All of the Following were written by students and reflected their reading of the entire Maixmus Poems by Charles Olson. Here students have written essays on a particular aspect of the work as it pertains to The Maximus Poems as a whole. You may also wish to check out the students’ guide by Entry number, which is correlated to individual page numbers in The Maximus Poems.
(See Also Guide to the Maximus Poems by Page Entry.)
(If you wish to see all of the Entries and all seven of the final Essays in one file, you may go to the Introduction Menu and click on the PDF link. The PDF contains all the original formatting and some illustrations.
Below, you may find five of the essays by topic. The author and title appear at the beginning of each.
“Searching for Unity: The Feminine Cut in Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems” by Brittney Stanley
Searching for Unity: The Feminine Cut in Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems
Cut: 1 to make an opening, incision, or wound in (something) with a sharp implement.1
Rarely portrayed in a positive light, The Cut in Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems represents an incision through unity, the antithesis of the harmony portrayed in the twisting fylfot, the Nasturtium, and the Uroboros. Because the Cut is inherently linked to the feminine body, Olson’s portrayal of the feminine could be construed as negative, but his denouncement of the Cut is a denouncement of disunity, of Man’s desire to divide and conquer the Earth, as well as divide and conquer the female. Introduced as the synchronistic and manmade Cuts of land in Gloucester and Tyre, Olson initially presents the Cut as a commercial dividing of the Earth stemming from the want of ownership, which then leads to the ownership of the feminine Cut and the anti-feminine discourse surrounding the division between the sexes. Drawing on Greek and Roman mythology, Olson discusses the ancient portrayals of the feminine Cut contrasting it to the Hermetic and Gnostic circularity referenced by C.G. Jung. By continuously making the comparison between the Cut and the cyclical and by lingering on the imagery of circular
1 Oxford English Dictionary http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/cut?view=uk
wholeness, Olson, through The Maximus Poems, acts as a proponent of unity, seeking to mend the fissure between Man and Earth and between the masculine and the feminine.
The Cut is first mentioned in Letter 7, referring to “that carpenter…who owned the land of ‘the Cut,’2” in regards to Gloucester’s strip of land cut through for the commercial purposes of charging a fee for those wishing to cross the channel on a ferry. It is separated from the text of the poem with quotes and thus already represents a disunity, and is associated with ownership; even in its first mention, the Cut is already owned. Though it is known that Tyre, the home of the poems’ primary narrator Maximus, has a similar Cut of land, carved by Alexander the Great also for profit and possession, Tyre is not directly linked with the Cut until page 250 when a “mole” is described as something to “get at Tyre.” Here the mole is the device that digs through the Earth and cuts the land.
Although the Cuts of land are not explicitly referred to immediately, in the first poem, the initial address of “Maximus of Gloucester, to You,” instruments of cutting and synonyms for the act are introduced. In the opening stanza, Maximus promises to “tell you what is a lance,3” which is not only a thrust weapon with a knifed tip, but also a pipe that supplies oxygen to a flame used for cutting. Throughout the rest of the opening section, the terms “carved,4” “torn,5” and “sharp6 ” are all used, and thus immediately foreshadow a cut through unity. The punctuation of the opening section expresses a similar foreshadowing by physically cutting stanzas with grammatically excessive commas and exclamation points, and words with unnecessary dashes. Music becomes “mu-sick,” rooftops become “roof-tops,” and streetcars
2 The Maximus Poems, p 34 3 The Maximus Poems, p 5 4 The Maximus Poems, p 6 5 The Maximus Poems, p 7
6 The Maximus Poems, p 8
become “street-cars,7” while a sentence that requires but a few commas and no other punctuation, “second, time slain, the bird! the bird! And there! (strong) thrust, the mast! flight,8” is severed repeatedly. Thus Olson depicts the poetic world disunited before the Cut is ever mentioned.
When Olson does begin to directly discuss the Cut, he becomes increasingly obsessed with it, beginning his obsessive dialogue with its relationship to the commerce of Gloucester. Maximus identifies the Cut with various owners throughout the poems, but almost always with a man who owns exorbitantly. Jeffrey Parsons is placed “over the Cut as the man who owned all the land and boulders, all the hill and hollow,” while Olson identifies him as amongst the “foolish…Somerset and Dorset men,” who tried to own all9. Olson then expands the desire for ownership to the desire for profit. He titles a poem THE CUT, its text a decree stating that “they that cut the beach between Cape Ann & Annisquam shall have liberty to take sufficient toll10” and to further emphasize this repeats this decree in less official words a page later, describing the channel as “a certain previledged place call the Cutt where vessels pass through for money.11” By doubling this decree and doubling the ‘t’ in Cut, Olson mimics the commercialist drive to double revenue.
This commercialization of the Earth, however, is not portrayed as a “profitable” or healthy endeavor, demonstrated by Olson’s bitter rant about the sullying of American soil with capital drives. He describes America’s “single truth” as “the newness the first men knew was almost from the start dirtied by second comers,” then goes on to damn early America for destroying her “newness” so soon and for not “know[ing] better than to cash in on it.” The early
7 The Maximus Poems, p 7 8 The Maximus Poems, p 5 9 The Maximus Poems, p 110 10 The Maximus Poems, p 237 11 The Maximus Poems, p 239
commercialism forced future generations born of the Earth to “cut [them]selves out of her drugstore flattened-hillside gut,12” or to follow in the footsteps of their capital-seeking ancestors and continue to cut open the Earth. Here the Earth is associated with the feminine, as in the majority of The Maximus Poems and other Western texts, and therefore if the Cut of the Earth is a rape of the Earth, this Cut is analogous with feminine rape.
Both the rape of the feminine and the Earth are illustrated distinctly in Maximus at the Harbor, which opens promptly with violent, cutting terms. Okeanos, the Greek male counterpart to the Earth, “tears upon the Earth to get love loose,” a slightly euphemistic description of rape. As Okeanos, in Greek creation myth, represented the rivers and oceans that tore through Gaia (Earth), cutting streams through her and covering her body with water, the image rendered is a violent rape of Earth. The fact that Earth is portrayed as the feminine is only intensified by immediately referencing the “clefts of women” in the proceeding line, or the Cuts of women. Just as Okeanos “tears upon the Earth,” so do “men tear at their [women’s] legs.” Both masculine parties “rape until love sifts,” which not only is an image of violating force, but also hearkens back to the perception of the river, with the term “sift,” as though the water is sifting through the layers of the Earth, still an impression of intrusion. By terming this sifting love as a “stud upon Earth,” the “love” is classified as masculine, with stud acting as a phallic symbol, as well as a sharp, penetrating object of force thrust into the Earth. The use of the preposition “upon,” rather than “within,” implies that the masculine stud is an object that conquers, but does not join the feminine and live within harmoniously; similar to how Man conquers Earth, living upon her rather than with her. This phallic “stud13” furthers the analogy as it alludes to Man’s ceremonial placement of his country’s flag into the land he is conquering.
12 The Maximus Poems, p 139 13 The Maximus Poems, p 240
After the conquering of Earth, the phrasing calms, shifting from “tears” and “rages” to “sit” and “lie,” verbs of stagnancy rather than force, as Okeanos has already subjugated her. However, because of the context, this quiet shift is one of helpless resignation, particularly because it is immediately followed by a dirty metaphor involving going “to work like the horns of a snail,” again a reference to Okeanos, who was traditionally depicted with the head (and horns) of a snail and the body of a serpent. The snail digs his horns through “her hemispheres,” an obvious metaphor for the feminine Cut that also evokes the halving or division of the Earth. The Earth is further divided in the next stanzas, as the tone returns again to violence with descriptions of the “rage of the Ocean” that “cracked” the shore, and “broke on Pavilion Beach,14” concluding with the statements “The great Ocean is angry. It wants the Perfect Child.15” Therefore the rape is committed with a goal; just as commercial control of the Earth has the goal of producing revenue, the Ocean strives to produce as well.
This “Perfect Child” is portrayed in a child’s first person narrated poem on page 317 that depicts the father’s intrusion on the mother and the ocean’s intrusion on the shore, while expressing an unsettling sense of conflict and lack of unity. Contrast between the mother and father and the male and female is particularly apparent—not in a representation of balance, but of chaos. Though Olson, the assumedly first person narrator, does appear to struggle to find balance throughout the page, and despite the concluding phrase “was very glad,” there is no resolution. Beginning with the phrase “to enter into our bodies,” Olson references the feminine Cut, while implying an intrusion. By following this line with a reference to Earth and then to “Mother Dogtown,” Olson alludes to Mother Earth, which then leads into Okeanos, or “Father
14 The Maximus Poems, p 240 15 The Maximus Poems, p 241
Sea,16” a separate entity from the physical soil or earth, but an entity that lives upon Mother Earth. Here lies the struggle for unity, as the Sea and the Earth both constitute the world.
Olson, the possible “Perfect Child,” then personalizes the poem by connecting Father Sea to his father; as Father Sea “comes to the skirt of the city,” his father “came to the shore.” Following the description of his father reaching land, the child states that the “polyphony came to the shore,” which brings a sense of chaos, but chaos attempting to harmonize within itself. By describing his father as “dust in the water,” Olson places the Earth, or particles of earth into the sea, wedding the two together. This is extended further with the reference to Jung’s Monogene, a cyclical and harmonizing unity. However, “in the water, he was floating away,” suggesting that Olson cannot completely unite the male and female and bring balance between the two, even as he insists “oh I wouldn’t let my Father get away.” Mother is only referenced once in this final portion of the poem and only in a command to “turn [her] head and quick” to look at the father. The father does return to the shore and enter the “skirt of the city” and while Olson “welcomed him” to his mother’s shore “& was very glad,17” this only proves that the father dominates the balance in the end. The mother is excluded from this welcoming happiness, and only permitted to watch, or commanded to watch. Thus, the balance is unequal and the dividing cut between the male and female remains detrimental.
The dividing cut between the male and female is emphasized particularly in Olson’s passages involving Greek and Roman gods, as already portrayed in Maximus at the Harbor. Olson composes multiple passages relating to the creation myth surrounding the birth of “love.” The untitled poem on page 447 discusses this birth in vague terminology, beginning with an upside-down depiction of the world, Olson plays on this reversal with the homophonic pun on
16 The Maximus Poems, p 317 17 The Maximus Poems, p 317
the word “son,” which portrayed as hanging in the sky inherently references “sun.” This homophone in its upturned world immediately renders the poem one of upset balance and confusion. By describing the son as “hung in the bushes,” Olson engenders the image of genitalia, which are later more explicitly referred to as “his parts.” Once the alignment of Earth was righted and “Heaven was again on top” the son “swung and altered” the father, which describes the son Kronos castrating his father Uranus. From this Cut, “down came his parts upon the sea,” again referencing Okeanos, and “Out of the foam the form of love arose.” While this castrating Cut is emasculating, these masculine parts breed the feminine form of love, or Venus. The description of the birth is consecutively docile, with “his parts” portrayed as falling into the sea, as though they came off of Kronos’ own accord, a form of self-sacrifice for the birth of love, then highly sexual with the reference to the “foam” of the sea out of which Venus “arose.” The sexual is immediately linked with commercial by portraying love as “ferried over by the waves,” which alludes to the ferry implemented over the Cut of Gloucester. Thus by joining the sexual Cut with the commerce of the Cut, Olson again connects the conquering of land to the conquering of the feminine, while belittling any form of alleged self-sacrifice for the birth of love. This conviction is furthered by the poem’s final statement, “The end of love is on either side,18” which implies that there is a severed gap in between both sides, just as there is a severed gap in between the two pieces of land in the Cut of Gloucester, and just as there is a severed gap in between both sexes. The notion of love when engendered from the violent and sexual Cut is not a union of the sexes, but a further disunity of the two.
The portrayal of Venus, or the Western form of love, is depicted in a further negative context on page 342, where Tartaros, the deep pit, or Cut, in the Underworld and his relations with Gaia, the Earth, is illustrated. Tartaros, which was born of Chaos, and “which had been
18 The Maximus Poems, p 447
there as early as hunger or at least directly after hunger & Earth and before love,” is aided by love in the form of Venus, “the goddess born of the frith.” As a frith is a narrow inlet of the sea, it directly echoes the Cut of Gloucester and thus already carries a negative connotation. In this myth, “Love accompanied Tartaros when with Earth in love he made Typhon,19” or Venus aided Tartaros in seducing Gaia who bore him Typhon, the leviathan of smoke and the most destructive Titan. Therefore Tartaros, the Cut in the Earth, utilizes “love” to produce destruction. The myth coincides with Olson’s representation of the standard perception of love, born of a Cut, as a negative and disuniting force, not the harmonious union it should be, for “love is form and cannot be without important substance.20” Standard love disunites with a Cut, where there is a Cut there is a void, and therefore this love lacks “important substance.”
Olson contrasts these Cut voids with full, circular imagery, particularly those referenced by C.G. Jung in his discussion of the Hermetics and Gnostics in his work Mysterium Coniunctionis. One round image that reoccurs in a positive setting is the full moon. In Olson’s Short Possible Poem To Follow Long Excessive “Venetian Job” Written Earlier At Toward Sunset on Squam River Tonight Also he describes the moon “going down,” then back up. When the moon descends “into cloud or fog,” the tone of the night shifts from a “fantastic wobbling night of utter brilliance” to a dark haze, with convoluted clauses, and disconnected asides. The moon becomes “a Smokey Moon,” which echoes the son of Tartaros, Typhon, the destructive leviathan of smoke. The moon does rise again, physically in the verse with a capital ‘O’ set apart from the text, resembling a full moon in the sky. As the moon rises, Olson, too, rises and calls himself “wobbly again,” which is the term he used to describe the moonlit night earlier on the page, thus linking himself to the moon. He continues by reasoning that his “wobbly” state is
19 The Maximus Poems, p 342 20 The Maximus Poems, p 5
from “solid pure hunger,21” which contrasts to the hunger portrayed as existing beside Tartaros, possibly proceeding it.22 Instead of producing an empty pit in the stomach or a Cut pit Earth, this hunger is “solid” and “pure.” Thus, if there is solid substance behind this driving hunger, love can exist in its true form.
The moon represents this solid pure form of love and harmonious union in Jung’s work, and while it is a feminine image, Jung couples it with its masculine counterpart, the sun, for “sun and moon are marriage partners who embrace on the 28th day of the month,” and “the moon is a vessel of the sun: she is the universal receptacle.23” By portraying the moon in a positive light, and by admittedly referencing Jung, Olson presents a positive image of the feminine, as opposed to the negative associations with the feminine Cut. In his poem JUST AS MORNING TWILIGHT AND THE GULLS, GLOUCESTER, MAY 1966 THE FULL MOON FLOWER, Olson binds the moon to the flower in the title, which references his constant allusions to the perfect cyclical motion of the nasturtium, again presenting the feminine moon as a positive alternative to the feminine Cut. In this poem, “two friends,” “a man & woman” are mentioned and thus allude to Jung’s union of the man and woman in the full moon. The sun’s circling of the Earth in comparison to the moon’s circling of the Earth are both discussed successively and therefore the sun and moon are united as well. Even the physical verse is united into one long section, not sliced into multiple stanzas, cut by excessive dashes, or severed by unnecessary commas. Unlike the Earth’s rape by Okeanos or Gaia’s seduction by Tartaros, both Cutting forces, the union of the sun and moon, and of the poem’s man and woman, appears to present a positive birth, for the “moon in itself bore an image in [Olson’s] life.24” The born image is
21 The Maximus Poems, p 618 22 The Maximus Poems, p 342 23 Mysterium Coniunctionis, p 129 24 The Maximus Poems, p 520
presumably positive, as Olson, in a prayer-like manner, asks the moon for guidance, to “teach [him] too to swallow” certain facts of life, particularly “the purchase of [his] soul by love.25” Though a term of commerce, “purchase,” is used in this statement, it is presented simply as a fact “to swallow,” the true focus of this line is on the soul stemming from love.
