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Reading Charles Olson.

(The arduity Olson pages are only about The Maximus Poems and Projective Verse as I'm not sufficiently au fait with the rest of his work.)

The experience of reading Olson can best be described as a "slow burn" in that you read the words and get a general idea of what's going on and then a few days later you realise that a much bigger idea has been planted in your head.

Some poets mark their major themes with big flashing lights and work really hard to force their ideas across. This is not the case with Olson who makes this seem effortless, almost casual. You will find yourself returning to the poem or the passage just to try and work out how this slow burn is achieved. Other poets have this skill (John Matthias in particular) but few manage to express such depth and complexity with Olson's degree of apparent ease.

Readers new to Olson should start with The Maximus Poems which is his finest achievement. This is a long sequence (over 600 pages) ostensibly about his life in the town of Gloucester in Massechusetts (and much more). 'Maximus' can be read on several levels: as a history and geography of this part of New England; as a description of the poet's relationship with the landscape of and around Gloucester; and as a working through of philosophical ideas about time and space. All of these levels are compelling and gently interwoven so that the reader never feels hit over the head with 'difficult' ideas.

In terms of form and genre, their are archival and documentary elements, there are confessional elements, there is prose, there are experiments with concrete poetry, there is myth, there is political and cultural commentary in fact, taken as a whole the work is a kaleidoscopic wonder. There's also quite a lot about Gloucester's fishing fleet.

Given that the poem traverses many centuries, it isn't really surprising that Olson takes the side of Herodotus in the tired Thucydides v Herodotus debate and does so with more than a little vehemence.

Before proceeding, we need to get a couple of things out of the way, the first being the view that Maximus is 'sub-Poundian'. This is the kind of sweeping generalisation that is made by those who haven't paid enough attention to either this poem or The Cantos. It is true that Pound said that Olson had saved his life by his visits and contact during his thriteen-year incarceration at St Elizabeth's hospital and Olson (along with most of us) admired Pound's work, there is no isgnificant affinity, apart from length, between the two sequences. This leads on to the assertion that Maximus is an early example of the postmodern. I'veargued quite hard against this notion on bebrowed because it seems to me to be a complete misundertanding of what the work is about. The arduity position on categories and periodisations is negative but it should be blindingly obvious to even the most dim-witted critic that any work which takes Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality as a significant keystone cannot be postmodern. The third misapprehension is that the work is inconsistent and somehow only gets better towards the end. I can't understand this notion of 'improvement'. There is brilliance in the first poems just as there is a different, more abstract brilliance towards the end.

The Maximus Poems were written over about twelve years and was published in three installments (1960, 1968 and 1975), there will always be a few inconsistencies in tone and quality over such a lengthy work but these are not immediately noticeable to the reader who starts at the beginning and ends at the end. Over the period in question (Olson died in 1970) there are bound to be changes in Oslon's approach and perspective but these are not necessarily changes in quality. I can't understand this notion of 'improvement'. There is brilliance in the first poems just as there is a different, more abstract brilliance towards the end.

If I have a criticism it relates to the occasional patterns made from words which I personally and entirely subjectively to be a self-indulgent distrsaction.

Because of the varities of form and subject matter, I've found it quite difficult to produce a fully representative selection of this remarkable work so I've taken three of the aspects that I find most rewarding. This is the opening to Maximus, to himself which was published in the 1960 installment:

    I have had to learn the simplest things
    last. Which made for difficulties.
    Even at sea, I was slow, to get the hand out, or to cross
    a wet deck.
                     The sea was not, finally, my trade.
    But even my trade, at it, I stood estranged
    from tnat which was most familiar. Was delayed,
    and not content with the man's argument
    that such postponement
    is now the nature of 
                     that we are all late
                     in a slow time,
                     that we grow up many
                     And the single
                     is not easily

By way of contrast, this is all of the 3rd letter on Georges, unwritten which was published in the 1968 instalment:

    [ In this place is a poem whch I have not yet been able
    to write - or a story to be called the East End of
    Georges, about a captain I knew about, as of the days
    when it was important to race to market - to the Boston
    market, or directly into Gloucester, when she had fresh
    fish, and how this man had such careful charts of his
    own of these very shallow waters along the way 
    to market if you were coming in from the Winter Cod
    Grounds on the Eastern End - the point was to cut the
    corner, if you were that good or that crazy, though he
    was as good as they come, he even had the charts marked
    in different coloued pencils and would go over those
    rips and shoals dug out in a storm, driving a full-
    loaded vessel and down to her deck edge, across them
    as a wagon might salt licks or unship  her wheels and 
    ferry across - it is a vision or at least an experience
    I make off as though I have had, to ride with a man
    like that - even have the picture of him sitting on
    his cabin floor following those charts like a race -
    sheet while taking the calls down the stern passage-
    way and if it sounds more like Henry Ware & Paul Cot-
    ter in the Eyes of the Woods, it could be so, for I've
    looked & looked  for the verification, and the details 
    of sail at a time when there were no engines - and I
    went to James Connolly expecting to be able to depend
    upon him, but somehow he hasn't come across, or it's
    all too prettied up, and it was either Bohlin or Sil-
    vanus Smith or it may have been someone as late as
    Marty Callaghan but the roar of this guy going through
    snow and bent to a north easter and not taking any 
    round about way off the shoals to the north but going
    like he was up & down dale like a horseman out of some
    English novel makes it with me, and I want that sense
    here, of this fellow going home ]


