“I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master . . .” is from The Distances (1960), Charles Olson’s first major collection of poems. Many of the poems in this collection deal with one of Olson’s major themes throughout his writing career; the distance or alienation of human beings from anything that comes between them and their direct experience of reality. Olson’s most beloved quotation was from Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher: “Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar.” That is the major theme of “I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master. . . ” Furthermore, Olson’s greatest inspiration was Ezra Pound, whose early poetry cleansed the English language of empty abstractions. Pound’s dictum “Go in fear of abstractions!” helped formulate the rules for Imagism which, when followed, would give modern poetry the clear, revelatory quality of Chinese and Japanese poetry and art. “Images in verse are not mere decoration, but the very essence of an intuitive language,” asserted one of the other founders of Imagism, T. E. Hulme. Hulme also wrote that the best poetry “endeavors to arrest you, and to make you continuously see a physical thing, to prevent you gliding through an abstract process.”
This poem expresses Olson’s outrage that his old mentor had rejected the very rules that he helped formulate and violated the clarity and simplicity of the venerable Odes of Confucius by reducing them to “coolie verse.” That, for Olson, was a sacrilegious act and returned poetry to the “clank” and “noise” of old, depleted forms. Olson’s use of the persona and voice of Mencius gives the poem even greater thematic impact and underscores Olson’s sense of betrayal.
According to Olson, Pound, by joining with the reactionary enemies of art and poetry, shared the same mentality that created the dark satanic mills (to echo William Blake’s phrase) of Pittsburgh Steel and the Bremerton Shipyards. Pound had produced “the dross of verse.” In returning to an enervated tradition, Pound had betrayed his original definition of virtue: to restore human beings to that with which they are most familiar, their own sense of themselves responding to the vividness of a life of the senses and, thus, an intensification of objective reality. The second word in the poem, and the most important, is “dross,” which literally means the waste product on the surface of molten steel but also echoes Pound’s use of it in his most famous poem, Pisan Canto 81: “What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross/ What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee/ What thou lovest well is thy true heritage.” By alluding to one of Pound’s most famous lines, Olson shows how far he had fallen from his earlier position as the major defender and practitioner of a new kind of poetry intended to restore poetry to the freshness of original perception, unencumbered by the useless “decoration” of dead forms.
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