An archaeologist of morning - Charles Olson as scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven

Charles Olson teaching
In July 2016 a more fully developed version of the idea at the heart of this address became part of a presentation I gave to the annual Sea of Faith conference in Leicester. If you would like to read that please click on the following link.

The freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today—becoming Free Spirits and Archeologists of Morning

Mark 1:35-38:
And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, Jesus went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed. And Simon and they that were with him followed after him. And when they had found him, they said unto him, All men seek for thee. And he said unto them, Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth.

Matthew 13:52:
Jesus said: "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

Henry David Thoreau from Walden, ch. 2 Where I Lived:
The present was my next experiment of this kind, which I purpose to describe more at length, for convenience putting the experience of two years into one. As I have said, I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbours up.

Charles Olson from "The Present is Prologue" in Collected Prose eds. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, University of California Press 1997 p. 205-207:

My shift is that I take it the present is prologue, not the past. The instant, therefore, is its own interpretation, as a dream is, and any action - a poem, for example. Down with causation . . . And yrself: you, as the only reader and mover of the instant. You, the cause. No drag allowed, on either. Get on with it.

In the work and dogmas are: (1) How by form, to get the content instant; (2) what any of us are by the work on ourself, how to make ourself fit instruments for use (how we augment the given - what used to be called our fate); (3) that there is no such thing as duality either of the body and the soul or of the world and I, that the fact in the human universe is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one (yrself done right, whatever you are, in whatever job, is the thing - all hierachies, like dualities, are dead ducks). 

[. . .] 

I find it akward to call myself a poet or writer. If there are no walls there are no names. This is the morning, after the dispersion, and the work of the morning is methodology: how to use oneself, and on what. That is my profession. I am an archaeologist of morning.


An image often found in spiritual writing is that of "the morning". Almost universally, getting up early to pray or meditate has been understood to be a good and cleansing practice, one which prepares one well for the necessary work to be done and the good life.

My own key texts which mention this "morning spirituality" are the passages you heard earlier from the Gospel of Mark (1:35-38) and Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" (Where I Lived - Ch. 2). Over the years both of them have powerfully and continually encouraged me to try it - not least of all in a number of visits to the Benedictines at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of White (and, boy do they do early . . .). Alas, natural proclivity plus a life spent as a professional jazz musician has always cut against early morning lifestyles. Consequently, it is true to say that in my own life early mornings have almost only ever been experienced after the long gig and subsequent drive home and, more often than not, I've observed the sun rise, not like Jesus, ready to go "into the next towns" nor like Thoreau to "brag as lustily as chanticleer", but simply to my bed and to a long, long sleep.

Given that such an actual morning spirituality seems definitively closed off to me, a question that has remained with me throughout my life is whether something of what is religiously or philosophically meant by "the morning" is available to more crepuscular creatures like me, perhaps under another practice or form? The question is what is being elicited when these writers use the image of "the morning"?

As I have noted in other addresses (for example here) I take it that authors like Mark and Thoreau wrote what they did because they experienced in the morning 'certain conditions in which their minds were set in motion' (Michael McGhee: Transformations of the Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice CUP 2000, p. 124) which allowed 'something [to] well up in the inner reaches of their consciousness' (William James quoted by McGhee p. 17). These authors then tried to communicate their experience to us through means of 'aesthetic ideas and images' - in this case those associated with early morning; in other words they 'gave us an approximation of this experience and, in so doing, gave it the semblance of objective reality' (McGhee p. 119).

What I'm trying to do today is to use Olson's phrase, "Archaeologist of morning", to help me to express in my own words something that approximates to the experience I feel Mark and Thoreau were gesturing towards when they talked about "the morning".

Olson's work as poet and prose writer has long been of interest to me since I picked up his early study of Herman Melville (called "Call Me Ishmael") in the Arts Council funded poetry bookshop in Colchester where I had my first job after leaving school in 1983. The manager was an extraordinary man - a poet himself - called John Row. I later went on do a number of wonderful, madcap tours around the UK, East Germany and Poland with his avant-garde music and poetry collective called "John Row's Sound Proposition". John, seeing my growing interest in Olson, early on lent me Martin Duberman's book about the experimental, interdisciplinary school set up in 1933 in North Carolina called Black Mountain College which, before it's closure in 1957, managed to attract a faculty that included many of America's most important artists, composers, dancers, poets, and designers. Olson became College Rector during the second half of its life and at the same time amongst the teaching staff were a number of other figures whose work became central to my own formation: the composers John Cage and Stefan Wolpe, the poet Robert Creeley, the dancer Merce Cunningham and the architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller.

