Kessingland by Allen Fisher
click image for Allen Fisher Chest Breath

Robert Hampson

High-Energy Construct: Olson, Fisher, Olsen

In his recent book on Modernism, Tim Armstrong observes that ‘Late nineteenth-century science is dominated by one term: energy’.1 He goes on: ‘electricity, magnetism and electromagnetic waves are unified within a physics in which energy and work are central’. He reminds us that: ‘The 1890s, in particular, saw physics enter a revolutionary phase, with the discovery of radiation, X-rays, and the first real understanding of atomic structure’ (116). We might recall how Joseph Conrad met John McIntyre, one of the first radiologists, on a visit to Glasgow and famously responded to this encounter with x-rays with a range of speculations. He wrote excitedly to Edward Garnett on 29 September 1898:

All day with the shipowners and in the evening dinner, phonograph, X rays, talk about the secret of the universe and the non-existence of so-called matter. The secret of the universe is in the existence of horizontal waves whose varied vibrations are at the bottom of all states of consciousness. If the waves were vertical the universe would be different. … But, don’t you see, there is nothing in the world to prevent the simultaneous existence of vertical waves, of waves at any angles; … Therefore it follows that two universes may exist in the same place and in the same time – and not only two universes but an infinity of universes …2

As Armstrong suggests, these new developments in physics resulted in the ‘dissolving of materiality into the categories of energy, field and radiation’ (117). They also suggested the possibility that Conrad picks up on of multiple universes, a perception that perhaps lies behind Conrad’s use of multiple perspectives in his fictions, and that was certainly developed as a conceit by Conrad and Ford in their collaboration on a scientific romance, The Inheritors, with its new breed of humans from the Fourth Dimension.

Armstrong usefully shows how literature responded to this new world-view in three ways: by registering shock; by incorporating it into its representation of the world and by deploying science ‘at the level of poetics’ (117). In the first part of the essay that follows, I want to focus on the second and third of these categories: literature that attempts to incorporate the scientific world-view and the deployment of science in poetics. I want to begin with the deployment of science in poetics, and I want to start with James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Thus, for example, an important influence on the development of James Joyce’s early aesthetic theories was his reconsideration of the neglected Irish poet, James Clarence Mangan. We find Joyce beginning his 1907 lecture on Mangan as follows:

There are certain poets who, in addition to their virtue of revealing aspects of the human consciousness to us that were unknown until their age, also possess the more questionable virtue of embodying in themselves the thousand conflicting tendencies of their age, of turning themselves into, so to speak, storage batteries of a new energy.3

This provides the basis for part of Stephen Dedalus’s aesthetic theories in Stephen Hero, where it reappears as follows:

The poet is the intense centre of the life of his age to which he stands in a relation than which none can be more vital. He alone is capable of absorbing in himself the life that surrounds him.4

Ezra Pound takes a similar view of the central role of the poet, and he too explores this through ideas drawn from science. He focuses particularly on energy and forms of energy. Thus, in his 1913 essay, ‘The Serious Artist’, he observes: ‘the thing that matters in art is a sort of energy, something more or less like electricity or radio-activity, a force transfusing, welding and unifying’.5

During 1913 and 1914, Pound was working to go beyond the Imagism that was a by-product of his conversations with Ford Madox Ford. I have discussed elsewhere how the programme for imagism, articulated in ‘A Few Don’ts’  (Poetry, I.6, March 1913), derived from Ford and the ‘prose tradition’ of Flaubert.6 In ‘The Serious Artist’, he begins the dissociation of prose and poetry by insisting on the role of emotion in poetry, and asserting the idea of the ‘intellectual and emotional complex’ (LE51). He insists on poetry as a hybrid form in which ‘the thinking, word-arranging, clarifying faculty must move and leap with the energising, sentient, musical faculties’ (LE52). As the poet develops, and his mind becomes ‘a constantly more complicated structure’, ‘it requires a constantly greater voltage of emotional energy to set it in harmonious motion’ (LE52). In July 1914, he took the opportunity of his review of Joyce’s Dubliners in The Egoist to mark again the gap between himself and Ford, between poetry and prose, by asserting intensity against precision:

The followers of Flaubert deal in exact presentation. They are often so intent on exact presentation that they neglect intensity, selection and concentration.7

By the time of ‘How to Read’, this had become a definition of great literature as ‘language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree’ (LE23). It is important not to miss the scientific metaphor implicit in the word ‘charged’.

