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5— Olson As Mencius and His Master, Pound: A Study in Poetic Tradition
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Olson As Mencius and His Master, Pound:
A Study in Poetic Tradition

Most critical discussions of Olson touch in some way on his relationship to his Modernist predecessors Pound and Williams. Olson's relationship to both poets has been explored at some length, yet the issue of Olson's general attitude toward influence and tradition is still contested. Some critics consider Olson little more than an "imitator" of the work of such predecessors; others view him as a radically antitraditional poet who sought to create his own idiosyncratic poetic system through a wholesale rejection of past systems of discourse. In the last chapter, I argued that even though Olson learned a great deal from Pound's ideas and practices, his critique of Pound's historical method and awareness led him to question some of the fundamental assumptions behind the work of his Modernist forebear. In this chapter, my reading of Olson's 1954 poem "I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master . . ." elaborates a paradigm for Olson's relation to predecessors and tradition and indicates that his navigation between complete rejection or acceptance of the Pound tradition informs poetic decisions in such areas as form, syntax, and diction.[1]


To arrive at a more just and accurate sense of Olson's relation to his tradition, I pay more careful attention than previous critics to the evidence provided by an early draft manuscript and later corrections of "I, Mencius . . ." as well as to other biographical material relating to the writing of the poem. In the second half of the chapter, I explore the valences of particular metaphors in the poem. I conclude that "I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master" not only foregrounds what were for Olson central issues of influence and tradition but also creates its own metaphors to describe the actual process of influence.

In Olson's important correspondence with Robert Creeley we find a continual and profound involvement with the work, the ideas, and at times the personalities of both Pound and Williams. But as Olson writes Creeley of his debt to Pound: "This whole question [of influence] is intricate" (CORC, vol. 7, 244). Olson goes on to explain in this letter of October 3, 1951, that he cannot accept being labeled an "imitator" of Pound, even given that he finds many of Pound's ideas useful or illuminating. In an August 4, 1951, letter two months earlier Creeley had written of a "tradition" that "preserves itself" without the "buttressing of imitation." In other words, for Creeley the work of the poets of the tradition of Whitman, Pound, and Williams is "in each case peculiar to the intelligence, the body, involved in the expression" (CORC, vol. 1, 53).

Olson's reply suggests an attitude similar to Creeley's but even more adamant about reserving a place for the individual poet within his or her tradition: "My sense is, that right here is tradition, that, the work we value, especially when the man is alive behind us, is to be gone by" (CORC, vol. 7, 244). Olson


further explains his position in an October 12 letter to Creeley: he complains about "this easy business of" comparisons between him and Pound ("to beat me with that stick") but at the same time recognizes Pound's importance, along with D. H. Lawrence, as one of the "two men [who] stand forth out of the half century." He hopes that the critics, especially "those who still pipe for T. S. E[liot]," will "for christ sake, just give me my air, whatever it is—the issue, anyway, will only emerge in the issue" (CORC, vol. 8, 44–45).

On one of the few later public occasions in which he addresses the question of influence—his essay on Melville's Billy Budd entitled "David Young, David Old"—Olson presents the relationship between Hawthorne and Melville as one that eventually detracted from the younger Melville's gifts as a writer. Comparing the labored writing of Billy Budd with what Olson sees as the more naturally written Moby-Dick, Olson concludes that Billy Budd fails in being of "magnitude proper to the man [but] proffered in the style and process of another" (HU, 107–8). Olson implicitly lays the blame for this failure at Hawthorne's feet because between the original version of the tale as Melville first conceived it and his subsequent rewriting of it, "Hawthorne intervened, and stole a strength away." Olson's essay emphasizes his own predilection for Melville's more "spontaneous" art over the more self-consciously literary style of Hawthorne. The essay also indicates Olson's attitude toward influence in general: that to think too much about a predecessor, to "work over" those impulses that come spontaneously from inside oneself by using "the hand of" another, detracts from the strength and vitality of the writing and "thickens the blood around the heart."

Olson's description of the relationship between Hawthorne and Melville can apply equally to his own literary apprenticeship with Pound. Although the difference in age between Pound and Olson was substantially greater than between Hawthorne and Melville, and their personal interaction came early in the younger writer's career, rather than late, Pound was one of Olson's proclaimed "father figures," fulfilling much the same role as Hawthorne had for Melville. Indeed, it is tempting to


read Olson's account of this relationship—and by analogy his relationship to his own predecessors—as a typical instance of Bloomian "anxiety." We may even propose the following twist to Bloom's paradigm: by misreading Billy Budd (Melville's "crisis poem") as a case of an ephebe's work destroyed by an older writer's influence, Olson may fail to realize that the writing of Billy Budd is made possible only by Melville's sublimation of the "stronger" Hawthorne. Melville is relatively passive in this process and unaware, it would seem, of the repressed hand of Hawthorne in his own work.

