Printer’s Devil Review is proud to present two critical works on poet Charles Olson’s 1950 manifesto “Projective Verse” — a seminal modernist essay that champions the primacy of speech and breath in poetic composition.
In the first essay, poet Sam Cha offers a personal reflection on Olson’s ideas, as well as those of language poet Lyn Hejinian. The second essay, by PDR editor Thomas Dodson, mounts a postmodernist critique of Olson’s approach to the tension between written and spoken language.
Introduction by David Taber
Charles Olson deserves recognition and consideration for the influence he has had on modern poetry and, for us at PDR, he is also something of a local hero. Born in 1910, Olson was raised in Worcester, Massachusetts and summered in Gloucester—a locale that would later become a major focus of his poetic work.
Following stints in academia as a Herman Melville scholar, in the military during WWII, and in politics as a Democratic Party operative, Olson turned his attention to poetry when he was in his mid-thirties.
He wrote “Projective Verse” in the midst of an eight-year period as an off-and-on professor at Black Mountain College in North Carolina that lasted from 1948 until the school closed in 1956.
“Projective Verse” exerted a major influence on Olson’s contemporaries at Black Mountain, who included Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Denise Levertov, and Jonathan Williams. His work is also recognized as having provided a link between early modernist poets like William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound and later poetic movements such as the Beat Generation and the New York School. As Cha points out in his essay, Olson’s influence has also been cited by postmodern groups like the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets.
We hope these two essays will provide new insights for those already familiar with Olson’s work and an intriguing introduction for those new to his thought and poetic practice.
Projective Verse by Charles Olson
(projectile (percussive (prospective
(or what a French critic calls “closed” verse, that verse which print bred and which is pretty much what we have had, in English & American, and have still got, despite the work of Pound & Williams …
The full text of Olson's essay is available at the Poetry Foundation website.
“Projective Verse” and the “Open Text” Considered as Practices of Body by Sam Cha
I want to talk about two different modes of embodiment in two historical strands of non-mainstream American poetry: the Black Mountain Poets, as represented by Charles Olson and his poem “The Kingfishers,” and the Language Poets, as represented by Lyn Hejinian and her book My Life. Because I am talking about embodiment, I am going to be talking about voice and breath and movement; because I am talking about voice and breath, I am going to be talking about the ways in which these two poets relate to “natural” speech. Because bodies move in time and space, I am going to be talking about these poems as spaces; I am going to be talking about how they are structured, what it is like to navigate through them, what paths one can take. And because the structures of the poems are artificial designed spaces that act on the body, I am going to talk about them as machines; machines for acting on the body of the reader.
Finally, because these designs are both aesthetic and ideological choices, I am going to be focusing on Olson and Hejinian’s most representative statements on poetics (respectively, “Projective Verse,” and “The Rejection of Closure”). I’ll be focusing on their accounts of the reasoning behind their choices, just as much as (or maybe even more than) I am going to be focusing on the poems themselves.
Here I am taking my cues (whether they be positive or negative) from four main sources. First, from William Carlos Williams, who once defined the poem as a “small (or large) machine made of words.”1 Second, from Lyn Hejinian, who writes in “The Rejection of Closure” that “for the moment, for the writer, the poem is a mind.”2 Third, from Brian McHale, who, in his essay on “Poetry as Prosthesis,” has argued that “all poetry, indeed all language use whatsoever, appears to be what Donna Haraway terms a cyborg phenomenon — a human being coupled to a machine — or what David Wills characterizes as a prosthesis.”3
In talking about these things, I am also going to be talking specifically about my own voice, my own breath, my own speech patterns, my own sense of embodiment, my own movements, and how they change when I read these two poets. I realize that in a paper of this sort, one is expected to maintain a certain stance of objectivity. The “I” of literary criticism, when it appears at all, is — or has been, at least for the past century and a half or so — typically a distant figure, a figure of authority, someone very much like a stern father. (There have been notable exceptions. Woolf, Cixous, Irigaray, Acker, for instance. It’s no accident that these are not the names of fathers. Of course Olson is another one who uses an “I” in his criticism that is not the expected “I.”) And the apparatus of the critical essay — the works cited, the footnotes, the endnotes, the elision of the first person — reinforces this impression. It is meant to give the reader the sense that this is authoritative, that this is science, that these are reproducible results. That is a useful fiction — a productive constraint — and I am, by and large, going to adhere to it.
But I also have other stories to tell you, in other ways.
II. “The Kingfishers”: Trajectory, Syringe, Parasite
In his poems, Charles Olson wanted to tie the world together in a “field” generated by breath. His project was nothing less than the liberation and salvaging of modern man: “man is once more to possess intent in his life, and to take up the responsibility implicit in his life … to comprehend his own process as intact.”4 And for this, he saw the renewal of poetry, and the continuation and expansion of the project of modernism (Pound’s and Williams’s, mainly) as crucial. Poetry was to fill, among other things, a didactic role.
Guy Davenport has written of “The Kingfishers” as a Poundian ideogram, an imagistic structuring and juxtaposing, all of its elements working in “synergy.”5 I’d expand on that. For Olson, poetry had to work not only as microcosm but as organism, since what it is supposed to teach man is how to experience his own body — how to experience experience, in fact, since for Olson all experience was “sensibility within the organism / by movement of its own tissues.”6 But whose organism, whose experience is an Olson poem?
First, fact: between the writing of “The Kingfishers” (February to June of 1949), and the writing of “Projective Verse” (written in 1950), Charles Olson was thinking about theatre. In a letter to a Japanese poet and editor, Kitue Kitasono, on April 14, 1949, Olson writes that the way to continue the project of modernism was by learning from “theater … the union of speech and sound.”7
Concurrently, Olson was also thinking about physics — Rosemarie Waldrop, among others, has pointed out that the “field” of “Composition by Field” is, implicitly, an electromagnetic field.8 Projective verse itself is characterized as being “kinetic,” both in the essay itself, and also in Olson’s correspondence (for instance in a letter in 1951 to W. H. Ferry).9
The idea of something being “kinetic” implies movement. This was a fundamental component of Olson’s worldview, one of the main things he learned from the physics of the twentieth century — the idea that “ the minute particles of substances (including any one of us) is in vigorous & continual motion.”10 The idea of movement, in turn, implies something — a body (maybe even somebody) — that moves, and a space in which it moves. Theatre is not only the “the union of speech and sound,” but is also the marking-off of space, the differentiation of boundaries, and the placement of locations (in, for instance, the assigning of the space of the stage, separate from the audience, and the careful “blocking” of the actor’s movements and positions, their relationships in space). The fact that Olson was thinking about theatre means, then, that we should consider how he thought movement should be controlled — what movement should be controlled; whose movement should be controlled; how it should be controlled; who controls.
