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4— History in a Cyclotron: Charles Olson As Poet-Historian and the Model of Ezra Pound
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History in a Cyclotron:
Charles Olson As Poet-Historian and the Model of Ezra Pound

And why art is the only twin life has—its only valid metaphysic. Art does not seek to describe but to enact. And if man is once more to possess intent in his life, and to take up the responsibility implicit in his life, he has to comprehend his own process as intact, from outside, by way of his skin, in, and by his own powers of conversion, out again.
Charles Olson, Human Universe

The next two chapters trace the evolution of Poundian poetics in the writings of Pound's most representative and influential descendant, Charles Olson. More specifically, I propose to outline the dynamics of influence within a tradition of historically based poetic writing. It is clear from my discussion of Pound's poetics in earlier chapters that one of its underlying principles is that of the "poem including history": of the poem adopting as its source and frame of reference not only poetic language and tradition but also a world exterior to literature whose social, cultural, and historical presence is in continual dialogue with the poet's aesthetic project. In this chapter and the next, I argue that in the act of revising Pound's poetics, Olson reiterates the Poundian paradigm of influence: a process involving the use of extrapoetic materials and the adoption of extraliterary stances. Because most previous studies of Olson have focused primarily on The Maximus Poems and have treated in some depth its relation to The Cantos, I focus my discussion on Olson's other writings: the prose essays in which he defines theoretically his own relation to poetic tradition and to the conventions of past literature and the shorter poems in which he most directly confronts that tradition, in particular "To Gerhardt, There, Among Europe's Things . . . and "I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master."[1]


Olson's understanding of the poetic process and the process of poetic influence and tradition was deeply informed by a broader understanding of history. Trained primarily as a historian rather than as a literary scholar and with no formal training as a poet, Olson displayed little interest in conventional discussions of literary issues or in attempts to define the poetic canon. Unlike Pound's approach to literary tradition—one marked by an intense engagement with the linguistic and stylistic features of poets such as Bertran de Born, Cavalcanti, Dante, and Villon—Olson's initial involvement with Pound and other writers was motivated primarily by a need to understand the historical and political consciousness underlying their work. In his 1946 essay "This Is Yeats Speaking," Olson commented on the psychopolitical situation of Modernists like Pound, addressing his own postmodern" generation through the mask of Yeats. Olson proclaimed the Modernist "forerunners" to have been "out of phase" with the sequence of history and declared an "antithetical" stance for his generation, one that had to "hold the mirror up to authority, behind our respect for which lay a disrespect for democracy as we were acquainted with it" (COEP, 30).

If Olson's age, education, and literary background put him in a different sociohistorical "phase" from that of Pound, he shares with his predecessor the fundamental desire to locate himself in relation to the historical moments of previous poets and to understand the process of literary history as a manifestation of larger social or political forces. Both motivations run counter to a notion of poetic descent such as Bloom's, which attempts to separate the genealogy of poets from any reference to the historical events in which they are implicated. Olson's nonpoetic writings-as well as poems such as "A Lustrum for You, E.P.," "ABCs (3—for Rimbaud)," "La Preface," "La Torre," "To Gerhardt, There, Among Europe's Things . . .," and "The Death of Europe"—reveal his need to deal directly with the historical


reality embodied in his predecessors' works so as to define his own poetic stance. This reaction, whether accepting or rejecting, has its basis in, as Sherman Paul remarks, "history rather than spite or anxiety of influence."[2] As with Pound, influence for Olson is not only an interpersonal or a psychopoetic matter; it is a part of a more largely defined historical moment and signifies a rupture or continuity with the previous moment and its cultural matrix.

Central to Olson's poetic practice is his notion of the poet as historian. Beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he took on the role of the literary or cultural historian Pound represented and of the historical researcher who seeks out the "elemental particles" that make up human life. These same materials became the building blocks for Olson's poetic project, which he had envisioned as early as 1945: "The need today is to make yourself a cyclotron to break down the matter into its elements. And it is that size of machinery because things are so dispersed and hidden today, as was the atom. It is true on all fronts: to get to the elements you must make yourself a huge hammer."[3]

Olson's metaphor of historical exploration is a radical reformulation of Pound's notion of the poet as archaeological archivist, whose task it is to sift through the rubble of past cultures for what Donald Davie calls the "imaginary museum." Olson's cultural and historiographical writings define a methodology capable of investigating and describing historical processes in ways that challenge Pound's more traditionally chronological system of periodization. Pound claims to represent all ages as contemporaneous; he seeks to understand the past, as he writes in Guide to Kulchur, not "in chronological sequence . . . but by ripples and spirals eddying out from us and our time."[4] To some extent, Pound succeeds in this endeavor; yet in the explicitly historical sections of The Cantos, Pound focuses on particular periods in Italian, American, and Chinese history, relying for his basic structure on a chronological sequence of historical events


and on events in the lives of figures such as Sigismondo Malatesta and Thomas Jefferson. Olson seeks a historical methodology that goes beyond Pound's in its radical dissection of inherited systems and assumptions; above all, he wishes to examine the archaeological data that provide an index to the daily lives of people in past cultures. Pound's method is fundamentally that of the nineteenth-century cultural archaeologist: he studies the cultural archive for comparisons with, and supplements to, an unfavorable present. Olson's method, exemplified by his work on Mayan remains in the Yucatán, is in a more rigorous sense that of the on-site archaeological researcher.[5]

