Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What Would Charles Olson Say?

In the interview with Elizabeth Alexander, Colbert posed simple questions about poetry, and although the simplicity of the questions was used as a comedic technique, these questions were so simple that they proved powerful and ironically insightful. The first of the series of comical questions was “Poems aren’t true are they?” To which Alexander responded by explaining that poems are not “strictly factual” but are “emotionally true” and “true to the language that [they have]”. If Olson was asked this same question he most likely would have agreed with Alexander’s response. According to his essay Projective Verse, Olson did believe poems to reflect true, sincere feelings. When explaining how a line of poetry is formed he writes that lines develop from “the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE” The heart, being the source of true emotion, is responsible for producing poetry. Therefore the poetry produced is true. Looking at this question through Olson’s eyes, it is important to recall that Olson often referred to producing poetry as a transfer of energy. Taking that point into consideration, it is only logical that if honest emotional energy from the heart is transferred to poetry then that poetry is honest as well. Also, according to the film, Polis Is This by Ferrini, Olson’s intent was to get readers to understand the dire effects of industrialization in Gloucester and the pivotal role of the average citizen. When discussing such topics, topics that were taken with apparent seriousness, Olson spoke and wrote with honesty, would never have reason to lie. So according to Alexander and probably Olson as well, the emotional truth in poems is what makes them “true” as opposed to the adherence to factual information.

The second question was phrased in a simple manner similar to the first: “What’s the difference between a metaphor and a lie?” Alexander’s response was that metaphors are comparisons that allow readers to understand a greater idea in relation to something else. Colbert then argues, “Why don’t you say what you mean?” If Olson was present for this interview he may have responded to this question by first agreeing with Alexander’s basic explanation of a metaphor. Then he may have defended the use of metaphors, a technique he uses in his poems, Maximus of Gloucester, To You and The Song of Maximus, by explaining that lies are an act of dishonesty and do not help a reader understand poetry, while metaphors are used with the intent to help not deceive.

As for Olson’s thoughts and opinions on Alexander’s work, although their writing techniques were rather different, Olson perhaps would have appreciated Alexander’s poetry more for its themes rather than its form or delivery. In Alexander’s poem Praise Song for the Day, her thoughts on the everyday life and role of the common citizen in relation to his or her surroundings, history, and context are prevalent. Olson’s poetry tended to focus on locality and the life of the common citizen. That being said, when it comes to the question of how he’d respond to Elizabeth Alexander’s poem Praise Song for the Day, Olson would appreciate certain aspects of this poem because the theme of “the citizen” is retained. For example, Alexander writes,

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

These lines simply demonstrate the daily routines of citizens and the continuing daily action that Olson discusses in his essay, Projective Verse. Olson writes, “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.” Alexander’s work reflects this thought technically in the sense that she maintains a continuous flow of action. She mentions the pair waiting for the bus, the farmer and then the teacher, one after another in a continuous manner. This is exemplary of Olson’s idea of immediate connections between perceptions. Also, in some parts of her poem Alexander’s use of commas reflects this idea as well. The idea of parts constituting a whole is an idea shared by both poets. In her poem, Alexander uses the word “we”, mentions the idea of individuals existing together in America, and love transcending “marital, filial, national” relationships. All of these ideas focus on the greater idea of citizenship and the togetherness that comes with such citizenship. In Olson’s essay he discusses how the “part of a whole parts come together to make a whole like the community”. Both poets address similar topics and therefore Olson would have enjoyed that aspect of Alexander’s poem. Finally, similarities in the use of imagery, particularly sound imagery, are present in both Olson’s Maximus of Gloucester, To You and Alexander’s poem. In Praise Song for the Day she writes:

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

While he writes:

The fixed bells rang, their voices
came like boats over the oil-slicks,
like milkweed hulls

Olson uses sounds to describe the city around him and to metaphorically describe a larger idea. Alexander does the same in her poem. Therefore, taking the similarities between the two excerpts into consideration, Olson would have appreciated the use of sound imagery in Alexander’s poem.

Olson’s presence would have allowed viewers to gain interesting insight on the topics presented, but his death prevented such opportunity. As for Alexander, she addressed the questions with a simplicity that helped the viewer understand her point. And although differing in style, both poets provide somewhat similar insight of the world around them, from the viewpoint of a citizen.

February 2, 2009 7:37 AM

1 comment:

Loris said...

About Lying

Some lies aim not to deceive with venality.

First, let me speak of lies-of-friendship. An old friend named Tiny once told me, "A true friend always flatters. If you are late, a friend waits." Her rhymes were one of the beautifully strange features of her acid-voiced way of speaking. By this rhyme, she meant, in part, that even if one's appearance is daft, the greatest of amicable loves demands that one's friend not say that one looks daft (e.g.: "To be honest, you look horrible today.") Such honesty is the antithesis of friendship. The correct response is mendacity: "You look great today."

Second, let me speak of one form of lies-of-survival. I learned about this form of lying throughout a working class childhood full of multiple forms of oppression and abuse. A dear friend named Pepper summarized this form of lying thus: sometimes you have to lie to survive and thrive. The very circumstances of a situation demand a deception that will allow you to get out of the scenario or remain sane and/or healthy within the scenario. Abusive foster homes, to say nothing of many other experiences, has taught me that these kinds of lies—enacted sparingly—are essential to a live that does not involve certain privileges.

Lastly, let me speak of another form of lies-of-survival. Today I live in a world where few people care about me and sometimes, when faced with a question that requires that I reveal truths for which the person would not care or understand, I may, if pressed under duress, lie and move on. The truth would introduce knowledge that would not protect me. On the contrary, I have found that, sometimes, telling the truth opens up oneself to immense censure and harm, especially in certain professional situations. Lying in this case is tactical and should be enacted sparingly. My first aim is to be silent and to avoid the very presence of people who would ask questions for which they are not prepared for the answer. However, when cornered, in very extreme situations (like the time when someone asked if I was sick and at the time I was undergoing cancer treatments and would have been fired if I said "yes") if I assess that my safety, personally or professionally, is threatened, I will, sparingly, rarely, lie and keep moving on to survive and thrive.

What would Charles Olsen think about this?