The Maximus Poems

by Charles Olson
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 886

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.

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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 in the literal ground upon which one stands. Olson was an authentic Romantic in that he believed redemption would come not from some remote, quasi-mystical center but from a proper introduction to nature itself on the most specific level.

Much of this first Maximus volume is organized in the form of letters from a fictive persona which Olson borrowed from ancient Greek literature. Maximus of Tyre was a philosopher and a dialectician who wandered about Mediterranean communities continually lecturing on Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.). The figure is also a version of psychologist Carl Jung’s archetypal “homo maximus” or “greatest man.” Olson begins by identifying himself with the figure of Maximus in the title of the first poem, which is also the first line of the poem: “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to you . . . a metal hot from boiling water, tell you/ what is a lance, who obeys the figures of the present dance.” The reference to the dance is a direct connection with one of the principal metaphors that Williams used throughout Paterson to signify humanity’s total physical and spiritual involvement with the energies of life itself.

Olson, therefore, locates his task in awakening the citizens of Gloucester to the experience of natural life in spite of being cut off from its healing powers: “when all is become billboards, when, all, even silence, is spray-gunned?” Maximus continues to exhort his citizens to take drastic action against the commercialization and modernization of their soil: “o kill kill kill kill kill/ those/ who advertise you/ out.” Much of this first volume laments the loss of traditional local values, beliefs, and practices that are being destroyed by a nation corrupted by blatant materialism. He renames Muzak “mu-sick” and decries the damage done to humankind’s instinctual life: “No eyes or ears left/ to their own doings (all invaded, appropriated, outraged, all senses/ including the mind . . . lulled.”

The Maximus Poems, then, can be viewed as an extended meditation of the ruins of the poet’s own origins by a civilization whose arrogance has blinded it to its obligations to both the physical and spiritual ecology. Much of the remainder of this first volume is a painstaking reconstruction of the actual history of Gloucester, using information from archival documents and early historical sources and juxtaposing its data to reveal the subtexts of greed and power that drove the original European settlers to America. Olson refuses to create fictive structures of “versions” of history and strives more than any other American poet to permit the “facts” to speak for themselves. He wants, as far as possible, an unmediated vision whose primary content consists of historical and anecdotal records and even statistical facts. He demands an empirical myth whose origins and energies are grounded in a specific locale.

Olson’s task is to arrange and organize these unconnected fragments of history in such a way that a continuity between the past and the present will become evident. His readers will, he hopes, learn from the past and improve their future. Olson firmly believed in his redemptive role as a historian when he declaimed: “My memory is/ the history of time,” for without memory, there remains nothing but the disconnected segments of an exhausted civilization that Eliot documented in The Waste Land.

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