The Violets: Charles Olson and Alfred North
“a cosmological reading of a cosmology”<1>
The American poet who has made the most profound
use of Whitehead’s
thought is Charles Olson. On this occasion, when I am to
mull over the interchange between them, I am reminded of John
Russell’s remark as he begins his book on the meanings
of modern art: “. . . in art, as in the sciences,
ours is one of the big centuries”(9).<2> Out of the
gloom, so to speak. Olson and Whitehead are not, of course,
alone, but they stand there among the most important figures. And
I like to note that Olson many times expressed his view that
the finest compliment one can pay to another mind and work is
in the use made of them. When he died in 1970, just turned
sixty and by his own reckoning ten years short of the time he
needed to complete his work (Boer 137), he was well into the
third volume of a major verse epic, The Maximus Poems,
which stands alongside Pound’s Cantos and Williams’ Paterson as
a major poetic world. Besides The Maximus Poems and
the poems that did not find a place in that epic structure, there
are the essays and letters which propose the necessary poetic
and record the struggle to find it. Olson’s poetics
are argumentative about the way we stand in the world and how
we belong to it (stance and ethos). I wish to emphasize
the word “world” for reasons that I hope will become
The reality of Marxism remains, as it began, the other face of Hegel. To put it unphilosophically, the practice of either of these nineteenth-century prophecies in the twentieth century maintains one side of a dualism, on both sides of which the profound place of the aesthetic, understood as the reach of our “perceptual faith" (Merleau-Ponty's phrase) in human life is short-circuited. Marxism is an instrument, and an excellent one, for social analysis and the understanding of the problems of necessity for large social bodies, and, perhaps, when the wreckage of its twentieth-century practice has been cleared away, it may become an instrument for the founding of social justice. In the meantime, the problem of reality--what do we mean by the real? Part of what is meant is a valuation that includes the world of earth and sky. In the greatest poetry, ancient or modern, the sense of the real is certainly not limited to that other terrifying face of humanism, necessity, an abstract word for the very real limit and terror of poverty and deprivation.<3> The pleasures of art, of philosophy, and of science are joined to us insofar as we are freed from necessity. In Europe and North America, where necessity, as yet, does not widely rule, we have the curiosity that mercantilism controls form, and art, philosophy and science do not belong to the daily round.<4> Yet they are, indeed, the elements of a reality, if we try to put one together. (I have in mind Hannah Arendt’s moving sense of the possible “recovery of the public world.”) I think the fundamental problem here is a “scientism” of the real, from which, in my reading, the gift of Whitehead’s searching thought, as corrective, was to allow us to escape: that is, to see and work whatever real we can manage differently. It is this broad, general, rumoured sense of Whitehead, summed up in his word “process,” that I believe brings him so forcefully into American poetics. Of that “demystification,” which I am here identifying with a scientism of another order, we need to take mind. René Girard writes:
This he names “scientific angelism” (233). It
is an apocalypse of the objective or of a generalized humanity
which can be seen as an objectivity. It is also a disguised
I. WHITEHEAD AND OLSON
Whitehead’s sense of reality as process, which stands to correct both materialism and idealism in their command over us, does not enter upon our thought and imaginations unprepared for. Hugh Kenner in his discussion of the importance to Ezra Pound of Fenollosa’s “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” notices the depth of preparation for such a view:
The Descartes who (Boileau complained) had “cut the throat” of poetry, and the Locke who made poetry a diversion of relaxed or enfeebled minds, lived among learned men. . .[who thought] of words naming things, and words as many as there were things, and language a taxonomy of static things, with many an “is” but ideally no verb. And it was just such notions. . .that Ernest Fenollosa, encouraged by ideograms, set out to refute, on behalf of “the language of science which is the language of poetry. . . .” (Pound Era 224-225)In a letter of 1916, before the essay was printed in 1919, Pound states his interest: “‘All nouns come from verbs.’ To the primitive man, a thing only is what it does. That is Fenollosa, but I think the theory a very good one for poets to go by” (Pound, Letters 82). It is of singular importance that among poets the effort to regain a world-view is also a search for a different stance in language. Olson will make a similar move by attention to the Hopi language in Benjamin Whorf’s studies (Special View 24).<5> And it fascinates me that when I turn to science, I find the physicist David Bohm in his cosmology undertaking the same search:
involves, I think, a renewed sense of literature, particularly
poetry, in which the work of an active, undistanced language
goes on, a parataxis.
There is no parting from your own shadow. To experience this faith is to know that in being ourselves we are more than ourselves: to know that our experience, dim and fragmentary as it is, yet sounds the utmost depths of reality: to know that detached details merely in order to be themselves demand that they should find themselves in a system of things: to know that this system includes the harmony of logical rationality, and the harmony of aesthetic achievements: to know that, while the harmony of logic lies upon the universe as an iron necessity, the aesthetic harmony stands before it as a living ideal moulding the general flux in its broken progress towards finer, subtler issues. (Lovell,197)This wonderful voice, guiding science and, as we shall see, entering into poetry, draws attention to what is most to be attended to in art--if I may cadge some phrases from a scholar of Melville, Olson’s first master-- “the mode of [the] engagement with life, the capacity to the deep-diving literary imagination to plunge to the bottom of human experience and to find there what is funded as ontological possiblity” (Sherrill 238). Funded by Olson and Whitehead on this occasion. But it is Kenner’s point that reality as process was prepared for in Emerson’s “organicism” to bring us by affinity to “Whitehead, and Darwin and Frazer, and Gestaltists and field physicists, and the synergism of Buckminster Fuller,” to “organisms not systems,” to “process and change and resemblance and continuity.”
And behind that effort. Behind it, preparing for it, a chain of philosophers, a chain which “leads back through Hegel, Lotse, Schelling and Herder to Leibnitz (as Whitehead constantly recognized), and then it seems to disappear”: seems to disappear because we are looking for European predecessors, and Leibnitz was indebted to China. So runs Joseph Needham’s remarkable hypothesis, which attributes European organicism, via Leibnitz’ Jesuit friends of the China Mission, to neo-Confucian Li and the school of Chu Hsi. . . . (Kenner 231)
Kenner is surely right to point to the history of this receptivity,
however much modern relativity theory, interpreted by Whitehead,
placed a premium on process. Olson, modern as he is, is
also New England. He had that ground. In an old
fashioned American education, Emerson was simply among the books
on the family shelves. In terms of poetry and process,
Olson’s first debts are to Pound’s Fenollosa and
Confucianism and, then, to William Carlos Williams’ early
interst in science, reflected in his poetry, as a means to gain
objectivity and emotional accuracy. Mike Weaver has finely
drawn these concerns together in his discussion of science and
poetry in Williams’ early work. There, we find out that
Williams requested a copy of C.P. Steinmetz’ book on relativity
in 1926 and that he was given a copy of Whitehead’s Science
and the Modern World in December, 1926. Williams wrote
in that copy: “Finished reading it at sea, Sept. 26, 1927--A
milestone surely in my career, should I have the force and imagination
to go on with my work” (Weaver 47, 48 n.2).<7> Because
Whitehead’s science of reality influences stance and, thereby,
form in so powerful a poet as Williams, it is fair to say that
the currency of Whitehead in poetry has something like a date
The Wesleyan University undergraduate curriculum in your day had been revamped along “general education” lines and Whitehead’s book, published in your freshman year at Wesleyan, became one of the core texts in this curriculum. Its “philosophy of organism,” its “subjectivist principle,” and especially its scientifically minded efforts to offer a cosmology for the twentieth century, were facets of Whitehead’s thinking that remained with you throughout your life. (Boer 108)Olson was an undergraduate at Wesleyan 1928-1932, and he received his M.A. there in 1933 (Butterick, Guide lx). He was later to continue graduate studies at Harvard. Boer’s descriptive terms for Whitehead’s book seem more suitable to Process and Reality than to any other title, though all the elements noted are concerns present in Science and the Modern World which would be the likely book for an undergraduate programme. The latter was first published in 1925 and the former in 1929. The conversation, Thanksgiving Day, 1969, here remembered, may well have contained some fusion of the two books, since Process and Reality tends to drink up and, then, clarify the vocabulary of the earlier book.