And control is above all what is necessary for Olson. It is necessary because for Olson control is something “outside” of the poem that is the object of the poem. It is what the poem strives to be equal to. In a letter to John Finch, written in 1935, Olson writes that the “red question mark called life” must be molded by “control and restraint” if it is to be shaped into “dignity …beauty … good.”11 He goes on to say, however:
When the best America’s got comes out, it bursts and spatters like black oil struck in the Oklahoma ﬁelds. By the time it’s harnessed and piped, controlled, the terrible fire, the lovely power, somehow, is gone.12
So the wrong kind of control is a neutralizing or a neutering, is a deadening of energy — of “fire,” of “power” — a loss of essence. The wrong kind of control is the kind that restricts movement with the bond of the “harness,” compresses and redirects it in “pipes,” converting the kinetic “burst” and “spatter” of oil and the percussive “struck” into static, lazy “sprawl.” It is no accident that the first of the eponymous “Kingfishers” that Olson shows us in the poem are caged, one of them with a bad leg, and the other sexless, his virility in doubt: “they had hoped [it] was a male” (my italics).13 Later on in the poem, we read:
in the animal and / or the machine the factors are
communication and / or control, both involve
the message. And what is the message? The message is
a discrete or continuous sequence of measurable events distributed in time
is the birth of air, is
the birth of water, is
a state between
the origin and
the end, between
birth and the beginning of
another fetid nest
is change, presents
no more than itself
And the too strong grasping of it,
when it is pressed together and condensed,
This very thing you are 14
The thing itself — what happens — is continual change, continual motion, change that goes from air to water, that brings life where “excrement and decayed fish becomes / a dripping, fetid mass.”15 This thing, this “message” is “a discrete or continuous sequence of measurable events distributed in time” (the linear, historical time of a “machine”). But it is at the same time a mythic “birth of air … of water … between … origin and … end” that takes place in the cyclical time of the kingfisher’s lifecycle. And when this “thing” is grasped “too strong,” “pressed,” “condensed,” closed in, the motion that constitutes it (and gives it its thing-ness) stops. Any possible hope for renewal is then stillborn.
This is why, in “Projective Verse,” Olson’s enemy, he says, is “closed” verse, “that verse which print bred.”16 Against this — “inherited line, stanza, over-all form” — he pits what he calls “field composition.”17 To compose by field, he says in “Projective Verse,” is to go by the “musical phrase” rather than the metronome’s “push” (quoting Pound), and to, above all, let the poem move according to the rhythms of speech.18 In other words, the control that is rejected is the external control of traditional meter — for which the metronome is the metonym — the marking off of time in iambs. Instead, Olson is saying, the poem must move in varying lengths, line by line, according to the intensity of the moment, of the individual line, so that the oil can still burst and spatter. In this way, with the ebb and flow of speech, with the movement of the air and water of his breath, he hopes to record — or conduct, as with electricity — the change at the heart of reality, the “terrible fire” and the “lovely power.” Only then can the poem be equal to lived experience, or (perhaps) surpass it in intensity. “The Trojan Women,” Olson writes, “is able to stand … beside the Aegean — and neither Andromache or the sea suffer diminution.”19 This is possible, according to Olson, only when the poet reaches “down through the workings of his own throat to that place where breath comes from, where breath has its beginnings, where drama has to come from, where, the coincidence is, all act springs.”20
What we have “suffered,” according to Olson, is an estrangement from the impulse that generates the poem: “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.”21 The antidote is the composing of the textual field in such a way as to transfer the “energy” of the poet’s breath and speech more directly to the reader. This is the figuring of the poem as bullet (“projectile,” as the subtitle of the essay would have it), the poem as electric spark (“energy-discharge”) bridging the gap between the poet and the reader.22 The poem is a machine so simple and so efficient that it only has one moving part, and that made of the most insubstantial material: lightning, breath. The only control on it is the aim, the intensity, the spin. This would suggest (in line with Olson’s project) that “projective verse” is a liberation, a freeness, a minimizing of control, capable of bringing its readers into the very heart of the experience of the world, into the unmediated “terrible fire,” “lovely power.”
“The poem is a machine so simple and so efficient that it only has one moving part, and that made of the most insubstantial material: lightning and breath. ❞
But then here’s the question: if the antidote is directness, if the emphasis is on speech, is on the “personal and instantaneous” recording of the poet’s work, if the work the poem does is the work of liberation, why does Olson valorize the typewriter?23 Why is the typewriter, of all things, the machine that “record[s] the listening [the poet] has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader … to voice his work”?24 A typewriter does not “record” sound, after all.
Why not a machine already available to Olson and his contemporaries and immediate predecessors — a machine that would actually record speech and sound and breath? Audio recording was a technology that was already in widespread use by 1950. So why not the phonautograph (patented 1857)? The tin foil cylinder (1877), the wax cylinder (1885), the steel wire (1898), the magnetic tape (1928)? Why, in a letter written to Chad Walsh in 1967, do we have Olson writing: “(I shld of course warn you — or urge you to abjure(!) tape or dictaphone if, as ’tis claimed — & therefore he claimed it as ‘projective’(!) — you take Ginzy’s [Allen Ginsberg’s] latest, or later work (example, Wichita Vortex Sutra) as any evidence of what you are there talking about!”25
This is a question much less trivial than it might, on the face of it, seem. The emphasis on speech and on sound — said emphasis coming both from Olson himself and from many of his readers — is misleading when applied too hastily to interpreting the text. The question of speech focuses on the method of control used by the poet to control composition, to give shape to the poem. It shifts focus away from the ways in which the already-composed poem then controls its reading — and controls the reader.
“Speech,” in Olson, of course isn’t, not in any literal sense, actual speech, and announces itself as (not being speech) such in a variety of ways. There is the fact that the poem is made visible: the fact of the typography, the layout, which constantly draws attention to itself, declares itself as written, not voiced. As of course it must. Even if (especially if) we take Olson’s claim that the typescript, with its regular spaces and uniformly sized letters, functions as a musical score for the reading of the poem at face value, it follows that the reader must pay particular visual attention to the ways in which the text is organized on the page.
For instance, the first line of “The Kingfishers”: “What does not change / is the will to change.”26 Of this line, in “Projective Verse,” Olson writes that he “wishes a pause so light it hardly separates the words, yet does not want a comma — which is an interruption of the meaning rather than the sounding of the line [and so] uses a symbol the typewriter has ready to hand.”27 The shorter lines of “The Kingfishers” take on the feeling of percussion; they give the eye time to dwell on each word, and so the words are voiced slowly, distinctly, but with resonance. Conversely, the longer lines of the poem — for instance, “in some crack of the ruins. That it should have been he who said, ‘The kingfishers!’” seem to be longer so as to make the eye hasten to scan them, and make the voice speed up in sympathy, knowing that there is a long way to go, and only limited breath.28
But think about what’s happening here. Isn’t the verse acting as a kind of steering mechanism? Isn’t it, in fact, the driver of the voice? I once walked to Trader Joe’s with Charles Olson. I mean that figuratively, of course, but not entirely so. It was early afternoon, in fall. The morning had been cloudy, but now the sky was drying out, cracking around the edges, peeling back to show blue. In my hand I held my copy of The New American Poetry open to page two, and I read “The Kingfishers” out loud as I walked. “What does not change / is the will to change,” I read, recognizing the Heraclitus as I listened to myself. And as I read, the syllables began to synchronize with my footsteps — or was it, I wondered, the other way around, were my footsteps starting to take on the rhythm of my reading?
