Olson Meets Web 2.0
by Thomas Fink
Let’s say that Charles Olson, who fretted about the short life-spans of his male ancestors as an indicator of his early death in “The K” (Olson, Selected 159), does not die in 1970 at the age of 59. Worn out, he goes underground and just observes the culture for a very long time. In full possession of his faculties, he turns a century old in 2010, and, still holding (but perhaps not too tightly) the perspective of his major critical essays and poetry published in the fifties and sixties, contemplates the cyber-revolution of the new millennium.
Naturally, Olson is interested in how poets are articulating their relation to this revolution, as he did regarding an early technology in his “Projective Verse” essay, now a spry 60 and parodied about ten years ago in My Way by Charles Bernstein. Olson speaks of the typewriter’s effect on his own writing, such as the “advantage of the machine’s multiple margins” (Olson, Selected 23) to represent breath pauses and thus to give priority to the previously neglected ear. ‘What we have suffered from,” he claims, “is manuscript, press, the removal of verse from its producer and its reproducer, the voice, a removal by one, by two removes from its place of origin and its destination” (22). Does he find voice activation software and the democratizing effects of YouTube and similar platforms adequate support for the “mission” of bringing poetry and speech into full alignment, or does he consider these others kind of “removal” or dilution? Or does he perceive a potential that has not yet been realized?
At this moment, Olson is reading Tan Lin’s cyber-inflected, book-length poem/non poem (?), plagiarism/outsource, and he is not unmoved by its meta-moments:
People don’t read text so much as look at it or download multiple reading formats for text. Such practices are not new to ebook reading: skimming, fanning, page flipping, reading books about books, blurb reading, browsing or locating a book in a spectrum of colors, binding styles, shelf-heights, and library floors, or even simple forgetting, etc. constitute earlier non-reading, pre-digital formats of text processing. . . . [T]he retina processes textual matter by silent reading, by jumping from one letter/word group to another in what are termed saccadic leaps. All reading is format-dependent scanning i.e. controlled forgetting. (unpaginated)
Reading this with anxiety, Olson remembers one of the dicta in “Projective Verse,” “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION” (Olson, Selected, 17), as well as a key rhetorical question: “So, is it not the play of a mind we are after, is not that that shows whether a mind is there at all?” (19). But he is not so sure that his sense of poetic composition is the same kind of process as that experienced by many web-surfers.
Olson can’t possibly want to read or reread all of his critics, but he recalls what two of them, both interpreting him in a Heideggerean frame, said about this issue. Paul Bove explains: “Delay cuts the poet off from the world and his sensual impressions of it and, thus, separates the mind from ‘what is’” (243); “Language which in the moment reenacts the discovery is thus ‘truer’ than language which records after the immediacy of the discovery cools. Olson’s poems are ongoing disclosures with sudden changes in direction, abrupt discontinuities, frequent repetitions, and fragmented linguistic structures” (244). Yes, all this perceptual leaping must result at least in temporary forgetting, but Bove’s sense that “what is” can be united with the mind and that there is something (many changing things) actual to “dis-close” and “dis-cover” seems far from Lin’s typical reader/scanner’s acceptance of “looking at” material speedily and downloading rather than engaging in a temporal process of going through a single text.
And what “play of a mind” does Olson respect? Judith Halden-Sullivan suggests that the poet pursues serious play:
Olson. . . chooses “mapping” and its logical hazards over the imposition of a controlling principle. However, Olson’s appetite for perception and its speed should not be interpreted as a rejection of the poet’s care-ful thought. Olson attempts to deliver up the dynamic of the moment in the poem but not at the price of reflection. The moment is itself a matrix of relationships, each to be thought out fully to make present the dimensions of the instant—the depth of Being’s address. This requires both perceptual acuity and thought. . . . As his heavily revised manuscripts attest, the poet actively pursues concrete associations that bring a coherence to the topic(s) under investigation. (117-8)
“Thinking out” “a matrix of relationships” “fully” or about responding care-fully to “the depth of Being’s address” is challenging: “As the dead prey upon us,/ they are the dead in ourselves,/ awake, my sleeping ones, I cry out to you,/ disentangle the nets of being!” (Olson, Selected, 205). The absence of “a controlling principle,” chez Halden-Sullivan, does not liberate the poet to engage in free-play but to be especially attentive to the emergence of “Being” that is never conveniently pre-packaged: “There are no hierarchies, no infinite,/ no such many as mass, there are only/ eyes in all heads,/ to be looked out of” (Maximus 29). And Olson notices while reading Tan Lin’s work that relaxation and, in fact, boredom are important to the latter’s sense of a poetics that is fully engaged with current “notions of cultural distribution, social networking, dispersed multiple authorship,” etc. (Lin, Plagiarism: A response). For Lin, who observes that “reading and writing have gotten easier to perform in a social space, i.e. a kind of reduce reuse recycle revise in the language ecosystem” and that avant-garde notions of difficulty have become tired, “’content’ that is jointly produced or produced under socially networked conditions . . . is harder to classify as ‘original’ or pleasurable—as opposed to, say, boring,” and he believes that “all reading is reading with distractions.. . . . Why not generate avant garde work that is easy and relaxing and mildly original?. . . . The project: relax the avant garde.”
