonts and colours available to us -- consider these EXPRESSIVE POSSIBILITIES -- would have been unimaginable in Olson's day. Master a program like Flash and you can have those words going any direction you want, spiralling around, etc. All these are ways we can expand, slickly and seamlessly, on Olson's notions.
I've since acquired the Strand anthology Allen talks about below -- ordered it used from a Virginia bookstore through Amazon.ca for all of $3 (well, with shipping, $7 Canadian.)
Funny, without knowing it at the time, Allen and I were talking about what could be seen as the two key anthologies of post-war American poetry. (If there were others that may be considered key, I just don't know of them.) Between these two, the eleven poets they have in common -- John Ashbery, Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, Edward Field, Allen Ginsburg, Le Roi Jones, Kenneth Kotch, Denise Levertov, Frank O'Hara, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder -- would suggest a considerable overlap, but both are big anthologies: the Strand anthology comprises 92 poets, and the Allen anthology 44. And indeed, the contrast in tone and argument couldn't be greater. The Strand anthology includes chiefly lyric poets, a lot of them celebrated professor poets that published with big "mainstream" presses and that Ron Silliman lumps into the SoQ (for those who don't know, School of Quietude), including AR Ammons, John Berryman, Robert Bly, Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Hall, Donald Justice, Anthony Hecht, Robert Lowell, Adrianne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, James Tate, Richard Wilber, and Mark Strand himself. The Allen anthology includes a number of wilder shrubs like Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Jack Spicer. The Allen anthology is a conceptually bolder and more powerful anthology, delineating for the first time groupings or "milieus" that -- however arbitrary and, as Allen himself put it, "for the most part more historical than actual" -- have remained sharply etched in our mental geography: the Black Mountain group, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beat Generation, the New York Poets. With its essays on poetics -- including that benchmark essay by Olson -- it is definitely a precursor of Lang Po. The Strand anthology is a pretty typical good-poems -written-by-poets-in-alphabetical-order selection. Globally more inclusive than the Allen anthology, it draws a far diffuser picture. Even the poems selected in the Strand anthology of poets also in the Allen are, are formally speaking, the more conservative poems, or at least look more conservative within the constraints of the shorter selection (i.e. 1-3 poems for most poets) and smaller page size: these poets just don't stand out alongside the Hugos and Wilbers as they could. If anything would argue for the validity of the distinction Ron makes between the SoQ and Avant/post-avant, it would be these two anthologies -- however much he rankles by his obsessive harping on it (and however much I disagree with the way he flings that derogatory term - SoQ - around.)
-- a little post script: funny how much we can overlook in the heat of writing, i.e. when I wrote on that hot June day that "pretty well all the formal possibilities... within the typeface world" were outlined by Olson's essay. What about Concrete poetry? What about -- taking a step "backwards" a moment -- poetic forms or the so-called New Formalism? Actually, what I was referring to was a certain scope of free verse possibility that Olson had opened up for for me over the previous few years...