Thursday, May 28, 2009

John Olson, poet(ics)

Daniel Boone + Glittering Atoms
Delirium on Paper
Tristram Shandy
Rock ‘n Roll / Laziness / Gazing out the Window
Amusement Parks!

John Olson at the Seattle Center Fun Forest
photo by Alice Wheeler

The new Denver Quarterly (Volume 43, Number 3 (April 2009)) – hereafter “DQ” – includes a terrific interview of John Olson, a poet who’s been a huge favorite since early 2001, when I began reading his work after Philip Lamantia told me that Olson’s poems were “extraordinary.” Along with the interview, the current DQ also includes three new Olson prose poems.

The interview was done, and smartly, by Noah Eli Gordon. Olson and Gordon did the interview by e-mail, meaning that both were working in a format – the written text – in which they possess considerable skills. It runs about fourteen pages.

Olson begins by talking about his move – more than forty years ago now – from drugs to poetry. It’s a story that includes Aldous Huxley, exploring uncharted territories (“the frontier was that sprawling ineffable thing in our skulls called the mind and I wanted to be Daniel Boone”), a horrific acid trip (he believed he was a bodiless “cloud of molecules,” somewhat like when the Star Trek transporter turns crew members into “glittering atoms”), Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Rimbaud’s “Drunken Boat” (after reading it, Olson asked, “How do I achieve that level of delirium on paper . . .?), surrealism, nonsense, and revelation.

And that’s all in the answer to just the first question!

In the answers to Eli Gordon’s fifteen other questions, Olson discusses poetry as the ultimate anti-commodity, Baudelaire’s miraculous “undulations of reverie,” the prose poem as a vehicle for replicating consciousness, his recently published Souls of Wind (a novel of Rimbaud, the American West, and Billy the Kid), how it happened that he began publishing poems only in 1989, when he was more than 40 years old, and much, much more.

I highlight below a few comments made by Olson in the interview that for me explain some of what’s so wild and wonderful – and what I love – in his writing. Where appropriate, I include short excerpts from the prose poems by Olson published in the new DQ, and add other bits of fun or information. I end with an epilogue that provides some important context and nuance for the matters I’ve discussed.

Sound all right? All right!


The first comment I think is particularly illuminating involves Olson being, to use his term, “a word-oholic. The more I write, the more I need to write.”

Olson in this regard explains that he sometimes envies poets who write highly condensed pieces, and is“astonished at how powerful just a handful of words can be.” However, he goes on to say that particular approach is not his, at least not currently:
For whatever reason, I tend to go in the opposite direction. Slather words all over the page. The writer I tend to identify with the most is Lawrence Sterne, Tristram Shandy in particular. The prodigality of that book, the way it meanders and delights so unabashedly in its verbosity, is magnificent. Lush and equatorial. Maybe someday I’ll turn around and go in the other direction. Distillation, rather than dilation, will be my primary ambition.
Well, who the heck else looks to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman these days, and (since you know the answer to that question is “practically nobody”) why the heck not?

Two hundred fifty years (on the dot this year, folks!) after its first section was first published, Tristram Shandy remains one of the oddest books ever. The novel is 500 pages long, organized into nine books that each contain numerous chapters. It’s intentionally misnamed (the book concerns not Tristram but his father and uncle plus other minor characters), and digresses, mostly with intelligence and sometimes with great humor, upon any and almost every incident or casual remark. There are also hyphens––or dashes––galore, lines of asterisks, a chapter or two with no text at all, a page of marbled paper, and a page purposefully left blank (for the reader to write out his or her own words!).

Let me put it like this: four pages into Tristram Shandy, the narrator declares that in writing the book he will not obey “any man’s rules that ever lived.”

That there is a pretty good model, I think, if experiment and fun are what turns your pages.

And so, as with much in Tristram Shandy, Olson’s writing can meander, digress, dilate, and just plain play, as in for example the first five sentences (and the title itself!) of the page-long “From Faucet to Fjord in One Easy Leap,” one of his prose poems in the new DQ:
They say an immersion in faucets can lead to cognition. An
immersion in breathing, however, is a larger fascination and will
lead one to ponder the border between the organic and inorganic,
chrome and rubber, skin and bone, life and death, and the illusion
of separation, because all things are patterns of energy. Here, for
instance, is a piece of air called a word, and here is an embassy in
pine for the ambassadors of fjords, and their cluster of beards. Their
beards keep them warm when they study the fjords. When they
glide through the fjords in their ships, studying the formations of
rock, the echoes of sounds, voices, the lapping of water, the cry of
birds, the whirl of atoms and molecules, which is a sound like mud,
when it is resting, and no one is walking in it.

