Friday, May 15, 2009

Response: Charles Olson

Tzivia Halperin

Throughout his interview with Elizabeth Alexander, Stephen Colbert utilized his brash humor in order to disseminate ideas on her poem, “Praise Song for the Day” and on poetry in general. During the course of which it became clear that Alexander’s poetry in many ways reflected the ideals of deceased poet Charles Olson, especially in her discussion of emotional truth. However, in form the two highly juxtapose, Alexander emphasized a general structure of three-lined stanzas where Olson rejected structure to convey speech. Although Alexander’s poem may have resonated with Olson thematically, his emphasis of the abstract would have put him at odds with her.

After initial introductions, Stephen Colbert launched into the question, but “poems aren’t true?” which was greeted by an explosive round of laughter. Although humorous, his flippant question allowed Alexander to explore the difference between emotional and literal truth. As she described it, poetry does not have to be “true in the strictly factual sense” but rather “emotionally true.” Truth was therefore objective, different for every reader, depending on how he or she interpreted it and what emotions it conjured. Her response would likely be quite comparable to Olson’s, had Olson too been interviewed. Olson’s abstract poetry, that was highly reliant on imagery, emphasized an emotional rather than literal truth. In “Song 2” of “Songs of Maximus,” Olson writes, “how get out of anywhere (the bodies/ all buried/ in shallow graves?” which conjures images of corpses atop the earth, making movement difficult. His imagery emphasizes an emotional truth- being moored to an area, rather than a literal truth. This idea is further conveyed in his essay “Projective Verse,” especially in his discussion of perceptions. He noted, “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.” In choosing to use the word “perception” rather than truth i.e., Olson (like Alexander) contends that poetry reveals understanding in a different manner for different people.

Colbert later posed the question “what’s the difference between a metaphor and a lie?” which was not answered in depth. Olson, like any poet, does employ rhetorical devices to convey his ideas. In the poem “Maximus of Gloucester, to You,” Olson writes “love is form, and cannot be without/ important substance (the weight, say, 50 carats, each of us perforce,/ our own goldsmith’s scale.” In this manner, Olson utilizes a metaphor to emphasize the importance of substance by comparing it to an important substance, gold. In spite of using these stylistic elements in his poetry, Olson would be opposed to Colbert’s consideration of metaphors as simply “flowery language” that are only used to “dress up” writing. Olson contends in his essay “Projective Verse” that descriptive language can be a central aspect of writing as long as it doesn’t detract from the ideas and is used sparingly. He writes, “The descriptive functions generally have to be watched, every second, in projective verse, because of their easiness, and thus their drain on the energy which composition by field allows into a poem…if allowed in, [they] must be so juxtaposed, apposed, set in, that it does not, for an instant, sap the going energy of the content toward its form.” Olson qualified his discussion of figurative language that it was only relevant until content suffered for the sake of form.

Olson’s discussions of content versus form would place Alexander very much at odds with him. In her own poem “Praise Song for the Day,” Alexander consistently uses stanzas of three lines with about 9-11 syllables per line. In the converse, the structure of Olson’s poetry is immeasurable. The lines and line spacings are always distinct, providing different breathing and pauses. This is evident even in his reading of the poem, “Maximus, To Himself” where extra pause was given between the lines that ended with “obedience” and “that we are all late/ in a slow time,” as the latter lines were offset. Olson noted that “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT” in his essay “Projective Verse.” It is the content itself and an expression of everyday speech that should forge line length, spacing, stanzas. “Each of these lines is a progressing of both meaning and the breathing forward, and then a backing up, without a progress or any kind of movement outside the unit of time local to the idea,” Olson wrote. Alexander’s strict adherence to stanzas and syllables for form’s sake rather than content’s remains in disagreement with Olson’s ideals.

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