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Olson, Charles 1910–1970

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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

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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

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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 because Olson's "objectism" is merely Pound's "objectivism" in not very new dress. (p. 294)

[Although] Olson uses the analogy of "clean wood" rather than of granite or marble—Pound's favorite building materials—to define poetry, the doctrine is really the same. Williams summed it up in his famous phrase, "No ideas but in things"…. (p. 295)

"Projective Verse," one concludes, is hardly the break-through in literary theory it is reputed to be. It is essentially a scissors-and-paste job, a clever but confused collage made up of bits and pieces of Pound, Fenollosa, Gaudier-Brzeska, Williams, and Creeley. One could argue, of course, that Olson repeatedly acknowledges his debt to "the work of Pound & Williams," and that he admittedly uses their poetics as a springboard from which to chart the directions the "new poetry" should take. But this is not quite what happens. We have already seen that Olson claims his "objectism" to be a "more valid formulation for present use" than the "objectivism" of his Masters. In the years following the publication of "Projective Verse"—years in which Olson began to publish his own poetry—he became increasingly testy about his relationship to Pound and Williams. (pp. 295-96)

Evidently, Olson's aim [in "I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master …"] is to use the typographical spacing and verse technique of the Cantos to criticize Pound's unfortunate return to the "closed verse" of traditional poets. But despite its parody rhymes …, its recurrent metal images, or its witty allusions …, "I, Mencius" is no more than a superficially clever poem. For one thing, Olson's own Rule #3—"ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION"—is not observed in this poem, which basically restates the same theme over and over again. (p. 299)

[Despite] Olson's repeated insistence that "contemporary workers go lazy RIGHT HERE WHERE THE LINE IS BORN," his own prosody is not in any way remarkable. In ["I, Mencius,"] for example, it is not clear that the line always ends "where its breathing, shall come to, termination."… Olson insists that "only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending," but in that case, "only he, the man who writes" can know why the line ends when it does…. One finds … no sense of inevitability in Olson's verse line, no principle which may be said to govern the way syllables must be combined to constitute lines. The poet simply breaks off where he happens to break off….

[During] the sixties, Olson became such an oracle, even if to a relatively small coterie, that he could and did say almost anything—banal, confusing, contradictory, meaningless—and get away with it. (p. 300)

[We] might conclude by looking at a late Olson poem so as to see to what extent Olson has managed to MAKE IT NEW.

My text is, appropriately I think, a late Olson poem entitled "from The Song of Ullikummi," which bears the subtitle: "(translated from Hurrian and Hittite and read at Spoleto 1965 to honor the presence of Mr. Ezra Pound)." At this festive occasion, one gathers, Olson finally wanted to make peace with his "inferior predecessor." Like his first Master, he would base his poem on an ancient myth, only he would go one step further than Pound by choosing an obscure Hurrian myth, wholly beyond Pound's own scholarly range.

"From The Song of Ullikummi" is based on Hans Güterbock's 1951 translation of the incomplete epic, which is in turn based on the following myth. The god Kumarbis has dethroned his father Anus but is in turn threatened by Anus's second son, the storm god. Kumarbis sends his messenger, Imbaluris, to the Sea to seek her advice. She summons Kumarbis to her house and feasts him. As a result of her advice, Kumarbis leaves his native Urkis and goes to a place where he meets a huge rock. He has intercourse with this rock and bears a son called Ullikummis, who grows into a gigantic pillar of diorite. He rises from the sea like a tower until his height is 9,000 leagues and his girth the same. To the consternation of the gods, he reaches up to heaven. A conflict between Ullikummis and the storm-god now ensues.

