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’.

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