Inactual Olson

My understanding is that papers from the Olson conference mentioned here a few days ago will eventually be published in The Worcester Review. Carla Billitteri of the NPF editorial collective presented work in progress on “The Politics of the Inactual in Charles Olson’s Poetics” (the title in the program was a little different). Here’s her opening paragraph:

Olson discounts the very idea of nation throughout The Maximus Poems, and makes his case by ways of his own and other voices. Thus, for instance, in the concluding lines of a personal poem, “December 18th,” Olson indicts the idea of nationhood citing Melville’s Redburn: “We are not a narrow tribe of men … we are not a nation, so much as a world.” Nations, with their supposed — or, in so many cases, enforced — homogeneity of race, culture, ethnicity, and religion, are abstract “universals,” the product of “the big, false humanism” he systematically and relentlessly attacks in all his writings. Opposed to the coercive and homogeneous reality of nations is the fluid and heterogeneous reality of the polis. As envisioned by Olson, the polis is an imaginary construct that does not belong to any recognizable historical past, although the city of Gloucester is offered as a possible — but failed — model for such polis. “Gloucester,” Olson writes, “is heterogeneous and so can know polis / not as localism” — but Olson also makes clear that global capitalism breeds heterogeneity, and that this heterogeneity multiplies — rather than transforms — the capillary oppression of the nation-state, particularly the oppression of minority ethnic groups. Thus, the heterogeneity Olson finds in Gloucester partakes of these actual historical realities, but the polis does not, precisely because Olson’s polis is an imaginary construct, an inactual reality.

Here’s hoping all the work from the weekend sees print soon.

Olson in Worcester

This weekend the Worcester County Poetry Association celebrated the centennial year of Charles Olson (link). Though associated with the nearby city of Gloucester — the central location of The Maximus Poems — Olson was born and raised in Worcester. His relationship to the city was the subject of one of the weekend’s first presentations, by Jim Fay (an alumnus of the University of Maine English Department). There were several other participants with UM or NPF connections, including Ammiel AlcalayPierre Joris, and Anne Waldman (who have all read in the New Writing Series); Don Byrd, Richard Owens, and Donald Wellman (NPF authors and/or conferences attendees); and Carla Billitteri, a member of the NPF editorial collective and UM professor of English.

The last day ended with a film by Kim Spurlock of Olson’s In Cold Hell, in Thicket, a staging by Sarah Slifer of Olson’s dance Apollonius of Tyana, and a reading by Ed Sanders, one of the best of his I’ve ever heard. In addition to poems and reminiscences of Olson, Sanders read and sang — in English and Greek — a newly discovered poem by Sappho. He also performed his updated “Bartleby the Scrivener” (a recording of which is available on Be Free: The Fugs Final CD Part 2).

There will be another celebration of Olson’s Centennial in June, at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (link). The actual birthday will come at the end of the year, on December 27th.

Considerations cont.

Following from yesterday’s note on editing …

George Bornstein, one of Yeats’s editors and a pioneer in bringing textual theory to the center of literary scholarship, articulates three key considerations for an editor to work through in preparing a collected edition: contents, text, and arrangement. The issues might seem straightforward to anyone who has not grappled with a particular case, so Bornstein always offers judicious examples. In “What Does a Collected Edition Collect? Mapping Modernist Poetry” (Paideuma 35.1-2), the examples are Yeats, Pound, and Moore.  The NPF was fortunate to publish this essay, originally a plenary talk before the Society for Textual Scholarship, as it is, perhaps, the most succinct presentation of Bornstein’s principals. Here is an abridged version of the essay’s opening paragraph:

Collected Editions permeate our culture to an extent that makes them seem somehow natural. Go down to any book superstore and you will find shelves containing such gatherings of our major and even no so major writers. Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson, Browning, Eliot, H. D., or Stevens jostle with contemporary poets like James Merrill or Nikki Giovanni and with past ones who hover on the edge of the canon, like those late Victorians Rudyard Kipling or Edward Lear. In English, the idea of such editions goes back to Chaucer, at least, and becomes more prominent in the Early Modern period (formerly the Renaissance), with the opposing editions of Ben Jonson and of Shakespeare. Jonson assembled his Works himself, in a frank attempt to set his canon. … In contrast, Shakespeare’s First Folio was assembled by others posthumously, again with a view towards canon-setting. … That second kind of edition is what I focus on here. I seek to de-familiarize them to explore not only their nature but also their limits, and hence the textual and other ideologies that they encode and transmit.

