Charles Olson Olson, Charles (Vol. 2) - Essay

Olson, Charles (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Olson, Charles 1910–1970

Olson, an American proponent of objective verse, is best known for his Maximus poems. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

All of Olson's poems are written in "breath-conditioned" lines, in accordance with his theories, and their themes are on such matters as the rise and fall of civilizations (Olson is an archaeologist and student of ancient history), the health of the good society threatened by "pejorocracy," and the value of good writing as an index to the life and moral condition of a people….

[Most of the Maximus poems] are … discursive, fragmentary, and antipoetic in the sense that they contain propositions and notes for poems without much rendering, ordering, or assimilation. As there is no narrative thread, continuity is provided by a recurrence of themes and the presence of a stable center of consciousness, the poet's. The poet is the hero of the poem, as he is in Ezra Pound's Cantos and William Carlos Williams' Paterson. His values dominate the scene as he observes and examines. Olson's scene is Gloucester, Massachusetts, his home town, and it is his embattled spirit, commenting on the life and history of the place, that gives motion and emotion to The Maximus Poems. Many of the poems are called letters, and they are addressed to the citizenry of Gloucester, praising their labor and warning them against the folly of commitment to the more specious values of contemporary industry and commerce. He attacks the cheapness, superficiality, and standardization that he sees everywhere and asks his townspeople to search for lasting values….

The Maximus Poems clearly reflects Olson's grass-roots radicalism and humanism, which provide the emotional charge for much of the book. The work belongs to the great tradition of long poems of epic intent, of noble voice, in which the theme is of national scope: the founding of a state and the ordering of a good society. Since Olson's politics is not narrowly programmatic, the book escapes the rigidity that often mars works of dogma and persuasion. If anything, it needs a measure of dogma; dogma might have helped the poet to achieve a structure. As it stands, the book is shapeless. It has neither beginning nor end; it is all middle. It reminds one of wallpaper rather than of a formally complete, framed picture.

Stephen Stepanchev, "Charles Olson," in his American Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 136-45.

Charles Olson's poems, largely collected in two books published in 1960, The Distances and The Maximus Poems, have the typographical appearance of work influenced by Ezra Pound's Cantos. The very first line of the former book, in the poem 'The Kingfishers,' bears a Poundian sort of brand: the slant line that Olson uses to impose a caesura where it would not naturally occur….

Like Pound, Olson weaves snatches of quotation and speech from other languages into his fabric…. The whole poem ['The Kingfishers'] suggests parallels in ancient Cambodian and American cultures, and the opening section sets going simultaneously two directions of movement, related yet diametrically opposite. The speaker, thinking both of 'the E on the stone' and of Mao's words, links the remote, all but forgotten past to the still ungrasped present and future. Similarly, the double movement of looking toward the dawn (la lumiere de l'aurore est devant nous!—to reassemble the French quotation) and of flying toward the sunset (the kingfisher's westward flight) suggests the historical pressures on man at any given moment. Yet the passage is simple in construction, direct in its tone and impressions….

The influence of Williams, Pound, and sometimes Cummings is obvious in the split lines, extensive quotation, varied line-lengths, shifts from one poetic mode to another, and plasticity of syntax and punctuation throughout the poem. Olson's voice is nevertheless his own. That is, it is finally his own….

Olson can also lapse into the commonplace or silly…. Indeed, his method is to focus his purer writing on vivid points of attention that, from the point of view of his self-indulgent aesthetic theory, justify a disregard for incidental imperfections. Sometimes he revels in a certain kind of bad line: 'I am no Greek, hath not th'advantage'; or 'I offer, in explanation, a quote.' The second of these lines can be defended as, at any rate, a natural enough Americanism. But 'I am no Greek, hath not th'advantage' is emptily tricky. It is memorable for its weak grammar in the manner of certain advertisements, but functionally it is indefensible….

As long as Olson is able to keep a shorter poem anchored in … concrete and unified materials, he can avoid tendentiousness—though in too many of even the shorter poems he fails to do so. In fact, imprisoned within the tendentious poet is a pure lyric poet of the finest imaginative power….

Avoidance of tendentiousness is not one of Olson's purposes, however. This is unfortunate, yet one can only admire his determination to have his say, at length, and to develop a practicing aesthetic to match this determination….

In The Maximus Poems the purpose is rather over-whelmingly belabored. The sequence consists of thirty-eight poems, or 'Letters,' a great many of which repeat the accusing theme of the triumph of 'pejorocracy' in American life. Another theme, of the persistent, intrinsic meaning of the place that is the locale of the poem….

