Emersonian Poetics

The art of the first British settlers of America was literary, originating in the severe rhetoric of New England divines. Absolutely convinced of their Election, and often ferociously excoriating the heresy of toleration, they theologized the very idea of America as a redemption from Europe according to God’s plan and covenant. Consequently the great flowering of American literature, and painting, in the first half of the Nineteenth Century arrived with the secularization of that rhetoric and theology.  The turning point in our native tradition from an art in the service of Christian theology to an Orphic theology of art may be symbolically represented by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s resignation in 1832 from the Second Church of Boston (the pulpit of the author of Magnalia Christi Americana, Cotton Mather).  In the following two years Emerson gradually transferred the locus of his teaching from Unitarian pulpits to the public lecture halls, such as that of The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in Boston’s Masonic Temple. His essays that both predict and inform American artistic discourse retain “in the optative mode” (as he said of all of our literature) the fervor and the conviction of the founding divines.

American artists — poets, composers, painters, filmmakers — have largely perpetuated Emerson’s transformation of the homiletic tradition in their polemical position-papers. Sometimes they have even implicitly acknowledged their awareness of that tradition, as when Charles Ives published his Essays before a Sonata (1920) to accompany his “Concord Sonata.” More often they have been unwitting Emersonians, or even Emersonians in spite of themselves. Gertrude Stein is an example of the former, John Cage and Charles Olson of the latter. They were significant figures in the transmission of Emersonian aesthetics to filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Hollis Frampton, and Abigail Child.

When I identify American aesthetics as Emersonian, I want to include in this sweeping claim Emerson’s disciples, Thoreau and Whitman, and even those, such as Melville, who set themselves in opposition to him, insomuch as Emerson comprehensively set out the terms of the argument and defined the terrain on which the Americanness of our native art would be determined.

Emerson himself knew that the mutually opposed artistic positions and the variety of styles, in a given nation at any one time, participate in a coherent system. Near the beginning of his essay on “Art”, he described the way in which the air an artist breathes “necessitates” an “ineffaceable seal on [his] work:”

The new in art is always formed out of the old. The Genius of the hour sets his ineffaceable seal on the work, and gives it an inexpressible charm for the imagination. As far as the spiritual character of the period overpowers the artist, and finds expression in his work, so far it will retain a certain grandeur, and will represent to future beholders the Unknown, the Inevitable, the Divine. No man can quite exclude this element of Necessity from his labor. No man can quite emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages, and arts, of his times shall have no share. Though he were never so original, never so willful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew. The very avoidance betrays the usage he avoids. Above his will, and out of his sight, he is necessitated, by the air he breaths, and the idea on which he and his contemporaries live and toil, to share the manner of his times, without knowing what that manner is.[1]

Gertrude Stein virtually repeats Emerson’s terms when she begins the fourth lecture of Narration: “After all anybody is as their land and air is….  It is that which makes them and the arts they make and the work they do and the way they eat and the way they drink and they way they learn and everything.”

It is characteristic that an avowed anti-Emersonian poet such as Charles Olson, who deliberately aligned himself with Melville’s rejection of the Sage of Concord, would recast this passage in a polemical essay, ignoring its Emersonian source because he found something similar in Carl Jung’s study of synchronicity and the aleatoric Book of Changes. But Olson was never more Emersonian and less Jungian than in asserting the prime point of his epistolary essay, that wisdom cannot be detached from poetic form:

… We are ultimate when we do bend to the law. And the law is:

/ whatever is born or done this moment of time, has

the qualities of

this moment of


The peculiarly Emersonian inflection of this commonplace would be the invocation of Necessity or Ananke under the guise of “law.”

The transformation of Necessity into an aesthetical category is one of the dominant Emersonian features of American aesthetic theory. Others are the primacy of the visible and the transformative value of vehicular motion. The great ode to Ananke concludes the late Emerson’s essay on “Fate”:

I do not wonder at a snow-flake, a shell, a summer landscape, or the glory of the stars; but at the necessity of beauty under which the universe lies; that all is and must be pictorial; that the rainbow and the curve of the horizon and the arch of the blue vault are only results from the organism of the eye….