But we can take this analogy too far: if Melville is not cognizant of this process, Olson certainty is. As Robert von Hallberg remarks, Olson not only recognizes the impossibility of true originality in poetry but actually aims "at a language that deliberately and conspicuously denies itself originality."[2] Feelings of poetic "anxiety" and competition are not unknown to Olson, but he lessens the weight of such anxieties by the projection of his mental energies into vastly diverse areas of knowledge and speculation. His eclecticism, like Pound's, extends outside the boundaries of a single period, a single culture, or a single discipline to form a personal vortex of usable ideas.[3]

In Destructive Poetics, Paul Bové describes what he sees as Olson's "antitraditional" or "destructive" tendencies. Bové emphasizes Olson's subversion of the mainstream critical tradition represented by the New Criticism, a tradition whose "imposed, teleological, ironic, atemporal, distanced structures" and "traditional language of abstract concepts and ironic symbols" falls within "the continuous linearity of the Western onto-theological tradition."[4] Bové attempts to show how both Olson and Whitman resist the attempts of the New Critics, as well as those of


neo-Romantic critics like Harold Bloom, to appropriate their work into a "tradition."

Bové's discussion raises important questions about the role of critical orthodoxies in canonizing poetic writing. Nevertheless, despite the polemical attractiveness of Bové's conception, it seems clear that Olson recognizes and belongs to a tradition, if not the one Bové identifies as the tradition. Indeed, Olson's work is deeply involved with the tradition of open-form poetry established by Whitman, Pound, Williams, Crane, Cummings, and the Objectivists.[5] For Olson, as for Pound, tradition is not simply an unchanging, idealized order needing to be "destroyed." On the contrary, the "tradition" to which Olson belongs is constituted by a dynamic and nonexclusive system of poets, poems, and institutions. It is true that Olson's stance resists certain aspects of tradition: those having to do with inherited literary and social forms and with the modes of experience that inform a poetics.[6] Olson's work, however, does exist and operate as part of a tradition—to deny this would be to deny the importance of "Projective Verse," which depends so heavily on its references to the earlier movement of Pound's Imagism, and to deny the importance of the institutionalization of Olson's poetics at Black Mountain and more generally among younger poets. Olson's link to tradition is expressed largely through his appreciation of the value of community (Black Mountain as a little "city," for example). Olson's notion of "tradition" is not so much that of a chronologically based "line" marked by shared influences as of a group of poets who share an environment and a sense of poetic process.

In light of this understanding, Bové's conclusions about Olson and tradition seem oversimplified:

"Tradition" cannot be fixed as any canon of works or even any canon of interpretations. There are as many "traditions" as there are


authentic poets of destruction who look with their eyes at the world about them and who imitate Herodotus as historian and try to find out things for themselves. . . . It is precisely the "freedom" from any definitive "tradition" which prevents any feelings of anxiety in Olson about his relation to the past. . . . Indeed, Olson's liberty from the burden of the past comes from his insistence that the poet must stand in a destructive, not an imitative, relation to the past, with the result that the past is seen in all its uncertainties, ambiguities, and contradictions, and not in the formal certainty of an aesthetic fiction.[7]

Bové's analysis of Olson's debt to his predecessors disregards several important facts. First, even though Olson does not particularly favor a "canon of works or . . . interpretations," his use and discussion of other poets, especially Pound, demonstrate a recognition of a tradition of American avant-garde and Modernist writing that displays a greater degree of shared practices and ideas than Bové's comments suggest. Olson would not concur with the notion of a different tradition for every poet.

Second, Olson is no more interested in "destruction" as a poetic mode than in "imitation." His poetics seeks to use materials of the past to construct a new sense of reality for the present and future. Those aspects of Olson's project that Bové links with "deconstructing" a traditionû"taking a personal look at the facts" and destroying "the completed linguistic form"—are not so much antitraditional as representative of the poetic practice poets such as Pound and Williams made possible.

Finally, Olson's writings do reveal "feelings of anxiety about his relation to the past." Although these feelings seem more a result of the burden placed on him by critics ready to dismiss him as a "Pound imitator" than by the canon or by a Bloomian tradition of the Sublime, the feelings exist nonetheless, at times quite visibly. Olson realizes that no relationship of the artist to the past can be wholly "imitative" or wholly "destructive"; both elements must be present in the genesis of any significant work of art.

Marjorie Perloff's attempt to characterize Olson's relation to his poetic tradition takes the approach opposite to that of Bové.


She suggests that Olson's relationship to Pound and Williams is purely imitative. Perloff discredits the originality of Olson's "Projective Verse" by placing quotations from Olson's text side by side with similar passages in Pound and Williams. She then proceeds to read "I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master" in light of the poetics outlined in "Projective Verse." In a somewhat cursory discussion of the poem, Perloff states that the poem is "flat," that it is "no more than a superficially clever poem," that it "basically restates the same theme over and over again," and that it is "not in any way remarkable in terms of its prosody" (OIP, 299).

