Mark Ford

The poetic legacy of Ezra Pound has been divided up, sifted, plundered by an extraordinary variety of claimants. A list of poets who have profited from his achievement would include Allen Ginsberg and Louis Zukofsky (both Jewish), the Lowell of Notebook, the Orientally-minded Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder on whom Cathay made such an impact, British poets as different from each other as Donald Davie and Jeremy Prynne, Objectivists like Oppen and Reznikoff, and of course the whole group of poets associated with Black Mountain College – Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan and Charles Olson.

Of all these it was Charles Olson who engaged most directly and continuously with the implications of Pound’s poetics. The Maximus Poems can he read as a massive attempt to heal what Olson saw as the fatal self-contradiction that fissures The Cantos: how, Olson ponders, could Pound be ‘in language and form as forward, as much the revolutionist as Lenin’, while in political, social and economic matters he was ‘as retrogressive as the Czar’? Olson’s own poetry seems almost obsessively motivated by a need to escape the dualism at the heart of high Modernism – as exemplified by, say, Eliot’s strict division between the man that suffers and the mind that creates, or Yeats’s delight in pitting antithetical forces against each other. But Olson went further still, hoping to undo the entire Western tradition of rational, dialectical thinking, the ‘inaccurate estimate of reality men have had to go by since the Ionians’. ‘I am persuaded,’ he writes in his highly eccentric Special View of History, ‘that at this point of the 20th century it might be possible for man to cease to be estranged as Heraclitus said he was in 500 BC, from that with which he is most familiar ... man lost something just about 500 BC and got it back just about 1905 AD.’

That lost ‘something’, which Olson hoped to illustrate and make available through his poetry, is most easily defined by his aesthetic rejections. Many of these were explained in his manifesto of 1950, ‘Projective Verse’, in which he attacks a ‘whole flock of rhetorical devices’, indeed almost all the ‘dodges of discourse’, as symptomatic of man’s alienation from nature and of his hubristic self-elevation. ‘Objectism,’ on the other hand, ‘is getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which Western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature ... and those other creatures of nature which we may, without derogation, call objects.’ By reconnecting language to its origins in the body, principally the ‘EAR’ and the ‘BREATH’, poetry and life, it is argued, will regain the organic vitality they lost just before Herodotus.

Much of the millennial rhetoric of Olson’s numerous manifestos points forward, with touching optimism, to this cancellation of the gap between self and world; or it tries to outline, in the most emphatic terms possible, the means by which modern poets should – like alchemists on the trail of the Philosopher’s Stone – seek an unmediated language beyond the conventions of existing discourses. Olson is far from unique in harbouring such ambitions: rather, he is situated in a venerable tradition of American idealism. This stretches from the all-powerful poet envisioned by Emerson, who ‘re-attaches things to Nature and the whole’, to Peter Stillman, in Paul Auster’s City of Glass, crazedly attempting to re-create prelapsarian speech. Olson, it is often pointed out, is the first poet to have described himself as ‘Post-Modern’. That was in 1952. Five years before that he published his first book, Call Me Ishmael, an intense, sweeping study of Herman Melville that focuses mainly on the opposed characters of Ahab and Ishmael. Olson’s Ahab is a distinctly Poundian figure, driven by a tragically single-minded determination to impose his will at whatever cost, while Ishmael emerges as an incarnation of the Post-Modern virtues Olson himself hopes to embody – openness, flexibility, self-containment, humility. Ishmael’s interest in particulars – all those detailed descriptions of the techniques of whaling – also anticipates Olson’s doctrine of ‘direct perception’, according to which any object registers in human consciousness solely through ‘its self-existence, without reference to any other thing’.