When you start learning boxing (for instance), one of the first things they tell you is to synchronize your breathing with your movements. When you throw a punch, you exhale as you step and twist your hips, and then you inhale as you retract your arm, and your feet bounce back. Your whole body is mobilized, an orchestra of fast twitch fibers, and your breathing is the conductor, controls the pace. And something very much like that was happening to me: “He [step] woke [step], [inhale] full[step]-ly[skip] clothed [step] [inhale], in his bed [stepstep skip]. he [inhale],” I read as I walked, my footsteps syncopated, varied, controlled by the breathing. But also the walking itself was now starting to have an effect on my breathing, so that the vowels were starting to come from a place deeper in my chest.
The breathing and the movement together meshed like gear wheels. Each long “O” grew longer, deeper, more resonant, and my strides grew longer to match. Soon I found that I was reading in a voice that wasn’t my own — it was slower, deeper. It had an accent, of sorts — clipped, crisp consonants, slightly nasal, vaguely British in that way that recordings of American voices from the first few decades of the twentieth century can often sound to the modern ear — nothing like my own featureless Midwest. And I was walking as if I were trying to keep pace with some unseen companion, somebody taller than me, and faster.
“What I think Olson means is that he wants to live in your vocal cords. He wants to ride the text into your body and pull on the tendons. ❞
Our path was straight, direct, fast. Under the influence of what I was now beginning to think of as the Olson-voice I found myself constantly cutting across curves in the sidewalk, moving over or through obstacles (benches, bushes, piles of leaves, puddles) rather than around, trying to keep my momentum going, as if the first reading had been a long plunge down a fixed track, and I were trying to reach the end before I ran out of speed or breath, which was mimetic of the way in which I was reading the longer lines of “The Kingfishers.” The space through which I was moving was thus structured like a ballistic trajectory, structured by the rhythm of my walking, which was structured by the Olson-voice, which was structured by the feedback-loop between my breathing/reading and my movement, which, ultimately, was structured by the text.
I am, of course, embellishing my experience. We do such embroidery constantly, without meaning to. When we dream, our brains fashion characters and stories from the accidental discharging of neural potentials, from the whispers of stray ions, from the long chain molecules that diffuse in the interstices of our nerves. And so out of “I walked to the supermarket to get some greek yogurt and cheap clementines, and as I walked I read, and as I read the rhythms of what I read found their way into the way I walked, the way I breathed, and that change in my walking and my breathing triggered a corresponding change in the way I read, and I felt that I’d arrived at a new and visceral understanding of how and why what I was reading had been written,” I have fashioned this ghost story, in which the narrator is ridden by the spirit of a dead poet, in which a dead man’s breath changes a quick man’s body to reconstitute the remembered lungs.
I have fashioned it so, most of all, because it is true in spirit, if not wholly in substance. Olson says that what he wants is for the reader to see how a poem should sound, but what I think Olson means is that he wants to live in your vocal cords. He wants to ride the text into your body and pull on the tendons. Here, he says, where in the typewritten text there is “a space as long as the phrase before it,” you must hold your “breath, an equal length of time.”29 Here, where there is a dash, pause in your reading, where I indicate “a pause so light it hardly separates the words.”30 These are not mere instructions. These are disciplines for the body of the reader — instructions for mimicking the actions of the body of the poet — and Olson writes as if he wants them to be universally recognized conventions that all readers of “contemporary poet[s]” should follow.31
We can think of “Projective Verse” as a tablet of commandments, the recorded, imperative voice. The reader of the “contemporary poet,” in this reading, acts like a prophet, who speaks with a voice that is simultaneously his own (i.e., generated by his body), and not: a voice that has taken possession of his body. And his body moves along the tracks carved for it by that voice. Or we can think of the rigidity of the conventions of the visualization of “speech” as a delivery device, like a needle, like the ovipositors of parasitic wasps, pushing through the membrane of vision, to deposit the controlling mechanism — pathogen, drug, egg — in the reader’s flesh.
Olson’s project of “projective verse,” ultimately depends on the substitution of the poet’s own body for the reader’s. Olson once wrote (in “Human Universe”) that “Art does not seek to describe but to enact.”32 He also wrote that in the confrontation between man and the world, it is:
the body that is his answer, his body intact and fought for, the absolute of his organism in its simplest terms, this structure evolved by nature, repeated in each act of birth, the animal man; the house he is, this house that moves, breathes, acts, this house where his life is, where he dwells against the enemy, against the beast.33
He wrote that:
the soul is proprioceptive … the “body” itself as, by movement of its own tissues, giving the data of, depth … that one’s life is informed from and by one’s own literal body … that this mid-thing between … that this is “central,” that is — in this ½ of the picture — what they call the SOUL, the intermediary, the intervening thing, the interrupter, the resistor. The self.34
But none of these bodies are the reader’s body. The body that is answer, that is house, that is refuge, that calls up and constitutes soul by its own perception of its own self — none of these belong to the reader. It is the work of the Olson poem to remake the body of the reader in the image of the poet’s voice. What passes for “speech,” but is really a carefully coded sequence of commands, in Olson, acts as a coercive, colonizing, parasitic force, invading the host organism and remapping it. For the moment, for the Olson poem, the reader is the poet’s body.
III. My Life: Maze/Map, Loom, Simulator
Near the end of the first section of My Life, there is a sentence (-fragment) that reads, in full: “An ‘oral history’ on paper.”37 On the surface level of meaning alone, this sounds ridiculous — how does one go about putting an “oral” anything on paper? Once it’s on paper, isn’t the oral already written? Then you recognize the reference. The “Oral History of the World” was the grand, modernist (in the sense that its author purported to be attempting, through solitary heroic, artistic labor, a monumental synthesis and re-configuring of earlier narratives), and almost completely fictional project of a Harvard-educated East Village vagabond, a contemporary of E. E. Cummings named Joe Gould, who achieved a certain amount of fame when a profile of him appeared in The New Yorker. In that context, it becomes hard to read the sentence as anything other than a comment on Williams and Olson’s perceived emphasis on speech and sound.
“They claim to value orality but then project it onto paper, flattened and emptied, and it’s ridiculous anyway, to claim to say that something on paper is still somehow ‘speech,’” is, in essence, what I take Hejinian to be saying. Elsewhere in My Life, she writes: “In every country is a word which attempts the sound of cats, to match an inisolable portrait in the clouds to a din in the air.”35 But, she writes later, it is “impossible to spell these sounds,” impossible to pin down their essence with words.36 The sound of cats is a cloud shape, fleeting, existing only in relation (it is “inisolable”) to a specific configuration of clouds that exists for one specific moment. To attempt transcription is to remove the cat-sound from the context (without which it wouldn’t exist) and to remove what is changeable about it, what is alive; to make of a “portrait” a “din.” Signal become noise.
Elsewhere in the book, Hejinian compares the “desire for accurate representation” with the “mania for panorama” of the sort that one can acquire from days spent “cataloguing the travel library.”38 “Mania” suggests that the desire for accurate representation is pathological; “panorama,” “catalogue,” and especially travel “library” suggests that what gives birth to this pathology is the condition of being constantly surrounded by nothing but representations, and that, by implication, representation can only aspire to be “accurate” when it is representing other representations. The referential function of the word has begun to break down. This is how Hejinian announces her break with the project of modernism — which is for her also a break with the idea of the written word as being tied to voiced sound.