Despite Perloff's important scholarship in the field of modern poetics and her valuable exegesis of Pound's work and the "experimental" poetic tradition, I differ with her undeservedly negative portrayal of Olson's writing vis-à-vis his derivation from Pound and Williams. Perloff's emphasis on Olson's lack of both originality and generosity misrepresents his literary achievement. As I read him, Olson is not only an enormously creative poet but also a writer well aware of his place within a tradition and highly respectful of the work of predecessors within that tradition.

Perloff claims that "Projective Verse." "is hardly the breakthrough in literary theory that it is reputed to be" and that it is "essentially a scissors-and-paste job, a clever but confused collage made up of bits and pieces of Pound, Fenollosa, Gaudier-Brzeska, Williams, and Creeley" (COIP, 295). Although Olson's manifesto is partially based on ideas previously articulated by other writers, this does not in itself constitute a substantive criticism of Olson's essay. Olson certainly makes no secret of the fact that he picks up where Pound and Williams left off. Nor does Olson share Perloff's idea of originality; for him, adopting and revising the terminology of other writers are ways of paying them homage while renewing a discourse that can be shared by a particular community and can serve as a common language of usable materials. Olson's use of the ideas of his predecessors and contemporaries is not fundamentally different from the way in which Pound himself constantly adapted his own ideas about poetry both from contemporary sources—Wyndham Lewis,


T. E. Hulme, Ford Madox Ford, Remy de Gourmont, Basil Bunting, C. H. Douglas, Gaudier-Brzeska, Fenollosa, and Frobenius—and from earlier "authorities" such as Confucius, Cavalcanti, and Erigena. In fact, the incorporation of ideas and quotes taken directly from other sources is characteristic of poets in the Pound tradition, and Pound's example no doubt gave later poets permission to exercise the same liberty.

Particularly troubling to Perloff is what she perceives as Olson's overly hostile attitude toward Pound and Williams. But a full examination of the facts reveals that Olson's relationship to these two poets is more complex than Perloff's analysis suggests. Olson does not reject influence, although some of his comments quoted out of context seem to indicate that he does. Nor does he reject Pound and Williams, who remain his two most important and honored influences. What Olson does reject are the attempts of critics, readers, and editors to place him in the role of "imitator," or "Poundling," and to evaluate his poetry within a hierarchy that places Pound and Williams above him.

In her article, Perloff quotes an ostensibly dismissive passage from a letter to editor Cid Corman in which Olson scolds Corman for comparing Olson's poems to those of Pound and Williams: "I know what's missing in the music. but it's olson which ain't there, not Williams and Pound. And you should know that's who is missing. Not these two inferior predecessors" (COIP, 298). Perloff does not include the rest of the quotation, which puts Olson's seemingly arrogant comment in perspective. Olson writes, "Not these two inferior predecessors—just as I am inferior, to myself! and predecessor, of myself!" In the context of the letter, Olson's meaning is clear: the poetry of Pound and of Williams is certainly great, perhaps greater than his own if measured by the criteria of their own time and artistic sensibility. Olson calls Pound "the man in this century" and "the leading poet alive in the world" and grants him special status as the "one/ true / immediate / predecessor." But great as Pound and Williams are, their "music" is from the past, and it is no longer "the moving music of other men . . . [of] any of us who are now singing." Olson rejects the "establishing of relations" and the


making of "value comparisons" that Corman's critique presupposes: "What they did is there. What we do, is. That's all" (LO, 130–32).

Pound and Williams, Olson writes, are "two holy cows / two wholly acceptable / measures." They are sacred and unattainable as measures from the past, but more importantly they should be seen as leading to the present and the future, just as Olson's past work is only a preparation for his present "live speech." Seen in this light, the latent possibilities contained in the self are greater than any inherited ones. Olson's anxiety is not over what has been done in the past but over the attempts of various historians and critics to represent the past as more important, more valuable than the present.

In her reading of Olson's poem, Perloff applies what are essentially New Critical strictures to Olson's style. The "inevitability of the verse line" that Perloff seeks as a governing principle of poetry is exactly what constitutes the formal, closed verse rejected by Olson and other practitioners of open-form poetry. It is precisely such an inevitability—that sense of an oppressive form and syntax "which print bred" in English poetry—that Olson seeks to avoid in writing a poetry that will be the direct transcription of the poet's experience onto the page and in using the typewriter as "the personal and instantaneous recorder of the poet's work." Olson speaks of a verse that will "have the reading its writing involved, as though not the eye but the ear was to be its measurer, as though the intervals of its composition could be so carefully put down as to be precisely the intervals of its registration" (SW, 23).

