The first Maximus poem

by Ralph Maud

Published in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #29 (April 1999).



he genesis of I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You, the first of the Maximus poems, is still, to my mind, conjectural, though it might be thought perfectly obvious that the poem began in Olsons letter to Frances Boldereff of 17 May 1950. Isnt its inception there right before our eyes? In the second paragraph (see Appendix A for a facsimile of the letter) Olson declares himself scared that he might never write another poem after The Morning News:

It is the craziest sort of feeling, this, of not being able to match the done! (I suppose this plane is the sex of writing art, the underpart, the nervousness because love is not born. One loves only form, and form only comes into existence when the thing is born. And the thing may lie around the bend of the next second. Yet, one does not know, until it is there, under hand.

Tom Clark in his Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poets Life (p. 166) supposes — and it is a very reasonable deduction — that Olson was at this point in the letter moved to stop and turn his last few sentences into verse, gliding right there and then into:

the thing may lie

around the bend of the next


— where, Clark conjectures, Olson hit the s key instead of x, accidentally turning next into nest, and then, Clarks hypothesis goes (p. 166), deciding to retain the typo: From the nest mischance issued a key image: the bird! the bird!’” which then immediately gets us to the seagulls of Gloucester:

o Anthony

of Padua sweep low and bless the roofs,

the gentle steep ones on whose ridge

gulls sit . . .

And so on for the rest of that page of the letter and another full page after that. This theory proposes that Olson composed the poem impromptu on the typewriter without pause. Well, so it might be.

But it could also be that the next to nest transition was deliberate1 because Olson already had the bird, Gloucester and its seagulls, waiting in the wings. The fact is that nothing in the Boldereff correspondence nor in this letter in particular would make it natural or compelling for Olson to turn to Gloucester as a subject. The better presumption is that this content was in response to a request from Vincent Ferrini in Gloucester on 3 May 1950 for a contribution to his proposed magazine to be called Voyager. George Butterick was of the opinion that the poem was written as a letter to Vincent Ferrini (A Guide to the Maximus Poems p. 5). Olson himself confirmed that opinion in a letter of 2 July 1950 to Ferrini (Origin I p. 61) when he said that Ferrini had invoked the poem from him. In the title I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You the you are Ferrini and like situated New Englanders (the swordfisherman, for one, is directly addressed in the poem). Butterick believed that an already existing poem to Ferrini was being quoted to Frances Boldereff (Guide p. 5). This puts a different perspective on the composition question.

1    This does not make the transition less unattractive. It is something the poet himself eliminated in a rewrite of the poem (see Appendix D).

The matter would be easily settled if there existed in the Storrs file a holograph first draft that was obviously prior to the letter to Boldereff; but there isnt. In spite of that lack of evidence I choose to think that Olson would have already put together some lines about Gloucester after Ferrinis request of 3 May and that they were on his desk as he wrote to Frances on 17 May. However, they would not, I surmise, have contained any talk of love. The early Maximus poems lance at the swelling boil which is the degradation of our times, and this was probably the thrust of the ur-poem we do not have but imagine must have existed as a draft. The letter to Boldereff is, then, in this view, an act of fusing together the assertion about love which had come up in the letter and the feeling for polis which Ferrinis request had invoked.

Otherwise, the paragraph of the letter just prior to the verse would have to be seen as quotation too. One loves only form, he tells Frances, and form only comes into existence when the thing is born. It doesnt sit well that Olson should just be using words he had already put into a poem:

one loves only form

and form only comes

into existence when

the thing is born.

That the poet is plagiarizing himself for Frances is a consequence of his view that Butterick did not face up to. I prefer to take it that these verse lines came chronologically after the letters prose and, of course, because of it, but that there was indeed a Gloucester poem in early draft to which Olson turned to provide the bulk of the version he proceeded to forge right away stimulated by the possibilities the letter had revealed to him.

In other words, the Lady of Good Voyage was already there in a Gloucester poem for Ferrinis magazine Voyage and was not a representation of his muse Frances Boldereff. I do not think that the reference was coded for translation (Clark p. 167) onto the level of the poets current amatory interest.2 Anyway the love in the poem is not love of woman or any romantic thing (as Olson put it in the last few lines of the poem) but love of form, especially the form of a city. At the same time, Olson might never have been able to use the word love if he had not had Frances to say it to in just the way he does say it: the nervousness because love [i.e. that which gives form to the poem] is not [yet] born.

2    Clarks attempt (p. 167) to link the Lady of Good Voyage with a recent invitation on Francess part for Olson to voyage founders with the discovery that this invitation came at a particularly irritable moment and was not proposing a cruise but a kiss-off — see Note 5 in my piece Tom Clark on the Olson-Boldereff Riot.