Olson sees Pound as applying his methods only to what remains within the "box" of historical time—Western civilization since Homer and more specifically since the Renaissance. In a 1953 appendix to his "Mayan Letters," Olson includes Pound as one of the few authors who "applied [himself] to the study of . . . history," but he criticizes Pound for his "admitted insistence he will stay inside the Western Box, Gemisto, 1429 A.D ., Up" (SW, 129). Olson wants to replace the "searchlight" Pound uses in discovering his cultural paideuma with a "crowbar," a "hammer," or even a "cyclotron," a more powerfully decentering conceptual tool with which he hopes to "bust apart" the ossified perceptions of Western culture and reach the "cutting edge" where he will once again be in harmony with the "particulars" of the world. Olson feels that Pound's efforts to redefine the cultural archive are a useful beginning but that they do not go far enough: "Cleanings, yes, but WE WANT SCOURINGS " (COEP, vol. 1, 92.).[6]


Various commentators have characterized the High Modernism of Pound, Eliot, and Yeats as a fundamentally reactionary mode in which history is viewed either as a factual source of "authority" or as part of a resurrected wealth of past knowledge needing only to be reclassified and reordered within the bounds of literary writing. In this context, postmodernism is Modernism's antithesis: it is associational, fragmented, random, and nonordered and represents history as "discourse" rather than as fact. To some degree, this opposition holds true in the case of Pound and Olson. If Pound defines The Cantos as a "poem including history," Olson seeks in The Maximus Poems a form that reflects more immediately the act of history itself. Pound's definition is essentially static; it implies a process whereby parts of history are inserted into, "contained" by, the poem. Olson's conception of "history as a verb" is active; it is always dependent on the reinterpretation of historical process by observer, reader, or listener. Olson's sense of history also frees it from a linear and causal understanding that is based on Western metaphysics and thereby dependent on ancient Greece, the source of modern Western civilization. To quote George Butterick, Olson's "postmodernist advance" beyond poets like Pound and Williams represents "a consciousness-change, a sense of sweeping anti-West-ernism and de-rationalism, and a sense of the primordial as a value replacing previously dominant ones."[7]

Nonetheless, the notion of postmodernism as a reaction against Modernist models can be easily problematized in the case of Pound and American poetry: Ihab Hassan cites Pound's Cantos as one of the few points at which Modernism and postmodernism meet.[8] Pound's work is largely associational and fragmentary, engaging in what Hassan calls a "flirtation with incoherence," despite Pound's stated aim of "making it cohere." The Cantos is an ongoing and unending struggle to achieve form and coherence without formal and thematic closure. Pound is


fully aware of this aspect of his poetry: "Art quite possibly ought to be the supreme achievement, the 'accomplished'; but there is the other satisfactory effect, that of a man hurling himself at an indomitable chaos, and yanking and hauling as much of it as possible into some sort of order (or beauty), aware of it both as chaos and as potential" (LE, 396).

In reading Pound's quote after Olson's, we are invited to formulate a connection between Pound's "indomitable chaos," which must be "yanked and hauled" into ordered form, and Olson's "elements" needing to be broken apart by the violent means of a cyclotron. Unlike Pound, Olson is no longer interested in "dominating" a chaos but rather in exploring in painstaking detail the world around him. His metaphor is technological rather than personal and heroic; it suggests a "postmodern" process of fragmentation and reintegration rather than a Modernist ethos of masculine virility and physical force. Olson's conception is less concerned with control and order than with discovery. Yet despite their obvious differences, both quotes articulate a similar sense of violence in the interpretive and artistic act. Pound and Olson share an awareness that writing—or any form of creative endeavor—cannot take place before the writer or artist has first engaged in the laborious process of comprehending and assimilating the raw materials to be found in the surrounding world. Thus, Olson's postmodernism can best be seen not so much as a reaction against Pound's Modernist project but as an extension of the most extreme forms of Modernist practice.[9]

Olson's own use of the term post-modern does not refer primarily to a poetic context, or even to the context of literary history, but to a larger and more radical conception of an entirely new epistemology, "an alternative to the entire disposi-


tion of mind that has dominated man's intellectual and political life since roughly 500 B.C ."[10] Olson's differences with early twentieth-century Modernism involve more than questions of poetic sensibility, style, or technique; they are inextricably linked to a reinterpretation of history and a different view of how best to appropriate history and historiography within a poetic praxis.

As much as Olson attempts to differentiate his historical consciousness from Pound's, his poetic is deeply indebted to the example of Pound as poet-historian. Even though much of Olson's later writing reflects a dissatisfaction with chronological "history" as a mode of relating to human experience, Olson should not be seen as antihistorical in any absolute sense. Instead, as Michael Bernstein suggests, Olson cautiously integrates Pound's notion of the "poem including history" into his own work.[11] Bernstein differs with Donald Davie, who cites Olson's criticisms of Pound's historical method as evidence that "Pound's disastrous career . . . will rule out . . . any idea that poetry can or should operate in the dimension of history."[12] Bernstein correctly argues that Olson's critique of Pound has more to do with the specific "materials" of history Pound examines than with the idea of historical poetry per se. Olson credits Pound with achieving in The Cantos a radical and necessary break with past poetic models; he has managed to "destroy historical time" in his poetry by adapting a "methodology" of "ego as beak" that allows him to cut through accumulated layers of historical exegesis to find the relevant or revelatory source.

