Charles Olson on Poetry, and on Women

Images taken by me in the UCONN archives, with permission.

In the early 1960s, still composing the pieces of what later was collected, bound, and called the Maximus Poems, Charles Olson wrote a two-line poetic fragment on a piece of stationery from the Tavern in his adopted home town of Gloucester, Mass. The lines of this piece—”My shore, my sounds, my Earth, my place / afterwards, in between, and since”—when printed as part of the larger work, were deliberately positioned at the center top of a single page, the first line running vertically and the second line running horizontally, crossing the first at an angle.

Olson Manuscript Front

Initially, this piece is about the importance of place. The references to the shoreline and the sounds of the ocean are specific to Gloucester, a town both representative of the entire “Earth” and an extremely particular locale that the poet can claim not only as residence, but also as rubric for his epic work (“my place”). The second line of the fragment is perhaps more biographical, naming Gloucester as a literal safe harbor to which the poet could return “afterwards” and “in between” life events. (At the time of the composition of this segment of Maximus, Olson had returned to live at Gloucester full-time, perhaps accounting for the “since” which concludes the piece.) Finally, working on a purely visual level, the angle at which these two lines cross is almost exactly the angle at which longitude and latitude lines cross on a map to mark the city of Gloucester—an image with which Olson would have been decidedly familiar, as it had it appeared on the cover of local colleague Vincent Ferrini’s Gloucester-based Four Winds poetry magazine as early as 1953:

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Given that this fragment was both drafted and printed with a very particular layout, a spatial explanation of this bit of Maximus is not at all incorrect. The obverse of the paper on which the poem was drafted, however, yields an additional context. Writing in the same ink, Olson recorded the following: “dreams of Frances Friday, Saturday January 15th/16th— & with Jane on my right & Bet behind me and to my left”. Below this description he included a drawing: 2 lines crossed at an angle, with three important women of his life marked out in different spaces along these axes, as per his dream. He himself was placed where the two lines meet. The chart drawn on this side of the paper shows Olson in simultaneous remembrance and pursuit of multiple connections.

Olson Manuscript Back

A return to a quietly possessive take on Gloucester’s coastline—achieved simply by turning over the paper and going back to the “purely” poetic—seems a relief and an escape, a relatively simple return to the question of “place” which dominates much of the Maximus Poems. But the chart which remains on the obverse of the paper suggests that the most resonant reading of Olson’s epic is where the lines of the formal poem cross: “in between” “Earth” and “my place,” taking into account both the final printed version of a given fragment and the suppressed dreams (of history, personal and local) and drafts which went into its making.

A physical example of Maximus’s deconstructive underbelly, this piece demonstrates one of the central things I think central to any understanding of Olson’s poetics—that is, in order to compose an effective ironic epic in the face of totalitarianism, the body must be made the point of connection between the local and the national. The relational referents in Olson’s dream record are not singular entities or sites of sexual fantasy, but multiple real people—whom Olson interacted with and remembers in all their complexities—and relationships which developed and changed over time. A postmodern return to the epic form is an opportunity to counteract the politics of the present moment via an aesthetic dependent upon multiplicity—not only of structures, but also of bodies and desires. Traditional epic poetry is about the realization of a nation by a male hero—one whose quest is to found an empire both via the regulation of the bodies of women and also, eventually, through the erasure of his own body. The secure establishment of an imperial body, in other words, requires that the sovereignty of the human body be denied—regardless of that body’s gender.

In the face of renewed imperial effort of the postwar period, U.S. poets are purposely generating ironic epics—epics that deconstruct their genre through the conscious rehabilitation of the body (unstable, historicized, concrete) as the site through which aesthetic and cultural multiplicity is best experienced.

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