The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As with other poems Charles Olson wrote in the 1950’s, “As the Dead Prey Upon Us” is composed in open form using a variety of stanza patterns, from long strophelike paragraphs to short, lumpy passages dense with imagery. Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay, published in 1950, sets forth his strategies for writing poetry, which include the use of the typewriter as an instrument for designing how a poem is to be read as well as for picturing the precise patterns in which a poet’s ideas form and fuse together into lyric language. Thus, a “projective” poem should be read as an arrangement of language in which the mental processes of conceiving and composing poetry are reenacted. “Closed form,” Olson argued in his essay, smoothed away the precise details of thinking in poetry and manufactured a generalizing, abstract mode in which all the details of imaginative articulation are lumped together and given an overriding and uniform rhythm of speech.

“As the Dead Prey Upon Us” begins with the perception that the ghosts who haunt humans represent those parts of people that have not had the chance to live fully. The ghost may signify a repressed or constrained part of someone’s personality or an unresolved conflict nagging at the back of the mind. Hence, when the speaker complains that his mother’s death continues to haunt him, he begins by observing that the dead are unacknowledged facts of self. One is free of them only when one has confronted each of them and given them their freedom, that is, allowed them to enter consciousness and to find their relation within the rest of one’s awareness. These repressed events or memories are “the sleeping ones,” and the speaker bids them to awake and thus to “disentangle from the nets of being!”

The poem is divided into two sprawling sequences of unnumbered stanzas, although only the second section bears a Roman numeral, II. Usually, Olson will mark off the segments of discourse in a poem according to a simple pattern. Part 1 of a long lyric sequence sets up the conditions in which a thinking process will ensue, in which a variety of isolated elements taken from different sources in experience, including dreams, are carefully sifted and their internal relations worked out. Once this operation is complete, a second section or part begins with a richer, more figurative proposition that sets out to interpret what the first part has “assembled.” The second discourse thus synthesizes, imagines, and philosophically investigates the “formal” construct, a process in which the new form is woven into the context of other...

(The entire section is 1066 words.)