Olson learned from several aspects of Pound's historical method: his treatment of specific "facts" of history and culture rather than abstract concepts as a means of arriving at a total cultural perception, or Kulturmorphologie ; his ability to attach any concept, like that of usura, to a tangible or visible reality; and his interest in a record of oral history (the tale of the tribe). Olson also inherited Pound's distrust for the conventional writ-


ing and teaching of history and his guiding belief in the need to examine primary sources and materials. It was through Pound that Olson was exposed to the ideas of two seminal historical thinkers: the cultural anthropologist Leo Frobenius and the economic historian Brooks Adams.

Yet despite the centrality of Pound's example to the development of Olson's historical poetic method, the practical reality of Pound as political and historical thinker became an increasing source of ambivalence for Olson. Olson found as early as his 1946 visits to Pound at St. Elizabeth's Hospital that his predecessor was "behind the times," a "cento man" with a "nineteenth-century stance." Olson wrote of Pound: "I think of the presence in his work of the worship for past accomplishments and a kind of blindness to the underground vigor of the present" (COEP, xvi). Olson's preference for "the underground vigor of the present," rather than for "the worship of past accomplishments," signaled a deep aversion to the use of history or literary tradition as a means of escaping or repressing a relationship with the present situation.

The impression of Pound that Olson took away from his visits was not principally that of a visionary poet, or even of the consummate artist and clear thinker Olson knew from Pound's writings, but rather of a misguided and sadly disillusioned man who was more preoccupied with economic theories than with poetry. Although Olson continued to view Pound's poetics as a central model, his experience of Pound as an anti-Semite, a fascist, and a traitor colored his feelings for Pound the poet as well and led him to reject aspects of Pound—aesthetic as well as political—that he could not condone or understand. Olson saw during his visits a "contradiction" in Pound and in his own curious involvement with this mentor: "The contradiction I am in here was exhibited all the time yesterday. Whenever Pound remained on the level of intellect and the creative he was dead right. . . . But wrong with the stink of death on all to do with politics and society" (COEP, 44–45). Olson's attempt at an explanation for the discrepancy between Pound the man and Pound the poet led him to speculate that "the only life he has


lived is, in fact, the literary," so that "the verbal brilliance, delightful as it is, leaves the roots dry" (COEP, 97, 101).[13]

Nevertheless, Olson had been one of Pound's first and most vocal defenders at a time when such a position clearly represented an important (and potentially dangerous) engagement for a young poet.[14] As a politician turned poet who considered himself a fellow renegade from conventional society, Olson experienced at once an affinity for Pound, who always struggled to "keep his head above things, against the others, Eliot, Joyce, Lewis, Yeats even" (COEP, xvii), and a sense of disgust at Pound's political position, which Olson at first derided and later only pitied.

Olson identified Pound's failing not only as an individual one but more generally as a symptom of a tendency among writers and artists of the Modernist period to turn in their quest for a higher art to unacceptable political alternatives like fascism. Olson felt Pound and other Modernist writers had used "history" for their own ends: to build a case for the relative inferiority of the present state of civilization, an inferiority that could be rectified only by the establishment of standards of "culture" based on elitist models gleaned from the past. Pound's assignment of the "great men" of the past into a history divided into distinct periods and his explicit comparisons between these periods put an emphasis on chronology and causality that to Olson detracted from the immediacy of any truly engaged act. These comparisons created a hierarchical structure that failed to account for person or poet as he or she existed in the present environment. For Olson, it was the relevance of any historical


moment to the "living present" that mattered, not "the passage of time and time's dreary repetition by monotony" (SW, 84).

Olson saw in Pound's attitude a desire to abandon the present, or "the only place where history has context" (HU, 137). Of course, Pound did attempt to update the past (to make it not only relevant but also analogous to the present situation) in books such as Jefferson and / or Mussolini and Guide to Kulchur, in his Dantean critique of modern civilization, and in his attacks on usury and economics in The Cantos . But for Olson, Pound's treatment of history (and thus his use of literary models, sources, and tradition) was compromised by a reliance on an "ego system" that prevented him from experiencing a present apart from the limiting and distorting optic of the past. Olson believed that Pound—either directly as cultural critic or indirectly through the guise of his poetic personae—had succeeded in attaching himself to the donatives of history, to the "grrreat men," so as to place himself directly in history. But Pound was able to triumph over time only by imposing his "ego position," a purely personal system of values that contradicted Olson's own sense of a communal relation to the world. Furthermore, Pound achieved his grip on the past through "nomination," by invoking predecessors, "intelligent men whom he can outtalk . . . break[ing] all down to his equals or inferiors" (SW, 81). Although Pound's ability to "drive through . . . time material" was admirable, his technique of "nomination" stood in the way, according to Olson, of "the ego as responsible to more than itself" (SW, 83). In other words, Olson suggested that history should consist not only of those "important" individuals with whom historians (and writers) have been concerned—Jefferson, Adams, Malatesta, Confucius, Dante—but with anyone or anything that is part of our past, the "Z 's and X 's" of the universe.

