Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403
“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 fresh kind of poetry called Imagism, rejecting what he considered the worn-out poetic tradition of Victorian and early twentieth century English poetry.
One of the tenets of Imagism required that a poem’s rhythm be based “in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.” Pound also laid down directives for using rhythm: “Don’t chop your stuff into separate iambs. Don’t make each line stop dead at the end, and then begin every next line with a heave.” Pound had derived the clarity of Imagist poetry from Chinese and Japanese art and poetry, and when his translation of ancient Chinese poetry into the rigid structures of traditional English ballads appeared, Olson was incredulous. Olson embodied that rigidity in the image of Pittsburgh, the seat of the American steel industry and, more specifically, in the rails of the railroads which covered and violated the American landscape. Olson compares the “clank” of the locomotives’ wheels to the “clank” of the regular rhythms, rhymes, and couplets of an exhausted literary tradition: “We do not see/ ballads.”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604
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.
Olson puns on the word “lines,” referring to the poetic line, which pound had emancipated from traditional restrictions and then returned to its former constraints in his translation of The Odes of Confucius. Olson demonstrates the power of presenting the image accurately in the second half of part 1: “that what the eye sees,/ that in the East the sun untangles itself/ from among branches.” Olson had learned from Pound, his master, that the greatest accomplishment of Imagist poetry was to give the reader a direct and sensuous experience of reality.
Olson also used the poetic device of apostrophe to address Walt Whitman, the great American bard who broke all the rules:
o Whitman,let us keep our trade with you whenthe Distributorwho couldn’t go beyond wood,apparently,has gone out of business.
Olson criticizes Pound for forgetting what he had learned from Whitman’s use of free verse and for not being able to move beyond the Sacred Wood, the central metaphor of Pound’s early book of literary essays, The Spirit of Romance (1910). That book placed the beginning of European civilization in the pastoral works of ancient Greece and Rome, a view Olson found too limited in scope.
Part 3 begins with the pronoun “we,” referring to those poets of Olson’s circle who refused to revert to the regressive pastoralism of romantic ballads: “We’ll to these woods/ no more, where we were used/ to get so much.” Olson then brings in the image of the dance, a favorite of Pound’s, and refers to his former master as “Old Bones.” “[D]o not try to dance,” he advises, “the Charleston/ is still for us.” In other words, the old traditional dances are no longer relevant (they are literally “still”) for the genuinely new poetry and its practitioners. Pound had become an “Old Bones” or mere observer of the emerging poetics of process which he began and to which he had led Olson: “we are the process/ and our feet,” feet here meaning an open-form poetry that does not confine poetic feet to the rules of regular rhyme and rhythm. Olson separates himself and his fellow poets from old forms: “We do not march”—“march” referring both to rigid rhythms and to moving in lockstep without imagination. Words such as “roads,” “rails,” “march,” “clank,” “noise,” “ruler,” and “ballads” become cumulative metaphors for an overindustrialized, life-denying culture built on dead traditions that impede the growth of new poetry.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 93
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.
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