This circular union that produces a soul reflects Jung’s explanation of the Gnostic birth of the anima. In this myth the feminine, which preceded the masculine, comes together in the shape of the uroboros, the snake eating its tail. At the center of the uroboros there is an empty void, like the cut, but upon the union the void is filled with the anima, or the soul. The myth adopted physical male and female presences who fulfilled this spiritual union, called Simon of Magus and Helen of Tyre. Helen was said to be a harlot who was the incarnated image of the original feminine anima imprisoned in her body, while Simon was the masculine creator who incarnated himself to save and unite with Helen.26 Though the feminine is represented as the sex that requires saving, she is saved from the false image she is forced to exist in, as a harlot, and one of Tyre. The connection to Olson’s Maximus of Tyre is evident, particularly because the Cut of Tyre can then be linked to the negative imagery surrounding the harlot Helen who partakes in the commerce of “love.” However, she does not represent an empty void, but a shell for the anima or soul.
Olson explicitly mentions the uroboros, the serpent that surrounds the united anima, in his Letter, May 2, 1959, where he compares the “lines of force” to “one line as taught as uroboros.27” Thus the forceful cut is contrasted with the infinite circle of the uroboros. Toward the end of “The Ocean,” Olson indirectly references the uroboros by stating that “the sun is in pursuit of itself,” as the sun follows the same circular path of rising and setting as it did the
25 The Maximus Poems, p 521 26 Mysterium Coniunctionis, p 136 27 The Maximus Poems, p 153
previous day, and therefore its head consumes its tail. Olson goes on to express that “the Real goes on forever,” while the Real earlier was described as that which “renews itself each year.” Here Olson breeds another homophonic pun on the term “Real,” which is similar to “Reel,” which innately engenders the image of a circular, spinning wheel that “goes of forever.28”
As a symbol of the perpetual recycling and renewal of the universe, the uroboros acts also as a swastika, or a fylfot, another Olsonian obsession that represents the perfect harmony and cyclicality of the Earth. However, the fylfot seems to act as the ideal that Man chooses to disregard in favor for the disunity of the Cut. In Jung, the image of the quaternity is presented in regards to the Western traditional Father-Son-Holy Spirit, but with the addition of the fourth feminine figure of Mary. As the Church only recognizes the Holy Trinity, it then seems that the feminine portion of the fylfot is Cut.29
28 The Maximus Poems, p 462 29 Mysterium Coniunctionis, p186
Olson recognizes this Cut in the fylfot as well in Maximus, to himself, as of “Phoenicians” when he physically divides the word “svastika.” The opening stanza references the fylfot as feminine then begins with “svas-” and is broken off with a dash that leads into the next stanza “tika” and immediately followed by “BREAK HER up as the lumber was broken up in the screw.” The feminine in the fylfot, in the twisting “screw” is broken off from her counterparts and thus the fylfot is left as a trinity, while a parenthetical voice demands “why was
she put up with so long? let in, at all?” In the process of the Cut, the feminine is repressed and negated. However, without this feminine aspect, “The SWASTIKA [is] broken up” and thus in
his perfect Olson feminine as complete,
and ideal fylfot, recognizes the necessary for cyclical union.
Olson laments a similar disunion in Maximus, to Gloucester, Sunday, July 19 by declaring that “Men
are so sure they know very many things, they don’t even know night and day are one.” Man does not recognize the implicit unity in night in day, in the moon and the sun, and in the
feminine and the masculine. Yet the image of the fylfot is littered throughout the poem, as nasturtiums are littered throughout the waters of the memorial service to fishermen lost at sea. The service is said to take place at the Cut, and as “the flowers” drift into the Cut “from the shore,30” an image of the perfect and fylfotic nasturtiums floating in the waters of the commercial division of the Cut is rendered. Olson attempts to place unity in the disunity.
Towards the end of The Maximus Poems, in the final untitled verses, Olson further attempts to unite the divisions of the Cut. The tides are attributed to the “Mother,” with “father, sun” set aside in parenthesis, presenting a direct opposite to the aforementioned poem of “Father Sea” entering the “skirts of the city,” acting as an intrusion on the feminine. Instead of Okeanos carving through the Earth with his waters, the “Mother of the tides” is portrayed as “swelling through the Cut Bridge.31” The image of “swelling” transforms the Cut to a more circular, round shape that coincides with Jung’s depiction of the moon as “the belly and womb of nature32.” Olson furthers this pregnant swelling by describing the inlet as the “Gut or Cut ocean” where a river pours though, thus uniting the circular Gut or belly with the narrow and dividing Cut33. Though the notion of the Cut has been negative, Olson swells it and fills it with flowers, seeking to reshape it into the whole fylfot.
Olson employs a similar method with the “mole” responsible for the Cut in Tyre and Gloucester. Though the mole may Cut through the land, Olson discovers the star-nosed Mole that twists and spins rather than Cuts, deeming it “the loveliest animal I believe I ever did see.34”
30 The Maximus Poems, p 159 31 The Maximus Poems, p 630 32 Mysterium Coniunctionis, p 130 33 The Maximus Poems, p 630 34 The Maximus Poems, p 396
In the final pages of the poem, Olson admits “it does take a mole to join Gloucester to the Nation,35” thus presenting the cutting mole not as a divider but a unifier.
Throughout his search for unity in The Maximus Poems, Charles Olson struggles with the heavy presence of the Cut in Gloucester and Tyre. As a manmade separation of Mother Earth, sliced for the purpose of commercial dominion and profit, the Cut is not only linked with the ownership of the land, but of the feminine. Olson’s negation of the Cut is a negation of the forced intrusion on the feminine that forges a gap between the sexes, as well as creates a fissure between Man and Earth. While Okeanos Cuts rivulets through Gaia, so does Man Cut through Earth, both masculine forces demonstrating the act of living on Earth rather that with Earth. This concept is furthered in Man’s dominion over the feminine, of being a “stud upon Earth,” “rap[ing] until love sifts,” rather than uniting in a uroboros circle and filling the void with “substance.” However, Olson demonstrates that even with the suppression and Cutting of the feminine, she is still a crucial part of the cycling fylfot, she still bears the children of the Earth. The poems end with a reference to Creation’s link to the Twist and the Nasturtium, declaring that “the Place of it All” is “Mother Earth Alone;” the poem concludes with a feminine portrayal of the world, and in Olson’s closing phrase he finally unites the feminine with the masculine as “my wife…and myself.36”
“Cut.” Def. 1. Oxford English Dictionary. Ask Oxford. Web. <http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/cut?view=uk>.
Jung, Carl G. Mysterium Conciunctionis. Vol. 14. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963. Print.
35 The Maximus Poems, p 631 36 The Maximus Poems, p 635
Olson, Charles. The Maximus Poems. Ed. George F. Butterick. Berkeley: University of California, 1960. Print.
“Remembering a Dismembered World” by Ian Mintz
Remembering a Dismembered World In the beginning of Charles Olson’s epopee, The Maximus Poems, Maximus of Gloucester addresses the reader, “You,” the “[i]solated person” who is entirely “local” and severed from the world, and offers the epic as a remedy for the reader’s isolation (Charles Olson 5, 16). It is through the process of reading that one becomes aware of the nature of her or his isolation: it is an illness or a “mu-sick” (14). This inimical “mu-sick” stems from a tendency to move away from a unified “mass,” a “polis / not as localism,” and toward the alienated and “torn” self (14, 7). Maximus traces the movement toward the self to René Descartes’s egoism, which exaggerates the “value” of “man alone” and engenders individuation, commodification, “hierarchy,” and “sort[s] of company,” as opposed to a unified and equal “sort of company: all” (249, 98). To cure readers, Maximus describes the many manifestations of the twist, the continuous movement of phenomena, as sources of unity and truth. He also urges his audience to participate fully in the world by becoming an active part of the poem’s movement, which acts as another remedy, and to do this, Maximus asserts that readers must “own [their] body” (430).
For Maximus, a major source of the “mu-sick” is Descartes’s philosophy and egoistic line of thinking (14). When Descartes “[is] the value,” worldviews move inward (249). Descartes pushes “the universe” out and places “man alone” at the center (249). This, as Maximus expresses, creates a paradigm shift: “after 1630,” Descartes’s egoism influences metaphysics,
poetics, and eventually, the tendency in today’s society to be skeptical not about the individual, but about the reality of phenomena and the existence of the mysterious other (249). This skepticism, though it is valuable in the Western tradition of philosophical discourse, produces an inability to commune with others and to understand, or perhaps to admit, that humans are, in fact, tesserae in the mosaic of the universe. In other words, humans are not “man alone,” the sole coherent pieces of a disjointed universe (249). The idea of “man alone” is a conceptual “mu- sick” that breeds an obsession with the individual (249). It is a sickness that separates humanity from the workings of the world. Individuals, then, are “[i]solated person[s]” (16); they are beings that float out of the context of their environment.
Maximus equates Descartes with Thucydides, the Greek historian of the fifth-century B.C.E., who, like Descartes, separates individuals from their context. By removing Greek myth, the narrative and the life of the people, Thucydides establishes a scientific history. This cold approach forgets the vibrant muthos—the religious tradition that lives in Thucydides’s time—in favor of cold, hard logos, the rational discourse, or word. The result of Thucydides’s approach is a history that does not fully interact with the world as it exists. Greek myth, though imaginative, exists in the world of the fifth-century B.C.E. Greeks. It is thus an active aspect of Greek history and a component of individuals’ worldviews at the time. The dismissal of myth yields a division of the historical figure from the historical context.
“THE PICTURE” outlines a version of Thucydides’s method: “1623 voyage of discovery, ship unknown, Bushrod backer / (John Watts factor?) (120). It is an outline, a distant shorthand, that summarizes the events; it is a so-called true account that silly myth does not distort. The hard facts in “THE PICTURE,” however, remove the context entirely. The poem
quantifies human beings when it lists “32 men,” and it records “140 tons” as if men and tons are both units of weight (120). Also, when one compares the cursory account, “Watts took salt” in “THE PICTURE” on page 120 to the version of the story in “The Picture” on page 119, one sees that “THE PICTURE” is missing information. In “The Picture,” “John Watts [takes] salt” that Morton “[says] / [is] his, or [is] committed to his charge” (119). This record includes not only the event, but also the context. Indeed, the persona in “THE PICTURE” dictates an event inventory and an indifferent history. “THE PICTURE” is purely factual, but because it lists facts and does not consider context, it does not tell the truth.
“14 MEN STAGE HEAD WINTER 1624/5” makes an inventory of commodities such as “15 lbs candles” and “copper kettles” in the same way that the historian conveys facts in “THE PICTURE,” and this, for Maximus, is another case of “mu-sick” (122, 14). The writer of veritable laundry list wrenches the commodities from any sort of context. True, the spelling and the prices imply a milieu: “7 hhds,” or hogsheads, “of beere or sider 53/4 the turn” are “20. 0. 0” pounds (122). The list, though, suffers from a dearth of personality, and the speaker says simply that “they,” the fourteen men, “[require]” the listed goods without a reason for their requirement (122). One can see that the focus in “14 MEN” is entirely on the the facts: the quantities and prices. This meticulous, and likely obsessive, attention to quantity creates a preoccupation with wealth, and this wealth produces “sort[s] of company” (98). That is to say, whoever possesses the most wealth becomes superior, and a hierarchy begins to emerge.
Hierarchy is a mark of severe disunity. It is, by definition, unequal and discriminating. According to Maximus, one seeks “a private way among debris / of common wealths” in the United States (136). The plural, “common wealths,” implies that there is no single
commonwealth, that the common good is an illusion, and that society is not egalitarian (136). To put it differently, the “private way” undermines the common good (136). Instead of considering the common good, one pursues personal interest with the hope of outdoing another. This fragments and stratifies the population by excessively facilitating the individual’s goals, and it only perpetuates the miasma of the “mu-sick” (14).
Hierarchy, the creation of “sort[s] of company,” is the cause of the destroyed meaning of the swastika (98). By asserting Aryan supremacy, Nazis establish a racial hierarchy. It is important to note that Nazis, in the act of proclaiming their racial purity, divide themselves from the world community. As apparently superior individuals, they are somehow more whole—more human—than others. Because they are exceptional, however, they sever themselves from the rest of the world. They are egoistic outsiders plagued by the “mu-sick” of their alienated self- importance (14). In this way, they rend themselves from their environment by exaggerating the “value” of their stock of “man alone” (249). Now, the symbol stigmatized by its association with the Nazi party is the swastika. After Adolf Hitler appropriates the swastika, a mark that signifies luck and fortune, he hacks the meaning of the unified symbol in half.
Maximus uses the form of the text, “svas- / / tika,” to embody the swastika’s torn meaning (181). First, Maximus calls the swastika a fylfot. Maximus likely uses “fylfot” because does not connote the Nazi violence and racism that “swastika” connotes. The very necessity to use “fylfot” instead of “swastika” in order to eliminate negative associations proves that the swastika, as a representation of universal harmony, is broken. Later in The Maximus Poems, Maximus uses svastika, the English-alphabet transliteration of the Sanskrit word (181). The transliteration marks another departure from the swastika’s original meaning. To produce a
transliteration, a word—a kind of symbol similar to the drawn swastika—must encounter a new culture that does not fully understand the original word’s connotations and denotations. That is, a transliteration does not simply allow other cultures to pronounce a word. A word, in fact, acquires new meanings and connotations within new cultures. However, what is more important is that Maximus tears the “svas- / / tika” perfectly in half with a stanza break on the page (181). With four letters on each side and a stanza break separating the word, svastika is “NO LONGER” (181); it is dismembered, and the reality of the complete swastika untainted by Nazism cannot be remembered in its full glory.
Because a swastika is a lucky and auspicious symbol, Maximus plays with “luck out,” the familiar phrase, to convey the fact that the swastika’s old meaning is “NO LONGER” (181). He does this by placing a comma between the words when he says, “Luck, out” (181). To “luck out,” at least in American English, is a good thing. “Luck, out,” a positive idiom, becomes the exact opposite with a comma in the right, or perhaps the wrong, place. The comma’s invasion spoils the meaning; the luck is gone. “The SWASTIKA,” which signifies “lucking out” in a sense, is now “broken up,” and the “Luck [is] out” (181).