And here are Bornstein’s three key considerations — you will have to find a copy of the issue for the examples, which are, of course, the essay’s heart and soul:

The first step in demystifying collected editions of Modernist poets is to point out that they are usually selected editions. …

Further, modern collected editions usually collect (or rather, select) linguistic forms of the text only, excluding material features of the text even when those features directly affect meaning. Aside from a few largely ornamental facsimile plates, such enterprises define the poems solely in terms of their language, with little attention to such bibliographic codes as cover design,page layout, illustrations, and the like. …

Besides being selective in procedure and purely linguistic in orientation, modern collected editions usually print only one version of a text, even when the differences become so major we might call the results separate poems. …

Whatever a collected edition collects, it must place those objects in some order. But that order results from choice by the editor among competing models. Should it be the order of composition, of first publication,of an individual volume, of a collected whole set by the poet in a testamentary act,orone of the editor’s own devising? each choice itself raises myriad issues and affects interpretation of author and works.

What Bornstein calls for, finally, is “an edition that exists in tension with its own principals,” editing work that indicates alternatives, making a reader “aware of other justifiable presentations … while laying bare the principles of the editors’ own.”


A collection of 42 poems and two prose pieces, published by Curtis Faville's L Publications in 1975

Curtis Faville, editor with Robert Grenier of The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, has posted a three-party essay on his blog, The Compass Rose, on his relationship to Eigner’s work (part one), his approach to editing the work (part two), and his thoughts on Eigner as person (part three). These considerations form a sequel to his essay in the fourth volume of Collected Poems, “The Text as an Image of Itself.” That essay situates Eigner within a broader context: page design and poetics after the invention of the typewriter. All of this makes for a generous addendum to his editorial work.

Two competing ideas stand out to me in these prose notes. On the one hand, the poem as material fact. On the other, the poem’s printed text as interpretation. The first idea is emphasized in “The Text as an Image of Itself,” where the particulars of Eigner’s process are cited as a constraint on the editors’ exercise of aesthetic will:

All decisions regarding type-face, composition and layout are aesthetic, though they may masquerade as practical requirements: legibility, size, density, and so forth. In the case of Eigner’s work, determined by the manual typewriter’s equivalent spacing, and the traditional letter-size sheet, these are a priori frames, within which other problems must be mediated. Eigner’s text itself is, therefore, in every sense, an “image” of itself — or, in William Carlos Williams’s sense, “the thing itself” — opaque and obdurate. It is not a version of something, but the thing itself.

The second idea is emphasized, with an important qualification, in part two of the blog essay:

There is no evidence to suggest, finally, that Eigner wished that the overall shapes — the envelope or spacial outline of his set poems — were to be positioned precisely as they appear on his original holographs. Neither the corrective annotations and adjustments, nor the organic waywardness of his “journey” across the page, were intended to be slavishly replicated; nor could they be.

The qualification here is that Faville distinguishes the shape of the poem as set by the typewriter from the disposition of that shape on the page. The latter is subject to interpretation; the former ought to be preserved. In this sense, the balance is clearly tipped toward material fact. Still, having allowed for an adjustment of one aspect of Eigner’s “a priori frame” (i.e., “the traditional letter-size sheet”), the possibility arises that a departure from the other — from “the manual typewriter’s equivalent spacing” — might also be managed, at least under certain circumstances. If the page is not crucial, perhaps the proportionate spacing isn’t either. A different edition might legitimately tip the balance in the other direction, toward interpretation.

The issues Faville raises are familiar to me from Emily Dickinson scholarship, where competing notions of faithfulness — of what constitutes a substantive or accidental feature of the text — have led to radically different transcriptions of the manuscripts. What those radical differences teach, moreover, is that a definitive edition is not, finally, possible. What is possible: an edition where the decisions are explained and options shared, so that readers can share in the editing as well as in the poetry.

Which makes Faville’s reflections especially welcome.

