Charles Olson (1910-1970)
Thomas R. Whitaker
Classroom Issues and Strategies
It will be most practical to approach Olson after some detailed work
with poems by T. S. Eliot,
Ezra Pound, and William
Carlos Williams. Despite many stylistic similarities, Olson's poetic
"enactment" dictates a different kind of progression and a different
use of literary and other allusions. The teacher might suggest that the
formalist concept of a "speaker" or "protagonist" (a
character in a poetic drama outside of which the poem's maker is imagined
to stand) might be replaced by the poet himself in the act of writing (a
self-reflexive Charles Olson in the drama of making this poem). Although
Pound's Pisan Cantos, Eliot's Four Quartets, and Williams's
Paterson are partially amenable to this approach, Olson commits
himself to it more fully in both shorter and longer forms.
His abstract style, his refusal to commit himself to the modernist "image,"
may also be a difficulty. The student can be reminded that all speech,
all thought, even an "image," is the result of an abstractive
process. Olson characteristically works with syntax and conceptual reference
that are "in process"--often fragmentary, self-revising, incremental--as
he struggles to "say" what is adequate to his present (and always
changing) moment. Comparisons with Robert
Creeley's often abstract and stammering forward motion may be illuminating.
Those interested in Olson as a teacher and as a collaborator with other
poets and artists should consult Letters for Origin and Mayan
Letters, and also Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration
in Community (1972), which is richly informative. Duberman also quotes
a comment by Merce Cunningham on Olson as a dancer, which may suggest one
way of approaching Olson's poetic style: "I enjoyed him; .
. . he was something like a light walrus" (p. 359). For Olson's own
appreciation of Cunningham as a dancer, see the poem "Merce of Egypt,"
which is a meditation on man-the-maker that might be compared to "For
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
It may be useful for the instructor to have worked through this poem
with the help of a commentator, such as Sherman Paul, Thomas Merrill (cited
in headnote), or Guy Davenport, "Scholia and Conjectures for Olson's
'The Kingfishers,' " Boundary 2 2 (1973-74): 250-62. Students
can then be encouraged to approach the poem as a meditation on the need
for change, and the will to change--as of 1949 but with contemporary applications.
The poet sees the need to move beyond Eliot and Pound, beyond the irony
and despair of The Waste Land and the modern inferno of The Cantos,
without overlooking the cultural crisis to which they allude. What sources
of vitality does he find amid the decay? What suggestions for personal
and cultural renewal? And for a new poetic practice? Can we understand
this poem on the model of elliptical diary notations by someone who is
working toward a statement of position? What are the stages of its progress?
Students with an interest in the poem's philosophical implications may
wish to explore Plutarch's "The E at Delphi" or G. S. Kirk, Heraclitus:
The Cosmic Fragments. Students wondering how "feedback" may
relate to social and poetic processes should turn to Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics
or The Human Use of Human Beings. Of great interest in that direction
is also the work of Gregory Bateson: see Steps to an Ecology of Mind
(the chapter on "Cybernetic Explanation") and Mind and Nature:
A Necessary Unity.
"For Sappho, Back"
In some respects more traditional in form and subject than the other
Olson poems included here, "For Sappho, Back" might be a useful
introduction to Olson's style for students not at ease with allusive modernism.
How does the poem expand the tribute to a specific woman-poet so that it
becomes a meditation on woman, nature, and poetry? What specific qualities
of Sappho's style does it allude to? Does Sappho become here a Muse figure
or Nature Herself? D. H. Lawrence has said in Etruscan Places (which
Olson admired) that the Etruscan priest sought an "act of pure attention"
directed inward. "To him the blood was the red stream of consciousness
itself." As Olson wrote to the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, "I
am alone again working down to the word where it lies in the blood. I continually
find myself reaching back and down in order to make sense out of now and
to lead ahead." (See Clark, Charles Olson, p. 95.) Does this
help us with "Back" in the title and the use of "blood"
later? Clark suggests that, on one level, this is a personal love poem,
taken by its recipient, Frances Boldereff, to be a "very accurate
portrait" of herself (p. 171). Olson often chose to incorporate in
such love poems allusions to his wife Constance; can we find such clues
here? How, finally, do we relate the historical, personal, and archetypal
concerns of this poem?
Robert von Hallberg (Charles Olson: The Scholar's Art, pp. 34-38)
offers suggestions for stylistic analysis of the use of fragmentary and
self-revising syntax in this poem.
"I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You"
Students might usefully compare this poem to Hart
Crane's "To Brooklyn Bridge"; both are invocations and statements
of subject at the outset of modern "personal epics." One might
also consult the preface to Williams's
Paterson. What are the social issues in each case? What dominant
images are established? What relations does Olson suggest between love
and form? How do images gradually accrue additional meanings as the meditation
proceeds? Does it help to know that this was happening in the process of
composition--and that in an earlier draft "next second," was
"next/second"? (See Clark, Charles Olson, p. 166.)
"Maximus, to himself"
As a self-assessment, this poem might usefully be compared with Creeley's
"For Love." Both have the air of spontaneous meditation; both
deal largely in abstractions; both are sharply self-critical. To what degree
is the form of each an "extension of content"? How, in each,
does a seemingly unplanned meditation assume the form of a coherent monologue,
moving through a problem toward its momentary resolution?
Refer to the headnote in the text for complete information. Sherman
Paul, Thomas Merrill, and Robert von Hallberg will be especially useful
for those looking for annotation or critical reading. Olson's essays--
especially "Projective Verse" and "Human Universe"--will
take the reader directly into the poet's own vantage point.