This article is Ancient (archive 2011)

II: “You Can’t Touch It”: Abstraction, Space, and the Challenge of Olson

II: “You Can’t Touch It”: Abstraction, Space, and the Challenge of Olson

Those of you who’ve gone through any sort of creative writing workshop have inevitably had your professor admonish your work for being too “abstract” or too “heavy-handed.” Creative writing pedagogy—as far as my generation has known it—is soaked to the core with rehashings of Imagist principles, the Anglo-centric faith in the highly physical sounds of sensory words (“show, don’t tell”). It seems the pedagogues are interested in us becoming master painters with our words.

Of course, the brainwashing method mostly succeeds. I cringe in workshops reading words like “love” or “beautiful,” but I can’t help but wondering if that’s just psychosis talking, and not aesthetics.

But in reading many of the old masters of such an ethos, something is confusing; something is contradictory. Let’s look at some famous lines by Ye Olde Pound, the theoretical origin of this aesthetic ethos:

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?

(Canto LXXXI)

Famous lines by the long-honored daddy of Modernism. What gives? There are no images here, just enough uses of “love” to make your poetry professor hurl. But, I somehow can’t help but feeling I’ve been lied to all this time.

And, in a way, I have.

For some time now, I have been massively obsessed with the work of Charles Olson of Gloucester, MA. Olson is certainly a poet who is given to the use of abstract words quite liberally. In Don Byrd’s study of The Maximus Poems, the critic gives us an interesting insight into why this is, and why it’s not a bad thing: “As far as Olson is concerned…no word…is in itself abstract. Abstraction is a matter of use” (Byrd, 22). Use. There’s a definite materialist sentiment there, the idea that becomes a tangible tool in production.

Yet, after reading Byrd’s study and then reapproaching Olson, I think I get what he’s saying. Looking at a few lines from Olson’s “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld]”:

This, is no bare incoming
of novel abstract form, this
is no welter or the forms
of those events, this,
Greeks, is the stopping
of the battle

It is the imposing
of all those antecedent predecessions

In the bursts of breath these lines require, the sapping of abstraction is exposed as an incoming of performativity, the sense of the spoken word coming alive. Abstraction implies death, a cutting off of language from physical space. Olson recreates the possibility of words that refer to ideas but can become material in the context of a speech act.

That abstraction is the separation of worlds that we, in our “postmodern” moment—consult Lyotard and Baudrillard if you want my basic understanding of what that means—we can longer divide. The poem is not a vessel of platonic form but material form being reconfigured as a tangibility. As a corollary, the poet is not an artisan, a discrete category among others; rather, the poet is an active participant of an act of speech and record-keeping. That’s the use!

So this comes with a rare moral-of-the-story: take criticism, but be able to criticize the criticism. I’m already pushing the line of decency and tolerability by writing such a horrendous phrase, so I won’t add that “rules are made to be broken.” That would be just plain unacceptable.

By the way, watch the YouTube video of Olson reading that poem. It’s awesome.