Mind, Mouth and Page – (Projective Verse, Structuralism & Conclusion)

Charles Olson 1910-1970

Allen Ginsberg’s 1975 Mind, Mouth and Page Naropa class continues and concludes here

AG: What I wanted to do was get a little bit more through Williams, and then have a little more Williams, from Pictures of Brueghel, before we get on to his late, utter, death-bed, serious, final words (in his actual voice). But what you have here, around this time, is Williams getting more and more conscious of his practice, and beginning to name his practice, and beginning to lay out the rules. Around that time he began writing his Autobiography, and I think it was as part of his Autobiography that he included a recent essay by Charles Olson on how Olson went about writing, which Williams thought was such a good statement – so pithy, so perfect, a little more advanced than his own, though a little puzzling – that he included (it) as a special section at the end of his Autobiography. Which is a real honor for Olson, and it also meant that the relay had been handed over, as (Gregory) Corso would say. Like in a relay race, the relay had been handed over, that somebody else had understood, (someone)younger. Olson’s essay was called “Projective Verse”, and it’s a very famous essay in the Academy, because it’s after Pound, Williams, and Eliot’s criticism. Olson’s essay on Projective Verse” as a statement on poetics, is one of the basic texts for open-form poetry, and there’s a copy of it you can find in this New American Poetry. And I’m going to read you a couple of sentences out of it. This is of the same time.

It begins. “PROJECTIVE VERSE – (projectile (percussive (prospective/ vs./ The NON-Projective/ (or what a French critic calls “closed” verse, that verse which/ print bred and which is pretty much what we have had, in/ English & American, and have still got despite the work of Pound and Williams:/ it led Keats, already, a hundred years ago to see it/ (Wordsworth‘s, Milton‘s) in the light of “the Egotistical /Sublime” and it persists at this latter day as what you might call the private-soul-at-any-public-wall)/Verse, now, 1950…” – So this is Olson, 1950, just a little before Williams is writing these little later poems – “Verse now, 1950, if it is to go ahead, if it is to be of essential use, must, I take it, catch up and put into itself certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings. (The revolution of the ear, 1910, the trochee’s heave, asks it of the younger poets.) – Now, he’s talking about the “revolution of the ear” (which) is Pound. Pound said, “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave” (in The Cantos [Canto 81], Pound commenting on the changes of poetry, on what Whitman did and what he was trying to do – “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave”, or “the trochee’s heave” – “the revolution of the ear”, 1910 – breaking the trochaic line). What is trochaic? Does anybody know trochee – Dah, duh, duh, Iam – trochee – Marmalade? – okay, mar mal ade – Heavy, light light. Marmalade into the recording… “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks/Bearded with moss..” [Allen quotes here the opening lines of Longfellow’s Evangeline] Is that trochee or anapest? I’ll look it up in a book – “At any rate, to break the metronomic fixed count of accent. I want to do two things – first, try to show what projective or OPEN verse is, what it involves, in its act of composition, how, in distinction from the non-projective, it is accomplished, and II, suggest a few ideas about what stance toward reality…” – what kind of attitude toward reality – “..brings such verse into being, what that stance does, both to the poet and his reader. First some simplicities that a man learns, if he works in OPEN, or what can also be called COMPOSITION BY FIELD…” – Now the reason I’m reading this is so you’ll get the idea of poetic lingo, or critical lingo, or what kind of language followers of Olson use to describe their poems, in case (here in Naropa that) you overhear them discussing that, or in case you want to talk with Robert Creeley, or you want to be conscious of your own practice. – “First, some simplicities that a man learns, if he works in OPEN, or what can also be called COMPOSITION BY FIELD, as opposed to inherited line, stanza, over-all form…” – Like sonnet, quatrain – “..what is the “old” base of the non-projective. (1) the kinetics of the thing. A poem is energy transfered from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader” – Transfer of energy from where the poet got it to the reader. What does he mean by transfer of energy. It’s simply, I would take it, as in that poem (of Williams) about the roses, the little shock of recognition when his wife said, “You can’t smell them now because they’re cold”. That little perception, the energy that went into that perception, the energy of the alertness that went into that perception. A transfer of energy, by way of words, all the way over to the reader. Is that clear? Or by “energy”, meaning it takes a certain amount of alertness, which you might call energy, to be “awakeness” – to notice that when the roses are chilled in the icebox, cold, you can’t smell (them). It takes energy, or alertness, or awareness, or mindfulness, to be aware of oneself, waiting at the faucet, turning on the water, waiting for the cold water to freshen. It takes that active energy. So it’s a transfer of that same kind of intelligent, active, energy – active intelligence, or what Olson would call here “energy”, transferring that energy from wherever the poet got it, between him and the object that he’s observing – the faucet or the cold roses – “all the way over” to the reader (which is a really magical thing, because it’s saying that there is that intelligence, that wakened mind, which is a kind of energy and which you can actually compose into a poem, and it’ll explode in the reader’s mind, or it’ll give a buzz to the reader – the idea, the awareness will give a buzz, as well as the sound, as well as the rhythm). The first term (here at Naropa) I was teaching how the rhythm can give you a buzz, particularly in (Percy Bysshe) Shelley and Hart Crane – “Atlantis”, if read aloud, the rhythmic breathing will turn you on and give you a buzz, because you’re reproducing the poet’s inspiration and exhalation. So you get into the same exhalation as Shelley with “Adonais”, if you read “Adonais” following its periods and commas. Here, Olson is saying you can also get the poet’s mind, the energy of the poet’s mind.