Though Olson was a great propounder of theories about civilisation, history, science, indeed almost everything, he was at heart militantly anti-systematic. He distrusted all hierarchies, especially those of traditional syntax; it was through his modifications of syntax that the new Ishmaelian hero might most fully express his real being in defiance of convention. ‘Syntax,’ Olson declared, ‘is, ultimately, dependent upon the authority of a completed man ... is of the man’s own making, not something accepted as a canon of language in its history and the society’. Accordingly, his texts rigorously eschew subordinate clauses, which overdetermine the relations of a sentence’s components. In The Maximus Poems he develops all sorts of novel ways of distributing – or not – words on a page: the sequence includes poems in circles, or in seemingly random shapes with some of the text upside down, lots of totally blank pages, poems with words blacked out, with extra lines sloping into the text, two-word poems (‘tesserae // commissure’), a typographical representation of the poet’s own crossed legs, little circular diagrams, and other oddities. To the dismayed typesetter of the second volume (Maximus IV, V and VI), he explained that this was ‘the only way the disparateness (the kooked balances of the book throughout) work’, but he also allowed that the task he’d set the compositor was ‘a stinker’.

The ‘kooked balances’ of Maximus are so important because Olson abjures any more deliberative means of connecting or developing his material. Whereas Pound hoped his epic structure would somehow unite the multifarious strands of The Cantos into a heroic unity – conceding only towards the very end his failure to ‘make it cohere’ – Olson is more concerned to preserve the ‘disparateness’ of the experiences recorded in the grand collage of Maximus. Though he hopes to juggle these disparatenesses into aesthetic balance, any ultimate all-subsuming order must appear of its own accord. For Olson meaning is ‘that which exists thru itself’, and is always apprehended locally, through concrete particulars, rather than through the mind’s creation of a supreme fiction. Therefore his epic aims to discover and celebrate universally recurrent energies, not to define or impose – as Pound hoped to – universally meaningful laws. Attend to the particular, and the universal will look after itself; or, in the words of the philosopher Alfred Whitehead, whose writings had such an impact on the Black Mountain poets: ‘no event is not penetrated, in intersection or collision, with an eternal event.’ Olson quotes this dictum in a Maximus poem of 1962, and appends the exciting observation that

the poetics of such a situation
are yet to be found out.

Olson’s adaptation of the Poundian epic to the business of making ‘daily life itself a dignity and a sufficiency’ was to some extent prefigured by William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, which, like The Maximus Poems, explores the historical layers and quotidian rituals of an average American town. Olson differs from Williams, however, in his emphasis on his own participation in the life of Gloucester. The poet of Paterson is a disembodied, brooding figure observing his fellow citizens with sympathetic detachment. In Maximus Olson identifies with his chosen town until its topography becomes virtually a map of his own psychic space and history.

Confusingly, then, ‘objectism’ is more a means of acknowledging the subjectivity of experience than a continuation of Williams’s ‘No ideas but in things.’ Certainly Olson’s poetry has no room for the illusions of objectivity so vital to Williams: even history becomes wholly subjective in Olson’s poetics. He liked to stress the active connotations of the word ‘history’ by tracing it back to its earliest Greek root as ‘a verb, to find out for yourself’:

’istorin, which makes any one’s acts a finding out for him or her
self, in other words restores the traum: that we act somewhere

at least by seizure, that the objective (example) Thucidides, or
the latest finest tape-recorder, or any form of record on the spot

– live television or what – is a lie ...

By openly declaring the subjective nature of his pronouncements, Olson absolves himself from the need to exhibit ambiguities or doubts, which, he would argue, are phony means of shoring up a fiction of sincerity. Instead his epic re-enacts an infallible poetics of self-discovery – ‘infallible’ because the poem acknowledges no standards by which it may be measured outside its own principles of articulation, and because Olson is determined to accept equably the lineaments of his own being as they are disclosed: ‘we are only/as we find out we are.’

One of the more invigorating consequences of this poetic licence – which, it must be admitted, often makes him sound wearisomely uniform, even dogmatic – is the way Olson frees myth from the ironic uses to which it was put by Eliot and his New Critical followers such as Ransom and Tate. Olson’s myths, far from chastising the chaos and futility of contemporary life by ignominious comparison with a Golden Past, are means by which he deepens his engagement in the present. When Maximus proclaims his ‘balls rich as Buddha’s’ or addresses the sea as ‘Okeanos’, he is attempting to create an awareness through history of moments or structures of archetypal significance which will enhance his involvement in the momentary and contingent. Nothing wistful lurks in such allusions.

Olson borrowed the name Maximus from an itinerant Phoenician mystic of the second century AD, but is obviously alluding also to his own massive physique. (He was six foot eight and, in later life particularly, not thin.) Throughout his career Olson stressed the relationship of the poet’s physical body to the processes of composition, believing that the ‘solidity’ of words depends on their fidelity to the writer’s breathing rhythms. In the Sixties, however, his concern with the organic sources of poetry became ever more extreme. He advocated the development of a psychological approach to biology that he called ‘proprioception’, and which would focus on the ‘SENSIBILITY WITHIN THE ORGANISM BY MOVEMENT OF ITS OWN TISSUES’, as if the body’s every activity could be charted by a sort of somatic poetry. Philip Larkin dryly observed that ‘our flesh / Surrounds us with its own decisions’; Olson felt these decisions might be somehow voiced. He planned a book that was to be ‘a record in the perfectest language I can manage of the HEART, LIVER, BRAINS, KIDNEY, the organs, to body them forth, to give a full sense of the instrument of the organism’.

This desire to give ‘a full sense’ to the body’s workings might be seen as the ultimate expression of Olson’s ideal of a poetry of radical presence, beyond the reach of the distortions of rhetoric, from which all yearnings for transcendence have been purged. At the same time, though, his notion of the body itself seems to expand to include seemingly antithetical spiritual ideas: ‘I believe in God / as fully physical,’ he declares in one of the first poems in the third, posthumously published, volume of Maximus.

It was remarks of this kind which elevated Olson to the status of all-wise guru among the counter-cultures of the Sixties. He was a celebrity guest at a number of universities; his often bewilderingly wide-ranging lectures were reverently recorded, transcribed verbatim, and published. He was given pride of place in Donald Allen’s path-breaking The New American Poetry (1960), and his work was championed not just by ex-Black Mountain colleagues such as Creeley and Dorn, but by the more popular Beat poets, particularly Allen Ginsberg, who saw him as a major precursor of their own revolution. Even then Olson was, as he probably always will be, something of an acquired taste. Though not a wilfully obscure poet, his readiness to allow objects and events ‘to keep ... their proper confusions’, as he phrases it in ‘Projective Verse’, renders many of The Maximus Poems exhaustingly literal. At one point, for instance, he passes on to the reader a list of supplies, (and their costs), consumed by Gloucester’s early settlers during the winter of 1624-25 (‘1 frying pan / 1 grind stone / 2 good axes’ etc). It’s also hard to credit that even in the heady days of flower-power many could have taken seriously his quest for some ‘natural’ ur-language which might liberate mankind from the shackles of representational discourse. And though one admires the scope, ambition and earnestness of The Maximus Poems, it’s hard to deny that, unlike Pound’s Cantos, Olson’s major work has proved something of a poetic cul de sac. It was his theories, rather than his practice, which proved for a time so influential. Few epics have been attempted in the years since his death in 1970 (of cancer, at the age of 60), and those which have – James Merrill’s Ouija-board-inspired The Changing Light at Sandover, Derek Walcott’s Omeros – couldn’t be further from the line of Pound, Williams and Olson.

Robert Duncan’s The Structure of Rime and Passages may well turn out to be the last significant long poems directly in that tradition. Olson first met Duncan in 1947 at a party in Berkeley throughout which Duncan was seated ‘on a velvet throne, looking like Hermes himself’, Olson later recalled. Temperamentally the two would seem to have had little in common. Duncan’s baroque, lush, almost Swinburnian rhapsodies hardly square with the severe doctrines of ‘objectism’. ‘Olson suspects, and rightly, that I indulge myself in pretentious fictions,’ Duncan archly observed in 1955: ‘I, however, at this point take enuf delight in the available glamour that I do not trouble about the cheapness of such stuff ... I like rigour and even clarity as a quality of a work – that is, as I like muddle and floating vagaries.’

What most obviously links Duncan with Olson and other Black Mountain poets is his privileging of the methodology of the poem over any of its component statements; all these writers are equally driven by an inveterate distrust of the lapidary. Duncan’s work, however, exhibits a far more nuanced awareness of its own relationship to the traditions of poetry that it aims to modify. While the messianic Olson seems to have thought to revolutionise Western society by his example, Duncan offers more delicate, though often intensely charged, reflections on the central metaphysical issues of the Post-Modern era. But – and in this he does resemble Olson – he seems almost alarmingly certain of his ability to create a language capable of binding ontological, spiritual and aesthetic patterns. No more than Olson’s is his a poetry for the sceptical.

Olson hoped to disclose an accurate ‘estimate of reality’ by freeing reality from the ‘unnatural’ distortions of mimetic language. Duncan, conversely, attempts by a kind of metaphorical redundancy to illustrate his faith in the fullness of the present – a fullness that can only he perceived when consciously related to universal processes. Duncan sets out to dramatise far more actively than Olson, Whitehead’s conviction that all happenings intersect with eternal events, or are in collision with them; his numinous moments are described in a language that intertwines poetic, mythical, religious, organic and often musical terminologies until each type of discourse comes to seem merely analogous of all the others, and, by implication, of the divine harmonies of the Great Hereafter. Duncan must be the least doctrinal religious poet ever.

In Duncan’s poetry, pretty well all myths become extravagantly multifoliate, but the one to which he most frequently returns is that of Cupid and Psyche, because it can be interpreted simultaneously on so many interlocking levels. In the Renaissance it appealed as an allegory of the progress of the soul when guided by love, and was developed in both Christian and secular terms. Duncan’s poetry revels in exactly the sorts of indeterminacy that are inherent in the myth. One’s faith is the more valuable for being difficult – in fact it can only discover itself by overcoming doubts, and learning to relate to the eternal patternings which, in the poem, are suddenly revealed to be ordering a variety of related dimensions of experience. In perhaps his most famous shorter piece, ‘A Poem Beginning With a Line by Pindar’, published in The Opening of the Field in 1960, the Cupid-Psyche legend is developed into an eclectic narrative whose referential field is made up of a whole host of themes: sexual desire, American political bankruptcy, the creative imagination, the wanderings of Odysseus and Jason of the Argonauts, the death of Rilke, Ezra Pound in his cage in Pisa, the extermination of the Native American population during the battle for the West, the relationship between Eros and knowledge.

Duncan’s metamorphic sensibility causes his poems to be endlessly expansive. They require a form capacious enough to allow his poetic cells to replicate, amoeba-like, unhindered by arbitrary external limitations. In addition, the poem must continually fight off all impulses towards closure, insisting on the provisionality and incomplete nature of its form. His long poems, The Structure of Rime (begun in the late Fifties) and Passages (begun in the late Sixties), dovetail together, and can be approached as a single, compendious, fluid epic in the mode of The Cantos or The Maximus Poems. Duncan is, however, more openly Romantic in his allegiances than either Olson or Pound, and his poems are concerned less with details of the wreckage of Western civilisation – though both contain outspoken attacks on contemporary political developments – than in marrying all together in what he called a ‘spiritual romance’: ‘Our poetic task remains to compose the true epithalamium where chastity and lewdness, love and lust, the philosopher king and the monstrous clown dance together in all their human reality.’ The camply archaic vocabulary doesn’t quite disarm one’s misgivings about the relevance of such a project to the late 20th century. Duncan is at his best when least confident of his powers to redeem the world; at points when, the Shelleyan fluency suddenly balked, the poem must half-recognise its own solipsism. It is at his (too infrequent) moments of blank misgiving that the human significance of his ideals is most vividly realised. Something very similar, it might be argued, is true of the work of Olson and Pound as well.