The Maximus Poems

With poems as technically adroit as this, Olson, Creeley, Williams and Levertov resuscitated the experimental lyric earlier perfected by the likes of William Carlos Williams. However, the ways in which the shared techniques led on to a shared concern with individuation, the spasmodic process by which we achieve some sort of selfhood, is best explored in relation to Olson's magnum opus. For as early as 1950 he was devoting most of his energies to The Maximus Poems, a second-generation modernist long poem after the manner of The Cantos, Paterson and Four Quartets. When he died of cancer in 1970, the work consisted of between three and four hundred passages in verse, prose and assorted amalgams of the two. Set in the small fishing city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Olson's parents had holidayed and in which he was eventually to settle, The Maximus Poems is one of the most thematically unified and coherent of modernist epics. Despite its surface appearance of bewildering diversity, the work is entirely constructed from the fragments of innumerable tales of coming into being, of beginnings, of origination. The poem is a compilation creation myth, and nothing is included that does not contribute to its account of universal beginnings.

The autobiographical content of the poem provides a clear example of this, for the account of Olson's life in Gloucester dwells almost exclusively on his earliest memories of the city, with remarkably little being said about the Gloucester of the 1950s and 1960s in which the work was largely composed. So marked is the preference for the poet's earliest impressions that the word 'first' runs like a refrain through the many passages of recollection:

It rained the day we arrived . . . the first time I saw the sea (Vol. I)

I was so young my first memory is of a tent . . . (Vol. II)

the bed broke down under my mother and father the first night we came to Gloucester (Vol. II)

where the Parsons had their first wharf. . . And where I first went out, in a dory . . .

and later, moored my own first skiff (Vol. III)

It is symptomatic of this bias toward beginnings that Olson's parents are a recurrent subject of discussion, while his own wives and children are hardly mentioned.

The same tendencies are evident in the poem's treatment of Gloucester history. The burden of attention is placed on three origin stories: the city's first founding in 1623; its rebirth in 1642; and the founding of its satellite community, Dogtown, in the early eighteenth century. Around these three principal creation stories a group of subsidiary 'firsts' is arranged: the arrival of Gloucester's first shipwright; the building of Gloucester's first schooner; the establishment of the city's first salt-works, and so on. The historical matter is not fixed and dogmatic, for as each of the three volumes of

The Maximus Poems appeared over a twenty-year period, Olson was to be found pushing each moment of creation back in time as if to enhance its originatory credentials. Thus, the birth of the second Gloucester is dated 1642 in the first volume; early in volume two, after intensive historical research, Olson adjusts the date to 1635; a few pages later this becomes 1632; and in volume three it is pushed back to the late 1620s, thereby linking it, in almost unbroken sequence, to the first Gloucester of 1623. Similarly, the birth of the satellite community of Dogtown is laboriously traced back, over several hundred pages of intermittent documentation and speculation, from 1717 to 1707.

The historian James B. Connolly has said, 'As American history goes, Gloucester in Massachusetts is an ancient port. Of the permanent English settlements here only Jamestown and Plymouth precede it'. Olson is able to trace in fascinating detail how and why a community is born and made to cohere because cities in the United States, unlike those in Europe, were all founded recently enough for a wealth of contemporary evidence to survive. At the same time, by choosing one of the very first English settlements on the North American continent, our poet is able to examine in microcosm the process by which the nation itself came into being. The two creation stories are intimately connected.

This identifying of the founding of Gloucester with the founding of the United States brings us to another constituent of Olson's compilation creation myth - the various waves of exploration, migration and settlement that led to the discovery of the New World. In the first volume the heroes are the expected ones: Columbus, Juan de la Cosa (who made the first map to include the New World), Captain John Smith and Champlain. These figures continue to be celebrated in the subsequent volumes, but it is noticeable that volume two hazards that the Vikings discovered America as early as the tenth century. Volume three, whilst reporting the latest archeological proof that the Vikings had indeed been present in Newfoundland circa ad 1006, opens up vastly earlier possibilities by mention of Professor Cyrus Gordon's theory of cultural traffic between ancient Crete and contemporary South American civilization. Once again we find the poet, ever convinced that the key to an event lies in the nature of its genesis, adjusting the date of discovery backwards, as though pushing against the confining walls of known history.

Undergirding all the origin stories so far mentioned are a series of reworkings of those ancient myths, called cosmogonies, that sought to explain how the world was created. In typical modernist style, Olson scavenged the whole of human culture for material, his myth sources including Old Norse, Greek legends, ancient Egyptian religions, the Hindu Vedas, and the Hurrian-Hittite civilization of the Mesopotamian Valley. However, his interest in these deposits was extremely selective, the intention being to celebrate the Earth gods of prehistory at the expense of the better-known Sky gods (like the Greek Zeus and the Judaeo-Christian Yahweh, or Jehovah) who later replaced them. Olson is trying to salvage, not the Earth deities as such, but the sacramental view of this planet that has given us life. It is a major purport of The Maximus Poems that the cosmic process is natural rather than supernatural, physical rather than abstract, terrestrial rather than sidereal. For Olson, whatever spirit there is informs a body; whatever infinite there is informs the finite; whatever intangibles there are inform the actual; whatever ideal there is informs the real. His continual restitution of archaic Earth gods who have been wrongfully displaced by more abstract Sky gods is therefore an attempt to assert that the human sense perceptions are revelatory, and their revelation is the world:

nakedness is what one means that all start up to the eye and soul as though it had never happened before (Vol. I)

The spiritual trajectory of The Maximus Poems is thus identical with that plotted by Eliot in the closing lines of Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.

