One of the important keys to understanding Olson’s highly complex prose and poetry is the fact that he was also one of the greatest and most effective teachers in the history of American pedagogy. The success of his students as writers and artists attests his powerful classroom presence. His essays and poetry also consistently teach his readers the most important lesson: learning how to learn on their own. His advice to the young poet Edward Dorn at Black Mountain College in 1955 is a case in point. Dorn had asked Olson for a list of required readings, and Olson showed him how to use it: “Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more about that than is possible to any other man. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust it. Saturate it. Beat it. And then U KNOW everything else very fast: one saturation job (it might take 14 years). And you’re in, forever.”
Edward Dorn did exactly that after leaving Black Mountain: He devoted years of research to the American West and specifically to the Shoshone Indian tribe. Olson had taken his own advice and began gathering information of all kinds on his own hometown, Gloucester, Massachusetts, which eventually became the subject matter for his monumental Maximus poems.
Olson had published a radically new book on Melville’s Moby Dick in 1947 called Call Me Ishmael, which he had abstracted from his proposed doctoral dissertation at Harvard on the affinities between Shakespeare’s King Lear and Moby Dick. He had submitted the original to his mentor, Edward Dahlberg, who deleted half the text and urged him to rewrite it completely. Not only did Olson follow his teacher’s advice, but he also refocused his entire thesis. Call Me Ishmael departs from the usual symbolic interpretations of Moby Dick in terms of “good versus evil” or viewing the sea as the existential void. Olson reinterprets Moby Dick as an economic blueprint of the relationship of various classes in society; that is, economic factors lie beneath everything and are the key to understanding the real themes of the novel and the history of that period. He viewed Moby Dick as one of the most compelling documents to date of America’s perennial attempt to conquer nature by the sheer force of its will as expressed in destructive patterns of industrialization and mechanization.
Human attempts to control the powers of nature and the resulting chaos that such self-destructive behavior produces became one of Olson’s principal themes throughout his poetry and prose. Olson perpetually used various versions of the mythic motif of the Fall, disengaging it from any specifically Christian contexts. He traced it back to humankind’s fatal separation from a condition of oneness with nature that resulted from the fall into consciousness. In Olson’s next prose work, “Projective Verse” (1950), he addressed humanity’s fallen condition as it manifests itself in the kind of overly self-conscious, totally subjective poetry that practitioners of the poetics of the New Criticism were writing during the 1930’s and 1940 s. Such anti-Romantic poets often described their mental anguish in traditional rhyme and meter and lamented a world completely cut off from anything but a subjective reality. Olson proposed that the spirit of Romanticism reassert itself in what he called “objectism” (a term he created) as a more radical alternative to William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound’s “objectivism”:Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creatures of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For man is himself an object.
Olson further exhorts people to recognize themselves as objects among the other objects in nature and to do so with an attitude of humility. Only when one becomes conscious of one’s proper position within nature’s laws will one be able to stop destroying nature as well as oneself; one may even become of use.
Part of Olson’s project to reenergize American poetry was very much connected to a humble recognition of humanity’s place in nature, which, Olson hoped, would constitute a radical modification in the human stance toward reality. Because reality, as viewed from a Romantic perspective, is always a “process,” then poetry must engage in that process. For Olson, poetry was not the “mirror held up to nature” that the pre-Romantics had proposed but a physical engagement with life’s very energies and, therefore, an enactment of life itself. Olson redefines what poetry is in “Projective Verse”: “A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it . . . by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay.”
For many modern artists and philosophers in the early twentieth century, knowledge had become an open field in which an observer recognizes patterns rather than creating them. Olson believed that the poet must follow suit and must work in the open; he must avoid the old rules of the iambic pentameter line, regular rhythm, and rhyme. “He can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself . . . FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.” The rhythm should be established by the “musical phrase” that Pound exhorted and not by the stultifying regularity of the metronome that traditionalists follow. The length of the line should be determined “from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes.” His evidence for what more conservative critics saw as an outrageous oversimplification of the rules of prosody was to go back to the etymological root of the word “is” and point out that the Aryan root “as” meant “to breathe.”
Olson, true to his philosophical belief that “things” precede theory, had written one of his greatest poems the previous year, “The Kingfishers” (1949), from which he had derived the principles of his new poetics. This poem’s form is indeed an extension of its content, thereby fulfilling the major requirement of an open-field composition. The poem refocuses T. S. Eliot’s “wasteland” motif by including natural cyclicity as redemptive rather than relentlessly mechanistic. It also proposes a major reorientation away from the despair and ennui of the last stages of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which Eliot’s The Waste Land documents, toward a revaluation of the ancient civilizations of the West as Olson explores the Mayan ruins of Yucatán.
Olson consciously moved away from his Greco-Roman academic orientation and found a more viable path in pre-Socratic ideas, particularly in Heraclitus’s proposition that reality is in constant flux and that any attempt to categorize or systematize flux is doomed from its inception. Olson visited the great Mayan ruins to see for himself the destruction that the “civilized” Europeans had brought with them. Olson embraced change in all its fluidity and found his vocation as a poet and archaeologist in his commitment to hunting among its stones. Although Olson was disturbed by the Mayan ruins, he perceived himself as an object among other objects within nature, and he dug even deeper into nature’s endless change. Salvation consists of probing more deeply into the actual earth rather than resorting to Eliot’s retreat into the comfort and security of English history and the Anglo-Catholic Church.
Olson published many poems and essays during the 1950’s, the most notable of which were In Cold Hell, in Thicket (1953), Mayan Letters, “As the Dead Prey upon Us” (1956), and The Maximus Poems 11-12 (1956). “As the Dead Prey upon Us” expresses his anguish over the death of his mother as she appeared to him in recurring dreams. The ultimate fear that a soul must face in a demythologized world is the necessary descent into Hell: “What a man has to do, he has to do, he has to/ meet his mother in hell.” Olson demonstrates exactly how projective verse works by using the raw material of his own dreams and then juxtaposing images of his broken-down car with a next-door neighbor and a mysterious “Blue Deer.” He lyricizes all these disparate elements, thereby fusing them into his own surrealist but lucid narrative.
Two major volumes of poetry appeared in 1960: The Maximus Poems and The Distances. Olson’s collected essays, titled Human Universe, and Other Essays, were published in 1965. The Distances encapsulates perfectly in its title the themes that Olson addressed throughout the remainder of his writing career: the sense of loss of a common consciousness and the disengagement of humankind from a direct experience of reality. Many of the poems in this volume lament humankind’s fall into consciousness, a condition that automatically induces feelings of isolation...
(The entire section is 3756 words.)