Hejinian’s statement is in line with something that Robert Grenier once said, in his essay “On Speech.” I’m going to quote him at length, because I think the context of his statement is important. The particular statement I have in mind, however, comes at the very end:
It isn’t the spoken any more than the written, now, that’s the progression from Williams, what now I want, at least, is the word way back in the head that is the thought or feeling forming out of the ‘vast’ silence/noise of consciousness experiencing world all the time, as waking/dreaming, words occurring
Why imitate “speech”? Various vehicle that American speech is in the different mouth of any of us, possessed of particular powers of colloquial usage, rhythmic pressure, etc., it is only such. To me, all speeches say the same thing, or: why not exaggerate, as Williams did, for our time proclaim an abhorrence of ‘speech’... to rid us, as creators of the world, from reiteration of the past dragged on in formal habit. i hate speech.
I want writing what is thought/where feeling is/words are born.39
“What is thought/where feeling is/words are born” is the statement to which I refer, of course, and it is a deliberate echo of Olson’s “where breath comes from, where breath has its beginnings, where drama, has to come from, where, the coincidence is, all acts spring.”40 Crucially, however, Grenier’s formulation leaves out breath, leaves out the physical presence of the poet in the act of composition, leaves out the body in which consciousness experiences, figures experience not as fleshy texture or movement but as the on/off of awareness (“waking/dreaming”) and the “occurring” of words.
The words themselves, then, and the awareness of the words, are to be the objects to which the poem refers. And it appears that, for Grenier at least, the form of what he wants to write is something that precedes both the “spoken” (by which I take him to mean, essentially, “projective verse”), and the written (by which I take him to mean, essentially, what Olson calls “closed verse”). What he wants to write, in fact, “is thought.”41 And yet poets are “creators of the world,” which I take to mean that, for Grenier (and for others of his generation, like Hejinian), a poem — even though it is merely the occurrence of words, “thought or feeling forming out of … silence/noise of consciousness” — is somehow at least a world or at least congruent to the world. What is the shape of this world? Is it made of anything other than words or “thought”? Who gets to live there? Will we be able to do anything there, other than wake/dream or occur as words? Isn’t this a curiously disconnected, schizophrenic, solipsistic world?
Whether it is or not, it makes it difficult to talk about embodiment and space in Hejinian when what she and Grenier seem to be suggesting is that they are deliberately leaving the body out. So here’s another story, about the first time I read My Life. I think it might help us think across this aporia. The edition of My Life that I own is the third edition, from Green Integer. It is a tiny book, perhaps four inches wide and six inches tall and half an inch thick; it fits easily into the pockets of my jeans, and can be (mostly) covered from view by my right hand. As for the text itself, I knew something of what to expect — I’d read other poems by Hejinian, and I’m fairly familiar with the work of other poets associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.
Nevertheless, it came as something of a shock to open the book to see a neat rectangle of text nearly filling the entire page, its expanse only broken up by a square-shaped blank space in the upper left corner (and that blank space in turn only marked by the two lines of the italicized section-heading “A pause, a rose, / something on paper”). Turning the page didn’t really help. Here, text filled everything that wasn’t margin. There were no paragraph breaks to indicate the structure of the text. There were no indentations. The top, left, and right margins were identical in width and the bottom margin was twice as wide — that, too, seemed strange. Most of all, I saw the very regularity of the textual field, the sheer geometrical precision of it, as a clear visual signal that I was looking at something new, something foreign.
In “After Free Verse: The New Non-Linear Poetries,” Marjorie Perloff writes of the American free verse anthologized in Naked Poetry (1969) that they all look more or less similar on the page — they are “columns of verse centered on the page, with justified left margins, and … jagged right margins.”42 That the very layout of Hejinian’s book has the power to shock is a measure of how ubiquitous and natural-seeming (even considered solely as a visual — a spatial — convention) such “free verse” has become.
It’s also a measure of something else. We read (and write) with our bodies, though we have managed to forget that we do so. My stepson Henry is a fine and confident reader for his age (he will be nine in two weeks). But when he’s asked to read an unfamiliar word or sequence of words to us in the living room, he (consciously or not) tenses up — a shoulder will move up or down, his neck will hunch or bend ever so slightly — and his arm will move out towards the paper or screen. His index finger extends, traces the writing, almost as if it were Braille; his eyes open just a little bit wider. His nostrils flare and his pupils might dilate (I’m not prepared to swear to it). His lips start to move before any sound comes out. When he sounds the word out you can see him listening to the sounds, trying to piece them together into something more familiar, and his lips will move again, as he varies the speed or the vowel sounds. And you can see him listening to these new sounds. And if it still sounds unfamiliar, he might repeat the process again and again or (especially if he’s hungry or tired or sick), you might see his eyebrows start to scrunch together and his lower lip begin to push out.
Our adult faces and limbs are not so eloquent; the novelty — both of being a body, and of the written word — has receded into the background. Nevertheless, when one pays attention to what one’s body is doing when one reads or writes — when we attend to proprioception, to use Olson’s pet term — one begins to have an idea of the degree of purely physical coordination involved in text-reading and text-making. For instance, right now I am typing this with my eyes closed. In part, this is because my eyes are tired, and I want to give them a rest. It is also because, when I type with my eyes open (I have just opened my eyes again, to remind myself of what it feels like), they tend to dart and wander, fixate on objects both textual and not, which makes me pause in my writing to evaluate those objects, to catalogue them, assign to each a place.
This in turn has an effect on the quality of my prose. It makes me digressive and expansive. It makes my clauses proliferate and my parentheses nest. My sentences begin to mimic the structure of my looking — the complex shapes that my visual attention and comprehension trace in space and time, moving from, for instance, this sentence that I am writing now, to the contrasting features of sentences I wrote earlier with my eyes open, to the books strewn over the couch where I’m sitting — until the entire structure of my thought starts feeling to me as if it were something fronded and subdivided and involuted and weed-wild, a fractal structure from which I must zoom outwards, losing entire levels of detail if I am to keep it whole in my sight. I don’t want that right now. I want to stay focused.
So I close my eyes again, and this lets me listen more closely to myself as I compose the sentence. The sentences start echoing each other. They become more uniform in length. Their syntactical structures become parallel. They begin to group together by sound and by meaning, which is inseparable from the sound. As I type I listen both to the inner voice that sounds out the words one by one and also to the sound of my own typing. The fluidity of it when I know what I am about to type before-hand (literally, before my hands move) encourages me to go faster, faster, hurry the sentence onwards and the logic to its conclusion. My fingers know where to go almost before I know what word I am typing. The slow, deliberate tap-tap-ing I hear from my fingers when I am unsure sounds like a blind man’s cane scouting out the lay of the land for obstacles and bumps, or like a sculptor’s chisel, chipping slowly away at the stubborn and unnecessary rock.
And this makes my thought in turn slow down, turn inward and under, working away at a metaphor until I’ve either gotten it hopelessly mixed up or wrung dry or some combination of both. But whether my eyes are open or closed, whether I am looking or listening, what is happening is that I am using my body, my senses. I am using the movements of my body, and these movements are what shape my thought, are the shape of my thoughts.