Olson's poetry, though not regulated by the same kinds of formal considerations governing most lyric verse, is by no means carelessly or haphazardly put together. The creative spontaneity Olson espouses for the "recording" of the poem is only a first step, and it must be followed by a process of careful composition and revision requiring the same sense of craft Olson values highly in Pound and Williams. An early typescript shows at least two sets of revisions to "I, Mencius. . .," which include changes in diction, punctuation, capitalization, spelling, spacing, and line


endings as well as substantial additions and deletions and organization into sections. In Olson's copy of Black Mountain Review, where the poem first appeared in published form, he makes further corrections—mostly in spacing, indentation, and the arrangement of sections.[8]

It is apparent from these corrections that one of Olson's principal concerns, perhaps the principal concern at this stage of his career, is with the organization of lines and line endings. The emphasis in Olson's poetic technique on the tine as a visual, syntactic, aural, and mnemonic feature (as well as the physical unit of the breath) makes clear the possibility of a direct connection (though by no means an "inevitable" one) between form and content. The reasons for Olson's line endings—the validity of which Perloff questions—may not be apparent to every reader, but they are certainly apparent to the poet himself. They are formed by his particular feeling for the rhythms of his own breath and by the sequence of sounds his ear makes possible—in Pound's terms, "the musical phrase rather than the metronome." It is, in Olson's own words, the responsibility of the poet to "record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work" (SW, 22).

Thus, a reader who is aware of the possibilities of field composition should be able to understand the logic of the poet's choices, even if that reader would not write the poem in exactly the same way. Perloff's contention that Olson's version of a given stanza of the poem can just as easily be "transposed" into her own version is untenable—just as a similar claim about a poem of Pound or Williams would be. I first quote Olson's stanza:


that what the eye sees,
that in the East the sun entangles itself
from among branches,
should be made to sound as though there were still roads
on which men hustled
to get to paradise, to get to

(CPO, 319)

Here is Perloff's transposition:

that what the eye
that in the East
                   the sun untangles itself
from among branches should be made
       to sound
as though there were still roads
on which men hustled
            to get

(COIP, 300)

One of the basic principles of open-form poetry in the Pound tradition is that the way the poem appears visually on the page influences our apprehension of it in terms of sense, sound, and visual image (logopoeia, melopoeia, and phanopoeia).[9] Perloff's version divides Olson's lines so that the syntactic structure of thought or statement is broken down into imagistic fragments that are both seen and heard as smaller verbal units. But the composition of Olson's original lines forces the reader to return in a jarring way to the margin, strongly emphasizing the enjambed nature of the passage. The juxtaposition of longer lines (two and four) with shorter lines (three and five), followed by


still more fragmented lines at the end, creates an awkward and limping rhythm matching Olson's disgust at the scene he describes. Perloff's arrangement, especially of the lines "from among branches should be made / to sound / as though there were still roads," removes Olson's punctuation and creates a new and different enjambment that affects the physical and intellectual act of reading the lines and actually changes the meaning of the passage. Furthermore, by ending her transposed passage where she does, Perloff removes entirely the sense of ironic commentary in the lines "to get to paradise, to get to Bremerton / shipyards."[10]

Although I am not entirely convinced by such schematic analyses of Olson's "projective" poetry as that offered by Paul Christensen, who seeks to plot the form of Olson's poems according to a theory of "semantic spacing," I do agree with Christensen's basic contention as well as that of Donald Davie that the positioning of words, lines, and strophes on the page reflects the poem's meaning, "and, quite possibly . . . the thinking process itself."[11] Davie gives Olson credit not only for successfully adopting Pound's technique of using the typewriter as a means of "scoring" the poem but also for providing a more specific explanation of the technique than Pound (or Williams or Cummings) does. The use of devices such as spacing, punctuation, quotation marks, and upper and lower case has not, according to Davie, been granted its full importance by many critics, who see such matters of visual presentation as "merely typographical." Davie comments:

But why merely ? Of course it is true that the ear will allow itself to be persuaded by the eye only up to a point; and when a poet tries by typography to persuade the ear of a rhythm that to the ear is nonexistent, then it must be allowed that his arrangement is "merely typographical," and for this he may be blamed. But not only may the reader's ear be assisted, simply by the took of verse on the page, to hear a rhythm it might otherwise have missed; but at times the look


on the page may actually create a rhythm that could not be conveyed to the reader's ear by any other means.[12]

On a visual level, Perloff's version of Olson's lines makes a pretty picture and even creates an ideogrammatic feeling of branches and entanglement, but this is clearly not the experience Olson is trying to produce. Most importantly, in terms of the sound of the poem, Perloff's transposition changes the rhythms significantly, slowing down the pace of the lines, altering their movement and their interaction with the breath. As is clear to those who have heard Olson read his work, he is extremely sensitive to the interplays of vocalic and consonantal sounds and to the emphasis given a certain line. Perloff's example, far from forming a critique of Olson's method, actually supports the claim he and other poets of the Pound tradition have made that the way a poem is written, its construction on the page, has a discernible effect on the way it is apprehended, read, heard, and understood. In composing an open-form work, the poet does not "simply break off where he happens to break off"; he or she creates a new form with each new poem, a task that can involve a more refined understanding of meter and line than does the use of more traditional forms.