Pound's reliance on what Olson regarded as an elitist European "culture" bothered Olson particularly because Pound was an American who in embracing an almost completely foreign canon could be seen as turning his back on the cultural potential of his own land and people. In one of the letters Olson wrote to


Robert Creeley from the Yucatán, he praised Pound for having written "KULCH " (Guide to Kulchur ) but criticized the political and historical consciousness displayed in much of Pound's other work. Pound's "19th century stance," his use of "culture" to attack "the State or the Economy," was nothing more than a self-satisfying "Bohemianism." Furthermore, the "materials of history" Pound found useful—classical civilization, the quattrocento, the Renaissance, eighteenth-century patrician America—were outmoded because their use was contrary to an understanding "that the substances of history now useful lie outside, under, right here, anywhere but in the direct continuum of society as we have had it" (SW, 83–84).

Olson's most trenchant critique of Eurocentric culture came in his review of Ernst Robert Curtius's European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages . Olson saw Curtius as contributing to "the historism plaguing all Europeans, and so the world, by proselytizing from the center," and Olson chastised him for the idea that "European culture, in contrast to all others, is an 'intelligible unit' of unique cast . . . apostolic and universal" (HU, 155). Olson would doubtless have associated Curtius's stance with that of Pound, who also privileged European culture over that of the Americas. Olson, however, preferred to follow Whitman and Williams in celebrating an America free from the time-bound cultural legacy of Europe and therefore capable of more vital artistic expression. As he had written several years earlier in Call Me Ishmael: "We are the last 'first' people." Olson commented laconically that even when Pound attempted to describe America, he showed no real understanding of its changing cultural potential: "What's shallow about [Pound's America] is the deadness of it, the 18th century lag in it, the moan for the lost republican purity, the wish to return America to its condition of a small nation of farmers and city-state patricians. . . . Pound can talk all he likes about the cultural lag in America . . . but he's got a zoo year political lag in himself" (COEP, 52–53).[15]


One of the poems in which Olson addresses most directly what he considers the fundamentally elitist position of Pound's writing is "To Gerhardt, There, Among Europe's Things, of Which He Has Written Us in His 'Brief an Creeley und Olson,' " written in 1951 and published in Origin the following winter. This poem, composed while Olson was living in the Yucatán, is an extremely important expression of his attitudes toward European culture in general and Pound in particular; Olson promotes the poem in a letter to Cid Corman as a poetic restatement—a "REMONSTRANDUM "—of the essay "Human Universe" (COCC, 241).[16] In his September 24, 1952, letter to Corman, Olson explains that the poem is an attack on Pound's "19th century act of 'epater les bourgeois,' the plain snottiness of same" (COCC, 289). Section 2 of the poem addresses Pound directly, accusing him of hypocrisy in his use of the important image that begins the Pisan Cantos : "The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant's bent shoulders" (C, 425). Olson writes Corman that Pound's poem, rather than enacting any meaningful relationship with the experience of an Italian peasant during the Mussolini regime, reflects only "the social snobbery and fascism of the Poundian kinetic." Olson concludes that "the whole Italian stuff, and Dante, is of this social order: the American upper middle class seeking a social home!" (COCC, 289). Olson's poem comments further on the "method" of Modernists like Pound who, "with much less reason, from too much economics speak/of the dream/in a peasant's bent shoulders, as though it were true/they cared a damn/for his conversation" (CPO, 289). In the course of the poem, addressed primarily to the young German poet Rainer Maria Gerhardt but with


frequent asides directed at Pound and Eliot, Olson exhorts his European contemporary to seek meaning somewhere other than in the Europe he now inhabits—one constituted by the same sense of a "dead center at the top of time" Olson criticizes in the Eurocentric historicism of Curtius and Arnold Toynbee. Gerhardt, whom Olson will later celebrate as "the first of Europe / I could have words with" and the "last poet / of a civilization," is here said to be "shut in" like Curtius and Pound by his understanding of European history and culture.[17] Olson encourages Gerhardt to "come out" by discovering one of two things: a past as it existed prior to the current state of Western civilization ("the other side of time") or the new sense of "space" offered by America. Olson presents Gerhardt with a vision of the American continent untainted by either the Poundian notion of place as "civilization" or the "proper nominative" through which Pound defines his sense of culture:

I offer you no proper names
either from great cities
on the other side of civilization
which have only to be visited
to be got the hell out of, by bus
or motorcycle, simply because place
as a force is a lie.

