Olson-Projective Verse

by devinking

UPDATE 4/21: I’ve been mulling over this throughout the day, and I think I’ve mis-characterized Olson’s general intent–edits to follow through the week.

UPDATE 4/22: Changes Made

I’m teaching Charles Olson’s screed in class today. The last time I read it, I ended up using his ideas on the breath of the poet–how the line should be a function of the breath of the poet writing, so big breaths equal long lines, short breaths short lines–to fit a conception I was working towards where the page existed as one, uh, breathing theatrical scene (with Susan Howe’s block text representing characters–the lines, their conviction). Rereading it today, I’m struck less by Olson’s ideas about breath and more his interest in the typewriter:

…the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its spacce precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first time he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work.

Fine, of course, and with InDesign we now have all all sorts of immeasurable ways of engaging new sonic qualities of text, as long as we take Olson at his word, and respect the text as a series of syllables and lines (ideas he outlines elsewhere in the essay). To keep that musicality apparent, in Olson’s rubric it seems, we musn’t allow the spectre of the concrete to sneak through, images would turn the poem too far into an object–a block of imaged text or an upside down “T” would force the poem into a music separate from the poet’s (and reader’s?) breath.

Olson points projective verse as a remake of objectivism into objectism–wherein the poet, poem, and everything else become an object searching inwards–but I do question his insistence on “breath” as a defining factor of the poet/reader/person in the world of objects. To me (and it’s amazing how Olson’s concept breath is what allows that first person pronoun), the breath attaches itself too much to the embodied voice. I’m careful with this quibble, because the practice of embodiment is such an important rote, but this embodiment then being projected onto the body of the typewriter is a troubling one insofar as the typewriter replaces the embodied breath/voice with its own buttons and knobs.

I’m reminded of DJ/Rupture’s recent essay in n+1 where he bitches about the use of Ableton–an arguably simplistic djing software (which I use, btw)–as giving too many set tools to the dj. In the article, Rupture complains about how he can recognize certain prepackaged effects djs add to their mixes. From Olson’s Projective Verse again:

Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interface of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For a man is himself an object, whatever he may take to he his advantages, the more likely to recognize himself as such the greater his advantages, particularly at that moment that he achieves an humilitas sufficient to make him of use.

Olson has an odd inward/outward sense of projection–the breath “down through the workings of his own throat to that place where breath comes from” working with the “larger field of objects”–but I wonder if that inward interface (especially when tied to a typewriter or Indesign or Ableton) doesn’t (or hasn’t) fall(en) into the same subjective identity Olson was trying to move poetry out of: lyrical language being replaced by the “the necessity of a line or a work to be as wood is.” The inward interface changes from poet to poet through time to become a new part of the field of objects, but don’t the interfaces as interfaces force their own repetition? Does InDesign afford us more object choice than a typewriter? Does it allow a different breath? Or does it suggest the same breath superficially changed?

In the wake of this, I’ve been thinking about the poet and the musician who have led to my own investigations of the musical: Zukofsky and Cardew. For all the hubbub of Bach being used as a touchstone throughout “A” (and brilliantly in A-19 where, as has been suggested, the back and forth of a bow on violin strings is mirrored in the lines), what of A-20, where Zukofsky uses serial techniques to rearrange a list of his son, Paul’s, own musical compositions into various tone rows. Serialism, stuck as it is in a logic of the mind rather than a natural breathing, is at odds with Olson’s breath; its logic comes from the ear and mind rather than the breath and heart/mind. Zukofsky, by using Paul’s works as a touchstone,–very personal, but not necessarily embodied works–creates a pleasant schism between his modernist composition techniques and his own familial objects.

Or Cardew’s Treatise:

Sure, the staff at the bottom suggests some sense of measured breath, as do the repeated blobs suggest how long certain sounds must be held, but what happens when this becomes more complicated:

Cardew’s scores are tricky because they leave so much up to an ambient interpretation–the reader/musician’s breath rather than that of the composer–and because of this, and Cardew’s work as a graphic designer (which directly influenced the composition of the Treatise) I think he falls more in step with Olson’s conception of breath. The act of reading through the Treatise is an interpretive, breathing, embodied act, “where breath has its beginnings, where drama has to come from, where, the coincidence is, all act springs.”

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