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Introduction to The New Writing in the USA

Nothing will fit if we assume a place for it. To attempt to classify writing before one has had the experience of its activity will be to misplace it altogether. What can be said is something itself particular—to senses of form, to the literal nature of living in a given place, to a world momently informed by what energies inhabit it.


The forties were a hostile time for the writers here included. The colleges and universities were dominant in their insistence upon an idea of form extrinsic to the given instance. Poems were equivalent to cars insofar as many could occur of similar pattern—although each was, of course, 'singular.' But it was this assumption of a mold , of a means that could be gained beyond the literal fact of the writing here and now , that had authority.

It is the more ironic to think of it, remembering the incredible pressure of feeling also present in these years—of all that did want 'to be said,' of so much confusion and pain wanting statement in its own terms. But again, it is Karl Shapiro's Essay on Rime (written in the South Pacific at a military base, "without access to books," in iambic pentameter) which is successful, and Auden is the measure of competence. In contrast Ezra Pound, H. D., William Carlos Williams (despite the token interest as Paterson begins to be published), Hart Crane, and especially Walt Whitman are largely disregarded.

Donald Allen and Robert Creeley, eds., The New Writing in the USA (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1967).


The situation of prose I remember as much the same. Despite the apparent insistence of digression in the work of Joyce, Faulkner, Céline, and others who are valued, there is nonetheless the attempt to shape all discussion of their 'form' to the context of an overt pattern, a symbolism, an explanation again anterior to the instance. In short, it is a period when criticism enjoys control of literary reference—so much so, that it can propose itself to be of primary value quite apart from its 'subjects.'

The sense of form which comes of this insistence is defined by Robert Duncan in an essay, "Ideas of the Meaning of Form":

Form, to the mind obsessed by convention, is significant insofar as it shows control. What has nor rime nor reason is a bogie that must be dismissed from the horizons of the mind. . . . Wherever the feeling of control is lost, the feeling of form is lost. The reality of the world and men's habits must be constricted to a realm—a court or a salon or a rationale—excluding whatever is feared. . . . Metaphor must be fumigated or avoided (thought of as displaying the author's fancy or wit) to rid the mind of the poetic where metaphor had led dangerously towards Paracelsus' universe of psychic correspondences, towards a life where men and things were beginning to mix and cross boundaries of knowledge. Poets, who had once had dreams and epiphanies, now admit only to devices and ornaments. Love, that had been a passion, had best be a sentiment or a sensible affection. . . . The struggle was to have ideas and not to let ideas have one. Taste, reason, rationality rule, and rule must be absolute and enlightened, because beyond lies the chiaroscuro in which forces co-operate and sympathies and aversions mingle. The glamor of this magic haunts all reasonable men today, surrounding them with, and then protecting them from, the darkness of possibilities that controls cannot manage, the world of thought and feeling in which we may participate but not dominate, where we are used by things even as we use them.

Confronting such rule , men were driven back upon the particulars of their own experience, the literal things of an immediate environment, wherewith to acknowledge the possibilities of their own lives. This alternative must now be familiar, but at that time there were few indeed to propose it. It is first found for me in Williams' introduction to The Wedge (1944):

Therefore each speech having its own character the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form. . . . When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense ex-


pression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses. . . .

It is, in fact, a congruence of "the darkness of possibilities that control cannot manage" and that "revelation in the speech" that Williams emphasizes, which informs the first major work of Allen Ginsberg, Howl. He writes of its composition as follows:

By 1955 I wrote poetry adapted from prose seeds, journals, scratchings, arranged by phrasing or breath groups into little short-line patterns according to ideas of measure of American speech I'd picked up from W. C. Williams' imagist preoccupations. I suddenly turned aside in San Francisco, unemployment compensation leisure, to follow my romantic inspiration—Hebraic-Melvillean bardic breath. I thought I wouldn't write a poem , but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind—sum up my life—something I wouldn't be able to show anybody, writ for my own soul's ear and a few other golden ears. So the first line of Howl . . . .

It is relevant that he says, "I thought I wouldn't write a poem , but just write what I wanted to without fear . . ."—as does Duncan so emphasize that it was fear that felt "The reality of the world and men's habits must be constricted to a realm . . . excluding whatever is feared. . . ." The need becomes, then, literally:

to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head,

the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death,

and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America's naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio

with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.

(Howl , Part I)


The usual critical vocabulary will not be of much use in trying to locate the character of writing we have now come to. If one depends on the dichotomy of romantic and classical , one is left with,


too simply, an historical description, itself a remnant from an earlier 'period.'

The question becomes, what is real —and what is of that nature? The most severe argument we can offer against the 'value' of some thing or act, is that it is not real, that it has no given place in what our world has either chosen or been forced to admit. So it is the condition of reality which becomes our greatest concern—in which relation the following notes by Charles Olson are most useful:

All things did come in again, in the 19th century. An idea shook loose, and energy and motion became as important a structure of things as that they are plural, and, by matter, mass. It was even shown that in the infinitely small the older concepts of space ceased to be valid at all. Quantity—the measurable and numerable—was suddenly as shafted in, to any thing, as it was also, as had been obvious, the striking character of the external world, that all things do extend out. Nothing was now inert fact, all things were there for feeling, to promote it, and be felt; and man, in the midst of it, knowing well how he was folded in, as well as how suddenly and strikingly he could extend himself, spring or, without even moving, go, to far, the farthest—he was suddenly possessed or repossessed of a character of being, a thing among things, which I shall call his physicality. It made a reentry of or to the universe. Reality was without interruption, and we are still in the business of finding out how all action, and thought, have to be refounded. . . .

("Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself")

This recognition had come primarily from scientific thinking, as it might be called—but its evidence in the way in which the world occurs in Moby-Dick (the object of Olson's discussion) is very striking. What happens to 'plot' or all such instance of 'category'—the assumption of action as contained , for example—when all is continuous, "when the discrete [isn't] any longer a good enough base for discourse. . . ."? The sentence itself—as Fenollosa had proposed in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry , and Olson reasserts—has become "an exchange of force" in no way a "completed thought," since such "completion" is impossible in the context of that real which Melville had apprehended, Olson notes, as "the absolute condition of present things . . ." Let it be stressed:

[Melville] put it altogether accurately himself, in a single sentence of a letter to Hawthorne, written when he was writing Moby-Dick (1851): "By visible truth we mean the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things."



The context so defined will include such present statement as this one taken from William Burroughs' Naked Lunch:

There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing . . . . I am a recording instrument. . . . I do not presume to impose "story" "plot" "continuity". . . .

What has been criticized as a loss of coherence in contemporary American prose—specifically that of Burroughs and Kerouac—has been, rather, evidence of this character of the real with which we are involved. In "Kerouac's Sound" Warren Tallman makes a parallel distinction:

In conventional fiction the narrative continuity is always clearly discernible. But it is impossible to create an absorbing narrative without at the same time enriching it with images, asides, themes and variations—impulses from within. It is evident that in much recent fiction—Joyce, Kafka, Virginia Woolf, and Faulkner are obvious examples—the narrative line has tended to weaken, merge with, and be dominated by the sum of variations. Each narrative step in Faulkner's work is likely to provoke many sidewinding pages before a next narrative step is taken. More, a lot of Faulkner's power is to be found in the sidewindings. In brief, what happens in jazz when the melody merges with the improvisations and the improvisations dominate, has been happening in fiction for some time now.

Not only have the earlier senses of 'form' been rejected, but equally 'subject' as a conceptual focus or order has given place to the literal activity of the writing itself.

The objects which occur at every given moment of composition (of recognition, we can call it) are, can be, must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold , and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself, through the poet and them, into being.

(Charles Olson, Projective Verse )

But it is in the nature of the writing itself that this thinking finds its most active definition—as here in the final section of John Wieners' "A Poem for Painters":

 . . . At last. I come to the last defense.

                       My poems contain no
                       wilde beestes, no


                       lady of the lake, music
                       of the spheres, or organ chants.
                       Only the score of a man's
                       struggle to stay with
                       what is his own, what
                       lies within him to do.

                       Without which is nothing.
                       And I come to this
                       knowing the waste,
                       leaving the rest up to love
                       and its twisted faces,
                       my hands claw out at
                       only to draw back from the
                       blood already running there.


Finally, there seems so much that might be said. The American condition has much to do with place , an active spatial term which differs in that way from what has been assumed its European equivalent. Space, as physical ground, not sky, I feel to be once again politically active—as it has always been for the American from the outset. It is useless, for example, to acknowledge the growing political weight of either Africa or China without seeing the literal measure these places effect in relation to all senses of the European continuum—in which the American takes its place, at least in part.

But more than that—since 'place' is not now more than activity—there is the question of all terms of relationship, and of the possible continuities of that relationship in a time which is continuous and at all moments 'present'—else it never was.

The point seems that we cannot, as writers—or equally as readers—assume such content in our lives, that all presence is defined as a history of categorical orders. If the nature of the writing is to move in the field of its recognitions, the "open field" of Olson's Projective Verse , for example, then the nature of the life it is demands a possibility which no assumption can anticipate.

In such a situation the entity of oneself becomes more than a cultural 'program' and the attempt to recognize its potential has led to experiment with 'consciousness expanding' drugs such as mescaline, and writing which attempts to record such states, as Michael McClure's "Peyote Poem."

The impulse is also clear in attempts to rediscover the viable con-


tent of terms of life which precede the 'categorical' defined by Aristotle. One does not want to go 'back,' merely. But I feel it true, as Duncan writes, "We have come so far that all the old stories / whisper once more . . ." History, as 'progress,' seems quite dead.

Otherwise—things as they have taken place so consistently with us in this country are relevant, both as condition and as presence. They have been, always, a basic company, and they involve, with persistence, our uses of space. Further, I do not feel that Allen Ginsberg's insistent equation of states of feeling or being with so-called 'material' things is surreal and/or a dimension of reality less present in one of its aspects than in another. There is a persistent literalness in American writing—very much so in the tradition with which we are concerned—and it has never been easily 'symbolic.' "All the accumulations of life, that wear us out—clocks, bodies, consciousness, shoe, breasts—begotten sons—your Communism—'Paranoia' into hospitals . . ." is literal reality and literally apprehended. It is—as Denise Levertov notes from Jung for the title of one of her poems—that "everything that acts is actual," and the context may be a street in broad daylight where reality is just as pervasive 'as a dream'—in fact, is 'the dream' equally with consciousness.

One cannot describe it, so to speak. Either one acts in an equal sense—becomes the issue of a term 'as real as real can be'—or else there is really nothing to be said. Again, the writing here collected seems to me distinct in point of its distance from the usual habit of description —by which I mean that practice that wants to 'accompany' the real but which assumes itself as 'objectively' outside that context in some way. Certainly it is possible to minimize or otherwise distort one's concern in a given matter or relation. Yet one is either there or not, and being there, cannot assume some 'not being' so as to 'talk about it.'

I feel, however, that what I am trying to say here comes clearer in Edward Dorn's discussion of Olson's Maximus Poems (with their center in the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts):

when the Place is brought forward fully in form conceived entirely by the activation of a man who is under its spell it is a resurrection for us and the investigation is not extractable. And it is then the only real thing. I am certain without ever having been there, I would be bored to sickness walking through Gloucester. Buildings as such are not important. The wash of the sea is not interesting in itself, that is luxuria, a degrading thing, people as they stand, must be created, it doesn't matter at all they have reflexes of their own, they are casual, they do more than you could hope to know, it is useful, it is a part of industry.


It has an arrogance of intention. This is the significance of Olson's distrust of Thucydides and his care for Herodotus. It is the significance of Blake's "the practice of art is anti-christ." Which further means that if you are not capable of the non-functional striking of the World, you are not practicing art. Description, letting things lay, was reserved for not necessarily the doubtful, but the slothful, or the merely busy.[*]


To tell the story, is all one can do. What accumulates as the tradition of a craft—its means, its sophistications—must each time be reapprehended, not for 'style.' Because as Louis Zukofsky has taken care to say, of poetry:

This does not presume that the style will be the man, but rather that the order of his syllables will define his awareness of order. For his . . . major aim is not to show himself but that order that of itself can speak to all men.

("Poetry," in "A " [Kyoto: Origin Press, 1959])

That undertaking most useful to writing as an art is, for me, the attempt to sound in the nature of the language those particulars of time and place of which one is a given instance, equally present. I find it here.



Charles Olson:
Y & X

Y & X , by Charles Olson. Washington, D.C.: Black Sun Press, 1949.

Any movement poetry can now make beyond the achievement of Pound, Williams, et al., must make use of the fact of their work and, further, of what each has stressed as the main work now to be done. We can't discard either of these men by calling them 'experimentalists' or by thinking that however right their method may be for their own apprehension of form , we can now ignore its example in our own dilemmas. Unless we also can find for ourselves a method equal to our content, show some comprehension of the difficulties involved, we stay where we are.

A recent comment of Dr. Williams notes one of the headaches. "To me the battle lodges for us as poets in the poetic line, something has to be done with that line—it's got to be opened up. . . ." I cite this here, since a good many feel that it's just the opposite that should be done, that the line must be tightened, pulled in, fixed. We should by now have a clear idea as to what this kind of tightness implies. To begin with, it's an external tightness , having more to do with the poem's pattern than with the movement of its sense. And it's this same tightness which Stevens has damned by implication: "There is, however, a usage with respect to form as if form were a derivative of plastic shape."

The five poems in this present collection of Olson's work demonstrate a technique set squarely against this tightness . They mark the

Montevallo Review , Summer 1951.


alternatives. For Olson the line becomes a way to a movement beyond the single impact of the words which go to make it up, and brings to their logic a force of its own. Instead of the simple wagon which carries the load, he makes it that which drives too, to the common logic, the sense of the poem.

The first poem, "La Préface," is an illustration. Here the line is used to make the ground logic beyond the single 'senses' of the words. The poem can't be understood, lacking a comprehension of the work the line is doing here. What it does do, then, is give the base pattern which pulls the poem's juxtaposition of action and thing to a common center where the reader can get to bedrock. Meaning.

Put war away with time, come into space.
It was May, precise date, 1940. I had air my lungs could
He talked, via stones  a stick  sea rock  a hand of earth.
It is now, precise, repeat. I talk of Bigmans organs
he, look, the lines! are polytopes.
And among the DPs—deathhead
                                                            at the apex
                                                                                 of the pyramid.

The line is the means to focus, is that which says 'how' we are to weight the various things we are told. And as it is there, to do this work, so the words break through to their sense .

Perhaps enough to find this use of line in these poems, but Olson is a good deal more than a competent technician. There is a reach in these five poems, a range of subject and a depth of perception, that mark him exceptional. His language is exact, hangs tight to the move of his thought.

Shallows and miseries shadows from the cross,
ecco men and dull copernican sun.
Our attention is simpler
The salts and minerals of the earth return
The night has a love for throwing its shadows around a man
a bridge,  a horse,    the gun,   a grave.
("The K")

Again, if poetry is to get further, develop, it will depend on those who, like Olson, make use of its present gains, push these beyond. Olson's work is the first significant advance.


Charles Olson:
In Cold Hell, in Thicket

In Cold Hell, in Thicket , by Charles Olson. Origin , 8. Boston/Palma, Mallorca, 1953.

Ernst Robert Curtius has described Charles Olson's talent as returning us to that same presence, of force, which is evident in a Mayan glyph. The point is that Mr. Olson's work represents a sole and major content in contemporary American poetry.

This content is most clearly demonstrated in one of the several long poems here included, "The Kingfishers." Its first line gives us the basic preoccupation: "What does not change / is the will to change. . . ."

Not one death but many,
not accumulation but change, the feed-back proves, the feed-
   back is

the law

                     Into the same river no man steps twice
                     When fire dies air dies
                     No one remains, nor is, one

It is this change, and the force which demands it, which hold the only 'continuity' possible. If a culture is to maintain itself, it can do so only by a use of this force, and the problem is as Mr. Olson puts it:

New Mexico Quarterly , Autumn 1953.


I am no Greek, hath not th'advantage.
And of course, no Roman:
he can take no risk that matters,
the risk of beauty least of all.

But I have my kin . . .

Despite the discrepancy (an ocean   courage   age)
this is also true: if I have any taste
it is only because I have interested myself
in what was slain in the sun

       I pose you your question:

shall you uncover honey / whee maggots are?