The divided swastika and “Luck, out” illuminate an earlier passage in The Maximus Poems that contains “born of yourself, born” and “of yourself, torn” (7). In this passage, the comma expresses the separation that one perceives between the self and the rest of the world (7). The self, especially as Descartes views it, is “torn” from phenomena. If one understands one’s place in the universe this way, the self is itself torn. This is because an individual is not an autonomous organism. Other organisms not only contribute, but also make life possible for the self, so the self is also “of a bone of a fish / of a straw / or will / of a color” (7). The comma,
then, expresses the perceived separation between the born self and and phenomena: “born of yourself, born / of hay and cotton struts, / […] street-pickings, wharves, and weeds” (7).
On page 150 of The Maximus Poems, a bursting map goes beyond stanza breaks and punctuational inclusions in order to embody the breaking up of the landscape and an individual’s lack of direction in a disunited world. Instead of using standard punctuation or stanza breaks to divide the text, Maximus makes the line, the traditional course for the English language on a page, explode, and when the text erupts, it becomes a map. As text, the map appears to be a disjointed mess: “140” suspends without context and a falling “o / o / o” crashes on “Meeting House / Green” (150). Much of the text, “Babson / house,” for example, is askew (150). The aslant text adds to the disordered quality of map; the text goes every which way, so it hardly provides any kind of direction for the reader, and as a result, the reader faces a confused course on a jumbled landscape that does not provide a place or a route.
The borders of nations are imagined geographical boundaries on maps that create “sort[s] of company” (98). Through Herman Melville’s quote, “’We are not a narrow tribe of men … we are not a nation, so much as a world,’” the reader realizes that nations house “narrow tribe[s] of men” (599). Nations confine their denizens and sever them from the rest of the world. To put it differently, a nation creates individuals not of the world, but of a “polis / […] as localism” (14). They produce people of provinces, the people who are the “islands” that Maximus addresses: “my Nova Scotians, / Newfoundlanders, / […] / [and] Isolatos,” an Italian adjective that means “isolated” (16). In this manner, the populations of nations become sorts of company. In a world of divided nations, there is no equal “sort of company: all” (98).
In The Maximus Poems, the Earth’s continental drift, or the Earth’s coming “apart at the seams,” demonstrates a geographical event that, like a world of nations, separates people (168). The result of this rift is not only the creation of apparently separate continents, the scattered debris of Pangaea, but also oceans—deep hollows—between people. Because continental drift destroys the unified supercontinent, the drift represents a worldwide example of individuation and alienation.
To present the remnants of the supercontinent, Maximus starts with the poem, “Letter # 41 [broken off]” in Maximus Poems IV, V, VI. Before the poem, the section opens not with an illustration of Pangaea, but with a drawing of a later assortment of continents, Gondwanaland and Laurasia, that begin to split. With this image in mind, the reader approaches “Letter #41 [broken off].” The brackets around “broken off” compartmentalize, or isolate, the words. One sees that “[broken off]” is, in a sense, a symbol of a land mass that will become its own continent; “[broken off]” is a detached entity similar to a continent that diverges from the supercontinent. At the beginning of “Letter #41 [broken off],” the reader recognizes that stanzas take the shape of broken boxes that embody the Earth’s continents. This becomes especially clear when one of the boxed stanzas contains tectonic features such as a “granite / horst” and terrestrial debris such as “terminal moraine” (175).
If one considers Maximus’s twist, the truth that threads “through everything / sewn in & binding / each seam,” one recognizes that though some continents calve, all of the continents move in concert (564). Indeed, the 200 to 300-million-year-old Pangaea is an example of the continents’ former unity, but in today’s world, oceans separate continental crust. In this sense, continental drift appears to fracture the world. The truth, though, is that some plates come
together. For example, Africa is advancing toward Europe. What is even more striking is that the continental crust will eventually, about 250 million years from now, form a new supercontinent, Pangaea Ultima. In fact, continental drift is cyclical, and other supercontinents, such as Pannotia, precede Pangaea. The continents also all move, albeit at a snail’s pace, constantly, so one can understand them as synchronized swimmers emerging out of the ocean. Though the continents appear manifold, they exist as “the Universe,” “multifold [with] so many stars etc,” that possesses a “completeness” with the rising life and falling death of phenomena (564). As a needle and thread snake through fabric and bind “each seam,” the twisting cycle of continental movement unifies continental drift (564).
“The Twist,” the poem that starts on page 86, illustrates that Maximus’s twist is a revolving and interdependent unity. Initially, Maximus describes a “chanting” song that he performs with an infant: “Or he and I distinguish / between chanting, / and letting the song lie” (86). When the song falls, as “[Maximus’s] neap” or spring tide falls, the song continues to lie in its silent tune (86). That is, between Maximus’s chanting, the silent, receding song persists. With the song, Maximus refers to a rhythm: a rising chant and falling silence. The rise, to rise at all, requires the lower starting point, the fall. The revolution thus equally requires the high and the low, which is a requirement that unifies the high and the low in an inextricable union.
The “Bridge / where it goes out & in” is another symbol of exchange and movement that forms a unity in “The Twist” (89). People come and go—rise and fall—in their traversal of the bridge. These people, though perhaps from different cities on different sides of the bridge, cross it in order to experience and interact with the other side. The “Bridge” is a site of exchange and intersection, and it is a physical engineering feat that connects two previously disconnected
areas. In this way, the sides that the bridge connects are “tesserae,” disparate pieces of land, and the bridge is the “commissure,” the thread that allows the land to be one (269).
A brief digression from “The Twist” reveals another kind of commissure in The Maximus Poems that the line, “Old Norse/ Algonquin,” exhibits (286). Earlier in the epic, the reader witnesses a destruction of meaning when Maximus inserts a comma between “Luck, out,” which is an act that eliminates the luck in the phrase, “luck out” (181). In “Old Norse/ Algonquin,” Maximus places a virgule between the names associated with two different peoples and traditions. One inserts a virgule to indicate an option: “her/his,” for example. The virgule joins “Old Norse” and “Algonquin” by equalizing them. The option to pick either tradition makes the traditions interchangeable, but the slash maintains their identities. In a wider sense, one sees that because the slash offers an option and that both combine to make a unity. For a true unity, one can place a slash between all imagined and real things to illustrate their interdependence, ad infinitum.
Now, back to “The Twist,” which explains “the whole of it,” the twisting cycle of the world, through the “pin-point” of a flower (89). Through the microcosm of the flower’s lifespan, Maximus shows that “the mass / drives on” as a consortium: though flowers break off and die, they join “the whole of it” to turn “in this day’s sun” (89). That is to say, a flower’s death produces detritus, which is organic matter that contributes to the production of new life, and this new life will grow “in this day’s sun” (89). The flower, then, is a symbol for a cyclical principle, a principle in which “the whole of it” participates (89).
In relation to this, it is useful to think of the poem, “Part of the Flower of Gloucester” on page 297 of the epic. When one normally thinks of a flower, a pleasant scent comes to mind. A
pleasing appearance, perhaps an assortment such as “nose-gay,” a bouquet, also arrives in the mind’s eye (632). If one limits his or her understanding of a flower to these things, one only thinks of one aspect of a flower’s life. The reality is that a flower’s roots cling to “putrefaction,” “rubbish,” and “odor / which is true” (297). The title of the poem is particularly apt because the poem portrays the “Part of the Flower of Gloucester” that one tends to ignore, while calling attention to the fragrant, beautiful part that one appreciates. This poem expounds “the whole of it,” for it exposes both sides of a flower’s life, and it tells the story of the flower’s participation in the twist; the poem reveals the flower’s emergence from death, the rotting soil, into budding life (89).
Finally, the last lines’ juxtaposition in “The Twist” conveys unity: “there, the waters of several of them the roads / here, a blackberry blossom” (90). An object that is “there” is, in a way, inaccessible because it is not right here or at hand. To combine “here” and “there,” Maximus places the faraway “there” directly above “here” on the page. In “there, the waters of several of them roads,” there are plural nouns, or multitudes, that are in the distance (90). The jumbled syntax, “the waters of several of them roads,” expresses the vast space between the speaker and the phenomena (90). Perhaps from a bird’s-eye view, the speaker observes that the waters, or oceans, are roads for ships. The line that begins with “here” takes the confused syntax and the plural nouns of the previous line and ends with a single, concrete flower, “a blackberry blossom” (90). Together, these two lines combine the distant multitude and the simple, nearby flower. In this manner, the big and the small make one.
The small, individual words that Maximus derives from various traditions in the poem, “HEPIT·NAGA·ATOSIS,” construct a large and meaningful twist. Hepit is the Hurrian goddess
of the sky, “NAGA” is a Hindu or Buddhist snake deity, and “ATOSIS” is the Algonquin snake man (291). Though the interpuncts appear to separate the words, they actually combine them. In a dictionary, an interpunct divides syllables. This implies that “HEPIT·NAGA·ATOSIS” is actually one word. Yes, all of the words are at least two syllables on their own, but visually, the reader thinks of a dictionary entry of the word, Hepitnagaatosis, divided by interpuncts. In the word, the traditions of the Hurrians, the Hindus and Buddhists, and the Algonquins merge to form a serpentine deity. Not only is it serpentine, but it is also androgynous because Hepit is a goddess and Atosis is a snake man. One can imagine it undulating, or twisting, between forms and the various traditions from which it stems.
If the English slaughter the “Serpent” god, they will “be in danger / of their lives,” all the way back to London; they will commit a karmic error that is a manifestation of the twist (291). The English are likely adherents of Christianity, a religious tradition that demonizes the serpent. If one looks at Genesis, one sees that the serpent and Eve are responsible for The Fall. This explains why the English want to shoot the serpent that is a god, a capital-“S” Serpent, for the Hurrians, the Hindus, and others (290). There are worldwide consequences for murdering a serpent because it is a deity in so many cultures: “(upon a rock at Cape Ann, Josselyn,” and all the way to London (291). The parenthesis that precedes “upon” opens a karmic chain. The parenthetical phrase does not close, and it does not terminate with a full stop. Instead, a single parenthesis projects the material that follows it all the way to London and, because there is not a period, beyond. If the English kill the serpent, karma—literally cause and effect—will push through a chain of interconnected things. Because Maximus uses a single parenthesis that opens and does not close, one gets the sense of a cause, a serpent’s death, opening a chain of effects that
goes on infinitely. It is not just an angry god that the English will face. It is a greater power of cause and effect. This karmic error affects “the whole of it,” the entire twisting cycle of the world, because the single action threads “through everything / sewn in & binding / each seam” (89, 564).
In light of the discussion of karma, a principle of Hinduism and Buddhism, it is appropriate to turn to “December 22nd,” which demonstrates Maximus’s awareness of the Earth’s movement, its twist, and impermanence through a Zen Buddhist garden. Around December 22nd, the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice announces not only the progressive rise of daylight, but also the approach of a new solar year; the winter solstice, in other words, signifies a shift—a time of movement—for Maximus of Gloucester. Olson’s “December 22nd” also describes a high tide, a kind of flood, that will soon ebb (482). Because the winter solstice and the tidal flow in the poem represent an ever-changing and revolving movement, they signify impermanence.
Central to Buddhism is the concept of impermanence, that is, the mutability of phenomena, and the “whole / full landscape,” temporarily “melting / into the sea,” is “a Buddhist / message” of impermanence (482). It is not, however, just any Buddhist message: it is a lesson that “Japanese / Buddhism” promulgates with Chinese Buddhism “behind it” (482). With Chinese Buddhism, or Ch’an, as the impetus behind the message of Japanese Buddhism, one naturally thinks of Zen, the Japanese equivalent of Ch’an. Sand in a Zen garden “symbolizes water,” and “the stones signify mountains or islands” (Heinrich Dumoulin 230). As a result, the tides in “December 22nd” are symbolic of furrowed sand in Zen gardens, and “Half Moon Beach” becomes a garden stone floating in Zen gardens’ “sharp drawn,” or carefully raked, sea
(Olson 482). With their stones that are land masses, their sand that is the ocean, and their “moss [that] suggests a forest,” Zen gardens and the symbolic Zen garden, the landscape in “December 22nd,” are microcosms of the macrocosm, the entire world (Dumoulin 230). The landscape is thus a Buddhist model for the impermanent nature, the constant twist or the dead flower that is part of “the mass / [that] drives on” in “The Twist,” of the world.
The twist, finally, unifies The Maximus Poems and provides an exercise for the reader’s awareness. Readers of the epic find myriad examples of the twist: the poem, “The Twist”; the spiral, written in Charles Olson’s handwriting on page 479; the padma, the flower “ALL / issues from”; and the “Star-Nosed Mole,” whose nose bursts as a blooming flower, with its spinning, or twisting, “star-wheel” nose (181, 396, 395). Some of the less obvious examples include the numerous appearances of “dog” and various manifestations of it, including “Can 9,” or canine (188, 302). The point is that Maximus scatters the same or similar images throughout the epopee. This produces a kind of twisting movement back to the previous images. At the very least, the reader remembers seeing the words in earlier parts of The Maximus Poems. This memory acts as a connecting thread for the twisting images, so the reader’s memory is “through everything / sewn in & binding / each seam” (564). This proves to be an exercise for one’s awareness and an act of participating in the world because one must actively recognize the recurring symbols of the twist.
The mantra, the repetitive twist, on page 311 of The Maximus Poems, “he who walks with his house on / his head is heaven,” conveys a continuous present and a complete presence in the world. The phrase repeats nearly three times, but it cuts off at “head” the third time. One can understand this end as abrupt and terminating, or one can view the mantra as incomplete simply
as it exists on the page. That is, the poem extends, in the mind of the speaker, beyond the text on the page. It is likely an incomplete poem, for there is no full stop to suggest an end, and the phrase already repeats enough to communicate the poem’s message of repetition. In Buddhist meditation, one repeats a mantra ultimately in order to achieve nirvana, “a present reality, a mode of perceiving and being in the world” (Conrad Hyers 288). This present reality is the world as it exists. The final word of Maximus’s mantra, “heaven,” suggests that the phrase’s purpose, and more specifically its repetition, is to attain a heavenly awareness akin to the state associated with nirvana (Olson 311).
What stands out meaningfully about the recurring blank pages on pages 284 and 288, for example, is the lack of language—the lack of meaningful expression—on the pages, and this lack of expression allows the reader to be fully present in the world. The empty pages point toward the physical experience of reading a book. One reads words and turns pages without awareness. True, readers recognize words and associate meaning with them, but they are usually unaware of the act of reading: readers are unaware of sitting or reclining, of their eyes scanning words, and of their fingers turning pages. All of a sudden, with the help of the blank pages, readers realize that they are reading a book in the world. This is an activity that engenders an experience of the “real / [that] is always worth the act of lifting it, treading it” (96).
