Concerning Exaggeration, or How, Properly, to Heap Up

by Charles Olson
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715

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“Concerning Exaggeration, or How, Properly, to Heap Up” is a long poem of one hundred lines describing the ideal poet and the fully realized human being, both of whom reject conventional limitations for identification with the totality of reality through exaggeration (literally, from the Latin root, “to heap up”), requiring a movement of the self into a reimagined world of fulfilling possibilities.

Written in 1951, the poem first appeared in In Cold Hell, in Thicket, edited by a poetic disciple, Robert Creeley, in 1953. The volume was the only book of short poems to be completed when Charles Olson was rector of Black Mountain College, an experimental alternative to conventional colleges, located in North Carolina. Both Black Mountain College and this collection of poems were intended as antidotes to the status quo in modern Western literature and culture, and the poems established Olson as a new force in American poetry.

In part 1, the speaker advises circumspection (meaning both “caution” and “a fully rounded perspective”) regarding conventional notions of “blood” (restricted social perceptions of one’s inherited identity). The advice is that people must all take a revolutionary look at all their “economies” and conventional systems and assumptions. The speaker then makes a major affirmation; namely, that he is more than the restricted, detached, or conventional self conditioned by society; he is everything, feels and affects everything, and expresses (or poetically sings) everything, be it wild or indifferent (lines 1 through 9).

Part 2 focuses on “How, Properly, to Heap Up”—in other words, how the speaker and the reader can best create such oneness with the totality of reality through conjuring up epic exaggeration in Greco-Roman, Hebraic, and other cultural myths of birth and engendering, as in the cases of Venus (“She/ came out of a wave”), Agamemnon (“who came back from the war to find his double,” Aegisthus), and other legendary personages. The mythological figures in this section all suggest a reaching out (their “heaping up”) beyond the individual self into a plethora of complex, even if grotesque, familial relationships. As such, they are mythic role models for human identification with a whole universe of becoming, yet they are no more fantastic (“No wonders”) than the setting sun that in its descent touches everything, from tree branch to earth root (lines 10 through 37).

Part 3 changes the focus from blood and birth to the head and celebrates a mythic hero of the mind, a leader rendered all the more powerful from his union (his “heaping up”) with a hawk whose wings encircle “the sides of his head.” This role model had appeared in a dream that had generated exaggerations or fancies in the mind of the speaker, who thereby moved out of the self (his “heaping up”) into a universe of possibility, becoming a “horse on both sides of a river” fondled by others, “each on each side.” There is more self-aggrandizement in a charade converting a single individual into “two of us” in the united form of a “centaur.” Such is the process of reorienting the self and reimagining the world (“And I twist,/ in the early morning, asking/ where/ does it stop”) in order to enter the totality of reality (lines 38-57).

Part 4 begins with a statement of Olson’s literary and philosophical creed. The totality of reality and its infinity of possibilities transcend the bounds of conventional realism that pigeonholes one’s identity and perception of things. To apprehend infinity within the moment requires a receptivity within one that is as all-inclusive as reality is. One must exaggerate and “heap up” beyond the self. People must become living metaphors, creating vital bridges between their selves and the otherness of existence. Such living metaphors are the liberating movement of selves into a universe of multiple possibilities (“than as fabulous as to move”) and express human achievement of an integration with total reality worthy of the Hindu goddess Shiva, who unites the opposites of destruction and creation (“he who is presented with her answer is/ that answer”). The poem closes as it began, with a call for circumspection (an all-encompassing perspective on things) and with a warning against restricted notions of “blood” that delimit one’s identity, whose very symbol of imprisonment appears in the typography of the last three lines:

(was what he said,at that point ofhis time).

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 333

“Concerning Exaggeration, or How, Properly, to Heap Up” is an experimental lyric poem divided into four parts and written in free verse. Its form was directly influenced by the poetic techniques of Ezra Pound. Pound helped to spearhead a modernist revolution in early twentieth century poetry of the Western world, and Olson was perhaps the most prominent, if not uncritical, follower of the methods practiced in Pound’s Cantos (1917-1970). Both men shared an abhorrence of vague abstractions, with Olson going so far as to consider the generalizing tendency of the modern mind to be the major obstacle preventing the achievement of fulfilling totality of being.

Both poets strove for the exact word (le mot juste) and the precise image and discarded discursive poetic statement. Both favored intense compression and ellipsis—the deletion of all unnecessary words (“All, is of the matter”)—to achieve a complex suggestiveness of meaning and a mythic resonance with an absolute economy of language.

They both indulged in maximum allusiveness by references to both Eastern and Western literary and historical figures and events to lend mythic richness and universality of significance to their poems. Olson, for example, piled on cryptic references to legendary figures serving as role models for a human totality of being in this poem, especially in parts 2 (lines 10 to 17 and 22 to 37), 3 (lines 38 to 45), and 4 (lines 72 to 87).

Finally, Olson imitated Pound’s penchant for exploiting the literal and pictorial character of words that reached its zenith with the use of ideograms (word signs capturing a physical actuality in place of detested abstractions). Olson’s poem literalizes words such as “exaggeration” and “circumspection” for a dramatic communication of his philosophy of experiencing the totality of reality. The poem does not merely represent but at times also presents meaning, as in the series of metaphors and similes (lines 72 through 87) expressing self-realization in the living act of metaphor (lines 68 through 71). Similarly, the concluding three lines constitute an ideogram picturing the circumscribed identity trapped in delimiting notions of conventional thought.


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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 93

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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.