       I hunt among stones

Such problems of change, and origin, are common to the American temper, but their occurrence in American poetry has become less and less frequent. Or, perhaps better, they have been absorbed in other attitudes or left as "European," i.e., relating to a past shared in effect with poets either in England or on the continent. But this is a simplification of a useless sort. The American, for example, has this reference to contend with:

    (of the two who first came, each a conquistador, one
        healed, the other
    tore the eastern idols down, toppled
    the temple walls, which, says the excuser
    were black from human gore)

hear, where the dry blood talks
     where the old appetite walks

He can only quiet it, by confronting it. Similarly, the whole area of how we now live, or can live, is part of Mr. Olson's attack. The title poem is a form of 'lyricism' brought from the instant, or the single and abrupt emotion, to bear on all there is for any man, or woman—"Or, if it is me, what / he has to say. . . ." So it is that:

                                                 . . . hell now
is not exterior, is not to be got out of, is
the coat of your own self, the beasts
emblazoned on you     And who
can turn this total thing, invert
and let the ragged sleeves be seen
by any bitch or common character? Who


can endure it where it is, where the beasts are met,
where yourself is, your beloved is, where she
who is separate from you, is not separate, is not
goddess, is, as your core is,
the making of one hell. . . .

The value of any poem is not at all the fact of any technique, however much it is necessary to be the master of just such things. For the reader, beyond the way a poem is written or made, is the ultimate impact of its meaning , what it either can or does mean—to us. Mr. Olson's poetry provides for much more than delight.


Preface to Mayan Letters

by Charles Olson

Sometime toward the end of 1950, it was in December I think, but the letter isn't dated, I heard that Charles Olson was off to Yucatan. A sudden "fluke"—the availability of some retirement money owed him from past work as a mail carrier—gave him enough for the trip, "not much but a couple of hundred, sufficient, to GO, be, THERE. . . ." By February I had got another letter, "have just this minute opened this machine in this house lerma. . . ." From that time on I heard from him regularly, and so was witness to one of the most incisive experiences ever recorded. Obviously it is very simple to call it that, that is, what then happened, and what Olson made of his surroundings and himself. Otherwise, it is necessary to remember that Olson had already been moving in this direction, back to a point of origin which would be capable of extending "history" in a new and more usable sense. In his book on Melville, Call Me Ishmael , he had made the statement, "we are the last first people . . ."; and in his poetry, most clearly in "The Kingfishers," there was constant emphasis on the need to break with the too simple westernisms of a 'greek culture.'

Yucatan made the occasion present in a way that it had not been before. The alternative to a generalizing humanism was locked, quite literally, in the people immediately around him, and the conception, that there had been and could be a civilization anterior to that which he had come from, was no longer conjecture, it was fact. He wrote me, then, "I have no doubt, say, that the American will

Charles Olson, Mayan Letters (Bañalbufar, Mallorca: Divers Press, 1953).


more and more repossess himself of the Indian past. . . . If you and I see the old deal as dead (including Confucius, say), at the same time that we admit the new is of the making of our own lives & references, yet, there is bound to be a tremendous pick-up from history other than that which has been usable as reference, the moment either that history is restored (Sumer, or, more done, Chichen or Uaxactun) or rising people (these Indians, as camposinos ripe for Communist play—as ripe as were the Chinese, date 1921, June 30). . . ." The problem was, to give form, again, to what the Maya had been—to restore the "history" which they were. For in the Maya was the looked-for content: a reality which is "wholly formal without loss of intimate spaces, with the ball still snarled, yet, with a light (and not stars) and a heat (not androgyne) which declares, the persistence of both organism and will (human). . . ."

In editing the present selection, I have tried to maintain a continuity in spite of the limits of space and the loss of some letters which it has meant. I have indicated excisions with dots ( . . .), whenever such were necessary.

February 12, 1953


Charles Olson:
The Maximus Poems, 1–10

In poetry the attentions can come to govern, as a man might be governed by what he loves or despises, or what number of things his hands can hold. Seeing the thing, even so it remains outside him until he can give it substance in the multiple involvement—which means only that he and the thing, and the possibility which has no limit, can coexist in a form which it is his own responsibility to effect. "The thing" is an ugly word for it. But it is ugly only because we have so degraded what confronts us, that we ride in on our own isolation thinking not to see anything, and hating that which we have to.

The Maximus Poems are, or seem first to me, the modulation of a man's attentions, by which I mean the whole wonder of perception. They are truth because their form is that issue of what is out there, and what part of it can come into a man's own body. That much is not sentimental, nor can anything be sentimental if we make it that engagement. The local is not a place but a place in a given man—what part of it he has been compelled or else brought by love to give witness to in his own mind. And that is the form, that is, the whole thing, as whole as it can get.

I think we will be fools to be embarrassed by it. We know the other neatness possible, the way of the neat pattern, and the dodging which it must call for. Grace has no part in that. At some point

First published on a prospectus of The Maximus Poems enclosed as a loose insert in The Maximus Poems, 1–10 , by Charles Olson (Stuttgart: Jonathan Williams, 1953).


reached by us, sooner or later, there is no longer much else but ourselves, in the place given us. To make that present, and actual for other men, is not an embarrassment, but love.



Olson & Others:
Some Orts for the Sports

Where writing will go to, what comes next, or the answers to any of those profoundly speculative questions bred of Saturday afternoons in comfortable surroundings—god alone knows. Where it's all come from is another question, and a few sentences may serve as well to answer it as any more documented or descriptive account. For example, in 1950 Cid Corman, the subsequent editor of Origin , had a radio program in Boston called This Is Poetry , which by a fluke of air waves I heard one night in Littleton, N.H. The guest was Richard Wilbur, who read with such graceful accents I was filled with envious ambition to read also, although I had none of his qualifications; and some weeks later, after correspondence with Cid which that night began, I convinced him I was good enough, or he was tolerant enough, and so I read one Saturday night while I was in Boston showing chickens at the Boston Poultry Show. Literary history is like that, and this event would be altogether unnotable, were it not that a magazine which I then tried to start (with much the same motives), but could not get printed, was absorbed in the first two issues of Cid's Origin —and that among the contacts so contributed were Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn, and Denise Levertov.

Charles Olson is central to any description of literary 'climate' dated 1960. I don't think any of those involved knew, at the time, he had written Call Me Ishmael; and I remember my own dumb-founded reception of that book—from a man I had assumed to be

Big Table , no. 4, 1960.


sharing my own position of unpublished hopefulness. The Olson I knew, and wrote to daily if possible, was the one whose Y & X had been published by Caresse Crosby's Black Sun Press, who had among other poems in manuscript a long one called "The Kingfishers," and whose own letters were of such energy and calculation that they constituted a practical 'college' of stimulus and information. Some of this last can be seen in an article he published at that time, partly derived from letters as it happens, which he called "Projective Verse" (Poetry New York , No. 3, 1950; reprinted with addenda, New York: Totem Press, 1959). He outlines there the premise of "composition by field" (the value of which William Carlos Williams was to emphasize by reprinting it in part in his own Autobiography ); and defines a basis for structure in the poem in terms of its 'kinetics ' ("the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy discharge"), the 'principle ' of its writing ("form is never more than an extension of content"), and the 'process ' ("ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION"). Olson equally distinguishes between breathing and hearing, as these relate to the line: "And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at that moment that he writes. . . ."

Some distinctions are now possible. Verse practice today splits in point of several emphases, and this is reasonable enough. Most familiar are those poets who have looked at a re-informing of traditional structures, at times with great ability. It is not at all a question of falling back into the same old sofa, etc., but to manage a use of that which those back of you have given in such fashion that you will both honor them and those differences which the nature of time seems to insist upon. There are also others, most definitive in the thirties, who extend to their writing of verse concerns which haunt them, again reasonably enough, in the other areas of their living.[1] They are in this way poets of 'content,' and their poems argue images of living to which the contents of their poems point. They argue the poem as a means to recognition, a signboard as it were, not


in itself a structure of 'recognition' or—better—cognition itself. Some, then, would not only not hear what Olson was saying, but would even deny, I think, the relevance of his concerns. The great preoccupation with symbology and levels of image in poetry insisted upon by contemporary criticism has also meant a further bias for this not-hearing, since Olson's emphasis is put upon prosody, not interpretation.

Those who were sympathetic, who felt as Dr. Williams did ("it is as if the whole area lifted . . ."), were those equally concerned with prosody. "Prosody," said Pound, "is the articulation of the total sound of a poem." This is an obviously difficult and painstaking requirement; and, again, a division of method appears between those who make use of traditional forms, either for discipline or solution, and those who, as Olson, go "by ear," by, in effect, the complexly determined response to work literally in hand. Robert Duncan's discussion precludes mine; I refer you to that ("Notes on Poetics Regarding Olson's Maximus," Black Mountain Review , No. 6, 1956). But, to suggest its relevance here, Duncan writes, using the image of "The coming into life of the child . . .":

 . . . that the breath-blood circulation be gaind, an interjection! the levels of the passions and inspiration in phrases; second, that focus be gaind, a substantive , the level of vision; and third, the complex of muscular gains that are included in taking hold and balancing, verbs , but more, the movement of language , the level of the ear, the hand, the foot. All these incorporated in measure .[2]

At this point it becomes necessary to read, which is, after all, what we are here for. The following books are, at best, a partial list of materials—yet serve to indicate others, so that much is served:

(1) Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems 1–10, 11–22 (1953, 1957). Olson's handling of the poems as an 'open field,' using a variable measure as concerns of content, and the emotional or informational character thereof, indicate, show what range can be managed.

(2) Louis Zukofsky, Some Time (1956), Barely and Widely (1953), and "A " (1960). Zukofsky teaches prosody —and these are only three of the books which might be cited. One should also see his A Test of Poetry: "The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection. . . ." By a complex of juxtaposed


examples (following Pound's ideogrammic method), "a means for judging the values of poetic writing is established by the examples themselves. . . ."

(3) Robert Duncan, Letters (1958), and Selected Poems (1959). The second book includes The Venice Poem —again a study in formal solutions, for those who will read it with attention. Duncan's other books are also valuable—Fragments of a Disordered Devotion (1952) and Caesar's Gate (1955). His notes and articles should be searched out as well.

Etc. Because the list continues, happily: to books like Denise Levertov's Overland to the Islands and Here and Now; to Paul Blackburn's Proensa and The Dissolving Fabric; to Allen Ginsberg's Howl;[3] to first books like Joel Oppenheimer's The Dutiful Son , and the as yet uncollected poems of Edward Dorn. All of these relate to the same areas of technical concern, surely. Otherwise, 'content' in every man is singular; which fact is a happy one.

Meeting Christopher Logue in Paris in 1956—an English poet who looked so Englishly like that illustration of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland —his first question, hoarsely yelled at me because the cafe whereto I had been brought by his friend Alex Trocchi, was so noisy, etc., was: "Tell me about Olson." Later we went to Logue's room where he showed me his Pound books (which are as much a currency in some areas as dollar bills in others) and gave me, as I left, a carbon he had made of Pound's Cavalcanti translations. He will be amused to know that I am still trying to 'explain.' Logue knew as much about American writing as I did, or, better, he knew the problems shared in common—because such things are only secondarily national these days.

You must read, then, to know what is happening. All poets seem to suffer certain things in common, as certainly all must: difficulties of self-support, or, if a family is involved, some means of sufficiencies in common, and the dignity any man has right to claim, granted it has never been his purpose to ask for it. We all of us live in an increasingly pinched world, pinched emotionally, pinched referen-


tially—despite the fact that the moon comes closer. "How shall I love you? Let me count the ways" is too often a proposed calculus of possibilities; and that, alone, is no good. In despite, relationships, here as elsewhere, continue, serving a common need for survival and growth. The issue is the poem, a single event—to which, as to the Battle of Gettysburg, or the Pan American Highway, many men may well contribute—"aperiens tibi animum . . . ." Like, you dig the 85th Canto? Like—that's all.


Some Notes on Olson's Maximus

Eyes have a major place in this work as anyone familiar with it will know. And despite the easiness of the pun, an 'eye' here is 'I,' not the singular psychologic misfit of contemporary society—but the major term of relation to external world, in just the sense that as one sees a thing, one may then deal with it or be dealt with by it, in a manner to which one is a party. In that way Olson makes clear, early in the poems, that:

polis is
eyes . . .

And also:

There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass,
    there are only
eyes in all heads,
to be looked out of . . .

Polis , at first a town , grows in no sense otherwise—it is never more than the aggregate of people who have so joined themselves together, and its members define it. Their perception constitutes their city.

There is another point to be made in this respect. John Burnet in his Early Greek Philosophy characterizes the Pythagorean concept of society in this way:

In this life there are three kinds of men, just as there are three sorts of people who come to the Olympic Games. The lowest class is made

Yugen , no. 8, 1962.


up of those who come to buy and sell, and next above them are those who come to compete. Best of all, however, are those who come to look on . . .

Burnet then claims these last as proving the significant relation to science—but it is most to the point to see that seeing here is not a passive act akin to spectacles—it is a looking in order to see in the place (in situ ), and to understand in that way.


Olson's kinship with Pythagorean thought, and with the pre-Socratic sense of world more generally, is very marked. It occurs as a reference directly in, for example, an early poem, "The Praises," wherein are found these proposals:

What has been lost
is the secret of secrecy, is
the value, viz., that the work get done, and quickly,
without the loss of due and profound respect for
the materials . . .

The danger he sees here is that "dispersion which follows from / too many having too little / knowledge . . ." "What is necessary is / containment, / that that which has been found out by work may, by work, be passed on / (without due loss of force) / for use . . ."

Or again:

What belongs to art and reason is
                                                             the knowledge of
                                                                                            consequences . . .

It is a sense of use , which believes knowledge to be necessarily an active form of relation to term, with the corollary, that all exists in such relation, itself natural to the conditions. It is not, then, knowledge as a junk-heap, or purposeless accumulation of mere detail—which seems to derive too frequently from the manner of classification which follows upon the pre-Socratic world-view. It is knowledge used as a means to relate, not separate—which senses must, per se, prove very different. That is why the term, use , is to be met with so frequently in Olson's writing.



The pre-Socratics had also the question of nominalization to deal with. Parmenides of Elea gives a good sense of it:

The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered . . .

All of "Tyrian Businesses" seems to me much involved by this question, as this quotation will illustrate:

There may be no more names than there are objects
There can be no more verbs than there are actions . . .

And, too, the use in this section of Maximus of a particularizing vocabulary (e.g., "futtocks, we call 'em" or "the honey in the lion, the honey / in woman . . .") forces thought to specific terms—much against a progress of easy, generalized understanding. Words, here, are forced to be seen specifically.

This character of language—and the use of language—is much to be found throughout Maximus , and as well in the writing before it. One such instance in earlier work is the first part of "ABC's," like this:


b l ac k

eat a peck of storage batteries 'fore I die . . .

All meaning is local to an instance, wherefrom it derives, but also, whereto it returns. If a writer promotes a sense of language that floats in a middle way, neither here nor there, he is reasonably to be suspected. It becomes clear that this emphasis is one Olson shares with Williams ("No ideas but in things . . .") and with Pound who has given much emphasis to the problem of terminology, an aspect of nominalization. (It is Pound who tells of Santayana, that he had said, it doesn't so much matter what books they read in college, say, so long as they read the same books—and thereby have means for a common reference for terms. That we greatly lack at present, and our society tends to give prizes to those who can think up new 'terms' for old ones, not really changing anything at all but further confusing the so-called issue, a bothersome kind of euphemism.)

"Letter 5" in Olson's Mayan Letters is another reference for this question—and a very useful one for those who have means to check it. There Olson says the problem is "to bring any time so


abreast of us that we are in this present air, going straight out, of our selves, into it . . ." In fact, that might well serve as a sense of the purpose in The Maximus Poems themselves, and it is no fluke that such a thing had been on his mind. He felt then (March 8, 1951) that a too simple "nomination" and/or name-reference as part of a traditional use of 'history' would fail to realize that, as he saw it, the shift had become "substantive" (i.e., he broke free of 'great men' to consider the question of maize, as in Carl Sauer's work)—a parallel to what scholars in the allied fields of anthropology, archaeology, geography, physics, etc., had already begun to document toward the end of the 19th century. I.e., the world had been prior to its reference in historical texts, where too often its use was simply "the passage of time & time's dreary accumulations by repetition . . ." A man writing had now to find his 'names' in terms that would free them for use now —not simply leave them caught in the trap of the 'past.' The reference, in that way, could no longer be a question of memory.

