Sunday, July 27, 2008
The Maximus Poems
by Charles Olson
I’ve owned my copy of Charles Olson’s epic poem of place and performance, “The Maximus Poems,” for a couple years now. Having finally read it, that span of time only seems longer. Did I really go so long with this book in my possession, without reading it? My parents gave me the California Press edition of “The Maximus Poems,” edited by George Butterick, as a gift one Christmas. Despite my genuine enthusiasm for it, the collection sat on my shelf, unread, for years. Maybe it looked too intimidating for me at time? Maybe I wasn’t reading as much poetry then as I do now? I did still think of myself as a prose writer, and not a poet, at that time, and maybe “The Maximus Poems,” composed of over 600 pages of knotted, oblique diction and grammar, struck me as something to put aside for a later date?
Regardless of the reason, it wasn’t until about a week ago that I finally read “The Maximus Poems.” To be honest, I don’t think “The Maximus Poems” would have had as profound of an effect on me if I had read it as recently as a year or two ago. Olson’s poetry does not present the polished product of thought, but an ac6t of thinking. Words are the residue of performance, anchored by an awareness of the syllable, of the sound, and of the physical ramifications of the word on the page.
Lines hint at conventional rationality. I understand something like “…in perfect measure of rhyme and Truth,/ does it, in beauty too, take me/ test, stiffly the modus/ of this visione which/ not as the modulus…” Okay, here is a distinct didactic thesis locked within the knottiness of grammar and diction. Maybe, but it would be erroneous to read “The Maximus Poems” with an eye for its hidden meaning, discernable through critical reading. It is better to read through the unit, and follow the act of the thought. The individual increment should be digested successively, as “the original unit/ survives in salt,” though a great portion of the poem is diffuse and difficult, one must keep in mind the units’ part in totality, as the poet “…looked up and saw/ its form/ through everything.” Do not read this text as A+ B = C, but as A= ABC, B=ABC, and C= ABC. Keep in mind Olson’s connection to the great American poets who directly preceded, while also bearing in mind his difference.
“The Maximus Poems” take a strange position in the history of the long poem in 20th Century America. It is illuminating to remain cogent that while it is a foundational text of the postmodern, it draws upon, expands and also counters the American epic poem. William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson” is an obvious reference, as it is also an attempt to position a place through mind and text, but Louis Zukofsky’s “A” is also a relevant text, as it is also a poem of a life, which one must remember was written over the course of decades and grapples with the tendency and attempt to “record” and “put down” lives on paper. In particular, it is helpful to remember the Ezra Pound of “the Cantos,” as the Pound tradition is both what Olson is continuing, as well as critiquing. Much of the first of the three books that make up “The Maximus Poems” concerns itself with the burgeoning fishing market in colonial Gloucester, where “Venus/ does not arise from/ these waters. Fish/ do.” The speaker of the poem, Maximus or Olson himself, is disgusted by American capitalism and commerce, “when all is become billboards.” Poetry is not an idealized bastion apart from economics though, as Olson implicates poetry, echoing Ezra Pound, as he writes “But do it anew, now that even fishing…,”refusing to separate poetry from life, for better and worse.
“The Maximus Poems” are an address, and when Olson falls into rousing didactics and declamatory verse, one cannot help remembering his past in politics, where he was associated at one point with the FDR administration. Olson never falls back onto idealism or utopianism. He constructs a grand polis of thought and mind, but knows that “so few/ have the polis/ in their eye…” What is this polis that “The Maximus Poems” returns to repeatedly? Remember one of the extended moments of relative narrative clarity in the cycle- the section where Olson tells a series of mythic American tales. In one of them, a woman makes love to a poisonous snake who comes out of a sylvan pond, and kills by passing its venom onto her human husbands. In another “myth,” a woman walks into the mountains each Sunday, and “…she said she walked straight through/ the mountain, and who fucked her was the spirit/ of that mountain.” The one “myth” that stands out amongst the three is the story of a man “…who walks with his house on/ his head is heaven he/ who walks with his house/ on his head is heaven he who walks/ with his house on his head.” Look at the force of that lineation! The phrase “he who walks with his house on his head is heaven” is repeated in a mantra, where the breaks provide astounding variety and punctuation. The man who the above “mantra” refers to literally does carry a house upon his head. His polis?
Where is the polis? The entire cycle is a poem of place, but the location it positions is an abstract one. This other Gloucester, evoked through the physical Gloucester’s history and geography, is an act of thinking. This polis of thought contains multitudes within it. This refers back to the poem’s epitaphy, “All my life I’ve heard/ one takes many.” Ah! Here we see that the poem is both of a “life,” as well as of what is “heard,” that is sound and experience, as well as of unit and totality! The polis of the poem is Gloucester, but Olson creates a home he carries on his head, and which the reader places upon their own. Olson addresses his friend, the filmmaker and poet Vincent Ferrini, “You are not there, you are anywhere/ where there are little magazine/ will publish.” You see, Ferrini is here physically located in a city or town; he moves somewhere that has a community supportive of poetry and of the literary press. This is a specific, physical location. But on the other hand, Ferrini is not so much located in this physical space, he exists in the halls of the literary “polis,” which remind me of the vast halls which serve as the repository of memory in St. Augustine’s “Confessions.” An active space of thought, one’s mind, is a home which one carries with him. The actual physical home, as we see throughout “The Maximus Poems,” is problematic, marred by commerce, murder, and violent physical upheaval. Also of shift and absence. No wonder so much of 20th century thought and writing is pervaded by a sense of homelessness!
So, the mind is the predominant force throughout “The Maximus Poems,” and its workings are shown through didactic address that does not pretend some illusionary rationalism. This is a Wittgensteinian utilization of old words to spark the new. “My memory is/ the history of time,” Olson writes at one point, quoting John Smith. With his memory and through the form of the long poem, he is “…making a mappemunde. It is to include my being.” Yes! And though “the life of the individual dwindles into/ stink…,” here we are presented with the polis which is not particular, but inclusive. With what tools does Olson make this “mappemunde?” Olson refuses throughout to stay fixed for any comfortable span of time on the referential image. Yes, “polis is eyes,” but it is not just the view, but viewing itself, vision and its capacities. It is also sound, and Olson wishes “to build out of sound the wall/ of a city…” What else does Olson use to construct this polis?
He doesn’t limit himself to linguistics in the unit of the line and phrase, but also considers the compositon of the page. Editor George Butterick explains Olson’s method very well in the afterword, where he writes “Spaces between the lines and sections of poems and blank pages…were very much part of the meter and rhythm of the book. Besides separating one untitled poem from another, these spaces and blank pages provide a balance of whiteness or its echoing effect, the measure of it, comparable to rests in music.” Oh! That reminds me of one of the more striking reoccurring phrases in Lyn Hejinain’s “My Life,” “The obvious analogy is with music…,” as well as Pound’s (him again) assertion that poetry atrophies as it divorces itself too much from music and sound.
Within the first couple poems of the epic cycle, Olson writes that “limits are what any of us are inside of…,” and “The Maximus Poems” tests these limits and expands what we perceive of as boundaries. Look at how much of the poem is concerned with exactly where the geographic boundaries of Gloucester are, and how these boundaries shift. They are not fixed, though these boundaries must, of course, exist. Also, remember that sound is creating “the wall” of the polis, which is what provides distinction, the gravitas. The poem moves towards Creation myths and death in its final pages, ending with “my wife my car my color and myself.” How sad then, to remember that his wife had just died in a car crash, and how fitting of an ending to end with that limit of death and self.