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"An Image of Man . . .":
Working Notes on Charles Olson's Concept of Person

Talking to a gathering of student writers (S.U.N.Y. College at Cortland, N.Y., October 20, 1967) Olson again tried to make clear that he was not involved in some self-aggrandizement and that The Maximus Poems were not therefore a backdrop for himself as quondam hero. He then read "Maximus of Gloucester" (The Maximus Poems , Volume Three, p. 101)—the date for which he notes as "Friday November 5th/1965":

Only my written word

I've sacrificed every thing, including sex and woman
—or lost them—to this attempt to acquire complete
concentration . . .

                         . . . It is not I,
even if the life appeared
biographical. The only interesting thing
is if one can be
an image
of man, "The nobleness, and the arete."

(Later : myself (like my father, in the picture) a shadow
               on the rock

One might expect to hear this plea from two other American poets, who are felt, I think reasonably, to be Olson's predecessors, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Paradoxically T. S. Eliot, whom Olson uses as a significant antagonist in "ABCs," is not usu-

The Iowa Review 2, no. 4 (Fall 1980).


ally presumed to be personally present in his longer poems, although he said of "The Waste Land" that it was, after all, "the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life. . . ." In contrast. Whitman's "Song of Myself" is read as an intimate relation with the factual poet himself, although the reader discovers remarkably little about Whitman literally. What Whitman depends on is the authenticity of the personal, that the fact an 'I' 'feels' this or that emotion confounds all 'authority' of an otherwise abstract or general order. Both Pound and Williams make use of this fact. As Olson writes (Mayan Letters , London, Cape, 1968, pp. 26 ff.), "Ez's epic solves problem by his ego: his single emotion breaks all down to his equals or inferiors . . ." and, of Williams, "Bill HAS an emotional system which is capable of extensions and comprehensions the ego-system (the Old Deal, Ez as Cento Man, here dates) is not. . . ."

It is ironic that what I call so loosely 'the personal' is both our subject (which only an ego can determine as existing) and our object , "having to do with a material object as distinguished from a mental concept, idea, or belief. . . ." It must be that Olson's own physical size (he was six foot seven) made the latter situation of person most insistent. One of his last wry points in hospital was upon his own pleasure that 'the fundament stayed as put as the firmament. . . .' The body did not go away, in short, forever lost among the stars.

Returning to Eliot, Olson again qualifies him in the second part of "Projective Verse" (Human Universe and Other Essays , edited by Donald Allen, Grove, 1967)—and it is the second part of this essay he felt especially valuable, as against the first part, which proved the most read:

—it is because Eliot has stayed inside the non-projective that he fails as a dramatist—that his root is the mind alone, and a scholastic mind at that (no high intelletto despite his apparent clarities)—and that, in his listenings he has stayed there where the ear and the mind are, has only gone from his fine ear outward rather than, as I say a projective poet will, down through the workings of his own throat to that place where breath comes from, where breath has its beginnings, where drama has to come from, where, the coincidence is, all act springs.

What Olson means by the statement, "down through the workings of his own throat to that place where breath comes from . . . ," can be found most clearly in his brief but remarkably helpful text, "Proprioception," for example, on the first page:


the data of depth sensibility/the 'body' of us as
object which spontaneously or of its own order
produces experience of, 'depth' Viz

It's to the point that Olson had wanted to compose a "Book of the Body," which would be an extensive study and report of the material, presumably, the "Proprioception" text so brilliantly graphs and/or outlines. This preoccupation is very frequently evident in his work, as in the short, initial statement, "The Resistance" ("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 . . . ," HU , p. 47) or, at more length, the proposal of human event found in "Human Universe" (HU , p. 10):

What happens at the skin is more like than different from what happens within. The process of image (to be more exact about transposition than the "soul" allows or than the analysts do with their tricky "symbol-maker") cannot be understood by separation from the stuff it works on. 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. There is only one thing you can do about the kinetic, reenact it. Which is why the man said, he who possesses rhythm possesses the universe. And why art is the only twin life has—its only valid metaphysic. Art does not seek to describe but to enact. And if man is once more to possess intent in his life, and to take up the responsibility implicit in his life, he has to comprehend his own process as intact, from outside, by way of his skin, in, and by his own powers of conversion, out again.