I find myself hammering at this for several reasons, as (1) the use of historical materials in Maximus will not be realized until one understands that they are being brought into a context of the present —no one is 'going back' to them, nor is there any question of the 'good old days'; and (2) that just as Mencius can say, how is it far if you think it, so Olson: how is it past, if you think it. All that can inhabit the present, is present. That is why, I think, such documents as John Smith's "The Sea Marke" or the list of what the fourteen men left at Stage Head had for provisions are given literally—to see as of now , else we see nothing sufficiently of that literal ground we occupy, a place accomplished by men. In that there may well be much of time , perhaps, yet those men are there too, and by no simple trick of language—we do not finally have to remove ourselves to a future, in which we will all be dead, to understand that fact. All is, as it is, where it is, when it is—and the dead in that respect do bury the dead, altogether.


A parallel statement is Gertrude Stein's comment: " . . . the making of a portrait of anyone is as they are existing and as they are existing has nothing to do with remembering anyone or anything . . ." In Maximus the "portrait" is a place, Gloucester, with all that may


thereto be related—first of all, men, since "polis is / eyes . . . ," and then the 'measure' of those men and that place, as:

I measure my song,
measure the sources of my song,
measure me, measure
my forces . . .

or the literal 'mapping' of "Letter, May 2, 1959," and as well, the sense that "metric then is mapping, and so, to speak modern cant, congruent means of making a statement . . ."


Again, in an earlier poem, "Concerning Exaggeration, or How, Properly, to Heap Up," Olson has this question, "how / can you be otherwise than / a metaphor . . ." The sense of the sign that men make as, and of, themselves continues into Maximus , and is also an explanation of Maximus himself—the metaphor for a man not simply 'large' but more, the Pythagorean 'looker-on,' the measurer of terms and relationships. In that sense he stands at the apex of human activity in this same order.

(I do not propose a catalogue of all such 'metaphors' in the poems, but this way of thinking of it may help to explain the Ferrini section—where Ferrini proves token, or sign, for one kind of activity and its apparent value and the Burke section, another. People are to this extent consistently the face they wear, and the things which they do, in the place given them. Anecdotes have a like function I think, as here:

was such a man
he was embarrassed
to ask for the rent . . .

They make a vocabulary of activities, which in turn are freed from category by virtue of their being local .)


Were the poems simply social criticism, they would not be very interesting. What they do offer, and work to provide, is just such a


'vocabulary' as I have mentioned. Williams has said with persistent desperation:

              The measure itself
has been lost
      and we suffer for it.
             We come to our deaths
in silence . . .

What does this mean? It means that we have lost control of the very terms by which we propose to live—that we can, say, argue 'limited war,' or defensive armament, for peace, which seem the most bloated instances one can quickly think of. It means that we are committed to suffering and desperation for specious reasons—since there is no reason except the duplicity of our reference. We fear commitment and risk of quite another kind. It is the contrary of all this I believe Olson to know:

He left him naked
the man said, and
is what one means

that all start up
to the eye and soul
as though it had never
happened before


Introduction to Charles Olson:
Selected Writings I

There is a relevant measure of Olson's situation to be found in William Carlos Williams' notes upon a parallel figure—a man equally embarrassed by conveniences—Sam Houston. Of him Williams writes: "He wants to have the feet of his understanding on the ground, his ground, the ground, the only ground that he knows, that which is under his feet."

It is simple enough to generalize the American situation itself by reference to its pragmatism, its lack of traditional objectives, so to speak. But to turn it to use, the form of this world requires from the first an adamant recognition of place , of a literal geography such as John Smith could manage, so that, as Olson says, "The sort of knowledge Smith gave Hudson . . . Hudson went straight to the river." Smith is not, in Olson's context, the enlarged issue of a hero , but rather a primary instance of conduct, the how a man might demonstrate given the fact of himself in an environment that will only admit him as he can be there.

But I slur here too quickly into a sense of will, which is not to the point. However much a man may want something, the possibility is still not his to determine, although it is certainly his to recognize. One had much better see that no relief comes of any enlargement, or recourse to some sense of the world as idea merely. That "eu-

This original version of the Introduction to Olson's Selected Writings (New York: New Directions, 1966) was superseded by a subsequent writing (see following essay) that appeared in the Olson volume. The original Introduction was first published in Robert Creeley, A Quick Graph: Collected Notes & Essays , ed. Donald Allen (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1970).


phoria" which Olson defines in "Tyrian Businesses" is the result of a kind of containment, which is not one at all—but, instead, a spilling over of the "personality," a false measure of human presence, onto all that confronts it.

There can be, then, no relief of such an order. I am most impressed that, in Olson's writing, these several measures of human term are adamant: (1) that the instant is human time and/or all that can be so felt must be so present, or else cannot exist; (2) that human content and possibility are the issue of acts, and are only absolute in that finiteness; and (3) that the geography , the complex of place—not at all the simplicity of a humanistic 'nature'—is the complement of all human condition.

So it is that the first essay of this collection insists that, for a man, "It is his body that is his answer, his body intact and fought for, the absolute of his organism in its simplest terms, this structure evolved by nature, repeated in each act of birth, the animal man; the house he is, this house that moves, breathes, acts, this house where his life is. . . ." Elsewhere he writes:

      I have this sense
that I am one
with my skin

      Plus this—plus this:
that forever the geography
leans in
on me. . . .

When reality is so confronted, much occurs that is otherwise lost in the roar of good intentions. Olson's criticism of those systems of logic and classification, and of those senses of symbology inherited by our humanists from the Greeks, has as its basis his assertion "that a thing, any thing, impinges on us by a more important fact, its self-existence, without reference to any other thing, in short, the very character of it which calls our attention to it, which wants us to know more about it, its particularity. . . ." "Human Universe" is a brilliant qualification of this circumstance, and the same thinking underlies his premise in "Projective Verse":

The objects which occur at every given moment of composition (of recognition, we can call it) are, can be, must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold , and to


hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself, through the poet and them, into being.

The point is that no form can exist as a possibility apart from that which informs it, the content of which it is the issue. The idealism of a sense of absolute form is answered as follows:

Here again, as throughout experience, the law remains, form is not isolated from content. The error of all other metaphysic is descriptive, is the profound error that Heisenberg had the intelligence to admit in his principle that a thing can be measured in its mass only by arbitrarily assuming a stopping of its motion, or in its motion only by neglecting, for the moment of the measuring, its mass. And either way, you are failing to get what you are after—so far as a human being goes, his life.

This leads him to a kind of writing that is never more, nor less, than 'what it has to say.' It is primarily what he calls "language as the act of the instant" since—as he also makes clear—"the habits of thought are the habits of action," however difficult such action may prove. But at no moment may one step aside—to think about the world, rather than in it or of it or as it. Again, there can be no relief in such a generalization.

The poems themselves are, then, the issue of an engagement, of an impingement, a location that is constantly occurring. They are not a decision of forms more than such forms may be apprehended, literally gained, as possible in the actual writing. "But a field / is not a choice . . . ," however much within it may occur that sense of "choice" he takes care to qualify as recognition .

It is in this sense that Olson has been given Gloucester, which I may note briefly is a city in Massachusetts, a seaport up the coast from Boston. But that is merely what it is for me , which is not the point—nor is it even interesting to think of what it is for Olson . It is how Olson is involved with this place, that is interesting, how it is that he is "caught in Gloucester," in "The Librarian," or in another context, quite otherwise:

It rained,
the day we arrived.
And I have rowed the harbor since,
out the window of Johnny's Candy Kitchen,
through that glass and rain through which I looked
the first time I saw
the sea.


These are statements, themselves their own occasion. It is relevant that Olson's discussion of Shakespeare's late plays and the character of the verse they develop provides the most useful measure of his own verse that I can offer. For example, he says "logicality persists in the syntax and image but the thinking and weighing in of the quantity stop twist and intensify the speech, thus increasing the instancy." The insisted upon 'forms' of the language and its 'subjects' are still evident, then, in the patterns of syntax and image, in these plays, but the words in their own literal occurrence, and in what they so think of, gain an immediate context, one momently present. "Some Good News" demonstrates a like gain, but also moves in its syntax and image free of an external limit, as here:

 . . . shoals, worse

than rock because
they do blow shift lie,
are changing as you sound—
on this crooked sand
Portuguese (when?)

had a fishing station.
It wasn't new,
what happened,
at Cape Ann. It's where
and when it

did . . .

But it seems wisest, now, to stop such illustration, and to enter directly upon the writing. Its selection has been as arbitrary as I, or any one, must be, and much is left out—as the whole of Call Me Ishmael , his study of Melville, which will not admit to what were here the necessities of choice. One will, in any case, want to read more, and there is much more of Olson to read. This is a beginning, echoing what was my own, upon a way of being in the world which made clear to me and I hope now to you—

There are no hierarchies, no such many as mass, there are only eyes in all heads,
to be looked out of

February 12, 1965


Introduction to Charles Olson:
Selected Writings II

It is simple enough to note the main details of Charles Olson's background. Born December 27, 1910, he lived for some years in Worcester, Massachusetts, and his family spent summers while he was still quite young in Gloucester, on the coast of the same state. I once saw a picture of him, aged about eleven, taken together with the whole summer camp community at that time, some forty people who vacationed in this part of Gloucester, separated from the main town by the Cut or channel that runs in to the inner harbor. He is sitting on the edge of a roof and his legs hang down very evidently, giving a sense of the size he will later have as a man. He was to be tall indeed, roughly six foot eight or nine.

Subsequently he went first to Wesleyan, then to Yale, and Harvard, where he worked toward the Ph.D. in American studies. His jobs were various. He was a mailman for a while in Gloucester, he worked on a fishing boat, he taught at Clark and Harvard for relatively brief periods, he was chairman to foreign language groups for the Democratic Party during Roosevelt's campaign for a fourth term. Then, in the late forties, he took a job vacated by Edward Dahlberg, at that point a close and significant friend, to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina on the invitation of Theodore Dreier and Josef Albers, then rector of the college. Albers soon after went to Yale, and in the early fifties Olson became rector. Although it was a difficult time financially for all involved,

Selected Writings of Charles Olson , edited and with an Introduction by Robert Creeley (New York: New Directions, 1966).


and the college had relatively few students, nonetheless Black Mountain proved a focal point for much significant activity in the arts. John Cage, Robert Duncan, Merce Cunningham, Franz Kline—all of whom were present at one time or another during this period—show briefly the range and intensity of what was then happening. The students—John Wieners, Robert Rauschenberg, Edward Dorn, John Chamberlain, Michael Rumaker, Cy Twombly, Joel Oppenheimer, Dan Rice, Fielding Dawson, to name several—were equally notable.

Olson had come to Black Mountain following publication of a most singular critical work on Melville, Call Me Ishmael (1947), which he had written with the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship.[1] In that book he makes clear his relation to a responsiveness and decision in such writing to be found only in such comparable works as D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature , W. C. Williams' In the American Grain , and Edward Dahlberg's Can These Bones Live . In this respect, criticism is not only a system of notation and categorization—it is an active and definitive engagement with what a text proposes. It is not merely a descriptive process. Call Me Ishmael begins:

I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.

It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story (Parkman's): exploration . . .

Olson had also been in touch with Ezra Pound, who had recently been returned to the States to face trial on the charge of treason. There is a very moving defense of Pound written by Olson for the Partisan Review ,[2] for whom he acted as a "reporter" in order to gain admittance to Pound's first arraignment in Washington. It is called "This Is Yeats Speaking"—the title itself a clear measure of those circumstances Pound's accusers were preparing to ignore. As Yeats, he says:

We were the forerunners—Pound only the more extreme—but our time was out of phase and made us enders. Lawrence among us alone had the true mask, he lacked the critical intelligence, and was prospective. You are the antithetical men, and your time is forward, the


conflict is more declared, it is for you to hold the mirror up to authority, behind our respect for which lay a disrespect for democracy as we were acquainted with it. A slogan will not suffice . . .


Olson's approach was thus twice removed from the terms of any other critical intelligence of that period. He spoke of "geography" and that was clearly antiliterary. He proposed a sense of the literal nature of this country quite distinct from those critics influenced by European traditions. If he was involved with particular European evidences (as witness his translation of Rimbaud's last recorded poem, "Ô saisons, ô châteaux . . . ," in "Variations Done for Gerald van de Weile"), he so involved them that they became the American context equally:

I offer, in explanation, a quote:
si j'ai du goût, ce n'est guères
que pour la terre et les pierres . . .
("The Kingfishers")

If I have any taste, it is only for earth and stones  . . . Or to continue with Rimbaud's text from which this is also taken:

Je déjeune toujours d'air
De roc, de charbons, de fer.[3]

Daily I dine on air,
rock, coal, iron
 . . .

It is relevant, then, that Olson's particular nature should lead him in Yucatan[4] to just such exploration as he values in Parkman, or equally in Herodotus ("I would be an historian as Herodotus was, looking / for oneself for the evidence of / what is said . . . ," "Letter 23," The Maximus Poems ). In Mayan Letters we have unequivocal evidence of a kind of intelligence which cannot propose the assumption of content prior to its experience of that content, which looks , out of its own eyes. This does not mean that conjecture is to be absent, insofar as jacio means "throw" and con , "together"—however simply this point may note the actual process. It is a consistent


fact with Olson that he does use his legs, and does depend on what his own instincts and intelligence can discover for him. In this way he throws together all he has come to possess.

But humanism, as a system of thought or ordering of persons in their relations to other things in the world, is distinctly absent. Even the most sympathetic ordering of human effects and intelligence leads to unavoidable assumptions and the test—which is the reality of one's quite literal being—denies any investment of reality prior to its fact.

There are no hierarchies, no infinite,
                                            no such many as mass, there are only
eyes in all heads,
to be looked out of
("Letter 6")

This commitment is further proposed and defined in "Human Universe," written, significantly, during that same period in Yucatan. We are not here involved with existentialism, despite the apparent closeness of sympathies at times. That is, Camus may speak of a world without appeal , but the system of discourse he makes use of is still demonstrably a closed one. What he seems most despairing about is that language cannot make sense of the world, that logic and classification do not lead to conclusions and value—but open only to the dilemma of experience itself. But L'Étranger is again a closed demonstration, a "fiction" proposed as example, and this, of course, is to stay within that universe of discourse which Olson distrusts.

 . . . such an analysis only accomplishes a description , does not come to grips with what really matters: that a thing, any thing, impinges on us by a more important fact, its self-existence, without reference to any other thing, in short, the very character of it which calls our attention to it, which wants us to know more about it, its particularity. This is what we are confronted by, not the thing's "class," any hierarchy, of quality or quantity, but the thing itself, and its relevance to ourselves who are the experience of it (whatever it may mean to someone else, or whatever other relations it may have).

("Human Universe")

Camus despairs of his inability to fit experience to possible orders of language, whereas Olson would insist that language be returned to its place in experience, neither more nor less than any other act.



William Carlos Williams had said, "No ideas but in things," thereby insisting that reality was a real matter. Pound equally insisted, "Any tendency to abstract general statement is a greased slide." Both men have clearly to do with possibilities in writing of which Olson is further evidence, but his own qualifications of either man are also relevant. For example, Pound he felt limited to an "ego-system":

Ez's epic solves problem by his ego: his single emotion breaks all down to his equals or inferiors. . . . Which assumption, that there are intelligent men whom he can outtalk, is beautiful because it destroys historical time, and thus creates the methodology of the Cantos , viz, a spacefield where, by inversion, though the material is all time material, he has driven through it so sharply by the beak of his ego, that, he has turned time into what we must now have, space & its live air . . .

(Mayan Letters )

The gain is that any instance of intelligence is relevant insofar as it proves so, that what was said in 500 B.C. can be actively heard in 1965—and in that sense "time" is denied as a limit of such a possibility. But the dilemma it leads to is that the ego or mind is made the sole measure of such experience.

In contrast, Olson feels that Williams offers an emotional system, which does not limit the context of writing to an assumption of understanding —or, better, it attains a way of writing that feels as it goes as well as sees . This allows the experience of writing to be more sensitive than the ego alone can admit.

In the second part of "Projective Verse,"[5] Olson makes this useful summary:

Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the "subject" and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For a man is himself an object, whatever he may take to be his advantages, the more likely to recognize himself as such the greater his advantages, particularly at that moment that he achieves an humilitas sufficient to make him of use.



When Williams first read "Projective Verse," his response was immediate:

I share your excitement, it is as if the whole area lifted. It's the sort of thing we are after and must have. . . . Everything in it leans on action, on the verb; one thing leads to another which is thereby activated . . .[6]

It was an excitement which many of us shared, because what confronted us in 1950 was a closed system indeed, poems patterned upon exterior and traditionally accepted models. The New Criticism of that period was dominant and would not admit the possibility of verse considered as an "open field."