By exploring a vast collection of origin stories, Olson is seeking to return the reader to an original experience of now and here and this. He does not ask us to look at a different world, but to look at this same world differently. Even his account of the discovery of the Americas may be interpreted metaphorically as an expression of this desire to experience freshly, as a New World, our battered and abused planet. To achieve this state of innocence after experience is to acquire psychic wholeness; or, to use the term Olson filched from the psychologist Jung, it is to become 'homo Maximus'.

After presiding over the closure and sale of Black Mountain College in 1957, Olson settled in Gloucester. He may have been hoping, by this removal, to break the cultural elitism of the avant-garde community, rooting his modernist epic in the lived reality of a working city. It is certainly the case that The Maximus Poems honours those citizens whose practice of their trade promotes the general health of Gloucester:

The brilliant Portuguese owners, they do. They pour the money back into their engines, into their ships, whole families do, put it back in. They are but extensions of their own careers as mastheadsmen.

Olson especially cherished the fishermen, whose dangerous calling obliged them to develop a physical and mental alertness conspicuously absent from the wielders of public power:

A fisherman is not a successful man he is not a famous man he is not a man of power, these are the damned by God (Vol. I)

It is also true that Olson became a local celebrity, campaigning in the Gloucester Times against the destruction of historic buildings and on occasion being asked by the townsfolk to represent them in their battles with the city council.

Yet it is difficult to credit that the citizenry of Gloucester joyously whiled away winter evenings reading The Maximus Poems. That work is about them, but it is not for them. This is not just because it incorporates so much scholarly material; but also because large parts of it are written in a crabbed and cryptic fashion. It would seem that Olson wished to enact his theme of origination by leaving exposed the means by which his own poetry originates in prose notes. The imperfections that in the earlier modernists were unwilled, are in Olson's case the willed product of a desire to encompass both the flower of art and the compost from which it arises. At times this highly literate poet appears to be returning to a preliterate condition, as though he were trying to complement his vision of a new world with the hieroglyphics of a new speech. Some parts of The Maximus Poems have the battered, fragmentary, runic character of the earliest examples of writing. It is the simultaneous coming into being to World and Word that we are offered.

Unfortunately, the fact that Olson had a rationale for incoherence cannot excuse writing like this:

Cyprus the strangled Aphrodite — Rhodes


— the Mother Goddess fr Anatolia Phrygian Attis

Malta: Fat Lady

This 'poem' (it is quoted entire) can be made sense of: each of the islands named — Cyprus, Crete, Rhodes, Malta — represents a stepping stone in the westward progression of humankind from the Near East through the Mediterranean to Spain, last stop before the Atlantic voyage to the New World. The references to Aphrodite, the Mother Goddess and the Fat Lady, attest that along this route specific matriarchal myths were disseminated. We might even interpret the typography of the poem as a visual equivalent, a verbal map of the itinerary described, each stanza being an island of words in the sea of the page's white. Yet the fact that the piece can be decoded and discovered to belong in the corner of the jigsaw devoted to migration diminishes not one jot the vexation of the reader. Resembling nothing so much as the marginalia the poet habitually scrawled in his favourite source books, this is the recipe for a poem, a preliminary list of ingredients, rather than the finished article; in place of the expected meal, the famished reader is invited to dine on the menu.

Reading The Maximus Poems is as exhilarating as riding on a roller-coaster, the work alternately plunging into incoherence and abruptly ascending to the giddiest heights. However, its ragged texturing and formidable range of reference severely limit its appeal. Olson's influence upon other poets has been immense, but his standing with critics is insecure and his readership tiny. (The 1953 Jargon Press edition of The Maximus Poems, 1—10 had a print-run of 350 copies but was still available in some bookshops at the original price in 1975.) As for his place in literary history, Olson was one of the first to consistently use the term 'Postmodernism' and the whole projectivist tendency represents both a second-generation modernism and a step towards the subsequent aesthetic. In retrospect, the Black Mountain poem that most decisively bespeaks Postmodernity is Ed Dorn's mock epic Gunslinger, with its affectionate Pop Art-style guying of the icons of commercial culture (especially Western and Sci-Fi movies). However, this very willingness to incorporate the ad-mass ideology and rampant commodification that Olson deplored may well mean that Gunslinger marks not so much the fulfilment of the Black Mountain project as its supercession.


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Butterick, G. F. (1978), A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

Butterick, G. F. and Blevins, R. (1980-90), Charles Olson and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence (9 vols), Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press.

Corrigan, M. (1974), Boundary 2: A Journal of Postmodern Literature, Vol. II, Nos 1 & 2 (Olson special double-issue), Binghampton: State University of New York.

Creeley, R. (1970), A Quick Graph: CollectedNotes and Essays, San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation.

Dawson, F. (1970), The Black Mountain Book, New York: Croton Press.

Duberman, M. (1972), Black Mountain, An Exploration In Community, New York: E. P. Dutton.

Duncan, R. (1956), 'Notes on Poetics Regarding Olson's Maximus . Black Mountain Review, 6, 201-11.

Levertov, D. (1973), The Poet in the World, New York: New Directions.

Olson, C. (1967), 'Projective Verse'. In Charles Olson, Human Universe and Other Essays (pp. 51-61), New York: Grove Press.

Paul, S. (1978), Olson's Push: Origin, Black Mountain andRecent American Poetry, Baton Rouge and London, Louisiana State University Press.

Spanos, W. V. (1978), Boundary 2: A Journal of Postmodern Literature, Vol. VI, No. 3; Vol. VII, No. 1 (Creeley special double-issue), Bing-hampton: State University of New York.

Von Hallberg, R. (1978), Charles Olson: The Scholar's Art, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press. Wagner, L. W. (1979), Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province, New York: New Directions.

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