Friday, June 29, 2007

The (Charles) Olson Twins

Way back in 2000, Eliot Weinberger wrote a short, sharp, ever-so-slightly snarky piece called Canonizing the Sixties about the University of Maine's at Orono's conference on the poetry of the 1960s. Well, not about the conference per se, since it had yet to happen at the time Weinberger published his essay in Exquisite Corpse: the essay was really about the catalog listing the various panels, papers, and symposia. Looking over the events listed in the catalog, Weinberger came to the following conclusion:

According to the Oronists, there were 151 US poets in the 1960's who are now worthy of study. 27 are the subjects of multiple papers.

The Most Significant Poets of the 60's:
Duncan (9 papers)
Baraka, Zukofsky (7 each)
Creeley, Levertov, Oppen (6 each)
Ashbery, Ginsberg, Ron Johnson (5 each)
Plath (4)
Berryman, Bishop, Bronk, DiPrima, Guest, Lowell, Niedecker, Spicer, Wieners, Jay Wright (3 each)
Dorn, L. Hughes, Pound, Rukeyser, Scalapino, Sexton, Whalen (2 each)...

124 poets are the subject of one paper each. They range from establishment figures (Snodgrass, Dickey, Jarrell) to avant-gardists (Antin, Samperi, R. Waldrop) to poets who were barely published at the time (K. Fraser, F. Howe, Bromige) to pop stars (Bukowski, Bob Dylan, Leonore Kandel) to forgotten figures (Ruth Weiss, Judith Johnson, Robert Lax, Frederick Eckman) to micro-press regulars (d.a. levy, Doug Blazek).

Significant poets of the 60's now apparently of little interest: Berrigan, Blackburn, Eigner, Olson, Rexroth, Schuyler, Snyder (1 paper each)

When I first saw this, I was intrigued. Like a lot of my fellow humanists, I tremble with fear and awe before anything that looks even vaguely like a statistic or quantification. On the one hand, I was a bit ticked at Weinberger for what seemed like a bit of a disengenuous move on his part: pretending that the conference was meant to be representative of the true shape of poetry in the sixties, the way a decent reference book on the topic would be. Surely the conference reflected the personal interests of the participants, and wasn't meant to enshrine or canonize anyone. On the other hand, I was even more ticked off at the lack of interest among my tribe (that is: poets and critics more-or-less into the experimental wing of things) in some of the poets Weinberger mentioned. I was particularly stunned by the lack of interest in Olson. I'd always thought of Olson and Duncan as figures of similar import, and while I was glad to see nine papers on Duncan, I was flummoxed by how Olson had slipped so low. Maybe this was a fluke, I thought (perhaps the leading Olson scholars had all fallen ill from bad tuna at a recent luncheon meeting at the Glouster, Massachussetts Red Lobster). Maybe this was a reaction to Olson's swaggering heterosexual masculinity. Maybe it was a reaction, at long last, to the over-representation of his work in The New American Poetry anthology. Whatever the reason, it didn't seem right, and I was grateful to Weinberger for bringing it to light.

So I'm glad to say that two fairly recent books, Garin Cycholl's Blue Mound to 161 and Henry Gould's In RI make it clear that poets are still interested in Olson and the geo-historical poetics he professed. Garin and Henry each take a specific geography (downstate Illinois and Rhode Island, respectively), and work from geography into history. Garin's book is a kind of collage of disparate elements — songs, historical anecdotes, police reports and the like — while Henry's is held together by a lyrical, gently melancholy voice, punctuated occasionally by reworkings of old texts, notably Roger Williams' seventeenth-century dictionary of the Narragansett language, Key into the Language of America (a book that has inspired works by at least two other poets, Rosmarie Waldrop and Jeffrey Roessner). I love this kind of thing. And I especially love this kind of thing at a time when much poetry seems to be written under the auspices of a kind of James Tate/Dean Young elliptical referencelessness — not that there's anything wrong with that kind of thing, but it's good to find some books that are about something as concrete as geography and history. And good to see that Olson (for all his many flaws) hasn't been as thoroughly sidelined as he seemed to be seven years ago.