The Maximus Poems

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

ph_0111226286-Olson.jpg Charles Olson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

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The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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...

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Forms and Devices

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.