If you click on this link you can see some excerpts from a documentary film called Fully Awake about Black Mountain College.

Olson wrote the words you heard earlier in 1952 whilst he was at the College. Going back to them after many years I can see how clearly they mark out the particular path I have come to follow since those days.

Now, the way I have just told this story comes, of course, very naturally because Olson's words, written sixty years ago and read by me nearly thirty years ago, are in some obviously real sense in the past and so could be thought of as forming a prologue to who I now am now, speaking to you in the present about this subject.

But it should be clear that telling my story in this way cuts completely against Olson's feeling that it is *not* the past which is prologue but the present, this moment now. What does he mean?

Well, we may begin by observing that one of Olson's major concerns throughout his career was how to get himself, his students and his readers away from theories about the world and back into a lived and experienced world. A key way he thought this could be affected was breaking down what he came to think were the many artificial barriers that existed in our North American and European culture. It has long seemed to me that one of the reasons he took the post of Rector at Black Mountain College was because the anarchic interdisciplinary nature of the place deliberately transgressed traditional academic boundaries and brought together an astonishing range of endeavours from both the so-called humanities and the so-called sciences. Olson thought they all belonged together in a kind of geography, a complex horizon of human life within which one could, and should, be free to wander.

When he says "If there are no walls there are no names" it is to this interdisciplinary geography that he is referring. He personally resisted being called a poet or a writer because he could see that if there were no walls then these names, "poet" and "writer", didn't tell you much about what he was really up to - namely being an "archaeologist of morning." What this is, or might, be we'll come to in a moment.

Now, as I've just said, in terms of the split between disciplines, Olson wanted to pull down all artificial walls to allow for the possibility of there being a free and instantaneous movement between them. But things didn't stop there because Olson wanted to pull down *all* the walls in our culture which created dualisms - especially those which created the apparently separate realms of the "body" and "soul" and the "world" and the "individual." (Please note as I say this that there is, however, a great deal of difference between "differences" and "dualisms" - Olson is challenging dualisms, not differences.)

For him one important wall that came tumbling down was that which divided in a dualistic way what we have learnt to call "past" and that which we have learnt to call the "present". Olson was became acutely aware that in every living, alert whole human being the memories of the past (so-called) were not really past at all but always-already present and capable of gifting us something now that would take us into the future in a new way. Like Gianni Vattimo, although some forty years earlier, Olson saw that reality, our world, is always-already 'experienced within horizons which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others, and others beside us such as other cultures' (Gianni Vattimo cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9).

It was into this rich always-already present cultural soil that, in his poetry and prose, he sought to dig, just like an archaeologist, in order to find and reveal things that were both new to us but which were also, paradoxically, in some fashion old. In undertaking this task Olson seems to me to be enacting that which is gestured towards in Jesus' teaching that "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (Matthew 13:52).

Olson called this "treasure", this always-already present soil "morning" because, when paid attention to and without beforehand dividing it up artificially into science here and the arts there, the past behind us and the future before, this soil's natural complexity was always capable of gifting us some unique combination of different things which could suddenly and unexpectedly show up and shine for us in new ways that called us, irresistibly, to our work, whether that was to an act of new justice and compassion, the composition of a new poem, piece of music or a dance, to see a new way to build a house or construct a dome and also, like Jesus, to be impelled to tell about what you have seen to the "next towns" or, like Thoreau, "to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake [your] neighbours up."

Olson's educational point was to say to everyone he met and taught, either in person or indirectly through his work that, to anyone who cared to look and to dig, our rich cultural soil was always ready to gift us something radically new and relevant - that our present is always prologue to some new vision or insight. In short, every day, every hour and every minute of our life was, potentially at least, a new morning and not just when our natural sun was rising. All we had to do was "get on with it" and become ourselves an archaeologist of morning.

If you want to hear some recordings of Olson reading his own poetry then click on this link to go to the wonderful PennSound poetry resource.

If you want to know a little more about Olson click on this link to see the short film made about him called Polis is This. It is made available on Youtube by the director himself, Henry Ferrini:

And, lastly, below is a well-known clip of Olson reading his wonderful poem, Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld]. If the the poem leaves your puzzled but intrigued then click on the following link to go to a podcast in which the poem is explored in what I think is a helpful way.