Olson's poem is based on the first twenty-two lines of the first tablet. The Güterbock text prints the Hittite transcription of the Hurrian myth on the left side of the page and the English translation on the right…. (pp. 301-02)

In his version, Olson omits the statement of epic theme, the reference to the conflict between Kumarbis and the storm god, and the description of the journey. His subject, rather, is the act of intercourse itself, yet, although his poem deals only with this one event, it is more than twice as long as the relevant portion of the original narrative. (p. 303)

[The] lines are somewhat reminiscent of Pound: the retelling of ancient myth in contemporary idiom, the casual free verse, the juxtaposition of foreign text with its English equivalent. Yet the differences outweigh these superficial similarities. Whereas Pound usually juxtaposes different myths, playing off one against another to create a new image, Olson harps with tiresome monotony on the same theme:

       the fucking
  of the Mountain
       fucked the mountain went right through it and
  came out the other side….

And, although he often copies the Güterbock translation verbatim,… in the few cases where he does make changes in the parent text, it is in order to turn a neutral narrative statement into a cute sexual reference…. [Note] that the wit, which does not rise above the most banal locker-room joke, is fraudulent in that Olson depends upon our not being able to read the Hittite…. (pp. 303-04)

The novelty of [the] linguistic juxtapositions rapidly wears off once we know what the Hittite means. If a poem is meant to be, in Olson's words, "a high energy-construct" or "energy-discharge," it is difficult to justify the essential repetitiveness of "from The Song of Ullikummi." Nor does the "FORM" of this particular poem seem to be "AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT," for as we can see by looking at the parent text, the same content can be and is presented in very different form. One would be grateful if, in keeping with the doctrine of "Projective Verse," the "PERCEPTION" of the opening line—"fucked the Mountain"—ever led to a "FURTHER PERCEPTION," but Olson seems to find the notion of a god fucking a rock so titillating, so enchanting, that he can think of nothing else, and the poem ends as it began….

One can object at this point that it is unfair to judge Olson by this relatively unimportant poem, that the Maximus Poems, say, or "The Kingfishers" would give us a different image of the poet. No doubt there is some truth in such an objection—Olson did write better poems than "Ullikummi"—but we must take the poem seriously because Olson himself took it very seriously indeed. (p. 305)

"Ullikummi" … simply manifests in particularly blatant form Olson's central imaginative failure. Pound and Williams, one should recall, talked of prosody only after long and ardous experiments with different verse forms, line units, and syllable combinations; theirs was what Eliot liked to call "workshop criticism." Olson, on the other hand, began by announcing that the syllable and the line were the "HEAD" and the "HEART" of the new prosody and hoped that no one would notice that, in his own poetry, he let the lines fall where they may. Again, whereas Pound's and Williams' objectivist theories were the natural outgrowth of their experiments with imagery, Olson simply announced that the "objects in field" that compose a poem must refer to nothing outside themselves, only to discover that in his own poetry, references to external reality became increasingly obtrusive. (pp. 305-06)

Marjorie G. Perloff, "Charles Olson and the 'Inferior Predecessors': 'Projective Verse' Revisited," in ELH (© copyright 1973 by The Johns Hopkins University Press), Summer, 1973, pp. 285-306.

Thomas F. Merrill

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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 position in the face of universal flux, a position that is comfortable with mystery, content in process, and devoid of "irritable reaching after fact and reason." It is a position in which the will is obedient to the larger force of process, neither assertive nor egocentric, and yet one which "achieves" because it taps the energy of the "actionable." It is the kind of flexible position that Brooks Adams sees in successful civilizations…. (pp. 513-14)

The announcement that opens "The Kingfishers" is thus both an explanation and a challenge. It accounts for the rise and fall of civilizations, but it also advises that the cultural consequences are in man's control: he can choose to assert or obey, disperse or cohere, impose or achieve. The energy of the poem generates from the conflict between these options. (p. 514)

Fernand, the enigmatic center of interest, is presumably an archeologist of sorts himself. Although he is profoundly disturbed by the eroded value of kingfisher feathers, it is not clear whether his concern is aesthetic, economic, or even pedantic…. The central enigma of Fernand, however, originates from the undercutting of his apparent aesthetic concern by an oddly materialistic diction.

