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THE MAXIMUS POEMS CHARLES OLSON (1960-1983) Charles olsons The Maximus Poems articulates an image of "man" through a form of mapping that navigates human uncertainties. Constructing an alternative to political and social life during the 1950s and 1960s, Olsons postmodern ethos projects a familiarity with the human body from which, olson feels, modern man has become estranged. His aim is to merge the mental and the physical landscapes through passionate acts of attention. Avoiding both sentence and paragraph, he employs fragmentary allusions to an eclectic range of texts that resonate with his purpose. Two volumes of this multivolume poem were published during Olson's life: The Maximus Poems (1960) and The Maximus Poems, IV, V, VI (1968). The Maximus Poems: Volume Three (1975) was published posthumously. The standard text, including previously unpublished fragments, is The Maximus Poems (1983), edited by George Butterick. As the poem evolves, an exceptional political vision becomes the tragedy of an isolated visionary. The Maximus Poems is arguably the most significant American poem of epic proportions other than the cantos of Ezra pound, the poem to which it is most often compared (see LONG AND SERIAL POETRY).
Set largely in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the forward motion of The Maximus Poems maps a time-space complex, modeled on the quantum-mechanical view of the universe, and folds inner experience with the poet's sense of place in the world. Olson is insistent about the need for the whole organism to experience direct and immediate perceptions. Maximus, the heroic antagonist, envisions a polis, or ideal city, heeding a necessity "to write a Republic." Here, in a gesture typical of olson's method, ethical and nautical senses of "write" and "right" pun thematically. Hopes for practical, social success of his project diminish during the years of its composition; nonetheless the poems maintain a visionary quality until reaching the cryptic flatness of the final words, "my wife my car my color and myself."
In the first entry in the larger scheme of poems that make up The Maximus Poems, composed in 1950 as one of several "letters" addressed to his contemporaries, Maximus urges the citizens of Gloucester, especially the young, to embrace change. Olson introduces the dominant thematic chord: "love is form, and cannot be without / important substance." This intensity reflects his long-term private correspondence with the writer Frances Boldereff, whose ideas inspired him at crucial turning points. In 1953, after having revised his landmark 1950 essay "Projective Verse" (see ars poeticas), Olson returned to the poem with a renewed sense of purpose and method. The page now reflects Olson's visual sense of how words come over into speech when the individual is freed from self-consciousness. For instance, William Stevens, an early shipbuilder, embodies the poetic fact that measurements consonant with the sense of touch are crucial to achieving poetic purpose. Stevens is the first Maximus, or alter ego of the narrator. In the entry "Tyrian Business," Olson himself becomes Maximus and learns "how to dance / sitting down," the breath projecting the kinetic motion of thought. Speaking now with a less rhetorical voice, the poet inhabits the poem. Additionally historical facts have established an objective basis for investigating heroic archetypes and projecting authentic engagement with the environment, as exemplified both by the accomplishments of those colonial-era settlers that olson considers to have been heroic and by the lore and life styles of American Indians. For Olson the Puritan settlement of New England signifies a perversion of newly discovered material wealth, while seafaring figures, like Juan de la Cosa, represent a realistic and pragmatic relation of person to space conceived as inescapable fact to which the ego must adjust its motions. To Olson's sensibility, projecting a landscape on a map of human possibilities requires firsthand experience. Similarly evidence from the history of the fishing trade and American Indian folklore testify to methods of living in physical and spiritual accord with the earth.
In The Maximus Poems, IV, V, VI (1968), the cosmo-logical sweep of the undertaking emerges. Engagement with the archetype of the hero engenders a spiritual order of discoveries. Both American Indian and the earliest Indo-European materials enter the fabric of the poem as Maximus/olson becomes a reflection of the heroic archetype developed by psychologist Carl Jung, homo maximus. olson's use of Jung fuses with his reading of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and his association of ego-transformation with spiritual and physical self-knowledge. Figures that join birth with death and the sea with the land record olson's sense of becoming one with his mortality. Intoned to refrains from Hesiod's Theogony (eighth century B.C.), "Maximus from Dogtown—I" enacts a ritual death of the hero, embraced by the mother. The figure is a transformation of Our Lady of Good voyages, who in the first letter cradles, not the Christ Child, but a ship "of uncertain sex." The exploration of the landscape associated with the mother's body reveals a questionable masculinity, reflecting Olson's private uncertainties. In the Gravel Hill section of Maximus, outside and inside surfaces, indeed, the very body and method of the poem, merge. Enyalion, a wounded, perhaps castrated type of the god Mars appears first in this context. He will become the poet's alter-ego in the concluding volume.
The mapping of landscape, figure, and enduring pattern is crucial to "Maximus's success in finding a coherent order," Don Byrd has observed, "despite his initial failure to make Gloucester itself cohere" (86). Relations among major themes enact olson's dream-inspired response to a sentence from The Secret of the Golden Flower, a ninth-century Chinese work of alchemy: "that which exists through itself is called meaning" (qtd. in Clark 280-281). Similar themes and images map an intensity of transformative moments, for instance, the image of a "Black Chrysanthemum" and "the flower" that "grows down the air of heaven," near the opening of The Maximus Poems: Volume Three, a volume that also contains graphically compelling pages, as words arranged in roseate patterns. In The Maximus Poems, the honesty with which the poet portrays both illumination and, finally, a faltering sense of self-worth touches with acute relevance on contemporary struggles with subjectivity, even though some readers have raised questions about olson's gender-bias and personal arrogance. Olson's commitment to meaning and method has influenced a wide range of poets, including Robert creeley, Robert duncan, and others associated with black mountain College; Allen GINSBERG, Robin blaser, John wieners, and others associated with san Francisco renaissance or beat poetry; and contemporary writing like that of Susan HOWE, Barrett watten, Ron silliman, and others associated with LANGUAGE-centered writing.
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