The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1266

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“In Cold Hell, in Thicket” is a sequential poem in two parts: Each part is subdivided into numbered sections that work like the movements in a musical score, each developing an aspect of the theme of the whole poem. The title of the poem is taken from images used in the Inferno, the first book of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy (c. 1320), in which Dante describes his descent into the Christian underworld by entering a dense thicket covering the gate of hell. The “cold” hell refers to the winter day of the poem and to the snow that is falling on the fields.

The situation of the poem is of a speaker walking across the frozen ground of a fort, most likely the battlefield at Manassas, Virginia, now the Manassas National Battlefield Park, where the battles of Bull Run in the Civil War (1861-1865) had been fought. Manassas is near Washington, D.C., where Charles Olson was living at the time he wrote this poem in August, 1950. A letter to his friend, Edward Dahlberg, reports his car trips out to various Civil War sites.

The most striking characteristic of the poem is its visual appearance on the page, what the French call the mise en page, or layout of a poem. It is marked by strophes, long stanzas in open form, some beginning at the left margin of the page, others beginning at indented margins. Every section has a different spatial order in which the thinking process is given a typographical signature or formal design. Indenting in Olson’s poetry means the thought has drifted inward toward memory or dreamy reverie. The sum of his techniques is explained in his essay “Projective Verse,” written in 1950, in which he discusses his metrical strategies and his use of a “breath” unit for the line, a nonmetrical unit of speech based on the length of breath needed to utter a phrase or completed thought.

The tone of the poem is one of heightened oratory, a formal discourse marked by stately rhetorical assertions and questions, complex syntactical structures in which long dependent clauses intersect direct questions. This form of oratory, notable in other poems Olson wrote in the early 1950’s, was partly influenced by his brief career in politics (1940-1946), when he served in various offices under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. One may detect some of Roosevelt’s eloquent style of delivery in this language; Olson was himself a talented orator in youth, and he won several state and national awards for public speech.

Part I of the poem opens on the subject of war, a frequent theme of Olson’s poetry. His keen sensitivity to history makes him reexperience the bloodshed of the Civil War battles fought on the snowy ground over which he trudges. The poet is middle-aged, forty years old, and he compares his situation to that of Dante, who wrote his epic poem “in the middle way” of life. The “cold hell” of the title is the confusion and directionlessness the poet feels as he meditates on the subject of bloodshed and death. At the back of his mind is the imminent death of his mother, who died several months later, on Christmas, 1950.

The first numbered section sketches in a new theme: the speaker as Osiris, the Egyptian god who was murdered and dismembered, his limbs scattered over the Nile river. Osiris’s mother, Nut, is the night sky, whose breasts are the stars. His sister, Isis, gathers up the limbs and brings her brother-husband back to life. The poet, however, looks up into the night sky and cannot organize his perceptions to see the form of a god overhead. He is fractured within and cannot sort out the meaning of his own surroundings or his experience. Like Osiris, he is dismembered body from soul in his grief.

In section 2, Olson’s major theme emerges: the role of imagination as builder of forms out of the fragments of nature and lived experience. The snowy grounds of the fort are a vast array of unassorted particles that he must shape and invest with understanding. After the first stanza, the language is indented to suggest a deepening thought process, as the poet asks himself directly how he will regain control of his emotions and overcome his grief. He feels that he must do so without the aid of his figurative sister, Isis.

Section 3 goes to the heart of the problem by asking, “Who am I?” He notes that the “scene” before him is organized by its own inherent principle; all but himself seems to participate in natural form. Only he is isolated, set apart from the form nature assumes in any landscape. The word “abstract” comes to him in this passage and suggests not only the root meaning of things dragged from their context, but the human tendency to remove the self from its surroundings, to contemplate its own subjectivity in isolation of other events and influences. One must take a “fix,” or reading of the self within the natural landscape, he argues, to enter the order of natural events and to take one’s place among them.

The second half of the poem, part II, is divided into two movements. The first, unnumbered, part opens with a phrase from the Inferno: “selva oscura,” or dark wood. Olson, however, puns on the selva to suggest “self,” or dark self. He asserts that the darkness of the self is psychological; all grief comes from within the self and not from the world. Nature is a perfectly ordered system, a paradise in which individual human beings suffer privately from their gross illusions and selfish concerns.

Section 2 formulates the rest of the argument by noting that hell and paradise are functions of human subjectivity, attitudes formed from cultural and psychological factors having little or no bearing on the actual state of the world. Hell is a projection of personal despair that distorts the appearance of the world. Accordingly, he can begin to resolve his despair and confusion by accepting that his remorse is purely subjective, a form of self-grieving. This leads to the final section of the poem in which he remarks that men “are now their own wood,” an image taken from Ezra Pound’s poem “A Pact,” in which Pound pays homage to the poet Walt Whitman by acknowledging him as having cleared a path through the American wilderness, and that the fallen trees may now be carved, shaped by the poets who follow. The “wood” in Olson’s poem is also figurative, a material of mind and imagination to be “wrought, to be shaped, to be carved, for use, for/ others.”

The speaker overcomes his remorse after having reasoned that his depair is a product of selfish emotions and that the “world” remains the same despite an individual’s personal mood or attitude. The way forward is to recognize that emotion is a vague generality and that reality is always a tissue of detailed and precise elements woven together in a pattern enclosing the world. Thus death has its place, even his mother’s coming death and the son’s anticipatory grief; they are not isolated events but part of the unity of nature. The speaker can now move again and begin his further pilgrimage through the “wilderness” toward greater understanding of the unity of life. The reader is again reminded of Dante’s The Divine Comedy as the speaker moves out of the field to the next stage of his journey: The way forward out of hell is toward purgatory, and finally, into paradise.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

Olson is skillful in balancing his use of images in the poem. On the one hand, the fort mentioned in the second stanza of the poem is literal, identified by a number of facts about its location and structure on the landscape; but almost immediately after, the description of the setting widens into allegory, characterizing the scene as “unclear,” a “hell.” The landscape on which the figure meditates is both exterior and interior at once, an actual place and a metaphorical setting in which the speaker explores his own inner psychological terrain. The language moves back and forth between the two poles of reference and sustains the dual nature of the setting throughout the poem.

The thicket mentioned in section 3 of the first half of the poem is simultaneously the trees on the battlefield and the state of the poet’s own consciousness as he looks out over the setting. The black branches in the winter sky are like nerves “laid open”; they strike the poet and generate the words that form his language in the poem, line by line. Thus, each image of the poem is the result of an impinging datum from the surrounding fields; the poet stands mutely in the center of a landscape that acts upon him detail by detail, which he then composes as language in the poem. The poem, therefore, is the reenactment of the scene. Somewhere in the abstract ordering of the words is the ghost of the actual trees and their wiry branches, “these black and silvered knivings.”

It is this device of turning each objective item into its subjective equilavent that makes the poem a meditation. The word itself describes that act of internalizing an object until it fills the mind with its influences. The restless self-exploring that goes on in the poem worries each datum until it is elevated to a complex psychological issue, as in the final resolution of the poem in part II, stanza 2, where even the field becomes a “choice,” a “prayer.”


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 93

Bollobás, Eniko. Charles Olson. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Cech, John. Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg: A Portrait of a Friendship. Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1982.

Maud, Ralph. Charles Olson’s Reading: A Biography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Olson, Charles, and Cid Corman. Charles Olson and Cid Corman: Complete Correspondence, 1950-1964. Edited by George Evans. 2 vols. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1987.

Rifkin, Libbie. Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

Rumaker, Michael. Black Mountain Days. Asheville, N.C.: Black Mountain Press, 2003.