Here are two elusive pieces of the context of midcentury American poetics. The Robert Duncan/Charles Olson letters have been available, until now, only in the brief reviews of each other that the poets extracted from them (“near-far Mister Olson” and “Against Wisdom as Such”), passages quoted by scholars who have been able to visit the archive at Storrs, and handfuls in Sulfur, Poetry, and Olson’s Selected Letters.
In “Lake Superior,” a poem of historical rumination on the Great Lakes region, derived by Lorine Niedecker from a 1966 vacation journal, there is a brief critical turn amidst appreciations of the landscape and compact accounts of seventeenth-century explorer Pierre-Esprit Radisson, who called Lake Superior “a laborinth of pleasure.” Niedecker draws the reader’s attention to “Iron the common element of earth” as well as “basalt the common dark / in all the Earth.” She features the commonwealth as a geologically coherent reality: “In every living thing,” she writes, “is stuff that once was rock // In blood the minerals / of the rock.” But her salvo, a judgment of human actions on the wild depiction of that landscape, darkens the mood of the poem, and shifts the scale from natural processes of land formation, observed in vivid descriptions of retreating glaciers and “peaks of volcanic thrust,” to that of moral consternation.
One evening with Jules and our daughter, Jessi, I wandered a warehouse of open studios near the Willamette River in northeast Portland. We came upon organic chemist David Cordes painting a narrative of organic chemistry and nationalism; a couple operating as florists who sold nothing and displayed no floral arrangements, but urged people to try their homemade sweetbread; and a woman who urged visitors to arrange glass designs from bowls of crushed glass, which she offered to fire in the kiln, with no mention of charge. A startling-lack-of-explicit commerce continued from studio space to studio space. Our last stop of the evening was a space where a tightrope was bolted a foot off the floor.
In Distant Reading, Peter Middleton describes reading a poem as though it has a “long biography.” This approach involves “mining what is available of the aggregative textual archive that composes the textual memory of the poem, its showing in magazines, performance, anthologies, its construal in reviews and commentaries and other treatments” (23).