These interactions, such as recognizing that one is reading, encourage not an alienation from the world, but an engagement of it, and in order to heal oneself and become whole, one must somehow enjoy an active participation with the movement “of hay and cotton struts, / of street-pickings,” and the rest of the innumerable phenomena (7). To illuminate how to do this, it is useful to consider these lines: “one loves only form” and “form only comes / into existence
when / the thing is born” (7). Love’s provenance is not an ethereal place; love owes its sentiment to the material world. If one thinks this way, all that exists is tangible, and nothing is impossibly out of reach in the spiritual realm. One can concern oneself with “own[ing the] body” and doing “the world’s,” or nature’s, “businesses” by being fully present (430, 56). Like the twist itself, one must be undivided from phenomena and the body: “The mind, Ferrini / is as much of a labor / as to lift an arm” flawlessly (27). To flawlessly lift an arm is to wear “the splendor,” “the nakedness,” and “the perfection” of the body by living completely within it (98). As a result of living completely within the body, people become aware of their environment, for they see form in themselves and the same form in the “bone of a fish,” “a straw, or will,” and everything else that they are “born / of” (7).
Instead of loving an inaccessible, ethereal God, Maximus cherishes a god that is “fully physical” (381). Indeed, this is not the altostratus-dwelling god, for when Maximus looks up where many would imagine an anthropomorphic tyrant, he sees “its form / through everything” in “all parts, under / and over” (343). Maximus worships the world, the form, as it appears. In fact, the twist is the form. It is everything, in all its parts, at once. To be clear, the twist distinguishes between the parts; it does not crudely lump individuals together as “The Big False Humanism” does (379). The twist maintains the necessity of individuals by including them in the whole. In the twist, each tessera maintains its place in the mosaic, and no individual suffers alienation or exclusion.
Works Cited Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism: A History. Volume 2. Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2005.
Hyers, Conrad. “Swimming in the Ocean of Becoming: A Zen Perspective on Death.” The Inner Journey: Views from the Buddhist Tradition. Ed. Philip Novak. Sandpoint: Morning
Light Press, 2005. Olson, Charles. The Maximus Poems. Ed. George F. Butterick. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1985.
“‘Pound, a person in the poem’ and Olson’s Difference” by Joe Wolff
Pound and Olson, two practitioners of the Epic Poem as it existed last century. Giants they were, each in their own fashion. They taught us, through their arrangement of paratactic words on a page, that poems can be a force field of energy. As Olson is sometimes called “a poor man’s Pound,”i there is good reason to identify the key differences between these two, to, at the very least, dispel any hesitation over what Olson has accomplished apart from Pound. Pound asks the reader near the end of The Cantos,ii “ I have brought the great ball of crystal;/ who can lift it?/Can you enter the great acorn of light?”(815). Light is the central principle, the thing closest to absolute truth in The Cantos. Pound works (and struggles) to make his Cantos cohere from a center. The structure of The Cantos collapses inwards, to make the eventual travel upwards to the light (what Dante called God) through a hierarchy of relationships. Whereas The Maximus Poems bursts outward from the skin of the poem:iii “the skin itself, the meeting edge of man
1 and external reality, is where all that matters does happen…they had better be taken as one.”iv The Maximus Poems seek to exist off the page, or to put it more precisely where the page meets the reader’s eye. His poetry doesn’t form a strict hierarchy like Pound. Olson interacts with the environmental forces around him, pressing in on his skin, while he pushes outward through the projection of his own voice. While Pound creates an ideology, Olson presents a phenomenology.
In Letter 27, for instance, while Olson may “compel Gloucester to yield, to change,” he does so, however, as “a geometry/ of spatial nature.” The poet is an extension of his environment and his environment is an extension of him.
I have this sense,
that I am one
with my skin
Plus this—plus this
that forever the geography
which leans in
on me I compel (M, 185)
The force of Olson’s poetics comes from his inner collaboration with the forces outside of him. The two sides meet as one in the skin of experience, that active participation (proprioception) of feeling for forces which push against oneself and meeting these forces with one’s own force. Through Olson’s actual bodily stance, as it is situated, as a vector within the world (“the Figure of Outward” he calls Creeley, and wouldn’t mind is we called him that too), Olson’s poetics also inhabits the same somatic space which his philosophy tries describes.
“Projective Verse” is an attempt to reconnect our poetic diction to our actual bodily functions. “I take it that PROJECTIVE VERSE teaches, is, this lesson, that that
verse will only do in which a poet manages to register both the acquisitions of his ear and the pressures of his breath”.v While Olson’s diction relies on the lungs and ear functioning together as a single unit by which to speak and create his poems, similarly, The Maximus Poems, as a text, relies on the active eyes of the reader to make connections for him or herself and to incorporate his or her own perspective into the text. By bearing witness to the form and content of Olson’s bearing witness, the reader thus creates a sort of private society between oneself and Olson.
For after all, “polis is/ eyes”(M, 30). It is through our eyes that we recognize the words which Olson repeats. Responsible citizens of the world watch the world, and speak up when their conscience impels to. Just as, “the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE/ the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE,” is meant to give a base for composing a poem(CP 242). The Maximus Poems can be said to be preparatory reading material for a new way of watching the world. “FIELD COMPOSITION,” is more than just writing, it is how the poet “ventures…puts himself into the open,” i.e. the world(CP 240).
The objects of the poem are for Olson, the means to understand and enter into the same space as the objects of the world:
(We now enter, actually, the large area of the whole poem, into the FIELD, if you like, where all the syllables and all the lines must be managed in their relations to each other.) It is a matter, finally, of OBJECTS, what they are, what they are inside a poem, how they got there, and, once there, how they are to be used…every element in an open poem (the syllable, the line, as well as the image, the sound, the sense) must be taken up as participants in the kinetic of the poem just as totally as do those other objects create what we know as the world. (CP 243
Through entering The Maximus Poems, one enters Olson’s example of how to look at
the world. Participation with the “participants in the [poem’s] kinetic[s]” helps
guide one to decipher out the “elements” and “objects” for “what we know as the world.”
Compared to Olson’s “Figure of Outward,” Pound’s enscribes a structured frame around content of The Cantos. Although Pound did write, “Literature does not exist in a vacuum,”vi he seems to look more to the past than future as an ideal. Pound’s work can be said to value the heritage and tradition of the past more that Olson’s does. Although Olson groups Pound, along with Williams, as a forefather of projective verse, he infers that Pound’s work could use improvement in order to get actually there, that is, where he sees their work projecting into the future.
We are only at its beginnings, and I think that the Cantos make “dramatic” sense than do the plays of Mr. Eliot, it is not because I think they have solved the problem but because the methodology of the verse in them points a way by which, one day, the problem of larger content and of larger forms may be solved(CP 248).
Writing that essay 1950, Pound is the best that Olson can find, but not the end of the
road. While The Cantos are painted as the dawn of open verse for some, and The Cantos do open up through their “fugal structure” and use of subject rhymes, the “hierarchy of values”vii which Pound props up The Cantos with feels at times subject to the “suck of symbol which has increased and increased since the great Greeks first promoted the idea of a transcendent world of forms”(CP 161). Indeed after WWII, with Fascist Italy over, Pound was left “to dream [his] Republic” up like Plato (C 78). As Olson observes in a letter to Creeley from 1950, when Pound writes of goddesses in the Pisans, “he goes literary.”viii The parts in the Pisan Cantos which really “scored” are when Pound opens his description up to his environment, “that is such gentiles as rain, grass, bird on a wire, 5, now 3, Metechevsky or whatever, tents,
trilling, rather that the thrustings.” It was this inquisitive eye for the detail of one’s surroundings, which Olson took and developed from Pound. In “A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn” Olson even suggests barbed wire as a piece of work worthy of investigation.ix
Despite Olson distinction of Pound as projective and Eliot as not, and Pound, despite arguing with Eliot over certain details nevertheless shared Eliot’s stance regarding tradition. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” Eliot writes, “In a peculiar sense [the poet] will be judged by the standards of the past.” Pound defended Eliot on this point. “A lot of questions asked in that essay of Eliot’s cannot be dodged, like the question of whether there need be any change from the Dantesque scale of values or the Chaucerian scale of values. If so, how much?”x Pound is famous for writing “only emotion endures,” yet in The Cantos, much of the emotional value is tinged with nostalgia, “What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage” (C 541). Pound sounds rather conservative by today’s standards, radical even, to suggest Western society may need not to change our “scale of values” to far from the world of Dante or Chaucer. Yet then again Pound’s archaic values, despite the political and ethical mistakes they caused him in life, remain part of central charm and insight in The Cantos.
So The Cantos pointed in a direction Olson he was already going. He himself described the differences between how Pound and his vision history for the Paris Review:
Ezra’s are optative; mine are decisive. I love Ezra for all the boxes he has kept. He really is a canto-‐maker. I couldn’t write a canto if I sat down and deliberately tried. My interest is not in cantos. It’s in
another condition of song, which is connected to mode and has therefore to do with absolute actuality. It’s so completely temporal.xi
When Pound was on trial for treason in Washington, and before starting The Maximus Poems, Olson had already viewed making Cantos as an act of negation, of cutting, and of killing or getting rid of what doesn’t or won’t fit in. Around the same time Pound wrote to his lawyer that, “Olson saved my life,”xii
Olson was also able to write, “They’ll cant your body, canto maker.”xiii In “A Lustrum for You, E.P.” Olson allows himself to criticize his elder in way he did not express while in the presence of the master. Although Charles Olson and Ezra Pound is an interesting account by Olson while in the early stages of being a poet of his influential visits with Pound, reading them, without an awareness of Pound’s larger influence on Olson’s work, can lead one to concentrate with solely on Olson’s disgustion with Pound’s fascism and anti-‐Semitism.
The Maximus Poems identify Pound as “a person of the poem” on top of the page that gathers a sort of constellation of names (M 193). While some figures in the poem, such as Ferrini, which is the name below Pound’s on this page, always seem to have a negative function, Pound’s function in Olson’s epic is more enigmatic and twisted. Pound makes his first entrance, in Letter 6, as a mythical mystical icon dressed for the occasion.
“the great man, in his black coat and wide hat, the whole man/ wagging, the swag/ of Pound”(M 32). Here Olson seems to express great admiration of Pound through his portrayal of him. However in the conclusion of Letter 6, after dealing with his heroes Olson dissolves his these hierarchies with one swift somatic leap of his pen. There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as
mass, there are only/ eyes in all heads,/ to be looked out of” (M 33). The hierarchy of relation disintegrates through simple observation void of any individual ego.
In 1945 Olson kept a notebook while reading The Cantos XXXI-XLI.xiv Here Olson writes to himself excitedly amidst his personal discovery:
Maybe Pound discloses to you a method you spontaneously reached for in all this talking and writing…But shud you no best him? Is his form not inevitable enough to be used as your own? Let yourself be derivative for a bit. This is a good and natural act. Write as the father to be the father.
Olson envisioned himself in the same position of Zeus, before he overthrew Chronos,
his father (of which Hesiod’s version of this narrative forms the content for the beginning of “MAXIMUS, FROM DOGTOWN”).
“Maximus, to Gloucester, Letter 15,” part III is filled with so many Poundian references to almost be called an imitation of him, and yet is most surely from Olson’s own perspective.
I quote the whole part of this section to present a full cross section, through an interconnected close reading of this particular piece, to help delve into Pound’s influence across all of The Maximus Poems:
And for the water-‐shed, the economics & poetics thereafter? Three men, coincide:
you will find Villon in Fra Diavolo, Elberthubbardsville, N.Y.
and the prose is Raymond’s, boston, or Brer Fox, Rapallo, Quattrocento-‐by-‐the-‐Beach,# 429
the American epos, 19-‐
02 (or when did Barton Barton Barton Barton and Barton?
how it can be, it is
padded or uncomforted, your lost, you
(o Statue, o Republic, o Tell-‐A-‐Vision, the best is soap.
The true troubadours are CBS.
is for Cokes by Cokes out of
(M 74-‐75) The first line is a reference to how “In English the poetics became meubles— furniture-‐-‐/there (after 1630” as he clarifies in “A Later Note on/ Letter # 15”(249). The proximity “poetics” next to “furniture” seems to identify poetry as a kind of commodity. The Cantos phrase the problem of art becoming a commodity through their constant vilifying of usury: “with usura the line grows thick” (C 229). Olson was no doubt familiar with the Poundian conflation of the aesthetic with an economic ethos, as Pound sates it here for an essay on the “Immediate Need of Confucius.” xv
You can probably date any Western work of art by reference to the ethical estimate of usury prevalent at the time of that work’s composition; the greater the component of tolerance for usury the more blobby and messy the work of art. This kind of thought distinguishes good from evil, down into details of commerce, rises into the quality of line in paintings and into the clear definition of the word written.
Pound and Olson both equated good art as an aid to help lead towards a more perfect society. Pound admired the gritty style of Francois Villon (1431-‐ca.1463), best known for “The Testament.” Villon’s diagnostic style is one of an outsider due to his life in crime. It was no accident Pound identified with Villon where in his Pisan cage. Olson also identified with this same outsider perspective, which comes from Villon through Pound, for after all The Maximus Poems start, “Off-‐shore”(M 5).
In “How to Read” Pound writes:
After Villon and for several centuries, poetry can be considered as fioritura, as an efflorescence, almost an effervescence, and without any new roots… One must emphasize one’s contrasts in the quattrocento. One can take Villon as pivot for understanding them. After Villon, and having begun before his time, we find this fiotura, and for centuries we find little else. (Literary Essays 28-‐29)
“Brer Fox” was T.S. Eliot’s nickname for Pound. As the name implies, it allude
to Pound’s mischievous side, thus putting him in the same categorical lineage as Villon. Ezra Pound lived in Rappallo, a town northwest Italy, from 1924-‐1945, and returned there after his release from St. Elizabeths Hospital. It was in this rural environment that Pound grew isolated from America. Olson’s specific mention of Pound’s prose, in the poem above, as opposed to his poetry has specific connotations. In Olson’s “Canto” journals of his visits to Pound during 1946, Olson writes “I had said tentatively I thought his prose has had more influence on me than is verse line as of now.”xvi In Pound’s essays he uses a more discursive rambling prosody (especially in Guide to Kulchur) than he tends to allow in his poetry. Olson seems to have borrowed from the content of Pound’s prose as a base for his poetics. Olson’s poetry is more “prosy” that Pound’s poetry. While The Cantos employs the sparse method of the Chinese ideogram; Olson in his Maximus Poems, would often
use a more discursive method, inherited by such prose writers as Jung, Whitehead, Melville, and the Prose of Ezra Pound.
The Quattrocento, or fifteenth century, was the height of the Italian Renaissance, admired by Pound: “Quattrocento, 1450—1550, the vital part of the Renaissance”. “#/429” is 1429 with a pound symbol replacing the digit for one. Perhaps it is a reference by Olson that Pound is the first person in the tradition that he is follows. Or more likely it seems to be a reference to Pound being stuck in the box of this era. Pound believed the Quattrocento as originating from the neo-‐ Platonism brought over by Gemistus Plethon to Italy.