By Spring 1914, when Pound gave the lecture at the Rebel Art Centre which became his essay ‘Vorticism’ (Fortnightly Review, September 1914), Pound was defining imagism as a ‘critical’ movement rather than a creative movement. It had performed a necessary ‘critical’ operation on its predecessors, but did not in itself provide a way forward. Pound argues that it had borrowed ‘from the impressionist method of presentation’ (GB85), but, whereas impressionism was ‘surface art’, imagism was intensive (GB92). He elaborated on this distinction later in a letter to Ford: explaining that he had sought to take Ford’s ‘cloud’ of impressions and ‘put a vortex or concentration point inside each bunch of impressions and thereby give it a sort of intensity’ (P/F43). Pound’s redefinition of the image as ‘a radiant node or cluster … a VORTEX from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing’ (GB92) is an attempt to get beyond what he felt to be the stasis of the image.

In his essay ‘Cavalcanti’, which Pound wrote over the period 1910-1931, we can observe again this struggle to define his own poetics in contradistinction to Ford’s impressionism. He begins with the assertion that ‘the Tuscan … declines to limit his aesthetic to the impact of light on the eye’ (LE 151). Instead, he foregrounds the role of the perceiver and ‘an interactive force: the virtu, in short’ (LE 152). This is comparable to the distinction he makes in his book on Gaudier-Brzeska between two opposed ways of thinking of mankind: as ‘the plastic substance receiving impressions’ or as ‘conceiving instead of merely reflecting and observing’ (GB 89). Tuscany, for Pound, means ‘the conception of love, passion, emotion as intellectual investigation’ (LE343), just as Gaudier-Brzeska means intense feeling and his art-work ‘the abstraction of this intense feeling’ (GB 37). In the ‘Cavalcanti’ essay, this in turn brings in the body and what Olsen would term proprioception: ‘The senses at first seem to project for a few yards beyond the body. Effect of a decent climate where a man leaves his nerve-set open … ’ (LE152). Pound rejects ‘monastic thought’ and asserts the importance of ‘the body as perfect instrument of the increasing intelligence’ (LE152). He then attempts to clarify what he realises is no more than mens sana in corpore sano through translation into self-consciously modernised terminology as ‘the aesthetic or interactive vasomotor magnetism in relation to the consciousness’ (LE152). From Cavalcanti, above all, Pound recovers the apprehension of ‘the radiant world where one thought cuts through another with clean edge, a world of moving energies … magnetisms that take form’ (LE152). From this medieval world of ‘moving energies’, it is a short step to the ‘modern scientist’ and ‘the rose that his magnet makes in the iron filings’ (LE152) or ‘the current hidden in air or in wire’ (LE153)

Peter Nichols has noted how Pound’s early speculations about ‘energy’ conflated scientific vocabulary with theosophical language and ideas. 8 This lies behind his ‘attention to momentary disclosures of “force” and “energy”’ (8) and his emphasis on ‘the instantaneous nature of “vision”’ (9). Modern science is yoked together with a visionary Neo-Platonism. In the essays I have just been discussing, Pound moves between the medieval and the self-consciously modern, the literary and the scientific in his attempt to articulate an aesthetics in terms of intensity and energy. I want to bring in two other writers before moving on to three poets working in this tradition.

First I want to mention the scholar Ernest Fenellosa. Late in 1913, Pound acquired Fenellosa’s notebooks, which contained (among other things) what became the essay on the Chinese written character. As K. K. Ruthven notes:

Before grappling with Fenellosa, Pound talked of the image as if it were a static phenomenon … afterwards, it was the dynamic element that counted.9

As Ian Bell notes, the field theories of Faraday and Clark Maxwell revisioned matter as lines of force, and Pound’s scientific reading prepared him for Fenellosa’s vitalist universe.10  Fenellosa’s essay involved focussing not on things but on the relations between things or, more precisely, on ‘the relational nature of phenomena’ (Bell, 102). For Fenellosa: ‘Valid scientific thought consists in following as closely as may be the actual and entangled lines of force as they pulse through things’ (CWC, 12). Above all, Fenellosa’s work encouraged Pound to consider the operations of language in terms of the notions of electromagnetic force that he was familiar with from field theory. The ideogram was a ‘composite picture of things  ... simply placed in conjunction’, which carried with it ‘the verbal idea of action’.  As a result, Pound saw the possibilities of the ideogram as ‘an implement for acquisition and transmission of knowledge’ (LE 61) and reconceived the sentence as a matter of energy transfer. This was to lead to the ideogrammic method of the Cantos.

