Charles Olson was a didactic poet, poetical pedagogue, a “poet-teacher” (1) par excellence. This inclination, however, must be understood as more than the mere juxtaposition or conjunction of two separate but equal vocations. For Olson, to be a poet was perforce to be a teacher and visa versa, the two inextricably entwined, the practices of one intending the principles of the other. Pedagogy necessitates a poetics, which I mean in both its narrowest sense—as the art, theory or study of any versified literary text—as well as more broadly—as the discursive formation of concepts. Olson believed tacitly that, since all communication is educative and poetry is the highest form of communication, poetry is naturally the preeminent means of educative communication. “The poet is the only pedagogue left, to be trusted”. (2)
Despite its total commitment to factual minutiae, its Olson’s verse does not at all aim to convey facts. In this sense, though an instrument of instruction, it would categorically fail to “teach the test” (as they say). In fact, despite the much-quoted principle of “projective verse”, first published in Olson’s 1950 eponymous essay, that “form is never more than an extension of content”, (3) content is of no real practical concern to Olson’s pedagogical poetics. This seems counterintuitive given the degree to which his verse engages frequently in the direct presentation of somewhat raw and oftentimes obscure historical data seemingly at odds with what might be considered poetic structure as typically (or even unusually) understood:
14 MEN STAGE HEAD WINTER 1624/5 they required 7 hundredweight biscuit bread £5. 5. 0 @ 15/ per hundred 7 hhds of beere or sider 53/4 the tun 20. 0. 0 2/3 hhd beef 3. 7. 2 6 whole sides of bacon 3. 3. 0 6 bush. pease 1. 10. 0
While critics often debate the import of Creeley’s (quasi-dogmatic) phrase, rather less commonly do they observe the context in which it was first uttered, namely critical thinking about poetic structure and pedagogy. “Form has become so useless a term that I blush to use it”, Creeley wrote, before attacking “the analyzers, in poetry/ who are NOT the analyzers in poetry (…) the Poet as Pedagogue/ is the TEACHER”. (5) A more extreme example of Olson’s radical disinterest in conveyable content might be found in the two blank facing-pages at the end of the middle section of Maximum Poems IV, V, VI. (7) This is contentlessness as pure form.
Olson’s verse practices teach method not matter. To ask what Olson’s poem know, and what, as a consequence, they purport to teach, is really to ask what they do, and how. Olson’s prerogative was to make understanding something one does rather than something one has. In an unpublished note from 1955, written while he was Rector of BMC, Olson adopts quasi-Christian terminology to contrast knowledge and innocence, where the former is tantamount to a set of established cultural protocols and the latter equal to an avant-garde departure therefrom. “There is only one innocence, form. Thus innocence is an act, not a state of being”; but if we insist on retaining “knowledge”, Olson continues, we must do so merely “as a means to make a form” valuable for the “degree of its intensity (each man’s choice) not its materials”. (7)
So thorough a commitment to method is won by (or maybe in view to) a quite comprehensive refusal of existing systems of knowledge, a refusal which could at BMC, especially under Olson’s authority, be taken to distortive extremes. During faculty meetings in the late autumn of 1951, for example, he and John Adams had some heated exchanges about the college’s program. Adams worries out loud about some students’ “aberrant personalities, already too interested in themselves”, and wondered if fostering too eccentric a syllabus risked “leading to chaos”. (8) Some weeks later, Olson claimed that “the individual is more complex than any curriculum” and objected to “a theory of (the) chronological order of studies”. (9) Adams retorted that Olson was objecting not to any particular pedagogical method but to method as such. (10)
We might construe Olson’s quarrel with Adams as part of a larger antipathy towards inherited forms of discourse, be they poetic, historical, cultural or scientific. Considered optimistically, as John Chamberlain did in retrospect, under Olson’s direction BMC was “a place where people were more interested in what they didn’t know than in what they did”. (11) This strong dedication to the notion that method is more important than subject led, much else besides, to Robert Creeley teaching a course in biology. While this scenario is significant of BMC’s short-staffed teaching faculty, it also clearly puts into practice the idea that education (can and should) be delimited to a demonstration of knowledge-as-practice that works best when the field of teaching, research and understanding in question is at its most open (and unknown).
So if, for example, the gentle reader finds the speculative abstraction characteristic of the Olson-Creeley letters difficult to follow, it could be because they literally (and perhaps intentionally) do not know what they are talking about: “I don’t know shit about any of this”, (12) Creeley confessed, shortly before articulating the slogan that Olson would adopt as a cornerstone of his poetics. Put otherwise, as Olson does in a “Maximum Poem”, “Maximus, to himself”, drafted at BMC in April 1953: “I have had to learn the simplest things / last. Which has made for difficulties”. (13) Indeed, the formal innovation of Olson’s verse (in “Maximus”, no tow poems are structurally alike in a way that, say, two Shakespearean sonnets are) is a direct consequence of his thinking about the interconnection between knowledge and prosody: “anyone who wants to begin to get it straight” has to “uneducate himself first (…) Which is turkey-crazy, is it not”. (14)
by Michael Kindellan
1 Ryan Dobran, “Introduction”, Glossator 2 (2010): 5.
2 Charles Olson, “The Gate and the Center”, Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlaender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) 170.
3 Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”, Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlaender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) 240. The famous phrase, as Olson freely acknowledges, is actually Robert Creeley’s. See Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, “Monday/ june 5 (1950)”, The Complete Correspondence, Vol. 1, ed. George F. Butterick (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980) 79.
4 Olson, The Maximus Poems, ed. George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) 122.
5 Creeley, The Complete Correspondence, Vol. 1, 79.
6 Olson, The Maximus Poems, 284-5.
7 Charles Olson, “Innocence, and knowledge”, unpublished typescript, October 1955, Charles Olson Research Collection, Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut, Storrs.
8 Quoted in Martin Duberman, Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2009) 359.
9 Charles Olson, “Minutes of a Meeting of the Black Mountain College Faculty, 1951” Olson 2 (Fall 1974): 21.
10 Olson, Olson 2 (1974): 22.
11 Quoted in Robert Creeley, “Charles Olson and Black Mountain College”, Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, ed. Vincent Katz (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002) 302.
12 Creeley, The Complete Correspondence, Vol. 1, 78.
13 Olson, The Maximus Poems, 56. Creeley of course went on to enjoy a long distinguished career at several institutions of higher learning decidedly more normative in their pedagogical approaches than BMC ever was; his poetry aside, he also went on to write some distinguished prose criticism, in which he clearly conveys that he does know what he’s talking about. By contrast, Olson could never hold down an academic post; and his prose is regularly more active than grammatical, his syntax too energetic for logical order.
14 Olson, Collected Prose, 168.