On Charles Olson: poetics and / as pedagogy

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Dr. Michael Kindellan is a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Sheffield, UK. He has published research articles on several 19th and 20th century Anglo-American poets, and has recently completed a book on Ezra Pound’s late cantos (to be published in September by Bloomsbury). Made possible by a generous a Strochlitz Travel Grant, in January he travelled to the Archives and Special Collections at the Dodd Research Center to consult the Charles Olson Research Collection, along with other, related collections, such as the Ed Dorn, John Wieners, Michael Rumaker, Fielding Dawson and Ann Charters Papers. This trip marks the beginning of work on his new project, tentatively called “Present Knowledge: Charles Olson and the Poetics of Pedagogy”.

I have been meaning to begin this project since late 2011, when I was first awarded a Strochlitz Travel Grant. Sadly, I was forced to defer that in favour of a temporary lectureship position. One thing led to another, and two intervening post-docs later, I am thrilled to have been afforded the time and opportunity, both by Sheffield and by UConn, to properly get started.

Charles Olson [FIG. 1] was a poet and a pedagogue. He began his teaching career at Clark University in the mid-1930s. In 1938, he took up a Guggenheim Fellowship in support of research on Herman Melville, leading to the publication of Call Me Ishmael. During the 1940s Olson also worked in various positions for the US Government: as Associate Chief of the Foreign Languages Division for the Office of War Information and as Foreign Nationalities Division Director for the Democratic National Committee). In the late 1940s, partly on account of his poetic debut Y & X (in collaboration with the Italian artist Corrado Cagli) and partly after a strong recommendation from Edward Dahlberg, Josef Albers invited Olson to give a series of classes on writing at Black Mountain College,[1] where he eventually took up a permanent position before becoming its rector until its closure in 1957. [FIG. 2] These academic posts were followed by others in the 1960s, initially at SUNY Buffalo and then at the University of Connecticut. Olson’s reputation as poet/theorist was secured by his seminal 1950 essay “Projective Verse”; from that point on, he wrote poems until the day he died.

With that in mind, setting his poetics (the theory and practice of verse composition) in relation to his pedagogy (the theory and practice of teaching) seems an obvious thing to do. However, my project attempts something slightly more ambitious, namely to read Olson’s poetics and pedagogy as both complementary and also as coincident undertakings. Some of Olson’s comments in the minutes of BMC faculty meetings, where the subject of conversation is how best to go about teaching, often sound exactly like his ideas concerning good writing practice and procedure; similarly, his verse is frequently didactic in tone and instructional in form. Just how Olson’s prosody can be seen to issue the reader with “instructions” is the subject of an essay I published in Contemporary Olson (Manchester UP, 2015), a work that serves as a starting point the larger project at hand. Throughout, I mean to argue that Olson’s ideas and methods of writing are identical to his ideas and methods of teaching, and to explore the consequences of that.

As Eleanor Berry and Alan Golding have recently suggested, Olson sought to extend “his formal concerns into the epistemological realm in arguing that projective verse involves a ‘stance towards reality’ that he labels ‘objectism’”. Olson understood “objectism”, Berry and Golding rightly note, as the “getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego”, which they describe as “an ethically anti-humanist move to take poetry beyond mere self-expression into more culturally capacious realms of statement”.[2] As a poet as well as a teacher, Olson might well have wanted to strip away all traces of the “individual as ego”, but it is not necessarily how he went about the actual business of either teaching or writing poems. Indeed, a good deal of archival material demonstrates that, in actual and historical fact, Olson’s methods are highly egoistic, often radically so (where by “egotistic” I do not mean “excessively conceited”, but rather interested in the “self” as a foundation for both practice and comportment).

Consider, as a case in point, the exam questions he set for students taking his 1964 “Literature and Myth” course at SUNY Buffalo. Question 4 in particular, which begins “My own belief is that…”, demonstrates the extent to which Olson exerted strong control over the parameters of whatever horizons of understanding his students operated within. [FIG. 3] By all accounts, Olson was, as his long-time correspondent J. H. Prynne recently put it, “an influential and powerful teacher”; but he and his “Black Mountain team”, Prynne goes on to contend, “practised ascendency over the students and dominated their development, and offered themselves as exemplary models to be followed, not as choices to be made”.[1]  This assessment is consistent with reports given by Olson’s actual students who never quite fell under his spell, such as Francine du Plessix (later Gray); likewise, Olson’s often bad tempered and downright condescending notes to Cid Corman in Letters for Origin portray an authoritative teacher who suffered dissent badly.[2] Charles Boer also reported, speaking to Olson in the second person, “your classrooms were for your ideas. If a student thought otherwise, he was soon set straight on the matter”.[3]

