Charles Olson Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Charles Olson’s poetry is political in a profound, not superficial, sense; it does not spend time naming “current events,” but rather devotes itself to defining “the dodges of discourse” that have enabled humanity (especially in the West) to withdraw from reality into increasingly abstract fictions of life. Olson came of age during the Great Depression and admired Roosevelt’s New Deal, but with the death of the president in 1945 and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Olson lost faith in the possibilities for liberal democracy. Olson believed that it did not go wide enough or deep enough in the attempt to restore humanity’s lost meaning—nor did it provide enough checks and balances against the corporate takeover of the world.
Olson encouraged a resistance based on knowledge from a range of sources which he endeavored, through his essays and his poems, to bring to common attention. “Resistance,” in fact, is a key word here: One of his first essays bears that title, and often, Olson’s stance reminds one of the Maquis and other “underground” pockets of resistance to the fascists during World War II. His is a sort of intellectual commando operation bent on destroying, marshaling not yards or military arsenals but modes of thought (and therefore of action) that are out of kilter with current realities and “fascistic” in their ability to crush individual senses of value that would struggle toward a coherence—where the merely subjective might transcend itself and establish a vital community.
However sweeping Olson’s proposals, in effect his program is reactive; such a reaction against the status quo was, as he saw it, the essential first step toward building a civilization that put people before profits. “When man is reduced to so much fat for soap, superphosphate for soil, fillings and shoes for sale,” Olson wrote, the news of the Nazi death camps fresh in the minds of his audience as in his own, “he has, to begin again, one answer, one point of resistance only to such fragmentation, one organized ground. . . . It is his physiology he is forced to arrive at. . . . It is his body that is his answer.”
This answer led Olson to ground his poetics in the physical breathing of the poet, the vital activity that registers the smallest fluctuations of thought and feeling. Language had become separated from being over the centuries of Western civilization, so that, for example, it became more important to carry out orders than to consider their often terrible consequences. In the words of Paul Christensen, “The denotational core of words must be rescued from neglect; logical classification and the principles of syntax must be suppressed and a new, unruly seizure of phenomena put in their place.” Civilization, to the extent that it alienates one from one’s experience of the actual earth and the life that arises therefrom, has failed, and it supplants with “slick pictures” the actual conditions of human lives.
Therefore, it has become necessary, Olson argues, to deconstruct the accepted authorities of Western thought, while seeking to preserve the thought of such persons who, throughout history, have warned against systems of ideation that debase human beings. In Olson’s vision, one of the great villains is Aristotle; one of the heroes, Apollonius of Tyana. With Aristotle, “the two great means appear: logic and classification. And it is they,” Olson continues in the essay “Human Universe,” “that have so fastened themselves on habits of thought that action is interfered with, absolutely interfered with, I should say.” Olson in this same passage points out: “The harmony of the universe, and I include man, is not logical, or better, is post-logical, as is the order of any created thing.” As for classification,What makes most acts—of living and of writing—unsatisfactory, is that the person and/or the writer satisfy themselves that they can only make a form . . . by selecting from the full content some face of it, or plane, some part. And at just this point, by just this act, they fall back on the dodges of discourse, and immediately, they lose me, I am no longer engaged, this is not what I know is the going-on. . . . It comes out a demonstration, a separating out, an act of classification, and so, a stopping.
“Apollonius of Tyana”
In “Apollonius of Tyana, a Dance, with Some Words, for Two Actors,” Olson addresses the reader through the medium of a contemporary of Christ, Apollonius, and the play’s one other character, Tyana, the place of his origin, as well as through himself, as narrator/commentator. This last tells how Apollonius “knows . . . that his job, at least, is to find out how to inform all people how best they can stick to the instant, which is both temporal and intense, which is both shape and law.” Apollonius makes his way through the Mediterranean world of the first century c.e., which “is already the dispersed thing the West has been since,” conducting “a wide investigation into the local, the occasional, what you might even call the ceremonial, but without . . . any assurance that he knows how to make objects firm, or how firm he is.”
Apollonius, readers are told, learned from his journeyingsthat two ills were coming on man: (1) unity was crowding out diversity (man was getting too multiplied to stay clear by way of the old vision of himself, the humanist one, was getting too distracted to abide in his own knowing with any of his old confidence); and (2) unity as a goal (making Rome an empire, say) had, as its intellectual pole an equally mischievous concept, that of the universal—of the “universals” as Socrates and Christ equally had laid them down. Form . . . was suddenly swollen, was being taken as a thing larger a thing outside a thing above any particular, even any given man.
These descriptions of the confusions which beset Apollonius clearly apply to those Olson himself was encountering, and therefore readers look to find, in Apollonius’s solutions, those of Olson....
(The entire section is 2523 words.)