In a lecture at Black Mountain College, dated 1956, Olson describes and dates his take on Whitehead:
I am the more persuaded of the importance and use of Whitehead’s thought that I did not know his work --except in snatches and by rumor, including the disappointment of a dinner and evening with him when I was 25 and he was what, 75!-- until last year. So it comes out like those violets of Bolyai Senior on all sides when men are needed, that we possess a body of thinking of the order of Whitehead’s to catch us up where we wouldn’t poke our hearts in and to intensify our own thought just where it does poke. He is a sort of an Aquinas, the man. He did make a Summa of three centuries, and cast his system as a net of Speculative Philosophy so that it goes at least as far as Plato. And his advantage over either Plato or Aquinas is the advantage we share: that the error of matter was removed in exactly these last three centuries. I quote Whitehead:This lecture was “preceded and followed” by study sessions on Process and Reality (Charters 84).<9> Doubtless, it comes as a shock to find the mathematical vocabulary of Whitehead so quickly translated into “existence.” This is characteristic of Olson’s use of Whitehead, a kind of translation throughout, beginning with his considered reading of him in 1955. Such translation is founded in Whitehead’s own method, as Paul Christensen points out:“The dominance of the scalar physical quantity, inertia, in the Newtonian physics obscured the recognition of the truth that all fundamental quantities are vector and not scalar.”So one gets the restoration of Heraclitus’ flux translated as, All things are vectors. Or put it, All that matters moves! And one is out into a space of facts and forms as fresh as our own sense of our own existence. (Qtd. in Charters, Olson/Melville 84 - 85)(Scalar, you will recall, is an undirected quantity, while vector is a directed magnitude as of a force or a velocity.)
This well-judged summary brings us a long way into a sense of Olson’s response to the philosopher, but we should remember that, for Whitehead, the universe was incomplete and in process. And so it stood for Olson. I shall return to the stages of “feeling” in a moment.
What strikes me most in the passage from the Olson lecture is the predominant sense of freshness of view and stance-- “out into a space of facts and forms as fresh as” (Charters, Olson/Melville 85). The violets, seen in his own neighborhood, are remarkable. Sherman Paul, who has written a beautiful, insightful book on Olson, has elegantly gathered together the pieces of Olson’s use of the image of a violet or a bunch of them: in this passage, he writes, “Whitehead’s thought is a violet” (100), and he notes Olson’s violets in the dance-essay, Apollonius of Tyana, “'how men spring up, when they are needed, like violets, on all sides, in the spring, when winter has been too long'”(Paul 99). Finally, he draws our attention to Olson’s first use of the image in a poem of 1950, “The Story of an Olson, and Bad Thing,” in which “. . . Olson associates the fragrance of violets with blood and the smell of life--with birth” (100). In the same context, Paul marvelously reminds us of a parallel instance of such a freshening of view in William Carlos Williams’ poem, “St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils, On the first visit of Professor Einstein to the United States in spring of 1921” (Paul 100 - 101), wherein
Einstein, tall as a violet
in the lattice-arbor corner
as tall as
a blossomy peartree (Williams, Collected Earlier Poems 379 - 380)
A fresh world-view, then, indebted to science by way of Einstein and Whitehead, neither otherworldly nor transcendent to life, is what is at stake. And further, the imaginary, the thought given by way of image is not denigrated but made dynamic in the perceptual field. That field is large, relational, in the sense of operative, and alive. This aspect of the translation of science into poetry leads to an enormous change in the formal mode of a poem. William Carlos Williams entitled his lecture at the University of Washington in 1948, “The Poem as a Field of Action.” Therein, we find this statement:
How can we accept Einstein’s theory of relativity, affecting our very conception of the heavens about us of which poets write so much, without incorporating its essential fact--the relativity of measurements--into our own category of activity: the poem. Do we think we stand outside the universe? Or that the Church of England does? Relativity applies to everything, like love, if it applies to anything in the world. (Essays 283)Olson’s Maximus Poems extend into an enormous field of attentions, in which we find the poet in the guise of himself and his renewed, enlarged human figuration, Maximus, in the composition of the poem, attentive. Paul Christensen describes the look and feel of the poems in just such terms:
[. . . ] the unfinished, in-process look of the pages, the large leaves, the workbook appearance express the nature of this poetic composition. The poems are the partially stated connections between objects in the Gloucester field; they are “soundings” or, for that matter, the “field notes” of its metaphysical and cosmological exploration. The infinite potentiality and complexity of the field make any one effort at best a fragment of understanding; and the final books are just this, the partial filling in of a vast totality. (139)Olson’s direct uses of Whitehead’s thought by way of reference, borrowing, and quotation can be traced to Process and Reality and to Adventures in Ideas.<10> George Butterick points out that Whitehead’s “philosophy of process underlies The Maximus Poems,” that, in one important instance, he names the philosopher “my great master and the companion of my poems,” and that the meeting of the two men, referred to in Olson’s lecture, occured in Cambridge in 1938. And, out of his familiarity with the entire Archive, he notes: “The copy of Process and Reality [Olson] acquired in February 1957 is one of the most heavily marked and annotated in his library” (Guide 358 - 359).
