Sunday, December 13, 2009

You can take the poet out of the poems, but . . .

As you probably know, I’m nuts about John Olson. If you need evidence, please see my review last year here in the glade of his most recent collection of poems, my post this year on his poetics, and my joyful publishing here of his poetry-related essays (on aliteracy, extreme reading, and Cole, Ceravolo, and Coolidge, respectively) and several prose poems (“Imaginary Letters”).

For me, a certifiable Olson-nut, 2009 has been a damn fine year, both on the web and off. Of course, there’s been plenty of poetry. In addition to the “Imaginary Letters” mentioned above, two other large sets of prose poems were posted on-line – six here and five here – at Belgium’s Alligatorzine. There was also a single prose poem (the high-flowing “Smack That Pickle Against The Ribs”) published on-line at 5_Trope, and another bunch at the MeadowWobbler blog.

Still other prose poems appeared this year in print-only journals, including Denver Quarterly (DQ), Floating Bridge Review, The Hat 8, American Poetry Review, Bateau, and New American Writing 27. One poem from the latter is available on-line; it’s titled “Body Language” and has the stirring opening line, “I write like a criminal doing push ups in a cell.”

This past year also saw another Olson-nut (Ms. C. S. Bhagya) post a short appreciation of Olson’s work, and Black Widow Press announce that next summer it will publish Larnyx Galaxy, a 200 plus page collection of new Olson poetry.

This past year further featured a great interview of Olson, done by Noah Eli Gordon, published first in DQ and last month posted on-line at Jacket. Another interview was done by Timothy Henry for MeadowWobbler (click here then scroll one-third of the way down the page).Olson also published book reviews, including of Joseph Donahue’s Terra Lucida and, just this past week, Paul Nelson’s A Time Before Slaughter. Then there were an appreciation of Nathaniel Tarn (in Golden Handcuffs Review # 11), and (in the print-only Raven Chronicles) a tribute to a deceased friend who’d, among other things, brought him into a Washington State Prison to read poetry to inmates. Olson in 2009 also had his “Brought To A Boil: An Essay On Experimental Poetry” (first published in 2008) posted in a Dutch translation (“Tot het kookpunt, een essay over experimentele poëzie”).

On top of all that’s mentioned above, Olson this year published five essays on essentially non-literary subjects. These essays, by word count at least – all but one are 2,000 words or more in length – were by far the bulk of the work Olson published in 2009. I celebrate these essays here. I provide links to all (each is on-line, scroll your cursor over the titles listed below to go to each), as well as brief descriptions and excerpts. I also comment a bit on the poetry in them.

Yes, “the poetry” in them. For while the subject matter of Olson’s essays is non-literary, and traditional discursive prose is the general writing mode, there are in all of them poetic touches or ideas central to poetry, at least as written by Olson. The old adage proves true once again: you can take the poet out of the poems, but you can’t, thank the muse, take the poetry out of the poet.

I’ll start with the shortest of this year’s Olson non-literary essays, and end with the most recent, and longest of the bunch, the one on the Large Hadron Collider just published in The American Scholar. So, away we go:


“New Moon,” is a short (five paragraph) essay centered on the first moon landing in July, 1969. It includes a true-story vignette about Olson’s father and Buzz Aldrin (the second man on the moon) getting lost while driving on heavily wooded Bainbridge Island, near Seattle.

Olson, it turns out, has another personal quasi-connection to the moon landing project. As he explains:
My adolescence in the 60s had been witness to a long pageantry of lunar landing modules. My father worked at Boeing as an illustrator and engineer. I grew up in a house full of lunar landing modules, many of them constructed out of toothpicks and ping-pong balls.
It’s probably far-fetched, but maybe growing up in a house full of lunar landing modules explains a bit about the exploratory impulses in Olson’s poetry. In any event, because “New Moon” is an essentially bite-sized essay, I’m not going to comment more; check it out if you please.


“I and I” is an essay on (sorry if the visual fooled you!) identity, of approximately 2000 words. Olson sparks this piece by bringing together Bob Dylan, Proust, Wittgenstein, Meg Ryan in Prelude To A Kiss, Yeats, Shakespeare’s Henry V Part II, Celan, Socrates, the ostrenenie of the Russian Constructivists, and Rastafarian vocabulary. The overall effect is something like Montaigne’s essays, in which (to use Ian Johnston’s concise description) the title subject is less a demarcation and more a springboard for sometimes wide-ranging rumination.

