Selected Poems: Charles Olson
University of California Press has already given us superb editions of THE MAXIMUS POEMS (1983) and THE COLLECTED POEMS (1987) of Charles Olson. Those indispensable volumes are Olson-sized, with the heft of a dictionary. It’s good, then, to have a portable Olson, ideal for classroom use or for sliding into a backpack. All the more so when the selection was made by Robert Creeley (who contributed a valuable introduction) and when the book itself was crafted with a skill that makes it a pleasure to hold. (There’s also a fine dust-jacket portrait by R. B. Kitaj.) This book will sit nicely on the shelf next to Creeley’s own SELECTED POEMS, published in 1991 by UC Press.
In his essay “The Scholar as Critic” (EVERY FORCE EVOLVES A FORM, 1987), Guy Davenport tells how, invited to contribute to one of the first scholarly studies of Olson, he chose to concentrate on Olson’s poem “The Kingfishers,” which had been commended to him by a number of gifted contemporaries (poets, filmmakers, and others) as a masterpiece, “the beginning of a new order of American verse.” Much in the poem was cryptic, and as Davenport began to study it in depth, he learned to his surprise that “None of the admirers of the poem had the least notion as to the meaning of any of the allusions, obscure or otherwise.”
Davenport’s story has two morals for readers who pick up this volume of SELECTED POEMS without much previous exposure to Olson. First, reading Olson can be a “scholarly adventure,” as Davenport and his students found, showing “how a modern text makes demands on our knowledge.” This is so even today, when the reader can turn to a large secondary literature and to Tom Clark’s first-rate biography, CHARLES OLSON: THE ALLEGORY OF A POET’S LIFE (1991). At the same time, it is possible to become too much caught up in (or too easily discouraged by) the search for sources, the filling in of background. Those early readers of Olson who didn’t have the benefit of scholarly spadework were responding to Olson’s stance, the music of his thought, the way he used the page, the way he changed the agenda for poetry. There is still a challenge in these poems to grasp what Creeley calls a “complex and far more inclusive apprehension of what, after all, our human ways of knowing have as root.”