The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 884

“The Kingfishers,” a lyrical meditation on the ruins of an Aztec burial ground, is written in a bold style invented for this poem, which Charles Olson explained shortly after in his essay of 1950, “Projective Verse.” The poem does away with such formalities as rhyme and regular meters, symmetrical stanzas, and the normal pattern of argument in which particulars move toward universals or vice versa. Instead, it proceeds through a succession of widely varying stanzaic units as information is brought into the discourse and a unifying perception is drawn from the array of accumulated facts and ideas.

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The poem opens with a paradox taken from the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus, which states that only change itself is unchanging. Olson’s rendering of the phrase emphasizes the will of change, which gives pretext to what follows. The poem cuts abruptly to a party in its last hour somewhere in Mexico, near the ruins of an Aztec city, perhaps Tenochtitlán, the old Aztec capital that is now Mexico City. A man is addressing a stunned audience of guests with remarks about the deterioration of Mexican culture, the downward path of change toward entropy. “The pool is slime,” he concludes, and disappears into the ruins.

So begins part 1 of a three-part meditation on change and the poet’s responsibility to heed the shiftings of reality in his calling as writer. Part 1, the longest of the sections, is divided into four smaller movements, each with its own set of relations to be worked out. Various principles are at work in the building up of the poem’s content. In the first movement of part 1, the juxtaposition of elements is cinematic, a “jump-cut” technique of butting events together without transition markers.

The second movement combines elements of three different topics, each separate and sequential in the poem’s exposition but increasingly part of some deeper unifying chord tying all three topics together. The E on the stone, the first topic, is an allusion to the description by Plutarch, the second century c.e. Roman writer, of a navel stone (omphalos) found at the temple of Delphi, site of the ancient Greek oracles. The second is snippets of Mao Tse-tung’s speech before the Chinese Communist Party in 1948, on the eve of the revolution that drove out the regime of Chiang Kai-shek from mainland China, bringing to an abrupt end the long hold of Western imperialism there. The third is a technical description of the kingfisher bird, much of which is lifted directly from the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. All three mark points of change in time, with the kingfisher as the principle of unity in change. The ancient E is the last remnant of a great civilization; Mao’s speech is the turning point of another civilization. The bird’s mortal existence transcends the rise and fall of human civilization by means of some other agency of nature, which balances change with structural constancy of form.

The third movement is a commentary on human violence and aggression, in particular the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés in 1517. Olson quotes from William H. Prescott’s History of The Conquest of Mexico (1843), which itemizes some of the loot taken from the temples by Cortés’s army, including two gold embroideries of birds, possibly quetzal birds, whose feathers were important in Aztec mythology and rituals. The Mexican quetzal is equivalent to the kingfisher in Amerindian cultures. “And all now is war,” Olson remarks at the close of the movement, as he draws a line from the Spanish Conquest to the Korean conflict of his own time.

The fourth and final movement of part 1 raises the discussion of change to a principle: Nothing remains the same; everything is driven to the next stage of development or mutation. Change is the pervasive force running throughout nature, yet it cannot be abstracted or directed by human means.

Part 2 is a fugue that combines the information gathered in the opening part. It begins in the middle of a guided tour of an Aztec burial ground that has been partially excavated. The mounds contain the remains of Aztecs who had lived prior to Cortés’s conquest; the figure in the grave recalls the young in the kingfisher’s nest, the first connection. Mao’s exhortation to rise and act is woven in. The discussion points up the frailty and haplessness of human notions of order against the lasting, vital orders of nature. The Mexican guide turns from the ruins to admire a yellow rose, the setting sun, the mystical figure of unity, spirit, and transcendent permanence within a realm of violent upheaval and chaos.

Part 3 is a coda in which the various themes of the poem are resolved in the form of a decision reached by the poet. He renounces the violence and errors of Western tradition, stemming from Greek and Roman civilization, and finds his true heritage among such rebel poets as Arthur Rimbaud, who left his own country to live in the deserts of the Middle East. Olson quotes a passage from Rimbaud’s Une Saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell, 1932), which he translates immediately below, and closes the poem with a similar commitment to renounce Western culture and adopt the New World as his proper heritage.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

One must “look” at an Olson poem as well as read it. Visually, it is an arrangement of words intended to convey the motion of thought itself. The term “projective” literally means to project the thinking process of composition onto paper and to reenact—a strategic term for Olson—the subtle motions of memory and association as they feed into the main discourse of imaginative activity. The poem is therefore “kinetic,” even cinematic in its abrupt shift from scene to scene, in the “framing” that ensues as discourse contracts into a perception or lengthens out into narrative or description. Olson, like many other innovative American poets, based the new prosody of the poem on the techniques of filmmaking and emphasized motility and dramatic shift as the rhetoric of thought and articulation.

As many critics have noted in describing this poem, it is structured as an extended “ideogram,” Ezra Pound’s term for the elemental relations that constitute a poem’s unity and force as language. The many separate parts of the poem are the clustered details that form a single structure of thought, the way a snowflake’s radiations and delicate latticework constitute a single flake of snow. The challenge to the reader is to discern the connections and integrity of these many pieces as they cohere within a single flash of understanding.

Olson’s poem runs the gamut of open forms, from the proselike strophes of the opening section, to the stepped lines showing the rhythm of Mao’s words, to the steep descent of other passages in which the rhythm accelerates. The sprawling shapes of many of the paragraphs are indicators that the thought is labored or resistant, or that it emerges under conflict. It is not until the coda that one sees the resolution of opposites visually projected, the “balance” of the quatrains as they direct the reader to the declaration, “I hunt among stones.”

Stylistically, the poem observes many of the conventions of verse discourse. Certain tropes predominate, especially the image of the kingfisher, which appears in every section of part 1 as its principal motif; another is the sun marking east and west, dawn and sunset, decay and renewal. The language is clean and spare, written in a stately tempo partly achieved through the use of pithy aphorisms and formal parallels, and partly by means of a series of stark assertions in tones ranging from scientific formality to the emotional declaration of his changed allegiance at the end.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, 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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Themes