Gemistus Plethon brought over a species of Platonism to Italy in the 1430s…And they say Gemisto found no one to talk to, or more generally he did the talking. He was not a proper polytheist, in this sense: His gods come from Neptune, so that there is a single source of being, aquatic”xvii
Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur, just because it razzldazzles History. And any Learning. But its loss is exactly that. Plus the poet’s admitted insistence he will stay inside the Western Box, Gemisto, 1429 A.D.,xviii
In the second Maximus volume, where “Pound, a person of the poem” is written on
the top, in the lower right hand corner there is written:
The Renaissance a box
the economics & poetics thereafter
As a Confucist, Pound had deep allegiance toward his forbearers. “I do not think that
I have a better mind than Confucius. Muncius’ great merit is that he did not think he
had a better mind than Confucius,” wrote Pound (SP 83).
Olson on the other hand, usually ended in rebellion against them, the apparent complications of an Oedipus complex. While Pound did not want to lose this heritage of the past, Olson viewed his sense of tradition as limiting, as a box. While Olson acknowledged Pound as his forbearer, he stayed that way, and was never more than that. The poet was responsible, Olson mind, to go beyond those before him or her“The stance involves, for example, a change beyond, and larger than, the technical, and may, the way things look, lead to new poetics and to new concepts from which some sort of drama, say, or of epic, perhaps, may emerge” (CP 239).
Olson had a sense of tradition, but it was so he had the base to go beyond it. Although Pound seems to have influenced Olson’s drive to change poetry, when Pound wants to change poetry he is usually trying to recover what was lost in the past.
In these respects he is closer to Eliot’s view that, “fitting in is a test of its value.” Pound again: “Be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it” (LE 5).
While Pound could be said to have picked the first option of acknowledgment, Olson seems to have picked the path of concealment.
“The American epos, 19-‐/02” could, as Butterick suggests, be the year that marks the beginning of commercial imperialism:
the year 1902 could be a date for the start of the national advertising. In his essay “History” from 1952, Olson speaks of the appearance of “that special American phenomenon, PROMOTION….sometime, say, around the beginning of the 20th century, a principle of pumping up wants, of turning human wants.” The specific year 1902 may also be intended to mark America as “the New Empire,” by using the date of Brooks Adams’ study of America’s emergence as a world power
entitled The New Empire, which Olson would review in the summer 1954 issue of the Black Mountain Review (106)
Olson would write a poem in the third Maximus volume, entitled “The NEW Empire” after the book by Brooks Adams(433). Brooks Adams (June 24, 1848, Quincy, Massachusetts -‐ February 13, 1927, Boston), was an American historian and a critic of capitalism. Adams was a great-‐grandson of John Adams, a grandson of John Quincy Adams, the youngest son of U.S. diplomat Charles Francis Adams, and brother to Henry Brooks Adams, philosopher, historian, and novelist, whose theories of history were influenced by his work. Ezra Pound had great admiration for the whole Adams clan. His Cantos LXXII-‐LXXI depict the life of John Adams. Pound also read, used, and promoted the work of all the Adams’ down the line.
Brooks Adams vision of history influenced Pound and Olson in different ways. Pound praises Brooks Adams for “seeing what had happened in history, seein’ it pretty clearly, foreseeing what would happen in HIS time, but not seeing beyond that.”xix Pound’s valued Brooks Adams insights into the “mercantile system.”xx Pound found Adams insights useful to fight the economic system. While in Olson’s work: “The social forces Pound sought to counteract thus become inseparable from the process of individual thought presented in [The Maximus Poems].”xxi The “Barton” repeated in the poem is an advertising executive. “Bruce Barton (1886-‐196).” How does the poet compete for an audience against advertising Barons like Barton? Rather than rage against usury as Pound would, Olson in his playful repetition, seems to recognize the corporate power without trying to replace it with anything better.
The next stanza of the poem “To celebrate…sneakers” seems to refer directly to Pound himself, from Olson’s memory of visiting him in St. Elizabeths Hospital. In letter 7, Olson’s wife asks him, referring to Olson’s more picturesque image of Pound in Letter 6,
“Why did you give him a black hat, and a brim?” she queried, “when he wore tennis shoes, and held his pants up with a rope?” (35) In “Letter 15” Olson’s reference to “padded, or uncomforted” could refer to a padded cell. This is where they put people, like Pound, who challenge the free market system. The grand master of high modernism is reduced to the image of a crazy man. For the next stanza Butterick quotes a letter to Creeley, c. February 1951: “it should be no wonder that Ez, at the same time he carries on a conspiracy to reform finance…says radio commercials are the best verse being now writ—VILLON [sic], or some soap…”(107). Olson’s does record that “we battled around the radio, the movies, the magazines, and national advertising, the 4 Plagues of our time.xxii However he seems to have misread what Pound wrote in “A Retrospect”: “Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap” (LE 6). Olson did not need an excuse to misread Pound, the more advantage, the more excuses Olson had to distance himself from his elder the better. By breaking Pound down to is equal or inferior, Olson felt he was actually continuing Pound’s job: “Ez’s epic solves problem by his ego: his single emotion breaks down to his equals or inferiors (so far as I can see only two, possibly, are admitted, by him, to be his betters—Confucius, & Dante.”xxiii
Olson writes to Creeley that he is looking for a
“ALTERNATIVE TO THE EGO-‐POSITION” or “culture displacing the state. Which is my guess as to why EZ sounds so flat…so much of Ez is, the 19th century stance.”xxiv
Melopoeia is Pound’s phrase to describe, “wherein the words are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property, which directs the bearing or trend of that meaning”(LE 25). The poem’s by the troubadour were based on “Melopoeia.” Olson writes in Projective Verse, “this push, than simply such as one as Pound put, so wisely, to get us started: “the musical phrase,” go by it, boys, rather than by, the metronome”(CP 240). “The true troubadours/ are CBS” feels bitterly ironic within the context of the whole epic. The troubadours were song and dance men, entertainers. To say that the true entertainers of today are on TV cannot be taking on their surface meaning, coming from a poet like Olson.
America enjoys advertising slogans and jingles more than Poetry. “Coke by Cokes out of/ Pause” is the “epos” of our day. In part “IV” of “Letter 15” Olson concludes the poem with “(o Po-‐ets, you/ should getta/ job” and this is what some of Olson’s contemporaries did. For instance, the environmental Zen poet Lew Welch, a friend of Gary Snyder, and who was also influenced by Pound, ironically also wrote the campaign slogan “RAID/KILLS/BUGS/DEAD”. Olson’s last word in the poem echo Pound’s lines in “Mauberley” that are spoken as a bit of advice by “Mr. Nixon,” when he says:
And no one knows, at sight a masterpiece. And give up verse, my boy,
There’s nothing in it.”xxv
The clean and glossy line of advertising gets dissected and twisted throughout The Maximus Poems. Underneath the clean line hides our more libidinal desires, “the underpart is, though stemmed, uncertain/ is, as sex is, as money are, facts!”(M 6). Olson quest exposes these urges in a way Pound was not able to. Pound insisted on clarity with “use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.”xxvi While Pound insists on sticking to one’s subject, Olson avoids the subject altogether.
He sd, “You go all around the subject.: and I sd, “I didn’t know it was a subject.” He sd, “You twist” and I sd, “I do.” (M 72).
Through avoiding a subject altogether, Olson opens up his poems to the impressions of the reader. Olson twisting was his way to entering the objects of the world. “Ojectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature…and those other creatures of nature…objects”(CP 247). Pound wanted his Cantos to cohere around a central subject and when they didn’t he freaked out. “Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me./ And I am not a demigod,/ I cannot make it cohere”(C 816). For his whole life Pound had an agenda, borrowed from Dante, running the scene behind The Cantos. “For forty years I have schooled myself…to write an epic poem which begins “In the dark forest”, crosses the Purgatory of human error, and ends in the light”(SP 167). But as Pound admitted toward the end of his life, he was “stuck.”xxvii In order to explain his dilemma, Pound tells a story:
“What are you drawing, Johnny?”
“God.” “But nobody knows what He looks like.”
“They will when I get through!”
That kind of confidence is no longer obtainable.xxviii
No longer can a poet make an impression upon society, that leaves the kind
of imprint Pound hoped to make: “the imprint of the intaglio depends/ in part on what is pressed under it…in/discourse/what matters is/ to get it across” (C 506). Olson’s open field is not solid or stable as Pound’s stadium or rink. “Tho’ the skater move fast or slow/ the ice must be solid” (C 650). He does not seek the clean line like Pound. When Olson presents us with the Goddess of wisdom, he has less of the literary ambition as Pound has to fit in with the tradition of the past. Olson, at least here, presents his purpose simply to help us find clarity, out there, into the open field of the journey ahead of us.
not the intaglio method or skating on the luxurious indoor rink but Saint Sophia herself our lady of bon voyage (M 308)
i < http://lewisturco.typepad.com/poetics/2009/03/charles-‐olson-‐the-‐ poormans-‐pound.html> Dec 8, 2009. ii Ezra Pound. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. (New York: New Directions, 1970).
Hereafter abbreviated C. iii Charles Olson. The Maximus Poems. (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1983). Hereafter abbreviated M. iv Charles Olson. Collect Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 161. Hereafter abbreviated CP v “Projective Verse.” CP, pp, 241. vi Ezra Pound. ABC of Reading. 1934. (New York: New Directions, 1960), p.
32. vii quoted in William Cookson. A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound. (New York: Persea Books, 1985), p. xxiii
viii Richard Sieburth, “Introduction” to The Pisan Cantos. (New York: New Directions, 2003), p. xvii
ix CP pp. 307
x Ezra Pound. “The Paris Review Interview”. The Paris Review. Issue 28,
Summer-‐Fall 1962 pp., 22. xi “The Paris Review Interview” Paris Review pp. 23. xii quoted from a letter of Pound’s in Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An
Encounter at St. Elizabeths. (New York: Paragon House, 1975), p. xv xiii Ibid., p. 3.
xiv Quoted in Butterick, George F. A Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 48. xv Ezra Pound. Selected Prose 1909-1965. Ed. William Cookson. (New York: New Directions, 1973), p.76 224-‐5. xvi Charles Olson & Ezra Pound, p. 81 xvii Ezra Pound. Guide to Kulchur. 1938. New York: New Directions, 1970., p.
xviii Charles Olson. Mayan Letters. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968.), p. 90. xix Ezra Pound. Ezra Pound Speaking. Ed. Leonard W. Doob (Conneticut: Greenwood Press), p. 93 37. xx Ibid., pp. 232. xxi Anne Day Deway. Beyond Maximus. (Stanford Univrsity Press, 2007), pp.
xxii Charles Olson & Ezra Pound, p. 81. xxiii Charles Olson. Mayan Letters. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968.) p. 26 xxiv Ibid., pp. 29. xxv Pound, Ezra. Poems and Translations. (New York: The Library of America, 2003.), p. 554. xxvi LE, pp. 3.
xxvii The Paris Review pp, 27. xxviii Ibid., pp. 28.
“Being Below: Typos and Tropos in Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems” by Laura
Being Below: Typos and Tropos in Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems
On Wednesday night, March 27, 1968, Charles Olson gave a lecture as part of a weeklong series of talks at Beloit College. Olson referred to these talks as the “Beloits,” and they were later transcribed and published under the title of the week’s theme, “Poetry and Truth”. Throughout the week, Olson grounds his discourse in the concepts of tropos and typos. The importance of his speech to this paper requires I quote this section in full:
The other two words are tropos and typos. Obviously the latter is very easy, it’s type, and is typology, and is, in a sense, that standing condition of…I mean standing, really, in the very literal sense of substantive or object or manifest or solid or material. We get our word type…from it. If any of you have ever seen a piece of movable type, at the bottom is the letter and the block is above. So that in order, really, to imagine a printer doing it…he’s under your words in order to make the letters of them. Which always delights me, literally, as a problem of creation. In fact, literally, I would go so far—if you will excuse my Americanism—to think that you write that way. That you write as though you were underneath the letters. And I take that a hell of a lot larger. I would think that the hoof- print of the creator is on the bottom of creation, in exactly the same sense (Muthologos 34).
The purpose of this paper is to explore how Charles Olson does, indeed, take the stance of working “underneath” the letters in The Maximus Poems, through the desires and intent of Maximus, to cut through realms of narrative phenomenon. Olson, employing his scholarship and experiential relationship with mythology, historical research, philosophy, psychology, and poetic influences, produces a range of (and from) the
narrative voice, enacting a polyvalent world. I will explore the concept of “underneath” through the physical appearance of the underscore, underline, or “mark”, as it appears in the text, to provide insight into how the underline is used, and what effect it has on both prosody and the narrative. I will also explore, when the underline is not present, where repetition serves the narrative stance of “underneath”; in sum, what typos lends to tropos. Olson, in his speech, places these terms next to each other, and their concurrent manifestations in the text necessitate they be explored simultaneously. To further evaluate Olson’s typos of “underneath” in relationship to tropos, this paper will examine the ancient Chinese text, The Secret of the Golden Flower, which was influential to Olson’s work.
Olson, in his Beliot speech, is intentionally vague in his definition tropos (which he refers to as “literally, of shape or place”), though he eventually comes to his intent with the word: “…now I can spill it—of tropism in ourselves is the sun” (Muthologo 34). The etymological definition of tropos is “turn, direction, turn or figure of speech,” (Etymonline). Throughout The Maximus Poems, this “twist” is manifested a multiplicity of environments, including the geologic, cosmogonic, sexual, and oceanic. Typographically, this turn is present in the poems’ prosody, use of repetition, and placement of text in the field of the page. Olson’s project is an attempt to unify typos and tropos, thereby enabling the narrative voice to reach a pace in which its subjectivity, substance, and environment are one.
Typos is of Greek origin, meaning “dent, impression, mark, figure, original form,” (Etymonline). Typology is defined as “classification according to a general type”. “Type” comes from the root of typtein “‘to strike, beat,’ from PIE base *(s)teu- ‘to strike,
cut, hew’” (Etymonline). Tropos is Greek for “‘turn, direction, turn or figure of speech,’ related to trope ‘a turning’ and trepein ‘to turn’” (Etymonline). From Olson’s speech, it’s clear that he considers typos and tropos in an embodied, somatic sense. His project is based in testing how these concepts live in the body, and in the body’s relationship toward action; hence, the presence of stance within typos, “I mean standing, literally…” and the embodiment of tropos, “tropism in ourselves” (Muthologos 34). These vectors are negotiated on the field of the page.
Ezra Pound, in his 1913 essay on Calvalcanti writes, “We appear to have lost the radiant world where one cuts through another with a clean edge, a world of moving energies…magnetisms that take form, that are seen, or that border the visible” (205). Olson, heavily influenced by Pound’s intent for the emergence of a “new” poetics, and William Carlos Williams’s (through, in part, Marianne Moore’s) designation of “the poem as a field of action” (280-91), declares his vision of poetics in the 1950 essay, “Projective Verse”:
every element in an open poem (the syllable, the line, as well as the image, the sound, the sense) must be taken up as participants in the kinetic of the poem just as solidly as we are accustomed to take what we call the objects of reality; and that these elements are to be seen as creating the tensions of a poem just as totally as do those other objects create what we know as the world” (Collected 234).
