The Duncan/Olson dichotomy

A review of two volumes

Photos of Robert Duncan (left) and Charles Olson (right) by Jonathan Williams, from the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection. Used with permission of Thomas Meyer.

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.

A slowing 7: The necessary elusive

Transience, that fleeting way of everything not staying: how can we understand the very condition as it slips through the mind’s slippery fingers? Once awake to its pervasiveness, transience appears everywhere: in poems, in spiritual doctrines, in life’s disappointments, in everything. This attention is a chasing sort of attention, moving always toward what is out of reach, trying to understand what is slipping past understanding. Yet to know this unknowable as pervasive fixes something.  A perpetual chasing.

Eye plus eye equals H

Temporal Flux in the visual poetry of Karl Jirgens

Heraclitus by Karl Jirgens

OK, let’s keep this moving. I want to discuss the traditions of visual poetry with Karl Jirgens as well as his own work, and his poem, Heraclitus, seems a perfect place to start. Everything flows. 

What is here? How should we read? Let’s start from the top.

I + I = H

Visually, two I’s joined together with a plus sign become an H. The ‘I,’ the subjective self, becomes H, the Heraclitean changeable self. I is another: I is a river and the self is the ever-flowing water. Or vice versa: The self is a river and “I” i-dentifies with the flow. “I me a river.” Eau-de-vie.

But language shifts. Signs shift. The flow of the name: Heraclitus and the French form of this Greek, Heraclite, skid through time, down the page, become liquid: rivers which are both I’s (I-lands) and the vertical arms of H. The H which begins Heraclitus. The movement of names Mesmer I’s our two eyes. Motion on the page is time. Time is a blur of objects, names, or signs.

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