But, thinking now of what else was clearly happening, that attitude was already losing ground. In Jackson Pollock's comments on his painting at that time, one finds the obvious parallel:

When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of "get acquainted" period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.[7]

A like situation was clear in the work of John Cage, which involved the introduction of "chance" factors and reconsidered the whole context of a "melodic" modality in music. And similar circumstances were very clear in the sciences as well. "Formal" order, taken as a sine qua non , could no longer be assumed as a necessary virtue.

How, then, manage its alternatives—in such a way that the result be not random but rather the most precise discrimination and attention of which the person writing is capable? Olson's premise is this:

A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to the reader . . .

("Projective Verse")


This means, very literally, that a poem is some thing , a structure possessed of its own organization in turn derived from the circumstances of its making. Thus far, it could, of course, be a sonnet—and under given circumstances well might be, supposing that the person writing discovered that possibility as it was, in fact, written. But what one is saying has intimate relation to how one is saying it—and/or the content, in this sense, is that which qualifies the possibilities of form. Valéry, in The Art of Poetry , qualifies as lyric that mode of poetry in which the content and the form are realized simultaneously. Neither one can precede the other as a possibility. It is this sense, then, which Olson extends to all occasions of writing in verse. It is hardly a careless procedure, in that no order more than that so recognized can be gained. Apropos the syllable, "the king and pin of versification," Olson writes:

It is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty, by these particles of sound as clearly as by the sense of the words which they compose. In any given instance, because there is a choice of words, the choice, if a man is in there, will be, spontaneously, the obedience of his ear to the syllables . . .

("Projective Verse")

The capabilities of that ear will have no other evidence to support them but that which they define. "Prosody," Pound said, "is the articulation of the total sound of a poem." In the note to which this serves as motto, so to speak, Olson says:

It's as though you were hearing for the first time—who knows what a poem ought to sound like? until it's thar? And how do you get it thar except as you do—you , and nobody else (who's a poet


a poem?

It ain't dreamt until it walks It talks It spreads its

green barrazza

Listen closely, folks, this poem comes to you by benefit of its own Irish green bazoo. You take it, from here.

("A Foot Is to Kick With")


The range of materials here collected is not evidence of "subjects" or of some preoccupation with any such term of argument. "Letter 15" notes that clearly enough: "He sd, 'You go all around the sub-


ject.' And I sd, 'I didn't know it was a subject . . .'" It is worth some thought.

Where one lives is a complex occasion, both inside and out. What we have as place is defined in "The Resistance," and, again, it is not only "existential." When a man walks down a street, he walks it only now —whether the date be 1860, 1960, or so-called centuries ago. History is a literal story, the activity of evidence.

In short, the world is not separable, and we are in it. The fact of "Apollonius of Tyana" is not then , so to speak—at some remove in time because its person is, as we might say, historical. Each moment is evidence of its own content, and all that is met with in it, is as present as anything else. Apollonius is a present instance.

The most insistent concern I find in Olson's writing is the intent to gain the particular experience of any possibility in life, so that no abstraction intervenes. "In Cold Hell, in Thicket" makes clear the difficulties, and "To Gerhardt, There, Among Europe's Things," the situation of the specifically American:

 . . . Or come here
where we will welcome you
with nothing but what is . . .

A dream is —as clearly as whatever else. The circumstance of "The Librarian" or "As the Dead Prey upon Us" will not be confusing to any who admit what they know to be a total content, rather than one divided by assumptions of understanding. "In dreams begin responsibilities . . ." I was moved on hearing Williams use that quotation from Yeats at the outset of his acceptance speech for the National Book Award in the early fifties. But it is not only "responsibilities," but also "This very thing you are . . ."

Meaning is not importantly referential . Reference may well prove relevant —but I can make myself clearer by quoting a sense of meaning which Olson used at the Berkeley Poetry Conference this past summer (1965): That which exists through itself is what is called meaning . He also noted, as a usable context for that "mapping" or measure of how one is where one is, these four terms:

Imago Mundi
Anima Mundi

By "earth" is meant all that literal ground we walk on and its specific character, including water and sky; by "Imago Mundi," that


way of seeing or view of existence evident in any particular circumstance of life; by "history," all the condition and accumulation of human acts and effects, as these exist; by "Anima Mundi," that which informs and quickens life in its own condition, the spirit—or what we speak of in saying, "the quick and the dead." I offer these simply as measure, for the relevance of what follows.

Placitas, New Mexico
October 3, 1965


"A Foot Is to Kick With"

Human Universe and Other Essays , by Charles Olson. San Francisco: Auerbahn Society, 1965.

Proprioception , by Charles Olson. San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1965.

A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn , by Charles Olson. San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1964.

The work of Charles Olson is a complex and densely articulate sequence of poems and critical notes. Those familiar with his earlier study of Melville, Call Me Ishmael (1947), are aware of the compactness of his statement, the extraordinary manner in which the juxtaposition of terms effects a shorthand of reference, a quickness of mind not often met with in such studies. For example, here is a characterization of Melville's situation taken from the opening section of that book:

Beginner—and interested in beginnings. Melville had a way of reaching back through time until he got history pushed back so far he turned time into space. He was like a migrant backtrailing to Asia, some Inca trying to find a lost home.

We are the last "first" people. We forget that. We act big, misuse our land, ourselves. We lose our own primary.

Melville went back, to discover us, to come forward. He got as far as Moby-Dick .

Ortega y Gasset puts it that the man of antiquity, before he did any-

Poetry , October 1966.


thing, took a step like the bullfighter who leaps back in order to deliver the mortal thrust.

(Call Me Ishmael , p. 14)

Human Universe and Other Essays is a collection written primarily since the publication of Call Me Ishmael , the only exception being, I think, "This Is Yeats Speaking," which Olson wrote for the Partisan Review on the occasion of Pound's trial. Again the quality of the intelligence is remarkable, in its speed, in its complexity of reference, in the juxtaposition of terms it can accomplish. The title piece, "Human Universe," makes evident the basic nature of Olson's qualification in all senses, which I may make clear here by a brief sequence of quotes:

We have lived long in a generalizing time, at least since 450 B.C.

The distinction . . . is between language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant.

It is not sufficiently observed that logos [what Olson calls "discourse" and the promoter of abstraction and of the sense of a "UNIVERSE of discourse"—"the refuge of all metaphysicians . . ."], and the reason necessary to it, are only a stage which a man must master and not what they are taken to be, final discipline. Beyond them is direct perception, and the contraries which dispose of argument. The harmony of the universe, and I include man, is not logical, or better, is post-logical, as is the order of any created thing.

Here again, as throughout experience, the law remains, form is not isolated from content.

Art does not seek to describe but to enact.

In other words, the proposition here is that man at his peril breaks the full circuit of object, image, action at any point. The meeting edge of man and the world is also his cutting edge. If man is active, it is exactly here where experience comes in that it is delivered back, and if he stays fresh at the coming in he will be fresh at his going out. If he does not, all that he does inside his house is stale, more and more stale as he is less and less acute at the door. And his door is where he is responsible to more than himself.


It is unbearable what knowledge of the past has been allowed to become, what function of human memory has been dribbled out to in the hands of these learned monsters whom people are led to think "know." They know nothing in not knowing how to reify what they do know. What is worse, they do not know how to pass over to us the energy implicit in any high work of the past because they purposely destroy that energy as dangerous to the states for which they work—which it is, for any concrete thing is a danger to rhetoricians and politicians, as dangerous as a hard coin is to a banker.

("Human Universe")

The fact of such loss, of a literal energy, of men's disposition toward their own confronting of the particular world given them, is an insistence throughout this collection. "The Gate and the Center" calls to attention primacies both of conduct and of possibility—the point that "energy is larger than man, but therefore, if he taps it as it is in himself, his uses of himself are EXTENSIBLE in human directions & degree not recently granted." "Apollonius of Tyana" enacts literally as dance and speech the classical possibility of a man so determined by himself: "Apollonius' assumption is that any image around which any people concentrate and commit themselves is a usable one just because it is theirs, that truth is never more than its own action, and that all that ever needs attention is the quality of the action." "The Resistance" equally states that it is a man's "body that is his answer, his body intact and fought for, the absolute of his organism in its simplest terms, this structure evolved by nature, repeated in each act of birth, the animal man; the house he is, this house that moves, breathes, acts, this house where his life is, where he dwells against the enemy, against the beast."

The complement and extension of the materials in this first section of Human Universe are found in Proprioception wherein Olson, by means of quick notation and relevant chronology and bibliography, makes evident the content of any man as literal experience in and of his body —not a "psychology" (which he feels as "the surface" merely) but "the data of depth sensibility/the 'body' of us as object which spontaneously or of its own order produces experience of, 'depth' . . ." This placement, so to speak, yields a brilliant view in the discussion of grammar. The subject's agency in the middle voice (as distinguished from the active voice, and also what becomes the "copulative" passive in present habit, although it was not so then) is qualified as follows:


1. on himself: make oneself go, proceed                       [will!
                         persuade oneself, trust, obey                [belief!

2. for himself: buy for oneself
                         send for a person to come to oneself,       [grace!—
                                                         summon, send for         or command
                         to take to the field, march                            [obey!

3. on something
    belonging to oneself  loose one's own, ransom      [each takes care
                                          bring one's own                            of the mselves!

Such a system of discourse gained a literal function for the experience of men's recognition of themselves.

Again, it is such recognition that all three of these books insist upon. In Human Universe I would call particular attention to "Against Wisdom as Such," "Quantity in Verse, and Shakespeare's Late Plays," "Letter to Elaine Feinstein," "Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself," and to much of the material in the fourth section, especially that concerned with John Smith, Billy the Kid, to the review of Cyrus Gordon's Homer and Bible , and to the active distinctions found in the discussion of Ernst Robert Curtius. These are, to my own mind, major matters indeed.

The last essay is called "The Contours of American History" and is the review of a work by William Appleton Williams having the same title. But for the involvement it proposes I think one is better advised to go to A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn , just that Olson gives here his own procedure for the recognition of such history as men in complement with place and time do make actual. He says at one point, "Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other man. It doesn't matter whether it's Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust it . . ." In the note on Williams' book there is the lovely point about "synthesis having always that advantage, that it gives intellectual experience . . ." It's always up to each man what he makes of anything.


"An Image of Man . . .":
Working Notes on Charles Olson's Concept of Person

Talking to a gathering of student writers (S.U.N.Y. College at Cortland, N.Y., October 20, 1967) Olson again tried to make clear that he was not involved in some self-aggrandizement and that The Maximus Poems were not therefore a backdrop for himself as quondam hero. He then read "Maximus of Gloucester" (The Maximus Poems , Volume Three, p. 101)—the date for which he notes as "Friday November 5th/1965":

Only my written word

I've sacrificed every thing, including sex and woman
—or lost them—to this attempt to acquire complete
concentration . . .

                         . . . It is not I,
even if the life appeared
biographical. The only interesting thing
is if one can be
an image
of man, "The nobleness, and the arete."

(Later : myself (like my father, in the picture) a shadow
               on the rock

One might expect to hear this plea from two other American poets, who are felt, I think reasonably, to be Olson's predecessors, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Paradoxically T. S. Eliot, whom Olson uses as a significant antagonist in "ABCs," is not usu-

The Iowa Review 2, no. 4 (Fall 1980).


ally presumed to be personally present in his longer poems, although he said of "The Waste Land" that it was, after all, "the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life. . . ." In contrast. Whitman's "Song of Myself" is read as an intimate relation with the factual poet himself, although the reader discovers remarkably little about Whitman literally. What Whitman depends on is the authenticity of the personal, that the fact an 'I' 'feels' this or that emotion confounds all 'authority' of an otherwise abstract or general order. Both Pound and Williams make use of this fact. As Olson writes (Mayan Letters , London, Cape, 1968, pp. 26 ff.), "Ez's epic solves problem by his ego: his single emotion breaks all down to his equals or inferiors . . ." and, of Williams, "Bill HAS an emotional system which is capable of extensions and comprehensions the ego-system (the Old Deal, Ez as Cento Man, here dates) is not. . . ."

It is ironic that what I call so loosely 'the personal' is both our subject (which only an ego can determine as existing) and our object , "having to do with a material object as distinguished from a mental concept, idea, or belief. . . ." It must be that Olson's own physical size (he was six foot seven) made the latter situation of person most insistent. One of his last wry points in hospital was upon his own pleasure that 'the fundament stayed as put as the firmament. . . .' The body did not go away, in short, forever lost among the stars.

Returning to Eliot, Olson again qualifies him in the second part of "Projective Verse" (Human Universe and Other Essays , edited by Donald Allen, Grove, 1967)—and it is the second part of this essay he felt especially valuable, as against the first part, which proved the most read:

—it is because Eliot has stayed inside the non-projective that he fails as a dramatist—that his root is the mind alone, and a scholastic mind at that (no high intelletto despite his apparent clarities)—and that, in his listenings he has stayed there where the ear and the mind are, has only gone from his fine ear outward rather than, as I say a projective poet will, down through the workings of his own throat to that place where breath comes from, where breath has its beginnings, where drama has to come from, where, the coincidence is, all act springs.

What Olson means by the statement, "down through the workings of his own throat to that place where breath comes from . . . ," can be found most clearly in his brief but remarkably helpful text, "Proprioception," for example, on the first page:


the data of depth sensibility/the 'body' of us as
object which spontaneously or of its own order
produces experience of, 'depth' Viz

It's to the point that Olson had wanted to compose a "Book of the Body," which would be an extensive study and report of the material, presumably, the "Proprioception" text so brilliantly graphs and/or outlines. This preoccupation is very frequently evident in his work, as in the short, initial statement, "The Resistance" ("It is his body that is his answer, his body intact and fought for, the absolute of his organism in its simplest terms, this structure evolved by nature, repeated in each act of birth, the animal man . . . ," HU , p. 47) or, at more length, the proposal of human event found in "Human Universe" (HU , p. 10):

What happens at the skin is more like than different from what happens within. The process of image (to be more exact about transposition than the "soul" allows or than the analysts do with their tricky "symbol-maker") cannot be understood by separation from the stuff it works on. Here again, as throughout experience, the law remains, form is not isolated from content. The error of all other metaphysic is descriptive, is the profound error that Heisenberg had the intelligence to admit in his principle that a thing can be measured in its mass only by arbitrarily assuming a stopping of its motion, or in its motion only by neglecting, for the moment of the measuring, its mass. And either way, you are failing to get what you are after—so far as a human being goes, his life. There is only one thing you can do about the kinetic, reenact it. Which is why the man said, he who possesses rhythm possesses the universe. 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.

Recognize, then, that surely one insistent human dilemma is lodged in the abstraction which consciousness permits, if that marvellous function be employed only to gain an "objective correlative" to that very existence any one of us is fact of. Olson's respect for the mushroom, specifically for the experiments which Timothy Leary was conducting in the early 60s, has obvious bearing. Talking to an informal group at William Gratwick's home in Pavilion, N.Y., No-


vember 16, 1963, he emphasized the apparent fact that hallucinogenic agents, LSD in particular, " . . . [put] you on your own autonomic nervous system—as against the motor."

And certainly the human race has been so bereft of its autonomic system for so long that you can practically talk that we're green. In fact I would think almost that you have to talk about the species today as green , individually and socially. Not at all—how you say it—the way we tend to talk from our progressive or evolutionary or developmental past as though we've now got to take this step. It's not some step that you take easily, or that [it can matter] even to take the step, if you stop to think about it. You're just who you are; what you do, if it's any good, is true; and you are capable of being alive because of love. I mean it's about as simple—it's like those simplicities operate. And that's it. Well, it's not so easy to come to believe as absolutes, imperatives and universals. In fact, on the contrary, we've been encouraged to think there is some universal, absolute or imperative we seem to be missing out on. But the autonomic thing is very crucial.

(Olson , #3, pp. 19–20)

In the same discussion he speaks of the triad of politics, theology, and epistemology, the three intensive-extensive patternings of human 'content,' and of how crucial it is that they be examined in present situation. Because once there is the human belief, "the idea that there is such a thing as knowledge . . . ("invented by a man named Plato. Episteme is his invention and it's one of the most dangerous inventions in the world . . .") (O , #3, p. 13), the dislocation of mind and body is immediate. George Butterick's "notes from class, 15 September 1964" make a further clarification of Olson's emphasis:

Olson began his Modern Poetry course at Buffalo the following fall with the same triad, which he identified as "Augustinian," saying that it was "dogmatically true." He related the term politics, or the Greek physics 'nature,' to "necessity"; epistemology, or nous 'mind,' to "possibility"; and religion, or theos 'God,' to the "imaginable."