Reading through Olson’s copy is an intellectual delight. There is the complexity and profundity of Whitehead’s thought, often in fine prose, and then there is the layered record of Olson’s pouring over the text to find the use of it. Inside covers, back and front, flyleaves and title page, all are heavily written over in pencil and ink of various colours, mainly blue and red, offering a kind of personal index of passages and of ideas Whitehead sparked. The first flyleaf contains a dated record of Olson’s repeated readings, including those which preceded his purchase of this copy: “1st read sprg 55/ again sprg 56/ now spring 57/ 3rd [4th?] spring-White/head 58,” and above these entries, “now 1964,” and to the side, “Jan 3, 1966.” On the inside cover the notation “Sept. 11th 1969.” Other dates turn up in the margins of the text, sometimes to date the place where he started rereading or to date a specific passage as it took on particular significance. The text itself, frequently underlined, contains remarks, exclamations, phrases copied from the text--a kind of memory device, I take it--reflections, schematizations and mythological notes now and again, which extend the text into image. All in all, a record of the richest kind of reading. On the title page, Olson sketches a chronology: beside Whitehead’s name, “born 1861/(Yeats born 1865)/Charles Peirce born 1839 22 years only younger!/(H.Adams 1830/Wm James 1842--3 years.” Where the title page identifies Whitehead as Professor of Philosophy in Harvard University, Olson writes “(date of this?),” then, having found out, “1924.” And where the title page identifies Process and Reality as “The Gifford Lectures delivered in the University of Edinburgh during the session 1927-1928” (Olson’s underlining), he notes: “I was 16-17, & in Europe that summer.” At the bottom of the page is added “[D.H.] Lawrence 1885/24 years younger/than W’h/came to US/when?” The date of Lawrence’s coming to the U.S. is not filled in; it was, of course, in 1922. This chronology relates to Olson’s violets and it is interesting because, in it, Olson seems to have tried to tie together the modern English writers who most interested him, Yeats and Lawrence, with Whitehead and his English background. He then places Whitehead in the American philosophical tradition. It is noteworthy that Olson chooses Peirce, a physicist and founder of pragmatism (the term was current by 1878). As for the mass of the notations, it is not possible accurately to date them according to one reading or another, unless Olson has done so himself. The notations do seem to lead in two directions, one toward an understanding of Whitehead’s argument and the other toward the use of the material. When we enter upon the use of Whitehead, I do not find the relationship between the two men systematic, but rather companionable, as Olson himself said, and creative.
This move away from the systematic relationship to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism should be noted by the reader, and is, indeed, pointed out by Olson himself in the 1956 lecture:
In the pleasure of these substantiations of Whitehead I should like myself to gather up in a basket--or all it will take is a hand--my own pre-propositions to a knowledge of his thought. And it might be interesting to someone else in this sense, that, like violets we are a bunch!This lecture is marked by its introductory character from the initial statement on coming to know Whitehead’s thought to, as we shall see, the poet’s admonition which effectively distinguishes between the poetic and the philosophical intention. But, first, I want to draw attention to the passages from Whitehead, which Olson introduces here. They are from the chapter on “Process” (PR II.X.III), better than halfway through the argument of Process and Reality. Olson’s purpose, then, appears to be to move directly to the “process of feeling” and to emphasize it. It is striking that, knowledgeable in mathematics himself, he continues to maintain Whitehead’s mathematical vocabulary. Olson is here approaching the problem of a language that will hold on to reality as process. As it turns out, the solution will be found, not simply in the words, but in the form as well. Where one may have missed the point of Olson’s earlier definitions of scalar and vector, which were strictly dictionary definitions, it may be useful, with Whitehead’s sense of “the foundation of the scalar superstructure” in mind, to emphasize that the scalar is “a quantity fully described by a number” and a vector is “a complex entity representative of a directed magnitude, as of a force or a velocity.”<11> Translated, as Olson appears to do, the one is complete form, say, the subjective poet of the old humanism, the other is coming into form by attention. The emphasis is upon prehensive activity. By maintaining Whitehead’s vocabulary of the physical sciences, Olson accomplishes two things: he places human nature in the physical, like Whitehead’s actual occasions or actual entity--in this instance Whitehead is discussing both--and he shifts the attention to the vector, “the original vector forms,” “the origins” ( ). This is important to Olson because origin, beginning, and renewal are finally the true subjects of his poems, and such regard transforms the finitude of modern humanism with its despair and terrorisms. He was to search for active form, rather than the referential kind which he reads as entrapment in present cultural conditions. A dead duck, if I may so express myself.
From the passages quoted by Olson, Whitehead turns to a further consideration of the “second stage of feeling,” which makes the issue even clearer: “. . .the reason why the origins are not lost in the private emotion is that there is no element in the universe capable of pure privacy”-- “to be ‘something’ is ‘to have the potentiality of acquiring real unity with other entities’” [this is the third metaphysical principle]-- “Thus emotion is ‘emotional feeling’; and ‘what is felt’ is the presupposed vector situation”-- “scalar quantities are constructs derivative from vector quantities.” Whitehead, then, makes one of those brilliant adjustments in his argument:
In more familiar language, this principle can be expressed by the statement that the notion of ‘passing on’ is more fundamental than that of a private individual fact. In the abstract language here adopted, for metaphysical statement, “passing on” becomes “creativity,” in the dictionary sense of the verb creare, “to bring forth, beget, produce.” Thus, according to the third principle, no entity can be divorced from the notion of creativity. An entity is at least a particular form capable of infusing its own particularity into creativity. An actual entity, or a phase of an actual entity, is more than that; but, at least, it is that. (PR II.X.III, 212 - 213)Thus, without abstraction, we may read the physical and mental entity as coming into form by process, a flowing from its origins.
Because I want the reader to gain a sense of the long-hand of Olson’s effort, I will continue to select a few passages from Whitehead. This Chapter on “process,” in which the three stages of feeling are described, opens with a consideration of the “flux of things”: “That ‘all things flow’ is the first vague generalization which the unsystematized, barely analyzed intuition of man has produced.” It is there, Whitehead tells us, in the Psalms, for philosophy in Heraclitus, and “in all stages of civilization” in poetry:
Without doubt, if we are to go back to that ultimate, integral experience, unwarped by the sophistications of theory, that experience whose elucidation is the final aim of philosophy, the flux of things is one ultimate generalization around which we must weave our philosophical system. (PR II.X.I, 208)It is at such a point as this that we may begin to understand what I have called Olson’s translation of Whitehead. And it is certainly more than a simplification. This “ultimate, integral experience,” which is a kind of continuance of feeling, is then distinguished from the “rival and antithetical” notion:
I cannot at the moment recall one immortal phrase which expresses it with the same completeness as the alternative notion has been rendered by Heraclitus. This other notion dwells on permanences of things--the solid earth, the mountains, the stones, the Egyptian Pyramids, the spirit of man, God. (PR 11.X.I, 208)The ensuing discussion brings face to face “the metaphysics of substance,” which Olson repeatedly in conversation with me, 1957-1959, argued that we must change, and “the metaphysics of flux,” “the static spiritual world” and a “fluent world.” I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the disclosure here, as it is argued in modern terms. It is the “static spiritual world,” even when it is psychologized in an identity rather than in a fluent individuation, that is dead in the modern cultural condition.
Olson’s 1956 lecture is in great part a record of the way in which Whitehead’s thought entered into his as both corrective and companion. He uses it as an occasion to reflect back on his own work. “Space as such of course I opened Ishmael with. . . . I behaved better in Ishmael than I knew. Even, for example, to jamming in the other two terms as well as myth and space, hammering object and fact as process of composition. . . .” He connects this with words out of a dream:
of rhythm is image
of image is knowing
of knowing there is
a construct (Charters, 87)
and he draws our attention to Whitehead’s sense of a “blind perceptivity of the other physical occasions of the actual world" (Charters, Olson/Melville ). He had “stumbled and was stumbling” on those four words as they would direct the lifetime of his work. The problem was the vectorial, the fluency of the world. In the same section of Whitehead, where he remarks on Bergson’s “charge that the human intellect ‘spatializes the universe,’ that is to say, that it tends to ignore the fluency, and to analyze the world in terms of static categories,” Olson underlines and dates it 1959. Still at it, three years after the 1956 lecture. The problem was to make space alive in time by image. That would, of course, mean myth.