Although Olson tends to identify with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, his statements in the interview suggest many other influences as well. Two or three dozen can easily be identified, either explicitly mentioned or strongly suggested. But Olson specifically mentions two influences that to me seem particularly instructive about his writing. The first relates to what I believe is a certain quality of his mind’s and poetry’s energy:
I should . . . mention rock ‘n roll. It has been a profound influence on my life. Bo Diddley doing “Who Do You Love,” or Koko Taylor doing “Wang Dang Doodle,” is an approximation of the sublime for me. High octane.
Yes yes for Bo and Koko! Beloved reader of this glade-blog post, shall we do a Tristram Shandy here, and digress (and over-use hyphens and dashes too)?

Well—dear reader– yes––yes––we shall. And so–––for your pleasure–––Bo Diddley––––and then–––KoKo Taylor–––– “approximations”––to repeat Olson’s words––“of the divine”:

Bo Diddley
“Who Do You Love?”
(original recording, with slide-show)


KoKo Taylor
“Wang Dang Doodle
(vintage black + white (sound sync a bit off, alas))
(but what a song!)


In addition to rock ‘n roll, Olson also specifically mentions another influence that I think is particularly illuminating regarding the type of energy in his mind and poems:
Another strong influence is laziness. Spacing out. Gazing out the window.
Now that’s an admirable admission! And a wise approach too, one I should indulge in more often. There’s a persuasive philosophy of laziness, well-explicated in classic books such as Paul LaFargue’s The Right To Be Lazy (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Co., 1907) with it’s opening denunciatory declaration:
A strange delusion possesses the working classes of nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway. The delusion drags in its train the individual and social woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny.
and Josef Pieper’s Leisure–The Basis of Culture (English translation 1952), which teaches that leisure is “one of the foundations of Western Culture,” a fact that’s denied “in the world of planned diligence and ‘total labour’” which “overvalu[es] the sphere of work.” Pieper also explains:
. . . leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.

[ . . . ]

Leisure is not the attitude of the mind of those who actively intervene, but of those who are open to everything; not of those who grab and grab hold, but of those who leave the reins loose and who are free and easy themselves almost like. . . falling asleep, for one can fall asleep only by ‘letting oneself go’.
Pieper’s remarks about being mentally “receptive” and “open to everything” suggest why poets, or at least the great ones, must be lazy and leisurely in this way. Poets must be ready; as André Breton insisted, poets do not see, they hear:
I have objected before to the label ‘visionary’ being ever so freely applied to poets. Great poets have been ‘auditories,’ not visionaries.
Breton’s notion of poets as “auditories” reminds me, and probably you too, of Jack Spicer’s idea of the poet as a radio receiver or medium, with poetry transmitted in or dictated through him or her. Spicer lectured that to be a receiver or medium, the poet must clear and empty the mind. Not coincidentally in this regard, Spicer was a world-class devotee of leisure, what with his ritual of whiling away afternoons on a bench at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park with a newspaper, his radio, some books, and perhaps a six-pack of Rainer Ale and some friends.

Olson in the DQ interview mentions “spacing out” and “gazing out the window.” Those are wonderful and generally effective means to (per Spicer) clear the mind, of becoming (per Breton) an auditory or (per Pieper) receptive and open to everything. I mean, there’s just no question about it, we all need to gaze out windows far more often, and to do so for a good long spells. So here you go: please take a gaze, and please take as long as you’d like:

Apropos to all this is the Olson poem in the new DQ titled “Things to Do in Our Apartment.” In about a page and one-half, Olson suggests three dozen or so things that can be done at the home he shares with his wife and cat. Some would require considerable effort (e.g., “Read a book”), but others fit neatly with a poetics in part based on relaxed, non-directed, daydreamy cerebration. Consider please the half-dozen suggested activities with which the poem ends:
Take a nap on the couch.
Eat a graham cracker.
Vacuum the carpet.
Do the first thing that comes to your mind.
Invent a holiday.
Lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling.
That last suggestion — to stare at the ceiling — is especially grand. It’s similar to Leonardo Da Vinci’s advice to “stimulate and arouse the mind” by looking at walls spotted with stains or made with mixtures of rock. Da Vinci said that by doing so you will see “an infinite number of things . . . .” What’s true for walls goes here for ceilings too.

