[This transcription continues after a reading of Olson’s “In the Face of a Chinese View of the City” and a discussion of the word “paregoric” therein.]
TOM McGAULEY: . . . It even becomes more wonderfully and richly Chinese in the sense of the concern for a public life and office-holding, and also the quicker road to some kind of spiritual knowledge through drugs. Olson would have been deeply attracted and yet extraordinarily find that quite repulsive in the sense that it was too easy, too quick, and it was purely physical, that it opened neurologically, that it was ephemeral and it passed; whereas he had to read Avicenna’s stuff. Visionary recitals were also written, required huge discipline and high cultural moment.
STEIN: I’ve recently got involved in going back and reading Avicenna. Corbin presents this journey that Avicenna at the end of having developed his entire system actually can walk into, and there are translations now of the texts which develop that, and I was amazed about how coherent they are with what Corbin says. I’ve been studying Corbin for years but never looking at the rest of Avicenna. And for Olson, he knows that that is not his way. He’s not going to do — the “heaven of his soul” — you know that material? that alchemical material where he says, “This is no way for you to enter directly into an intellectual spirit.” He’s not going to be developing an intellectual system in that sense, so it’s certainly a different vision from Avicenna’s, but its scope and intention is linked. In the very late Maximus poems something happens at a certain point when the language really doubles over on itself. I think that ‘Three Towns” poem is sort of signal. Time starts going crazy in a fantastic way in the syntax. . .
[During the next while, Charles Stein is having difficulty finding the poem he wants in the big one-volume edition of The Maximus Poems edited by George Butterick for the University of California Press in 1983.]
. . . I can’t remember any more where all these things are. The amazing thing about Maximus IV, V, VI is that it didn’t have page numbers, so, you only could have a topographical relationship to it. You couldn’t have a serial relationship to it. I argued with Butterick about that one [the California edition]. I said, “How can you do this?” He said, “Well, it’ll never be accepted in the academy. We really need to make a place. . .” So they printed this thing with page numbers. I never know where anything is in this damn big book. I could just open the book and find everything in the original volumes. This with the page numbers, I don’t know where anything is. “The Three Towns”: Is there an index in here? Oh, yes, there is. . . . But no, you can’t find it that way.
BOWERING: It’s like the Don Quixote thing, right? where Don Quixote knows in Book II that he’s read Book I of Don Quixote. So there’s Olson in the late poems already saying, “Wait a minute, I’m the famous Charles Olson writing these Maximus poems.” What kind of effect is that?
STEIN: I think it’s an interesting question, but I think it’s part of the mask of Maximus that functions kind of magically to allow that to happen without it being a big interference, and certainly without it confining the actual development of the formal creation. That’s not what happens. He actually keeps breaking through everything he’s done. Nothing is a repetition of something he’s done before. Each time he’s breaking new ground even though there is this kind of accumulation of a certain kind of intensity. What I’m trying to say is that the feeling for me in the late ones, it’s like every word is like a stone.
QUASHA: That’s a zero point.
STEIN: And that happens after the syntax has piled up on itself, So then it can return to the absolutely concrete, like the Connecticut stone wall poems.
Here it is: “Poem 143” [Poem 143. The Festival Aspect.]:
has become divided
from the Universe. Put the three Towns
has become divided
from the Absolute, it is the times promised
by the poets. They shall drop delta
and lingam, all forms
and mystery. As well as all
naturalism. And literalness. The truth
is fingers holding it all up
underneath, the Lotus
is a cusp, and its stalk
holds up it all.
It isn’t even a burning point, it is a bow
of fingers shooting
a single arrow. The three Towns
are to be destroyed, as well as
that they are to be made known,
that they are to be known,
that there is no three Towns
now, that without three Towns
there is no Society. . .
And so forth. But it’s just the moving back and forth between the sense of what is the role of the future tense, what different kinds of present tenses are operating that, so a pressure is brought to bear on relationship between time and language that’s — that’s where your paregoric is.
MAUD: Well, that’s the kind of exasperation I like.
BOWERING: But, you know, when Chuck reads that out loud — every time you read those late Olson poems out loud you become aware how perfectly exactly right the poems are. A lot of people from the other side of the poetry tracks say, “Oh, it’s just scraps, it’s just notes”; but when you hear it. . .
QUASHA: They can’t hear it. I think that’s one of the motivations we were talking about, being willing to just release everything in terms of your concept of what a poem is supposed to sound like. There’s just no possibility of registering the precision of Olson unless you’re willing to do that. You have to be able to let go, just let the language actually show its shape, just that.
MAUD: Do you have another poem there?
STEIN: Well, I was looking for, like, the Connecticut stone wall. . .
BOWERING: That was Robert Frost, wasn’t it? [Laughter]
McGAULEY: So where is Olson today then?
