Saturday, August 20, 2005

Olson & his critics

[This one’s for Josh H.]

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.

1 comment:

Michael Peverett said...

The polite form used to be, that dead authors could be referred to by their first name ("Jane Austen") but that living people should be referred to by title ("Dr Leavis", "Mr Eliot"). This usage was pretty much extinct by the 1950s. It's no doubt true that most scholars prefer dead writers to living writers, which perhaps is why the use of titles often bristles with dislike.

Obviously this usage couldn't apply in Hugh Kenner's case, Amy Lowell having died in 1925 when he was two. Perhaps what really stuck in his craw was a memory of Louis Untermeyer's utterances, as given below (Modern American Poetry: A Critical Anthology, 1919).

Perhaps he was just drawing on the age-old folk-hatred of the unattached woman. Untermeyer and Kenner between them seem to typify very neatly the traditional (not yet extinct?) pattern of male critical response to female poets as outlined by Germaine Greer, namely (1) take them up and over-praise them in an ultimately patronising way, then (2) take violent revenge on their reputations for having been so blatantly over-praised.


"[Amy Lowell’s first] volume, a Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (1912), was a strangely unpromising first book. The subjects were as conventional as the treatment; the influence of Keats and Tennyson was evident; the tone was soft and sentimental, almost without a trace of personality. It was a queer prologue to the vivid Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), which marked not only an extraordinary advance but a totally new individuality. This second volume contained many distinctive poems written in the usual forms, a score of pictorial pieces illustrating Miss Lowell’s identification with the Imagists and, possibly most important from a technical standpoint, the first appearance in English of "polyphonic prose." Of this extremely flexible form, which has only begun to be exploited, Miss Lowell, in an essay on John Gould Fletcher, has written, "’Polyphonic’ means ‘many-voiced,’ and the form is so-called because it makes use of the ‘voices’ of poetry, namely: meter, vers libre, assonance, alliteration, rhyme and return. It employs every form of rhythm, even prose rhythm at times."

It was because of such experiments in form and technique that Miss Lowell first attracted attention and is still best known. But, beneath her preoccupation with theories and novelty of utterance, one listens to the skilled story-teller, to the designer of arabesques, to the narrator who (vide such poems as "A Lady," "Vintage" and the later "Bronze Horses") revivifies history with creative excitement.

Men, Women and Ghosts (1916) brims with this contagious vitality; it is richer in variety than its predecessors, swifter in movement, surer in artistry. It is, in common with all of Miss Lowell’s work, best in its portrayal of colors and sounds, of physical perceptions rather than the reactions of emotional experience. She is, preeminently, the poet of the external world; her visual effects are as "hard and clear" as the most uncompromising Imagist could desire. The colors with which her voice works are studded seem like bits of bright enamel; every leaf and flower has a lacquered brilliance. To compensate for the lack of inner warmth, Miss Lowell feverishly agitates all she touches; nothing remains quiescent. Whether she writes about a fruit shop, or a flower-garden in Roxbuy, or a windowful of red slippers, or a string quartet, or a Japanese print—everything flashes, leaps, startles, spins and burns with an almost savage intensity; a dynamic speed dizzies one. Motion frequently takes the place of emotion.

In Can Grande’s Castle (1918) Miss Lowell achieves a broader line; the teller of stories, the bizarre decorator and the experimenter are finally fused. The poems in this volume are only four in number—four polyphonic prose-poems of almost epic length, but they are extraordinarily varied, sweeping in their sense of amplitude and time. Pictures of the Floating World (1919) which followed is, in many wasy Miss Lowell’s most personal revelation. Although there are several pags devoted to the merely dazzling and grotesque, most of the poems are in a quieter key; a new restraint gives unsuspected overtones to stanzas that have much in common with the earlier and more famous "Patterns" where the narrative, the character and the thing observed are inextricably knit."