Analysis of Charles Olson’s Poems

Charles Olson’s (27 December 1910 – 10 January 1970) poetry is political in a profound, not superficial, sense; it does not spend time naming “current events,” but rather devotes itself to defining “the dodges of discourse” that have enabled humanity (especially in the West) to withdraw from reality into increasingly abstract fictions of life. Olson came of age during the Great Depression and admired Roosevelt’s New Deal, but with the death of the president in 1945 and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Olson lost faith in the possibilities for liberal democracy. Olson believed that it did not go wide enough or deep enough in the attempt to restore humanity’s lost meaning—nor did it provide enough checks and balances against the corporate takeover of the world.



Olson encouraged a resistance based on knowledge from a range of sources which he endeavored, through his essays and his poems, to bring to common attention. “Resistance,” in fact, is a key word here: One of his first essays bears that title, and often, Olson’s stance reminds one of the Maquis and other “underground” pockets of resistance to the fascists during World War II. His is a sort of intellectual commando operation bent on destroying, marshaling not yards or military arsenals but modes of thought (and therefore of action) that are out of kilter with current realities and “fascistic” in their ability to crush individual senses of value that would struggle toward a coherence— where the merely subjective might transcend itself and establish a vital community.

However sweeping Olson’s proposals, in effect his program is reactive; such a reaction against the status quo was, as he saw it, the essential first step toward building a civilization that put people before profits. “When man is reduced to so much fat for soap, superphosphate for soil, fillings and shoes for sale,” Olson wrote, the news of the Nazi death camps fresh in the minds of his audience as in his own, “he has, to begin again, one answer, one point of resistance only to such fragmentation, one organized ground. . . . It is his physiology he is forced to arrive at. . . . It is his body that is his answer.”

This answer led Olson to ground his poetics in the physical breathing of the poet, the vital activity that registers the smallest fluctuations of thought and feeling. Language had become separated from being over the centuries of Western civilization, so that, for example, it became more important to carry out orders than to consider their often terrible consequences. In the words of Paul Christensen, “The denotational core of words must be rescued from neglect; logical classification and the principles of syntax must be suppressed and a new, unruly seizure of phenomena put in their place.” Civilization, to the extent that it alienates one from one’s experience of the actual earth and the life that arises therefrom, has failed, and it supplants with “slick pictures” the actual conditions of human lives.

Deconstructing Authority

Therefore, it has become necessary, Olson argues, to deconstruct the accepted authorities of Western thought, while seeking to preserve the thought of such persons who, throughout history, have warned against systems of ideation that debase human beings. In Olson’s vision, one of the great villains is Aristotle; one of the heroes, Apollonius of Tyana. With Aristotle, “the two great means appear: logic and classification. And it is they,” Olson continues in the essay “Human Universe,” “that have so fastened themselves on habits of thought that action is interfered with, absolutely interfered with, I should say.” Olson in this same passage points out: “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.” As for classification,

What makes most acts—of living and of writing—unsatisfactory, is that the person and/or the writer satisfy themselves that they can only make a form . . . byselecting from the full content some face of it, or plane, some part. And at just this point, by just this act, they fall back on the dodges of discourse, and immediately, they lose me, I am no longer engaged, this is not what I know is the going-on. . . . It comes out a demonstration, a separating out, an act of classification, and so, a stopping.

Apollonius of Tyana

In “Apollonius of Tyana, a Dance, with Some Words, for Two Actors,” Olson addresses the reader through the medium of a contemporary of Christ, Apollonius, and the play’s one other character, Tyana, the place of his origin, as well as through himself, as narrator/commentator. This last tells how Apollonius “knows . . . that his job, at least, is to find out how to inform all people how best they can stick to the instant, which is both temporal and intense, which is both shape and law.” Apollonius makes his way through the Mediterranean world of the first century c.e., which “is already the dispersed thing the West has been since,” conducting “a wide investigation into the local, the occasional, what you might even call the ceremonial, but without . . . any assurance that he knows how to make objects firm, or how firm he is.”

Apollonius, readers are told, learned from his journeyings

that two ills were coming on man: (1) unity was crowding out diversity (man was getting too multiplied to stay clear by way of the old vision of himself, the humanist one, was getting too distracted to abide in his own knowing with any of his old confidence); and (2) unity as a goal (making Rome an empire, say) had, as its intellectual pole an equally mischievous concept, that of the universal—of the “universals” as Socrates and Christ equally had laid them down. Form . . . was suddenly swollen, was being taken as a thing larger a thing outside a thing above any particular, even any given man.

These descriptions of the confusions which beset Apollonius clearly apply to those Olson himself was encountering, and therefore readers look to find, in Apollonius’s so lutions, those of Olson. This part of the work, however, rings less convincingly: Olson makes some rhetorical flourishes, but in the end the reader is simply told that Apollonius has learned that he must “commit himself”; he has also learned that Tyana (surely a figure for Olson’s Gloucester) is intimately connected with his endeavor.