I want to juxtapose Fenellosa to Sergei Eisenstein and the idea of montage. This is an idea derived not from science but from an engagement with the materiality of film, but it echoes in various ways what I have been saying about Pound. In his essay, ‘Bela Forgets the Scissors’ (1926), Eisenstein asserted that ‘the essence of cinema does not lie in the images, but in the relation between the images’. 11 For Eisenstein, montage was ‘fundamental to cinema’.12 Montage is the dynamic principle of the medium, operating at the micro-level of 24 frames per second, which produces the illusion of movement, through the editing of shots to the macro-level of intellectual montage. In his Notebooks from 1919, he described montage as ‘the process of constructing with prepared fragments’.13Montage relies on ‘consecutive, separate presentation’ (41), but it also has the potential to liberate film ‘from the plot-based script and for the first-time takes account of film material, both thematically and formally, in the construction’ (40). Montage is recognisably an ideogrammic method: ‘What the shots reproduce is no longer an image of reality, but something that is already conceptual’. 14 The anti-naturalistic device of intellectual montage was also a device for condensing ‘different meanings into a single element of representation’ (Aumont, 167). All of this has implications that I will pick up later. I want to consider now the first of the three poets on whom this essay focusses.

via Rob Mclennan:
Robert Duncan, Charles Olson,
Ruth Witt-Diament, 1958
San Francisco State University
via Poetry Foundation:
Semicircle, l. to r.: Bill Berkson, John Ashbery, John Wieners,
unknown woman, Desmond O’Grady, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson,
Olga Rudge (?), 3 others unknown. Settimana di Poesia, Festival
of Two Worlds, Spoleto, Italy, June 1965.


In his 1950 essay, ‘Projective Verse’, Charles Olson presents a manifesto for what is called ‘projective verse’ or ‘open field’ poetry. He begins by contrasting ‘“closed” verse, that verse which print bred’, with new possibilities for verse developed by Pound and William Carlos Williams.  Closed verse is a matter of ‘inherited line, stanza, over-all form’. By contrast, open field poetry derives from a different concept of poetry, a concept which (as the word ‘field’ suggests) picks up on Pound’s emphasis on energy. Thus Olson begins with kinetics: ‘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.’ From this it follows that: ‘the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge’. There are obvious continuities here with Fenellosa. Olson even cites Fenellosa’s view of the sentence as a ‘passage of force from subject to object … the VERB, between two nouns’.

Olson also tries to explain how the poet achieves this ‘high energy-construct’. First, it involves a different ‘stance toward reality’. Venturing into field composition means that the poet ‘has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of some several forces just now beginning to be examined’. Behind this vague statement lies the scientific idea of field theory, setting the subject in a field of forces (rather than granting them perspectival dominance) as well as Carl Sauer’s idea of areal studies, trying to take into account all the factors and forces in play that produce a cultural landscape. Secondly, it involves an awareness of the page as page-space and then using the page-space to map and manage relations between lexical elements. Thirdly, there is the compositional principle that ‘FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT’. Where Pound had, in his early work, been concerned to explore existing forms such as the sestina and the canzone, Olson sweeps all this away. Instead, he offers a process by which, as he puts it, this principle ‘can be made so to shape the energies that the form is accomplished’, and that process he reduces again to a single statement: ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION’. This provides a rule both for composition and for ‘our management of daily reality’: ‘keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business’. It also brings us back to the body and, more specifically, the ‘possibilities of the breath’. For compositional purposes, the line comes ‘from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending’. Here Olson picks up on the way cummings, Pound and Williams have each used the space of the page, and the disposition of words, lines and half-lines in that space, ‘as a scoring to his composing, as a script to its vocalisation’. They provide a set of conventions for using the space of the page to register the breath of the poet. As a result, the layout of the poem on the page is both a graphing of the breath of the poet and, effectively, a score for performance.

Olson concludes by outlining what he calls ‘objectism’. By this he means two things. First, ‘Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul’. Instead of the presumption of placing himself above the ‘other creations of nature’, Olson insists on a different relation to nature: as an object ‘in the larger field of objects’. Secondly, in the process of writing, every element of the poem ‘must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions … are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem’.

Olson’s essay was very influential, and we find contemporary poets as diverse as Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders responding to it. In Olson’s own practice, it takes two forms. In early poems like ‘The K’, ‘La Preface’, and ‘The Kingfishers’, it produces not the stream of consciousness that we might expect but rather constructivism. The principle of collage or montage can be seen most clearly in the 1949 poem ‘The Kingfishers’, which interweaves material from Plutarch’s ‘The E at Delphi’, Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico, Pound’s ‘Pisan Cantos’ and ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’, Eliot’s Four Quartets and the entry on Kingfishers in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The poem is an extended meditation that kicks off from Heraclitus: ‘What does not change/is the will to change’. Mao is the chief embodiment of the ‘will to change’ in the poem, and the Chinese Revolution is presented as a manifestation of this recurrent transformative energy 15. The second section begins:

  I  thought of the E on the stone, and of what Mao said
  la  lumiere
          but  the kingfisher
  de l’aurore
          but the kingfisher flew west
  est devant nous!
          he got the color of his breast
          From the heat of the setting sun!
And ends: Mao concluded: nous devons nous lever et agir!

