LEE DUGGAN: The Body and the Breath: Olson’s Projective Verse Essay in relation to women’s writing that proceeds it.

I am interested in how through innovation and experimentation various women writers have used open field and bodily energy as defined by Charles Olson’s Projective Verse essay. In particular I will examine how women writers have challenged gender as a construction using innovation and open field poetics, re-writing the feminine in terms of traditionally masculine forms and subject matters. My main focus is on the long poem and epic which are traditionally masculine forms with masculine subject. With reference to Olson’s The Maximus Poems I will explore how the body is used as an engine to propel the energy of the poem. Influencing my reading are notions of the body feminine outlined by theorists such as Helen Cixous and Luce Irigary. With these theorists in mind I consider to what extent the body as set out in Olson’s Projective Verse Essay and the body as presented in The Maximus Poems has cross cutting themes with the poems of Dianne di Prima’s The Loba andLilith, Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston, Joanne Kyger’s The Tapestry and the Web, Anne Waldman’s Fast Speaking Women and Denise Levertov’s Patterson.

Common throughout the writers discussed is a celebration of the body through the text, an element of inscription through the flesh for both, a vibrancy and energy of the body which is channelled through to the text. For Olson and these women the conception of the poem is seen in terms of action rather than ideas; a movement from personal body to a shared, public energy which becomes its self. These women writers respond to traditionally masculine forms, using the body to rebel against gender constructs, subverting what is expected. Through the long poem they take on epic subject matter with epic features of language, location, histories, wars, mythologies and political dimensions present throughout. For women writers taking on the epic or long poem, a distortion of traditional themes and methods has been necessary. The long poem demands a presence of voice and a confident energy to carry it. For Waldman, ‘It was the form that could hold what I needed to be and do. In a way it gave me tremendous freedom as a woman artist’, Rain Taxi Reviews.The long poem allows space to develop ideas, using dream, time and history to provide a structure to the work, allowing for sense to meander, as an organic, continuous work in progress. Perhaps in response to the masculine rhetoric familiar to the epic these women writers use imagination to re-work gender ideologies and histories, exploring and challenging received notions about gender, using epic lexicon and heroic narrative but with female figures.

Olson inhabits spaces such as Gloucester, naming space to take ownership in a traditionally masculine way. He provides a collage of impressions, flux and movement so that the poetry becomes a dialectical space, musical with repetition and performance of place and energy. This embodiment of place through participation is shared by Daphne Marlatt. Her focus is the small Canadian west coast fishing village of Steveston. Her long poem, Steveston, resembles the Maximus sequence in style and content, self-reflexive and autobiographical, the work uses dialogue and narrative to form prose poetry. For her the long poem offers a fluid form for the lyric as she attempts to construct a new narrative line, non-linear and non-heroic. Avoiding loose descriptions and emotions ungrounded in image, she focusses attention on the movements of the body, including the breath to reflect the mind’s movement through the line. Marlatt mirrors Olson’s concern with eradicating the analytical and the generalised voice, with the detail of physical matter and place giving definition. Rather than telling, she illustrates the process of discovery, saying, ‘but it isn’t self, it’s everything transmitted by or through self’. Both Olson and Marlatt establish themselves as centre of consciousness, whose movements allow them to comment on lives and histories they encounter. Olson celebrates the individual by focus on the physical body, his insights beginning with one individual centred in the physical body in the moment. Quoting Keats he describes it as,’ The Egotistical Sublime’. As a perceiving presence, open, uncertain and redefining what she sees, a multiplicity of attention, perception to perception, Steveston moves continually, through its language to new perceptions whilst accommodating uncertainty by questioning perceptions and shifting them.

Marlatt asks, ‘if the body is key arbiter of perception, what happens when a woman is not “given this body”, so much as she is estranged from it’. Placing self in a world which defines and resists self-definition of women, self is reduced to non-body. Olson talks about man’s estrangement from his body but he uses metaphors of freedom and movement. His experience of the body is one of expansion and inclusion whilst Marlatt’s is of containment, ‘locked into menstrual cycles, into pregnancy, childbirth & so on’, The Given(73). The cyclical nature of salmon in Steveston can be seen a metaphor for women’s lives, the physical body and by extension poetics, ‘these bodies reduced to non-bodies’. From the long poem tradition she foregrounds female experience and as such presents the leading voice of the poem as that of woman, distanced from masculine affirmation of the body and from the edges of the work. She explores the life and experience of women as problematic in relation to text. Writing from outside of the poem and distanced from the subject could be seen as elusive. Olson’s poetic persona is direct and bold, ‘my city, my roofs, my people’, Maximus. Olson takes control at the centre of the action with his larger than life persona. His narrator is confident and at ease with his subject whereas she writes from the edges as an outsider, sometimes absent even, and with marginalised perspectives. However, rather than her poetry consisting of the perceptions limited by one persona, she attaches her body to all living things to construct a larger than life authority. Unlike Waldman and Olson, Marlatt’s presence is minimal, she does not have a strong narrator and avoids ‘I’. Rather than forcing her perceptions she invites the reader to contemplate, with suggestions not statements. She says, ‘when Cixous talks about the way woman speaks in public, how she launders all of her body into the act of speaking that resonated for me with Olson’s sense of the body’s rhythms in passionately engaged thought moving the breath of the line.’ Narrative in the Feminine: Daphne Marlatt and Nicola Brossard. (Re-casting the Steveston, Recalling the Invisible Woman from the Margins.)