In short, the poem in the body of the letter was, we conjecture, more than half written before Olson decided to bring to it the thought he had just enunciated to Frances about love of form. This puts into perspective the apparently miraculous poetic adlibbing.

I think too that the images that became the beginning lines of the final poem were written to Frances first, in his parting paragraph of the letter:

I give you the deepest sort of recognition, speak out from hidden islands in the blood which, like jewels and miracles, you invoke. And I, as hard-boiled instrument, as metal hot from boiling water, tell you, he recognizes what

is lance, obeys

the dance. . .

This became:

Off-shore, by hidden islands in the blood,

like jewels and miracles, I, Maximus,

a metal hot from boiling water, tell you,

what is a lance, who obeys

the figure of

the dance . . .

I cannot believe that Olson in the sincerest of sentiments is paraphrasing from pre-existent verse but rather that the letter produced the verse. One reason for thinking so is that when he types the above lines as a postscript to the letter he introduces them with a handwritten note: It opens, frances, thus: — which strongly suggests that at this point there is indeed a finished poem, the it. And this it must certainly have its existence on some sheet he is copying from, for when he adds an ending (saying ((and closes)) — see Appendix A) he hasnt quite enough space for it on the page, so after the next second he types on the very last bit of space at the bottom of the page (and unfortunately not shown on the photocopy of Appendix A for that very reason) the last two lines in one, viz. / than that which you / can do — which last two lines correspond to those found in a typescript at Storrs (Appendix B), a fair copy of this stage of I, MAXIMUS dated olson    may 17 L (the same date as the letter to Boldereff). My speculation is that, grasping the moment, Olson turned immediately after signing the letter and typed out a revision of his Gloucester draft poem according to the way it had extended itself in the body of the letter. He has added a beginning based on what he has just said to Frances in salutation, and an ending which he also types for her to give her the now completed poem, albeit in parts. In short, we do not have the draft prior to the letter, but we do have the may 17 L typescript prior to the postscripts of the letter. This circumstance satisfactorily explains some of the puzzles attached to the genesis of the first Maximus poem.



he remainder of the documents in the Storrs file help to fill out the subsequent variorum history of I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You beyond the sparse details in the Clark biography, where the first publication in Origin is noted (p. 188) but nothing more than that of what are quite eventful developments. The poem sent to Ferrini (receipt acknowledged in a letter from him dated 20 May 1950) was not the may 17 L typescript but one that Olson quickly sat down and typed afresh, slightly revised and signed charles olson stage fort avenue    gloucester, MASS (the only address he had ever had in Gloucester and where his mother still lived). The reason this typescript exists in the Olson archive is that Ferrini, misunderstanding Olson, returned it on 7 July 1950. What Olson was asking in his letter of 2 July 1950 was that Ferrini release it for publication elsewhere now that Voyager was not going ahead. He explained he didnt need the TS because he had a carbon. This carbon too is in the Storrs file (Appendix C). He had already been looking it over thinking it would go in a chapbook he was preparing for Richard Emerson of the Golden Goose Press. All the marks on it, mainly spacing adjustments with a smattering of other changes including an: expanded title, were presumably done on 29 June 1950 when he typed out a fair copy and sent a carbon to Frances Boldereff. The top copy was sent to Emerson but not published, so that he had it to send to Robert Creeley on 11 September 1950. Soon after, when Cid Corman is starting up Origin, Olson asks Creeley to send Corman the poem. Creeley sits down and recopies the poem, sending it on for Origin 6 October 1950 (Olson-Creeley Correspondence vol. 3 p. 84). Butterick in Guide p. xxx is therefore in error when he says it was the heavily revised carbon copy that was sent to Corman for the first issue of Origin.3 It is important to know that Robert Creeley was an intermediary because that may account for the dropping of the word important in the second line of part 2 in the Origin printing.4

3       Buttericks reference to the date 22 March 1951 as the terminus ad quem for the revisions on the heavily marked carbon is because the letter to Cid Corman of that date refers to it (Guide p. 5). But the situation there was that Corman had forwarded a request from Jack Sweeney of the Poetry Room at Harvard for some such thing for an exhibition, so Olson responded with the revised carbon, sending it through Corman as a sample of old worksheets. The revised poem had reached Corman long before via Creeley and been accepted for Origin by 12 October 1950 (Olson-Creeley Correspondence 3 p. 92).

