The Olson issue, guest edited by Steve McCaffery, although lacking representation at this event is every bit as rich as the collaboration one. It contains an extremely useful essay by Don Byrd on Olson’s late-in-life concept of the archive as a possible mode of composition – the poem as an archive. The issue also has several previously unpublished letters to Olson from Robert Creeley, a revealing essay by Kenneth Warren on Olson’s relationship with would-be lover Frances Boldereff, and various reconceptualizing essays on Olson’s roles in the late modernist period by Boughn, Miriam Nichols, Stephen Fredman, Chris Sylvester and Richard Owens. Many of these were presented at the October 2010 SUNY Buffalo conference “Olson @ the Century.”
Despite the questioning that the relationship between the oral and the written has received in recent years, Olson’s 1948 essay “Projective Verse” is still probably responsible for much of the visual appearance of poetry in Canada, and has been over the last four decades – for lines that are structured as units of speech, and line endings understood to indicate pauses or stops. Part of that essay’s innovative force in 1948 derived from the fact that poetry readings were then rare events – the now widespread “open mic” concept of this website and its reading series was virtually unthinkable. The postwar poetry performance tours of Dylan Thomas – the last one in 1953 soon to be a film – were received as oddities, and usually ascribed to his Welsh ‘bardic’ roots. Recordings of poetry readings didn’t become widely available until the mid-1950s and the invention of the vinyl LP – in the early releases of Encyclopedia Britannica Film’s “Spoken Arts” series of LPs (1956-) Pound read his “Confucian Odes,” Eliot his “Four Quartets” and Yeats was presented in a few rare recordings supplemented with poems read by actors. When poetry readings became increasing common during the 1950s, various senior Canadian poets had to train themselves to read aloud – some had never before given readings.
Many poets have read Olson’s “Projective Verse” as having theorized the written text as a score for the poem’s oral performance – much like a piece of sheet music enables a faithful performance of a song. That appears to have been Vancouver poet Lionel Kearns’ understanding in 1962 when he devised his “stacked verse” poem notation in which the poet aligned the most heavily stressed syllables of a poem’s lines (there was to be only one heavy stress per line) beneath one another and drew a vertical “stress axis” through them. (Kearns was one of the first to notice Olson’s major blind spot – Saussurean linguistics – although more as an omission than a problem.) A similar understanding (but again inflected by linguistics) informed the 1970-80s “notayshun” issues of Open Letter, mostly edited by bpNichol – how one “notated” a poem could govern what the poem emphasized and how it was understood. But this wasn’t exactly Olson’s theory – in “Projective Verse” he had also proposed that the poem could be “act of the instant” partly determined by the historically conditioned breath of the poet during that instant; the poem could record the poet speaking out of cosmic and human history in that instant. When Olson came to read one of his poems, however, he was inevitably reading it in a much different “instant” than the one in which he’d composed it. So he would often re-compose his lines as he read, or insert commentary that might or might not be part of the changing poem. Some listeners understood these as revisions, which they weren’t – revision implies a desire to improve, to create a new “more correct” version. How can one instant be more “correct” than another? Other listeners – as during his reading at the 1965 Berkeley conference in which his changes and interpolations were extensive – understood them as irresponsible abandonings of the original text. Some understood them when they were preserved on tape as “variants” – the editor of his Collected Poems, George Butterick, records and dates these as an editor would record the variants in different lifetime print editions. As for Olson, during his readings he appears to have viewed himself as being an active composing poet rather than as being a reader of unalterable scripts.
The so-called “breath line” of Olson, now modified by having been linked to illusions of personal presence and sincerity, can be found in the work of numerous poets today who may never have read a word of Olson. However, the breath here is hardly the Olson conception: a breath he perceived not as that of an individual ego but as one conditioned by history, ecology, biology, physics, politics, economics and archaeology into the unique form of an instant of uttered composition. In Canada that misunderstanding ironically has reinforced the practice of the lyric, a form which Olson, the civic poet of polis, disparaged in “Projective Verse” as “the private soul at any public wall.” That description has always made think of a guy at a urinal – a somewhat sexist image if I’m right (not an unusual thing to find in Olson). Which has then led me to think of Al Purdy’s Roblin Lake outhouse and why poetry afficionados can be sentimental about it.