by Jack Foley

PROJECTIVE VERSE AT FIFTY


    As an echo of contemporary despair, as a picture of dissolution, of the breaking- down of the very structures on which life has modeled itself, The Waste Land has a certain authenticity. But an artist is, by the very nature of creation, pledged to give form to formlessness; even the process of disintegration must be held within a pattern. This pattern is distorted and broken by Eliot's jumble of narratives, nursery-rhymes, criticism, jazz-rhythms, Dictionary of Favorite Phrases and a few lyrical moments. Possibly the disrupton of our ideas may be reproduced through such a melange, but it is doubtful whether it is crystallized or even clarified by a series of severed narratives--tales from which the connecting tissue has been carefully cut--and familiar quotations with their necks twisted, all imbedded in a formless plasma of associations that are clear only in Eliot's mind...Dadaism, with its glorification of incoherence, is scarcely a step away.

              --Louis Untermeyer, American Poetry Since 1900 (1923)


I mean the disorder in which a large number of possible orders glitter separately.

            --Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966)


    "Verse now, 1950," wrote Charles Olson in his famous essay, "Projective Verse," "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 question Olson is raising is how to make verse come alive; if it isn't "breathing," it's dead.

    Towards the end of the essay he adds, "If [the poet] sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself." If, on the other hand, the poet "stays inside himself,"

if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share. And by an inverse law his shapes will make their own way. It is in this sense that the projective act, which is the artist's act in the larger field of objects, leads to dimensions larger than the man...I would hazard the guess that, if projective verse is practiced long enough, is driven ahead hard enough, along the course I think it dictates, verse again can carry much larger material than it has carried in our language since the Elizabethans. But it can't be jumped. We are only at its beginnings....

    The word "dictates" points in a direction which is always problematical for Olson--the assertion of authority--but in this context that problem is muted. "Projective Verse" is now fifty years old. Is it still valuable? Are we still only at the "beginnings" of Olson's "project"? Or has that idea run its course?

    In an interview dealing with his anthology, Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry, Jerome Rothenberg commented on the fact that he and co-editor Pierre Joris had included Olson's prose piece, "The Resistance," but had not included "Projective Verse":

Olson's resistance piece--a very short statement by Olson--is one of the many pivotal works in the anthology. I think our choice was to use that as a representation of Olson's poetics rather than, for example, his best-known work, "Projective Verse." There is no projective verse to speak of in Poems for the Millennium. There could have been. There are references to it. One acknowledges its presence, its importance, but I think our choice here (given that it's a book of choices) was to focus on Olson in the "resistance," Olson as one of the figures doing something that does have a particular Americanness to it: that is, the merging of poetry and history.

     -- "'Flowers Normally Irregular': An Interview with Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris," Foley's Books: California Rebels, Beats, and Radicals

    The editors' decision not to include "Projective Verse" in a book dealing with the major currents of the twentieth century suggests that--at least in their opinion--the essay did not have a lasting influence; indeed, Rothenberg points out that "there is no projective verse to speak of" in the anthology.*

    In contrast, Michael McClure, in his book, Simple Eyes, writes that "My poetry is not written in free verse, but in a poetics that Charles Olson called projective verse:

Those who have not read my poetry before will discover that I write with a breath line and that I listen to the syllable as it appears in my voice or on the tip of my pen or on my screen or on my field of energies.

    Rather than being an untutored or naive form of poetry, projective verse is the most difficult to write; not only is it the most new, it is also capable of including, and sometimes does include, the old shapes of iambs and metric counts and rhymes and near rhymes."