The opening demonstrates very clearly the principle of montage according to which the poem is constructed. As well as Mao’s recent victories, the poem also takes in the ruins of Angkor Wat and Mayan  rituals. It is part of Olson’s archaeological effort to recover lost energies both within the individual and within the society. It is also, as Merrill noted, part of Olson’s ‘anthropological commitment to the recovery of a pre-Greek orientation’, to get outside of the Western box.16

Olson’s major work, however, is the multivolume Maximus Poems, a life-work like Pound’s Cantos, and, like the Cantos, it is the long poem as research project. The central figure, Maximus, is a version of Olson himself, blown up to epic and mythic proportions. The poem explores the history of Gloucester, Massachussetts, in an attempt to engage with modern man’s estrangement from ‘that with which he is most familiar’. It is the quest for the recovery of lost energies carried out through research into local particulars, which are presented on the page as arrays of information through the ‘grandly oracular’ persona of Maximus (Merrill, 166)..


Allen Fisher

With Allen Fisher, we have an English poet whose early work very clearly responded to Olson and to the notion of open-field composition, but we also have a poet who goes beyond the use of science as poetics to the incorporation of a scientific world-view – or, rather, various scientific world-views, in his work. Fisher is particularly interested in scientific ideas that challenge or undermine what might seem common sense ideas about reality: he is interested in the conceptual as a challenge to the perceptual.

The work by Fisher which most clearly responds to Olson is his early ten-year project, Place, which was begun in 1971 and, according to plan, abandoned rather than finished ten years later. It is, in a sense, a durational piece; the ten years allotted to the work provide the major constraint. Like Maximus, it is what Eric Mottram termed a locationary action – an exploration of a particular place: the South London that Fisher grew up in and lived in.

The early part of the poem involves a series of negotiations with Olson. In an early section, written in 1971, for example, he writes:

        I, not Maximus, but a citizen of Lambeth
                                  cyclic on linear planes
	the construction of parallels along a water line
        where the intersections are our mistakes
return we will not	we have come
                                                      all this way

As Clive Bush observes, Fisher here both acknowledges his debt to Olson and ‘rejects the epic hero of Olson’s Maximus poems as a trans-cultural and trans-historical figure’; instead, his hero is ‘a citizen of Lambeth’.17 Similarly, the language of geometry is brought in as a language of analysis and explanation (‘cyclic on linear planes’), but, at the same time the adequacy of this abstract language is also constantly challenged. The suggestion of cycles of history, an entrapment that the last line refuses, is also more subtly undermined by the more prosaic suggestion of a Lambeth citizen on his bicycle. This is typical of Fisher’s handling of his very varied sources: different discourses are brought into dialogue and are simultaneously challenged through their juxtaposition.

A later section, with the dedication ‘to Pierre, dec. 72’, is written in response to Pound’s death and locates Fisher and Pierre Joris in a line of descent from Pound and Olson. At the same time, it consistently problematises ideas of line, descent and origin:

                   now it’s Pound dead
                                                      after Olson & before him
                   before us
                                 in front of us
                   a flow of field spiralling out

 The temporal complication is an easily resolvable riddle: Olson died in 1970, Pound in 1972, but Pound was born in 1885, whereas Olson was born in 1910. However, the riddle has the effect of destabilising the idea of linear chronology that both descent and origin require. A later line has a similar effect: ‘a mythology new to our children & forefathers’. This second riddle, I suspect, has its origin in Pound’s assertion of the contemporaneity of all ages at the start of The Spirit of Romance:

The future stirs already in the minds of the few. This is especially true of literature, where the real time is independent of the apparent, and where many dead men are our grandchildren’s contemporaries, while many of our contemporaries have been already  gathered into Abraham’s bosom …’ (SR, 6)

In the passage I just quoted, the repetition of the word ‘before’ masks a movement from time to space: time becomes space, and the line of descent is exploded into a field and then twisted into a spiralling of energy outwards.