Is that clear what he’s saying? Is there anyone who doesn’t understand this so far? Because I’ll go back over it a little bit. (Does) it seem too fuzzy, what he means there? Because it took me years to figure out what Olson was talking about. It seemed a little too complicated. And Olson said he wrote this in a complicated way because he wanted, basically, to have a big, long, learned, essay that professors in colleges could read to themselves so they would understand what was going on in modern poetry if they couldn’t understand it just by reading it. It, literally, was like an academic study, because there’s some people that can’t understand a new mode of music, or a new poetics, unless they (read) an essay about it. So this is an essay that they can study and write footnotes about. So it’s a little high-faultin’ in the language – but it does make a lot of sense. “(All) the way over, to the reader” – and then the next thing Olson says is – Okay – “A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it…by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself, at all points, becomes a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy discharge. So – how is the poet to accomplish the same energy, how is he, what is the process by which a poet gets in, at all points energy at least the equivalent of the energy which propelled him in the first place, yet an energy which is peculiar to verse alone and which will be, obviously, also different rom the energy which the reader, because he is a third term, take away? This is the problem which any poet who departs from closed form is specially confronted by. And it involves a whole series of new recognitions. From the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION..” – And he’s got that in capitals – “composition by field” is a big phrase there – FIELD COMPOSITION – “..puts himself in the open..” – in the open field of the page, or of rhythm – in an open rhythm, an open field – “..he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of..” – various forces which are only beginning to be examined by all of us, how, like studying Williams and trying to figure out “How do you construct a poem out of the instant materials of your mind?” – “…the principal, the law which presides conspicuously over such composition, and, when obeyed, is the reason why a projective poem can come into being. It is this – Quotes, capitals, and he’s quoting Robert Creeley – “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT” – Ever heard that before? – “Form is never more than an extension of content”. This is a big slogan in the modern poetry universe. It’s like “a stitch in time saves nine”, or “the class struggle thesis and antithesis creates synthesis”, if you’re a Marxist. This is the big statement, one that I admire a great deal, actually. And (it) is a useful statement, like several that we’ve had here, like “First thought, best thought”, “If the mind is shapely, the art will be shapely – mind is shapely, art is shapely”…

Student: “No ideas but in things”

