The Maximus Poems, IV, V, VI Summary
by Charles Olson

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The Maximus Poems, IV, V, VI Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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The key to this second volume of The Maximus Poems, sometimes called Maximus II, is the map that Olson placed on the cover. It is a map of Gondwanaland, the name by which many geographers call the primordial or unified continent that existed before, as Olson put it, “Earth started to come apart at the seams, some 125 million years awhile back and India took off from Africa & migrated to Asia.” In this volume, Olson continues to probe the specific historical information of Gloucester but also moves inland to explore the history and origins of a section of Gloucester called Dogtown. Working, however, in an “open field” forced Olson to delve even more deeply into what preceded history, and he found himself confronting the nature and function of prehistorical forms of consciousness called myth. Much of this volume examines systems of mythic consciousness and attempts to understand how myths are encoded with essential human information and become permanent forms of human experience. Olson, an avowed believer in the theories of Jung, also viewed myths as archetypes of the collective unconscious.

Olson’s advice to Edward Dorn to “exhaust” or “saturate” one place until he knew more about it than anyone else ever could became Olson’s directive to himself in his years of examining Gloucester. It also, however, necessitated a rearrangement of the rest of the world in the light of what he learned about his origins. Immediately after declaring that his memory is “the history of time” in The Maximus Poems IV, V, VI he locates another, more onerous task: “I am making a mappemunde [a map of the world]. It is to include my being.” Such an obligation demanded that Olson explore not only history and myth but also other associated subfields such as archaeology, paleontology, geography, geology, and anthropology.

What The Maximus Poems, IV, V, VI became, then, was a recapitulation of the origin and development of human consciousness, a task so demanding that the structure of the poem almost collapses beneath the burden. Few literary conventions are observed as the language becomes more dense and private. Transitions between sections are either nonexistent or so personal that understanding it is impossible. The influence of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality (1929) is evident throughout, particularly in the in-process appearance of many of the poems. Olson suggested that the arrangement of the material was closer to that of a mosaic taking shape than to any kind of finished narrative product.

Many of the earlier characteristics of the fictive voice of Maximus are missing from this volume because Olson, following his own advice in “Projective Verse,”removed “the lyrical interference of the individual as ego.” This volume can be viewed as a prime example of what he called “objectism,” as his control and arrangement of the mythological, historical, and geographical data are virtually undetectable. The “facts” do, indeed, “speak for themselves,” and the structure suffers accordingly. What Olson was rigorously trying to avoid, however, was the appearance of any kind of tidy synthesis of myth and history, such as that which Joseph Campbell proposed in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Olson adamantly opposed any synthesizing structure that even remotely resembled an imaginative or fictive arrangement of “facts.” Although he read and heavily annotated all of the fourteen volumes of Jung’s works in his personal library, Olson refused to impose any kind of limiting interpretive structure on the materials of history and was much closer to the structuralism of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss than to Campbell’s Jungian archetypes.

Olson defined an American as “a complex of occasions,/ themselves a geometry/ of spatial nature” and added that this definition explained his feeling of oneness with the world: “I have this sense,/ that I am one/ with my skin.” He kept coming back to the geographical, the local, and feared involvement with intellectual classifications of any kind. His grounding in Gloucester became a position from which he could measure the world.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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.