Picking up the injuns: poetics as transformation

I have been thinking about poetics lately. Mostly this thinking was provoked by the work that Victor Coleman and I did editing Robert Duncan‟s The H.D. Book. It has been proposed by some that The HD Book was Duncan‟s attempt at literary theory and by others at literary history. In the course of editing the book it became abundantly clear that although Duncan‟s work participates in both--certainly the history more so than the theory--it is primarily concerned neither with history nor theory. It is in fact a quest for a poetics. This, in any case, is what Duncan calls it. Quest, from the same Latin root as question and query, is a search. Of course the history of the word turns it for Duncan into a kind of romance, a romance he enacts in the 700+ pages of the book with fidelity and imagination. This idea of a quest has something to do with the imagination of the ground of poetry. The idea of a quest for a poetics suggests that achieving such a thing is the outcome not so much of thinking or rethinking as of being. For Duncan, this orientation (in Henry Corbin‟s sense of turning towards an inner rising sun, an inner Orient) took him through a particular literary history (the history of the forgetting of women at the inception of what we still call, I think, high modernism as it continues to feed our own writing.) It took him through reclamations of other hidden histories and hidden minds. That was the first stage of his quest. The second, which occupies Book 2 of The HD Book, involved following that into an event, committing himself to the transformations that arose out the passage through that occulted material. The third stage was Roots and Branches and Bending the Bow, and the work that followed. I wanted to lead this through Duncan into some thoughts about Olson‟s sense of a poetics because I think that there is a similar commitment to an actual transformation—the kind of transformation that took place in the Alchemist‟s crucible—that is crucial to both men‟s work. There are obvious and important differences between the two poets, one of them having to do with the significance of “body” to Olson‟s work and “Romance” to Duncan‟s, the other having to do with the way Olson orients himself in relation to the thinking of “before,” whereas Duncan is focused on the thinking of

We tend to operate in a frame of mind where “secularization” and “divine” cannot coexist in the same space. at least my sense of Jack. (or the Buddhist Kayas—sometimes three. In fact. What we think of as the secular Blake identified with Ulro or two-fold vision. I think. an erotically charged vision of a complex living world. it was Beulah. as an attempt to defend and develop what he calls an American secularization that loses nothing of the divine. the isomorphism of Blake‟s four fold vision and the traditional Medieval four level exegesis.” Secular and divine in this sense are what William Blake called “opposites” as they operate in the imagination of modernity. each of these modes of thinking about perception and knowledge are similarly grounded on the understanding of a movement . linking them and doing so in relation to his thinking about what we call “the body. and Jack Clarke are perhaps fundamentally incommensurable with each other. Blake sometimes pictured Ulro as a man and woman tied together back to back. the four fold. Al Glover suggested to me that the different modes of the four fold as they appear in the work of Olson. what‟s been called the disenchantment of the world. But for Jack Clarke. I read Olson‟s little book. For Blake it was more complex. maybe. Medieval theories of exegesis. It is the imagination of a barren world. say. the threefold. the growth of secularization in the West is measured precisely in terms of the recession of the divine. Olson imagined it in Proprioception as a new body. an embrace. part of an understanding of the visionary states we move through. Whitman‟s wave. But here is Olson.“within. To bring them into another relation where they yield to. In any case. which is to say a new being in the world that could lead into a furtherness. sometimes four) testify to a deep common rhythm where the four fold and the anagogical resonate with a similar experience. In a piece I presented to the Vancouver Olson conference earlier in the summer. a world stripped of depth and left to the meager measurements of Newton‟s calipers. but just let it stand for the moment as a way of noting a difference and we‟ll see what happens with it. say.” That may finally be a bogus distinction. Proprioception. Blake. For Blake. His joining of two words that we would normally assume to be mutually exclusive is telling. for example. is to open the imagination to another dimension.