Energy, in various forms, is one of the key concerns of Place. One of the early sources was Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Road (1925), which was rediscovered in the 1960s. Its concern with pre-historic pathways and what it called Ley lines, lines of energy, are very much of their time. These energy lines chime with Feng Shui, which Fisher also explored, and have been taken up again by the psychogeographers. They appear in the poem as a model for hidden energies, energies whose direction, redirection or blockage might have implications for the health of the inhabitants. They are echoed by Fisher’s interest in the lost rivers of London: rivers like the Fleet and the Efra which continue to flow beneath the city streets, and whose flow impacts on the energies of place. One example of the impact of the lost rivers is provided by Fisher’s source, Nicholas Barton’s The Lost Rivers of London (1962). Barton shows how the maps of the lost rivers correspond to maps for nineteenth-century cholera epidemics. Fisher’s extensive scientific knowledge takes this beyond what might seem New Age fad or antiquarianism into what he calls pertinent information. He draws on a wide range of informations to re-think space and to think outside of human experiential limitations:

we are part of an interaction
electromagnetic and gravitational

fields contradict
birds sensitive
to axis not polarity
thru sea water see
through a moving conductor
past the lines of force
thru the magnetics
setting up perpendicular current
a direction
of flow and field
contradicting reason

Fisher was also interested in Wilhelm Reich and his ideas about sexual energy, the ‘orgone energy’ of orgasm, and the link between cancer and sexual repression. An on-going concern in Fisher’s work is with health, disease and cure. Here he teases out and develops the ecological implications of Olson’s stance in relation to reality.  

As Bush observes, Place is rooted in ‘the local, the particular, the specifically-lived historical condition’ (110). It traces movements through particular streets; it explores the historical archives; it engages with buildings and the urban infrastructure. It manufactures convergences between different discourses and knowledges: astronomy, biology, optics, mathematics, thermodynamics, ecology All the time, it works to construct what Bush calls ‘an interactive world of complex structures’ (143) and to convey Fisher’s sense of complex ‘interconnectedness’ (145).  Fisher draws readily on a range of scientific discourses, but he also consistently questions their claims to authority.



The work of the third poet I want to discuss, Redell Olsen, can be situated within the tradition, but  the focus is not so much scientific discourses as the issue of gender and sexuality. The tradition I have been sketching can be seen to be not only male but also (with the exception of Fisher) distinctly masculinist. In Pavannes & Divagations (1921), for example, Pound wrote:

The brain itself is, in origin and development, only a sort of great clot of genital fluid held in suspense or reserve .

As John Tytell noted, this idea derives from Pound’s reading of Remy de Gourmont’s Physique de l’amour: essai sur l’instinct sexuel (published in English as The Natural History of Love).18 De Gourmont suggested a correlation between a ‘complete and profound intercourse and cerebral development’ and accordingly advocated a liberation of sexual energies. In a review of a book on glandular systems, Pound tried to develop his theory further, arguing that ‘the two sides of the brain mutually magnetised themselves into “great seas of fecundative matter”’. In Pound’s theorizing of sex, man was the inventor, because his brain was bathed in residual sperm, which caused ‘the original thought, as distinct from the imitative thought’. The place of women in this can be gauged from Pound’s account of his earlier role as the introduction of new ideas into the ‘great passive vulva of London’. For his part, Charles Olson, in his poem ‘The K’, describes the process of confronting setbacks and the subsequent self-emergence as follows:

Take, then, my answer:
there is a tide in a man
moves him to his moon and,
though it drop him back
he works through ebb to mount
the run again and swell
to be tumescent I

One of the interesting developments in recent years has been to see how, since the 1960s and 1970s, this tradition, and Charles Olson in particular, has been detourned by feminist women writers. The American poet, Kathleen Fraser, in her 1996  essay, ‘Translating the unspeakable’, traces the  enactment of ‘field poetics’ and the development of a visual poetics derived from Olson’s poetry in  ‘current female writing practice’ as exemplified by the work of Susan Howe, Susan Gevirtz, Myung Mi Kim and others. Fraser notes how Olson’s proposal, ‘the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego’, provided an ‘alternative ethic of writing for women poets’ (TU, 176) to the dominant mode of ‘I-centred poems’ and their problematic notions of identity. Furthermore, she argues, the ‘excitement and insistence of Olson’s spatial, historical and ethical margins’ even while ‘clearly speaking from male imperatives’ (TU, 177) helped women poets to stake out an area of practice. Fraser, however, pays particular attention to the visual aspects of Olson’s handling of the page-space and to the word-grid introduced by Robert Duncan, derived from Pound and Fenellosa’s work on the Chinese written character. As Fraser notes, both Olson and Duncan treat the page as ‘a graphically energetic site in which to manifest one’s physical alignment with the arrival of language in the mind’ (TU, 186). In both cases, the poetic practice, in which the page becomes a graphically energetic site, chimed with contemporary work by women visual artists associated with the New York abstract and expressionist movements. Fraser cites Helen Frankenthaler, Nell Blaine, Elaine DeKooning, Grace Hartigan , Jane Freilicher, Joan Mitchell, and Agnes Martin. There are, for example, obvious similarities between Agnes Martin’s graphed canvasses and Duncan’s ideogrammic grid poem. Fraser concludes with a range of work by women poets who have picked up on and developed Olson’s ‘pictographic use of type’ (TU, 198), exploiting the ‘fluid surface of juxtapositions and collisions’; the possibility of registering gaps, silences, and indecisions; and the excitement of ‘energy flung across synapses’. 19