Olson consistently translates Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and its magnificent ‘vision’ of process back into his own acts as poet of perception and intelligence. This means that in such use of Whitehead’s thought, the poet Olson steps back from the systematic, abstract nature of the metaphysical task.<12>
It is actually form that I am seeking to draw out of the thought--to seize a tradition out of the live air, or something, the Bejewelled Man once said--the thought which, I have suggested, and Whitehead has the system to demonstrate, man is now possessed of after the last three centuries once again. (I suppose because I am a mythologist and least of all a philosopher. The seasons of man also recur, even if it will be some time before we know them as deliberately as we do those of nature. . . . ) (Charters 87 )Whitehead’s rereading--a corrective, in Olson’s mind--of three centuries of philosophy in Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant and, by implication, Hegel, had been necessary to prepare for the three stages of feeling in process. Mythology in this context suggests a pre-systematic language, imaged, natural and fundamental to the feeling mind, Whitehead’s “. . . the ‘process’ inherent in the fact of being a mind” (PR II.VI.IV, 151). Olson then moves to tie down his difference:
That is, I am not aware that many men’s acts of form yet tap the total change of stance or posture (postulate or premise) of which Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” is one completed exemplification. Mind you, be careful here. Remember the violets. A philosophy, even of his order, or because of his order, a philosophy, just because it is a wind-up, it does seek, as he says, to be so water-tight that, “at the end, insofar as the enterprise has been successful, there should be no problem of spacetime, or of epistemology, or of causality, left over for discussion,” form, in the sense in which one means it as of creations, can have no life as such a system. It is like the moon, without air. Or a mother. It has had to be like Whitehead has to find God as wisdom to be, “a tender care that nothing be lost.” The creation of form by man could hardly let this statement of his operative growth cover him just because he is not God, and his third stage of feeling-- “the satisfaction,” Whitehead calls it--can only assert itself, even as a “completed unity of operation,” in a new actual entity. In other words has to go back to the vectors of which it is a proof. Taking off from the thought one can define an act of art as a vector which, having become private and thus acquired vision, ploughs the vision back by way of primordial things. Only thus can it have consequence. It cannot, by taking up consequence, into itself. (Charters 88)Olson terms the condition a “return to object” and he returns art to the “contest.” “I had already,” he writes, “practiced the principle of the particular when [Robert] Creeley offered me the formulation form is never more than an extension of content (sign he too was one of Whitehead’s violets!)” (Charters 89).
The implication is clear: that the contest-- “variance, dissension, contention, dissonance” --belongs to the poetic task and is the companion of that other task, the philosophica (Charters 88). The contest is suggestive of the theory of prehensions. I am reminded of an earlier passage in Whitehead, where Olson underlines “an instance of experience is dipolar” (PR I.III.IV, 36). The word dipolar, which will have continuous relevance for Olson, is encircled and a line drawn to the bottom of the page, where Whitehead is slightly reworded for emphasis: “Wh’s cosmological silence repudiates the assumption that the basic elements of experience are to be described, nota, in one, or all, of the three ingredients, viz:/consciousness, thought/sense perception.” Olson concludes with a definition of form as tensions, “primordial fluency” and “a consequent one”:
And each makes up the matter: the objective immortality of actual occasions requires the primordial permanence of form, whereby the creative advance ever re-establishes itself endowed with initial creation of the history of one’s self. (Charters 90)The sudden appearance of “one’s self” in this context may seem abrupt. But Olson is here calling forward certain fundamental aspects of Whitehead’s thought, keyed by the use of the philosopher’s terminology. The issue of creativity is central. As Donald Sherburne has helped me to understand, “Creativity is one of the three notions involved in what Whitehead calls the Category of the Ultimate; this category expresses the general principle presupposed by all other aspects of the philosophy of organism. . . . The other two notions involved are many and one” (Sherburne 218). The return to the objective, for which Olson argues, has equally in the process to account for the one. I recall an extraordinary passage from Whitehead:
But creativity is always found under conditions, and described as conditioned. The non-temporal act of all-inclusive unfettered valuation is at once a creature of creativity and a condition for creativity. It shares this double character with all creatures. By reason of its character as a creature, always in concrescence and never in the past, it receives a reaction from the world; this reaction is its consequent nature. It is here termed ‘God’; because the contemplation of our natures, as enjoying real feeling derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that ‘subjective form’ of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim. (PR I.III.I, 31 - 32)And so it is also with poetry in which a world-view is at stake. Olson’s sense of “creative advance” seems to reflect a passage in “The Theory of Feelings”:
. . . the process of integration, which lies at the very heart of the concrescence, is the urge imposed on the concrescent unity of that universe by the three Categories of Subjective Unity, of Objective Identity, and of Objective Diversity. The oneness of the universe and the oneness of each element in the universe, repeat themselves to the crack of doom in the creative advance from creature to creature, each creature including in itself the whole of history and exemplifying the self-identity of things and their mutual diversity. (PR III.I.VII, 228)To enter this creativity-- “‘Creativity’ is the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact” (PR I.II.II.,21)--was, indeed, to enter upon the process of world-view itself.
With many a quotation, I have endeavoured to dramatize the two languages of these men in order to avoid the critical flattening of Whitehead into his broadest generalizations or of Olson into a simplified or incorrect relation to Whitehead. When we come to one of Olson’s last statements involving Whitehead, the reader will, perhaps, understand the reason I have been at such pains.
