kristen prevallet




I. The Pursuit of Rationality in the Age of the Engineered Apocalypse 

Currently in the U.S.A., the practice of intellectual analysis seems like an act of defiance. Fundamentalist logic pervades and is being used to justify many domestic and foreign policy decisions—from the notion that poverty can be controlled through faith-based initiatives, to establishing the parameters of an “axis of evil” that threatens “freedom.” To imagine that questioning the larger context of the Bush Administration’s policies is considered not only anti-American but a threat to national security should be unthinkable in a country where the Bill of Rights ensures that “we the people” are entitled to have a say in how “our” government handles our interests as citizens. Yet, the pursuit of knowledge as the basis for critical thinking has been suppressed and mocked for many years in this country, as if being “intellectual” is a threat to being “normal.” Ordinary people are not considered ordinary if they are too smart—and now we are beginning to see exactly how this habit of talking down to the populace, convincing them of their docility, in fact allows rather terrifying propositions to be accepted as necessary to the status quo. 

Propose legislation that reduces air quality standards for polluting factories, in spite of the fact that such standards have curbed emission of harmful greenhouse gasses? Give major tax cuts to corporations that have stolen billions of dollars from pension funds, and then convince the very people whose savings accounts were looted that they should vote for the very politicians who serve the interests of the looters? Send economic aid to Africa to combat an AIDS crisis that threatens to weaken the military backbone of countries such as Angola, while simultaneously supporting pharmaceutical companies’ fraudulent handling of AIDS medication on the African continent, and eyeing the oil-rich resources of these same nations? Abandon the 2001 Kyoto Protocols on world climate protection (ratified by some 180 countries), stonewall at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, and still expect the world to passively stand by while we preemptively launch “regime changes” in the Middle East? 

The list goes on. And the further into insanity it reaches, the more rational certain conspiracy theories seem: Two liberal democratic legislators—Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Governor Mel Carnahan of Missouri—die in plane crashes in the weeks leading up to major elections in 2002 and 2000 respectively, elections in which Republicans triumph. Many people in power had warning of the 9/11 attacks: There was time for jets to have been scrambled; there were FBI agents who were told not to follow up on information leading up to the attacks; there are investors who made millions of dollars in the massive short-selling of airline and financial company stocks in the days before the attacks. Why would this be? asks the skeptic. And the conspiracy theorist answers: To oversee the emergence of a new Fascist state. Jerry Falwell’s October 2002 comment, “Mohammed was a terrorist”—which sparked violent protests in Maharashtra, Bombay—was a part of the Christian Right’s plan to catalyze the apocalypse. John Ashcroft believes he speaks in tongues and had himself anointed with oil when he became a U.S. senator. When irrationality is rampant, there is the urge to react in kind. 

But, of course, this is no different from the current behavior of leaders who think they will stop terrorism by inflicting more terror in the form of carpet bombings and endless propaganda. What is the saying about fighting fire with fire? Resist the lunacy, or the lunatics will win. 

II. The Opposite of Inspiration Is Investigation 

Instead of buying gas masks and digging underground shelters (or moving to Canada), I turn my rage and confusion towards poetry, the unacknowledged legislation of worlds unacknowledged, to reveal both systems of knowing (content) and structures of ideology (form). Poetry, the work of radical linguistic, contextual, and metrical articulation, is a way to structure my sometimes perpendicular thought processes, transforming confusion and anger into form and meaning. Luckily, there are numerous trajectories in the history of poetry that active minds in search of some “tradition” can follow and, after careful apprenticeship, claim as their own. My choice for consideration here is the polyvalent tradition of Investigative Poetics and its links with Projective Verse, Relational Poetics, and even Language Poetry, which provide theoretical structures for working with language to reveal both the formal, syntactic structures that make it work, and the cultural, connotative sources that make it mean something. These enabling traditions are, obviously, specific, each with their own histories and cast of poets. And, although there are numerous points of entry into these traditions, the one most relevant to an introduction to Investigative Poetics is Charles Olson.1 

In 1950, Olson wrote an essay called “Projective Verse” laying out the terms of Open Field Poetics in which, among other things, the poem is understood as a “high-energy construct” where “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION” (Collected Prose, 240). Following Robert Creeley’s dictum that “Form is never more than the extension of content,” Olson articulated the place of what he called “History” in the poem. To Olson, history is a complex organism in which an individual connects to his (her) locale through “what he knows, what he really knows” (Special View, 20). History is what connects a person to space and time; it is not a force that acts upon the individual from the outside. Rather, it is story, imagination, poetry—it is a verb meaning “to find out for yourself” (26). So, instead of allowing larger power structures and forces to act upon you as a passive, helpless object, you act upon them subjectively by expanding your knowledge and writing the story of the universe as you see it—based on the facts and observations that you have collected. Olson’s work emerges from the messy materials of historical accounts, notes, and raw information. It is not what Gloucester, Massachusetts, did for Charles Olson in helping to expand time and space within the form of his epic project, Maximus Poems, but rather what Olson did for the dense tissue of reality that is Gloucester, in rereading his town as a site of poetic history, from which a flow of source materials is opened up within the space of the poem.2 

In spite of the fact that Olson’s poetry has a masculine energy base, a projective, ego-driven fervor that can be read through a Jungian lens as a mythic-heroic quest for self-completion, his project is not exclusively focused on the hero’s journey towards truth. He is not so “fixed” in time as to be fixated on singular answers. His is a mind in constant motion. In The Special View of History, Olson defines process as: “PROCESS: ‘any phenomenon which shows a continuous change in Time’ / MAN IS A CONTINUOUS CHANGE IN TIME / Etc.” (33). We (“man”) are history and life is our continuum in space and time. All that we know is history. “There is no limit to what you can know. Or there is only in the sense that you don’t find out or you don’t seek to know” (29). 

The Maximus Poems transmutes these ideas of process, and the individual who is always changing through what s/he learns, into poetic form. Maximus Poems is almost impossible to excerpt, simply because the work is so kinetic and formally eclectic. And yet, throughout the book, Olson constantly lets the reader know what he is doing in quotable lyric bits. 

I looked up and saw
its form
through everything
—it is sewn
in all parts, under
and over 

This fragment, alone on the 8.5-x-11-inch page, follows the vast poem “[Maximus, From Dogtown – IV].” Located in 2000 B.C., the piece asserts the dominance of Heaven and Ocean over Earth, a vision based on particular Greek and Norse mythologies. Seemingly a rant against the idea that the feminine Earth is more primal and universal than the masculine Ocean/Sky, the poem moves through references to obscure wars and sagas of gods and goddesses, finally to reconcile it all through Love “in the figure of the goddess born” (342). So the above fragment, itself a reconciliation of all that came before, stands alone as a statement regarding the larger forces of the universe as part of the smaller, yet no less significant, sediments of the Earth—”sewn, in all parts, under and over.” Olson’s work reveals the simultaneity of continuity and rebellion, of time imploded and expanded simultaneously. He creates a poetics that is as open to multiple forms as it is to multiple contents; Maximus is a book that cannot be easily defined because it works like an organism in which there are many cells, all in motion, some slow and some fast, some lyrical and posited as arising between a man and the sea, the birds, and the universe, but others rooted in documentary and letters, where nonpersonal, nonlyric sources ground the work in a particular (American) space and (mid-twentieth century) time.