Recognize, then, that surely one insistent human dilemma is lodged in the abstraction which consciousness permits, if that marvellous function be employed only to gain an "objective correlative" to that very existence any one of us is fact of. Olson's respect for the mushroom, specifically for the experiments which Timothy Leary was conducting in the early 60s, has obvious bearing. Talking to an informal group at William Gratwick's home in Pavilion, N.Y., No-


vember 16, 1963, he emphasized the apparent fact that hallucinogenic agents, LSD in particular, " . . . [put] you on your own autonomic nervous system—as against the motor."

And certainly the human race has been so bereft of its autonomic system for so long that you can practically talk that we're green. In fact I would think almost that you have to talk about the species today as green , individually and socially. Not at all—how you say it—the way we tend to talk from our progressive or evolutionary or developmental past as though we've now got to take this step. It's not some step that you take easily, or that [it can matter] even to take the step, if you stop to think about it. You're just who you are; what you do, if it's any good, is true; and you are capable of being alive because of love. I mean it's about as simple—it's like those simplicities operate. And that's it. Well, it's not so easy to come to believe as absolutes, imperatives and universals. In fact, on the contrary, we've been encouraged to think there is some universal, absolute or imperative we seem to be missing out on. But the autonomic thing is very crucial.

(Olson , #3, pp. 19–20)

In the same discussion he speaks of the triad of politics, theology, and epistemology, the three intensive-extensive patternings of human 'content,' and of how crucial it is that they be examined in present situation. Because once there is the human belief, "the idea that there is such a thing as knowledge . . . ("invented by a man named Plato. Episteme is his invention and it's one of the most dangerous inventions in the world . . .") (O , #3, p. 13), the dislocation of mind and body is immediate. George Butterick's "notes from class, 15 September 1964" make a further clarification of Olson's emphasis:

Olson began his Modern Poetry course at Buffalo the following fall with the same triad, which he identified as "Augustinian," saying that it was "dogmatically true." He related the term politics, or the Greek physics 'nature,' to "necessity"; epistemology, or nous 'mind,' to "possibility"; and religion, or theos 'God,' to the "imaginable."

(O , p. 54, n. 14)

"Soul" also can be an obvious distraction, but only if you let it get away from you so to speak. I find, somewhat sadly, that the OED 's first listing of this word's definition, "The principle of life in man or animals; animate existence," is noted as obsolete, while the second definition not only survives but defines our problem entirely: "The principle of thought and action in man, commonly regarded as an


entity distinct from the body" (OED , p. 2927). One can make a simple measure of the dangers inherent in abstraction by recognizing how removed the valued factor in existence, the soul, has become from that which it inhabits, the body—and, equally the life, the process, of which it is literal instance. Nonetheless the dilemma is clear, apart from this particular resolution: how is that which we are, as "thought," "action," "soul," what we also are as in Olson's phrase, "what gets 'buried,' like, the flesh . . . bones, muscles, ligaments, etc., what one uses, literally, to get about etc. . . ." But, he says, "the soul is proprioceptive . . . the 'body' itself as, by movement of its own tissues, giving the data of, depth . . . that one's life is informed from and by one's own literal body. . . . that this mid-thing between . . . that this is 'central,' that is—in this 1/2 of the picture—what they call the SOUL, the intermediary, the intervening thing, the interrupter, the resistor. The self."