Let us build altars to the Beautiful Necessity, which secures that all is made of one piece; that plaintiff and defendant, friend and enemy, animal and planet, food and eater are of one kind…. to the Necessity which rudely or softly educates him to the perception that there are no contingencies; that Law rules throughout existence; a Law which is not intelligent but intelligence; –not personal nor impersonal — it distains and passes understanding; it dissolves persons; it vivifies nature; yet solicits the pure in heart to draw on all its omnipotence.[3]

In the second half of the Twentieth Century the aesthetics of the Beautiful Necessity has animated the debate on the function and value of chance in making art. The expansiveness of the Emersonian heritage makes John Cage, who tirelessly sought to erase the distinctions between art and life, and Stan Brakhage, the Orphic filmmaker whose poesis was a religious vocation, coequal heirs of the Beautiful Necessity, although they invoke it to opposite ends. Cage’s systematic disruptions of continuous discourse often make it difficult to isolate his version of Ananke in a succinct quotation. However, the concluding paragraph of his “History of Experimental Music in America” offers the following reflection:

History is the story of original action…. That one sees the human race is one person (all of its members parts of the same body, brothers– not in competition any more than hand is in competition with eye) enables him to see that originality is necessary, for there is no need for eye to do what hand so well does. In this way, the past and present are to be observed and each person makes what he alone must make, bringing for the whole of human society into existence a historical fact, and then, on and on, in continuum and discontinuum.[4]

For Brakhage, Ananke animated his vocation:

Of necessity I become instrument for the passage of inner vision thru all my sensibilities, into it’s external form. My most active part in their process is to increase all my sensibilities (so that all films arise out of some total area or being or full life) AND, at the given moment of possible creation to act only out of necessity. In other words, I am principally concerned with revelation. My sensibilities are art-oriented to the extent that revelation takes place, naturally, within the given historical context of specifically Western aesthetics. If my sensibilities were otherwise oriented, revelation would take an other external form — perhaps a purely personal one.[5]

In the early short book, Nature (1836), Emerson set forth a hyperbole for the primacy of the visible in his and our world. In response to it, Christopher Cranch famously caricatured him as an enormous eyeball on spindly legs:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration…. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God…. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.[6]

In that same book Emerson provides a scenario for the quickening of visual experience:

The least change in our point of view gives the whole world a pictorial air. A man who seldom rides, needs only to get into a coach and traverse his own town, to turn the street into a puppet-show. The men, the women, — talking, running, bartering, fighting, — the earnest mechanic, the lounger, the beggar, the boys, the dogs, are unrealized at once, or, at least, wholly detached from all relation to the observer, and seen as apparent, not substantial beings. What new thoughts are suggested by seeing a face of country quite familiar, in the rapid movement of the railroad car! Nay, the most wonted objects, (make a very slight change in the point of vision,) please us most. In a camera obscura, the butcher’s cart, and the figure of one of our own family amuse us. So the portrait of a well-known face gratifies us. Turn the eyes upside down, by looking at the landscape through your legs, and how agreeable is the picture, though you have seen it any time these twenty years![7]

If this passage sounds familiar, it may be because Whitman so thoroughly took over its catalogue of the puppet-show of city life and made it his own in Leaves of Grass. However, before the invention of cinema it was not possible to make visual art directly following most of the cues in this catalogue.