a single surface. which. a site of demolition as it‟s been called.” moreover. soul. In Proprioception Olson also addressed something he calls “society. in that context. Olson does give us a critique--in Mayan Letters he calls it “Original stupidity. Michel Foucault was one of the early sources for this thinking of discursive bodies. a poet‟s technique--a quest for a poetics. and have thought of. folding and unfolding creates out of itself a complexity of organs and cavities. not beyond it. His push here. Form and content. though. It is a “bodymind. Even the structure of the argument which sets up something called essentialism as the mutually exclusive opposite of something called constructivism locates it as part of an anti-Cartesian structure. what Whitehead called “the bifurcation of nature” into mind and matter. become part of a cosmology that is based on a world of mutually exclusive opposites. though it is hardly recognizable as anything sociological. mind--arise in Olson‟s sense of body out of the movement and frictions of this complex surface--absolutely integral to it. through invagination and evagination. What he left us was a brilliant critique of modernity and the Cartesian subject. a Cartesian cage.” which he puts in quotes to distinguish it from our usual sense of body.” in the same way the world is “seculardivine. The notion of the self as a “subject position. as the contents of a vessel--consciousness. it is in relation to that order.toward a deeper and richer experience of the world. It is a poet‟s thinking. the unconscious.” going so far as to give us a theory of society. socially imposed on a body still locates them in a dualistic discourse that is anchored firmly in relation to that old humanism that begins with the distinction between self and society. one that is lost to us in the various materialisms and positivisms of modernity.” in contrast to something called Original sin. What we think of. But the thrust of his thinking is toward a way out of that treacherous mental trap toward something further. Olson‟s imagination of “body.” This is a crucial move for Olson who was in quest of a poetics that escaped the trap of traditional notions of form and content (and their opposites). self. As a critique. is a surface. It was suggested in Vancouver that my presentation of Olson‟s sense of body was a mystification of something called a “natural body” and was ignorant of contemporary theories of the “socially constructed body” and of the self as so-called “subject positions” erected by something called “society” in those construction projects. as always in .

This identification was a sign of his quest for a poetics that would reorient his self. a further unfolding.” he asks Creeley. As he wrote to Robert Creeley. This was an attempt at a postCartesian move toward the possibility of a bodymindself beyond the limits of modernity‟s disciplines and resistances. “for their nouns. his complex interest in the Mayans began not with a sense of objective distance or study but with a sense of identification and the desire for transformation. as one of those Enlightenment inventions like sociology (which Olson identified in his Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn as “a lot of shit”). Olson turned to the archaic. what they were “pissing at” in their intense correspondence. and then later. they were a mysterious possibility of his self. Olson never had any interest in those terms or the disciplines that authorize them. Olson always thought of our condition as the outer limit of a box that got put together sometime around 1200 BCE. are my nouns.his quest for a poetics. reconstitute it. As is well known. Charles Olson was never anything other than a poet. Ethnology. This was where he located the possibility of a seculardivine. undone. The Mayans were not other to him. is how he put it in the letters to Creeley that were published as the Mayan Letters. both modes of being outside the box. subjectivity) that are crucial to its sense of itself as a “science. To imagine the postmodern (as he famously put it). If Sumer was the high water mark of human civilization and . of course. by way of further explanation. especially the idea of “science” as a rigorous method of investigating an “objective” world (although he was sympathetic to a Whiteheadian visionary science).” albeit a “social” science as they call them. that meant going back in order to figure out how to go further.” In other words. And. Anything that robbed the object of its specificity was the enemy of that process. and to some lingering notion of objectivity (and. “How can I pick up these injuns. I have heard the Mayan Letters described as ethnology and cited as evidence of Olson as ethnologist. in any case. I would respectfully suggest that‟s bunkum. Or this. For Olson. irreducible force in a field of forces. most unscientifically. crucially. was toward specificity and away from generalizations. is deeply rooted in modernity‟s addiction to binaries (its foundational gesture being the creation of an Other suitable for study). the self was no more than any other object--merely another singular. was how to make the object yield dimension.

