The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

“The K” is a lyric poem of twenty-six lines written in free verse. It interprets the letter K as a physical symbol of the fully realized human being who, in harmony with the moon’s gravitational force, moves beyond conventional limitations conditioned by Western civilization and bridges the gap between the subjective and the objective and between the self and the natural realm of total reality.

The escape from the partitioning of reality characteristic of the modern Western mind to the attainment of a wholeness of being marked the principal aim of Charles Olson’s art and thought. As he stated about ultimate human aspirations in The Special View of History (1956), “each one of us has the desire for the good (Love), we move to beauty (Aphrodite), we care for the Real (Truth or Idea), and we have to do something about it, whatever we do (we Will).” Poetry is meant to assist humanity in the process of such self-realization by reimagining the world, reorienting readers, and thereby dissolving the separation between the delimited self and the outer, total reality.

The poem begins with an energetic and upbeat interpretation of “The K” as, literally, an alphabetical symbol of the “tumescent I” that is the fully realized self in harmony with the external natural force of the moon acting on the tidal energies and potentialities of a human being. The upward linear stroke of the letter K represents the flowing out of the self in response to the moon’s gravitational pull. The K’s downward linear stroke signifies the ebbing of the self under relaxation of the lunar force. The “tumescent I” is a vital, ever-expanding and contracting flowering of one’s identity.

Such self-actualization is a revolutionary new goal for humanity (“The affairs of men remain a chief concern”). Reaching the goal brings harmony (“We have come full circle”) and promises a millennial victory for the liberation of the self, provided one transcends boundaries, such as delimiting gender identity (“the fatal male small span”), and integrates opposites, like male and female, into a wholeness of being (“I shall not see the year 2000/ unless I stem straight from my father’s mother”). If that integration is humanity’s fate (“what the tarot pack proposed”), then the speaker will sing a fitting song integrating opposites: He sings “as she” does and weds silence and sound in “one unheard liturgy.”

Self-actualization is not a prophecy for the future: It is happening now, as inner tidal energies inherently reach out to bond with the lunar-driven forces of the outer natural world. Such harmony of being (“Full circle”) is attainable. Therefore, discard the delimiting culture of Western civilization, and end all rule-mongering derived from Roman, Greek, and Christian systems of thought. Put a stop to “romans” (meaning “Romans” as well as restrictive conventions signified by “roman types, letters, and print”). Rid the world of “hippocrats” (the conflation of “hypocrites” and of “Hippocratic” followers of stifling Western codes embodied in the medical oath). Finally, go beyond the stifling Western creed of “christians” imitating (“ecco” for “echo”) their misery-loving Christ crucified (“Ecce homo!” for “Behold the man!”)

Genuine self-realization requires rejecting the lessons of the civilized past and pursuing a “simpler” route to oneness with the natural world’s lunar forces (“The salts and minerals of the earth return”). The speaker’s final advice is for humanity to embrace the moon, its shadows and its night, as the way of reaching wholeness of being (“a bridge, a horse”) and as the way of ending (“the gun, a grave”) the old conventional life of the circumscribed self of society’s making.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382

“The K” has an exuberantly affirmative mood that bears comparison with the hortatory tone of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855) and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885; Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896).

Olson’s poetry was directly influenced by the poetic techniques of Ezra Pound. Pound had helped spearhead the modernist revolution in early twentieth century poetry of the Western world, and Olson was perhaps the most prominent, if critical, follower of the methods practiced in Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1917-1970). Both men shared an abhorrence of vague abstractions (Olson considered them the major obstacle preventing the attainment of a 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—to achieve a complex suggestiveness of meaning with an absolute economy of language (for example, “Assume I shall not” or “Our attention is simpler”). Both had a flair for neologism and created new words out of familiar ones. Olson invents “hippocrats” by conflating “hypocrites” and adherents to “Hippocratic” oaths, and he invents “ecco” by conflating the verb “to echo” in English with the Latin adverb “ecce” as in the phrase “ecce homo!” or “behold the crucified Christ!” in the Gospel passage.

Both Pound and Olson indulged heavily in allusions to literary and historical figures and events to lend a mythic richness and universality of meaning to their poems (for example, Olson’s “romans, hippocrats and christians” and “the cross/ ecco men and dull copernican sun”).

Olson imitated Pound’s penchant for 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). Hence, Olson’s poem focuses on the letter K to signify the gravitational ebb and flow of the fulfilled human spirit (the “tumescent I”) in harmony with the lunar force of nature. Word signs of moving toward integration (“a bridge, a horse”) and of ending old habits (“the gun, a grave”) conclude the poem.

The major symbol of the poem is the moon. With its gravitational effect on tides, it is used to express the harmony between the self and the totality of the natural world of being and becoming.


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Last Updated on May 9, 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.

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