Bodily energy, linked to that of Projective Verse was a driving force behind Diane di Prima’s composition, she says, ‘poems can come as image or heard words or a rhythm in my head or in the pulse/body.’ (Di Prima 1998,28.) Through open field she creates a fixed text on the page which expresses the mobility of the body and the body as a medium of cultural influence. In her long poems, Lilth:An Interlude and Loba, bodily senses such as smells, sights, sounds or memories triggered by these senses are frequent features. As with Marlatt, Di Prima’s work derives from natural vibrations through the senses and bodily cycles which tie to nature and the universe; an energy of self and beyond which attempts to reconcile the masculine and feminine in ways later set out by Cixous. Again the text challenges and re-inscribes preconceived notions and narratives, concerned with modifying representations which designate difference and otherness. Di Prima reconsiders female sexuality and normative gender roles, drawing attention to the body as a site for the inscription of homogenising discourses. Reconciling masculine and feminine through a reconsideration of the body she promotes otherness, fluid and ambiguous without boundaries. In this endeavour to reconcile binary opposites she presents her character Lilith, a hybrid of gender characteristics and multiple identities and challenges the reader’s perception of the feminine by juxtaposing apparently conflicting female tropes to present female sexuality as predatory and overpowering against the delicate and vulnerable.

Through The Loba, she continues to explore the constructed nature of female sexuality and pursues a vision of automatic female pleasure. She disregards gender categories, taking what is traditionally seen as strictly masculine pleasure in the carnal and redefining it in the more fluid terms of both sexes. Her use of stream-of-consciousness makes the writing intensely personal and direct. She overlays her thoughts through the narrative to re-represent ambiguous female energies and feminine psyche. This multi-dimentionality is represented in Loba it’s self. She creates a heroine who fluctuates between earth mother and animalistic, bestial creature, driven by the body, specifically carnal urges. By placing the Loba outside of culture it is indefinable and mysterious. She questions what the Loba, and, in extension, what gender is, with symbols used in feminist theory: ‘Is she city? Gate she is we know & has been’ (Di Prima 1998, 12). The idea of the feminine as gate as with Luce Irigary’s theory of feminine as envelope, subordinates the female. The female becomes a passive medium through which the masculine enters and passes. The city of culture, mind and man is the place of action and power, embodied as a masculine, cultural sphere. Later in The Childhood of the Loba we have masculinity as a binary symbol to the gate, the authoritative dominance and control of the iron bridge, ‘for what else is man/ but to span, like a wrought-iron bridge/ what but to bind/ the sky, unto the sky’ Di Prima (1998,60).

In her journal, Joanne Kyger quotes, ‘The poet’s line reveals not only his manner of expression, hence the way he thinks, it reveals his identity almost, it might be said, his way of breathing. And this individual structure is all that can be called different in the poets.’… ‘no matter where the discussion starts, it is always necessary to return to the line and its structure,’ (1981,227) Like Olson her use of the line, its movements and use of space, arrest the eye, opens the page and in her terms clarifies voice: ‘I saw the page as some kind of tapestry and voice glyph. When you move your line to the right, the lesser impact of the line, the voice. The whole movement and rhythm on the page give us instruction as to voice and phrasing an import of what’s going on.’ She believed that the poem enabled knowledge of the world, with the structure of the poems a frame upon which self-knowledge could be enacted. This is in line with Duncan’s assumption that the poem defines the world. By retelling historical stories as long poems, the poet can re-imagine a story and rewrite self and therefore become a historical object which challenges the cultural assumptions that have been told through history and stories throughout literary history. The women considered have used larger forms to express weighty content in line with Olson’s regard of the long poem as the form of great poetry, ‘the problem of large content and larger forms may be solved…’ Approaching the masculine construct of the epic using innovative structures in the Tapestry and the Web, Kyger’s characters create a web of gender assumptions which through the re-telling of the story are re-woven into new identities. As with Notley’s The Descent of Allette and H.D’s Helen in Egypt, Kyger takes the mythic figures invented by men and reinvents them to represent the feminine and thus remake gender ideologies. Kyger wrote within predominantly male circles, her struggle for self definition, a search for self and home can be compared to that of Homer. Using Penelope as the central figure, and The Odyssey as a model she upturns the traditional epic to centralise attention on the woman, disrupting a traditional form to disrupt gender structures. She makes the story contemporary, using a disembodied female muse, writing through The Odyssey to create her own feminist space. She adapts the epic to reflect the feminine, to, ‘make something lofty and grand in another way than man’s’ (1994,105) Kyger allows the woman to control the epic trajectory, giving Penelope the control over Odysseus’s fate. Penelope is no longer a passive victim but proactive in her own situation and that of others.

