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Projective Verse

Poetry New York, Selected Writings, Autobiography

poetry olson ‘projective poem

the theory and practice of poetry described in Charles Olson's essay ‘Projective Verse’, which appeared in Poetry New York in 1950; it was collected in Olson's Selected Writings (edited by Robert Creeley, 1966). Olson's conceptions, which extended the developments chiefly associated with the work of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams (see also Imagism, Objectivist Poetry, and free Verse), centred on his belief that the dynamics of a poem in its making should be the prime determinant of its form; he defined poetic structure in terms of ‘kinetics’, the qualities of the poem as ‘a high-energy construct and … an energy discharge’, ‘principle’, summarized in the statement that ‘form is never more than an extension of content’, and ‘process’, the generative continuity by which one perception leads directly to another. No rigid presuppositions concerning technique or subject would be imposed on the poem; composition would constitute an ‘open field’, capable of admitting elements apprehended during the act of writing, which would, in Creeley's words, thus ‘move in the field of its recognitions’ and become an ‘intensely specific revelation of one's own content’. Olson divided the governing properties of verse into syllable and line, indicating their essentiality in the words ‘the Head, by way of the Ear, to the Syllable | the Heart, by way of the Breath, to the Line’. His views and the practical demonstrations offered in his writing were felt by many to be of enormous benefit in liberating American poetry from the constraining conservation of the immediate postwar era; Williams, who quoted extensively from ‘Projective Verse’ in his Autobiography (1950), called the essay ‘an advance of inestimable proportions’. ‘Projective verse’, or ‘open field composition’, became the characteristic mode of the poets associated with Black Mountain College in the early 1950s and had seminal influence in increasing the flexibility of form and thematic inclusiveness of poetry in English in succeeding decades.

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