For the American visual artists who inherited the exhilaration of the transparent eyeball the dissolution of the self within a divine afflatus often entails the hypothetical silencing or disengagement of language. Particularly the temporary suspension of the substantive, name-giving activity of the mind assumed a redemptive status for the Abstract Expressionists. Furthermore, the primacy of vision always contains a dialectical moment in which visibility is effaced by whiteness. The monumental expression of that threatening void at the core of vision also can be found in Emerson’s Nature:

The ruin or the blank we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opaque. The reason the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself.[8]

The polar stasis at the end of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” in Moby Dick are examples of this national obsession with the “blank” (or etymologically, white) of nature that Wallace Stevens called “an ancestral theme” in “The Auroras of Autumn”:

Here, being visible is being white,

Is being of the solid of white, the accomplishment

Of an extremist in an exercise…

One extremist, Gertrude Stein, absorbed Emerson through her teacher at Radcliff College, William James who, as Richard Poirier has shown, owed more to Emerson than he cared to acknowledge[9]. Quoting the following passage from “The Stream of Thought,” the cornerstone chapter of James’ Principles of Psychology, Poirier points to “the emphasis on action, on transitions” in both James and Emerson and the skeptical rejection of false substantives and illusionary ends in the frozen meaning of words:

We ought to say a feeling of and, and feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold. Yet we do not: so inveterate has our habit become of recognizing the existence of the substantive parts alone, that language almost refuses to lend itself to any other use.[10]

One might even say that Stein took this as a literary program. In the lecture, “Poetry and Grammar” she discussed her reluctance to depend upon nouns in her writing:

As I say a noun is a name of a thing, and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known. Everybody knows that by the way they do when they are in love and a writer should always have that intensity of emotion about whatever is the object about which he writes.[11]

By dislocating syntax, she foregrounded conjunctions and prepositions in her writings of the second and third decades of the twentieth century: for example, “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso”[1923] lays stress on if, and, and as in exposing the infrastructure of portraiture.[12]

In Narration (1935), Stein interrogated the nature of American literature, poetry and prose, the differences between literary narratives and newspapers, and the status of an audience. Several Emersonian topoi occur in these talks. I begin with the vehicular perspective. A sign glimpsed from a train becomes the exemplum of the second lecture:

Let’s make our flour meal and meat in Georgia.

This is a sign I read as we rode on a train from Atlanta to Birmingham and I wondered then and am still wondering is it poetry or is it prose let’s make our flour meal and meat in Georgia, it might be poetry and it might be prose and of course there is a reason why a reason why it might be poetry and a reason why it might be prose.

Does let’s make our flour meal and meat in Georgia move in various ways and very well and has that to do really to do with narrative in poetry, has it really to do with narrative at all and is it more important in poetry that a thing should move in various kinds of ways than it is in prose supposing both of them to be narrative.[13]

These “new thoughts” excited by the fast moving perspective turn on the puns embedded in the advertising sign. Stein’s method is circular; examples are displaced; later lectures suggest ways of reading earlier ones. In the lecture following the description of the sign seen from a moving train she gives an oblique clue to her reading of how it “moves in various ways”:

I love my love with a b because she is peculiar. One can say this. That has nothing to do with what a newspaper does and that is the reason why that is the reason that newspapers and with it history as it mostly exists has nothing to do with anything that is living.[14]

The seeming nonsense of “I love my love with a b because she is peculiar” becomes an erotic epigram when we read “a b” as her companion and lover, Alice B. [Toklas]. Looking back to the earlier lecture with this in mind, we may note that the train was moving from A[tlanta] to B[irmingham] and the prosaic advertisement for Georgia products can be read as a call to assignation (“meat” as “meet”). This confirms Stein’s definition of the American difference in literature in the opening lecture:

In the American writing the words began to have inside themselves those same words that in the English were completely quiet or very slowly moving began to have within themselves the consciousness of completely moving, they began to detach themselves from the solidity of anything, they began to excitedly feel themselves as if they were anywhere or anything… words left alone more and more feel that they are moving and all of it is detached and is detaching anything from anything and in this detaching and in this moving it is being in its way creating its existing.[15]

The play of movement and detachment here redeploys terms from Emerson’s essay, “The Poet,” where he balances “the intellect, which delights in detachment” and “the quality of the imagination [which] is to flow.”