Olson claims that in the field, the syllables and the line create the tensions of the poem, with objects creating what we know as the world and asserts that these elements must be managed in their relations to each other. This he claims is instinctual and must be processed with speed and with little editing or re-writing so as to keep as close as possible to the original, maintaining the raw energy of it. Kyger, like Olson believed that re-writing can leave work flat, that the energy of the writing comes from the source, the physical moment of action and re-writing is taking away from the initial bodily breath and flow of energy of the line, making it in her words, flat ‘like pastry that you’ve kneaded too much…Once words appear on the paper, they’re sacred. You don’t change them. If you make a mistake, you can’t erase it. There are no ‘mistakes’…’when you ‘get going’ in the process of writing, there’s a breath and rhythm that starts to build up inside, the song starts singing, the words fall into place with the breathing and rhythm. When you try and re-stress and re-do the words and lines, it’s very hard to re-create the original brightness’.

Kyger’s work like Olson’s features a keen power of observation, reflective of all areas of daily life and of the local landscape. For Kyger it is Northern California and a human vulnerability that is a presence. The page is used to hold the energies of daily speech rhythms. With this comes a palimpsestic layering of language to reflect the repetitions and rhythms of experience. Again, with Kyger we have a poet who refers to composition in terms of music and scores, ‘You want to make it so that someone could say it. I try to ‘score’ the lines on the page with that in mind, the breathing, the timing. (2010) Common amongst the texts considered is a writing which emerged from the energy of the moment, from the daily practice of writing to accumulate a narrative chronology of the local and the ordinary, often with an open-endedness. Notebooks, diaries, dreams and daily thoughts are used to record the energy of self as it happens, an embodiment of daily life. Rather than trying to compose a poem, the poem is composed from these methods of record keeping. This is apparent in the frequency of dates in the poems and their titles like diary entries, making the work an autobiographical chronicle of her life. Her unselfconscious, open utterances and spontaneity are closely tied to her practice of journal keeping as an everyday record of life which lends itself to the long poem and the flow and connectivity of an ongoing story. Clearly echoing Olson she claims that, ‘focus of articulation. You know how thought and words can drift through you but once you write them down, they’ve arrived… you know the HEAD to the EAR to the SYLLABLE. And to the SYLLABLE. And the HEART to the BREATH to the LINE. Voice and word.’

Visually her work shows its immediate influence by open field poetics. In line with the likes of Olson, Creeley and Williams she associates the physical bodily act of speech and voice as scoring on the page with subtleties of breath and tone reflected on the page. Her revision of the Odyssey, features lines which depart at the margin, stopping abruptly so that the poem is scattered down the page. Her speech acts move the line and dictate the shape of the poem. Discussing her use of the page as field she says it is as a consideration of how one ‘could move the line around very carefully” in relation to other lines on the page to dictate how the poem was going to move, how the voice was going to move in a certain way, and how your physical speech moved through the line’. (1977,63) She describes composition in Olson’s terms, with, ‘the line materialises the physical body-going-through your hand and out through the page’, spatialisation is reflected as imaginative complexity; in her terms – head space.

Denise Levertov gave homage to Projective Verse for her style of writing through context rather than metre or closed form, through ‘projection’. She had a strong sense of sound and speech rhythms which feature prominently in her work. Juxtaposing the prose of casual journal entries, letters, formal documents, direct speech next to the highly lyrical, she blends a universality of themes into the long poem, addressing the relationship between life, poetry and free verse. An outspoken, humanist writer of open, experimental forms, she could be as rhetorically direct and didactic as Olson. Her organic approach characterised her unique style which came from a belief that form is to be found in the natural chaos of human life. In line with feminine écriture she subverts expected poetic themes, juxtaposing the domestic, her roles as wife and mother, with war, politics and what it is to be a woman writer of the time. Her attention to physical detail and vivid emotional responses is inspired by the commonplace, projecting a clear, precise sense of voice and acute observation to engage with the everyday and transform the ordinary into something new, combining the profound with the everyday. This helped the accessibility and immediacy of her later, overtly political work, through which, like Olson she questioned the role of the poet, believing that the poet could channel energies and ideologies rather than producing art for arts sake as suggested by Oscar Wilde.

