Myth and Human Possibility

Reading is one way in which we take in energy from the world, twist it, and send it back out into the world. This activity requires us to expand beyond the limits of private individuals (the ancients would have said “mortals”). We must project a symbolic personality that is large or forceful enough to change the world.

Charles Olson liked to think of mythological heroes as men who had succeeded in doing so. He cited the fact that Gilgamesh, the hero of epic poems in the ancient Near East, appears on the Sumerian king list and was thus originally an actual ruler of the city Uruk around 2600 BC. His mythical exploits, such as killing the giant Humbaba in the cedar forest and attempting to wrest eternal life from the gods, simply build on the image or personality that the real Gilgamesh had created for himself.

In front of a class at SUNY Buffalo, Olson challenged Charles Boer, one of his students, to a $100 bet that archaeologists would find an actual Hercules in records from bronze-age Greece by the end of the year. Boer, a sober Classics scholar, insisted Hercules was a fanciful, mythological figure. After several weeks of Olson’s class, Boer gave up. He’d been foolish to argue the point. What had or had not happened in the past scarcely mattered. Olson’s idea about the origin of gods and heroes showed Boer and the other students new possibilities in today’s world.


The Debt One Reader Owes Another

John Clarke didn’t make his debt to Charles Olson overt, at least to us undergraduates. I didn’t even learn who Olson was until my third class with Clarke (on myth) in my junior year.

The usual ways we show the influences on us seem too shallow to describe Clarke’s response to Olson. He didn’t imitate Olson as though borrowing a better personality than his own—he remained quieter than the boisterous Olson, almost shy. He didn’t play a role like a historical re-enactor to make Olson “come alive” in the classroom. He didn’t channel Olson the way a medium channels a spirit and speaks in an alien voice.

In thinking about the relationship, I draw an analogy with Olson’s statement about the function of a poem in his essay on “Projective Verse:” “A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader.”[i] Notice that Olson does not say that a poem is words, sounds, form, or a message. A poem does not express what the writer wants to say, which the reader is obligated to interpret. Nor does Olson say that a poem channels energy. He says a poem is the energy. The writer shares this energy in common with the reader. The poem belongs to both of them equally as a primary human experience, not in mere reflection.

Through their relationship, Clarke had received some vital energy from Olson and re-enacted it in his own life, modified by his own character, so that he could transmit comparable energy to us. Thus, Clarke made himself into a kind of living poem, designed not to please, teach, or move us (the traditional purposes of writing) but to change us, to change our lives the way Olson had changed Clarke’s life.

Olson changed Clarke’s life on purpose. Olson had honed his own performance as a man, teacher, citizen to enact his notion of what a poet should be. For Olson, life has value only to the extent that we take in energy or influences from the world, add our own peculiar twist, and push that energy back out to change the world in turn.

[i] Charles Olson, “Projective Verse” in Human Universe and Other Essays, ed. Donald Allen (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1967), p. 52

Where John Clarke Got His Groove

At the time of my first class with John Clarke, he had spent 15 years honing his performance. He developed his approach after meeting the most influential figure in his own career, the poet Charles Olson. In 1962 the State University of New York at Buffalo embarked on a big expansion, hired lots of new professors, and became the most creative place to study humanities in the world. The English department led the way by hiring serious writers—poets and novelists—not just scholars. In 1963, it hired Charles Olson, the leading figure of the avant garde Black Mountain school. Friends told Clarke about the exciting work being done at SUNY/Buffalo, and he managed to get a teaching job there in 1964. Olson, a charismatic personality, advocated most of the ideas that marked Clarke’s teaching style: improvisation; oral performance; wide-ranging, idiosyncratic reading; the text as a tool to understand the world not the object of study itself…

Clarke had trained as a conventional scholar, specializing in James Joyce and William Blake. He might have responded to his interest in Olson by writing a biography or a literary analysis of Olson’s poetry. In fact, many scholars, both those who knew Olson personally and those who never knew him, have produced and continue to produce conventional academic works about him. For example:

  • George F. Butterick, a student of Olson’s and Clarke’s at SUNY/Buffalo, edited and annotated most of Olson’s poetry, prose and letters for scholarly editions—invaluable groundwork for scholars.
  • Tom Clark wrote a biography, Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life, that contrasts Olson’s view of the poet’s role with the often dark details of his personal life.
  • Paul Christensen wrote Charles Olson, Call Him Ishmael, an analysis of Olson’s poetry and his relationship to other members of the Black Mountain school.
  • Rajiv C. Krishnan delivered a paper about Olson’s influence on an English poet, “Charles Olson and J. H. Prynne: Transatlantic Correspondences,” at the 2011 Modern Language Association conference.