(O , p. 54, n. 14)

"Soul" also can be an obvious distraction, but only if you let it get away from you so to speak. I find, somewhat sadly, that the OED 's first listing of this word's definition, "The principle of life in man or animals; animate existence," is noted as obsolete, while the second definition not only survives but defines our problem entirely: "The principle of thought and action in man, commonly regarded as an


entity distinct from the body" (OED , p. 2927). One can make a simple measure of the dangers inherent in abstraction by recognizing how removed the valued factor in existence, the soul, has become from that which it inhabits, the body—and, equally the life, the process, of which it is literal instance. Nonetheless the dilemma is clear, apart from this particular resolution: how is that which we are, as "thought," "action," "soul," what we also are as in Olson's phrase, "what gets 'buried,' like, the flesh . . . bones, muscles, ligaments, etc., what one uses, literally, to get about etc. . . ." But, he says, "the soul is proprioceptive . . . the 'body' itself as, by movement of its own tissues, giving the data of, depth . . . that one's life is informed from and by one's own literal body. . . . that this mid-thing between . . . that this is 'central,' that is—in this 1/2 of the picture—what they call the SOUL, the intermediary, the intervening thing, the interrupter, the resistor. The self."


The gain:

to have a third term, so that movement or action is 'home.' Neither the Unconscious nor Projection (here used to remove the false opposition of 'Conscious'; 'consciousness' is self) have a home unless the DEPTH implicit in physical being—built-in space-time specifics, and moving (by movement of 'its own')—is asserted, or found-out as such. Thus the advantage of the value 'proprioception.' As such.

its own perception

The 'soul' then is equally 'physical.' Is the self.[*] Is such, 'corpus.' Or—to levy the gain psychology from 1900, or 1885, did supply until it didn't (date? 1948?)—the three terms wld be:


surface (senses) projection
cavity (organs—here read 'archtypes') unconscious the body itself—consciousness: implicit accuracy, from its own energy as a state of implicit motion.


therefore (the universe is one) is supplied; and the abstract-primitive character of the real (asserted) is 'placed': projection is discrimination (of the object from the subject) and the unconscious is the universe flowing-in, inside.
                               (Additional Prose , pp. 18–19)


Again and again one finds in Olson's thinking an insistence upon the authority of one's own life as initial. Whether it be "that all start up / to the eye and soul / as though it had never / happened before" or "That a man's life / (his, anyway) is what there is / that tradition is / / at least is where I find it, / how I got to / what I say" (Letter 11, p. 48), there is no otherwise, or where.

It would be of point, clearly, to consider the way in which "history" is present in The Maximus Poems , and to say again, as he did constantly, that Olson

 . . . would be an historian as Herodotus was, looking
for oneself for the evidence of
what is said: Altham says
was at Cape Ann in April,
(MP , p. 101)

Characteristically, one is tempted to type, in the third line, "was" for "is," and "said" for "says"—but it is as much to the point that the present is "historical," as that there is, therefore, an "historical present." Or as answer to the question I had then asked, literally, "what is 'history'?" Olson's answer, the poem "Place; & Names":

a place as term in the order of creation
& thus useful as a function of that equation
example, that the "Place Where the Horse-Sacrificers Go"
of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is worth more than
a metropolis—or, for that matter, any moral
concept, even a metaphysical one
                             and that this is so
for physical & experimental reasons of
the philosophia perennis , or Isness
of cosmos beyond those philosophies
or religious or moral systems of
rule, thus giving factors of naming
—nominative power—& landschaft
experience (geography) which stay truer
to space-time than personalities
or biographies of such terms as specific
cities or persons, as well as the inadequacy
to the order of creation of anything except
names—including possibly mathematics (?)


the crucialness being that these places or names
be as parts of the body, common, & capable
therefore of having cells which can decant
total experience—no selection
other than one which is capable
of this commonness (permanently
duplicating) will work

"Story" in other words as if not superior
at least equal to ultimate mathematical
language—perhaps superior because of
cell-ness (?) In any case history
(as to be understood by Duncan's Law
to mean a) histology & b) story)
applies here, in this equational way
& severely at the complementarity of
cosmos (complementary to individual
or private) and not to cities or
events in the way it has, in
a mistaken secondary way, been

Duncan had written him (18 Dec. '61):

But "history"?—couldn't we throw that word out and establish histology: the tissue and structure, weaving, of what [it] is we know.

story: what we know from the questions we asked. This thing is made-up, or an answer—but is, also, the only thing we knew to answer: oracle or sphinx-demand

That: we do hold by histology and story having to do with one gnosis . And the art, the story, seeks out histology or lapses into the cultsure . . ."

(O , 4, p. 45, n. 2)

It's also to the point to remember, that Olson's favorite definition of the word "history" was, finally, John Smith's (despite, as he remarked, its curious faintness): "History is the memory of time . . ." In an autobiographical note ("The Present Is Prologue"), published 1955, he writes:

There are only two live pasts—your own (and that hugely included your parents), and the one other which we don't yet have the vocabulary for, because the West has stayed so ignorant, and the East has lived off the old fat too long. I can invoke it by saying, the mythological, but it's too soft. What I mean is that foundling which lies as surely in the phenomenological 'raging apart' as these queer parents rage in us.

I have spent most of my life seeking out and putting down the


'Laws' of these two pasts, to the degree I am permitted to see them (instead of the boring historical and evolutionary one which the West has been so busy about since Thucydides) simply because I have found them in the present, my own and yours, and believe that they are the sign of a delightful new civilization of man ahead.

(AP , pp. 39–40)

There is a sweetness, in that last phrase, and a 'progressivism'—a sense that one is going to get somewhere 'ahead'—one does not find usually in Olson. But again, it's of use to recognize that the 'history' of The Maximus Poems is initial tracking ("mapping," as he would call it) and is as much the form of the agent (the person acquiring the 'history,' in this case Olson) as it is the events and/or persons so examined. Lest one presume that is an extraordinary distortion of 'the facts,' that is, some body of information that might be 'objectively' the case, remember that any response to and/or statement of such data will presume a context and a meaning. It is the false face of the 'objective' or the 'general' or the 'abstract' that Olson finds contemptible, as in "Letter for Melville"—"written to be read AWAY FROM the Melville Society's "One Hundredth Birthday Party" for MOBY-DICK at Williams College, Labor Day Weekend, Sept. 2–4, 1951":

Timed in such a way to avoid him, to see
he gets a lot of lip (who hung in a huge jaw)
and no service at all (none of this chicken, he
who is beyond that sort of recall, beyond
any modern highway (which would have saved him
from sciatica? well, that
we cannot do for him but we can
we now know so much, we can make clear
how he erred, how, in other ways
—we have made such studies and
we permit ourselves to think—they
allow us to tell each other how wise
he was
(Archaeologist of Morning , n. p.)

As though one could tidy up the real , or find another place for it, or understand it apart from its enactment. . . .

Possibly the most active rehearsal of Olson's "methodology" is "A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn" (AP , pp. 3–14), which George Butterick has called "a fusion of Whitehead's notion of process with a Herodotean sense of history . . . . [It] was written in January 1955 as a letter—actually two letters—to the poet Edward


Dorn, then a student at Black Mountain College. . . ." (AP , p. 81, n.). The qualification there of person is very useful. In fact, the "Working premises" given at the outset should make much clear:

And a little later, same page:

Results , as of historical study:

(a) it is not how much one knows but in what field of context it is retained, and used (millennia, & quantity )

(b) how, as yourself as individual, you are acquiring & using same in acts of form—what use you are making of acquired information (person, & process )

It's Olson's intent in these letters to define both the nature of that attention he values, and the method which most proves its use. Because he feels it absolutely required that one move beyond any humanistic evaluation of data "BECAUSE THE LOCAL AND THE SENTIMENTAL IS HOW HUMANISM COMES HOME TO ROOST IN AMERICA" (AP , p. 5)—as instance, "sociology , without exception, is a lot of shit—produced by people who are the most dead of all, history as politics or economics each being at least events and laws, not this dreadful beast, some average and statistic . . ." (AP , p. 3).

In contrast, his proposal is as follows:



Applying all four of these at once (which is what I mean by attention ), the local loses quaintness by the test of person (how good is it for you as you have to be a work of your lifetime?); itself as crutch of ambience, by test of millennia [to which one might add as plaintive parallel, "how long, oh Lord, how long . . ."]; its only interest is as process (say barbed wire, as attack on Plains husbandry) or as it may be a significant locus of quantity (in America how, say, prairie village called Chicago is still, despite itself, a prairie village. . . .

(AP , p. 4)


If, in fact, by person one means "what, in fact, the critter, homo sap, is, as we take it, now . . ." (AP , p. 6), then, as Olson says, "our own 'life' is too serious a concern for us to be parlayed forward by literary antecedence. In other words, 'culture,' no matter how great . . ." "So far as 'scholarship' might, it will disclose the intimate connection between person-as-continuation-of-millennia-by-acts-of-imagination-as-arising-directly-from-fierce-penetration-of-all-past-persons, places, things and actions-as-data (objects)—not by fiction to fiction" (AP , p. 7). There follows, at this point, a lovely homage to Alfred North Whitehead, who is then used to define the principle at work here—"we should start from the notion of actuality as in its essence a process" (Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas , p. 355, as quoted in AP , p. 8).

I think I might, more responsibly, now enter this discussion as a person, literally—and not as a commentator, editor, scholar, or however one may care to qualify my role thus far. Just as Olson had said to Ed Dorn, "Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more about that than is possible to any other man . . . ," for me the crux was to be "the NARRATOR IN, the total IN to the above total OUT ["what I call DOCUMENT simply to emphasize that the events alone do the work"], total speculation as against the half management, half interpretation, the narrator taking on himself the job of making clear by way of his own person that life is preoccupation with itself, taking up the push of his own single intelligence to make it, to be—by his conjectures—so powerful inside the story that he makes the story swing on him, his eye the eye of nature INSIDE (as is the same eye, outside) a light-maker" (HU , p. 127). Always in my own situation, there was tacit fear some essential information was lacking, that one was dumb, in some crucial sense, left out of the 'larger picture.' So that this possibility, as a method , was extraordinarily moving to me insofar as it exchanged a concept of social limit (again 'culture,' in its most pernicious sense) for the active potential and authority of a human life, lives , literally being lived. I had known, certainly, what Olson elsewhere proposes as "There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass, there are only / eyes in all heads, / to be looked out of" (MP , p. 29). So too, in somewhat parallel sense, Pound's insistence: "What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee / What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage . . ." (Pisan Cantos , p. 99). But the condition, the law, so to speak, of this situation I took time to trust.

Why? That question seems to me intimately involved with all the


familiar senses of enclosure and self-limit, what Louis Zukofsky wryly put as "born very young into a world already very old. . . ." It is hard to change the system, like they say—the more so, paradoxically, when it is, by virtue of consciousness, so very simple to. Think of what's become of the various significant patterns of "history" even in our own lifetime. But my point is really that significant aspects of Charles Olson's thought and work have been confusing to its critics insofar as the model of 'world' in mind, in each case, was very different, if not altogether antithetical. In short, there is often a disposition to read The Maximus Poems as if they were a symbolic representation of the forces of history, in the abstract, and that the unremitting emphasis upon "the facts," as he would say, whether of dreams or Gloucester records or his own daily existence, are somehow there to 'describe' or otherwise 'stand for' a 'reality' of general kind. They are not. Let me, in fact, make an absolute emphasis: they are not .

No, the "cause" is otherwise: "It is the cause the cause, still, it is (and she, still / even though the method be / new, be / the rods and cones of a pigeon's or, a rabbit's / eye, or be / who, man, is that woman you now dream of, who / woman, is that man. . . ." ("by 3/6/51," AM , n.p.). In his lecture at the Berkeley Poetry Conference (July 20, 1965), Olson makes the point very flatly, "You're simply stuck with the original visionary experience of having been you , which is a hell of a thing. [Laughter] And, in fact, I assume that the epigraph that I've offered today is my only way of supporting that, which is [he writes on the board]: that which exists through itself is what is called meaning . . . ." (CM , p. 11).

I believe there's simply ourselves, and where we are has a particularity which we'd better use because that's about all we got. Otherwise we're running around looking for somebody else's stuff. But that particularity is as great as numbers are in arithmetic. The literal is the same as the numeral to me. I mean the literal is an invention of language and power the same as numbers. And so there is no other culture. There is simply the literal essence and exactitude of your own . . . Truth lies solely in what you do with it. And that means you . I don't think there's any such thing as a creature of culture . . . The radical of action lies in finding out how organized things are genuine, are initial, to come back to that statement I hope I succeeded in making about the imago mundi . That that's initial in any of us. We have our picture of the world and that's the creation.

(CM , p. 36)


There is, finally, a late text ("Gloucester, 28 Fort Square Feb. 15th (LXIX)," AP , p. 76) which makes an intensive compact of a great range of Olson's thinking, and since one cannot, responsibly, undertake all the materials and situations of his work in such "working notes" as these, let it serve as center for our own ending here. (Regretfully, in some respects, since much dear to my own heart, "Apollonius of Tyana," for example, or the specific relations with Jung, Corbin, and that primary man, Alfred North Whitehead, have barely been touched upon, if at all. But one takes heart in Whitehead's insistence, dear indeed to Olson: "There is nothing in the real world which is merely an inert fact. Every reality is there for feeling: it promotes feeling; and it is felt" [Whitehead, Process and Reality , p. 439]. So we won't miss 'it' insofar as it is 'here.')

The text, then, is "The Animate Versus the Mechanical, and Thought" (AP , pp. 74ff.). He begins, "Gravity, in fact, but pre- or post-mechanics. That is, not effect (Newtonian) nor proof (Recent) but experiential: phenomenological, perceptional, actionable" (AP , p. 74). In short, that this fact of being, in any given instance, not be taken outside , so to speak, but be recognized as the "Dogmatic Nature of Experience" (cf. P&T , p. 44), which it is. He notes the situation of a plant, which "has at the tips of its leaves and the ends of its roots 'standing-growing-responding' actions . . . and has, if and as 'weight,' gravitational 'history.'"

In fact 'history,' as, in that sense, difference from "astronomy" [which relies, perforce, on 'mechanical' measure]: that event (in Merleau-Ponty's sense [cf. O , pp. 3, 44–50]—narrative) is a perceptual—that wld be primordial —element of experience so much so that it 'carries' throughout the system—the system being 'Creation'—as 'element' (or 'weight') as profound as any mechanically measurable or demonstrable 'truth'; that even in short—or here decisively 'history'—as must [as necessity, as what has to happen]—is a condition of organism. (Above 'Animate.') . . . now I am proposing an even more fundamental 'tropism' ["Tropism, I think, is actually the riddler of the lot. Or it's the management, or it's the maneuverer, or it's then . . . it's ourselves." P&T , p. 43]: that one cannot 'think' even—because one cannot 'act' even—without such limits as the 'lines' of being, both in the plant and the animal 'meaning,' 'animate' . . . So I am back to animate, plant-or-animal—'perception' sense—of the freshness in time of the narrative or history as a tone or mode and so activeness of, for a human being, 'Creation': that there is no 'knowledge' of the crucial (axial-tropistic) sense of anything , including the "Universe" or the


"Self," except by this 'Time' phenomenon of freshness which Animateness [is], in and by itself , as initial of experience.

(AP , p. 74)

You will recall the frequency with which Olson quoted Heraclitus, "Man stands estranged from that with which he is most familiar"—literally, that fact, that living organism, of him/herself, and the crisis, persistently, in the situation is that all else is affected by such a powerful 'unit of meaning' so intensively awry. It is as if we have entered the 'inside' of this animate 'content' with the same terms of measure and their related agency, the mechanical, with which we had presumed our mastery over the 'outside,' that "geography" also so insistently present and which "forever . . . leans in/on me . . ." (MP , IV, V, VI, n. p.). In contradiction, Olson proposes:

The animate—plant or animal—is the aboriginal instance of our occurrence and is therefore the aboriginal condition which qualifies—defines both in fact and act, including the form-making usefulness of—our action.

The import of this can quickly be stated: man as Love (plant, heliogeotropic) grows up and down, man as separateness (animal) disposes of himself by sitio —chooses his place but which even though it gives him freedom disposes him likewise by gravity (statolith)—starch, turgor—'weight'-of-mass)—equal tropistically. Heaven and Earth.

(AP , pp. 75–76)[*]

What's to be made of that, with that, is all that any human life or the acts that make it life can constitute:

an actual earth of value to
construct one, from rhythm to
image, and image is knowing, and
knowing, Confucius says, brings one
to the goal: nothing is possible without
doing it. It is where the test lies, malgre
all the thought and all the pell-mell of
proposing it. Or thinking it out or living it
ahead of time.
(MP , Vol. 3, p. 190)


Charles Olson's Masterwork

The Maximus Poems , by Charles Olson. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1983.

A Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson by George F. Butterick. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978.

Charles Olson's immediate poetic elders make a context for The Maximus Poems , but they do not help to explain this remarkable work, nor do they define sufficiently the conceptual shift here accomplished. Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams each imagined a New World that derived, however antagonistically, from European habits, in the arts particularly but also in forms of history and epistemology. Unlike them, Olson's background was classic American: working-class, mill town, immigrant. However aristocratic, so to speak, his subsequent education, his habits are here defined and his resources located. "Back," as the poem reads, "is no direction." But here is a more specific instance of the place of "An American," so that one may avoid any misunderstanding:

No Greek will be able
to discriminate my body.
                    An American
is a complex of occasions,
themselves a geometry
of spatial nature.

Washington Post Book World , November 13, 1983.


          I have this sense;
that I am one
with my skin.

        Plus this—plus this:
that forever the geography
which leans in
on me I compell
backwards I compell Gloucester
to yield, to
is this

Clearly the insistence of any long poem argues a need to make a composition of the disjunctive factors of the present "world"—"this present life," as the dictionary says. The epic not only permits such existence—being "one with my skin"—but discovers the actual body itself, inside and out. Such poems of our own time—Pound's Cantos , Williams' Paterson , Zukofsky's "A "—are heroically intent upon this possibility, as in Pound's great effort to measure the capacity and resource of intellect; or Williams' heartbreaking labor in age to make a place for feeling in the common commitment of that human need; or, finally, Zukofsky's intense and binding evocation of family, of our lives in relation, which must serve of necessity as their only possibility of value.

The Maximus Poems began as letters to an old friend of Olson's, Vincent Ferrini, a fellow poet in the city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which itself serves as definition of human potential and consequence. But far better that one apply to the editor of this very usefully revised and established text of the poem, George Butterick, whose A Guide to 'The Maximus Poems' of Charles Olson includes a solid introduction with detailed information on the background of the poem's writing. One may note here, simply, that what begins as a social and politically determined address, in large part, with history a factor of pedagogic intent, soon moves far beyond that enclosure of information, despite its use and significance. In fact, this wider disposition is always present, as here:

( . . . metric then is mapping, and so,
to speak modern cant, congruent means of
making a statement), I, as Mr. Foster, went
to Gloucester, thus:


"And past-I-go
being Fosterwise of

The paradigm "Gloucester" yields much more than detail, data for the clothing of preoccupations. One needs turn to the earned emotional size of its "place" in a later poem, "I have been an ability—a machine—up to now . . . ," to have any sense of the variousness of its presence in the poem, because it is a place of primary, of primordial, recognitions. Just as Herman Melville had made the industry of whaling imaginative ground for a mythos of the will, so Olson makes of Maximus, as George Butterick aptly puts it in the Guide 's introduction, an "Ahab come 'full stop.' He is Western man at the limit of himself, who no longer has a frontier other than himself and his extricable past, no farther west to go but to dig in deeper where he stands, with the result that Gloucester is taken back, 'compelled' to its founding in 1623 by migrating European man, back to the old Norse and the Algonquins, even farther back to the ice and Pleistocene man."

One might well cite the persistent beauty of the verse. It has been a constant wonder to me how various and particular was Olson's genius in the literal practice of his craft. His formal invention is constant and inevitably particular to the factors of statement. In short, he says things . But even that extraordinary grace might prove fragile were it not that he shares with D. H. Lawrence a prescient information, a power of intuition but, more accurately, of perception that can "see" as feeling, that knows it knows . In an early characterization, he dubbed himself an "archaeologist of morning" (which phrase became the title of his posthumously collected poems, not including the Maximus sequence).

He left him naked,
the man said, and
is what one means

that all start up
to the eye and soul
as though it had never
happened before . . .

That is the measure we are here offered.


"A Light, a Glory, a Fair Luminous Cloud"

Letters , by Robert Duncan. Jargon Fourteen. Highlands, N.C.: Jonathan Williams, 1958.

We are made by what we make, the poet (makar ) also. Robert Duncan makes clear, "It is not expression nor creation that I seek; but my inventions are addressed to an adventure. The medium of words." This medium is both path and declaration, for it is the way by which the poet moves and the way, also, by which all moves to him. It is:

a word giving up its ghost
memorized as the flavor
   from the vowels (the bowels)
   of meaning
("For A Muse Meant")

The image of what I am talking about begins to come: it is a fair land, a life, a language. And we, poets, are made up by it—it is a maker—and we in turn making ourselves up are of it.

("With Bells Shaking")

The Letters then make a character for the initial communication, serve as communicants here, as everywhere and always. We know that what we see finds "images more powerful than our own power of sight." This is the truth of "the full splendour of poetry in which we blindly see."

Poetry , April 1960.


It were a good thing to begin a book with Blake's beginning: HEAR THE VOICE OF THE BARD ! for it is the imagination who listens then—but the Bard is the voice of the listener, who hears, sees, the ancient trees, the Holy Word walking there, crying.

("Figures of Speech")

In finding this, as we read, we find ourselves discovered, by the writer, as ourselves discover him.

An imaginary woman reads by her lamplight, inclining her head slightly, listening to the words as I write them: we are there, as the poem comes into existence—she and I—losing ourselves in the otherness of what is written. I too then am imaginary.

("At the End of a Period")

Relationships derive from this ground, read or unread. The forms which sustain us are those devices of conjecture, force, or need, making ourselves the device of their forms. They wear us as their sign.

But—"Cezanne restored the destroyed mountain . . ." So Coleridge may write, "O Lady! we receive but what we give, / And in our life alone does Nature live . . ."

Is there another altar than the fact we make,
the form, fate, future dared
   desired in the act?
("Upon Taking Hold")

Loss may well live here:

the reaching out, risk of the touch,
rhymes that mimic much of loss, ghost goings,
  words lost in passing, echoed
where they fall, againnesses of sound only.
("Words Open Out upon Grief")

Yet how else should we live, despite that "Never to this fullness I came, that fills me"? Such risk defines the poet, makes him as the poem.

Then with that triumph of assertion, that dear courage in which the creature addresses the creator—for we have in faith to take our stand with God, and say IT IS GOOD —I sign my name, I, Robert Duncan, made this, as best I know.

("Preface: L'Oeuvre de Vivant L'Oeuvre de fantôme")

 . . .  now I, who did not see, see.
Friend, you have given your hand to me


"To Disclose That Vision Particular to Dreams"

Roots and Branches , by Robert Duncan. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964.

Roots and Branches is characteristic in its title, as in all other respects, of a continuing work which no brief note can report with much accuracy. For one thing, Robert Duncan is of that most rare order of poets for whom the work is not an occasional exercise, nor a demonstration of metrical abilities, nor any other term of partial commitment, however interesting. This book is the eleventh of a sequence, of a life, in fact, which can only be admitted or experienced in that totality.

But I can note, albeit briefly, some of the major insistences of his work as one meets with them in this book as well as in every other which he has written. Most primary is the assertion that what one can say, in any circumstance of poetry, is informed by a "voice" not ours to intend or to decide. So Eve (who is first Erda, "the earth daughter," then Eve, "Imagination's child . . . Womb-man of Adam's life") in answer to Adam's "Now in your eyes I see the tree is fair / in which I lose myself thru you"—

There's a way of speaking that's most like this
where thought and feeling is not our own
but belongs to a voice that would transmute
into a music joy and grief, into one living tree
in which beyond our selves we find release.

Humanist , January–February 1966.


"Rime" the demon calld it and made a wry face
as if it were wrong
where words are obedient to song's measure
            beyond our will.
But the daimon calld it "Melody"
and spoke, again, of our Author's delight
            in various Truth.
(Adam's Way )

Equally, Eve as "Womb-man" and "earth daughter" figures in part a sense of earth met with in "Apprehensions," an extraordinary poem indeed which I would place with those others equally notable in his earlier books, The Venice Poem and "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar." Here the earth is sensed complexly as the occasion of births, "pitted with young," "a chain of caves," in a dream which is instruction. Then the last poem in the book, "The Continent," plays variations on the recurring theme:

                 A diary poem
to Day, Gaia, Earth
—murther, murmurer, demurrer.

And this "murther" elsewhere echoes as "But, of that other Great Mother / or metre, of the matter . . ." in "Two Presentations" which confront the circumstances of his own birth and relation to his mother with a deeply moving intimacy.

I am also most interested in Duncan's sense of Adam, who is wakened to Eve by the angel Michael:

The Night is done. From your base elements
you are removed, and Day's your bride . . .
(Adam's Way )

I read a curious parallel then in the opening line of "Apprehensions": "To open Night's eye that sleeps in what we know by Day . . ." Here the need is to disclose that vision particular to dreams so that its orders may take part in that waking life otherwise given to us.

Again, might one manage it in such short space, it would be of great use, and interest, to make explicit the changes rung on these divers themes—and I have by no means noted all those which seem to me relevant. But apropos that sense of "Night's eye," for example, here is the opening verse of "A New Poem (for Jack Spicer)":


You are right. What we call Poetry is the boat.
The first boat, the body—but it was a bed.
           The bed, but it was a car.
And the driver or sandman, the boatman,
           the familiar stranger, first lover,
is not with me.

Or to follow the circumstance of false instructions, as contest of those to be honored, that he makes the issue of in "What Happened: Prelude":

the structures of the poem or play of mind
                    (angelic instructions)
the genii come to life,
       touch fire to ice in the living bone
                               and waken
fearful consequence. They take
        offense who'd promised happiness.

Or to find the various person, Isis, Helen, Eve, Erda, in all her presence here. But there can be no end to it here.

Feeling and motion, impression and expression,
             contend. Drama
is the shape of us. We are
             ourselves tears and gestures of Isis
as she searches for what we are ourselves,

Osiris-Kadmon into many men shatterd,
             torn by passion. She-That-Is,
our Mother, revives ever His legend.
            She remembers. She puts it all together.
So that, in rapture, there is no longer
             the sensory-motor-homunculus
subduing the forces of Nature, Horus contending with Set,

                       but the sistrum

                       sounds through us.

               The Will wherein the gods ride

                       goes forward.
("Osiris and Set")


Preface to Robert Duncan:
A Descriptive Bibliography

by Robert J. Bertholf

Insofar as the world of poetry is an insistently human one—or, better, one in which the human lives at the edges of its own perception, in the common event of all else—there can be that disparity of response and use which must often make us recognize with a bitter disappointment how meager our responsibility has proved. There is no leader of this world, in the political sense of authority. But if one can hear Blake's proposal, "The authors are in eternity . . . ," then that which has been so given, having no content in possessional time, will find place in person, as agency or instrument, so that he or she becomes voice for and of many, however single in fact.

Poetry is primary community, primarily communal. It does nothing, so to speak, because it is issue of all, and cannot be constrained to any one facet or preferred disposition of circumstance, because it moves and is moved with all. That is why one cannot be by definition a "good" poet, unless one speaks of the limited factor of performance—which, though practiced with brilliant intent and consummate resourcefulness, is still a given, found only by chance, never bought, sold, or bargained for. In this world, both timeless and only this very moment, there is a seemingly endless polyphony of voices, of all ages, places, times, and situations—all pleasure, all despair. It is as vulnerable as a hallucination, because it and all the world that keeps it a very literal physical company have, paradoxically, no defense against thought, especially that which has lost its

Robert J. Bertholf, Robert Duncan: A Descriptive Bibliography (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1986).


feeling for the human, the music specific to a body which the mind might still recognize.

I must therefore put as simple testament not only my own deep respect for Robert Duncan, my own dependence on him as a brother in this art and as a teacher, as that person of my own imagination who is what a poet might be—but also make clear in this manner of emphasis that Robert Duncan has been that poet of my generation who brought the communal world of this art forward again, who broke down the specious and often hostile habits of those uses of a poetry which would turn it to profit, to personal law and order, to investments of self-approval, while denying it any power of initiating wonder, and final value that might matter. The reader now considering by means of this immensely useful listing of publications, together with some clear history of their circumstance of printing, what has been the practical pattern of Robert Duncan's life as a poet will very soon discover it has only that of the practice of a poetry, but not simply his own—as might be said of something bought and paid for—nor another's, if that one were to be only its prior owner. He has long insisted that language and the poetry it sustains, of all human things, are common, demand a common ground. As he says in respect of Whitman:

Speech itself, nowhere other than common, every where the source from which we derive our individuality.

("The Adventure of Whitman's Line," Convivio , ed. John Thorpe, 1983)

It is now, happily, a common information that his use as source, as primary connection, for the poets of his world makes a geography far more ample than any of their particular intents, habits, or even accomplishments might describe. For example, only in the world of his generative and abiding transcendence of mundane literary categories could Henry Miller, Charles Olson, Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Spicer, Anaïs Nin, Louis Zukofsky, Denise Levertov, William Everson, myself and many, many others even begin to find room. As Whitman, he is originally and definitively American, defines a continuing person so here . But just as a science will engage a universe from a single instance of its manifest presence, so this poet reads the particular sounding syllable, the suddenly discovered congruence or discord, as expanding of all relation:

From the seed of first light the galaxies move out to the extremities of imagined time and space; Lucifer "falling" is the circumference or boundary of the need of Creation.

("Introduction," Bending the Bow , 1968)


The characteristic release of such power is an extraordinary intellectual energy, which can make of the seeing of the world, or, more aptly, its apprehension by whatever means we humanly can recognize, a vast and yet particularizing place of our lives with all else relating, a factual living tissue of those bounds/bonds.

So one may speak of him, however ineptly. One wants to make clear the size he constitutes, both in thinking and in practice, the parallels, variously, with Whitman, Dante, to an imagination which can bear, in birth and death, such human scale and occasion, go with it to whatever end. Therefore I cannot believe that he has ever once turned from this art and its commitments, however difficult its demands have proved. Yet to emphasize such a Puritan measure is also beside the point. No delights could ever have been more, as any reader or hearer of his poems well knows. Because such work as his is all a life, a world, and in it, miraculously, all opens, is possible, is there, or not there, meets with limit, breaks apart—to live.

Buffalo, N. Y.
February 28, 1984


"An Intensely Singular Art"

Here and Now , by Denise Levertov. The Pocket Poets Series, no. 6. San Francisco: City Lights Pocket Bookshop, 1957.

The Dutiful Son , by Joel Oppenheimer. Jargon Sixteen. Highlands, N.C.: Jonathan Williams, 1956.

Some Time , by Louis Zukofsky. Stuttgart: Jonathan Williams, 1956.

Poetry for the American has been an intensely singular art. Poe fights early for a separation from European attachments; and Whitman provides the example, basing himself on an ultimate personalism. We have, equally, Emily Dickinson, whose minutiae of personality and perception in effect pick out a world from the four walls of one small room. It is the me and you which have concerned us—the interstices of human relationships brought home, so to speak. It is there that we have most constantly begun.

This character of placement continues in contemporary verse. Sometimes the sound is belligerently self-assertive, revelatory and painful. The I is worn as a merit in itself; all forms break to it, and what hope of relationship to others there may once have been, is lost. This is, of course, the isolation which the American so often carries like a sore, marking him as lonely, lost, and a little pathetic.

The counter to this is the attempt to move into form, again, with others, with one's wife, husband, children—the sudden instances

New Mexico Quarterly , Spring–Summer 1957.


of relationship, the worn ones, all of it. How hard that seems. We cannot speak, now, of any very large aggregate of things to hold us together; and our sociality has become a business maneuver, or else (most hopefully) that the garageman does remember us, the postman smiles! We want so much to be liked.

All three of these books relate to this one center: how to live. It is not, how to stay alive, because that is something else again, almost now beyond our determination. But—in the time we have, what shall we do? Do you love me? Where are we? These are interesting questions.

The youngest of these poets, Joel Oppenheimer, came of age at the end of the second World War: a shocked time, with "love" a kind of down payment, it seemed, on a house, or perhaps a refrigerator. One didn't know. One tries, however:

The Couples

if i dont bring you
flowers. if i dont have any
flowers. delicate grubby violets.
chrysanthemums for your coat.
only children. what has that got
to do with it.

any child is isaac.
brushwood and sticks.
the burning bush in the hill's side.
jesus strung from a dogwood.

if it is not fair
where is fairness. if she is not
fair where is fairness. if flowers.
apples. peaches and pears
for the summer. an edible potato.

the stain of the dogwood
is in you. what now.
mushrooms. or underground
truffles. a pig with a ring
in his snout. he is hungry.
the stain of the dogwood.

who cries for another's
pain hasnt enough of his own.
where are my children they
leave me here knocking wood.

what is there i havent invented
contrived cut out of the


whole cloth. some day to
make it easier, with more
pleasure. that is a pleasure.

how else to be fecund if not
to put up with a man.

