Saturday, January 22, 2011


Michael Boughn — who, with Victor Coleman, recently published his careful edition of Duncan's HD Book through U of C Press — has pulled together in a single volume three lectures given at Charles Olson centenary events in Buffalo and Vancouver (shuffaloff monograph #3 | 11 Conrad Ave | Toronto ON | M6G 3G4).

With, say, Ralph Maud and Kenneth Warren, Michael Boughn is one of the few who refuses to cherry-pick from the chaotically complex poetics developed by Olson; he angles instead to think Olson's poetics on its own terms, without, for example, abandoning Olson's drive to stitch together so many contradictory and otherwise incompatible philosophical systems: Jung, Corbin, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead, etc.

Some passages:

If words are the bearers of sense well before they are manipulated into combinations of meaning which some idea controls, then the landscape itself becomes a kind of word and also a kind of body. This is cosmos that arises in an instantaneous knowing that is not relational, not based on proliferation of connections, but on the instantaneous presentation of a world. Always the sense of different knowings, of knowing differences, but knowing them here, as they array themselves around us, hard against the fact of what can be seen in one glance. Beyond that lie only stabilities of relation determined in abstraction.


Olson's notion of a secularization that loses nothing of the divine seems to begin with the recognition of a duplicity to both terms. Secular, then, not as a world divorced from the spiritual, a world of matter without sense, a world from which all vestiges of mind have been stripped other than as they are contained in some idea of the human. What Olson wants to hold on to here has to do with maintaining the, say, ordinariness of the world without some further reference.

Boughn mentions Jean-Luc Nancy here and there, appealing at times to Nancy, Deleuze and others to splay Olson open to a twenty-first century sensibility (viz. sense / perception), but I think Nancy's presence in his approach to Olson are writ a little larger than even he lets on — particularly Nancy's debt to Bataille. Nancy from Inoperative Community:

Divine places, without gods, with no god, are spread out everywhere around us, open and offered to our coming, to our going or to our presence, given up or promised to our visitation, to frequentation by those who are not men either, but who are there, in these places: ourselves, alone, out to meet that which we are not, and which the gods for their part have never been. These places, spread out everywhere, yield up and orient new spaces: they are no longer temples, but rather the opening up and the spacing out of the temples themselves, a dis-location with no reserve henceforth, with no more sacred enclosures — other tracks, other ways, other place for all who are their.

And I sense the secularization of the divine implies (or impels) its own inversion: the sacral character of the secular; gods exalted as men and men reduced to the puniness of gods (recall too Eli's aphoristic remark in Cormac McCarthy's Road: "There is no god and we are his prophets.").

I trust Boughn's reading of Olson in particular ways; there's a fidelity to Olson I find in Boughn, a refusal to instrumentalize Olson. His desire, like Maud's or Warren's or Chuck Stein's, is to take up Olson with a measure of care that keeps one from straining their own concerns, however small or large, through a nearly incomprehensible web of texts.

Boughn's monograph closes with an affirming manifesto-like postscript, a searing critique of careerism and professionalization. Titling the postscript "Major and minor bullshit in the new (old) literary discourse" he writes:

Given all the pressures toward success in the market of today's neo-liberal cultural grotesqueries, it probably should not come as surprise to find those old staid measures of literary excellence, major and minor, resurfacing. This, after all, is a time when the president of something called The Poetry Foundation can publicly declare that "the mind is a marketplace" and not be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail by raging poets. On the contrary, they line up in front of him with their hands out. It is a bit surprising, though, to find them popping up and circulating in the writing of poets who claim some historical relation to those poetries which sprang up in the 50's and 60's precisely as alternatives to the elegant formal constructions then dominating the academic imagination of what poetry's limits were.

The postscript rhymes well with Olson's lineated letter to the Gloucester Times, "A Scream to the Editor": "Bemoan a people who spend | beyond themselves, to flourish | and to further themselves." Here Olson speaks to citizens-not-poets. And, however one regards Olson's accomplishment, Boughn is correct to slug away at the deeper cultural tendencies, the everyday ways of moving, that create the conditions that allow an institution committed to the arts to regard minds as financial markets.