The objective of Stein’s Narration is the displacement of narrative as “a telling of what is happening in successive moments of its happening”[16] and poetry as “an intensive calling upon the name of anything”[17] to a modern mode of knowledge of “things moving perhaps perhaps moving in any direction”[18] which has been the discovery of American literature. Stein has reinterpreted Emerson’s doctrine of “The Over-Soul” in literary terms, fashioning a new definition of “audience” from his mystical concept of the eternal One. Emerson wrote:

We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meanwhile within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object are one….[19]

In the fourth lecture Stein comes to her definition of an “audience” from a darker moment of solipsism than Emerson will allow here. It is one of her versions of his earlier noncoincidence of the axes of vision and of things:

That is to say can does any one separate themselves from the land so they can see it and if they see it are they the audience of it or to it. If you see anything are you its audience and if you tell anything are you its audience, and is there any audience for it but the audience that sees or hears it.[20]

Still, the act of “recognition” that occurs in the process of writing, in which something beyond intention originates, convinces her that the apperceptive audience the writer becomes to her own writing is a model for the wider audience of readers:

That is what mysticism is, that is what the Trinity is, that is what marriage is, the absolute conviction that in spite of knowing anything about everything about how any one is never really feeling what any other one is really feeling that after all after all three are one and two are one. One is not one because one is always two that is one is always coming to a recognition of what the one who is one is writing that is telling.[21]

Her uncharacteristic evocation of theological language is itself Emersonian. In “The Over-Soul” he wrote: “In all conversation between two persons tacit reference is made, as to a third party, to a common nature. That third party or common nature is not social; it is impersonal; is God.”[22] Curiously Stein is at her most Emersonian when she interiorizes all three parties and comes almost to identifying narrative with the Beautiful Necessity that keeps on generating the mystical marriage of reader and writer, or the trinity of reader, writer, and text.

Since the late 1960s John Cage expressed his Emersonianism largely through the mediation of Emerson’s first disciple, Henry David Thoreau. Cage wrote in his “Preface to ‘Lecture on the Weather'”: “No greater American has lived than Thoreau. Emerson called him a speaker and actor of the truth. Other great men have vision. Thoreau had none. Each day his eyes and ears were open and empty to see and hear the world he lived in. Music, he said, is continuous; only listening is intermittent.”[23] Cage said he composed his Empty Words (1974) by “subjecting Thoreau’s writings to I Ching chance operations to obtain a collage text.” However, I understand this radical enthusiasm for Thoreau to have been primed by the Emersonian aesthetics already evident in his crucial first book, Silence (1961), an anthology of many of his articles and lectures since 1937, in which a sometimes chronological arrangement interacts in a thematic collage with short narrative anecdotes and interspersed parables.[24] In addition, Stein exerted a great influence on Cage early in his career. He quotes her in his most elaborate statement of the American uniqueness in music: “Actually America has an intellectual climate suitable for radical experimentation. We are, as Gertrude Stein said, the oldest country of the twentieth century. And I like to add: in our air way of knowing nowness….”[25]

In his “Lecture on Nothing” (first delivered in 1949 or 1950 at the Abstract Expressionists’ Artists’ Club) he presented the core of his negative, necessitarian teaching (“I have nothing to say/ and I am saying it/ and that is poetry/ as I need it”). He urges his listeners to think of the lecture itself as if it were a sight glimpsed from a moving vehicle:

Regard it as something seen momentarily,as

though from a window  while traveling.

If across Kansas, then, of course, Kansas. Arizona is more interesting,

almost too interesting  , especially  for a New Yorker  who is

being interested  in spite of himself  in everything.