They’re the kinds of works that scholars produce about any writer.

John Clarke did something more profound: he changed his life to become the kind of figure that Olson envisioned for the poet—someone who knows a lot about the world and uses that knowledge to engage others in creating new meaning in the moment. Clarke expanded his range of reading to gain knowledge outside of literature (psychology, archeology, anthropology, philosophy, mythology, linguistics…). He created the Institute of Further Studies to carry on Olson’s work after Olson left the university in 1965. He adopted Olson’s style of oral performance in the classroom. He started writing poetry. He mimicked Olson’s behavior (for example, staying up till the small hours of the morning and sleeping till noon). He even grew a pot belly like Olson.

This transformation came at a personal cost. He drank like Olson. He got divorced. The conventional scholars who controlled the English department at SUNY/Buffalo treated him poorly. It takes courage to follow where the soul leads. To follow with your whole life, not just with your mind.

A Curriculum of the Soul

Reading suffused John Clarke’s talk. Clarke’s preparation spanned his whole adult life as anything he has read could provide insight if the right occasion arose during the conversation. Think of the number of subjects Clarke alludes to in the passage quoted in my second last post. The references indicate the range of Clarke’s reading. It is not a reading list for directed research. It’s not limited to literature or even the West.

Ed Sanders provides a short bibliography of Clarke’s reading in the introduction to Clarke’s book of sonnets, The End of This Side. Clarke saw the roles of poet, scholar, and thinker as identical. He pursued the work with the same methods, and he incorporated those sonnets into the footnotes of From Feathers to Iron. Here’s a small selection from the Sanders bibliography to illustrate Clarke’s reading:

  • Popol Vuh: The Great Mythological Book of the Ancient Maya
  • Conversations With Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas
  • Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi’ite Iran
  • The Roots of Civilization
  • The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature[i]

Clarke’s reading history is idiosyncratic. He treats it the way anyone might treat his hobbies when he meets someone new—he talks about them matter-of-factly, without embarrassment or apology. Clarke doesn’t expect the audience to have read everything he refers to, yet he doesn’t explain his references, either. This omission also throws the audience off balance. We can follow what he’s saying, to some extent, if we pay attention. As he speaks, though, we keep revolving in our head what puzzling terms like “negentropy” mean. Eventually we realize that we will never fully understand and that if we wait for complete understanding, the opportunity to contribute our own insight to the discussion will pass by. We are swept up into the improvisation, too.

Thus, Clarke induces the audience to engage him on the same level. We wrack our memory to find something in our own reading and experience that bears on the subject of the disappearance of ordering intervention. Can we offer a new perspective that bends the discussion in a different direction? We take a risk and throw out something to enrich the moment.

The talk proceeds via analogies and metaphors rather than logic. “Ordering intervention” refers to the notion that order is separable from the individuals within a system. Order represents inherent relationships between things as opposed to the formal structure of the system. Order always takes particular forms. When it arrives among individuals, it infuses their lives with that specific meaning. If the inherent relationships break down, order disappears even though the formal structure of the system remains. Life loses its meaning, but individuals experience cognitive dissonance because the structures they identified with meaningful relationships persist.

Without inherent order, the structures decay over time until another order re-infuses individual lives with meaning, and new structures are built. Thus, history unfolds cyclically in a series of epochs, based on the creation and destruction of various orders. Epics and mythological systems express the order or the transition between orders of each poet’s time. Clarke explains the disappearance of ordering intervention by analogy with the underworld. Where do the Dead go? In Homer, the underworld resembles the upper world—the social structures and activities look the same—except that gloom, lack of purpose, and the absence of pleasure make the dead miserable. Clarke also draws an analogy with physical and biological systems, which keep their entropy low and order high by expelling disruptive forces, a process called negentropy.