(CPO, 213–14)

Olson also chastises Gerhardt for supporting such a "lie" in the extent to which he has "lightly borrowed men, naming them as though, / like your litany of Europe's places, you could take up/their power." Gerhardt cannot assume the power or "magic" of his predecessors merely by invoking them, just as Pound cannot create a vital paideuma with his "back references," his "ruins," and the "old pieces" he has picked up in Europe and China:

Admitting that among the ruins
     with a like schmerz in every vessel of his throat
     he repeated, "Among the ruins, among them
     the finest memory in the Orient"


one will go about picking up old pieces
    bric-a-brac, he snorted, who did not know whereof he
    he had so allowed himself to be removed, to back-trail
or put it immediately out of the mind, as some can,
stuff the construction hole quickly with a skyscraper

(CPO, 216)

This passage characterizes Pound's failure in several respects, culminating in an image of the Modernist (fascistic) architecture of The Cantos (a perversion of epic form suggested by the impersonal modern structure of a "skyscraper"), a construction that represses those layers of human history or experience lying underneath the foundations of Western civilization.[18] As Olson writes in the contemporaneous essay "Human Universe": "Value is perishing from the earth because no one cares to fight down to it beneath the glowing surfaces so attractive to all" (SW, 59). Later in this poem, Olson admits that he is "envious" of both Gerhardt and Pound for their ability to "handle . . . large counters" (and for Pound's ability to win "prizes"), but at the


same time he rejects the sense of hierarchy he sees as implicit in their work: "There are no broken stones, no statues, no images, phrases, composition / otherwise than / what Creeley and I also have." Instead, Olson offers Gerhardt the alternative world of the Mayan Indians—"the predecessors who, though they are not our nouns, the verbs / are like!" Gerhardt is invited to leave behind "Europe's things" ("there") and to "come here,"

where we will welcome you
with nothing but what is, with
no useful allusions, with no birds
but those we stone, nothing to eat
but ourselves, no end and no beginning, I assure you

 (CPO, 219)

Along with Pound's vision of history, Olson rejects the metaphysic of Eliot's Four Quartets —"In my beginning is my end" / "In my end is my beginning." Eliot's Christian vision represents another form of Western "idealism" that attempts to classify experience rather than allowing for the phenomenal and multifaceted experience of the Mayan world as Olson depicts it in "Human Universe." Unlike Pound and Eliot, Olson will "sing" to Gerhardt in "our anti-cultural speech, made up / of particulars only."

Olson's attempt at a redefinition of "history" continued to dominate his thoughts and work throughout the early 1950s and was bolstered by his discovery in 1953 of the Greek historian Herodotus.[19] In a brief article "It Was. But It Ain't," Olson contrasts the historical method of Herodotus with that of Thucydides. Herodotus accepts as an important aspect of history the spoken record of the people themselves, the oral history of their experience; Thucydides gives credence only to "evidence" that is visibly ascertainable and that conforms to a preconceived notion of history supporting the interests of the state. The writings of Herodotus, Olson argues, have been suppressed by Western historians in favor of the more "conventional" Thucydides.


Such "human" accounts of history as those of Herodotus are judged to be "dangerous" for Western society because they challenge the status quo on which our "knowledge" is built. The untrammeled "energy" in personal accounts is unpredictable and thus a threat to all our institutions. Herodotus' method of oral "mythology" (from the root "muthos," the mouth) refuses to privilege the "objectively true" history of what "did happen," of "politics . . . as usual [in] the pursuit of gain." He claims instead, in Olson's words, that "the voice is greater than the eye" and that "truth is what is said, not what is seen" (HU, 142–43).

Olson's understanding of Herodotus, one heavily indebted to J. A. K. Thomson's The Art of the Logos, rests primarily on Olson's own interpretation of two key concepts: that suggested by the Greek root istorin, "finding out for oneself," and that of history as "mutho-logos, the practice of life as story" (SVH, 21).[20] This discovery of Herodotus reconfirmed Olson's longheld belief that "history" should reflect individual exploration and personal experience rather than doctrine or state ideology and that it should contain as much of the oral element as possible. It should also contain an element that has been lost to "historical" understanding since Socrates: the understanding of the world and events that we now call "mythology." Herodotus was the "last historian," Olson claims, because he was the last one "to be taken seriously as . . . a mythologist, a'poet'" (SVH, 21).

Olson's subject, like that of Herodotus, consists increasingly in the histories of those individuals who are left out of history books. Olson attempts to explore such a history through the persona of Maximus, the Herodotean historian of Gloucester in The Maximus Poems . In "Letter 23" of the first book he writes, "I would be an historian as Herodotus was, looking / for oneself for the evidence of / what is said." In Maximus and elsewhere, Olson takes an interest in those aspects of history that are


"ingrained in our daily lives" and that reflect "what man does," rather than "only what he has done" (SVH, 14, 26).

To describe "what man does," Olson adopts as an alternative to conventional history the method of "morphology." It describes the forms, origins, and functions of people and objects without relying on the "proper nominatives" that block off a more immediate understanding of historical phenomena and without relying too much on the chronological sequence of dates and events.[21] Olson lists the works of Frobenius (cultural morphology), Carl Sauer (morphology of landscape), and Brooks Adams (economic morphology) as well as Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, Williams's In the American Grain, and Pound's Guide to Kulchur as important models of "morphological" study, a kind of work he claims "[too] few good men will bother with."[22] The morphological method of history Olson proposes concentrates not on political events but on the "forms" of human life represented by cities, colonies, and settlements; population migrations and adaptations to new environments; and demographic and technological change. In Olson's view, it is precisely these things, not the lives of famous people or the progress of political states, that should form the basis of history and of historically based poetry. "I see history as the one way to restore the familiar to us," he says, "to stop treating us cheap" (SVH, 29). Olson defines history as "the function of any one of us"; it is concerned not with "events of the past" or with the "news" as conveyed by "radios newspapers magazines mouth" but with the "life value" of the individual, his or her own "morphology" (SVH, 17–18).