The gain:

to have a third term, so that movement or action is 'home.' Neither the Unconscious nor Projection (here used to remove the false opposition of 'Conscious'; 'consciousness' is self) have a home unless the DEPTH implicit in physical being—built-in space-time specifics, and moving (by movement of 'its own')—is asserted, or found-out as such. Thus the advantage of the value 'proprioception.' As such.

its own perception

The 'soul' then is equally 'physical.' Is the self.[*] Is such, 'corpus.' Or—to levy the gain psychology from 1900, or 1885, did supply until it didn't (date? 1948?)—the three terms wld be:


surface (senses) projection
cavity (organs—here read 'archtypes') unconscious the body itself—consciousness: implicit accuracy, from its own energy as a state of implicit motion.


therefore (the universe is one) is supplied; and the abstract-primitive character of the real (asserted) is 'placed': projection is discrimination (of the object from the subject) and the unconscious is the universe flowing-in, inside.
                               (Additional Prose , pp. 18–19)


Again and again one finds in Olson's thinking an insistence upon the authority of one's own life as initial. Whether it be "that all start up / to the eye and soul / as though it had never / happened before" or "That a man's life / (his, anyway) is what there is / that tradition is / / at least is where I find it, / how I got to / what I say" (Letter 11, p. 48), there is no otherwise, or where.

It would be of point, clearly, to consider the way in which "history" is present in The Maximus Poems , and to say again, as he did constantly, that Olson

 . . . would be an historian as Herodotus was, looking
for oneself for the evidence of
what is said: Altham says
was at Cape Ann in April,
(MP , p. 101)

Characteristically, one is tempted to type, in the third line, "was" for "is," and "said" for "says"—but it is as much to the point that the present is "historical," as that there is, therefore, an "historical present." Or as answer to the question I had then asked, literally, "what is 'history'?" Olson's answer, the poem "Place; & Names":

a place as term in the order of creation
& thus useful as a function of that equation
example, that the "Place Where the Horse-Sacrificers Go"
of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is worth more than
a metropolis—or, for that matter, any moral
concept, even a metaphysical one
                             and that this is so
for physical & experimental reasons of
the philosophia perennis , or Isness
of cosmos beyond those philosophies
or religious or moral systems of
rule, thus giving factors of naming
—nominative power—& landschaft
experience (geography) which stay truer
to space-time than personalities
or biographies of such terms as specific
cities or persons, as well as the inadequacy
to the order of creation of anything except
names—including possibly mathematics (?)


the crucialness being that these places or names
be as parts of the body, common, & capable
therefore of having cells which can decant
total experience—no selection
other than one which is capable
of this commonness (permanently
duplicating) will work

"Story" in other words as if not superior
at least equal to ultimate mathematical
language—perhaps superior because of
cell-ness (?) In any case history
(as to be understood by Duncan's Law
to mean a) histology & b) story)
applies here, in this equational way
& severely at the complementarity of
cosmos (complementary to individual
or private) and not to cities or
events in the way it has, in
a mistaken secondary way, been

Duncan had written him (18 Dec. '61):

But "history"?—couldn't we throw that word out and establish histology: the tissue and structure, weaving, of what [it] is we know.

story: what we know from the questions we asked. This thing is made-up, or an answer—but is, also, the only thing we knew to answer: oracle or sphinx-demand

That: we do hold by histology and story having to do with one gnosis . And the art, the story, seeks out histology or lapses into the cultsure . . ."

(O , 4, p. 45, n. 2)

It's also to the point to remember, that Olson's favorite definition of the word "history" was, finally, John Smith's (despite, as he remarked, its curious faintness): "History is the memory of time . . ." In an autobiographical note ("The Present Is Prologue"), published 1955, he writes:

There are only two live pasts—your own (and that hugely included your parents), and the one other which we don't yet have the vocabulary for, because the West has stayed so ignorant, and the East has lived off the old fat too long. I can invoke it by saying, the mythological, but it's too soft. What I mean is that foundling which lies as surely in the phenomenological 'raging apart' as these queer parents rage in us.

I have spent most of my life seeking out and putting down the


'Laws' of these two pasts, to the degree I am permitted to see them (instead of the boring historical and evolutionary one which the West has been so busy about since Thucydides) simply because I have found them in the present, my own and yours, and believe that they are the sign of a delightful new civilization of man ahead.

