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"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.


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