Why is Olson's "The Kingfishers" considered an experiment in language and visual effect?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Since Olson’s poem is famously difficult and puzzling, and since I claim no great knowledge of the work, I thought it might be helpful to you if I simply reported what a few students of the poem have said about its language and visual design.

Charles Bernstein, for instance, writes that a

stirring, iconic voice rises up in this poem, one phrase tumbling upon the next, hectoring, charged, bursting through the dead silence and complacency often associated with [a] proto Cold War moment in U.S. history.

Bernstein thinks that the language of the poem challenges the conformist attitudes of the time. According to Bernstein,

The poem is a bracing test of nonlinear reading: because it quickly loses the reader trying diligently to “follow,”

so that its language demands multiple re-readings that never resolve into absolute clarity, at least in Bernstein’s view.

Thomas F. Merrill notes that the poem has been read both as a polemic (against the kind of poetry written by T. S. Eliot) and as a parody (also of Eliot’s verse), although Merrill himself suggests that both of these approaches to the language of the poem are inadequate. Merrill himself, however, offers such a very detailed reading of the poem that it would be difficult to summarize it here.

Daniel Belgrad, who considers “The Kingfishers” to be a “dialogic poem,” argues that the work is a

chain of associations that progresses into the past. The narrator thinks back after a moment of awakening from a troubled night.

Stephen Fredman notes that the poem

consists of many short poetic units, whose continuity with one another can be hard to detect. (http://tinyurl.com/3vvpsy4
[Open in new window])

Meanwhile, Edward Halsey Foster suggests that the poem is indebted, in its shapes, both to ideograms and to the process of making collages,

which bring seemingly unrelated material into a new resolution.  http://tinyurl.com/3hxwbhb
[Open in new window]

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial