Charles Olson, Maximus Poems IV, V, VI (Cape Goliard Press, London, 1968)

reviewed by J. H. Prynne

Published in The Park 4 & 5 (Summer 1969) and reprinted in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #47/48 (November 2002).



etters 1-10 of The Maximus Poems were first published as Jargon 7 from Stuttgart in 1953; Letters 11-22 from the same city in 1956. Now we have further sequences to add to this work, published from London after about four years of delay and uncertainty. These exilic origins are political facts of a high order, especially as they might seem to bind (but do not) the dispersed faunal & poetic realms of the two Atlantic seaboards (It may seem strange to propose that a former position of the Atlantic Ocean lies through New England, J. Tuzo Wilson, Nature, 211, 679, 1966).

The primary order and procedures of this work are still in transition. In the previously published sections the literal founding of history and its local cadence into speech extend outwards by feeling into the sacral and divinized forms of presence upon the earths surface. The salt breath of the sea takes full charge of the inland waters; as particular human life exceeds itself, the critical necessity is to keep the moral structure of immediate knowledge from damage during its transition to the schedule of city-settlement. The terms are weighted with the greatest attention: no movement without the new laral nouns & observances of the New World.

Now in these later sections the movements are larger, and work by more variable euhemerism; the mythos of the earths primary condition and its relation to specific person & place is sufficiently established for the more fiercely appositional pieties to yield: the world / is an eternal event. The nouns have an almost secret insistence, lent now to great fluent transitions of discourse and lyric measure, so that the passage-work here is powerful and immensely poignant. The generosity achieved is especially active in the rhythmic flux & balance between sections and within the disposition of metrical energies:

The top of Dogtown

puts one up into the sky as free-

ly as it is possible, the extent of

clear space and air, and the bowl

of the light equaling, without at all

that other, false experience of mountain

climbed, heaven.

The opening lines of Maximus, From Dogtown — I have this too, and there are related movements (Of the Parsonses, & Maximus, at the Harbor) which persuade one all over again of the man speaking to men, the image of the most exact freedom to be gained, now, from the sustained sequence of full-grown poetic speech, and from nowhere else.

This is not, however, Wahrheit supervening on Dichtung, or perception leading to obsession as Ginsberg has put it (in a pretty but pointless neo-Cambodian fantasy of recent date). That notion of age as incremental is European and Wordsworthian, and not at all the relevant structure here. Olsons poem is growing back into itself and its historic matrix, not outwards and upwards from it. The mythography, now less nervous about its infringements of interior moral right, can touch with true levity upon its base; the syntax is if anything more temporalised, more sexual, than before.

Such apparent contradiction (which for him happily thrusts Descartes, age 34, date Bostons / settling into the role of a minor mystagogue, the Willard Quine of Ultima Thule) gives Olson a sureness of tenure here which is an event of such scale as to be certain to remain unnoticed. Though doubtless much remarked about, etc. The achievement has been helped by some biting historical ironies which are too large to develop here; a rapid & partial sketch will have to suffice. So: the original New England planters (given in this poem by the high sea of potential and future prospect in order to reach the promised land. The initial hope was not only for fully-achieved land-fall, but for active trade with the interior — the extension of person & mercantile power at least commensurate with the risk of the actual, if not far in excess of it (the triumph aspect of later westward expansion). But the land was difficult, even hostile. Not just the denizens (Algonquin as scapegoat), but the land (terrain and notion). Especially in the north, the initial hardship forced the hopeful agriculturalist back on to the sea for a living. Land is the abstract figure, sea the living face of the earth, teeming meadows for the new-comers perched on the edge of a continent.



he first stages of Maximus give wary and at times fulsome regard to the sea, flooding into the serrated flanges of Gloucester. The abruptness and sudden localism of language in places there owed these features in large part to the marine invasions of the land, the new Corinth. Now, however, by turning our backs on the sea, we have primary aquarian cosmography, centred on a fishing port turned inwards from the shore. This is an absolute pivot. The constant danger to the land, the fragile abstraction of its kame meadows, makes each wedge-mark of language an act of stabilizing rectitude. By 1636 there were still only 36 ploughs in New England, despite all the grand talk in the Massachusetts Bay Company Charter (1629) of all Landes and Hereditaments whatsoever, lyeing within the Lymitts aforesaid, North and South, in Latitude and Bredth, and in Length and Longitude, of and within all the Bredth aforesaid, throughout the mayne Landes there . . .

This double swerve of direction also opens the cosmos to hymnic & personal speech in this sense, that in the ancient scheme Aquarius is masculine and Taurus feminine (as Housman reminded us in Book II of his Manilius, and as Wallace Stevens very carelessly forgot). So with the sea constantly prying between Gloucesters legs we rejoin the image of creative process in its originary genetic scope. Almost all the primary cosmogonies of the past deal in sexually polarised language, as the section of Wests Prolegomena to his Hesiod entitled Family planning coyly suggests. For Olson the earth as feminine and abstract gives him the perhaps unique process of charting the birth of the real (the sum of its local permutations, the earth with a city in her hair) from the abstract of geological time.

Thus a single term like monogene reaches back into two entwined histories: the geochronology of land-formation and the cytochronology or biochemical evolution (see the current Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure, pp. 7-13 & the phylogenetic trees which follow, all confidently implying a common-origin theory of life). The geomorphic usage is aptly American in origin, and traces back to the great James Dana, one of the first to ignore the rampant theories of marine erosion and turn his back on the sea. Danas paper On American Geological History (Am. Jour. Sci. & Arts, 2nd Ser., XXII 1856) is as powerful as anything in Burnets Theory of the Earth; Danas account of the Appalachian revolution could for example be specifically compared with Burnets more apocalyptic mannerism in Book III Chapter XI. Both works illustrate how the causal presumptions of over-humanised history can be displaced, as they are in Olsons writing, where language is a mythic likeness resting on the earth, the mappemunde of mans being, and not by any means a universe of discourse.

So that this poem, which might seem in some ways close to that panic-stricken encyclopedic impulse, as in Cassiodorus, which merely confronts the decline & splittings of awareness, is something else; i.e., not secondary assemblage but primary writing; with this difference, that mans current position of knowing what he does brings in the great unifying sentimentalities of dream as surely as it offsets merely naive forward narrative. The result is a lingual and temporal syncretism, poised to make a new order. Traces of quite remote glottochronology fold into the diorite stone; the range and equality of terms can include mind & record as formal positions and still retain the whole freedom of primary speech. The fulfilled sequence is now a great and moving poem:

Dogtown to the right the ocean

to the left

opens out the light            the river flowing

at my feet

Gloucester to my back

the light hangs

from the wheel of heaven

the great Ocean

in balance

the air is as wide as the light



The English poet J. H. Prynne (b. 1936) is a central representative of a poetic movement which critics and reviewers have . . . called the Cambridge School, the conductors of chaos, and a various art. Prynne has been a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, since 1962. Between 1961 and 1996 he produced eighteen sequences and volumes of poetry and a number of essays and papers.

— abstract to publication notice for The Engineering of Being: An Ontological Approach to J.H. Prynne, by B. Johansson, reprinted in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #21 (September 1997), p. 29.


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