4    Until one sees the actual typescript Creeley sent to Corman (it may be at Texas) it would be unwise to state categorically that Creeley acted as an editor here. If we are right that Creeley got the top copy matching the carbon that went to Boldereff on 29 June 1950, he should certainly have typed the word important, for the word is there. We can relieve Creeley of complicity in the other textual problem, the how instead of now in the fourth line of part 5. Olson himself made the typo in the Boldereff carbon.

When it came to supplying the first ten Maximus poems to Jonathan Williams for the collection of 1953, Olson first put in the Origin version slightly revised. We can see this in the Storrs file: a TS attached to a proposed title page for The Maximus Poems 1-10. But, as Clark tells us of that volume, there was extensive revision done before the typescript was sent on to Williams in early May (p. 234). He gives no details, not mentioning that our first poem was enormously changed, the first five lines omitted altogether and the sections drastically rearranged so that the poem now begins, By ear, he sd. (Appendix D) We do not know that Olson talked about his reasons in this instance, but a letter to Creeley of 24 April 1953 gives insight into the general process:

after i had the final mss done (with carbon for you and myself), it almost pulled me overboard! that is, i was so damned pleased i had a big one, i forgot the oars! but Con pulled me back. And for this week I have been rewriting, to pull in, and at the same time allow more line to whoevers interested.

To get the final book done like a bloody canvas (the letter continues) Olson used just the one sheet of bond in the final typing — I was not filing the damned nails as much as one damn well does if its a single piece of paper. This explains why there is no carbon of the final version sent to Jonathan Williams on 30 April 1953. This second typescript is among the Williams papers at Buffalo.5

5    I have not studied this second typescript of The Maximus Poems 1-10, but judging by the printed result Olson made sure the word important was restored, and also banished the how. This wrong-headed how — nothing more than a typo for now — is one of the few quarrels one can have with Buttericks text for the California Maximus Poems and should certainly be changed in some future edition. I do not know nor can I imagine what the procedural mechanics might be for effecting such a change.

How it came about that Olson reverted to the Origin (or Off-shore) version for the collected Maximus Poems (Totem/Corinth) of 1960 has not to my knowledge been divulged. He put the By ear version into Don Allens anthology New American Poetry 1945-1960 published by Grove Press in May 1960, but for the Maximus Poems only a few months later in November 1960 he had made the switch. The one intervening event that might have made a difference was the publication of Ed Dorns What I See in the Maximus Poems, Migrant Press around May 1960. His one objection to anything in the Maximus Poems was exactly on this point — Dorn was, of course, reading the Maximus Poems 1-10 version:

And the low quarter exists for me in the first line of all: By ear, he sd/. This is not a fussing of the given dogma, because I will leave alone what is necessary for Olson. To me it is simply a false preamble to a work which I feel vastly, and subsequently doesnt comprise the remaining substance of the poem.

At a time when Olson had had (except from Robert Duncan) very little feedback Dorns rather mild comment here might have had a greater impact than would normally be expected. The result, anyway, is there, in Olsons restoration of the first version of the poem in all later editions. I cannot but agree with the decision. The first version was, as we have seen, hardly an organic growth, more of a grafted plant; but the By ear version was pruned in a most severe way during a nervous push to get out the 1-10 volume. The pressure could have been a good thing, but in this case I believe it wasnt.

Additional Note


utterick in his 1978 Guide (p. 5) took the By ear version to be the original and the Off-shore version to be revised from it. This error was due to an uncritical reading of Jonathan Williamss note at the end of the Totem/Corinth edition (1960) where he refers to the editions revised first Letter. By this, however, Williams was only stating that a different version from the 1-10 volume had been substituted by the author; Williams assumed it was a later revision, not remembering that the Origin version was the prior one. That this must be so I pointed out in an article, Charles Olson: Posthumous Editions and Studies (Part 2) West Coast Review (January 1981) p. 39. In Editing The Maximus Poems (Storrs: University of Connecticut Library 1983) Butterick rectified the error (p. 5). I should add that in trying to correct another error (that the heavily revised carbon copy was sent to Corman) he erred again in saying that it was Ferrinis copy that had been forwarded to Corman (p. 5). As we have seen, Ferrini returned his copy to Olson, and what Corman received and printed was a copy typed by Creeley from a revised version that Olson sent him.

If all this is nit-picking I swear I will turn in my Ph.D. I believe truth is beauty on any and every level one seeks it.



A: Olsons letter to Frances Boldereff 17 May 1950

B: I, MAXIMUS 17 May 1950

C: I, MAXIMUS, OF GLOUCESTER, TO YOU heavily annotated carbon 29 June 1950

D: I, MAXIMUS OF GLOUCESTER, TO YOU revised version about 23 April 1953


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