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Charles Olson's Masterwork

The Maximus Poems , by Charles Olson. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1983.

A Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson by George F. Butterick. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978.

Charles Olson's immediate poetic elders make a context for The Maximus Poems , but they do not help to explain this remarkable work, nor do they define sufficiently the conceptual shift here accomplished. Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams each imagined a New World that derived, however antagonistically, from European habits, in the arts particularly but also in forms of history and epistemology. Unlike them, Olson's background was classic American: working-class, mill town, immigrant. However aristocratic, so to speak, his subsequent education, his habits are here defined and his resources located. "Back," as the poem reads, "is no direction." But here is a more specific instance of the place of "An American," so that one may avoid any misunderstanding:

No Greek will be able
to discriminate my body.
                    An American
is a complex of occasions,
themselves a geometry
of spatial nature.

Washington Post Book World , November 13, 1983.


          I have this sense;
that I am one
with my skin.

        Plus this—plus this:
that forever the geography
which leans in
on me I compell
backwards I compell Gloucester
to yield, to
is this

Clearly the insistence of any long poem argues a need to make a composition of the disjunctive factors of the present "world"—"this present life," as the dictionary says. The epic not only permits such existence—being "one with my skin"—but discovers the actual body itself, inside and out. Such poems of our own time—Pound's Cantos , Williams' Paterson , Zukofsky's "A "—are heroically intent upon this possibility, as in Pound's great effort to measure the capacity and resource of intellect; or Williams' heartbreaking labor in age to make a place for feeling in the common commitment of that human need; or, finally, Zukofsky's intense and binding evocation of family, of our lives in relation, which must serve of necessity as their only possibility of value.

The Maximus Poems began as letters to an old friend of Olson's, Vincent Ferrini, a fellow poet in the city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which itself serves as definition of human potential and consequence. But far better that one apply to the editor of this very usefully revised and established text of the poem, George Butterick, whose A Guide to 'The Maximus Poems' of Charles Olson includes a solid introduction with detailed information on the background of the poem's writing. One may note here, simply, that what begins as a social and politically determined address, in large part, with history a factor of pedagogic intent, soon moves far beyond that enclosure of information, despite its use and significance. In fact, this wider disposition is always present, as here:

( . . . metric then is mapping, and so,
to speak modern cant, congruent means of
making a statement), I, as Mr. Foster, went
to Gloucester, thus:


"And past-I-go
being Fosterwise of

The paradigm "Gloucester" yields much more than detail, data for the clothing of preoccupations. One needs turn to the earned emotional size of its "place" in a later poem, "I have been an ability—a machine—up to now . . . ," to have any sense of the variousness of its presence in the poem, because it is a place of primary, of primordial, recognitions. Just as Herman Melville had made the industry of whaling imaginative ground for a mythos of the will, so Olson makes of Maximus, as George Butterick aptly puts it in the Guide 's introduction, an "Ahab come 'full stop.' He is Western man at the limit of himself, who no longer has a frontier other than himself and his extricable past, no farther west to go but to dig in deeper where he stands, with the result that Gloucester is taken back, 'compelled' to its founding in 1623 by migrating European man, back to the old Norse and the Algonquins, even farther back to the ice and Pleistocene man."

One might well cite the persistent beauty of the verse. It has been a constant wonder to me how various and particular was Olson's genius in the literal practice of his craft. His formal invention is constant and inevitably particular to the factors of statement. In short, he says things . But even that extraordinary grace might prove fragile were it not that he shares with D. H. Lawrence a prescient information, a power of intuition but, more accurately, of perception that can "see" as feeling, that knows it knows . In an early characterization, he dubbed himself an "archaeologist of morning" (which phrase became the title of his posthumously collected poems, not including the Maximus sequence).

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 . . .

That is the measure we are here offered.


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