Imagination guides the discourse as much as reason. Clarke presents “order” as a fundamental principle of the world and the soul. He does not claim an empirical basis for the idea. In fact, the sources he drew upon for his thought include poetry and novels—Ed Sanders mentions William Blake and Herman Melville—as well as books of dubious scholarship, such as those of Carlos Castaneda and Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge And Its Transmission Through Myth, which blends the history of science with a literalistic view of myths.

To the soul, fact and fiction, history and myth are equal. Without distinguishing between them, Clarke slides from idea to idea, author to author as needed to illustrate the vision he wishes to share. Imagination trumps scholarly accuracy. A wrong citation or slip of the memory doesn’t invalidate the audience’s experience of the talk, whose purpose is not to inform but to develop “a curriculum of the soul,” as Clarke put it.

[i] Clarke, The End of This Side (Bowling Green, OH: Black Book, 1979), pp. viii-ix.

A Reader Improvises

John Clarke improvised his presentations like the amateur jazz musician he was. In his talk at the New College of California, he invents his talk in the moment out of the tools he has available, namely, what he has read. While on stage or at the podium, he searches his memory for relevant ideas. He hasn’t systematically researched the topic ahead of time to prepare for this specific lecture. He hasn’t defined a narrow thesis, read books that pertain to it, and brought only that work into the lecture. He hasn’t written a script, crafted an outline, or even jotted notes on the back of an envelope. He hasn’t choreographed any moves.

It’s a true oral performance. Spur of the moment. Where he is and who he’s with determine the performance. He allows circumstances to shape the lecture—for instance, the work that Arakawa and Gins are doing and Arakawa’s request for a “Model of Mind.” Moreover, the direction changes based on what happens during the talk. A question from the audience diverts Clarke from what he was going to say about Costa de Beauregard. He jumps to poets, the Dead, and the law of conservation. Clarke’s words exhibit the roughness or incompletion you would expect from spontaneous talk (for instance, the obscure reference to “comprehend/comprehension” in the last paragraph).

The improvisation requires both Clarke and his audience to be fully present in that time and place. Their minds must engage the conversation because nothing is given, every insight must be invented on the spot. The audience plays an essential role, even if Clarke does most of the talking. He approaches the talk, not as an authority set above the audience, but as first among equals. He comes from outside the New College to share what he has learned much as a relative who comes for a visit might relate the family news to us. Clarke doesn’t set the ideas he gleaned from books above the ephemeral circumstances of the lecture. The here-and-now is just as important, holds as much potential for meaning as does reading literature in the privacy of one’s study. In fact, the literature exists only in the present, too, in what Clarke recollects of it at the moment of the talk.

The Soul Walks Its Own Path

John Clarke brought a much wider array of references to his class than other professors, and he had the focus and self-control to carry off the spontaneity. I can give you a sample of his performance. Shortly after I graduated, Clarke published a volume of transcribed lectures, From Feathers to Iron, delivered at the Poetics Program at the New College of California. These lectures unfolded like his classes. This lengthy passage will give you the flavor of Clarke’s winding discourse:


From feathers to iron comes from a letter of John Keats’ to Benjamin Bailey, March 13, 1818, in which he wrote:

Every point of thought is the centre of an intellectual world—the two uppermost thoughts in a Man’s mind are the two poles of his World. He revolves on them and everything is southward or northward to him through their mean—We take but three steps from feathers to iron.

The artist Shusaku Arakawa asked if I might “turn up with something to feed a Model of Mind,” a project he and Madeline Gins are working on. These lectures attempt to complete the intellectual world implicit in Keats’ “point of thought” prompted by Arakawa’s proposal.

The first topic—“The Disappearance of Ordering Intervention”—is from a book by Marie-Louise von Franz, a protégé of Jung’s, in fact the one who substituted for Jung at Black Mountain College in the “New Sciences of Man Lectures” instituted by Charles Olson in 1953. She wrote an interesting book called Number and Time in which she quotes a French cyberneticist, Olivier Costa de Beauregard, who says that when the ordering intervention in a system disappears…

Aud: What is ordering intervention supposed to mean?

