Monday, July 07, 2008

Charles Olson, poetry and multivalence

A number of years ago I wrote an essay for a modern poetry class. The topic was Charles Olson and what I called a "Polis of Attention and Dialogue."

I have been silent on this blog for almost a month now for many reasons, but thinking about what I wanted to say, I returned to this essay, which tried to described the multivalent (many meanings) nature of Olson's poetry and in turn the multivalent nature of our world. And I believe that it is my interest in the viewpoint that drew me to the Talmud's multivalence, and why I have been attracted to it over time.

I thought I would share a number of paragraphs from the essay, the whole piece can be found

Charles Olson’s Maximus: A Polis of Attention and Dialogue

Don Byrd in his Charles Olson’s Maximus says this about Olson’s interest in more traditional academic work, “His problem was simple: how does the writer manage to finish a project when every day he discovers information which changes the entire picture?”. This is how I feel about my own work with Charles Olson, every page of Maximus seems to open new angles on Olson, on the world, on reality and on myself.

What draws me to Olson’s work is his ability to hold in tension two apparently opposing messages. The first is that “life is strangled by systems” (Christensen 212) and the second is the importance of “making a mappemunde” that includes his “being” (Olson M II 87). While Olson clearly desires to join with Nietzsche and others in toppling the “whole line of life that makes Delphi that center,” (Butterick 7) he does not simply create a mass of ruins. Rather, he takes those ruins and creates a mythology and cosmology out of them. However, these creations are not a Ptolemaic system of perfect circles. Instead, it is a wild, open, becoming, creative, imaginative, unfinished mythology that asks readers for their attention and participation.

A example in nature of this process of both destruction and creation is a terminal moraine–the geological deposits left at the end of a glacier’s journey. It contains everything that the glacier consumed in its path. This image works on many levels with Maximus. First, on a literal level, the section of Gloucester known as Dogtown is actually a “terminal moraine” as Olson says in “Maximus from Downtown–I.” Second, Maximus, itself, can be seen as a terminal moraine created by the movement of Charles Olson–a glacier of a man, whose interests included:

Hopi language, Mayan statuary, non-Euclidean geometry, Melville’s fiction, the austere thought structures in Whitehead’s philosophy, the fragmentaary remains of the Sumerian and Hittite civilizations, Norse, Greek, and Egyptian mythology, numerology and the Tarot, the history of human migration, naval and economic history, the etymology of common words, pre-Socratic philosophy, the historical origins of the New England colonies, the development of the fishing industry off the coast of Massachusetts, accounts of the conquest of Mexico, the collapse of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations. (Christensen 5-6)
Finally, the image of the terminal moraine also resonates with the view of the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, who used this image as a description of the state of myth in our time. Campbell imagined that individuals in the twentieth century were standing on a terminal moraine containing the fragments of thousands of years of myth. And from this great treasure chest of myth he encouraged individuals to create their own personal mythology by picking and choosing from what lies about them. It is with a similar sentiment that Olson writes Maximus.

. . .

Heidegger’s work is immense and extremely complex, but if one turns to his essay on “The Origin of the Work of Art,” one can find some interesting descriptions of truth and the role of the artist in the revelation of that truth. The essential aspect of truth for Heidegger is “unhiddenness,” which Heidegger uncovers within the traditional Greek term for truth, aletheia. It is this sense of truth that Heidegger refers to when he writes,

The art work opens up in its own way the Being of beings. This opening up, i.e., this deconcealing, i.e., the truth of beings, happens in the work. In the art work, the truth of what is has set itself to work. Art is truth setting itself to work. (390)
For Heidegger, art creates an opening out of which truth is unconcealed. Thus, for Heidegger, much like Olson, truth emerges in the openness of a field created by art, by poetry. In a passage that seemingly could have come from Olson, we hear Heidegger say,

What poetry, as illuminating projection, unfolds of unconcealedness and projects ahead into the design of the figure, is the Open which poetry lets happen, and indeed in such a way that only now, in the midst of beings, the Open brings beings to shine and ring out. (72)
Reality, being, truth only emerge in the Open, not within the confines of a clearly delineated system of classification and identification, which stagnates life. The nature of the Open allows for the freedom of creation necessary to bring art to life­–an art not of measure and control, but one of freedom and creativity:

The more poetic a poet is–the freer (that is, the more open and ready for the unforeseen) his saying–the greater is the purity with which he submits what he says to an ever more painstaking listening, and the further what he says is from the mere propositional statement that is dealt with solely in regard to its correctness or incorrectness. (216)
In this passage from “‘. . . Poetically Man Dwells . . .’” Heidegger could have been talking about Maximus, since it certainly requires a “painstaking listening” and cannot be judged on a basis of “correctness or incorrectness.” It also clearly relates to the nature of reality that Olson is striving to give voice to and create a space for–a reality that demands “painstaking listening” and “eyes,” and cannot simply be measured, organized or classified.

. . .

Olson does not simply tell his readers "to find out for yourself." Instead, he forces them to make those discoveries on their own. He does not provide simple answers or solutions. How could he, if he truly believed in the centrality of process and the fluidity of absolutes? By using unorthodox sentence structures, incomplete statements, obscure references, original layout techniques, Olson forces readers to engage the text in an attentive, conversational, dialogical manner in which new meaning is created in the opening of the poem. One cannot assume that the next word will follow from the previous. Each word has to be attended to and given the space to play. Readers must work; they must use their eyes, ears, breath and bodies to engage the text. If they do not pay careful attention to the text and its nuances and participate in a open, transforming dialogue with it, then they will miss its meaning completely, and will fail to create the “polis of the self” (Christensen ix) that it challenges them to create. Eniko Bollobas describes the participatory nature of reading Olson in the following way:

The rich texture of Olson’s poem demands a participatory (creative) reading from the reader rather than “literate” passive listening. Also, it demands from this reader a certain openness and a willingness to resist and ignore prior expectations, preconceptions, prejudices, and routines of apprehension. The multivalent text, the text characterized by free syntactic and semantic valencies, seems a more faithful transcript of the creative moment, and at the same time promises a more active, activating reading experience. (62)
Olson, in fact, gives readers a hint on how to engage his text by how he uses texts within Maximus. Olson makes the texts he reads (e.g. an Algonquin legend in M II, 21) his own by incorporating them into his poem. He may change a word or two, but that is all. However, the new context Olson creates for the story gives it new meanings of which the Algonquins probably never dreamed. Through juxtaposition with other stories and repetition (Olson repeats this legend in M II 142) the meaning of the story is unleashed from its indigenous roots and allowed to float within the readers’ lives where it can possibly plant new roots. In this way Olson demonstrates that reading is not a passive process, but is an active and integrative process in which readers are challenged to unleash Maximus and make it their own in order to give “daily life itself a dignity and a sufficiency” (Christensen ix).

Even the incompleteness of Maximus, which was only gathered together in its current form after Olson's death, provides yet another entrance, another challenge for the reader. In some ways Maximus begs for the reader to complete it. Or perhaps more correctly expressed, to continue it. By engaging the text and attempting to continue it, to make it their own, readers become part of an ongoing conversation, a never-ending process of creating a “mappemunde” out of the terminal moraine on which they dwell.

1 comment:

GSK+ said...

Dear Jeff -- Of course, I've had the privilege earlier of reading, admiring, and commenting on this essay. I'm glad to get the chance today to encounter it again. As I said before, your note on the Sophists continues to have a profound efect on me.
"Multi-valent" is a good, strong word, though I prefer "particulate", in the sense Blake meant when he referred to 'reality' as made up of "Minute Particulars" - such as Campbell found in the tracks of those cultural glaciers. Particulars can be collected -- and we don't pick flowers-in-general, we pick these daisies in front of us here and now. And sometimes we pick daisies on impulse as we walk alog, sometimes we pick roses to decorate the table at a banquet we're planning.
You've heleped me see that the Sophists & Talmudists - and the Yankees like Olsen - are inviting us into a huge, rambling house, with some rooms gone decrepit, some renovated, some fairly-new and comfortable, and some still under construction. A nice place to be, and a nice place to come home to when we need to.
Thanks again for sharing this!
You have helped me see the "corpus" of Tradition a a collection of collections -- this was the genius of the Sophists AND the Talmudists. And of the American/Pragmatist tradition that Olsen was up to neck in and that Witehead encountered in his "second career".