STEIN: That’s what we were thinking we would talk about. We’ve announced that we are going to bring out The Special View of History, and since that proposes a cosmic image, really it’s to try to investigate the question of this incredible proposal that poetry bears possibility, that it contains possibility, that its issue is the further life of the work, the issue is not characteristic of being part of a culture or being part of a museum, but it actually carries something that can be carried forward, for what he would say that’s for use. And is there, not just in the poem but in his whole vision really, is there something that is useful — not in the sense that you read it, you understand it you make a judgment about it, but in the sense that you read it, you don’t quite understand it, you become engaged with it and it furthers your own engagement with being. That seems to me a question that can’t be answered ideologically. It can only be answered in one’s guts, fairly: is it still kicking in there? Is there still something that demands that you deal with it and try to move it? I know the answer myself is that it does. I couldn’t make up my mind that it isn’t true. . .
MAUD: The very word “Special” does that for me. What does it mean? You’ve got to live with that word for a long time.
STEIN: It seems to be somehow connected to the distinction between special and general relativity.
MAUD: And then there’s the idea of the species. Have we got anything definite on that word? Are you editing this, like?
STEIN: Well, no. What we’re stuck with is we’ve got to write an afterword. We really want to answer this question, and we’ve been kicking it around for a couple of years. The species itself is the context. Whatever happens is an unfolding of our context as our species. But that’s not an absolute sense; that’s just one of the things that’s put there as a way of focussing this kind of concrete vision.
MAUD: It’s an escalation on Pound’s definition of epic as involving the fate of nations; this is that the fate of the species is involved?
STEIN: Well, certainly. Isn’t that what the whole move into the cosmos is? It’s that you crack through what today is quickly called the closure, “the closure of Western metaphysics,” or whatever. Olson’s idea was that you had to crack through to the outside of the Greeks, and to the outside of the Americas; and so the Sumerians . . . Whatever it comes to in terms of its specifics, the history of history changes completely after he dies. Suddenly this central movement, the picture of culture as emanating from the Middle East and moving West, all that sort of disappears, that’s not a viable picture of the history of humanity any more, but it doesn’t change the image. . .
MAUD: Could you go into that a little bit, about it ending?
McGAULEY: “Lake Van measure” — on horses, and it spreads.
STEIN: Yeah, it’s that that’s a continuation of the movement of the tectonic plates. But the point is that that’s a stab at an image in which history is put into the context of earth history. Human history is put into the context of the whole species, not in the context of Indo-European man or whatever particular subdivision of it would be. And the whole point is that’s completely concrete, that geology and species identity. And I’m trying to figure out whether Olson issues have some bearing on the whole question of what it means that we know something about the human genetic code now. Obviously we’ve known something since the early 50s, but an awful lot more is known today than any time in Olson’s life. So that the fascination with the monogene, the single cell animal at the emergence of life, and that word “monogene” rhyming with a gnostic term for monadic spirit that he plays with (‘The monogene in collagen”) — all these things have very interesting extensions way after Olson, because collagen is the connective tissue, and the connective tissue is the real point of interest today in the whole territory of proprioception: that is the connective tissue, the fascia which covers the entire internal body and is now known to transmit electronic pulses and communicate information, so that it’s not even any longer clear that consciousness is bound to the nervous system, because there are information-containing signals that are electronic but not neurological, and it’s also to do with the fascia, which is basically collagens. That’s sort of just the game of Olson’s prophetic grabbing on to things. But to what degree we are read-outs of our genetic material? It’s a very very fraught question. The politics of medical research is sort of hoisted around that. So that focus on the “species” still has tremendous resonance. What kind of a cosmology is it that would locate that? Well, that’s always been the question for me: What is this mind that says these things? When I met him when I was younger and he was enormously impressive and he produced a kind of psychic charge that made me impossible as a human being for a while, as a matter of fact I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t necessarily believe it. I wasn’t completely swallowed by it, but I did need to think about it. It was impossible not to go on thinking about it. Impossible not to. It came with something that was not dismissable even though you didn’t understand it and there were people all around who were saying it’s all bullshit: “Olson’s this big wind-bag.” And I knew not inconsiderable people — around the same time, through accidents of association, I was having these conversations with Morton Feldman, the composer in the early days associated with John Cage (and was at Buffalo for many years), and you know, he said, “Olson’s just a big bully.” That was kind of Cage’s view too, that Olson was just sort of beating up on people to impose his views. I was always around these academic types who were: “Are you taking this stand against the iambic pentameter line?” William Packard, who later became so famous, he was at my high school, and he pulled me aside: “Do you agree with the attack on the iambic pentameter?” And so there were all kinds of possible ways out of it.
QUASHA: We were talking about it earlier. Maybe Olson checked out because it was too difficult; he saw the signs that he wasn’t going to be able to project in the same . . .