Monday, September 19, 2011
A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson
Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books.
When I first read the Maximus Poems I made the mistake of approaching them the way I had been taught to approach Ulysses or the Cantos or The Wasteland -- that is, I assumed I needed to read slowly and carefully, catching as many allusions as I could and trying to make sense of their significance within the larger symbolic order of the poem. Butterick's book is much more than a guide to allusions, though -- its also a textual record and a useful key to the places and people mentioned throughout Maxiumus.
That said, after reading through the poem once with the guidebook next to me, I found that I still didn't really get it. So I read it again. Only this time I chose to read The Maximus Poems the way one reads a novel–quickly, and with an emphasis on moving forward through the text. It made much more sense to me this time. Olson's poetry is about forward movement–"one perception moving instanter upon another." It's about movement & energy, not symbol & order. It is this move away from the kind of static symbolic structure imposed upon meaning that differentiates Olson from his modernist predecessors.
Reading Maximus this way gives you a sense of thought and perception in motion, of being in the activity of making. A new critic might object to this as being messy and unfinished, unrefined even. This is not so much the objective case as a value judgment. Olson's poetics opens up form to allow in anything that comes to hand or mind. It allows for contemporaneity, spontaneity, politics, disruption, myth, fact, intimacy, and so on. What distinguishes Maximus is that it levels them all out along the plane of movement, leaving each an object among objects.
The symbolic order of, say, The Wasteland, does the opposite, creating hierarchies of meaning, value, morals, and trying to hold them in place by way of a rigid adherence to form. It's technically brilliant, but ultimately self-contained, whereas Maximus butts right up against the world in a way The Cantos, say, never really does.
This is why I love Olson, I think. Eliot not so much. Some of Pound, but not so much the Cantos.
Which isn't to say that there is no point in tracking down facts and allusions in Olson, just that you don't need to do so in order to read The Maximus Poems. All you need to do is read. And keep on reading.
I meant to tell you about my first trip to Gloucester, but the critical urge took over. Maybe tomorrow.
Here's Butterick's note on the poem I published at the end of yesterday's blog post:
III.52 To Have the bright body of sex and love...
Holograph original written in blue ink on page torn from notepad, with the following note added in pencil: "oh yes see next sheet–& both were on top of the same folder in which notes on Blegen (?) were–on black table by fireplace." The poem was thus probably written in Wyoming, NY–the Hooker house where the Olsons lived had a fireplace–and the note was apparently made by the poet when packing in order to leave, following the death of his wife in March 1964. A typescript later made by the poet has the following note at the bottom: "date? (in blue ink–abt period of Enyalion–or after March 28th [i.e. the death of his wife] /////?????"