(AP , pp. 39–40)

There is a sweetness, in that last phrase, and a 'progressivism'—a sense that one is going to get somewhere 'ahead'—one does not find usually in Olson. But again, it's of use to recognize that the 'history' of The Maximus Poems is initial tracking ("mapping," as he would call it) and is as much the form of the agent (the person acquiring the 'history,' in this case Olson) as it is the events and/or persons so examined. Lest one presume that is an extraordinary distortion of 'the facts,' that is, some body of information that might be 'objectively' the case, remember that any response to and/or statement of such data will presume a context and a meaning. It is the false face of the 'objective' or the 'general' or the 'abstract' that Olson finds contemptible, as in "Letter for Melville"—"written to be read AWAY FROM the Melville Society's "One Hundredth Birthday Party" for MOBY-DICK at Williams College, Labor Day Weekend, Sept. 2–4, 1951":

Timed in such a way to avoid him, to see
he gets a lot of lip (who hung in a huge jaw)
and no service at all (none of this chicken, he
who is beyond that sort of recall, beyond
any modern highway (which would have saved him
from sciatica? well, that
we cannot do for him but we can
we now know so much, we can make clear
how he erred, how, in other ways
—we have made such studies and
we permit ourselves to think—they
allow us to tell each other how wise
he was
(Archaeologist of Morning , n. p.)

As though one could tidy up the real , or find another place for it, or understand it apart from its enactment. . . .

Possibly the most active rehearsal of Olson's "methodology" is "A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn" (AP , pp. 3–14), which George Butterick has called "a fusion of Whitehead's notion of process with a Herodotean sense of history . . . . [It] was written in January 1955 as a letter—actually two letters—to the poet Edward


Dorn, then a student at Black Mountain College. . . ." (AP , p. 81, n.). The qualification there of person is very useful. In fact, the "Working premises" given at the outset should make much clear:

And a little later, same page:

Results , as of historical study:

(a) it is not how much one knows but in what field of context it is retained, and used (millennia, & quantity )

(b) how, as yourself as individual, you are acquiring & using same in acts of form—what use you are making of acquired information (person, & process )

It's Olson's intent in these letters to define both the nature of that attention he values, and the method which most proves its use. Because he feels it absolutely required that one move beyond any humanistic evaluation of data "BECAUSE THE LOCAL AND THE SENTIMENTAL IS HOW HUMANISM COMES HOME TO ROOST IN AMERICA" (AP , p. 5)—as instance, "sociology , without exception, is a lot of shit—produced by people who are the most dead of all, history as politics or economics each being at least events and laws, not this dreadful beast, some average and statistic . . ." (AP , p. 3).

In contrast, his proposal is as follows:



Applying all four of these at once (which is what I mean by attention ), the local loses quaintness by the test of person (how good is it for you as you have to be a work of your lifetime?); itself as crutch of ambience, by test of millennia [to which one might add as plaintive parallel, "how long, oh Lord, how long . . ."]; its only interest is as process (say barbed wire, as attack on Plains husbandry) or as it may be a significant locus of quantity (in America how, say, prairie village called Chicago is still, despite itself, a prairie village. . . .

(AP , p. 4)


If, in fact, by person one means "what, in fact, the critter, homo sap, is, as we take it, now . . ." (AP , p. 6), then, as Olson says, "our own 'life' is too serious a concern for us to be parlayed forward by literary antecedence. In other words, 'culture,' no matter how great . . ." "So far as 'scholarship' might, it will disclose the intimate connection between person-as-continuation-of-millennia-by-acts-of-imagination-as-arising-directly-from-fierce-penetration-of-all-past-persons, places, things and actions-as-data (objects)—not by fiction to fiction" (AP , p. 7). There follows, at this point, a lovely homage to Alfred North Whitehead, who is then used to define the principle at work here—"we should start from the notion of actuality as in its essence a process" (Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas , p. 355, as quoted in AP , p. 8).