AG: “Form (is never more than an extension of content); “No ideas but in things”, “The natural object is always the adequate symbol” – all these slogans I’ve been tossing out. “Form is never more than an extension of content” – what does that mean? It means that, if you’re following your breath, if you’re scoring a poem on the page as per your breath, following the breath-stops, then the form, or where you end your line, will be a reproduction of extension of the content – that is, the way you talk, which is the content of the poem, will be an extension, or reflection, of what you’re talking about. The way you talk will be like what you are talking about, or will be related to what you’re talking about. It will be in the form of your own talk, so form need not necessarily be iambic or trochaic – four-line, eight-line, or sonnet – it will follow the nervousness and variations of your own speech, and, in that sense, form is seen as an extension of content (like in (Larry) Eigner, the form there is an extension of the body-english perceptions, subject-matter, and way he talks. So the form in Larry Eigner, in that poem, the spastic’s poem, that was an extension of content). You could (can) understand that? – how the original conceptions and the way of writing itself determine the final form. In Williams’ little first metrical figure, where he says “Oh”, where he started that little “Exercise in Timing” – “Oh/ the sumac died/ it’s/ the first time/ I/ noticed it” – that was an extension of thought-forms in his mind, or content. Is that idea sort of clear? Is there anybody that doesn’t make any sense (out of it) at all? – that form is always an extension of content. Is there anybody to whom that doesn’t make any sense? Don’t be ashamed. It took me years to figure it out. Because it was so simple, actually. I didn’t realize it was that simple-minded. In other words, write the way you talk, or talk the way you think. Write the way you talk, score on paper the way you’d write, write the way you talk, talk the way you think, think straight. Think straight, write it down straight like that, the way you would talk, and you’ll find the proper form (without having form set in advance, as sonnet or as quatrain). Yes?

Student: What would you think about a statement like “form becomes content of form”?

AG: Form?

Student: …becomes content of form.

AG: Well, explain it (like I’ve been explaining this) and I’ll let you know what I think of it. Form becomes content of form? What do you mean by that? or what would that mean? Whatever would that mean? huh?

Student: Well..

AG: I mean, it’s a nice set of words

Student: ..that to explain the processes of life.. how things become.. how form..how one form breaks down becomes the content of another form.. to explain how things evolve…

AG: Okay, well, if you want to say everything changes, so the subject then will be everything changes, and so the form will be constantly changing to show it. If that means the same thing – “Form is the content of form” or “Content is the form of form”. What is it? Well, it’s related anyway..I don’t know if I got there. It’s not related? Okay – “everything changes”..

Student: I (was) just think(ing) of Stan Brakhage‘s films..
AG: For what?
Student: Just that..
AG: That one form breaks down and becomes the subject of the next shot?
Student: Yeah

AG: We’ll see tonight [a showing of Brakhage movies had been scheduled for that evening]
Student: ..(It seems) central to the concept of (the) film…
AG: Would that apply to all art, or just Brakhage’s?
Student: Well it’s a Structuralist point of view
AG: What does Structuralist mean?
Student: What is Structuralism?
AG: Yeah
Student: What does it have to do with?
AG: No, what does that mean. I don’t know the word. I doubt if anybody here knows it. How many people here know the theory of Structuralism? – I don’t – or have heard of it? How many have heard of Structuralism? [a few, but very few, raise their hands] – See? so most people haven’t even heard of Structuralism, so when you say it’s the Structuralist point (of view), what does it mean to have (that point of view)? Can you explain that for us?
Student: He’s a Structuralist filmmaker
AG: Can you explain what that word means?…You’re using a term that nobody knows how that term is used
Student: Ok, well, a Structuralist filmmaker, I think, basically, that term’s mis-used. The reason they did it…
AG: Do what?
Student: The film is the content of the film. It’s a film about film. It’s about light..image..that’s the content of the film<

AG: Okay, so then, actually, a composition of field (“Form is never more than an extension of content” would be described as a Structuralist statement?
Student: Uh-huh?
AG: So this is Structuralism
Student: If.. (the art is) giving way to Structuralism