    Just as morning twilight and the gulls start talking the cinnamon moon
    goes down over Stage Fort Park one night short of full as I too

    almost full also leave all those whom I have though were

    equally moving equally at least as much a part of this world and

    its character as these rounds of planets - the sun, within

    thirty-nine further minutes will have started lighting up the East across

    East Gloucester arm and, if I add this house or its place on the 

    Earth, three solid powers of being pass in property and

    principle acausal also in this empirical world as I,
    and as I still cannot believe my friends aren't too, no matter

    that they choose or may, identify itself a recognition cognition

    - that this moon in itself is cinnamon and bore

    an image in my life as it now going on to China Wall

    twelve hours from now  bring tides on this side, reverse
    to the effect of its presence here 12 other

    hours - I do not speak of solar proton ion force

    effect on both their & my - these two friends, a man & woman

    I have had reason to say were my only brother-sister, never having

    but one, a brother who died at birth a year before myself was born - 

    that they or I were not affected too in birth and or conception or

    in both by either ions stored in earth or thrown at her by

    the sun at equinox, like-fluctuation in the moon's twy-

    tidal affect. Go down, moon and teach me too to
    swallow what by analogy and continuity I now, at 55 know is

    as much condition as the purchase of my soul by love as they

                                                           May 3rd, 1966

Because Olson is writing about space and time in the widest sense, as can be seen above, he isn't afraid to put elements of his personal story into the poem and this has the effect of bringing a greater sense of humanity and personal depth to the work.

Olson did write his own manifesto (Projective Verse) in 1950 and this attracted a following in the next generation of poets amongst whom were J H Prynne and others involved in the English Intelligencer project which many view as the forerunner of the Cambridge School. Olson was rector at Black Mountain College in the early fifties and taught many students who were to go on to produce important work in both literature and art. One of these was Cy Twombly and Olson's 'For Cy Twombly faced with His First Chigago and NY Shows' is a wonderful example of a teacher giving encouragement and advice. Incidentally, Olson undertood what Twombly was doing with the line before anyone else.

The manifesto is best known for its emphasis on breath as the unit of the line rather than the 'rules' of meter and rhythm but it is much more wide reaching than this and can be seen as informing the basis and the poetics of The Maximus Poems.

In his introduction to Projective Verse Olson first sets out his intention:

I want to do two things: first, try to show what projective or OPEN verse is, what it involves, in its act of composition, how, in distinction from the non-projective, it is accomplished; and II, suggest a few ideas about what stance toward reality brings such verse into being, what the stance does, both to the poet and to his reader. (The stance involves, for example, a change beyond, and larger than, the technical, and may, the way things look, lead to a new poetics and to new concepts from which ome sort of drama, say, or of epic, perhaps, may emerge.)

I think it's important to point out that by 'open verse', Olson is not referring to Umberto Eco's notion of work that is open to any kind of readerly interpretation but rather to work that isn't constrained by the convential views of what poetry should be.

I'm personally very fond of this poetic because it seems to encapsulate what much of what serious contemporary work might be about. I'm also more than keen on anything that considers Pound to be far superior to Eliot. There are three basic points, this is from the 1st:

This is the problem which any poet who departs from closed form is specially confronted by. And it involves a whole series of new recognitions. From the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION - puts himself in the open - he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of some several forces just now beginning to be examined. (It is much more, for example, this push, than simply such a one as Pound put, so wisely, to get us started: "the musical phrase," go by it, boys, rather than by, the metronome.)

(I'm retaining Olson's capitalisation throughout these extracts.)

As someone who works creatively with musicians, I'm obviously biased but it is this musical dimesnion that is (still) so often ignored by many contemporay poets. Again, we need to be clear that Pound didn't mean the use of rhyme and meter to create a -sing-song effect but something that uses sound in (more or less) the same way as music. The idea of poets consciously placing themselves in the 'open' world remains a significant challenge to current practioners.

The second point :

is the principle, the law which presides conspicuously over such composition, and, when obeyed, is the reason why a projective poem can come into being. It is this: FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT. (Or so it got phrased by one, R. Creeley, and it makes absolute sense to me, with this possible corollary, that right form, in any given poem, is the only and exclusively possible extension of content under hand.) There it is, brothers, sitting there, for USE.

This should be compulsory reading for all those who weigh Olson down with the 'Postmodern' tag. I've just realised that I now need to revisit my personal favourites, especially Sutherland and Tiplady to see how much the above 'corollary' may be applied to their current work. There's also the intriguing and extreme contrast in form between Simon Jarvis' Dionysus Crucified and Night Office and how these forms can be the 'only and exclusively possible extension of content under hand'. I think it must also be noted that 'extension' has a philosphical dimension as well as the more familiar one.

The third sets out the manner in which this might be achieved and the kind of attention that might be needed:

Now the process of the thing, how the principle can be made so to shape the energies that the form is accomplished. And I think it can be boiled down to one statement (first pounded into my head by Edward Dahlberg): ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points (even, I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen. And if you also set up as a poet, USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!

Now, Whitehead's Process and Reality encourages us to think about reality as a collection of processes rather than a collection of things. Given Olson's admiration for this work and its many implications, I don't think that it is unreasonable to suggest that the above is an attempt to produce a poetic that has Whitehead's 'reality' at it's centre.

The rest of the statement is a detailed account of how the above might be achieved. As you might expect, it is exuberantly brilliant and incisive, an object lesson for all those who write, read and think about poetry.