Progress = Fun? (guest appearance by Charles Olson)

In 1950, Charles Olson's “Projective Verse” bombastically declared that written verse must reclaim its association with orality. Printed verse was plainly un-spoken, and did not earnestly attempt to represent the speech which necessarily served as the impetus for the act of writing. Hundreds of years of critics enamored of the iambic pentameter line in English verse might have argued otherwise. Olson himself conceded that the line hadn't really lost its handle on “breath” until the late Elizabethans, to whom he held himself in opposition, but it was clear to him that in the present day (1950) left-justified verse in general was slave to the conventions of printed verse as they had existed since the advent of the technology that allowed for such a thing. Olson's verse also followed from a technological innovation: his preferred “Open Field” was the product of the typewriter, which was available roughly two decades before the birth of E. E. Cummings, who Olson credited as the father of typewriter-liberated versification. If nothing else, we can say that verse progresses with technological innovation, however slowly innovations in either field might themselves mature.

Now that we all have personal computers, the Open Field exists as a matter-of-course. Writers unfamiliar with Olson implement the Open Field to more or less the same end as Olson: tabular organization of stanzaic blocks which may or may not be “heard” in different vocal registers. There is no critical writing to justify this assertion; suffice it to say that I did it as a younger writer and have seen other younger writers do it since. One thing that can rightly be attributed to Olson, though, is his insistence that the line has something to do with breath. Which is not to say that the same could not be said of Kerouac, Williams, Pound, or even Thomas Wyatt for that matter. (read: “the iambic pentameter line.”)

Indisputably, Olson is “the projective verse guy.” The Open Field and the line as a unit of breath are the trappings of his projective verse, but for Olson “the syllable [was] king.” The syllable projected the energy of the writer onto the page, and one syllable followed from another. Every aspect of Olson's form followed directly from whatever preceded it, and this had something to do with content: “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.” (The words belong to Edward Dahlberg, the capitalization is likely Olson's.) Olson insists that we “USE USE USE the process at all points...MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!” The aspects of Olson's poetics that truly define his idea of “projective verse” are his assertion that “the poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge,” and that this energy is maintained in a poem where everything follows necessarily from what came before it. Form is determined as the poem is being made, and content follows suit.

In 1960, Donald Allen published “The New American Poetry: 1945-1960,” an anthology that has come to define post-modern poetry and is still published to this day. The first poet in the anthology, appearing on page two of Allen's seminal work, is Charles Olson. Olson is not the father of modern American poetics, but he may very well be the most important figure in post-modern poetry as far as the Anthology-buying community is concerned. In 2011, we are still writing post-modern poetry. Or post-post-modern poetry. Or maybe we're still writing modern poetry, or whatever. It is true at least that contemporary American poetry tends toward organic form, and it tends to agree that “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception” more often than it constructs a cohesive (traditional) narrative. I do not mean to suggest that every American poet is practicing Jack Kerouac's associative writing, but I do think that there are modes of writing that the “academic” poet in America is no longer interested in.

John Donne's poems, particularly his erotic verse, are constructed as pseudo puzzle-boxes. “The Flea” appears at a glance to be metaphorical to the point of indecipherable abstraction, but the poem yields to re-reading and interpretation. There is a seduction, a sex act, and some philosophizing about the sanctity of marriage. The flea and its actions might appear to the layman to be (for want of more precise terminology) “trippy” and nonsensical, but every element of the poem can eventually be read as a part of the poem's argument. Everything falls in line with what the poem is “about,” with what it “means,” and “The Flea” is probably autobiographical to the point that there is only one reading that is entirely correct.  Donne can be difficult, but all of his poems “mean” something. For the majority of American writers today, this is no longer the case.

Writing now, after the slew of avant-gardes since the 1920's, the American poet is free to construct a poem however he will. We have had free verse, we have had fragmentation, dissociative writing, associative writing, Cage's indeterminacy, and the New York School's ekphrasis. We've had surrealism, and we've had concrete poems that look more like printing errors than Shakespeare. We have all of these wonderful ways to read a poem that did not exist until the last century, and we seem to have made progress to the point that we may as well have invented the typewriter fifty times over. But for all of our progress, when a major news outlet mentions poetry these days it is done in the same sentence as words like “extinction.” (You can read all about it in Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/2009/03/25/the-end-of-verse.html .) If 8.3 percent of adults read poetry sometimes, one wonders how large a portion of that readership is comprised of poets themselves. I believe, as do a few others of whom I am aware, that poetry is vital and endlessly engaging. Why doesn't everybody?

When people who don't know that I am a poet find out, they politely offer to read a poem I've written. They offer with words like “maybe” and “sometime,” and most of them never do. I don't carry poems around in my pockets, and I am aware that offering to read a poet is nothing more than common courtesy. (Not everyone you meet on the street belongs to the aforementioned 8.3 percent.) Still, if someone who does not read poetry comes across one of my poems online and then again find himself in conversation with me in a hallway, he will generally ask simply this: “What does it mean?”

Roughly 91.7 percent of the population, poetry's potential readership, knows “how” to read a poem the way that poetry is taught in high school. The poetry taught in high school is, in my experience, fairly limited in scope. Shakespeare's poems are taught, students are made aware of Dickinson without being asked to understand her, and everyone has read Edgar Allan Poe. An American high school student may be vaguely aware that contemporary and international poetries exist, but that it is probably silly or archaic. The student is taught how metaphor and simile function, asked to interpret a poem for a test, and takes away the impression that poetry is “difficult” to read and even harder to understand. What's more, the student is entirely unaware of the progress we claim to have made since 1900.

I don't answer questions about what a poem “means,” because I don't think that it matters. I am interested in what a poem does, how it works, and the experience of reading a poem on its own terms. Reading a poem is fun, and with all of the post-post-modern tools that the contemporary writer has at his disposal it is never the same experience twice. For 91.7 percent of the population, though, poetry is frustrating. The general reader often feels that if he is unsuccessful in “figuring out” a poem, if he does not understand what it “means,” then poetry is over his head and more trouble than it is worth. If Newsweek is right, if Verse is “dying,” then perhaps those of us “in-the-know” have a responsibility to try and save it. It would be a shame to see all of our progress go to waste. Maybe the solution is as simple as convincing the general public that poetry is fun rather than difficult, as many of our potential readers seem to be under the wrong impression.

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