A Poetics of Being: Charles Olson Reconsidered

In Letters for Olson, the reader is reminded repeatedly that the intellectual projects of Charles Olson and his students were aspects of a larger cultural transformation, which began in the 1940s and continued into the early ’70s.


All poetics is an attempt to create a coherent continuum in aesthetic time. Even a poetics which aims to annihilate the past still follows that familiar pattern: the old aesthetic is destroyed to birth the new. Of course, this soon becomes the old, to be smashed in turn. Charles Olson’s poetics certainly manifested much of that classic avant-garde energy. But his program and vision also offered something beyond the mere progression of aesthetics and style. He proposed not just a thoroughly innovative mode of poetic composition, but, crucially, a call for a renewed poetic relation to the world: the revolutionary formal principles of his “projective” poetics are deeply rooted in a drive to investigate and recover neglected energies of the human and geological past. Olson’s poetics, then, represents an epistemological claim — a methodology through which one’s specific attentions and movements through the world (geographic space) function as a contingent aspect of historical investigation. His poetics evinces a way of being in and of history; it is a modality of knowledge rather than one of style. In this context, it’s possible to coherently talk about resonances of Olson’s influence in works as varied as Lorine Neidecker’s Lake Superior, Robert Duncan’s The H.D. book, and Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger.

Letters for Olson, a volume of appreciations and responses to the poet, lovingly edited by Benjamin Hollander, arrives at a critical time, not only for Olson scholarship and the study of 20th century poetry, but also for the future of poetic expression in the 21st century, which currently seems, at best, tethered to a rudderless and insular academy and, at worst, assimilated into the larger neo-liberal project. In Letters for Olson, the reader is reminded repeatedly that the intellectual projects of Olson and his students were aspects of a larger cultural transformation, which began in the 1940s and continued into the early ’70s. In many ways we are still experiencing the after-shocks of that tumultuous period, even as many of its facets have been co-opted and transmuted into a larger neo-liberal hegemony. One can follow a fairly direct and disheartening trail from, for example, the Whole Earth Catalog, first published in 1968, to the online ordering of groceries from Whole Foods, and the Democratic Party Convention in ’68 to the DNC in 2016.

It bears emphasis, however, that the Vietnam era also saw a global uprising of the left whose magnitude has not been seen since. During this era, cultural production was a component of the larger struggle against empire and capitalist domination (e.g., the Black Arts Movement, The Fugs, The MC5 and the White Panther Party). It is this aspect of our recent history that runs a deep risk of being forgotten or rewritten in order to neatly (de)contextualize the unprecedentedly institutionalized paradigm we inhabit. Letters for Olson aims to affirm and preserve these aspects of history, in which Charles Olson’s work and thought played no small part. These historical lessons are now of utmost relevance. With the installation of the Trump regime, it is crucial that we study closely — both in their successes and failures — our most recent examples of the mass movements that had the overthrow of imperial capitalist ideology within sight.

Featuring contributors such as Amiri Baraka, Ammiel Alcalay, Cole Heinowitz, Michael Boughn, Dale Smith, and Ed Sanders, the collection comprises twenty-seven letters, poems, and documents addressed to Olson. Some of the contributors knew Olson personally; others know him only through his writings and the stories that surround him. What results is a sometimes conflicting picture of a complicated figure who loomed large over the history of 20thcentury poetics, and still has much to offer contemporary poets.

A recurring theme throughout the collection is Olson’s concept of istorin (to find out for one’s self), drawn from the work of Herodotus. Letters takes up this call for a project of individual historical investigation, the creation of multiple histories. As Jeff Gardiner puts it in his piece “The Mytho,” “The verbal base of history as method is action: finding out and telling. The act of history … is generative and open, not descriptive and closed.” It asks us as readers to do the archaeological work required to form our own understanding of history. In that spirit, inspired by the short excerpt in Letters, I tracked down the full text of Baraka’s lecture Sun Ra and Olson: Notes on Being Out. In his 2013 lecture, Baraka said, “If you cannot understand the connection between Sun Ra and Charles Olson, you cannot understand the topology of the times.” He goes on to describe Olson and Ra both as figures who “discuss the past and the future at the same time.” Though their aesthetics and origins are galaxies apart, so to speak, their philosophical cosmologies correspond in significant ways. It is precisely through this simultaneous address of the future and past that the importance of Letters for Olson comes through. While these epistles are addressed to a long-dead Olson (and are certainly moving as elegies), they are also addressed to various possible futures for literature and thought.

In recent years, Olson has come under considerable scrutiny and attack from different quarters of the poetry world. In the eyes of many, not least those of Heriberto Yepez, in his polemical book, The Empire of Neomemory, the central fact of Charles Olson is that he takes up too much “SPACE,” to paraphrase the poet’s famous declaration in Call Me Ishmael. It has become somewhat fashionable to see Olson as the very symbol of white male imperialism and misogyny. Indeed, Letters for Olson is in many ways an attempt to engage with those leveling such criticisms against Olson. The last hundred pages or so of Letters to Olson primarily addresses some of the critiques leveled by Yepez.

Within the final section, aptly (and, perhaps, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek) entitled “Hero Worship,” we find what is almost certainly the strangest and most intriguing contribution to Letters for Olson. The author is named “Carla, the letter B.” In the contributors’ biographical notes, we learn that she “writes from a name that is not her own.” Carla’s two letters, excerpted from a forthcoming Chax Press release, draw us into a Nabokovian mystery involving Olson, Yepez, Carla, and a certain Señor Al-Quala (presumably meant to be Ammiel Alcalay). In Carla’s breathless, winding prose, we are drawn into a bizarre parallel world of mirroring, love, enmity, and admiration, wherein the characters bridge the threshold between the fictive and the real, between the historical and the speculative; all seeming to dance around one another as if Sufis in Sema.

One of the things that is so striking about Letters for Olson is how incredibly varied it is throughout. The pieces phase-shift between the deeply personal, the dreamlike, the polemical, the imagined-historical, the everyday, and the mythological. One has the feeling of walking through wildly varying topography in contiguous landscapes. This dynamic is particularly well-illustrated in a fairly early section in Letters that moves between beautifully written pieces by Murat Nemet-Nejat, Claudia Moreno Parsons, and Alana Seigel. We move from Nemet-Nejat’s almost prophetic meditation on Olson and Melville (the latter on his trip to Turkey upon the completion of Moby Dick), and Istanbul as “a city of crossings and bridges and double-crosses” to Parson’s piece about the indigenous history of Brooklyn and recollections of walking around Mill Basin as a child with her parents, where the local becomes “the prism through which we understand the cosmos.” We come across a brief interlude from Susan Thackery relating a dream she had about Olson where he calls on her to “look up so you can see the whole hypostasis.” This is followed by Alana Siegel’s piece wherein we again travel between the worlds of dream, memory, and history. Siegel concludes with an image of Peter Lamborn Wilson handing her a text by the 12th century Sufi poet Ibn Arabi.

There are many more pieces in Letters for Olson that deserve mentioning but one would be better served, as is most often the case, by turning to the book itself. The contributors in Letters have all taken seriously Olson’s methods of experimental pedagogy and have formed their own personal versions of it, generously sharing what they have gleaned with whomever will listen.

(During the writing of this review, Benjamin Hollander passed away after a battle with brain cancer. Letters for Olson is but one book in a litany of contributions he made to the world of poetics and throughout his life. His courage and remarkable sense of humor remained with him until his final days, and we look forward to more readers discovering, for themselves, his unique contribution.)

Letters For Olson , gathered and edited by Benjamin Hollander (2016) is published by Spuyten Duyvil and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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