The spiritual edge in Olson reached for Whitehead. At the top of a page in the “Preface” to Process and Reality, Olson writes: “aim: a complete cosmology (a cosmology of the 20th century, to succeed the two previous ones: Plato’s Timaeus, & the 17th century.” In a series of lectures, which followed upon the lecture we have been considering, published as The Special View of History, Notes from Black Mountain, 1956, he brilliantly continues the translation of Whitehead into his own terms. Though closely related to the philosophy of organism throughout, these lectures are not on Whitehead in the introductory manner of the earlier lecture. The purpose of the lectures is to outline a “new humanism” that discovers “Actual Willful Man,” obedient to the real and potentially heroic. The figuration of the heroic belongs to the depths of poetic imagination, its archaic nature, for heroes belong to “the becoming, the perishing, and the objective immortalities of those things which jointly constitute stubborn fact” (PR, Preface xiv, Olson’s underlining, Whitehead’s italics). Olson describes the “attempt” of these lectures:
. . . to supply you with what I don’t think has had to be faced before, perhaps because the humanism of the Renaissance was sufficient until a few years ago, even if it had run down by Keats’ day. The anti-humanism which I have dubbed Hegelian has been made the most the poet’s enemy. It is only recently, we might say, in which a pro-humanistic possibility has emerged. (SV 35)
Two epigraphs open the argument: Heraclitus’ “Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar” and a passage from Keats’ famous letter on “Negative Capability,” “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason. . . .” (SV 14). These become pointers in Olson’s effort to enter upon a measured humanity within the process of things. In practice, this becomes a reversal of our condition, both “backward and outside” our present cultural condition. Sherman Paul has best discussed this active part of Olson’s poetics:
Where in The Special View, with its play on Einstein’s title, he [Olson] argues the change, in the poetry he effectively pursues it. One may lose track of this if one does not understand the dynamics of the thought and stance his method of backwards and outside proposes. This he summarizes in his “impression that man lost something just about 500 B.C. and only got it back just about 1905 A.D” (SV 15). Thus, Olson goes backward to a turning point as he saw it: Heraclitus who died in 481 B.C. and the loss of the familiar. In “A Comprehension,” written in 1966, he clarified: “. . . the ‘attack’ by Plato on poets & poetry already has asserted itself in fragments 57, 40 & 41 of Heraclitus, dating say 505 when he was in his 40s or at around 480 when in his 60s. . . .” It is useful to remember these fragments, which Olson was studying in G.D. Kirk’s Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments:
13: Teacher of the most men is Hesiod: they are sure he knows very many things, who continually failed to recognize day and night: for they are one. . . [in the Theogony, 123ff, Night is mother of Day]Olson is proposing to date the loss of the sense of reality as process at that point. At the other end, the date 1905 A.D., positing a time when we could begin to return to it, is likely to mean Einstein, for that is the date of Einstein’s, in his own eyes, “very revolutionary” paper on light. Thus, Olson is also suggesting a turning-point in Whitehead’s thought also. He writes:
And that the stance which yields the possibility of acts which are allowably historic, in other words produce, have to be negatively capable in Keats’ sense that they have to be, they have to be uncertain.Or what we would call today relative. It will be seen within [these lectures] how thoroughly I take it Whitehead has written the metaphysic of the reality we have acquired, and because I don’t know that yet the best minds realize how thoroughly the absolute or ideal has been tucked back where it belongs--where it got out of, in the 5th century B.C. and thereafter--I call attention to Whitehead’s analysis of the Consequent as the relative of relatives, and that the Primordial--the absolute--is prospective, that events are absolute only because they have a future, not from any past. (Specail View 16)
This introductory notice of Whitehead excellently summarizes a living sense of the relational. Olson was then to draw out the implications for a ‘measured’ human will. The uncertainty in the process becomes the most difficult part to learn, for it is identified with love. Lest the word love seem soft or too human, I point out that the “backwards and outward”f movement of information, made dynamic in relation to present cultural conditions, becomes in the vast world of The Maximus Poems a methodology for a return to that with which we are most familiar. The passage just quoted appears also to be drawing upon the extraordinary last chapter of Process and Reality, “God and the World,” where Whitehead writes:
Thus the consequent nature of God is composed of a multiplicity of elements with individual self-realization. It is just as much a multiplicity as it is a unity; it is just as much one immediate fact as it is an unresting advance beyond itself. Thus the actuality of God must also be understood as a multiplicity of actual components in process of creation. This is God in his function of the kingdom of heaven. (PR V. II.VII, 350 Olson’s underlining)Olson draws a line from the underlined word ‘multiplicity’ to the bottom of the page and writes: “love etc.” He did not let go unnoticed Whitehead’s account of evil in this consequent world. Among other notations, he underlined this sentence: “The nature of evil is that the characters of things are mutually obstructive” (PR V.I.IV, 340). Out of the companionship of the Blakean John Clarke, Olson’s attention in his last years was drawn to the greatest poet of this vision of the creation as both “the Prolific and the Devouring,” William Blake. Whitehead, we recall, returns us to “a complex structure of harmony” (PR V.I.IV, 340).
It is one of the curiosities and discomforts of conversation and of lecturing, when one is involved in the presentation of, say, Dante or Giotto or Michelangelo that one meets embarrassment, even hostility, before the contents among so many people. It is necessary for them to relearn the old, natural calendar of the tradition. Many have fallen into time, so to speak, and seem unable to go forwards or backwards. We should remember that Olson’s work and his use of Whitehead grow out of the meaning of the Second World War and be reminded of Pound’s words out of the First World War:
There died a myriadHistory, for Olson, will not be the history of those powers, as we usually understand them, but “history as primordial and prospective”(Specail View 16). History, then, taken out of the hands of power, becomes “the function in any one of us,” (SV <18>) embodied intellectually and emotionally. The self, invoked here as an element of the-beginning-again, is not the “one [of] power,” but rather, “the self as center and circumference” (Specail View 45). Behind which is Olson’s definition of will:
Will is the innate voluntarism of to live. Will is the infinitive of being. (Specail View 44)This “WILL” includes an obedience within the process, the renewed sense of subject and object, and leads to art as the “order of man,” a principle close to Whitehead’s sense of ‘selection,’ which is fundamental to the act of prehension. Olson:
If order is not the world--and the world hasn’t been the most interesting image of order since 1904, when Einstein showed the beauty of the Kosmos and one then does pass on, looking for more--then order is man. And one can define the present (it does need to be noticed that the present is post the Modern) as the search for order as man himself is the image of same. Whitehead, then, makes sense in proposing a philosophy of organism. . . . (Specail View 47; original emphasis)This crucial sense of the possibility of a turn is present to Olson’s work throughout, spectacularly so, in the reversals of backwards and outward, in order to renew place, one’s own earth and cosmos. The most extraordianry reversal is argued in The Special View: "History is the practice of space in time. Time is the vertical or tenser and it can be for a man, of a man, precisely defined" (Special View 27). Or, as he said in conversation and elsewhere, “Time is the life of space.”
