The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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)...

(The entire section is 884 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 entire section is 412 words.)


(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.