charles olson: everybody can be scholars, thank god
for jim benz
charles olson’s poem, “Maximus to Gloucester, letter 27 [withheld]” is so far the first and only poem that i’ve truly memorized by heart. i’ve got a few other things here and there, but this one if you called me i could recite it over the phone. i love it. i wanted to memorize it because i was told by a teacher, in my first semester of graduate school, “if you want to really understand something, memorize it.” in the process i learned that when you memorize a poem you internalize its gestures, starting me on my path of understanding olson’s poetics.
most commonly associated with the ‘black mountain’ style of poetry (but also influential to people like allen ginsberg), charles olson writes in the same time period as somebody like frank o’hara but in a rather different way. they have similarly wacky, spontaneous energies, but while o’hara is urban and immediate, olson is earthier, with a deeper interest in creating links between poetry, history and mythology. the poetry straddles the line between lived experience and the archane/scholarly, hinging on a fascination with place and memory, knowledge of mythology and the the cultural practices that support it, and the mysterious relationship between poetic rhetoric and the body that he called ‘quantity.’ olson and o’hara present two kinds of postmodern poetry among others, and since o’hara translates so well into the lived experience of the internet, i wonder if there is a way to bring olson into the conversation. charles olson is a poet that i frequently do not understand, but i continue to study his poetry and prose because i see hints of a deep and longstanding relationship i can have with poetry as a scholar and content creator. his prose, to me, is much more accessible than his poetry – the former reads like theoretical work, with all the radicality of thinkers like derrida, deleuze or foucault, and the poetry requires some time reading and rereading, before finally showing the gorgeousness and profundity i’m increasingly finding there. i read the prose to loop into the poetry, in an ongoing process that will probably have a hold on me for some time. but it was “Maximus to Gloucester, letter 27 [withheld]” that first served as the key. watch the youtube video of him reading it, you’ll love it!
for the last few months i’ve been thinking about a different poetry line I’ve almost memorized by heart (i had to look it up), from frank bidart’s long poem ‘The Third Hour of the Night.’ it makes me think about the relationship between learning and living:
Once you reach what is
inside it is outside.
it’s not the only useful way of thinking about things (it’s very male/phallic) but I think it says a lot. what does it mean to see things in this way? one passes to the outside by going inside. a scent catches you like a bone that needs digging and in some manner you move in – and once you’re there it becomes the outside again. inside and outside are in some ways blurred, and part of the challenge is that whatever goal you reach brings you back to an outside, and you start the search again. learning something in the world is as much an inner journey, entering the thing as it presents itself to consciousness, saturating oneself in it to the point where you re-enter the world through it. there is a tradition in philosophy called the ‘spiritual exercise’ where understanding is treated as a personal journey that requires practice (and includes consideration of how one physically lives), and though its links to science were erased starting with descartes, it makes a subtle return in the 20th century with phenomenology, and in a range of intellectual revivals and epistemological transformations that characterize postmodernity. charles olson inherits this in a way that shows how poetry and scholarship can give one a sense of new possibilities for acting in the world.
charles olson’s The Maximus Poems is one of many ‘american long poems’ and i consider it a special genre – not narrative or epic, but a shifting work that defines its own terms, uses odd mixtures of forms and resists easy linear reading. it invents its own language through its obscure references to personal details and uses of found texts. it is in its way a work of scholarship, and itself requires scholarship to understand. i used to think that was lame, and now i don’t, because it doesn’t mean anything other than spending time on a work, giving it patience and love as you learn with it. my earlier reading more greatly emphasized quick hooks and i still need those (i look for them when i edit Internet Poetry) but with works like The Maximus Poems, charles olson’s crazy energy (as a teacher he could lecture for 12 hours at a time) comes out the more you learn it. it’s a work you return to and develop a personal relationship with. this personal relationship i want to emphasize, because it relates to epistemological shifts that are necessary not merely for one’s own life, but for building an ecologically balanced world.
in my opinion, 20th-century intellectual history got a one-two punch from phenomenology and cybernetics, the two philosophical and scientific developments that begin to provide for an understanding of a living, complex world of interrelated intelligent beings. gregory bateson would come to call this world an “ecology of mind.” there is a lot to say on these, but the most important base principle that holds these together is that one is always related to what one observes. its a simple enough principle, but when taken seriously it makes things much more complicated. fortunately, it also give us keys to moving forward. understanding that knowledge is limited to one’s own position (and that shared with others) is how we live in an infinitely complex but finitely limited world. in The Maximus Poems there is a two-line poem that illustrates this:
is the history of time
it is strange and powerful because it folds time on itself – since history is itself based on time, how can there be a history of time? the title of another poem is “history is the memory of time,” and i think the former becomes a bit clearer in light of the latter. what else could history be, but a means of remembering time? the way that it’s turned in the first poem has a valence that makes it more difficult, but essential to the point he’s making. one’s memory is the history of time. rather than going into it as purely an abstraction, i think it is worth relating to this understanding of scholarship as personal and transformative. olson’s poetry is as much global-universal as it is an excavation of his own past, taking frequent left turns from one into the other. i think it is necessary because it points back to place, or environment, the position one occupies in a rigorous and consistent way. the self is the backdrop of action, and i think it should be seen in relationship to the idea of learning i’m thinking about. it’s not about knowing all the information one can store, but about continued learning about things in the world as a means of understanding oneself, and vice versa.
to make this more concrete, i want to mention one of the ideas i got from charles olson that i’ve been thinking about for a couple years now. charles olson has this strange recommendation (in his essay on scholarship called “Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn”) to become an expert on something, and literally anything: “one saturation job (it might take 14 years). And you’re in, forever.” olson wrote this because he spent 14 years studying herman melville. studying melville (and olson was one of the first people to study him after people had ignored his work for decades) gave olson a fuller sense of american history – the practices of whaling as they anticipate to the conditions of factory labor, the symbolics of america’s landed and oceanic frontiers as melville struggled to both embody and resist them, and the ways that literature is the battleground for this struggle.
i’m saying these things because i’m starting to identify as a scholar in the old-fashioned sense of gathering obscure materials and writing about them in a way that other people can learn from. i study cybernetics, phenomenology and experimental poetry, and though these are all comparatively cool things to study as an academic, i’m doing my best not to just say cool things, but to rigorously do what i think scholarship should do, which is uncover something that can teach others something. if these three things have a relationship (and i believe they do) it’s worth pursuing my own “saturation job” to try to figure out what that is, and write about it with the hope that people can use it.
i like a lot of books of course, but i’m realizing that i’m especially interested in books that can serve as handbooks for modes of living. i like books that contain worlds of carefully accumulated knowledge that can be used. cookbooks, books on herbal medicine, poetry anthologies that show a wide range of possibilities, and long poems like olson’s the maximus poems. i get bored when a novel or book of poetry is just one in a genre, even if it’s good. unless it can jack me up or show me a way (like catullus, or audre lorde, or jay-z) i’d rather read something that teaches me. i try to make my life a feedback loop between art that gets me excited and open to new possibilities, and learning that can show me ways and sharpen my mind. books of scholarship are important for that. i recently read a book on the influence of islamic art on early computer art, linking 9th-century carpets to fractal designs, and telling an entirely new history of art in the process. books like these are valuable because they come from a passion for learning about something, and they don’t ‘invent’ something necessarily (though they certainly make something); rather, they pull together obscure resources and focus people’s attention on something that was always there. it’s hard to put a finger on but it’s special when you encounter it.
life is an art form, and it needs practice and models to work off of. we build those models from what we can learn from others, and works of scholarship take on a special aura once the connection to others is realized. michel foucault spent so much time in the archives (of insane asylums, hospitals, prisons, etc.) because he was attuned to how those materials have the imprint of the lives of other people. i believe that the poetry and philosophy (and maybe science) of the future will be tuned less toward merely inventing new things (out of what? metal, plastic, chromosomes?) than finding existing things, communities, traditions, forces, and finding ways of bringing them together that feed the world rather than extract from it. this is also of ecological necessity. we won’t have oil, minerals or a functional biosphere to provide a backdrop for our livelihood – food, clothing, transportation and even culture will increasingly be in our own hands to create, and rather than being a cause for despair it should be seen as an opportunity to learn the science and art of living. we can already see it happening in DIY communities, the slow food movement, occupy wall street, bike co-ops, and alt lit, and we should just see these as signs of what to look for and learn from.
in thinking about method, charles olson went back to the greek root (meta- ‘after,’ hodos ‘way’) to see method as “the science of how,” which he investigated through a combination of poetry and scholarship. it’s hard to explain precisely what that means other than by giving examples – he was investigating ways of living, and it’s as vague as martin heidegger’s dasein (“being there”) because the degree to which it can be elaborated with precision is necessarily limited by the vastly different ways of being and living these concepts can describe. but that’s where examples come in handy – in charles olson’s generally historical interests, he explores the colonial fishing and whaling industry, non-western epic poems like the mayan popul vuh, geography, linguistics, etc., etc., all in the sense of how they fit into how people have lived. if steve roggenbuck’s command is to “try to live your lief,” then charles olson was exploring how: how one learns how to live. the german poet, friedrich hölderlin, once ended a poem with the line, “but what remains, the poets found.” in a similar way, charles olson saw himself as an “archaeologist of morning,” someone who “hunt[s] among stones” to learn new ways of living by turning to myths, practices, languages, ideas, simultaneously preserving and transforming them. these new ways are to be found by looking, and requires the attentions of a poet and the discipline of a scholar.