If the conceptual impact of Fernand is diffuse, his kinetic presence is nevertheless potent. We sense the genuineness of his concern, we feel the depth of his disillusionment with the present, and we grasp the urgency of his appeal. We could explain away the conceptual untidiness of the aesthetic-economic tension as a concession to realism—that's the way people talk at parties—but a more plausible reconciliation of these aesthetic and economic concerns is available in the Brooks Adams excerpt [cited] earlier: "When a highly centralized society disintegrates, under the pressure of economic competition, it is because the energy of the race has been exhausted." Within the context of Adams' cultural theory the cessation of the export of feathers is not merely an economic phenomenon but announces the exhaustion of racial energy. "Why did the export stop?" thus becomes a cultural puzzle of considerable metaphysical weight and suggests that archeology holds promise of a solution. (pp. 514-15)

[However,] the moral seems to be that such mysteries as feathers and E's are impervious to a discursive, analytical stance because their real significance is rooted in a primordial matrix…. The epistemological assumptions of one culture may be useless in sounding the assumptions of another…. (p. 516)

The concluding section of Part I is appropriately philosophic—even didactic. Principles which up to this point have been presented for intuitive and visceral absorption are now more conceptually defined through the borrowings from. Plutarch. In addition to the Plutarch material, however, Olson adds some significant embellishments from Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, the subtitle of which is directly quoted in the poem. From Wiener's book Olson takes the term "feedback" and declares it a law. In Cybernetics and Society Wiener defined feedback as "a method of controlling a system by reinserting into it the results of its past performance," but Olson's interest in the term is in its application to epistemology: as the technique man employs for obedience to "nature's force." In a universe of process, of incessant change, man must assume a posture which will tap rather than obstruct the inherent energy of that change. (pp. 520-21)

The law of feedback is most demonstrable in man's creative acts. There his obligation is to create or "feed back" objects that are "equal to the real itself," and that is why Olson insists that "art is the only twin life has—its only valid metaphysic."… (p. 521)

In a universe of ever-shifting relationships, where one moment's description of a thing is nullified by the new constellation of the next moment, reality is indeed a hopelessly elusive thing; "the too strong grasping of it" obviously "loses it," and the only conceivable way of dealing with it is through corresponding motion. For this reason Olson's work may to some seem circular and repetitive, a charge Olson readily admits. His art, as it "twins" reality, must keep moving abreast with what is going on, forging ahead in a circular envelopment of the subject, never emending, never changing, but, true to the process of his activity, keeping up with the moment and "feeding back" what comes at him fresh at the threshold of the skin. This is the law of feedback, the law of Olson's art. (p. 522)

The narrator's plea [in Part II] … is that we forbearingly look into the whiteness of the face of the Mayan ruins with candor, and that in our examination we allow tolerance for "the dryness of the place" (no Eliotic desiccation here, but literally the well-documented dryness of Campeche and Yucatan which made the cultural success of the Maya so spectacular, particularly their achievement in domesticating maize)…. In "The Human Universe" Olson concedes that the descendants of the Maya "have gone down before the poundings of our way" and are "poor failures of the modern world, incompetent to arrange that, in the month of June, when the rains have not yet come far enough forward to fill the wells, they have water to wash in or to drink."… (p. 523)

We should not excuse the conquistadors' destruction of Mayan idols on grounds that the idols were "black" from sacrificial "human gore." To the contrary, we are requested to "hear, where the dry blood talks / where the old appetite walks." Rather than blinding our understanding with moral judgments, we should "look" with candor beneath the dark violence of Mayan ritual and "hear" the primordial reality of "the old appetite." The appetite can still be found; it "hides" in the "eye" of the present-day Maya and "runs in [their] flesh / chalk [the chalk of the glyphs]."