She explores inner and outer experience using myth and history whilst insisting on the integrity of the self and claiming a need to be honest and free, emotionally and spiritually, so that even when using historical references, it is the self that is the point of reference. In Three Meditations she quotes Olson, ‘the only object is /a man, carved/out of himself’. Like Kyger and Notley she uses bare, concrete language and imagery of the everyday to create a personal mythology and thus recreate self and break gender assumptions within poetry. ‘Form never more than a revelation of content’. Her creative process springs from organic perceptions, ‘bought to speech’, followed by active listening and movement of ‘crystallization’ from which the poem begins. According to Levertov, when poets work in received forms, the form itself is fixed, while the content must shift to meet the form. Like Olson she used feelings, not metre and conventional themes and form, to channel energy from self to poem, creating a state of dynamic interaction between content and form. Similar to Olson, for her the ear, the eye, the passion and the intellect operate in heightened communication with one another, ultimately to a sudden epiphany or illumination to unravel enigmas. For both this is an intuitive process which comes from within the individual poet. Familiar to all of the writers mentioned is a preoccupation with content over form as a means to promote a higher communication of being beyond aesthetics, a channelling of a more essential self; in Levertov’s words, ‘checking for accuracy, precision of language that must take place throughout the writing not as a matter of one element supervising all the others but of an intuitive interaction between all elements involved.’ She does not just address the reader but claims to address varying elements of the poet’s being, something ‘in here, the inner being of the poet’. Her work has a lyrical musicality which emerges through the dynamic of a poem’s composition. She uses precise images which flow through systems of rhythm and sound. These systems emerge through speech rhythms which we hear through a variety of devices and the use of open field as opposed to metre. Lineation, particularly line break, assonance, juxtaposition, enjambment, contrast, pun, echo, and repetition are what hold the work and enhance a sense of speech rhythm.

Anne Waldman’s fast flowing movements, sounds and breaths are as significant to performance as the words. She playfully uses improvisation, creating new words and bringing non-words, sounds and breaths in to high energy performance making the poems alive and in her own terms ‘projective’. Her focus on a form set by the natural flow of the speaker fits into feminist ideology whilst maintaining a clear influence of Olson’s Projective Verse essay. Like Kyger, she claims that her choices are instinctual and the poet should hear the particles of sound and feel the pressure of breath to hold the line rather than the energy being smothered by closed lines, metre and rhyme. This spontaneous flow as shared by all the writers featured disrupts logic and syntax to make sense and sound secondary to the syllable, energy and breath, so that from one perception to the next we get a daily reality. This spontaneous, heartfelt, stream of consciousness is used as a way to know things differently, an energy discharge, straight from the body which makes the work intensely personal but with a universality and social aspect apparent.

This social approach to poetry extends to the political sphere, where poetry and public speech meet, presented as a public utility almost, available readily as spoken word in cafés and political gatherings. Through the manifestation of energy these writers produced dramatic, even theatrical works, with a strong sense of persona, bold and forceful. Waldman discusses poetry as a public voice to witness, grieve and alleviate suffering. Referring to Kali Yuga poetics Waldman claims, ‘poetics has everything to do with the acts of poetry, language and speech committed in the Kali Yuga time frame. Now more than ever the poem is a call to responsibility and action.’ (Vow to Poetry) Waldman 2001). She sees poetry as an enactment of public speech but not as grounded in what we usually consider politics, rather the emphasis is on clarity of mind and the energy that comes directly from the body in line with the teachings of Buddhism and shamanism, the chant of the ancient ritual without religious or political connotations.

For Waldman, the poem doesn’t just exist, it is active, it does something in the world, utilising an energy that moves beyond the poem. The poem becomes a speech act, guided by different parts of the body and using various sounds and pitches like a musical instrument. She describes her colloquial chants, heavy with informal musical structures and patterns as, ‘driven by sound and the possibilities for vocal expression, the mouthing of text as well as intentionality or dance on the page. Orality goes with the description of a poet in the primary sense when poetry was composed by people who didn’t read or write… I’ll often have heard the words, imagined them through my ear before I see them or write them down’. (Interview with Anne Waldman, Rain Taxi reviews, Eric Lorberer.) She has been known in performance to change a word to a breath or breaths, so that, ‘”earth” turns to pure breath and sounds used to catch the energy of sexual breathing. These, as mantra-like structures, refer to an automatic, physiological response in performed work, saying, ‘I’m always led by a certain heightened energy into text, and from text which carries these patternings of my nervous system into the presentation or performance.’