    The Charles Olson who described rhyme as "the dross of verse" in "I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master..." would probably not have agreed with McClure's assertion that projective verse "sometimes does include...the old shapes of iambs and metric counts and rhymes and near rhymes," but it is clear that projective verse remains for McClure a living tradition, as it was for poets like Larry Eigner and Robert Duncan and continues to be for Diane di Prima, Sharon Doubiago, George Quasha, Charles Stein, and Jake Berry, who was favored by what he believes to have been a ghostly visitation of Charles Olson. Olson's insistence on "breath"--and his powerful performances of his own poetry--connect him to the "spoken word" movement, though his innovative use of the page is also one of the influences on Language Poetry, a more silent, "writing"-oriented practice. Some of Susan Howe's work graphically resembles the work in Olson's Maximus IV, V, VI. Even the New Formalist poet Paul Lake--who criticizes Olson--admits in "Verse That Print Bred" (published in the anthology After New Formalism: Poets on Form, Narrative, and Tradition) that "Projective Verse" "has proved to be hugely influential, amounting to something like a theoretical cornerstone to the Black Mountain poets, as well as to later writers of free verse; and today it continues to influence strongly even poets who have never read it."

    Paul Nelson, a poet younger than any of the ones I have mentioned--and who was deeply moved by the work of Michael McClure--recently opened a discussion with me about projective verse. I was delighted by his interest and enthusiasm and could see ways in which Olson's essay (via McClure) had affected his work. For him, the central issue was a word which doesn't actually appear in Olson's essay: the word "integration." Nelson wrote, "One might be considered an integrated system of organs that make up a larger organism, along with other systems."

    Were The "Maximus" Poems like that? Certainly it sounded initially as though they might be: "Maximus" / "larger organism." But I began to wonder. It occurred to me that the rather Blakean model my friend was suggesting had been with us for a very long time: it's the concept that lies behind the idea of the "United" (integrated) "States" (system of organs that make up a larger organism).

    "Fragmentation" was another topic of discussion, and we talked about the movement from "fragmentation" to "wholeness"--terms that seemed extremely problematical to me. I wrote him that words or concepts such as

    "fragment" as opposed to "whole"

    "fragmented" as opposed to "integrated"

    "part" as opposed to "whole"

    "particular" as opposed to "universal"

couldn't be used to "solve" the problem of "fragment/wholeness" precisely because such terms and concepts CREATE the problem of "fragment/wholeness": i.e., they can't solve the problem because they ARE the problem. It occurred to me that Olson's work--and that of others--begins to question this entire house of cards: it implicitly proposes other modes of ordering. In "Maximus to Gloucester Letter 15," someone complains to Olson, "You go all around the subject." He replies, "I didn't know it was a subject."

    What follows is a passage from Ludwig Wittgenstein's book, Philosophical Investigations. I have quoted it in various essays because it seems to me to be a wonderful example of "other modes of ordering." In this passage, Wittgenstein is questioning the idea of "essence"; he is asking whether there is some "essence" to the concept of "games," some quality without which an entity can't be considered a game. Wittgenstein is unable to find any single quality which applies to ALL games, though he finds many which apply to some, even many games. He writes,

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

    I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.--And I shall say: 'games' form a family...And we extend our concept...as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.

    What the philosopher is describing in "the overlapping of many fibres" is very different from "an integrated system of organs that make up a larger organism." There is no "integration" and no "larger organism" here--at least not in the sense of something made up of "an integrated system of organs." It is a situation in which there are various unifying features, various patterns--the way some members of a family may resemble one another. But some entities included in the group have little to nothing to do with one another.

    Olson's poetry--and behind it, Pound's poetry, with its questioning of its own coherence--seems to me to be similar to what Wittgenstein describes in this passage. There are plenty of patterns and you can find them, but there is no overall pattern, no "unity," no "coherence"--no "integrated system of organs that make up a larger organism."

