(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The first volume of what eventually became a three-volume, six-hundred-page poem was called The Maximus Poems. It was published by the Jargon Society, a press which had been created by poet (and former student of Olson) Jonathan Williams. The keys to an understanding of the entire Maximus project are the specific maps that Olson placed on the covers of the first two volumes. A U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey map of Gloucester, Massachusetts, appears on the cover of the first volume, immediately grounding the reader in the specific geography of the place where Olson spent his childhood summers and was to live the last ten years of his life.

Olson’s major models for The Maximus Poems were Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Pound’s Cantos, and (especially) Williams’s Paterson. Williams’s poem was an unequivocal reaction to the gloomy abstractions of Eliot’s apocalyptic The Waste Land, which lamented, by means of literary fragments, the fractured consciousness of a European civilization that had lost its religious center. Williams proposed his own hometown, Paterson, New Jersey, as the subject of his epic poem, insisting that an authentic American poet, following the lead of Whitman, must begin with an activation of the energies of the local. Olson thoroughly agreed, and though both poets admired Pound’s Cantos, they found them, Williams said, “too perversely individual to achieve the universal understanding required.”

Williams, however, envisioned the American epic as a kind of newspaper: “It must be a concise sharpshooting epic style. Machine gun style. Facts, facts, facts, tearing into us to blast away our stinking flesh of news. Bullets.” Nothing could describe Olson’s style more precisely than Williams’s words. If the theme of much of Olson’s poetry in The Distances concerns what Heraclitus described as “man’s estrangement from that with which he is most familiar”—his own body—then The Maximus Poems, by the sheer weight of its geographical and historical information, puts one back into contact with one’s origins: nature as manifested...

(The entire section is 886 words.)