In 1950 the poet Charles Olson published his influential essay “Projective Verse” in which he proposed a poetry of “open field” composition—to replace traditional closed poetic forms with improvised forms that would reflect exactly the content of the poem.
The poets and poetry that have followed in the wake of the “projectivist” movement—the Black Mountain group, the New York School, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Language poets—have since been studied at length. But more often than not they have been studied through the lens of continental theory with the effect that these highly propositional, pragmatic, and adaptable forms of verse were interpreted in very cramped, polemical ways.
Radical Affections is a study of six poets central to the New American poetry—Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, and Susan Howe—with an eye both toward challenging the theoretical lenses through which they have been viewed and to opening up this counter tradition to contemporary practice.
Miriam Nichols highlights many of the impulses original to the thinking and methods of each poet: appeals to perceptual experience, spontaneity, renewed relationships with nature, engaging the felt world—what Nichols terms a “poetics of outside”—focusing squarely on experiences beyond the self-regarding self. As Nichols states, these poets may well “represent the last moment in recent cultural history when a serious poet could write from perception or pursue a visionary poetics without irony or quotation marks and expect serious intellectual attention.”
About the Author
Miriam Nichols is University Professor of English at the University of the FraserValley in British Columbia and coeditor of The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser and The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser.
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Radical AffectionsEssays on the Poetics of Outside
By Miriam Nichols
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2010 University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIntroduction How to Walk on the slippery earth
The six essays gathered here are meant to suggest a contemporary reframing of the New American poetry and its recent cognates. There are many fine readings of the individual poets I mean to engage—Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, and Susan Howe—but the New American line as part of a living countertradition has been colored in its reception not only by generational polemics but also by the theoretical models that academic critics have used to read it. These two frames, the first coming out of poetics essays and the second from academic literary criticism, have coincided to suggest breaks and ruptures where, from another point of view, there is an evolving discourse. The poets themselves have contributed to the argument for rupture, Charles Olson famously in his sweeping claims to break with Western metaphysics, Plato to Melville, his announcement of a paradigm shift post-the-modern, and his critiques of pound and Williams, his immediate predecessors. In a parallel gesture, language writers distinguished themselves in the 1970s and '80s from their New American predecessors. Marjorie Perloff summarizes the generational gear shifting in her "Language Poetry and the Lyric subject," where she suggests that the "dismissal of 'voice'" (405) was a key distinguishing mark of language poetry, voice here understood as signaling "self-presence, and authenticity" (406). On the revision of the humanist subject and the rejection of realist epistemology, poets and poststructuralist philosophers converged in the late 1960s and '70s (407). These strategically posed differences—"why should we not also have an original relationship with nature?" Emerson once asked—have the advantage of announcing important shifts in attention and social circumstance, but they can also render certain kinds of poetry unreadable for a time. Poetics essays are expectably polemical: set Wyndham Lewis's BLAST ("CURSE the flabby sky that ... can only drop the season as in a drizzle like a poem by Mr. Robert Bridges" ) or Filippo Marinetti's futurist manifestos against Olson's "Human Universe" or Charles Bernstein's finely balanced "Undone Business" and the latter seem positively dainty. Yet in the context of New American studies, the coincidence of generation-next and the popularity of continental theory in North American academies, just as projective verse had begun to attract serious critical attention, had the general effect of cramping the propositional content and methodological potential of it rather than opening it up, and I think for the wrong reasons.
Before I address the wrong reasons, I want to acknowledge some right ones. the 1970s brought a global economic downturn with stagflation opening the door for neoliberal policies that would result in the dismantling of social programs, the accelerated globalization of capital and the intensification of "financialization"—the trade in derivative money products facilitated by the U.S. decision in 1971 to float the dollar. At the same time, the rights movements of the 1960s (civil rights, black power, red power, gay rights, women's rights) had suffered the assassinations of Malcolm X (d. 1965) and Martin Luther King (d. 1968). The Black panther party was under internal stress as well as external scrutiny by the FBI, and some of its key members (Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton) were either in jail or exile, later to be removed from the party. The AIM (American Indian Movement) occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 resulted in a seventy-one-day standoff against U.S. Marshals and FBI agents over which popular support for AIM began to dwindle, although both sides have since claimed victories. Women made some gains, notably with the right to abortion following the supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, in 1973, but the women's movement would soon be challenged as narrowly middle class by working women of color who felt that the professional and personal freedoms won by well-educated white women were not meaningful to them. In Harvey Milk, the gay community in san Francisco had the first openly gay politician to hold a civic office (he was appointed city supervisor in san Francisco in 1976), but Milk was assassinated in 1978 and his murderer lightly sentenced. What these few signposts point to is not only an ongoing culture war between progressive and conservative constituencies in the United states but also a deepening divide between the popular will and executive power. The social movements of the 1960s were faltering while the globalizing of national economies exacerbated the perennial gap between the aspirations of progressives and the decision-making process. For serious young poets of the period, the visionary cosmicity and politics of the New Americans seemed too utopian, too out of touch with the social realities of the times. As Adorno warns, art that celebrates creative agency where the real potential for such is limited becomes a travesty. What was needed at the end of the 1960s, it seemed, were poetries oriented to emerging globalization and to the ideology critique of social relations that were increasingly occulted by a changing economy—the elephant in the room.
