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All Architectures I Am: The (Unintended) Legacy of Charles Olson’s Projective Verse

DO YOU CARE about 20th-century American poetry? If so, you may be embarrassed to admit it. In our culture, too many regard poetry, and especially the poetry of the last century, as having all the real-world utility of underwater basket-weaving.

That reputation, though unfortunate, may be well deserved. A quick glance at Ezra Pound’s sprawling, self-indulgent, showily allusive Cantos will reinforce this impression. Another glance at his political screeds may solidify it. Pound isn’t all of it, of course — and that raises another issue. What does one mean by 20th-century American poetry? Where does one start? Robert Frost’s rugged philosophizing or Wallace Stevens’s imaginative dreamscapes? And what binds Claude McKay’s socialist realist sonnets to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets’ scientistic abstractions? Can we really expect to sort through so many different voices from so many different backgrounds?

In fact, there are many points of entry. And one of the most promising takes us back to an unlikely place and time: North Carolina, in the depths of the Great Depression, where a number of faculty members recently dismissed from Rollins College for refusing to sign a loyalty pledge founded the legendary Black Mountain College. Here, the ideas and inventions of American icons such as John Dewey and Buckminster Fuller would merge with the teachings of exiled European intellectuals and artists, including Albert Einstein, Walter Gropius, and Josef Albers. A partial list of Black Mountain teachers and students will suffice to indicate its central role in 20th-century American culture: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, and Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Denise Levertov.

Hovering above this intellectual hotbed was the eventual rector — a man of six feet and eight inches, who called himself an “archeologist of morning” and whose ideas are as important to this explosion in postwar American art as the sun is to the growth of any plant. But what ever happened to the legacy of Charles Olson? Why does his surname lack the resonance of Cage and Ginsberg? The answer to that question is complicated, but Olson’s influence — pervasive, perennial — is plain to see. It stems from his central project: the establishment of so-called “projective verse.”

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In his manifesto of the same name, Olson speaks to the demands of “verse now, in 1950, if it is to go ahead.” He seeks to situate poetry in the present, in order to project the art form toward a future in which “it is of essential use.” Olson contends that a poet who intends to leave “closed verse,” i.e., inherited literary forms, must attend to certain features of verse that become prominent in the absence of traditional poetic conventions. In essence, Olson urges poets to pay particular attention to “breath,” to “listen,” and he hopes that this shift in focus will amount to a shift in perception — that the poet-as-speaker will abandon the speaker-as-subject and instead move toward a more “objective” exposition of perceptions in her poetry.

The three main features of “projective” verse are kinetics, principle, and process. In addressing a poem’s kinetics, Olson talks of “energy transferred from where the poet got it […] by way of the poem itself to […] the reader.” Positing that the poem acts as a conduit between writer and reader, Olson notes that a writer who “departs from closed form” will encounter a “problem” — namely, when the poet does not draw upon an inherited verse form, she must find other means to imbue her work with the requisite momentum to enact a kinetic transfer.

In order to help the poet, Olson offers a principle to guide her. Specifically, he borrows his colleague Robert Creeley’s formulation: “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.” Accordingly, content takes precedence over form, in that a poem’s inner content always informs its exterior form. The subject of the poems, the poet’s breath, and the sound of the syllables that emerge from her mouth determine the distance of words from each other on the page. This principle, then, leads to a specific poetic process: “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.” The adverbs “immediately” and “directly” suggest that successful projective verse must maintain a certain degree of momentum. Olson asserts that in order to ensure this forward propulsion, a poet must not remain fixed upon a single perception for long, avoiding excessive description, but rather constantly shift through various modes of perception. A poet must open herself, and compose “by field.”

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So much for what projective verse is, but how does it come to be?

Any human action, from physical construction to constructing verse, involves breath. For example, if Olson “hammer[s],” he “recall[s] in,” and “keep[s] calling in” the “breath”: breath is necessary for action, and the action of breath is constant. The rhythm of a poem should accommodate the exigencies of each breath that the poet breathes in speaking. “[T]he breathing,” however, “[is] distinguished from the hearing,” and so Olson elaborates upon this other aspect of verse, i.e., the “acquisitions of [one’s] ear.” For him, the poetic unit of sound is the syllable, which has mythopoeic origins: “‘Is’ comes from […] as, to breathe […] ‘not’ equals the Sanscrit na, […] to be lost, to perish [… and] ‘be’ is from bhu, to grow.” What a syllable means is intuitively linked with how it sounds, and a poet must follow these links. Olson provides a famous formulation that encapsulates the parallel relationships between the poet’s body, perception, and product — “the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE / the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.”

Olson intends projective verse to enact a form of ego death through self-objectification. He encourages this overcoming of the poet-as-subject, what Keats derides in Wordsworth as Egotistical Sublime. The preferred ethos of “humilitas” effects what Keats calls “the poetical character,” which “is not itself — it has no self — it is everything and nothing.” If one sees oneself in nature, rather than nature in oneself, one will “sprawl,” and so “find little to sing but himself.” However, if one sees nature in oneself, such that “he stays inside himself […] he will be able to listen” to things outside of oneself — and, thus, lose oneself.