full) . Pound‟s ego. . . lost all emotional diversity. Olson ties both problems to what he calls the question of nomination and then turns to his reading of Mayan glyphs as an alternative because “they were hot for the world they lived in & hot to get it down by way of a language which is loaded to the gills of the FIRST GLYPH with that kind of imagination which the kerekters have a way of calling creative. each to the other. but for their record of a poet‟s struggle “to pick up the injuns”: I have been in the field. while opening his poem to emotion. is. immaculate (as well as. it rested on the foundation of Pleistocene man (our evolutionary sweet spot. in this glyph-world. He finds the failures of Pound and Williams in their inability to grasp the substantive change in history and their failure to realign their methods in relation to the new materials. which. The Mayan Letters are remarkable not for some ethnographic description of a cultural other. And the weights of same. pole to pole). What continues to hold me. . exceptionally. Williams.the back wall of the box. seem. the Scylla and Charybdis of his imagination of the condition of poetry he inherited. gave up space to the singularity of Patterson. away from people. is the solidity of the sense of their lives one can get right here in the fields and on the hill which rises quite steeply from the shore. . the distribution of weight given same parts of all. became an important condition (Olson‟s sense of America always included the whole enchilada. . an American culture at that. And the proportion. . putting my hands into the dust and fragments and pieces of those Maya who used to live here down and along this road. working around stones in the sun. the tremendous levy on all objects as they present themselves to human sense. Olson then dives into a critique of Pound and Williams. while turning time into space. . Tellingly. is. who constituted the front wall of that same box. as I heard it put on the CBC this summer) as Olson drove further back seeking an imagination of being in the world that could give rise to a new poetic energy. The Maya were another instance of that. . distributed & accurate . from having his hands deep in the Yucatan earth digging up pieces of the Maya. following his work with Melville. The big thing . . one that offered him a literal entrance through a handson encounter with the actual material remains of their culture.” .

for so many years. as he called it. men . the flesh is worn as a daily thing.” “BUT the way the bulk of them (the „unimproved‟) wear their flesh.” If Olson‟s language here still struggled against the tendency to describe the experience in terms of an inner and outer. for use. that the individual peering out from that flesh is precisely himself.it‟s so very gentle. is. the feel. of touch . a kind a transubstantiation. I am suggesting. so granted. . .” each nomination as he encounters it in the glyph-world embodies the fullness of the experience of. of language not as limit or restriction. Each “word” cum “glyph. It is a move. like the sun. sd peoples: we are like. when you are rocked. carried as the other things are. the world in language. . especially in relation to history: The capacity for (1) the observation & (2) the invention has no more to do with brick or no wheels or metal or stone than you or i are different from. by the roads. is a curious wandering animal. one that is like the Mayan as he was able to recover that--and through that recovery discover the ground of his poetics. “I ought to get off to you about the flesh here. its opposite). the deepest sort of questions about my own structure. freed from the failures of Pound and Williams.none of that pull. “The result . is. It is an experience of specificity. a language that incarnates the ineffable in the specific materials of the world. Therefore. . . at least from my standpoint. the complex of my own organism. in the States caused me.” he wrote to Creeley in the midst of a rant about North America‟s obsession with “improvement. there is no „history. which.kids.Olson moves here toward an experience of language beyond the representational (and nonrepresentational. toward what he calls in Proprioception. the secular that loses nothing of the divine. is--& only in this sense--a common. Not surprisingly. an alchemical transformation of the whole self into a new being. the disposition of. women. what I am calling the bodymindself entered Olson‟s thinking here at a crucial juncture. but as the stuff of creation. I would argue.‟ . away. This admission. against any of them . the thrust of his thinking was clearly toward an experience of the whole fleshy self as he encountered it and absorbed it among the descendants of the Maya: jeesus. I felt so very much this admission these people now give me.” He went on.

then. There is no better place to end this then than deep in Maximus No Greek will be able to discriminate my body. Duncan`s quest for that new condition led him into what was hidden all around us. with the proposition that poetics is not a theory. what he called the occult--hidden histories. themselves a geometry of spatial nature. it‟s not thought or rethought--it is a condition of being that the poet wins through struggle. that I am one with my skin Plus this—plus this: that forever the geography which leans in on me I compell backwards I compell Gloucester to yield. I have this sense. really--of the world to come. hidden processes--as a way to open the hidden dimensions of the world into his careful music.I am back to where I started. Olson`s quest led him back as a way further out into possibilities--necessities. to change . An American is a complex of occasions. hidden mind.

Polis is this Maximus to Gloucester. Letter 27 [withheld] .

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