    The problem of "fragmentation"--and all the problems that arise from it--comes about precisely because of a "metaphysics" (or "mindset") in which "fragmentation" is conceived of as the opposite of "wholeness." I realize that many people believe that such a conception is obviously true. But in fact it is a construct like any other, and there is no law that says you have to think in that way. The entire situation can be redefined--i.e., conceived of in a different set of terms in which there are no "fragments" because there is no "wholeness" (and no "wholeness" because there are no "fragments"). What I'm saying here is more than a question of mere terminology: it is the perception of certain patterns, certain kinds of "unities," rather than others: it refers to a different "arrangement" of things. It seems to me that anything which claims to speak for "wholeness" or "universality" or "integration" is an affirmation of precisely those patterns which cause the problems of fragmentation. Wittgenstein's "overlapping of many fibres" does not speak for such things. It may create its own problems, but they will at least be different problems from the ones that have been plaguing us for the past couple of hundred years.

    Pound's Cantos and Olson's Maximus Poems are important in part because they DON'T speak for wholeness or universality--because they DON'T create "an integrated system of organs that make up a larger organism." Judged by such a criterion--the criterion of the creation of an integrated system--they are obviously failures. They don't "cohere." And yet they are obviously NOT failures: they are poems people return to again and again. We need different criteria to judge them, make sense of them--criteria which are at some remove from the categories of fragment vs. wholeness, etc. What Wittgenstein asserted in his passage about games begins to suggest how we can value such work explicitly, how we can talk about it.

    I realize that to say that the concept of "wholeness" is to be fought against flies in the face of the "wisdom" of many disciplines--yet that is what I'm saying. And I think that a genuine reading of Olson (and others) will support me in this. Indeed, in a political sense, "wholeness" or "integration" or "universality" may well be the philosophical guise of imperialism--a concept which certainly values at least one kind of "wholeness."

    In his introduction to Michel Foucault's This is Not a Pipe, James Harkness remarks that, in Foucault's world, "things are cast adrift, more or less like one another without any of them being able to claim the privileged status of 'model' for the rest." That is precisely the way in which the various "fragments" in Olson's poems behave. It also suggests the kind of "disorder" Foucault refers to in Les Mots et Les Choses (translated as The Order of Things): "I mean the disorder in which a large number of possible orders glitter separately."

    George Quasha, who has spent a good deal of time thinking about Olson's essay, told me that in projective verse, the field is alive** : it has a mind of its own which is constantly asserting itself--at times against the mind of the poet. Olson's essay--which the poet admits is only a "beginning"--is an attempt to bring the artist into an area in which such things happen, in which the field becomes alive. This is part, I think, of what he means by "listening." To quote from "Projective Verse" again:

if [the artist] is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share. And by an inverse law his shapes will make their own way. It is in this sense that the projective act, which is the artist's act in the larger field of objects, leads to dimensions larger than the man.
The poem is "projected," thrown forward, thrust before us in its extraordinary livingness. It "makes its own way." It is "larger than the man." It "glitters" with possible orders. It is scarcely a step away from Dada.

    And it is not "closed" but "open."


    * Jerome Rothenberg writes, "I'm a little concerned that the sentence 'There is no projective verse to speak of in Poems for the Millennium' is being a little misunderstood. What I meant, anyway, is that there are no excerpts from the essay in Millennium but not, as you say later, that 'the essay did not have a lasting influence.' In fact I think it had a considerable influence and that the influence, while not the only or even the dominant one and while sometimes separated from Olson as source (a half-century later!), can be felt today in many quarters."

    ** A New Formalist might argue that it is not the field which is alive but the form--that the form is not a burdensome dictation from the past but a living entity which has its own agendas and insistences.




Jack Foley is an innovative, widely-published poet and critic who, with his wife, Adelle, performs his work frequently in the San Francisco Bay Area. For the past several years he has hosted a show of interviews and poetry presentations on Berkeley radio station KPFA. His current show , "Cover to Cover," is on every Wednesday at 3 p.m. His poetry books include Letters/Lights≠Words for Adelle (1987), Gershwin (1991), Adrift (1993), (nominated for a Bay Area Book Reviewers' Award), Exiles (1996), and (with Ivan ArgŁelles) New Poetry from California: Dead / Requiem (1998). He is a contributing editor to Poetry Flash.

Additional reviews and interviews can be found on his website Foley's Books. Email: Jack Foley