As early as 1947, Olson had the idea for a poem to be called "Red, Black, and White," a "morphological study" of the role of different racial groups in the American West. Olson's interest in the "morphology" of the American continent was further evidenced in his plans and research for a long poem called "West," which, had it been written, would have been even more ambitious in scope than The Maximus Poems . The same preoccupation was exhibited in his "Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn," in Call Me Ishmael; in his essays on Mayan culture in Human Universe; and in the topoi of mapping, sea voyage, and geological landscape in The Maximus Poems . Olson continued to believe that a study of America had to be deeply connected with an awareness of the influence of environment on history.[23] It had to be geographical as well as temporal, taking "space (rather than time) to be the central fact to man born in America."[24]

Pound's work also contains elements of what can be called "geographic imagination": his use of "periplum" or sea voyage as a central trope and structural device and the exactitude of geographical detail in parts of The Cantos . After all, it was Pound who had first, in Olson's estimation, turned time "into what we now must have, space & its live air" (CORC, vol. 5, 49–50). Pound's use of geography provided an important basic model for later works, such as Williams's Paterson and Olson's Maximus . But those Cantos in which Pound addresses American history, rather than that of Europe or Asia, are devoted primarily to ideas of government and economics; they display a lack of geographic texture, and they evince little of Olson's interest in exploring the influences of geography on the American experience.

Olson, by contrast, engages in the earlier sections of The Maximus Poems in a sustained experiment in morphology, In his attempt to rediscover "history" as "a new localism, a polis to


replace the one which was lost . . . from 490 B.C. on" (SVH, 25), Olson includes in the poem both spoken and written narratives, thus foregrounding the communal life of the town and the local organization of daily life. He also explores in some detail the geographical and topographical contours of Gloucester and its environs as well as other areas along the New England coast. Thus, the poem reiterates Olson's historical method: his inclusion of local documents, his use of oral history to "mythologize" the life of a particular locale, and his awareness of human life unfolding through social community and relationship to the surrounding environment all contribute to the poem's sense of immediacy.[25] As Don Byrd suggests, Olson's poetry differs from that of Pound and other Modernists in not being determined by the kind of historical information that serves as the basis for Modernist works. Olson allows "the energy of the poem to arise directly from its sources," thereby gaining "an immediacy of mythic and historical material which is missing in modernist poetry."[26]

Olson's poetics of immediacy, one he had cultivated since the time of "Projective Verse," was further supported by the notion of "process" he found in Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality . According to Whitehead, the process of form making that is at the basis of any artistic expression begins with a "conflict" between the individual and perpetual chaos, the "multiples" that surround him or her. Such a conflict results initially in the need for the individual artist to "impose his or her order of order on the multiples." In the final stage of the creative act, the poet must gather back into his or her own experience those areas previously excluded in the desire to form a coherent personal order. It is at this stage that the poet must actualize the potential for "acquiring real unity with other entities" so as to move from the "private individual fact" into the "passing on" of energy that defines artistic creativity.[27]


For Olson, as for Whitehead, artistic creation is an organic process involving an "autoclytic multiplication," or "the chance success of a play of creative accidents" (SVH, 49). In contrast to Pound, for whom the poetic process involved a "yanking and hauling" of chaos into ordered form in an attempt to "make it cohere," Olson argues that within the "space-time continuum" he now takes history to be, "kosmos is history, and therefore alternatively chaos" (SVH, 49). The individual must continually create self and world out of this chaos, at each moment establishing a new order, a new beginning. "Coincidence" and "proximity" replace the static notion of the "aesthetic" that determined the possibility of "creative success" as defined by the old order—that of Pound as well as Socrates.

In conjunction with Olson's adaptation of the ideas and terminology of Whitehead came an increasing interest in the thought of Carl Jung. By the early 1950S Olson had begun reading and assimilating Jung's writings, which appear to have provided much of the impetus for Olson's notion of the projective in "Projective Verse" as well as important material for the later sections of The Maximus Poems .[28] Jung's essay "On Synchronicity" had particular relevance for Olson; in it Jung defines a relation between events that are not causally connected but that are linked by their simultaneous experience of a given archetype. This view, as Charles Stein notes in his book on Jung and Olson, has much in common with Olson's method of describing historical events outside of any causal or chronological sequence, as if revealing in their juxtaposition "inherent schemes of order" that can be grasped only within a space-time matrix independent of a diachronic understanding of experience.[29]

Olson's changing view of history and chronology and his changing conception of the poetic process contributed to equally


dramatic changes in his stance toward literary influence and tradition. Although at the time of Call Me Ishmael he had stressed the influence of Shakespeare and Homer in his reading of Melville's work, Olson evinced in his later writings little or no interest in the notion of literary influence as such, a concept he came to see as reflecting an outmoded and unnecessarily dualistic understanding of experience. In fact, one of the aspects of Pound that Olson valued most was his stubborn rejection of a tradition composed of the established canon of writers. In a letter to Cid Corman dated October 8, 1950, Olson complained of the tendency of literary magazines to print only work reflecting a narrowly defined "literary inheritance." Citing Eliot's sense of "tradition and the individual talent" as the guiding mentality of the "little mags," he offered Pound's eclectic method as a better model for dealing with the past. The "drive" and "energy" of Pound's active engagement with history, Olson claimed, allowed him to "use" the past without falling into Eliot's "human positionalism"ûa belief in the primacy of "tradition" or of the "past for its own sake" (LO, 6).