If you’d like, please take a break from this here glade, lie down on the floor, and look up.

For those who may not have a floor or ceiling handy, here’s a photo of a ceiling — a cherry-picked ceiling, I do admit — but gorgeous nonetheless. Please take a long, spaced-out look:

Antonio Gaudi, Casa Batlló (detail of ceiling)


Also mighty interesting in the interview are Olson’s ideas on “exactly what poetry is.” He’s pretty explicit: invoking the phrase coined by Henry Miller that became a Lawrence Ferlinghetti book title, Olson says poetry is “A Coney Island of the Mind.” It’s a notion Olson relates to his love of speed, Charles Olson’s idea of the poem as a “high energy construct,” Pierre Reverdy’s formula that the more distant and true the juxtaposition, the stronger the poetic image, and – yes, as you may have guessed – amusement parks (he states that he’d like to do a coffee table book on the rides!).

Olson admits that this kind of poetry – the kind of poetry he writes – “may not be everybody’s cup of tea,” and explains:
A lot depends on one’s attitude toward amusement parks. The lights, the crowds, the energy, the weirdness. The wonderful discordancy of gears and machinery in play for no other purpose than to create screams and excitement. [ . . . ] Whirls, twirls, bumps and collisions. Sudden shifts, accelerations, dizzying velocities.
Well, Im crazy for amusement parks, along with carnivals, fairs, festivals, jamborees, jubilees, and all else that’s similar, including saturnalias (although sad to say I’ve never been invited to one of those!). And so it’s no wonder that I go nuts for Olson’s poetry, and the wilder the better. Right now, I’m loving madly the page-long “Beet to Beet,” the last of the three new Olson poems in DQ. Here are ten sentences from near the poem’s middle; they’re quite a ride:
Memory is an aperture to open in cypress. Zeppelin is more
philodendron. Only a fire could mark this dent. This paint. This
yellow wall. Scan screened through a waterfront it is not a crocodile
it is a scooter in scales. Here comes everybody with a fistful of
haphazard castles and a sharp pencil. Who is in control of these
words, you, me, or each other? As a yardstick of umbrage, a
milkweed is no certain awl. Tartan, in other words, must be a
Christmas of antiseptic rhythms. Wool, will, and wilderness. . . .
Writing like that sends me! So too does Olson’s acknowledgment, via the rhetorical question in the middle of the excerpt, of the importance of the reader. As he has privately written, “words are dead on a page until a pair of eyes and a quick imagination bring them alive.”

Here are a two videos borrowed from you-know-where that are analogs, if not precisely to Olson’s actual sentences, then to how his words excite, speed, light up, whirl and twirl, energize, and come alive in my mind. Yep, and as you probably guessed, the images and sounds are from amusement parks! They
re extremely short (about 30 and 20 seconds, respectively), because I know you’re busy. Have fun, and please read the epilogue follows:

Coney Island Cyclone
Mid-Ride Blue-Sky Screamin


Triple Play Ride
Night-Time Weird-Angled Lit-Up Screamin’-Fun!



My focus on particular interview answers risks overemphasizing those matters. Even if Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” overstates the complexity of human personality, no one – and no poet’s writing – can be encapsulated by a few details. The DQ interview contains dozens of details, and Olson has elsewhere provided dozens more. Although the comments highlighted above are key, they are not exclusive.

In addition, the comments highlighted above in certain respect should not be considered the full story even on the matters they address. On certain points, other comments by Olson provide additional nuances and context, which should be taken into account.

For example, while there’s no doubt that rock ‘n roll is a huge influence on Olson, I would suggest that Bo Diddley and KoKo Taylor probably are not the only musicians in that genre whom he considers “approximations of the divine.” In other interviews (including in the The Jivin’ Ladybug, available on-line (click here), Olson’s said that first hearing, circa 1965, Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” blew his mind. He’s also indicated that the Rolling Stones (particularly their early albums) and John Lee Hooker are big favorites. In addition, in the DQ interview itself, he discusses the grunge rock of Nirvana and the “long, plangent, pensive chords” of Dylan Carlson, guitarist for Earth, the extraordinary Drone-Doom rockers from Seattle. Finally, I think it’s fair to say there’s plenty of music besides rock that influences Olson: he has poems titled “Contrabassoon,” “Bagpipe,” and “Xylophone,” and other poems mention composers or performers of all kinds, including for example, Schubert, Mozart, Edith Piaf, and (David Lynch alert!) Rebekah Del Rio singing “Llorando.”

