“The Present of Man”
The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum, the poetic cosmology of Charles Olson and his use of the writing of C. G. Jung, by Charles Stein, Station Hill Press, 1987.
The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum is as much of a mappemunde for Charles Stein, critic, as "The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum," Charles Olson’s last text, was for the poet. And this is as it should be, for Stein’s text traces his active engagement with himself as he journeys through academia (his dissertation forms the basis of the book) and his personal investment of energies in Olson’s poetry as a means for furthering his own life-work as poet and critic. He states in the preface: “...this study was for me the consequence of a commitment to clarify and deepen my own relation to the text that was far from ‘objective’ at the outset.” Stein is giving us his own image of a man at the boundary of his own flesh, straining, struggling, fully engaged with another poet’s words as if they matter. Stein illustrates not why, but how they matter. What more would we want from criticism? Well, in this age of the inflation of image over language, photos would be nice. And Stein gives us these too, taken in 1969 when he was apparently sitting at the master’s feet. But the photos are more than nice. I don't want to be facetious. Stein gives us action shots of the poet / teacher engaged in talk, thought, active listening, photos as a way to make Olson’s image concrete as well as a way for Stein to stamp his presence onto the history of this text and its personal importance to the canon of Olson criticism established by George Butterick, Sherman Paul, Don Byrd.
Stein gives us a text that enlivens our reading of Olson, just what criticism is supposed to do. But what specifically does Stein do for us as a way to read along Olson’s map? For starters, he quite appropriately gets immediately down to the concrete. He provides a reading of a seemingly minor poem in Maximus IV: For “Moira”. This is not the place for me to further explore Stein’s reading, but I want to comment on the appropriateness of his choice, made apparent by his insightful reading. For with his explanation of this short poem and Olson’s use of Jung, Stein provokes us to read all of the later Olson with attention to this poet’s reliance on phallic imagery (this poem is itself an extended phallic pun), the poet’s possible relation to Tantra, and the complexities and contradictions of Olson’s image of the Great Goddess.
More than anything else, Stein illustrates the profound sense of, and desire for, harmony that motivates Olson’s undertaking. Stein provides an involved reading of Jung’s use of psychological projection to further our understanding of Olson's poetics as explained in “Projective Verse”. It is important to recognize what Stein does not do. It would be easy (and probably foolish) to argue that Olson gathered from Creeley knowledge of jazz music and that his awareness, even the naiveté leading to that awareness, of how jazz moves itself along through no imposed form other than that generated by its own content, one note leading to the other because of the musicians’ “present of themselves”, that this was the insight provoking his most influential essay. I enjoy this kind of fool’s play, but Stein does the harder thing and keeps to the task he sets for himself; projection is explained reasonably, convincingly, and establishes research into Olson's use of Jung as necessary for the unraveling of the meaning of the “projective” in Projective Verse.
Stein explains better than anyone else I’ve read Olson’s intricate weaving of language around the key terms: Body, Land, Self, and Ego. The strength of the book is Stein’s relating of Jung’s archetypes to Olson’s arche/type—archetype as visceral and type as physically necessary for poetry. Stein is most interesting, though, in his chapter labeled “The Libido”. It is here that Stein’s own text opens into several possible mappings leading into territory being now staked out by contemporary feminists who gain strength and establish credibility through reliance on the tradition of the Goddess. I know of two key texts that supplement and challenge Olson’s: Sharon Doubiago's epic poem Hard Country, a personal, political, and projective text written with full awareness of woman as source, survivor, and victim; and Barbara Mor’s The Great Cosmic Mother which establishes the political consequences of the patriarchy and the consequences of the challenges to it. (It is interesting that Stein's otherwise careful and critical language, like that of Pound apologists blind to his fascism, flounders on the term “political” in the rush to utilize it to deflect criticism of “the great man”.)
Anyone interested in contemporary poetry must thank Stein for giving a wider access to Olson’s last text. We can witness both the power and the pathos of this writing—the power of Olson’s uncompromising devotion to unraveling the mysteries of the problems he set for himself, the mysteries of the human place in the cosmos, the problems of making of this place a human universe, and the pathos of a man still so troubled by not finding the way to unravel those mysteries. Stein opens for us two very important areas of study for an appreciation of Olson and a recognition of contemporary poetics: orality and writing as these relate to practice, and poetry and Buddhism, also as these relate to practice.
Olson's use of Jung, and especially Jung’s use of the Tibetan text The Secret of the Golden Flower is primarily an exercise in writing. Jung and especially Olson use the text as a way to expose the initiate to the archetype; practice, being non-verbal, is unnecessary. But it is practice as such that needs to be developed, explored, pushed against the boundaries of language to move the projective in Projective Verse out of the sterility that always threatens the written word, a sterility that Olson continually warned against in writing (writing also means his “oral” delivery). And it is here, practice as it informs, bounds, and threatens writing that Olson’s flirtation with Buddhism becomes interesting. Stein never develops this Buddhism connection, and rightly so given the limits he sets for his investigation. But by using poems where Olson utilizes the image of the Buddha, especially in the intimate connection with his statements about writing (“Only my written word” is how the poem begins) we see just how much Olson was willing to sacrifice for poetry and how willing to assume the figure of the ascetic prophet (“I've sacrificed every thing, including sex and woman”), in other words, how the Body, the Poet in the World, could be subsumed within the poem as a written product (On the inside jacket of the book there is this statement that Charles Stein is “a performance poet”; perhaps Stein is working his own way into a poetic practice). Here is one of the precepts of Buddhism as explained by Thich Nhat Hanh in his Being Peace:
Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Learn to practice breathing in order to regain composure of body and mind, to practice mindfulness, and to develop concentration and understanding.
This could be a much gentler, less ego inflated Olson speaking, and is but one of many possible connections to be made between the poet and the Buddha; but, whether the connections would be worth the energy to develop remains to be seen. I suspect that they would be fruitful, that they would lead to a synthesis moving toward a practice rather than mere comparison; however, “The poetics of such a situation / are yet to be found out.”
What about negative criticism of this book? There is no index to the key terms. Stylistically Stein errs several times in using the imperial “we” when he means “I”. On occasion the use of “we” (“We will look at....”) is justified, other times such use is either lazy and uncritical or a mirroring of the academic and tyrannical attempt to gain consensus where none is justified; such use subverts the emphasis Olson places on the individual responsive subject. And sometimes Stein’s text reads very much like a dissertation, which is fine except when it occurs within his discussion of Olson's criticism of inherited means of expression. These are minor flaws, if flaws they be. Stein’s style is distinctively his own. The lack of index forces more attention to the text. In short, the book is essential reading for anyone attracted by the language of Olson’s prose and poetry to uncover just what was driving the man and where the force of his power did come from.