Olson's poetic mode of allusion by direct quotation places his texts in the same kind of dialogic relationship with his predecessors that Pound establishes vis-à-vis his sources. As in Pound's work, the inclusion of fragments of past discourse emphasizes the poem's relationship to space and time and thereby extends the poem beyond a purely intertextual realm in which other poems are its only referent. Furthermore, Olson's use of quotation contributes to what Robert von Hallberg calls the "scholar's art": a formulation of philosophical, historical, and methodological principles that can be conveyed to the reader and to a new generation of poets through the poetry itself as well as through classroom teaching and lectures, nonpoetic writings, and personal contact and example. The poet, in Olson's view, has a responsibility to help other members of society to interpret the world: "The poet is the only pedagogue left, to be trusted" (HU, 19).

Nonetheless, Pound's use of models and sources, radical as they are within a still more confined tradition of English and American literature, are so tied to a culture based on Western


literary, artistic, and epistemological systems as to prove of little value to Olson. Although Olson's stance toward Pound does not represent a wholesale rejection of Western cultural artifacts, as some critics contend, it does cause Olson to be extremely selective in his choices of valid literary and historical material. Olson is not interested in those "donative" figures whom Pound judged "important" according to his criteria for intellectual or literary excellence; rather, Olson is drawn to those artists or thinkers he considers to be "of essential use" to the needs of the present and to the formulation of a "projective," "post-modern" stance. Pound's donative artists, by reflecting on their own period, represent for him a moment of cultural renaissance that will form, by comparison, an implicit critique of modern culture. Olson takes Pound to task for just such a use of the past as a means of criticizing or dismissing the present.

Instead, Olson conceives of an ideal creative process free from the weight of past discourse: "My shift is that I take it the present is prologue, not the past. Is its own interpretation, as a dream is, and any action—a poem, for example. Down with causation. . . . And yrself: you, as the only reader and mover of the instant. You, the cause. No drag allowed, on either. Get on with it."[30] If present experience can be liberated from reference to the past, then the poet can be liberated from reference to previous literary models, and the traditional distinction between poetic writing and the creative potential contained in everyday life will lose its validity:

And it struck me . . . that poetry, as being written today, especially by or in our language, yields a future that is unknown, is so different from the assumptions that poetry has had, in our language, that the life one lives is practically the condition of the poetry, rather than the poetic life being a thing in itself. And one could almost say that these two words today [life and poetry] have practically flown together, flowed . . . together.[31]

Olson did not discover the writings of Whitehead until 1954, but long before he was to use Whitehead's theories to help explain his own process Olson had established a mode of writing


that clearly showed his dissatisfaction with a reliance on past models. Olson's characteristic style was from early on highly idiosyncratic, decentering, and confusing to readers expecting the structure of traditional logic. His use of incomplete sentences or fragments, his twisted or truncated syntax, his unusual and often disconcertingly personal method of punctuation, his colloquial and consciously unacademic diction, and his frequent capitalizations, abbreviations, and repetitions all contribute to the sense of a spontaneous, undigested, and destructured discourse. Olson's use of commas, for example, to separate the sentence into smaller units of thought or breath, rather than into larger syntactic units, gives the impression of raw thought or utterance as it comes to the mind unmediated by the strictures of past usage. In the same way, his unclosed parentheses represent visually and syntactically the unfinished thought, the lack of any final closure in a given pronouncement. Both Olson's prose and poetry are left syntactically open, naked to the eye of the reader. We must attempt to understand not only the work's meaning—that place it holds as argument within the context of other discourses—but also the way in which it represents the operations of the writer's mind and records his voice and breath visually on the page.

Olson, then, adopts not only a radically new social and epistemological orientation but an equally radical discourse within which to express his ideas. His idiosyncratic mode of writing allows him to adjust quickly to his topic, mood, or environment; it also allows him to react to ideas and events as they strike him, without acceding to the rules of scholarly or even socially acceptable discourse. For Olson, the "self" is not constituted primarily by reading previous texts and reacting in similar language to what is read. Instead, the self is a complex mechanism composed of biological, psychological, social, and historical factors. It is a mechanism that ideally is ready to respond to all stimuli, to "read" physical relationships in the world just as members of Western society read books. For Olson, the modern Western "self" has been too greatly derived from a belief in the centrality of society and "culture," of "his-


tory as such"; not enough attention has been paid to the individual's place in a cosmic or biological frame of reality.