If a poet comprehends his work, brings that comprehension to his work, and adds that comprehension to his work, that’s an ordering intervention. Both the course of the work and the world are changed by that. Someone asked last night, where do the Dead go? The question is: when ordering intervention disappeared from the cosmos, where did it go? In a world abiding by some law of conservation, “negentropy” can’t simply be lost. It has to go somewhere.[i]


The passage sounds slapdash to those of us used to writerly prose. Clarke doesn’t have a point to prove. He doesn’t craft a disciplined argument in a step-by-step chain of logic of the kind we find in academic lectures turned into books. Clarke name-checks eight people in half a page. He veers off his first topic, the Keats quote, after 71 words and leaps to a third topic, the disappearance of ordering intervention, after just 45 more words. He then manages to utter 76 words before someone interrupts him with a question. By the end, he’s talking about the dead and the obscure “negentropy.”

He doesn’t go into anything systematically. He throws out tantalizing fragments of ideas without exploring any of them deeply. This rhetorical practice must leave critical readers feeling dissatisfied, robbed of understanding. But we can see something different and valuable going on if we examine the passage on its own terms.

Clarke has proposed a topic for the evening, the disappearance of ordering intervention. He aims to invent something useful for himself and his audience by talking about this abstract phrase. The awkwardness of its wording pushes the audience off balance. It’s not sure exactly what Clarke is talking about. It can’t peg the subject rationally and thereby shut down its imagination. The value comes from the talk, not from an analysis of the topic itself. The topic serves as an occasion—almost an excuse—for talk. Clarke hasn’t arrived with a ready-made answer; the answer still needs to be discovered.

As we can with any topic, Clarke approaches this one from many angles and thinks many different thoughts about it, some disjointed. He doesn’t pre-select from this mass of ideas to fashion a coherent argument. Instead, he allows all the ideas, unformed as they are, into the room with the audience, which will also generate its own ideas about “the disappearance of ordering intervention.”

This technique introduces uncertainty into the talk—no one knows where it’s going to go—though it also creates the possibility of unlooked-for insight. Talk remains linear, so Clarke has to start talking about his topic at a particular place. He might have started at any number of places. None is the “right” place to begin or better than any other place. He happened to choose the Keats quote. He then winds through ideas about the disappearance of ordering intervention in no predetermined order. This kind of open-ended inquiry comes upon insights circuitously and needs to avoid addressing its topic too directly the way a preacher announces his theme at the start of his sermon. “The disappearance of ordering intervention” happens to pop up in third place during the natural flow of Clarke’s talk. On another occasion, it might not have appeared till much later as with egoism and The Scarlet Letter in our classes.

[i] John Clarke, From Feathers to Iron (Bolinas, CA: Tombouctou Books, 1987), p. 25.

The Birth of a Reader

The first English course I took in college, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, influenced me more than any other class I ever took as an undergraduate or graduate student. The professor, John Clarke, taught in a way I never encountered again.

You wouldn’t have expected much from the looks of him. He was 46 but looked older, with a fleshy, lined face. He had thin brown hair and a paunch. He walked with a limp from a bout of childhood polio. He sat behind a desk in the front of the room, on an angle and with a stiff posture as though uncomfortable in his chair.

He didn’t have a syllabus or lesson plans. When the hour for class arrived, he would simply start talking without ceremony. Clarke spoke in a quiet, conversational tone. He didn’t lecture. He didn’t start with the assigned text. At times it seemed he had forgotten all about it. Of course, he would have told us what book to read in a previous class — say, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter — though he didn’t assign specific pages for specific class days. He never hectored us about reading; he assumed we would read (or not) as our own needs dictated. He might discuss current events, what was going on at the university, other books, things he’d heard people say, historical examples… He would slide from topic to topic. Each topic would be suggestive. Each segue between topics would make sense by itself, but the flow of the talk and unexpected changes in direction would make it hard for us to tell whether it all added up to something coherent.

Occasionally, we would venture a remark or a question of our own just to see what would happen. He accepted them as a natural development of the conversation we were having and wove them into the fabric of the day’s class.

Eventually we would discover that all of his discussion revolved around a topic, for example, “egotism.” Sooner or later, Clarke would weave in a reference or two to Hawthorne. But he didn’t have a particular point he wanted to make about the book. He never engaged us in Socratic dialogue, the way other professors did, to pull interpretations of the text out of us. He never went into the author’s biography or the cultural and historic background of the book, except for passing reference to this or that fact which happened to illustrate a point he was making.

The indirection puzzled us at first. It disoriented and turned off some students. Later, it excited me and a few others because we intuited that Clarke was interested in something far more important than the book. He was interested in how to feed the soul.