I think I might, more responsibly, now enter this discussion as a person, literally—and not as a commentator, editor, scholar, or however one may care to qualify my role thus far. Just as Olson had said to Ed Dorn, "Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more about that than is possible to any other man . . . ," for me the crux was to be "the NARRATOR IN, the total IN to the above total OUT ["what I call DOCUMENT simply to emphasize that the events alone do the work"], total speculation as against the half management, half interpretation, the narrator taking on himself the job of making clear by way of his own person that life is preoccupation with itself, taking up the push of his own single intelligence to make it, to be—by his conjectures—so powerful inside the story that he makes the story swing on him, his eye the eye of nature INSIDE (as is the same eye, outside) a light-maker" (HU , p. 127). Always in my own situation, there was tacit fear some essential information was lacking, that one was dumb, in some crucial sense, left out of the 'larger picture.' So that this possibility, as a method , was extraordinarily moving to me insofar as it exchanged a concept of social limit (again 'culture,' in its most pernicious sense) for the active potential and authority of a human life, lives , literally being lived. I had known, certainly, what Olson elsewhere proposes as "There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass, there are only / eyes in all heads, / to be looked out of" (MP , p. 29). So too, in somewhat parallel sense, Pound's insistence: "What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee / What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage . . ." (Pisan Cantos , p. 99). But the condition, the law, so to speak, of this situation I took time to trust.

Why? That question seems to me intimately involved with all the


familiar senses of enclosure and self-limit, what Louis Zukofsky wryly put as "born very young into a world already very old. . . ." It is hard to change the system, like they say—the more so, paradoxically, when it is, by virtue of consciousness, so very simple to. Think of what's become of the various significant patterns of "history" even in our own lifetime. But my point is really that significant aspects of Charles Olson's thought and work have been confusing to its critics insofar as the model of 'world' in mind, in each case, was very different, if not altogether antithetical. In short, there is often a disposition to read The Maximus Poems as if they were a symbolic representation of the forces of history, in the abstract, and that the unremitting emphasis upon "the facts," as he would say, whether of dreams or Gloucester records or his own daily existence, are somehow there to 'describe' or otherwise 'stand for' a 'reality' of general kind. They are not. Let me, in fact, make an absolute emphasis: they are not .

No, the "cause" is otherwise: "It is the cause the cause, still, it is (and she, still / even though the method be / new, be / the rods and cones of a pigeon's or, a rabbit's / eye, or be / who, man, is that woman you now dream of, who / woman, is that man. . . ." ("by 3/6/51," AM , n.p.). In his lecture at the Berkeley Poetry Conference (July 20, 1965), Olson makes the point very flatly, "You're simply stuck with the original visionary experience of having been you , which is a hell of a thing. [Laughter] And, in fact, I assume that the epigraph that I've offered today is my only way of supporting that, which is [he writes on the board]: that which exists through itself is what is called meaning . . . ." (CM , p. 11).

I believe there's simply ourselves, and where we are has a particularity which we'd better use because that's about all we got. Otherwise we're running around looking for somebody else's stuff. But that particularity is as great as numbers are in arithmetic. The literal is the same as the numeral to me. I mean the literal is an invention of language and power the same as numbers. And so there is no other culture. There is simply the literal essence and exactitude of your own . . . Truth lies solely in what you do with it. And that means you . I don't think there's any such thing as a creature of culture . . . The radical of action lies in finding out how organized things are genuine, are initial, to come back to that statement I hope I succeeded in making about the imago mundi . That that's initial in any of us. We have our picture of the world and that's the creation.