Here’s a short excerpt from “I and I”:
It’s crucial to have the ability to stand back, get outside of one’s self, to get a real look at what is going on, and find your true self. “Art creates I-distantness”, remarked Paul Celan.

If you choose that you are going to be the artist of yourself, you’ll need to start fresh. In order to put the right colors on the canvas that is to be your new identity or choreograph the moves that are to be your new dance on the stage of life you need spontaneity. Instinct. Ardor. Élan.


You have to blow up all your assumptions, opinions, prejudices, and preconceptions. You have to empty yourself. Bring the edifice down. Start anew from the foundation up.
The series of single word sentences here – “Instinct. Ardor. Élan. [¶] Detonation.” – is a punchy poetic touch. Such runs, sharp jabs of words, are not unheard of in Olson’s prose poems. They, and the other short sentences, work not only to change the pace – staccato beats as compared to the more sinuous rhythms of longer, more complex sentences – but allow a kind of leap-frogging or stepping-stone path on which ideas can be jump one to another. And so they do here.


“On Matters Of Judgment” runs about 3000 words. It focuses on, or more precisely explores various facets of matters of judgment. Near the essay’s start, Olson relates a harrowing personal anecdote about getting lost while driving in a Seattle neighborhood, slowing down to figure it out, and then spotting:
. . . a young woman being chased by a man in his underwear around the muddy parking lot of a squalid apartment building. She was shouting “Help! Help! He’s going to kill me!” [ . . . ] I had to stop. As soon as I stopped, the woman ran toward my car, a small red Subaru. I had less than a second to decide whether to open the door or not, which I did. Praying at the same time that this wasn’t a car jack, I let the woman in. The man, surprisingly, also got in. He sat on the edge of the seat. At that point I ceased thinking at all-there was no time to think, I reacted by instinct. I pressed the accelerator lightly enough to move the car forward, the man’s bare foot scraping against the asphalt. There was a thud, the man disappeared from the seat, and I threw the car into second and sped away. I dimly remember checking the rear view mirror and seeing the man chasing us. . . .
This straightforward narration easily holds attention, given the scene-kinetics and adrenalizing circumstances. In the denouement that follows the climax of the story as set out above, Olson dovetails it all back to the question of judgment. He (as would anybody in that situation) had to make choices, and fast, including determining what he valued most as those instants zipped one after another. It’s an effective start to the essay.

Olson goes on to discuss other matters related to making judgments, including judgments involving intangible matters, legal judgments, aesthetic judgments (Olson references Immanuel Kant and the Kinshasa artist Chéri Samba), and judging poetry, including how that works for poets who submit work for publication, and get rejected.

Near the essay’s end, Olson addresses judging the meaning of a word. In doing so, he puts a fresh twist on Ezra Pound’s boast that, “the artist is the antenna of the race . . . .” Olson takes Ez’s idea and universalizes it, perhaps remembering the Comte de Lautreamont’s command, “Poetry must be made by all. Not by one.” The excerpt follows. I find it a lovely exaltation of what creative work and words can do for us:
What I hear and see can be put together in my mind to form a judgment about the meaning of a word. Not everything we experience can be so easily tasted and weighed. Our mental lives are volatile but crucial, forming a bridge between our inner existence and what we need to do to survive in the external world. Butterflies are equipped with very sensitive antenna. This is how they find nectar. We too are equipped with antenna. The antenna of art and language.


This essay of 2000 plus words swirls on the topics of music and memory. Olson time-travels via music videos on YouTube to several certain points or (my term, from Wordsworth) spots of time in the mid-1960s. Proust had a little madeleine, Olson has rock ‘n roll. Specifically, he writes about The Rolling Stones (“Tell Me”), The Zombies (“She’s Not There”), The Moody Blues (“Go Now”), Count 5 (the mental-dacious “Psychotic Reaction”), The Yardbirds ( “Heart Full of Soul”), The Ronettes (“Be My Baby”), Arthur Lee (the frenetic proto-punk “Seven & Seven Is”) , and others.

