Limits of the Heroic

February 8, 2014

An interesting confluence of events in my life the last couple of weeks which involve a bit of poetics, a bit from one of my recent interviews, Facebook discussions and Feminism. And involves Charles Olson.

A recent Facebook thread was started by Sam Hamill, was liked by 89 people, shared by 5 and had 103 lively comments as of this writing. The post said:

Gonna put my ass out on a limb again: I really dislike the term “free verse.” Back in my teaching days, I spoke of “open” and “fixed” forms. I often told my students that they should master “fixed forms” before assuming that “open forms” would be their practice. Like learning to play scales before attempting jazz. My own practice is centered in “organic poetry” as defined by Denise Levertov in her essays on same. And by Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser et alia. Organic poetry is not “free verse.” It makes use of an “audible line” and is a particular *kind* of practice. Paul Nelson has contributed significantly to clarifying its terminology and practice via his FB and blog. Organic poetry is NOT what most open form poets write. Those who primarily write in traditional meter and rhyme are NOT my enemy, nor do I dismiss other varieties of open form. But, as Blake noted, “genius is not lawless.” Pound called for a poetry “composed by musical phrase” rather than by the metronome, and Williams called for “American idiom.” My practice follows in their tradition.

That Sam cited me was an honor and emboldened me to chime in on the thread. And the notion of Charles Olson being the bridge between the Epic poem and the Serial poem was quite fascinating. I immediately thought of the interview I did recently with Daphne Marlatt (2nd segment) and her comments which I’ll transcribe here:

PN – What do you feel was lacking in the [Robert] Duncan/Olson poetic that you refer to as a very male poetic?

DM – In Olson’s case it was clearer because Duncan, being gay, was already in critique with a lot of contemporary society. In Olson’s case, I think that the whole Figure of Maximus was a very male figure… I became very jaundiced about the whole notion of heroism, and I think there are still traces of the Heroic in Olson. So that kind of put me off. I didn’t know how to situate myself as a woman in his world view. 

What WAS of use for her with Olson, was the notion of proprioception and she goes in to discuss that in the interview. She also discusses her own efforts as a Feminist and organizing Feminist conferences in the early 80s. Feminism is said to be at odds with what have come to see (rightly or wrongly) as typical masculine attributes and the Hero archetype (central to the Epic form) might be one of them.

But the Hero archetype is not a mature masculine archetype, but, according to Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette is

only an advanced form of Boy psychology –the most advanced form, the peak, actually, of the masculine energies of the boy, the archetype that characterizes the best in the adolescent stage of development. Yet it is immature, and when it is carried over into adulthood as this governing archetype, it blocks men from full maturity (37).

Moore and Gillette see the Hero as a “Grandstander Bully” with strategies intended to impress others while staving off deep insecurities. Now, I am not suggesting this of Olson, nor is it wise to try to psychoanalyze the dead. That said, I am reminded of Sam Hamill telling me on one of our several interviews that West Coast poets have been more skeptical than their Midwest and Eastern counterparts about such an archetype and stance. But seeing The Maximus Poems, Olson’s crowning achievement, as part of the bridge between the Epic Poem and the Serial Poem, is a fascinating subject to ponder. How Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser and Nate Mackey, and Canadians like Marlatt and George Bowering, have moved ahead on their own serial efforts and that they are all West Coast poets is something to note. That they are mostly men is interesting as well. Are there other women poets of note practicing the serial form? The “sequential poem” as Sam Hamill calls it?

Another thing to note is that Feminists rightly employ skepticism about the “heroic” which is understandable. Yet much of what Feminism regards as abusive masculine attributes (from which we all suffer) Moore and Gillette would suggest is “immature masculine” or Boy psychology. And for me, it all comes down to transcending these divisions to write as noble human beings, as Duncan told a class at UC San Diego circa 1976. His friends Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer would call it The Practice of Outside and Moore and Gillette would cite the Warrior archetype, the fully mature masculine with a “transpersonal commitment.” The energies Olson was after may very well be there in all the fully realized archetypes of all genders, yet how often do we refer to the energetic in poetics? Olson was more prophetic than we think. Again.


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