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Making It Sweet Again: On Manifestos by Olson, O'Hara, and Bernstein

Written by

Cort Day
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Year

2005
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Poetry, like any art, must renew itself continually. Charles Olson’s manifesto "Projective/Verse", published in 1950, describes poetry’s need to recover the energy of its sources from the exhausted (in his view) formal practice of Eliot and the New Critics. Projective verse, a.k.a. "composition by field" and "objectism," sees the poem not as words in lines upon a page, but as a field of energy-charged objects representing the poem’s psychic content in a state of immediacy, before laziness and habit have conspired to turn it into mere verse. Olson exhorts poets to attend to language with their ears, to compose according to the measure of their breathing (spiritus), to work with the "elements and minims of language...to engage speech where it is least careless—and least logical," and so to fix the pulse of energy before it reaches the stasis of conventional form.

In the projective act, the poet makes of sound-objects (syllables, words) a projection that, if the act be undertaken with the proper seriousness, and without the interfering lyric ego, and in the humble understanding that the poet is himself a mere object among material objects, "may take its place alongside the things of nature." In making the case for syllables as the atoms of poetry, Olson briefly mentions the connotative resonance of syllables within the language, pointing out that "‘Is’ comes from the Aryan root, as, to breathe," among other examples. He also refers to Hart Crane’s "attempt to get back to word as handle." Still, it is worth noting that Olson’s project doesn’t develop a distinction between the connotative resonance of language (is = as) and its denotative function, in which sound-objects denote physical objects, the tables and ships and quasars of the world.

Whereas Olson’s essay wants nothing more than to be a manifesto, Frank O’Hara’s "Personism: A Manifesto," written in 1959, takes a more complex stance. While refusing, in spite of its title, to stand in direct opposition to any poetic orthodoxy, it nonetheless blithely informs us that it "may be the death of literature as we know it." But this claim is suspect, for it follows in the wake of (for example):

 

"Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings toward the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person….It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones..."

It’s less useful to talk about "Personism" as a description of poetic methodology than as a demonstration of a mode of poetic discourse. As a method, Personism stipulates only that the poem be written for the person who is the object of the poet’s affections, possibly in lieu of a phone call. (It does not stipulate that the poem be delivered to the person.) As discourse, it is endlessly protean. And self-aware. And ironic. The word "indeterminate" might also apply. To construct a manifesto out of the materials of a love letter is plainly a tongue-in-cheek undertaking. But O’Hara’s description of his intent (in the passage above) has an undeniable ring of truth. And while the tone of the language clearly evokes a personality and a sense of intimacy, it is not hard to detect in it something of the ad-man’s descant. It feels wonderfully useless, to me, to try to compare O’Hara’s manifesto to Olson’s, because on almost every point of comparison (say, seriousness), O’Hara could be said to break two ways. The notable exception comes in O’Hara’s statement that "You just go on your nerve," which shares much with Olson’s insistence on staying true to the content of the poem.

While Personism threatens the end of literature but is too happily preoccupied to do anything about it, Charles Bernstein’s "Semblance," published in 1980, has both motive and opportunity:

 

"So not to have the work resolve at the level of the "field" if this is to mean a uniplanar surface within which the poem operates. Structure that can’t be separated from decisions made within it, constantly poking through the expected parameters. Rather than having a single form or shape or idea of the work pop out as you read, the structure itself is pulled into a moebius-like twisting momentum. In the process, the language takes on a centrifugal force that seems to trip it out of the poem, turn it out from itself, exteriorizing it. Textures, vocabularies, discourses, constructivist modes of radically different character are not integrated into a field as part of a predetermined planar architecture; the gaps and jumps compose a space with shifting parameters, types and styles of discourse constantly crisscrossing, interacting, creating new gels."

One could spend a good deal of time parsing the ways in which "Semblance" speaks to Olson’s essay, cataloging what it saves and what it rejects. But the passage above makes clear what is, I think, the key phenomenological difference between them: in Olson’s conception, the projection was of experience onto a two-dimensional field; in Bernstein's, the poem-object is emphatically three-dimensional. And as such, it is virtual. Bernstein defines virtuality in terms of language qua language (or, yes, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E), by which he means, among other things, that language has taken another step away from a denotative basis (chair = chair) and toward a connotative one (the multiple referential vectors passing in all directions through "chair" will encounter "cathedral" and "sedation" long before they encounter a real chair). It is illuminating that in defining the leap he has taken, Bernstein draws heavily upon the vocabularies of theory and technology; it does seem, in fact, that the one dimension he has added to Olson’s two dimensions has a preponderance of theory in it. (It is in this preponderance of theory that one could find, were one so inclined, the motive and opportunity mentioned above. One might also see evidence of the lengths that poetry will go to, using poets as fodder, as hosts, to graft itself into human institutions and thus ensure its own survival.)

Perhaps it is not entirely new to poetry that it should succeed by resonating in a depth of field beyond what is available on the page. On the other hand, it is impossible to deny the prescience of a work on virtuality that was written when Pong was a state-of-the-art video game. And, in any case, the three manifestos discussed here, while implicitly or explicitly opposed to each other in many ways, do show, from one perspective at least, the progression from the twentieth to the twenty-first century in American poetry. Olson, building upon the work of the Objectivists, affirms the primacy of the kinetic field. O’Hara, speaking for the New York poets and for Jack Spicer in the west, brings the multivalent, proto-ironic voice that prefigures much of today’s post-modern work. In Bernstein’s work there is a consciousness of self-reflectivity, of hyper-reality, of language-permeation, that is absolutely germane to our moment. Poets writing now have a choice between these (and other!) models as they try not only to follow John Ashbery’s cryptic admonition to "Make it sweet again!" but to answer the vexing question, what is "sweet?"