Or you may leave it   forever   and never return to it   ,

for we pos-sess nothing. Our poetry now

is the realization  that we possess  nothing

Anything therefore  is a delight

(since we do not   pos-ses it)  and thus need not fear its loss

We need not destroy the past: it is gone;

at any moment,  it might reappear and  seem to be  and be the                                                                                                                               present

Would it be a  repetition?  Only if we thought we

owned it,  but since we don’t,  it is free  and so are we[26]

Behind this passage lie not only the aesthetics of movement from Nature, but also one of Emerson’s most eloquent moments in his most powerful essay, “Experience”:

All I know is reception; I am and I have; but I do not get, and when I fancied I had gotten anything, I found I did not. I worship with wonder the great Fortune. My reception has been so large that I am not annoyed by receiving this or that superabundantly.[27]

The “Lecture on Nothing” invokes as well the doctrine of the Beautiful Necessity:

What I am calling  poetry  is often called  content.

I myself have called  it form. It is the conti-nuity of a piece of music.  Continuity today,

when it is necessary, is a demonstration  of dis-

interestedness.  That is it is a proof   that our delight

lies in not pos-sessing anything. Each moment

presents what happens .[28]

Charles Olson encountered Cage and felt his influence when they were both on the faculty of Black Mountain College in the 1950s. But his own relationship to Emerson owed nothing to Cage. It was profound and went back to the origins of his vocation; it has been commented upon extensively.[29] As an undergraduate at Wesleyan, Olson confessed in his journal that Emerson made him feel like “an intellectual pigmy.”

After Wesleyan Olson became absorbed in the work of Herman Melville and he largely took upon himself Melville’s anxiety and discomfort with Emerson. In fact, much of our direct knowledge of Melville’s reaction to Emerson is the result of Olson’s remarkable enacting of his own Herodotean principle: “History” is, etymologically, what one finds out for oneself; for as a young graduate student, he searched for and found much of Melville’s library.

The gist of his Melvillean position can be gleaned from his 1958 review, “Equal, That Is, To the Real Itself:”

Melville couldn’t abuse object as symbol does by depreciating it in favor of subject. Or let image lose its relational force by transferring its occurrence as allegory does.

Melville was not tempted, as Whitman was, and Emerson and Thoreau differently, to inflate the physical: take the model for the house, the house for the model, death is the open road, the soul or body is a boat, etc.[30]

This insistence on the irreducible particularity of things, one of the cornerstones of Olson’s aesthetics, would seem to be a repudiation of the “transparent eyeball” and opacity of “the axis of things.”  The desire to be a disembodied eye and the fantasy of seeing through things by an Emersonian “redemption of the soul” are the inflations of the physical he shuns.

At the core of Olson’s teaching there is an affirmation of the inescapable centrality of the poet’s body, a thoroughly Whitmanian revision of Emerson. The body is forever in contact with the particularity of things so that (a) poetics must be based on the respiration patterns of the individual poet; for his words emerge ‘projected’ from his breath; (b) the body is always in a particular locality, for which the poet must account and (c) the body is never static: it is always in motion, dancing even when sitting down, breathing, pumping blood. Finally, (d) at each interfacing of body and things “history” intervenes. The history of language, of poetry, of localities, and of the human species since the Pleistocene era become areas for the poet ‘to investigate for himself.’

Yet, for Olson Emerson’s influence is inescapable. His Herodotean definition of history is a gloss on “Self-Reliance” and Emerson’s essay “History” might well be a source for his argument, in The Special View of History, that history itself “is a function of any one of us,[31]” as well as his equation of mythological and historical narratives. Emerson’s essay “The Poet” plays an even more potent role behind Olson’s theoretical writings. He mined it for several of his most important theoretical texts. In the most condensed statement of his poetics, “Letter to Elaine Feinstein,” he responded to her inquiry about the status of imagery in his concept of the poem. He told her:

You wld know already I’m buggy on say the Proper Noun. so much so I wld take it Pun is Rime, all from tope/type/trope, that built in is the connection, in each of us, to Cosmos, and if one taps via psyche, plus a ‘true’ adherence of Muse, one does reveal ‘Form.’[32]

