[See Patrick James Dunagan’s letter immediately below]
Thanks, Patrick, for your reply to mine. I couldn’t agree with you more about the need to spread the news and work of people like Jack Clarke and Ken Warren. You may have noticed that Dispatches has been posting previously unpublished poems by Clarke, as well as photos. We recently acquired some writing by Ken Warren, and will start posting that soon
Two small points in response to your discussion of scholars and poets – and Olson’s current status. The category “scholar” is not without ambiguity. As you may recall from Sharon’s essay, Olson appointed Maud his “scholar.” Clark ignores that in his biography (which doesn’t mention Maud once, a strange sort of Stalinist move by the biographer, as if Maud never existed in Olson’s life) so we only know that this “appointment” took place during the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference. At the same event Olson had also named himself President of the Republic of Poetry and appointed various cabinet members. So we can’t really know in what sense Olson made this particular appointment. Perhaps as the person charged with keeping the record straight? Lord knows, the factions were already in high gear as Creeley and Clark and others turned on Olson’s performance, beginning to make public statements questioning his sanity. In any case, Maud clearly took it to mean that he was in charge of maintaining the record.
Robert Von Hallberg, I believe, opened the discussion of Olson as “scholar” in his book, The Scholar’s Art. His main point, as I recall, is that Olson, unlike most other poets of that moment, wrote from an engagement with other texts – various historical documents, Whitehead, Williams, and Pound among many others. He was concerned to think through his poetry toward a philosophical encounter with the world. His major poem, The Maximus Poems, was grounded in textuality and an Herodetean, hands on entanglement with what preceded it as that was encountered in texts, which he engaged as they revealed specific information about esoteric dimensions of the world denied or hidden by patriarchal modernity.
Olson’s scholarship came under withering attack from academics who found it violated their sense of a rigorous relation to certain procedures having to do with establishing the validity of propositions. It is as if “scholarship” was governed by an agreed upon etiquette, a set of good manners that legitimized one’s place at the table of knowledge. Olson’s embrace, for instance, of L.A. Waddell, who theorized that Sumerians founded the British Empire, was seen as a disgrace to “real” scholarship, a scandal, and fundamentally discredited Olson’s “scholarship.”
Susan Howe, who locates herself as a “scholar poet,” and a descendent of Olson’s, sees scholarship as library activity, as an excavation of the archive in order to reveal sociological realities – usually in relation to gender – buried in an official, patriarchal history. This reading of Olson’s scholarship aligns her with Robert Creeley’s argument that Olson was a “poet of historical geography,” a materialist like Creeley himself, who studied history in order to clarify the causality that led to our current circumstance. Scholarship then becomes a way to uncover “facts.”
Olson’s scholarship, I would argue, was of another order completely. Actually a couple of orders. His early deep diving into Melville’s work, and his recovery of Melville’s library (surely part of Maud’s motivation to recover Olson’s library) , including the crucial Shakespeare volumes, led to insights into Melville that revolutionized our understanding of him. But fundamentally, Olson was not interested in “facts.” Rather than facts, he was absorbed by “events as Whitehead called that complexity of unfolding. Rather than “validity,” he was caught up in the adventure, to use Whitehead’s term, of the opportunities for thinking that scholarship created, and specifically the thinking that opened into poetry. He most emphatically was not interested in good manners, or in sociology, which he pointedly called “shit.”
For Olson, scholarship seemed to merge with poetry in so far as they both were an adventure, what Isabel Stengers in her discussion of Whitehead calls a transforming constraint which “may confer a somewhat unexpected signification,” may call forth “the generic question, what does it matter?’” Scholarship in this sense is a procedure whose sole value is that it leads to poetry. In Olson’s case, it led to poetry which was determined by the “visionary propositional,” and in that sense was deeply rooted in Whitehead’s revolutionary approach to method, not as the source of some new paradigm, but as an opening of “fact” into the unexpected and the indeterminate.
When Olson appointed Maud his scholar, then, was it perhaps in the same sense that he embraced scholarship? In any case, following Olson’s and Creeley’s thinking, it had something to do with addressing the specificity of any object or occasion, to reveal its absolute uniqueness. Perhaps that commitment was at the root of Maud’s obsessive attention to what road Olson traveled on any given night, as opposed to Clark’s more impressionistic and dramatic narrative.
One further point as to Olson’s current status. In one sense you seem to contradict yourself. After asserting the importance of poetry over scholarship, you then turn to the MLA Death Star and its official record as proof that interest in Olson is increasing. I would point out that “citations” and “dissertations” are a sign of nothing other than the museum-ification of Olson’s work, his reduction to an object of study by the institution assigned the task of reducing everything to a quantity in Empire’s catalog of conquest.
The only place we can truly assess the interest in Olson is in the attention and work of other poets. I can only speak here of my own experience with young poets among whom I have had and continue to have a struggle to keep Olson’s work alive. Mostly, in the current climate of unbridled anti-patriarchal, anti-US imperialist political engagements, Olson is not read. He is always already identified as violently anti-woman (Howe), a patriarchal promoter of US imperial aggression (Yepez), and a tedious, pedantic reciter of ahistorical mystifying reference (Bernstein). It is a constant battle to counter these accumulated judgments, even when someone as brilliant as Ammiel Alcalay answers them categorically and decisively as in A Little History – which is ignored. Over and over the accusations are addressed in a push to open up the conversation, and over and over they are either ignored or caricatured as “angry and mocking” and dismissed. It seems as if the only response that will ever satisfy Olson’s critics is to agree with them rather than open the differences into a conversation. Heaven forbid there should ever be any strife.