"I, Mencius . . ." is not only an important example of open-form, or projectivist poetry; it is a central poetic statement of the stance Olson and his contemporaries adopt toward their "master," Pound. The poem makes direct reference to Pound's poem "A Pact" and thus places Olson in a direct line of derivation from Whitman and the more Whitmanic Pound of The Cantos, while at the same time distancing Olson from the practices into which he felt Pound's poetry, especially the Confucian "Odes," had recently fallen.[13] I quote Pound's poem first.


I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now it is time for carving.
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between US.[14]

Here are passages from "I, Mencius . . . From section I:

the dross of verse. Rhyme!
when iron (steel)
has expelled Confucius
from China. Pittsburgh!
beware: the Master
bewrays his vertu.
To clank like you do
He brings coolie verse
to teach you equity,
who layed down such rails!

(CPO, 318)

From section II:

o Whitman,
let us keep our trade with you when
the Distributor
who couldn't go beyond wood,
has gone out of business

(CPO, 319)

When seen as a poem about tradition and about the need to clean one's house continually of the influences and works that are no longer useful, "I, Mencius . . ." is not the peevish ranting of a disappointed epigone; it is an interesting and significant "disciple poem." In it the pupil Olson (Mencius) at once honors his master Pound (Confucius) for his earlier work, castigates and disowns him (though not permanently) for his recent work, and turns for solace and guidance to an even earlier model, that of


Whitman, the founder of the tradition to which Pound himself belongs. In the analogy Olson establishes in the second section of the poem, Pound is reduced to the role of "distributor" of Whitman's goods, and the "pact" he had made with his father is invalidated by his current state of poetic "bankruptcy."

Olson's poem is full of echoes of what Pound had written forty years earlier. In addition to the pact itself, involving either commerce" or "trade" between a "grown child" and his father (and in the case of Olson and Whitman, grandfather), there is in both poems a play between "wood" as raw material for carving or carpentry and wood as a living sign of organically shared experience. But in each case, Olson changes the image slightly, emphasizing that while indebted to Pound, he also recognizes his independence from Pound. Even the word trade, as opposed to Pound's use of the Latinate and more formal commerce, is an intentional, though subtle, manifestation of Olson's desire to make clear the distinction between his generation and Pound.

Trade, as opposed to commerce, is the more basic and unpretentious activity on which the American way of life—and Whitman's ideal—is founded. It suggests a totally egalitarian exchange, as opposed to the more explicitly financial sense suggested by commerce. Olson is no doubt thinking of another meaning of trade as well, that of an occupation or craft that he and Whitman share—"poetry is our trade." Given Olson's interest in etymology, he may also have in mind other, less current usages of the word, some of which resonate in the particular context of this poem.[15]The Oxford English Dictionary lists several different meanings of the noun trade, including a "course, way, trail . . . path or track" (related to the word tread ) and a "course or way of life, of action." All these senses of trade are appropriate here, especially in light of the many images of linear movement and tracks or roads throughout the poem: "as


though there were still roads / on which men hustled"; "and our feet / we do not march"; "we'll to these woods / no more / where we were used to go"; "who layed down such rails"; "go still / now that your legs." In the line Olson addresses to Whitman, "let us keep our trade with you," we may also hear an echo of the maritime expression "to keep [a] trade," a steady course (following the trade winds). Olson's choice of a single word, then, works both as a calculated rejection of Pound's expression and as an homage to the Poundian concept of "language charged with meaning to the utmost degree" (CPO, 318–20).

Olson also reverses the idea of a son now ready to "make friends" with a "pig-headed father." On the contrary, the son is now rejecting the model of a father whom he had loved, whose "old clothes" he had worn, and who had taught him so much. Olson also addresses the extent to which Pound has disappointed an entire generation of poets, setting the poem in the first-person plural rather than the first-person singular. Here we see an example of a choric poetic voice through which one poet expresses the needs and emotions of his entire generation. The time for carving, for the individual poet as solitary craftsman, is past; now it is time for a "dance" in which the younger poets of the Whitman-Pound tradition become themselves the "process" of creation, while their former teacher Pound (Old Bones), now too old to learn the new steps, can only watch from the sidelines:

We'll to these woods
no more, where we were used
to get so much, (Old Bones
do not try to dance

                go still
                now that your legs

                 the Charleston
                 is still for us

                    You can watch

It is too late
to try to teach us

               we are the process


                 and our feet
                            We do not march

We still look
           And see
               what we see
                         We do not see
other than our own.

(CPO, 320)

This evocative third section marks the need of Olson and his contemporaries to move into a stage of maturity where they are no longer merely sons or followers but the new guardians of past wisdom. The "woods ... where we were used to get so much" represent the organic nature of their earlier apprenticeship, which was similar to the one Pound shared with Whitman—"one sap and one root." In other words, although the underlying metaphors have remained constant in Olson's poem, the terms under which they appear have changed—the allusions to Pound's poem form a sad commentary on the present state of the "master's" poetry.