And these same processes are at work when I read, though they are less available to me to be aware of, because they have a less obvious external effect. When I read I am moving, just like Henry is. My eyes move, and perhaps certain muscles in my throat and lips, and my hands turn the pages. When we read things that look substantially the same — for instance, the conventional left-justified columns with ragged right margins of “free verse” — our eyes move in similar ways, trace similar, well-worn paths, paths that they have traced a hundred times before, saccade after familiar saccade. Our hands, too, move in roughly the same rhythm, turn the pages at more or less the same rate of speed, whether we are reading Lowell or Olson or Ginsberg or Spicer or Berryman or Berrigan. And because our movements are similar, because they resemble movements that we have performed before, our thoughts also grow to be roughly the same shape.
This is one of the things that genre and intertextuality means to me: it means that, on many levels, my perception (and therefore interpretation) of the text is being shaped by muscle memory, by memories of moving through other textual spaces very much like whichever one happens to be lying in front of me at the moment. It means that I am comfortable, at home. The town may be unfamiliar, the street names foreign, but the walk I take through them is not. The navigation is automatic — I know where east is; I am always oriented.
My point is that the text of My Life is, for these very reasons, disorienting, physically uncomfortable, spatially uncanny (unheimlich; it makes me not-at-home). When, on the first page of the book, I see the sentence “Pretty is as pretty does” followed immediately by the sentence “In certain families, the meaning of necessity is at one with the sentiment of pre-necessity,” I feel it, not only as a disjunction in meaning and thought, but also as a physical stopping. My eyes stutter; they skitter around the page looking for something they have missed, something that will act as a bridge for those two sentences; they look in between them just to make sure that the gap between those two sentences is really there. My hand, which by the time I have gotten to the middle of a page, is usually moving down towards the lower right hand corner, preparing for the turn, stops, and because it has stopped in the middle of a well-worn and automatic routine, there are muscles in my arm and shoulder that experience a tensing that they seldom do when I’m reading. When Hejinian writes that
[w]riting’s forms are not merely shapes but forces; formal questions are about dynamics — they ask how, where, and why the writing moves, what are the types, directions, number, and velocities of a work’s motion. The material aporia objectiﬁes the poem in the context of ideas and of language itself.43
I’m not certain that this kind of physical reaction was, precisely, what she meant. (She seems to be thinking, in fact, along lines similar to Olson’s, when he talks about “kinetics.”) But that is the way my body understands it, and therefore that is the way I must understand it. My orbital muscles take it at face value.
What My Life does, then, is force the reader’s body into a new and unexpected routine in relation to the space of the text. At every sentence’s end the eye cannot continue without taking a quite literal leap of faith — this time, the eye always expects (because it has been right so many times before in so many different texts), this time there will be a connection. This time I (the eye) can move from the end of this sentence to the beginning of the next and ignore the space in between; won’t have to check to see whether there’s another sentence that I’ve unknowingly skipped. But the eye is always disappointed until it fastens on a new element of the text, one that seems oddly familiar. After a while the eye recognizes it, figures out why it is familiar — it’s a repetition in the text; a phrase that appeared earlier on in the text as an italicized section heading is here “recontextualized [ … ] with new emphasis.”44 Again, muscle memory plays its part; the hand reaches out and flips through the book, riffling through the pages, while the eye skims through the blur, looking for other section headings, other repetitions, stopping at the repetitions and then flipping back to compare them to the “original,” flipping forward again to compare them with each other. It’s as if a new dimension had been added to the usual practice of reading, a new motion. In addition to left to right, moving from one end of a line to the other and back and so on till the end of the page and then moving forward — the horizontal axis of reading — we now have this accelerated back and forth, these threads of inquiry that pierce and suture pages together: many vertical axes. A shuttle carrying the weft where before there was only warp.
Words cannot “unite an ardent intellect with the external material world,” Hejinian suggests.45 To attempt to do so, to attempt to make things cohere, is to fall into the trap that Olson fell into — to colonize and control in the attempt to liberate. It is a “Faustian longing.”46 Where Olson attempts to carry us through the text, sweep us along the prepared path with a single push, Hejinian invites us (by repeatedly blocking the path) to explore it, take different routes through it, map it, rather than block it (that is, “block,” in the theatrical sense). The repetitions are the landmarks by which we navigate, by which we map the “vast and overwhelming” world.47 What language can do is make “tracks” whereby the vast undifferentiated expanse of the past — the “immense and distant bay of blue, gray, green” — can be navigated, traversed, by creating an “incoherent border which will later separate events from experience.”48 By breaking the “Faustian longings” with “uncounted continuous and voluminous digressions,” Hejinian hopes to “jump lines, hop cracks.”49 In doing so, she provides us with new ways of configuring our bodies, new routines that can supplement the old — and therefore both new shapes of thought, new ways of navigation in the “external material world” and new ways of reading and writing in the world of words. After all, the two are one.
Notes on this essay.
The Poetics of Presence by Thomas A. Dodson
T he poet Charles Olson and the philosopher Jacques Derrida are both provocative thinkers, notorious for the difficulty of their styles. Each can also lay claim to significant legacies: Olson’s work continues to exert influence as a predecessor to language poetry and, though Derrida’s ideas received a cool reception from analytic philosophers, his critical practice (deconstruction) has been generative in other areas, especially literary theory and postcolonial studies.
Despite also sharing the label “postmodern,” Olson and Derrida have very different ideas about the nature of being and its relationship to speech and writing. Olson insists that everything in the world possesses its own, self-sustaining existence outside of any relation to other things. Derrida, by contrast, considers being and meaning to be the result of relations between differing elements in a system, each element containing within it traces of the others. Olson privileges speech as closer to being than writing, and he inveighs against a “print-bred” poetry that threatens to exile the poet from speech’s life-giving energy. Derrida rejects this view, arguing that Western thought has long placed writing in a subordinate position in order to secure for speech the illusion of a fullness which it does not and can never possess.
I could say that I set out to write an essay about “Projective Verse” that would put Olson’s ideas in conversation with those of Derrida, but that would be a lie. The kind of conversation I have in mind here is less that of an even-handed comparison of positions, and more like one of Plato’s dialogues. In the dialogues, the character of Socrates encounters a fellow Athenian citizen and engages him in a conversation about some philosophical concept — about Virtue, or Justice, or Piety. At the beginning, Socrates’s interlocutor holds what he believes to be sensible and coherent convictions. Through a series of questions and answers, however, Socrates leads his partner to question these commonly held positions and to recognize that the concept in question is more complex and contradictory than it first appeared.
“Projective Verse” is full of confident declarations about the nature of being and its relationship to speech and the voice. Drawing on Derrida’s account of the role of speech in Western metaphysics, I aim to undertake a critical reading of “Projective Verse” that undermines Olson’s certainties and re-opens a set of questions about the relation of being to presence and speech to text that the essay appears to regard as settled forever.