Redell Olsen comes out of the same concern with finding ‘an ‘ethic of writing for women poets’. This relates to both a writing practice and the professional situating of that practice in public spaces, and it is figured in her work as a recurrent concern with the ‘in-between’. Ann Rosalind Jones’s essay, ‘Writing the Body’, is useful here. 20 Jones challenges the idea of l’ecriture feminine by affirming the permeation of language by phallocentrism and insisting on the importance of the context in which women’s discourses are produced. She asserts the need to examine words, syntax, genres, but also the need to engage with questions of authority, audience, modes of publication and distribution – and Olsen would add sites of performance. Olsen also comes out of that convergence of painterly and poetic practices that Fraser maps out in her essay. Olsen’s PhD, for example, was on the scripto-visual element in recent verbal and visual art, and her own practice is on the borders of poetry and visual art. For Olsen, the page is always a visual space, a graphically energetic site, but she also moves her work off the page both through new technologies of writing and through site-specific and site-responsive projects.

Olsen’s early work, Book of the Fur (2000), makes very clear this use of the page as a visual space. It takes as its source books on fur trapping and fur processing.21 This source material is then subjected to a process of ‘flaying’, cutting and recombining – and represented in a variety of forms.  To begin with, each page has a square block of text at its centre, the block of text made up of a montage of phrases, with the sense running on from one block to the next – the final cut in each case made by the predetermined shape of the text. Subsequent sections use other forms: a four-line stanza form briefly emerges; then a section where (as in Joan Rettallack’s afterrimages) each poem appears in two forms, one a deteriorated or damaged version of the other; then a section of poems with three-line stanzas, the lines stretched and fractured across the page, prompting spatial rather than linear readings; then a section using the full space of the page for visual array; and, finally, a long alphabetical list of trade names for different kinds of fur – and their animal source (usually rabbit). Into this sequence, Olsen splices in visual images relating to the fur trade and narrative interventions derived from an account of Meret Oppenheim’s making of her fur-covered teacup. This is a text which examines words and syntax and reflects on its own writing. At the same time, through the fur trade, it engages with gender and sexuality, identity and commodification. In an interview with Lucy Sheerman, Olsen observed:

… there is a right and a wrong side for writing on parchment. The wrong side is hairy. I was wondering if women writers might be on the hairy/furry side of writing and what it might be like to try and write a text that acknowledged this furriness.22

In her second book, secure portable space (2004), Redell Olsen continues these explorations in a number of distinctly different ways. The first sequence, ‘corrupted by showgirls’, explores gender by reference to cinema, cinematic techniques and film-script terminology. As Scott Thurston has noted, the opening section directly announces its concerns through the figure of the female star and her disempowerment within the industry. 23 The opening line outlines the problem of how to assert identity within language: ‘Sum: a realisation that she is signing her name with letters that are not her own’. The final line of the first section presents a comic and complex reflection on the performance of gender: ‘At other times, in order to put myself across the footlights I have to imagine that I am a man who sews.’ The final section, describing Marlene Dietrich in Dishonoured, reads in full:

A spy clad in feathers, she goes to her death before a firing squad, after stopping to reapply her make-up in the reflection of the sword of one of her gaolers.

What might be read as a courageous gesture, a defiant assertion of identity, turns into a performance that merely confirms imprisonment within a reified role.

