Charles Olsons archaic postmodern

by Ralph Maud

Published in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #42 (September 2001).

Part 1 (of 3)


The mythological was the way I had come, finally, to put the sense I had that each of us obeyed and acted in. . .  by way of a series of multiple stances which, so far as I could see had not been admitted or investigated in any way adequate to their dimensions in us, and by way of all of us, outside us, the human landscape.

— Charles Olson, The Area, and the Discipline of, Totality in OLSON #10, p. 97.

The quality of the image is archaic when it possesses unmistakable mythological parallels.

— C.G. Jung, Psychological Types p. 524 (underlined by Olson)



he clarity of the chapter devoted to Charles Olson at the beginning of Perry Andersons The Origins of Postmodernity (1998) means that the primacy of Olson is established and we do not have to labor the fact that he was the first literary figure to use the term post-modern (preceded only by the historian Arnold Toynbee). Anderson, however, has only a limited view of Olsons achievement. He does not seem to have been aware of the account given by George Butterick in Charles Olson and the Postmodern Advance Iowa Review (Fall 1980) pp. 4-27. If he had been, he could not have thought of Olsons postmodern as merely political, a prophetic revolution in the classical tradition of the avant-gardes of prewar Europe (p. 12); he could not have turned readily from Olson to Frederic Jameson as though the one followed in any meaningful way from the other. Olsons visionary confidence was not misplaced, says Anderson, because Jameson came along: The Kingfishers could virtually be read as a brevet for Jamesons achievement (p. 75). This might, in a sense, be true, for The Kingfishers is at core an old-fashioned political poem; but it is vintage 1948-49, when, if the archaic postmodern was perhaps a twinkle in Olsons eye, he did not yet have the means to express it, and didnt there. By 1951 when he began using the word postmodern Olson had made new discoveries which had so much to do with the earliest history of mankind that in order to get it straight one has to add the adjective the archaic postmodern. Butterick in his 1980 essay was quite aware of this, as anybody would be who had access to the full record of the years 1950-53, up to the Institute of the New Sciences of Man at Black Mountain College. Butterick pointed out Olsons interest in the origins of man himself, in an effort to bring him beyond the modern (p. 12). The archaic is the indispensable other on the pathway from the present. The formula seems inescapable, says Butterick; the deeper man returns to his archaic, primordial, pre-rationalist condition, the further beyond modernism he advances (p. 12). Perry Anderson, while ready to admit that Olson was first in line in his use of postmodern, has not pressed himself to discover what is quite blatantly the truth: that Olson is not the first in the particular line that Anderson puts him in front of.

Andersons blind spots, however, are reassuring in the sense that it seems preferable to have Olson not yet understood than to be taken for granted in some dismissible way. In preparing this exploration into Olsons pre-Socratic, pre-Homeric interests, I looked at a recent book on one of his great guides, The Invention of Jane Harrison by Mary Beard (Harvard 2000), where Gilbert Murrays telling comment on his beloved Jane Harrison, thirty years after her death, is quoted. Her once radical ideas are now, he said, so proved and accepted that no one could work up much interest in them any longer (Beard p. 149). Is this Olsons fate as we stand thirty years after his death? Well, Gilbert Murray was, in the long run, wrong about Jane Harrison, witness Mary Beards interest, and Olsons for that matter. If the fame of any savant lasts a very short time (Murray on p. 213), we can counter that in Olsons case, anyway, he is a poet, and the poetry will (even though Im not at all sure that it should be the decisive factor) absent him from oblivion. Jane Harrison sought professional acceptance, and eventually got it. Her hypothesis that fertility ritual preceded and lies powerfully behind the Olympian gods was radical until it wasnt; it went from being considered ridiculous to being accepted as axiomatic and therefore negligible. Olson took such ideas, attached others, many others from other sources, and generalized the assertions as a moral stance toward the future, without having sought any audience that would turn it into academic dross. That is one use of the poetry: when Olson takes his stand as the difficult poet he is, then analytical approaches such as Perry Andersons are stymied, and Olson escapes the fate of the savant in the short run.

So it is as yet difficult to gauge what Olsons ultimate place might be in the history of ideas. His primacy with the word postmodern has not done his reputation much good to date. The term has just run away from him like the gingerbread man and has been seen everywhere in meretricious company. How could anyone at the moment associate postmodern with Olson when the word has been perverted far from his original meaning, indeed inverted into the opposite of what Olson meant by it? Postmodern is now generally understood to be modernism pushed to an extreme of alienation, where discordances and streams of self-consciousness allow no hauteur of identity on which to hang a coherent tale. For Olson, the postmodern was a reversing of the modern, not an intensification. The modern psyche did not feel that it belonged: this can be agreed upon. But postmodernism as now usually understood assumes that there is nowhere to belong to, whereas Olsons assumption, in his first formulation of an instantaneous perception, was that any POST-MODERN is born with the ancient confidence that he does belong (letter of 20 August 1951 in the Olson-Creeley Correspondence, vol. 7 p. 115). If Olson could have stopped the traffic right there, if he could have copyrighted his term postmodern and sued anybody who used it any other way. . . but ownership without power means nothing, and the gingerbread man ran. I cannot be bothered where he ran to, but if I could be the wily fox and snap him up so that we could start all over again with Olsons original postmodern, then I would consider myself in the service of a saner future.