I do not contest the significance of historical context in shaping poets' perspectives and strategies, but what I hope to show over the course of these six essays is that projective verse offers an adaptable, pragmatic poetic methodology and articulates a range of experience of ongoing significance. I believe it has been too quickly dispatched to the far side of "over" for theoretical reasons— the wrong reasons, in my view. Olson famously appealed to perceptual experience as a means of renewing poetic language and restoring the "familiar"—intimacy with nature and the body—to the human species. In the 1970s and '80s, however, it was precisely perception that fell under Jacques Derrida's poststructuralist critique of phenomenology, a critique that many academics and writers took to be definitive. Over the same period, Jacques Lacan's neo-Freudian psychoanalysis became important in the literary world, and this was another kind of discourse that consigned experience to the imaginary realm of méconnaisance, a space to be exposed by the analyst and deconstructed by the aware critic as "always already" mediated by the unconscious and the symbolic order. These philosophies focus on the production of experience through the socialization process: whatever counts for reality at a given moment is to be regarded as a heavily mediated sociolinguistic construct rather than a spontaneous experience. From this perspective, there is no specifiable "outside" to consciousness except the psyche's own internal scission—the "cut" that occurs when infants acquire language and thereby lose to reflexivity and the unconscious their unreflecting, preverbal participation in the flow of physical sensation. In contrast, Olson and others of his company were interested not in how experience is produced, but in how the human species might be redefined and repositioned in relation to planetary life. In the theory decades, however, the vocabulary of projective poetics, steeped as it is in mythopoesis, seemed naive in its situating of humanity in a cosmos "outside" the mind when psychology and postmodern philosophies had so firmly moved everything in.
Yet even those theoretical schools less focused on epistemology and more on affect or praxis were dismissive of projective verse. Feminism, although more inclined in its Anglo-American versions to a phenomenology of female consciousness, was quick to pass over work by old White Men, especially the estrogen-challenged types: from this perspective, a poet like Olson drops off the agenda. The postcolonial turn, prominent in the 1980s and '90s, theorized imperialism and the subaltern positions it produces, and it gave needed voice to muted identities and traditions, but a collateral effect of it was the sidelining of experiences that were not perceived as politically urgent. Homi Bhabha, for example, in The Location of Culture (1994), offers the paradigm of agonistic, incompatible cultural worlds that places in permanent question the matter of whose experience is at issue and what exclusions or privileges it entails. This line of questioning can be directed against anyone's perspective on the world, and it therefore pushes writers and readers into assuming an ironic position as the only one safe from reproach. The Marxist point of view is equally ungenerous with what Robert Duncan calls the "felt world" because it tends to devalue experience as symptomatic of social relations. Commenting on American literature in his In Theory (1992), Aijaz Ahmad argues that the Emersonian line to Pound, Eliot, and Stevens is a conservative one, based on a bourgeois vision of American society as one of petty producers. This vision is blind to a large underclass of slaves, ex-slaves, and indentured laborers not to mention disenfranchised immigrants and aboriginal populations. American romanticism, in Ahmad's view, settles for the oracular and transcendental rather than rooting down in real social relations (51); its radicalism is consequently limited to the idealist tradition that seeks change through the transformation of consciousness rather than by changing the material conditions of life (41).
These various ways of reading cultural works and framing the world offer needed critiques of unsustainable claims to universality and correctives to the blindnesses experience can give rise to because it is situated, but none of them offer access to the world as it must be undergone as opposed to the world as it can be known, and none of them are respectful of particularized experience, especially if it is perceived as occupying ethical low ground. In this context, I find useful a distinction between undergoing and knowing, which has been made in a number of unrelated philosophical texts such as Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato and Giorgio Agamben's Infancy and History, the former an important source for Olson. Robin Blaser also calls upon a similar distinction among the various disciplinary discourses in his "recovery of the public World," and his polemical essay against positivisms in "poetry and positivisms." I have found it again in this description of the Aztec worldview: "Nahua epistemology does not pursue goals such as truth for truth's sake, correct description, and accurate representation; nor is it motivated by the question 'What is the (semantic) truth about reality?' Knowing (tlamatiliztli) is performative, creative, and participatory, not discursive, passive or theoretical. It is concrete, not abstract; a knowing how, not a knowing that." the principle question of Aztec philosophy is, "How can humans maintain their balance upon the slippery earth?" I quote this description for the striking image and for the succinct distinction between knowing how and knowing that. The difference is the site of a very old methodological quarrel between poetry and philosophy, which I think is reproduced in the theoretical schools I have named above.
