The Maximus Poems

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1568

Following the chronology of the original publication of The Maximus Poems, George F. Butterick, the editor of this meticulous, updated text, arranges the book in the following sections: The Maximus Poems (1960; 1970); Maximus Poems IV, V, VI (1968); The Maximus Poems: Volume Three (1975). The seemingly inclusive nature of...

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Following the chronology of the original publication of The Maximus Poems, George F. Butterick, the editor of this meticulous, updated text, arranges the book in the following sections: The Maximus Poems (1960; 1970); Maximus Poems IV, V, VI (1968); The Maximus Poems: Volume Three (1975). The seemingly inclusive nature of the title of the first section, and the seemingly backward placing of the second and third sections with respect to the numbers affixed to them, and the fact that Roman numerals are used for the second section and the number for the third section is spelled out in English all point out several major features of Charles Olson’s work. One of these is the poet’s idea that a local “fact” such as Gloucester, Massachusetts, and a person’s actual physical and mental presence in such a locale are analogous to each other and to the geological movements and human explorations that precede them. Because of this inclusiveness based on the exclusive, as it were, geography and the enterprises of individuals share a mythological status with each other which the poet highlights through an intensely personalized reckoning of it.

In Olson’s case, this reckoning is called “projective verse”; calling on the energetic repetitions of Walt Whitman’s poetry, on the abrupt shifts of tone and time in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos (1972), and on the detailed attention to locale in William Carlos Williams’ Paterson (1946-1958), Olson’s prosody mimics the formats of documents (which relate to the founding of his ongoing subject, Gloucester), sets ancient and modern times side by side (as well as factual, scholarly, and idiomatic tones of voice), and presents through “Letters,” dated poem-notations, and idiosyncratic typographical placements, as well as through subjective line breaks and open parentheses, a kind of unpremeditated collage of the mundane and exotic data of Gloucester’s and his own experience.

The concerns of the first section return repeatedly in the other two, with new dimensions added by the introduction of new emphases and angles. As his prosody accounts for one of the major features of his work (making it an almost haphazard but intense narrative, down to the look provided by its use of print and spacing), Olson’s concerns account for the other major feature of it—its inclusiveness. One of these concerns is inclusiveness itself, as Olson insists that human history in general is the history of any individual: “a man’s life/ . . . is what there is/ that tradition is.” History, that is, as patterns of action that can be traced through time, can be defined by looking at particular persons in their relationship to a particular place at any given time (such as the fishermen who founded Gloucester, or the fishermen who came there after them, or Olson himself growing up and writing poems in Gloucester). The past and the present include each other in human and even geological time (to Olson, 300,000,000 years ago is “just last week”). Gloucester itself is a showcase of the geological upheavals (moraines) common to the time when present-day continents split from larger land masses, of the ocean (“Okeanos”) and rivers that cause and structure the restlessness of man, and of the “polis” which, identical with coastal cities before and after Tyre, is a collection of richly different individuals obeying the urge to begin again, to settle, and to pass on their names.

Olson’s moral outlook is another concern that reappears throughout The Maximus Poems. This outlook is embedded in his view of poetry and of human behavior in general. Elaborating on William Carlos Williams’ notion of “no ideas but in things,” Olson links his poetry as close as possible to the particular: “Names” (or nouns) should be “objects” and “verbs” should be “actions”; the “song” should “lie/ in the thing itself”; the poem should be a report “in the midst of/ the deeds.” This fidelity to the basic is the essence of freedom and virtue for Olson, and he contrasts it repeatedly to that human selfishness which is the source of slavery and profit-seeking, which have corrupted the politics of Gloucester and the nation and weakened the daring of their people. A true “fisherman”—Olson’s hero—eschews the success prized by manipulators of money and the fame and “power” that go with manipulating people, for these are things “damned by God.” The kind of cruel capitalism that Olson envisions is practiced by those who have forgotten that “hands are put to the eyes’ commands” and “who use words cheap”: “Let them,” he says, “not talk of what is good for the city.” Indeed, it angers Olson that “wondership” has been “stolen by,/ ownership,” that “that which matters . . . which insists . . . which will last” has been obscured by “billboards” and “spray-gunned,” and that the natural ties of fairness (including barter), physical work (such as fishing and voyaging), and mutual regard have been replaced by merely commercial ties. Such unnatural ties are incapable of nourishing the individuality and variety, moreover, which Olson esteems.

