Charles Olson (1910-1970)

    Contributing Editor:
    Thomas R. Whitaker

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    It will be most practical to approach Olson after some detailed work with poems by 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 Sappho, Back."

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    "The Kingfishers"

    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.