A STARTING POINT FOR THE ART WRITING FIELD STATION: CHARLES OLSON’S “Plan for Curriculum of the Soul” (1968). Reprinted in Rothenberg & Joris, Poems for Millenium Vol.2 (University of California Press), 410-11.
CLAYTON ESHLEMAN: On February 9, 1968, Olson sent his student George Butterick, a two-page “outline” that on the one hand was probably spontaneous (reflecting current preoccupations) and on the other the result of twenty years of research and writing. Such a “Plan” suggests a mysterious correspondence between terrestrial labyrinths, star maps, and the human mind.
Not only does this “Plan” fail to follow the steps of most outlines, it treats its “subjects” as if they were pick-up sticks that had suddenly been loosed from the poet’s grip, falling everywhichway on the page. The only “direction” is that indicated by the fact that the title, one third of the way down on the right-hand page, is under a phrase ending in the word “completion,” suggesting that the “Plan” is to be read as a kind of assymetrical swirl, working down from the title on the right-hand page, crossing over to the left-hand page and following it upward, then crossing back to the right-hand page and ending with “completion”…
Another reading possibility is to disperse with direction entirely, and take the subjects and suggestions as “free bodies” brought together in a single double-page arena. If they are taken as a set of leads, the novice can follow them out himself. By coming to terms with “Alchemy – rather by plates [as connected to dreams]” or with what Olson might mean by “Bach’s belief,” he can (often by arguing with Olson) start to develop his own assembly of intersecting subjects or directions…..
… [this was] not a set of proposals or even an argument, but a tilting assembly of names, subjects and ideas that evokes the accesses and restrictions of the labyrinth itself.
SOURCE: The above quotation, and all information in this post, is from Clayton Eshleman’s marvelous Novices: A Study of Poetic Apprenticeship, reprinted in Companion Spider: Essays (Wesleyan University Press, 2002).
HOW TO READ
Olson’s text was first published in Magazine of Further Studies #5. Its editor, Jack Clarke selected 28 words from the total of 223. In consultation with two other students, Albert Glover and Fred Wah, one of those words were assigned to a member of the Olson community, with the invitation to write a 20-50 page “fascicle” taking off of that word. The word(s) selected were: The Mushroom; Dream; Woman; Mind; Language; Earth; Blake; Dante; Homer’s Art; Bach’s Belief; Novalis’ “Subjects”; The Norse; The Arabs; American Indians; Jazz Playing; Dance; Egyptian Hieroglyphs; Ismaeli Muslimism; Alchemy; Perspective; Vision; Messages; Analytic Psychology; Organism; Matter; Phenomenological; Sensation; Attention.
Clayton Eshleman later wrote to Clarke asking what use had been made of the “Plan” and the fascicles. Clarke replied: “Actually there has been no thought of “use” of it, only a place to be together, the O-community i.e., those living in his “world,” his “soul.” After his death in 1970, we all needed something to survive the boredom of what was to follow…”
A STATEMENT OF THE ART WRITING FIELD STATION
In using this text as a source for the ART WRITING FIELD STATION I do not intend to follow the content of Olson’s curriculum. In trying to articulate the excitement I get from looking – looking rather than reading? – at Olson’s text, I compose the following statement:
The plan is specific, but its specificity, rather than offering a transfer of information, sets up opacities, resistances, a non-absorptive space for the viewer.
The tendency is to see the field it depicts as a gesture apart from its content, as energy, arrangement and gesture. The plan is prescriptive not through content but in how it attempts to hold itself and us within a mutual tactics of expansion and condensing. But does abstracting from Olson’s intention in this way mean at some point “his” content will return?
This field form is now as codified as a sonnet. As the author of the sonnet knows there are 16 lines, an awareness of the field works into the stuff of thought itself, even before it is thought, altering its expectations and pathways. Perhaps the field form allows a more direct equation of space and thought, but the etymology of stanza in “room” shows that this has prevoiously been the case.
The selection of 23 words and their allocation as fascicle commissions for particular writers, makes actual how the Plan both demonstrates and is a proposal for a particular (problematic) form of sociality. It is, then, this combination of thought, space, and a contradictory sociality, that makes me turn to Olson’s text as one source for the ART WRITING FIELD STATION.
NOTE: This statement originally written on a Hammersmith and City Line train, Aldgate East to Ladbroke Grove, 5 February 2010, 7.30-8.10AM. Later revised.