The central claim of “Projective Verse” is that a new and truly modern poetry must transcend the ordinary functioning of language. The poem should not be a fossilized representation of thought, but “an energy discharge,” one that transmits the poet’s vital essence directly: “A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it … to the reader.”1 For Olson, the shimmering of the poet’s being at the moment of composition is embodied and expressed by means of his voice and breath. Only that verse which faithfully transcribes the poet’s living voice and delivers it intact to the reader can truly be called “projective.” Olson contrasts this kind of poem with the non-projective, “that verse which is print bred and which is pretty much what we have had, and have still got … ”2 Olson presents projective composition (or “composition by field”) as a break from what has gone before, a liberation of poetry’s energy from both the constraints of logical argument and the petrifying effect exercised by writing on authentic human speech.
In earlier essays, Olson laments the persistence of prejudices first articulated in classical philosophy — “the whole Greek system” from “Old Stink Sock [Socrates] on down” — in favor of discourse and logic over what he terms “live speech.”3 Despite his stated hostility to classical metaphysics, the statements Olson makes in “Projective Verse” about the unbreakable bonds between being, breath, and speech — and which form the basis for his prescriptions for poetic composition — correspond exactly to a set of ideas about speech and writing that have characterized Western thought since the Platonic Socrates.
In his discussion of “thingness” in “Human Universe,” Olson asserts: “A thing, any thing, impinges on us by a more important fact, its self-existence, without reference to any other thing … ”4 Key to Olson’s metaphysics is the notion that a thing must exist by itself, without referring to any other thing. A thing that depends for its existence on some additional, exterior thing is not unified, not truly and at all times itself; part of it is always elsewhere. A dependent thing is a divided thing, part of it occupying one place and time and another part occupying the place and time of the other thing on which it depends. According to this way of thinking about being, something that doesn’t exist entirely on its own doesn’t really exist at all — or, at best, has a diminished or degraded share of being in comparison to those things thought to exist independently.
The historical development of Western thought and language has been dominated by just this conception of being as equivalent to presence. Our traditional formulations of being as “self-existence,” “the now,” “Truth,” and “consciousness” all refer to the idea of something unified, undifferentiated, constant, proximate, and present.
Each of these terms seeks to designate something that is really here now, without any difference from itself in nature, any distance from itself in space, or any deferment of its presence in time.
Of course, this conception of the nature of being (Olson’s “thingness”) has implications for how we understand the status of concepts and language. Let’s assume for a moment that the function of language is to represent things in reality, and that those things have the kind of inherent self-existence that Olson attributes to them. We end up in that case with a hierarchy of being, with “things” placed at the top. Below things we have concepts, which depend for their existence on their reference to actual things. On the next rung down we have spoken words which, according to this model, represent (and thus owe their existence to) concepts. Finally, at the very bottom, we have written words which are, supposedly, imperfect representations of speech.
Olson clearly regards textual representations as inferior substitutes for spoken words, stating:
What we have suffered from, is manuscript, press, the removal of verse from its producer and reproducer, the voice, a removal by one, by two removes from its place of origin and its destination.5
In the great chain of being, the printed text finds itself at the furthest remove from the poet’s being. To begin composition from textual forms rather than with attention to one’s own breath and voice is, for Olson, to give the poem over at the start to suffocation and death.
Olson’s commitment to the classical conception of the relation between being and speech is clear in his discussion of the syllable. The spoken syllable, what he calls “the minimum and source of speech,” is the basic formal element of projective verse.6 He instructs the projective poet to regard the syllable as well as “every [other] element in an open poem” as “objects,” possessing as much inherent existence “as we are accustomed to take what we call the objects of reality.”7 The projective poet listens so intently to the voice and the breath and transcribes these so precisely that the ordinary distance between spoken words, concepts, and things collapses. Syllables cease to function as parts of a system of representation and, instead, announce their own intrinsic existence to the listener. It is “speech,” Olson tells us, “the ‘solid’ of verse” that authorizes the poet to regard “everything in…[the poem] as solids, objects, things.”8 As we have seen, in Olson’s system “things” are always constituted as singular and primordial presences.
By means of the “living voice,” Olson seeks to provide language with a shortcut to the reader, to spare it the tedious detour through references to things outside of itself. Language in a projective poem is no longer a means of representation, but a transparent medium for the communication of being. Despite the tone of Olson’s rhetoric, this does not constitute a rejection of the traditional metaphysical conception of representational language. It is, instead, an attempt to realize that metaphysics’ ideal of total transparency.
Olson’s claim that “living speech” must finally be liberated from its subordinate position seems to me to profoundly misread the history of Western thought—to get things exactly backwards. The valorization of speech as the herald of being, and the denigration of writing as its exterior and imperfect supplement is nothing new. It is, to borrow Olson’s phrase, “pretty much what we have had” since Plato.
“The historical development of Western thought and language has been dominated by just this conception of being as equivalent to presence. ❞
But simply exposing Olson’s explicit rejection of classical metaphysics as either confused or disingenuous doesn’t get us very far. In order to truly re-read “Projective Verse,” we have to challenge its claims for the self-sufficiency of being and the primacy of the voice. We must discover the traces of difference and dependence in categories that it regards as whole and complete in themselves. We must pursue meanings that, though they are unauthorized and disowned, continue to spill out from the aperture of Olson’s text.
There are, of course, other ways to think about language and its relation to being and presence. The structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure provides a useful starting point. De Saussure rejected the notion that language is simply a system for naming things in the world. He famously described meaningful signs not in terms of their reference to things, but instead according to their structure.
A sign, de Saussure argued, does not consist of “a thing and a name,” but rather of “a concept and a sound pattern.”9 De Saussure called the concept “a signified” and the sound pattern “a signifier.” In examining the English word “pear,” de Saussure would likely make the following points. First, the sound ['per] has no identity outside of a particular system of differences (the English language) in which it is distinguished from other meaningful sounds such as ['der] and ['ber]. He would also observe that the same is true of concepts, which don’t derive their meaning from things in reality or from timeless ideals, but from relations with one another. The concept of “a sweet and juicy greenish fruit” relies for its meaning on a whole set of other concepts related to the classification of plants, colors, and taste sensations. These concepts do not arise spontaneously from a physical pear or from some set of universal ideas about colors or tastes held by everyone at all times — we know very well that different cultures have different systems for classifying such things.
These two elements, signifiers (sound patterns) and signifieds (concepts), occupy separate, but parallel places in an overall structure; they are two faces of a single coin. The relationship between a given signified and its signifier is arbitrary. The signified “pear” is linked to the signifier ['per] in English and to the signifier [pwar] in French. So long as it is used consistently within a particular system (English or French), one sound will serve just as well as the other to indicate the concept. Thus, structural linguistics dispenses with the notion that spoken words and concepts derive their significance through reference to independently existing things.
Poststructuralists like Jacques Derrida argue that this approach does not go far enough. Derrida’s work offers a trenchant critique of the traditional Western conception of being and voice, what he refers to as “the metaphysics of presence.” Derrida observes that the desire for the ideal of an independent and inherent self-existence has been so powerful and pervasive in Western thought that any term associated with it tends to be elevated to the status of an original and transcendent value. Such an ideal must be protected from anything that might show that it is not, in fact, whole and complete in itself.