A later section of the book, ‘Era of Heroes’, raises the issue of performance in a different way. This text exists in a variety of forms. It exists, for example, as a perspex and neon sign, in which the phrases ‘era of heroes’ and ‘heroes of error’ alternate. This part of the work, on the borders of light sculpture and concrete poetry, was exhibited for a short time in the window of the bookarts bookshop in London. The text included in secure portable space, which consists of an alphabetical listing of the names of heroes and superheroes, presents the reader with a challenge, since Olsen makes clear that apart from the concept and the searching for the names, there is minimal personal input and investment in the fifteen-page list. ‘Era of Heroes’, however, was also performed by Olsen on the streets around Old Street, with the reading of the text transmitted to an audience in the bookarts bookshop. As with the location of the text as sign in the bookshop window, this reading of the longer text in the street takes the work into public space. At the same time, the transmission of the text into the bookshop problematises the location of the work: it exists in a heterotopic space - both public and private, both art space and civic space. There is a further twist. The reading of the text while walking through the streets in Mickey Mouse ears is recorded on video as documentation, and stills from the video are provided as documentation in the book.

click image for link to the filmpoem Era of Heroes, Heroes of Error

This idea of the individual work being replaced by a work-in-process developed through a variety of forms was explored further in a collaborative project set up with the book-artist, Susan Johanknecht. In the first phase, ‘writing instructions/reading walls’, invitations were sent out to nine writers/artists to take part in an installation at the Poetry Café, London. Each was invited to send instructions to Olsen and Johanknecht for a work that would be installed on the walls of the café for part of a five-month installation. The instructions were followed by Olsen and Johanknecht and the work was installed for an agreed period. The process of installation and the installation itself were videoed. Olsen and Johanknecht then responded to each installation with a new set of instructions for each participant. The work produced in response to the second set of instructions was included in a bookart work here are my instructions along with versions of material produced in documenting the event. The text of here are my instructions was subsequently performed at the Small Press Book Fair against a video based on the filming of the installation process. The video of this reading was then shown at a later event. Not only has the text moved off the page, but the transfer of energy from writer to reader becomes this generative and transformational process between writers and across media.

I wanted to end with a Redell Olsen’s engagement with being ‘Olsen with an e’, not ‘6 foot whatever’, and ‘from the wrong Gloucester’. 24  In Letter 4 of ‘The Minimaus Poems’, she writes:

what is aware is
that anything is I, more than that
is called for. Limits
suggest confines for
revolt from within.25

Olsen’s engagement with Olson obviously foregrounds issues of gender. We can read ‘The Minimaus Poems’ as another feminist detournement of Olsen, as another version of placing a woman’s voice in civic and public space, but the poem’s engagement with politics is from a position which is precisely situated in terms of class as well as gender. In this particular passage, she explicitly rejects Olson’s egotism and acceptance of limits (‘Limits/ are what any of us/ are inside of’). The registering of boundaries leads directly to the desire to break them. What is more easy to miss, however, is that Olsen challenges Olson’s attitude towards the citizens of Gloucester. Thus, The Maximus Poems begins with the direct address of ‘I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You’. Section 3 includes the following:

By ear, he sd.
But that which matters, that which insists, that which will last,
that! o my people, where shall you find it, how, where, where shall you listen
when all is become billboards, when, all, even silence, is spray-gunned?26

Redell Olsen’s take on these lines in ‘The Minimaus Poems’ reads:

By ear, he sd.
matters did not last, gunned insistence, ‘War Is So Last Century’ sprayed
O under the Kingsland viaduct! What people are yours? You listen
I’ll be the billboard, when, all, even silence, is neoned-in 27

Olsen questions the abrogation of the right to speak for others, the construction of a collective through the suppression of intersubjectivity. 28  Where Olson presents his ‘people’ in terms of their passive listening, she challenges him to listen. She also challenges his picture of the passivity imposed on ‘the people’ by the commodified world of advertising by foregrounding secondary production and the creative, expressive and political possibilities of detournement through graffiti and through art practices (such as Jenny Holzer’s) which re-appropriate the public spaces of the commodity. Olsen’s citation of the graffito under the Kingsland viaduct very precisely places the feminine voice of the fashionista against an Olson whose brief history of Greek theatre, in response to Carolee Schneemann’s account of her work, was ‘when the cunt began to speak, it was the beginning of the end of Greek theatre’ (referring to the introduction of women performers). 29 That question ‘What people are yours?’ Not only raises the issue of gender, but also, in the setting of the Kingsland Road, draws attention to the multicultural communities of Gloucester (with its Portuguese sailors, whom Olson calls ‘my Portuguese’) and London. Olsen foregrounds difference, but also the possibilities of subversion, resistance, both citing and enacting counter-practices, harnessing creative energies in a varied and multiform writing back to power.



