Concerning Exaggeration, or How, Properly, to Heap Up Analysis

Charles Olson

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 715 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.