Couple weeks back I wrote a post of some spleen, in part because a few sentences of Don Byrd’s Charles Olson’s Maximus (U of Illinois P, 1980) had been sticking in my craw: yes, I’m still thinking about Olson, and I’m also thinking about critical reaction to him. Here’s the sentences, which refer to Robert von Hallberg’s Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art (Harvard UP, 1978), and more specifically to von Hallberg’s reading of “The Praises”:
Mr. von Hallberg writes: “…to a poet-pedagogue like Olson – as not to a poet-maker – subject-matter must again be as central as it was to the poet-prophet.” He completely mistakes, however, both Olson’s pedagogical method and his content. Because he assumes that [“The Praises”] is merely a bad lecture, he understands his task as somehow to cut through the muddle. It is a puzzle for him, and, with a single word to key his solution, he arrives at the startling conclusion that the poem is about American Cold War foreign policy!
(Dig that snarky “Mister von Hallberg” – you call your opponent “Mr.” or “Professer” in a scholarly book and it’s doubleplus clear that you don’t like ‘im – rather like when Hugh Kenner calls Amy Lowell “Miss Lowell,” over and over again.) But is von Hallberg really that clueless? After all, I don’t know anyone else who was stupid enough to mistake “The Praises” as a poem about “cold war foreign policy.” What VH actually argues, at the conclusion of a full and subtle five-page reading of the poem, is that one ought to take the context of postwar politics into account in reading the last lines of the poem –
What is necessary is
that that which has been found out by work may, by work, be passed on
“Containment,” that is, was a constant buzzword of American geopolitics from 1947 on, and Olson (who had begun his career as a Democratic Party operative) according to VH “co-opts the language of the reigning politicians and their advisors: his policy of intellectual and cultural containment would rival American foreign policy, which attempts to contain its nemesis rather than its own essence. Removed by this antithesis from the corrupt diffusion of politics, poets might keep culture secure and potent.”
Now that’s an argument that one can reject or accept, but by no means whatsoever has VH “arrived at the startling conclusion” that “The Praises” is “about” Cold War foreign policy. If anyone’s “cutting through the muddle” and oversimplifying here, it’s Byrd. Both DB’s Charles Olson’s Maximus and VH’s The Scholar’s Art are products of the first big wave of Olson studies from 1978 thru 1980 (which also includes Paul Christensen’s Charles Olson: Call Him Ishmael and Sherman Paul’s Olson’s Push). Tho both books are revisions of their author’s doctoral dissertations, I’m tempted to read DB’s attack on VH as an instance of dissertation hubris, the moment where the grad student makes an obligatory swipe at the published “authority.” But it’s symptomatic of a deeper divide between the critical projects of the 2 men. VH is a critic, a scholar of and commentator on poetry, & one who is deeply immersed in the whole tradition of English-language poetry and in the broad range of contemporary writing. The Scholar’s Art is an attempt to begin to account for CO’s achievement within that broader context, and to think about the successes and failures of Olson’s project, not merely on its own terms, but in terms of poetry as a historical continuum of practices, stances, and social formations. It’s also an attempt to account for Olson’s radical poetico-epistemological stances within the context of postwar history and Olson’s biography: yes, perhaps CO’s work represents a radical rupture within Western thought – not to mention Western poetics – but it has its roots in a very particular historical moment and the life of a particular figure.
DB, in contrast, is a not wholly uncritical acolyte, one who finds in Olson an endlessly vital and very exciting new set of propositions approaches to the world and the poem. He is an intelligent and often insightful cicerone to CO’s works and ideas, but he has already accepted the value & validity of those works – he has, in short, taken Olson at his word when Olson claims to have gone beyond the modern, to have rediscovered a mode of seeing that the post-Platonic West has lost. DB’s acceptance of Olson’s premises makes him an eloquent advocate for Olson’s work, but it also makes him entirely unsympathetic with the rather more skeptical operation that is the goal of von Hallberg’s book: to assess Olson the poet, with reference to the tradition of Western poetry since Sappho. DB presents Olson’s various innovations as gambits that have so fundamentally stepped beyond the bounds of the “game” as it has been hitherto played, that they are beyond criticism. “Judged by conventional standards,” DB admits, invoking Matthew Arnold – a sure sign that a straw man is being erected – “Olson does not have a good ear” (28). But those “conventional” standards simply do not apply, it turns out – Olson’s poetry has moved beyond them – and if we attempt to accuse Olson of writing verse that has all the rhythmic and musical subtlety of a drunken frat boy taking over the drum kit as the party winds down in the dawning hours, then we’ve entirely missed the point of Olson’s revolution. (The same goes for his deployment of syntax and, it seems, even for the referential function of his words.)
Now, I won’t deny that Byrd is onto something here, nor that the relentless physical energy of Olson’s poetry is very often sufficient to make even the most conservation reader – VH for instance – set aside her or his yen for euphony. But Byrd has so stacked the deck that he cannot view Olson within the context of a 3000-year-old tradition of poetry, and cannot judge him him within that context: he can only gesture towards and explain the ways in which Olson has set aside or surpassed that tradition. And I’m not sure Olson himself would entirely endorse such a radical severing. At any rate, Byrd’s catty sentences on von Hallberg go to underline the difference between two sorts of scholarly commentators on post-avant poetry: explicatory advocates; and critics. I would suggest that for its long-term canonical prospects, such poetry needs rather more of the latter sort of commentators; it’s already well-supplied with the former.