The form of the foregoing passage is important as well. Here the lines do break up, as do Perloff's "transposed" lines in the earlier passage, but this time for a reason. The last section of the poem embodies a movement away from the rest of the poem (from Olson's bitter tirade against Pound) and from Pound himself, especially his practice in the "Odes." The visual openness of this section is in contrast to the tighter, tougher lines of the earlier sections, with their enjambments, often awkward phrasing, and harsh sounds. The final section reflects a calmer, more introspective feeling and suggests the open possibilities of a new aesthetic based on the free movement of "dance," rather than on the "march" of Pound's new rhyming verse.[16]

The language and syntax of this final section also mark a departure from earlier passages. Olson confines himself to ex-


tremely simple, almost exclusively monosyllabic words and composes in brief sentences, almost fragments. (Compare this with the feeling of syntax stretched to its limits in the earlier passage—"that in the East the sun untangles itself / from among branches, / should be made to sound as though there were still roads / on which men hustled / to get to paradise, to get to / Bremerton / shipyards"). Olson is also using to full advantage the musical possibilities of his poetry: not only does the arrangement of the lines cause us to read more slowly and deliberately and to make the rhythmic juxtapositions between thoughts; the repetition of certain sounds, words, and syntactic structures also contributes to a lighter, more musical feeling that approximates the movement of dance. Notice in particular the softening effect created by the repeated use of the liquid "I" and "w"; "We'll . . . woods . . . where we were . . . what we saw . . . Old . . . still . . . legs . . . still . . . late . . . still look . . . ballads."

Finally, the passage marks a more personal allusion. One of Olson's memories from his visits to Pound at St. Elizabeth's, recorded in his journal entries entitled "Cantos," was that Pound had danced his "Yiddish Charleston" for psychiatrist Jerome Kavka—it was, as Olson writes, a "dance which Pound does, with gesture, movement and words" (COEP, 66). Perhaps Olson associates the dance with Pound as he first knew him—energetic and erudite, if also irascible and politically difficult. Now it is a sign, like so much else in the poem, of how much Pound has fallen from his former glory. That dance from Pound's generation, one he wrote for Louis Zukofsky that was included in An "Objectivists" Anthology, has become "still"—it is frozen in a dead past. Yet Olson gently rescues the passage from becoming a mere denunciation of his former master by repeating the word "still" in its other sense ("We still look"). In this context, the lines have new meaning: the Charleston is still for us; it remains always a constant source of poetic inspiration. Olson is not only admonishing Pound to "go still"—to stop writing—but he is also urging Pound to continue, to "be of use," as Pound would put it, even when the "great 'ear / can no longer 'hear." Olson's choice of diction incorporates both the idea of stasis and that of move-


ment; it indicates the two possible stances the poet may adopt in relating to tradition and a poetic past; and it suggests the degree of Olson's own ambivalence about his forebear. In revising this section, Olson softened considerably the attack on Pound, changing several key phrases. In the final version, "where we expected / to get so much" becomes "where we were used / to get so much"; "it is too late / to catch on" is changed to "It is too late / to try to teach us"; and "we do not see / bad verse" is happily revised to "We do not see / ballads / other than our own."

The opening lines of "I, Mencius . . ." signal Olson's aversion to Pound's new poetry, and his sense of betrayal by Pound, who "brings coolie verse / to teach you equity." Pound's "Odes" are a betrayal in several senses: they betray Pound himself, who "bewrays" (reveals or gives away) the fallen nature of his "vertu"; they betray Olson and other younger poets who had believed in and learned from Pound; and they betray their original author, Confucius, an exemplar for both Olson and Pound of clean writing and thought. In Olson's view, Pound had abandoned the Confucian principles of sincerity and claritas, while also forsaking the poetic principles he had established with Imagism forty years earlier—"that no line must sleep / that as the line goes so goes / the Nation"—and in doing so had been "embraced by the demon/he drove off!" (CPO, 319).

The poem demonstrates Olson's sense of Pound's decline, even in the few years since the visits to "Grandpa Pound" at St. Elizabeth's. At the time of Olson's visits in the mid- to late 1940s, Pound had in a sense played the role of Confucius to Olson's Mencius—the elder master to an eager pupil. Despite reservations about Pound's views, Olson had still maintained high hopes for his master. In Olson's account of one of his visits he writes of a translation of Confucius Pound was then beginning; Olson even discusses the matter of Pound's trade:

If I were laying out a plan, I should immediately put him in some less enclosed place, give him privacy and simple care, books and paper, and freedom to continue his literary work. This could be done within the framework of the Federal prison system, if it were recognized


that the rehabilitation of such a prisoner as Pound includes allowing him to work at his "trade." There is no need in his case to teach him basketweaving, machine tooling, or carpentry. His craft is there, and society can still use his gift for language if it wants to. A translation of Confucius could be a fruit of his imprisonment. Otherwise it is all waste.17      (COEP, 46)

