Monday, August 01, 2005

Olson & Zukofsky ii

Everybody, it seems, is reading Olson. Josh Hanson, for one, and Tony Tost, who left a sharp comment on the other night’s inchoate ramblings. Suffice it to say, when it comes to the issue of estates, that yes, the stance of a literary estate towards an author’s work is absoutely key to that work’s reception, something we probably don’t spend enough time thinking about. Olson was certainly happy in his choice of executors, and lucky to find in George Butterick someone willing to devote himself so single-mindedly to editing the Big Man’s work. These days there’s very little cachet attached to being the amanuensis.

The more I think about it, the more Duncan’s and Johnson’s characterization of a particular space of 50s-60s American poetry as a magnetic field, with Olson and Zukofsky at its poles, seems accurate. It’s not entirely true, as Tony alludes to Guy Davenport saying, that they didn’t read each other at all: LZ, in letters to Cid Corman and Thomas Merton, had nice things to say about Olson’s poetry – he just couldn’t abide Olson’s circus-ring-master-movement-leader persona (somewhere Paul Metcalf quotes CO calling Jonathan Williams “one of the good soldiers in my army”) (cf. what Norman F, in his comment to the last post, calls Olson’s “bombast”); for his part, Olson seems to have kept up with LZ’s work to some degree – he mentions the Catullus translations in the Reading at Berkeley. Robert von Hallberg puts it nicely in Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art (Harvard UP, 1978), one of the smarter – and by far the best written – books on Olson: “Zukofsky and Olson are poets of vastly different temperaments; their programs overlap more than does their poetry.” (Or to quote Norman, “they had many of the same teachers and affinities.”)

Von Hallberg makes a great distinction between the two men’s work when he points out that Olson’s “objectism” (see “Projective Verse”) gives rise to a process-oriented poetics in which the very act of the poet’s digging up the facts and arranging them is primary; while Zukofsky’s “objectivism” (yeah, yeah, he never used that noun, and his shade is rapping my knuckles right now) is directed towards product, towards the poem as object, as “rested totality.” Which distinction goes far towards describing the overall “form” of the middle volume of Maximus, which are all about the process of seeking and discovering, & very little about arranging what is discovered into any sort of shapely final form. Maximus III is something altogether – arranged as it was by Butterick & co. out of a shapeless bundle of manuscripts – but even then, its overall texture isn’t radically different from the middle volume, which Olson himself worked on.

Anybody have any insight into Butterick’s logic for including the fragment on p. 506 of the California edition – “This living hand, now warm, now capable / of earnest grasping…” – which in the Guide he admits to be a mistranscription of Keats’s lines, found written by Olson on an envelope? I can see a pretty interesting poetic justification, but the textual editor in me (a bad-tempered Rupelstiltskin-type) finds the inclusion very fishy indeed. (I can’t help remembering Robert Bertholf’s including LZ’s “H. T.” in his edition of Niedecker’s complete poems, just cuz he’d found an unascribed typescript in her papers.)

The almost total critical eclipse of Edward Dahlberg, Tony, is a very interesting thing indeed. (They’ve got his papers at UT Austin, and I have it on good authority that they’d be more than happy for someone to write on him…) I suspect there it’s a matter of Dahlberg never having found a powerful enough advocate, inside or outside the academy, for his work: lots of folks who admire him off and on, but no-one willing to beat the drum. LZ quotes him in Bottom calling himself “the forgotten man,” and that seems almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve got about a half-shelf of Dahlberg books, and went thru a period of intense reading some years back, so much so that when I heard someone referring to Dahlberg as “that guy who Olson had a correspondence with,” I was a bit taken aback. Because I Was Flesh seemed to me then – and still seems – a very great book, any way you slice it. But a decade on, having heard Dahlberg’s name only a handful of times in the interim, I can see the institutional logic that’s beginning to relegate him to the place of a bit player in the major dramas of Olson’s and Zukofsky’s careers.

Re-reading The Prelude (1805 version, of course).

1 comment:

Josh Hanson said...

No, no, the 1799 version! It's practically a perfect poem. You know, before Wordsworth got in the way.