The question for me is, how to square this authoritarian streak with Olson’s anarchic, deeply anti-technocratic approaches to teaching and writing.[6] In regards to both he admonished students and burgeoning writers to practice “istorin’”, an activity he attributed to Herodotus’s historiography and defined as “finding out for yourself”. The implications of this are far too numerous to encapsulate here, but foremost amongst them is Olson’s total refusal of conventional curricula: Olson was profoundly skeptical about lesson plans and learning outcomes, all of which promised to curtail in advance any line of inquiry that organically emerged from the pedagogical process itself.[7] Several former students of Olson’s recount how he would habitually stay after class to study the chalk board, as though trying to make sense of what had happened, what was said. In “FIELD COMPOSITION”, or “projective verse” practice, the poet “puts himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself”.

The examinations Olson wrote for Clark University students reveal a key aspect of his pedagogical drive, namely the prioritisation of writing well over reading well. He was constantly interweaving questions of personal style, form and the like, into questions ostensibly about other texts. The idea here is that, for Olson, the most important texts were always one’s own. A headnote to a 22 January 1935 mid-year English II examination begins: “keep in mind that this is a course in writing. Clarity, accuracy, even beauty of expression is expected. No paper carelessly written will be considered satisfactory, in spite of content”.[8] [FIG. 4]

What exactly to make of all this I have yet to rightly determine, and giving a good answer will be the aim of my work over the next couple of years. But the plan is to conceptualise and then critique Olson’s pedagogy as poetics, and visa versa. What is clear, however, from the two weeks I was able to spend exploring and working in this extensive archive—a task made all the more challenging by Olson’s increasingly illegible handwriting and his tendency to write with dull pencils on acidic paper or the backs of dirty envelopes—have proven invaluable in terms of grounding a rather abstract idea in the hard facts of archival materials. For instance, the Charles Olson Research Collection holds large numbers of documents categorised as “prose”, which, upon inspection, are clearly notes for lectures or seminars given (mostly) at Black Mountain College. Though not a systematic thinker, not by a long shot, Olson, in many of these documents especially, is forever attempting to enumerate and order his thoughts on myth, on writing and on history. In others, such one that “begins” (if it can be said to begin anywhere) “You can’t use words as ideas”, Olson’s writing is (dis)organised spatially, composed quite literally “by field”, that is to say, in different intersected planes of the page space. [FIG. 5]

The archive also contains a great bulk of correspondence, written both by Olson, especially in his capacity as Rector of Black Mountain College, and by hundreds of correspondents, many of whom either taught with Olson (such as Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley) or were taught by him (such as Dorn, Dawson and Wieners). These letters have an obvious historical importance, given the established reputations of Olson’s peers. Of equal if rather different interest are letters Olson wrote to and received from lesser known interlocutors: officers at funding bodies, benefactors, university administrators, invitees to BMC’s summer “institutes” programme and parents of students. I expect many of these to feature significantly in my completed work. Naturally the manuscripts and other pre-publication material of the poetry—those pertaining to The Maximus Poems particularly—will feature throughout my work as well. The first drafts of Olson’s poems, written mostly in longhand and sometimes to spectacular effect [FIG. 6], demand readers reassess the value and importance of the typewriter to this work. But it’s the less glamorous reaches of the archive that have thrown up the most interesting preliminary findings.

 

 

– Michael Kindellan
Sheffield, March 2017

 

 

Figures:

  1. Fielding Dawson Drawing of Charles Olson (ink on paper), Fielding Dawson Papers. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Black Mountain Ephemera, Fielding Dawson Papers. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Series III, Box 268. Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Series III, Box 259. Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Series I, Box 26. Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Series I, Box 5, Folder 273. “I have been an ability—a machine”. Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

 

Notes:

[1] Josef Albers, 24 September 1948 Letter to Charles Olson, Series II Box 124, Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

[2] Eleanor Berry and Alan Golding, “Projective Verse”, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed., ed. Roland Greene et al, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 1109.

[3] J. H. Prynne, “The Art of Poetry No. 101”, The Paris Review 218 (Fall 2016): 183.

[4] Charles Olson, Letters for Origin: 1950-1956, ed. Albert Glover (London: Cape Goliard, 1969).

[5] Charles Boer, Charles Olson in Connecticut (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975), 54.

[6] As Martin Duberman reports, John Cage esteemed Olson’s Black Mountain College a truly anarchic community, in contradistinction to Josef Albers’s, where the “anarchic feeling… was only on the surface”. Martin Duberman, Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 367.

[7] Cf. Olson’s statements on the matter in “Minutes of a Meeting of the Black Mountain College Faculty, 1951”, Olson: The Journal of the Charles Olson Archives 2 (Fall 1974): 16-24.

[8] Charles Olson, “Clark University English II Mid-Year Examination, Series III Box 258, Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.