Art as Experience: A Deweyan Background to Charles Olson's Esthetics

Article excerpt

I: Charles Olson (1910-1970) was such a scholarly poet that the first critical monograph devoted to him, by Robert von Hallberg, carries the apt title Charles Olson: The Scholar's Art (1978). (1) Because Olson was an avid researcher--ferreting out Melville's annotated copies of Shakespeare, digging with gusto into the bowels of archives, and reading voraciously in a range of fields such as history, linguistics, geography, and archeology--and because, like Ezra Pound, he insisted on basing the truth claims in his poetry, essays, and letters on the fruits of his research, Olson's critics have tended to follow his own lead in discussing the many influences on his work. Taking their cues also from the prodigious labors of Olson scholars George Butterick and Ralph Maud, his critics have busied themselves with tracing the impact on his work of the huge library of texts he is known to have consulted. (2) Critical attention to Olson's reading, annotation, and advocacy of texts in this library has produced much admirable work; the time has come, though, for an opening out in the exploration of intellectual, esthetic, and political traditions from which he drew. It is important to move beyond trends of thought represented in his library, in order to measure him against other significant figures and movements. (3) This more expansive approach to Olson can free his work from the grip of a coterie that has persistently claimed it and can help present its acute insights, brilliant formulations, and methodological breakthroughs to a larger world. (4)

One of the major modern philosophers whom Olson can fruitfully meet in dialogue is the pragmatist John Dewey (1859-1952). Although there is no mention of Dewey in Olson's published work, in the sources for his work identified by Butterick and Maud, or in the critical literature (aside from one significant contribution by fellow poet Robert Duncan, discussed below), Dewey was, during the Great Depression when Olson was in his twenties and acquiring his intellectual proclivities, a towering figure in American philosophy and education and one of the most prominent left--leaning intellectuals. For a young man whose political, pedagogical, and esthetic interests had a populist and pragmatist flavor, exposure to Dewey would have been unavoidable. In early 1931, at the same time as the appearance of the "Objectivists" issue of Poetry (edited by Louis Zukofsky), Dewey gave the William James Lectures at Harvard (published in 1934 as Art as Experience), formulating a full-fledged pragmatist esthetics that is in many ways consonant with Objectivist poetics. (5) Olson did not attend Dewey's lectures nor did he read at the time the issue of Poetry that launched the Objectivist movement, but his debt to Objectivism has been long established. Likewise, his explicit reliance on Alfred North Whitehead's 1929 Process and Reality has received ample treatment. (6) In order to assess fully what Olson took from the poetry and theory of this period, one would need to supplement Zukofsky's poetics and Whitehead's processoriented philosophy with Dewey's esthetics. In addition, an understanding of Dewey is imperative for gauging Olson's crucial role as final rector of Black Mountain College, an institution modeled specifically on Deweyan principles of education.

Most basically, though, Dewey can be seen as the signal pragmatist precursor for Olson's attempts to unite art and experience in a more holistic model of culture than the hierarchical and alienated one that prevailed after World War II. Like Dewey, Olson emphasized the importance of direct experience over received knowledge; valued the rough, unpolished quality of vernacular creation over the normative esthetics of cultural institutions; believed in the pedagogical effectiveness of both experience and art; and saw artistic form as arising out of fully engaged experience. The essay that follows explores in particular three topics that bring Olson and Dewey into dialogue: 1) the gains to be made by including Art as Experience within the Objectivist background out of which Olson's poetry and poetics arose; 2) the meanings that these (and other) thinkers give to the concept of "experience" and how its loss and attempted recapture governs their work; and 3) their shared conviction that experience can only be reclaimed through a new attention to the senses, which belief has influenced not only a number of poets who came after Olson but also the entire movement of performance art. …