Date of Degree
Matthew K. Gold
American Studies | Literature in English, North America
New American poetry, history of libraries, Charles Olson, Diane di Prima, politics of knowledge
On the shelves of any collection of books, or what we might deem “a library,” is material evidence that generates multiple vectors of meaning. After D. F. McKenzie's “sociology of the text,” our ability to read books requires that we not just know their contents, but understand the networks in which they are built, distributed, interpreted, and used. In this capacity, books are a prime way of answering a political and epistemological question: how does knowledge take material form? And how is this process politically shaped at different points in time, by the types of knowledge that are privileged, siloed, distributed, or silenced?
This dissertation asks this question through the eyes of two key knowledge-seeking poets in post-1945 American poetry: Diane di Prima and Charles Olson. Writing during the height of the Cold War, and later Vietnam, Olson and di Prima were intimately familiar with the restrictive approach applied to knowledge in the mid-twentieth century (the former investigated, the latter arrested, by the FBI). Since both of their poetic practices involved extensive historical research, covering Mayan glyphs, pre-Christian Western ritual, the history of America, and alchemy, Olson and di Prima understood the precarity of what knowledge takes material, discoverable form—if it ever does. Writing alongside Amiri Baraka, Muriel Rukeyser, Ed Sanders, and other poets in this era (whose Blues People, Willard Gibbs, and Investigative Poetry demonstrate intuitive research and recovery practices), Olson and di Prima make vivid the truth that building and keeping books is a political act.
Not just the idea of knowledge—newly “disembodied” in Cold War America, thanks to models of information theory—but its specific material conditions are essential to Olson and di Prima. Both poets invested heavily in form as a key concept in their poetics: Olson, through the groundbreaking “Projective Verse,” and Diane di Prima, with her dedication to representing embodied experience with its mysteries undiminished. Both Olson and di Prima are prolific book collectors, and at times cataloguers, impromptu archivists, and assemblers of their own extensive libraries. Their devotion to knowledge-seeking as an embodied practice that happens in libraries, archives, museums, and cities—beyond the narrow realms of academic-meaning making that they both rejected—shows how poets, working outside of formal institutions, structured the very shape of knowledge as they collected it in post-1945 America.
Among numerous archival documents and collections, two important non-institutional resources address these critical features of Olson and di Prima’s work. The first, the Maud/Olson Library in Gloucester, Massachusetts, contains a copy of every book Olson was ever thought to have read, collected by scholar Ralph Maud with annotated bookplates. The second is Diane di Prima’s “occult library,” a collection of books that dates back to the 1960s that she envisions as a specific act of archival preservation and as a working resource. Alongside the context of these libraries, di Prima’s understudied role as a printer and publisher, especially around the era of Revolutionary Letters in the 1960s and 1970s, offers greater insight into how di Prima in particular addresses the importance of securing knowledge in material form by taking matters into her own hands. Together, these objects of study offer a perspective on libraries, archives, and books that is fully articulated by poets—a key perspective against the larger backdrop of institutions, professional organizations, and dealers that now shape the world of special collections.
By exploring these specific case studies—the Maud/Olson Library, Diane di Prima's occult library, and Diane di Prima’s work as a publisher in her work Revolutionary Letters—this dissertation establishes three main arguments. Firstly, libraries that belong to poets are significant archival and conceptual units, which require specific institutional and scholarly approaches in order to be legible and indeed preserved. Secondly, that understanding these libraries as projects of how poets structure knowledge in postwar America offers us new insights into the question of the “postmodern,” or information overload from an archival perspective. And thirdly, that Diane di Prima's work warrants far more extensive critical study for her work at the intersection of multiple identities that make knowledge material: publisher, book collector, and indeed, alchemist. For the evidence of these claims, I turn to the books themselves.
Kinniburgh, Mary Catherine, "The Shape of Knowledge: The Postwar American Poet's Library, with Diane di Prima and Charles Olson" (2019). CUNY Academic Works.
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