The bonds which safeguard the unique and various lead Olson to consider the structure of unity. In Maximus Poems IV, V, VI, he names this structure the ocean, which “steers all things through all things,” and he says, “everything issues from the one.” The eternal is an aspect of this oneness in that the end and beginning of things are entwined. The factor which Olson finds crucial in oneness, however, is its intensity. There seems to be a positive and negative side to this intensity: The positive side is fecundity, and the negative side is destruction. Both, because they partake of the one, are joined. Olson’s major image for this partnership within intensity is a sector of Gloucester called Dogtown. Sex, as mythological metaphor and as fact, defines the fecund, and Dogtown is a setting for it. This place is shown “trickling life from underground rock,” and when it became a settlement, “fishermen” came there “to whore/ on Saturday nights.” “Mother Dogtown,” Olson calls it, inundated from the bottom up by “Father Sea.” Dogtown is also often a focus for Olson’s description of key expressions of human fecundity: marriage and the careful measurement of property—the latter for the sake of maintaining progeny, not for the sake of hoarding.

Creation—which seems to be the same to Olson in the forms of procreation, exploration, physical work, and poetry—contends with the entropy (or “holes”) which is part of it and has its own, if lesser, intensity. The “Dog” in Dogtown joins the image of the canine and the allusion to “Tartaros” which Olson uses to discuss the destructive side of intensity. He associates dogs with ghosts or the dead, with an old tribe of plundering Indians (the “Tarentines”), with rubbish and fire alarms. “It is Hell’s mouth/ where Dogtown ends,” he says, and in The Maximus Poems: Volume Three, “demon,” “wolf,” and “canine” are synonymous with the collapse active inside life, with the corruption which “lives unknown// in the son.” The “Dog of Tartarus” is also the “Guards of Tartarus/ Finks of the Bosses. War Makers.” (Note “Tartarus” instead of “Tartaros” here—the Latin for the Greek ending—as an example of Olson’s flair for interchanging things to point out their unity and difference at the same time.)

Death, of which the human drift into self-loathing and selfish disunity is a feature, acquires a personal focus in The Maximus Poems: Volume Three. On the one hand, Olson feels half dead without a lover—as incomplete, as he puts it, as a barrel hoop without staves—and on the other hand, he confesses that “We did—/ . . . Death and myself, regard each other.” The sense of time running out for the poet is underscored in this section by the dates (and sometimes the times of day) affixed to many of the poems, the last being “Thursday September 11th ’LXIX” (Olson died in 1970). The premonition of personal death, coupled with his elaborate references to Tartaros, suggests that Olson is going through his own Inferno or Hades, just as his reference to the “Sun” (the source of “The Real,” by which Olson seems to mean energy as a provident function of life) and to the “Rose” (which is what he alludes to when he says, “the World, the Vision/ is the face of God,”) suggest that he has in mind his own version of Dante’s Paradiso at the end of his journey. In line with this optimism, Olson goes so far as to say that “the heaven of intelligence” requires a “soul” in matter, and to prophesy an ideal time when each man will hold natural converse with himself and with other men, and when the Earth will become its own sun. Olson’s mythological image for the likelihood of such a dream coming true is Enyalion, who, baring himself to his own soldiers and submitting himself to “the command”// of any woman who goes by,” symbolizes “the law of possibility.” Enyalion is, in short, a model for Olson himself, an explorer who would be open and daring rather than devious and cautious.

What Olson has tried to do with his epiclike, largely spontaneous, and richly inclusive narrative The Maximus Poems is to invent a verbal map projection of the Earth’s surface and energies beyond the distortions of the Mercator projection and beyond the limitations—one might even say the cowardliness—of geology, economics, and record-keeping as sciences.

The Poem

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The Maximus Poems, comprising more than six hundred pages of free verse, was written between the years 1950 and 1969, the last entry being composed less than two months before Charles Olson’s death. During this time, Olson published various parts as works in progress. The first ten poems, for example, were printed in 1953, and the next twelve in 1956. These twenty-two poems were combined with another sixteen to make up the first volume of the Maximus sequence, The Maximus Poems. By 1963, Olson had completed Maximus Poems IV, V, VI, although they were not published until 1968. By explicitly dividing this second volume into three books, Olson implied, after the fact, that the first volume should be considered similarly divided. The final volume, published posthumously, was compiled from the disordered mass of Olson’s papers by Charles Boer and George Butterick. This last volume, though not divided into books, can be considered, as Olson himself put it, “Books VII and After.”