It is a sturdy defense, I think, written in like manner. But the women know too, what there is to know. God knows they feel it—no kindnesses, or expectancies, or money. It is different. Denise Levertov is English, but that doesn't matter. One says (grandly!) she knows:

The Bird

That crazy bird
always laughing—
he sits on the wall they are building,
the wall
which will hide the horizon,
and laughs like mad every time
we open our mouths to say
I love you I hate you etc.
He came only since
the green rain came and
softened everything, making
mud of the cracked
selfrespecting earth and rotting
the red flowers from their stems. Yes,
the rain, the trucks full
of pink bricks, that crazy
eavesdropping bird, came
together and finished
the days of burning,
and silence, and distance.

Thank God for the relief of it all. Personalism is of course only interesting insofar as it does contain "That crazy bird . . ." One begins with oneself perhaps, and to that entity one joins one other; and from that it may well be that a third is conceived. And so on—because this is what the world is all about. And the birds laugh. It is a good thing. Men and women grow whole in this image.

There is also wear, certainly, and the time that passes. But the determination, to live with others, holds true, once chosen. And a poet, like any other, thoughtfully enough arrives at the choice common to all. Louis Zukofsky is older than either Denise Levertov or


Joel Oppenheimer, and has been alive consistently. He has a family much in evidence in his poems, a wife and son. His book is, in fact, a complexly woven evidence of this basic relationship, so that I cannot, by quoting, make it all clear. But the substance of it can be made so, and the craftsmanship whereby it is given form—and, again, the world in which it obtains.

Sequence 1944–6 (4)

Having outlived self-offense
And that of my friends
I became brother to loneliness
And love the fact more than the word.

All that is human is
Alien and not alien.
All carefully chosen words
Are here—fairly shadows.

You have music to accord.
A child
At a remove from love
Holds leaves in my hand.

Where the world is headed
We do not say
As stars
Sun and surf

Flash in the sky. Were it said
Among twigs
"And then the world went
And then—"

Only our thoughts
Might seek it
In further woods.

It was never easy—but there was what there was to do. It may well be a simplification to posit ways at all, this or that. I don't know. Who is to say who is known? Each of these three poets knows the isolation of being alive, and of that counter will, to move to someone, to move with someone. They celebrate family —America's archaic institution, but America will not decide it this time. Let it be simple as Zukofsky:

Lights (8)

My nose feels better in the air.


Edward Dorn in the News

The Newly Fallen , by Edward Dorn. New York: Totem Press, 1961.

The publication of Edward Dorn's The Newly Fallen makes at last possible a place to read him simply, and in that way, ought not to be missed. The 'news' is the line , as in the very first poem, like this:

I know that peace is soon coming, and love of common
and of woman and all the natural things I groom, in my
   mind, of
faint rememberable patterns, the great geography of my

If "lunacy," it is gracefully apropos—and moves with the neat light-foot way of quick sense and specific commitment. He takes hold of things, common as the "red Geranium" Indian woman of this first poem, and makes no mistake—nor invites you to any, who are so often smothered with confidences that prove bullshit. Partly the book is a 'making peace,' a necessary and valuable operation, with the old places, as "oh, mother / I remember your year-long stare / across plowed flat prairielands . . ."

Place is even more absolute in "Sousa," and in the variations of "A Country Song"—as the last lines:

Then in front of the fire
We talk of Spring

The Floating Bear , no. 6, 1961.


An obscure slight offering . . .

the beauty of the thought, and line , throwing back upon the melody as it fades and ends here. So "If it should ever come . . ."

And we are all there together
time will wave as willows do
and adios will be truly, yes . . .

Shy in love, he is accurate and final in his condemnations, hardly to be denied:

Will Fidel feed his people before his own stomach
is filled? Can Jack
hold up his grimy hands and shade us
from that vileness falling in particles . . .

The line is, after all, the measure of the man writing, his term, peculiarly, as he writes, weighing, in the silence to follow, the particular word sense, necessary to his own apprehension of the melody, the tune—that he hears , to write. So, of secondhand clothing sold by charity:

       Of wearing secretly a burden,
clothes fitting as casually as though
they were stolen,
from the wealth
of the nation.

It is an anger that must make its terms understood, and so makes them a music no man can deign (wow!) to avoid.


Edward Dorn's Geography

Geography , by Edward Dorn. London: Fulcrum Press, 1965.

This book returns to the orders of feeling and response a kind of intelligence that has been long absent from poetry written in America and England. There have certainly been 'political' poems in abundance, but these (with specific exception of the work of Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson—from each of whom Edward Dorn remains singularly distinct) have largely argued a use of existing evils in a way that seemed too simply satisfied with the fact of such circumstance, just that it provoked the poems in question. In short, such writing tended to promulgate the very attitudes and situations it seemed most to condemn, in a convenience of 'description'—in a luxury of hate and dissatisfaction that was otherwise not to be enjoyed.

But here—much as an anger is evident—there is a ranging knowledge of literal terms, a geography of actual location and of the space it has been forced to accept as a kind of time measured in miles and days and persons and things of an endless debris and confusion. Movement becomes "A modern group in cars . . ."

In the bitterness of the great desert
they tried to get comfortable in car seats.
Utterly left behind was
a mixed past, of friends and a comfortable house.

Stand 8, no. 2, 1966.


They felt sorry for themselves perhaps
for no real reason, there had never
been in their baggage more than a few stars
and a couple of moons, you've seen their surfaces
in pictures.
("West of Moab")

Edward Dorn speaks literally, so that the experience of these poems, both for himself and the readers of them, is neither a symbolism nor an imaginative transfer of reality into some relieving change. It is, rather, the dry, tough, drawn, harsh, unrelieved experience of the world as the mind and senses are permitted to disclose it, if they will stay unremittingly attentive to the specific qualities and quantities it manifests. There is the undistracted fact, then, of Mr. Dorn's belief that "the poem is an instrument of intellection / thus a condition / of the simultaneous . . ." Thus it is issue of what perception can afford in the instant of time when things are, as they are, met by nothing more than their recognition.

One might well note the relevance of this condition to much that has preceded it in America—for example, the dryness of Poe's intelligence and yet the sensuality of his experience; or what another poem of Mr. Dorn's from an earlier collection, Hands Up! , makes so evident:

Insofar as life can be lived
and can be stated , H  D  T
did well to write about it.
Became more than living, that hapless verb.
Became a survey of more than a hubbub
of the days in which axes & bread,
ponds, window with bars out of which
to look and be disobedient, mere tools
of distraction. Altho I don't
say much for the crabby writing.
I like the clarity. Nor have much use
for the temper, but he was alive.
Knowing we can't be forever waiting for the appraisor.
In america every art has to reach toward some
clarity. That is our hope from the start.
("The Land Below")

That Thoreau gained particularity in writing is much to the point here—and that Edward Dorn shares with him in that particularity the fact that—


My desire is to be
a classical poet
my gods have been men . . .
and women.
("Idaho Out")

Or also:

Thus a window
is that seemingly clear opening our tested knowledges
pass through and the world shakes not at all
before the weight of our disappointments, you will
and would be part of the new hemisphere
until it dies of the same old loosely wrought manifestoes.
All those sounds from the broken washing machine
are trying to tell you something sweetheart don't laugh
one day it will speak and not stop
all things have an insistence of their own.
("Six Views from the Same Window
              of the Northside Grocery")

There is so much that instructs in this book—not as an aggression or cheap privacy, but as the intensity of such careful thought and weighed insight at times it is heartbreaking to realize how much the possibilities of speech mean to this man. He is possessed of a lovely ear:

If the world
or a life
or all of this
all the pleasures
we do not sow
and those we do
sometime end . . .

These are poems of a deeply articulate beauty, and, at moments, of such a catch of fragmented relief—

Daffodil Song

The horns of yellow
          on this plain resound
        and the twist on the air
of their brilliance


                  Say where
say where I will find
a love
            or an arabesque
of such rash fortune.


Preface to Selected Poems

by Edward Dorn

There are a few people always in the world to stand for—to stand up for, I'd wanted to say—the possibilities of being human. If you look up the word poetry , in a usual dictionary, you'll find it's something written by a poet. If you look up poet , you'll find it's someone who writes poetry. Mr. Dorn is such a poet, and his poems are so much the definition of what a poet can do, humanly, that my proposals here will be both brief and simple.

First of all, Charles Olson used to speak of Edward Dorn's Elizabethan care for the sound of syllables. That is, he was very respectful of this poet's ability to make every edge of the sound in words articulate. He didn't just go pounding along on the vowels, o sole mio , etc.; he obviously enjoyed all the specific quality of sound that one could also make sing, e.g.,

                                                 . . . I don't
want a rick of green wood, I told him
I want cherry or alder or something strong
and thin, or thick if dry, but I don't
want the green wood, my wife would die . . .

It's not easy to make "or alder" feel so comfortable a thing to say, and you'll see, or rather, hear, how he goes on playing this sound in the next line of this first poem here, an early one indeed.

Second, Mr. Dorn has always taken himself seriously, by which I mean he thought he, like all humans, counted for something. Years

Edward Dorn, Selected Poems , ed. Donald Allen (Bolinas, Calif.: Greyfox Press, 1978).


ago he told me a very moving story of how, the night of the graduation dance at the high school he'd gone to in Villa Grove, Illinois, he and his date—she was wearing the classic white prom dress—climbed to the top of the local water tower, and looked out on the world, literally, on the lights of the town, the flatness, the unrelieved real life that somehow still had to be hopeful. He has never lost that care, or humor, or anger, at what the world wants at times to do to itself. No poet has been more painfully, movingly, political —because he has been as all humans only one, yet one of many. He will not yield his specific humanness to God or anyone else.

And last—recalling Ezra Pound's notion, that only emotion endures —the range and explicit register of Edward Dorn's ability to feel how it actually is to be human, in a given place and time, is phenomenal. So many people will tell you what you're supposed to feel, and what a drear bore that is. But in reading these poems, you will hear and feel another human's life as closely and as intimately as that will ever be possible. And that is the power of this art.

That said, I can now confess to how intimidating this occasion has been for me. A "preface" for Ed Dorn's poems? Not even a sunrise could quite manage that.

Placitas, N.M.
May 28, 1978


The New World

Riprap , by Gary Snyder. Ashland, Mass.: Origin Press, 1959.

Hymns to St. Geryon and Other Poems , by Michael McClure. San Francisco: Auerbahn Press, 1959.

Memoirs of an Interglacial Age , by Philip Whalen. San Francisco: Auerbahn Press, 1960.

Watermelons , by Ron Loewinsohn. New York: Totem Press, 1959.

We describe our time as one in which relationships, rather than the hierarchies to which these might refer, are dominant. What is meant by politics, marriage, education, religion, or love itself, becomes modalities, terms between, people, the you and me of the subjective universe. If it is not my hat, then possibly it is yours; or if not yours, his , or hers —or theirs , a collective enterprise, yet one (as religion or philosophy, at present) given meaning by a possessional insistence. The hat itself is an occasion.

It is clear that poetry will reflect this sense of emphasis, and, if the given instance be sensitive, it will succeed in forcing a passage between individual sensibility and shared commitments (to live, to endure, and the like). Poems themselves are peculiarly suited to the present environment, because they are basically relational. In this way Charles Olson defines "A poem [as] energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way

Yugen , no. 7, 1961.


of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader . . ." The poem is not a signboard, pointing to a content ultimately to be regarded; but is, on the contrary, a form inhabited by intelligence and feeling. It is the way a poem speaks, not the matter, that proves its effect, and although this is an old insistence, it is one hard at times to remember when a great variety of desperations want a solution, a content capable of relief.

Gary Snyder's first book, Riprap , calls for a ground-sense of place, a world of substantial place, even primeval. Its manner is quiet, low-keyed like they say, with much solidity and peace—and that is a pleasure, offered as it is by a working intelligence and care:

No paradise, no fall,
Only the weathering land,
The wheeling sky,
Man, with his Satan
Scouring the chaos of the mind.
Oh Hell!

So that if we cannot escape, at least we can know, as Stendhal:

The pleasure brought by the cessation of pain consists:

1. In conquering all the successive obstacles that one erects for one's self.

2. In visualizing all the advantages of which one was about to be deprived.

From specific images of work-lines, farmhouses, intensities of physical life, the poem may come to:

      Thinking about a poem I'll never write.
With gut on wood and hide, a plucking thumb,
Grope and stutter for the words, invent a tune,
In any tongue, this moment one time true
Be wine or blood or rhythm drives it through—
A leap of words to things and there it stops.

But if it does not stop—if there the relation shatters, or, rather, shivers, oscillates, flips back and forth in an ecstasy of qualification. Ah well. It is again only an old enough irresolution—"no ideas but in things"—things ? What are things but ideas, until we bump our heads finally, and that's an end to it:

Allowing such distinctions to the mind:
A formal garden made by fire and time.


Arrived at such peace, then, all the landscape changes, and men walk quietly, enhanced by their relationships, defined by them, as women also. It is a beautiful and painstaking world which Snyder wants to live in, has by his poems made to live in—a successful relation of hope.

But the fires burn elsewhere, in other characters, and "No man can purify another."

Evil is done by the self alone, by the self alone
is evil left undone, by self alone is one purified.
Purity and impurity depend on one's own self.
(Dhammapada )

Perhaps the present attraction of the Dhammapada , or other Buddhist texts, is just this emphasis—that the self is a self-isolated event, yet one which must find relationships. When contact is broken, becomes the touch of the mind, then hell becomes particular, and not at all a place where bad people go, etc. When the imagination projects for itself a world more real than that which it literally experiences, this is hell, a forfeit, as Dante said, of the goods of the intellect. Because such 'goods' are relational, joiners , describe a method of being-with, otherwise impossible.

The self grown huge is a common aspect of the Romantic, but it might be remembered that its size is one of sensation , of what is felt, and is not otherwise of magnitude. The danger inherent is what Lawrence called sensationalism , i.e., the repetition of a known sensation is sensationalism. This is what happens when all qualification exists as a method of feeling rather than as a posited consequence of actions.

Michael McClure describes the hair-edge of feeling qua sensation and feeling qua effect:


                                           The poem

is confusion. Love, Sex, Death, are within
us and we give them many names. Naming only

the heads, when the bodies are wound, woven
       together. Making

the parts of us abstractions, Knees unreal
their qualities are vagaries


It is McClure's virtue as a poet, that he gives to his language a space, a flux in language, held by a structure of words —not a program of predetermined measures, either metrical or ideological. It is, in this way, as much his risk, in writing, as it is ours, in reading—to undertake a composition.

McClure, reading aloud, speaks flatly, without color, so that the words fall into relationships which they themselves, almost alone, seem to determine. In the poems capitalization is used for divers lines as a point of enlargement, a center and/or focus for the movement. Like this:

            Sleepwalkers . . . Ghosts! Voices
like bodies coming through the mists of sleep,
               we float about each other—

         bare feet not touching the floor.
               Talking in our lover's voice

The movement of the poems makes clear an insistent disattachment, or better, a recognition of distance qualified as separation, perhaps forever. There is a vacuum all but unentered by purpose, form, consequence—wherein events relay between a shifting possibility of relation, to come to:

I am sure of my movements I am a bulk
    in the air.

This center of self (rather than 'we' or 'they') has become a mark of the new poetry, to my own mind not unreasonably since it depends on real crises in real homes. It is very hard to make one's self understood, most of all by another—sadly, truly, etc. If culture now derives from mass orientation—and it seems that it does—kitchens and bedrooms and ultimately bathrooms house, god knows, the shaken egos of our time. Poetry, beginning with the protest of the thirties (a self-centered evaluation), moving through the chaos of the forties, loss of meaning and the huge arrival of apparently non-human activity (the atom, then hydrogen and cobalt, bombs, and too, such devices as the blowing up of an airliner to kill a mother-in-law, i.e., the new potential seen as property of the individual, also) comes through the fifties finding a language in a common hysteria, a nervously singular presence of mind, in which feelings are


dominant as they are felt, are registered as static blurring the voice of ordinary explanation, which says that everything is all right (when it is patently not all right). At times it will, as parody, take on, in grotesque approximations, the 'walk, don't run' character of current political and social jargon. Death, love, hope, and other qualities of attitude, will appear then as crudely erected statues in vacant lots, i.e., vacant states of mind aroused by a scarecrow of desire. From all this, this vacant density, appear to come many crowded voices—as if each 'I' wanted to believe it was to be, in some miraculous way, taken away from all this, and was to wake up to a warm familiar bed, in which its place was assured.