Though we may call it a sequence, The Maximus Poems is not the structured work as a whole that it at first promises to be, but is mainly a series of variations on this complex traditional theme, built around Gloucester, Massachusetts: its origins, its economic history in relation to the nation's, its peculiar landscape, its cultural needs and deprivations, and the poet's literal and symbolic place in it. The connection with the scheme of William's Paterson should be clear.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 160-73.

[Olson's] poems as well as letters display the difficulty [of trying to be artful and artless at once]. His two most ambitious anthologized poems, "The Kingfishers" and "Maximus of Gloucester," are both elaborately sophisticated constructs, but to the end of simplicity and wholeness. They preach the wholeness of elemental organic life but they are themselves patchwork composites after the manner of a Pound Canto.

Olson's hero, aside from Melville, was Pound; Olson matched Pound's yearnings for the Chinese and the Greek with his own for the Mayan, and he assumed with Pound that one could move freely out of the cultural trap one was born to—a common American delusion—into something more basic, truer. Also with Pound he divided his energies confusingly between escaping the culture and trying to set it straight, and therefore like Pound he found his devotion to art constantly being interrupted by his need to be a pedagogue.

It must have been the pedagogue as much as the artist in him that made him worry about "effects," but a pedagogue with only the haziest notions of how the "effects" might be received by an audience. Like Pound, when he set forth on an artistic conquest, he entertained extremely grandiose notions of what he was about. Ahab did too, but at least he was grandiose within the frame of whaling, an odd but worldly occupation. Olson seems to have had no such frame; he was out in the Pacific with his poems and his theory.

Reed Whittemore, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), April 25, 1970, pp. 21-2.

I see Olson as a lyric poet, in both senses of that term. But a lyric poet who selected the long poem in which to make his most important statement. But on the one hand, his "lyrics", his songs, are a falling backward, as another poet once termed it; and in those pieces of Maximus I see Olson's ego come clear, wrench itself loose from that denial of ego so otherwise apparent here. On the other hand, we see the lyrical voice, the man himself speaking, not into history, but as a part of historical incident, reacting to the incidents also around him. What I am trying to get at here is that Olson, along with the other achievements of his career, has given us a new sense of the lyric, that is, that it is possible for a man to say "I" in his poem and have that "I" considered as part of the space and time of history: the "I" carries the event into the present and is a strangely natural "I": it is a rock, or it can range about freely as the seas. But I also love the contradictory—if it be so—song we are given as gift. We are dealing here with a very remarkable artist, and with a sensibility that makes the process of the poem inestimably richer.

Gilbert Sorrentino, in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1970, pp. 119-20.

Olson's theories are more interesting than his verse or most of that of his followers. One is never sure that one understands it! He has all kinds of notions about the relationship of "the line" to breathing and other bodily processes, and he uses a curious and perhaps private vocabulary to talk about them…. But the test of all theories of poetry is the kind of poetry they produce, and this is where Olson and his followers seem to me to fail all but abjectly. Their work has absolutely no personal rhythm to it; it all comes out of the tiresome and predictable prosiness of William Carlos Williams. It is the sort of thing—as Randall Jarrell once remarked—that you use to illustrate to a class the fact that the sports page of the daily paper can be rendered into accentual-syllabic verse by cutting it into "lines."

James Dickey, in his Sorties: Journals and New Essays (© 1971 by James Dickey; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), Doubleday, 1971, pp. 195-96.

Robert Creeley has argued [in Yugen 8, Fall, 1962] that were the Maximus Poems, Charles Olson's major work, merely "social criticism," they would not be very interesting. The same could be said, of course, for Pound's Cantos and Williams' Paterson; all three poems seek to express new forms of poetic perception and language. Yet it is equally true that social criticism, set in the context of a moral vision of history, is responsible for what thematic coherence these poems have. Olson, with his contrast between polis, the ideal society, and pejorocracy, the debased world of materialism, is akin to Pound, with his vision of the ideal City or Culture in opposition to the conditions that exist under the pervasive influence of "usury" and other forms of exploitation. In his localism, in which the poet's psychological and spiritual state is closely related to the moral state of a particular place, Olson is akin to Williams. The Maximus Poems are unified by a specific reading of the history of Gloucester and Cape Ann, a history that in its stylized consideration of men and events aims not simply at the disclosure of what happened, but at the revelation of moral truth.

L. S. Dembo, "Charles Olson and the Moral History of Cape Ann," in Criticism, Spring, 1972, pp. 165-74.