Charles Olson Olson, Charles (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Olson, Charles 1910–1970

Olson was an American poet, essayist, and critic. He is the mentor of the Black Mountain poets and with his 1950 essay "Projective Verse" established the principles for the Projectivist school of poetry. Although his poetry bears the influence of both Pound and Williams, Olson was a unique and powerful creative force in contemporary poetry. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

Thom Gunn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Olson … exists in the world of factions—of manifestoes and extravagant gestures. He appears to be influenced by such rebels against orthodoxy as Pound and the Rimbaud of Les Illuminations. So far so good, I suppose: Pound and Rimbaud were geniuses who succeeded, against all probability, in expanding the boundaries of poetry. In Olson, however, the habit of scholarly detail inherited from Pound clutters the imagination, and the habit of recklessness in imagination (inherited maybe from Rimbaud) cancels out any possible consistency or relevance in the scholarly details. These twin disasters come about, I suspect, because he has little interest in the sensible world except as a handle on which to hang bits of poetry…. If we want the explanation of his technique, we may find it in his essay on "Projective Verse," printed in The New American Poetry 1945–1960 …, which though it has been very influential, it would not be unfair to describe as the worst prose published since Democratic Vistas. This passage opens with the statement of a rule:

ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points (even, I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen. And if you also set up as a poet, USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER.

The description of this psychological process was first made several hundreds of years ago, and the recommendation of it as a specifically poetic process was made at least as early as the start of the nineteenth century, but it is the complete lack of qualification, the absolutism of his demand, that distinguishes Olson's enunciation of it as a rule for writing poetry…. "Put down anything so long as you keep writing" would be a fair enough paraphrase. The result is The Distances, which consists of performances as flat and inept as the feeble rhymes that are printed daily in [newspapers]. (pp. 595-96)

Thom Gunn, in The Yale Review (© 1961 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), June, 1961.

Marjorie G. Perloff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Olson's essay ["Projective Verse"] begins with this diagram:

(projectile (percussive (prospective
The NON-Projective

To Creeley, this terminology and mode of presentation was enormously exciting, a way of breaking out of the "closed system," of "poems patterned upon exterior and traditionally accepted models."… [This vocabulary] occurs in Pound's Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony. In this essay, Pound praises the composer-theorist Antheil for his understanding that "music exists in time-space; and is therefore very different from any kind of plastic art which exists all at once."… The "monolinear," "lateral," and "horizontal" action of … "musical mechanisms" is, in Pound's words, "like a projectile carrying a wire and cutting, defining the three dimensions of space."… The projective element in music—its locomotive quality—is defined as the fourth dimension.

The notion of the poem as projectile, a mechanism or force projected through time-space, is thus not as revolutionary as Olson's admirers have professed it to be. The synonymic use of "projectile" and "percussive," for that matter, makes little sense until one has read Pound's Antheil, in which he devotes a whole section to the role of percussion in the "time-spacing" created by "musical mechanisms."… (pp. 287-88)

In the first two pages of his essay, Olson defines "OPEN verse" and discusses "COMPOSITION BY FIELD" under three headings: its "kinetics," its "principle," and its "process."… Note that although … Olson singles out Robert Creeley and Edward Dahlberg as the fellow writers who most influenced his theory, the text of "Projective Verse" itself suggests that their concepts as well as Olson's were in turn derived from the critical writings of Pound and Williams. (p. 288)

Such indebtedness is not, in itself, a fault; Williams himself, after all, derived many of his critical concepts from Pound and then adapted them to his own purposes. The difference is that Olson consistently insinuates … that his theory of poetry is revolutionary. Yet his main deviation from the Pound-Williams aesthetic is that he muddles their concepts.

Take, for example, the tripartite division into the kinetics, the principle, and the process of projective verse. The division sounds impressive but what is its real point? If poetry is a "high energy-construct" (Rule 1), clearly its form will be determined by the content or energy to be conveyed from poet to reader (Rule 2). Why the first is kinetics and the second principle is never made clear. The third division—the "process of the thing"—seems to be no more than a corollary of (1), for if the poem is an "energy-discharge," it follows that one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further one (Rule 3). This is kinetics all over again. Or process if you want to call it that. Olson's three-step definition is, in short, merely pretentious, a device used to convince the reader that the argument in question is proceeding logically or that, at the very least, it is highly complex. (pp. 290-91)

Olson is again following Pound and Williams in his insistence that the basic unit of prosody can no longer be considered the foot, that, as Pound said in Canto LXXXI, "To break the pentameter, that was the first heave." In the "new poetry," the basic unit becomes the line or breath group of artfully arranged syllables. Olson's emphasis on the centrality of syllable and line thus has ample precedent. But his conclusion is his own:

Let me put it baldly. The two halves are:
the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE….

