The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Distances” is a meditation on love and human alienation, but the poem does not present its argument or define its terms in a straightforward way. The poem begins, “So the distances are Galatea,” with the conjunction “so” suggesting that the reader has walked into the middle of a conversation. Something has been left out, and this is typical of Olson’s poetry—he often juxtaposes fragments so that the reader must draw the connections or attempt to fill in the blanks. The reader may wonder what kind of “distances” the speaker has in mind and how such distances are connected to the mythological Galatea. The poem is a sometimes cryptic, sometimes disturbing, but finally profoundly moving meditation on the “distances” that human beings put between themselves and others, and the powerful force that “knows no distance,” love. The philosophical discussion is illustrated by references to a Greek myth, a newspaper story from Florida, Olson’s book Call Me Ishmael, the Greek god Zeus, and the Roman leaders Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Caesar Augustus.

The poem opens and closes with references to the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. In the myth, Pygmalion, the King of Cyprus, falls in love with the unattainable Aphrodite, goddess of love. He sculpts an ivory image of her, places it in his bed, and then prays to Aphrodite for compassion. The goddess brings the statue to life as Galatea, an actual woman who becomes Pygmalion’s wife. Following these brief references to the Pygmalion myth are...

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The Distances Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although “The Distances” is rich in imagery and allusion, most of the forms and devices of traditional poetry are absent. Olson uses no rhyme, no meter, and no stanza breaks, and he violates conventions of syntax, spelling (“torsoes” instead of “torsos”), capitalization, and punctuation. His lines are unpredictable in length, in spacing, and in their left margins, which may begin at any of four different tab settings. In some ways the poem has the look of the American poet William Carlos Williams’s well-known “triadic stanza,” in which the left margin of each line is indented farther than the previous line’s, so that each three-line stanza looks like a descending set of steps. Olson, however, is not as regular as Williams in his use of the pattern; his margins move in an entirely unpredictable manner. The lines are heavily enjambed, and punctuation is sparse. In fact, no periods appear until the poem’s final line. In addition, none of the stories is fully told. Instead readers are given bits and pieces of narrative. All of this forces the reader to read slowly and to reread. The unpredictable line breaks and irregular spacings suggest a hesitating, uncertain voice groping toward meaning. This uncertainty is further stressed when, at two points, sentences with the syntax of statements conclude with question marks.

The jagged, broken quality of the poem’s form is offset, however, by several patterns of repetition and contrast. The...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

The Distances Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bollobás, Eniko. Charles Olson. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Cech, John. Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg: A Portrait of a Friendship. Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1982.

Maud, Ralph. Charles Olson’s Reading: A Biography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Olson, Charles, and Cid Corman. Charles Olson and Cid Corman: Complete Correspondence, 1950-1964. Edited by George Evans. 2 vols. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1987.

Rifkin, Libbie. Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

Rumaker, Michael. Black Mountain Days. Asheville, N.C.: Black Mountain Press, 2003.