Because of the wide scope of Olson’s attention and his constant shifts of focus, reading The Maximus Poems can prove to be a frustrating experience to a student accustomed to more conventionally “meaningful” poetry. The Maximus Poems seem to provide little footing for interpretation; as soon as the reader thinks he or she has latched onto a piece of something, immediately the poem launches in a new direction, and the reader loses balance again. (To the reader approaching the work for the first time, A Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, 1978, by George F. Butterick is helpful; Butterick provides a footnote to virtually every reference, obscure and not so obscure, that Olson makes.)

The Maximus of the title was a philosopher of the second century A.D. who lived in Tyre, an ancient city which, in being a major port, parallels the Gloucester, Massachusetts, of Olson’s poem. Tyre was also one of the few cities that resisted Alexander the Great’s unification of what was then the known world into one state. Olson begins by assuming the persona of Maximus in the title of the first poem: “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You.” Assuming this bardic voice (in the tradition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), Olson/Maximus begins addressing the people of Gloucester. The persona of Maximus of Tyre emblematizes one of Olson’s principal concerns: that the citizens of Gloucester resist the homogenizing influences of the state and of commercialization and remain true to the particular concerns of their own community with its particular locale.

Many of the poems in The Maximus Poems, especially in volume 1, take the form of letters addressed to Gloucester and are often explicitly indicated as such (as in “Letter 3” or “Letter, May 2, 1959”). As the work grows, the epistles become infrequent, replaced by meditations on subjects ranging from poetics to Gloucester history. In volume 2, fragments of one or two lines appear—quick insights into various meaningful connections within the material thus far arranged. Maximus begins The Maximus Poems by chiding the citizens of Gloucester for giving in to the forces of commercialization and by comparing the work upon which he is about to embark to the building of a nest, a kind of protective wall built from discarded fragments. Much of the rest of the first book is directed at Vincent Ferrini, a friend of Olson and the editor of Four Winds, a local literary quarterly. Maximus criticizes Ferrini for publishing poetry espousing abstract idealizations rather than focusing on the particularities of Gloucester. Had Ferrini done the latter, he would have brought forth literature from the Gloucester locale as the fishermen bring forth fish from its shoals.

With “Letter 10,” the last of the first book, Maximus begins the excavation of historical detail that will occupy him throughout the rest of the poems. One of his principal concerns is to determine that Gloucester was first a fishing village, founded upon an interaction between its settlers and its environs, rather than a Pilgrim settlement established with an abstract purpose in mind. In “Letter 23,” he suggests that the establishment of Gloucester was part of the fight against mercantilism and the Chambers of Commerce, the attempt of a community to live naturally in its locale, “merely sowing,/ reaping, building/ houses & out houses,” as he later puts it in the poem “Stiffening, in the Master Founders’ Wills.” Nevertheless, the Gloucester of the 1950’s has fallen. Men such as Nathaniel Bowditch and Stephen Higginson (“Letter 16”) had, in the past, exploited Gloucester for their own ends; others, such as John Burke (“John Burke”) did the same in the twentieth century; now “the Deisels/ shake the sky” (“Letter, May 2, 1959”) and the citizens trivialize the fishermen who have died at sea (“Maximus, to Gloucester, Sunday, July 19”).

In Maximus Poems IV, V, VI, Maximus (Olson) widens his scope to include mythology, geology, and human migration. For example, in “Maximus, From Dogtown—I,” he raises to mythological stature the goring by a bull of a Gloucester sailor named Merry in 1892. In “Maximus Letter Whatever,” he tells the story of a man who acquired a house that he could carry on his head. Principally, the speaker seems intent, especially in book IV, to present as many details as possible, without drawing connections. A fragment from a merchant’s account book, a notation regarding the particular flowers growing at a certain address, entries from an almanac—anything seems to merit inclusion. By the end of the volume, an intricate web of cross-references has been built, which both look back to the first volume and forward to the next, yet no explicit inferences are drawn, as was done in The Maximus Poems.

