Literature can be used to educate the whole person. Readings prompt studies of the psyche—studies of authors and characters as well as studies of ourselves. But these studies of selfhood and personhood can lead us—so long as we’re attentive enough, so long as we read carefully enough—from microcosm to macrocosm, from worldview to world. Consciousness of the cosmos and our place in it. They help us build cognitive maps, as Fredric Jameson would say. Intimations of who we are, what we are, when we are, where we are, how we are. Injustices are registered, confronted, acknowledged; we contemplate demands rightly made upon us by the aggrieved across history. Those amid us who are crying, let us comfort them. The maps may have differences, they may emerge for each participant individually, revelation and awakening scaled to each person; yet this awareness is of our commonality, revealed through our interactions as fellow Beings in dialogue over shared texts. As the Western Buddhist Beats who inhabit Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums would say, we recognize operating throughout history a “Brahman”—a common consciousness or common ground of Being manifesting among the particulars of identity and historical circumstance. Taken in aggregate, these manifestations tell a story, however paratactically—a narrative history of which each of us is a part. This recognition of our relationship to history can’t be put into words, exactly, other than by declaring as Charles Olson does in his poem “The Kingfishers,” “This very thing you are” (171).
Evenings are sometimes emotionally exhausting, baby crying, wordless work. Hardly an opportune moment for spontaneous prose. The sight of the ceiling fan calms and consoles her. Perhaps the fan functions as an ideogram representing person as many-membered being, poised in the middle of the ceiling, floating there like a lotus-flower atop an upside-down pond. When she falls asleep, I sit around wondering about Hell’s Angels and their place in the counterculture of the 1960s. I scan my shelves for books by Hunter S. Thompson, his book Hell’s Angels somewhere out of reach. Charles Olson interrupts with his essay “Projective Verse.”
A glitch in the program allows me to inch the horizon line beyond its former position. Into the space opened by unanticipated spending money come new games, new concepts. I sit back and listen to “Truckin’,” chips not yet cashed. I pick up and flip through a well-worn volume, thinking to myself, “How does the song go?” Something about drawing the veil aside and unbinding — or is the command, rather, to leave it on? All I know is, “the feed-back proves, / the feed-back is / the law.” But to know is one thing; to feel the strain between two allegiances another. Who wants to bear the weight of a “law” upon one’s back? Who wants eternity in a country for old men?
Conversations keep gesturing ambivalently toward abstractions like East and West, if only because these categories occupy the thoughts of so many mid-century hippie modernists — particularly the Beats and the Black Mountain Poets, along with fellow-traveling first-generation psychedelic elders like Aldous Huxley. The class needs to move outdoors. Perhaps we could go for a walk. Educate the whole person, body integrated with mind. Today in particular would have been lovely. Sunny, mid-70s, birds singing, trees budding, squirrels squealing with delight. Instead we listened to Charles Olson reading “The Kingfishers,” a recording archived on PennSound. I wish I had also assigned “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27.”
No question of the linking of the zones, the various scales of being. Olson faces no impediments other than the geography, to which the poem always returns, even at its beginning. By going back, we also go forward. And we hear in all of Olson’s poems a lamentation about the effects of global economy on a locality, as Greekness moves West. How do we get from the Word to the Dance? Perhaps I should introduce into the discourse mention of Marshall McLuhan. He too foresaw a retribalization and remediation of society into a post-Gutenberg global village. Is that what this was about, both then and now? Are we struggling to adjust ourselves to a new sensory environment made mandatory by automation and digitization? “The artist,” according to McLuhan, “is the only person who does not shrink from this challenge. He exults in the novelties of perception afforded by innovation. The pain that the ordinary person feels in perceiving the confusion is charged with thrills for the artist in the discovery of new boundaries and territories for the human spirit” (War and Peace in the Global Village, p. 12). What I hear McLuhan and Olson saying, in other words, is: Wake to other senses, supersede visual space, step free of the West.
When writing poetry, one ought to put one’s breath into it. Count the length of one’s line, listening to thought’s syllables. Practice what Charles Olson calls “composition by FIELD.” When we set aside old fears, we unlock our hidden capacity to resonate in sympathy with others. Keep going, keep learning, keep growing. Open windows, let in light, sit outdoors. When I do so, I see trees, the modest, low-slung buildings of an invisible campus.
I resonate with the music of M.C. Richards’s prose in her book Centering. These trance-scripts share some of that book’s form and sentiment. “Its form,” as Richards intones, “is a demonstration of what I say in it. Themes recur and vary. There are passages of development and recapitulation. I wish to offer its meaning not as rationale but as physical presence in language. Iteration and reiteration like days in a season, and we come to the feel of its weather. […]. Sudden changes of tone — from refinement to coarseness, from mechanics to rapture — are moods of nature” (6). Like Olson, she points to breath as the tender, limber thread we walk on our journey between life and death. Breathe deeply and wish well one’s entire sphere. Let the world enter one’s awareness with each breath. Wish well, wish love and bliss to all. It’s such a simple task, and yet I’ve struggled throughout my life to keep it first in my thoughts. To behave well and bring happiness to others. Why can’t we just imagine that and do it?
The worker must have her bread — but she also must have her roses. Hand over, motherfuckers, or we’ll storm your gates and tax your estates. We’ve had enough of these open-air debtor prisons. We will remain silent no longer. From out of the monoculture into Out There step bands like Tower Recordings and Wet Tuna. By exercising consciousness, I can release from my usual mask of pain into an embodiment in breath and posture of loving kindness. “Focus on one’s breath”: this is what Charles Olson proposes in his essay, “Projective Verse.” The brain is there in the breath, the line, and the syllable. Regulate breathing, and awareness intensifies. We see and hear more of the grand dynamic. The creak of the kitchen table from the push of our hands as we write. Objects arranged on the table’s surface. Olson intervenes at just this moment to remind us to concentrate on breath and beware the ease of the descriptive. Within the energy field that will become the poem, he says, one must manage syllables and lines in their relations to each other. Such was the way Olson taught his students to write, both at Black Mountain College and elsewhere. Linguistic objects — words, sounds, sequences of syllables: for these, the poet finds a use.