Modern American literature began with a statement of enthusiasm from Emerson's writing in Nature. 'Enthusiasm', in Emerson, is a knowing word. Sometimes its use is as description, invariably approving, of a historic form of religious experience. Socrates' meaning of enthusiasm, and the image of the enthusiast it throws up, is crucial to this book. The book is a portrait of the writer as an enthusiast, where the portrait, as will become clear, carries more than a hint of polemic. It is about the transmission of literature, showing various writers taking responsibility for that transmission, whether within in their writing or in their cultural activism. Henry David Thoreau's Walden is an enthusiastic book. It is where enthusiasm works both in Immanuel Kant's sense of the unbridled self, and in William Penn's sense of the 'nearer' testament, and in Thoreau's own sense of supernatural serenity. Establishing Ezra Pound's enthusiasm is a fraught and complicated business. Marianne Moore composed poems patiently, sometimes over several years. She is a poet of things, as isolated things - jewels, curios, familiar and exotic animals, common and rare species of plant - are often the ostensible subjects of her poems. Homage to Frank O'Hara is a necessary book, because the sum of his aesthetic was to be found not just in his writing, but also in his actions to which only friends and contemporaries could testify. An enthusiastic reading of James Schuyler brings to the fore pleasure, the sheer pleasure that can come of combining, or mouthing, or transcribing.
As a poet, critic, theorist and teacher, Charles Olson extended the possibilities of modern writing. Conceived as both a re-assessment of Olson's place in recent poetic history, and also as a way into his work for those not already familiar with his writing, this book invited three kinds of contribution. First, there are contextualising chapters, discussions that situate Olson's thought and work. Second, there are chapters that have as their focus individual Olson poems, whether from Maximus or shorter lyrics. Third, there are chapters by writers for whom Olson has proved a crucial interlocutor. The different kinds of engagement with Olson are grouped according to key themes and preoccupations within his work. The chapters of the first section probe Olson's relation to knowledge, dwelling in particular on the way he looked to make poetry answerable to other ways of knowing. They underscore the degree to which Olson's work was founded in dialogue: with myth, with science, with poetic antecedents. The second section, on Poetics, brings the matter of dialogue to the fore. It provides a reading of the poets' often fraught relationship that shows clearly how questions of poetics crossed lines of affiliation. If the feminine emerges in Olson as a discernible absence, his concern with History is plain. Like Pound, he took the epic to be a poem containing history, a position he modified by the exploration of historical agency he characterized as istorin. The book concludes by considering the matter of relations within and across space.
When Charles Olson published the essay 'Projective Verse' in New York Poetry in the Spring of 1950, he issued a set of findings that had been long in development. The clearest sense of the poem as field in 'The Kingfishers' lies, as is well documented, in its use of the space of the page itself. The way Olson uses the page to produce a field of inter-related elements, thereby calling for a reading that cuts back and forth across space and time, is undoubtedly fundamental to his poetic practice. It is possible to read the poems like this, The Maximus Poems in particular, as if Olson, in his address, were delivering a lecture, either to the reader or the inhabitants of Gloucester with whom his poem would partly speak. Few twentieth-century poets have been as fortunate in the editorial commitment and calibre of scholarship they have attracted as Olson.
In A Charles Olson Reader Ralph Maud couples 'The Resistance' with Olson's 1948 poem 'La Preface'. 'La Preface' is important in Charles Olson's career because it arrives at elements that would endure throughout his work. The short prose statement 'Resistance', written for Jean Riboud in 1949 and published in Vincent Ferrini's Gloucester-based magazine Four Winds in 1953. In 1950, the year of 'Projective Verse', Hannah Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1950 was the year Olson himself published 'Projective Verse' in Poetry New York. A number of other documents from around that time, poems and essays, relate to that inaugural statement of open field poetics in their insistence on the need of new beginnings. Writing of The Maximus Poems are forms of thought that speak directly to the states of political exclusion and exception that were the legacy of the Second World War.
