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Some Notes on Olson's Maximus
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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


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