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Introduction to Charles Olson:Selected Writings I
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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This original version of the Introduction to Olson's Selected Writings (New York: New Directions, 1966) was superseded by a subsequent writing (see following essay) that appeared in the Olson volume.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


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