This chapter talks about the enthusiasm with which Frank O'Hara embraced and motivated the New York art world of the 1950s and 1960s, and shows enthusiasm to be a principle of his criticism. The point is to establish enthusiasm as a principle of O'Hara's own creative work. By the example of Jackson Pollock, O'Hara sought new ways of doing writing, the intention of which was a reconfiguration of the relation between writer, poem and world. It is this reconfiguration of writing itself that the author wants to dwell on now, fundamental as O'Hara's changing sense of the act of composition is to questions of audience, content and theme in his work. 'A Step Away from Them', written on 16 August 1956 stands, in this book's account of literary enthusiasm, as a major moment in the development of America's written consciousness; of the consciousness made possible by American writing.
This chapter shows how Marianne Moore's Comment series articulates a relation to things which takes the form of a circulatory aesthetic, which has a close bearing on her handling of language, and which she names enthusiastic. Her sense of enthusiasm, however, was finely calibrated, taking the outward, projective, transitive form that it did in proportion as her suspicion hardened towards conventional images of creativity. And to get the measure of this, to see how she came to formulate her defining attitude to words and things, it is necessary first to consider the prose she wrote prior to taking up the editorship of The Dial. The double operation - valuing and transmitting - is central to Marianne Moore's poetry, to its key devices and techniques. It is as an enthusiast that Moore gives such thought to the way she displays her materials.
James Schuyler's best writing steadfastly resists a drift towards the transcendental, whose simplifying of the world into signs is what, in many respects, his poetry exists to counteract. A voracious reader, capable of brilliant developments of major Modern writers, Schuyler arrived at a poetry which, in its qualities of sound and syntax, constituted a constantly deft acknowledgement of the way things happen. At his best he achieved a language for the relation between the self and his or her environment, where the self could be appreciated as just another effect. One can well call this poetic enthusiasm, with all the tensions of experiment, mediation and immediacy that phrase implies, with its complications and richnesses of voice. But it is also well to identify it as 'Freely Espousing'; where what the phrase implies is an unfettered utterance, and where the cause is language and its capacity to disclose.
Enthusiasm, it has been argued, is integral to what Modern American literature, in particular, knows; enthusiasm being, as each of the writers discussed here has one way or another understood it, the state of mind in which composition is possible. It is also integral to the circulation of literature, enthusiasm and enthusiasts having been, at various moments, crucial to the renovation and continuation of literary activity. The word for both James Schuyler's 'urge' and Ezra Pound's 'impulse', for the state of mind each associates with writing, has historically been enthusiasm. Enthusiasm fully understood, as an intense, sometimes ruinous relation of the mind to its object, is integral to the creation and the circulation of literature. Modern American writing, in so far as it can be understood to have its foundations in Emerson, had its origins, as he observed, in a fully developed, historically aware, enthusiastic view of the world.
As he was writing Moby-Dick, from February 1850 to November 1851, as he composed the book he felt certain was his greatest work, Herman Melville understood himself to be inspired. This understanding is evident wherever during that period Melville catches himself in the act of composition. Critics have long since understood Moby-Dick in terms of American religion. In American Renaissance Peter Matthiessen understood its presentation of the ongoing crisis in American religion to be central to the novel's achievement. To build on the story sketched out in the introduction, Quakerism, from its inception, was understood as one form among many of religious enthusiasm. One way of thinking about enthusiasm against the religious background being sketched into this chapter is as a coming or speaking through. Melville's language can be thought of in terms of a coming through, his writing itself as being, in some sense, enthusiastic.
Establishing Ezra Pound's enthusiasm is a fraught and complicated business. Fraught because, in all his voluminous writings, 'enthusiasm' is a word Pound rarely uses, and when he does it is without great charge, and typically to derogatory effect. Generally speaking, in fact, 'enthusiasm' features little in high Modernist writing, though Marianne Moore presents an exception. Modernism, as directed by Pound, involved rebranding art as an anti-Romantic, aristocratic activity. Enthusiasm, from this point of view, was a Romantic idea, rehabilitated but also, as Jon Mee argues, regulated in the face of eighteenth-century political suspicions, suspicions recently rearticulated for Modernism by Nietzsche. To complete Pound's analogy, if melancholy was integral to Shakespeare's major work, so distribution should be integral to major work of the Modern age, and The Cantos therefore can be properly understood as a distributive and distributing work.