News from Acton

If there’s a poetry prize that makes me feel warm and fuzzy, it’s the Robert Creeley Award, given each year since 2002 in Acton, Massachusetts. This is the town — it was West Acton, actually — where Creeley spent much of his youth. Some background on the prize is given at the website for the Robert Creeley Foundation:

Acton rediscovered Creeley’s connection to the town through his chance meeting with Acton resident and poet Robert Clawson in late 2000. On April 11, 2001, Creeley returned to Acton to read to and interact with students in the Acton Boxborough Regional High School. Acton officially proclaimed this day to be “Robert Creeley Day,” and thus began the annual awarding of the “Robert Creeley Award.” Each year, the award winning poet reads to a community audience and a student audience.

Photo by Matthew Modoono

This year’s winner, announced in September, is Gary Snyder, and last week he gave his reading. There’s a newspaper story on the event at, with a YouTube video attached and five photos by Matthew Modoono — including the one to the right, which shows Penelope Creeley and Snyder embracing. From the story:

Underneath a large photo of her husband in a moment of mirth, Penelope Creeley — Robert Creeley’s wife of more than 30 years, and a member of the Robert Creeley Foundation — introduced poet Gary Snyder, Pulitzer prize winner and the 10th annual recipient of the Robert Creeley Award.

In an emotional greeting punctuated by applause, she invited audience members to pay their respects at Creeley’s grave at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. “He’d be delighted by the company,” she said.

Snyder’s association with the NPF has been much more attenuated than I would have expected given his Poundian imprint, but several fine essays on his work have appeared in Sagetrieb. Here’s an excerpt from Tom Lavazzi’s “Pattern of Flux: Sex, Buddhism, and Ecology in Gary Snyder’s Poetry,” from 1989:

Ontologically, Snyder’s poetry presents patterns and figures of flux. … In “Night,” the sleeping lovers lying with “Twined legs” and “hair all tangled together” unconsciously mimic what Wilhelm Reich called “orgonomic functional thinking …  frozen motion”: form as movement, which was often expressed, for Reich, in the “basic form” of the “sexual embrace.” In the poem, this interlocked state is only temporary; the sun is soon “hitting the shades”; a record has been left “soundlessly spinning,” suggesting that beneath any formalized musical expression, is the essential mandala rhythm of movement and change, combinations and recombinations, like legs crossed and recrossed as lovers turn in sleep. The music stops, but the movement, the rhythm, continues. The voice of the poem, which slips out of the individual consciousness of the sleeping poet-lover, holds both images in mind — the intertwined bodies and the spinning record — and threads through the whole scene and series of events (the night of lovemaking, the house left in disarray, the first strands of morning light), pushing toward a larger synthesis: the knowledge that we are only temporary gatherings of energy (the sex/love continuum is only one of its manifestations) and that at every moment we are part of a larger entity that flows through us and that we ultimately flow back into.

Of Proper Margins…

Steven Fama’s blog, the glade of theoric ornithic hermetica, has recently featured several posts on the new Collected Poems of Larry Eigner. One of these was a manifesto on margins. And if “manifesto” seems strong in this context, consider the following passionate sentences:

Dear readers, I feel as if I’ve been had, as if a grand fraud has been foisted on the world of poetry. It’s an extreme disappointment, a real outrage. It’s an error so grievous, with respect to Eigner’s magnificent poems, that it almost makes me cry.

Editors Curtis Faville, Robert Grenier, and the publisher (Stanford) should be ashamed. It’s so bad – and I’m not kidding one bit – the publisher should recall all the books, pulp the entire edition, and start over. It’s that bad, it really is.

The argument, in brief, is that Eigner’s typescripts show a penchant for wide left margins, and that this is an intrinsic feature of the work, something a print edition should respect. But go read the whole post (and read the comments too — they include a response from Curtis Faville).