This sleight of hand is accomplished by pairing the privileged term with a forsaken one, a scapegoat. The scapegoat term is said to contain within itself everything that pure presence must (in order to maintain its integrity) exclude, namely: lack, difference, dispersion, deferment, absence, and death. He sees this prejudice at work even in the structuralist approach to language.
In Of Grammatology, Derrida argues that de Saussure ultimately fails to leave classical metaphysics behind. By partitioning the sign into parallel parts, structuralism privileges the signified in favor of the signifier, the pure idea over its expression in a sound pattern. This division reflects a desire for “a signified able to ‘take place’ in its intelligibility, before its ‘fall,’ before any expulsion into the exteriority of the sensible here below.”10
In structuralism, Derrida argues, signifieds still retain their special place. By placing a structural barrier between them, signifieds are walled off from the promiscuous play of signifiers, the tendency of words to get mixed up in metaphors, to swap positions, to take time unfolding their meaning, to run ahead and then circle back, to never arrive at their destination at all. One might say that the classical ideal of the intelligible is that it be allowed to sport with the sensible, yet never find itself sullied by the encounter. In this relationship, the signifier is clearly the scapegoat term.
The signifier is imagined to be an exterior (and ultimately unnecessary) supplement to a conceptual meaning that comes before it. All of the undesirable characteristics of language —
impermanence, difference, materiality, and misunderstanding — can be handed off onto the signifier to bear alone. This allows the signified to be constituted as pure meaning, a self-sustaining presence that does not rely for its existence on anything so coarse as a spoken word or a graphic mark. Don’t we refer to just this privileged relationship of concepts to spoken words when we suggest that some words that we have uttered were “not what me meant to say”?
In place of such a rehashing of the metaphysics of presence, Derrida proposes a true departure: the logic of the trace. He denies that there is any such thing as a “transcendental signified,” any concept that can exist independent of its expression in language.11 Essentially, all elements in a signifying system — concepts, spoken words, graphic marks, gestures, objects — function as signifiers. They all produce meaning in relation to one another, never through a reference to some element higher up on a chain of meaning and being. Meaning is a product of the constant shifting, or “play,” of these elements in a signifying system:
the play of differences … forbid at any moment, or in any sense, that a simple element be present in and of itself, referring only to itself … no element can function as a sign without reference to another element which itself is not simply present. Each “element” … is constituted on the basis of the trace within it of the other elements of the chain or system.12
In Derrida’s system, there is no place set aside for pure meaning or self-sufficient being; there is only the trace.
Returning to Olson’s notion of the syllable, we can see how far we’ve come from classical metaphysics. Olson seeks to treat the syllable as a substantial minimal unit of projective composition, an undifferentiated and independent “thing.” A syllable however, is nothing other than an element in a signifying system.
To take up our earlier example, the syllable ['per] has no inherent significance; it’s meaning is an index of its relative difference from other syllables in the English language. A syllable is always different from itself, constituted as it is by the traces of other syllables, none of which are “every simply absent or present.”13 Contrary to Olson’s claims and the principles of classical metaphysics, there are never any pure presences or absences within signifying chains, but rather “only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces.”14
The principal scene in Olson’s essay, the one that serves as the foundation for all of his prescriptions, is that of the poet listening to his own voice. The projective poet is one who records “the acquisitions of his ears and the pressures of his breath,” one who provides a faithful account of “the listening he has done to his own speech.”15 Because it is the organ that registers the poet’s speech, the ear is granted a special proximity to his conscious being; it is “so close to the mind that it is the mind’s.”16 Olson also praises the breath, “voice in its largest sense,” because it “allows all the speech-force of language back in” to the work.17
This scene—of the solitary individual listening to his own speech and gaining thereby a direct and unmediated access to the fullness his own conscious existence—is not original to Olson. It has, in fact, been the chief way in which the notion of being as self-presence has been staged since at least the seventeenth century. In the act of vocalizing her own speech, the speaker experiences the illusion of a self-sufficient existence. Derrida describes the structure of this experience of self-presence:
From this point of view, the voice is consciousness itself. When I speak, not only am I conscious of being present for what I think, but I am conscious also of keeping as close as possible to my thought, or the “concept,” a signifier that does not fall into the world, a signifier that I hear as soon as I emit it, that seems to depend upon my pure and free spontaneity, requiring the use of no instrument, no accessory … Not only do the signifier [the spoken word] and the signified [the concept] seem to unite, but also, in this confusion, the signifier seems to erase itself or to become transparent, in order to allow the concept to present itself as what it is, referring to nothing other than its presence.18
Listening to our own spoken (or mental) discourse, we can easily deceive ourselves into believing that our consciousness is a self-existing entity. It is certainly tempting to imagine, as René Descartes did, that by virtue of thinking —and at the same time being aware of my thinking—I have proof of my independent present existence.
Derrida argues, however, that this experience is a ruse. The entire phenomenon of auto-affection is founded on language, a signifying system which operates according to the logic of the trace — a logic in which elements don’t exist independently but only by their relation to one another, a logic in which there is never simply full presence or complete absence.
In auto-affection, however, the apparent unity of the signified, the signifier, and the voice (what Olson calls “living speech”) presents itself as self-presence. To maintain this illusion of completeness, any trace of distance, difference, or absence must be made exterior, shunted off onto a scapegoat term. “Writing” has long been the name given in Western metaphysics to that which lies outside the boundary of this Edenic plenitude.
“The crime of the non-projective poet is that he places writing in the position of origin reserved for the voice. ❞
In the opening line of Olson’s manifesto, the projective and the non-projective are separated by the confrontational “vs.,” marking from the start their absolute difference. As the antithesis of a projective verse united with being and the voice, the non-projective takes as its origin that which should be secondary and supplemental to living speech, namely writing. The non-projective poem is “print-bred,” the product of a compositional process grounded in “closed” literary forms. A poet who takes “inherited line, stanza, [and] over-all form” is starting at the end of the chain of being rather than its origin.19 His is an artificial, fallen language, cut off from the experience of the voice as the poet’s self-present existence.
The projective poet, we are told, “stays inside himself,” while the non-projective poet is guided by “artificial forms outside himself.”20 The crime of the non-projective poet is that he places writing in the position of origin reserved for the voice. Writing for Olson is an exterior and dangerous addition to living speech; it is threatening because it reveals that living speech does, in fact, require a supplement, that the voice was never whole and complete in itself. Further, writing is treacherous because it seeks not just to supplement speech but to substitute itself as the origin for poetic composition.
Western metaphysics has long sought to neutralize the subversive power of writing, its potential to overthrow the myth of living speech. As Derrida argues, it has done so by ascribing to writing a purely “secondary and instrumental function: translator of a full speech that was fully present.”21 Writing has been figured as phonetic transcription, a method for transparently representing a speech to which it is nonetheless exterior and on which it depends.
Graphic writing, however, has always marked it difference from speech, if only “by reason of the necessary spacing of signs, punctuation, intervals, the differences indispensable for the functioning of graphemes [e.g., written characters], etc.”22 It is precisely these visible differences that Olson seeks to erase by his introduction of the typewriter as a kind of magical speech-transcription machine. Olson suggests:
It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space positions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtaposition even of parts of phrases, which he intends.23
The poet can use the typewriter “as a scoring to his composition … [and] a transcript to its vocalization.”24 As a tool of projective practice, the typewriter serves to efface the presence of non-phonetic elements (such as spacing) and bind them to the sole task of transcribing speech.