Problems of Discourse

Olson’s brilliance when specifying the major ills and his vagueness when speaking to their cure, as well as his inability to resolve the inherent contradictions between the latter and the former (how shall individuals make themselves responsible for many of the elements in a society in whose false unity and swollen forms they themselves are caught and of which they are a part?), all so clearly to be seen in this piece, persist throughout his canon. It is the problem he recognizes in Melville, who finds splendid embodiment for his society’s evils in Ahab but who can never create a convincing hero. Large answers, the sweeping solution, evade Olson by the very nature of his method, which is to focus on particulars, even on “the blessing/ that difficulties are once more.”

These difficulties include the obvious truth that Olson is trammeled at the outset by the very tricks of discourse he would overthrow: Witness, for example, his sweeping generalization, near the beginning of his essay “Human Universe”: “We have lived long in a generalizing time, at least since 450 b.c.e.” Again, and on the other hand, given that he is urgent about reeducating his contemporaries to eradicate society’s evils before it is too late, his refusal to write in received forms was bound to delay dissemination of his message. Moreover, while he was embodying the difficulties and the particularities in highly difficult and particular forms, and thereby rendering these virtually inaccessible except by the slow “trickle-down” process which accompanies aesthetically responsible art, he was given, in both poem and essay, to assertion without supporting evidence— such is the nature of the intuitive perception he espoused, as against a stupefied insistence on proof—and thereby to alienating many more conventionally trained readers.

Open Verse

That Olson could not accomplish his project was a result of its inherent impossibility; this failure, however, in no way erases the spellbinding body of his poetry. His magnificent embodiment and evocation of the dilemma in which he found himself remains as both consolation and exhortation. He gave a rationale for free (or, to use his own term, Open) verse, of which his own work is the most telling demonstration; he gave a scale and a scope to poetry which inspired and continue to inspire other poets and which make his own poems among the most compelling of all time. If his more general prescriptions regarding society—true as they still ring, particularly in their diagnostics—have been largely ineffectual against the momentum of social change (surely, from Olson’s point of view, for the worse), his speculations, conjecture, and assertions concerning the practice of poetry stay valid, viable, and vital. Moreover, his insistence that the poet (as Percy Bysshe Shelley thought, a century and more before) be lawgiver to those of his day must be a salutary thorn in the side of any practitioner of the art.

The Kingfishers

The power of Olson’s finest poems stems from a double movement: The poet strives to fill his poem with the greatest variety of subject matter that he can, while at the same time, the poet strives to empty his poem of everything he has brought into it. The plethora of subject matter (information, often conflicting) is there to say that the world is absolutely fascinating—its details are fit matter for anyone’s attention; the act of emptying these out is to say nothing is as important, as worthy of attention, as the moment about to come into being.

“The Kingfishers” is a case in point:Aquick topic sentence (“What does not change/ is the will to change”; “As the dead prey upon us,/ they are the dead in ourselves”), broad enough in application, allows Olson to bring in all manner of materials by logical or intuitive association that somehow fit under its rubric: Meditation upon change leads, first, to a recalled cocktail party conversation that touched upon the passing of the fashion for kingfishers’ feathers; this soon leads Olson to recall Mao Zedong’s speech upon the success of his revolution. A dialectic having now been set up between West (tyrannized by its markets—“fashion”—and associated with a dying civilization) and East (Mao’s revolution, source of the rising sun), the poem proceeds to “dance” (one of Olson’s favorite terms, used to denote the poetic act), its details representing East/novelty/ uprising in among those representing West/stagnation/descent, in a vocabulary variously encyclopedic, colloquial, hortatory, cybernetic, lyrical, prosaic. It is a collage, then, but one filled with movement, bearing out Olson’s dictum “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.” However, the poem ends: “shall you uncover honey/ where maggots are?// I hunt among stones,” and while to one reader, this may suggest that the poet’s weight is thrown on the side of those details that belong to the “East/novelty/uprising” sequence, to a reader who bears in mind that all these details now are of the past, it suggests that the poet opts for the present/future, which, being as yet all potential, is blank—as a stony landscape.

Projective Verse

Ends, however, are only tiny portions of their poems and cannot cancel the keen pleasure a reader may take in tracing meaning among such enigmatically juxtaposed blocks of constantly altering language, while being carried along at such various velocities. There are many striking formulations—often evidently stumbled on in the compositional process, which appears to unfold before the reader’s very eyes (and ears); these often appear as good counsel (“In the midst of plenty, walk/ as close to/ bare// In the face of sweetness,/ piss”; “The nets of being/ are only eternal if you sleep as your hands/ ought to be busy”). Syntax—at times so filled with baffles and circumlocutions as to be more properly parataxis—brilliantly evokes the difficulties Olson would name, even court; nouns carry much of the freight, whereas adjectives are scarce (description Olson thought not projective, not able to break the circle of representation); verbs tend to be those of concealment and discovery and of social acts—talking, urging, hearing, permitting, obtaining, and the like. Because his notation favors the phrase over the sentence, in Olson’s poetry, words can appear to leap from the page, freed significantly of their usual subjections. Although on occasion Olson (an accomplished orator) segues into a Roman kind of rhetoric, for the most part, he stays true to his aim, namely, to attack a universe of discourse with a poetry not only of particulars but also particulate in its construction. As indicated earlier, each of these elements helps constitute an intense dialectic whose synthesis occurs only as the abolition of its components: “It is undone business/ I speak of, this morning,/ with the sea/ stretching out/ from my feet.”