In this situation the intelligence becomes primary, is itself the contact with the real. But being so used, it is almost necessarily suspect, and so must be itself examined—as a possible last ditch of the deception suspected. Self-Portrait, from Another Direction is an instance of "Philip Whalen," a series of mentally approximate images of this man's activity. One day it may be, as Norbert Wiener suggests, "that one might conceivably travel by telegraph, in addition to traveling by train or airplane." States of mind seem to show relay points in the complex which, admittedly with an overweight of emphasis, we call self . Whalen is not engaged in vindicating, or in revealing, himself, but in thinking himself: "I think what is thinking . . ." He presents, then, all the dilemma, and all the gain, of a man wandering around in a battle area with the constant question, what's happening:

Now it is here.
Now it is falling.
Now it is there.
                                        which we agree upon . . .
What comes next?

Any word you see here defies all fear doubt destruction
    ignorance & hatefulness
All the impossibilities unfavorable chance or luck . . .

Whalen's formal invention develops as the range of his intelligence increases, not wisdom-wise but methodologically, to contain those relationships overtly, which mentality in itself seems to involve. It is hard to suggest, much more to say, where such an emphasis may lead. Yet the areas of consciousness which are related (as in Whalen's poem) by such attention are argument enough. Conditions


of thought are now too volatile, too open to a variety of persuasion, not to be examined; and Whalen makes a good lighthouse.

In The Human Use of Human Beings (quoted previously) Norbert Wiener says also: "The individuality of the body is that of a flame rather than of a stone, of a form rather than of a bit of substance." The human entity, person or self, depends on its environment as a context for its reality. Such proves the modulation of its own reality, felt more than known or determined. What is so new about this—except that time has entered space, and place itself is insubstantial. So both poems and people rely upon an act of thought.

It is hard to live, yet by use of the resources given, and responsible consciousness, one may find a sudden reassurance—as Loewinsohn's:

The thing made real by
a sudden twist of the mind:
relate the darkness to a face
rather than
impose a face on the darkness
which has no face, in reality.
("The Thing Made Real")

Ron Loewinsohn knows the common institutions of marriage, working, and friends, and in that way his poems are common too. The intelligence is, however, very specific, again an instance of self determination and need.

The stillness of the poem
a moment full of silence &
portent, like
the sudden halt of great machines.
Silence that becomes a fabric
to clothe the consciousness . . .
("The Stillness of the Poem")

What do we want from it? I don't know, but think that the poem is a form, derives its nature from the language of which it is made, is "charged" by the emotion(s) of its writer. But into that then comes the great modality of the occasion, the where and when—on some time-screen with blurred and shadowy presences. A man cannot live without the use of his intelligence. There may be, now, no common union except in the attempt to survive that intelligence, the


risk of all writing or thought. Snyder, McClure, Whalen, and Loewinsohn each make their own form qua poem, and the world whereto these relate comes after, or at the same time:

                   . . . A small room
without windows & only one door;
its acoustics make even laughter dissonant.
Every ocean, orchard, city, speech,
sin, book & body I've ever known
lie scattered all over the place.
(Loewinsohn, "The Occasional Room")


For Michael

Homage to Michael McClure is both pleasure and duty, in that his work has been a provocation and delight, lo! these (almost) twenty years. First meeting recalled now effortlessly, like they say. I'd crashed on the Dorns in San Francisco circa March 1956, and soon after was taken over to the McClure household, shared in commune manner with divers others, including Jim Harmon and Ronald Bladen. Intensive, physically articulate young man, level voice, eyes remarkably clear and crystalline, viz. as with diamonds a cool light . Already going about his business with undistracted singularity. At one point asks me, generously, if I'd like to go with him to Vic Tanney's (where he worked as an instructor) to work out —which scared me, first, that I'd have to expose my distraught carcass to possibly pitiless glares and, second, that I might get hurt! Ah well . . .

Fact is Michael's attention is merciless , in the sense nothing distracts his mind from body signals pulsing that complicated grey pulp to insights truly in there . Talking with him this summer about painting and all in the fifties, he made an interesting emphasis on value of "action as an extension of the individual," not otherwise important in itself—in short, a "meatly" process . Unlike contemporaries interested in cleaning up the dump, I think his persistent involvement with meat package context of persons is to figure the instruction and wherewithal to bring by-product mind-thought abstractions back home to initial flesh and blood. He's not ransacking biology, say, for metaphors, nor is he trying to dream a dream, etc.

Margins , no. 18, 1975.


He's practical, and, artist that is he, he wants it all, and so "The function of art is not pleasure or education but to make an extension—a means toward hugeness and liberation for the man, the Beast, that invents it . . ." (Dark Brown , 1961).

Fascinating early continuities, i.e., preoccupation with gesture begins, as he told me, in high school, where first concerns were natural history and anthropology, moving (with significant buddy Bruce Connor) then to Dada and Surrealist art—and then to poetry. Struck by painters of the Kootz Gallery, the Intrasubjectivists, as they were then called: Tomlin, Motherwell, Stamos, Baziotes, Gottlieb—"biomorphic"—and Toby and Graves, out of Surrealism. Motherwell particularly useful—"an intellective kinship," as he called it. Then Pollock—"so integral that his work began immersing my way of thinking in such a subtle way so early I can't tell you when . . ." "Totally bought Abstract Expressionist spiritual autobiography . . ." Still and Rothko—with whom he hoped to study at the San Francisco Art Institute, but on arrival found they'd just left, so goes to S. F. State (where daughter Jane has just this fall begun as student: "Biology/French I/Dance/Blake").

I've been fascinated by the range of his statement, i.e., the diversity of modes in which he gains means of language. Sitting with him in empty Fillmore Ballroom watching dress rehearsal of The Beard mid-sixties, just dazzled. Ask him how he wrote this extraordinary play—answer is he copied down words of the two people speaking in his head, conjoining to make poles positive: "Meat/Spirit." Wow. Or his novels, e.g., The Adept —where he defines mind-flash subjective state of invisibility , just like that. One time when visiting in New Mexico, he got me to read some of the Ghost Tantras so that I could feel the body resonances and not just skate on the 'meaning.' Poem on postcard he thoughtfully sent another time when my 'world' was 'demonic' beyond belief. (He and Joanna would come out for visit, we'd go down to beach where J/ would wisely go swimming—while the 'gang' packed into Gossip's Corner would be well on way to Ultimate Energy for the evening. As my own eye would begin to glitter, Mike would back off and gracefully split for the city. Just too much too minded too destructively zapped head-tripping wanted the world to narrow to a match flare.)

  For Bob



         small perfect
         to be himself
            or herself
and to hold a new creation
     on a shining platter
                as he
              (or she)
          steps toward
         the waiting car

"Or how we got drunk & rolled down hills in San Diego or the vision of Spider Rabbit at Kent State . . ." Dear Friend, this is only the beginning  . . .


Preface to Against the Silences

by Paul Blackburn

I'd like to speak personally of this extraordinary poet, and take that license insofar as these poems are personal, often bitterly so. I wonder if any of us have escaped the painful, self-pitying and meager defenses of person so many of them invoke. What we had hoped might be, even in inept manner worked to accomplish, has come to nothing—and whose fault is that, we ask. Certainly not mine? Having known both of these dear people, and myself, I have to feel that there will never be a human answer, never one human enough.

When Paul Blackburn died in the fall of 1971, all of his company, young and old, felt a sickening, an impact of blank, gray loss. I don't know what we hoped for, because the cancer which killed him was already irreversibly evident—and he knew it far more literally than we. But his life had finally come to a heartfelt peace, a wife and son so dear to him, that his death seemed so bitterly ironic.

Recalling now, it seems we must have first written to one another in the late forties, at the suggestion of Ezra Pound, then in St. Elizabeth's Hospital. We shared the same hopes for poetry, the same angers at what we considered its slack misuses. Paul was without question a far more accomplished craftsman than I and one day, hopefully, the evidence of his careful readings of the poems I sent him then will be common information. We finally met at his place in New York in the late spring of 1951, just prior to my moving with my family to France. He was the first poet of my generation

Paul Blackburn, Against the Silences (London and New York: The Permanent Press, 1981).


and commitment I was to know, and we talked non-stop, literally, for two and a half days. I remember his showing me his edition of Yeats' Collected Poems with his extraordinary marginal notes, tracking rhythms, patterns of sounds, in short the whole tonal construct of the writing. He had respect then for Auden, which I did not particularly share, just that he could use him also as an information of this same intensive concern. He was already well into his study of Provençal poetry, which he'd begun as a student in Wisconsin, following Pound's direction and, equally, his insistence that we were responsible for our own education.

As it happened, we shared some roots in New England, Paul having lived there for a time with his mother's relatives when young. But the Puritanism he had to suffer was far harsher than what I had known. For example, his grandmother seems to have been classically repressed (her husband, a railroad man, was away from home for long periods) and sublimated her tensions by repeated whippings of Paul. He told me of one such time, when he'd been sent to the store with the money put in his mitten, on returning he'd stopped out front and the change, a nickel, somehow slipped out into a snowdrift. And as he scrabbled with bare hands trying to find it, he realized his grandmother was watching him from behind the curtains in the front room—then beat him when he came in. Those bleak Vermont winters and world are rarely present directly in his poems, but the feelings often are, particularly in his imagination of the South and the generous permission of an unabashed sensuality. At one point during his childhood, a new relationship of his mother's took him out of all the gray bleakness to a veritable tropic isle off the coast of the Carolinas. I know that his mother, the poet Frances Frost, meant a great deal to him—and that her own painful vulnerabilities, the alcoholism, the obvious insecurities of bohemian existence in the Greenwich Village of her time, pervade the experience of his own sense of himself. His sister's resolution was to become a nun.

Paul's first marriage was finally a sad shock to me, just that I could never accept the fact of the person to whom he'd committed himself. She is the "lady he had known for years" in "The Decisions," and one hopes she did find the "new life" that cost him so much. The antagonisms felt by her and my own wife provoked an awful physical battle between Paul and me one night, when we were all living in Mallorca (he was about to spend a year in Toulouse on a Fulbright), and for some years thereafter we didn't see each other,


although we had wit enough, thankfully, to keep the faith sufficient to let me publish Paul's first book of poems, The Dissolving Fabric (1955).

During the sixties I was able to see Paul quite frequently, although he lived in New York and I was usually a very long way away. He and his wife, Sara, were good friends to us, providing refuge for our daughter Kirsten on her passages through the big city, and much else. Sara, characteristically, was able to get publication for another close friend's writing (Fielding Dawson, An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline , Pantheon, 1967) thanks to her job with its publisher. Elsewise Paul certainly did drink, did smoke those Gauloises and Picayunes, did work at exhausting editing and proofing jobs for Funk & Wagnalls, etc., etc. It's a very real life.

The honor, then, is that one live it. And tell the old-time truth. Of course there will be human sides to it, but Paul would never argue that one wins. To make such paradoxic human music of despair is what makes us human to begin with. Or so one would hope.

Buffalo, New York
November 25, 1979


"How Is It Far If You Think It?"

Selected Poems, 1958–1984 , by John Wieners. Edited by Raymond Foye. Foreword by Allen Ginsberg. Illustrated. 317 pp. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1986.

The poetry of John Wieners has an exceptionally human beauty—as if there ever were any other. There is in it such a commonness of phrase and term, such a substantial fact of a daily life transformed by the articulateness of his feelings and the intensity of the inexorable world that is forever out there waiting for any one of us. Charles Olson spoke of it as "a poetry of affect," by which I took him to mean a poetry that is the process of a life being lived, literally, as Keats's was, or Hart Crane's, or Olson's own. In other words, the art becomes the complex act of "making real" all that one is given to live, and whatever in them may be style or fashion, the poems are so otherwise committed, so intensely a gesture of primary need and recognition, that their survival becomes the singular value, and their immense beauty.

Yet Raymond Foye, the editor of Mr. Wieners's "Selected Poems," gives apt warning to those who would try to reduce them to the life all too simply. Two interviews with Mr. Wieners, given as "appendices . . . in lieu of an introduction," are very moving in their detailing of what happened, so to speak—of relations with mother and father and peers, of homosexuality and mental hospitals. Yet the poems are neither explained nor contained by such information:


Five hours later and
I come into a room
where a clock ticks.
I find a pillow to
muffle the sounds I make.
I am engaged in taking away
from God his sound.

Those lines were written by a 24-year-old man from Boston, living in a classic residential hotel, the Hotel Wentley in San Francisco, on June 15, 1958. "The Hotel Wentley Poems," published that year, is a work of consummate power, terrifying in the complex clarity with which it defines the so-called facts of life, or of love:

And I come to this,
knowing the waste, leaving

the rest up to love
and its twisted faces
my hands claw out at
only to draw back from the
blood already running there.

Allen Ginsberg, whose perceptive foreword to the Selected Poems is a very useful qualification of Mr. Wieners's authority, had published Howl in 1956. Jack Kerouac's landmark On the Road came out the next year and in 1958, along with John Wieners's first book, came books by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, and Gregory Corso. By 1960 primary texts by virtually every crucial poet of the period had appeared, including Frank O'Hara, Robert Duncan, Paul Blackburn, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Philip Whalen and Charles Olson (whose significant call to order, "Projective Verse," was issued as a pamphlet in 1960 by LeRoi Jones's Totem Press). The change effected in the audience for poetry by Donald M. Allen's anthology, The New American Poetry (1960), had already taken place in the writing, and one of its most emblematic heroes (as James Dean might invest such a term, or Bob Dylan) is John Wieners, "pure poet," as Mr. Ginsberg says, "a man reduced to loneness in poetry, without worldly distractions—and a man become one with his poetry." In the brutal outrage of the late 1950s, when one could pick up a government bulletin at the post office on the home manufacture of a bomb shelter, Mr. Wieners's painful survival in words became our own: "At last. I come to the last defense." There was nothing else to shelter or protect him.


Time and again during the sixties one wondered, worried, whether he could make it. How specious such simply charitable impulse looks in retrospect. He was there, he stayed there—as Olson once said, "he's elemental ." His writing of this time is various, often magnificent, in poems such as "Act #2," "A Poem for Trapped Things," "Strange," and in those poems—"Ode on a Common Fountain" and "For Marion" among them—that ring curious changes on Augustan patterns. But whatever one would hope so to qualify becomes unequivocally clear in "The Ages of Youth," a great poem of life's implacable realities and the will committed to suffer them:

       Give me the strength
to bear it, to enter those places where the
great animals are caged.

The parallel to that is "My Mother," "talking to strange men on the subway," with its wry caring, its subtle commonness:

   She says in an artificial
        voice: Oh, for Heaven's sake!

as if heaven cared.

If poetry might be taken as a distance, some space from the action, relief from the crowd, or if its discretions, what it managed to leave out, avoid, get rid of, were its virtue, then all these poems would be in one way or another suspect. They are far closer to a purported Chinese apothegm I read years ago and continue to muse on: "How is it far if you think it?" I don't truly know. It doesn't seem to be far at all. Nor do these poems, any of them, seem ever some place else, or where they move apart from an agent, either of feeling or thinking. They're here, as we are—certainly a hopeful convention in all respects, but where else to meet?

One continues, therefore, with all the complexity evident, into the seventies, the eighties. Mr. Ginsberg summarizes: "Parallel with State Capitol [Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike , a Wieners volume published in 1975] a number of poems of complete loneliness emerge, with various definitions of poetic friendship, rejection of false fame, estimates of the condition of middle and old age occupied by solitary art. . . . Then Wieners fell into eight years of relative silence, curtly telling his friends 'Poetry is not on my calendar' and 'I am living out the logical conclusion of my books.' And these were out of print." Paradoxically he is never gone, not the poet of "With Meaning":


Rise, shining martyrs
over the multitudes
for the season of migration
between earth and heaven.

Rise shining martyrs
cut down in fire
and darkness,
speeding past light
straight through imagination's park.

Nor is the harsh clarity of "Two Years Later" ever forgotten:

The hollow eyes of shock remain
Electric sockets burnt out in the

The beauty of men never disappears
But drives a blue car through the

We read together years ago at the 92nd Street Y in New York, with its great velvet curtain, raised stage. John remembered hearing Auden read there and was moved that now we would. He was thrilled that one might so follow, and so we did. But now, in these times so bitterly without human presence, risk, care, response, he becomes the consummate artist of our common voice, and his battered, singular presence our own.


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