When Olson translates this into poetry, the poem-structure is not simply a system of metaphors for the philosophical reversal, but a record of the dynamic as it is practiced. Since I am continuing my sense of the necessary companionship in twentieth century thought, I turn to Don Byrd, one of Olson’s most sensitive readers, for a description of this:
The three stages of feeling which Olson derives from Whitehead. . . can be usefully recalled. The poem [Maximus: Volume III] is taking its turn into the third stage. He says: “The first is that in which the multiples of anything crowd in on the individual; the second is that most individual stage when he or she seeks to impose his or her own order on the multiples; and the third is the stage called satisfaction, in which the true order is seen to be the confrontation of two interchanging forces which can be called God and the World” [SV 50]. The first and second stages of feeling are obviously the dominant modes of experience in the first and second volumes respectively. The paradox of the third volume is that the end of the personal process is a denial of the personal. The form which begins to emerge excludes every perfection but its own. The Maximus Poems, Volume III is perhaps the first religious poem to have been written since the seventeenth century. Of course, an abundance of poetry has been cast in the dilemma of belief or has asserted a belief which the poet wished he had, but no one has so successfully established himself in his own being that he becomes an agent of “two interchanging forces which can be called God and the World.” “I believe in religion,” Maximus says, “not magic or science I believe in/society as religious both man and society as religious” (Maximus III, 55). The God which appears in the Maximus, however, is “fully physical” (Maximus III, 13). It is the God which Whitehead describes “as the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire” [PR V.II.II]. He is not a final cause or creator but a principle of continuation which is no sooner manifest than it becomes a new beginning. (169)Olson’s own words for this, preparing for the work of it in 1956, are:
We are able, I take it, to establish a cosmology without letting God in as creator in the old sense, in the old static sense of the universe. I believe we are equally enabled today to establish a mythology without letting God in as a primordial nature in the old static sense, but only an image of Primordial Nature in the prospective sense of the absolute as that which is included in the relative. (Specail View 55; original emphasis)Interpretation, with its lingering positivism and its confused urge towards materialism, too often ignores the fundamental religious temper of poetic thought. It is not the embarrassment of outworn ways, but simply the way things belong together in the largest sense of such intuitions. Olson takes careful note of Whitehead’s remarks on secularization, which are not to be understood in the contemporary sense of a wipe-out, with underlining and doubled arrows in the margins:
The secularization of the concept of God’s functions in the world is at least as urgent a requisite of thought as is the secularization of other elements in experience. The concept of God is certainly one essential element in religious feeling. But the converse is not true; the concept of religious feeling is not an essential element in the concept of God’s function in the universe. (PR II.IX. VIII, 207 Olson’s underlining)This active thought not only moves Olson’s cosmology near to Whitehead’s, keeping in mind the latter’s moving remarks on the tragic consequences of the “'unmoved mover'” in Christianity and Mohammedanism (PR V.II.I, 342), but also reopens the mythological language of poetic cosmology, as a language of the depth of things inside us (SV 53).
I have, by way of carefully ordered quotation, insisted upon the companionable--with the bread of--in this essay because there is another reading of the meeting of these two minds.<13> Robert von Hallberg in his study, Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art, choses to measure Olson against what appears to be a more systematic aspect of Whitehead. He argues that Olson’s “humanistic notion of order is not quite faithful to Whitehead.” And he cites a passage from Whitehead on higher organisms and their types of order:
“It is the mark of a high-grade organism to eliminate, by negative prehension, the irrelevant accidents in its environment, and to elicit massive attention to every variety of systematic order. . . . In this way the organism in question suppresses the mere multiplicity of things, and designs its own contrasts. The canons of art are merely the expression, in specialized forms, of the requisites for depth of experience” [PR IV.IV.III]. When he read this passage Olson wrote in the margin: “The egotism of creation.” But the egotism was more Olson’s than Whitehead’s. (von Hallberg 115, Olson’s underlining added)This is an important moment of preparation in von Hallberg’s argument, because, for all the memorable readings he gives us of individual poems, this alleged Olsonian egotism will lead to a dismissal of the dynamic structure of ‘feeling’ in the whole of The Maximus Poems. Maximus IV, V, VI and Volume III become a mere ego-centrism. What Olson did, indeed, write above the section heading and running into the margin is: “The egotism of creation is:” and he draws two lines across the text to the word ‘order.’ Thus, we are to read: “The egotism of creation is : order.” Surely, this is recognition of the prehensive activity of order with its ‘subjective aim.’ And as one reflects on the mass of Whitehead’s argument, the notation also calls forward the Cartesian separation of mind and matter that Whitehead has struggled to heal. Then, von Hallberg continues: “When Olson suggests that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is based on man as the image of order in the world, he is standing Whitehead on his head in order to define what Olson looked forward to as ‘another humanism.’ Order, for Whitehead, is process, and the process begins with the atom, not with man” (115). This is astonishing, for surely Whitehead begins with the depths of his own perception and then moves to the deeps where the atom is found.
I want first to say that Olson does not argue man as the image of order, but rather the new man who will have the measured image of order within by way of thought and art. The phrase “another humanism” is taken from Olson’s major text of the outward dynamic, outward of the “Western Box,” The Mayan Letters (SW 93). The Special View, which is also reflected upon in von Hallberg’s context, ends with a chapter called “Enantiodromia, or ‘the laws’; A METHODOLOGY,” the running course of standing up against or with things, and an “Outline” which includes the re-posed subject-object relations (SV 57-61). Which is where we find “Actual Willful Man” who acts. Dr. Von Hallberg cites an important passage in Whitehead in order to argue that Olson “takes the diametrically opposite path. . . .”:
The philosophy of organism abolishes the detached mind. Mental activity is one of the modes of feeling belonging to all actual entities in some degree, but only amounting to conscious intellectuality in some actual entities. (von Hallberg 115, PR II.I.VI, Olson’s underlining)Olson draws a line from this passage to the bottom of the page and writes, “Touché (like T S E! 1961.” A few lines further along in Process and Reality, Olson is attentive to the continuation of Whitehead’s argument:
This is the problem of the solidarity of the universe [Olson writes in the margin, “Wow!”]. The classical doctrines of universals and particulars, of subject and predicate, of individual substances not present in other individual substances, of the externality of relations, alike render this problem incapable of solution. The answer given by the organic philosophy is the doctrine of prehensions, involved in concrescent integrations, and terminating in a definite, complex unity of feeling. To be actual must mean that all actual things are alike objects. . . . (PR II.I.VI, 56, Olson’s underlining)From the underlined word ‘objects,’ Olson draws a line to the bottom of the page and writes: “The end of the subject-object thing--Wow.” What goes wrong in von Hallberg’s summary view of Whitehead is his underestimation of the importance of the activity of prehension for Whitehead and for Olson as demonstrated in his use and adaptation of the three stages of feeling. Further, he ignores the radical importance of the ‘subjective principle.’ Such distortion by generalization, a result of what I have earlier called singular assertion, is one good reason I have arranged my essay by way of careful quotation--perhaps another time to give an overview. This is a problem of methodology. It is important to understand that Whitehead’s “‘democracy’ of actual entities,” to quote von Hallberg again, does not wipe out person but resituates such an entity (125). Thus, we return once more to the problem of “actual willful man.” Where Whitehead writes, “. . . the actual entity, in virtue of being what it is, is also where it is” (PR II.I.VII, 59, Whitehead’s italics), Olson draws a line from the underlined phrase “what it is” and writes in the margin, “because of who it is! (1961).” At the top of the page, he has written: “. . . taxonomy is false object because no ‘real’ in [the?] many eternal objects cow Tartaros.” We remember that “Prehensions are not atomic; they can be divided into other prehensions and combined into other prehensions” (PR III.I.XII, 235).