The curious line "whence it arose" seems bafflingly to suggest that the "old appetite" hidden in ancient Mayan culture somehow "arose." presumably to some otherworldly reality. "The Kingfishers" itself provides little assistance toward clarifying this enigmatic phrase, but in "The Praises," which Olson considered a companion piece to "The Kingfishers," the phrase appears again in conjunction with the myth of how the Sun, originally mortal, is enticed into the heavens by the Moon. Olson's admitted euhemerism causes him to conjecture in "The Gate and the Center," "How many generations does it take to turn a hero into a God?" and it would appear as though he tentatively intended to connect anthropological history and religious mythology. (pp. 523-24)

Olson's apparent admiration for the "old appetite" and his disdain for those who would excuse the conquistadors' destruction of the Mayan culture on the grounds that it was violent, bloody, and harsh reinforces the fact that what he culturally values is not ethically but aesthetically admired. "Art is the only morality,"… he once wrote to Cid Corman, and this conviction helps us to appreciate the kinetic tension with which aesthetic and moral virtues are counter-poised in the final two stanzas of Part II…. Primordial power is measured against social "enlightenment" in a kind of Heraclitean acknowledgment that "it is by disease that health is pleasant; by evil that good is pleasant; by hunger, satiety; by weariness, rest." The oppositions imply an inevitable trade-off: beauty at the expense of justice and vice versa. "Dirtiness" becomes law, presumably, when the oppositions are not seen as natural conditions of the flux but as pressing either/or options. The law, as Olson instructs us, is "feed-back"—"staying in process," remaining "obedient" to the "actionable," and avoiding all "irritable grasping after fact and reason." "If man is active," Olson says, "it is exactly here where experience comes in that it is delivered back, and if he stays fresh at the coming in he will be fresh at the going out." The failure of the attention to safeguard that freshness results in "slime," the "fetid nest," "maggots," and all the other ready images of pejorocracy.

It is no wonder, then, that the final part of "The Kingfishers" sarcastically disavows its culture's classical roots, both temperamentally and syntactically, on the basis that it "can take no risk that matters, / the risk of beauty least of all." For Olson, at least, the ending is a forcefully personal one. Whatever others choose to do, he has found his "kin," the Maya, to whom he freely commits himself. With Rimbaud, he fixes his taste to phenomena, "la terre et les pierres," and dedicates himself to the search for honey among the stones. (pp. 524-26)

As if cleaving to its own injunction, "not accumulation but change," "The Kingfishers" does say the same things over and over in its sections, but each time from a different vantage point of space, time, and perception. We have seen recurring figures metamorphize in response to the changed conditions in which they are reconceived: a "pool" changes to a "nest"; from "nest" it changes to a vessel for time; finally it reappears as a burial vault. Similarly, "slime" transposes into "rejectamenta," then to "mongolian louse," then to "maggots," and finally to a generalized "what crawls below." No matter what the figure, the poet's obedience to the energies flowing through him in the feedback process assures its coherence—even its reality. Restricting his responsibility to the act of "attention," to "staying fresh at the coming in and the going out," he remains confident all the while that if he does only this the poem will take care of itself. This is the logic, of course, of "composition by field" and the rationale behind Olson's admission that when he writes a poem, "I don't know what I am up to! And must stay in that state in order to accomplish what I have to do."

"The Kingfishers" was written before "The Gate and the Center," "The Human Universe," The Special View of History, and Olson's other statements of cultural position. It preceded Olson's knowledge of the metaphysics of Whitehead which so significantly structures his later work and thought. Nevertheless, the poem's intuitive obedience to the stance toward reality codified for Olson six years later by Whitehead is such that it is a passage from Process and Reality (unknown to Olson at the time "The Kingfishers" was written) that best summarizes its theme:

The social history of mankind exhibits great organizations in their alternating functions of conditions for progress, and of contrivances for stunting humanity…. The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order. Life refuses to be embalmed alive. The more prolonged the halt in some unrelieved system of order, the greater the crash of the dead society.