It’s too bad the essay as published does not include hyperlinks (my list above does). In any event, Olson offers some surprising, even amazing stories along the way, including about how he bought a Coke for the legendary Jimmy Page in downtown San Jose, and how he attended San Jose City College classes with John Byrne, the Count 5 lead singer, around the same time the song-title “Psychotic Reaction” was born.

You know what? I was a little kid in San Jose at this same exact time, just coming onto music via KLIV (the local AM station, 1590 on the dial). “Psychotic Reaction” hit big in late 1966 (#5 on the U.S. charts) and “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange” to hear that song again, even if the performance is lip-synced (the sound is the actual record, and I return to Olson’s essay right after this musical interlude):

Count 5
“Psychotic Reaction”

Olson writes a heck of paragraph (several in fact, but this one is especially choice) on YouTube itself, although really it’s not exactly about YouTube, at least not solely so. It’s more about the movement within the YouTube experience, and within ourselves. The poetry here shows in the leaps of Olson’s thought and language. This starts just a bit into the first sentence, and then takes off pretty much sentence-by-sentence. A lot of ground gets covered, including in one particularly short (four word), nouns only (no verb), sentence (that type of sentence is another kind of poetic touch sometimes found in Olson’s prose poems). The paragraph ends with a stunning to me, couldn’t be more evocative, description of fast and big change:
YouTubia is neither a region or nectar from the hives of Google but a waver, a warp, a flicker, a caprice akin to an awakening, a perception surprised by the unexpected, by a sudden aberration in the environment. A bright beautiful bug inching its way across a forest floor. Zinnias, bubbles, Flaubert’s parrot. We invent our lives as we go along. Our maps require constant maintenance. Today’s mountain range may be tomorrow’s canyon. The quick movements of a hummingbird in the lassitude of a Tucson afternoon may suddenly metamorphose into a noisy forklift on a loading dock in Albuquerque.
And here’s some more poetry (in discursive prose) from the essay; it’s Olson on living long and memories. I dig the reverse-anthropomorphization, and the surreal bringing together of opposites in the closing sentence:
. . . the longer we manage to stay alive, the broader and more numerous grow our memories. They become continents. Large entities that crack and shift due to a kind of mental tectonic plate shifting. There are quakes and hurricanes. Himalayan traumas and oceans with soft, alluring, hazy horizons.

The American Scholar is a quarterly magazine published since 1932 by the Phi Betta Kappa Society. Phi-Bates are folks that graduated at the tippy-top (generally the top ten percent) of their class in college. Rats, I must have just missed out. Probably got just one “C” too many . . . .

Anyway, it may surprise some to find a poet with an essay in this egg-heady sounding journal. But the ‘zine’s not that nerdy. Other articles in the current issue include a first-person report from Iraq, a report from a teacher about teaching The Merchant of Venice over three decades, a lively article on thinking and the brain, and a consideration of Elvis Costello’s cable-TV show.

In addition, Olson’s something of a natural for the ‘zine, and the particular subject (the CERN Large Hadron Collider) he writes about in “Strange Matter.” He actually has a track record of successfully mixing a layperson’s take on hard science with freer, more poetic ruminations. I remember, for example, his long piece, “Inebriate Of Air,” anthologized in Writing On Air (M.I.T. Press, 2003).

“Strange Matter” is almost equal parts current events, science, factoids (the term “quark,” the name for one of two basic particles (the other is the lepton), comes from James Joyce), and philosophic or analytic speculation and assertion. Olson presents it all in his neatly turned but unpredictable (as in, it’s alive) prose. Yes, a simile, a fairly standard literary device, can drop in when needed, but sometimes all it takes is a few commas and periods, and voilà and whoa-wow, Olson has showcased a big, grand thought, memorably stated, regarding (in the example below) consciousness and language. I can’t think of a better way to end this post than with such a beautiful piece of writing, and here it is:
What sort of laboratory would we need to fathom the mysteries of consciousness? How do we make sense of sense? Matter without thought is random matter, but thought without matter is as empty as a parking lot on Christmas Day. Our perceptions and memories give meaning to words, but the words themselves are representative of a higher order of being. They are the strange quarks of a giant quirk called Being.



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