The parallels between this passage and the poem of eight years later may be unintentional, but the identification of Pound with Confucius certainly is not. In the poem, Pound becomes Confucius—"that Confucius himself / should try to alter it"—though a noisy and misguided Confucius, a senile version of the great thinker and poet he had once been. If we look more closely, however, it is Whitman who is the real Confucius, the true progenitor, and Pound is only the "distributor" who wears the mask of Confucius. As Olson wrote in his 1948 essay "Grandpa, Goodbye":

A long time ago (what, 25 years?) Pound took the role of Confucius, put on that mask, for good. I'm sure he would rest his claim not, as I have put it, on the past, but forward, as teacher of history to come, Culture-Bearer in the desert and shame of now. (I don't think it is possible to exaggerate the distance he goes with his notion of himself—at the end Gate of the last Canto Confucius is to be one of the two huge figures standing there, looking on.     (COEP, 101)

At another point during his visits, Olson remarks how "[Pound's] attraction to Confucius must be the old thing . . . [to] confuse our opposite with ourselves" (COEP, 71). Even if Olson is aware of a clear distinction between Pound and Confucius, he had at one time sought to make the connection himself. Pound was sixty when Olson first met him at the hospital, and Olson was struck then by the comment Pound attributed to Confucius—"that after a man is 60 he is no longer active, but influences the action of younger men" (COEP, 86). By the


writing of "I, Mencius . . ." with Pound turning sixty-nine, even that influence is sadly in jeopardy.

Olson's desire to keep trade with Whitman, just like Pound's earlier decision to allow himself commerce with his father, is a metaphor for the conscious use of one poet by another or, rather, for an ongoing relationship between them that must be mutually beneficial. Even the activities associated in the poem with influence—going (or not going) to "these woods . . . where we used to get so much" and deciding not to wear "shoddy mashed out of the Master's old clothes"—point to an active decision on the part of the younger poet concerning the role of his predecessor in his own education and development and a willingness to take responsibility for his own choices.

The "shoddy" Olson evokes is a revealing metaphor for the process of influence. As a raw material made from the broken-up fibers of previously worn clothes, it is a manifestation of what happens when one poet makes direct use of parts of an earlier poet's work, recombining them in new ways in his own poem. But at the same time, the later meaning of "shoddy," as connoting something inferior in quality, cheap, or derivative, is clearly also intended. Olson at once suggests the nature of Pound's influence on him and his contemporaries and the debasement of that influence. This influence declines in value, as does "shoddy merchandise" and as has the original value of the word shoddy, once meaning a kind of wool cloth and now a term of insult. Olson depicts the shoddiness of Pound's art in the Confucian "Odes," the falsifying attempt to pass them off as something other than what they really are. Olson objects vehemently to the other forms of artistic and spiritual degradation he sees in American society, analogues to the decline of Pound's work from the beauty and vertu of The Cantos to the "coolie verse" perpetrated in his translations of the "Odes." Olson mentions specifically the "open galleries" that "sell Chinese prints, at the opening," instead of displaying Whistler's art; the change from Pound's beatific vision in the Pisan Cantos ("le paradis n'est pas artificiel") to the present state of men hustling "to get to paradise . . .


to / Bremerton / shipyards"; and the expulsion of Chinese wisdom and beauty by the mechanized and clanking "steel" of "Pittsburgh." Nevertheless, Olson's admonition to "bite off Father's where the wool's got too long" implies not a complete rejection of Pound's influence but a detaching of the undesirable part of Pound's practice from that larger body of influential work that can remain intact.

Clearly, this shoddy is not a metaphor for a Bloomian poetic strength that must be challenged by the later poet or for some burden of the past. On the contrary, Olson implies that a positive reaction to a forebear is the only one that can lead to any creative union, any valuable art: Olson cannot continue to use Pound's poetry when he no longer finds it of worth. Olson does not "wrestle with" his predecessor Pound and ultimately attempt to "overthrow" him; he simply decides to leave Pound, as Creeley puts it, "sitting in the dust . . . where he should be left" (CORC, vol. 3, 74–75). Olson and Creeley realize that it is not enough simply to "react" against Pound ("to throw [oneself] back to the Georgians") or to "renounce" him or his "method"; it is a question, as the ending of Olson's poem makes clear, of moving ahead, "beyond Ez." "To shift the load," Creeley cautions, "take it away from him, but NOT lose particulars . . . of METHOD ."

Perloff views Olson's statements about Pound and Williams as brash and unacceptable rejections of his all-important predecessors. Yet in an age in which the notions of anxiety of influence and burden of the past have become so widely accepted, it is hardly surprising that the tremendous pressure placed on Olson as the "heir apparent" to the legacy of Pound and Williams should cause some kind of defensive reaction on his part. Not only did Olson have in Pound and Williams two substantial "predecessors" with whom to negotiate; he had the added problem that they were both living predecessors. Both were still active poets throughout most of Olson's lifetime (Williams in particular was quite productive until his death in 1963), and Pound actually outlived Olson by two years. Even in Bloom's Oedipal scheme, later poets generally have only the "daemon" of a dead


poet to confront; Olson was never permitted even to come out from under the literal shadow of his forebears, who continued to grow in critical esteem and to have new work published alongside (and at times in preference to) his own. Even after the publication of "I, Mencius . . . , " Olson continued to feet resentment about the place of his forebear and about his own earlier slavish imitations of Pound. Olson's correction in the revised draft of the word couldn't to wouldn't in the line "who wouldn't go beyond wood" indicates his sense that Pound was not performing up to his full capacities (and, perhaps, that he was giving "Poundians" like Olson a bad name). Olson's feeling that he had become the "dog" rather than the "pupil" of the master was a sign of his continued worry that he was living and writing under Pound's shadow.