But can projective poems actually eliminate the poet-as-subject? Can Olson himself abide by his own poetic principles, overcoming his Egotistical Sublime?

In “The Song of Maximus: Song 1” — a part of Olson’s epic project, The Maximus Poems — the poet develops a form that is typical of projective verse. His broad use of white space attests to his attention to breath, which informs the length of his lines with multiple indentations. And his repeated association of words that overlap both semantically and sonically speaks to his ability to attune his ear to the mythopoeic nature of syllables. For example, both “colored” and “pictures” include consonants “c” and “r,” and both pertain to aspects of visual perception. If any poem epitomizes the nuts and bolts of projective verse, this is it.

Olson clearly adheres to the mechanics of projective verse, but can he overcome his self? On first read, Olson’s repeated use of universal quantifiers — “all,” “ever,” and “any”— establishes an omniscient poetic voice that appears to overcome a specific subjectivity, as it addresses collective experience. However, Olson’s very success in both listening to his breath and intuiting semantic-syllabic resonance imbues the broad scope of the poem’s subject matter with an audible, singular poetic voice.

It is worth mentioning that Olson himself thought that one of the primary advantages of projective verse was its ability to allow the poet to “voice his own work.” To conflate this “voice” with the Egotistical Sublime would be unfair to Olson’s poetic vision. Still, the capacity of projective verse poets to compellingly arrange images and ideas (as “objects”) invariably points to the “head” and “heart” that register the “ear” and “breath.” In other words, the power of the poet’s perceptions draws our attention to the power of the poet himself.

This is the Catch-22 of projective verse, which can be illustrated by analogy with the Japanese art of flower arrangement (Ikebana). In Ikebana, the work itself (the bouquet) consists almost entirely of objects found in nature. Yet the acts of curating and positioning particular flowers — and even the very act of presenting flowers in the first place — testifies to the existence of a subject who made these decisions, a singular individual who took these actions. The more evocative the bouquet, the more the subject imbues her found objects with her character. Similarly, the striking sonic resonances and pulsations of breath in “Song 1” speak to the striking voice of the perceiver — Olson himself — who arranged the images and ideas in his poem.

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The failure of projective verse to eliminate the subjective sense of the poet-as-speaker is thus, paradoxically, a consequence of its success. After all, the “Maximus” figure in Olson’s epic work isn’t simply a container of multitudes — it’s likely a specific person of imposing stature: Olson himself. When a poetic self strives for the maximal, when it strives for an expansion of its perceptual horizons, when it frees itself from the shackles of inherited form — how could it not attest to its own particular capacities and energies, to the power of its own senses, its own voice?

This appears to be an acknowledged fact among contemporary practitioners of projective verse. Jorie Graham, a poet who was influenced by Olson, incorporates his method in a way that ultimately draws attention to the speaker. For example, she begins her 2008 poem “Full Fathom” with a clear exposition of ideas and images — “sea swell, hiss of incomprehensible flat: distance: blue long-fingered ocean and its // nothing else.” The indentation at the enjambment between “its” and “nothing else” introduces a conspicuous white space, embodying the breath of the speaker as she transitions from the long first line to the short second line. The sibilance of the words associated in the first line reflects a semantic semblance: “sea swell,” “hiss,” “incomprehensible,” and “distance,” all linked by the sound of “s,” all communicate a sense of wild vastness. Yet the reader is forced to marvel at the voice that has built these meaningful links. Here again, projective verse proves limited in its capacity to eliminate the subject — precisely because its power draws attention to the fact that objects of perception are perceived by a singular head and a singular heart, precisely because these perceptions are communicated in a manner that pulsates with the music of a singular breath.

Olson’s manifesto influenced generations of poets even more directly than it’s influenced Graham. Robert Duncan, a Black Mountain student and one of the leading lights of the San Francisco Renaissance, titled his groundbreaking book The Opening of the Field (1960) in an apparent reference to the Olson’s concepts of “OPEN” verse and “COMPOSITION BY FIELD.” This influence extends all the way through the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school to the semblance of projective verse seen in the work of contemporary American masters such as Jorie Graham. Olson’s principles, when put into practice, work. The success of his ideas remains manifest to anyone who cares about the history of postwar American poetry. However, the success of his poetic principle may not have lead to the world that he wanted to live in, one in which the poet escapes the confines of his ego through the rigors of contemplating objects and ideas. Any exposition of a perceived object, when made well, draws attention to the power of the perceiving subject. To borrow words from Duncan’s influential poem “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” (published in The Opening of the Field), poetry is truly “a made place,” no matter how deeply the subject dives into the object — “a made place, created by light / wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall. // Wherefrom fall all architectures I am.”

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Max Lesser, a musician and writer from Los Angeles, is currently working toward a bachelor’s in English from Harvard. He plays saxophone and has composed music for the LA Phil.

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