Marginalia in Olson's copy of "The E at Delphi," scribbled in ten years after he wrote "The Kingfishers," reveals the confirming impact of his subsequent knowledge of Whitehead. Ammonius' allusion to the famous Heraclitean remark, "It is not possible to step into the same river twice," receives Olson's arrowed note, "Add Whitehead." (pp. 526-28)

The point is that Olson's natural progress seems to be from felt intuition to codified exposition without appreciable loss of the content's integrity: from "The Kingfishers," say, to The Special View of History. All this is by way of reaffirming that Olson, as poet-archeologist-teacher-metaphysician, was the master of the "marvelous maneuver"; he did what he knew before he knew what he did. (p. 528)

Thomas F. Merrill, "'The Kingfishers': Charles Olson's 'Marvelous Maneuver'," in Contemporary Literature (© 1976 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 17, No. 4, Autumn, 1976, pp. 506-28.

Phillip E. Smith Ii

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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

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[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 exemplified heroism, danced the Man … and for the very few who were necessary to dance out his moral equations….

I call [The Fiery Hunt and Other Plays] primary because what … makes them notable is their singular emphasis on dancing the Man and, in doing so, dancing out Olson's own developing fable. Anyone familiar with "Apollonius of Tyana" will have remarked Olson's didacticism and the extent to which the dance patently fables him. Now, reading these plays, he will find that this is not unusual but characteristic. Olson defined man, in Vedic fashion, as a "dancing thinker," but in respect to him we might modify this to "dancing pedagogue," bringing over the insistence on single intelligence and adding the insistence on the work to be done. (p. 624)

All of these plays are occasional … in being clearly the result of Olson's occasions. For example, "The Fiery Hunt," a remarkable finished work, enacts the problem of father(s) and son which was such a critical matter in Olson's career. (p. 625)

Of the plays written at Black Mountain College, two, companion pieces,… are especially fine: "Apollonius of Tyana" and "The Born Dancer." The first, "A Dance, with Some [Many] Words," dramatizes Olson's second-birth and self-shaping, the vocational choice that he had made in undertaking The Maximus Poems, that great poem of place. Thematically it is the richest of Olson's dance-dramas, the only one hitherto published and well-known. The second, treating Nijinsky, is appropriately pure dance, and dance here, with a brilliance not to be found in any of the others, itself becomes Olson's projective speech. It tells of Olson's respect for the human body, of his awareness of sexuality in the growth of consciousness, and of his hatred of all that impedes its proper (tropic) development. (pp. 625-26)

None of Olson's later work is moved by the intensity that informs the early work. In these plays of the 1960's, Olson is a parodist-social critic, somewhat removed from the artwork, often moved by disgust. In "Telepinus" ("a Christmas Entertainment for Manhattanville"!) Telepinus, the Hittite god of fertility whose name heavily puns, still seems to be angry and withdrawn, reluctant to do the work of the solstice. In his speeches he refers to the "futile masses"…. In "Fluff" ("a 'Temperament' of Four Natures"), a characteristic speech is the following of Lady 1: "I am / wiggle / ass / Doris / Day / I am pastry/in your stomach / I am / bullshit / all over." Hyacinthus says, "I use / democracy // … I don't believe / in anything…."

This brief play collapses into "rottenness"; the grossness of the characters overwhelms the author who ends it all in a brawl, "literally, a vulgar dirty mess." Olson, the black humorist, writer of satyr plays?

Even the "Wild Man Fragment," resuming Olson's most serious theme, breaks off in hopeless hopefulness. The wild man, who is "nature" and has "native (neolithic) powers," lives in fear of "much today which / is [hostile]." His antagonist is "Pointed Beard" ["scientist modernism commercial-success present intellectual best (exponential IBM computer future), the full miserable self-autonomy of the intellectual as it now is"]. These stock characters … define for us, as our critical situation, the endless opposition of Nature and Culture. They identify Olson's allegiance and the large theme—the great theme of myth—his work addresses. Curiously, they provoke little action; the enterprise is almost static. (pp. 626-27)

Sherman Paul, "Dancing the Man," in boundary 2 (copyright © boundary 2, 1978), Winter, 1978, pp. 623-27.

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Olson, Charles (Vol. 1)


Olson, Charles (Vol. 2)