Toby Olson Robert Vas Dias - Essay

Robert Vas Dias

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Changing Appearance assembles the work of Toby Olson's five previous small-press books plus material unpublished in book form, from the period 1965–70…. (p. 50)

The means by which Olson gets at central concerns—and his poetry deals always with the essentials—is well-illustrated in Maps (1969), the first book in Changing Appearance. Taking as occasion various kinds of maps … he explores the difference between what is measured and represented graphically, and a state of being which cannot be measured. The analogue is to that which sets up tensions between formal attempts at representation—in art, in literature—and experience…. The "reading" of a map becomes a means toward establishing connections between events and objects and the makeup of the human psyche—a way of perceiving the self both as individual and as part of an organic process. Though the occasion may at first glance seem literary, the poetry is the poetry of experience and conveys always a strong sense of place and circumstance. In fact, this is the source of the poetry's power…. The language of the poems is also "natural"—not casual of sloppy, but the language of a man talking to you or thinking aloud, having paced himself and concentrating on particulars.

The movement of these poems, as in most of Olson's work, is most often inductive: he casts a line with a hook on it, and you are drawn immediately into the world of the poem. Starting with what can be described as the generative particular—the assertion or image expressed indicatively which requires illumination or extension—he builds the poem deftly out of the materials supplied by autobiographical reflection and the concrete, sensual image…. (pp. 50-1)

Making the conceptual statement which is realised perceptually involves the loss of innocence, a penetration at once carnal and imaginative. It is this process which gives the poem its momentum. The poems of Maps proceed by the collaging of one perception "instanter, on another," done rather carefully and formally in "The Globe," and with greater flexibility in the best poem in this section—and one of the best poems in the book—, the longer "The Mapping of the Currents."… The casual ingathering proceeds more from Whitman, the carefulness from the shorter poems of W. C. Williams and from Robert Creeley, the flexibility from Charles Olson (no relation) and Paul Blackburn, and the contemplative, philosophical rhetoric from William Bronk—diverse poets in a by now well-recognised American tradition. But almost from the beginning, Toby Olson has had his own voice—rigorous, familiar, tough and meditative by turns.

He is a poet for whom the language needs continual renewing: he takes it as he finds it. But our language is always more than we find it. The poem "Hair" in Worms into Nails, also published originally in 1969, is a good example of the way Olson deals with the inputs that make our language a living one. (p. 51)

Starting with a locution typical of the proverb, Olson sets up a range of expectations stemming from its rhythms and constructs, though making it new. The poetics of the proverb has to do with fulfilling its rhythms, with wit in the use of metaphor—to place the dissimilar in apposition with the similar, in such a way that the idiosyncratic quality instead of sounding strange, appears inevitable, and even in the best examples, worth committing to memory…. There is in Olson's work a clarity, a...

(The entire section is 1446 words.)