This assertion links Olson’s concept of the field of the page with his insistence on the congruity of words, as objects, and their meaning. This work on the page is in alignment with Olson’s stance toward phenomenology. In Human Universe, he states, “For any of us, at any instant, are juxtaposed to any experience, even an overwhelming single one, on several more planes than the arbitrary and discursive which we inherit can declare” (Etymonline). Olson’s poetics shed the discursive in an attempt to present the syntactical
nature of reality—to join typos and tropos in the act of creating1. This attempt at union can be explored through the underline and repetition as it occurs in the poem.
In a broad sense, the underlined word draws attention to itself. From its first chalkboards, the eye is conditioned to heed the underline, to see what is above, and why the above matters. The eye looks to the horizon for what disappears into it or arises from it. The word weighs down the mark; the mark holds up the word; or the word and mark coexist in an alphabetical and geometric unit. In The Maximus Poems, sometimes only parts of words are underlined—emphasizing the stress or quantity of the word, and certain sounds in the mouth. Uncommon words or words in foreign languges are also underlined, such as “ekonomikos” (193), “plataforma” (564), and “heimarmene“ (182) . Often, the etymologies of these words work themselves out in the drama of the text. In specific places in The Maximus Poems, underlined words serve to affirm the stance of the narrator as “beneath” the words, as the narrative voice, itself, weaves through the worlds it creates.
Underlined words in the Maximus Poems do not occur until the second poem of Volume II, “MAXIMUS, FROM DOGTOWN -1”; not surprisingly, the first word underlined is “under”. In the poem, the story of James Merry, a Dogtown bullfighter, is weaved through the workings of Okeanos, the mythological ocean-stream at the Equator, upon which the habitable hemisphere is believed to float. In A Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, George Butterick suggests Merry is a proto-type for Maximus– a staggeringly tall hero figure, linked to Melville’s Billy Bud, and born under the sign of
1 Typos and tropos are can be considered in the same relationship as form and content. In Projective Verse, Olson states, “It’s this: FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT” (CP 240).
Taurus, the bull (242-3). Okeanos represents a bond around the earth, sometimes depicted as a serpent or sea-creature, and similar in design to the figure of the oroborus.
The beginning of the poem states “the sea was born of the earth without sweet union of love”, linking the birth of the sea with the Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception; however, the next stanza begins “But that then she lay bare for heaven and she bare the thing which encloses/ every thing, Okeanos…”, suggesting the sea and heaven copulated. One reading of this text is that Okeanos represents a child from the union of sea and heaven, or Okeanos could represent the sea, itself. The next stanza positions Okeanos in a position of power, “screwing earth, in whom love lies…” (II.2). However, Okeanos is not to be confused with the source of its power; rather, it operates similarly to “apophainesthai” in the later poem, “Maximus, at the Harbor”, as a conduit of phenomenon: “deep-swirling Okeanos steers all things through all things,/ everything issues from the one…” (II.2).
Throughout the poem, Okeanos works in the realm below Merry’s drama and human phenomenon, representing that which is underneath:
“under” the dish of the earth Okeanos under Dogtown through which (inside of which) the sun passes at night—
she passes the sun back to the east through her body
the Geb (of heaven) at night
Nut is water above & below, vault above and below watered rock on which by which Merry
was so many pieces Sunday morning
subterranean and celestial primordial water holds Dogtown high
And down Dogtown… (II.2-3)
the ice holds
In this passage, Olson creates a layered mytho-geological reality, situating Dogtown between the fluid and frozen. Olson’s employment of Nut and Geb originate from Erich Neumann’s The Great Mother. Neumann states, “Nut rises as vault of heaven over the earth…she is, in her character of celestial cow, the feminine principle, identical with the primeval water and genetrix of the sun…To Nut as the upper vault corresponds Naunet as the lower vault, the counterheaven lying ‘under’ the disc of the earth, the two together forming the Great Round of the feminine vessel” (qtd. in Butterik 243-44). Geb represents the male deity associated with earth. The sense of a bowl, or “dish” (here, created by the feminine principle of Nut) is echoed in many scenes throughout The Maximus Poems. This passage creates a sense of mythic-geological equilibrium, with Dogtown positioned in a womb-like reality, and Okeanos (not engendered), below. Earlier in the poem, Okeanos serves as a metaphysical and philosophical locality: “…Okeanos steers all things through all things,/ everything issues from the one…” (II.2). The poem creates a reality in which Earth exists above a primordial energy source, and below the celestial. The underline is used to affirm cosmogonic-geographic positionality, serving to unify the functions of typos and tropos.
In Maximus, at the Harbor, Okeanos appears again, this time imbued with the energy of sexual wrath (though, again, an ungendered force): “Okeanos rages, tears rocks back in his path./ Encircling Okeanos tears upon the earth to get love lose,” (II.70). In
the fourth stanza, the “I” enters the poem, situating itself underneath earth’s “hemispheres” (II.70), becoming, itself, the force of Okeanos operating beneath the world. The force of Okeanos shifts from an observed entity acting within the world of the speaker, to a force embodied by the “I” (Maximus). In the following stanzas, the narrative voice projects a prophetic incantation of the perfection that would result from the union of myth and the subjective human embodiment, “I”:
Paradise is a person. Come into this world. The soul is a magnificent Angel. And the thought of its thought is the rage of Ocean : apophainesthai
roared the great bone on Norman’s Woe; apophainesthai, as it blew up a pool on Round Rock shoal; apophainesthai it cracked as it broke on Pavilion Beach; apophainesthai it tore at Watch House Point [II.70]
Apophainesthai is Greek for “that which shows forth” (Butterick 354). This passage is heavily influenced by Henry Corbin’s Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis. Corbin quotes Nasir al-Din Tusi, a 13th Century Persian scholar, philosopher, and, on the relationship between “truth” and spirit/soul: “Every true thought, every truthful word, every good action has a spiritual…entity—that is to say, the Angel…who endows the soul, in its progressive rise, with the ability to pass easily through the successive degrees of perfection and return to the original source” (qtd. in Butterick 354). The poem first acts as an incantation to invoke the force of apophainesthai, “the Angel”, to destruct the geological environment of the earth with the intent of creating “the Perfect Child” (II.71).
To create “Perfect Child” is an attempt to make the world, and the poem, anew. For Olson, polis is the ground in, by, and from which this re-creating happens. In order
to make it new, that which is must first be disrupted. The geological localities of the poem, Norman’s Woe, Round Rock shoal, Pavilion Beach, and Watch House Point, are all locations in the vicinity of Gloucester. Apophainesthai, repeated, can be interpreted as the soul, itself, or akin to Corbin’s “Angel”, an agent of the soul, “roared”, “blew/up”, “cracked”, and “tore” at these physical manifestations of polis. Apophainesthai, underlined, acts as a word in motion. Its presence perpetuates narrative action.
In Part II of the poem, apophainesthai appears without an underscore, and the lines of the stanzas are more closely contained on the page. Here, apophainesthai functions not as a physically aggressive force, but as a word repeated to perpetuate the coming-into-being of a philosophical and “spiritual” environment. That is, the word tracks the movement of the interior or soul. In the third stanza, the subject reappears: “the act which actuates the soul itself–/she loomed before me and he stood/ in this room…” (II.71). In these lines, the “she” is no longer below, but before, seemingly on the same ground as the “me”. The “characters” in these lines, the “he” and “she” appear as vague embodiments, and their relation to the “me” is ambiguous. By Part III, the narrative voice is descriptive, distanced from the force it employed to construct the scene: “The great Ocean is angry. It wants the Perfect Child” (II.71).
In The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum, Charles Stein explores how Olson employs Jung’s concept of archetypes to garner narrative energy, for “the sense of psychic depth” while maintaining a sense of polis and concretism, thereby preventing these archetypal forces from becoming lost “in a vague world of disembodied symbols” (Stein 107). Olson, in his essay, “Human Universe”, writes against a dislocated symbolic construct: “I am not able to satisfy myself that these so-called inner things are so
separable from the objects, persons, events which are the content of them and by which man represents or re-enacts them despite the suck of symbol which has increased and increased since the Greeks first promoted the idea of a transcendent world of forms” (Collected 161). While the narrative is involved with the “disembodied” force of apophainestai, the scene remains grounded in the physical environs of Gloucester. In the poem, apophainestai and Okeanos act as forces that cut through the physical skins and geographies of worlds. This dramatic action is parallel to Olson’s vision of the soul not as a transcendent construct, but existing in the skin. Olson states, “…the skin itself, the meeting edge of man and external reality, is where all that matters does happen, that man and external reality are so involved with one another that, for man’s purposes, they had better be taken as one” (Collected 161). Through the appearance of the underline and repetition, employed by mythological forces, Olson creates a narrative voice that both weaves and alters the various universes the narrative creates. That is, one realm is empowered to leave an impression on another.
In “MAXIMUS, FROM DOGTOWN – II”, the positionality of Dogtown is, again, affirmed as “under”. Further, through the use of repetition and open parenthesis, the narrative seeks to relate the alchemical transformation of this space into the “Black Gold Flower”:
Dogtown the under vault-the ‘mother’ rock: the Diamond (Coal) the Pennsylvanian
Age hung up burning under the City: bituminous
the soft (Coal love
Age the soft (Coal) LOVE
Heart to be turned to Black Stone the Black Chrysanthemum Is the Throne of Creation Ocean
is the Black Gold Flower [II.10) In this section, the underline occurs again, as Dogtown is equated with the
“’mother’/rock” (II.10). Coal represents a medium brought from “below” to the human inhabited earth, for use. The repetition of “Coal” alongside “LOVE”, suggests that force follows matter. The poem is set in the field of the page in fragments that allow for multiple readings of the text. The open parentheses suggest the inner workings and layers of the narrative voice, and create a sense of openness in the narrative’s “order”. Thus, typos serves to perpetuate the motion of tropos.
The alchemical transformation wrapped in the narrative, and the appearance of “the Black Chrysanthemum” in the poem, are informed by the ancient Taoist text, The Secret of the Golden Flower. The opening passage of The Secret of the Golden Flower states, “That which exists through itself is what is called meaning (Tao). Tao has neither name nor shape. It is the one essence, the one primordial spirit” (21). Olson writes, in the margin of his copy of The Secret of the Golden Flower, “I am/ that I am/ The Great One that which exists through itself; nothing is above it because it is contained in the Light of Heaven.” (qtd. in Fredman 62). This fragment presents the “I”, or subject, as a superior unity which exists through “itself”. Apophainesthai and Okeanos are presented in similar terms, as conduits for “that which exists through itself”.
In terms of the symbol of the flower, Butterick presents Jung’s reference to “the seeding-place of the diamond body in the golden flower” (qtd in Butterick 257). In the above section, the golden flower is “Black,” and linked with the formation of coal, suggesting the geological processes inherent in the narrative vision of alchemical
transformation. That “Ocean” appears below “the Black Chrysanthemum” (which is linked in this poem with Dogtown), is consistent with the narrative of “Okeanos under/ Dogtown” from the previously discussed section (II.2). However, in this section, the narrative seeks to alchemically transform Dogtown, from the combination of coal and love, turning the space of “polis” in the poem, the place the narrative voice/speaker/Maximus, the “…‘mother’/rock…”, into an immortal flower.
In Richard Wilhelm’s introduction to The Secret of the Golden Flower, he states,
…while Taoism degenerated more and more in the Han period into an external wizardry, owing to the fact that the Taoist court magicians were seeking to find by alchemy the golden pill (the philosopher’s stone), which would create gold out of the baser metals and lend men physical immortality, Lu Yen’s movement represented a reform. The alchemistic signs became symbols of psychological processes…[Lu Yen] seeks, with all his might, the fixed pole in the flight of phenomena, where the adept can attain eternal life (6).
In the Maximus Poems, polis is this pole, from which the “tropos”—the narrative spin of words, themselves, and their effect on the phenomena of the poem—enacts movement. However, polis is not fixed in space-time; rather, it appears to shift with the psychological, philosophical, and mythological explorations of the narrator. Polis is always shifting, and in these passages, it retains a quality of being “underneath” the phenomena of the narrative.
The locality of “underneath” constructed by typos and tropos is again active in “Poem 143. The Festival Aspect”. From the opening, the poem declares a special relationship between the physical, philosophical, and cosmogonic, “…The truth//is fingers holding it all up/underneath” (III.73). Throughout the narrative seeks to unify “the three Towns” which have become divided over time. The reference of “the three Towns” comes from Indian mythology, as Olson drew from Heinrich Zimmer’s Myths
and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Zimmer states, “According to an ancient Vedic conception, the universe comprises of three worlds (triloka), (1) the earth, (2) the middle space or atmosphere, and (3) the firmament or sky” (qtd. in Butterick 578). Zimmer relates the story of Maya, who separated the cosmos into these three realms, and constructing a fortress in each. Shiva’s bow is required as the single-arrow to pierce the totality of Maya’s creation, and to intervene and “re-establish the divine order of the universe” (qtd. in Butterick 578). In The Secret of the Golden Flower, the three worlds are considered heaven, earth, and hell. The text states, “When students grasp the primal spirit they overcome the polar opposites of light and darkness and tarry no longer in the three worlds. But only he who has envisioned human nature’s original face is able to do this” (25). However, the narrator seeks not to escape the conditions of the world, but to reveal them.
The narrative voice of the poem operates in the past-prophetic to attempt to bring these worlds together, in the “now”. The narrative is most concerned with the realm of the “third Town”. In Zimmer’s text, the third town is attributed to the sky, though in the poem, it is conceived as the realm of creation: “It shall only come forth/ from underneath” (III.74). In this poem, the repetition of the “third Town” operates in similar function to Okeanos and apophainesthai. Though the phrase is not underlined, through repetition, it serves as a typos to further the expression of tropos. It is the “third Town” that the narrative voice seeks to create, and this occurs through its repetition, serving to unfold a prophetic mythos:
[…] The third Town shall have revealed
The third Town Is the least known. The third Town Is the one which is the most interesting […] (III.74)
After establishing the importance of the “third Town”, the narrative links the towns to the mythos of the “Flower” (suggesting the Golden Flower, though appearing in this poem as the Lotus):
[…] The three Towns are the fairest
which the Flower is. Only when the Flower—only when the uproar has driven the Soul out of me, only then shall the God strike the three Towns. The three Towns shall first be born again. The Flower shall grow down. […] (III.74-5).
Here, the poem argues that the “three Towns” cannot be unified, and thus, “born again” by “God/strike” (or, according to the myth, Shiva’s arrow), until the “Flower…/has driven the Soul/ out of me”. The “uproar” that the narrative voice seeks, in order for the universe to achieve union, can be interpreted as the process of projection, the process of writing, “that which comes of itself”. The Secret of the Golden Flower states, “The secret of the magic of life consists in using action in order to attain non-action. One must not wish to leap over everything and penetrate directly. The maxim handed down to us is to take in hand the work on human nature (hsing)” (21). The narrative seeks to, itself, be “Action”, in order to bring phenomenon to a place in which it is able to achieve unity (though, ultimately, in the narrative, curiously, through the grace of a higher power).
