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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.


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