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Introduction to Charles Olson:Selected Writings II
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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


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