Such a feeling on Olson's part may lead us to wonder if "I, Mencius . . ." is a Bloomian "crisis poem," one in which Olson must either break with or fall under the spell of his predecessor. As I have already made clear, the very notion of the poem as a psychic battleground in a struggle with a predecessor is a problematic one, especially for a poet who openly declares his sources and debts. Olson had extensively explored his relationship to Pound in both poetic and nonpoetic writings well before the time of "I, Mencius . . . , " and he had made clear his debt to his forebear on numerous occasions in his contacts with other poets and students. Furthermore, Olson's poetic practice and concerns in the mid-1950s had already moved quite markedly away from those of both Pound and Williams, and it was now to Olson, rather than to Pound, that younger poets such as Duncan, Creeley, and Ginsberg looked for their principal source of guidance and "inspiration." Finally, Olson's poem cannot be considered a "crisis poem" in the true sense because Olson continued throughout the 1950s and early 1960s to place a high value on Pound's central output, that of The Cantos . The "Rock-Drill" sections of The Cantos, which did not appear until 1956 (and which Olson had presumably not yet read at the time of "I, Mencius . . ."), became an important source for Olson's "The


Song of Ulikummi," a tribute to Pound that Olson read at the 1965 Spoleto Festival.[18] Another sign of Olson's continuing respect for Pound is a 1958 letter to Robert Duncan in which Olson proposes an anthology containing the work of both Pound and Williams, alongside that of his generation, including himself, Duncan, Creeley, Ginsberg, Levertov, John Wieners, and Philip Whalen.[19]

Rather than as a "crisis poem," I read "I, Mencius . . ." as the last of a series of writings commemorating breaks with Pound, all of them painful for Olson but none of them final. The most significant of these breaks, and the one that may have ultimately allowed Olson to differentiate himself more clearly from Pound, was his decision to terminate his visits to St. Elizabeth's, a decision marked by his essay "Grandpa, Goodbye." Notes that Olson wrote to Pound at around the same time indicate that the relationship between the two poets was never an untroubled one. Still earlier, in thinking about an epic to be called "West," Olson first had an inkling of the importance Pound was to have for him. In a notebook entry from 1945 Olson writes:

Maybe Pound discloses to you a method you spontaneously reached for in all this talking and writing. What about doing on a smaller scale—the West? But he has already taken the same frame, as you will note from your notes on the poem to be called "West" you wrote 4 yrs. ago. But should you not best him? Is his form 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 [my emphasis].[20]


Olson was not always to hold this view of things, but it is startling to see how deliberately he had planned from the first, even as early as the 1941 note to which he refers, to use Pound as a central model for his work. Even though Olson's term the father to describe his predecessor may remind us of the neo-Freudian vocabulary adopted by Bloom, Olson's acknowledgment of the deliberate act of derivation is antithetical to the emphasis on repression in Bloom's theory. Indeed, Olson openly expresses his "anxiety" about Pound as well as a sense of his growing independence from Pound's influence: "You have some pretty notion the moment verse crosses yr path: it is fear and anxiety you are not a poet. Which is very much beside the point. If you trust yr vocal roundness as a consequence of yr. objectivism, you need not worry one day. In this roundness you outdo Pound, whatever his scholastic powers."[21]

By the time of "I, Mencius . . ." Olson's poetry had indeed achieved a "vocal roundness" that differentiated it from the work of Pound and Williams. Olson's poetic technique, and its central notion of "composition by field," was neither a radical break with his tradition nor a totally imitative practice. It was an extension of the possibilities Olson found in those American poets of the previous generation who he felt had something to offer his generation.

Pound and Williams are more than simply "presences" (or, in a Bloomian sense, "absences") in Olson's text; they are important "guides" to his work and life. Olson's collected library at his death, which contained far more books by Pound and Williams than by any other poet, is the concrete manifestation of his continuing use of both writers.[22] Olson and his contemporaries in the Pound tradition served as the "container" for Pound's ideas, though these poets spoke for Pound in a way he could


never have envisioned. The relationship between Pound and Olson is neither the case of a frustrated poet unable to achieve the greatness of his masters nor that of a revolutionary "poet of destruction"; it is an important example of a writer responding to his own time and place in a manner that would have been impossible without the model of another.


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5— Olson As Mencius and His Master, Pound: A Study in Poetic Tradition
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