Olson understands Lin’s point that “appropriation is no longer avant garde,” but “standard practice” and “no longer shocking. . . just part of our reading cultural environment where information is exchanged continually and for the most part freely” (Plagiarism: A response), so he knows that the marshalling of many diverse sources (in The Maximus Poems and in others’ poetry written after his 1970 retirement) is nothing to consider especially significant in and of itself. However, Olson is troubled by the culture of “pejorocracy” in the fifties and sixties: “love is not easy/ but how shall you know,/ New England, now/ that pejorocracy is here. . ./ o kill kill kill kill kill/ those/ who advertise you/ out” (Maximus 3, 4). And, despite all the rest he has gotten between 1970 and 2010, he does not feel any better about the age of Bush, Jr. and the lamentable inheritance that the Texan decider has given the Obama administration. For him, relaxing poetry’s impact would signify acquiescence; it would not be oppositional enough.
Further, Olson is not particularly happy with the procedural emphases of two prominent American poetry movements that are intimately connected to recent advances in internet technology. Though he has no objection to googling and can appreciate the Flarfists’ ability to “throw down hierarchy” ((Maximus 94) by calling for an examination of “bad taste,” he believes that their seemingly exclusive practice of Googlism in the interest of writing “badly” cuts off the writing/speaking subject’s own less mediated perceptions. If “polis is/ eyes” (Maximus 26), then one needs not only to see on the basis of and through others’ words but to have one’s own language try to make contact with sensory experience. As for what has lately been termed Conceptualism, Olson recognizes that “the play of a mind” is present in the decision to develop and carry out an idea, but, again, such a project usually precludes a process of recording moment to moment perception outside the concept’s set of constraints.
In contemporary capitalist cyberspace, there is a distinct and much more extensive counterpart to what Olson decried in the fifties: “colored pictures/ of all things to eat: dirty/ postcards/ And words, words, words/ all over everything” (Maximus, 13). Olson, ever the moralist, is deeply suspicious of the seductive packaging and will not relax into good-natured acceptance of it: “Value is perishing from the earth because no one cares to fight down to it beneath the glowing surfaces so attractive to all” (Selected, “Human Universe,” 59). He is also on the lookout for ways in which the complex mediations of cyber-exchange dilute rather than enable the “presence” of “voice,” and he is concerned that excessive reliance on the computer as an experiential tool, shaped by structures manufactured by Microsoft, Apple, Google, etc., may prove too much of a distraction from the central tasks of proprioception: “And if man is once more to possess intent in his life, and to take up the responsibility implicit in his life, he has to comprehend his own process as intact, from outside, by way of his skin, in, and by his own powers of conversion, out again” (“Human Universe,” 61). If he were to revise this text in 2010, he might include a cautionary note about how the presumption of “multitasking” on various electronic devices endangers meaningful, responsible proprioception. Olson can appreciate New Zealander Mark Young’s implicit critique in section LIII. “The Writing Practice” in his long poem Genji Monogatari:
She was in a hurry to
be inspired; so, rather
than be bound by the
limitation of words, she
opened two additional
browser windows & used
satellite and aerial imagery
to explore brief snippets
of everything from the
lo-fi aesthetic of classic
reggae 45s through to
playing Bach. Too much
distraction—what she was
after was not conceptual
knowledge but keyholes.
It began to snow. (58)
Neither Young nor Olson can be a Luddite; each knows the truth of the cliché, “There is no turning back,” and each recognizes the advantages of the “information superhighway” for writing poetry that relies on inquiry. For example, not only would the wide range of historical data in The Maximus Poems regarding seafaring, Gloucester and other parts of New England, John Smith, John Adams, and even contemporaries like Marsden Hartley have been so much easier to assemble with the possibility of internet searches, but the range of possible sources—both promising and highly questionable—would have been considerably wider. Olson at age 100 may not choose to pursue a multimedia Maximus Poems festooned by thousands of hyperlinks, but he has a sense of its potential. He knows that you know this already. He is not planning to talk about it. It is a matter of deciding the degree to which people decide how much the internet should come to define contemporary culture and how much it should be treated as a servant or collaborator rather than a master.
Bove, Paul A. Destructive Poetics: Heidegger and Modern American Poetry. New York: Columbia UP,
Halden-Sullivan, Judith. The Topology of Being: the Poetics of Charles Olson. New York: Peter Lang,
Olson, Charles. The Maximus Poems. New York: Jargon/Corinth, 1960. Print.
____________. Selected Writings. Ed. Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions, 1966. Print.
Lin, Tan. plagiarism/ outsource. La Laguna, Canary Islands: Zaesterle, 2007. Print.
_______. “Plagiarism: A response to Thomas Fink.” Otoliths 14 (Aug. 2009). Web.
Young, Mark. Genji Monogatari. Rockhampton, Australia: Otoliths, 2010.
Thomas Fink’s most recent book of criticism is A Different Sense of Power (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001), and in 2007, he co-edited “Burning Interiors”: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics. Professor of English at CUNY-LaGuardia, Fink is the author of seven books of poetry, including Peace Conference (Marsh Hawk Press, 2011) and a book of collaborative poetry with Maya Diablo Mason, Autopsy Turvy (Meritage Press, 2010). His work appears in The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). His paintings hang in various collections.