AG: Uh? “giving way” to Structuralism? – I don’t want to get too much further into this.
Student: The way (William) Burroughs is talking about types of language..
G: Yeah
Student: …reminds me of that .. the type of words that he wanted chopped out of the language..
AG: Structuralism is a very serious matter, except that it can’t be.. because it’s serious, you just can’t refer to it assuming everybody knows what we’re talking about
Student: Did I make it explicit,what I was saying?
AG: Yes, I think, referring to Brakhage, except that how many here have seen Brakhage’s films? How many have not? You really have to… “I wanted to write a poem that you could understand, old lady, but you’ve got to try hard” [Allen is, obviously, paraphrasing Williams here]
Student: I was going to say, what you’re saying is..(also) consonant with what happened in painting..
AG: Yes
Student: ..in the ’50’s and ’60’s..
AG: Right
Student: ..the paint, the color, the materials became subject..
AG: Yeah
Student: They stopped painting bananas, and just painted red

AG: Yeah, I think that’s the point that I made (in ) one of these previous lectures – that the Abstract Expressionist school actually began painting movement – the subject was the movement of the arm..
Student: Like (Jackson Pollock)
AG:.. or the subject was the paint on a two-dimensional canvas. Though, there is an element of that (in Olson). And, oddly enough, Franz Kline and Charles Olson were working together at Black Mountain (College) around the time that this was written, and (Willem) de Kooning was teaching there, and Williams was one of the trustees. So, actually, it’s all in the same mind, it’s all going on in the same social group. Okay, I want to jump (to) this fast – a couple (of) great slogans -” “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT. (Or so it got phrased by one, R. Creeley, and it makes absolute sense to me, with this possible corollary, that right form in any given poem, is only and exclusively possible extension of content under hand.) There it is, brothers, sitting there, for USE” – Yeah?

Student: Isn’t that also a comment on.. I think T.S.Eliot said that form is content..That’s probably what Olson is..responding against

AG: Yes. Eliot was saying something like that subject-matter is not interesting, the form itself is the interesting thing, so that is the content of the poetry. And (Olson is) saying, “No, the form itself is a by-product..of your thrust of speech, so, yeah…

Student: That probably had a lot to do with it.

AG: Then, another thing he said, which is really useful for this class, thinking of the poetry we’ve been going through, for all of those for whom me, or Larry (Fagin), or Anne (Waldman) have been going over the poems (and cutting them down, and condensing (them), and trying to make (them) fast, and jump from one image to another, and not waste time in-between with holes and bullshit or adjectives or fat participles, or anything) – “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION” – In other words, just don’t get hung up discussing your first perception, go on ahead to the next perception. Or “one image links to another image”, but “one direct perception goes to another perception”. So it says, “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION”, then, what does that mean? – “It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points (even, I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split-second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen. And if you also set up as a poet – USE USE USE the process at all points, i any given poem always, always one perception must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER! So there we are, fast, there’s the dogma. And it’s excuse, its usableness, in practice. Which gets us, it ought to get us, inside the machinery, now, 1950, of how projective verse is made” – It’s a totally different kind of literary criticism than had ever been written before (and it’s written in “Projective Prose”, so to speak, or that kind of prose where “one perception leads directly to another”, where he’s using total speech, where the form of the page is a total extension of his content, the way he’s notating what his thoughts are, if you ever get to check this out).

I’ll read one more paragraph here – “If I hammer..” – hammer my point over and over again – “If I hammer, if I recall in, and keep calling in, the breath, the breathing as distinguished from the hearing, it is for cause, it is to insist upon a part that breath plays in verse which has not (due, I think, to the smothering of the power of the line by too set a concept of foot)…” – That is, “This is the forest primeval” [Allen quotes Longfellow]. So the line got smothered, the idea of line got smothered by too fixed a…

[tape ends here – and indeed class and this particular series of lectures (“Mind, Mouth and Page”) ends here]

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