This formulation, like the distinction between kinetics, principle, and process discussed above, has more manner than matter…. [The formula could] be reversed, and in any case it hardly seems to matter which of the two—syllable or line—is HEAD or HEART. (pp. 292-93)

The necessity of "getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego" and of avoiding the traditional mimetic role of poetry is one of Olson's obsessive themes. In "On Poets and Poetry" (1953), for example, he defines the image "as a 'thing,' never so far as we know, such a nonanimal as symbol," and in the "Letter to Elaine Feinstein" (1959), which serves as a postscript to "Projective Verse," he declares that in the past few centuries, "representation was never off the dead-spot of description. Nothing was happening as of the poem itself—ding and zing or something. It was referential to reality."

If this allegedly new concept of the image as thing, as object relating not to any external reality but only to other objects within the field of the poem, has a familiar ring, it is...

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Thomas F. Merrill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Olson wrote "The Kingfishers" in 1949 when his "stance toward reality" was quickening. Soon he would codify that stance and the principles of its expression in two position papers, "The Human Universe" and "Projective Verse," but in "The Kingfishers" we have perhaps the most dense rendering of the Olson posture. Later, in The Maximus Poems, the density will attenuate and the method will lose some of its aggressive presence, but in this earlier, briefer effort we have the advantage of a concentrate. The poem is Olson distilled, form obediently extending from content, a reliable index to the dogmatic complexity of its author. As Olson himself once put it [in Letters for Origin], "If you don't know Kingfishers you don't have a starter."… (pp. 506-07)

"The Kingfishers" is, to use a term Olson borrowed from Franz Kline, a "marvelous maneuver," the result of "… that wonderful sense that one does what one knows before one knows what one does." In "The Kingfishers" Olson did what he only later fully knew [as he indicated in marginalia], and the poem's consistency with intellectual positions he was to codify in the future is testimony to the trustworthiness of what Olson has called "blind obedience" to "personage," that is, the belief that "each of us is more than a physiology or a will … [that] we are also an obedience. And what we obey—have to obey—is something we are in the hands of, not in our own hands alone. I refer to the life in us." (p. 507)

[M. L. Rosenthal's] reading shows a considerably greater acquaintance [than many other critics] with Olson's concerns and his methodology. Isolating the three major motifs that run through "The Kingfishers" (the ancient symbol 'E"; the quotation from Mao; and the overall symbol of the kingfisher), he acknowledges [in The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II] the "crucial issue" of the poem as the "betrayal of humanly meaningful modes of life that were discovered before the emergence of the modern state." Aside from the word "betrayal," which perhaps intrudes an overly moral ingredient into Olson's organic view of cultural history, Rosenthal's précis is not inconsistent with the cultural position which Olson's works and marginalia yield. (p. 509)

In Jung, as in [Brook Adams, whose The Law of Civilization and Decay was important to Olson], Olson finds a principle of energy, racial or psychic, which is both within and beyond man—an energy precisely equivalent to what he labels the "life in us"—available for obedience….

Adams' "racial energy," Jung's "archetypal anima," and Melville's creative "recovery" of primordial energy through image and feeling supply an outline of the cultural point of view animating "The Kingfishers." It is a view which recommends the repossession of a lost, pre-Socratic "stance toward reality" (elsewhere called by Olson the "will to cohere") which unburdens man of the abstractions of Greek rationalism by placing him in a posture obedient to the rhythms of the "life in us." The particular intensity of "The Kingfishers" generates from Olson's conviction that the "recovery" is now at hand as a real cultural possibility for America…. (p. 510)

Like his literary guru, Melville, Olson feels himself in a revolution of "recovery rather than advance" and senses the inadequacy of the term writer to comprehend his quest. "I find it awkward to call myself a poet or a writer," he confesses. "If there are no walls there are no names…. I am an archeologist of morning. And the writing and acts which I find bear on the present job are … from Homer back, not forward." "The Kingfishers" is a product of that anthropological commitment to the recovery of a pre-Greek orientation, and it is no dishonor to consider the poem less an utterance of Olson the poet than the potent statement of Olson the archeologist.