Packed into this sentence are several dimensions of Olson’s aesthetics as he articulated them in the late 1950s and early 1960s. First of all, he stressed the poetic importance of the proper noun and of the etymology of “proper” [from proprius, ‘one’s own’] as the stamp of a writer’s activity. Narrative, as he understood it, was the elaboration of a proper noun into a story. The trinity tope/type/trope [more often named by him in Greek topos/typos/tropos] elliptically encodes Olson’s scattered claims that the poet begins in a specific place — which is always historically conditioned — and, by turning or troping through the shifting of his attention and the figuration of his language, he types a type of poem. The pun on “type” fuses the printed letters of the resulting text to its generic limitation and to the persona invoked by the poet’s voice. The articulation of this situation entails the interaction of the personal history of the poet (“psyche”) with his language in its historical-etymological density (Muse).

We find in Emerson’s “The Poet” vestiges even of Olson’s aesthetic diction, as we had found Stein’s use of motion and detachment:

[T]he poet is the Namer or Language-maker, naming things sometimes after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving every one its own name and not another’s, thereby rejoicing the intellect, which delights in detachment or boundary. The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history, and if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the muses… The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry.[33]

Another passage from “The Poet” may be the precursor of Olson’s essay, “Against Wisdom as Such”:

But the quality of the imagination is to flow and not to freeze. The poet did not stop at the color or the form, but read their meaning; neither may he rest in this meaning, but he makes the same objects exponents of his new thought. Here is the difference betwixt the poet and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false. For all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead. [34]

“Against Wisdom as Such” attacks the mystical and cultic dimensions of Robert Duncan’s work, denying the metaphor of wisdom as light, substituting instead a notion of poetic heat:

Rhythm is time (not measure, as the pedants of Alexandria made it). The root is “rhein”: to flow. And mastering the flow of the solid, time, we invoke others. Because we take time and heat it, make it serve our selves, our, form.

…. One has to drive all nouns, the abstract most of all, back to process–to act.[35]

In his observations on the dynamics of the noun in his lecture series “The Chiasma” he comes close to Gertrude Stein’s concept of American language. Clearly Whitman was on his mind:

Why, in short, a noun is so vital is not at all that it so much differs from a verb (does not have motion) but because it is a motion which has not yet moved….

…All I want to do is to beat you into the recognition that things — the hard things — are, wherever, … changeable because they are already moving, sitting down….[36]

Thus, even though there is no direct expression of the Emersonian concept of motion as a key to a new aesthetic perspective in Olson aside from that implicit in the opening of Call Me Ishmael (“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now…Some men ride on such space, other have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive”[37]), his protracted reflections on naming instantiate Emerson’s idea of “vehicular and transitive” language.

Perhaps because of his encounter with John Cage at Black Mountain College, chance came to play an important role in his theory of poetry. For him it was a version of the Beautiful Necessity. (In “The Poet” Emerson wrote: “The beautiful rests on the foundations of the necessary.”) In The Special View of History Olson lectured:

And man’s order — his powers of order — are no longer separable from either those of nature or God. The organic is one, purpose is seen to be contingent, not primordial: it follows from the chance success of the play of creative accident, it does not precede them.[38]

In reformulating the concepts of chance and purpose he suggests that poems, or works of art generally, are the necessary consequences of an aesthetic process of natural selection rather than exclusively the willed acts of conscious individuals. The individuals respond to “instruction” by bringing the energies of their conscious and unconscious histories to the service of a “‘true’ adherence” to language.

Olson’s project suggests a possible convergence of Gertrude Stein and John Cage’s positions (although that was never his intention). Her imputation of a dynamics within American language and immanent in apparent stasis and Cage’s attention to the beauties of unwilled reception correspond to Olson’s poetics of bounded force fields.

My insistence on the Emersonian sources of these positions is not an effort to elevate the Sage of Concord at the expense of his most lively twentieth century heirs. Emersonian aesthetics is so radical, so diffuse, and even so contradictory, that it elicits perennial refocusing. Our strongest filmmakers are less likely to attend to Emerson himself than to Stein, Cage, or Olson. When they are unmoved by any of these three and invent theoretical positions whole cloth for themselves, they are usually reshaping a number of Emersonian stances they have absorbed from the native air they breathe.


