What is “scholarship”? You’d think it would be pretty straightforward – a text + a scholar = scholarship. And if we can judge by various criticisms of Charles Olson’s scholarship, a lot of people feel that way, including, most recently, one of Olson’s old friends, Jeremy Prynne. In a recent Paris Review interview, after belittling Black Mountain College (and specifically Olson and Robert Creeley) with a small rhetorical gesture, referring to them as “the Black Mountain team” (no individual thought at work there) and accusing them of “bullying” their students, Prynne goes on to dismiss their scholarship: “their knowledge of scholarship, and their understanding of things outside the ambience of personal interest and behaviour, was extremely casual.” The word “casual” provides a clue as to Prynne’s sense of what the = sign signifies – the opposite of casual, i.e rigorous. That’s not surprising given Prynne’s background. Having spent his adult life at Cambridge, much of that time as a librarian, Prynne identifies himself in the interview with his imagination of Cambridge’s culture of rigorous (and well-documented) scholarship, as if that were the final word on the = sign.
But of course it’s not. The = sign is the last in the series, preceded significantly by the + sign which is the sign of (indeterminate) relation. The nature of the + is always open; increase determined in the specific exchange between (in-finite) differences. The outcome is uncertain. In Olson’s case, the + equals a relation of raging thinking to text that complicates the = sign, adding to the outcome a push toward further entanglements at the edge of thinking that yields an emergent world. Not exactly rigorous in Prynne’s somewhat pinched thought of scholarship, but thorough in its attention and generous in its acquiescence to poetry’s demand for a world to work in. Jack Clarke, in a discussion of D. H. Lawrence’s insistence that the modern writer must both “hold on” and “let go”, cites Robin Blaser on scholarship: “Of the few still alive who methodically ‘hold on’ whom one might turn to for inspiration, I might cite Robin Blaser because he can even give us a formula: scholarship – cosmos – happiness.” This unusual equivalence is not unrelated to Olson’s mode of scholarship, given the middle term.
Blaser’s own poetry reverberates with scholarship in the form of references to and citations of philosophers, critics, poets, and historical figures, a fact that caused some discomfort to those whose idea of poetry was circumscribed by a post-Eliot, 1950’s lyric poem (with extra points for irony) and for whom Lucretius was an obscure footnote in the Norton Anthology of Lyric Verse. Blaser’s early, dedicated readings in Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and other continental thinkers gave rise to suspicion even among some of his New American Poetry cohort who drew the scholarly line at the borders of US America and seemed to want to abandon the thinking of continental philosophers to the Yale English Department and its numerous wannabe franchises.
What is scholarship in Blaser’s sense? He took his lead from Ezra Pound who had turned English language poetry on its head with The Cantos and their remarkable weaving of scholarly information into a tangled palimpsest of cosmology, intense lyric, politics, myth, economics, and historical literary invocations and inquiries. Pound hated what he saw as the degradation and impoverishment of experience brought on by a culture of greed and universal commodification. His scholarship was visionary – it sought to renew lost knowledge rather than scold or shame people for its loss. Ovid, Arnault Daniel, Sordello, or Ficino were living presences in Pound’s imagination of the renewal of the lost world.
The question of knowledge – its nature and limits – resonates here. When Charles Bernstein criticized the Maximus Poems for “. . . the appropriation and overlaying of privileged texts (such as the Hesiodic myths, so specifically rooted in their own geographical and historical context) that are ingeniously contorted to appear relevant but are only relevant within the wildest leap of the Gnostic imagination,” he was appealing to a materialist cohort whose intellectual narcissism prescribes strict limits to what can be known. Apparently unfamiliar with wild leaps of any kind, much less Gnostic imagination, Bernstein speaks from within a cosmology that denies the transmit-ability of human knowledges across time. But knowledge is not fully determined by historical conditions that make it inaccessible to future scholars, and Hesiod’s knowledge is there, in the forms of his poetry that still live in the imagination. Being on earth engenders a thinking shared across time. And one entrance to it is scholarship that, like the poetry that calls for it, is a transformative gnosis. Another name for it is cosmos, as cosmos is an activity of forming in the act of thinking where thinking is the passion of the heartmind. Pound’s “ideogrammic method” invokes knowing, is gnosis or what Blaser calls a noetic gesture, where knowledge is tied to the process of thinking.
Instead of Prynne’s rigour and precision, the tools of Cambridge, Olson’s scholarship was based on thoroughness and adventure, the methods of poetry. He famously told Ed Dorn to study one thing thoroughly – it doesn’t matter what, he said, it could be barbed wire – to do a saturation job on it, because that would yield the knowledge of a complex world in process. Barbed wire is nexus in a cosmos of relations that connect the upper reaches of politics and finance and the aggressive expansion of the new US American Empire to religious sermons on heathens to advertising images to the most ordinary moment of shopping for gloves. It’s all waiting to be unpacked, waiting to reveal the complexity of cosmos, and move the poem into that precipitative noetic region of opening borders. That’s the adventure part.
