Charles Olson and the Maximus Poems

There are only a few contenders for the greatest long poem in English of the 20th century and Maximus is one of them, along with David Jones' The Anathemata, his In Parenthesis and Pound's The Cantos. I'm now going to try and justify this claim with a mix of personal ramblings and extracts from this sprawling monster.

The first thing to note is that this is not a sequence that suits a drive-by reading (technical term suggesting a single and superficial dash through the text) but needs, as with all serious work, some quite concentrated attention. The second thing to note is that Maximus is very, very long, the University of California Press edition runs to 630 pages and it covers a lot of ground.

On a basic level, Maximus is centred on the town of Gloucester in Massachussetts and is ostensibly a poem of place but also contains many other levels of meaning, perhaps the most important being the relationship between place and the passage of time. It's also a very human autobiography of Olson's personal experience of life in this relatively small fishing community. I'm going to try and substantiate my claim with four different aspects of the work.

The Personal

This anecdote is the beginning of Maximus, to Gloucester, Letter 19 (A Pastoral Letter;

to the care of souls,
it says)

          He had smiled at us,
          each time we were in town, inquired
          how the baby was, had two cents
          for the weather, wore
          (besides his automobile)
          good clothes.
                                 And a pink face.

           It was yesterday
           it all came out. The gambit
           (as he crossed the street,
           after us): "I don't believe
           I know your name." Given
           How do you do,
           how do you do. And then:
           "Pardon me, but 
           what church 
           do you belong to
           may I ask?"

And the whole street, the town, the cities, the nation
blinked in the afternoon sun, at the gun
was held at them. And I wavered
in the thought.

          I sd, you may, sir.
          He sd, what, sir.
          I sd, none,

And the light was back.

This is the kind of stuff that has me punching the air in delight. Since adolescence I've felt that two of the major strengths of the Poem are compression and precision. Here we have an entire world and culture compressed into a few short lines, depicting the essence of small towns everywhere and especially the need to measure and categorise every newcomer that moves in. I have lived in a small town on a small island for the last twenty two years and can vouch confirm that little has changed, although the anxiety here relates primarily to 'overners', those of us that were born on the mainland. I love the way the questioner is described and the politeness of the conversation. This was written in the early fifties and I'm guessing that church membership / attendance in New England carried more 'weight' than it does now.

This kind of courteous but lethal inquisition can stop the world and make the subject feel, for a moment, at the centre of things as if everything depended on the answer. I know that I've more than wavered in much less threatening circumstances and been much more equivocal in response. The inherent brilliance here is to compress a very complex event and to do so with precision so that this complexity is explored in depth. The progress from the blink through the waver to the return of normality is stunning and demonstrates technique of a very high calibre indeed.

The use of repetition in the dialogue also captures the mutual jabbing of a fist fight with a hint of victory in the last line. It occurs to me now that personal stories of this kind can often slide into the introspective and/or confessional but Olso completely avoids this by relying (mostly) on objective description and avoiding the emotive or the excessively adjectival.

The archival

Much of the early part of Maximus is concerned with the history of Gloucester and Olson makes use of archival material to trace this path of settlement and growth. I know that many readers do not consider this kind of work to be poetry but I'm of the view that it is essential if the Poem is going to progress from its current ditch of mainstream mediocrity. Without getting overly lit crit on this, one of poetry's ain functions is to bear witness, to memorialise and it does these things very well. The unmediated use of 'raw' factual material not only bears witness to the past but, when done well, says something fundamental about the way in which events and processes have been recorded and the implications for us in this particular now.

This small example may go some way to making my point:

In the interleaved Alamanacks for 1646 and 1647 of Danforth

                     1646, August   1.    The great pears ripe.

                                            3.    The long apples ripe.

                                           12.    Blackston's apples gathered.

                                           13.    Tankerd apples gathered

                                                    Keston Pippins, 
                                                    Long red apples

                     1647, July         3.    We began to cut the peas in the field.

                                           14.     We began to shear rye.
                               Aug.       2.     We mowed barley

                                                     The same week we shear summer wheat.  

                                              7.    The great pears gathered.
                             Sept         15.    The Russetins gathered and Pearmaines.

                    1648, May         26.    Sown 1 peck of peas, the moon in the

                                                       full. Observe how they prove.

                             July          28.     Summer apples gathered.

                   1646, July          20.     Apricocks ripe.

                                                                                (as in footnote in
                                                                                 Winthrop's Journal

This places us back in the 17th century to a farming community well before the agricultural revolution where what counted and therefore recorded was the growth and harvest of crops. What is perhaps surprising is the entry for May 26th 1648 which is out of step with the rest of this of this story. What is more 'relevant' than the body of the text is perhaps Olson's motivation for selecting this innocuous list. It is presented as above on a single page without any other context, the preceding pages appear to be unrelated and the following page says something brief and esoteric about meteors.

