Charles Olson Olson, Charles (Vol. 9) - Essay

Olson, Charles (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Olson, Charles 1910–1970

Olson was an American poet, literary critic, and essayist. While rector and instructor at Black Mountain College in the early fifties, Olson greatly influenced the group that came to be known as the Black Mountain Poets—Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Robert Duncan among them. His concept of poetry is known as Projectivist verse, in which the poet strives to replicate both the "acquisition of his ear and the pressures of his breath." For Olson, the typewriter was the perfect instrument for this verse, for it forces the poet, as the bar and measure force the composer, to record "the listening he has done to his own speech" with accuracy and fidelity. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

No poet could have been more patriotic than Olson was; not in the jingoistic sense, of course, but in the Whitmanian sense….

Olson's aim in "The Maximus Poems" was to present Gloucester, as it is and was, and then to assimilate it into the Whitmanian spirit of America, as he saw it, and into the entire religious fabric of history from Egypt and Mesopotamia to the present, with excursions also into Far Eastern sources. Yet it was more than this. Ultimately he aimed to celebrate mankind….

"The Maximus Poems" was a huge and truly angelic effort; it needs prolonged reading and extended commentary. Here, all I can do is record my feeling that Olson succeeded only in parts. The whole is a failure.

The trouble is incoherence, more and more so toward the end. One wonders to what extent drugs were responsible, especially when one notices a half-hidden reference to "speed" in one section. But surely the more crucial incoherence was Olson's self-dividedness, between his democratic faith, his deeply rooted generosity, good nature, and spirituality on one hand, and what his eyes saw on the other, the degradation of America. He could not resolve it. His two sides, pragmatic and spiritual, were at war. No matter how he strove, writing under streetlamps late at night on the Gloucester waterfront, jabbing the notebook with bursts of rhythmic speech, he could not find the word that could tie his or his nation's warring parts together.

He saw the same conflict in Ezra Pound and could not resolve it there either. "Charles Olson & Ezra Pound," comprising the notes and records Olson kept for about two years when he was visiting the older poet at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D. C., is one of the most fascinating literary documents we have….

The book says more about Olson than it does about Pound, showing us Olson for what he was, warm, generous, intelligent, without an ounce of viciousness, as likable a man as anyone would care to meet. Yet it does not show us that these qualities helped him as a poet. Which is to say, it goes to the heart of the poetic enigma.

We are left with a great poem in its fragments, "The Maximus Poems," which we place together with the best work in "Archaeologist of Morning" … to make a very creditable body of work. Should we ask for more?…

I wish he could somehow have been content with description, for the descriptive parts of "Maximus" are the best, they alone sustaining the real force of the poem, and who knows how much more the poet might have achieved if, paradoxically, he had been willing to set this limit on his imagination? (p. 35)

Hayden Carruth, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 23, 1975.

For Olson there were only three proper areas for the study of myth: "initiatic cosmos," "the world of nature," and "the celestial world." Mythology was not reference, not metaphor, it was an "inner inherence" that one had to learn in order to give oneself control over time and space—"the retardation of eternity." It was in this sense that Olson was a poet; he believed poetry to be the articulation of order. (p. 45)

The delight Olson felt, whenever reminded by his followers that he was extraordinary, seemed to create in him a conscious ability to become ever more extraordinary. His constant awareness of the universal must have enabled him to expose or reinforce that universal in his every action. Why? Is the adulation and presence of followers so necessary? Olson, as so many other heroes before him, could pronounce laws and be assured of obedience. Yet he himself was free to disregard his own decrees. Olson could mock his own theories, and he did; whenever and for whatever reason, Olson could contradict himself. He was completely in power—or, at least he thought he was. Olson was dependent upon the admiration of his disciples; without it, his creativity declined. But by exerting his genius and, thereby, cultivating followers, Olson, in one sense, deprived his followers of creative freedom. And so, of course, he did not die. Great men do not die in their own times.

Olson was a genius, an incomparable teacher, but he was also overpowering. In his presence, few could maintain their individualities; they were, literally, overwhelmed. Olson did not promote growth in his students; he did not nourish them; they, especially those who were … sensitive …, could only wither in the presence of his intense, unmitigating light. (p. 46)

Zora Devrnja, in Poet and Critic (© Department of English, Iowa State University), Volume 9, Number 3, 1976.

Knowledge to Olson was a compassionate acquisition, an act of faith and sympathy. He meant primarily that knowledge is the harvest of attention, and he fumed in great rages that the hucksters prey on our attention like a plague of ticks. In his first thoroughly Olsonian poem, "The Kingfishers," a canzone that divides decisively Modern from Post-Modern poetry, the theme states that when our attentions change our culture changes. He uses the firm example of the Mayan cultures, overgrown with jungles. The Mayan shift in attention was culturally determined: every fifty-two years they abandoned whole cities in which the temples were oriented toward the planet Venus, which edges its rising and setting around the ecliptic. The new city was literally a new way to look at a star (this is one meaning of "polis is eyes").