*This essay appears in Logos with the permission of P. Adams Sitney and Shannon McLachlan of Oxford University Press. It is a revised version of an argument expanded upon in Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson available from Oxford University Press.



[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), pp. 431-32.

[2] Charles Olson, The Human Universe, “Against Wisdom as Such,” (New York: Grove Press, 1967), p. 70.

[3] Emerson, op. cit., pp. 967-68.

[4] John Cage, Silence, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), p. 75.

[5] Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision, (New York: Film Culture no. 30, 1963), pages unnumbered, fourth letter of “Margin Alien.”

[6] Emerson, op. cit., p. 10.

[7] Emerson, op. cit., pp. 33-34.

[8] ibid. p. 47.

[9]Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

[10] ibid., p. 16. From William James, The Principles of Psychology, (Dover, 1950), vol. 1, pp. 245-46.

[11] Lectures in America, p. 210. Tony Tanner points to a direct Emersonian source for this rejection of nouns and sees in her use of repetition “Emerson’s wisdom of wondering at the usual.” Tony Tanner, The Reign of Wonder: Naivety and Reality in American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1965), pp. 198-201.

[12] See my Modernist Montage (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), pp. 151-52.

[13] Gertrude Stein, Narration, (University of Chicago, 1969), p. 16.

[14] ibid., p. 37.

[15] ibid., p. 10.

[16] ibid., p. 17.

[17] ibid., p. 25.

[18]ibid., p. 28

[19] Emerson, op. cit., p. 386.

[20] Stein, Narration, p. 51. In an early notebook she had written another version of Emersonian blankness: “Great thinkers eyes do not turn in, they get blank or turn out to keep themselves from being disturbed.” Quoted by Ulla E. Dydo, “Gertrude Stein: Composition as Meditation,” Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature, ed. Shirley Neuman and Ira B. Nadel (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988), p. 43.

[21] ibid., p. 57.

[22] Emerson, op. cit., p. 390.

[23] John Cage, Empty Words: Writings ’73–’78, (Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1973), p. 3.

[24] I believe Annette Michelson was the first critic to note the importance of Emerson for Cage in her Robert Morris (Corcoran Gallery of Art: Washington, 1969), p. 27

[25] Cage, op. cit., “History of Experimental Music inAmerica,” p. 73.

[26] Cage, Silence, p. 110.

[27] Emerson, op. cit., p. 491.

[28] Cage, op. cit., p. 111.

[29] Sherman Paul, Olson’s Push: Origin, Black Mountain, and Recent American poetry  (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978); Stephen Fredman, The Grounding of American Poetry: Charles Olson and the Emersonian Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); P. Adams Sitney, Modernist Montage: The Obscurity of Vision in Cinema and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992) Tom Clark, Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life (New York: Norton, 1991).

[30] Charles Olson, The Human Universe and Other Essays, ed. Donald Allen (Grove Press: New York, 1967), p. 121.

[31] Charles Olson, The Special View of History, ed. with intro. by Ann Charters (Oyez: Berkeley, 1970), p. 17.

[32] ibid., p. 97. See my Modernist Montage: The Obscurity of Vision in Literature and Cinema for an extended reading of “Letter to Elaine Feinstein.”

[33] Emerson, op. cit., pp. 456-57. My emphasis.

[34] Emerson, op. cit., p. 463. My emphasis.

[35] ibid., p. 70. My emphasis.

[36] Charles Olson, “The Chiasma, or Lectures in the New Sciences of Man,” ed. George Butterick, Olson, no. 10 (Fall 1978), pp. 83-85.

[37] Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (New York, 1947), pp. 11-12.

[38] Charles Olson, The Special View of History, pp. 48-49.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Logos Journal - Scalia Myths

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Logos Journal - Scalia Myths