hile the word postmodern went off in critical theory to mean something else, what Olson meant by the word uncannily thrived in real life. Olson meant to predict a path into the future, and lo! within a decade it happened as predicted; there was dancing in the streets! It is fashionable in some quarters to scoff at the 60s and those who hold it in awe. I was there, and I cherish the memories of an era in advance of its time. I know its dark side, but I also know that it was essentially good and was one stretch of a long path that will not, I hope, die.

Lets be more specific. The ethnopoetic endeavors of Jerome Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock, accumulating through the 60s (the first issue of Alcheringa was Fall 1970), demonstrated that the ethnic other, the tribal, was not out of reach. Proper attention to text and a confluence of feeling and knowledge could bring us close to those more a product of ritual and earth-need than well-brought-up educated persons. Alcheringa acknowledged (in #5) its descent from Olson by including previously unpublished poems pertaining to the earliest mythologies such as Sumerian and Hittite, and his The Art of the Language of Mayan Glyphs. These were part of the attempt, as the editors put it at the back of the issue, to show the source and mainstream of poetry in the tribal, archaic, subterranean, folkloric, oral, etc., adding that the same line to source continues into our own century in the conscious reliving of origins by profoundly contemporary innovators like Olson.

Nothing is quite so embarrassing, however, as too much success. Another trip to the librarys new bookshelf produced a copy of Sing With the Heart of a Bear by Kenneth Lincoln (University of California 2000), subtitled Fusions of Native and American Poetry 1890-1999. Quoting Wallace Stevenss We Are All Indians, the book gives thousands of examples of how the poets, at least, supposedly are. Lincoln also co-opts Olsons phrase, Secrets objects share, from Projective Verse. The phrase seems to him to reach down to the loam of America, into myths of stone, root, stream, beast, and human, sharing a native land (p. 232). On the contrary, this formulation of it seems exactly the kind of sprawling that Olson was specifically warning against in Projective Verse, which requires that the poet be contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, then he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share. Nothing grates more than a disciples sympathetic rephrasing of ones ideas. So we must go into what Olson meant that Lincoln (and other Native Americanists of the 80s and 90s) skewed. It will certainly have something to do with the tribal affection that was pervasive in the mid-60s and whose vitality enabled Olson to stand on the platform at the Berkeley Poetry Conference of July 1965 claiming that the poets were the real power in the land and that he, not LBJ, was President. Thus, within a generation, the prophecy of 1951 had been fulfilled. Echoing the letter to Creeley quoted above about the postmodern sense of belonging, Olson said there, referring to that moment in the Wheeler Hall of the University of California, This is what Creeley and I would call home.

To take another strand of the archaic postmodern, the archaic part of ourselves, the dream content and its connection to collective archetypes, Olson is revealed as a Jungian. He wrote to Jung in December 1952 in total admiration (more than for any living man), inviting him to Black Mountain College for the Institute of the New Sciences of Man (Selected Letters p. 181). Again, Olson of the 50s was prophetic in regard to the advances in depth psychology, all the good work that has been done by attention to the soul. I am thinking particularly of James Hillman, a quoter of Olson if not a cohort. But again we have the horrendous phenomenon of success, not only the o.d. on mind-expansion drugs, but all the mechanical dream analysis, primal screaming, and guru dependency that we are so familiar with. What a channelling we have today to brush aside to get to what Olson stood for and what these later others didnt.

Another strand is the mathematics of the infinitely small. Olson early had a sense of the importance of minute changes and feedback; he attended to Norbert Wieners Cybernetics (1948) while it was still in galleys. He took the term proprioceptive from Wiener, and in his 1959 essay Proprioception, eschewing anything of the mystical side of quantum theory, he sought to have us focus on the DEPTH implicit in physical being — built-in space-time specifics, and moving (by movement of its own). Otherwise, he wrote, neither the unconscious nor the self have a home (Collected Prose p. 182). Though Olsons Human Universe essay of 1951 asserted that there are laws. . . the human universe is discoverable, post-Darwinian biological sciences were, as I see it, floundering until quite recently, when the crucial breakthrough came with the concept of the fecundity of the complexity found at the edge of chaos. Complex systems can exhibit powerful self-organization. Such spontaneous order is available to natural selection: the author of these words is the biologist Stuart A. Kauffman of the Santa Fe Institute in the preface to his book, The Origins of Order (Oxford 1993), in which with full mathematical evidence he advances the laws of the human universe, the adaptive processes that mold systems with their own inherent order. When Kauffman came to present his thinking in a more popular form for Oxford University Press in 1995 he titled the book At Home in the Universe, without knowing how much that would have pleased Charles Olson.


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