Theory

Written in 1950, 'Projective Verse' was a theoretical launching-pad from which Olson hoped to propel himself and others into poetic creativity. Herbert Read once said that 'a tradition in art is not a body of beliefs: it is a knowledge of techniques'. Bearing his dictum in mind, we might see the essay as an attempt to identify a prosodic tradition which the author's own verse will later be seen to have forwarded. Even the name 'Projective' may partly have been chosen in order to signify the extending or projecting forward of an existing continuity. Thus, Pound is named seven times, Eliot six, Williams and Hart Crane four times, Cummings twice, and the Objectivists once.

The aim of 'Projective Verse' is to advance 'projective or OPEN verse' as an alternative to 'closed verse'. On one level this is but the familiar, not to say wearisome, opposition between regular and free verse resurrected under new banners. What is unique is Olson's sense that free verse must be thoroughly energized if it is to retain its virtue:

From the moment (the poet) ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION - puts himself in the open - he can go by no track other than the one the poem underhand declares for itself. . . .

And I think it can be boiled down to one statement (first pounded into my head by Edward Dahlberg): ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points . . . get on with it, keep it moving.

There is in this account a great sense of the intensity of the creative process, the poet urgently tracking the poem in its vertiginous procession down the page, seeking to render the successive spurts, lunges and digressions of its fleet unfolding. In keeping with modernist aesthetics, the poem is credited with an autonomous existence, the function of the poet being to facilitate its emergence. This is done by meeting its requirements as, moment by moment, they make themselves known. Poets are obstetricians, presiding over the birth of a living organism; the worst thing they can do is obstruct the process by setting up demands of their own, seeking to guide the poem to a form that has been predetermined. As Olson says, 'the objects which occur at every given moment of composition . . . must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem'.

Having thus indicated the peculiarly energized version of free verse he is dubbing 'projective', Olson enumerates various techniques by means of which to implement it. Of these, by far the most important is the use of the terminal juncture. Quite simply, Olson is proposing that every line should end with a pause; or, to put it the other way round, whenever the poet feels the need for a fresh intake of breath, he or she should signal this fact to the reader by a line-break. Lineation thus becomes a function of respiration: 'the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes'. This proposal is easily mistaken for platitude. From the translated psalms of the King James version of the Bible through to the work of the Imagists, free verse had substituted a lineation based on melic cadences for that based on regular syllable counts. What Olson noticed is that in the bulk of this work the lines form complete syntactical units as well as musical phrases, with the result that the terminal pauses are predictable and the transitions from line to line only a little less stately than in regular verse. Olson's injunction that the line should be structured as a breath unit regardless of whether it also forms a syntactical unit should be judged against this background. It is true, as he freely acknowledges, that e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams had already begun to explore this possibility. Yet recorded readings show neither poet to have been diligent in his observation of the terminal juncture, and neither so much as mentions it in his critical and theoretical writings. Olson's greatest coup in 'Projective Verse' is to have brought this matter, towards which the practice of his immediate predecessors had led, into the centre of the debate.

In the manifesto, the structuring of lines by breath patterns is intimately connected with a second contention, which is that contemporary prose and verse would both be improved 'if the syllable, that fine creature, were more allowed to lead the harmony on'. For Olson, breath determines lineation, but the syllable determines the prosody: 'it is the king and pin of versification'.

A third aspect of technique to receive attention is typography. Thanks to the typewriter, the poet now has an equivalent to the stave and bar of the musician. 'It is time we picked the fruit of the experiments of cummings, Pound, Williams, each of whom has, after his way, already used the machine as a scoring to his composing, as a script to its vocalization.' Of these fruits, four are specified: the equating of units of space, whether between lines or between words within a line, with units of silence in the oral delivery of the poem; the use of the oblique, or solidus, when the poet 'wishes a pause so light it hardly separates the words, yet does not want a comma - which is an interruption of the meaning rather than the sounding of the line'; the varying of the left-hand margin, whether on a stanzaic or a line-by-line basis, so as to register minute changes of pace in thought and vocal delivery, progressively greater indent-ings informing the reader that a more rapid movement from unit to unit is required than in those poems where a single left-hand margin is observed; and, lastly, the opening and then not closing of a parenthesis in those cases, so common in speech and thought but so frequently suppressed in written English, where what began as a temporary digression ends by usurping, rather than returning to, the original subject.

Considered individually, the typographical devices enumerated by Olson may seem trivial, even gimmicky; some were certainly soon abandoned. Considered in combi nation, however, they are expressive of an extraordinary concern for the scoring of the poem. It is worth remembering that in 1965 Olson withdrew the second volume of The Maximus Poems from the Jargon/Corinth press, publishers of the first volume, when they failed to duplicate in print the typographical oddities of his manuscript. Similarly, in 1970 Robert Duncan decided to henceforth publish his own typescript versions of his verse after the New Directions and Black Sparrow presses had muddied his scrupulous notations.

Finally, it might be remarked that although 'Projective Verse' addresses itself to matters of technique rather than of content, the urgent propulsive motion of the sort of verse Olson desiderates peculiarly fits it for dealing with essential ontological processes. Even the agitated compulsive prose in which the manifesto is written is a sign that deep down Olson was searching for a poetics of the emancipation of the self. Whether or not he achieved anything so grandiose, it is certainly the case that in poem after poem the Black Mountaineers use their obsession with the process by which the work unravels as a formal enactment of the self's unfolding. To this extent, they may be said to share a subject as well as a style.

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