Robert McTavish talks to Charles Bernstein about the Vancouver Poetry Conference 1963

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. . . Olson of all those poets is the one whose approach can be characterized as anti-hegemonic, hegemony being the idea of Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian communist, that it’s not just that power is controlled by who owns the factories, but it’s controlled by what kind of ideas are acceptable. Hegemony is that which controls the way we think, kind of like the brainwashing of the 50s. This ’63 conference is a Cold War conference that’s talking about issues, not in the terms of socialism perhaps, but is an aesthetic declaration of independence from the Cold War, in Canada, in North America, a declaration of independence from crippling ideology of the Cold War, in its 1963 version.
Olson in particular in the early sections of The Maximus, in “The Kingfishers,” in “Projective Verse,” is writing anti-hegemonic poetry. He’s writing a poetry that’s declarative, that’s a pose—that’s why it’s so grand, so loud, so bombastic, so pompous. He’s trying to break through the rule by “pejorocracy,” rule by the worst (but I always hear that Pound coinage as also being “perjurocracy,” my own neologism for rule by those who violate the public trust). Olson is trying to puncture the wall of systematic mendacity (to use Big Daddy’s words) that is represented by the emergence of advertising and consumer culture, which in ’63 is a very powerful social critique: “But that which matters, that which insists, that which will last, / that! o my people, where shall you find it, how, where, where shall you listen / when all is become billboards, when, all, even silence, is spray-gunned?” (“I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You”). So he’s seeing that and he’s trying to present some kind of counterforce by saying: let’s look outside of the accepted, even classics, of the Western tradition. Let’s look at things from indigenous cultures (the Mayans), at thinking before Plato (Heraclitus); let’s look at the local where we are, Gloucester. His form of cultural/political radicalism resonates with ’68: that we’re not just going to sit down and take this anymore, that learning inside the Western box is not really helping us to learn. Ironically, the expression “we have to think out of the box” is now used mostly by marketing executives and junk bond pushers. But, of course, Olson was speaking at a time of the man in the gray flannel suit and the New Critics, with the bomb and the death camps casting a shadow over postwar American happiness-through-conformity. Robin Blaser lays it all out in “The Violets,” his wonderful essay on Olson’s critique of the limits of “the Western box” <>.
The polemic of these poets is not important as a polemic against mainstream poetry or some imagination of traditional poetry; it’s not against people who write poems about landscape. (There’s nothing wrong with such work per se and great poems can emerge, even out of the subject of a dark night in Yellowknife, a topic I hope to take up at some future time, before my memories are put out to pasture.) Often we get baited into that critique, me too, because at the time such poetry is put forward at the only legitimate poetry and that ain’t so and never was. The polemic, the radicalness, has to do with the problem of America, American culture, American capitalism, the impact of the Second War on Western society. It really doesn’t matter that it’s for or against some particular local issue within poetry, except insofar that it is symbolic of larger cultural struggles that are being considered by these poets. . . .

For more, see TCR issue 3.21 (Fall 2013)

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