Against Pound's singular vision of "kulchur," the highly personalized and idiosyncratic collection of "luminous details" from a European past that the focusing vortex of his ego seeks to unite, Olson places a vision of the communal, of the "human universe." Olson gains an appreciation for the importance of a unified communal vision as well as for the person's direct relation to the immediate environment from his study of the past and present cultures of the Yucatán. Among the present-day descendants of the Mayan culture, Olson finds a "harmony with the universe" made possible by a concrete and particularized notion of the physical world.

In his "Mayan Letters" Olson expresses his belief in the more accurate sense of the human being's place held by the ancient Mayans and maintained to some degree among the modern-day inhabitants of the Yucatán. Instead of depending, as Western societies do, on a narrow "humanism" defined by "a whole series of human references," Mayan civilization valued human participation as "object" in a "field of force" defined by the larger world of nature (SW, 112). In modern Western culture, the person's "miscentered" and hierarchical frame of reference distorts his or her relation to the object world. The Mayan culture offered Olson an alternative notion: that of a "self" in direct contact with the environment.

This same desire for an unmediated relation with the object world is reflected in the poetics Olson outlines in "Projective Verse." Just as with objects in nature, the "objects" in the poem must be treated without regard to "any ideas and preconceptions from outside the poem." Olson seeks to allow the "speech-force of language back" into poetry, so that "by speech, solidity, everything in it can now be treated as solids, objects, things . . . allowed to have the play of their separate energies." A mode of writing structured by the force of speech, rather than by imposed linguistic and stylistic conventions, represents a rupture with traditional forms of logos, a break "which brings us up, immediately, against tenses, in fact against syntax, in fact against


grammar generally, that is, as we have inherited it." The act of "speech" enacts an involvement with nongrammatical factors such as the breath and the fractured nature of thought, which resist the structures of inherited convention and lead to a more fragmented and spontaneous syntactic field: "Do not tenses, must they not also be kicked around anew, in order that time, that other governing absolute, may be kept, as must the spacetensions of a poem, immediate, contemporary to the acting-on-you of the poem?" (SW, 20–21).

Olson's implicit questioning of grammar and convention in his own writing and his directed attack on them in his poetics are part of the larger question he attempts throughout his later life to answer: "how far a new poet can stretch the very conventions on which communication by language rests." Olson seeks a poetic language and style that achieve in their break with past discourse and tradition new and as yet untapped possibilities of expression: "It is my impression that all parts of speech, suddenly, in composition by field, are fresh for both sound and percussive use, spring up like unknown, unnamed vegetables in the patch, when you work it, come spring" (SW, 21).

Olson's vegetable metaphor for poetic language points toward his belief in an organic relationship between language and nature, one that allows for linguistic structures not dependent on "historical" measures of writing. Although Olson is capable in his own writing of intricate tonal effects, he disapproves of "a largeness of tone" at the expense of the personal rhythms generated by the poet's own breath and voice. Olson suggests that to find his or her "rhythmic" energy in nature, a person must replace the dominant Western tradition of "knowledge-without-respect-for-rhythm " with a notion of art as "act," originating in rhythmic impulse: "The point is, energy is only prime to nature. And nature is not man. Man is artist, or he does not live; his act (the act which makes him rival of nature) is ART . This is his special attribute, the distinguishing one: that he can make forms, using nature's energy, which are as prime & essential as nature's forms" (CORC, vol. 7, 240).

In the kinetic art Olson envisions, writing would not be based


on inherited forms that engender a mechanical reproduction of art as "produce." Instead, writing would find its impulse in those means of expression that contain a sense of the immediate confrontation with the rhythmic and spatial world: dance, music, and the human voice. For Olson, the content and emotional impulse of the poem should never be subjugated to the necessity for a culturally or canonically determined tone, form, or music; as he writes to Cid Corman, the work should not have any largeness "beyond your own size—which again is a matter of YR RHYTHM " (LO, 84).

According to Olson, Pound is often guilty of such an all-encompassing "largeness" of poetic and historical vision that he fails to register his own impulses, moving instead into "that selection out of, that 'the light in the conversations of—the letters of—the intelligent ones,' or at least the literate ones" (HU, 112). Olson compares Pound to a "ping-pong ball" that bounces off the exteriors of people and things without examining their internal natures. Olson sees writers such as Herman Melville and D. H. Lawrence as exemplifying the opposite tendency, "the ability to go inside a thing, and from its motion and his [motion] to show and to know, not its essence alone . . . but its dimension, that part of the thing which ideality . . . tended to diminish" (HU, 112).

What Western philosophical traditions of ideality, logic, classification, and causality have replaced is the notion of a rhythmical interaction with nature that allows, in Olson's terms, for a physical engagement with the spatial dimension of the object world. A loss of respect for the world's rhythms has caused our "acts," and thus our writing, to go "askew" over the course of the past two millennia. We can restore ourselves and our literature only when we face the immense task, the post-modern imperative, of living and writing in the "instant" and thus of risking "havoc and wreck" (HU, 113). It is only by returning to the sense of relevance conferred by an "actual earth of value"—a meaningful relationship to an external, "objective" reality—that the poet can reestablish a place in the world and thereby engage "history" as a kinetic reenactment of life itself.


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