Saturday, July 30, 2005

Olson & Zukofsky

There's an interesting moment in the final "Note" to Ronald Johnson's complete ARK (1996), where he speaks of the influences on his own long poem: "Zukofsky and Olson, braving new schemes for language – The Minimalist and The Maximus – such opposing poles of influence: parities." Johnson's not the only poet of his generation for whom CO (born 1910) and LZ (1904) seem to offer contrary but equally attractive paths; Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan would both speak of Olson and Zukofsky as personal lodestones, and there are bunches of others one could name – Robert Kelly, Theodore Enslin, John Taggart, and so forth – who show both poets' influence. There were lots of poets who knew both Olson and Zukofsky personally: Johnson, Creeley, Duncan, Jonathan Williams, and so forth. (To my knowledge the two men themselves never met, though Olson once phoned Brooklyn to offer LZ a job at Black Mountain College.)

I wonder how it plays out these days, 35 years after Olson's death, and 27 after Zukofsky's? The personal element – so important especially for Olson-followers, many of whom were converted by what everybody testifies to as the man's magnetic and impressive pedagogy and conversation – has by now subsides. There are no poets in the 40-and-under range who had any significant personal association with either CO or LZ, I think it's safe to say. But both The Maximus Poems and "A" remain in print, and one hears about them being read...

My own academic investment, it's safe to say, has mostly been with LZ – which doesn't mean that I somehow own stock in the man, or believe that he's necessarily "more important" than Olson – and I'm interested in the movement of the academic markets. Olson's been pretty lucky for a late twentieth-century American poet. By my count, there are at least eleven critical studies of his work out there (including a biography & a memoir); his poetry has been given careful editorial attention and has been published in really nice editions; and (counting the ongoing Creeley/Olson correspondence, which is at, what? eleven volumes) there have been at least fifteen volumes of his letters printed. All that really puts LZ-related publishing activity in the dust.

How much is an aftereffect of the two men's personalities? Olson, bold and big, making sweeping statements about the metaphysical fortunes of Western Man and attracting followers to him like lawyers to a Florida fender-bender; Zukofsky, withdrawn and passive-aggressive, training a jeweller's eye upon the minute machinings of his tiny, impacted lines.

In forty years' time, it's safe to say, there won't be anyone left alive to testify to whatever personal bardic attraction either poet had. And then we'll be able to see whether young poets regard them like Pound & Williams regarded Byron and Shelley – two different aspects of something that they desperately wanted to get past – or whether they'll be able to harmonize the Minimalist and The Maximus into some new mode as yet undreamt of.


Tony Tost said...

Peter O'Leary says something in an interview we did w/ him at Octopus concerning his shepherding of the RJ estate, contrasting the openness of the Olson estate (& noting the abundance of critical work on him) with the relative stingy Zukofsky estate (& relatively less critical work on him). I don't have any first hand knowledge on either account to appraise, but an interesting observation in the least in thinking about how one titan fairs compared to another.

Didn't Guy Davenport write that neither Olson nor Zukofsky could stand to read the others' work?

I just got your LZ and the Poetry of Knowledge book as a birthday gift from a buddy poet, so I'm excited to jump into that. I'd like to do a piece some day tracking how LZ seems to fair in the retrospective game -- I lucked into finding the MAPS issue on Z, and the Man and Poet book, and the Z issue of Paideuma. Striking to me how the Chicago Review Z issue contrasts to these -- excellent work in the CR, but less of a comprehensive view of, or extended introduction to, the poet than these other titles of 25+ vintage. It'd be great if someone just collected all the work in these as an anthology. Or maybe somebody already has?

& isn't it weird that another figure that RJ notes at the end of ARK -- Edward Dahlberg -- has more or less been vaporized from view? Flea of Sodom has to be one of the strangest, most killer prose books out there.

I hope you'll blog on your way thru Maximus -- I've been making my way thru as well, working from Butterick as well as Don Byrd's excellent Max. book, and a couple of other texts. I'm just getting ready to enter Ph.D. land, so I'm largely curious as to how someone with the chops and rigor I'm hoping to develop tackles a project like this.

Norman Finkelstein said...

I've always considered RJ's characterization of Olson as Maximus and Zuk as Minimalist as both relatively accurate and potentially misleading. In terms of sheer scope, "A"-12 is as maximum as you can get (or might want to get). And then there are many moments in Olson, sometimes individual lyrics, sometimes parts of larger things, where, as you characterize Zuk, he's "training a jeweller's eye upon the minute machinings of his tiny, impacted lines." I think, for instance, of the precision (OK, but not tiny or impacted) of "The Ring Of" or the first part of "Merce of Egypt." Vastly different temperaments, to be sure, but they had many of the same teachers and affinities.

Personally, I was immersed in Olson as an undergrad at Binghamton (the Olson issue of Boundary 2 came out while I was there) and turned to Zuk later (and Oppen even more), partly as relief from what I began to think of as Olson's bombast. Twenty-five years later, I find Olson's poetic enabling me to stretch out in some pleasurable, unexpected ways. Go figure.