I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master . . . Analysis

Charles Olson

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master . . .” is a long, open-form poem in three major sections containing twenty-five stanzas. The entire poem comprises eighty-four lines of various length. Understanding the title is crucial in detecting the voice, theme, and tone of this challenging poem. Assuming the persona of an earlier poet is a technique that Charles Olson, one of contemporary America’s first postmodernist poets, used throughout his controversial career. In this poem, he speaks through the persona of Mencius (372-289 b.c.e.), a devoted follower of the great Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 b.c.e.) and author of The Book of History, in which he set out the Confucian rules for a “benevolent government.” First and foremost, great rulers must be men of virtue.

In the voice of Mencius, Olson scolds his poetic master, Ezra Pound. The occasion for Olson’s outrage was the publication of Pound’s translation of one of the most venerated books of Chinese poetry, The Book of Odes (poetry written between 1000 and 700 b.c.e.). Confucius himself had gathered the 305 poems that made up The Book of Odes. What provoked Olson’s anger was that Pound translated them into ballads, an archaic form of English poetry in regular meter, rhyme, and stanzaic form. Ironically, it had been Ezra Pound himself who helped formulate the rules for a...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The major structural device Olson uses throughout the poem is juxtaposition. In all three parts he juxtaposes the fallen world of technological violation (such as the steel mills of Pittsburgh and the Bremerton Shipyards) to the clarity of the world of James Whistler, whose paintings had been affected by Japanese and Chinese art and whose influence had spread to Pound himself: “Whistler, be with America/ at this hour.” Olson also juxtaposes the image of the whorehouse (the product of an inhumane industrial system) to the palace, representing the innocent world of Mencius. Pound’s balladizing of The Chinese Odes was mere “decoration” rather than “presenting the image accurately,” which was the chief aim of the Imagist poets. Olson also juxtaposes the open structure of part 3, with images positioned all over the page, to some of the closed, clotted stanzas of parts 1 and 2.

In the seventh stanza of part 1, Olson replaces the word “clank” with “Noise!” and then scolds his master Pound for betraying his original project:

hewho taught us allthat no line must sleep,that as the line goes so goesthe Nation! that the Mastershould now be embraced by the demonhe drove off! O Ruler.


(The entire section is 604 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bollobás, Eniko. Charles Olson. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Cech, John. Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg: A Portrait of a Friendship. Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1982.

Maud, Ralph. Charles Olson’s Reading: A Biography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Olson, Charles, and Cid Corman. Charles Olson and Cid Corman: Complete Correspondence, 1950-1964. Edited by George Evans. 2 vols. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1987.

Rifkin, Libbie. Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

Rumaker, Michael. Black Mountain Days. Asheville, N.C.: Black Mountain Press, 2003.