There is history (Waterloo, Guadalcanal) and there is the history of attention (Rousseau, Darwin). The kind of knowledge that shifts attention was Olson's kind of knowledge. He was interested in the past because it gives us a set of contrasts by which to measure events and qualities. (pp. 253-54)

Olson's argument throughout his poetry is that awareness is an event caused by multiple forces, setting multiple forces in action. No force is ever spent. All events are lessons. No event can be isolated.

Olson therefore evolved a kind of poem that would at once project historical ponderables (for history is the ground for all his poetry) and allow him free play for contemplation and response. (p. 255)

If we allow for the sections of [The Maximus Poems] that quote historical documents, and for the occasional jeremiad, we can go a long way toward understanding them by noting that they are variations on Keats' nightingale ode. They are for the large part written at night (by a Timonish Endymion en pantoufles, or an insomniac bear with clipboard wandering about Gloucester, caught from time to time in the spotlight of a police cruiser), they share the imagery of bird and flower (cormorant and nasturtium here), fierce seas and bonging bells (buoys on Cape Ann), and they meditate on resonances of the past that can still be heard. (pp. 255-56)

Olson's spiritual barometers and seismographs give readings that we have to live with for awhile before they begin to render up sense. His view of mankind reaches into the backward abysm. Geologically the world is in the Pleistocene still, the age that evolved the horse, elephant, and cow more or less as we know them. And man. And the arrangement of the continents as they now are.

From Maximus IV forward Olson has introduced the subject of continental drift. (p. 257)

Two hundred million years ago there was one continent, so the theory runs, named Pangaea, and one ocean, Panthalassa. (Has geology ever sounded more Ovidian?) A northern land-mass, Laurasia, split away from the southern landmass Gondwana a hundred and thirty-five million years ago. Another twenty-five million years, and India wandered away from Africa. The last of the continents to divide was the one that became Antarctica and Australia.

The long and perilous voyage that brought Europeans into America as a second migration, 150,000 years after the Indian came here from Asia, could at one time (if any men were about) have been made by taking a single step.

Throughout these last Maximus poems [Volume III] Olson keeps gazing at the offshore rocks, especially Ten Pound Island. That it was once at the bottom of an icesheet that lay across Europe is a fact rich in mythological tone. The severing of the continents is itself a comprehensive symbol of disintegration, of man's migratory fate, of the tragic restlessness of history. (pp. 257-58)

What has happened to American culture (Melville observed that we are more a world than a nation) is a new disintegration that comes hard upon our integration…. [A] cooperation between greed and governments is far too mild a monster for Olson's vision. He would have agreed with De Gaulle that we are the first civilization to have bred our own barbarians…. (p. 258)

The polis is gone; no one can imagine that there are any American cities left. The towns have died at their centers and thrown up a circular scab around themselves, a commercial carnival. We know all too well what Olson is talking about, if not what he is trying to teach us. These poems are more frightening in their implications than the last of the Cantos, than Dr. Williams' diagnoses.

I have not been able here to give any notion of the wideness of these new Maximus poems—the horizon they survey is vast—nor of their depth, which goes back into various histories (the Hittite, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, paleolithic) in new and bright ways (Olson's eyes were open to everything and very little got by him). Nor have I mentioned their religious concern. The best way to offer a summation is to note that a movement is closed by them, a movement that began with Thoreau and Whitman, when America was opening out and possibilities were there to be stumbled over or embraced. Olson is the other term of this moment. He is our anti-Whitman (like Melville before him). He is a prophet crying bad weather ahead, and has the instruments to prove it. (p. 259)

Guy Davenport, "In Gloom on Watch-House Point," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 251-59.

If we take as the definition of the classical writer the one who objectifies his material, pushes it outside the self, presents it in some inherited or given pattern … and the romantic as the one who infuses into his material as much of the self as he can manage, the forms dictated by every idiosyncratic ripple of individuality, his material virtually a sexual partner, into whom he must plunge all! all the body! all the self!… then, by these definitions, the progression of Maximus is from Charles Olson, the man who started writing about Gloucester when he was in North Carolina, to some extent objectifying it, and who told me, when he moved back to Gloucester, he was nervous about the move, uncertain he could get at Gloucester when he was that close to her—from such a man, the progression is to the Maximus of Volume Three, who is utterly identified with and fused into Gloucester … a man who becomes The Last of the Great nineteenth-century Romantics. (p. 272)

Paul Metcalf, "A Seismic Rift," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 260-74.