The Maximus Poems and Archaeologist of Morning

While Olson’s poetry appeared as a number of volumes during his lifetime, these are now contained in two texts: The Maximus Poems and Archaeologist of Morning (containing all his non-Maximus poems). Maximus is the poetic figure Olson created to “speak” poems (sometimes called letters) to the people of Gloucester and, by extension, to any who would be people of “a coherence not even yet new”—persons of that vivid and imminent future which is the Grail to Olson’s search and labor. Maximus knows the history of the geography of this seaport and, by extension, of both pre- and post-settlement New England; of the migratory movements of Europe and the ancient world; and of other civilizations which, at some (usually early) stage, discovered the will to cohere, which Olson praised. He is to some degree based upon Maximus of Tyre, a second century c.e. maverick sage akin to Apollonius of Tyana, although Olson appears not to have investigated this historical personage with much thoroughness, preferring, no doubt, not to disturb the introjected Maximus he was finding so fruitful.

The significance of the city of Gloucester in these poems is complex but has to do with a place loved so well that it repays its lover with a battery of guarantees and tokens, enabling him to withstand the greased slide of present culture, the suck of absentee ownership and built-in obsolescence. It is for Olson the place where, in William Wordsworth’s terms, he first received those “intimations of immortality” that even in the beleaguered present can solace and hearten. In his attachment to its particulars, his heat for its physical reality, the reader is invited to discover feelings for some actual place or entity akin to that of the poet, thereby to be led to the commitment essential to an awakened sense of life and a practice of person equal “to the real itself.”

Major Works
Short fiction: Stocking Cap: A Story, 1966.
Plays: The Fiery Hunt, and Other Plays, 1977.
Nonfiction: Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville, 1947; “Projective Verse,” 1950; Mayan Letters, 1953; Human Universe, and Other Essays, 1965; Proprioception, 1965; Selected Writings of Charles Olson, 1966; Pleistocene Man, 1968; Causal Mythology, 1969; Letters for “Origin,” 1950-1956, 1969 (Albert Glover, editor); The Special View of History, 1970; On Black Mountain, 1971; Additional Prose: A Bibliography on America, Proprioception, and Other Notes and Essays, 1974; Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths, 1975; The Post Office, 1975; Muthologos: The Collected Lectures and Interviews, 1978-1979 (2 volumes); Charles Olson and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1980-1996 (10 volumes; George F. Butterick, editor); Charles Olson and Cid Corman: Complete Correspondence, 1950-1964, 1987-1991 (2 volumes; George Evans, editor); In Love, in Sorrow: The Complete Correspondence of Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg, 1990 (Paul Christensen, editor); Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence, 1999 (Ralph Maud and Sharon Thesen, editors); Selected Letters, 2000 (Maud, editor); Poet to Publisher: Charles Olson’s Correspondence with Donald Allen, 2003 (Maud, editor).
Miscellaneous: Selected Writings of Charles Olson, 1966; Poetry and Truth: The Beloit Lectures and Poems, 1971; Collected Prose, 1997 (Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, editors); A Charles Olson Reader, 2005 (Maud, editor).

Billitteri, Carla. Language and the Renewal of Society in Walt Whitman, Laura (Riding) Jackson, and Charles Olson: The American Cratylus. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Bollobás, Eniko. Charles Olson. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Clark, Tom. Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life. 1991.
Reprint. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 2000.
Grieve-Carlson, Gary, ed. Olson’s Prose. Newcastle, England: Cambridge Scholars, 2007.
Kim, Joon-Hwan. Out of the “Western Box”: Towards a Multicultural Poetics in the Poetry of Ezra Pound and Charles Olson. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
Maud, Ralph. Charles Olson at the Harbor. Vancouver, B.C.: Talonbooks, 2008.
_______. Charles Olson’s Reading: A Biography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.
Pekar, Harvey, et al. The Beats: A Graphic History. Art by Ed Piskor et al. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.
Rifkin, Libbie. Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
Suawek, Tadeusz. Revelations of Gloucester: Charles Olson, Fitz Hugh Lane, and Writing of the Place. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Poetry

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1 reply

  1. Wonderful! I just read a collection of his poems called “A Nation of Nothing But Poetry”, I loved Charles Olson. This was a well written and informative piece, thank you for writing it.

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