20 June 2011

Charles Olson at Goddard College

I'm just about to start teaching the summer term, reading the Imaginary Syllabi all the while, and what lands in my mailbox? Another book about pedagogy (well, maybe indirectly about pedagogy) by one of the great American pedagogues: Charles Olson at Goddard College: April 12-14, 1962. This particular transcript of Olson at work was immaculately produced by the great Kyle Schlesinger for Cuneiform Press, so there's no doubt it found the form it had to take: the design is clean and crisp throughout, printed large-format on super heavy and glossy paper with a foreword by Basil King and an introduction by Schlesinger (with very helpful and thoroughly researched notes throughout). Kyle transcribed this version from the tapes at Goddard while an undergraduate at the same institution, and exhumed the transcripts while participating in an Olson/Melville study group with Creeley and others at Buffalo. Like all Cuneiform books, Olson at Goddard must be seen and held in order to fully appreciate the artistry: the text somehow pops off the page even though it's offset (due to the paper perhaps?), so one can literally feel the material presence of language while reading... But the main event here, of course, is Olson's wild and ecstatic teaching style, which somehow feels perfectly composed and calculated and totally wild and out of control. Schlesinger sets the stage with the perfect epigrapha letter from Olson to Hank Chapin composed a few weeks after the Goddard sessions:

"What the young know is the price today is huge, and already are clear that institutions are dinosaurs and sanctions are pitiful gasps and procedures all gone dead in their mouths and minds. The task wld seem to be to get the new things sorted and straight for all to have some idea of paths or procedures to follow (other than abandonment and suicide). Guerilla and soft."

I had some issues with Kristin Prevallet's course description in Imaginary Syllabi ("You will learn what you already know and will know what you haven't yet thought to learn"), but with Olson, I always trust that if you follow him, really let yourself inhabit moments of great doubt and scepticism while struggling with the shape of his thought, then Prevallet's axiom can be realized as a kind of pure teaching potential...

I'm struck by his generosity as a teacher—how part of the experience of learning is watching Olson, himself, learn what he's saying—literally learning with him. His pedagogy requires bravely embodying uncertainty and making oneself incredibly vulnerable in front of perfect strangers (who, from the outset, are searching for competency and mastery). The book is divided over two days: on April 12th, Olson reads from the Maximus Poems and The Distances, and on the 14th he delivers a lecture on Melville. I'm partial to the first set because it shows him negotiating his poetic (with all its complicated uncertainty), while performing to an audience who admit to knowing "fairly little" about his project. The result is totally charged and messy and revealing. Take the following rambling exchange for example: 

"CO: Oh boy, oh boy...I think I hit here on one of the real problems which is that that thing doesn't have idiomatic language, yet doesn't give that effect of being how well it might be reported and with no, uh—one of the boring things about most writing in America is slang, whether it's local or national or, like, in fact, the compliment in our cultural speech is a form of slang. That is, that deadness of our cultural, of our universal speech is just so dull, it's like dialectical, dialect, uh? I hate it. I would clean every—I myself would wish that all who spoke and wrote spoke always from a place that is new at that moment that they do speak and not hang up on any of the places from which they may have acquired their speech, whether it's putative, purposed, or personal. And I like, and I think really that's why I think (Gael) Turnbull really dug this poem, this thing was—some way or other, I'm getting somewhere a language thing there, which is, well...Who was sitting there? I just—did she just go? She asked me something and I went back to you, and—oh! There she is. Excuse me, for you had a question which I missed.      

UV: You were saying something about the edge of experience and I'm trying to connect that with a geographical...

CO: Yeah!

UV: ...point, that you mentioned.

CO:Yeah! Absolutely. Well, while you were out, I got to the point where I was saying that I believe even—I read another poem on that, "Cashes Shoal," and said that I almost would return to the very place, that somehow or another caused the fermentation. Yeah, let's talk wine, that kind of a thing. Each year you grow those damned grapes and make the wine from the same vine don't you? I mean you really do, so you go back. That's not a bad image. I mean, again, like, let's talk. I mean, again, like, that's what—I mean we had a wonderful conversation this afternoon, we had a wonderful conversation, and in fact I tried to read a poem of Duncan's from Trobar and I held this thing up and this guy Guthrie, "who is a learned man, said Strabo" he comes on strong because I guess he published a book called Trobar, or something, and so immediately, a very lively thing occurred: what does "trobar" mean, like? And we both had no trouble saying "to find" but then I said, "isn't the meaning really to find, on a guitar, the tone?" "No!" he says, "as a matter of fact, so and so..." by Dilys Laing or something it was did a book on the diseases and cures of birds, and, uh, was called a "troubadour" for having done it, because it was a "trovar." In other words it means "to find out something" which I really, just knocks me for a loop..."

Through the transcript, Olson reads, stops, interacts with the audience, restarts, skips around, producing the very performance of language he claims to find suspect ("You feel as though you have an audience and you're supposed to do a concert or something, and I don't think I believe in verse in this respect at all. As a matter of fact, I know I don't."). And yet, he's obviously using the "performance" as a heuristic, really and truly learning with his students... 

Anyone interested in teaching should own this document, even if one harbors little interest in Olson's project (which seems sort of impossible!). While Olson's style totally teeters on the brink of disaster, as a living and breathing energetic, the work is truly emancipatory... 

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