I don't think this is a random selection from the detritus of the past, one of Olson's primary concerns was the relationship between events and the temporal processes that objects undergo. One of the crucial relationships for us is the effect of the passage of time, which we measure by planetary means, on the food we grow. This may or may not go some way to explain the May 26th entry but I believe these related events go close to the heart of the sequence as a whole (see below).

The Nautical.

Gloucester was a fishing town and Olson knew some of the last of the sea captains who had gone out through storms in winter to ply their trade, he knew of the dangers they faced and of the pride that they took in their work:

Carl Olsen must have come to Gloucester 
about 1903. I knew him at sea
when he was Captain of the Raymonde,
and a halibuter on Brown's Bank,
in 1936. He would have been
50. It must have been just after that
that he suffered his first cruel
harm to himself. Up to then he was a giant
of the experience of being 
a man, and so scared was I 
of his reputation (as one was
of all these great fishing captains)
that I never went near him living
                         over the Cut as he did,
and I wanted to, because of that
idealization, or it was a condition 
of such superiority, Archie McCloud
also received some of this same
respect {and I believe is alive today}
that belongs to what these men did,
and faced, to handle other men,
and direct their work and bring home catches
which made these men leaders
of this catching of fish at sea.

It is a testimonial, that they are still
or almost still, alive. They tie Gloucester
to her earliest life, or at least to that life since
just after 1700, when Banks fishing
was invented here. And the schooner,
in which they all, and this includes
Carl Olsen and Charlie McCloud 
learned their 

It is a pleasure to report,
to a city which is now so moribund,
that there are men still,
in some of these houses, of these evenings,
who are of this make.

There may be an element of sentimental nostalgia in this for an extremely arduous and often fatal way to make a living but there's more of this sense of respect to those 'giants' who were the masters of their trade. The sea and how it aSffects us is important to Olson, the points where this huge body of water touches the land carries with it something about extreme difference that carries interdependence within. If we return to bearing witness, the last stanza beautifully recalls a different time when, for these men, each working day was a brutal battled that required both courage and strength.

For me, the greatest skill in the making of poems is producing something that requires a great deal of skill but 'reads' lightly, almost conversational. In this instance there are Really Big Things being said about time, place and the elements yet these are presented in such a subdued and apparently casual manner that the reader doesn't realise fully what's going on until some time later. In this case there is a lament for a way of life that has passed away but there's also something about the moribund city still holding on to its past, to the idea, rather than memory, of these men. Olson's report of his own sense of inferioriy to these men gives some idea of the strength of the 'hold' that emanated from them and what they did.

The beginning of this poem (The Death of Carl Olsen) begins by recounting two head injuries that Olson sustained in the latter stages of his work and then proceeds to his death in 1965.

The Geograhic and the philosophic.

I was going to do these two separately but this might become repetitive. There is a more detailed page on Olson's working through of the later works of Alfred North Whitehead but I think it is enough to say here that Whitehead's philosophy placed emphasis on events rather than objects and suggested that our focus must therefore be on the relationship between these ongoing events.

I'm of the view that these two principles are the glue that hold The Maximus Poems together and this is most apparent in Olson's writing about place and the effect that processes have on our landscape. This is a poem from 1969, towards the end of the sequence:

The Island, the River, the shore,

the Stage Heads, the land, itself,

isolated, encased on three sides by 

the sea and water

on the 4th side, Eastern Point an arm

such as Enyalion's to protect

the body from the onslaught of

too much and give Gloucester

occasion, give her Champlain's channel

in & out (as her river

refluxes) a body of land hard on granite, yet

arched by such skies favoured by such sea and

sweetened in the air so briar-roses grow

right on her rock and at Brace's Cove kelp

redolents the air, jumps the condition and strain locus

falls or emerges as the rain on her or the sun

                                       (Saturday May 6th

All of this seems relatively straightforward, Enyalion being a mythical figure of Olson's invention, but the term 'occasion' is central to Whitehead's philosophy, the Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy has this:

Later, Whitehead introduces a new metaphysically primitive notion which he calls an actual occasion. For Whitehead, an actual occasion (or actual entity) is not an enduring substance, but a process of becoming. As Whitehead puts it, actual occasions are the "final real things of which the world is made up", they are "drops of experience, complex and interdependent".

So, this apparently geographic/landscape poem is concerned with a variety of processes of becoming and the nature of their interdependence. The usual arduity default position is to be against the philosophical poem, believing that philosophers are better equipped. However, on my first reading, this element wasn't apparent to my small brain yet I still came away with an impression of greatness. I'm currently on my third reading and am now astounded as to how Whitehead's complex and challenging ideas are made integral to the text. As I said at the start, the sign of great technique is to make this quite challenging 'point' sound so light and conversational. I'd also like to draw attention to the staggering brilliance that is 'redolents'.

To conclude, The Maximus Poems represent a landmark in American poetry, the influence of this magnificent work has yet to be felt in full.