Charles Olson: Poet of Process

A very quick post, following some prodding from Mark Murphy of the ever-excellent Social Theory Applied blog, but one with an oblique relationship with social theory as such.  The New England poet Charles Olson, a key member of the Black Mountain School of American Poetry, was also one of the most philosophical poets of his generation. In particular, Olson’s poetry is heavily influenced by the process metaphysics of A.N.Whitehead. Olson made his debt to Whitehead explicit, referring to him often as ‘my cosmologist’ and his poetry can be read as a dialogue with, and cannot be properly understood without reference to, Whitehead.

Olsen, as you can hear the clip above where he recites ‘Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld]’, developed a distinctive style of poetry influenced by this ontology, which he called ‘open’ or ‘projective verse’.  In an essay in which he outlines this innovative approach to poetry called Projective Verse (pdf) he writes that:

A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge. So: how is the poet to accomplish same energy, how is he, what is the process by which a poet gets in, at all points energy at least the equivalent of the energy which propelled him in the first place, yet an energy which is peculiar to verse alone and which will be, obviously, also different from the energy which the reader, because he is the  third term, will take away?

The answer is breath.  Or at least, ear and breath in dynamic relationship. Form for Olson is ‘never more than an extension of content’ and the process is:

how the principle can be made so to shape the energies that the form is accomplished. And I think it can be boiled down to one statement…ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It  means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points (even, I should say, of our  management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen. And if you also set up as a poet, USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER.

Ear and breath, the acquisitions of the former and the pressure of the latter:

the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE

Thus, the poem is ‘organic’, it grows, from the inside out.  It is, fundamentally, like nature, processual.

In the clip below, where Olson discusses this way or method, he invokes his ‘great master, and the companion of my poems, Mr. Whitehead, who called his cosmology the philosophy of organism’.  The overlap with and influence of Whitehead is clear.  These are reinforced when he turns to ‘objectism’, a position opposed to both objectivism and subjectivism:

What seems to me a more valid formulation for present use is “objectism,” a word to be taken to stand for the kind of relation of man to experience which a poet might state as the necessity of a line or a work to be as wood is, to be as clean as wood is as it issues from the hand of nature, to be as shaped as wood can be when a man has had his hand to it. Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For a man is himself an object, whatever he may take to be his advantages, the more likely to recognize himself as such the greater his advantages, particularly at that moment  that he achieves an humilitas sufficient to make him of use.

This is an Object Oriented Ontological Poetry in all but name (on which, see Morton (2012)pdf), as well as a process poetry.

The clip, and the one after it, are of a short documentary featuring Olson from 1966.  In the first one, he reads ‘Maximus to Gloucester’ again. In the second he reads The Librarian.

There is lots more to be said – the connections between the poet and the philosopher have been subject to a number of analyses, such as Blaser (1986), and more recently Bram (2004) – and I haven’t even mentioned Olson’s Maximus Poems, but for now, I leave Olson speak for himself.  Another interesting ‘poet of process’ is A.R.Amons, but I may return to him at another time.

What the post is intended to provoke is an exploration of the link between philosophy and art, between poetry and theory.  What Olson does is theory as poetry, which is, to me, an interesting approach.