Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634

Parallel to his abandonment of syntax was Olson’s rejection of what he called flowing narrative, or stories which carry the reader along and allow an effortless merging with an apparently natural flow of events. “Experience,” he wrote,like matter, is discontinuous, and the act of writing is the act of object....

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Parallel to his abandonment of syntax was Olson’s rejection of what he called flowing narrative, or stories which carry the reader along and allow an effortless merging with an apparently natural flow of events. “Experience,” he wrote,like matter, is discontinuous, and the act of writing is the act of object. It is an essential act, to align experience, and by words alone to create such space around the words that they become a thing as solid in the mind, or the ear, as a stone or cowslip in the hand.

Instead, he sought what he called a narrative of resistance, in which each poetic object stands separate from those around it, without being linked into some systematized narrative that creates a false hierarchy of events by forcing them to bend to the necessities of the narrative structure. Events should be presented with equal emphasis throughout, not highlighted or glossed over according to the whims of the story line; however, flowing narrative has such a strong hold on the imagination that it proves difficult to represent experience in its actual discontinuity.

Indeed, Olson realized that in the first volume of The Maximus Poems he had fallen into the trap. He had attempted to create a flowing narrative from the myriad events recorded of Gloucester’s history. The attempt to center the later development of Gloucester on a battle over a fishing stage discounted the innumerable hidden events, those that went unnoted in historical accounts but had as much influence upon Gloucester as the more notable events. One sees him fighting against the hold of flowing narrative in his dredging up of oral history—stories told by old sailors in “1st Letter on Georges” and “[2nd Letter on Georges]”—and in his pacing off of the property lines around Gloucester (“Letter, May 2, 1959”), attempting to uncover the crucial, unrecorded struggles for power.

In Maximus IV, V, VI, he succeeds in throwing off the fixated search for a flowing narrative, which accounts for much of the apparent difficulty of the volume. In the opening poem, he leaps from the security of his porch into a blizzard. The last word, left dangling, is Gondwana, the name of the massive continent that eventually broke up to form the smaller continents in existence today. The idea, then, of rifts, divisions between the various contents and objects of his poem, is immediately presented; it is picked up throughout the volume, as in the poem composed of the two words tesserae/commisure. Tesserae are the pieces of stone or glass used in making a mosaic. Commisure refers to the seam or juncture at which two things are joined. Similarly, the poems of this volume are separate objects which, though placed side by side, remain discrete. The emphasis is on the seam, not seamlessness. Nevertheless, things do fit together, as is suggested in the poem beginning “All night long,” though the work of joining is a sleeping act, performed in the unconscious. As with tesserae, the poems can fit together to create many different patterns.

One such pattern might be made from the references to mapping, as in the poem beginning “Peloria the dog’s upper lip,” with its avowel that the poet is “making a mappemunde. It is to include my being.” This can be fit to the various conjunctions of body parts with places in Gloucester as well as to the mythological references to the earth to create a sense of what such a world map might comprise. Although it is important to realize that not all interpretations will fit, it is perhaps more important to refrain from all-embracing interpretations. The former merely demonstrate poor seeing, the latter, blindness—not simply to The Maximus Poems but very likely to that which they, in their complexity, strive to imitate—life itself.

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