in steve roggenbuck’s video, BE YOURSLEF (PART 2: THERE ARE NO TACTICS), he features a clip of a gary vaynerchuk talk where he says two cool things. the first:
he is being subtle about this, in that the key is what you know and who you are. there are no rules set in advance for how the game works. you know what you love, you know what you want, you know the game… you just go for it, and figure out what you need to as you go. it’s not that there aren’t rules or strategies, but that you already have a sense of some of them, and flesh them out with experience.
in a similar way, charles olson said in the “Bibliography on America” that he wasn’t interested in politics or economics, that they were “like love … what can you do about it, except have it?” by that, charles olson didn’t mean that they weren’t worth studying, but more with a sense of there being some questions that are better resolved as a matter of practice. because, paradoxically, charles olson was obsessed with the fine grain details of making food, tools, culture, as he saw that the game of being postmodern (and i think this applies to internet culture as well) means thinking through the density of available knowledge and making it meaningful in new ways. part of that is knowing that you’re already in it and that the process is already underway. this brings me to the second cool thing that gary vaynerchuk says:
this is the other side of the idea of personal brand that vaynerchuk and roggenbuck advocate (i know the business side makes people uncomfortable, but i embrace it as a way of thinking about artistic/cultural identity) in the form of expertise, and whether by obsession or sober research, it is a part of the grain of who we are. what do you know? what special knowledge do you have? what’s fun is that we don’t know everything we have knowledge of, because it’s latent in our memory – it’s only in learning from or teaching others that we find out with more clarity what we know and have more confidence in using it. party tip: go study something random, push past the boredom barrier and integrate it into your life. memorize a poem, learn a mathematical concept, try to find out if frida kahlo and leon trotsky wrote sexy love letters, etc. and you’ll get the process going 😉
this is starting to connect more with contemporary internet culture, as material is available in greater volume and in more accessible ways than has been at other moments, but i want to say that the internet is not the savior of humanity – the world is still the world, just with a renewed sense of the possibilities in participatory culture. there’s still a lot to do to make things better. the ‘information age’ (which i see as beginning in postwar mass media/cybernetics and culminating in the internet) is exciting but only because of the ways we can learn again how to connect with one another and build our world.
william james says, “i can only show you the door – you have to walk through it.” the internet gives us the resources, and the relationships we form teach us how to do things with those resources. i stumbled onto this in my first series of image macros, terraforming, which was not only the first time i used collage techniques in the images, but also was composed of almost entirely found text. i spent a few intense weeks looking through earth-conscious and new age websites to find phrases that suggested, in a funny way, the range of attitudes that people have about environmental collapse. i wanted to find places where people had similar dreams and despair about the future of the planet that i had, and bring it together in a meaningful way. and i can’t quite articulate how, but reading the things i read gave me some instincts/hypotheses for thinking ecologically that i use in my more ‘traditionally academic’ work. google searching (and this is in many ways the same approach that charles olson had to physical archives) isn’t about knowing what you’re looking for, but rather knowing what language will open you up to the right possibilities. the key is working with the differences that come up and surprise you. the internet isn’t a storehouse of data that stands in for the world, but rather is a dense set of connections to the world, and something as simple as google searching reflects that.
the internet is frequently understood along two lines – as a digital representation of the bulk of available information (an archive), and as a network of relationships between people. a lot of people try to keep these distinct, privileging one over the other, and i think misunderstandings of the internet stem from this. in a cybernetic model, these archives are the environment of systems which form as the networks of relationships we identify with. the former is dependant on the latter, and in a similar way i think we should see something similar about one’s physical place on earth and one’s online presence.
steve roggenbuck says something in a video and it’s one of the few places in steve’s ideas that i would want to critique or complicate – “IRL is the manure of our online life” – it expresses an ecological link between the raw material world and the network of relationships we live in. if that’s true, we have to love the manure source, appreciate the way it smells, respect and revere the cows (#spiritualveganism). i should note that steve has since backed away from the ‘fuck IRL’ attitude, but i think this point is still worth making. because IRL is still something we have to care for, inasmuch as it supports the relationships we create online. if we let the IRL/online distinction blur a little (both being ‘places’ where people interact) we can consider how charles olson’s poetry (always grounded in a place, whether it be gloucester, massachussetts, the living body, or in a subject matter like herman melville) teaches us to understand what it means to care for your local environment. place or environment need not be understood in a strict IRL sense but it does include it as a component, and charles olson’s poetry pays attention to precisely that. olson’s poetry, as a form of scholarship, explores ‘a’ place as a means of understanding its relationship to the whole.
that’s why the question of what the internet ‘is’ isn’t answered by either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the parallel question, ‘is the internet the world?’ the sneaky secret is that knowledge was always linked as a network, it’s just that earlier it was stored in books, and before that in oral traditions, and earlier still in the plants and the stars.