Open letter to Joe Luna re Oslon and Temporality

Dear Joe,

I hope you don’t mind but I’ve wanted to respond to your piece on Maximus since the end of last year and have only just reminded myself whilst looking for your insightful thoughts on Jonty Tiplady.

I think that finding ways to think and write about Maximus as a whole rather than relying on the various threads or aspects is really important, to that end I’d like to begin with the background to my first encounter. About two years ago I decided that I should try and engage with Prynne and in order to combat my ongoing bafflement I decided to read what I could find of Prynne’s prose on the web. I came across part of that 1971 lecture that you refer to and reasoned that a more rational way into Prynne might be via Olson. I then bought Maximus and started to read. Prior to this my only knowledge of Olson was his relationship with Cy Twombly at Black Mountain College so it was a major shock to read how compelling the Maximus poems are. Of course they are no help whatsoever in engaging with post-71 Prynne but I was hooked.

The other preface that I need to add is that this isn’t in any at variance with your thoughts but more of an attempt to add mine into the ‘mix’.

‘Maximus’ is slippery because it covers so much ground in a great deal of depth. I think yemporality is important and that we need to bear in mind that it was written over twenty years. I think I’d like to make a plea for a little more emphasis on the ‘relational’ aspect. By this I think I mean that we are invited to consider the nature and quality of the relationship between things rather than the things themselves. I also think that by ‘process’ Olson is referring to changes in these relationships rather than just something happening sequentially.

I want discuss a bit more your remark that Maximus can be read as a working through of the poetics ‘which are yet to be found out’. I was once of this view but now I’m less clear about the presence of Whitehead in the work and I think this alters as the poem progresses where it becomes more about immersion and the fruits of the archive. I have to admit a degree of bias because I’m rather keen on the use of archival material that is placed in contemporary poetry. I’m also rather keen on archival research being seen as an essential ingredient in creative activity.

Olson once expressed the view that in order to write about something you must first of all immerse yourself in it. I think he said this about the Melville book but I think it can also apply to his immersion in Gloucester and its history. Reading the history within the poem I don’t get a sense of temporality per se but I do get more of an impression of the results of embedding himself in both the process of making history and Gloucester itself. I think this springs from the mixture of myth, historiography and the archive. I can’t give any more detailed evidence for this but it does reflect the poem that’s in my head.
Here’s a final and vaguely contrary thought. In one of his earlyish letters to Robert Creeley Olson relates conversations he’s having with Cy Twombly about the nature of the line and remarks how rewarding it is to talk with someone without having to go back to first principles. I don’t want to make too much of this but there are similarities between the two, interest in the line as line, in myth, in the sea and in ‘natural’ processes.
Hope this makes sense.
John

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