The final volume, probably because it was not arranged by Olson, lacks both the coherence of the first and the intricate design of the second. The persona of Maximus begins to drop; many poems are signed with the poet’s real name. A personal tone enters more frequently, and there are fewer dazzling intellectual leaps. Often, an undercurrent of grief pervades, from the loss of his wife and from his failure to rewrite the conscience of his beloved city. Because of these factors, this last volume is perhaps more approachable than the previous two.

Forms and Devices

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Charles Olson was a proponent of what he called “projective verse.” Though his twentieth century predecessors had already abandoned fixed meters for the loose flow of free verse, Olson believed that they had not gone far enough; the arbitrary authority of syntax must also be broken. Olson suggested that syntax abstracts words from their essential relation to the objects for which they stand and from their myriad possible relations to one another. In bowing to the rules of syntax, a poet risks falling into the same trap inherent in the use of metrical schemes: trying to make things work out correctly according to arbitrary rules, playing a mere game with the content of his or her poetry instead of attempting to place the represented objects in their true relations to one another.

The first poem provides an excellent example of Olson’s method in the lines “flight/ (of the bird/ o kylix, o/ Antony of Padua/ sweep low, o bless/ the roofs.” Abandoning syntax allows each perception to follow quickly one after another, allowing an increase in vigor and scope similar to the increase that free verse earlier had allowed. Specifically abandoning the ordinary syntax of verb tenses allows a mythologizing of time—an entry into an eternal present—as in the poem “Maximus, from Dogtown—I,” which describes the bull that kills the sailor Merry waiting for Merry to arrive, “not even knowing/ death/ was in his power over/ this man who lay/ in the Sunday morning sun.” The bull waits for Merry, who is yet to arrive, while standing over Merry’s already “fly-blown” body. Finally, sudden shifts in voice, which adherence to syntax makes difficult, become a simple matter of juxtaposition. Widely varying material—historical, mythological, scientific data—can all be brought into immediate relation with a consequent increase in the layers of significance.

Olson also broke from the use of a justified left margin, not to create a formal arrangement as is found in John Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” but rather to indicate digressions and shifts in thought, as William Carlos Williams had begun to do in Paterson (19461958). Thus, for example, in “Letter 23,” Maximus breaks off in mid-thought with “muthologos has lost such ground since Pindar,” indents, and picks up with a digression concerning Pindar, “the odish man.” Sometimes, as in the poem beginning “I have been an ability” in The Maximus Poems, Volume Three, he abandons the margin altogether and allows the lines to loop and circle about the page. Elsewhere, words spot the page like the names of cities on a map in which the terrain has been excised. Though often his poems look nontraditional and difficult, Olson uses the page as a field with particular effects and suggestions in mind.


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Bollobas, Eniko. Charles Olson. New York: Twayne, 1992. Although this appears at first to be a biographical study, nothing could be further from the truth. This book studies poetic decisions, the most important of which is The Maximus Poems, in relation to Olson’s life.

Book World. XIII, November 13, 1983, p. 7.

Butterick, George F. A Guide to “The Maximus Poems” of Charles Olson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. An indispensable book for anyone who wants to understand the allusions and references in Olson’s long poem. Many of the annotations, which took ten years to write, include arcane material, but they give a view into Olson’s mind.

Choice. XXI, December, 1983, p. 573.

Christian Science Monitor. October 7, 1983, p. 7.

Fredman, Stephen. The Grounding of American Poetry: Charles Olson and the Emersonian Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Fredman analyzes Olson’s focus on the intellect and on thought processes in his poetry, as opposed to the American tradition of emotional and responsive poetry. The Maximus Poems is seen as an abstract, highly intellectual text.

Harper’s. CCLXVII, September, 1983, p. 68.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 4, 1983, p. 9.

Olson, Charles. Maximus to Gloucester: The Letters and Poems of Charles Olson to the Editor of the “Gloucester Daily Times,” 1962-1969. Edited by Peter Anastas. Gloucester, Mass.: Ten Pound Island Book Company, 1992. These letters and poems show how the local was important to Olson, particularly the local as applied to Gloucester politics and day-to-day life. The subjects are small, but the book is an interesting view into the thoughts of Charles Olson.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LX, Winter, 1984, p. 23.

Von Hallberg, Robert. Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978. Von Hallberg, long an Olson scholar, points out Olson’s use of myth and other original contributions to The Maximus Poems. He, too, indicates the importance of thought to Olson’s poetics. This is a good introduction to the complex parts of Olson’s writing.

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