(CM , p. 36)


There is, finally, a late text ("Gloucester, 28 Fort Square Feb. 15th (LXIX)," AP , p. 76) which makes an intensive compact of a great range of Olson's thinking, and since one cannot, responsibly, undertake all the materials and situations of his work in such "working notes" as these, let it serve as center for our own ending here. (Regretfully, in some respects, since much dear to my own heart, "Apollonius of Tyana," for example, or the specific relations with Jung, Corbin, and that primary man, Alfred North Whitehead, have barely been touched upon, if at all. But one takes heart in Whitehead's insistence, dear indeed to Olson: "There is nothing in the real world which is merely an inert fact. Every reality is there for feeling: it promotes feeling; and it is felt" [Whitehead, Process and Reality , p. 439]. So we won't miss 'it' insofar as it is 'here.')

The text, then, is "The Animate Versus the Mechanical, and Thought" (AP , pp. 74ff.). He begins, "Gravity, in fact, but pre- or post-mechanics. That is, not effect (Newtonian) nor proof (Recent) but experiential: phenomenological, perceptional, actionable" (AP , p. 74). In short, that this fact of being, in any given instance, not be taken outside , so to speak, but be recognized as the "Dogmatic Nature of Experience" (cf. P&T , p. 44), which it is. He notes the situation of a plant, which "has at the tips of its leaves and the ends of its roots 'standing-growing-responding' actions . . . and has, if and as 'weight,' gravitational 'history.'"

In fact 'history,' as, in that sense, difference from "astronomy" [which relies, perforce, on 'mechanical' measure]: that event (in Merleau-Ponty's sense [cf. O , pp. 3, 44–50]—narrative) is a perceptual—that wld be primordial —element of experience so much so that it 'carries' throughout the system—the system being 'Creation'—as 'element' (or 'weight') as profound as any mechanically measurable or demonstrable 'truth'; that even in short—or here decisively 'history'—as must [as necessity, as what has to happen]—is a condition of organism. (Above 'Animate.') . . . now I am proposing an even more fundamental 'tropism' ["Tropism, I think, is actually the riddler of the lot. Or it's the management, or it's the maneuverer, or it's then . . . it's ourselves." P&T , p. 43]: that one cannot 'think' even—because one cannot 'act' even—without such limits as the 'lines' of being, both in the plant and the animal 'meaning,' 'animate' . . . So I am back to animate, plant-or-animal—'perception' sense—of the freshness in time of the narrative or history as a tone or mode and so activeness of, for a human being, 'Creation': that there is no 'knowledge' of the crucial (axial-tropistic) sense of anything , including the "Universe" or the


"Self," except by this 'Time' phenomenon of freshness which Animateness [is], in and by itself , as initial of experience.

(AP , p. 74)

You will recall the frequency with which Olson quoted Heraclitus, "Man stands estranged from that with which he is most familiar"—literally, that fact, that living organism, of him/herself, and the crisis, persistently, in the situation is that all else is affected by such a powerful 'unit of meaning' so intensively awry. It is as if we have entered the 'inside' of this animate 'content' with the same terms of measure and their related agency, the mechanical, with which we had presumed our mastery over the 'outside,' that "geography" also so insistently present and which "forever . . . leans in/on me . . ." (MP , IV, V, VI, n. p.). In contradiction, Olson proposes:

The animate—plant or animal—is the aboriginal instance of our occurrence and is therefore the aboriginal condition which qualifies—defines both in fact and act, including the form-making usefulness of—our action.

The import of this can quickly be stated: man as Love (plant, heliogeotropic) grows up and down, man as separateness (animal) disposes of himself by sitio —chooses his place but which even though it gives him freedom disposes him likewise by gravity (statolith)—starch, turgor—'weight'-of-mass)—equal tropistically. Heaven and Earth.

(AP , pp. 75–76)[*]

What's to be made of that, with that, is all that any human life or the acts that make it life can constitute:

an actual earth of value to
construct one, from rhythm to
image, and image is knowing, and
knowing, Confucius says, brings one
to the goal: nothing is possible without
doing it. It is where the test lies, malgre
all the thought and all the pell-mell of
proposing it. Or thinking it out or living it
ahead of time.
(MP , Vol. 3, p. 190)


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