Aaron VanSteinberg, ‘19: Precessions of Me, A Poetic Apprenticeship

Summer 2019

About the Project

My Benenson project was originally conceived as a poetic apprenticeship in Charles Olson’s Open Field Poetics. Taking cues from Olson’s enmeshing of poetic experimentation and critical methodology, I planned to compose a chapbook of poems and reflective prose while practicing tenets of the Open Field tradition, such as developing a historical sensibility, examining non-published archival materials, and engaging in formal exploration.

In the end, the original plan proved merely a port from which to launch the work that I actually ended up doing over the summer. Instead of returning to Olson’s archive to attempt to understand from where his interest in moments sprouted, I focused on the late work of Robert Creeley, itself a kind of tragic finale to the possibilities of a purely Projectivist poetics in a digital age.

Forces intrinsic and extrinsic to the project changed my course. First, I was encouraged by a friend to submit a presentation proposal for ReVIEWING Black Mountain College 11, a conference focusing on the famous experimental college where Olson served as an influential rector in the early 1950s. BMC was also the locus for a number of poets—Creeley, as well as Denise Levertov—I’d written my senior thesis over, which the Benenson project was in part a continuation of. The conference’s call for studies of “new media” threw me back to these earlier abiding interests, to a little known work of Creeley’s called Daybook of a Virtual Poet (1998), one of the few documents of the explicitly Projectivist movement to attempt to think about the internet, to think about the ontological alteration the internet had induced—distinct from the industrial world that had spawned so many of Olson’s ideas. Then, there was my reading of Nathaniel Mackey’s recent Blue Fasa, some of whose ideas, if even an implicit intervention in an Olsonian line of thought, nonetheless directed my attention elsewhere:

…All talk it
set us back, moment’s gnosis more
agnostic the longer we went on…
(Blue Fasa 26, “Moment’s Gnosis”)

Olson’s work privileges the poetic potential of moments; what I found Creeley’s late work doing, if disappointingly, was holding too intensely to “moment’s gnosis” in a digital age, where information’s surfeit gave too much leeway to momentary impulse, where the belief in the enlightening capacities of the moment turns into the very impossibility of enlightenment. In “Projective Verse,” Olson exalts the typewriter as the exemplary industrial mechanism of the moment, able to to transmute thought and feeling to writing much quicker than a pen; Creeley’s work, still attempting to work from that mindset, demonstrated, I found, that the keyboard, and more importantly what Creeley calls “the searcher,” the search engine, show the upper limit of such a formulation, the point where impulse fetches nothing from ether but impotent noise.

The realization became that “practicing tenets” of the open field tradition simply wouldn’t suit a poet of my historical and technological situation. That a new poetics, developing all around me, and perhaps taking cues from Olson, would be best suited to capture new poetic possibilities in the particular ontological shift the internet has issued. It was appropriate, then, that instead of the planned end of the summer—ending up in an archive, alone, obsessing over an already-obsolescent mindset —I traveled to Asheville for my first conference presentation, to see what others had already come up with and get up to speed with present-ness in another sense entirely.