Olson’s manifesto for the poem as high-energy construct was specifically for the poem typed on the page.  Drawing on his engagement with Pound, he foregrounded the kinetics of the text, which he grounded in the breath of the poet, and developed an ideogrammic practice of montage. Open-field poetics had a particular impact on the handling of the page-space, breaking away from the anchorage of the left-hand margin to produce an array of information. At the same time, the two-dimensional page-space becomes potentially the three– or four-dimensional space of performance. Fisher picks up on Olson’s use of the page-space for the array of informations. In his case, the kinetics of the text are the medium for a deeply-informed and very sophisticated engagement with various forms of energy. I mentioned how place uses time, the allotted ten-year writing span, as a regime. What I didn’t have space to mention is the poem’s complex structural plan, which set up relations between the four books of the poem and relations between individual poems that break down the linearity of the book and generate rhizomatic connections across the poem. Fisher’s later work has developed both the procedural and rhizomatic aspects of place. Brixton Fractals (1985), for example, includes poems where the second stanza is generated through transformations of lines from the first, the third from the second and so on. Fisher’s transformational poetics produces a boundlessly signifying text. Olsen’s work, while deriving its energy (like Olson’s and Fisher’s) from montage – from the hard-edged cutting of different language fragments and discourses – also shares their interest in process and in moving poetry off the page into performance. Like Fisher, she is interested in procedures and the work that generates further work.


a short video talk on the genesis of this essay:

‘High Energy Construct’ : Olson, Fisher, Olsen.

Professor Robert Hampson
Professor of Modern Literature
Royal Holloway, University of London


1. Tim Armstrong, Modernism (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), 115.

2. Frederick R.Karl and Laurence Davies (eds), The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, vol.2, 95.

3. James Joyce, ‘James Clarence Mangan, 1907’ in Kevin Barry (ed.), James Joyce: Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000), 127.

4. James Joyce, Stephen Hero (London: Cape, 1956), 85.

5. Ezra Pound, ‘The Serious Artist, III’, The Freewoman, 1 November 1913, Literary Essays, 49.

6. Robert Hampson, ‘”Experiments in Modernity”: Pound and Ford’ in Andrew Gibson (ed.), Pound in Multiple Perspective (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993), 93-125.

7. Ezra Pound, ‘Dubliners and Mr Joyce’, The Egoist, I, 14 (15 July 1914), Literary Essays, 399.

8. Peter Nichols, Ezra Pound: Politics, Economics, and Writing (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984), 8.

9. K.K. Ruthven, A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Personae (1926) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 15.

10. Ian F. A. Bell, Critic as Scientist: The modernist poetics of Ezra Pound  (London: Methuen, 1981), 127.

11. Sergei Eisenstein, ‘Bela Forgets the Scissors’, FWI, 162.

12. Sergei Eisenstein, ‘The Montage of Film Attractions’, Selected Works, Vol.I: Writings, 1922-34,  ed. Richard Taylor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 41.

13. Cited in Jacques Aumont, Montage Eisenstein (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 150.

14. Amengual, ‘Eisenstein and Hieroglyphs’; cited in Aumont, 147.

15. Mao’s forces took control of Peking in January 1949, of Nanking in April, and of Shanghai in May. Olson wrote ‘The Kingfishers’ in July 1949.

16. Thomas F. Merrill, The Poetry of Charles Olson: A Primer (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982), 68.

17. Clive Bush, Out of Dissent: A study of five contemporary British Poets (London: Talus Editions, 1997), 103.

18. John Tytell, Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (London: Bloomsbury, 1987), 170.

19. Mary Margaret Sloan cited by Fraser, tu 196.

20. Ann Rosalind Jones, ‘Writing the Body: Towards an Understanding of L’Ecriture Feminine’, in Mary Eagleton (ed), Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader, 2nd Edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 328ff.

21. Redell Olsen, Book of the Fur (Cambridge: REM Press, 2000).

22. ‘Lucy Sheerman discusses Book of the Fur with its writer, Redell Olsen’, How2, 2001.

23. Scott Thurston, ‘All Reality Is What You Make It’, Readings, 2, 2005.

24. Redell Olsen, Introduction to reading at Camden People’s Theatre, 27 October 2003.

25. Redell Olsen, secure portable space (Hastings: Reality Street, 2004), 91.

26. Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems (New York: Jargon/Corinth, 1960), 2.

27. Redell Olsen, secure portable space (Hastings: Reality Street, 2004), 79.

28. Cf Middleton’s comments on Charles Bernstein’s critique of Projective Verse and the Beats for ‘suppressing the intersubjectivity which could be politically radical’, 123. See Bernstein, ‘Writing and Method’, Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1986).

29. Carolee Schneemann, Imaging Her Erotics: Essays, Interviews, Projects (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2002), 53.