Also, when Olson talks about the influence of laziness, the flip-side should be kept in mind, which is that he’s an incredibly productive writer-worker. In The Jivin’ Ladybug interview, Olson explains how he uses notebooks, stating that they are crucial (“they provide a space of complete freedom”), and that he “fills” them. Three years ago, Olson’s notebooks were displayed as part of a group show at the Henry Art Museum at the University of Washington (the exhibition was of work by recipients of The Stranger’s (the Seattle weekly paper) annual genius awards. The reviewer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the city’s major daily newspaper, called Olson’s “3,345 notebooks” filled “in a cramped hand” one the highlights of the exhibition. That’s a lot of notebooks, a lot of writing, a lot of work. It’s the yang to the yin of “spacing out.”

Finally, I consider Olson’s calling poetry “A Coney Island of the Mind” (and his likening of his poems to amusement parks) as variants on other metaphors or descriptions he’s used for his work. For example, he also says in the DQ interview that he likes to compare his prose poems:
. . . to clouds. The philosopher Karl Popper once said, ‘life is not a clock, it is a cloud.’ Clocks are predictable: mechanical, orderly, and rational. Clouds are capricious. Their being is circumstantial. Clouds are the products of multiple events: temperature, humidity, wind direction, altitude. No two clouds will ever be alike. It is the same with experience. Experience is always interactive. The prose poem is obviously the best vehicle for simulating life and consciousness as they are experienced.
In another variation on what he believes his poems are, Olson in The Jivin’ Ladybug interview emphasized that he wants his poems:
to be like gadgets, like those fabulous machines in Raymond Roussel’s Impressions D’Afrique and Locus Solus. A machine made of words, as William’s put it. But not a coffee grinder. Not a clock or monorail. Nothing efficient, and certainly not utilitarian. Something bizarre and sublimely gratuitous, like a Rube Goldberg device.
All of these constructs – amusement parks, clouds, fabulous machines a la Roussel, and Goldbergian devices – are facets of the same way of seeing or imagining poetry, I think. And all of them share a foundational principle: “The underlying idea,” as Olson has said (in The Jivin’ Ladybug interview), “is that language, in and of itself, is the primary spectacle.”


End notes (further information and sources):

The Denver Quarterly has a website (click here to go), but is a print journal. Although it might be found in some bookstores, snail-mail appears to be the most reliable way to get a copy. Send a check for $10.00 to: Denver Quarterly, University of Denver, Denver, CO, 80208.

Five new Olson prose poems were published just this past week, at Click here to read them.

You can visit the “John Olson (poet and writer)” Wikipedia page by clicking through anywhere in this paragraph. That page includes links to many on-line poems and essays, and a list of Olson’s published books.

Philip Lamantia’s statement about Olson’s prose poetry was made to me in a phone conversation, April 25, 2001.

The Pieper quotations are from Leisure–The Basis Of Culture (New York: Pantheon Books Inc., 1951) at 25-26 and 52-53.

The Da Vinci quotations are from Edward MacCurdy, editor, The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci (New York: George Braziller, n.d.), at 873-874.

The André Breton quotation is from his essay “Golden Silence,” which is collected in Free Rein (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 995), at 74.

On Jack Spicer and radio receivers and clearing or emptying the mind, see Peter Gizzi, editor, The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan University Press, 1995) at 7 and 14. On Spicer and Aquatic Park, see Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Poet Be Like God (Wesleyan University Press, 1998), at 101-102 and 287.

The Olson quotation about words being dead on the page until made to live by a pair of eyes comes from an e-mail to me, May 27, 2009.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. The interview will also be in a future issue of Jacket, but maybe not for a year or so...


na said...

And then you read him...and his words made you write more words!

Logical...but your own energy made his poems more alive and it's lovely to witness,


Heller Levinson said...

Wonderful presentation, Steve, really brims Olson to life -- as if he needed any help --, great too the Bo Diddley & other inclusions.

Anonymous said...

Great that there's more Olson to look forward to! For now gonna pluck Echo Regime, Free Stream Velocity, Eggs & Mirrors, Oxbow Kazoo off the shelf and get reacquainted.