Such was Olson’s Melville scholarship which, as Ammiel Alcalay has pointed out, was intensely thorough: “In his research at the Library of Congress on the economics of whaling, for example, . . . months and months of work boiled down to several paragraphs in Call Me Ishmael.” That scholarship gave Melville studies a boot in the rear end, locating Moby-Dick outside the academy’s familiar bag of formalist tricks as a critical address to the economic expansion of the US American Empire. That opened a cosmos for Olson that he continued to work within until he died. Because he worked within a movement toward more depth and complexity, he could even find value in the disreputable scholarship of someone like L.A. Waddell, whose theory that Sumerians had settled England (among other things) was widely ridiculed. As Jack Clarke pointed out, “Olson, usually a stickler, could go off the deep end (as Pound did), for example, with L. A. Waddell and still come out in the “right” place: “The whole question & continuing struggle to remain civilized Sumer documented in and out” (“The Gate and the Center,” Human Universe.)” Prynne’s sense of scholarship could never include Waddell, but obviously the stakes are different for him than they were for Olson. Prynne’s stake is Cambridge’s demand for a certain rigour and precision. Olson’s stake is a cosmos.
“Happiness” is not strictly speaking a stake although it might be mistaken for one. A stake involves a measure of inequity, of power over the stakeholder in so far as it is what is held to determine interest. The dash that holds happiness in a constellation with scholarship and cosmology is not quite =, but is also equal, an addition that’s not +. It stands there in Blaser’s non-equating equation, not exactly rude, but like an awkward question blurted out in the midst of polite company in the middle of. . ., say, the library. Happiness is not quantifiable and is outside the bounds of polite avant-garde academic conversations, notwithstanding (or maybe because of) Plato’s interest. In Blaser’s formula, the dashes are almost the same as = signs, but hold back, intent on some irreducible difference at the heart of their relation of equivalence. Blaser’s sense of scholarship as “–” to happiness – because that horizontal unfolding is a relation of transformative equality rather than progress or addition – was laid in Blaser’s experience studying with Medieval scholar Ernst Kantorowicz at UC Berkeley in the 1940s. Kantorowicz, Blaser said, “opens up the task of the knowledge that’s in poetry.”
We were listening the English professors talk about the bullshit of feeling, we were listening to English professors go on jabbering about God knows what, when suddenly I had a man who knew that the poetry was noetic, that it’s task is knowledge, that it is always the recentering of the origin of the world, that it is always the beginning again and the dwelling of the nature of the world, of man and the world.
Blaser refers to this process as cosmology:
. . . [W]e’re actually invisible, . . . we are visibilities of a vast action and as a consequence you begin reading almost everything dramatically because you saw all the men and all the events as visibilities of vast actions. Going on in the universe, so that you had a cosmology and a world image, an imago mundi that was suddenly being rebuilt.
To have the knowledge of your place is happiness, or, say, at least equanimity which is close to equals but different. If scholarship for Prynne is about the rigour of containment, the precision of address, scholarship for Blaser is a process of addressing the text as a generative element in a cosmology, a meaningful constituent in the formation of the world. In a lecture he gave on The Maximus Poems at Simon Fraser University in 1971, Prynne described Olson as being under “pressure” from a “mass of dense information”:
The man has to have, had to have around him a great mass of dense information and confusion, a great mass of pressure, from which at any moment he could spring out another section of the word.
That’s one way to put it. It is a librarian’s perception or attempted explanation of what for Blaser is cosmology, for Olson is stance (methodology), for Clarke is both holding on and letting go. Prynne’s “information under pressure” is a particular distorted articulation of the circulating facts of the cosmology of the re-centered world. It’s a happy thing to be among them – the scholarship of getting there and the scholarship of being there are at ease in the abundance of that re-centering. In an address on the work of Kathy Acker, the late David Antin called it “usefulness.” Acker’s scholarship, which, he pointed out, was prodigious, was animated by an active sense of what was useful to her, a different kind of precision and accuracy than more traditional scholarship might aim for. It’s a bit like Olson’s sense of the difference between Herodotean and Thucydidien methodologies. One begins with the world and its common but unequal complexities and develops them in testimony. The other begins with an ordered narrative about the world that turns the complexities into a unified explanation. Usefulness is a sign of complexity, a beckoning toward a further opening where the + sign is an erotic rupture, desire’s fission reaction unleashed. Clarke talks about it as finding a way to both “let go” and “hold on,” “an ordering of experience of the antithetical influx of our time.” When Prynne exclaims “Didn’t they have a library? Weren’t they able to check up on information?” he is holding on but he has failed to let go.