This “Action” is to bring the narrative to the consciousness of the present: “The present/ is an uproar, the present/ is the times of the re-birth of/ the Lotus” (III.75). Though “three
Towns” isn’t underlined in the text, its repetition creates the narrative quest for the attention to the present (“the work on human nature”). This process is reverberated throughout The Maximus Poems2.
While thus far this essay has explored sections of the text in which the narrative perspective is located “below” earth, it is important to note that this isn’t a constant throughout the text. In the untitled poem on (III.15), Maximus idles “…on the Polls/at the edge” where he’s “overlooking/creation” (III.15). The poem offers a prophetic hope for humans: “until human beings//were the streets of the soul/love was in their wrinkles// they filled the earth, the positiveness/ was in their being, they listened//to the sententious,/with the ears of the coil of the sea” (III.16). Here, the narrative voice seeks for humans to live with the earth, with the full capacity of their senses. Though the voice positions itself at the poles, it remains joined with rock:
on the top of the Poles, on the throne
of the diorite, the air alone is what I sit in
among the edges of the plagioclase (III.17)
Though the polis of this poem is in the celestial, overlooking Dogtown, the narrative voice remains positioned on “diorite” and among the “plagioclase”. In Olson’s essay, “Casual Mythology,” he links the Hurrian mythological figure, the Diorite Stone, from
2 In “Maximus of Gloucester”, Maximus states, “I’ve sacrificed everything, including sex and women/–or lost them—to attempt to acquire complete/concentration” (III.101). Later in Volume III, Maximus withdraws into himself, seeking an introspective clarity: “Wholly absorbed/into my own conduits” and later in the poem, “keeping my attentions as clear” (III.191).
the Song of Ullikummi. In the myth, the Diorite grows from the bottom of the sea, up through the surface, to air. The gods become infuriated and battle the stone, Olson states, “Because he had a growth principle of his own, and it went against creation in the sense that nobody could stop him and nobody knew how far he might grow…for me, this Diorite figure is the vertical, the growth principle of the Earth. He’s just an objectionable child of Earth who has got no condition except earth, no condition but stone…” (qtd. in Butterick 326-7). In this context, the narrative voice in the poem exists on top of that which rose from the underworld. Though the narrative voice is not always “seeing” from underneath the geological earth, it is always near to, or enmeshed in, its processes. In this poem, “outside” holds a similar protective environment for the speaker as “below”. However, in this poem, when the narrative voice exists “outside”, it’s not attempting to alter the phenomenon on earth; rather, it has introspective, meditative, observant and prophetic qualities.
In the third-to-last poem of the book, the narrative voice positions itself, again, underground, and asserts itself as ground, itself:
I live underneath the light of day
I am a stone, or the ground beneath
My life is buried, with all sorts of passages both on the sides and on the face turned down to the earth or built out as long gifted generous northeastern Connecticut stone walls are through which the 18th century roads still pass as though they themselves were realms,
Though speaker acknowledges “My life is buried”, what is observed, from beneath, is that which exists the inhabited earth, as though the voice were not, in fact, buried. Stone walls are constructs of previously buried geological matter, designed and used “above”. The absence of the underline here is of little significance, and repetition is not needed to affirm the narrative locality. Rather, the quality of “under” is embodied while present on earth, and all times (the Ice Age, the 18th Century, etc.,) are present in the “now” of the poem. The poem continues, “that one is suddenly walking”, lending a sense of further embodied presence in the scene—a scene which collapses time, as observed through the presence of rocks—to myth and space:
in Tartarian-Erojan, Geaan-Ouranian time and life love space
time & exact analogy time & intellect time & mind time & time spirit
the initiation of a new kind of nation (III.228).
This poem, written just over six weeks before the poet’s death, is spatio-temporally different from all other poems, in its bringing together of space and time in the “now” of human phenomenon on earth, embodied. The poem is informed by an inscription Olson wrote in the margins of Bronsted’s The Vikings,
Another ruinic inscription…declares that neither stone nor runes have ever been exposed to the sun’s light and that the runes were not carved with an iron knife. In other words: both stone and ruins are dedicated in secret to the dead man and to none other. This, the longest of all the early inscriptions, commands further that the stone must never be brought out into the light of day (qtd. in Butterick 750-1).
This passage provides insight into the narrative’s impulse to remain “under”—under the earth and under the text. It speaks of typos and tropos in relation to the dead, and
connects to The Maximus Poems on many levels, yet in interpretation, remains mysterious. For Maximus, “seeing” must almost always come from “below” in order to weave text in the realm of “known” human phenomenon and yield power to affect change. Yet the text argues the thing, itself, the source of seeing, the “One”, that which issues apophainesthai and Okeanos, is revealed only to the dead, and is kept underneath, where the act of seeing originates. And though “it” must not be brought into the light of day, it contains its own light, if the Golden Flower reference is extended: “The Golden Flower is the Elixir of Life (Chin-tan; literally, golden ball, golden pill) (23). In “The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum”, written by Olson on his deathbed, he states, “analogy: Black Chrysanthemum means you/ knowing that, that you are nothing but yourself./ and, that which exists through itself/ is what is called Meaning./ This is the Golden Pill” (qtd. in Stein 169). In The Maximus Poems, polis operates as this “pill”, issuing forth the energies that manifest the text, itself.
The exploration of the stance of the narrative voice is enhanced by the study of the workings of typos and tropos within the text. Through these vectors, time and space come together, and worlds are created within the poem, which are then cut through by force employed by the narrative voice, creating a complex phenomenological universe. Here, typos and tropos become one in the life of the text.
On Friday, March 29th, two nights after his talk on typos and tropos, Olson states, “By type, and what I mean by imprint—I think, characterizes all creation.” He comes to this statement way of origin, and the union of typos and tropos:
And tonight my job is to see if I can characterize what, in using the word type or typos, I mean by the blow upon the world. At such a point one enters the area of, in a real sense, finality—which was at the beginning and is not known until it’s finished. […] if I can argue that truth is
“What am I Doing Writing This Paper? I Should Getta Real Job: On Polis and Maximus, on Moles and Tires, but Mostly on Dialogue and Self” by Loren Brindze
What am I Doing Writing This Paper? I Should Getta Real Job: On Polis and Maximus, on Moles and Tires, but Mostly on Dialogue and Self
To try and tackle all of the Maximus Poems in one minuscule undergraduate exercise would be a ridiculous and horrific endeavor. But to distill it all down to one central idea is easily done. As Olson says himself on page 75 (all MP citations follow the edition compiled by George F. Butterick):
IV (o Po-ets, you
job This seemingly benign sentiment (ironic as it seems) echoes a similar idea from Pound’s work Hugh Selwyn Mauberly: “And give up verse, my boy,/There’s nothing in it.” It seems like many poets, at least since industrialization, have needed to rely on work outside of the realm of letters. Wallace Stevens sold insurance, William Carlos Williams earned income as a doctor, and Olson himself turned to government bureaucracy in order to pay the bills. But to pin the wash of Olson’s 635 page unfinished work on this simple sentiment of employment seems to defeat itself, let alone the work at large.
Precisely, reader. Or as Olson states: “the underpart is, though stemmed, uncertain/is, as sex is, as moneys are, facts!” (page 2). Note the enjambment of
dependent clause “uncertain/ is” suggesting “facts” by mere titlement as such, are no more certain than, say, myths are. To distil the somewhat implicit connections made between these two ideas, (that of employment of poets versus the ‘factual’ nature of sex and money), consider then the role of poetry and its place in Olson’s life. Originally titled The Maximus Letters, Olson’s masterpiece manifests itself through the writers diligent and daily correspondences.
Poetry, for Olson, is not so much an act of purpose as one of process (to invoke that Whiteheadian thing), or one whose means by itself achieve the end it seeks, a true (not platonicly, but sophisticly true) realization and representation of the real not as it appears, but as it happens (projective verse). When Olson writes “O Po-ets, you/ should getta/ job” he speaks from that grey place between truth and irony. Olson could care little to none for any sort of monetary wealth given he had enough income to support himself. Olson’s economics, his transaction, or polis so to speak, comes from the act of Discorse and Dialogue itself (I give these words designation as proper nouns here for the sake of discussion). Poetry is not like sex is, like moneys are. For Olson, or his speaker personae Maximus, the act of poetry is not one of economy, not one of “fact”, but rather the binding thing—“istorin”—of community, the thing that binds polis, and through that loupe, the world at large.
Amiri Baraka succinctly rephrases Olson’s polis: [it] was just simply the idea that you had to be grounded in the concerns of the people, that the people are finally the makers of history, and that you have to be grounded in what is historical in that sense. What are the concerns of the people? Why are they these concerns? (Alcalay p.3)
What better way to seize such grounding then by the correspondences between a central figure, Maximus, (modeled off Maximus of Tyre), with his surrounding community, both local to Gloucester, and those personal connections created through mutual interest (such as the various addresses to Creeley, Pound, Ginsberg, Joyce, etc.) One image that helps facilitate this reading of Olson, recopied here from Jeff Wild’s essay entitled “Charles Olson’s Maximus: A Polis of Attention and Dialogue,” is the natural “process of both destruction and creation [in]… terminal moraine–the geological deposits left at the end of a glacier’s journey. It contains everything that the glacier consumed in its path… Maximus, itself, can be seen as a terminal moraine created by the movement of Charles Olson–a glacier of a man” (Wild page 1).
Wild goes on to elucidate the more trepid points of polis by arguing “For Olson, Gloucester is his polis, his “city-state, esp. in ancient Greece; spec. such a State considered in its ideal form” as defined by The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.” Moreover, through The Maximus Poems Olson creates polis by way of the poem itself (Wild 2). Wild defines polis in its classical context by stating it contains four key components, “a defined core,” “economic self-sufficiency,” a “shared language,” and finally self identification “as an independent, self-governing polity,” (Wild pp. 2-3). Cleverly, Wild points out that:
If one turns to Maximus and playfully considers it in light of these four characteristics, one can see that the poem seemingly possesses a number of them. First, it has a defined core–Gloucester–around which Olson tries “to build out of sound the wall / of a city,” (M III 37). Second, when readers step into the walls of Maximus, they become citizens of the poem who share its
language, culture and history. And finally due to the breadth of subject matter of Maximus Olson is able to give the reader the sense that the poem is an independent and self-governing polity with its own history and sociological structure. (Wild p.3)
One can add to these the fact, that despite costing readers a pretty 30+ dollars (Amazon), within the poem itself rests a self-sufficient economy on the transaction between Olson and reader—as well as reader onto next reader—of information.
It is of this transaction of information, or more appropriately named, dialogue or conversation, by which Olson is able to achieve a polis through his readership:
I have made dialogues, have discussed ancient texts, have thrown what light I could, offered what pleasures doceat allows (M I 56)
Doceat here, translated from Latin, means to teach, and is exactly that which Olson tries to achieve through MP, to teach polis by its execution and demonstration, to teach polis through process, specifically correspondence; Olson teaches the “verb, to find out for yourself: / ‘istorin, which makes any one’s acts a finding out for him or her / self” (Olson M II 79). But this “‘istorin” is different from our platonic notion of history, as he clarifies it being a history filtered through the self.
For Olson, say, by example of his ability to conflate etymologies, or drastically reinterpret myths, history is more rooted in its current archetypal significance as tangible open materiel for the reader, than in its actual original context and significance. Consider,
reader, for arguments sake, the two incarnations of the Algonquin myth found first on page 191, then later—reinterpreted—on page 312. The first appears in its retelling as a myth “Of old times,” in three equal stanzas relaying a beginning (mysterious women with dying husbands), middle (the one husband who decides to find out what’s really going on and discovers her suitors are being killed by venom passed onto the woman by her encounter with a snake deity) and end (man refuses to sleep with snake lady, and she dies in her sleep). Later when this myth reappears in its new form on 312, Olson abridges the form and sullies up the diction, “she had to die if she could not pass, by fucking,/ the poison.” Olson retells this myth in juxtaposition with two other myths presented earlier in MP, showing, by transformation, and retelling, the process of Dialogue as a force in his work at large. Neither myth is more or less correct than the other, and both ARE true (or at least, truthy). That is to say, both serve Olson in relaying a truth through process. The evolution of the myth forces readers, yes us readers, to find “out for him or her/self,” what meaning applies in each context of the myths specific appearances, as well as the purpose of the myth as a whole (a subject, probably, for an entirely different paper on this subject).
And it is the act of “finding out for him or her/self” that opens the door for polis within Olson’s poem. Like the projective verse itself, ‘istorin becomes more about process than about “facts”; a history that is to bind Maximus’ polis, forcing it to remain open in order to incorporate each individual citizen/reader (thus the beckoning lines at the end of A Later Note on Letter #15, “The poetics of such a situation/are yet to be found out,” inviting us all into the process).
Process, in any economy, is the nature of INTERaction—what moves between.
Monetary economy is only one of many process, or interactions, that create polis, or any community. It is money itself, that creates Gloucester in Volume I. As Maximus recounts in the section titled So Sassafras on page 113: “Europe just then was being drained swept by the pox so sassafras/ was what Ralegh Gosnold Pring only they found fish not cure/for fish so thick the waters you could put no prow’d.” From the fish came a multitude of fishing operations, and thus the beginnings of a community. But from the accidental discovery of Gloucester’s soon to be major export, Maximus is careful to relate caution:
and where money is, stronger waters than sasparilla Our Lady of bon viaje
under whose foot some necks (113) The stronger waters, work both to suggest the physical danger of fishing, but also the more pervasive dangers that come with large monetary influx. The open ended final phrase “under whose foot some necks”—leaving us, reader, only to imagine what happens next.
Olson here deftly twists his chosen metaphor for the initial conditions of polis. While fishing, the first cash crop of Gloucester, works excellently as history of fact, it supplies a much more powerful ‘ist-origin for Maximus’ true polis of process; the role of community within fisherman crew. Such cooperation becomes a standing model for real polis. For example, “1st Letter on Georges” on page 140 describes a fishing expedition
that begins with good weather, but “At sundown on the 24th … a sudden change” to increasing winds and an oncoming gale. Here Olson portrays the defined core of the ship, the self-sustained economy of treats in exchange for excellent fishing—“if we got a halibut, the cook would bring up a pancake with plums in it to celebrate. And coffee”— the shared language of the crew evident in the extensive use (here and throughout MP) of maritime fishing language—i.e. “skipper,” “ten fathom,” “leeward” “windlass,” etc.— and finally, the rest of the letter describing the orderly self-governing polity of the ship. All these aspects qualify and demonstrate Wild’s initial definition of polis.
The skipper acknowledging changing conditions and “warning that the night would be watch for all,” the dutiful crew “on deck to keep lookout… for the first vessel that might loose itself and drive on to” their ship. The young and old working together—“the oldest hand aboard was at the windlass with a hatchet ready to cut the cable,”—all working together in order to avoid the dangers of their trade. The final stanza comments back on the community at large noting that the trouble at sea had left “the town in commotion. Such anxiety I hope never again to witness… One hundred and twenty men had drowned that one night and day.”