The emphasis on margins brought back to mind Walt Whitman’s very different perspective on white space, preserved for posterity by Horace Traubel (whose service to Whitman has a parallel of sorts in Robert Grenier’s decades-long devotion to Eigner … but that’s a topic for another occasion). Whitman’s thoughts are spread across more than one volume of With Walt Whitman in Camden, but Gary Schmidgall has very helpfully redacted them to a single paragraph in Intimate with Walt: Selections from Whitman’s Conversations with Horace Traubel, 1882-1892 (a book I heartily recommend, even to those who have worked through Traubel on their own). The title here, and the narrative bridges, are by Schmidgall:

Of Proper Margins and Stubbornness

This exchange occurred when Traubel arrived to find Whitman had pasted up a sample of the margins he wanted for November Boughs: “That may given them an idea — but I mainly leave it to them.” Horace breaks in: “What nonsense, Walt: you mainly leave it to nobody: you want it your way and you’ll have it that way though the heavens fall.” Walt smiles and replies: “How did you find that out? you’re damned cute — too damned cute to live!” Whitman finally says of the margins: “We want the margin the narrowest that comports with decency … not as broad as he chooses but as close as he chooses: like the hair on the head of a prize fighter: close enough to get rid of superfluities but not close enough to expose the scalp.” Earlier, this little debate transpired when Traubel asked Whitman why he “resented margins in books.” “Do I?” he responded, and asked Horace’s opinion, which was: “I like open-spaced leaded liberal margined books. … For the same reason maybe that I like lots of windows in a house: they let the air in and the light.” Whitman: “It’s a picturesque argument even if it fails to convince me.” Horace: “I didn’t present it as an argument but as an impression. I couldn’t prove it. I could only feel it.” Whitman, relenting a little: “I admit that ‘feeling’ goes way beyond ‘proving’ most of the time.”

Does that ever capture the feeling of the conversations!

On another note, Fama left a very kind comment yesterday, so let me return the favor: his recent collation of “remarks by poets on Larry Eigner’s work” and his followup “bouquet of Eigner’s own words” are two of the best introductions to this poet you will find.

Four Books Larry Eigner Would Have Liked

Most everyone who loves Larry Eigner’s poetry will have heard the news by now: Stanford has brought out four large-format volumes of Eigner’s collected poems, some 1,800 pages in all (link). The books were edited by Robert Grenier and Curtis Faville, and needless to say it was a labor of love. An extraordinary labor, all the more so because undertaken without institutional support. The four volumes gather up more than 3,000 poems and establish for the first time a complete chronological sequence. The first volume includes a photographic reproduction of Poems by Laurence Joel Eigner, an eighth grade class project; the last gives a representative sample of Eigner’s typescripts, the beauty and interest of which can be glimpsed from the four dust jackets reproduced on this page (click on the images for larger views). The books are expensive, yes. They list for $150 at the publisher’s website (Amazon is presently offering a 20% discount). But then, the course books for a single college semester generally cost much more — and Eigner’s work is a whole education. It was for me.

This will be the first of at least a few posts on the subject. For now, I only want to share my first thought about the books, after sitting with one of them open on my lap.

It’s actually less a thought than a memory.

Once, when I was visiting Eigner, he was wheeling around his living room with a paperback copy of The Maximus Poems on his lap, which — when I asked him about it — he began to criticize. Not the poem, mind you, but the physical object. The book just couldn’t stay open on its own. It needed two hands; without that, it flopped shut. And Eigner didn’t have all that much dexterity, because of his cerebral palsy. One of his hands — I think it was the left — was curled; he had to use his wrist to turn pages. (Which had a tendency to make the paper wrinkle. You could always tell a book Eigner had been reading, even when it was shut: the whole thing had a worn look, like an article of clothing that someone had slept in. I heard tell once of a rare-book dealer who came to scout out Eigner’s library, and went away in dismay. Myself, I like to think of those wrinkles as a form of marginalia, as something that added value.)

A lot of commentators have noted Eigner’s unique use of the page, and the importance of that use for his poetics. What hasn’t been noted, as far as I can tell, is that the pages were almost always loose. Translating those loose pages into a bound book — which is something Eigner wanted — requires as much thought from the editor and publisher as the translation of Eigner’s typing into print.

Anyway, all four volumes of The Collected Poems stay open on their own. Which is something Eigner would have liked. If a paperback edition ever appears, I hope Stanford springs for a sewn binding, so the books will continue to stay open. It’s a minor point, but it speaks directly to the issue of use — a central issue for Eigner.