Introducing Charles Olson, 1957 — a handout

Reprinted in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #18 (November 1996).

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Thursday, February 21, 1957, 8:30 p.m. San Francisco Museum of Art


Call Me Ishmael (1947); Y & X (1950)

Apollonius of Tyana (1952)

In Cold Hell In Thicket (1953); Mayan Letters (1953)

The Maximus Poems 1-10 (1953)

The Maximus Poems 11-22 (1956)


“Projective Verse”, Poetry (NY), No. 3, 1950;

see also William Carlos Williams Autobiography, pp 329-32

“The Gate & The Center”, Origin I, 1951

“The Escaped Cock”, Origin II, 1951

“Human Universe”, Origin IV, 1952


Born December 27, 1910 in Worcester, Mass. “Uneducated” (as Olson puts it) at Wesleyan, Yale and Harvard. Taught at Clark, at Harvard (1936-1939) and at Black Mountain College. His first publication 1938, “Lear and Moby Dick” in Twice A Year. He has had two Guggenheim fellowships, and in 1952 the Wenner-Gren Foundation grant for Mayan studies.


Olson begins his Melville book with Promethean assertion: “Loke, fahter: / your sone!” To catch up a fire where it flared up between Melville and Shakespeare — from a primal inspiration at this conjunction Olson has projected in his work a challenge to his contemporaries: for the first time since the generation of Pound, Stein, Williams, with the publication of “Projective Verse” the demand was made for responsibility to the language, the “END of individual responsible only to himself”. Poetry was a process not a memoir. The poet, the maker, was to be responsible to human meanings, forms, discoveries embodied in the medium of speech — to the history of his kind and to the history of man in search of the real world. He was to pursue — Olson here quotes Melville on Shakespeare: “those deep far-away things in him; those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short-quick probings at the very axis of reality.” “When traditions go,” Olson writes in a letter printed in Origin I, “the DISCONTINUOUS becomes the greener place.” “If we are to express the going reality from down in you, and me, and any other man who is going, for center: . . language has to be found out, anew. . . In Twentieth Century Authors, Olson writes: “I am an archeologist of morning”. One has to “dig” Olson, dig history, dig to the root in language. In The Maximus Poems his method resisted mere aesthetic appreciation or the enthusiasms engendered by shared attitudes and opinion; it demanded understanding. And understanding meant conversion: out of which a new freedom of response. By temperament protean, Olson in his work brings a multitude of perspectives to the mind, but two — the challenge of reality and the radical demand for language — may be taken for a view of the meaning of his poetry. They arise from the concept of the poem as a primary engagement with the real, a thing as act. “My shift is,” Olson writes in Twentieth Century Authors, “that I take it the present is prologue, not the past. The instant, therefore. Is its own interpretation, as a dream is, and any action — a poem, for example.” The poem is significant then as any act is significant, and we seek to keep the act “green”.


What characterizes the major poetry of the period between 1935 and 1950 (the period of ideologies and open war) is that it is re-active. Conservative reaction thrived in colleges where professor-poets appeared: Ransome, Tate, Winters, Eberhart; and in the Church where the few poets who were actually conscientious objectors found status: Merton, Lowell, Everson. Individualist reaction thrived in the open city where anarchist-poets came to the fore: Miller, Patchen, Rexroth — these men were major spokesmen against the war, but they were not “exposed”, they were not draftees. The first group allied themselves with the conventions of institutional sanctuary to hold against the politics of action: their poetry is notably within the convention of stress and stanza, their preoccupations moral and metaphysical. Their concept of language corrective, not dynamic. The second group turned to the traditions of the individual against the State, to supernatural and sacramental sanction for the ego. Their poetry is single-voiced: the single voice is that of an obsessive (to meet the obsession of the State) personality. Both the conservatives and the individualists raised as paramount the individual integrity. Like the State at large they sought authority and resisted investigation. Their self-images were taken as the axis of reality.

The anarchist-poets emerge as forces (especially here in San Francisco where the professors never took hold) because they exposed themselves: they challenged directly the age. One reads in Capricorn, in Albion Moonlight, in The Dragon and the Unicorn, the real message wrought out of the depression of the 30s and ripened in the intolerable conditions of the second World War — the protest that could appeal to any draftable dispensable “exposed” young man. It is a painful period: an inconsiderate hatred between the “we” and the “they” (which still appears in the “cats” and the “squares”) is paramount — a channel for communists, fascists, and American demagogues as well as for these anarchist writers. The reality of total human involvement (the image of Adam) was disowned. Outrage and elegiac tenderness (Buchenwald and kindergarten) were the dominant modes.

Dahlberg (The Flea of Sodom; Sing, O Barren) Olson took as his “Genius of the Cross and the Windmills”. Dahlberg presents the pure protest; the very excesses of this Jeremiah which had deprived him of a popular following made him a liberating force: he could not mislead. Suddenly (it seemed “sudden”) from the minimum demand of the person where misanthropy had succeeded anarchy came the demand of the Maximus, the figure is that of Man and the poet gives Him particular voice. (William Carlos Williams, it must be noted, becomes the pre-eminent poet of his generation in the period from 1945 on. What is significant is that his poetry, immune to the dynamics of ideology, had remained and ripened in the wholeness which the Process now demanded for meaning). In Olson’s credo given in Twentieth Century Authors we have clearly a break-thru, a new stance. Shakespeare, not Blake, as proto-type? Reality springs from the act arid the will — in the “green” fraction of contact.

In the work and dogmas are: (1) How, by form, to get the content instant; (2) what any of us are by the work on ourself, how make ourself fit instruments for use (how we augment the given — what used to be called the fate); (3) that there is no such thing as duality, either of the body and the soul or of the world and I, that the fact in the human universe is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one (yrself done right, whatever you are, in whatever job is the thing — all hierarchies, like dualities, are dead ducks. . .

from ABCs (2): what we do not know of ourselves

of who they are who lie

coiled or unflown

in the marrow of the bone.


Charles Olson’s crucial role has been to bring writers back to a consideration of the art. Pound had demanded it in the name of culture, of writing with professional competence, Olson demands it in the name of the stance toward reality, of writing with maximum energy. In “Projective Verse”, he proposed a poetry by field composition. The energy of the poem is related to and springs from physical energies: specifically —

the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE

the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.

In his book In Cold Hell, In Thicket what projective verse can be appeared. The new poetry was to investigate the articulations of the line. Olson demanded for the mind the dance of the intellect in the syllables; and the control, the shaping thru the line. For the heart he put it as dogma: the heart dances in the line. Where the intellect shapes. In this concept of a syntax where there is no duality of body and spirit, the organic forces are reflected in the counterpoint of the poem. There is no “body” as there is in closed-form poetry to be inhabited by the spirit of the poem — as a sonnet is inhabited by the poet’s. Projective verse is a process. The poet practices it as a science (there is no duality between science and art, knowing and creating). For those of us who had been waiting (circa 1950) for the moment to come when the art of poetry could be turned from personal use and misuse towards a new life, Charles Olson turned the tide. In “Projective Verse” he wrote: “(The stance involves, for example, a change beyond, and larger than, the technical, and may, the way things look, lead to new poetics and to new concepts from which some sort of drama, say, or of epic, perhaps, may emerge.)”

— Robert Duncan


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