At times Waldman’s lines are short and rhythmic, reflected in shorter, more energetic breaths which enact the poem. The percussive rhythmic quality may also have been influenced by her collaborative work with Black Mountain musician John Cage. She quotes Olson and Williams’ reference to musical scores in relation to her work: ‘I often see the poem as “scores”…there are many “translations” so to speak, that go on, from the shape in your mind to the shape of your voice to the shape on the page… how to score it?’. She describes it as a psychophysical response: ‘in performance when you actually are synchronized with your state of mind there’s a psychophysical response which strikes something in you’. Waldman talks of ‘using the objectivist model of really catching the world as it flies with its minute particulars’. She insists that the breath, the poetic utterance should touch the heart and come from the heart in order to bring profound comprehension, so that from the intensely personal and private, public speech can be generated. As with Olson, a public voice comes from deep within the body to communicate common experience better than bound structures and rhetoric, so that here is a mood of sociability associated to the performative qualities.

The Maximus Poems begin in letter form. Common amongst the women writers considered here is the use of letters, journals, phone conversations and direct speech. Waldman claimed that by living in a state of mind, poetry is a continuum, a tantric path, using dream work, private letters and conversations between friends, to access what she describes as the deeply felt and personal, and making it public. In Tape,shelifts radio commentary, a phone conversation and a dictaphone to capture the direct essence of the speech. Olson had the technologies around him to do this but favoured the typewriter. It is the text and the layout of the text which, for him, speaks, this is where voice is presented, whereas, as discussed earlier, Waldman utilises her body in the presentation and performance of the work, often making sounds and gestures not apparent in her written texts.

The poem can be seen as a communication of being rather than a means of representation. Waldman, proclaiming self, ‘I am here, I am woman woman is here.’ writes using ‘speech force’ as Olson calls it to proclaim self, ‘voice in its largest sense’, because it ‘allows all the speech force of language back into the work’. This direct access to the fullness of conscious existence is seen as a way of being.Olson suggests non-projective texts are artificial and cut off from the poet’s own voice and present existence, ‘the crime of the non-projective poet is that he places the writing in the position of origin reserved for the voice’. The projective poet he claims, ‘stays inside himself’ as Cixous claims women writers need to, taking a place in their own text.

Olson had the oral presence and projection which inspired the writers discussed. Form and shape are organic productions of subject through bodily energy, the breath with a transference of poetic energy from source to reader, so that structure is no longer the propulsive force and form is as in Creeley’s and later Olson’s terms an ‘extension of content’, a composition by field not form of measure. This open construction rather than rhyme and syntax guide poetic composition and shape the work with daily speech rhythms and repetition creating a musicality rather than a metre. Notions of self are blended with the political, historical, spiritual and mythological. Defining energy outside of masculine/feminine tropes means that the feminine is no longer subordinate but fluid and other, with its own unique energy. Women therefore define their own energy in terms outside of existing traditions and ideals. For both Olson and these women writers it is the poet’s own voice, ear, body, breath and speech which creates a channel for the energy of the poem. These women were writing at the margins of what is still a predominantly male circle. They could be seen to use poetics to reconsider and reclaim the body thus establishing a rebalance of gender and allowing for female bodily space. As a result we have a range of texts with intersecting practices and no clear boundaries. What ties these writers together is a spontaneous energy, visceral and active, which typifies exploratory poetics. For all there is a complex relationship between self, place and language. The disruption of conventions, including syntactical and logical, usurps traditional power structures and assumptions. Perception is determined through the body, physiologically and through an energy that comes direct from an uncensored flow. Looking at writers who explore borders of the body as spatial with the body and subject intrinsically political, I have considered the mapping out of space and self to be tied to the post structuralist interest in mobility and the feminist re-imagination of gender as linked to the re-imagination of place. The extended poetic form of the long poem I have identified as a common form which gives scope for conceptualising relationships between language and the body, language and place.



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Lee Duggan is origninally from London but has lived in North Wales since the age of 20. Her writing is very much informed by location and the impact place has on identity, as well as by her experiences as a working, single mother of three.  She has an MA in Writing: Practice and Context from Bangor University and her first poetry collection, Reference Points, was published in 2017 by Aquifer Books.




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