The 2nd Letter on the Georges recounts perhaps a different ships perspective of the same story, one in which the crew looses a few members. In one of the margin notes, the speaker (here Miles) notes that “Frost says/the skipper waited/till morning to/get the light to/put the double reef in the fore-/sail Also, that/ it was the fault/ of the man at the/ wheel, he let her/ off too much.” Without proper leadership, the crew of this second ship makes it out of the gale with only 4 living members. Thus, we have two opposing illustrations of successful group dynamics in the setting of fisherman ship crew. The
first, cautiously led, aware of limitations making it out with plenty of fish and all hands. The second, misguided and careless, suffering the loss of four crew members.
Later on, in Volume II, Olson appends this illustration of successful community with a “3rd letter on Georges, unwritten”. Here, the speaker, presumably Maximus, describes a fearless, but highly skilled captain, who was “as good as they come, he even had the charts marked/ in different colored pencils and could go over those/ rips and shoals dug out in a storm, driving a full-/ loaded vessel.” ( p. 277) The oozing confidence of the captain here presents a different sort of group model than the previous two, one of ambition and success, despite the modal, or qualified nature of the letter. As it says in the title, and in the beginning of the section “In this place is a poem which I have not been able/to write,” which presents the letter in a future tense of sorts, one of possibility, of process, waiting to become.
Comparatively, all three letters present different states of being (or as whitehead would probably say, ‘becoming’). With the first letter, Olson adopts a traditional correspondence style of retelling points of significance in the order they happened with a speaker’s personal commentary; “Such anxiety I hope never again to witness” though much of the letter’s temporal status can be inferred as to being written after the events, as say, a history is written. The 2nd letter, though still very much written in the past tense, demonstrates a more instantaneous temporality. The mere form of it, (somewhat reminiscent of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with main text in the middle and commentary on the right margin) lends itself to be read almost as a dialogue between Miles’ newspaper clippings retelling the event and what can be assumed to be Douglas’ own personal notes. Here we get a sense, by form alone, of the muddled and interfered
communications going on between the crew forming an ineffective group. When compared to the final letter, unwritten, there is a sense of longing to capture the leadership and cooperation on behalf of the entire crew—“it is a vision or at least an experience/I make off as though I have had, to ride with a man/like that—”one that again contemplates a temporality of possibility.
If read as models of proto-polis, or at least as ideal cooperation, one can begin to draft a value system on what makes a strong group or community. Perhaps Maximus is the captain, in a sense, of all three of these voyages on the Georges, reaching for the excellent leadership of the final unwritten letter, but never being able to reach past the inhibited reality of the second letter. But as 3 models for successful, and unsuccessful, polis, these illustrations provide good insight into what makes a good working group. And group, at its basis—in its groundings and formations—provides the ultimate foundation for self-identification “as an independent, self-governing polity.”
With these three crews on three ships comes three ideas; the past as presented through logos, the present act of finding out, and the future of possibility. Three returns often in the Maximus Poems, but moving towards polis in Volume III Olson supplies “three Towns” in “Poem 143. The Festival Aspect” to go along with these three letters on the Georges. The poem begins:
The World has become divided from the Universe. Put the three Towns together
The Individual has become divided from the Absolute, (p. 441)
Olson begins with a call for repair or reform. This juxtaposition asks readers to compare the world to the individual, and the Universe to the absolute. It also unifies the three Towns as separate elements that must combine (return?) to a state of unification, perhaps by destruction:
The three Towns are to be destroyed, as well as that they are to be made known, that they are to be known, that there is no three Towns now, that without three Towns there is no Society, there is no known Absolute:
Olson connects the notion of Absolute to Society and suggests that the three towns must simultaneously be “made known” and paradoxically destroyed. Yet, their combination being their destruction, makes Society, and thus, the absolute. Later in this poem, Olson emphasizes, on page 442, the importance of dialogue: “In the first Town,/ somebody will have addressed/ themselves/ to someone else…. In the second Town/ the earth/ will have replaced the sun… In the third Town the man/ shall have arisen, he shall have concluded/ any use of reason, the Dialogue/ will have re-begun.” Here Olson directly references
dialogue twice and indirectly references dialogue through the interchange of earth and sun. If these towns are to be read allegorically as past, present, and future then we can see an insight into their combination (or destruction) which would result as process itself (or that ‘istorin). This move back to Dialogue echoes the Individual recombining with the absolute through the process of interaction. The earth replacing the sun in the second town could be cursory to a readmission of the earth as the center of things, both as historically perceived, but also a figurative center to the human universe, that of polis. The final town, “the least known,” the town “reveal[ing]/ itself” is that of things to come.
Olson recreates an apocalypse of sorts, deeply rooted in the Hindu muthos of Ganesh and destruction. The combining of these three Towns roots its emphasis in process, and destruction calls for a recreation of commerce. Commerce, inevitably a process in itself, is the hinge of all societies. But for Olson’s poetics, it is commerce rooted in excessive economic practice that calls for a re-envisioning of polis. As Olson states in “Letter 3”: “The word does intimidate. The pay-check does./ But to use either, as cheap men/ o tansy city, root city/ let them not make you/ as the nation is,” (page 15). It is through the abuse of commerce, or process, by one eradicates community and pushes an all to heavy emphasis on the individual. Olson is careful to note that the word (or by comparison, the paycheck), is “meant to mean not a single thing the least more than/ what it does mean (not at all to sell any one anything, to keep them anywhere,/ not even/ in this rare place.” Here Olson delineates between the use of commerce and process as a necessary binding force between that of a carried obsession for the object. More concisely, the word, as an object, is a method, not a thing in and of itself to be hoarded. As the pay-check does intimidate, so does the view that we must be bound to trade
through the acquisition and hoarding of things. This is not the polis which Maximus teaches here.
Instead, Maximus says, in “Letter 6” page 28, polis is
eyes …… Eyes, & polis, fishermen, & poets
or in every human head I’ve known is busy
both: the attention, and the care
Olson molds an analogy through eyes (is to polis) as fishermen (is to poets). This construction suggests a relationship between the real and the abstract (both polis and poets being in the realm of the abstract) as well as draws the comparison between the physical manifestation of each to their appropriated figurative realms. To continue the idea that fisherman provide a proto-polis in Olson’s poem, examination proves that it is the careful eyes of the fisherman that determines how effective their fishing is (28). Perhaps it is polis which shapes the poet as well, as Gloucester so clearly shapes Olson.
These “eyes ” provide a grounding for the ideal process of Olson, eyes open to such
vivid attention and care. Note the way, in section 2 of “Letter 6” Maximus praises the Portuguese fishing owners:
so few have the polis in their eye
The brilliant Portuguese owners, they do. They our the money back into engines, into their ships ….
They are but extesions of their own careers (32) Through careful commitment to their craft, to their careers, the Portuguese owners are
able to achieve polis through a continued process, as Olson does by extension the Maximus Poems as a whole — A CONTINUED PROCESS— it is no surprise that poet should turn to fisherman, and fisherman to eyes, for polis. But Olson distinguishes a key departure from the community of these sailors when Maximus states: “There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass, there are only/ eyes in all heads,/ to be looked out of.” Here, Olson departs from his model of polis as cooperative fishing crew. No longer is there a captain, or figurehead. Instead Olson writes in the infinitive construction here, “to be looked out of,” replacing the hierarchy of leadership with process itself. Thus, true dialogue, only begins upon the realization that interaction moves between persons, or selves, as defined through eyes in all heads. In order for true communication to be achieved, and thus, true polis, one must focus a total awareness to all around. One must realize that “eyes in all heads” must be observing, and thus acting,
as one larger whole. Such total communion, or understanding, drives the fundamental principal of community and cooperation in Olson’s polis.
The shape of Olson’s polis is that of radial symmetry. This should come as no surprise as Maximus of Tyre’s urban polis was centralized with radial fortification (Wild 3). Many ends spurning from one self same center, or perhaps the star shaped tansy, nasturtium, or lotus whose imagery predominates the work. In defining the commutative property of polis as being an exacting compromise between self and world at large, Olson writes: “I am making a mappemunde. It is to include my being,” (257). Thus, Olson is mapping the world, through the process of the Maximus Poems or correspondences. But he further qualifies this statement by asserting: “It is called here, at this point and point of time/ Peloria.” Peloria is the phenomenon of unusual regularity in an asymmetrically structured flower. Here Peloria is the act of applying symmetry to a normally asymmetric world. Notice also the pun on point (hence repeated) as both connoting a sense of fixed temporal-spacial location, but also suggesting that Maximus himself is the center point of the envisioned new-found polis. The act of regularizing, or applying symmetry to, an otherwise asymmetrical existence desperately clings to the human notion of order. Olson realizes the naturual disorder of the world (the disunification of culturual origin for example) but is also able to appreciate the accidental beauty of Peloria. By achieving such symmetry, through balanced acts of process or discorse, that the world can once again replace the sun and move towards successful polis.
Volume II, or the passage through the underworld/Dogtown, can be seen as a destruction and rebuilding (as the three cities are destroyed and rebuilt) of Olson’s ideal polis. Dogtown becomes a haven from Gloucester and the Sea, the imperfect polis, “turn
yr Back on/ the Sea, go inland, to Dogtown: the Harbor/ the shore the City/ are now/ shitty, as the Nation/ is,” (page 179). Olson sheds light on the true nature in the opening proem illustrating Dogtown as an affordable place, with few naturual resources on its own where “fishermen lived/in Dogtown and came/ when it was old to whore/ on Saturday nights” (page 173). This initial description of Dogtown shows not polis, but commodity, in its crudest and most root form. Dogtown, an antithesis to polis becomes where Maximus turns, perhaps at first in desperation, in order to reevaluate the finding/creation of polis through Gloucester.
In the final section concluding Vol. II (p.371-3), Olson exits Dogtown by “The River Map. Olson Jokingly annex’s the title with “and we’re done” demonstrating a shift in tone to come while keeping true to the dry, poignant humor latent in the speaker’s voice. Structurally, Olson applies a now familiar flow or passage to the projective verse, emulating the motion and terrain of a river. Yet there are curious incongruities here: what can be made of “base river flowing/ in both directions” (p. 371)? The poem minimizes the incongruity by citing the cause to “tide refluxes.” Yet Maximus, who is returning from Dogtown here, speaks more to the communion and transaction between the underworld and Gloucester — that passage in and passage out are only a matter of timing and precise navigating. More importantly, by reconnecting Dogtown to Gloucester (as Sin and Death build the bridge between Hell and Earth in Paradise Lost) Olson is able to unify past and present, Volume I and II, through the act of process. Notice the various obstacles encountered exiting Vol. II: a wreck, a toll, a ledge a shoal (“enabling sand to gather”). It carries a bit of both good, “carrying a crest… filling Mill/ Stream,” and bad “at flood immersing/ all the distance over”. The journey—or commute,
or even better, the Dialogue—out of Dogtown illustrates the transitive process neccisary in order to achieve true polis (arguably the process itself of traveling to Dogtown and then returning)
On the next page “from/ Alexander Baker’s/ goldenrod/ field” the tone and content shifts towards a more pastoral quality: “and dry lavender/ field flower…/knotweed now in the front yard/ with the water high no distance/ to Sargents houses.” Its as if a storm and flood are just receding, the river in the constant paradoxical manner of the twist: “with the river in this respite solely/ an interruption of itself.” This moment defines the final cathartic turn in Vol. II, the fact that despite the darkness and vapidity of dogtown, whose death was its over-consumptive nature, passage in or out remains only to be realized: “right through the middle of the River/ neap or flood tide,” in other words, whenever Maximus so pleases.
This moment is immediately acknowledged with “the firmness” of the familiar sites and landmarks of Gloucester. And the final moment laments the inevitable change Maximus relates after his visit to Dogtown. “I set out now/ in a box upon the sea.” It is both an image of freedom and hope (as the box, a vessel, has all the freedom of the seas) and of utter imprisonment or isolation as a sea traveler (especially one confined to a box) may not set foot off his vessel, or out of himself. It is an image of the individual, alone, in the act of transaction or process.
But Maximus alone in a box upon the sea becomes a traveler in the truest sense. Even the title, River Map harkens back to the mappemunde and inclusion of Maximus’ being. Now, Maximus posits:
—there is now no break in the
future, a thing does flow etc and intensity is the characteristic throughout the system. Why I raise monuments by this River and have sd it does take a mole to join Gloucester to the Nation. (631)
Here Maximus illustrates how process succeeds. The future has become a part of the flow, and by persistent intensity, Olson reclaims Gloucester to the nation. The image of the mole, first encountered in the section titled West Gloucester is one of spinning disorientation, “to get it off what might also seem/what was wrong with it, that the highway/had magnetized the poor thing.” But soon, this axial motion becomes one not of disorientation, but rather, the center of things. Perhaps the Mole is a conflation of Maximus himself (hence Mole of Tyre) and Maximus, here by sheer effort of process, places himself at the spinning center of his polis, The Maximus Poems itself. The final line of the passage quoted above at first appears to be a question. However, Olson deliberately ends the clause with an end-stop, implying a missing “[This is] Why I raise monuments…”. It also stands as an invitation to the citizens we, as readers, have become to Olson’s polis, to continue the process of constant awareness and transaction of self to polity.
The final 2 pages (though final is a loaded word in an unfinished work) shows this dichotomy of self and group. On the left page we find the lines linking the poem to everything:
The Blow is Creation & the Twist the Nasturtium is any one of Ourselves And the Place of it All? Mother Earth Alone
Here, Maximus replaces himself as the axial center to the spinning process of polity. Instead, he accedes that it is “any one of Ourselves,” and finally, dismissing himself, now as Charles Olson, as Author, he writes: “my wife my car my color and myself.”
Finally discharged of his work (and through his death, his life) Olson leaves the process of ‘istorin on as burden or gift, to the reader. Olson’s work, through the eyes of Maximus, through the eyes of Gloucester, and inevitably, through the eyes of the world, detaches itself from all of its symbolism in these final lines screaming for the unfinished work to be continued. While it is neither a work to be completed by any one individual, or collected individuals, it is one to be completed by process and constant interaction and awareness with things around.
Olson sculpts polis from the ground up. From Gloucester’s origins in fishing, to fishing practices and its group dynamics, to death of monetary commerce, towards a new commerce of thought or ideas. This is not to be mistaken for Marxism or socialism in the least. To say that would be missing the point entirely. Olson’s polis is one of human commodity, of awareness and Dialogue between those around. Of Community, in its truest sense, as being inevitably tied to the people and things around you. Obsession of either can lead one down the road to Dogtown under.
So, when Olson decries “(O Po-ets, you/ should getta/ job” it is not a simple
rumination on the need for employment. It is not, as Pound says it, giving up verse for lack of monetary profit. Olson here speaks to all of us as poets, as writers of our lives and citizen’s of polis; the job is process, is ‘istorin, is finding out for oneself, and is acting out on these discoveries. Let us all now set out on a box upon the sea. While true polis may be elusive yet, by participating in the Dialogue that is the Maximus Poems each and everyone of its participants become citizens. Sure, we all need to eat, we all need a place to sleep. That’s what work is for. But for everything else, for those things which aren’t facts, we have any one of ourselves, and it is towards those things which are not facts that Olson reaches towards. It is Community, it is Dialogue, it is Polis.