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...

(The entire section is 1568 words.)