In the Ion, Socrates predictably humiliates his interlocutor, the rhapsode ion, by cornering the latter into admitting that his beloved Homer is incompetent to discuss cow herding or making war or charioteering and therefore has no expertise in the matters of which he speaks in The Iliad. Ion defends himself unsuccessfully by replying that Homer shows his readers how everybody is doing everything. This exchange between philosopher and rhapsode is stagy and unconvincing both as drama and argument, but it illustrates an essential difference in method between the poet and philosopher. Typically, the Platonic dialogues show that the sophists err in universalizing their partial, interested knowledge of things. The criticism is exactly right, but not in the way that the Socratic intervention implies: it is the inflation of the claim, not the quality of being situated that renders the sophists suspect. Knowing that can always reveal exclusions and blindnesses in knowing how, but such a critique applies one set of criteria (truth in all possible worlds) to another (how to walk on the slippery earth). Taken alone, each of these methods has limits that result either in the skeptical disallowing of perceptual experience—the familiar, Olson would say—or in dangerously inflated claims for local ways of doing things. I am suggesting that contemporary critical theory and its literary critical cognates have for a long time engaged in such disallowings. Given the aim of knowing that, theory cannot do otherwise. If I am a relativist, for instance, I know that all renderings of reality are perspectival, or if I am a Lacanian, I know that my sense of self is structured through misrecognition of my mirror image, or if I am a Marxist I know that the field of social relations is fundamentally organized through class. Most importantly, I may very well know these things despite, rather than because of, the way I experience the world. From these critical perspectives, and in an era that has no widely accepted metaphysics, there is no uncontestable ground of which I am aware other than negation (negative dialectics) for which one may still claim the "power to oblige." The issue is not whether theory is needed or not as a corrective to fallibilism. A stick does, after all, look bent in water. Rather, the problem is that during the theory decades, the realm of perceptual experience was effectively eliminated as an element in the intellectual landscape—which is not to say that it ever went away, but rather that it was quietly ceded to agencies like the popular media and the religious right.
In contrast, the poetries I am tracking here give themselves over to allowings. Each poet suggests a Tao, created through personal traversal of his or her chosen field. By Tao I mean nothing more esoteric than "way," "path," "manner," "method," or "unfolding of a life"; a Tao suggests a focus on knowing how rather than knowing that. Olson's "'istorin," for instance, is a method and it means "finding out for oneself" (Special View of History 20). Duncan's "grand collage" of all cultures and all times is his way of unfolding a life in poetry. Creeley's autobiographical tracking of himself, spicer's dictation, and Blaser's "practice of outside" are all particular modes of traversing their respective fields of attention. The trail of poems Howe leaves behind as she reads her way through American colonial history records her chosen path through time and space. Poetry capitalized, as Duncan has it, is that discourse that accommodates the "felt world," whether or not it is the "correct" one according to the wisdom of the moment. What, then, distinguishes such wanton poetic practice from self-indulgent expression? In my view, it is the poet's ability to present an art precise to his or her earned perspective on the world. A Tao is neither true nor false; it is simply more or less efficacious, more or less inspirational, more or less worthy of imitation. Aboriginal cultures retain this idea in the personage of the Elder; earlier European societies had it in the figure of the wise man. Olson champions Hesiodic mapmaking that depends on painstaking attention to a given territory the maker has come to know personally. The heroes of The Maximus Poems include such cartographers as Juan de la Cosa, before whom, Olson writes, "nobody / could have / a mappemunde" (MP 81). So mapped, a world image is achieved with strenuous effort, "until the sweat / stood out in my eyes," Olson writes (MP 202). Spicer's wager is that a world intensely and idiosyncratically articulated will correspond affectively to that of others. Lorca's lemon is spicer's seaweed, but the two objects evoke parallel emotions. A Tao opens certain ranges of experience, as an explorer opens a territory, and these then become available to others who might traverse them differently. As Blaser and Spicer say, the map is not the territory.
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Table of Contents
1 Introduction: How to Walk on the Slippery Earth 1
2 Architect of Place Charles Olson 19
3 Occasional Verse Robert Creeley 65
4 Master of Rime Robert Duncan 101
5 Castle of Skin and Glass Jack Spicer 141
6 The Practice of Outside Robin Blaser 177
7 A Special View of History Susan Howe 222
Works Cited 307