In this way, the typewriter is presented as a technological totem, capable of containing the danger writing poses to living speech. This humble machine is introduced as a kind of rhetorical deux ex machina that will finally guarantee the text’s unfailing services as a mere scribe to speech. This device alone is to stand between the poet’s being and a fallen writing representing the threat of absence, suffocation, and death. Perhaps it is not unfair to such an argument, such a ribbon-thin barrier, to warn that some specters are not so easily gotten rid of.
In the concluding section of Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates discusses rhetoric and writing with the young aristocratic friend for whom this late dialogue is named. Plato’s protagonist describes writing as an orphan child, forced to go about in the world without the protection of its father. Unlike the living speaker who brought it into being, a written text cannot respond to critiques leveled against it:
It continues to signify just the very same thing forever … and when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.25
For Olson, the non-projective poem is just such an orphan, cut off from the voice and breath of the poet-father.
Were it not for the threat it represented to the father and his rightful heir, living speech, this illegitimate and abandoned offspring would be merely an object of pity. But the threat of writing for Olson, as for Plato, is that it seeks to usurp the place reserved for speech in Western metaphysics. As Derrida argues in his critique of the Phaedrus, “from the position of the holder of the scepter [the father], the desire for writing is indicated, designated and denounced as a desire for orphanhood and patricidal subversion.”26
From the perspective of those who consider Charles Olson to be the natural origin of his thought and speech, deconstructing his text is equivalent to denying his paternity. It is to give him over to patricide and theft, to the crime of writing. Yet what is it that makes a father in the first place, if not a kinship system? The term “father” only has meaning in relation to the traces of simultaneously present and absent elements (“son,” “maternal uncle,” etc.) within a structure of kinship.
In a supplementary note to “Human Universe,” Olson remarks that “the etymology of ‘discourse’ has its surprises. It means, to run to and fro.”27 By re-reading “Projective Verse” in this way, I have not sought to deny Olson a place in his own text. Rather, I’ve tried to re-open that text to just some of this “to” and “fro,” to the playful tension between presence and absence, speech and writing.
Notes on this essay.
1. William Carlos Williams, Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1954), 256.
2. Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 44.
3. Brian McHale, “Poetry as Prosthesis,” Poetics Today 21(2000): 2.
4. Charles Olson, “Human Universe,” in A Charles Olson Reader, ed. Ralph Maud (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005), 119.
5. Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays (Jaffrey, New Hampshire: Nonpareil Books, 1997), 89.
6. Charles Olson, “Proprioperception,” in Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 181.
7. Charles Olson, Selected Letters, ed. Ralph Maud (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: California University Press, 2000), 96.
8. Waldrop, Rosmarie, “Charles Olson: Process and Relationship,” Twentieth Century Literature 23(1977): 467–486.
9. Charles Olson, Selected Letters, 143.
10. Ibid., 162.
11. Ibid., 12.
12. Ibid., 12.
13. Charles Olson, “The Kingfishers,” in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson: Excluding the Maximus Poems, 86–97.
14. Ibid., 86–97.
15. Ibid., 86–97.
16. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in A Charles Olson Reader, 39.
17. Ibid., 39, 40.
18. Ibid., 40.
19. Ibid., 48.
20. Ibid., 49.
21. Ibid., 45.
22. Ibid., 40.
23. Ibid., 47.
24. Ibid., 41.
25. Charles Olson, Selected Letters, 388.
26. Charles Olson, “The Kingfishers,” in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson: Excluding the Maximus Poems, 86–97.
27. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in A Charles Olson Reader, 46.
28. Charles Olson, “The Kingfishers,” in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson: Excluding the Maximus Poems, 86–97.
29. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in A Charles Olson Reader, 46.
30. Ibid., 46.
31. Ibid., 46.
32. Charles Olson, “Human Universe,” in A Charles Olson Reader, 119.
33. Charles Olson, “The Resistance,” in Collected Prose, 174.
34. Charles Olson, “Proprioception,” in Collected Prose, 182.
35. Lyn Hejinian, My Life (Kobenhavn & Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002), 9.
36. Ibid., 8.
37. Ibid., 85.
38. Ibid., 80.
39. Robert Grenier, “On Speech,” in The American Tree, ed. Ron Silliman (Orono, Maine: The National Poetry Foundation, 2002), 477.
40. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in A Charles Olson Reader, 49.
41. Robert Grenier, “On Speech,” in The American Tree, 477.
42. Marjorie Perloff, “After Free Verse: The New Non-Linear Poetries,” in Poetry On & Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press), 153.
43. Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry, 41.
44. Ibid., 44.
45. Lyn Hejinian, My Life, 63.
46. Ibid., 63.
47. Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry, 41.
48. Lyn Hejinian, My Life, 83, 35, 9.
49. Ibid., 63, 33.
Notes to The Poetics of Presence
1. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in A Charles Olson Reader, ed. Ralph Maud (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005), 40.
2. Ibid., 39.
3. Charles Olson, “Human Universe,” in A Charles Olson Reader, 114; Charles Olson, “The Gate & the Center,” in A Charles Olson Reader, 80.
4. Charles Olson, “Human Universe,” in A Charles Olson Reader, 114.
5. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in A Charles Olson Reader, 45.
6. Ibid., 42.
7. Ibid., 44.
8. Ibid., 44.
9. Saussure, Ferdinand de, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Charles Bally (Chicago: Open Court, 2007), 66.
10. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Corrected Edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 13.
11. Ibid., 20.
12. Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981), 26.
13. Ibid., 26.
14. Ibid., 26.
15. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in A Charles Olson Reader, 41.
16. Ibid., 42.
17. Ibid, 47.
18. Jacques Derrida, Positions, 22.
19. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in A Charles Olson Reader, 39, 40.
20. Ibid., 48.
21. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, 8.
22. Jacques Derrida, Positions. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981), 26.
23. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in A Charles Olson Reader, 46.
24. Ibid., 46.
25. Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1995), 81 (275E).
26. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Jones (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 77.
27. Charles Olson. “Footnote to HU (lost in the shuffle),” in Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 167.
Sam Cha received his MFA in poetry from UMass Boston. Before that, he studied at Williams, UVA, and Rutgers. He was the winner of the 2011 Academy of American Poets Prize at UMass Boston (judged by Marilyn Chin). Also of the 2012 Academy of American Poets Prize at UMass Boston (judged by Martha Collins). Also, he was one of the recipients of the 2011 &NOW Awards.
He's been published (poems, essays, translations) in apt, anderbo, Opium Online, decomP, Radius, ASIA, and Amethyst Arsenic, among other places. And his favorite kind of pie's a mud pie with a rope ladder baked into it---lockpicks and chisels on the side, hold the tin plates.
Thomas Dodson holds an MA in comparative studies from The Ohio State University and an MLIS from Kent State University. He is the founding editor of Printer’s Devil Review and the executive editor of the Best Indie Lit New England anthology. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Beloit Fiction Journal, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Conium Review.