Not only does the poem open with the ruins of ancient Angkor Vat, take us through a series of quick cuts of Mayan ritual, and investigate relics and burial vaults, but it closes with a paraphrase of Rimbaud's "Fêtes de la Faim" which turns out ultimately to be a prophetic declaration of Olson's intention to launch an archeological expedition of his own…. [The] residue of the ancient Mayan Empire, particularly … the stone hieroglyphs,… originally caught his interest as the expression of a civilization "anterior" to the Greek in which Western civilization is rooted…. Olson is convinced that the energy which nourished their great civilization can be repossessed through the latent power of the glyphs and also through the love, sensed in the very flesh, of the present-day Maya. (pp. 511-12)

Almost within the year, Olson would be off to Mexico where in Campeche and Yucatan he would find confirmation of the assumptions worked out in advance in "The Kingfishers."…

"The Human Universe" explicitly relates Olson's taste for Mayan civilization to his position:

I have found that the hieroglyphs of the Maya disclose a placement of themselves towards nature of enormous contradiction to ourselves…. Man has made himself an ugliness and a bore. It was better to be a bird, as these Maya seem to have been, they kept moving their heads so nervously to stay alive, to keep alerted to what they were surrounded by…. O, they were hot for the world they lived in, these Maya, hot to get it down the way it was—the way it is, my fellow citizens….

The way it "was" and "is" (could be) is the orientation from which Western man has been alienated since the advent of Greek humanism (logic, classification, and idealism), a humanism (dubbed "discourse" by Olson) which has estranged man "from that which was most familiar." (p. 512)

The poem opens with an ontological dogma: "What does not change / is the will to change." The line finds a specific context later … in material Olson quotes from Plutarch; its appearance here is as a controlling text. While assuming the Heraclitean axiom exploited by Plutarch that all is flux, its emphasis rhythmically and conceptually falls on the word "will," the "will to change" (italics mine). Olson's explicit definition of will, "the innate voluntarism to live…. the infinitive of being," proposed in The Special View of History … would rule out any notion that human existence is helplessly at the mercy of change. To the contrary, Olson insists that "man does influence external reality,"… but he consistently points out that there are at least "two sorts of will" which he identifies at the cultural level as the "will to cohere" and the will to "disperse," and at the individual level as the "will of power" and the "will of achievement."…

"Power" and "achievement" are terms borrowed from Keats, and the will of power, as Olson explains it, "tries to make it by asserting the self as character. The second makes it by non-asserting the self as self. In other words the riddle is that the true self is not the asserting function but an obeying one, that the actionable is larger than the individual and so can be obeyed to."… Olson thus assimilates Keats's terms into his principle of "blind obedience" to "personage" and, although the "life in us" is now called the "actionable," the principle that one ought to assume an obedient rather than an assertive role toward natural process remains the same. Olson links his position even closer to Keats's by incorporating into it the principle of negative capability…. (p. 513)

The changeless "will to change," then, might be seen as a recommended...

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Phillip E. Smith Ii

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the important topics in Olson's work is the relationship of the idea of culture to the idea of community. As he worked on The Maximus Poems in the early 1950's, Olson came to believe that modern poets should follow the advice of William Carlos Williams in his essay, "Descent," and resist the inherited culture, history, and mythology of Western Europe in favor of the local immediacy of one's own person and place. Olson interpreted the dominant ideas of Western culture as leading to egoism and the will to power. Against them he insisted modern man should employ a communitarian "alternative humanism" which would result in the "will to cohere." (pp. 13-14)

[In "To Gerhardt,"] Olson draws upon the myth of the death of the European corn-god in order to insist on the necessity of sacrificing the cultural tradition ranging from Homer to Pound.

Olson writes as a man who has already found his poetic stance by rejecting the limitations of previous poetry and culture…. (p. 16)

The unity of humanism in place as well as person is the great accomplishment of The Maximus Poems…. [Olson brings] together the ideas of culture and community. Olson's descent into the poetic and real "ground" of Gloucester brings him not only the sense of locality, or polis, but also a sense of coherence based on local identity…. Olson's alternative humanism opposes such simplistic and reductive inherited categories as hierarchies, gods, and mass man. They distort the thoughts and lives of people who would undertake a cultural revolution. (pp. 20-1)

Olson hoped that he might educate his readers to become involved and aware working people who, knowing their European heritage of corporate capitalism, slavery, and slaughter of native Americans, could, with "the polis in their eye," create a new and more perfect community. (p. 21)

Phillip E. Smith II, "Descent into Polis: Charles Olson's Search for Community," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1977, by Jerome Mazzaro), Spring, 1977, pp. 13-22.

Sherman Paul

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There] is evidence in the eleven plays collected [in The Fiery Hunt and Other Plays]—play, dance, dance-and-verse, opera—that Olson knew the various theaters of the classic Greeks, of Noh, of the masque, and of such exemplary contemporary companies as the Yiddish Art Theatre….

Olson was impatient with "straight theatre," which he felt was too much concerned with "contemporary realism." he wanted "enlargements and poets' treatment," a drama, [George Butterick explains in his Introduction], antedating Greek comedy and tragedy, emphatically given over to language and movement and to the single actor…. From the start his predilection was for a minimal company: for the single actor who...

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