With khaos and Tartaros we enter upon Olson’s translation of a Whiteheadian cosmology into mythology, which is to say into a cosmogony. His spelling in Greek letters of the word chaos is interesting; it appears to combine the Greek form khaos with the Indo-European root ghaw, meaning hollow. Apart from anything else, this spelling and etymology effectively distance us from the sloppy English notion of chaos as confusion. Tartaros in the Iliad is as far below Hades as the Heavens are above the Earth. These two great archaic imaginings of the depths take us back into the depth where the orders of the human imagination begin and end. An extended example of the way Olson works such translation is found outlined across two pages in Process and Reality at the end of the chapter on “Propositions” (PR II. IX.VIII, 207). He writes:
from the inductionHere, the translation outlines an image of the world as it moves from those sections in which Whitehead analyzes the statistical and non-statistical ground for probability judgments. Whitehead discusses the non-statistical ground, which depends upon the theory of prehensions: “The principle of the graduated ‘intensive relevance’ of eternal objects to the primary physical data of experience expresses a real fact. . . .” He argues “. . . the prehension by every creature of the graduated order of appetitions constituting the primordial nature of God . . .” and the other side of the inductive and statistical, “an intuition of probability” for the origin of novelty, which, as “non-statistical judgments,” “lie at a far lower level of experience than do the religious emotions.” Just there, we come upon the passage already quoted on “the secularization of the concept of God’s functions in the world.” Olson was not superstitious. This is not a transcendentalism, nor is it an idealism. Olson was after the depth of the world to which, as I have said, we all respond, though the modern public culture refuses to think of it. It is a moving story of the real that Olson is preparing here. Whitehead argues, and Olson underlines, that “statistical theory entirely fails” to provide for the judgment of novelty (PR II.IX.VIII, 207).f It is well to remember the definition of novelty: ‘“Creativity’ is the principle of novelty. An actual occasion is a novel entity diverse from any entity in the ‘many’ which it unifies” (PR I.II.II, 21, Olson’s underlining). Without that individuation within the process, valuation would be lost, and, as Olson writes, “without it” dot, dot, dot. He moves in this outline to the imagination of permanence and change with the human actor within it. “The condition is hunger,” “mouth,” and I note that the hunger--the appetition, to use Whitehead’s more abstract term--is of both body and mind. Meaning in this sense is an aspect of desire. The mythological, the story, begins at the ground, locus, region, where the world begins for any one of us. With the wonderful Greek, epic word TePas, Olson begins. He transliterates the word except for the Greek ‘rho.’<14> It has a double meaning which I take to be important here: a sign, a wonder, the Latin portentum or prodigium, as the dictionary tells us, used in Homer for the heavenly constellations as signs and in other sources in a concrete sense, a monster, descriptive of the Gorgon’s head, Typhoëus and Cerberus. Olson’s use of the word in this context is of considerable complexity which I can only briefly suggest. It appears twice-over with its definition as “monster or giant” alongside Whitehead’s discussion of the suppressed premise of inductive reasoning which is of limited knowledge (PR II.IX.VI, 203 - 205). And then in this outline, some few pages later. As we open here into the mythological, the sense of the world, of cosmos, becomes overwhelming and archaic. When Olson draws God into the process, as cow, we come upon a renewed cosmogony. The outline becomes a curious map of the epic structure of The Maximus Poems. It is striking that this notation, which the poems turn into a tale, enters upon a fundamental concern of ancient epic, out of Gilgamesh and Hesiod, the ground of knowing, epistemology. The muses were once a vocabulary for this and for a cosmology that belongs to the depths of feeling.
Olson is a careful and poised modern mind, but with this interest in the archaic he follows through on an intuition that has colored the arts of our century. The archaic may be understood as a pre-rational language of being in love with the earth and the heavens, but in its telling in the twentieth century, it is also post-rational.<15> That is, a discipline of feeling outside what the rational is tied to. In “Letter to Elaine Feinstein,” Olson writes: “I find the contemporary substitution of society for the cosmos captive and deathly”(HU 97). The archaic is not a primitivism, but a freshness which has been beautifully described by Guy Davenport:
We have recovered in anthropology and archaeology the truth that primitive man lives in a world totally alive, a world in which one talks to bears and reindeer, like the Laplanders, or to Coyote, the sun and moon, like the plains Indians.This energy in the depth of things may be subsumed abstractly; it can be learned, taught, imaged and so felt in poetry. It is not unrelated to religion, that means of controlling the unmeasured violence that is part of ourselves. In Special View Olson writes:
For the loss of the city-state is now calculable, that man has had restored to him, since 1875, of a unit of place and time to make up for it. [. . . ] He has this traction or friction innately: he either gets his time and place out of himself or via that trope of himself he calls God, and it is the vertu of history as it can now be understood that it restores God as well as locality, and in so doing rids us of two other phonies of discourse, the infinite and eternal which diluted Him in distracting man from that with which he is necessarily most familiar--what he is. (25-26)The moral of the story is that we must not take what we mean by the aesthetic too narrowly; it is, of course, beauty, but beauty unfinished in context with place and time. Surely, this struggle for the real in Whitehead and in Olson to find a coherence is a modern triumph. It is also an obedience to the real. My mind leaps to that characteristic in Sophocles’ thought, not read as tragedy, the word is too misjudged by us. I am thinking of Oedipus at Colonus disappearing into the earth and of Herakles’ recognition of the coherence in The Women of Trachis.
II . ON POETICS
One of Olson’s most important statements on the nature of the poem is found written at the bottom of a page in Process and Reality (PR IV.II.IV, 300 - 301). It is a passage from Whitehead on the definition of a ‘complete locus,’ which can only be read in terms of the physical sciences. Whitehead:
The inside of a region, its volume, has a complete boundedness denied to the extensive potentiality external to it. The boundedness applies both to the spatial and the temporal aspects of extension. Wherever there is ambiguity as to the contrast of boundedness between inside and outside, there is no proper region.<16>And Olson:
The inside of a poem, its volume, has a complete boundedness denied to the extensive potentiality external to it. The boundedness applies both to the spatial and temporal aspects of extension. Whenever there is ambiguity as to the contrast of boundedness between inside & outside, there is no proper poem.This part of Process and Reality, which involves us in non-Euclidian geometry among other things, held considerable interest for Olson because it argues and augments our “extensive connection” to the “geometry of the world.”g For the unphilosophical and for the non-physicist, one of the pleasures of Whitehead’s text is in the shifting quality of his vocabulary. Though one may follow with care the vocabulary which describes “the physical and geometrical theory of nature” Whitehead returns again and again to our experience of the cosmos. Whitehead begins the discussion of this part of his book by discussing “ways of ‘dividing’ the satisfaction of an actual entity into component feelings.” And we suddenly remember the definition of satisfaction in an earlier chapter (PR II.I.III, 44): “The actual entity terminates its becoming in one complex feeling involving a completely determinate bond with every item in the universe, the bond being either a positive or a negative prehension. This termination is the ‘satisfaction’ of the actual entity.” Olson underlines “one complex feeling.” Where Whitehead is discussing the genetic process, which “presupposes the entire quantum,” Olson underlines and in the margin refers us far back in Process and Reality to Whitehead’s citation of William James. The James passage should be recalled:
Either your experience is of no content, of no change, or it is of a perceptible amount of content or change. Your acquaintance with reality grows literally by buds or drops of perception. Intellectually and on reflection you can divide these into components, but as immediately given, they come totally or not at all. (PR II. II.II, 68, Olson underlining)
Returning to the section under discussion, Olson stops over
quantum is that standpoint in the extensive continuum which is
consonant with the subjective aim in its original derivation
from God. Here ‘God’ is that actuality
in the world, in virtue of which there is physical ‘law’” (PR IV.I.I.,
283, Olson’s underlining). It is important to emphasize
that the subjective aim is the “inherence of the subject
in the Process” (PR, III.I.V, 224), which Donald Sherburne
further clarifies: “Process doesn’t presuppose
a subject; rather, the subject emerges from the process” (Sherburne
244). The inherence of the subject in the process is fundamental
to Olson’s sense of himself in The Maximus Poems. We
have Olson and the figuration of Maximus in the poems. George
Butterick, citing Olson’s own words in his essay, “The
Gate and the Center,” writes: “Maximus is the ‘size
man can be once more capable of, once the turn of the flow of
his energies that I speak of as the WILL TO COHERE is admitted,
and its energies taken up’” (Guide xxvii -
III. THREE PIECES FROM CHARLES OLSON
This is the opening poem in Maximus V. He calls it a note, referring back to an earlier letter on American poetics in the first volume of Maximus. It has already been noted that Olson’s poem-structure allows for such openess in finding a new structure. I take the choice of the German word for dream to be Olson’s way of removing the poetic softness that has come to envelop that word in English and possibly of allowing us to hear the sense of “trauma” in order to remind us that poetry is not easy--that it emerges from contest. The word also means vision in German and it may hold within it a salute to Jung whom Olson studied with care alongside his repeated readings of Process and Reality. There is evidence among his notations that Olson was trying to relate Jung’s interpretation of dreams to Whitehead. At the end of the chapter on “The Ideal Opposites” (PR V. I.IV, 341), Whitehead is discussing the final opposites of his cosmology, “joy and sorrow, good and evil, disjunction and conjunction . . . the many in one,” ending in “God and the World.” Whitehead gives to the opposites “a certain ultimate directness of intuition,” except for God and the World, which “introduces a note of interpretation.” Olson underlines and down the page, he writes: “Wow, of Jung/says on the interpretation of dreams/M, D, R, p. 310.” He adds the date June 23, 1969. The book is, of course, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, wherein we find Jung writing: “Mathematics goes to great pains to create expressions for relationships which pass empirical comprehensions. In much the same way, it is all-important for a disciplined imagination to build up images of intangibles by logical principles and on the basis of empirical data, that is, on the evidence of dreams” ( ). Olson may also have in mind a passage from William Carlos Williams’ essay, “The Poem as a Field of Action”:
Olson would probably not have used the word phantasy. In this poem, the self-action is then attached to “an eternal.” Whitehead’s proper term would be “eternal object,” god in the world. This brings me to think that Olson is reflecting on earlier works by Whitehead in which, Donald Sherburne points out, the notion of event is central (Sherburne 222). But then Olson has returned to his own situation in which the “intersection or collision” would be an event. He ends, movingly, reflecting on the work of his poem of which “the poetics [as practice] of such a situation/are yet to be found out” (Maximus Poems 249)
history as time
This is a note drawn from a flyleaf of John Philip Cohane’s The Key, which Olson had been given as a gift. An unorthodox book on ancient migrations, which links ancient civilizations by way of etymology, the gift was well chosen. It meets Olson’s fascination with global migration, the history of place, but the text appears to have gone unread during those last few weeks.<17> Instead, all over the inside cover, flyleaves and title page are notes that approach poems. In this lovely testament and tribute, I think the only difficulty is with “Lake Van Measure,” which turns up several times in Olson’s work. George Butterick has straightened the matter out for us. Lake Van is in far eastern Turkey and is the site of the Armenian cruciform church at Achthaman. The “Measure” is an “Ideal Scale,” also called “Armenian,” as Butterick tells us, “in the general sense of ‘northern,’ or non-Greek, non-classical,” which Olson drew from Josef Strzygowski’s Origin of Early Christian Church Art.18 There, Olson found that Christianity in the early years included Semites and Iranians, as Butterick notes, “neither East nor West in the modern sense. . . .” This is another piece of Olson’s complex effort to escape the “Western Box.” Butterick further notes that Olson took the “church of Achthaman, built 904-938 A.D. . . . [to] summarize the achievement of non-Western art” and he quotes Olson: “for an American the Northern condition at this point is more interesting than any Mediterranean. . . .” In this testament, then, Lake Van Measure, which was prepared for in The Maximus Poems, becomes a code phrase for a new measure of man outside the present Western condition. Then, in what is a fine tribute, Olson attaches that measure to Whitehead’s sense of measurement. This takes us back to the chapter “Measurement” in Process and Reality (PR IV.V.V, 332), where among many underlinings and notations, Olson circles “Measurement is now possible throughout the extensive continuum.” This chapter, argued in terms of “mathematical relations involved in presentational immediacy” (PR IV.V.III, 326) is once again translated by Olson into the spiritual human order. “There is a systematic framework,” Whitehead writes, “permeating all relevant fact” (IV.V.III, 327). The human being and poet, entering that process among “enduring objects--electrons, protons, molecules, material bodies--at once sustain that order and arise out of it. The mathematical relations involved in presentational immediacy thus belong equally to the world perceived and to the nature of the percipient. They are, at the same time, public fact and private experience” (PR IV.V.III, 326). I am reminded here that “Experience realizes itself as an element in what is everlasting” (PR II.VII.III, 163). At the end of the chapter on “Measurement,” the argument is summarized:
That perception in the mode of presentational immediacy solely depends upon the ‘withness’ of the ‘body,’ and only exhibits the external contemporary world in respect to its systematic geometrical relationship to the ‘body.’ (PR IV.V.VI, 333, Olson’s inderlining)
Beneath this, Olson writes: “sta.” With Olson’s propensity to turn to etymology in order to make a word in the language move again, this is easily understood. It is the Indo-European base ‘sta’ of the word stand. To stand in the process--that is to say, in the vertical of one’s acts. It is also the root in Olson’s important word “stance,” as a good dictionary tells us: in such words as status, state, circumstance, constant, instant, destiny, exist (Onions, Oxford “stand”). Lovely. So, Olson builds the measure of ourselves within the process to stand against the wreckage which the human order has become. A few pages later in Process and Reality, Whitehead brings up the “contrivances for stunting humanity” and remarks:
It belongs to the goodness of the world, that its settled order should deal tenderly with the faint discordant light of the dawn of another age. Also order, as it sinks into the background before new conditions, has its requirements. The old dominance should be transformed into the firm foundations upon which new feelings arise, drawing their intensities from delicacies of contrast between system and freshness. (PR V.I. III, 339)In the margin, Olson writes: “The mercy of.”
This essay has endeavoured to show the ‘work’ of translating a metaphysics back into poetry, there to retie us to the real. I began with violets. Let me close with Olson’s poppies.
PEPC Digiital Edition of the "The Violets," pp. 196-228 from
Robin Blaser, The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser, edited by Miriam Nichols appears with the permission of the University of California Press.. (C) 2006 by the Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press. All rights reserved.